The Now Known Unknown

This will blow your minds, kids, so hang on. I lost most of my interest in Halloween around the age of 11, and here’s the kicker: That was normal. I had also long given up on the tooth fairy, etc. It was a childhood thing.

Of course, there were always adults who got into it, designed haunted houses and had spooky music and generally had a good time, but those were special people. Like the Christmas display people. They just like doing it.

These days, of course, all sorts of adults start looking ahead toward Halloween in August. I’ve seen pictures. Some are so-so, some are fantastic. One woman I knew in high school is an artist and goes all out, lots of cobwebs and spooky stuff.

I understand it, just don’t share it. As I understand that thrill at being scared. I just don’t want to be scared on purpose, even in a pretend way. I haven’t seen a film in the horror genre for decades and I assume I never will. Just don’t see the fun. You guys go have a good time.

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Speaking of genres, one of my favorite kinds of films is the heist movie, like The Thomas Crown Affair (both versions) or, maybe my favorite, The Score. You know. Dodging the lasers, blowing the locks, tying up the security guards. Museum, bank, doesn’t matter: The details are the thing, and so that’s what I was thinking after seeing The Martian the other day. Finally.

I went by myself, never succeeding in finding a partner, and it was excellent, but it felt like a heist movie. Lots of detail and planning. Short on the human emotions and dramatic crises. Still excellent. Just a bit sterile.

And then I did swing a date with my wife, a few afternoons ago, and we watched The Intern. I like to watch Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro, so I figured that would cover the high spots, but I was surprised by the pleasure it provided. It was predictable but in a clever way, with movie situations that we see coming a mile away somehow sliding through the story without spikes on our sentimentality meters. It was just fun, sweet and funny, a complete distraction if not a film that provokes much conversation afterward.

This is a sign, I know. I don’t seem to want much provocation anymore. I don’t want mindless entertainment (although I still watch football), but I appreciate seeing a simple story unfold in a nice, pleasant way.

I cut these films so much slack that The Intern actually surprised me by its choices, almost all of which were mild and uneventful. DeNiro is maybe a little too nice, but it’s DeNiro; he can pull that off. His relationship with Hathaway feels appropriately awkward and then smoother, his friendship with the younger people seems believable (and funny), and his office romance with the Rene Russo character was charming because (1) these are charming actors, and (2) it was age appropriate. Not Hollywood age appropriate; Russo is 61 and DeNiro is 72. That feels appropriate.

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And then it was over, and as I said, it didn’t spark much conversation, other than on the short ride home from the theater. Sometimes it’s enough to enjoy, then have it be over.

This would be, I finally figured out, the point.

The point about everything, mostly, I’ve been experiencing for the past couple of weeks. There was kind of a puny illness, but also just essential lethargy and a fair amount of irritation, and I’ll admit to some pride in getting better at figuring this stuff out quicker than I used to.

Since June 2012, there’s been an Unknown. Actually lots of them, but all neatly bundled into one capital letter-starting phenomenon. An Unknown. A film might be made, might not, might get finished, might get funded. Might not. Might be good. Might not.

And many, many mights, most of which I didn’t think about much. There were some surprises with Winning Dad, almost all of them positive, but it ended up about the way I’d expected.

But it ended.

That’s what I was doing, then. Marking the end of 3-1/2 years of thinking about possibilities by watching those possibilities work themselves out into a Seattle premiere, and now the end.

The end for me, I mean. And who knows? I’m talking about feelings, not the future. I have no clue about the future.

I just sort of surprised myself by grieving, a little, and then realizing that’s what I was doing. What I looked at as possibly an adventure turned into one, for sure, and my personal emotional stake rose a bit higher than I thought it would, but really?

It was just 3-1/2 years, full of lots of other events but with Winning Dad always lurking, always heading somewhere else, always bubbling with possibility.

I’ve tried to push the excitement down the road, but I can’t. I considered taking a copy to Phoenix, where so many of my former theater colleagues still live, many of them still acting and directing, and having a little screening party, but the details were difficult and it started to feel a little too much about me, anyway.

So it’s over, and my interest has faded and I’ve moved on, I guess. It’s a good film, positive and uplifting while not shying away from confronting what ugly notions bounce around in our brains, usually left alone. It’s not going to change the world. But it’s a good film, and if you want to qualify that with “for a first film” or “for a low-budget indie,” that’s fine. That’s what it is. If it were more, it would be more. It’s enough, though.

An article a few weeks ago sort of quoted me as saying I’d never act again. That’s probably not what I said, and in any case I’d be dumb to predict. I do, though, understand the odds and the situation, and the uniqueness of what I’ve experienced, so yeah. I got a little down for a bit, better now. And absolutely, I may never speak a line of dialog again. I may never play another part, create another role, memorize a single speech. I may never make another movie.

But I made one, once. Win win.

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Cold Days

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the cumulative nature of lots of things, probably because we live in an obsessively discrete world. Everything that happens is ohmyGodthishasneverhappenedbefore in a weird communal solipsism effect that, I suppose, comes with the news cycle and constant updates from those annoying boxes we carry in our pockets. It’s all about me and the moment. Or you.

Like Einstein, I desperately want to believe in a deterministic universe, where everything can be traced back to a time when, with enough perspective and technology, we could accurately predict what was going to happen.

Of course, Einstein was talking about subatomic particles. I am talking about the common cold.

Doesn’t it make sense, though, in a layman’s way? In a non-infectious disease specialist sort of way? In a mostly made-up way?

I have a month of increasing stress and busyness, culminating in this big gala/auction event on the 9th, and then the Seattle premiere of our film on the 13th. Four days of crescendo and diminuendo, cresting and troughing after weeks of activities, and about a week later?

Sore throat, stuffy nose, slight fever, a lethargy that looked a lot like sloth, and a few naps. This has been my past couple of days, and it makes perfect sense to me. For all I know, I’ve cycled through various episodes of mild virus invasion over the past month. I just have time to notice now.

But better now! Still up at 4:30am, but asleep by 9pm, so. Nothing alarming there. I appear to have survived with only mild annoyance and some cabin fever.

I’m not allowing a let-down effect off the hook, either. Who really knows how our immune systems work?

Something feels over, though. It’s not just the movie (or the gala, for that matter). It’s the waiting. My schedule has suddenly cleared. My time is still not entirely my own, but I will spend less time battling rush hour and getting a sore butt in the process.

And maybe I’ll eat again, which has been an ongoing issue. Who knew? I certainly didn’t; I just wanted to work on changing bad habits, and also as a preemptive strike against what I saw as an opportunity coming to binge watch Netflix and eating dumb food. So I made some changes, and inadvertently turned off my appetite.

Long after I’d reached a very happy weight/size, in fact, I was (and am) still staring at my plate containing an enchilada and scads of beans and rice to make it look like a big ol’ meal, and deciding that I don’t really need the beans and rice. So I skip them. Happens all the time now. Tortilla chips too.

So what looked like a simple goal of reaching 175 pounds by mid-summer, starting at around 188, changed once I actually got on a scale and realized it was closer to 197. Would just take a little longer. In fact, I didn’t hit 175 until early September. Then 170 a month later. Yesterday it was 162. I overshot.

So my cold yesterday may have been just that, hunger. I was ravenous all day, and indulged that with a clear conscience. Not the best nutrition, but calories are calories. A single Krispy Kreme would be worth serious gold a few thousand years ago, just for the energy alone. It would be the Tesla of food, magical energy.

I got some of that, then, leftovers mostly, some chicken, nearly-empty containers of gelato stuck in the freezer with a limited (now) sweet tooth using the rice-and-beans rule. Don’t want it, don’t need it, don’t eat it.

By the way, 162 pounds isn’t alarming. Doing a quick Google, it seems that my ideal weight varies from somewhere in the 150s all the way up to the high 170s. I’m good here, as long as I stay here, more or less. I bought two pair of Levi 501 jeans, remembering how well those fit, sort of pleased with the 31-inch waistline, which I thought I’d never see again.

But at the age of 57, this is mostly a comfort issue, just how clothes fit and what my options are. Vanity isn’t much of a player, and health isn’t an issue aside from the occasional puny virus.

The biggest question, and not talking about weight here, is what’s next? If my world view is correct, it lies percolating in the past. Now to just figure that part out. I’ve got the sneezing down by now.

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Fourteen

Today marks the beginning of my 15th year with a byline. It started, after months of emails, with a lunch meeting with the publisher, hashing out style and concept, discussing the contemporary newspaper readership (“Most people read at a middle-school level,” he mentioned. “Might want to avoid big words.” I promptly forgot that, but I use plenty of small words anyway).

It was only one small community newspaper back then, or that was the only one he’d trust me with, and to be fair I assume he suspected I’d give it up fairly quickly. It seems to be a hard thing for people, particularly for those with a specific subject (cooking, religion, exercise, politics, etc.).

My only subject turned out to be what I thought about when I got up in the morning and looked out the window. Less specific but more possibilities, and in the end I just wrote what I wanted.

And then more. And other newspapers and publications. Started a blog a couple of years later. Four books have come and stayed, if dusty. Roughly 750,000 words in the newspapers alone; I have no idea about the rest. Double that, easily. Maybe triple. I blogged constantly and wrote the equivalent of a newspaper column every day. For a year at a time.

Most of them are forgettable, passing-time journalism, musings on family and weather and lawn work and occasionally current events. It’s no big deal.

But 14 years is. My daughter was 16 and a junior in high school. My son was 11 and in a special school, trying to avoid the horrors of middle school, although he eventually had a traumatic experience and was transferred back into the school district, protected and safe, and actually did well.

My daughter would grow up in a more conventional way, given her unconventional passions.

It was all documented, at any rate. For whatever pleasure or entertainment or annoyance I provided, there’s a public record of the last 14 years of my life. Toss in the blog and other pieces, and you might actually have a picture of something. A life.

It’s tempting to wrap it up, to decide that this last adventure, making a film, has finished all the excitement and now wanders out into the general world, to probably disappear but not before those who want to see it, can. Might be a good time to stop.

But I don’t feel like stopping, and I’ll either wait for the Peter Principle or for the newspapers to go broke, or some other sign that it’s time. Otherwise, I suppose I’ll keep cranking out 900 words about not much of nothing, hoping for insight, searching for jokes, documenting the lives of those I love or hear about or have an opinion regarding.

It’s not a great anniversary, but a quiet one. Still, the nature of what I do provides a forum to the opposite: Make some noise. A joyful noise, with luck. A lame noise, often.

Never am I pleased. Often I’m embarrassed by myself, by sentimentality or trying too hard. Always I write and meet my deadlines, because that’s what deadlines are for and it’s the kind of discipline I love, as Robert Frost leaned toward rhyme with his well-known tennis net analogy. Writing to time and space means that you’re done when they say you’re done, which is only occasionally stressful and mostly inspiring. Even with the lame stuff.

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There are not a few columns about fighting the battle of the bulge, which a lot of us do. Might have gotten out of control, topping out at over 270 pounds by the summer of 2007. Five months later, after buckling down and discovering exercise, I reached 186 pounds. The next summer approached 170, and the next summer was the same, briefly dipping into the high 160s before slipping back into the 180s, still a comfortable place to be.

And then the crises came, and with it the comfort food. After Julie’s heart attack and the beginning of her complicated treatment for that, her breast cancer, and the residual brain tumor, I became the caretaker and chief worrier and late-night eater. I zoomed up through the 190s and into the 200s, getting close to 220 for such a tiny period that it almost seems made up. I went straight up and straight down, almost immediately, and probably so quickly that few noticed. That was May or June of 2011; by August I was back in the 180s. It would zoom up again, but within a much narrower range, staying roughing at that 186 mark and only sometimes (i.e., holidays) adding another 10 pounds that gave me inspiration to start the new year with purpose.

When I decided I was too lazy to turn this movie character into a lean, wiry ex-Marine type, I decided that doughy was much easier to achieve, and a lot more fun. I overshot a little, cut it down a little, and ended up filming at around 205-207 pounds, which honestly is fine. I’m not 27. A guy in his late 50s or early 60s (yes, I was playing older, or at least that’s what I pretend when I see my face on a big screen) can get away with doughy, an expected result.

This summer I changed my routine, and in a surprise (if completely understandable, and nice and slow), I went from a starting weight of 197 down to my current 166. It’s stayed stable for six weeks, although when it drops below 170 I tend to give myself free rein to indulge, but my appetite isn’t what it used to be. A big meal usually means I eat around 2200 calories a day. I have no idea where this will end up. I assume it’ll go up once the weather changes, but at least I start at a decent place. I’ve got room to grow.

But those 31-inch waist regular-fit 501 Levis that I just bought?

You take your victories where they lay, define them as you wish, and remember them when they’re long gone.

Maybe I’ll gain 100 pounds again. Maybe I’ll start with those 501s and eventually give them away. Maybe, by the time I reach 60, I’ll have written enough, or lost my space, or pick a possibility.

Like being 60, the joy I assume is knowing where you’ve been and how far you’ve come. For the moment, it’s been 14 years. The pounds are interesting but not particularly relevant.

The years are, as are the changes I see around me. All of them expected if surprising. None of them fatal. And all of them, for the most part, distilled into 900 words or so, every week, and sent out to see what they can see.

Fourteen years a scribe. Starting to like that title a lot.

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2006
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Beth’s wedding (2009)
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2011 (sympathy weight gain)
Chuck & Dick Kemper
The bad days, 2001.
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Not such good days either (2002)
Julie and Chuck 1996
1993
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Last month in Austin. The lighting in the bathroom intrigued me.

 

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Coming Home

“What’s it like to watch yourself in a movie?” this young woman, about my daughter’s age, asked as we trudged up Pine Street at 9pm on Capitol Hill, following the Seattle premiere of Winning Dad.

“Horrible,” I answered, telling most of the truth. Mostly horrible.

You get it. Anyone would get it. I see all the imperfections, know how a particular scene was constructed, remember what was going on before, during, and after. I can see behind the curtain, see the levers being pulled and the focus being adjusted.

And, of course, I stare at my own face, attenuated over 20 feet of screen in front of 500 or so people, most of them strangers and a few of them sort of strange, in a fun way. In a Capitol Hill way. It collects interesting souls.

But yeah. You can understand. Self-consciousness might be a survival skill or lack of a good social one, but we all experience it. I just got a big dose over 90 minutes or so. I was over myself by then.

It had been 28 months since I first met Arthur Allen over coffee in Mukilteo, talking about his screenplay and his theoretical film that he’d been carrying around in his brain for a few years. Originally intended as an exploration of the relationship between two traditional, comfortably heteronormative (as they say; meaning, like most but not all of us) men of a certain age, facing something they never imagined: Their sons marrying each other. I would like to see that film.

But it was too complicated for what was going to be a bare-bones production (a wedding scene alone would break the bank), so that story slid into something simpler, one father, one son. One other man. Some comic loops and dips, some surprises, some rawness of colliding philosophies, morality, faith. A lot of internal character wrangling with conflict.

That’s just the story, though. We were talking about me.

My aunt got sick and had to cancel her trip, but my brother, sister-in-law, and mother all came into town for the big night, along with a whole group of church friends who impressed my mom with their support and dedication.

I should have told her that these were mostly the same people who stuck around after choir practice to see me finish my 30-mile craziness back in May, standing in the middle of the street at sundown, very cinematic, singing and clapping me in. Support and dedication are second nature.

Support wasn’t missing at the theater in any case. The SIFF Egyptian Cinema (renamed when it was leased by the Seattle International Film Festival, the biggest in North America) has been around an even 100 years, originally a Masonic temple, and it’s an old-fashioned theater I’ve been in many times, but not for years. Balconies, etc. Lots of dusty glamour in a place like that, and the place was packed. The festival organizers seemed stunned.

A standing ovation, nice if a little de rigueur these days. But heartfelt, I think. I think hearts were feeling a lot that night.

So this is the end, or an end. The end of a part, anyway. We’ve spent the past year touring the world, and now we go where films end up anyway: Online, and in removable media form. By December I think, at least the VOD (streaming) rentals. Let it live, I say.

As for me, and as weird as it sounds, I think I’m just beginning to process, to reflect on this adventure and what if anything it means. It occurred to me, as my brother followed me in his car down a rush-hour I-5 to Capitol Hill, that he and I had once pushed his old van to pop the clutch and override a dead battery or bad starter or something. It was an old car, and did this a lot, and we were teenagers. A bad car accident had just happened to some friends of ours, including my sister, and we were heading for the hospital.

It was a real bad accident. Two little children died. A teenager was arrested for driving under the influence along with everything else (I imagine negligent homicide or something similar). My sister broke her collarbone. Her friend had an open head injury that required neurosurgery. Everyone involved was affected, everyone was changed. One has since died, but the rest seem to be doing OK. Just one of those traumatic high school memories. Stuck with me.

That was October 13, 1975, as it turns out. There’s no connection with the film that I see. It just crossed my mind. Forty years.

And if you’d told me then that in 40 years, I’d be in Seattle at the premiere of a movie in which I played the title role, I would have nodded and been happy to hear that it all worked out. That definitely was a future I was dreaming of.

This is what you do when you’re young, and you’re an actor. You think that somehow, you’ll just continue being both of those things, sort of indefinitely. And you won’t; certainly not one, probably not either.

So I felt, more than anything, grateful to feel like a young actor again, if briefly. Back when I lived a quantum lifetime, nothing but probabilities and waveforms of possible futures smeared over the calendar.

Back when I was 18, a freshman in college, doing Moliere and pining for some girl in the play, who was otherwise involved with an older fellow. I was every inch an 18-year-old, every molecule, every atom, every particle. Every quark. Every quark a dorky 18-year-old who was heartsick over a pretty girl with a boyfriend, and I’d watch her sometimes from my dorm room, walking across the parking lot on the campus of Northern Arizona University. I remember that clearly. It was part of the picture.

That has not much to do with the movie, either. I just thought of it, thought of being young and dreaming of all sorts of things, then finding myself at the other end of a whole bunch of calendar pages, far from Flagstaff, walking up Pike on a Tuesday night, 40 years to the day after another big moment in my life, thinking about that pretty girl in the parking lot.

Listening to her daughter ask me what it was like to watch myself in a movie.

Wanting to explain that it feels like life, is all. Very cinematic, especially when you know how it all started.

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The Highway To Hope

The past two mornings, I’ve hit I-405 heading south at around 7:30am, overcorrecting a bit to make sure I make it down to Renton by 9. I’m usually early, but not that early.

Keep in mind that it’s 30 miles, almost entirely freeway.

Yeah. Traffic sucks here.

But it’s temporary, and occasionally I’d find myself watching the other drivers, assuming that they did this every day. It’s a good exercise.

It’s part of my experience, though, lately. Seeing the invisible people, the ones who never cross my path, who either lead lives of quiet desperation or maybe pretty noisy desperation, depending on lots of things. Including how desperate they are.

And some are. I’ve met them.

This is what happens, then, when you take a guy who’s been isolated, if fairly comfortably, in his home with a roof and shower and utilities and food in the fridge, and you introduce him to the world.

Not that I’m ignorant. I’ve hung around enough desperate people, sipping bad coffee in cold church Sunday school rooms on dark nights, to know that our paths are endless and diverse, bad and good.

And that we can change them, but sometimes we need help.

I’ve been helping, a little. Minor stuff. Details, things I can do, organizational things, writing things. Moving furniture, taking pictures, exchanging emails. Not front line work, not me, or not yet. Support line, maybe.

I’ve seen enough, though, to know that whatever ripples my perfectly ordinary existence have produced, what I’m doing now, even part-time and maybe even temporary, is the best thing I could do, or have done.

And I’m completely exhausted, and overwhelmed, and a little frustrated and maybe even angry, a little. And the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

 

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