Thursday, November 29, 2012

AFTER THE WOMBATS

Things were pretty rough after Daddy Jay headed north to Alaska pursued by Wombats. Money was tight. Mom had been an elementary school teacher before she had us, and hadn't worked in years. Now, she had three kids, a mortgage, and an ex-husband who wasn't paying alimony or child support. At this time, there was a glut of teachers in Strawberry Park, meaning no work in that field other than some substitute teaching- which doesn't exactly pay the bills for a family of four. We didn't know any of this. My brother, sister and I were busy being kids, and things seemed pretty much like before. Maybe we all got hand-me-downs more often when it came to clothes, and maybe we didn't go out to eat pretty much ever, but life didn't seem too weird. Yet.

Then, things started to disappear. That was a little strange. First, it was all the old stuff in the garage. Mom had all this old furniture in the garage- things she had inherited after her mother died, a beautiful set of  mirrors, chests, things like that. To me, they were just unused stuff, but Mom was hoping to one day live in a big house where we could use all those beautiful antiques. One by one, they vanished. And then Juliet disappeared. Juliet was Mom's '57 Chevy. It was sky blue and white and very cool, and she loved it. Mom talked about Juliet like it was a person, an old friend who she had had many adventures with. Then one day, she was gone. Within a few years, Mom re-married, and so began life with Vern.

My step-father Vern was a complicated man. One of my first memories of Vern is from when I was five or six years old.  I was hanging upside down from a branch on our magnolia tree in the front yard and saw him walking up to our house. I shouted out "Daddy". He smiled and said "not yet".  He came across as really nice. He laughed a lot, told jokes, and let us watch Get Smart when we visited him at his apartment. He even got us a dog shortly after he and Mom got married. We had only had one dog before, a little white dog named Spot that Daddy Jay had given us. Spot ran away around the same time  my father left. We named the new dog Gigi, and I loved her very much. Life was pretty sweet. For a bit.

Something was shifting in house. At first, it was hard to pin down, just a tension that seemed to fill the air. Mom would get a little jumpy when we got loud or left our toys out. And in the mornings, especially on the week-ends, we were told to stay quiet until Vern got up. And he would sleep in pretty late. Sometimes, Vern would swear. It was exciting to hear these forbidden words, but also kind of creepy. Adults weren't supposed to talk like that.  And sometimes, Vern would yell at us. Now, being a kid, I was used to grown-ups yelling now and then. But there was something different about Vern yelling. More intense. More scary. Mom said Vern had had a hard life, and so he drank too much sometimes, and we needed to be understanding, that he just got into bad moods from time to time. Well, it was true about the bad moods, and we learned quickly that if Vern was in one of his funks, it was a really good idea to be on our best behavior. Life became something like dancing with a polar bear. Still fun and exciting, but now much more dangerous, and if you weren't careful, you would most likely get an eternal lecture on how stupid you were and how meaningless life was and told that you should never have to be asked to clean your room, you should just do it. Shouting and crying and fear were regular dinner guests. And somehow, I became Vern's favorite. He'd tell me jokes at dinner. I'd pour his wine- red with ice cubes. I'd ask him to tell me about his life, and he'd tell stories about being in the army and sitting through a hurricane on a base in Florida, or when he ran a television repair store near Sacramento, or about the Porsche he used to drive. And this seemed to calm the savage beast, to make him happy. And when he was happy, he was nicer, less prone to yelling, or throwing things, or getting into big blow out yell fests with Mom after we went to bed. So making him happy was job number one. I learned how to make him laugh, mostly through trial and error. If I said certain things a certain way, Vern would laugh. You could tell when a laugh was needed, when things were heading south, as they say. Usually, there would be the inciting incident- Vern would ask if we had done all our chores, or been good at school- some quotidian thing like that. And he would only ask if he knew that we hadn't. So he'd ask the question, there would be a moment of silence, and if you didn't manage to make him laugh, the interrogation would begin, dinner would be effectively over, and who knew what would happen next? Usually it would be yelling, but there was the occasional glass thrown, and on one infamous night, he back-handed my sister in the face. Vern was a big, scary man- and we were little kids, scared out of our minds. So whenever possible, when the moment came, if at all possible, I'd make him laugh, the moment would pass, and we'd all breathe a little easier.

But comedy would only work up to a certain point, for so many glasses of wine. After that, all bets were off, and the thing to do was shut up and look for the closest escape route. It is a very curious thing to watch someone change right in front of you, to morph themselves in a sort of slow motion imitation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; to see the eyes blur and grow mean,  smell the breath become danker and danker,  physically feel tension and anger fill a room, like an acrid fog. Curious and terrifying. And heartbreaking.

By fourth grade, I had abandoned all hope of Daddy Jay ever coming back. Life was harsh, and nothing could change that. There was only one thing I secretly hoped would happen, one thing that might bring a little bit of magic back to the world.

Snow.

I  realize that might sound like a fairly dull dream to a lot of people. But you have to understand, it never snowed in San Jose. Ever. Not once in my life. The only snow I ever saw was on tv and in the movies. Snow was glamorous, even mystical. You could go sledding, have snow fights, eat snow pies, make snowmen. I had a few vague memories of going up to the mountains, way back when Daddy Jay was still around- and I remember it being fun and that I loved it. And I wasn't alone in my hope for snow. Every kid at Strawberry Park Elementary wanted snow. If it got below fifty degrees, we'd look to the sky, and dream.  So snow was it. I became an avid fan of the weather reports- but the news was never very promising. Still, many nights I'd go to sleep wishing fervently for snow, praying to a god I wasn't so sure was up there anymore to make it snow.  Snow would make it all okay. Santa would return, with Melvin the Great sitting in his sled. Vern- or Dad, as we called him by then- would stop drinking. Everything would be all right again, all thanks to the Messiah called Snow. It was the last bastion my soul had against an encroaching reality.






Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A WOMBAT ATE MY FATHER

It's funny the things I remember. Crickets, tomato soup, Lincoln Logs. Good things. Red wine with ice cubes,  long silences, knives. Bad things.  I grew up in San Jose, California, at the time a quickly growing city nestled in the heart of the Santa Clara Valley, which used to be called the Valley of the Hearts Delight but was morphing into the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley, land of strip malls, tract housing, and freeways. I can still smell the cherry trees that grew near my house, see the weathered barnyards covered in moss , hear the sound of thousands upon thousands of crickets at night- so loud they'd wake me up in the middle of the night from time to time. My mother used to tell me that when she first came to San Jose, in 1953, a person could tell where they were by the scents of blossoms. Peaches were one area, oranges another. In my first memories, the area we lived in was surrounded by orchards of all kinds- but each year, more and more of them disappeared,  replaced by 7-11s, Dennys, and multi-plex theaters. The  nightly orchestra of crickets shrank into a sad little blues combo, and then vanished altogether, replaced by the distant roar of the new freeway.

Our home was your typical ranch style suburban home that most people my age seem to have grown up in- three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a dining room, a living room, and kitchen connected to a garage.  Our particular neighborhood was Strawberry Park. I went to Strawberry Park Elementary, bought my comic books at Strawberry Park Drug Store, walked down Strawberry Park Drive to get to school. The weird thing was, there weren't a lot of strawberries. Just houses, vacant lots, the occasional church, and what was left of the orchards. To the west were the Santa Cruz mountains, dark blue and full of secrets. to the east was Mount Hamilton- gold and dry and covered with patches of Oak, giving the the appearance of a great chocolate chip cookie. Beyond the valley was the real world, which as far as I could tell from tv was full of hippies and bell bottom jeans and Felix and Oscar and Hawkeye, and the Zodiac killer, and Viet Nam, and some place called OPEC, and Jacques Costeau. I'd made a few forays into the real world- once to Alaska on a cruise with my mother and father shortly before they divorced, once to Disneyland with my father just after the divorce, and several times to Pacific Grove where my Aunt Alice lived. But for the most part, life was Strawberry Park.

I shared a room with my older brother Jerry, and Mom let us decorate it as we saw fit, in order to help stimulate our creativity. We had a dark green ceiling, wood paneling on the walls, and a multi-colored striped shag carpet that sort of looked like some ogre had eaten a couple of boxes of crayons and then thrown up.  On the wall was a muskrat skin we had gotten in Alaska, an up-turned horseshoe over our door for good luck, a poster of a tiger, and also a poster of King Kong. We had bunk beds, and I got to sleep on the top bunk. I don't know if this is because I whined about it, or if Jerry just wanted to bottom bunk. As the youngest, I often got things by using my pest skills, which were advanced for my age.

Every night, after the lights had been turned off and Mom said good night, Jerry would ask me if I wanted to hear a story. We all loved stories in our family. Mom was a former school teacher, our father a frustrated writer- and they were both full of stories and nursery rhymes. Whenever we drove anywhere, we'd read out loud. I remember very clearly hearing my sister Heather read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe one summer over the course of several drives back and forth to Aunt Alice's. So, every night, lights out, house quiet, Jerry would call up: "Want to hear a story?" He didn't really have to ask, because the answer was always yes. It was just the ritual, and that was that. He would ask, I would say yes, then he would ask what kind of story, and I would always request a scary one. He would say no, I'd get to scared and cry to Mom, I'd swear I wouldn't- and after going back and forth, he'd tell me a scary story. And what stories he'd tell- always original, always somehow incorporating our lives. Blue zombies who lived in our closet, rattle snakes at the foot of the bed- there was even one that had the Creature from the Black Lagoon coming out of our fish tank. Usually, I would get scared, and then he'd switch a story about nothing all that exciting, like a boy floating down a river in a raft or walking to school or something, and I'd drift off to sleep.

My life seemed full of dreams and magic, but by the summer after third grade, things started to change. Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny had all gone the way of the dodo for the reasons they always do. But there were starker changes in our suburban home in Strawberry Park. New monsters, not quite so fantastic but much more real, had begun to arrive.



My father left my mother, and my brother and sister and I, when I was four. He had always been obsessed with Alaska- and had decided to go live there. My siblings and I always hoped he'd come back someday to see us- but any hope of that ever happening diminished in direct proportion to the number of letters he sent us. When he first left, there were letters practically every week, full of stories about Melvin the Great, his made up version of himself who went on madcap adventures with his much smarter side-kicks Hairy, Feather, and Belly. Melvin traveled around in a throne that sat on top of a Volkswagen Bug. He always wore a crown, had a bottle of magic pep potion in his glove box that gave him super powers, and was constantly fighting the evil Wombats. Each letter with a Melvin the Great story was illustrated by my father, and I treasured them. I'd read them over and over, never tiring of the stories. We all checked the mail-box a lot in those days. But as time wore on, the letters came less frequently, from weekly to monthly to not at all.  Mom explained to us that Daddy Jay, which is what we called him, had stopped paying something called Alimonyandchildsupport, and we probably wouldn't see him much anymore. By fourth grade, all letters from my father had joined Santa in oblivion. We assumed the Melvin had been eaten by a Wombat.

To be continued...

Friday, November 16, 2012

I HAVE MANY GODS, AND THEY'RE ALL A LITTLE CRAZY

I'm a quasi-pagan, magical thinking believer in Bigfoot, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster. Whenever I do a show, on opening night I go backstage, find a quiet corner, and say a prayer to Thespis. I've seen ghosts. At times, like Ghandi, I am a Muslim, and Christian, and a Jew. And a Hindu, and an atheist, and an agnostic. My pantheon includes Superman, Batman, and the Avengers- along with Loki, Raven, and Cassiopeia, Queen of Elsewhere. And I don't see this as in any way illogical.

I am pondering my own gods because I came upon a book the other day that I hadn't read since I was in fourth grade and took part in M.G.M. at Strawberry Park Elementary. M.G.M. stood for Mentally Gifted Minors, although most of the kids at school said it stood for Mentally Goofed-up Morons. There were students from several different schools in M.G.M., broken into several groups of about 20 each. Each group would have class once a week for a whole day. My group met on Wednesdays. In M.G.M., we read books, went of field trips to museums and the beach on a minus tide, did scientific observations of all these animals we had in class, like our boa constrictor Harvey. We discussed Picasso and Edgar Allen Poe. To me, it seemed like a full day of free time- and I couldn't quite believe the powers that be knew what we really did, because how could school be so fun? We didn't even have desks. We had bean bag chairs, and a couple of sofas, and even an old row boat with cushions in it, perfect for reading. The classroom was full of prints of art work, games to play designed to flex your brain muscles, and stacks upon stacks of books. In one of those stacks, I came across a book on Norse mythology that looked pretty cool. I don't think I even noticed the title ( D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants). I just found the cover illustration to be really interesting. I knew of Thor, the Norse thunder god, thanks to Marvel Comics, and decided to give the book a look. I sat down in the row boat, and was pretty much instantly transported to another world, full of gods and trolls and magic. I could not put that book down.  The stories were funny and exciting and a little scary. Thor was not blonde like he was in the comic book, but red-haired, and a little cranky. He was also not quite so smart. Whenever he needed someone with brains, he went to Loki- who was at times funny, always crafty, and ultimately deadly. Loki and all the other fantastic characters in this amazing book were believable to me- powerful but flawed. And they stuck with me. I remember reading about Odin, the one-eyed ruler of the Norse Gods, or Aesir. He had an eight-legged horse named Sleipner, a spear that never missed its' target, and two ravens named Thought and Memory who flew out into the world every day and came back at night to tell him what was going on down on Earth, or Mid-gard. Every time I saw a pair of Ravens in a tree or in a field, I'd think "there goes Thought and Memory". Sometimes I'd wave to them, hoping they'd give my regards to Odin.



Now, most of the characters in these stories were a little on the crazy side of things. Which was perfect, to me- as I had already begun to suspect that most of the world was inhabited by crazy folks. This was 1976- and the world was a strange place. America was Watergate, Richard Nixon, and Viet Nam. The Beatles had broken up, disco reigned supreme, and worse still, the Brady Bunch had been cancelled. The 1960's were a golden age that had passed away with Janis and Jimi and Jim, and according to Pete we were all wasted with Baba O'Reilly. It seemed like every movie had a sad ending, or one where the good guys turned out to be kind of bad, or the bad guys turned out to be not so evil.  On top of that, at home my brother, sister, and I were beginning to understand what it meant to live in a house with an alcoholic thanks to our step-father. Our real dad had left years earlier- and we never really heard from him at all. No phone calls, letters, post-cards, birthday cards, Christmas presents. Nothing. Daddy Jay, as we called our biological father, was a lost hero banished from our lives. I didn't bear any malice towards him- but I did think it a drag that he was gone, and secretly hoped that he'd return one day and take us somewhere that was safe, and where you didn't have to worry about getting yelled at over seemingly small things like not making your bed. And when I say yelled at, I mean long, scary interrogations by someone who could sometimes be funny and nice, and sometimes frightening and violent. Everyone was a little crazy.  And here were all these stories of gods and trolls and heroes and monsters, trying to survive the long cold night, and somehow smiling bravely in the face of impending doom. In the Norse tales, the gods were all fated to die in a great battle called Ragnarok, which was sort of like Armageddon except that all the good guys get killed. They were mortal, and nothing they could do would change their fate- but still they carried on. Which was cool. It was as if they had heard someone sing "carry on, my wayward son, there'll be peace when you are done", and said in reply, "verily".

So I read that book over and over.

Then Junior High came along, and puberty, and girls, and life went on. But something about those stories stayed with me- I mean, if you look at my plays, they all have these powerful, lost, cursed people who try to carry on in the face on certain doom. I even put some of the Norse gods in my plays- most notably Hel, daughter of Loki and goddess of death. But others work their way in. I often use Raven, who is the Pacific northwest equivalent to Loki- chaotic, funny, and dangerous.

The other night, I was at Barnes & Noble, and came across a new edition of that book- it's been re-titled "D'Aulaires' Norse Mythology, and has a fantastic intro by Michael Chabon- but it's the same book, with the same wonderful illustrations. It was like running into an old friend I hadn't seen in a long time.  I read a couple of stories, and to my delight found that they still ring true.

And that we are all still a little bit crazy.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

MAKE YOUR BOTTOM MORE APPEALING

That's not advice from the latest exercise guru, it's a line from my play LOVERS, LUNATICS, AND POETS, which just got published by PLAYSCRIPTS, INC.  The play is the direct result of a writing contest; and also of my long-standing love affair with the theatre. The contest put on by Playscripts, inc. and called  Pitch-n-Play, and was in two parts. In part one, people were asked to tweet a pitch, or idea, for a new play that was somehow connected to the line "the course of true love never did run smooth" from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. My winning pitch was "real life Puck messes with teens in high school prod of Misdummer Night's Dream". That pitch, along with two others, won the first part of the contest.  In the second part, people wrote short plays based on any of the three winning pitches. I decided to write a play on my own pitch. And while it didn't win the grand prize, the very wise folks at Playscripts decided it was so good that they would publish it anyway. And as of last week, it is available to the general public to read, perform, quote from at parties, etc. It's perfect for high schools, actually. It's set entirely on the stage of a high school theatre, has a cast of 16-20 with 11-15 female roles and 5-9 males. And of course, it's hilarious.

I wrote the play quickly, drawing on my own experience in high school theatre, a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that my brother and sister were in when I was in 8th grade, and from a production I was in when I went to San Jose State University. Wow- I just realized that I saw my first production of that play over 30 years ago. How the hell can that be? I can see it so clearly in my head. There's my brother in a bad toga playing Aegeus with intensity and style. To me, it was like magic how he transformed himself from high school senior into cranky old man. And there's my sister Heather stealing the show as Tom Snout- a role she was bummed about when she got cast, but one that she embraced and triumphed in- which was infinitely cool to watch happen. Snout is  one of the rude mechanicals who plays the wall in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-the-play that some people think is the most actor-proof scene ever written- meaning that no matter how bad your actors are, that scene always works. Which is kind of true. But I've seen some folks try their best.

I'm realizing more and more, as I write this, how vital that show is to my life in the theatre. I remember going to rehearsals of the production my siblings were in at Blackford High School as the tag-along younger brother, and watching all those cool older kids on stage, and being completely taken in by how fun it all looked. And every now and then, a little spark of magic would happen, and I'd catch my breath and wish I was up there, leaping about and speaking in verse. By the time that show opened, I was hooked. I wasn't any good yet, but I wanted to get up there and do some things, speak some lines, touch a little of the rough magic that seemed to course between and through all those actors on stage in the auditorium/lunch room that served as the theatre in our high school.

Years later, I was a junior in college at San Jose State University. Undeclared, not sure of what to do with myself- or rather, not clear with myself, not honest. But that year, things changed. I had done a few shows my first two years, gotten some small parts in some, worked backstage in others. But then, the mafia was formed. The mafia- that's was the nickname given to a bunch of us at SJSU that year.  I'm not sure how, but what happened was several of the drama majors- including my brother and sister- decided to do some of their own work at SJSU. One acts, student productions in the studio, that kind of thing. And I went along for the ride.  I think it really kicked into gear during a production of Tennessee Williams Night of the Iguana, and was solidified when we did a production of A Marowitz Hamlet at City Lights, the experimental theatre in San Jose. It was directed by Jon Selover, and had a cast that included my brother Jerry as Clown/Polonius, my sister Heather as one of three Ophelias, Donna Federico as Gertrude, Rob Langeder as Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, and somehow I got the role of Laertes. It was weird and wonderful and profound.

And instrumental in my learning about theatre and all it's possibilities. By the end of that show, I considered myself an actor. A member of the tribe. A lunatic. By the end of that one school year, I worked on eleven full productions.

There are, I think, certain times in your life where you are happy and growing and full of that wonderful, fleeting feeling that for just a flicker, you're where you're supposed to be in the world, doing what you're supposed to be doing. This was one of those times. At the end of that year, I got cast as Snug the Joiner in the school's main stage production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It wasn't a huge role, but it was juicy. And I milked it for all it was worth. Snug, as written, is not the brightest of folks. I took his non-smarts and ran with it. I made Snug wide-eyed, innocent, and fun- a sort of big baby without a trace of irony in his bones. And people loved it. My fellow actors would laugh during rehearsals. Something was starting to happen when I got on stage. I didn't understand it exactly, but I dug it immensely.  My brother Jerry played Quince in that production, and we had a lot of fun together. My sister Heather was Titania, and my brother's wife at the time, Jenny, was one of the faeries- so there were four McAllisters in the show, which we thought was very cool.

Anyhow, the reason I bring up that production is that there was this one rehearsal that was so gloriously strange, it cemented forever my deep and abiding love for theatre. The show was directed by the great Richard Parks- one of the funniest, most talented, and terrifying people I have ever met. He was incredibly smart, knew the show inside and out, and could coax performances of beauty from a stone. But he also had a temper. One night, we were rehearsing the scene where Puck comes in and does some magic. There was going to be a sound effect of chimes or something for when the magic happened, but we didn't have that yet- so Richard recorded his own voice, rising from low pitch to high while saying "doodle doodle doodle doodle doodle". His plan was to use this as a substitute sound effect so we could get used to hearing something. Sadly, he didn't tell anyone in the cast about this ahead of time. Rehearsals were going along fine, and we got to the scene where the sound effect was supposed to happen, and suddenly, out of the speakers, came our fearless leaders voice. "Doodle doodle doodle doodle." There was a pause, a momentary confusion and people looking around as if to ask "did I really just hear that?", and then we all burst into laughter. There were at least ten of us on stage, and more backstage or in the audience waiting for their next scene. And all of us were laughing. All, that is, except Richard. He was fuming. He screamed out "What's so funny? What's so god damned funny? We needed a sound effect, so I made this to use until a better one comes along." We all got our selves under control, and went back to running the scene. "Doodle doodle doodle doodle." More laughter. Richard again up, this time running from the audience up onto the stage. "Stop laughing! Stop laughing right now!" Slowly, we got it together. We all said sorry, asked if we could please go back to rehearsing the scene, and looked as full of remorse as we could. Richard said fine, strode back into the audience, and we started the scene from the top. "Doodle doodle doodle doodle". As I remember it, we tried not to laugh. Faces contorted. Some people seemed to be giving birth. Then a strange, high pitched squeal broke out of one of us, and that was it. An explosion of laughter erupted from the entire cast en masse. Richard turned a bright red, and screamed up to the stage manager, who ran the sound, to "play it again! Play it over and over! Play it ten fucking times if you have to, so they can laugh their little asses off and we can get back to work!" I'm not sure he meant for the stage manager to actually play it ten times in a row or not- but that's just what happened.

I have never seen so many people laugh so hard for so long. We were keeled over, rolling on the ground, screaming. Somewhere around the seventh "doodle doodle doodle doodle doodle" Richard shouted something and exited the theatre.

It was a glorious night. And now that I think of it, also instrumental in my becoming a writer, because a few days later, I wrote a short story about the rehearsal, in which Richard ran back in with a machine gun and shot us all in iambic pentameter. I remember reading it to the cast, and everyone laughed. A lot. And something about making people laugh from something I wrote was as satisfying as making people laugh by what I did on stage. Wheels were set in motion.

And so, here I am, years later, with a one act about actors and theatre and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Life is good sometimes.


A WALK IN THE STARS

We got away for a few days. Away from the news, from the Mask Wars, from Memes and Madness and My God Where Are We Going, and it was numinou...