Tuesday, May 19, 2015

That's What Friends Are For

The older I get, the fewer the friends I have.  In fact, I can't think of a single person I could call right now to ask to go grab a bite for lunch or to go see a movie.  Much less, think of anyone who would call me with such an invitation.

I'm not sure why this is the case.  Are we all so wrapped up in our jobs or children's sports teams that we don't have time for anyone else?  Have I worn out my welcome?  Does Facebook satisfy everyone's need for Drago?  Come to think of it, even those friends have fallen off.  I'd have to announce something dreadful has happened to get more than 50 likes on a post right now, as opposed to those who can garner a 100 likes for re-posting the latest meme.  Possibly a clip of a well-trained parrot feeding a dog off the kitchen counter.  Adorable.

Maybe this is just a part of getting old.  I used to have friends.  Plenty of them.  I don't remember much about Brooklyn, but when we moved to Staten Island, my older brother and I ran around with scores of kids.  We played stickball, king tag, kick the can, and a bunch of other shit.  My best friend lived on the other end of Gold Avenue (I think his parents still do), and we slept over one another's house almost every weekend.  We harbored a secret stash of chocolates.  We were stealthy.  He liked Twix, if I recall.  I preferred Whatchamacallits.  Those days are gone.  I can't even eat chocolate anymore without getting an upset stomach.

We moved to Phoenix while I was in junior high school (they called it middle school).  I fell in with a bunch of D&D nerds and played football, basketball, and baseball for the school leagues.  I always had someone to hang out with.  My best friend's dad was a retired schoolteacher who sold appliances at Montgomery Ward and died of bladder cancer while we were young.  I was asked to be his pallbearer.  I carried his body with his sons.  Do you know how good a friend would have to be for me to ask him to carry my dad's fucking coffin?  I don't have those kinds of friends anymore.  I did.

My crew expanded in high school.  I added the theatre geeks and the brainiacs.  A fringe benefit of being (kind of) smart and (somewhat) talented, I guess.  Think Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.  My best friend played football, which kept me in line with the jocks.  Well, at least I could attend their parties on the weekends.  Their girls only looked at me for a chuckle.  I played Eugene in our school's production of Grease, after all.  The highlight was dancing with the senior cast as Patty Simcox.  She was runner-up for Miss Teen Arizona.  So beautiful.  She went on to be a popular news anchor.  I wonder if she has friends.

More of the same in college.  I had plenty of buddies.  And from all walks of life.  We had fun and kept busy.  Even as a young teacher, I had a group of colleagues who got together and played poker or made midnight runs to Las Vegas.  This was when Seinfeld reigned supreme.  I was our Jerry.  Single.  Neat.  Even-Steven.  (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  I'm George now.  Cranky.  Bald.

You might think you know where this is going.  Marriage ruined my friendships.  Not true.  I had plenty of friends when we first moved to North Carolina almost 15 years ago.  Most I met while teaching or producing community theatre.  This lack of friends is recent.  The last three years or so.  I've shut myself off somehow.  I don't know how to turn myself back on.  If nothing else, friends would relieve some of the pressure my wife must be feeling from my constant companionship.  It's unfair, really.  Getting a life was much easier when I was younger.  What will I do when my kids go off to college?  Don't even want to think about it.  At least they give me a reason to get off my recliner and yell about something.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Writer's Block

I tell my college students all the time that the best way to escape writer's block is to start writing about whatever's on your mind.  It doesn't matter whether or not you have anything to say about the topic or if you make any mistakes.  You can fix things later.  Just pick up and start writing.  Don't think.  Just write.  Eventually, you'll find your way to where you want to go.

I've been stuck for a while.  No, it's not fair to say I'm stuck.  I'm not.  I have plenty to say.  And a ton of ideas.  So many stories started (and abandoned).  I keep listening to the song "Famous Last Words" by Billy Joel.  I want to know what made him stop writing songs.  Was he out of ideas?  Tired?  Bored?  A combination?

Maybe he couldn't say what he wanted to say.

I get that.  Stephen King once told me, "Write what you know."  What if I can't?  What if I'm not allowed to write what I want to write because I'm a schoolteacher?  There are just things that I can't put out there and expect to keep my job.  And let's face it, I'm writing for an audience now.  Sure, I can put words down in my blog and never post them.  Or I can write in a personal journal and not share.  For me, writing has gone beyond that.  I write to express my views with others.  Not to keep them to myself.  I have a file cabinet in my mind for that.  I categorize and have opinions on everything.  I just don't feel like I can share those the way I want.

Some teachers are willing to speak out.  Maybe they have more courage than I do.  Or maybe they're toeing the line.  There's no risk in that.  They're saying exactly what's expected of them.  Hollywood does the same thing.  Artists are held to certain expectations or risk blackball.  We're all struggling, disenfranchised Bohemians, right?

Don't you hate when people try so hard to be different that they end up playing a stereotype?  And, yes, I realize I'm implying that those who think they're nonconformists conform more often than not.  They do.  I don't.  Thus the fear.  It's not to say that I don't share the same views as my colleagues at certain times.  Of course, I do.  But what about when I don't?  Do I just shut the fuck up?  (Yes, Tommy, that's what you do.  You shut the fuck up.  Nobody needs to know what you think about sex, politics, or religion, especially not if you're going to rebuke the status quo.)

At a press conference before his sold out performances at Madison Square Garden in 1972, Elvis (dressed in a gorgeous sky-blue suit) replied that he preferred to keep his opinions to himself when asked for his thoughts about the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and other political issues of his era.  Makes you wonder what he was thinking.  Maybe.  Or maybe you don't give a shit about the King's politics.  But when asked if he thought other entertainers should also keep quiet, he shook his head (a lock of shiny black hair bouncing across his forehead) and whispered, "No," almost with a smile.  Makes you wonder why he wouldn't talk.  What was keeping him quiet?  I guess we'll never know.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

World's Biggest Stephen King Fan

My sister died when I was 13 years-old.  She was strangled by the umbilical cord during my mom's final trimester.  That was the most devastating event of my life.  Even now, I can't listen to "Ribbon in the Sky" by Stevie Wonder without crying.  That song was playing on the radio when we pulled into the cemetery.  Before we watched her little gray box go into the ground. 

Most folks would've turned to God.  I found Stephen King.  He landed in my lap, really.  My older brother's friend let me borrow his copy of Night Shift.  The cover reminded me of something out of the Twilight Zone.  Hands with eyes on the fingers?  What the hell is that shit?  Up until that point, The Lord of the Rings was my game, and everything I wrote was a knock-off.  

I didn't know it quite then, but Stephen King was teaching me that it's OK to be scared.  That bad shit happens, but you can still go on.  

Our relationship developed gradually.  My mom bought me The Dead Zone for Christmas that year, and then I found Different Seasons and Christine at the bookstore.  I devoured these.  Falling in love with the characters, captivated by the prose.  I became an addict.  Since my older brother was more interested in sports, girls, and parties (like most teenage boys), I recruited my younger brother to go on my quest.  We scoured used bookstores, buying every rare, limited edition we could get our hands on.  Movie tie-ins, foreign prints.  You name it.  I even read the British version of The Shining just because I thought it looked cool.  My younger brother kindly informed me that nothing I did was cool.  He was right.  Girls don't notice boys who read.  They laugh at them.  Something I learned from Arnie Cunningham.

The book that sealed our relationship was Pet Sematary.  It's still my favorite.  When Gage Creed died, I can't tell you how hard I cried (even harder than when we lost Wolf in The Talisman).  I can still remember.  I was alone in my room, lying on my bed.  Hoping my mom didn't hear me.  I didn't want her to know much it hurt me when her little girl died.  She had Mommy things to worry about.  I could toughen up.  I had Stephen King.  Besides, when Gage came back, he was different.  He was fucked.  And then it hit me.  You can never change the past.  You can only live.

My Stephen King collection is vast.  I have every hardcover and multiple copies of all his paperbacks.  I have a sealed copy of My Pretty Pony - a massive red tome given as a gift by the store manager at the local Waldenbooks.  I have near mint original paperback copies of The Running Man and The Long Walk (I even have an Italian print of this one!).  I have copies of Stephen King's original screenplay adaptations of The Stand and Pet Sematary smuggled by a friend of mine out of Laurel Entertainment in the mid-'80's.  I have all the print copies of Stephen King's official newsletter, Castle Rock.  T-shirts, posters, bookmarks.  The list is endless.

After I read Pet Sematary (autocorrect hates this fucking word), I wrote Stephen King a letter and asked about The Dark Tower, included in the novel's list of his works.  In this era before the Internet, I had no contact information, so I sent my letter off to his publisher, Doubleday.  It took 9 months to get his response!  He explained how to contact Don Grant and order my copy.  I have the whole limited edition series, of course.  I followed with an inquiry to his PO Box in Maine about a sold-out luncheon he planned to attend in Phoenix where I lived at the time.  He replied in two weeks with a Three Stooges postcard, telling me I should try to get in as a waiter.  Perfect.  

We corresponded for a couple more years until the Mets beat the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series.  He sent me a form letter, explaining how if he spent all his time answering letters, he wouldn't have time to write his books.  He'd become a brand name.  Of course, I understood.  Typed separately on the form letter was some personal advice he gave me.  I'll keep those words to myself.

Someone once asked me why I'm such a big Elvis Presley fan.  I told her that every time I hear his voice it feels like someone is telling me, "I love you."  Every time I read Stephen King, it's like having someone hold my hand in the dark.