Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Life is Hard, Then You Die"

Sure, I know. The circle of life. Death is inevitable. Blah, blah, blah. I know.

When my wife and I were young actors, she had a great t-shirt she used to wear to rehearsals. Black with white letters: "Life is hard, then you die." Being young and invincible, this shirt was like a war cry. I would laugh whenever she wore it. Striding to the car, make-up kit in hand, lines memorized, ready for another opening. Another show. Thread bare and tattered that shirt eventually ended up in a rag box or thrift shop.

There was no irony in that shirt. And as I age, no humor. Optimistic as I am about life, the shirt spoke to a deep truth. Dear friends too vibrant to cancer, voice coaches too joyous to ALS, sisters too young to diabetes, fathers as big as Bogart, mothers as kind as strong as Greer Garson. Disease, despair, war, accident, or parts simply wearing out from well-lived overuse. We all lose people. But unlike the piano or cooking or learning your lines, death does not get easier with practice. It gets harder.

I'm no counselor, though I know some. I'm no psychiatrist, though I've played one on TV. But I am experienced, like you, in the difficulty and the pain of death. As we add another name to the "In Memorium" reel that will be shown at the Academy Awards, I hope we can take stock of the advice we'll be seeing over the next couple of weeks. Even though we will have heard it all before and far too often, we must, or rather we need, to pay attention to the Tweets and Status Updates counseling us to live life to fullest, love each other, hug our children, kiss our spouses good night, don't go to bed angry, laugh often, and don't forget to say the things that matter before it's too late. Robin's family would agree. So would Betty's.

Blah, blah, blah. I know.

Monday, June 16, 2014

New Thoughts on Father's Day

Father's Day, 2014, is in the books.

I'm thinking most fathers take their special day a little bit for granted. For years now you've been getting socks and tools and manly do-dads (see what I did there? do-dads?) on the third Sunday in June. What started as cute, whimsical, homemade cards from your precious daughter and strapping son have evolved into store bought greeting cards and the occasional phone call. Am I right? I hope not.

I didn't know my biological father very well. I didn't really even meet him until I was about 19 years old. My step-dad was the man who actually raised me. While I never called him "Dad," he was one.  He was the one who taught me to drive in a 1950 Ford truck he called Gertrude. He's the one who took me camping although he referred to it as "deer hunting." (We never shot a deer. Never. Not once. It was camping.) He's the one who bought me my first bike, first 10-speed, mini-bike, motorcycle. He taught me how to work on cars and let me hang out with him at the gas station (his night job after his day at "the plant"). He also gave me my first drink of beer and first shot of whiskey. He was my Dad.

Even after the divorce (my mother's third), he remained my reference dad. I thought everyone had that kind of dad. When I finally met my "real" father, I was struck at the differences between them. The differences between the two men grew as I got to know my father a little better.

My "father" was a middle management businessman. He wore ties and wing-tips. He was polite and gentlemanly. Navy man. He was exceedingly well-organized. He drank cocktails -- in moderation. I respected him, but never really felt any real emotion like love. I just didn't know him well enough.

My "dad" was a blue collar laborer.  He wore work shirts and steel-toe boots. He was blunt and rough around the edges. Army man. He usually left his socks in the living room. He drank beer -- quite often. I loved him in spite of his faults, his gruffness and the way he treated my mom in the waning years of their marriage.

Needless to say, I didn't have a common childhood. Normal? Yes. At least I thought it was. Common? Probably not. Don't get me wrong, I know there are millions of other sons and daughters that were latch-key kids, or children of divorce, or were raised by one parent, or had many step-this and half-that relatives. So, I know I'm not special in that regard. In fact, that idea of a Typical American Family probably doesn't exist anymore. My wife's parents were married for 47 years and had eight children. Uhm, yeah, that wasn't us. 

Here's the funny thing: I am sure we must have celebrated Father's Day. I'm confident my mother would have made sure of it. I just don't remember doing it. Since they are both no longer with us (my father passed away just last year in his 80s, my dad in 2000 at 65), this bothers me. As a kid, my dad must have gotten his share of socks or beer mugs or accessories for his truck. As an adult, I'm pretty sure I was conscientious enough to send something to both dad and father wishing them the typical Hallmark Card sentiments. I just don't remember. As big an influence each had on my life (in their own way) I don't remember any Father's Days. I guess that kinda makes me a bad son. To both of them.

Until recently, dads and fathers have always been an awkward subject for me. Obviously. My mom has been married four times, so it's complicated. My little brother's dad was my step-dad who raised me and there was my father who I met later in my life. My oldest brother and sister had a different dad entirely, but MY father raised them so he's their dad.... see what I mean? Complicated.

As an adult, my perception of fathers has been more informed by literature or film than by life experience. Bob Cratchit, George Bailey, Clark Griswold. Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird"is my all-time favorite movie dad. Not only is Peck's performance flawless, but so is the character. Of course, he stands for all things good and just as an attorney. We wish all of our lawyers were Atticus Finch. As a man he is handsome, respected, honorable. We wish all our neighbors were Atticus Finch. But more importantly, he represents the ideal father -- understanding, loving, wise, fair, smart -- but with a couple secrets in his background that, once uncovered, raises him to near superhero status in the eyes of his children.

This year I have been the recipient of a remarkable gift -- my first Father's Day. Replete with card and wrapped box. Inside both were perhaps the most perfect gifts that could possibly be given to me by my daughter on this particular Father's Day. With humor and heart she skillfully crafted for me a Father's Day like no other. So moving, so profound, so...perfect.

In reference to said box, the post script on the card said, "no dad can live without one of these from his daughter." Yeah, I get it now. I'll never take Father's Day for granted again. I hope you don't either. Oh, and I know it's just coincidence, but my spectacles are very much like those worn by Atticus Finch. Daily reminder in the mirror that I now have something, someone, to live up to.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go put on my new tie.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

New Thoughts on Mother's Day

I love my mom. More than anything. But, I must admit, Mother's Day has always been a sort of a pain. I haven't lived near my mother for many, many years, so the mere fact of Mother's Day has been a race to remember a list of things not normally on my day-to-day radar.

I gotta get the card in the mail. (Wonder if we have any stamps.)
Oh, shit, I gotta go BUY the freaking card. (Maybe Trader Joe's will have a good one when I go pick up coffee and Joe-Joes.)
Should I send roses? (Whoa, those are expensive.)
Okay, set the alarm to Skype her on Sunday. (What's the time difference again?)

Don't say you don't know what I'm talking about. Face it, holidays can be a hassle.

This year is different. This year I find myself thinking about many moms. Top of this list is my mom, of course. 87 and still as sharp and cranky and inquisitive as ever. Sure the body's slowing down, but she continues to be a voracious reader (thank you Kindle!), can maneuver that walker around her kitchen without ever catching her oxygen tube on a open flame, and still has a secret little stash of candy bars in her "computer room." The best. Her name is Colleen. An Irish term for "young girl." Though her age belies it, her heart still believes she is one.

I'm thinking a lot about my wife's mom, too, this year. Gone too soon and for many years now, she was without doubt one of the kindest human beings I have ever known. Never a bad word about anyone. High praise given the challenge of raising eight intelligent and unique children. I mean these people could drive anyone to the brink. Very Catholic, her faith allowed her to think the best of everyone. (A trait that never rubbed off on her son-in-law.) Even when a young actor starting courting her second youngest, she was warm and loving and welcoming. Her name was Grace. From the Latin "gratia," meaning "God's favor." That she was.

Another mother has entered the scene this year. My daughter. This is her first Mother's Day as a actual mom. A big fabulous story unto itself, I first met my daughter in person about a year and a half ago. At 29 years old she is stunningly beautiful with an amazing smile and dancing eyes. She is intelligent, witty, funny, talented, discerning, all traits that make for a perfect mom (to say nothing of a perfect daughter). Her name is Heather, which is a flowering evergreen plant that thrives easily in barren conditions. If you are into names and numerology and all that stuff, it also means she is idealistic, creative, selfless, with deep inner strength. Sounds like the makings for a perfect mom.

So, this year I have finally figured it out. Mother's Day isn't really for moms. It's because of them. It's a mid-year Thanksgiving for the women in your life that you never call enough (They know you mean to), never thank enough (They don't expect it), and never understand enough (How could you?).

Great quote from The Golden Girls, “It’s not easy being a mother. If it were easy, fathers would do it.”

The card is in the mail, FTD has the order, and the alarm is set for early Sunday morning.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Christopher Plummer - Is There a Torch to Pass?

Several weeks ago, I saw two remarkable Christopher Plummer performances in as many days. "Barrymore" on PBS (for which he won the Tony when it was on Broadway) and his one-man show, "A Word or Two," at the Ahmanson. In both cases, I was moved and mesmerized by this fine actor's mastery of his craft. Vocally, emotionally, physically, he displayed everything I have always believed an actor should be and could do.

To look at Plummer so deftly fill the screen with nuance and detail, then watch him command a large stage with power and poise...well, I started to realize how rare that is. Then Sunday came and I got sad. The news about Phillip Seymour Hoffman popped up on my iPad. Rarer still.

Sure, there are great "film actors" around. Some good TV actors even. There are fine stage actors scattered all over the country in the big regional theatres, on Broadway, and in dodgy-ramshackle-black-boxes-in-crappy-low-rent "theatre districts" everywhere. But, where are the Christopher Plummers? Where are the giants that do everything well? There are really only a few left and they are starting to get a little long in the tooth. . Plummer, of course. Patrick Stewart. Ian McKellan. Angela Lansbury. Maggie Smith. Kenneth Branagh is up there for me. Waiting in the wings are the likes of...well, who, really?

Moreover, and this is the worrisome thing, in an age of reality TV, celebutants, stunt casting, the really great young actors don't have the opportunities they once did. When publications like Backstage cater more towards selling casting director workshops and providing a forum for agent advice columns, I wonder where young actors really go to get a good start in a business full of leeches hungry for their ten percent.

Not that the world and work of the actor has ever been easy. No one ever said it would be. But the giants like Mr. Plummer (and those who came before) do remind us that craft and art and longevity just might be more important that the number of hyphens you put after your name.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dear 2013

What, you just leave like that? After the year we had? We both knew it wasn't going to last forever but I had a couple things I wanted to say before you left.  You didn't have to go all cat burglar and sneak out while I was asleep. Five more minutes and the fireworks outside would have jarred me out of the Dom PĂ©rignon and Ryan Seacrest induced coma.

I'll just start, 'kay? First off, thanks. You were amazing. No, really, I mean it. Now hold on. Don't get all full of yourself, I said amazing, not perfect. We didn't always see eye to eye and sometimes you were kinda bitchy, but you always kept it interesting, that's for sure. Usually, in good ways. Saucy little mynx. There were only a couple bad patches, but  these things happen and I'm not holding any grudges. Just saying.

The bees in chimney thing was a good one. Didn't see that coming. Wouldn't have been such a big deal if Liz wasn't allergic to bee stings. Not funny. Losing my dad and my sister in the same year, though, not cool either. St. Paddy's Day and The 4th of July are both going to be a little different in the future.

Oh, I wanted to talk to you about the commute to work but never got around to it. That's on me. We never did solve the issue with rude people using their cell phone in the middle of a movie. Oh, and I'm still having trouble with calling a cookie a "biscuit." Maybe 2014 can help me with that one? It makes it easier for all my British friends if I can talk their language once in a while. 

On the other hand, I did have another 24/7/365 of laughs with the light of my life - the remarkable, patient, indefatigable, talented Elizabeth. That alone kept everything in balance. (Don't think I've ever really used the word "indefatigable" before! Sweet.)

Portland was a ton of fun! Thanks for throwing that our way. We hadn't had a vacation in, like, forever. Great hotel, not a bad meal the whole week, and perfect weather. Totally had a blast catching up with some fabulous friends and making remarkable new ones. (Note to self, be sure to talk to 2014 about doing more of this kinda stuff.) Couple great short trips up the coast were appreciated, too. Thanks for those.

The job could have been less, uhm, shall we say "challenging?"  I know, I know, that's not ALL your fault, but COME ON! Really? Did it have to go down like that all year! You did come through in the end, but getting there was crazy. If it's not too late, please let your successor know this is gonna be one of the first things we are will parley about. I'll schedule some time in the next couple of weeks to discuss. My mantra for next year is "More Liz, less biz." Catchy, right?

Oh, yeah, congrats on pulling off the stunning surprise of the decade! Meeting Heather was indescribable. I've tried, but keep coming up short. Wonderfully surreal and totally cool. Still wrapping my head around it, actually.  Apparently, dimples are hereditary. Well done you.

That's it. I hope you get this before you are too far away. I would say "stay in touch," but I know you won't. Probably just as well. Sorry I missed you on your way out, but really glad we had some quality time together. It was totally worth it.

Your Pal,