Friday, March 26, 2010

The Wheelchair Storm Tableau

One day when I was perhaps four, I woke up and my hip hurt. I don't mean the outside bony part of the hip, I mean the inner high muscular groin part of the hip. The pain was inside. It seemed red.

I got out of bed and crawled downstairs. In my memory, walking was still new enough that I took this new development in stride, perhaps this was just what happened. One day you could walk and the next you couldn't. All part of the learning process.

I crawled into the kitchen and my mother looked down at me. She seemed surprised. She asked me why I was crawling and I told her my hip hurt.

The next interval is lost. I'm sure I must have gone to my pediatrician. I don't know if he made the diagnosis or if I was passed on to the hospital. I had synovitis, which is an inflammation of the hip joint that only occurs in young boys. In young boys who have had bronchial infections, occasionally the infection travels to areas of the body that are growing quickly. Synovial fluid serves as a lubricant for the interior of the joint. The fluid itself becomes infected in synovitis.

This is what I had.

Next thing I know I am in the hospital. In some cases all you have to do is take antibiotics and the infection will cease. For me it wasn't that easy. If antibiotics fail to reduce the inflammation other steps must be taken.

In my case they dislocated my hip. For a few days. I remember a dim shame from having to use bedpans. I couldn't get up and walk because my leg was suspended above the bed. I grew very attached to a young nurse who looked over me. Months later I saw her in church with my mom and the blush that crept over my whole body was incomprehensible to me at the time but I see it now for what it was. I was in love.

Once I returned home I had to be in a wheelchair. Again, memory is hazy. I feel as if I was in the wheelchair for a single night, a night during which a huge thunderstorm rocked Rhode Island and knocked out our power. Since I couldn't get up and down stairs I was sleeping on the couch. At a particularly loud thunderclap my sisters woke up and rushed into my parents room upstairs. They all came downstairs to be with me.

We sat in our little living room. It had an Oriental rug and a dark red couch. The bay window that looked out on our front yard seemed gigantic to me. I was in my wheelchair and the lightning flashes bounced off the metal of the wheels.

I know that I must have been in the wheelchair for longer than one night. I know that my homecoming probably didn't coincide with the storm. So in many ways my memory is faulty.

But the feeling I got surrounded by my family? The intense closeness, the wonder at the lightning, the thrill of the power of a storm countered by our snugness...these are not even details to be remembered. They are in my DNA.

My hip has bothered me from time to time throughout my life, most markedly during high school when my growth spurt caused the old synovial wound to ache and catch. I missed a few soccer games because I jumped from three rows up in the bleachers and it seized up.

And even though it hurt, somehow there was always a kernel of warmth in it, a sweet memory of the love that enveloped me as a child.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I, Proteus

Nagle Jackson directed me in 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' at Playmakers Rep in Chapel Hill. That experience was life changing for me in too many ways to count. It was my first Equity job, I met Melody, I got healthy for the first time in my adult life.

So when Nagle called me and asked me to come to Santa Fe for thirteen weeks to play Proteus in 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' I jumped at the chance. An actor had to drop out at the last minute so I didn't have to audition, I just had to get on a plane. My daily life was quite stressful so I'd be lying if I said that I'd have gone anywhere to do any play. The Santa Fe/Shakespeare connection was icing on a troubled cake.

The best part of this gig was that I'd be reunited with some old friends from Providence. Tim, Laura, and their son Revere. Or Reeve as I knew him. Laura and I had met while doing the play 'Kind Ness' at Perishable Theater, the same production in which I met Maria.

They'd lived in Santa Fe for some time and I looked forward to seeing them on a regular basis again.

I was housed in a pink adobe type hotel/apartment complex and given a Volkswagen Beetle with flowers painted on it to drive around in. They seemed apologetic about this but I was over the moon. I'd owned a Karmann Ghia in college but still vaguely remembered driving around in a Beetle with my folks when I was one or two.

I could walk to rehearsal, there was a pool on the premises, and I got a temporary membership at the gym up the street so I could work out.

The landscape was a shock. I'd never spent any time in the West. It took me about twelve of the thirteen weeks to acclimate myself. I wish I'd been able to shift faster but I spent much of my time like some New York cliche, chafing at the pace and style, bitching about how you couldn't find a newspaper and that life shut down after nightfall.

I could have been taking hikes, exploring the insane landscape of the Southwest, drinking in my surroundings. I was wound too tight from the stress of what I'd left behind to unravel in a new place. In fact, I think I just relaxed this past year for the first time.

We were to perform outdoors in a theater nestled high up in the foothills at St. John's College. The backdrop was unbelievably beautiful. The rehearsal space was in the center of town and our stage manager had taped out the dimensions of our stage in the room. It seemed huge and it was, especially when put into its actual context under the stars.

There must have been some amplification of our voices but I know we weren't wearing individual mikes and the performances were informed by how loud you'd have to be to reach 1,000 people sitting out of doors with all of the sounds of nature adding to the tapestry.

Nagle Jackson had a style so relaxed that it sometimes seemed as if we were barely rehearsing. I still am not sure how he did it. Especially since there was quite a bit of intricate staging in the play. It was like watching a lawn grow. You start with dirt and the next thing you know everywhere is green. And you don't feel like you did anything in particular to make it happen.

I spent a good bit of time outside of rehearsal sitting with Tim, Laura and Reeve in their apartment, talking about their lives, my life, life in general. Storms were brewing in my life (I was to break up with Maria in January in New York, it was August in Santa Fe) but in general I was content in the desert.

Proteus is a character who betrays his love to pursue the love of his best friend. He lies, cheats, and ultimately threatens taking the object of his affection by force. He comes to his senses and restores his friendship and his love. All is forgiven. Shakespeare was not rigid in his views of humanity. He created a character who could contain those complexities and he trusted the audience to accept it.

The legend of Proteus involves him transforming into various beasts even though he was nominally associated with the ocean.

I wandered around the desert like a chameleon pressed up against a kaleidoscope. The ease with which we mounted the play and the reunion with my old friends left me relaxed enough to be able to truly contemplate my predicament. I felt once removed from the stress but could see it playing upon me all the same.

At the time I couldn't help but view my desire to change my life as some sort of defect of character. I couldn't imagine choosing to be away from Cashel on a daily basis but I couldn't imagine staying married, either. It has taken me a long time to handle that juxtaposition, to believe that I can be a good father in spite of the dissolution of the union.

This has been difficult in my relationship with Melody, it has wreaked havoc in my sense of self, and it has left me at times completely lost. Just as quickly I'll feel one-hundred percent FOUND and at ease, which while reassuring is MADDENING in its unpredictability.

Tim and Laura talked me through all of this as it happened, not in spastic waves of emotion but over tea, calmly. I'll never forget it and I'll always be grateful to them for that. And to everyone else who approached my ledge hoping to talk me down from it.

And to Nagle Jackson and Shakespeare for giving me my day in the sun.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shore Supply, Under 12, Rhode Island State Champs

When my parents brought me to the sign-up day for the Youth Soccer League, I did not know what "soccer" was. The athletic fields at the University of Rhode Island teemed with kids from ages seven and up who showed up to learn the game. Now, I will have to check with my mum but I feel as if this was the inaugural season for the YSO in Little Rhody. Meaning that I was in the first wave of Rhode Island kids to play the game.

By the time I was twelve I was pretty good. I played left fullback. Most of the other kids who played defense seemed to feel it was a snub. They longed to shoot, to score. I never felt that way. I loved being the fly in the ointment, the guy who ruined your chances. I wasn't fast, I didn't have great ball-handling skills and I wore prescription wrap-around goggles. I liked that I looked weird. I felt it gave me an advantage.

I don't remember being aware of wins and losses during the first couple of seasons. I do remember one game in which I scored two goals from my defensive position, going on long sideline runs and bearing down on the goalie until the angle was perfect and depositing the ball in the back of the net.

But when I was twelve I was placed on a team called Shore Supply. From the start we were a very difficult team to play. If I remember correctly we only lost two games all season long and wound up with a final record of 12-2. The league playoffs were hard fought and we faced one of the teams that had beat us during the regular season.

We prevailed, winning our division. Some sort of State playoff followed and that part is hazy. I don't remember how many games we had to win in order to get to the finals but whatever it was we reached it.

The State Championship was held on a Saturday morning at a soccer field on the East Side of Providence. The field was in rough shape, rocky, peppered with stretches of grassless dirt. It sat tucked in between industrial spaces on the edge of the harbor and the wind whipped in making long passing difficult to control.

I don't remember the team we faced. They seemed darker skinned than us and more city. I remember some of them spoke Spanish on the field. I played the whole game.

It was a close contest.

I have seen any number of championship celebrations in my life. I've seen the Boston Red Sox finally celebrate a World Series title. I've seen the Celtics win in two different decades. I was at the Patriots first Super Bowl victory in the Superdome in New Orleans.

None of them can compare to the thrill I felt when the horn sounded and my team, Shore Supply, became Rhode Island State Champions. We were the best team in the state. We piled on top of each other, hooting and hollering in a frenzy that was almost absolute.

Many of the players on that team would later play for the High School team that also took the State Crown. I'd been headed for a Varsity spot when I blew out my ankle tendon sophomore year so the title was bittersweet because I watched it from the stands with the rest of the student body instead of from the sidelines.

But for one day in my life I stood on a playing field and felt the thrill of knowing that we'd taken on all comers. We were State Champions.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

3,000 Hits, 400 Home Runs

I had a poster of Carl Yastrzemski on my wall as a kid. I dreamed of playing left field for the Boston Red Sox and becoming the third Hall of Famer in a row to grace that hallowed space, following Yaz and the immortal Ted Williams in a line of excellence stretching back to before World War II.

Alas, my dreams went up in smoke early. I had a natural affinity for baseball but my physical gifts were average. My desire made up some of the difference but by the time middle school rolled around I was too near sighted and scrawny to even make the baseball team. I switched my competitive gear and turned to track and field, becoming a pretty good long distance runner. But there is a deep pang there that my baseball days ended too early. I played Babe Ruth League but even there I mostly rode pine.

My family would sit on cool summer evenings and watch the Sox lose. The sad history of that squad is widely documented and that is not what this post is about. But the context dictates the mention. I'd had my heart broken at 6 in the 1975 World Series and thumbed through a scrapbook of the 1967 Impossible Dream season that my dad had kept. But none of that dulled the quotidian joy of witnessing the slow unspooling of hot stove drama on a tiny TV.

On nights when the games went too late I would listen in my bed.

Two milestones approached for my favorite player. At the beginning of the 1979 season, both 3,000 hits and 400 home runs seemed in reach. No American League player had ever reached both.

By mid July he'd reached 399 home runs. All of New England held their breath. A group of URI Faculty had rented a bus to go up and see a game. My dad got us tickets and we walked up to the Memorial Union on the URI campus to wait with the rest of the eager Sox fans.

The bus broke down somewhere en route and by the time word got to us it was too late to make it up to Boston. I was crushed. I remember walking home wearing my baseball glove, a glove I still have to this day. My dad put his arm around me and spoke softly to me, telling me he was sorry it had worked out that way. In my memory we went home and watched the game as Yaz parked his 400th. But that might be wrong. He might not have hit it that day...I honestly don't remember. What sticks with me is how good it felt to have my dad's arm around me.

The season wore on and Yaz haltingly raised his hit total. By this point in his career he was over 40. He was a chain smoker. How he was still in the big leagues is a testament to his natural skill. But he was not fun to watch. Labored. But still capable of coming through in the clutch.

Cut to Tuesday, September 11th. I am ten years old. I've started fourth grade. I get home from school. My Uncle Jimmy calls the house and tells me to get my glove ready. He is coming down from Massachusetts to pick me up and bring me to the game. It is already almost 4PM and I can't figure out how we are going to make it to Fenway in time. Yaz has 2,999 hits. The Sox are playing the Yankees. Former Sox ace Luis Tiant is going for the Yanks. It is a script you couldn't have written, set up for Yaz to reach 3,000 against a hated rival.

Jimmy squeals into the driveway in a Honda Prelude, which to me is the height of chic and cool. I run out in my Sox cap and glove and hop in the passenger seat. The speedometer was an LED which I'd never seen at that point. We chatted about the game and life. I looked at the LED. It read 96.

We almost rear-ended a car on Storrow Drive and hurtled Ace Ventura style into a parking spot during the 2nd inning. Yaz had not gotten a hit in his first at-bat which we'd breathlessly listened to on the radio. We hustled from the car to our seats which Jimmy must have murdered someone to get. Directly behind the first base dugout, three or four rows back. I remember vividly that Carlton Fisk was standing in the batter's box when we got to our seats and he seemed like a giant. I've never seen anyone that large to this day.

Yaz went 0-3.

He got number 3,000 the next day.

I just missed each moment. But the moments that I got from those near-misses are as precious to me as what the folks in the seats at Fenway got. And years later my dad and I would cheer from the third base line as Yaz knocked in what would be his final RBI. Impossible Dream, my ass.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Last Call

I was a bartender with a catering company out of Pasadena called The Kitchen For Exploring Foods. This particular gig was a wedding reception held at a museum in Pasadena. It was an outdoor courtyard with cobblestone underfoot and vine covered light brick walls. What happened that evening has burned those visuals in my brain forever but I have blocked out the name of the museum. And what was in a particular glass.

The groom gathered us bartenders before the party to coach us on the liquor he was providing. He was some sort of wine expert or spirit salesman and seemed to be more excited about the drinks than the fact that he'd just gotten married. He seemed to want to drink with us.

I never drank on the job. I knew some of the bartenders did but it just wasn't my thing. So his insistence that I had to sample the rum he'd found just for the occasion that came packaged in round bottles with wicker jackets was mildly annoying. I needed to prep my station and this bore was droning on about the way this particular rum stayed on the back of your tongue and you had to drink it straight and I wasn't to make anyone any mixed drinks with it. They could have it straight but that was it.

Inwardly I made a note to make the first person who came to my bar a margarita with the shit.

His dedication to getting lit seemed to be an indication of the type of crowd we were playing host to. I was stationed in what was probably some sort of sandwich gazebo when the Museum was open. It was a cool late summer night. Perfect weather.

Some weddings you cater are tame, some ragged and wild. This was a strange mix of the two. It was a drinking crowd. And when I say that, what I mean is that they stayed at the bar as opposed to mingling amongst each other. Most weddings people will wander up, get what they need and wander back out in to the maelstrom.

But with these folks you'd have thought there was a flat-screen TV with a big game on. They stayed with me. They drank their drinks and asked for refills which I poured out over the bar into the plastic cups that they didn't bother to throw out.

The father of the bride was leading the charge. A big burly red-faced man he seemed the life of the party. He'd come to the bar with a group of guests and order drinks for all of them as if he were paying at a bar instead of paying our boss with a check. He always had a drink in his hand. Sometimes two.

He and the groom sampled the famous rum they'd gotten just for tonight. The groom double-checked with me to make sure I wasn't wasting it on something as gauche as a rum and coke. I assured him I wasn't even though there were probably three people within ten feet of him who were drinking that very rum mixed with whatever they'd asked for.

Dinner was an after-thought even though it preceded the dancing. Tables were half-empty even with steaming plates of food because the majority of the guests were up with me at the bar.

A light show started and the DJ started playing music. Even in the open air courtyard it was so loud that a kind of claustrophobic party vibe ensued. The one hundred and fifty or so people present crowded onto the dance floor the way people stuff themselves into a kitchen at a house party even though larger rooms are right there to be taken advantage of.

Now my clientele were sweaty and thirsty instead of poised and glamorous.

I remember feeling pressure from this group to party with them, as if any holdouts cast some sort of aspersion on their own behavior. This wasn't uncommon at these shindigs. I still don't really understand it, why a group who ostensibly know each other would need strangers included in their revelry. I had a general feeling of disdain running throughout my body.

Now, full disclosure here. In looking back on this time, misanthropy was the dominating aesthetic in my thought process. I did not look kindly on my fellow man. You've all seen the moment when a person rants about something and an onlooker rolls their eyes and says, "Projection!" I was a walking embodiment of the syndrome.

Dissembling aside, I did not hold this group in high esteem. I was impatient, I sensed that they would be drinking well past the time we'd been scheduled to be there and that I'd probably be the only one left on the scene, held hostage by the alcoholic urges of the groom and the subtle feeling I got that he wasn't all that eager to start his new life with his new wife. He'd just as soon stay at the bar as go consummate.

At one point the father of the bride staggered up to me. He was bathed in sweat from dancing and his shirt had more fabric moistened by his exertion than fabric that remained dry. His suit coat had disappeared. He tried to order a drink from me but seemed too drunk. I tried to figure out what he wanted but eventually he just smiled and waved me off, as if the effort to explain himself had made him realize that maybe, just maybe he didn't need one more drink. He shambled off towards the dance floor where I saw him rejoin his daughter in her white dress. The condensed crowd closed in around him.

The next time I saw him he would be technically dead.

A shout pierced the air and the music stopped. Even though it was a laptop, in my mind I hear the sound of a needle scratching off of wax. Cries of "Call 911" and "Oh no" filled the air. The temperature seemed to have dropped and breath was visible in front of all but one. Through the circle that surrounded him I saw the sweat stained shirt of the father of the bride.

Chaos ensued. Waiters hovered as far from the dance floor as possible except for another Brendan. A good looking surfer kid who'd become a friend. He had just become an actor and had the kind of physical presence and easy attractiveness of a Josh Hartnett or Ryan Reynolds.

He came up to the bar minutes later, angry. It seems that a doctor in the wedding party had tried to perform CPR. But the stricken man had vomited and the doctor had vomited himself upon attempting mouth to mouth. He'd not let Brendan try even though Brendan was a lifeguard trained in CPR. He knew he could have done a better job, mostly because he sensed that the doctor was drunk. In the moment I believed Brendan and I've always wondered whether that could have been the difference that saved the man's life.

The hush that fell over that courtyard was terrible. Our manager instructed us to pack up as quietly as we could but this soon seemed awful and he reversed the decision and told us to wait until the guests had all left. The ambulance pulled into the courtyard sirens blazing and I'll never forget the vision of a bride in a white gown climbing into the ambulance that held her father.

I thought of the moment when I'd last seen the man, when he had wanted to order a drink but couldn't articulate what he wanted. He must have already been dying at that moment. I tried to remember the penultimate visit he'd made to the bar, when he had ordered what wound up being the last drink he'd ever have.

I couldn't remember it. The name of the drink and the name of the museum still seem lost forever, lost like the dream of a little girl hurtled forward from childhood to the moment that ought to have been her most cherished but now is etched, transformed into a wound in her full grown psyche.

Before her father died I'd given it six months. I try to be more charitable now.