You can choose what defines you, or you can let others define you.
In the end, though, they’ll make up their own definitions, I suppose, it’s whether or not you choose to believe what they say or whether you’re aware of your own self.
Now, this isn’t some sort of Nietzsche break in blogging here. I don’t read Freud’s papers and I don’t practice self-psychoanalysis.
I do have an idea of what got me where I am.
I’ve had discussions, with a number of people, about what got me to the person I am. The idea by some that you are set in your personality and your life by the age of . . . what? . . . twenty-five? . . . that’s just bunk in my mind. I’m not even close to the person I was at that age. I’m not close to the person I was at 40, either. I’m a different person and I’ve changed.
The core of my personality, the person I am, was always there, sure, but there were a myriad of things in the way for years.
When I was a kid, 25 years ago, graduating high-school and moving to live on my own (or what I thought was on my own, let’s face it, most college kids are still tethered to home whether they think they aren’t or not!) the core was there, but buried, deep. I was an immature, angry, knucklehead. That’s true. I’ve heard people contradict me or say that everyone at 18/19 is that way. Maybe. I see it as a sign of growth that I recognize what an idiot I was.
I was so determined to leave my hometown, staying connected just to my family if I could, and make my way as an angry, bitter kid who was going to make a mark that I didn’t pay attention to my own actions. Still, that anger and drive and self-centered bitterness pushed me to do things, saying “I’ll show them!” I don’t know who “them” was and I’m not sure I knew then who “them” were . . . but I was going to do it. In a year I’d learned the guitar, at least most basics of it, and had joined a band. I worked at a television station. I was covering violent crimes and chasing accidents and all the things news involved.
I met an amazing woman who was a friend, first, after we realized we both knew someone from my hometown. It was a connection I was glad wasn’t severed, and this amazing woman eventually decided it was worth going out with me. She pushed me . . . not gently . . . to be more. Not more of a journalist or a writer or a musician. She barely tolerated the musician part and didn’t want to make me into Edward R. Murrow. From today’s view I can see she was pushing me to be more successful, but in the process she brought out the person I’d always been. Buried under the anger and worry and fear and lack of confidence was that guy . . . the one who sort of liked looking better than the long-hair and horrible mullet that the ’90s cover band had pushed him to get. He liked being a musician but liked making a difference in his job. He liked that this beautiful woman didn’t see all the ridiculous things and saw the core. He’d walked so long with blinders on he hadn’t realized others saw it, too, he just hadn’t noticed it and now it bothered him.
I was defined by what I would do to help my family succeed. I delivered newspapers at 2am so that the woman I married could go back to school. I averaged 3-4 hours of sleep a day. I gigged and played so that I could feed her and our baby girl, who had such horrible gastric problems she needed special formula.
When Andrea died, I changed, but also became self-aware. I noticed that I had come full-circle. I wasn’t angry, grumpy (much) or the like. I’d delved farther into myself and realized that I had always been there. I could have faltered or I could take care of the four kids in front of me. I took care of them. Did I want to quit everything and be a musician early in my life? Yes. Could I? No, and my eyes now see if I’d done this at 20 or 21 I’d have failed, miserably. Today . . . I do what I can musically but enjoy what I do.
I have had the discussion with my daughter: it ended up that I was never trying to show anyone else up. I was proving to myself that I was worth doing this. When major events broke I was dying if I wasn’t there – and I missed a lot of them. Abbi told me the other day she just feels sometimes like she’s meant for bigger things, for doing more and leaving something behind. I totally understand that feeling. Her brother, Noah, asked me one day what I wanted to do when I was a kid.
“Make movies,” I told him. “I wanted to be a director or cinematographer and tell stories.”
Noah thought a moment and looked at me: “but you kind of do that,” he told me. “You tell small stories, but they’re real ones. So . . . you sort of are doing what you wanted to do as a kid!”
He was right. I never realized that I’m making an impact, be it small, but I’m telling stories. I’m making music . . . and the defining moments, the ones where you accept the help of others, see the real person under the layers of muck you’ve buried yourself under, are the ones that count.
It’s also when you realize that you’ve defined . . . and re-defined yourself . . . and you see that it’s been for the better, even when the world has handed you the worst.
Maybe you know the look I’m talking about. I’m guessing you don’t, though, as most people don’t know how to behave like human beings when important or uncomfortable things arise.
The obvious, of course, is the “look” I get when I have to explain to some new person, be that a person at work or a person in public or what have you, that I lost my wife, Andrea, a little over two years ago. For these people, I understand, that’s a shocking piece of information. It’s not an easy thing to comprehend. They’re looking at photos on my desk or ask about what college my oldest daughter is about to attend and . . . when they ask about my wife I simply say “she passed away two years ago.”
That’s when it comes.
The eyebrows rise…the eyes widen, I’ve even seen a few pupils dilate, just a little, when the words hit home. The best of people, knowing I’ve said this rather matter-of-fact, express their sympathies and move on. Most, though, have no idea they’re acting a bit off the mark and begin to spew apologies, ask what it must be like, push for details…
As human beings sometimes we seem to lose track of that very humanity and don’t know when to stop being too invasive. Nerves overtake our senses and we seem to keep pushing when it’s abundantly clear that the person whose tragedy you’ve just heard about is trying to have a normal conversation that you just jackknifed with prodding for details and emotions we’ve already experienced and, hopefully, dealt with for our own lives.
But that’s old territory. I’ve heard stories of that “look” from others.
My friend who is battling cancer . . . getting the most random comments about the fact she’s lost all her hair. If she’s been sick or out for months and comes back with no hair . . . what do you think happened? And in the middle of all that, why treat her differently? I don’t begin to understand everything someone battling cancer has to go through, but I also try to make no assertions that I do and ask questions about what she needs. If they’re stupid, I expect she’ll let me know, if not, I’ll ask and make sure I’m not being stupid.
The worst, though (well, the cancer patient questions are really worst, but this literary device pushes the story forward), is what my daughter faces. At work, at school, everywhere she goes the idea that she’s doing everything with her mother persists. “Are you going to help your Mom fix Thanksgiving dinner?” she got in November. Rather than explain, most the time she just said “yes” but then came home frustrated and breaking down because of it. She has acquaintances who ask her why she is – or could be – so close with her father and she looks at them like they are crazy. She’s always had a close relationship with her father (her words, not mine) and I believe I’m close with all 4 kids. The emotions and needs are all different, but we’re still close.
Worse . . . she gets “the look” when they ask her what she’s going to study in college.
“Drama and theater,” she tells them, and she gets that look.
“It’s the same look they give me when they found out Mom died,” Abbi told me. “It’s like they can’t believe I’d go through this. In one look they tell me I’m going to be broke forever and not have anything and that I should just give up now and go do something that makes money.” She then adds, “Mom used to give me that look, too, and then said it out loud. She wasn’t going to let me try.”
But try she is. I’ve told her before that she’s at the ripe age to do this without thinking. I’ve told her that my parents told me that, whether I did it professionally or not, I needed to keep playing music. “It’s a sin,” they told me, “to have that talent and let it falter. You should never stop.”
They never told me I’d be famous or that I was better than Slowhand or give me illusions of grandeur, they simply could tell that it was so ingrained in my cells that I couldn’t spend the day without ever doing it.
Abbi informed me that acting, for her, was the same thing. She has a belief she can do it and a drive to do it . . . and even though I’m her Dad, I have seen her act and she’s good. “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” Abbi has on her wall, a quote from Steve Martin. She’s studying, watching, learning, and determined that the “look” drives her, it doesn’t discourage her.
The “look” for her isn’t a killer. I’ts a driving force, now. I think that’s a good thing.
I wrote something about a year ago about how people all around me told me that they were seeing signs and getting signals from my late wife. She was seemingly everywhere when somebody needed them.
Just not with the five people in my house.
I know that sounds harsh, and I’ve had people even say “she’s there, you just haven’t noticed or looked hard enough.”
That could easily be. It could, I don’t know. I’m not the best person at seeing signs, signals, and allusions around me. I’m a guy. Like most guys, we need a 2×4 to the head to actually know when someone – particularly women – needs something.
But this isn’t about me. It’s not.
It’s about my kids. Two kids in particular.
I don’t know why . . . and you’ll likely have noticed I’ve been seeing the difficult parts of my wife coming out in my daughters lately. Now . . . my sons.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things that my kids do that remind me of the most beautiful and wonderful parts of Andrea. When Hannah walks up and hugs me; when Abbi giggles and dances around the house; when Sam sidles up and uncomfortably, nervously asks me something with a nervous laugh; when Noah smiles; they all have those bits and pieces that were the whole of their mother. When they laugh, particularly together, I can hear her laughing.
But then today . . . and yesterday . . . it all came sort of crashing in with the other parts.
The obsessive, compulsive, obstinate, have to get their way part.
This last couple days was the final work on what the school calls “biography in a bag.” It’s pretty simple, get some artifacts together that represent your person, dress up like them, put notes together . . . all that goes in a bag and you present it to your class. The problem is, both Noah and Sam had grandiose ideas but wouldn’t do anything about it until the last minute. Their reports were well done, well thought out, even completely researched.
But then came the costumes.
Sam and Noah both . . . “I don’t want to look like Sam/Noah does!”
I basically looked at the two of them and replied: “your guys both have suits on! It’s a suit! Not a Matlock searsucker suit, not a khaki sport jacket . . . these are guys from 1849 all in the exact same freaking black jacket, white shirt and tie!”
I got the Andrea Andrews cold stare. Logic be damned, they want their own way.
“What do you guys want to do?!”
“Any ideas?! I’m open . . . but it’s now 8:30 at night and your only options left are what’s in the house.”
“Daaad….” God, I hate that, by the way. It’s like they’ve started puberty, too, and they haven’t. “my guy has a beard!”
“Okay . . . do you think your teachers will let you have a fake beard on since you’re supposed to go to mass before class? Because all I can do now is split up cotton balls and glue them to your cheeks with spirit gum. Then you’ll need cold cream to take it off.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but their looks got colder.
“You don’t understand . . . ” was how they started. They looked at me pissed off, cold, angry, and sure they were right, even though they had no position they could take.
“Let me make this just perfectly clear to you…at this point you have to wear the suits. Period! It was 18-freaking-forty-nine. They only way they’d look anything different was if they wore a zoot suit and those didn’t come out until the 20th century. So, for the love of God, (and here I heard Bill Cosby coming out of my mouth before I could stop it) you’ll wear suits, with different jackets, and Noah in a hat . . . because I Said So! ”
The boys rolled their eyes, threw up their arms and stomped upstairs to put on their pajamas.
Abbi looked up at me and simply stated . . . “and there’s Mom coming out of them for you.”
She was right. Andrea would pitch those same fits. Logic be damned, if she wanted something, she found a way to get it.
“Yeah,” I told her, “but the problem for them is . . . your Mom and I were partners. This is a dictatorship. Beside that, am I wrong?”
“No,” Abbi commented, smiling. “But were you ever wrong with Mom.”
“Yes,” I said, “though when I was right she would push, and poke, and push and poke . . .just – like – that.”
“Oh, yeah, I know,” said my daughter, getting a bit more down, “and I remember you guys having some real blowouts!”
She was right, too. Most of those arguments stemmed from both of us digging a trench and refusing to move, right or wrong.
“Yeah . . . difference is I’m right today.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Abbi added, then smiled and said “doesn’t make it easier to deal with.”
“Yep,” I told her, smiling, “should never surprise us that when your Mom decided to show up for us . . . this is how she appeared.”
Abbi looked at me, grinned, and put the period on the night.
No, this isn’t a commercial for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs the movie, either. It’s singing praises of my daughter.
Yes, I said praises. Just because I often speak of hardship, problems, grief, frustration, and anger I can also talk about love, life, concern, empathy and . . . well, pride I guess.
As long as I can remember I’ve been an oddball of a human being. I’m not complaining about that, I’d never have it any other way. In a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I should have been thoroughly excited by the fact that the Georgia O’Keefe or Manitou galleries were in walking distance. For the record, I do love O’Keefe’s stuff, and peeked into the Manitou on the way by. But my highlight was seeing the Chuck Jones gallery.
Yeah, I admit it. Chuck Jones. The Looney Toons guy.
I was geeking out about original paintings by Dr. Seuss. Animation cells and etchings by the animator Bill Melendez for the old Peanuts cartoons. (I even got an etching . . . called the gallery after I got home)
I misspent years of my youth, unable to run or jump quite as much as my older brother, at home due to asthma. I wasn’t an invalid, I went outside, I played, I just couldn’t play quite as much. So instead I watched television and read books. Lots of books. I also love Looney Toons. I also saw Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers because they were in syndication. They were on the television in the hours I was at home. That was humor.
It was timing.
You see, even Steven Spielberg, in an interview about Chuck Jones, said that his comic timing, in every movie from Jurassic Park to ET the Extraterrestrial admitted that he learned timing from watching Jones’ cartoons. Not The Method and not from someplace like the NYU Film School or the Actors’ Studio. He learned from a guy with a goatee, straw hat, and a Bugs Bunny complex.
So I have lived this life. I love good timing and good storytelling. My favorite writer is Dickens – the same author most kids hate in High School. My favorite television writer is Steven Moffat – not for Doctor Who (thought he episode Blink is unbelievable) but for his work on Sherlock, and Jekyll and the movie Tin Tin. It’s a tale, woven and played through the script and the direction. Timing, again, whether comic, horrific, or dramatic is insanely important.
So how does this relate to my daughter? She grew up with those very same influences. We watched those old Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny cartoons. She gets tongue-tied and she says “hmm…pronoun trouble.” (If you don’t get the reference, look it up.) She quotes Groucho as easily as she would Brad Pitt in today’s world. So she grew up with her father making silly Bullwinkle voices and quoting Monty Python’s Flying Circus and can jokingly quote the Dead Parrot Sketch saying things about climbing down the curtain to join the choir invisible . . . it’s a late bird. She loves the cleverness of buying an argument and the sublime puns of Chico Marx answering Groucho when he says “I’m talking Dollars, Taxes!”
“That’s where my friend lives . . . Dollas Taxes . . . ” (say it out loud. You’ll get the joke)
We went and saw a play in New York that was insane in its comedic timing, particularly when the jokes went wrong and she adored it.
So when Abbi, my oldest, got the chance to be assistant director of a comedic play . . . about a bunch of actors trying to do a play . . . I actually believe, to a degree, that the drama director gave her the duty because Abbi had that comic timing. Perfect…comic…timing.
Tonight was opening night, and because it’s a Thursday and notoriously bad for ticket sales, we all went. School night and all.
Now, before you all complain, yes I know the play/movie Noises Off which originally starred Carol Burnett was PG-13. I also knew that a girl spent a good part of the play parading around in her underwear. I also remind you all that most of today’s television has far worse than what this play contained. My kids weren’t appalled by it.
We went having intentionally not seen the movie (Abbi asked us not to watch it first) and walked in with an open mind. One character of the play was in the audience behind us. The self-reflexive nature a slow burn that made us laugh, but only just started to simmer when Act I was completed. I was laughing about the prop at the center being a plate of sardines, but that was a chuckle.
Then came Act II.
Abbi, you see, choreographed Act II. She told us in advance and she was almost biting her nails as she came up between acts to thank us for coming opening night.
Then the curtain came up.
And we laughed. All four of us laughed . . . crying we were laughing so hard. As I watched the action . . . behind the set, the same actors trying to act out the play they rehearsed in Act I, Abbi had choreographed a menagerie of props and a subtlety of activities the likes of which might require more than one viewing for me to have seen it all. The actors trying to pantomime whispering in front of us, the audience while a supposed play went on behind the fake set was intricate, crazy, and required . . . timing. In the slapstick pratfalls I saw Stan Laurel with his bawling face. I saw Harpo Marx and his insane pranks played on the unknowing woman in Duck Soup. I saw Dick Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman at his Los Angeles home.
God help me, I saw Chuck Jones.
There’s a line from Spielberg that tells it perfectly:
“It’s not the point where the Coyote leaps off the cliff and plummets to the ground. It’s the fact he floats, his head sticking out of the puff of smoke . . . and that moment. The moment of cognition where his foot feels nothing but air and he realizes it’s about to happen…then falls the inevitable fall. That’s timing, and Chuck Jones perfected it.” (It’s not actually a direct quote, I’m remembering, but it’s close!)
That was what I saw last night. I know why Abbi was nervous. There were eight actors . . . eight egos . . . on the stage. Every person had to hit their mark, every prop had to be in place, all the pratfalls had to go off without a hitch. And she did it. The Act felt like it was five minutes long it made us all laugh so hard . . . and I was a little bit worried after the first Act since I felt it was a bit slow and the actors a bit hesitant. But this . . . this was like watching One Man, Two Guv’nors in New York . . . though I admit, not Tony caliber actors. Not yet.
Chuck Jones used to have saying: “we all go through life hoping and thinking we’re Bugs Bunny, but in the end, we’re all really Daffy Duck.”
But tonight . . . my little girl had her Bugs Bunny moment.
I spent Friday at a college visit with my oldest daughter, Abbi.
Abbi, you see, wants to go into drama, theater, film, whatever happens to hit closest to her heart when she goes. The particular visit also included her having to audition for a scholarship from the school’s program. Abbi has two monologues that she has to give, one classic, one modern. The classic is a favorite of hers from Shakespeare, a comedic monologue. The other is a section she just discovered from the play Our Town.
I’ve seen Abbi do the Shakespeare monologue before, and she’s brilliant at it – if I say so myself. But the monologue from Our Town affected me, more than she may really know.
My kids have been surrounded by a lot of darkness lately. Death seems to swirl around us lately, and it’s nobody’s fault, it’s life. Life, however, seems to have a mist of grief that is intent on bringing us to bear and it’s hard to keep moving when the mist obscures the landmarks and footprints you’ve made. It’s hard to see if you have traveled the same ground when you can’t see where you’ve been or where you’re going.
Abbi performed the monologue for me and it nearly brought me to tears. It’s a character who is coming to terms with the fact that she has died and is trying to see what she did, could have done, and what she is missing or missed. She said she was nervous and wasn’t happy with her performance. If that’s her worst, I feel for her future audiences because of the fact that it reached into my heart and squeezed it. Hard.
I wasn’t at her audition, but she talked about it. She wasn’t first to perform, but came after a girl who was in-state, filled with confidence (too much maybe?!) and was part of the state’s drama programs. She walked in a bit over-confident and a lot egotistical, and she got the attention they felt she deserved.
Then Abbi got up and gave her two.
After her dramatic monologue, the panel questioned her . . . a lot. They asked her about her choice of the piece from Our Town. Abbi recounted to me that her answer was more than sincere, and maybe a little more personal than she’d wanted.
“We’ve had a lot of death in our family lately,” she said, “and it’s been a lot to bear.” She recounted losing her mother, her great-grandmother and her grandfather, all in less than two years. She talked about having to adjust to things in life and how we all feel now: life isn’t nearly long enough to waste it. Grab the opportunities and experiences as they happen. Find the adventure even in the smallest of events, and live it.
And tell your story.
The panel had read her essay – a required part of auditioning.
“You say here that you want to tell stories. Can you expand on that?”
I won’t recount her entire essay, but she said that at the end of the day she wants to tell a story, a tale. The way she connects and tells them is acting, on a stage, adding herself a bit to the character.
When they asked her to expand, she said that, in essence, she was doomed. Every time I tried to complain about my job, my industry, all of it, my wife would look at me and roll her eyes.
“You have too many stories you want to tell,” was her line. She hated that fact about me sometimes, but she was right. I do. Unfortunately for Abbi, she’s doomed to have it as well.
Abbi told them her father is a writer, a storyteller, a journalist. But she added: “but I get it from all sides. My Mom was a reporter. Heck, my grandma can tell you a story about how she went to the grocery store this morning. It may take her a half hour to recount the adventure of her 15-minute trip, but it will be a tale and it will always be interesting. I want to tell stories and I do it this way, for me it’s the purest form of telling a story by inhabiting it myself and giving it to the audience.”
A member of the panel apparently was extremely excited by that answer. It’s apparently exactly how they looked at things and she unknowingly had hit the nail on the head.
I couldn’t have been more proud of her, either.
Tell a story. That’s what we do. I recounted my past eighteen years here . . . telling of love, loss, and life. I’ve told how I’ve moved on, becoming more and more the person I am now, moving into a new phase in life, a new way of looking at the world. I sometimes dominate the conversation – to my detriment. I have learned to listen. I talk a lot, because I tell a tale. But we’ve both learned to hear and not just fill in the gaps of silence.
We have little adventures, small trips, and seize what opportunities we hope to grasp. It’s important to us. We’ve lost, but look what we’ve gained?
The truth rolls around our heads . . . and we tell our stories.
I worry about the next few weeks. I’ve had a hard time keeping the kids stable and that’s never been something I’ve contended with. It’s not that it was easy…Hannah, my middle child of the four – two girls and twin boys – nearly failed several classes. Noah, one of the twin boys, has had a week where he’s gotten in trouble for being combative with his teachers. Not lashing out, but just refusing to do his work. Abbi, my oldest, is questioning her choices and her confidence. Sam . . . well, he’s become hyper and scatterbrained.
All of these kids are acting completely counter to their real personalities.
Abbi is starting to think she’s made the wrong choice for a college degree and career, even though it’s what she’s wanted forever. She hears her Mom’s voice telling her it’s not stable, she needs to make money, she should have a regular career. Noah is worried about his Grandpa eventually passing away. Sam’s there, too. Hannah . . . she’s missing assignments again and not doing her chores.
And I’m stressed and worried about them, myself, my family . . . all of it.
I told my oldest, and I’ve told the younger ones the same thing . . . their Mom wasn’t always right.
Early in our marriage, and early in our family, after Abbi was born, Andrea went to Pharmacy school. She did want to be a pharmacist, it’s not like it was a random choice. Still, part of her decision was the fact that we weren’t making a bunch of money really, really quickly. She also didn’t want to work . . . I faced that fact and realized she just loved being in school. If she could have been a professional student she’d have done it, but her brain was such that if she wasn’t perfect every time at something you stop and go do something that makes a big financial gain quickly.
I don’t work that way.
My father always wanted us to be successful. But our measure of success was never financial. I’m not digging ditches, but I wasn’t making six figures either. My wife kept trying to get me into a sales job, or law or real estate, something that would require more school and doing more background. With one in school already I couldn’t afford to do that. I had a degree in journalism and I was doing it. She thought there was no way I’d ever be successful.
So I recounted the story to my oldest daughter how her mother and I fought . . . almost constantly after she was born . . . about my career choices. I told her in no uncertain terms: I was always in television. I hadn’t planned on doing anything else, unless somehow Clapton came calling for a rhythm guitarist. Barring that, I’m a photographer and producer. She knew that when she married me, I never really intended on doing anything else, so why was this some major surprise?! She hated that because she wanted success and she wanted it without the long, grueling work to get there. While Andrea had 1,000,000 things amazing about her, she was a results driven person early in our marriage. Didn’t matter how, just get us there. I have the mindset that if you work hard, the best you can, doing what you love, you can’t help but be successful.
The year Andrea graduated pharmacy school I was offered a job in Dallas, Texas as a photographer and producer for a major investigative unit. It was a jump from market 72 to market 8. Andrea was flabbergasted. It took roughly 5-6 years of grueling work, three jobs, ad insertion on basketball games, playing reporter, playing anchor, learning how to be a better photographer, learning how to write from amazing reporters in a market that looked like it was market 25 not 72 but I did it.
Upon our move to Texas I was travelling around the world. My first month I was booked to go to Mexico City. I went to Washington DC in the wake of 9/11. I went to Israel. I met presidential candidates, found pieces of the Space Shuttle Columbia and called over State Patrol officers to guard the charred mission patch of an astronaut sitting in a ditch after the spacecraft broke up over East Texas.
Not long into our time in Texas, Andrea meekly apologized to me for everything she’d said when we were in Omaha and fighting. “I didn’t think you were even thinking of moving ahead,” she told me. “I thought you didn’t know what you were doing. I’m so sorry.” Or words to that effect. Bear in mind, we argued, but we never split. We never thought of divorce or leaving. That same woman would support me when I was exhausted and thought I couldn’t go another step after being up for 32 straight hours working two jobs and playing in a club.
But it’s a lesson to teach my daughter, too. Andrea became a pharmacist partly because it was good money . . . and we moved from Texas to California for the money. We got here . . . and she was miserable. She changed jobs to appease her family so they wouldn’t have to watch the kids so much. Again, I ended up with a management job and travelling to Afghanistan. I thrived where she faltered and it hurt her, though it wasn’t something I could change.
The lesson to my kids, in the middle of their worry about their grandfather, is that you cannot measure success only in financial terms. Neil Gaiman, the author of such amazing books as American Gods and Coraline and Good Omens has said that no job he ever took simply for the money was ever successful. In fact, most times he never saw the money, either. Gain, I told my daughter, is measured in work, happiness, output, and effort. If you’re exhausted but proud of what you’ve done, you’ve succeeded. Yes, you have to be able to eat, but are you getting closer to your goal of doing what you want, or farther away. “Would you be happy being a pharmacist?” I asked Abbi on the couch. She shook her head. “no.” It was quiet, but also an admittance that she was doubting what she’d done.
“It’s okay to fail, and it’s okay to doubt yourself at home,” I told her. “But don’t lose your confidence in yourself. Make mistakes, try new ways of acting and doing things. You’ll fail miserably, sometimes, but own those failures and you’ll still be a success because you won’t make them again.”
I can see that they’re all doubting, hearing their Mom’s voice telling them different things than what I tell them in their heads. Hard as it is, I have to remind them . . . their Mom’s not here anymore. She may whisper into your brain from wherever she is, but she can’t make your decisions for you. She isn’t treading the same footsteps we did, her steps stopped a long way back. Our path changed, our lives are different, and we have to do what we think is best.
It’s a hard lesson . . . but a lesson nonetheless that their parents aren’t immortal, and sometimes, they disagreed and aren’t always right.
The way I’m raising my kids is slightly different than the way my parents raised me. Well, let’s face it, the way I’m raising my kids is a lotdifferent than how I was raised.
That’s not a criticism of my parents, in fact I’d kill to be able to give my kids the upbringing that I had. I just can’t do it. Life got in the way of the best laid plans, I suppose you could say.
Here’s what’s different: I was raised by my father and mother, both, and they did a really good job. Sure, I do things a bit differently, I’m a different person with similar genetic makeup. Some things are the same. I say things once in awhile and my oldest daughter says things like: “god, you sound like Grandpa” and I kind of like that. I admire my father, he’s the greatest man I know. I also admire my mother, who had to be one of the strongest women I’ve ever met to raise three strong-willed and sarcastic sons.
My Mom is a nurse. She never got her certification, she got married and stayed home to take care of us. I never looked at her as less of a person or less capable as anyone else because she was whip-smart, stern, and could be the most loving person I’d ever met. I know, because I tended to, as a little kid, need more care and attention because I was very sick. There was no way she could have worked, if she wanted to, because I was in and out of the hospital. Every person who tries to tell me or my kids that a woman – who is like my Mom, anyway – who stays home either isn’t working or is contributing less to our society angers me more when they make those crass statements.
I would kill to be able to stay home. Not because I’m lazy but because there are too many things with too little time to do them all. When my wife was around we had basketball games, school plays, Boy Scouts, all of that. Extracurricular activities were like any other family. I volunteered at school – a lot – and so did my wife.
When I was a kid I did all that, too. My Mom had dinner ready, there was no scramble, at least that we were aware of, and we always got to things on-time. My older brother didn’t always come to our events, but I didn’t expect him to, either. My Mom was home and we ate early on nights we had a play or what have you and we got home and the routine seemed to hold. My Dad, in his busiest years, still managed to meet us at the school plays and games. Basketball games . . . he drove us to those himself. My Mom drove us to state music contests on the other side of the state. All that was available.
I don’t have that routine the way she did. There’s no other person there to help and everything’s a mad scramble. Tonight was a perfect example of that. I was texting Abbi, my oldest, on what temperature to put a small ham in the oven. I had leftover rice for the side. I raced home, but traffic was a nightmare. There’s no other person to wrangle the kids, so Abbi had already left for her drama department’s “Improv Night.” I got home at 6:30pm and cut the ham, laid out the plates on the table, and raced out the door. I got to the school right about 6:59pm. Two hours later, my ribs appropriately tickled and I gave my daughter a hug and told her she made me laugh. It made her smile.
So, yeah, if I’d been smart I’d have cornered the market on lottery tickets (I didn’t, it was raining and I had no time) and prayed that I get a portion of that Powerball tomorrow. Instead, though, I powered through. My three kids ate. I would eat later. It’s not a punishment and it’s not that I’m complaining. I’ve missed meals. I’ve skipped several in a day, in fact, only to realize at midnight I was starving. I thought to myself on the way to that theater that I might have messed things up a bit. I’m only one person, after all.
But when I opened the door and walked in the theater, there, peeking around other actors, was Abbi. She was content, but when she saw me walk in her face lit up, and her eyes sparkled. That snuggly little bear of mine – now a woman I suppose – was happy. I remembered that look, that feeling, when I’d peek through the curtain and see my Mom and Dad sitting in the audience. They never missed a show.
I don’t raise my kids the same way. Still, I got a few things right.
I know that the above headline could apply to so many things, but it’s not salacious nor prurient.
It is a description that my middle daughter either didn’t believe or didn’t want to believe about herself.
About a year ago Hannah, the boys and I (Abbi had a report she was working on and a test she had to study for) attended a picnic and jam session at a family friend’s house. The day was one filled with food, music and just having a good time with each other. Doesn’t matter the caliber of musician or writer or speaker or animator or filmmaker or what have you, a good artist learns from even the worst ones. Nobody was bad here, but we all wanted to play together and have some fun.
At this particular event Hannah got up with her friends and played guitar while they tried to push through a blues riff and just jammed for quite awhile. She wasn’t doing any Eric Clapton solos and didn’t have any aspirations to do so on the deck of our friends’ house. However, once she started, she hadn’t noticed that the instructor and head of the music department of our school had arrived. While many of you might shrug and wonder why this would even eek onto your radar you should know who the head of our department is.
The man who we were lucky enough to get at our school has a pedigree that spans probably every album you might have listened to from the ’80s, possibly even the late ’70s on. He played on Madonna’s Like a Virgin. He told stories that day of this gangly, strange looking Texan walking into the studio while he was recording with David Bowie who ordered BBQ from Austin, TX, and played blistering guitar they’d never heard before . . . a guy named Stevie Ray Vaughan on the album Let’s Dance. He never talks much about them and I have a feeling it was a work and a passion of his and to work with this group of musicians was no different than, say, his passion for anything else. It was second nature. He doesn’t brag or puff his chest out when he talks about these events in his life. One minute he’s talking playing basketball outside Bowie’s studio and the next he’s reminded of a recipe for New York cheesecake. That’s who walked into our little party.
So Hannah doesn’t quite understand why, after just one afternoon of playing in his presence her teacher wants to put her into his band that plays at events and school masses.
“I don’t play that well,” she says.
“It’s now how much you know, Hannah, it’s that you have passion and intensity,” he tells her.
Still, she’s skeptical.
Fast forward to yesterday . . . and she’s still confuzzled as to why this man wants her in the band.
“You really think I can do this, Dad?”
“I wouldn’t have put you in there if I didn’t,” was my somewhat puzzled reply.
“I don’t really have intensity, Dad, but Mr. Sabino keeps telling me I do!”
“Because he’s right, Hannah.”
And he is . . . I see in Hannah the sparks I had when the guitar started to make sense to me. This wasn’t my wanting to get on stage and meet girls, it was more. I loved that when I couldn’t express myself to others I could do it with even a few notes on the guitar. I could play for hours (and did) and not grow tired of it. Never. Still that way. Hannah wakes up, has breakfast, gets her school materials together and then picks up her Strat and plays.
I said the same thing to her older sister, Abbi. She tried out for the school’s biggest musical. She called me today, sounding much like her mother, and in a panic told me she’d completely messed up. She’d been told the wrong way to come back into the verse of a song by a girl who she didn’t know wanted the same part Abbi’d gotten a call-back for. I don’t know if this girl did it intentionally or just didn’t have a clue – both are dangerous – but Abbi made it sound like she’d folded and fallen into a fetal position on the floor.
But when I asked if she’d started well, the answer was “yes.” I asked if she’d gone off-key? “no.” Did she stop and just fall apart? “no.”
But the girl who told her the wrong way got it perfectly right and sang beautifully, she says, and she got called back for 3 parts and Abbi got called for 1.
This is where Dad has to be MomandDad. Not Dad. Dad’s gut says go to the school, find the teacher and lobby, find the other girl and hit her in the shins like Nancy Kerrigan and then throw back my head like the Hulk because after all she’s my little girl and I’d do anything to help her and protect her and even if I’m wrong I’m right and the ends justify the means.
But a run-on-sentence like that is only for Dads. Not Moms. We don’t have Mom, so I have to act like I understand. I have . . . to . . . listen. That’s hard for a guy. It is. When women get angry and frustrated and wonder why we can’t just listen and give a hug and comfort it’s because – and this is important – we care. We care enough that it bothers us and the way we get around that is by fixingthe problem.
The hardest thing in the world for a Dad – particularly one who has to be Dad and Mom – is to not try to fix everything. Sometimes I have to let them fall or experience the bad. Sometimes it’s OK to see that not everyone can be trusted or is as nice as you are. That’s hard and it’s painful . . . for me. All I can do is calm her down and listen to her in tears and be proud when she says she held it together and didn’t cry or scream until she was out of the auditorium.
But the lesson above applies. She was on-key. She still acted with passion and intensity. She lost her track and her tempo but found it back. She didn’t stop and walk away, she figured it out. The only advice I could give her falls short in her ears initially, but it’s this: it’s never as bad as you think it is in the moment. (OK, sometimes it is, but no, not all the time) The teacher knows her abilities, likes her, understands her passion and intensity. The other director – a student director – likes Abbi and knows that Abbi was good and saved some of the lines in the understudy version of her play last year.
It’s hard to know you messed up – and harder still to keep going when you do. But that’s what passion and intensity give you. When you mess up, you own the mistake. You stretch your abilities by doing it.
So at the end of the day I tell Hannah to learn from her sister’s example: to keep going. It’s easy to take lessons and sit in the same room or at home. But get in a group, hear the things they can do and how they perform and you push yourself to do more. You play to your utmost.
When I played with a friend a month or so ago she noted how I didn’t play a flurry of notes constantly. I had a slow build, that the playing was structured, like I had a path and a way I was going. It wasn’t speed metal, I didn’t play 1,000 miles per hour from beginning to end of the solo. My response was one I stole from Eric Clapton: – you don’t have to play 100 notes if you play just one with passion and intensity.
I don’t know if Abbi made the play. I don’t know if Hannah will play brilliantly. All I can say is I know what I tell them – do your best and own your moment. The rest of the time I have to listen and learn not to act, that’s my lesson. Sometimes a hug is better than a 2×4.
Sometimes it’s best to have passion and intensity.
It’s hard, in the wake of tragedy, not to hold on to the last ties to your past. I don’t mean to make it sound like we had some massive, tragic event like those who lost loved ones in war or a terrorist attack. But loss is loss, no matter how you cut it, and losing someone with a deep connection is tragic by any definition of the word. Watching your life start to fall to pieces and shift, spectacularly, is so abrupt that you cannot help, as I’ve done all too often here, but reflect and grasp at the past as it starts to get more and more distant from you.
This was the situation for my oldest daughter, Abbi, when she made the decision – quite painfully it seems – to pursue drama even as just a future Senior in high school. Abbi, after all, fought, clashed, grunted at, and ruffled against her mother on more occasions than I have fingers and toes to count. That doesn’t mean she didn’t love nor ignored her lessons or advice, however wrong. The biggest arguments were likely because they were so much alike. Abbi has the same drive, pride, and push that her mother, my dear wife Andrea, had all through her life. Abbi is furious if she gets a lower grade than she’s striving for. She’s aggravated when someone tells her she can’t do something. More than anything, she wants to succeed, not be successful, but to succeed.
So when her mother told her over and over and over again that she was silly for wanting to go into drama or acting or directing, screenwriting, whatever . . . she listened. The little pieces of her mother that listened to the logic and the drive to make money over being happy was too strong. Losing that Mom in the middle of the buildup to college was a catalyst that started a reaction she hadn’t really been willing or able to face a year ago. The tendency, and the sheer desire to be honest, to try and “do what she would have wanted” is strong, particularly when you miss that person so very much. It’s not even like losing your brother or Grandmother or . . . your spouse. It’s losing your mother, one of those guiding lights and prolific influences on your life.
Even if she was still alive, coming to terms with the fact that your Mom is wrong is a horribly hard thing to bear. When you’re a teenager, there’s still some of the thought that your parents are invincible. The immortality and wisdom you’ve foisted upon them since you were able to string words together still has its tug. Doesn’t matter how much the hormone changes push you to rebel, there’s still the 4-year-old who sees your Mom and Dad as the person you run to when things just don’t go right. When Abbi struggled with “the rest of her life” over the last few months she really did feel torn apart. She kept struggling with where to go to school. She wanted to be closer to family, so looked at Nebraska. She wanted to be what her Mom told her she wanted to be: a pharmacist or doctor or scientist. Not some broke artist living with 3 people in an apartment in Soho.
But today her world took a paradigm shift.
Yesterday I wrote about her letter, the decision to take Advanced drama and try to embrace what in her heart she’s always wanted: to go into a dramatic field. There was still the rest of her schedule remaining, though, and AP biology and Physiology . . . they all remained. There was still that last tie to the safety net; the last connection to what her Mom wanted. But she had to let it go. The schedule she had to take was only possible if she shifted everything . . . classes had to be dropped in order to retain the drama classes.
“It was the last grip I had on the safety net,” she told me when she showed me next year’s schedule. Her counselor was worried. “Mom wanted me to have something that was stable,” was her line, and I could see the internal struggle going on within her little head.
“I get that,” told her. I really did. “But Mom’s not here, kiddo. I wish I could tell you she was right, but I never agreed with her philosophy . . . and she doesn’t have to face whether she’s right or wrong. She got to pressure you with this and leave, sticking you with what she wanted and not being able to argue your side of things.”
“I know,” she said meekly, “and I let it go. It was just really hard.”
It’s a harsh thing to say to your daughter, and it may sound a little angry – and it is to a degree. You get angry when you’re grieving. The fact remains that she did leave. Maybe, like so many other people tell me they’ve seen, she’s watching up there and trying to help and influence those who need her help, but here we are, precisely when we need her most, and she’s gone. I loved Andrea desperately, but we’re left to stumble through our lives while she gets to be at peace. I’m tremendously happy that she’s no longer suffering. She doesn’t have the constant pain in her knees. She doesn’t have to struggle losing the weight she couldn’t shed. She doesn’t have to fight her depression or deal with arguments with her parents any more.
It’s really a bit unfair for my daughter to have to try and follow the plan of her mother when she neither wants it nor believes in it. It’s too easy to resign yourself to doing what you don’t want for the cause of “doing it for Mom” without realizing that you’re going to hate your job and your life for every part of it. Do I wish I was a touring musician? Yes. Is it my Mom’s fault? No. I made choices . . . ones that included marrying Andrea and having Abbi . . . and I wouldn’t change either one. I found a way to be creative and to record and to have a chance at playing music with my brother. That’s worthwhile. 90% of your day is spent working, so why should you be miserable doing it? Sure, she’ll be slinging coffee or busing tables . . . but it’s all with the goal of doing what she wants in mind. That’s one of the amazing stops off the road she deserves.
Now, Abbi’s looking at colleges that cater to what she wants to do. For the first time, she’s considering New York or the East Coast. She knows I’ll visit and talk with her every day. She’s so talented that there’s no reason she won’t succeed. She’s a better writer than I am and she enjoys acting like I enjoy playing music.
It’s so easy to keep that grip on the past. It’s the bravest thing in the world to let it go.
On the description part of this web page you’ll see how the name of this site: Our Story Begins comes from a saying that’s now on the wall of our house with our family photos. The saying there, actually, is “Home: the place your story begins.” That wasn’t quite as intimate as just “Our Story Begins” and my line didn’t seem quite as plagiaristic as using their phrase.
But it would be really simple to just use a saying, thought up by someone else, saying it touched my heart and made me think “yeah, that’s me!” That would be so far from the mark, though, that I would correct anyone who tried to limit what our story is about by simply saying “oh, he found a saying they hang on the wall.” The saying was appropriate because on so many fronts our story really did begin on March 26th, 2011. It’s a strange kind of irony – not bitter or obvious but strange – that my story has so many strange starts and stops on the same days. I was born on July 1st…so was my middle daughter Hannah. I was married on March 26th, but that’s also the day my wife died. Each of those could easily just be a chapter in our lives, but for certain, the biggest change and largest new volumes in the tome that is our life are on the 26th of March.
We started over. There is an outline, a map of sorts, that Andrea left us. I need that map, more of a sketch of the road ahead than an actual accurate depiction of what we’re going to see. It’s also better that way, I think. If we continued on the same path, the one road that she would have traveled, I’m not sure we’d have made it out alive. (You notice I didn’t say unscathed) You can’t go down this road without diverging from the path. Think about it: travelling down the freeway may be the quickest way to get to your destination, but if you never got off in, say, West, Texas you wouldn’t have realized it’s the kolache capitol of the state and some of the best pastries you’ll ever eat. You can’t live your life going down the same path, forever, and never stepping off to see what’s off in the woods or meeting the waitress in the diner a few miles off the path.
I use this as a metaphor because what I’m about to write may come across – particularly to my wife’s friends and family – as a bit harsh and maybe unkind. That’s not at all how it’s meant to be taken.
Andrea wanted the shortcuts on the road. I think she learned that from her father, and I’ve never been and never was fond of it. When I met her she was ambitious, dreaming, and happy. She wanted to be a television anchor – not necessarily Edward R. Murrow, Katie Couric would have been good enough for her – and she was pretty good at it. I’d gone to school for journalism and was behind the camera for the most part. That’s where my career took me as that’s where the opportunities presented themselves. I got to write, make small stories every day, and I loved it. She always thought I should have been a reporter or anchor but life had a way of changing that.
After we got married, even before we had Abbi – which was just over a year after we were married – she wanted to get out. The industry was loathe the break that glass ceiling, particularly for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed California girl. She was one of hundreds, though I would have hired her in a minute. She started to hear the advice of others saying she just needed a stable job. I was too much the dreamer. We couldn’t make a living at this. We weren’t going to make it. Andrea had seen her Dad during her formative years leave his job as an educator and go into real estate because it was fast, big money. He’d been a musician and loved it, even played for the president once, but when he got married his wife hated that he played and was out a lot and not home . . . so he just stopped. That simple. Quit the dream, it’s not worth it.
So Andrea went to pharmacy school. Partly it was because she saw it was helping people. But the main reason, and you can skewer me over this if you want, but her theory was it paid a boatload of money. Pure and simple. She had this wild-eyed theory that once she started working we wouldn’t spend a cent of it and pay off the more than $100,000 in student loans in a year or two. Even I laughed at that theory. We were already in debt, up to our eyeballs. I was working two jobs, delivering newspapers at 2am, and playing gigs every weekend I could get in order to eat. There were weeks I was up for 40 hours straight or more just to make ends meet.
You can see where this is going: we didn’t pay off those loans. We moved, because she wanted to get out of Nebraska. Then instead of renting, we bought a house. All the while I was needled for being a journalist and put down if I brought up the music again, not by her so much as those around her. The neighbors would get something big? She wanted bigger. It was like sometimes she’d absorbed the influences around her more than those in front of her. Once she started making money, we started spending it to support the lifestyle she’d gotten used to.
This was the opposite of my upbringing. My Dad didn’t want me to be a journalist. He didn’t know what he wanted for me, but this wasn’t his idea. Neither was it my Mom’s. When I wanted to go make a go of things as a musician, my Mom was aghast. I never did, and it was a good thing because I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But when I learned to play guitar, joined a band, even started my own band, my folks were always there. My Dad helped me get the PA gear. My brother joined the band. Some nights we would play only to ceiling fans and lights . . . but there in the corner, right in front of the stage, was my Dad. Now, I write, record, and play when I can.
Andrea applied her same desire to get ahead more than be happy to the kids. Abbi came to me tonight with a letter she’d written to her drama teacher. Abbi’s always loved acting, writing, and everything to do with television, film and the stage. She loves it but was never considering going into it because her Mom always told her she had to have a backup and be a pharmacist or another suitable medical field. I told her a million stories about my Dad, my brother, and how long I wanted to fight my Mom for the ability to work in music. When Abbi started to express interest in drama my Mom started in on her, too, much like she did my brother . . . who stopped her dead.
“Let her do it, Mom.”
My mother was incredulous. “She needs to have something stable!”
“And she will, Mom, but you know how many times I’ve kicked myself for not just jumping into it and hitting the road? She’s young. She’ll bounce back from mistakes. Life is really too short and she has the time to go do something else if she fails . . . but at least she can say she tried. Make her go to school for something else and she may never do it.”
My Mom relented. It finally made sense. It never did to Andrea. I had a million arguments with her about this, too. I told her it was most important to be happy. Working is “work” if you’re not happy at what you’re doing. But tonight she showed me the letter she had to write in order to get into her drama class. In it, she talked about how it was always in her, part of her, and what she loved, but never considered it. But when all our lives turned upside down – “on March 26th, 2011, I saw this as a chance to start over, to do it again.” She looked at our lives as a new start, a new beginning . . . where our story begins.
I admit to a slight bit of wishing she’d mentioned how much I’d told her she needed to do this, how I told her I want her to be happy, but informed. How she’ll be making lattes more than reading lines, but as long as she’s aware of what she has to do and believes she’ll do it she’ll be fine. But I’m just happy she’s finally doing what she wants rather than what she thinks she needs. It can all turn on a dime. All of it. If you’re at work staring at the clock then you’re not happy.
Neil Gaiman, an amazing writer, author of American Gods and Coraline, gave a commencement speech recently and in it – I’m paraphrasing here – he said that you are the only person who can do what you do . . . that’s make art. The actor, the musician, the artist, the writer . . . no matter how bad things get, how awful your life is . . . if your Mom dies unexpectedly because of a resistant strain or pneumonia . . . the best thing to do is “…make good art. Wife leaves you for a politician, make good art. Leg gets crushed and eaten by a mutated boa constrictor . . . .make good art. Your cat explodes . . . make . . . good . . . art!” Not only did Abbi laugh at seeing that, but she realized what he was saying. He said the worst tragedy was colleagues who were miserable because now they had to write to maintain a lifestyle, not write because they love to write.
When Andrea died, I was lost. Despair during that time is palpable. I wasn’t just in grief, I was reveling in the grief. I was happy to stew, cry, and be miserable. It’s like a drug, I have to say, and you give yourself to the pain and misery and just let it wash over you like a wave. That’s how far gone I’d been in the first days after losing her. The only thing – the one thing alone – that made sense once I started to see shapes through the fog was picking up my guitar. I wasn’t sleeping. I barely ate. But without having heard Gaiman’s speech, I realize that without having heard his advice I’d done it. At 4am, watching “The Wire” on TV, or staring at the stars through the window, I wrote. I wrote song after song. Some are awful. Others . . . 5 or 6 of them in fact . . . are the best stuff I’ve ever created. Just months after losing my wife I was in the studio with my brother doing one of the best vocal performances I’d ever sung. I wrote a song that was raw and left me far more exposed and naked than the fearful teenager I used to be would ever have considered, but it was good. I made . . . good art.
Abbi’s not there yet, but she wants to be. It’s a turning point that I never thought I’d see. But she’s realizing now what I did a year ago. Our lives didn’t end, though it felt like it. We just began again. We had to. It’s not fun, certainly not easy, and very, very lonely a lot of the time. But today, we’re OK. We’re not rich, in fact we’re struggling a lot. But our home is filled with music. The kids – Hannah and the boys in particular – draw constantly. Abbi is in plays and musicals. Without realizing it, our house is filled with art. We don’t have a lot of money, no, but we do have is wonderful.
Right toward the end, when I had gotten a job in television that paid well – first in Dallas and then here in Sacramento – Andrea looked at me confused one day. “You actually have gotten here, haven’t you? I mean, I went through all that school, did the loans, and I’m making really good money . . . but you never stopped believing you’d be able to do this. Now you are. You were right, weren’t you?”
All I could tell her was yes . . . maybe. But it wasn’t that I was sure, it’s that I wanted to do it. I didn’t have another degree and don’t know how to do anything else but play the guitar – two of the worst-paid professions. But the hard exterior started to crack. I wonder what she would have been like five more years down the road? Would she have done like me and pushed Abbi to do what she wanted, not needed? I kind of doubt it, but she would have been OK with it anyway.
It’s gratifying, in a strange sort of way, that Abbi’s coming to terms with this. But she knows that as long as she’s happy, she will be OK, because I’ll be there. We’re better together than we are apart, my mantra now, and she’ll never be without someone there, not while I’m here and her siblings too.
But most of all, it’s gratifying that they’re all starting to see it: our lives – our stories – haven’t ended. It’s really true.