Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve know, it's been a pretty damn good year. It just goes to show, when you choose to live, things take off.

Today is a day on which we tend to look back on the year and make some sort of assessment, though the only reason is the days have run out on the calendar. It's not as if the earth is in any special spot in its yearly spin around the sun. It's just a dark, cold day not too far into winter. Nothing more, nothing less.

And it's funny that I was thinking about all this and what a wonderful year it's been when I got a call from my cousin, Jerry, who I don't think I've spoken with in maybe two or three years. He had read this blog and about me getting laid off, and after the opening pleasantries he said something about it being a busy time. He was referring to getting laid off. Losing a job is a biggie, but if you can believe it, I didn't catch on at first, because hands down it's not affecting me the way I guess it might other people. Or it's not affecting me because of the way my life has been going, and it would take something more colossal than a job loss to get me down.

Not that I'm not affected by it; I don't mean that at all. It's just that I'm having a hard time wiping the grin off my face, when I look back on the year.

There was so much, starting in January when Sue and I moved into this apartment together. Everything's been so right from then on. I said to Jerry that it's taken me 52 years to achieve domestic bliss.

2008 was the year I made a concerted decision to start acting again. I took Meisner classes, got a new headshot, nailed the StageSource auditions, got cast in The Boys of Winter and got great reviews, and won SlamBoston. I closed out the year with a great run with The Halfway House Club, being very proud of my performance.

Right after Boys closed in September Sue and I went to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and in November, despite storm warnings from Detroit, took off for two great weeks in Arizona.

Christmas with my two girls and friends was wonderful.

Interspersed in all that were concerts and great times with friends and Sue. Life is good, there's no other way to say it.

And yeah, somewhere in there the job went south.

But even with that, I met a lot of wonderful, fun, talented people at the agency who I wouldn't mind working with sometime in the future. Like I told Jerry: I don't have any bad feelings toward the agency. The money and the contract ran out.

You choose to live. You choose life over the alternative. Otherwise you're just sitting around waiting for the Grim Reaper. When Sue and I chose to live together, a couple of people didn't think it was such a good idea. One person actually called Sue one year ago and tried to convince her not to move in with me. Someone tried to sow some doubt in my head about Sue. Yeah, nice, huh? But we knew it was the right thing to do, and a year later we've put together a nice little home.

They say it makes all the difference in the world when people with terminal diseases choose to keep living. I knew I was going to lose my job. But Sue and I decided to take our trip anyway. Maybe more prudent, responsible people would have postponed it, saving the money for a rainy day--make that the deluge. But we asked ourselves if, when they're lowering us in our graves, we would regret going saving the money, and the answer was easy. The answer was, no.

We're choosing to live the way we want going into 2009. Starting in January, Sue is signed up for music lessons. I'm taking music theory and an another acting course. We'll find the money somewhere. Sue and I both see education as a life-long endeavor. You never stop learning. You never stop working on your craft.

And so, there's a pot of homemade chicken soup that's been cooking all day on the stove. I made it from the carcass of the Christmas chicken. There's fresh bread from the Middle Eastern grocery, and Sue's favorite bottle of wine to toast in the New Year, if Sue doesn't get called out tonight. We'll snuggle up on the love seat and watch Lonesome Dove, and laugh when Gus cuts the cards with Laurie for a poke, cause that's just the way we are.

And that closes out 2008.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The morning after...

The Christmas holidays were all that I hoped, and today was the day I chose to face, again, reality.

Not a very pretty sight. Not pretty at all. Back to gathering samples for my portfolio, both the fake leather kind and the online. Back to making a plan of attack, exactly what am I going to do, what do I want to do, and what will I be able to do in this effing economy that seems to be breaking everyone's back.

During Christmas I wanted to keep my head in the sand, which is not typical of me. I've always prided myself with leading with my chin, but you know, this face can't quite take the bruising it used to.

Classes are always a good thing to take when you're looking for work, and I'm scrambling trying to figure out what I can work in, and just importantly what I can afford, and I have to do this before tomorrow because until tomorrow any class can be taken off on my '08 taxes, and that, to me, means money in the bank.

I'm looking at music and acting classes. I think it's time to make that big leap from stage to screen. And music is the other thing I want to be able to work on, now that I have some time. I'm back to playing in those twenty minute spurts that are so helpful--pick up the geetar and play hard for a good 20 minutes. Do that a couple of times of day, focusing on problem areas, and you're bound to improve. Or just play because that's what you do; just like it's just what birds do.

And I've got my list, a floppy little notepad on which I write everything I need to do. Keep busy, that's so important. Years ago I learned that you put everything on, including some easy, no-brainer stuff, but still stuff you want to get done, like make the bed or wash the dishes. It really works, giving you a sense of accomplishment when you scratch it off your list. That way you don't bog down with the big stuff. And whittle the big stuff down into smaller parts. That way you get to cross off more, and get that feeling of accomplishment.

The other thing I do is just quit for the day. I learned a long time ago that you'll never get everything done in one day. Tomorrow will come and that list will still be there; it won't go away. You need the rest and relaxation; just put it out of your mind. It's hard. I'm waking up at the old bewitching hour again. I did last night, woke up around 2:30 and just laid there for hours. The sun was lightening the sky when I finally dozed back to sleep. I didn't want to get up and wake up Sue, so I just laid there and thought.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

It's Christmas Eve, a bit after 10:00, and I find myself engaged in my usual Christmas Eve ritual. I am the last one up (even Bob's in bed; he usually waits for the last one to slip under the covers before he flops down with a grunt on the old sleeping bag he uses for a bed and quickly starts snoring.)

Sue's on call, and wanted to get some sleep in case she has to get up in the middle of the night. The apartment is lit by the tree and some strands of Christmas lights we have strung about: over the kitchen window, across the front windows, and on the Japanese screen in the living room. My feet are propped up on a coffee table, and there's a glass of port next to them. A Christmas sugar cookie, just baked and half-eaten, lays next to me on the couch.

After all the craziness of what my buddy, Baxter, calls the Christian shopping season, it always turns into just about the most quiet night of the year, doesn't it? All I hear is the wind roaring outside, sounding just like the Red Line down the hill, and making me once again feel so appreciative of this apartment that is so safe and strong.

It's still pretty early. In other times it would be long past midnight and I'd be sitting next to a dying fire. Al was always a tough one to keep in bed on Christmas Eve, the excitement wiring her and bouncing her out of bed with every excuse in the book: she had to go to the bathroom, she was sleepy, she heard reindeer. You always had to be good and sure she was asleep before you could start filling stocking to make sure you wouldn't be accosted by a little Cindy Lou Who. Here we have a fireplace but it's gas, and Sue and I are so cheap we don't ever use it, feeling it's a waste of expensive fuel. The Native American Christmas stockings we bought in Arizona are hung there. Just this morning we were awaken by the doorbell, rung by the FedEx man who delivered the brass hooks from to hang them. With that, the last of the Christmas decoration was complete.

Tonight we had a simple dinner of stuffed shells Sue prepared last night. My old boss called and left voice mail, wishing me a merry Christmas, and to say he was thinking of me. I thought that was such a nice gesture.

We--well, I--made Christmas cookies. I've never made Christmas cookies in my life, but this really was Sue's first real Christmas in a long time, and she kept coming up with things she wanted to do, and baking cookies was one of them. Who could say, no? There are now three plates of Christmas cookies on the kitchen counter, and I'm not sure what we're going to do with them now. They're like the zucchini in the summer; who can use that many squash or cookies?

And tomorrow, if Sue isn't out on a case, we'll get up and have coffee and open our presents and then have pancakes, apple-cured bacon, and beer. Or I will. Sue's on duty, and can't drink. But I love a glass of beer for breakfast with a big stack of pancakes. You don't believe me? Don't knock it if you haven't tried it. And later, good buddy, John, will come by with what he said are a couple of pounds of fresh Cape Cod scallops, and the girls will arrive around 2:00 and there's a seven-plus-pound chicken marinating in soy sauce and honey and garlic right now in the 'fridge that will be stuffed with Chinese sausage and chestnuts and sticky rice. Some people have asked me how I'm doing being laid off. I try not to think about it, wanting to enjoy these holidays. I tend to take things one day at a time, and face what comes. And if it's something nice, like Christmas, well, I guess that's my good fortune, isn't it?

Lonesome Dove

"Mr. Bob, he didn't know mares," Cholo said, remembering that ignorance had been his downfall.

"Nope," Clara said. "He didn't know mares."

"Do you think we'll see Indians?" Newt asked.

"You bet," Augustus said. "We might all get killed this afternoon, for all I know. That's the wild for you--it's got its dangers, which is part of the beauty. 'Course the Indians have had this land forever. To them, its precious because it's old. To us it's exciting because it's new."

Happy Birthday, Alice...I miss you

If Mom had lived, she would have been 91 today. That's getting up there, but 68 was too young to go. Especially the way she went. Lung cancer that spread.

It's a hard day sometimes, even though it was 22 years ago she died (she died a couple of months short of her birthday.) It's just hot-wired into you that today was her day, and that Christmas was always extra special. For about the past eight years or so, the girls and I would go out to the Fatima Shrine in Medway and light a candle for her. I won't be doing that tonight, I know much to the girls' chagrin, but Medway is a long way to go and back on the roads the way they are now at night. Things change. Parents live and die. Parents break up. Dads move. Sometimes it's a hard life and a lot of tears are shed, but losing Mom was one of the toughest things I ever went through, and you look back and think, I got through this, I can get through this other thing.

So instead, I have her picture next to the Buddha by the fireplace, and I have a candle burning and I lit some incense in remembrance. I know she'd be shaking her head at that, staunch Catholic that she was. Years after her death I would talk to her. I mean, out-loud. I'd walk down the street just discussing things with her. Crazy? No, it isn't. We don't realize the dead are all around us.

We don't cry enough in this country. We always have to go around smiling and faking happiness, laughing all the time like hyenas. Nobody can be as happy as most people want you to be. You'd have to be a blithering, drooling idiot to be happy all the time in this society. No wonder we're a nation of Prozac. Most times you can face your sadness and get through it. It's the only way to get through it.

Merry Christmas, huh? Yeah, it is. Christmas is about family; not the fat man squeezing down the chimney. It's about family, living and dead and spread all over the world.

And one of these days, maybe it will really sink in that we're really all one big family, but that's a stretch. It is my Christmas wish, though. And maybe someday I'll get it. After all, one year I did get that Lionel train.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lori Mckenna and Stephanie Chapman at Club Passim

Never let a little rain or snow stop you.

Friday night's performance of The Halfway House Club was canceled because of the snow. Sue and Lee had tickets to see Lori McKenna's solo set at Club Passim, so as soon as I got the email that I had the night off, I called Sue and asked her if I could horn in on the two of them. The show was still on--probably the only thing in Boston/Cambridge that wasn't canceled that night. I knew the show had sold out a long while back, but figuring there would be a bunch of no-shows I banked on getting a ticket at the door.

Yeah, it was blowing pretty hard, but...In Arizona there had been a few days of what I like to call weather. There was one day that everyone stayed hunkered in the hostel, even those like Sue and me who had cars. Sue and I think alike though. We can sleep when we're dead, and we're not going to let anything get in the way of us seeing something. We're both always wondering what's around the next corner. And if we're uncomfortable or cold, well, at least we're uncomfortable or cold in Arizona, or France, or Thailand or name your spot on the earth.

That day, Sue, Tetsuya, a traveler from Japan, and I jumped in the red hot Mustang and in the rain saw a volcano and a lava field. I touched and held cinders in my hand that had spewed out of the cone a thousand years ago. I saw pueblo ruins tucked on tiny ledges in Walnut Canyon. I walked on the Painted Desert, and smelled it and the mixture of sage and chaparral smelled like walking in the apartment on a cold rainy day with a pot of soup simmering on the stove. I visited a Wuptaki, a settlement that was quite the cosmopolitan setting 900 years ago. I felt the earth breath there. I did. I felt wind rush out of a crack in the earth, a sensation that I can best describe as having your head out the window of your car at 69 mph.

If we had let a little rain stop us, Sue, Tessuya and I never would have these experiences, these memories that hopefully forged us just a bit more into better people.

So, Friday night, even when Lee waffled a bit because of the dangers of the roads, I said to hell with it. Just that day I had finally had my snow tires put on the truck and loaded twelve hundred pounds of sand in the bed for ballast. I had put it off, I guess hoping against hope that bad weather never would hit, or at least I wouldn't have to deal with it. A human trait, isn't it, to try to wish away the bad, the inevitable?

So Sue and I saddled up and drove over to Lee's in second gear, and then drove to Braintree and parked the truck and hopped on the T, and there were more than enough tickets left.

Stephanie Chapman, opened, accompanied by husband Nathan Chapman, a very accomplished musician with a very mellow buttery voice. Sweet and personable with a friendly stage presence (she and Nathan are related, first brothers and sister then by marriage; see what I mean?) she's from northern Virginia and he's from Nashville. Her songs are steeped in the Nashville sound, and the album she was selling that night, This Song Is To You, is pretty much pure Nashville sound, a fine selection of happy, kind of rip-roaring songs with the expected topics about love with a hint of bittersweetness, the cute little turn of phrase (I put you on a pedestal but it's time you got down) that you could dance up a storm to in a country bar.

The weather was the hot topic for both performers. Chapman kept telling the audience how great they were for braving the storm to see them, but when you think they came all the way from Nashville to play that one little club in Cambridge, they were the ones who should have been thanked.

McKenna then came on stage and played a lot of her hits and favorites off Glamorous and Bittertown. I've never seen her solo before, and it was a pleasure. The next night she was backed by a band, and unfortunately I missed that night, but just her alone with that huge voice of hers is worth seeing. She's tiny, tiny. You look at her and wonder how the heck she squeezed out those five kids she's always talking about. And you wonder where the heck that huge voice resides in that little body. It's actually better, because by herself you can see just what an amazing talent she is. Her songs are so tight, although sometimes her lyrics about clotheslines in the backyard and how great her husband is can get just a bit tiresome, for me at least. But that's her; that's her life and that's what she writes about.

She is an absolute great lady, too. After the show I had a chance to talk to her a bit about what's up next for her. I'm one of those fans who thinks Glamorous is just okay. Warner Brothers and Nashville have been very good to her. Warner got her name out there, and Nashville introduced her to a bunch of like-minded artists who she can work with. You get the sense talking to her that she's a very smart and shrewd person, and knows what she need to do to further her artistic career. She said she and Warner would be parting ways, but that they are parting with no animosity. It would be nice to see her with a smaller, independent label that will really work with her and invest in helping her grow her career and help her where she wants to go artistically.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Halfway House Club closes...Paul has left the building

The Halfway House Club closed last night. We ran three nights; the fourth--Friday night--was canceled because of the snow. Ah, the snow. We still have a major storm raging out there. Snow, now turning to ice. Gotta love this New England weather. (We canceled, but that left time for us to head out in the blizzard to Club Passim to hear Lori Mckenna's solo set.)

was a good run. An interesting story. My kind of story and play. As an actor, I'm being even more choosy than ever. Looking for just the right parts. Looking for plays that resonate with my viewpoint of life and the world. I don't care about the old chestnuts anymore, if I ever did. They have their place, and God love the theaters and the actors and directors who keep them alive. I'm looking for the plays that have meaning today; not the ones written in the 1950s who people excuse with, "but they have just as much relevance today as they did fifty years ago." Well, maybe. But they've been beaten to death, and I'm looking for new ground to break.

I always have a favorite line or lines in a play that just dig right down to the core for me. I have to. I always look for those lines, and in The Halfway House Club, these were the lines, spoken by Ann to Paul, my character, a philanderer who said he never hit a woman in his life:

"Maybe no physically. But emotionally you've hit them. You've hit them harder than you ever could possibly with your own hands. Being cheated on. Having your heart broken. It's as if you're being stabbed. Slowly. And painfully. Without remorse."

It's true. As a society, we've yet to recognize that people who harm people emotionally are just as much thugs as people who physically harm people. Maybe even more so, because people who hurt others emotionally tend to do it consistently because that's just what they've learned to do; that's how they've learned to get what they want. If I hit someone, I can be hauled off to jail, and for good reason. But the person who seriously hurts someone emotionally is allowed to continue their behavior. If I were run over by a bus, no one in their right mind would say, just shake it off. But someone can run over me with a bus emotionally, and what's the first thing out of most people's mouths? Just shake it off. Forget about it. Move on. It's not right. As a society we should recognize that these emotional batterers are just as nasty as anyone else who hurts someone. And as a species, we should realize that there is a part of us that, even though we can't see it, can still be hurt in the same way as a physical part of us. As Ann says, the pain is the same. That should tell us something.

It's a good play, and Philana Gnatowski, the playwright who also played Samantha, is well on her way to having a really great play. The setting is a halfway house for people with broken hearts. My character, Paul, cheated on every woman he's ever been with. What brought him to the halfway house was he finally cheated on the one woman he loved. With a little imagination, we set up a world where, because Paul's father left him when he was ten, he became frightened whenever he found himself in a real relationship. The ensuing battles between all the characters, to paraphrase Paul, raises some good issues about the way men and women interact. And finally, on closing night, I, as Paul, was able to look across the stage at Philana who was playing Samantha, and see the character as just a younger Paul, and hating myself, or what I had become, and not wanting her to follow my path, I was able to cross the stage and stop her from hating me, and thereby I stopped hating myself. A nice bit of theater.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I'm out of work--I don't have any free time, and Bernard Madoff

A few years ago, a friend asked me to do something and I told him I'd have to check my schedule to see if I had time. Laughing, he said to me, "You're an out-of-work writer. If you don't have the time, no one does."

Well, that wasn't quite true, but I did see his point. Writers (and actors and artists and musicians and a host of others who have non-traditional, non nine-to-five jobs) don't always look like we're as busy as the rest of the lemmings. But, if I can hold to the rodent metaphor just a bit longer, we're probably busier than most, more like that crazy hamster spinning its wheel than most people would imagine. Most of the time we're working; we're just not necessarily making money.

So, of late, as news of my, ahem, available "free time" gets around, I've had a few invitations to meet some friends during the day. And I hate to be a jerk, but I'm too busy. I still have three stories to file to Cape Cod Life. There's the resume that needs fine-tuning and the samples that need uploading on the Web site (a heckuva lot harder and more complicated than one might imagine; nothing is easy anymore) and there's the business of doing my own IT troubleshooting now, thanks to the good people at HP who don't seem to be able to fix a "communication error." What we do seem to have is a failure to communicate. The Halfway House Club opens tomorrow evening, and that means bearing down there. I have a long list of people I want to contact and meet with and an office to set up.

Plus there are the holidays and everyday life to keep on top of. Today it snowed, or something. There's cold, slippery crap outside right now, and I still haven't gotten the snow tires put on my truck.

I guess the thing is, I've never been one to just sit. I can't sit on the beach and just bake in the sun. My oldest still remembers me taking her hand and going for long walks on the beach during summers on the Cape, saying, let's just see what's around that bend. Forget TV; I don't understand how anyone can just sit and watch. I always need something in my hands--a book, a guitar, or a wooden spoon in the kitchen--or I always need to be working towards something. It's just the way I am. I like being busy. And I always find things to keep me occupied, to the point where I wonder where the hours in the day went.

I suspect this trait will keep me active in my old age, keep my brain alert, or what passes for alert with my brain.

An aside, I'm also keeping up with the story in the news about Bernard Madoff, the Wall Street investor who is accused of cheating investors out of $50 billion. I interviewed Madoff back in the late '80s. His firm then was headquartered in Jersey City with a view of the World Trade Towers, and used the computers that my company sold. Part of my job was to interview the company's top customers and write business stories. I remember him being very personable and likable, but also a brusque man. He had that edge that you would expect from someone who likes money and making it, and like some successful men, you got the idea you didn't want to get on his mean side. I say some, because over the course of my career I've had the pleasure of meeting and talking with some of the most successful people in business, and many successful people are kind, generous, and gracious. In this country we're innocent until proven guilty, but given the news of the past year on Wall Street, one wonders just how many are going to be brought to trial, and how many are going to get away with murder.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Really, don't cry for me...

Inevitably when I tell someone I got laid off the first response is, sorry.

I get it. The loss of steady income in this economy is scary. And the job prospects? Well, things do look pretty grim, don't they? Especially for a 53-year-old writer. Not that there's age discrimination in the working world. Especially in youth-oriented marketing departments and ad agencies. Oh no. That would be illegal.

But the thing I keep saying to people is that I was prepared for this, the writing was on the wall despite whatever I or anyone else was being told. And this is the third time in my career this has happened. You learn over time how to deal with this situation. My advice to anyone nowadays is get used to this. I forgot how many different jobs "experts" now predict college-educated people entering the workforce now will hold over the course of their lives. Whatever the number, I know it's a bunch.

I do appreciate the kind words, though. And the sympathy. Hearing them is a little like being Tom Sawyer listening in on his own funeral. But for all my friends out there, I'm doing okay. Sue and I are doing okay. My kids know it: I one tough son-of-a-bitch. (Thanks, Dad.) I only look cute and adorable. I really do like a challenge, and by God the Creator really handed me one this time.

I think the most important thing I learned from being laid off the first time back in the '90s was that my job does not define me. I was devastated that time. My whole being, all my feelings of self-worth and accomplishment revolved around my job. My feelings of worth are no longer tied to being a corporate writer any more than they are to me being a creative writer, businessperson, actor, or musician. These are things I do to enjoy my life. I write, act, engage in the business world. But all these things are just a top layer. I almost want to say window dressing, but that denigrates them a bit. They are the outcome of what lies below them.

The real me isn't a writer or actor or businessperson. The part of me that gets me through these times are parts that are curious, daring, risk-taking, fun-loving, and caring. These are the real parts of me. I write and act and photograph because they let me explore and learn about the world and life, which I am so curious about. Of course I need money and through business I earn money, but just as important as the money is, I also like that business teaches me so much about how the world runs, and how people operate and interact.

The senior exec who gave me the news said that we were going to have a difficult conversation. I wanted to say to him, are you going to tell me I have cancer? Are you going to take away my kids? Losing a job is hard, but there are lots of worse things in life to lose. Over the course of my lifetime, I've lost a lot more than jobs. There are even parts of me, deep inside, that are gone. So a job? Well....

And I keep saying, I'm going to fight this from intruding on my life. Yeah, I'm waking up in the middle of the night, I'm sure from nerves. But there are so many other things in my life, big and small. Coming up are Christmas with my daughters, for the first time in maybe seven years. Tell me that's not cool. The Halfway House Club opens Thursday night, a project I am very excited about. Right now there is a big pot of chicken soup cooking on the stove, making the apartment smell so great. SRV is cranking on the stereo. I'm barefoot, wearing an old pair of jeans (well, that's nothing new) and a favorite old shirt. There are wonderful things in this world, big and small, and to let the loss of a job stand between me and experiencing the world and life is just wrong.

When I was going through probably the toughest time in my life, I told myself I didn't want my heart to get hard. Yesterday I was in Park Street Station, and while waiting for a train that didn't come (I eventually just went upstairs and walked to my meeting over on Boylston Street) I was lucky enough to be able to listen to a busker there. His name was John Gerard, and listening I realized he had a really sweet voice. I had one dollar in my pocket, which I threw in his case. (One more lonely dollar, as The Low Anthem sings.) If you let this shit get to you, you'll never hear the new singer. You'll never see what makes you you.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The weight of unemployment

Today I got up and walked around. One foot in front of the other. Had a meeting at a hiring agency, someplace I worked for when I was freelancing. The reality has more than set in, and I think one of the reasons is way back in the '90s we--the working stiffs of the world--were told to get it into our heads that we were working for ourselves. So, from there on in I just basically looked at my employer as one big client, and I was in business for myself. It's not a bad viewpoint.

And the thing is, when you have to sit down and explain to someone what you do, what you've been doing the past two years, and what you know, it gives you a good insight that you are--and I am--not going to be destitute. I know my business, and I'm good at it. All I need and want is the chance. The scary part is wondering if there is any work out there at all. The first business to dry up is always writing. Everyone knows they can't do Flash, but everyone since the age of six thinks they can write.

There are words that they put on the page, so that must be okay. They even feel kind of proud of themselves. But together are the words persuasive? Interesting? Think about it, you're still reading this, aren't you? Why? Uh, because I can write and I can write in an interesting way that keeps people reading.

Still, the weight of it all hangs over my head. Once again I woke up in the middle of the night last night, and not wanting to wake Sue tossing and turning, got up and slouched on the couch and read a bit.

"Sometimes Po Campo sang in Spanish. He had a low, throaty voice that always seemed like it was about to die for lack of breath. The songs bothered some of the men, they were so sad.

'Po, you're a jolly fellow, how come you only sing about death?' Soupy asked. Po had a little rattle, plus his low throaty voice, made it a curious effect.

The sound could make the hairs stand up on Pea Eye's neck. 'That's right, Po. You do sing sad, for a happy man,' Pea Eye observed once, as the old man shook his gourd.

'I don't sing about myself,' Campo said. 'I sing about life. I am happy, but life is sad. The songs don't belong to me.'"

Well, still, when I was putting on music today, I shied away from country. I went through a point in my life where I just wallowed in country music. It was like picking a sore day after day after day. Oh, my wretched life.

Today I put on some Shakira unplugged. With that wild woman singing in Spanish, there's no way you can be depressed.

And I keep a running to-do list. Keep busy. There's plenty to do. Step by step. Brick by brick. That's about the only way to do it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A morning person once again

When Sue first met me she thought I was a "morning person" because I would wake up between 5:30 and 6:00, even on weekends. That's when I was freelancing, but when I got the job at the agency I started sleeping in.

Well guess what? It's a Saturday morning and I've been up since around 5:45. I woke up, thinking about everything that I have to get done, and so rather than just lay there in bed and stew about things, I got up, made a pot of coffee, and got cracking.

Dumb stuff. Checking the time the local Staples open because our printer is down and HP thinks the problem is the USB cable, and I need it for a myriad of things, including printing out a resume and samples for a meeting on Monday. There are bills to pay, which I can't get behind on because if I miss one payment the greedy banks will jack up the interest rate from nothing to loan shark levels. I swear there is a special spot in hell for bankers and lawyers. At least I hope so.

Then there are scripts to read and memorize, dry cleaning to pick up, a haircut to get, and the apartment needs picking up a bit because I'm meeting a good friend after rehearsal today at Wally's and then he's coming over for dinner afterward. All of this has to get done before a four-hour rehearsal this afternoon.

It doesn't sound like much, does it. And it's all so trivial. But they're the things that gnaw at your brain, and sometimes it's best just to address them.

But while I've been busy here, on the couch with a cup of coffee on the coffee table next to where I have my feet propped, I've seen the eastern sky go from dark to moody to bright. I've heard the squirrels that live between the floors of this house wake and start their morning ramble. I've heard Bob wake, seen him shamble out of the bedroom to see what the heck I was doing, yawn, and go back to sleep. I can hear his heavy breathing right now, which always gives me comfort. When I lived alone and would wake in the middle of the night, feeling lonely, I'd hear that goofy dog breathing as loudly and strongly as any person, and because of that I'd be able to slip back to sleep.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Laid off--again

Ouch. Well, not really. Seriously, after the third time in my career, you kind of get used to you. It doesn't hit you as hard as it did the first time.

This time, though, I was prepared. I mean, the handwriting was on the wall. And despite all the reassurances by staffing (we're looking for a spot for you; that's what they get paid the big bucks to say) you know when you're billing zero...zilch...nada...they're not going to keep you around based on your good looks. At least not these looks.

Sue and I even talked about whether or not we should have gone to Arizona, given the precarious nature of my work. The money I would have been given for the two weeks of accrued vacation time, plus the hard cash in the savings account that we had saved for the trip might have come in handy for the long, cold winter of this depression. (Yes, I said it: worldwide depression, too; let's not mince words, okay? Again, the politicians are paid big bucks to say one thing when it's another.) But we figured we should live, and not let the problems of the world get in our way. When they're lowering us in our graves, nobody is going to say we shouldn't have gone.

And we talked a bit in Arizona that if or when I did get laid off what we would do. I'd try to get as much freelance as I could and work on acting. Before I was hired by the agency I was freelancing and acting for five years, and by the time I went back to a legit job I was doing okay for myself.

Like I said, it gets easier, especially when you're prepared. The first time I had drank the kool-aid. Back then, my job defined who I was, accomplished corporate writer, career businessman, provider, and it getting axed put a hole in me at the water line. I had nowhere to jump. After that, I swore I'd never let me or my family be vulnerable again.

The second time was a pretty day in June--June 11 to be exact. This time it was December 11. What is with that number 11, anyway? I didn't even listen to the director as he let me go. All I know is I stared out the window over his shoulder and thought to myself, what a gorgeous day for a bike ride. It was, and I rode about twenty miles that day, and thought, I always wanted to be on my own; when I'm eighty and look back and didn't do it I'd have regrets. So, back in 2002, with the economy in the dumper (but not this bad, admittedly) I started my own business with no clients. By the time digital central called me and asked if I wanted to work on an automotive account, I had a nice little stable of clients plus a couple of acting gigs that kept me busy. And yeah, it's true: When you're working for yourself you get to work half days. And the great thing is, you get to choose which 12 hours you work.

So, this time around when I got the call to come to the conference room, I pretty much knew what was up. You know, I even felt sorry for the two on whose shoulders this job fell. It's a dirty job. I liked where I worked, and I liked the people. They weren't responsible for this economic shit show we got going right now.

And I got some nice goodbyes and even a couple of hugs from some of the people I worked with. I think it hurt them more than it hurt me. There is a bit of survivor's guilt that happens to people, and for some I'm not sure they're prepared for what lies ahead for them as they continue in their same jobs and when the axe finally falls on their heads. I learned a long time ago that my work does not define me. And just like there are certain people who I refuse to give power to over my life, a series of events is not going to control my feelings or actions. Am I nervous? Of course, especially about money. I'd be an idiot not to be. This is a worldwide depression. It is. Trust me out here.

But you always got to look on the bright side. I missed the freedom I had freelancing. I like being my own boss. I like knowing, at the end of the day, that if something went well or something screwed up, I was the one responsible, and no one else. I don't like someone setting my schedule for me. Life is easier for Sue and me when I have freedom--to make dinner for my sweetie, pick up the dry cleaning, do laundry. And my old buddy, Bob, gets his playmate back. I've had that dog since he was twelve weeks old. He's eleven and a half now, and for all but the last two years he and I were inseparable. He'd even go on client meetings with me. (Remind me someday to blog about the one at Eastern Mountain Sports.) Today, like old times, he and I drove down to Hyannis and interviewed an artist for a profile for Cape Cod Life. Now it's a little after five on a Friday, and I'm sitting on the floor blogging, with a beer by my side and Bob snoozing on the other side of the room, like the Aussie that he is. (They're not cuddly dogs, just one reason I like them so much. They're their own dogs.)

And one last note: Sue and I live pretty simply. I see real fear in people's faces. Yeah, we're nervous, but when Wall Street crashed we kind of looked at each other and said, we don't have any money to lose anyway. I've been working hard to be debt-free. All my debt is consolidated on two credit cards--one with 0% interest and the other with 1.9% interest. I've been slowly paying this off, and one of my biggest fears is that I'll start picking up debt again. I want to leave this planet owing no one. My pickup is beat up, but it's paid for. I don't have a mortgage, a car loan, or a second home. Sue and I don't even have a television. I see other people and know their lives are screwed down tight. And that's what scary.

More to come. Every day will be bring something new, I know that. Like the Chinese say, may we live in interesting times.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The mystery of the pueblos

Scattered all over northern Arizona are pueblo ruins. Gorgeous, unobtrusive structures that blend quietly into the landscape, for defense or aesthetics, who knows. Today's architects would be well off to study these ancient builders.

Communities of people lived in these pueblos for hundreds or sometimes up to a thousand years. And then they just fall off the radar screen. One minute there is "thriving" community, and then they are gone. There is no explanation. No record of why they left. Always it is said that the people "inexplicitly" left. Then sometimes a series of questions is posed: Was it disease? Famine? War? that forced these gentle people from their idyllic home?

I have to smile.

Did anyone ever think that these gentle, peaceful souls who tilled the land and lived as one with the universe might have been under the influences of the same forces that we modern folk are under? Could greed or jealously split the community? Might have one family group tried to lay claim to property of another, starting a chain of human political events that finally tore the group apart. Perhaps adultery, pettiness, or deceit insidiously rotted the community.

Or maybe the best of the human spirit took over, and after four hundred years, the young said, father, mother, it's time for us to move on. The view of the river and cornfields touch my soul, but I want to know what's over the horizon.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

You know, the T really ain't that bad

The T--the MBTA, Boston's public transportation system--is, like politicians, an easy target. Commuting is rarely fun or comfortable, and so you don't have to scratch too deeply to find something to criticize. Whether it's late-running trains or the lack of shelter on outside platforms during Boston's brutal winters, there's always something that you can improve.

And let me say I'm one of the first to always take a potshot.

But while Sue and I were away in Arizona, we talked about the advantages we have with the T. We talked about this a lot when we were standing on street corners in Phoenix for an hour waiting for a bus on which we would then spend maybe another half hour just to get a few miles.

When you think about it, there really are only three cities in the United States with decent public transportation systems that you can pretty much rely on: New York, Washington, DC, and good old Boston. For two bucks, you can pretty much get wherever you have to go, and do it in a relatively timely fashion. Sometimes you have to work within the T's schedule--weekend or holiday schedules when the trains don't run as often--but that's just something you factor into urban living. And for fifty-nine bucks, you get a monthly pass that pretty much gives you free rein throughout the city.

The thing is, there are factors--let's even call them wolves--that have been coming to the forefront of our country's consciousness, and have arrived. Yes, the wolf is at the door. The economy, jobs, our dependency on foreign oil, the decline of American industry, the environment.

You see where I'm heading, don't you? Large-scale public transportation is the answer to all those issues. But it's going to take some real visionaries to see and implement them. People are going to have to be convinced. They don't want to give up their cars. But if you had asked people back in 1984 what they wanted in a computer, no one would have said I want this little thing I can push around on my desk so I can point at pictures on the computer screen. The visionaries at Apple, though, could see it, and made it work. Visionaries are going to have to make this work, and show people what they're missing when it comes to saving time and changing their commute.

In short: public transportation projects will address and solve the economic and environmental issues facing our country:

Jobs. Somebody's got to plan, oversee, build, and run transportation systems. You cover the bases from the system architects to the IT people to the conductors, hiring all skill sets and levels of education. Somebody's got to build the trains and tracks. During WW II the automakers retooled and built cars and trucks and fighting armor for the war effort. Times change. Why can't the automakers make their hybrid cars, but branch off into other forms of transportation, too? This is war; we are fighting for our survival when it comes to the economy. We're all going to have to take a new look at how we live and operate.

Dependency on foreign oil. This is obvious. Less cars on the road. Most trains run on electricity, which will come from other green industries like wind farms and solar power.

The decline of American industry? There should be a mandate that stipulates that these projects be American-built, that everything from the locomotives to the bolts holding the tracks together be American-made.

The environment. Again, this is obvious. Less cars on the road means less air and water pollution. (We forget that cars leak oil and wear rubber on the roads, which all washes into our water supply.)

The Big Dig in Boston was one of the biggest pork barrel projects ever, on the same grand scale as the credit crisis. We simply spent billions of dollars to keep people employed hiding a traffic jam underground.

If years ago, we had had visionaries running this state, we could have taken all of those billions and made a world-class public transportation system that would have been a model for projects today that would lead us out of our economic crisis.

MBTA hits a home run with Big Red cars on the Red Line

Man, is it true? Is the T really starting to use its collective noodle? Actually opening the eyes for a little visionary thinking?

I got on the Red Line yesterday at DTX after work and almost fell over. Fell over because the car wasn't crammed with people who propped me up. There was space to stand and move around. I didn't have some dope's backpack whacking me in the back because the idiot is too clueless to realize that every time he moves his backpack whips around like a lizard's tail. That's because it was one of the T's experimental Big Red cars--Red Line cars without seats.

The T is experimenting with running two cars without seats in the middle of a train. To me, this is pure heaven. I pretty much stand on the train anyway. I'm fit and healthy and choose to give the seats to people who need them, like the elderly, pregnant woman, and people who generally look like they could use taking a load off their feet. And yeah, it makes my teeth grind to watch young or fit people elbow and hip check people out of their way to get their precious seat. Bunch of fat asses. It's just the way I was raised, and yeah, I open doors for women, too. Call me old-fashioned.

And I don't want to be crammed, butt-cheek to jowl, with people whose ankles buckle from the sheer weight of the pachyderm-like body types.

Yeah, it's nice to sit down for the ride when it's not crowded, open a magazine, read, like I did on this morning's commute. But it's a subway, not a luxury liner. I'm getting on to get someplace. There aren't enough seats for everyone, and I'm fine with that. The T might want to think about a 50/50 split in the cars, opening up the space a bit, but still leaving seats for the people who really need them.

Nice going, MBTA. Keep the ideas coming. Not everyone's gonna like this, but you can't please everyone.

The T is looking for feedback here.

Monday, December 8, 2008

LA Freeway

I sang this song for about the first five days in Arizona. Like the fortune teller said, Sue is patient. Very patient.

Pack up all your dishes.
Make note of all good wishes.
Say goodbye to the landlord for me.
That son of a bitch has always bored me.
Throw out them LA papers
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers.
Adios to all this concrete.
Gonna get me some dirt road back street

If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I'd be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain't bought bought bought

Here's to you old skinny Dennis
Only one I think I will miss
I can hear that old bass singing
Sweet and low like a gift you're bringin'
Play it for me just one more time now
Got to give it all we can now
I beleive everything your saying
Just keep on, keep on playing


And you put the pink card in the mailbox
Leave the key in the old front door lock
They will find it likely as not
I'm sure there's somethin' we have forgot
Oh Susanna, don't you cry, babe
Love's a gift that's surely handmade
We've got something to believe in
Dontcha' think it's time we're leavin'


Repeat 1/2 of verse 1

The Low Anthem wins Boston Music Award for Best New Act

I'm a reformed news junkie, having gone cold turkey from three dailies and numerous news magazines and television programs to almost zilch. Now I don't even own a TV--I chicken-scratch around the 'Net for news. But I still check things out, to see if there's anything beyond the normal dose of droning politicians, death and destruction on a global scale, and shallow, useless pabulum on pop and movie stars.

Traveling, it's ironic that we probably watched more television than we have all year, in travel lodges throughout the southwest. It's like a auto accident to us; we can't help but slow down and just stare. It's just all shock and awe for us. Reporters screaming and yelling into the cameras, doing the darndest to make the news exciting and marketable. And then come the analyst and experts to to explain to us what we just saw, just in case we don't have the brains and smarts to do it ourselves. You can see it so plainly, that most people just mimic and parrot what they're told on television. They do it right down to the inflections.

So, it was to my delight that I saw that even before we left the Boston Music Awards were held. And my delight came from seeing that The Low Anthem won he award for Best New Act. I first saw them a few years ago at New Asia in Cambridge. I had gone to the club to see Bean, the now defunct band of a buddy of mine. Bean had finished its set, and I was walking out the door when TLA started their set. I forgot the song--I remember thinking it was a Robert Johnson song, and it was sung by a band member who is no longer with the band. But it was enough for me to turn around, find a chair to the side, and enjoy what these talented artists had to offer.

I've since seen them one other time, in a tiny, reconverted firehouse down in Providence naturally named, The Firehouse. A funny story there: Sue and I couldn't find the club and, God bless AT&T Wireless, when I dialed 411 asking for the fire house, the witless operator connected me to the fire department. And when the good dispatcher found out what we were looking for, he talked us right to the door of the club. One of those random acts of kindness that is so rare here in the Northeast.

From left: band members Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky, and Jocie Adams in Cambridge.


Yesterday I was freezing on the T platform in Wollaston, but less than 48 hours before that I had been on the Third Mesa on the Hopi reservation in Arizona, talking in a low voice to a Hopi who was dressing an elk he had shot. We're back, and I wasn't prepared for the jolt because I never saw it coming.

One minute you're driving a road on a mesa, flat as the ocean with the horizon 360 degrees around you. Then you're reflectively ducking, always looking up scared something was going to fall on your head, it's so claustrophobic here. I used to think I couldn't live without the ocean. But I learned that it's the open I like. It's the space I like. I want to be able to see them coming.

One minute we're shifting from foot to foot in the shadow of the Rain God butte in Monument Valley, the sand crunching underfoot, or picking our way along an edge in Canyon de Challey, our footsteps knocking on time, our ears hearing the universal sound, and the next I want to stick cotton in my ears to block out the unrelenting scream of a CNN reporter.

Time and space. It's there. It's connected, but we don't notice it because our planet is too little. But if you listen to the rocks, they will tell you not to hurry. (Time and space are connected because it takes time to move through space. It takes time to step from here to there, it takes time to fly to the edge of the universe.) The rocks didn't hurry and look at what they accomplished. The Indians seem to understand this, the ones who are still trying to maintain their culture. Imagine living out there all your life, and by life I mean the sum total of all the people who lived before you, learning and passing their wisdom to generation after generation.

It's so quiet out there. And everything is so subtle, hidden, but like the trickster coyote it's concealed right there in front of you. Words don't work there. Everything speaks a different language: the land, the people.
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