There is a stage in life you reach where the mind has developed and for the first time the gauze of childhood is lifted and you begin to see the world as your parents see it. This is a time simultaneously of great terror and of wonderment. The magic your parents use to put food on the table and a roof over your head gives way to the reality of a barely affordable mortgage and the impact of coupon cutting.
You begin to appreciate it took some patience to deal with you as an oblivious member of society. You wonder if you could do what your parents did, and in many cases you find yourself lacking.
On the other hand, as a youthful adult with no track record of major adult-style failure, you tend to bring down your hammer of judgement upon your parents with great temerity. After all, their mistakes are now legend, and your record is clean.
So, I remember quite clearly the day I cognised the life my old man had been living, and I registered with amusement some of his questionable child-rearing techniques. With newfound adulthood I confronted him at the dinner table when everyone else had left, and said with the pure livid righteousness of my youth:
"Dad, have you ever in your life told me one thing you hadn't made up?"
Like DeForest Kelley, my father could raise one eyebrow and smirk, which he did at that point.
I felt I had to add data to fuel my argument.
"Like, when I asked you how they milked soy beans to get soy milk, and you told me it really didn't come from beans, but from turtles."
My father's expression did not change. I felt like I was in a poorly directed episode of Star Trek. But I continued.
"Turtles aren't mammals, Dad. And then, that time I asked you why those iron meteors at the Museum of Natural History were all full of holes, and you told me it was because they were cast offs from alien space ships that had been 'mined' of all their gold."
"And your point would be?" my father said.
"Dad, they were lies. Lies. Tapioca pudding is not made from tadpole eyes. Gravity is not caused by the spinning of the earth. You can't burn a house down with a jar full of fireflies. Do you realize how many times I was laughed at for bringing up these so-called facts in the middle of class? I thought you were the encyclopedia."
At that point my mother came over carrying a pie or whatever was for dessert, and having overheard the discussion, scolded my dad saying, "Joe, see, I told you one day it would cause trouble."
My Dad said, looking right at me but speaking as if I wasn't there, "He hasn't figured out anything. He only thinks he has."
Years later, when he had cancer pretty uncurably, the old man and I were sitting alone in the living room of my new monster house in North Carolina, watching televised golf on a set I had bought that was as close to the size of a drive-in movie screen as I could find. The action broke and they went to commercial for Intel processors. My Dad asked me how those damned things work. He never got it, the whole integrated circuit thing. How can it be an electronic brain? It looks like a city on a postage stamp.
"Well, it is a city, Dad. An electronic city. All the city people are atoms. You know, you got little atom highways with little atom cars, they go to work in the morning and work on their little atom jobs, toiling away till dinner time when they go home and have atom dinner and watch atom TVs, which are made of quarks. You've heard of quarks, right?"
My father looked at me and raised an eyebrow, Star Trek style. In a fraction of a second, I realized he wasn't going to be around much longer, the emotion hit me like a shotgun blast, and I had to swallow really fast to stop the groan that would have come out of me. I think he realized how I felt. It scared him, too, but of the two of us, only one knew when he was going to die, and fortified by percocet, he accepted that role at that moment.
"I'm sorry I made you become an engineer," he said.
"It's okay, Dad. I like engineering. Really. You couldn't have made me go to engineering school if I didn't want to do it. You know I was always taking things apart and putting them together when I was a kid. Now I make money at it. Look this house. Pretty good, eh?"
"Your mother told you--I wanted to be a writer. But my father made me become an office manager. Everybody knows. No money in writing." He sighed. "I should have become a writer."
"Seems you did pretty well," I said, noting I never went hungry or lived under a tarp. "Always got what I wanted at Christmas..."
My father sighed again, and this time I knew he was keeping himself from crying. The pills he was on and his condition made him extremely emotional in the final months. So I was used to him bursting into tears at things I thought were trivial.
"Nice house you have. Yes. Anyway, you should have been a writer. I was wrong. Sorry."
So then, what they don't tell you about life is that when one veil of gauze is lifted from your eyes, there's another in its place that can also be lifted. There are a lot of them, and now, at 46 years old, I realize I will never stop learning things I'd always taken for granted, and that at every age, I will wonder how I stumbled along till then in such blindness.
I think I probably said, "That Davis Love III is pretty good," or something like that to keep from crying right there in my huge palacial living room that I bought with my engineering money.
And then after a silence, I added, "I think you did the right thing."
He smirked. Said, "Quark TVs, eh?"
"Smaller than atoms."
My father died on November 17th, 1998, while I was in the air on a plane flying from Newark to San Francisco, coming back from having visited him for what would be my last time. He died lying on a rented hospital bed in what had been my bedroom as a boy, over the spot where my stereo used to be.
So Dad, if you read these things, and I think you probably do, I'm still trying to be a writer. I sort of am, kind of. Sort of always was like you were. But hey, let me tell you about this guy I know. You'll like this one.
The first time I met AudieMcCall was in San Francisco at a reading of his play, "The Sequence". He introduced me to a Pulitzer winning author who is a friend of his, and then paced around the room like a caged bengal tiger, alternately making trips to the rest room and the water fountain. He introduced me to the guy who had produced/directed his indie movie, which he wrote and played in, and which I discovered one can buy in DVD form from Amazon.com.
He was as nervous as I would probably be in that position. Famous people were about to experience his work, which in itself is somewhat controversial in its portrayal of the events that led to the first full sequencing of the human genome. NPR had set up microphones to record the event, and later, Audie was interviewed for an NPR radio show.
It was a very big deal, and not the first time for me someone with whom I was marginally acquainted was on the verge of hitting something big. I have before mentioned Diana Gabaldon, who is now doing book tours for her latest NYT bestseller. I figured at that point Audie was going to be another one who would say something nice about my work, meet me in person, and then advance on to fortune leaving me in the dust.
I still have Diana's home phone number programmed in my cell phone. She probably doesn't live there any more. I haven't tried the number in over 15 years.
Audie still lives where my cell phone says he lives. I talk to him more than Diana.
Audie is a playwright and I generally don't write plays or go to them. It's an art form with which I have had minimal contact. I have generally disliked all the professional $100/seat plays I have seen either on Broadway, in London, or in San Francisco over the past 20 years, and I did not expect to like The Sequence. The fact I found thoroughly engrossing the mere "reading" of his script by professional actors probably scared me a bit. Or a whole lot.
Audie and I were supposed to go out for beers with his Pulitzer-prize winning friend, but he wound up apologizing and taking off without me as I suspected he would seeing the caliber of the audience. Some random guy you met on the internet does not scale against a potential financier or a producer. Etc.
We shook hands, and that was it. I felt like I had just met another famous person before they were famous. Thank you, God, for my weird life.
Ok, let me tell you something about Audie. Audie is a big Irish guy the way I am a big Sicilian/Slovak guy. As I suspect I spend more time lifting weights than Audie, I'm a bit larger in bicep girth than he is, but he has the scar that trumps all visual toughness. Nobody is going to fuck with Audie in a bar unless they are armed and there are five of them and one of them already has him in a headlock. Yet he maintains a demeanor of disarming boyish innocence, which is the real Audie, and I suspect that were he not married, he would find himself surrounded by women most of his waking hours, and all of the others.
Audie sounds exactly like a radio disk jockey. In fact, he sounds exactly like Matt Pinfield, who DJed in the NJ/NYC area back in the 80's, and he was a regular on MTV in the 90's, and I don't know where the hell he is now, nor do I care except for the fact that every time I hear Audie's voice I expect him to be putting on the latest Ramones.
Audie is sharp. Direct. He's a man with a plan. One is never uncertain where they stand when around him. His vocal inflections are straight out of New York, though his mannerisms are, at times, pure Hollywood. His mind encompasses all known theories. One has the distinct impression that at any time he's got three or four literary/theatrical balls in the air and he's always working the angles.
He talks louder when he drinks. He is a superb judge of humanity. He sees through walls. He knows how to get what he wants from people.
One day he said to me, "Hey, I got this thing..." and it turned out to be some sort of contest and would I help him write a screenplay, by the way we only have eight days and we don't even have page one.
Of course, this is my kind of challenge as Audie well divined. So I sequestered myself, all my waking, non-money-making hours, for ten days. Audie and I traded the script back and forth, and when it was clear we weren't going to hit the deadline, Audie negotiated an extension. He got it for us. We submitted. We did pretty damned well, but we didn't win.
I had taken part in writing a 110 page script in two weeks, and for me, that was consolation prize.
Though Audie, like riverrun, assures me I should not write if I'm not being paid, and I do worry the lack of success might have soured the experience for him, the way my writing a screenplay with riverrun to the same negative effect yielded the same end game. People tend to believe in the writer in me, and then, in the end, they realize they're working with an engineer.
I think I understand the business logic in this not writing without money, thing. I have plenty of business skill in high-tech, but little intuition in the money making world of the arts. And I do not follow the precept, which is probably why, as Audie points out, he's much more successful in his endeavours than I am. Despite however good I may be at this, I'm really sort of nowhere. Writing is still a kind of socially acceptable masturbation for me. I love doing it but I have no plan for global domination. So, there are no Pulitzer prize winning authors mentoring me. No grant money. I don't even have an agent anymore after mine dropped Diana Gabaldon, picked up me, and then died regretting having done that.
Poor little iceowl baby. Boo hoo.
Yeah, fuck that.
Audie is totally right, like riverrun is right. These guys are pros and they know what it takes.
This is why my father was crying that day. He knew the way I divide my time. It goes 99.99% to my engineering job, and 0.01% to everything else. My bank account affirms, I can make a shitload of money engineering, and that's what's motivated me over the years. The lie my father told me. He thought he was doing the right thing. "Make money FIRST. THEN be a writer."
The lie was: there is no making money FIRST. It becomes your life. You NEVER become a writer. You slave for money, and then, when you get enough to stop working, it has you enslaved and your motivation to write goes to ZERO. I have been there. I know. Lucky for me, I'm broke now before I died rich and never wrote another word (can't believe I said that. Oh well. It's a fucking daylog.).
I totally get it now, Dad. This is why people like Audie and riverrun are in my life. These are good men. Zen men. Guys who honestly care about the well being of other people and know how to work for an ideal that does not involve instant financial gratification.
I imagine my father saying to me: "If you put as much effort into your writing as you put into engineering...just imagine where you'd be."
You were right, Dad.
I met Audie in Seattle, then. It's his berg. We ate and drank and went to his favorite bar. We ate his favorite oysters by the pier near the place he works. He told me how he'd moved his family cross country, twice, to settle in Seattle because it would be the best place for his play writing.
I'd done the same thing, though for my engineering job. It takes a certain commitment to do that, and Audie's committment to his writing is paramount. My commitment to my writing is secondary to the cash I need to drum up to keep my ego fed. I don't write for money because I make more money as a techie. And until I can have the guts to give up the gravy train, it ain't going nowhere for me.
Audie and I drank the drinks of his favorite bartender. We saluted random things and then Audie burst into song at one point. He has a very good voice. It couldn't possibly be any other way.
Because I'm built this way, I do believe my Dad helps me meet people like Audie to keep prodding me. To enrich my life in ways it cannot be enriched following the path I'm on. High cholesterol. High BP. Grinding my teeth in my sleep so badly I now need another crown, my dentist says.
Dad knows I really like writing.
I do, Dad.