Category Archives: Personal

A Life Too Short – Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

(Today marks the 3rd Anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death.  Yes, it’s been three years since he passed away.  And it made me think back to those strange sad days.  I was lucky enough to attend the funeral, and wrote about it back then, and in honor of the anniversary, I thought I’d post it once more.  If you’ve seen it before, a new column will be up shortly, so please excuse my indulgence and come back soon.  And thank you.)

July 8, 2009:

What you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center yesterday.

Yes, you saw the crying family, the heaped accolades, the well-deserved praises and the joyful singing.  You might have even seen the crowd walking in, with their gold and silver wristbands, denoting whether you got to enter the actual event(gold), or were relegated to the smaller Nokia Center (silver) across the way to watch it on video.

I had a gold wristband.  Did I win it in the massive email raffle that threatened to crash the internet?  Nope, wasn’t that lucky.  But I did have a good friend who had a friend in Scotland who was unlucky enough to win.  I say unlucky, because once he had the code, he couldn’t get a flight out in time to be here. So he gave the code to my friend, Salena, who invited me.

Was I the biggest Michael fan?  No.  I never bought the shiny single glove or the red leather jacket, and only ever attempted to moonwalk (badly) on skates.  But was Michael a part or my life?  You can ask anyone from 5 to 50 the same question, and if answered honestly, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”.  Growing up, I’d listen to the music of Michael and his brothers as my mother and I struggled to make ends meet on her single income.  A cassette of “Thriller” escorted me through England and Europe in the 80’s, and I met people who didn’t speak my language there.  But they knew those songs.  We all knew those songs.  His music is part of the soundtrack of our lives… all our lives.

Now, there’s a strange vibe about this event.  Yes, the King of Pop is dead.  Yes, we all know that.  It’s not in dispute.  But the event itself is a living thriving thing.  It pulses with life and energy and joy and grief, all intertwined.  When I left work on Monday, my staff told me to have a good time, to have fun.  I readily accepted these wishes, but then was staggered.

This was a Memorial event…. akin to a public funeral.  With 9,000 special guests, and 17,500 more attendees.  How do you dress for something like this?  How do you act?  What is the etiquette we follow?  This was not a Head of State.  Not Royalty. Not a politician, or war hero, or great scientist.

No, this was an entertainer… possibly one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived.  This Memorial could never be a somber, sullen affair.  This had to be a celebration, a time of remembrance, of shared joy and shared grief.

And what you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center.

You may have seen Smokey Robinson read the telegrams and messages of remembrance from those who couldn’t be there.  But you didn’t experience the long reverent silence that followed.  Not really.  Some commentators filled in on TV, from what I understand, but being there, in the arena, the minutes of respectful quiet was a centering experience.

The familyYou saw the gold coffin, draped in roses, being escorted in by the mourning brothers.  But you didn’t feel the almost electrical jolt that pulled 20,000 people to their feet as they realized what was happening.  The applause you heard was the joy and grief of 20,000 people being given the honor of giving Michael his final standing ovation.  And while you may have seen the family sit back down, you didn’t see that every other person in the Staples Center waited until they were sitting again before they sat themselves.

Our Memorial programs were collections of letters and pictures, but no listing of speakers and guests, so we were as surprised as you as each new person came up to speak and honor Michael.  The entire arena seemed to hold its collective breath as Queen Latifah read Maya Angelou’s touching heartfelt poem to Michael “We Had Him.”  When Stevie Wonder said that “This was a moment I wished I didn’t live to see come,” we were all up on that stage with him.

My friend Salena held herself well until Brooke Shields began to cry and then it was over for her.  And as Shields read from Atoine de Saint-Expurey’s the Little Prince, you could imagine Michael in his possibly greatest role, the one he never got to play… because he was living it instead.

You may have heard the random shout-outs and blessings to Michael and the Jackson family, but you didn’t see the Japanese girl weeping softly behind us, rocking herself and whispering “I love you, Michael. Sayonara, Michael” over and over.  Occasionally, she would reach out inconsolably as if she could touch him.

But when Marlon spoke, choking back tears, asking Michael to hug his twin brother(Brandon, who died at birth from respiratory failure), and was followed by 11-year-old Paris-Michael Jackson, who choked out her simple declaration of love for her father and caused 20,000 people to want to rise as one to hug her and comfort her in her grief, we knew we were embarrassingly, heartbreakingly in the presence of a greater truth.

Because as much as he was idolized and adored by his fans and followers… as much as he was one of the best-selling artists of all time…  as much as he was celebrated and scandalized in his lifetime… as much as he was a great many things to a great many people… in the end, it came down to an eleven-year-old girl who put it all into the proper perspective:  He was a human being and a beloved person.  A father.  A brother.  A son.  A part of a large and loving (and even sometimes dysfunctional) family.  And like a great many families, when someone is taken too young, the void left behind is great and deep.  Sometimes it takes a great many to start building the bridge across the chasm.   Sometimes strangers can help.  20,000 of us tried yesterday.

So for those who would disdain the event as undignified or self-serving or too carnival-like, too Hollywood… for those who can’t comprehend the simple act of honoring another human being for their life and ignoring their shortfalls… for those who don’t understand that a larger-than-life public figure can also have a very different private life… for those whose hearts are too small and closed to understand that mourning and celebration can go hand in hand, and that grief shared is grief divided… to those people, I can only say one thing…

What you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center yesterday.


Childhood’s End – Part I

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

I blame Maurice Sendak.  It’s all his fault.  And when he died last month at the age of 83, it all came back.

This is about the things we carry from childhood into the rest of our lives.

There are stories that shape us, stories that teach us new ways to look at the world.  If you’re lucky, you read one of those when you were young.  If you’re very lucky, you might write one of those.  And if you’re truly blessed, you might write more than one.

I learned to read very early on.  Until high school, I was usually the most widely read person in my class.  I read everything.  I never got beat up, because I always asked bullies to let me finish this chapter first, and they lost interest.  A teacher later called me an “omnivorous” reader.  Since I didn’t recognize that word, I went and looked it up.  And it was true.

Luckily for me, my mother recognized this early on, and always kept the shelved stocked with books.  I tore through Dr. Seuss in the summer before 1st grade.  By third grade, I had moved to Jack London and Lewis Carroll.  Because she never censored or forbid me from reading anything in the house, I raided her Harold Robbins novels, and in 4th grade, I may not have understood why things were “turgid” or “heaving” but I knew it must be good.   A 4-volume set called the Life Cycle Library taught me about reproduction in 3rd grade, so I didn’t understand why it was such a hush-hush thing to talk about it in 6th grade Sex Ed.  You want to talk about where babies come from?  Sure, what do you wanna know?

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.

But the first book I ever bought with my own money was a slim little volume, maybe 48 pages, that was more picture than word.  That book was “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak.  I remember seeing the blurb in my schools book club flyer and liking the art.  So I carefully gathered my nickels and dimes together and placed my order, and when I got it, I took it home and devoured it.  It’s slight in terms of verbiage, running just over 330 words.

But in those 330 or so words…

My first inspiration

If you haven’t read it, then your childhood was for naught.  Telling the story of a wild child named Max, who goes on a fantastical journey to a lush island to become King of the Wild Things, “Where the Wild Things Are” opened my eyes to what was possible… how powerful we children were.  Because of our imaginations.  Our wonderful, terrible imaginations.  This was special secret knowledge, and it must have slipped through the barrier of “you’ll understand when you’re older.”

Knowing this, I hid the book under my mattress, because if my parents ever found out about this, there must be terrible repercussions.  They couldn’t know anything about this.  So I hid it away and read it in secret, my wonderful private piece of truth.  They first thing I ever remember hiding from my mother.

But one day, I accidentally left the book out, and my mother walked in, and the book was right there, right in the middle of the floor.  I held my breath, not listening to a word she said, making acknowledging sounds.  Chores?  Uh-huh.  Homework?  Sure.  Feed the dishes, eat the dog?  OK, fine. Yeah, mom, I feel great, why?

And when she left without commenting on the book, I realized something…

Oh my god, my parents are blind!!  They must be, to ignore something ticking like a time bomb right in front of them!!  How could she not see it?  Or maybe something more…. Maybe the force of my will was so great that I made her not see it.

Or maybe… maybe it was something else.  Something darker.

Maybe when you grew up, you forgot the power in words, in images.  The sense of wonder.  The limitlessness of your mind.  Maybe it got shrunk by bills, and work, and daily mundane chores, and even by us kids themselves.  Maybe it grew dim and faded under the weight of numbers and calendars and books without pictures.

Or maybe you chose to let it go, because it was easier to lead a simple, unimagined life than to live with the weight of what you had lost.  Peter Pan took Wendy and the boys to Neverland, but when she grew old, she lost the strength of her Happy Thoughts.  Maybe that’s what happened to my parents.

“Then from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of the wild things.”

Max’s mother sent him to his room, and he ended up in another place completely, but was still home in time for a warm supper.  Because that’s what parents do.  They give us roots and wings.  I look forward to the day when I can share this book with my children.

Or even better, pretend I don’t notice it on their floor.   And see where their imaginations take them.

I write not because I want to be rich and famous (though I do), or because I want to leave a legacy of some kind (also true), but because I want someone to feel the same things I felt when I first read that books.  I want a reader to realize how great and complex and beautiful and tragic and emotional and ordinary and extraordinary the world is.  And it all started with “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Like I said, I blame Maurice Sendak.  And bless his every breath.

What book did it for you?

“Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”
As quoted in “Questions to an Artist Who Is Also an Author : A Conversation between Maurice Sendak and Virginia Haviland (1972) by Virginia Haviland”
Maurice Sendak

How Beginnings Work (and other neat tricks)

What a good opening page looks like…

I’m a slow starter, and this is why.  This is a story about beginnings:

Once upon a time…

Now that’s a good opening.  Short.  Simple.  Sets a mood.  Makes you wonder what could come next.  Everything a good opening should do. Those Brothers Grimm knew a good thing when they saw it.

… there was, to a king, a girl born with hair as black as coal, lips as red as roses, and skin as fair as snow…

This is what’s known as your protagonist, your main character.  You can visualize this one pretty easily, and while our interpretations may vary wildly, I’ll bet most of us think of the Disney Snow White (1937) when you hear those words.

… but she was lonely because her mother died birthing her, and the king was busy ruling his Kingdom…

This is known as a sympathetic trait.  Something to invest you in the character.  As a children’s tale, the loss of a parent is one of the most powerful elements to bind a reader to a protagonist.  Think of what you did when Bambi’s mother was shot, or when Simba’s father faced the wildebeest stampede, or when Nemo’s mother met her fate.  There’s a reason Disney is so cruel to parents.

It’s called a profit margin.

OK, not really, they use it because it works.  It’s emotional shorthand.  And while you can say its just a cliché, its a cliché that works.  Because it’s universal.  All of us have parents.  Most of us know who they are.  Issues with parents are things some people never work out.  And when children become parents, it’s a chance to look at the whole thing from the other side.  Kind of like starting over from a taller viewpoint.

So, we have our setting, our protagonist, and our emotional stake.  What else do we need?

… and the King married a Queen, a proud vain woman who longed to be the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom, and watched her budding step-daughter with calculating eyes…

Good.  An antagonist.  Just what every solid story needs.  And we can see the set-up of the conflict.  The Queen is feeling her age, seeing faint lines appear on her face that weren’t there before.  And Snow White is a little hottie.  Lush young body, burgeoning sexuality, still that tinge of sweet innocence.  Unaware of the power she’ll have over men.  True, she’s the King’s daughter and the Queen is knocking boots with the old guy whenever he commands, but still…

Yeah, that’s not in the story…  not exactly.  That’s what we call subtext, and I’ll talk about that some other time.

… so each day, the Queen would ask her magic mirror who was the fairest in the land, and the mirror would answer “You are fairest, My Queen” and the Queen would be satisfied.

But one day, she asked the mirror her question and the mirror responded “You, my queen, are fair; it is true. But Little Snow-White is a thousand times fairer than you.”

And the Queen’s heart hardened.

And with that, we have all the pieces we need to set our story in motion.  A sympathetic hero/heroine, a villain, and a drive.  With that proclamation from the mirror, our story is set in motion.  We have a villain who wants something and a hero that prevents them from getting it.  Everything that follows will spring from that basic story.  All the details that follow are window dressing for that one simple story: Will Snow White escape the jealous Queen and live happily ever after?  The dwarves, the Huntsman, the Prince, the poison apple, the glass coffin… all of that serves the central question.

This is all that good storytelling embodies;  Someone who wants something and someone standing in their way.  How badly they want it and how strongly the other resists, well that’s a mark of how good a story can be.

In a movie, you’ll be somewhere between 14 to 20 minutes in when you see the story.  At that point, you will know who the hero is and what they need to do.  In longer movies, it can occur later, but you’ll still learn pretty early in that Frodo has to take the One Ring to Mordor, that only the Wizard can help Dorothy get back to Kansas (in one of the great movie fake-outs), that Rick Blaine will have to confront his past in Casablanca, that Simba will need to overcome his guilt and return to lead his pride, that Marlin will have to venture into the great unknown world to find Nemo, that Michael will have to join the Corleone family business (no matter how much he denies it).  And so on and so on and so on…

It’s like gymnastics or running or skating.  When done right, it looks effortless.   Yet it is anything but.  Beginnings are easy.  But the easier they look, the more effort usually goes into them.  Each minute on the ice or the balance beam represents 10,000 hours or more of painstaking practice and effort, of sweat and straining to make it just so… to make it appear easy.  Yes, beginnings are easy…

… but Good beginnings are hard, and usually come about only after you’ve written the end, several drafts down the road.  And the more you write, the more you know just how complex and elusive things that look easy can be.

But this is just my quick take on them.  And that’s why I’m a slow starter.

Page Tally:  last week, I wrote 22 pages of audio drama, 2 blog entries, and 6 pages of original script. Most of the audio drama will stay, but the 6 pages may be rewritten if they don’t fit.  For now, they go into the first draft pot.

Curriculum Vitae

This is a chronicle about the labyrinth.

The labyrinth is the place you find yourself in when you lose your way in the night.

I’m a writer. I’ve always been a writer and have the degrees (and accompanying student loan debt) to prove it. Since I was young, I’ve loved stories. I’d read anything. One teacher called me an omnivorous reader. As a child, my mother would yell at me to stop reading the back of the cereal box (”It hasn’t changed since yesterday!”) or I’d be late to school . And she knew that with a good book, she could keep me busy and placated for hours.

And then at some point, I realized something… Someone wrote all those great stories I was reading over and over and over. And if someone else could do it, why couldn’t I?

So I began to write…

Well, mainly I began to talk about writing. And talk. And talk.

And people began to talk about me. ”That Tony,” they’d say, ”he’s gonna be a good little writer!” And my teachers would overlook the hastily-written last-minute essays, the carelessly scrawled homework and awkwardly organized drafts because, hey, I was a writer, right? And after a while, even I began to believe it.

But like every good story, there’s a dark side to it. Every hero needs a villain, and the best villains live inside you, masquerading as your fatal flaw.

I was casually acquainted with my fatal flaw, but not on a first-name basis until much later. But he knew me. He knew me better than I knew myself. He’d buy me a drink and say, ”hey, let’s sit down and catch up! Tell me what’s going on. And talking is just like writing, so you don’t have to feel guilty!”

And don’t even get me started on girls! My fatal flaw could find a cute girl and direct my gaze to her in any environment! I could get a crush on the cutest nun in the convent! And thinking about them? My fatal flaw was in heaven over that. Because that could divert me from writing for hours! Weeks! Months!!

My fatal flaw was Fear. Like a lot of other writers. Hell, like a lot of non-writers. Sure, it looked like Laziness, but Laziness is Fear’s ornery little brother.

Fear goes deeper. Fear takes your hand and leads you into labyrinth, where hope is lost. Fear is the voice in your ear, saying ”You know you’re not really a writer, right?”. Fear is the tug at your mind that pulls you back from sleep, telling you they’re going to find out you’re really a fraud. Fear is the constant unwanted ally that finds something else, anything else for you to do other than writing. Fear is the gut-churning possibility that… you’re not really good enough. That your words will never make it to the page as vibrant and alive as they are inside your head.

Fear is a mean little pr*ck. And takes great joy in stopping you. In turning your dreams into a lost cause.

Over the last decade, lots of things have taken the place of writing. I directed theatre. I did publicity for a fan site. I volunteered on political campaigns. I developed a taste for architecture (my second passion). I still wrote, and (despite some small success) I still found myself dreading it. I was lost in the labyrinth, not even seeking a way back to the daylight. It was comfortable and safe in the twisty turning darkness. No one bothered you in the darkness.

And if I occasionally remembered how the light felt on my face in the summer sun, or the electricity in the words that poured out of my fingers when I knew it was working…? Well, that was the past, wasn’t it? And the past should stay the past, right, because people who tried to escape the labyrinth were seldom heard from again by those good and proper souls who kept their heads down and didn’t listen to the dreams that whispered to them in their waking hours. And you try not to think of all those wasted years in the darkness, because that only leads to Regret. And if Laziness is Fear’s bratty kid brother, then Regret is his sad-eyed spinster aunt.

Clarence Darrow is rumored to have said, ”Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”

Last year, someone I valued very highly came back into my life after a long absence, and she began to ask me the questions that illuminated the labyrinth I had built for myself. She began to gently nudge me towards the light again. She reminded me of what I had once been. She reminded me that I was a writer… and that I still am, no matter how deeply hidden in the shadows it is.

But as much as those who love you want to help, the only one who can get you out of the labyrinth is you… the one who got you there in the first place.

So that’s what this blog is for. My fight to find again what I lost sight of, to cut my way though the jungle and find Cibola. My personal sandbox about writing and hopes and dreams and fighting for lost causes. And if you want to… come along and we’ll see what we can discover.

And hopefully bulldoze that freakin’ labyrinth to dust.