POST-OP WEEK 40
week of November 2
Several years ago my “cousin’s” son died. He was killed, actually, in the line of duty during one of his shifts as a Chicago cop. Actually he was the son of the husband of the daughter of my mom’s cousin… His wife’s mother and my mother were the actual cousins. So I’m not sure how he’s related to me. He’s the retired deputy-chief of police of the suburb where I grew up.
Anyway— his son was on patrol one night, I think it was the midnight to 8am shift, when a driver ran a red light and crashed into his cop car, killing him. His son wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. For what it’s worth, he was the only cop killed that year in the line of duty…
I thought I should go to the wake. My wife didn’t want to go (or maybe someone needed to stay home with the kids), so my daughter volunteered. Honestly, I think she was very happy to go— she likes that kind of thing: funerals, parties, award ceremonies, anything where there might be drama involved.
It was on the south side, of course, Cicero and a hundred-millionth street, whatever. It took us a while to find the funeral home. We drove around a bunch of truck loading companies and such. Then there is was. The parking lot was jammed with cars. Inside, there were cops. Pretty much nothing but cops. Chicago cops.
Old crony cops, in their dress uniforms, slapping each other on the back. Young patrolmen right off the street or still on duty, in their bulletproof blue shirts. Tough looking black cops, undercover, in street clothes with badges on lanyards around their necks. I didn’t have any outstanding warrants, but I still felt weird being around that much blue. A line started at the entrance to the place and stretched inside and into another room. My daughter and I got in the line and stood there for a couple of minutes, the only civilians.
Then she said something like, “hey, we’re relatives! Relatives don’t stand in line. We get special privileges.” Smart girl. We asked an older cop if there was a special place for relatives and he perked right up. Oh, you’re related, yes, of course, you shouldn’t have to wait in line. Come with me.
We walked along the line of policemen that stretched through room after room, snaking around until it ended at my “cousin” and the casket with his son in it. The guy took us right up to my “cousin” to say Hi.
“Wally!” everybody said. My “cousin” shook my hand. He was in his retired deputy police chief dress uniform. I think I might’ve given his wife a hug. Two of my sisters were there, of course (they do all the proper family stuff). My “cousin’s” wife’s little brothers, were there (they’re in their 40s). Visibly happy, they shook my hand hello, good to see you, Wally, is this your daughter, boy she got big, it’s a shame this is how we get together now…
We stayed a while, talking with relatives. There didn’t seem to be much sadness. They were cordial. I don’t know if my daughter had met this side of the family, but she was happy she did. She likes colorful characters. I think she thinks her white, upper middle class suburban childhood is dull. Then we drove home.
POST-OP WEEK 41
week of November 9
I’m still trying to figure out why a burst into tears so often.
It still happens from time to time. Not as much these days but it happens.
I guess it makes sense when I see some news story on TV about a little girl who was abducted and killed by some pervert. I think people who DON’T cry (or are emotionally moved) by something like have something wrong with them. People at work, we’ll be waiting for a meeting to start, making small talk— sometimes the conversation goes to the weather or weekend plans, but sometimes it gets to current events. And the occasional horrible thing like that. They talk about it like it’s no big deal, like they’re unaffected.
But for me:
It’s sad right at the surface. But my mind start going and I imagine what that poor little girl’s last hours, minutes were like, what must’ve been going through her mind. That starts rolling around in my head and I get really upset. Then, of course, I think what would happen if that was one of my sweet little kids and it gets worse. Then I think about the parents and how helpless they’d be and the guilt and the what-ifs. THEN I think what I’d be like and how I wouldn’t know how I could go on with those thoughts of one my kids in that situation. All in the span of two or three seconds. So I break out in tears.
But the other kind, the kind that takes over while I’m presenting at work or telling people the storyline of my novel; those have been a slow build. I don’t remember them happening in my teens or twenties. I don’t remember getting them during my photography days or my improv days. They seem to have started somewhere in my time at my first ad agency.
Not at the beginning, I don’t think. I think I remember having that first “episode” in a meeting with a certain Group Creative Director. That means it probably wasn’t when I first started in 1994. It was later, after I moved into that guy’s group, not until ’97, ’98. So that probably pegs the date somewhere around the time, taa daa: my dad died!!
It’s also the year I turned 40, just before Child Number 4 was born, and the year they started screwing around with the agency in order to sell it off to the highest bidder. But that was the year my dad died in his sleep one morning while I was at a voiceover session…
Yeah, is that it?
It is that simple?
Is it as simple as: Hey Dad! Lookit me! Lookit me! Dad! Dad? Lookit! Look what I’m doing! But he’s gone. Now, he’ll never see.
Not that he saw when he was alive.
When he was drunk, he didn’t see me. Passing out at the kitchen table, he missed a lot of stuff. When he was sober, he’d come home, eat, then get in the tub with a book, and then to bed. We went on two family vacations together and he’d spend a few weekends a year in our summer home with us, but again, mostly drunk.
The confusing part, I guess, was that he pretty obviously wanted me to take over his business, the Golden Factory, the Prize… But he’d give me cameras if I asked for them, for my photo classes. And he paid for film school supplies so I could make movies. Then he’d push his factory on me. But THEN he’d APPEAR in one of my movies for school, if I asked him, but then turn around and push the factory again. On and off. Back and forth. I’m still not sure how to parse that.
[I made a short film for high school or college, I can’t remember, about women who are married to drunk men and how they suffer in silence. And I got my parents to play the parts of the wife and her drunk husband!! How’d that happen?]
I never got the impression my dad liked me. I didn’t worship him. I think that probably bothered him. He never really earned my respect. And I don’t give it out unconditionally. But somehow I must’ve wanted his acknowledgment. I guess that’s natural. I never got it— from him. I tried to get it from the next available male figure handy, my substitute older brother: my sister’s husband. And didn’t get it from him, either. In fact, he hated me, too. “Spoiled brat,” something like that, whatever.
My mom saw what I was doing, I guess, but I think it might’ve confounded her in many ways. Her childhood was so extraordinarily different than regular people that I don’t know what her frame of reference was… And my sisters, if they were anything like the way they are now— they’re pretty bland and run-of-the-mill. They probably didn’t do anything remotely odd.
[Of all my children, my youngest, Son #3, is the one who’s behaving most like me. Last Sunday I was chopping some of the big logs I’ve collected from various construction sites up and down our block down to manageable sizes. Son #1 and Son #2 were out helping me. We had some axes and a rental chain saw and we were working away. My youngest was in the far backyard with two of his friends.]
[They had Nerf guns but they were running around pretending to shoot various monsters, aliens, soldiers, and other bad guys. “He’s right there! Shoot ‘em!” “I’m down, get the medical kit!” kind of thing. I had my back to the action pretty much, but I was listening to everything they said. It was a full-fledged fantasy going on. And, as far as I could tell my youngest was kind of leading it. One of the other kids could barely keep up, improv story-wise. The third kid was okay at it; he could go along if you gave him a situation. But it seemed to me that my son was leading the plot. He’d tell them about the giant aliens who could only be taken down with a certain sized weapon. He’d know how much medical attention you’d need if you were hit by a certain blast.]
[Okay, it was kind of videogame-based, I guess. But my imaginary stories about astronauts and spies when I was that age were based on TV shows and movies I’d seen.]
[I’ve heard that some boys that age are already thinking about girls, declaring that they have girlfriends. Son #2’s class was like that and so was Son #1’s a bit. But was Son #3, in 6th grade, 11 years old, running around the backyard barking out fictional orders while fighting pretend monsters with fake guns. Hm. Yeah, that’s okay. He doesn’t need opposite sex kind of growing up just yet. He’s got plenty of time for that nonsense.]
[But as I eavesdropped on their drama, even I got a little twinge. I could see, maybe, why someone might think it was weird. It was like watching crazy people reacting to things that weren’t there. Yeah, I guess that’s what acting is, huh? So I let the twinge pass because I know it’s okay. I “walked through Jell-O” at the Players Workshop of the Second City. I made calls on imaginary phones or poured drinks from mime pitchers. But I tried just then to put myself in my parent’s place and see that maybe “left-brained” electrical engineers and high school dropouts might not see it the same way.]
I don’t know how my family saw me.
I went largely unnoticed, I think. I guess I got used to it, going about my own way, doing my own thing. But I don’t know if it really settled well. Without a frame of reference, I always figured the extraordinary things I routinely did were just what every little kid my age was up to. And that continued on.
Sure, everybody sets up a recording studio in a closet in their basement, records a radio show every week, with bits on local stations and nationally syndicated shows. Happens every day! [Of course, I did it TWICE so far in my lifetime— with my first comedy group, then a repeat performance, years later with the second bunch of guys!]
So they ignored me.
And maybe that’s why I don’t think much of the above average things I do. Maybe that’s why I think anybody, everybody does what I do routinely because no one ever told me those things were out of the ordinary? I got no recognition. I certainly got no praise.
TO BE CONTINUED, BELOW….
POST-OP WEEK 42
week of November 16
I noticed when I started spontaneously bursting into tears, I’d be presenting work, reading copy I wrote that I thought was exceptionally good. It didn’t all strike me that way, but every once in a while, something I write strikes me as really good and it makes me tear up.
Why is that?
When I was a photographer, I had a portfolio of my work. Some of it was a sample of what I did, pages from Montgomery Ward, pieces from the Sunday paper or ads. But most of it was fashion shots I did in my spare time. I was dating that fashion design major so I’d take pictures of the clothes she made (and clothes her classmates made). I had a pretty good relationship with a few modeling agencies in town, so I got their models to pose in student’s clothes for shots I’d set up. I’d see a funky doorway on my way to work or a half-demolished building, maybe I’d set something up in the studio. Everybody got something out of the deal.
I had quite a lot of photos in my book toward the end there, before I quit. I’d show them to people and half the time I’d get: “YOU did these?” Like they couldn’t believe it, like the guy standing in front of them right then didn’t look talented enough to have come up with THOSE…! And, yeah, I did them. I got the people together, and the clothes. I found an interesting background and made sure the lighting worked and the camera exposed the film properly (these weren’t digital cameras that showed you if everything was lit enough and in focus— you had to know what you were doing ahead of time.)
But then I just let everything flow. I let the models do what they did and I just composed the shots as they happened.
I wonder if I’m doing the same thing to myself with my writing…
I’ve always had this “thing,” this detachment, when it comes to my writing. A lot of times I don’t know where the stuff I write comes from.
It’s kind of like improv, I guess.
So, am I crying when I see my work from a distance because I’m saying to myself: “YOU did these?” “My God! You did! That came out of your head.”
Is it: Regular Walter sits down at the computer to write something. Blah, blah, blah, regular stuff. It’s good, okay, passable. Then every once in a while, Super Walter shows up and whispers something brilliant into Regular Walter’s ear. Where’d he come from? What’s he gonna say? How long will he be here? For that moment they’re one person... Regular Walter types out whatever Super Walter says. Then Super Walter goes back into hiding.
[Is this why I have to write down these sparks of inspiration as soon as they come into my head, because otherwise I’ll forget them?]
Regular Walter finishes typing the thing and puts it away. Days go by, weeks, and Regular Walter picks the thing up again to read that passage in his novel no one wants to publish or it’s time to present that concept he came up with. Regular Walter reads it out loud and he hears Super Walter’s words coming out of his mouth. And it strikes him: “My god that came out of me! How did I write THAT?”
And, then on top of that, is it: “Lookit me! Look what I did— DAD!” Ah, but my father will never see, certainly not anymore. He never really did in the first place, but now if there was ever a chance it’s gone for good.
Yeah... I don’t know.
POST-OP WEEK 43
week of November 23
As I’ve said: I loosely hung out with the theater crowd in high school, but only on and off. I didn’t really have a “crowd” as such, a clique. These guys came pretty close: Jody, Greg, a guy named Mike, and Greg’s brother Jeff.
I went to college and none of them did. When I went to IIT downtown, I think I still might’ve hung out with them a bit. But by the time I started at the junior college, the next year, I hung out with kids who went there. One of them was a guy named Nels who grew up in a house less than 100 yards from my house, on the next block across the street. But we didn’t meet until our first week at junior college. I guess our moms knew each other a little but he went to Catholic schools, up through high school and then flunked out his first year in college, too.
I’d hang out with this kid and some of his old Catholic school buds every once in a while. They weren’t the nicest bunch (one kid, the son of my mom’s gynecologist, was named Pill. Yes, his dad was Dr. Pill). My brief and sparse “drug phase” was when I hung out with Nels. By other people’s standards you’d call my phase more like a blip. But for me, it increased my weed trial quotient from one or two times in Wisconsin to 7 or 8 times. I’d always want to smoke it, for some reason, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But then things would go wrong.
I was at Nels’ house once when someone passed me some. A couple of deep puffs and everything turned into this slow motion movie. The sound was muddled and I ended up sitting in his front yard in the snow without a coat watching dark blobs float by. Nels later told me that someone had put peyote in the joint I puffed, oh thanks for telling me. I freaked out one more time in the company of Nels because someone put hash oil on the joint they passed me. I spent the last half of that night sitting on a frozen front stoop of someone’s house in Cicero. That was the end of my “drug phase.”
I also met Scott Scott at junior college, too. (it was his real name. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Scott probably thought it'd be cute!) I knew of him in high school, but he was a year ahead of me then. We evened out in college. He and Nels didn’t get along, mostly coming from Nels not liking Scott, so I’d hang with Nels some of the time and Scott other times. (The three of us were in that play at the all-girl Catholic school together, so they couldn’t’ve hated each other too much.)
We’d sit in the café the college had for a student union and eat baskets of fries with a Coke. There were some girls in there, too, depending on the guys I was with. I can remember sitting with kids from my classes as well. (Hm, I guess, at some point, I was gregarious, huh?)
I also still hung out with Greg and Jody and those guys. Nels and his friends HATED the theater group. And Scott never had anything to do with them, either. And then there was the occasional time I’d hang out with some guys who used to be in Russian club with me in high school. They were a couple of years older and hung out, mostly, with my brother-in-law next door. They didn’t even know the Jody bunch, the Nels bunch, or the Scott bunch. So I kind of floated between groups I got along with, but who hated each other.
Looking back, though, I stayed in touch with the old theater guys much longer than any of the others¾ though I still stopped hanging with out all of them at some point. The last time I saw Scott was the day he dropped me at Southern, 32 years ago. I lost track of Nels when I left junior college, I think, even though he was still across the street for a year or so (I saw him once, I think, at a New Year’s Eve party). But I kept in touch with those theater guys while I was at SIU and for some time afterward.
Jody and I used to send each other letters! Yeah, like in the mail. It was the 70s, no Internet. But we used to make them odd, weird letters. I remember typing one that started, mid-sentence, as close to the top of the page as possible and went edge to edge, single-spaced all the way to the very bottom: one long, stream of consciousness story with the last word on the page matching up with the first word at the top.
We’d glue things to the envelopes, pictures we’d cut from magazines. The very last one I sent him had nude women glued to the outside of it and then I covered it in plain, brown paper (like Playboys got delivered). That one never got to him. I’ve always thought that someone at the post office stole it because it was so cool and creative.
Greg and Mike came down to Southern to visit me one weekend. I had already been there a year or so, but they were the only visitors I ever got. Yeah, no one from my family, friends, nobody came down to see me, except Greg and Mike, just for a couple of days in my off-campus apartment. I don’t remember what we did or where they slept. But there you go… [Okay, I guess, technically, my sister and brother-in-law came down with a U-Haul trailer to move me back when I was done, but I don’t think they stayed overnight. I think they did the whole thing in one day.]
TO BE CONTINUED, BELOW…
POST-OP WEEK 44
week of November 30
When I graduated, if I hung out with anyone, it was Greg and Jody and those guys. Somehow we got the idea to form a comedy group and perform at comedy clubs. I’m not exactly sure how that happened. (Maybe, I’m thinking, it was because I went aaaalll the way downtown to see a Second City show and then took my first “semester” of improv classes at The Player’s Workshop. It gave me the bug. That sounds about right.)
The Null and Void Reunion I think we called ourselves. Jody, Greg, and two women, I’m sorry to say, I can’t remember. Like theater people, we sat down and created scenes, wrote them, 10, 15 minutes worth of tightly scripted stuff— then rehearsed it. Over and over again, until we got it “right.”
We wrote song parodies, a medley, I believe, about different types of jokes— we had a theme. (sung to the tune of: “Babyface”) “Easy laughs… We’ll never do a joke for easy laughs… something, something, something… Easy laughs, they’re too crass. Jokes like Elvis dying or Richard Nixon crying…” Like that.
We got up the gumption to go over to the Comedy Womb (a hole in the wall dive above a pizza place across the Des Plaines River in Lyons) and sign up for open mic night. I remember thinking how amazing it was that they would grant us the honor of allowing us to grace their stage… Of course, on open mic night, they pretty much let anyone up there, but I didn’t realize that.
We performed there a total of once.
We had at least one other gig, a party or a theater festival or something. Live comedy wasn’t going to be our thing. But my little sister’s boyfriend at the time was a DJ with rockabilly hair. Besides spinning records at new wave dance clubs around the city, he had an on-air gig at the radio station in my old junior college. A couple hours each week. My sister would listen to him, if we could pick up the signal— it was weak, down at the bottom of the dial, 86.9, 87, somewhere around there.
He talked to somebody at the station and got us a half hour slot. No audition. Just here you go. Actually I think the deal he made was: we’d make a show, put it on a cassette tape, hand it to him, who’d pay it on the air just before his show. That way we didn’t have to be at the station and they wouldn’t have to get another guy to come in just to push PLAY. Plus, we weren’t getting paid.
We called the show Uncle Mikey’s Clubhouse. Greg, Jody, Mike (who everyone called Mikey— hence, the name), my girlfriend at the time (a fashion design major at the Art Institute who I met in a bar/new wave dance club/disco kind of joint), and me. We’d occasionally have guests do a skit or two--- Jeff or my sister sometimes.
I don’t know where the name for the show came from; my guess is, it just happened. There wasn’t a whole lot of thinking or planning behind any of what we did. We came up with this premise— like old-time TV kiddy shows, like Bozo or Howdy Doody, we had a guy named Uncle Mikey— Jody played him, go figure. He would start and end every show with other skits and fake commercials and songs in between. Uncle Mikey drank, he smoked, he just barely tolerated the kids.
We came up with a theme song, on the spot, too, music and all. We sang it, a capella, while banging a drum. It went like this:
Uncle Mikey’s Clubhouse is fun for girls and boys.
Uncle Mikey’s Clubhouse has lots of nifty toys.
Uncle Mikey’s Clubhouse it wreaks of gin and beer.
Uncle Mikey’s Clubhouse… be glad that you’re not here.
It was like the old Andy Hardy movies they always make fun of:
Hey, I got a couple of mics and a closet… let’s do the show right here!! We literally got in this closet I had in my basement, with the clothes still in it, and recorded ourselves being funny (or weird or strange or just loud). At some point, I think I convinced my parents to let me move some if not all of the clothes out and redistribute it around the house so we wouldn’t get them all stinky from us sweating so much in a closet full of clothes!!
I don’t remember writing anything down— it was complete “improv” if that’s what you wanted to call it. None of us had taken improv classes, we just didn’t see the need to write anything out. We’d screw around with the tape recorder going. I don’t know if we ever did more than one take on any bit.
We’d record all the tracks one night. Then a day or two later, I’d take everything to Mike’s house and we’d string the show together on his equipment. I don’t think I had enough equipment of my own yet to do a show. He was very touchy about his stuff; I wasn’t allowed to actually push any buttons. So it was me telling him how and when to push play and when to push stop, like that all night long.
We were on for a year or so, maybe two. I think they dropped us when my sister’s boyfriend left the station. But, in the meantime, we put out a half an hour of something every week. We took my portable tape deck out once and we drove around in Jody’s car, in character, while I recorded it.
We sent a weird bit into Dr. Demento, the wacky California DJ who had a syndicated radio program of just novelty songs for two hours. And he PLAYED it! It was my girlfriend making up a beatnik poem with bongos in the background. The morning DJ at WXRT on her April Fool’s Day show (a “comedy prayer,” I think). And the morning DJ at WLUP played another one on his show, a slasher movie commercial parody: The Black and Decker, seven and a half inch, tempered, twist drill bit massacre…
The Chicago Sun-Times sent a reporter and a photographer out to my house, my basement, to do a story on us.
I have a big blank spot where the break-up of the group happened or why or any of that. No details. I know after the first radio station (“We’re music… and a whole lot more” was their slogan) dropped us, my sister’s boyfriend got us on some other station he moved to, some other college. They didn’t care if we swore or not, so we did sometimes, and we could barely pick up the signal at my house.
The swearing station lost its glamour pretty quickly. I don’t know if they dropped us, too. I know we didn’t do any live gigs anywhere. So we just stopped doing it? But I stopped hanging out with any of them after that, I guess. All those years in high school, on and off during college, after college and then— nothing.
I guess it could’ve been because I started going downtown to the Player’s Workshop to take improv classes and met the guys from my future/next comedy group… (I had gone to one “semester” — back then the whole course was 5 or 6 or 8-week blocks. I went to one, I think during my time at Southern, maybe? Then quit going until a couple of years after college where I met the comedy guys and, it turns out, my future wife!!)
I don’t know why, but I didn’t see them again for many years, like ten— when Greg and Jeff’s little brother Steven invited me to Jeff’s bachelor party. It was awkward, to say the least. I see Greg at funerals and theater parties from time to time these days (he lives in the same suburb as me, like 8, 9 blocks away, but I never see him around town.). I saw him a couple of weeks ago. Among other things, he talked about Uncle Mikey.
TO BE CONTINUED, LATER…
diary continues in December 2009...