Monday, November 26, 2007

Two Tales of One City...or Somethin’ Like That (Part IV)

The Long Goodbye — Prologue
Perhaps a better title for this post might be The Long Layoff. It’s been over a month since my last entry in this series, and while it was always my intention to separate the two main subjects of my recent trip to Dallas a bit, I really hadn’t planned on making the time-gap quite this wide.

Admittedly these two stories could have been (and in retrospect, perhaps should have been) totally separate series, given that the subject matter of each part was so emotionally divergent for me.

On the front end there was the 2007 Webmaster Jam Session, a wonderfully enlightening and heady experience. The flavor of those two days was almost transcendent. I was so buoyed by the camaraderie and positive reinforcement of a group of like-minded individuals of whom I felt a small, but inclusive part. It was comforting to know that I was a part of a community, a movement of professionals seeking to have a real impact, not only upon the livelihood they’ve chosen, but to actually make the world a better place, giving high import to the way that everyone, regardless of physical handicap or station in life, operates and navigates the now ubiquitous world wide web.

It was a pretty tasty bit of pie-in-the-sky that my associate Trey and I enjoyed along with our Starbuck’s that Friday and Saturday in late September.

Sunday, however, was something else altogether.

Immediately upon learning that Trey had secured permission for us to attend the weekend conference, my first thought was of possibly using the final day to visit my brother Alex, who lives in the Dallas Metroplex area, and then take a late flight back to Nashville. So Sunday morning, while everyone else was rushing bleary-eyed to the airport to catch a return flight home, I was headed to Budget Rent-a-car for a ride to catch a few rare hours with my brother.

After losing my way on three consecutive occasions, I finally gained my bearings and at last found the way to Alex’s house, where we would spend the afternoon hanging out and watching football together for what could well be the very last time.

Although I’ve seen him at least once in each of the past three years, the sands of time are rapidly slipping away with regard to Alex’s condition; it’s uncertain as to how many more of my visits my beloved little bro will really be cognizant of.

As you probably know, Alex is the second of my four brothers unfortunate enough to carry the genetic mutation passed down from our Mother for Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease. He’ll be 48 years old this coming May — the same age our Mom was when she succumbed to complications from that horrible malady back in 1968.

The good news is that Alex, as of late 2004 has been on the two leading AD-inhibiting drugs, Aracept and Namenda, which have been effective in slowing down the progress of the disease’s ongoing efforts to shut down his brain.

As was in the case of our Mom and my other afflicted brother, David, the fatality of Alzheimer’s doesn’t necessarily lie in the disease itself, but in the complications that develop as a result. In nearly all of the seven cases of Alzheimer’s-related deaths in my extended family throughout the years, pneumonia has been the actual cause.

AD first begins its path of destruction by sabotaging the transfer of chemicals between brain cells, disrupting thought and memory processes. The literal suffocation of brain cells by the formation of ‘senile plaques’ covering the neurons eventually causes the brain to atrophy, leading to the eventual breakdown of motor skills and overall body functions. In the end, most AD sufferers are left bed-ridden and hence susceptible to things like pneumonia as that which ultimately claims their lives.

And while Alex is still extremely vital, physically, this latest visit to see him made me realize how quickly he’s deteriorating overall.

In each of my past two visits to Dallas to spend time with Alex and his family, my Dad and I made the trip together. This time, however — in a big way — I’m glad that it was just me; it was a pretty tough scene.

But as hard as it was for me to see my brother in the condition in which he currently exists, it was indeed a special time. There’s an awful lot of the old Alex still in there, and we had a wonderful, if brief time together.

But again, it’s hard to say just how many more opportunities I’ll have to look into his eyes and know that Alex sees me back. I don’t know how many more times I’ll be able to say some of the things I was able to say to him that Sunday afternoon, and know that he understands, as I know he did this time. I dread the future for my brother; I dread it for his family, and selfishly, I dread it for myself.

I’ve avoided saying this — or even thinking it, but as of this visit I’ve finally begun making that sad, long goodbye to my life’s best friend.

I’ve avoided thinking about it to the point that in each of the last three visits I’ve made to Dallas following the trip in which I accompanied Alex to Indianapolis in 2004, I’ve not written about the events that surrounded them. No blogs, no personal journals; only hand-scribbled notes — pages of them — most of which I have yet to read, let alone transcribe.

And therein lays the true reason this ‘second tale of one city’ has taken so long to surface. The fact is, I just don’t want to write it. I don’t want to put it all into words because I don’t want them to be true. I don’t want it to be out there, staring me in the face in all its obnoxious, pugnacious reality. I’d rather it remain off to the side; swept under the rug; out of sight and out of mind.

However that’s not reality. Alex is sick, and it’s time, now, to talk about it; I don’t want it to be, but it is.

It’s time to chronicle all that I’ve seen and observed as Alex’s condition has regressed over the past three years. It’s time to begin to close the book on this shell of former brilliance that now walks in his place. It’s time to say what needs to be said, so that it can be over and done with and never dwelt upon again.

I look forward to spending a lot more time later on talking about the real Alex; the brother who gave me my definition of brotherhood; the little kid that I looked up to as much as he looked up to me.

That’s a story that’ll never be finished.

Next: The Long Goodbye — Part One

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Post-Turkey Post

Back Home Again
We’re back home from spending a few days and the Thanksgiving holiday in Memphis with our dear friends, the Franklins and the Smiths. I'm just getting settled back into writing and hopefully will have a new post up sometime tomorrow.

Hope you all had a great extended weekend!

Talk to you soon, with the continuation (at long last) of my Two Tales of One City series.


Saturday, November 17, 2007


I guess I deserve it.
After talking about how much I know about computers a few posts ago, I guess the fates wanted to put me in my place.

Three weeks ago I purchased a new processor for my old, yet reliable computer motherboard. It was the fastest, most powerful processor the old mobo was designed to handle; I figured it was the best and cheapest temporary upgrade I could perform to get a little more speed out of my five year-old system before spending a bit more money after the first of the year to completely replace it, saving my current system to replace Michelle’s machine (which I’m being forced to use now), which is older and significantly slower than mine was to start with.

Well I don’t know what exactly has happened — and that’s the frustrating part — but now, three weeks later, after buying the new processor and not being able to get it to work, I decided to try a new, more powerful motherboard, which I received earlier this week. But still no luck; nada; zippo; the system won’t boot or even beep upon startup. I just get a black screen with everything apparently running except the processor.

I’m so frustrated right now I could scream. I’ve run into snags in building systems before, but never anything so frustrating as this. I’m now stuck between deciding whether to return everything and start from scratch or continue to flail away at the problem and try to figure it out.

I’ve spent the past two full days scouring the Internet for answers, and have found numerous threads on computer message boards, with people claiming similar or the same problem. However I’ve yet to see any follow-up comments confirming that the suggestions given to solve the problem actually worked. I’ve tried nearly everything that has been suggested, but to no avail.

However I still have one major resource that I have yet to tap: my old friend and compu-guru, Randy. I'm gonna give him a call just as soon as I finish this post. I’m expecting him to tell me I’ve got a bad processor (which is what I have believed from the start), so I’d imagine I'll just be packing all the stuff up and sending it back on Monday.

The worst part of all this is that I’d timed the purchase of the new motherboard to coincide with all the vacation time I’ve got off here in a row (eleven straight days as of this past Thursday), to have time to get everything set up. However a large chunk of that time will be wiped out by our traveling to Memphis this coming Wednesday to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with our friends the Franklins. We’ll return home on Saturday, but that would give me only one more day before heading back to work on Monday the 26th.

It’s been agonizing not having access to any of my files and most of my programs for the past three weeks as I’ve been chained to Michelle’s slow-as-molasses-in-January machine. I’ve spent a lot of time duplicating efforts, copying browser bookmarks from my machine at work, and reinstalling software that’ll barely run on this underpowered computer, just to be able to carry on in a semi-normal manner. I guess it could be worse, however — I could have no computer and no Net access at all right now; ’suppose I should just count my blessings, huh?

Anyway, if you’ve wondered why I haven’t posted, that’s the reason. I’ll know here in a few hours what my final disposition will be, and I’ll move on and deal with it from there.

Ahh, technology...don’tcha love it?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Shallow Thoughts
by AJ in Nashville: Psyche Session

Monday Morning Contemplation
I dunno sometimes. There are occasions on which I amaze myself at the level of thoroughness and attention to detail I’m capable of displaying; other times I am simply appalled by my lack of awareness to things and those around me.

I just received another jolt of AJ reality yesterday morning; a reminder of how double-edged the phenomenon of blogging can be for me. And in writing this post, may it be noted that my intent is not to offer it as an apology for my shortcomings — and far less, to fish for affirmation from the ‘offended’ party, who I’m sure doesn’t really feel offended in the least.

That being said however, if after reading this anyone feels the need to try and comfort me, or tell me I shouldn’t beat myself up over this, I would politely request that you suppress that urge. For this is indeed a black eye that I want to feel for awhile; an uncomfortable bucket-o’-cold-water-in-the-face that perhaps I have needed to finally wake up and smell the coffee.

This is just one of those times when I feel compelled to brain-dump a little and self-flagellate a little more, to the end that maybe, possibly, in so doing I might shame myself into change. But that’s a longshot, however, as self-absorption is a considerable part of my personality, and something that has gotten me into trouble since I was in the third grade — probably further back than that, actually.

Okay. There, I said it: I’m a self-absorbed individual. However what I mean when I say self-absorbed may not be what immediately comes to mind for most people. I really don’t consider myself to be selfish, however, I seem to have this Jeckyll/Hyde thing going on when it comes to communication. I honestly care about my family and friends, yet at times I somehow manage to neglect them to the point of utter ridiculousness. I get ‘caught up in what I’m doing’ and by the time I realize it, months have gone by since the last time I picked up the phone or stopped to write a loved one an e-mail.

Being self-absorbed isn’t always an overt act — at least it’s not with me. Nevertheless, it is what it is, ultimately: making the decision to give preference to one’s own thoughts and concerns over those of others.

In one sense, that definition is pretty innocuous, since it basically describes every person in the world who isn’t named Mother Theresa. But hopefully you know what I’m getting at: that it’s still no excuse. Like my high school gymnastics coach used to say, “Excuses are like assholes — everybody’s got one and they all stink.”

Living in The OC(D)
What it all boils down to is, when I’m writing, I’m not doing or thinking about much else — just ask my wife, Michelle. How she put up with me back in 2004 when that’s ALL I was doing, I’ll never know.

When I discovered in May of that year, I wrote every single day for nearly two-and-a-half months. I spent nearly all my time at home in front of the computer. She referred to the bonus room where my office was located as the “cave” that I lived in. Of course in recent years, the term, ‘man-cave’ has become all the rage in terms of masculine home decor. But believe me, back when she was making the ‘cave’ reference, Michelle’s connotation wasn’t intended to be a positive one.

But what can I tellya; I was in a zone back then. I was so caught up in my newly discovered form of self-expression that I just couldn’t see anything else. It was soon after that time, particularly as I began writing more about myself (as opposed to almost strictly about my family) that I began to see the compulsive behavior patterns that I now recognize as permanent strands in the fabric of my personality.

However, it wasn’t until about a year later, in mid-2005 that I realized my compulsions could go both ways, taking me away from writing as easily as they sucked me into it.

I suppose you could just say that after my first year of blogging, the pendulum began to swing back the other way. The average number of posts my second year of blogging was less than half that of my first. Oh, I had plenty to write about, and I did accomplish my longest and most ambitious series to date — it’s just that it took me nine months to finish it.

Along the way, the daily distractions, trying to make it up to Michelle for that ‘lost first year,’ hockey games and vacations — anything that came up seemed to be an excuse for me not to write, despite the fact that I really wanted to. Not only did I not write, I stopped reading as well. Daily or weekly visits to my friends’ blogs became monthly or even less often in frequency.

Year three, things degraded to the point that between April and the rest of 2006 I posted a grand total of eleven times. I was beside myself in a number of areas: my career was in jeopardy; I turned fifty years of age and felt ‘old’ for the first time in my life; my confidence was flagging. AJ was not a happy camper.

Blog-wise, I totally felt as though I’d lost my mojo, not to mention my friends.

A large potion of my regular readership got tired of waiting for regular posts, and save for a few die-hards (thanks, guys — you know who you are), many left and have never returned — and who could blame them? Certainly not me.

For in reality I knew that it was I who had left — and had long before my readers did. I also knew that it would require getting myself un-tracked once again, writing on a consistent basis, before things would change. And when I say ‘change’ I don’t mean getting my readers back; that may or may not ever happen, and it really doesn’t matter, one way or another. No, the change I’m talking about is a return to making writing a consistent part of my lifestyle once again, because ‘I’ need it; because once that bell was rung, my life has never been the same without hearing its reverberation in my soul.

It’s nice to have people who like to read and comment, but as I’ve stated many times before, folks, this is an outlet for me, first and foremost. Hence, I put an awful lot of effort and importance into what I write. I guess the question is, do I place too much emphasis? Do I really need to?

And that brings me to yesterday morning, when a long overdue visit to one particularly close friend’s blog brought with it two surprises: one that was very good, and one that was heartbreaking.

Neither made me feel too great about the fact that I hadn’t communicated with him in several weeks.

The good news was that my friend is getting married. The heartbreaking news is that the announcement of his engagement fell within hours of his Mother’s passing in her sleep that very same night. He never even got the chance to tell her that it was official. Fortunately, she knew her son’s relationship was soon headed that way, so in a sense you could say, she surely knew before she died; a mother knows.

But me? Shoot, I didn’t know squat.

I didn’t know anything about my friend’s good news; I didn’t know about the bad news either. I had been off in my own self-absorbed world for nearly two months since the last time we’d spoken on the phone or I’d visited his blog.

I’d been busy — no doubt, too busy.

Tied to the Whipping Post
I know that the purpose of this post is self-flagellation, but I do feel kinda funny dwelling on this so much. After all, I’m a guy, and us guys aren’t supposed to be overly concerned with things like hurting each other’s feelings; that stuff’s for those of the female persuasion, right? We’re not supposed to care; we’re supposed to just suck it up and keep on going, and for the most part, we do.

As a matter of fact, this friend and I discussed that very subject in our last phone conversation when he called some six weeks ago (geeze...has it really been that long?). We agreed that hey, we were both busy and the fact that we weren’t consistent in keeping up with each other’s blogs (yeah, it went both ways) didn’t mean that we didn’t care or didn’t want to stay current, necessarily. And the fact that he’s the one who broached the subject actually made em feel pretty good, since he obviously felt as bad about not visiting me as I did about my conspicuous absence from his site.

But I went away from that conversation with the assurance that it was indeed okay to just concentrate on writing my stuff, and he’d write his; we’d just keep up with each other’s lives with an occasional comment or phone call.

That’d be okay, wouldn’t it? Well maybe...if I’d actually taken the time to call.

The last few communication attempts had been his, not mine. And while I had indeed made attempts to return the favor, the timing never seemed right. It pretty much amounted to one big game of phone tag all summer long.

I knew his Mom was in poor health, although I don’t even think he anticipated that she’d go so suddenly. But even with that as an aside, I should have tried to communicate at least as often as he did with me. But nope, I rested on the excuse that ‘non-communication was cool,’ and spent my energy writing. And after a mostly business-as-usual, spotty posting period throughout this past summer, in recent weeks, I finally began to buckle down and get back into blogging.

We had sold our house and moved into an apartment to await the completion of our new home’s construction in January, 2008. So as soon as we were settled, I was determined to get back to writing, and as of the end of August, I did.

I recently finished a very enjoyable, brief (for me) recounting of Michelle’s and my experience in Chattanooga two weekends ago, seeing my daughter’s latest play.

Prior to that, I spent a good deal of time chronicling the first part of a series dealing with a trip to Dallas back in late September, the second part of which I’ll be continuing in earnest this week.

In between the two, I posted another lengthy series that got my blog-juices flowing as much as anything I’ve done in the past two years. Bottom line is, I’ve been having the best time recently posting with greater regularity than at anytime since my way-wordy beginnings back in 2004.

However, lest I confuse the point, it isn’t only about output — it’s about awareness and willingness to answer the call. I feel alive and plugged-in when I’m writing consistently. And when I’m not, I feel as though I should be; a frustration that seems to haunt me on a daily basis.

I don’t blog to log, I blog to live. I blog to freeze-frame my life’s experiences to enjoy them again, and to allow others to enjoy them as well. It’s that double-hit of cognition and reflection — making sense and finding meaning in even the most routine and mundane circumstances of life, that makes this medium so special and adds so much more to my daily experience.

But why do I find it so hard to stop every few days at least, and run down my blogroll? Why do I always say to myself, “I’ll catch up with everyone just as soon as I’m finished with this story...” And then when that story is finished, I feel the need to immediately start writing another.

Maybe it’ll take ‘outing myself’ here in front of god and everybody to really get me to stop and take this character flaw more seriously, before I do any more damage (perceived or otherwise).

Maybe I can make myself a better friend, a more responsive person; someone more sensitive to the needs of those I love.


We’ll see.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Rock Star — A Miniseries (honest!)
(Part 2 of 2)

A play on words
Despite the adverse effect that this driest summer in memory may have had on the depth of Tennessee’s fall seasonal color, the southern inner rim of the Appalachians were still ablaze in all hues of deep red, orange and gold as we traveled southeast on I-24 last Saturday afternoon.

A crappy photo of some beautiful scenery
A crappy picture of some beautiful scenery.
It was as pretty as anytime I can remember making the trip, which we’ve done plenty of times over the course of the past four-and-a-half years. Three-to-five times annually, we’ve pilgrimaged to Chattanooga to see our daughter’s plays; first as a member of the theater department at the University of Tennessee, and now in her new involvement with Chattanooga’s Community Theater group.

I’ve heard it said that those who can’t act...teach, and those who can’t community theater. Well, I’m here to tell you that just ain’t true. Two of the best-acted plays I’ve seen in awhile were both community theater plays. They also both happened to feature my daughter, Amy.

After graduating from UT Chattanooga last, Amy received a promotion to a lower-level management position from her previous part-time counter clerk sort of gig with the City of Chattanooga Visitor’s Center. She now makes a decent salary, with health insurance, paid vacations, and the whole nine yards. It’s not a career ladder-type position, but it is the first ‘real job’ she’s had. Naturally she felt pretty good about the opportunity, so instead of leaving Chattanooga following graduation as she had originally planned, she decided to remain in town another year to save money and take the time to fully decide what her next career step would be.

Chicago is one option, and was the leader in the clubhouse (not to mention having the full endorsement of dear ol’ Dad) until this fulltime position came up and pulled sway against it. The fact of the matter is, Amy needed some time to transition from the la-la-land of college idealism into the rubber-meets-the-road reality of the working world.

Going to Chicago would have been great; she already has friends up there; former UTC classmates who preceded her in school and decided to try and form their own acting company. My sister in-law’s brother has been a working actor in the Windy City for years, and recently encouraged Amy to come up and give it a try.

So the bottom line is, she’ll definitely have moral support, if and when she makes it up there. What she wouldn’t have had right now however, was money. She obviously had no way of saving much of anything while she was in school, working only enough to scrape up a few bucks for gas and spending money. The dough Michelle and I sent her during school months was just enough to cover her living expenses. The beer and cigarettes would have to be on her dime.

So as much as I would have liked to see her get her acting career started in earnest, I could certainly understand her situation. She needed a bit of a grubstake to make sure she at least didn’t start off as a starving artist.

Besides, who wouldn’t feel a little flattered, being offered their first real job promotion? But let’s face facts. Amy loves ‘Chatty’ and leaving her first home away from home will be a hard thing for her. At least this coming year will give her a chance to say goodbye.

So now that it was decided she was staying, what about acting? She certainly needed something to keep her irons in the theatrical fire, so why not try out for the local company?

It was something I’d never given much thought to her doing, but it really made sense. And as she’s always done, she placed her whole heart into the work. Her first part was a minor, yet very memorable role as the secretary of Hollywood Producer David O. Selznick in Moonlight and Magnolias, a play I thoroughly enjoyed, and not only for Amy’s performance. The cast was filled with accomplished, yet somewhat road-worn semi-professionals who still had a bit of the magic left, but obviously weren’t ready for prime time any more. Amy’s wonderfully quirky performance as Miss Poppengull literally stole the show, despite the fact that she was onstage for only brief moments scattered throughout the play.

She received rave reviews and was instantly invited to audition for future roles. This past weekend, we witnessed her in the first leading role of her post-college career.

The play is called, See Rock City, and no, it’s not about Cleveland. The story is actually placed in Kentucky, and the title subject is a tourist attraction just outside Chattanooga, the former home of the playwright, Arlene Hutton.

Rock City is a sort of roadside curiosity, a tourist trap, if you will (but Michelle has been there and tells me it’s well worth visiting). It’s an area atop the high foothills off Interstate 24, six miles north of Chattanooga, but for which the signs urging you to visit begin more than 100 miles out in all directions. It’s an attraction of interestingly unique geological formations and dramatic vistas that apparently was a popular honeymoon spot for the region back in the 30s and 40s (a la Niagara Falls), which is its particular relevance to the play.

If you’ve ever driven anywhere near Chattanooga on the interstates, you’ve undoubtedly seen the dozens of advertisements for Rock City, along with its sister attraction, Lookout Mountain. By way of comparison, if you’ve ever driven out west and seen the ubiquitous road signs for ‘Stucky’s,’ I think you’ll understand the phenomenon. Those three words, ‘See Rock City’ are plastered everywhere.

Following her performance, a relative of her co-star in the play and I were asking Amy about how well the two-week engagement had drawn. She said the crowds started out small, but grew as the weeks went by (the Saturday night crowd was quite good I thought). Amy credited the play’s popularity to word of mouth. I wisecracked that it must have been all that free advertising I saw along the side of the road as we drove down.

Dinner and a Show
As is our tradition when we come down for Amy’s plays, we arrive early to have a bite to eat with our daughter before she has to be at the theater to get ready for the evening’s performance.

Having stopped off at the new house lot on the way, we unfortunately were running a little behind. But Amy wasn’t worried. We’d grab something at the nearby Mexican restaurant. There’d be more than enough time to visit.

Amy’s bachelorette bungalow
Amy’s bachelorette bungalow.
We arrived at Amy’s new digs a little after 5:30 Saturday afternoon. Michelle was already familiar with the location of the house Amy is renting with another young woman, having helped her decorate the place soon after she moved in last month.

Amy lovin’ the lens on her front porch.
Amy lovin’ the lens on her front porch.
She showed us around the place briefly. I was impressed. It’s perfectly situated in an area that’s close to Downtown and anyplace she’d need to go. It was fairly decent in size. It seemed to be a perfect bachelorette pad.

The women in my life: Amy and her Mom
The women in my life: Amy and her Mom.
After the tour of Amy’s new house, we headed on to the restaurant on foot, just a block and a half down the street.

We were seated immediately, and after a brief musical chairs photo session back and forth across the table, we settled in to enjoy some tasty Mexican fare. The margaritas weren’t as good as those served up at Michelle’s and my favorite south-o-the border haunt in Franklin, but they weren’t too bad.

"I just love taking candid photos." — Amy
Michelle and AJ
Michelle and AJ
We talked about a number of things, not the least of which was a subject that comes up often in our individual time with our daughter: her brother Shawn. Only this time the occasion was not to vent or talk about their differences, but rather to report what a great time she’d had with him 24 hours earlier.

Shawn surprised us by deciding to make the trip to Chatty to see his sister’s play without us. We had previously invited him to tag along, which we always do when he’s available. And to his credit he’s made it to see a good number of her performances over the years, however no one is surprised nor hurt when he can’t make it.

But with this being Amy’s first post-college lead role, we really hoped Shawn would come out. He responded saying that he had plans that evening and asked if we could change our plans instead and make it Friday night rather than Saturday. Unfortunately that just wasn’t possible for Michelle and me, short of us both taking off work a couple hours early. I was resigned to the idea that Shawn just wasn’t going to be there this time around.

Then to our surprise, earlier in the week we learned that he had called Amy to made plans for coming down on Friday night anyway, with one of his 'cute' buddies in tow.

The trio had a great time together, and as Shawn would tell Michelle a few days later, he just couldn’t believe how much his lil’ sis is continuing to grow up before his eyes.

“I’m telling you, Mom,” Shawn exclaimed, “Every time I see her now, she shows me something different; some example of how much more mature she’s becoming.” To amplify his point, let’s just say that Shawn hasn’t always brought out the ‘mature’ side of his sister. Usually it’s the direct opposite, with the two of them eventually acting like six year-olds if they occupy the same space for too long.

However there would be no brother-sister blowups on this occasion. Shawn and his friend enjoyed the play and the time afterward, as Amy took them out to some of her favorite local drinking spots, then afterwards alowed them to crash overnight at her place.

As much as anything I saw that evening, that thought left me with a great feeling. My kids are actually becoming friends, and developing a relationship apart from their parents. Who Knew? Well, I’d like to say that I did, but I can’t tell you how often I have doubted that it would ever happen — despite the fact that I repeatedly insisted to them both that it someday would.

I remember Amy asking me one time when she was little, “Dad, are you sure Shawn and I will be friends someday, ‘cuz I really don’t like him very much right now.”

“Count on it, Sweetheart. It’ll happen,” I assured her.

Gawd...I just love it when I’m right.

Acting like a bunch a’ stooges
I guess it depends on both the situation and the actor involved, but the conventional wisdom is that Community Theater is not the place one starts, but rather finishes an acting career. At least that’s the assertion cast by one of Amy’s former boyfriends and fellow UTC theater students, a boy we’ll call ‘Shemp,’ because he’s been acting like a real stooge lately.

Shemp is still an underclassman at UTC; Amy and he were an item for a brief period last year, but remained close friends after they stopped dating. That status may have changed as of now, however.

When word got out that Amy, who had been the uncontested star of the UTC program her senior year, was now plying her trade at the Chattanooga Theater Centre, a few of the Moes and Larrys back at the theater department rolled their eyes. From within the idealistic cocoon of their university experience, they questioned her decision to ‘lower herself’ to such involvement in the minor leagues of Community Theater; prostituting herself as it were to the after-dinner blue-haired crowd on Friday and Saturday nights.

Hell, she might as well take up juggling for quarters on the street corner while she’s at it, right?

I have to admit that I was a bit disconcerted myself when Amy first announced she was pursuing such a course. However that fear was based only on the concern that it might lead to Amy growing even more comfortable in a city that has been a wonderful place for her to develop, but from which she really needs to break away to achieve her career goals.

However I’d never dream of throwing the hissy-fit that some of her so-called friends have done. Shemp staunchly refused to come see her performance out of protest. He may call that ‘tough love,’ but I call it ‘tough-shit-that-you’re-so freaking-shallow.’

Yeah, I know I’m biased, so sue me. The fact is that Amy did a great job, playing a great part in a well-written play.

A compelling portrayal
I thought Amy was compelling as May, a young wife whose husband’s ‘hidden’ physical disability forces him to deal with the ignorance, social upheaval, and the obvious economic difficulties of wartime, state-side in the Mid-South during the 1940s.

The role of May’s husband, Raleigh, was played by a young man who himself is a Community Theater veteran, but hadn’t done much acting since the 90s. Nonetheless he played a convincing role in an interesting story that particularly dwells upon the social mores of the day and the role changes brought about by WWII.

Those of us who have grew up watching the Viet Nam, and now, the Gulf and Iraq wars on television, may not realize just how differently war and the sense of duty fit into the collective thought process of society some sixty-five years ago.

World War II was enthusiastically considered to be the ultimate duty of manhood to all those who were able-bodied in those days. But what about those who appeared to be able bodied yet did not serve; those who were rejected as participants in the war based upon things like flat feet, or epilepsy as in the case of Amy’s co-star? Most of us can’t imagine the scorn these men felt in a time when America was fighting a truly just war, and being a part of it was almost universally accepted as the right thing to do.

Therein lays Raleigh’s struggle: to deal with the pressures exerted by society around him, based on a disease the public was so ignorant about that even his own Mother considered it more a character flaw (“Raleigh’s ‘little fits,’” as she called them) than an illness. Not only does he have to deal with the shame of being unfit to be a soldier, but his status as an epileptic also precludes him from driving or operating machinery. Hence, Raleigh has no visible means of employment, save for his now fruitless efforts as a freelance storywriter; a once-promising career that suddenly dried up when the war hit.

Since he’s unable to support his family, that responsibility is forced upon his wife, May, a grade school principle becoming increasingly frustrated by the pressures that weigh upon her young shoulders.

Trying to fit in when the world thinks you’re worthless isn’t such a foreign concept to a lot of us, and playwright Arlene Hutton does a wonderful job of drawing us near enough to touch it in this highly introspective play.

Amy and her 'See Rock City' co-star, Mike.
Amy and her 'See Rock City' co-star, Mike.
Mom & Dad with their 'Rock Star.'
Mom & Dad with their 'Rock Star.'
All told, it was a great day. A wonderful time was had by all. And as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but not just because the star onstage was also the one in my heart.

My heart beats for both of my children, but I think it’s okay to be just a little partial every now and then, don’t you?


Monday, November 05, 2007

Rock Star — A Miniseries (honest!)
(Part 1 of 2)

An unbiased opinion?
Funny how your own words will seem to betray you sometimes. Just the other day I was pontificating to a friend of mine on the subject of loving your children equally. On the occasion of her second child’s birth, she wondered whether her new baby would somehow be affected adversely by the lessened amount of attention she would be able to devote to her, compared to the unlimited attention she was able to give to her eldest child. She was concerned that such a the limit in access to Mommy might instill rivalries that she did not wish to be a part of her two girls’ relationship.

I opined that such circumstances were unavoidable, but that it was my wife Michelle’s and my policy to be as completely impartial as we could be in the amount of love and attention given to our two kids, whose needs seemed to be as different as their personalities. I also noted how well adjusted our children have apparently turned out as young adults. Hopefully we did something right.

To that end I truly believe that we were mostly successful in achieving that goal in the raising of our children, but the concern my friend had was still a factor throughout their upbringing. One always claimed the other was receiving some sort of preferential treatment. However the examples they could dream up to support their claims were often as amusing as they were maddening, because of how hard we worked at being as consciously fair about everything as we possibly could be. We weren’t perfect, but I believe that such perceived improprieties can be bred as much by personality as by parental preference one way or another. In the case of our two kids as they were growing up, I can definitely see how that has in a large way contributed to the types of people they are today.

That being said, as I sat down Sunday afternoon to write a brief photo mashup about Michelle’s and my time in Chattanooga Saturday, when we traveled to see our daughter, Amy’s latest thespian effort, I began to feel self-conscious. It occurred to me that it might appear as though I wasn’t quite practicing what I had preached.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that while Amy has been the subject of numerous blog series’ of mine, I have talked relatively little about my son, Shawn. However I’m here to say that this fact has nothing to do with any preference for my daughter over her brother. It actually has much more to do with her involvement in theater and the opportunities that has afforded us to spend time with her when we come to see her plays.

Having been involved with it all through high school and making it her major in college, the fact is that we have always made coming to see our daughter’s on-stage exploits a regular part of our investment in her life. That tradition has continued following her graduation from the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga this past year.

However, while I make the conscious effort to not play favorites between my kids, I do admit to feeling closer to my daughter because of these times that her Mother and I spend with her, despite the fact that we actually see Shawn more often.

Amy’s personality is much more similar to mine than is her brother’s, a fact that sometimes seems to feed our clashes as much as it nourishes our common ground. However the affirmation Amy and I give one other is indeed special, and is more direct than that afforded by the relationship I’ve always had with her older bro.

Our first born is a guy’s guy. He’s handsome, athletic, and intelligent. Even more so, he’s popular; he has, as they say, never met a stranger. He knows no fear — in social situations or otherwise. He’s a competitive rock climber and has been involved with the sport since he was in high school, having first become active in climbing in Boy Scouts several years earlier. But don’t let that Scouts moniker fool ya; he’s no goody two-shoes. He may not eat nails for breakfast, but he’s plenty tough.

Professionally, he’s been an arborist since his senior year of high school, a job that provided a substantial stream of spending money throughout his college years, requiring him to only come home and work part-time during the summer and perhaps a few long weekends during the school year. Not only does it pay well, it also it scratches his adrenaline-junky itch. He’s the guy way up in the treetops, battling what would be certain acrophobia for most people, as well as power lines, poison ivy, and the blowing wind, all conspiring to make one slip or bad decision a costly one.

This is the kid who, to celebrate his graduation from high school, went out with a couple buddies that night to take a bungee jump off the 145-foot Natchez Trace Bridge here in Williamson County (right) with a homemade bungee cord! Of course we didn’t know anything about the stunt until several months later.

But is that tough, or just plain fuckin’ nuts? Yeah, Shawn’s our wild child. He’s convinced that the world is his oyster. Things have always come pretty easy for him.

The bottom line is Shawn doesn’t ‘need’ his Dad’s outward approval; he already knows he has it; not that he won’t still subtly seek it from time to time.

He was the one of our two kids who seriously rebelled and acted out in high school; he of the magenta Mohawk doo fame, and the tongue piercing he obtained illegally as a minor without our permission, all while in the process of becoming an Eagle Scout — yeah, go figure.

Shawn was always one of the cool kids in school, a status I always marveled at from afar, seeing as how it was so foreign to my own experience at a similar age. Despite the fact that we had no real financial status in the community, Shawn always seemed to be one of the most popular guys around. He never seemed to try — he didn’t need to — he just was.

He always got the girl — or girls, plural. My son never had to pine for attention from the opposite sex like his old man. He’s a babe magnet.

As a result of Shawn’s extreme popularity, Amy, being two years his junior, had a tendency to dwell in her brother’s shadow when she arrived on the high school scene. Given the difference in their personalities, I can understand why. Amy is a much more introspective, sensitive type; she has an artist’s soul, hence her love for theater, which would ultimately be her salvation: an identity for herself apart from simply being known as ‘Shawn’s little sister.’

Amy’s never been a wallflower, but rightly or wrongly never seemed to feel that she could stand up to Shawn’s reputation. Like me, Amy has a somewhat chameleon-like personality. Gregarious, funny, and always personable, but ultimately comfortable with not being the center of attention.

Shawn on the other hand, while tender hearted (but don’t tell anybody, aiiight?), exudes a quiet confidence and a masculinity that is almost disarming. He doesn’t necessarily seek the spotlight; it just always seems to find him. I don’t know how anyone could possibly feel uncomfortable in his presence. He’s one of those ‘all-things-to-all-people’ kind of guys who can walk into a room and immediately make it his own.

In short, he’s hot, ladies.

But then again, so’s his sister.

Flying Lessons
I think that if they were perfectly truthful, our kids would both admit they’ve got it made. They know that we would go to the ends of the earth to help them if and when they really needed it. Nonetheless, they also know that the apron strings have been officially cut. They’ve both graduated from college and no longer receive any financial support from us. However that doesn’t mean they don’t still enjoy a few parental perks.

I paid for and still own their respective automobiles, and consequently, since they drive them, they’re automatically covered under my auto insurance policy, saving them both over a thousand dollars a year. However, as I mentioned recently, the insurance subsidy will be short-lived, as Michelle and I continue our efforts to help rather than stifle our little birdies efforts to soar on their own.

And that’s the thing that makes me feel so good about the decidedly affirmative direction our kids seem to be headed; they both seem to be as excited about being adults as we are for them. It’s extremely gratifying for us as their parents, and in no small measure adds to my current feeling that life has never been better or more rewarding for me than it is right here, right now.

However, Michelle and I are well aware that you never really stop being parents. You never reach the point, hopefully, that your children cease to look to you for affirmation and on occasion, direction in their lives. However, of course, the balancing act begins now that they’re finally on their own. I've found that I have to be a little more judicious in the way I distribute the opinions and assertions that were formerly a matter of daily discourse between me and my kids — something that is fairly difficult given my personality. But you certainly never lose the desire, and hopefully, the forum, to administer the appropriately timed emotional support your children need from someone who they know accepts them unconditionally.

Our forum with Amy, for the most part, has been through her plays. It’s always been a time in which she’s gotten to have us to herself, basking in the glory of us doting on her singularly. And while she’s now graduated from college, and saving money for a potential move next summer, she continues to hone her craft participating in Community Theater in Chattanooga, and this past weekend finished her second play for the local company.

Shawn on the other hand, has only sporadically continued in his high school endeavor of competitive climbing, and has no other avenues of involvement for us to be a part of, comparatively speaking. On the other hand, he did spend a lot more time at home throughout his college years, while Amy lived in Chattanooga almost the entire time she was in school.

As I’ve mentioned before, Shawn has traditionally been more of a homebody. He’s been around a lot over the past several years, and has enjoyed the one-on-one face-time with Mom and Dad. He really matured in college, and we were always quick to tell him how proud we were to see the person he was growing into. I’d like to think that’s one of the reasons he liked to stick closer to home. Michelle and I of course enjoyed having him around as well.

Recently he has been getting his parental fix by offering his services and expertise on how we should address the stand of trees that lay directly in back of our new house lot. It’s officially deemed neighborhood common area, but we’ve already been given nudge, nudge, wink, wink approval to develop the approximately 200 feet or so, directly beyond our property line as we see fit. Shawn has offered to come in and do all the necessary trimming and pruning of ‘our neck of the woods’ to make it a beautifully functional space. You can just see how pleased he is with the fact that he can do this for us. It’s really neat to see.

So the bottom line is that we have always loved our kids equally, but in their own way, in accordance to their personal makeup and emotional needs. And despite the apparent advantages that her brother had over her early in the game, if you asked Amy now, I’m sure that she’d agree. Despite her brother’s rock star status in high school, the playing field is now dead even.

However on the occasion of this past weekend, it was Amy’s turn to be a Rock Star.

Next: A play on words