Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yes. And...?

When I was about 13, I saw a TV special on the A&E network called "Warbabies." I don't remember why I tuned in, it might have even been by accident, but it was the first time I had ever been exposed to the art of improv comedy. A group of about a dozen comedians were gathered on a stage and proclaimed to a crowd of about a hundred or so that everything they were about to see was going to be completely made up on the spot. I had never heard of improv before, but I was intrigued. Surely these people were kidding, right? There was no way sane people would come out in front of a crowd and just make shit up on the spot. Surely there had to be a script involved. Who would pay to see folks just make stuff up? And, more to the point, how on earth could it be funny? In my naive teenage mind jokes had to be written first before they could be funny. But, over the next hour I was transfixed by these brave souls who asked for random audience suggestions (locations, occupations, relationships,and the like) and then wove those suggestions into comedy gold. The only member of the ensemble I recognized was Peter Riegert (Boone from "Animal House"), but they were all incredibly talented individuals who kept me in stiches for the better part of an hour. The most amazing scene in the special was at the end, when the entire cast came out on stage and turned a single audience suggestion into an elaborate musical number. I was mesmerized. I wish A&E would rerun the special, or that it was available on DVD so I could relive that eye-opening experience. But, from that point on, I became fascinated by improv. I didn't think at the time that I myself could ever try it, much less be any good at it, but I definitely wanted to know more.

Many years later, when I was a theatre major in college, Comedy Central started showing reruns of the British show "Whose Line is it Anyway." For most people I know, this was their introduction to the world of improv. Again, the cast members would take audience suggestions and turn them into little skits that had me rolling in the floor. By this time, I had appeared in several college plays, so I had a deeper appreciation of just how hard it was to get up in front of an audience and be funny. It was hard enough when you had a script to go by, but standing onstage unarmed was every actor's nightmare. How did these people do it? Week after week, I would watch "Whose Line" with my fellow theatre friends and we were always blown away by the wit and timing of the cast. But, even though I considered myself a performer at that point, I still couldn't imagine going out on stage with nothing prepared. It seemed insane to subject myself (or an audience) to that madness. As far as I was concerned, these folks from the BBC were truly gifted freaks of nature who had skills I could never hope to achieve.

Then in 2001, my college friend Mac Funchess came to me and said he was part of an improv group with some other folks and wanted to know if I was interested in joining. At first I thought he was crazy. It seemed like suicide to subject oneself to the theatrical equivalent of bungee jumping without a net...or even a bungee cord for that matter. I passed, wishing him and his other volunteers good luck. I did, however, go see one of their first performances at a Montgomery bar one evening soon after, and even though they were a little rough around the edges, they were pretty funny. I decided that I would suck it up and give it a shot. I soon found myself part of "Brainfreeze," Montgmery's first (and as far as I know, only) improv group. Mac introduced me to Tony Beckham, one of the founding members. Mac and Tony had taken some improv workshops in Atlanta and had read several books on improv and decided to form Brainfreeze to share their knowledge. It was here that I learned the secret of improv, the core principle that makes improv work. It is the spark from which all improv scenes grow and thrive upon. Without it, scenes wither on the vine and die. And, until Tony and Mac shared it with me, I thought it must be some elaborate, mechanical theory that takes years to master. But it's actually quite simple. It's two little words: Yes. And.

"Yes, and..." is the key to creating something out of nothing on stage. They might not seem like much, but those two little words are powerful tools. They are the building blocks for all great improv. It's very simple how it works, really. Let's say two people are on stage. One of them turns to the other and says:

"Say, Dave, isn't the sky a lovely shade of blue?"

Now, if the other actor wanted to kill the scene right then and there, all he would have to do is say:

"No, it's cloudy. And my name's not Dave."

End scene. Crickets. No laughs, no jokes, unhappy audience. What he should have done is said:

"Yes, it is. And check out that airplane flying by."

"Dave" accepted what his partner gave him (Yes). Then he added to it (And). So, with "Yes, and.." firmly in place, the scene might continue like this:

"Yes, I see the plane. And doesn't it look like it's flying a little low?"

"Yes, it is flying low. And it's coming right at us."

"Yes, it's almost on top of us. And I think we should run away."

"Yes, we should run away. And into this steel bunker."

"Yes, good idea. And I have the key right here in my pocket."

"Yes, and it's a good thing I let you wear my pants today."

And so on and so on until the scene ends. Now, this is a very simplified version of how it works (and there are several other techniques that come into play as you progress though successful improv scenes), but the starting point is simple. You agree with your partner, whatever they say, and then add to it. You accept the reality you are given, and then build on it, no matter how absurd it might be. Rejecting what you are given is called "blocking" (i.e. you "block" the other person's reality), which brings the scene to a screeching halt. By blocking, you are halting any forward momentum in the scene and bringing it crashing down on top of you (not unlike the plane headed right for Dave and his friend). It's actually quite a simple concept, but until Mac and Tony shared it with me, I had no idea how improv worked. But from that one idea, I became hooked on improv and have performed it almost non-stop since.

The thing about it, though, is that "Yes, and..." is a concept that works not only on the stage, but in everyday life. In fact, I would go so far as to say it has benefitted me more in the real world than in the imaginary one created on stage. When we interact with each other, we need to accept the reality given to us by the other person, then add to it with positivity. Never try to steer something in a different direction just because it's not the way we planned to go. Blocking is never a good thing, and leads to disappointment, frustration, and frowns. Being accepting of what we are given and then adding to it is the key to making life work. As the old saying goes, all the world's a stage, so we should treat it as such (of course, if the world is a stage, I want better lighting, but you get the idea). Next time you run into an unknown situation, just try "Yes, and..." I think you will be surprised at the results. If nothing else, you might make someone laugh, and that's something in far too short of supply these days.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It Is What It Is

I met Jen on a chilly October morning in 2006. I was the location manager for the film "Honeydripper" and we we shooting a scene at the abandoned Army barracks at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Alabama. I was still living in Los Angeles at the time, but had been hired by John Sayles to come back to my adopted home state to work on his film for a few months. The majority of the film was being shot in Greenville, some 200 miles away, but we had one crucial scene to shoot here in Anniston, so the entire crew had made the journey north for one day of shooting. The sun hadn't even come up yet when I arrived on set that morning, so I quickly headed for craft services to get my first cup of hot tea for the day. As I was getting my caffeine on, a cute girl I had never seen before bounded down the back stairs of the craft services truck. I turned and said, "Hi. I don't know you. Who are you?" She smiled, held out her hand and said, "Hi. I'm Jennifer." We shook hands. I immediately felt that Jen was sweet and charming, the kind of person who you know has never met a stranger. I asked her how she came to be on set. She said she had been hired as a production assistant to help out with craft services for the day. She then told me she was from Birmingham and had recently made a short film starring Mo Rocca (from the Daily Show) called "Piece of Cake." It had screened in the Sidewalk Film Festival that September, where it won the Audience Choice award for Best Alabama Short, which is when she first heard out about "Honeydripper" coming to town. I was even more impressed when she told me she had never written or directed a short film before. She asked me where I was from. I told her I used to live in Montgomery, but currently lived in Burbank, California. I was only in Alabama for 3 months for the shoot, and then I would jet off back to Los Angeles right after Thanksgiving. We talked for a few minutes more, but soon I was called away to deal with some sort of location problem, and that was that. I saw her again sporadically throughout the day, but never got the chance to talk to her again. And as the day was winding down and everyone was packing up to make the 200 mile trek back to Greenville, I figured I would probably never see her again. But as I was glamorously tossing garbage bags from the day's shoot into a dumpster next to the location, Jen's car pulled up. She was leaving for the day, but wanted to give me her MySpace address in case I wanted to know more about her short film. I tucked the piece of paper in my pocket, told her it was nice to meet her, and said goodbye.

Three years to the day later, we were married.

Cue the romantic music. Fade out. Credits.

Sounds just like some great movie, right? It's a great story. Jen and I have told that story to people for nearly 5 years. When people ask us how we met, it's cool to say, "We met on a movie set." It always gets a great reaction. So when we started telling our friends and family recently that we have decided to split up, it came as a bit of a shock to everyone. Including, and especially, to us. But real life isn't like the movies; there are no guaranteed happy endings. We don't have an omniscient director guiding our every move. Award-winning screenwriters aren't plotting the destinies of the two young lovers who "met cute" on a film set. Life is what it is, and sometimes things don't work out the way people expect them to. It's not always tragic when it happens. Sometimes it's exactly the way it's supposed to be. It's sad and it hurts and it makes you cry, but after you wipe away the tears and really listen to your heart, you know it's just the way it is.

The truth is, Jen and I love each other very much. And there are things in our relationship that work like gangbusters. We support each other, we inspire each other, we bring out the best in each other. I know I am forever a better person for having Jen in my life. She has given me so much and taught me so much about myself. She makes me want to be a better person every single day. And I know that the reason for all the good things in our relationship is that we have always been totally honest with each other. We can and do tell each other everything. There is nothing I can't tell her, and she the same with me. The irony is that because of that honesty, we have decided to split up.

No relationship is perfect, and ours is no different. We found each other at the exact right time and place in each of our lives. We didn't realize it at the time, but we each had a piece of what the other person was missing in some way: Love. Stability. Encouragement. Comfort. Love. We were both alone and lost in the wilderness, but somehow we found each other. It really was like something out of a movie. But from the very beginning, no matter how quickly and completely we were drawn to each other, there was still something missing. Something intangible. A spark is the only way to describe it. That feeling you get deep down on a purely romantic level that words just can't explain. We've looked for it many times, but for whatever reason, that quality is just missing between us. We both realized it when we first met, but at the time it didn't matter. At that time in our lives, we needed each other for all the other reasons. But as time has passed and our relationship has grown, we have both come to realize that we love each other too much to ignore it any longer. It is painful and difficult and hard to admit to one another, but to pretend that it doesn't matter would mean we would have to stop being honest with each other, and that's not how our relationship works. At first, we tried to figure out how to fix it, like there was something broken. But the truth is, it didn't really break. You can't fix something that has never existed in the first place. It doesn't make it any less painful, it just is what it is. Jen is my best friend, and I am hers. And the only way for us to remain best friends is for us to stop being husband and wife. Because if we don't, even though we still love each other now, one day, be it one year, five years, or ten years down the line, we will wind up resenting or blaming or hating each other for pretending that nothing is wrong, and the thought of that is a thousand times more painful than the thought of splitting up. I can survive losing my wife, but I can't survive losing my best friend.

In many ways, Jen and I are different people than when we met. We've both grown and changed and evolved. We have different goals and interests and dreams than we did that cold morning in Anniston. We're not mad or angry or upset with each other about it. In fact, as strange as it sounds, once we finally admitted to each other that something was missing in our relationship, we were both relieved. The elephant could leave the room now. It's been weird and sad and confusing wrapping our heads around this whole thing, and we've talked about it extensively from every possible point of view, but we both agree that this is the only honest decision we can make. It sucks and it hurts and it's going to be a huge life change for us both, but it is the right decision for us to make. I will always treasure my marriage to Jen, and I know she feels the same. I don't regret a second of the time we've spent together, and I know we will always be part of each other's lives. Some people might think we're being rash, or that we need to give it more time. But that's what people do when they're trying to be polite with each other. Polite and honest are two very different things. Love is no reason to be polite.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When I Found the Big Bag of Oranges

So, you might be asking yourself, why is my blog called "The Big Bag of Oranges" anyway? Well, it's a strange story that involves college friends, cops, and the TV show "Benson." But I'm getting ahead of myself. Way back in 1993, I was a student at Auburn University Montgomery trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life. It had taken me 3 years of on-again/off-again enrollment to finally finish up the general courses. I had taken all the stuff everybody has to take when they go to college. I couldn't put it off any longer. I had to finally pick a major. I had no idea where to turn. None of the "careers" laid out in front of me seemed appealing. I hated math, so business and engineering were out. Blood makes me squeamish, so forget the medical field. I don't want to be a teacher, and I feel that if you don't want to teach, you shouldn't. Some people I know regard teaching as a "fallback" position. "If my career as a so-and-so doesn't work out, I'll just become a teacher." I think you would be doing your students an unforgivable disservice if you didn't feel passionately about teaching them. So, for me, that was also out.

About the only thing I was drawn to in college was when I performed in plays for the college's theatre department. I had signed up for an acting class my first semester because I though it would be an easy A and it might be a good place to meet girls. I didn't get lucky in that class, but I did find out about auditions for "Night of the Iguana" at Theatre AUM. Again, because of the potential to meet girls, I tried out. And, to my surprise, I got a part! I was cast as one of the Mexican houseboys (Paco or Pedro, I can't remember which). I had 8 lines, all in Spanish. The costume designer dyed my hair black and every night before the show I had to cover my body in brown makeup. I was the tallest, skinniest, and palest Mexican you've ever seen. And while the drunken, sweaty dialogue of Tennessee Williams didn't exactly set my heart on fire, being on stage did. When it comes right down to it, I'm a big showoff, so being in front of large groups of people has never bothered me. I felt at home on the stage, and for this particular show, I was part of the (minuscule) comic relief. It was a lot of fun dressing up in a silly costume every night and making the audience laugh. It became addictive. I started trying out for other shows every semester, playing bigger parts, working backstage, and hanging out with the theatre crowd. But it never occurred to me that being an actor could be a lucrative career. This was something I did for fun; a hobby more than anything, really. Sure, I might fancy myself as a bit of a comedian, but I'm not really an actor. And I wasn't really drawn to the technical side of theatre, either (I don't like to hang lights, make costumes, or wear all-black clothes all the time). But while I was there, I met a couple of guys who, like me, shared a passion for something that I hadn't even considered. And it was so obvious, it had been staring me right in the face the whole time: movies!

I love movies. I watch them at the movie theater, I rent them on video, I tape them off cable. I grew up watching them, reading about them, being sucked into them. But they existed in my mind as a fantasy realm, something unreal and intangible. I knew all about famous directors and studios and all that, but that was a universe that existed far beyond my own, in a distant and magical place called "Hollywood." I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and even though I had grown up traveling all over the world, I never thought of Hollywood as a real place. Movies were just something "other people" did. Famous people. Not me. But, as it turns out, regular people do make movies. There's an entire industry filled with regular folk who just happen to have the coolest job in the world. And during my time at Theatre AUM, I met 3 other guys who shared the same desire as I to run off to Hollywood and live the dream: Art, Danny, and Garner.

We all met during the 1992 production of "Dracula," and we quickly realized we shared a love for movies. We all aspired to make it big in the movie business, and as luck would have it, we all wanted to to pursue different roles. Art saw himself as a director, Garner as a producer. Danny wanted to be an actor, while I wanted to be a screenwriter. We surmised that if we all worked together, we could take the film world by storm! Granted, our college-sized egos usually got the better of us, and despite the fact that all 4 of us worked at the same video store, none of us had any real idea how to make movies. We couldn't afford to buy real film, and professional video cameras in those days were several thousand dollars we didn't have. The best we could come up with was Art's VHS camcorder. And making a full length film was a bit ambitious for our first time out, so we decided to try our hand at making a parody of the TV show "Cops," figuring that the handheld, amateurish look of the show was right in our wheelhouse. As it turned out, Montgomery's Fox affiliate was airing their own locally produced version of "Cops" called "M.P.D." It was a no-brainer. The wheels turned and we all settled on the name for our show - "N.M.P.D. - Not the Montgomery Police Department." We spent the spring and summer of 1993 filming the exploits of 4 inept cops patrolling the streets of Montgomery, all while trying to find the perfect coffee and donuts. I played Detective Season, the wide-eyed, sci-fi geek who bumbled his way through each adventure. Art Douglas played Sgt. Douglas (go figure), the violent, ex-military type. Garner was Sgt. Manapua, the psychotic Vietnam vet with homicidal tendencies. Danny was Detective Juan O'Malley, an undercover druglord. Sure, it was kind of cheesy and rough-around-the-edges, but it was funny and a lot of fun to make. Some of the end results can be seen here:

We produced about a dozen episodes (more or less) that ran on the local public access channel sporadically during the spring and summer of 1993. Despite the no-budget production values and amateurish execution, a few people besides our friends and families actually watched the damn thing. We amassed a small following around town (even sold a few N.M.P.D. t-shirts out of the trunk of Art's car. We were big time!). One of the episodes we filmed involved Garner's character being abducted by aliens (don't ask). In our lofty goals for our little show, we had always intended this to be a cliffhanger episode. Manapua would be whisked away by a UFO at the end, with the next episode revealing what happened to him inside the alien mothership. Unfortunately, my "epic" script for the conclusion proved to be too expensive to produce (i.e. we had no idea how to do it), so we scrapped the whole thing. Instead, I wrote a script where Manapua just shows up back at the police station. Everyone is shocked to see him. Someone asks, "Hey, Manapua, how did you get away from the aliens?" Manapua replies, "Well, it's a funny story..." and just as he is about to explain how he got away from the mothership, we cut to a fake news report about something irrelevant. The fake newscaster wraps up the fake news report and says, "We now return you to N.M.P.D., already in progress." We cut back to Manapua, who is finishing up his tale. He says, "...which is how I wound up at the condom factory. And that's when I found the big bag of oranges." Everyone nods in amazement. And... scene.

It was Garner who actually came up with the line about the oranges, but I thought it was a brilliant way to write around our limitations. A random non-sequiter about oranges and condoms seemed like a funny way of saying to the audience, "Hey, folks, we ain't got the money to do this, so we're just going to move on." I asked Garner how he came up with the line and he explained it was a reference to a random line he heard in re-run of "Benson" when he was a kid. In the episode dim-witted Governor Gatling was trying to recant some silly story to Benson, who was too busy to hear it. Benson tells the Governor to skip to the end. The Governor runs through the tale in his head, then says, "And you know what was in the bag? The oranges!" And... scene. Silly, random, and, at least to me, hysterical. From that point on, the line "That's when I found the big bag of oranges" followed my pen around everywhere I wrote. I tried to include it somewhere in every script or story I came up with. I got the idea from director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Coming to America). Landis includes the phrase "See you next wednesday" in all of his films. It's on billboards, on marquees, on posters, it's even in lines of dialogue. It's subtle and in the background, but it's there. It's a filmmaker signature, like Hitchcock's cameo in all of his own films (or Hal Needham's cameo in all of his own films). The Big Bag of Oranges is mine. It's nonsensical and whimsical and kind of bizarre, and that's why I like it.

And every time I hear it, I am reminded of the summer I spent with my friends making movies. The stuff we filmed was also nonsensical and whimsical and kind of bizarre, but it didn't matter. It also didn't matter that we had no idea what we doing. We were just doing it. We hadn't yet become jaded by the harsh realities of the film industry. We hadn't yet become distracted by the responsibilities of real life. We hadn't yet lost our sense of wonder. As time passes, I get more cynical about making movies. Years after N.M.P.D., when I moved to Los Angeles and had the opportunity to work on "real" movies, I was thrilled beyond belief. I got to watch people like Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese and John Sayles make films. I was an arm-length away from the greatest film school anyone could ever wish for. It was exhilarating, but at the same time, it was kind of sad. It was like I was watching how the magician did his tricks. Sure, the tricks were awesome, but it took some of the magic away. There was a thrill in ignorance that my friends and I shared back in 93. Acting on blind passion without a roadmap led to some pretty amazing destinations back in the day. It also led down some blind alleys, but the thrill of discovery was still there. That thrill is harder and harder to find these days. I know it's still there. I can feel it, buried deep in that part of my brain that remembers things like the lyrics to the theme to "Cannonball Run" or the name of the composer of the music to "Battle Beyond the Stars." That deep passion I have for movies never really goes away. It just takes a reminder every now and then to bring it back to the surface. So whenever I feel like giving up, I just go looking for the big bag of oranges.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Magic Kingdom

When I was 12 years old, I spent an entire day at Disneyland by myself. It wasn't planned that way, but that's how it turned out. Let me back up. It was 1985, we were living in Victorville, California and I was attending Hook Junior High. I was in the 7th grade, and like all the other cool kids in the 7th grade, I was in the choir. Not much else a short, skinny dork who doesn't play sports can do. I certainly wasn't going to be in the band. That was the kiss of death in 7th grade. At least the choir didn't require me to carry an instrument case everywhere. I felt sorry for the band kids, they essentially had to cart around a big sign all day long that said, "Hey, bullies! Check out my instrument case! I'm in the band! Come get me!" They were like lambs to the slaughter. The choir was much more subtle. Sure, I still got picked on, but there was less chance I would be spotted in the wild like the band kids. And since my voice didn't change until around 1988, I had a lovely soprano singing voice. For 1st period every day, me and the other 40 or so kids in the choir gathered in Mr. Lotze's music class and belted out the hits! The theme to "Happy Days!" Something from a musical none of us had every heard of! And many more! To be fair, it was a lot of fun to sing every morning, and it was one of the only classes besides P.E. that I didn't have homework for. Mr. Lotze arranged all of us according to our voices, so I wound up next to the same kids every day. As a result, I became fast friends with 2 of my fellow sopranos: Erik McKinley and Bryan Foley. We hung out before class, we would hang out together at lunch, we rode the bus together; we were a trio. All year long, we stood next to each other on the risers and sang in Mr. Lotze's class. And, whenever the choir got to go on field trips for singing competitions, we would hang out as a trio. And all year long, there was one field trip all of us were looking forward to more than any other: the year-end trip to Disneyland.

One sunny day in early May, the entire choir loaded up on the bus and headed for beautiful Anaheim, California, home of the world famous Disneyland. It was our reward for selling all those damn fundraiser candy bars, cheese logs, and greeting cards over the course of the year. Of course, we had to make a stop first. To justify the school sending us all the way to Disneyland, Mr. Lotze scheduled us to sing at an Anaheim junior high school that morning. We sang a couple of songs with a local choir, then jumped back on the bus and headed off to the park! As a result, we were all decked out in our hideous uniforms that all those fundraisers helped pay for: a bright purple button-down and white pants. Like I said, hideous. Erik, Bryan, and I sat next to each other on the bus, busting with excitement, trying to decide what to ride first. We settled on the Matterhorn, the roller coaster inside the giant plastic mountain in the center of Fantasyland. The plan was to hop off the bus, change into our street clothes in the restroom, and head off into the park. Mr. Lotze told all us to be back at the bus by 6:00. We were all in junior high and there were no chaperones with us (it was the 80s, remember). As far as he was concerned, we were on our own. As we pulled up to the gates of the park, the excitement was palpable. Kids were bouncing up and down on the seats, trying to contain themselves, just waiting for those bus doors to open and release the pressure. The hiss of the air brakes filled the air, the door opened, and kids shot out of the bus like a rocket, scattering in all directions. I spotted a restroom right by the entrance. I ran inside along with several other kids. We quickly changed into our street clothes, stuffed our uniforms in a locker, and ran out into the park. Different groups of kids broke off in all directions, disappearing into the crowd and noise. I looked around. I didn't see Erik or Bryan anywhere. They were right behind me when we ran off the bus, where did they go? I thought for sure they followed me into the bathroom. If not, surely they would have waited for me, right? I checked the bathroom again. I scanned the crowd again. Nothing. They were nowhere in sight. And by this point, all of the other kids in the choir had disappeared, too. I was all alone. I wasn't scared. I was almost 13, being left alone was not a big deal. I figured Erik and Bryan must have headed for the Matterhorn, so I found a map and figured out where that was. I took off into the park.

But as I walked along Main Street U.S.A. I started to wonder if Erik and Bryan ditched me on purpose. At first, I couldn't imagine why they would have done that. But then the wheels started turning. Maybe they got tired of waiting and decided to go on without me? Maybe since most of the rides at Disneyland are two-seaters, they thought 3 was a crowd? Maybe they were just 13 years-old and ditching someone at Disneyland is the kind of thing 13 year-olds think is funny? By the time I arrived at the base of the mountain, Erik and Bryan were nowhere to be found. There was no use in trying to find them now, they could be anywhere. And I didn't want to waste the entire day looking for them. And if they did really ditch me, I certainly didn't want to hang out with them now. I was on my own. Just me, all by myself, alone in Disneyland with no adult supervision. I could ride whatever I wanted, eat whatever I wanted, spend as much time in the gift shops as I wanted. The disappointment over being ditched by my friends shifted into a sudden sense of freedom. I had never been let loose like this before. I felt so adult. It was kind of cool. Granted, I was 12 years old and if my parents knew I was running around by myself, I'd be in so much trouble, but I didn't care. I was free to roam. And being the sci-fi geek I am, there's only one place to start. I headed straight for Tomorrowland. To Space Mountain, young Cunliffe! And beyond! I spent the next 5 hours or so wandering through the entire park, stopping when I was interested, riding whatever I wanted as many times as I wanted. The People Mover! Pirates of the Caribbean! That rocketship thing! That other one with the tea cups! And many more! For a while, it was kind of fun, but after about hour 3, it started to get kind of boring. Sure, there was a lot to see and do, and I even met Pluto, but hanging out in the Magic Kingdom all by myself was, to be honest, really dull. There's only so many times you can ride Mr. Toad's Wild Ride before the novelty wears off. I remember just wandering around the park for a while, taking it all in. I started noticing the rough edges. Like the where the employee entrances were. Or that all the snack bars pretty much sold the same 10 items, they just called them different things based on where they were located in the park (Mickey's Frontier Burger vs. Tinkerbell's Fantasy Burger and so forth).

Pretty soon, all I wanted was for 6:00 to roll around so I could go back to the bus and go home. Disneyland was no fun with no one to share it with. I didn't have anyone to sit with on the rides, I didn't have anyone to talk about the rides with after we got off. No one to talk to in line, no one to try on Mouseketeer ears with in the gift shops. When the clock finally hit 6:00, I wandered back to the bus, alone. All the other kids were glowing from their wild time in the park, sharing stories, laughing. I trudged to the back of the bus, where I found Erik and Bryan. They hadn't even changed out of their uniforms. They simply ran off the bus and into the park when we arrived, wearing what they had on. They laughed as I walked up, as if I was the punchline to the joke they started 5 hours earlier. I just shook my head and sat down behind them, silent. They snickered, but stopped pretty quick. I think they could tell how upset I was. They didn't apologize (they were still 13 after all), but they didn't bring it up again the whole bus ride home. Practical jokes are great if everybody is in on it. But there was one guy in the trio who didn't think it was funny. I got over it (and even went to the park again the next summer with my family and had a great time), but I never forgot about my game of solitaire inside the happiest place on earth. Now that I am older, I find a lot of parallels in my life to my time alone inside Disneyland. We were an Air Force family, so we moved nearly every 3 years. We went thousands of miles in the opposite direction with every new base Dad was assigned to. I travelled all over the world as a kid, saw some amazing things, but when we moved away, I had to leave all of it behind. I had to forget all my friends and make new ones. I can't call kids from my childhood and reminisce about all the things we did together because I have no idea where any of them are. When I was alone in Disneyland, I didn't realize it at the time but I was making memories for no one to share with but me. It's kind of sad to think about sometimes, but I wouldn't change it. Sometimes in life, we take for granted what we have and think that things will always be the way they are. Then something happens and turns that upside down, leaving you by yourself. If I have learned anything in my travels, it is that you must make memories with those around you as often as you can, because you never know when you will find yourself all alone in an amusement park with no one to ride the roller coaster with.

Friday, March 04, 2011


The future...

Fire rained down on the city of Burbank as the alien warships continued to hammer the human race out of existence. Skyscrapers tumbled like houses made of cards as bombs fell. Huge Dropships deposited scaly shocktroops at an alarming rate, outnumbering the city's residents 10 to 1. The reptilian hordes swarmed over the Valley, indiscriminately slaughtering and eating any and all of the poor human beings that were foolish enough to get in their way. It had been 3 days since the ships appeared in countless locations around the world, with no word as to what they wanted or why they were here. All the confused people of earth knew was that the aliens were here to stay. And they were winning.

The irony of seeing of a real alien invasion over the skies of a city known for producing countless imitations was not lost on Carlos. Irony was something he was used to. It had been 10 years since he had disappeared. Friends, family, total strangers were all convinced he must be dead. After the tweets, the rants, the interviews on all the networks, the public lost interest. The show he used to be a part of continued without him. The ratings barely hiccuped as it went on for another half decade, while the instigator of all the chaos drifted out of favor, becoming a sad, half-remembered punchline. With his revenue stream cut off and his erratic behavior no longer charming in the court of public opinion, Carlos lost the favor of the goddesses and the yes-men and found himself alone and lost on the streets of broken dreams. Tiger blood and adonis DNA lost their mystique just like all the other fad catchphrases of the pop culture past. Uninsurable, unintelligible, and unwanted, celebrity Charlie Sheen became regular citizen Carlos Estevez and, like everyone else in the real world, became invisible. It had been a decade since anyone had seen or heard from him. But from his cardboard bunker near the 3rd Street Promanade in Santa Monica, Carlos watched the alien warships being to vaporize the Pacific Ocean. It was then and there he knew he had to do something. And for all those who doubted him in the past, he was going to show the entire world how wrong they had been about him. This was his time. Redemption. Vindication. Hollywood loves a comeback, and it was about to get the biggest one of all.

Carlos stepped out of his cardboard box and stood alone on the beach. All the freaks and tourists that used to populate the beaches of L.A. were long gone, eaten or disintegrated by the aliens. But none of that mattered now. Carlos knew what he had to do. His entire life had been building to this moment. He looked much older than 55, all haggard and worn, with missing teeth and a bad combover, the result of a lifetime of living in overtime. But today there was a spark in his eyes, a spark not seen since the days of Lucas. Or maybe Hot Shots: Part Deux. He was pretty good in that one, too. Whichever role it was, Carlos felt like a young overprivileged superstar again. He gazed out across the water at the giant alien warship sucking the planet dry. Something on board the mile-long deathship must have spotted the lone human standing on the shore because all its gun batteries suddenly pointed themselves right at him. Carlos smiled. "That's battle-tested bayonets, bro," he said to himself. "Let's see how you assholes stand up against my Vatican Assassin Warlock fire-breathing fists!" Carlos clinched his fists tight, pointing them at the alien warship. He was no longer Carlos Estevez. He was Charlie Fucking Sheen. He was special and was tired of the world not seeing it. It was time to teach these alien motherfuckers a lesson.

The aliens opened fire. And because Charlie Sheen was bi-polar and not bi-winning, his superpowers were all in his head, so he was snuffed out like a candle, blowing out in a tiny puff of smoke. The aliens resumed their conquest of the earth and eventually wound up enslaving humanity. All except John Stamos, who escaped to Mars with a group of rock stars in a stolen alien spaceship.

Again, irony.