Posts Tagged ‘mental-health’

I don’t think I understood what was going on – Mom had just gotten off the phone with my agent. I had heard Mom’s side of the conversation, and I pieced together that something serious was going on – I just didn’t know what. We had a brick cell phone – I mean one of those huge, blocky things with a long rubber antenna, terrible reception, and cost a small fortune to talk on. I knew this call must have been important – otherwise, Mom would have surely pulled off and called back from a payphone. She looked at me thoughtfully.

Mom: The agency is closing its doors.

Me: What!?

Mom: They’re done. They’re bankrupt.

I was floored. The agency was huge – one of the largest in the industry – with offices on both coast and stars on their roster.

Me: What in the hell…

Mom: I don’t know. We’re supposed to stop in tomorrow and talk.

When we stopped in to the office, everything seemed different. I mean, the furnishings and whatnot were pretty much the same, but the mood was totally different. You ever watch a hive of bees when they’re slightly drugged or sleepy? They move, but it’s like they’re underwater. That’s sort of how it felt. What once was a bustling hive of activity was now a dying colony. Nobody had a spring in their step. Desks were empty. Some people were even in the process of putting things in boxes. We had heard rumors – clients were jumping ship by the truckload. Some people weren’t getting their checks, and hadn’t been for some time. The previous owner of the agency had somehow embezzled millions, or the new owners – who had taken over only a couple years prior – had run it into the ground, or maybe it was just an innocent accounting error. I had heard the owner himself was involved in some sort of insurance scam – that he paid thieves to steal his art so he could file an insurance claim. Allegedly, he paid the thieves off and kept the art for himself. Even if half of these were true, this was not what you wanted to her – not, at least, when you worked for (or with) one of the biggest agencies in the business. Besides, going belly up as an agency  – at least one this size – was nearly unheard of at the time.

We sat down across from my agent of many years, who explained to us that we should start looking for other representation. Yes, the rumors were true, and the agency was broke. Embezzlement was suspected – accounts were frozen. The agents hadn’t been paid. Big stars weren’t even getting their checks. I let the conversation break over me like a wave, and didn’t say much. I just watched the two adults – my mother and my agent – talk, and soaked in the office. I liked that office, had practically lived there since I was 8, and was disappointed. I also knew it may be difficult to find an agent – if people were jumping ship like rats from such a big agency, other agents would be flooded with too much talent to even deal with. I sensed changes may be afoot, and they were.

We ended up moving to a smaller manager – Mom’s logic behind this was that we had a history with this person, and a manager might be better than an agent. (If you sign with an agent, you’re exclusive with that agent. If you sign with a manager, they send you out through many different agents, and you can kind of get a feel for who you work well with). I guess it was a good move, or at least a move that made some kind of sense. She was worried we’d get lost in the shuffle at a bigger agency, and I suppose that was a real possibility. I was still doing a significant amount of acting work – still making a living, supporting myself and 3 other people. Work had started to slow down a bit, but I attributed that to the fact that the agency was going under. When I signed up with my manager, I did work less. But the business always went in cycles – sometimes you were up, sometimes you were down. That’s just the way it was.

Mom felt she had some sort of personal relationship with the manager – they were quasi-acquaintances I guess – and she would talk to her quite a bit on the phone. I think she may have let her in on some of her craziness – her theories about the Mafia and Russ – because I eventually started getting the impression that she thought something was funny. Not funny as in off, funny as in ha ha. Especially as things wore on, whenever we stopped in, she’d just sort of sit behind the desk and listen to Mom and sort of have this smirk on her face. You know like when someone says or does something really stupid, and you have a hard time keeping a straight face? It was sort of like that, with maybe a little bit of patronizing thrown in. I can’t explain it any better than that. When I look back on this, I feel an odd mix of protectiveness and indignation, mixed with shame. Indignation, not that Mom should have been taken seriously by any means, but that she should have been respected. At the very least, not made a joke out of. Shame that she was obviously crazy, and I was lumped into that – it reflected on me, and affected my career trajectory.

I can see why maybe the manager got fed up – Mom would call and try to pump her for information, or try to get more auditions out of her. Add in the paranoia – Mom’s fear that certain people were my “competition” and out to get me, like Joey Lawrence or others – and I can see it seriously wearing thin. She even went on a kick for a while that this band called The Moffats were my direct competition, and taking away music opportunities from me. When she presented this to me, even I laughed at her. I stopped laughing when she bought several of their cassettes and listened to them over and over in the car, analyzing them. I managed to find one of their videos, so you guys can know what I’m talking about. What pissed me off even more is when this stuff got stuck in my head (which it unfortunately did). Watch the video and weep with me over the indignity I suffered.

 

Not to long after this, SAG went on strike. There had been strikes in my time, but none this widespread. If I recall correctly, they were striking over contracts for new media – things like shows and commercials on the internet, and higher wages. What I think the union hoped for was a short lived strike that got the clients back to the bargaining table, once they realized they couldn’t live without union actors. There was one problem: The clients realized they could live without union actors.

Reality TV started to pop up – things like Survivor and Big Brother – and as the strike wore on it became more and more commonplace. Networks decided to bypass the sitcoms of old, and just do more reality TV. It was cheaper – sometimes the “actors” (who were real people, at least in theory) weren’t even paid. Total win. What that meant for us as actors was that we couldn’t work, unless we wanted to do non-union stuff. That meant crossing the picket line, which meant losing your benefits and maybe getting kicked out of the union. I had years vested in the union at this point – a great health plan and a pension for when I retired. If I was kicked out, that was gone. Plus, non union work paid chump change by comparison. Non union might give you a few hundred dollars in a lump sum, vs a union gig of a thousand plus they paid you every time it aired. I know a lot of people who weren’t able to work. Auditions dried up. When they did come up, it was for junk. Gone were the big payday bookings I had grown up with. Those were bad days.

Mom didn’t know what to do. We had depended on my income for so long. She was afraid to get a “real job”, because it would tie her down for driving me out to auditions. So she tried things like stuffing envelopes, and get rich quick scams. When they didn’t work – and things became more desperate – she decided to deliver phone books. She took Tim and I along to help. I remember the interview process. The boss – I can’t remember his name – looked at the three of us skeptically. Me, my little brother, and my Mom.

Boss: You guys want to deliver phone books…?

Mom: Yes. My sons are actors – very famous actors, actually, you’ve probably heard a lot of their stuff on TV. Timmy was just in a movie…

Boss: Okay…

Mom: The union is on strike and they can’t work. So, we’re making ends meet right now. Yes. We’d like to deliver phone books.

He shrugged. I don’t think he much cared about our life story. We were just warm bodies to get the job done. We loaded up our car with phone books and drove our route. As per instructions, he didn’t want them tossed at the bottom of the driveway, but actually delivered to the door. It was my first real job – Tim’s too – that didn’t involve doing something we loved doing. I was game for it – I understood it was short term – but Tim was deeply unimpressed and complained the whole time.

The system was that we did the deliveries while Mom sat in the car. I remember one house we went to, and it had this really long driveway. Tim and I got out of the car together, and marched up towards the house. I watched him freeze in mid step. I was about to turn and ask what was wrong, when I heard a low growl. Across the yard was a huge behemoth of a dog – slobber was dripping from its jaws, and it was baring its teeth. It looked like it would eat us feet first if we came any closer. I was pretty freaking worried, but at the same time, I knew we were supposed to drop the phone book at the door of the house. It looked incredibly far away, though. I glanced from the house back to the sanctuary of the car – we were sort of between the two. I took a tentative step forward, and the dog let out another unholy growl.

Me: What do we do?

Tim: Fuck this. I’m going back to the car.

I was about to argue with him, when a second dog – not quite as big, but looking every bit as eager to consume human flesh – rounded the corner of the house.

Me: You’re right, bro. Fuck the phone book.

We backed slowly away, and at first it seemed like the dogs would stay put. I don’t know what it was – whether it was some arbitrarily determined distance or the sound our sneakers made on the blacktop – but the big dog decided to go for it. He started loping towards us and Tim and I broke into a dead run back to the car. We got in and breathlessly slammed the doors.

Mom: Did you do it?

Tim and I almost shouted in unison.

Me and Tim: NO!

Mom: Why?

Tim: There’s two freaking huge dogs. I’m not going to that door.

Mom leaned forward in the driver’s seat – she had been reclining it to shut her eyes – and saw the two dogs about halfway up the driveway. They never made it all the way to the car, but they were clearly pissed – growling and snapping.

Mom: We need to deliver it to the door, or we don’t get paid.

Me: There are worse things than not getting paid.

Tim: If you want to get paid so bad, you deliver it. I’m not going out there again.

Mom could see this was a losing battle, but I don’t think she really wanted us to go back out there again. To end the debate, I rolled down the window and chucked the phone book halfway up the driveway. I didn’t have a very good arm – it landed several feet in front of the dogs, and a little in the grass.

Not long after, Tim started refusing to go on deliveries. Although I dutifully went along for a while, I wasn’t much use to Mom other than as company – I’d usually get out of the car only with great reluctance. When she started delivering at 5 AM, I started refusing to go at all. It wasn’t long after this that she stopped delivering phone books altogether.

I’d like to tell you that things went back to the way they were – auditions once again became plentiful, and money rolled in. I’d like to tell you that Mom was wise and saved up the money Tim and I had made over the years – that it was somewhere safe, perhaps in a savings account or something. I can’t. The industry- or at least the part that I was involved in – did come back, but it was drips and drabs. There would never again be 5 auditions in a day. We’d be lucky if we went into the city a couple times a week. I worked, a little – my audition to booking ratio was still rather good – but it never did recover. Perhaps the title is a little misleading, in any case. It wasn’t the end, but rather the first couple serious body blows that would change things irrevocably. But if you think about it, you don’t wake up one morning and find all your plants dead. You wake up one morning and find them dying. You think to yourself “Oh…they’ll come back. Let me water them a bit.” But they don’t come back – they continue to wilt, little by little until they’re gone.

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I think I’ve mentioned before that Mom got deeply involved with psychics. Like a lot of things in her life, it went in cycles – sometimes she’d be very into it, maybe for months or a year. Then she’d decide (seemingly randomly) that they “didn’t know anything” and she’d quit going. But when she was into it…she was into it. Weekly sessions, the whole nine yards.

We were driving through town, and Mom noticed a building with a sign out front: Readings by Ann. She practically pulled the car over right away.

Mom: That’s the psychic from the beach! The one that knew everything!

I was skeptical. The psychic Mom had met so many years ago (see this post) had grown to legendary proportions. Mom had difficulty keeping most conversations straight – she would frequently add stuff that wasn’t said or didn’t happen, citing it as fact. Almost everything that happened since, Mom would nod to herself in affirmation.

Mom: The psychic said this would happen.

Me: Oh, really?

And then I’d hear Mom repeat (supposedly verbatim) a long conversation between her and the psychic – such conversations were usually cryptic and vague. I could often tell when something she was saying had the ring of truth to it – which was rare. The things Mom reiterated to me were not things normal people would say, at least outside of movies or something. Anyway…if you compiled all Mom’s stories from this psychic, you’d probably have easily 3 or 4 hours of material. And the session itself lasted probably 45 minutes. I wasn’t even sure this psychic’s name had been Ann –  I hadn’t paid that much attention, though.

We were met at the door of the office by what I can only describe as a decrepit gypsy woman. She had a head scarf, a cane…the whole works. I remembered the psychic Mom had seen before as being much younger. Still, she was convinced.

We sat down in a sparse room at a small table. This lady was laying on the schtick pretty hard – she even had an accent and a crystal ball. I had researched psychics of course – had read several books about the hustles that are often played on unsuspecting victims (a segment of the population my mother was about to join). She didn’t have to work her game very hard, though…Mom was so open and suggestible it wasn’t even funny. After talking with us some, and gazing into her crystal ball (I almost cracked up here, but somehow I kept a straight face) she sat  back, apparently exhausted by her efforts.

Psychic: No guuut.

Mom was sitting on the edge of her chair.

Mom: What do you see?!

Psychic: I haff berry bad noos.

Mom: Bad news…?

She said something that even I couldn’t follow – it sounded like Foot Woman. I couldn’t imagine what she could be talking about, but with her fake accent, it could have been anything. Mom asked her to repeat it.

Psychic: A Futona. A curse. You haff a curse.

I could see the panic in Mom’s eyes.

Psychic: Is why you no successful. Is why you fail. Someone curse you, you see?

I half expected her to fork her fingers and spit through them. Meanwhile, Mom was practically beside herself.

Mom: What do I do!? How do I get rid of it?

Psychic: Is berry powerful. But I know how to do. But I must meditate. Come back later tonight. I tell you what to do.

The psychic refused payment from Mom – something I was initially impressed by, but which I later learned was just a “hook” in a confidence scam. At home, Mom was practically pacing.

Mom: Do you think she’ll really know what to do? What if the curse is too powerful?

Me: I dunno. I don’t know that we’re cursed, Mom.

Mom: But it explains so much! And didn’t she say…

And then she spun off into a whole part of the conversation that the psychic most definitely did not say. I was sitting right there. Still, I knew better than to argue – she never listened. When we returned after dark, the place was obviously closed. The gypsy lady unlocked the door and led us in.

Psychic: I haff seen what I need to do. You must bring me four white candles. A red scarf. A lock of your hair. And $20, all in 5’s.

I wanted to laugh, but Mom was enraptured and the gypsy lady was so freaking serious. Even I was a little taken in.

Psychic: Bring to me tomorrow, at dusk.

Still, she refused actual payment from Mom – she claimed she was doing this out of good will. We were so bad off, evidently, that she just wanted to help.

When Mom returned the following day, the meeting was short. The gypsy insisted that she had to do her “work” in private. Days passed, and we heard nothing. As per usual, Mom left countless messages on her machine – pleading for an update. Finally, we got a call…she wanted to see us.

Psychic: Is difficult to break, this ting. I try very hard, but I no can yet. Is more difficult than I ever imagine.

Mom: What do we do?

Psychic: Is another way. Give me again four white candles, a red scarf, and $40, in 10’s.

This hit a bit of a nerve with Mom – spending money usually did. I don’t think she picked up on the fact that she was being had, exactly, but I think she understood that the price for fixing the “curse” had gone up.

Mom: Why did the price go up?

Psychic: Is not price. You must understand, I give as offering. I do not keep.

Mom: Why can’t it be $20, like before?

Psychic: Because the denomination must increase, to show our sincerity.

Somehow, this washed with Mom. I had no illusions that this woman was sacrificing the money or giving it to charity.  We left to buy some candles and a scarf, and Mom forked over the money. This time, the psychic asked for payment.

Psychic: Is berry difficult, dis work I do. I giff you all my attention, no time for other clients.

Mom peeled off another $20, and handed it to her. The gypsy gratefully accepted it.

We had to wait, but not as long this time. The gypsy needed to see us urgently – could we come right away? Mom, of course dropped everything and booked it to this lady’s office.

Psychic: I haff good news. I am almost done. There are only a few more steps to complete. But things are getting more serious…

I knew where this was going, even if Mom didn’t. Four white candles, a red scarf…

Psychic: …and $80, in 20s.

Mom wasn’t terribly happy, but after further assurances that this would break the curse – along with a generous donation to the gypsy herself, of course – Mom went along.

I could bore you with details, but it was all so similar – the same thing happened again and again, until we started to hit the $400 mark. Mom was getting visibly agitated, and the psychic asked to see her immediately – urgent news from the spirit world.

Mom: I’m not doing this. This is too much.

Psychic: It must be done! We are so close…

Mom: How much more expensive is this going to get?

Psychic: I only do vat spirits tell me. Close, berry close.

Mom: Isn’t there some cheaper way to do this?

Psychic: It is berry powerful curse. It takes great sacrifice to undo.

Mom reluctantly forked over the cash.

Mom: This is it. That’s all there is. I want it broken this time.

The psychic nodded, and then had the cajones to ask for another “donation”. Mom angrily refused, which started a minor shouting match between the two of them (mostly it was Mom yelling, and she quickly quieted down and apologized. Evidently she didn’t think it was wise to piss off the person who held your spiritual well being in her hands).

We got absolutely no word from the gypsy lady, and Mom was getting nervous and pissed. She started staking out the office, looking for a chance to talk to her. When it finally came, the results were unsurprising – the psychic wanted yet more money. This was the worst and most difficult curse she had seen in her long and illustrious career. For a mere $1,000 (and a generous donation) she was sure – absolutely sure – it would be broken for good. Mom practically burst a vein. I feel the need to reiterate that it wasn’t that she didn’t think this stuff was real – she most definitely did – but she felt it ought to be able to be done cheaper, if not more efficiently. Mom refused to fork over the money. They shouted at each other, but I did my best to extract myself from the situation. I walked out of the office into a small living room, where I waited for it to be over. I noticed that the gypsy’s accent disappeared when she started yelling. I can’t say I was surprised. She probably wasn’t even as old as she pretended to be.

For months, Mom brought up things that I am positive the psychic never said. In fact, she insisted that the psychic cursed her for not giving her more money.

Mom: She said she would trade places with us! She said she would become successful and we would become poor! Is that even possible?

Me: I doubt it, Mom.

I wasn’t sure I even believed in curses – at least not ones delivered by fake gypsies. But Mom fretted, and the conversation that they supposedly had elongated like taffy. We eventually returned to the office, but it was closed. We discovered that she owed taxes or something, possibly even had committed some crimes. We also heard conflicting stories regarding her fate – she was either arrested or skipped town. My money was on the latter.

Mom: She said that the only way to undo it would be to find her again. And she said I’d never find her!

She scoured the phone book, and even went driving to different towns, hoping to find a sign with this woman’s name on it. I pointed out that “Ann” may not even have been her real name (I was convinced now that this person was a criminal) and besides…how many people in the world are named Ann?

I tried to assure her that it was bullshit, but it was like sticking my finger in a leaky dam. I knew that my words had no effect on whatever waves were boiling inside her brain. And I knew that, eventually, she’d get caught up in another psychic – or at the very least pursue another exhaustive search. I had to address the issue on and off with her for quite a while before she dropped it. I was hopeful that it was over, but I knew that could never actually be the case. That’s the thing about being right in a case like this – when your suspicions are confirmed, it’s neither a surprise nor a cause for smug celebration. It’s like a doctor trying to find a cure for a disease, and he’s all too aware that what he’s working on is definitely not it. He hopes, yes, because hope keeps you going. But when the results come back as another failure, he meets it with a wry smile and takes cold comfort in having his theory validated after all.

Special thanks to Bad Books for inspiring the title.

As I think I mentioned before, when I wrote music before it was very scattershot – I wrote basically every genre under the sun. Hell, I even wrote a (bad) Reggae type song. But, ultimately, it was important for me to pick a genre and stick with it – and, ultimately, it was decided that I should do country music. At the time – early to mid 90’s – country was exploding. It was also deemed by Mom to be the “easiest” to break into. So, she bought me boots. And hats. And Western style shirts, with fringes. I’m not exactly joking, but I wish I was. I looked like a Nashville tourist, except I was walking around NYC. I didn’t quite have the sense of self to realize I looked like a moron, but as I write this I am literally slapping myself in the forehead. I was cranking out songs by the dozens – by the time I was 16 I’d have over 400 – and each week I’d bring them in to Russ and he’d critique it, deciding if it ought to be recorded. The stuff I was writing at the time was total garbage. Good for my age (12-13) but really bad. To make matters worse, the arrangements were really bad MIDI recordings. Don’t get me wrong – Russ was a brilliant producer – but bad fake synth versions of real instruments make my skin crawl. Unfortunately, that’s what we had to work with – we weren’t going to be hiring live musicians…it would have just been too expensive.

The next step was how to break into the industry. I had a hand in it, in that I agreed that we should go about things this way, but Mom masterminded the whole thing. So how to do it? By going to shows of famous singers and hoping to talk to them in the autograph line. I’m not joking, but I wish I was. You hear that sound? That’s me slapping my head again. So we went to show after show…trying (somehow) to corner these singers and slip them my demo. Even though it rarely worked (I don’t think we ever got close enough, really, a lot of the lines were just too long) Mom wasn’t discouraged. Autograph lines were clearly the way to get discovered. The realization came (painfully slowly) that perhaps trying to accost the headline act wasn’t going to be fruitful. Instead, for whatever reason, Mom decided we should try the opening acts instead. I met some very nice people who graciously listened and took my demo, but it went no further.

A guy came by the back stage door once, when Tim was on Broadway. I don’t remember why or how, but Mom struck up a conversation with him, noticing that he had a Southern accent. She just assumed he was from Nashville (he wasn’t) and that he knew people in the music business (he didn’t – he was some sort of contractor or something). Mom insisted on taking them out to dinner, getting them a backstage tour (which they really appreciated), the works.  They didn’t realize that they were the unwitting recipients of Mom’s craziness. He had a daughter roughly my age, and Mom had it in her head to hook us up.

Mom: I’ll set it all up. He’s very rich…you guys should date.

That was basically the only time me dating people was okay with Mom – if they were rich or influential. Otherwise, they could go to hell. It was almost like she viewed the world in terms of some sort of middle ages royalty type thing – I could only marry “up”. Preferably way up. I really had no interest in the people she wanted to hook me up with, specifically because she wanted to hook me up with them. This was a nice girl and everything, but I wasn’t going to date people for money or influence. I thought (and still do) that was backwards and asinine.

Anyway, Mom talked a lot about my music, and we passed them demos. They graciously listened, but admitted they knew nothing about the music business. Mom seemed to think that was bullshit, and pressed them on the subject anyway. They were really nice about it, and we exchanged numbers and information. After several months (and several demos), Mom kept calling them. Finally the guy threw up his hands, and in as nice a way possible, told her to fuck off.

Guy: Listen…I really appreciate how nice ya’ll have been. But I honestly know nothing about the music industry. I’m a contractor.

Mom: A contractor?

Guy: Yes. I mean…the music’s great, but I can’t help you. I really can’t.

Mom amazingly took no for an answer and dropped pretty much all contact.

I did get a piece of advice from Dolly Parton that was actually rather useful – she directed me to an organization that helped songwriters with their craft. We thought we were getting the brush off, and didn’t really pay it any attention (even though she took the time to write a very nice letter). So clearly getting the attention of famous singers wasn’t working out…what next? Contests. For God’s sake, let’s try some more contests. I did every country contest under the sun. I auditioned for theme parks, for God’s sake. Every year, Opryland (a now shuttered theme park in Nashville) had open auditions for people to sing at their theme park. These people would walk around the park singing or performing or whatever I guess. We spent money on plane tickets to fly down there, hotels, money to enter the contests…etc. I was, of course, very under age – a lot of these had cutoffs of 16 or above. Ironically, even if I had won, I’d have been ineligible to win and thus been disqualified, probably. Anyway…I was always going there singing to tracks of my own original songs –  it always made me feel a lot more like a pageant contestant than an artist. Add to this the fact that everything I did was over-rehearsed – so over-rehearsed that the spontaneity was wrung dry out of every performance. Mom would keep asking me to go over and over and over and over the song, looking for that “one time” that I got it right. When I got it right…I could never get it again. That’s not to say I never got it right in reality. She would just watch and shake her head.

Mom: You know, three times ago? That was it. You don’t have it. You lost it. You’ll never get it again.

Panic would rise in my chest, and I’d think back on what the hell I might have been doing differently three times ago (I could think of almost nothing, and in reality…I was probably correct). I’d try it again and again, hoping for approval.

Mom: It’s…okay. I don’t think you’ll win. If you do it like you did that one time, you’ll get it. But you’re just okay.

She would walk out of the room, concluding the practice session and leaving me with nothing but fear and paranoia that I had somehow missed a shot at greatness.

Anyway, this one time – I think it was my 3rd or 4th  time auditioning for Opryland – this girl auditioned right after me. She was sticking to me like glue the entire time…and finally I got that she liked me. She was like some sort of runner up for a beauty contest or something (I remember her telling me all about it). I was completely oblivious socially, and in my head most of the time, so I had no clue I was being consistently hit on (and hit on very hard, at that). Finally, I think she gave up and just went the direct approach.

Girl: So…what are you doing later?

Me: Oh, I dunno. Probably going back to the hotel.

We bantered for a while about where we were each staying. She kept laughing and touching my arm, which really creeped me out (I really didn’t like being touched as a kid). Finally she leaned in.

Girl: You want to get a drink later?

Me: Uh, like…at a bar?

She laughed.

Girl: Of course at a bar.

Me: Uh. I guess I could have iced tea…

Girl: You don’t drink?

I took a moment, as it sunk in what was going on. This girl was in college, at least – I’m guessing maybe 19 or so. I rewround our conversation and realized that she was coming on to me. I was both flattered and perplexed.

Me: Um. I’m 14.

Her jaw dropped, and she walked away red faced and embarrassed. To her credit, I always looked a lot older than I was. Even when I was underage, I was never carded going into an R rated movie, even if all my friends were.

I still remember the first time I went down there. We literally had thrown our bags on the bed, and Mom grabbed the Nashville phone book and plopped it down in front of me.

Mom: Make some calls.

Me: …to who? You want pizza or something?

Mom: No. Call record labels and publishers. See if they’ll meet with you.

In sales, this is known as “cold calling”. It almost never works. More than half the time, I got a disinterested secretary – a secretary who, I have no doubt, received several hundred similar calls a day (conservatively). I was inevitably patched to someone’s voice mail or simply told not to bother.

Mom: Call them back.

Me: Why? They said no.

Mom: Did you tell them you were 13? And a prodigy?

Me: Yeah, I guess…

I didn’t feel comfortable flying that around.

Mom: Well, did you?

Me: No, I guess not.

Mom: So call back.

I sighed, but did as I was bid. I got similar results. One thing I learned as an adult is that you never, ever do what we did when I was a kid. You never go to Nashville waving your demo in everybody’s face, and you certainly don’t go around in a 10 gallon hat. That pretty much screams at everyone that you have no idea what you’re doing, or you’re just an ass. I think I got away with a lot of that because I was a kid, but I certainly would never try such a thing as an adult.

Anyway, after probably hundreds of calls, I got a couple people who were willing to listen (mostly small publishers). I counted this as a victory. They listened very graciously, and offered me their input on my music.

Publisher: This is really good for your age.

Me: Thanks.

Publisher: I want to encourage you, because you are very good. But you need to get a little bit better. You need to be even better than what’s on the radio. You know what I’m saying?

Me: I think so, yeah.

Publisher: I’d love to hear more from you whenever you have something new.

I felt at the time that what they were saying was that – because of my age – I really needed to rise above what was out there, ability wise. I think that was true, because it would have been hard to justify hiring a 13 year old if they weren’t the best thing you’ve ever heard. At the same time, I think I was also a curiosity, which sort of went along with the prodigy/genius thing. I often felt like a zoo creature, or an organ grinder’s monkey (considering the clothes Mom put me in, that probably wasn’t far off). I felt like the people that were interested were interested because I was an oddity, not because they necessarily thought I was amazing.

Looking back, even though I made some inroads, I despise the music I created and the way I went about doing things. Not because I hate writing, or hate country music or anything of the sort, but because it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t real or true. I was just a monkey in a ten gallon hat, dancing to the tune of an organ grinder.

 

Mom used to be absolutely bonkers for contests. Still is, actually. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t worth my time, or if it was a long shot…she thought it was a great way to get “a foot in the door”, as she put it. A foot in the door is an old salesman’s term – it means that you literally would stick your foot in the door so they couldn’t close it all the way. Theoretically, they had to listen to your spiel. Anyway, she was always thinking of the next “big thing” – the problem was, whatever she came up with was either ridiculously implausible or difficult to pull off. I remember her reading a magazine once, and getting excited.

Mom: Danny, look! There’s a contest and the winner gets to play at a fair in Iowa.

Me: Why would I want to play at a fair in Iowa? 

Mom: It’s a great chance to get discovered.

Me: In Iowa?

Mom: Yes! They’re having open auditions…

The auditions, if I remember correctly, were at the crack of dawn and it would have been a total cattle call. That’s what we called auditions where there were hundreds of people. Not that I have anything against Iowa in particular – I’m sure it’s fine – but it doesn’t strike me as one of the top places to get noticed in the entertainment industry. Besides, I was already doing great with acting. I shot this idea down with extreme prejudice. Mom grumbled quite a bit about it – something about me “not listening” to her and being a “rebellious teen” – but the idea died rather quickly, thank God.

Anyway…one idea I couldn’t buck was this contest that Paul Simon was holding. It was a Doo Wop competition, and the winner got the chance to appear in his upcoming Broadway show the Cape Man.

Mom: You should do this!

Me: But I don’t sing Doo Wop. I don’t have a group.

Mom: Well, get a group!

Me: It’s in like…2 weeks. How am I supposed to do this?

Mom: We’ll figure it out.

I sat down and cranked out a quick 50’s style song – I figured my odds would be better if it was something original.

Putting a band together on the fly is a hell of a task – but it’s made significantly more simple if you’re friends with some of the top jingle singers in the business. After a couple quick phone calls, I had a bunch of my friends jumping onto the project with me – Jackie, Eden, Lisa, and Jeff. In their own right, they were all totally awesome singers – somehow, we pulled it together in just a couple rehearsals. Then came a curveball. Turned out, after reading the rules, that you had to be 16 to enter. I was 13.

Mom: So just lie. You could be 16. Who would know?

I shrugged. I was a little worried they would ask for me ID or something (they didn’t), but I figured I had come this far. Mom also wanted us to work with Russ, but Philly was kinda far considering most of my group lived in NY and surrounding areas. I have no idea why she thought this would be productive, but she actually wanted me to sing into Russ’s answering machine so he could hear what we sounded like and offer tips. I thought that sounded silly as hell, but basically went along with it. I figured it couldn’t hurt. We went back to practicing some more. For whatever reason, Jeff started being really ridiculous. Not just hitting on the girls, but actually saying really crude stuff.

Jeff: Mmmm. Tasty!

He flicked out his tongue at one of the girls who had her back turned to him, and slowly licked his lips. The girls asked him to quit it, but he just wouldn’t stop. I watched the girls get more and more uncomfortable as crude gestures were made and more comments were said. Not only was he upsetting my friends, practice was being disrupted. If I have one cardinal rule in my life, it’s this: Be A Professional. Somewhat loosely, it translates to being on time, being prepared, working hard at your given task, and having a positive attitude. There are only a small handful of things that set me off – I’m fairly easygoing – but someone Not Being Professional is one of them. People being demeaning to women and/or minorities is another, so really a couple of my buttons were being pushed. I took a quick assessment of the situation, and looked at the girls. They all looked upset. One of them was sitting on the floor, trying not to cry and doing her best not to look at Jeff. I also decided that Jeff wasn’t going to listen to anyone in the room – it had to be an adult. I didn’t really think, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I decided the best answer would be to rile Mom up against Jeff (there was probably a 50/50 shot she’d actually care about what was going on). I knew exactly what buttons to push, and walked out to her.

Me: Mom, Jeff says Russ doesn’t know anything. He asks why we’re even listening to him.

Mom’s face turned several shades of red and blue in quick succession. I immediately regretted my decision – I had used at atom bomb when a scalpel probably could have done the job. But it was too late. Mom was a bulldozer. She practically charged into the practice room, her eyes full of Jeffrey.

Mom: I WILL TELL YOU SOMETHING. THAT MAN HAS MORE TALENT IN HIS LITTLE FINGER THAN YOU WILL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFETIME!

Jeff stood there, gaping. He had no idea what he did, just that this bear of a woman was coming down on him with all the fury of an enraged rhino. He tried to speak, I think, but I don’t think he got much to say. Mom literally roared. Jeff’s Mom came to his defense, grabbed him, and started a (blessedly brief) shouting match before leaving. Mom, evidently happy with her defense of Russ, stalked out of the room.

The girls and I were dumbfounded.

Eden: I guess we just lost our bass.

They were all upset…possibly even more so than before. So was I. I felt dirty. I had never before used Mom’s psychosis was a weapon against her, or her as a weapon against others. I tried to tell myself there was no other choice, and I made the right decision, but it didn’t wash with me. Even if I did the right thing, the ends didn’t justify the means.

We talked for a while, each noticing that the sense of palpable tension had left the room. The practice got back on track – we were all professionals, and we had a job to do. We quickly reworked the harmonies without Jeff. From a production standpoint, I missed that bass, and I was sorry he had left. But from a group cohesion perspective, it worked much better.

It wasn’t until years later that I put together what was actually going on. Jeff was gay – a fact clear to everyone (at least the adults) but him. A lot of the mothers made comments about him. I got – vaguely – what “gay” meant, but I didn’t really understand. With some years under my belt, and hindsight, I get that Jeff was struggling with his sexuality and probably overcompensating. At the time, I just saw a bully who was being an ass…I didn’t see his struggles underneath it. I can’t tell you how much of a shit that makes me feel, even today.

Anyway, the contest made the news, and our group was all over the highlight reels from the night. During the intro, I slipped on the stage – not one of my prouder moments – but I recovered. That wound up on the news, too. We made it to the second round, but we didn’t ultimately win. Still, we got to meet Paul Simon. One of the girls the group – Jackie – did something I’ll never forget, and always love her for. She snatched a demo tape out of my hand (I had been carrying it around on the off chance of giving it to someone) and marched up to Paul Simon.

Jackie: You see this kid right there?

She pointed at me.

Paul: Oh, hey there.

We shook hands.

Jackie: This kid is enormously talented. He’s an amazing songwriter. Listen to his stuff.

She pressed the tape into his hand, with a surprising amount of force.

Jackie: I’m serious. Don’t chuck it in the trash. Listen. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

I was flushed. Nobody had ever gone to battle for me like that before, and no one has since – not like that, anyway. I thought so then, and think so even more now – she had a mile of guts. I had no idea before that moment that she thought I was good, or  even if she did that she actually believed in me that deeply. This may sound almost silly, especially after everything I’ve written about, but it was one of the most flabbergasting, and pleasantly surprising experiences of my life.

She grabbed me by the shoulder and led me away.

Jackie: If he doesn’t listen, I’ll kick his ass. I don’t care who he is.

We laughed.

The group disbanded after that – not that we weren’t all friends and saw each other often, but we ceased to be a Doo Wop band. It wasn’t really a marketable kind of music, and there wasn’t a whole lot of places for underage kids to play. Besides, who had the time? We were busy making money.

As I think I said before, I used to sit by myself and practice obsessively. Piano, songwriting…whatever.

Mom: When the answer comes back “yes”, you need to be ready. If you’re not ready and they say yes, you will fail. And it will all be on you.

Such thoughts did their job, I suppose, in that they spurred me along. While she was crazy in the specifics, in general it’s not a bad principle: Be ready when opportunity knocks. I’ve had to water down some of her kookier stuff and put it in a normal framework. I’ve kept what I could, and threw out (or tried to…it’s easier said than done) what wasn’t any good. If I were to ever write a book on it, I’d call it The Tao of Crazy. It would be some eye opening shit.

Anyway, I kind of got a big head. I thought I was the baddest, biggest, best musician. Best actor. Best…whatever. I was making a ton of money (I had gotten booked on quite a few accounts – that means that whenever they did a commercial for a given product, I was called. I had Kool-Aid for a while and all of General Mills, among other things). I got to sing on a record with Micheal Jackson. This was like…I dunno…’93 or maybe ’94. He recorded a Christmas song…don’t recall the name of it, but I think it had something to do with a star. It was at the Hit Factory in New York – this was a big, big studio…they had a special freight elevator that celebrities who were recording would come in and use. It was sort of a back entrance to get away from the press and whatnot. Anyway, it was me and maybe a dozen kids, singing background on this song. Micheal was pretty cool…gave us all signed copies of Dangerous (which I still have) and Game Boys. This one kid, who I knew was a piano player, kept trying to chat me up. He was way into jazz, and he was pretty good. I was so self centered at that point, I didn’t have time in my world for anyone else. Anyway, he asked Micheal if he could play for him. He went over to the grand piano and starts playing – like I said…he was good. Nice kid, too. The more I watched, the more irritated I became. I had a competitive streak about a mile wide, and to watch someone else doing something that I considered my “thing” was like slapping me in the face with a dead mackerel. After the kid was done, I jumped right in. I played Micheal an original song. It was a quasi Rockabilly number (I was also into Jerry Lee Lewis at the time). I had to be better than this kid. He was nice, but I had to blow him out of the water, for the sake of my own ego. My hours of honing my skills, the “games” I played with myself to get better, payed off. Micheal really enjoyed it, but had to be rushed away by his bodyguards. We shook hands. I relaxed a bit…I had re-attained my place (in my mind, at least) as top dog. The kid came up to me…he was stoked.

Kid: That was amazing! You’re really good.

Me: …thanks.

I didn’t give a shit what this kid thought, but it was nice to be recognized. Since I had affirmed my belief that he wasn’t better than me, I had no time for him.

Kid: Let’s jam sometime.

Me: Maybe.

I was the king, he was a peasant.

Uncle Richard noted my shift in attitude, I think, and I think he realized I didn’t have anybody to give me a real lay of the land. Mom was constantly pumping my head full of fantasies. Not that Uncle Richard didn’t believe in me, but he didn’t want me getting an unhealthy outlook or anything. My ego was just the outward manifestation of a flawed worldview.

Uncle Richard: There’s nothing wrong with having an ego. Every artist needs one…it’s what keeps him going. But don’t feed it too much. You understand?

I told him I did, even though I didn’t.

Uncle Richard: Shakespeare was one of the most humble people. Have you ever read his letters?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: Read them. He wrote plays that were lauded the entire continent over. Royalty came to see him. Yet he was never proud. If the Bard could be humble, you can too.

I got the point – I was no Shakespeare. I might have had reasons to have an ego, but no reason it should be overinflated. I’m surprised this got through to me, but Uncle Richard had a way with words.

Russ put it differently.

Russ: There’s always someone out there better than you. Doesn’t matter. Keep your head down and do your own work. Don’t look over your shoulder, don’t look at them. Look at your work.

I sat down a bit later with a group of kids my age – we were doing some sort of improv class together. For some reason, probably because I was (over)confident my peers took me very seriously and paid attention when I talked. If my head wouldn’t fit through the door before, it certainly didn’t now. I don’t remember what prompted it, but I decided to play some stuff on the piano. I played a bunch of songs from memory, ending with “Piano Man”. Sort of iconic, sort of cliche, but every piano guy ought to know it. This kid who had been quiet for most of the time, gets up after me.

Kid: You’re playing it wrong.

I probably made a noise.

Kid: Mind if I drive for a while?

I smirked, and scooted off the bench. He played the hell out of the piano, and – though it took me weeks to admit it – he was right. I was making some mistakes in playing the song. There is nothing quite like getting kicked in the balls in so personal a way just when you think you’re bigger than anything else in the world. I licked my wounds for a long time on that one, but I didn’t need to be shown twice. I got the message – Russ, Uncle Richard, and the Universe were trying to tell me the same thing: Take it down a notch or two, kid.

And I did. I realized there would always be somebody better, no matter how hard I worked. There was no finish line, there was no “ultimate” anything. At least not when it came to artistic endeavors. Someone always has a different spin, a better technique, or whatever. I contented myself with mastering my own abilities, not worrying about comparing myself. It was a lot more pleasant of an experience.

Now I look back at how I was, and I can’t help but wince. I truly was full of myself. I carried myself in such a way as to say “Do you even know who I am?” but the truth is, I wasn’t anybody. Not really. My competitive streak – which was way more than just a streak – I whittled down bit by bit. I watered the embers and tamped them down. Competition is a driving force, I suppose, but it makes me an ugly person. I try not to open that door. At the same time, I have to wonder if I haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater (as I’ve done with so many things). Maybe being a little competitive is good. Maybe I ought to crack that door just a bit. And a little ego really never hurt anybody – emphasis on the little. Sometimes I miss it. It can be a great cure for depression.

 

 

We were driving in the car with Mom – I think we were coming back from NY or something. I had my book in my lap, my finger in a page. I was terrible at losing bookmarks. It’s funny…I was always so careful with everything else, but I must have had thousands of bookmarks during my lifetime. I read so many books – sometimes several at once – that I’d end up losing them somewhere in the pages (or they’d fall out somewhere, never to be seen again). I had a tradition when I finished a book – I’d take a little while…maybe a few minutes, maybe a day…depending on how the book was – and meditate on it. Just really soak it up. When I was done, I’d turn past the flyleaf and the table of contents and the Author’s Note and stick the book mark in page one. Uncle Richard had book marks too…but he was more prone to mark up his books. He’d underline something interesting, or dog ear a page. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. To mark up a book – any book – would be like defacing a holy site to me. I think I was so protective of them because some part of me knew they were portals to other worlds…a real escape for me, a means of transportation. I took care of my books as well as a car enthusiast would take care of a prized ’65 Mustang. It was a means of travel, but it was special too. I had long talks about this concept with Uncle Richard, who firmly disagreed with my conclusions.

Uncle Richard: I love a messed up book. Creased pages, wear marks on the binding…these are signs of a well loved book. Nothing is more special than that.

Anyway, so I was sitting there taking a break from the book. It must have been good, because I was really dwelling on the characters and the story. I suddenly felt a whap! on my leg. I looked up in shock.

Me: Did you just hit me!?

Mom: You’re damn right I did!

She was pissed – suddenly, and out of nowhere. I had no idea why.

Me: What did I do!?

She turned to me in a fury – it’s a miracle she kept herself on the road.

Mom: Wipe that fucking smirk off your face!

Me: I don’t have a smirk…I’m not smirking!

But now I was starting to. I have a thing…something I always felt was kind of weird…but whenever I’m in a conflict, I have a really hard time suppressing laughter. I don’t know why, it’s just always been that way. I don’t find it particularly funny (though I think people look positively absurd when they’re truly angry). I just can’t help it. It makes the situations much worse, and I know that. I often find myself literally biting the inside of my cheek to keep from grinning like a nut. The worse the conflict, the harder I grin, and the harder it is not to bust out laughing. By now Mom was yelling at me – she had started out pissed and was now even more angry. I was suppressing gales of laughter.

Mom: It’s not FUNNY. Quit LAUGHING. Goddammit quit being SMART!

Each word was punctuated with another closed fist on my knee. It hurt. What actually hurt worse is that I felt Mom and I had a sort of understanding – considering how Dad was, I never thought she’d ever hit me. As hurt as I was, my sides hurt worse from holding in my laughter. I had to close my eyes and think of terrible, horrible, depressing things in order to come back down. Once things had been quiet for a while and I got myself composed, I broached the subject.

Me: What exactly did I do?

Mom: You were being smart.

Me: How?

Mom: You made comments.

Me: I didn’t say a word to you. I was reading.

I gestured to my book – still on my lap with my finger still in it.

Me: What did I supposedly say?

She couldn’t tell me. I knew instantly that she had no idea why she was mad or what exactly I was supposed to have done.

Mom: You were being rebellious.

I raised my eyebrows. I have been many things…but rebellious was never one of them.

Me: I think I deserve to know exactly what I did.

Mom: You know what you did.

Me: No I don’t. And it wasn’t fair of you to hit me.

I had her, and she knew it. She couldn’t explain or describe what I supposedly did. She was full of shit, and we both knew it.

Mom: I’m not going round and round with you, Danny.

She accused me of trying to “outsmart” her by “talking over her head”. She said she “wouldn’t continue a conversation like that”. I dropped it eventually.

I understood none of this. It just seemed like I turned 13 and somehow had magically become a horrible teenager. I didn’t think I was acting differently, or doing anything wrong. I mean, I wasn’t shoplifting or drinking or anything like that. But ultimately, it didn’t matter what I was doing – Mom would decide I had done something. I remember there was some sensationalist news story about “huffing“. Supposedly, during the 90’s a lot of kids would inhale spray bottles – cleaner, bug spray…whatever…to get a high. Mom decided I was doing this. I had never gotten high in my life – let alone drunk – and I certainly valued my brain cells more than to try to get a cheap high off of furniture polish.

Mom: We need to talk about something.

Me: Okay.

Mom: I know.

Me: Okay…you know what?

Mom: I know you’ve been…huffing.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it.

Me: Huffing?

Mom: Don’t laugh. This is serious. I know you’ve been doing it. I can tell.

I went from amused to perplexed.

Me: I haven’t been doing any of that. I have no idea what you’re even talking about.

Mom: If I catch you doing it…you’re done.

Me: …okay…

Done meant a lot of things (depending on the subject) – done as in, going to live with my Dad, or her not taking me back and forth to NY anymore, or even kicking me out of the house, I suppose. She was always fantasizing that I was doing something or another wrong – usually drugs. She once went through my entire room, looking for weed. She was kind of pissed when she didn’t find it – she was so sure I was smoking it. I swore up and down that I wasn’t…and as far as I know, I never smelled of weed. Actually, there’s no possible way I could have, because I didn’t have any. One time, when I went away to college, I talked to her over the phone. Within 5 minutes after we hung up, Tim called me.

Tim: Are you high?

I laughed.

Me: Dude, what do you think?

Tim laughed too.

Tim: Mom said “I just got off the phone with your brother, and he was higher than a kite!”

We got a good laugh. At least in college it would have been theoretically possible for me to obtain and use drugs (up to and including anything in mt mother’s fevered imagination). I didn’t, though, but it wouldn’t have mattered – she had decided for whatever reason that I was “bad”. That I was rebelling. That I was a “typical awful teenager”. To be fair, I was probably a bit moody. I was reclusive (from her) and with good reason. But I wasn’t a punk who knocked over liquor stores. I wasn’t stealing the copper pipes in the house to sell for drug money. But I realized that none of that mattered because what happened in Mom’s mind was completely independent of reality. If she were to wake up one day and decide I was a Russian spy, I’d be a fucking Russian spy and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. If I argued with her, I’d be accused of “getting smart”. If I proved her wrong, she’d throw up her hands and end the conversation – she wasn’t going to go “round and round” with me, like a lawyer. The irony of it all was that if I was some kind of drug addled junkie, I wouldn’t have the presence of mind to argue like I did. But, in my mother’s imagination – I did it all. Meth? Yep. Home made drugs? Yep. Pot, of course. Probably over the counter pharmaceuticals, too. Out of nowhere, she’d look at me and yell that I was ruining my life. I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about.

This made it easy to tune her out – to stop taking her seriously. I saw behind the curtain a bit more and realized that if her fears about me were so completely unfounded, there was a good chance she was wrong about everything else. I saw, though, that I would never be able to win her approval. Nothing I did would be good enough, and my behavior could never be compliant enough – she had decided I was a dirtbag teenager. She did (eventually) grow out of accusing me of being on drugs, which I think had more to do with the fact that I got older than anything else. The closer I got to leaving my teenage years, the more quiet her paranoid fantasies about my drug use became. It didn’t stop her from accusing me of other things, though – being lazy and shiftless (despite the fact that I worked hard at my craft and was successful). I think everyone wants at least a nod from their parents. I never got one from my Dad, and likely never will. I may never get one from my Mom either – her perception of reality is just too warped.

Let me leave you with a final thought – a picture of a teenage rebel. Thick glasses, button down shirt, and dorky haircut. A teenager who goes through several books a week and has little time for friends (and few friends, at that). Somewhat of an introvert. A guy who works his ass off writing songs (sometimes 2-3 a day), recording, playing piano, and carving out his acting career. Never done a thing illegal in his life – paranoid, in fact, of getting in trouble in general. Not who you’d picture hanging out at 7-11, smoking cigarettes and committing petty acts of vandalism. But that was me…the rebellious, ungrateful and shiftless youth.

 

 

 

I never grew up with a particular religion…as in, I was not an adherent to anything other than believing in God. My parents both were lapsed Christians. My grandparents were pretty big on church, but not necessarily in a way that they shook their finger in your face and said “God said…” More like they went to church and believed in being good people, and had faith. In my voluminous amounts of reading, it was pretty much inevitable that religion would enter my sphere. There was the Bible, of course, but I was interested in other texts. I read up on Buddhism with great interest…Islam and Judaism. Hinduism. The myriad takes on “what’s out there” (or what isn’t out there) fascinated me, and I became preoccupied with the hereafter. If I had been allowed, I probably would have gone on pilgrimages – not necessarily out of any deep rooted belief, but just as a seeker. But, Mom was not into “weird stuff” and besides…our down time was rather limited. I queried my adopted uncles on their religious views.

Me: Do you believe in an afterlife?

Uncle Richard: Maybe. Maybe we come back as ghosts. Maybe we rot in the ground and that’s it. 

I nodded. I don’t remember my exact question, but I asked something about God. It really riled him.

Uncle Richard: God!? God has a lot of apologies to make.

I was a bit surprised…I had not heard such negative opinions on a (presumably) benevolent God stated so starkly.

Uncle Richard: He lets people die every day. He lets horrible, terrible things happen to people. At any given minute, someone is dying or getting raped or tortured or losing someone. Or starving to death. What kind of God allows that? I don’t need God. He doesn’t believe in us, so I don’t believe in Him. He and I are going to have a talk, if I ever get to meet Him.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that discussion.

Russ was simpler…he believed in the Muse, or Creativity…or whatever you want to call it.

Russ: It’s out there. I think the Muse whispers in everybody’s ear. She might give the same song to 10 people, and only 1 person listens and gets it right. Ya know? The same Muse that whispered in the ear of the great ones whispers in your ear and my ear.

That’s what it amounted to…listening for the Muse. I agree with that too, though there would be a time in my life where I would desert her altar almost completely. There is something that feels right about that, though…almost elemental. Something that came before the conventions of man and will live long after we are extinct from the planet.

Still, I read. I read about a culture where they believed everything – from an elephant to a micro organism – has a life as important as our own. They didn’t bathe, they didn’t wash their hands, they barely did anything for fear of disturbing these organisms. You’ve heard the time travel axiom, I’m sure, where if you kill a butterfly when you go back in time the entire course of history could be altered. Well, it was kind of like that (minus the time travel bit) but taken to an extreme. For months, I stressed about killing bugs…disturbing the natural order of things. I worried when I washed my hands or took a bath. I dabbled in Wicca for a while…bought several books and practiced it. I felt a bit silly when I did, though, and I mentioned it to Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard: Don’t get involved in the occult.

Me: Um. Okay. You mean like…what, casting spells and whatnot?

Uncle Richard: Yes. It’s…not for everyone.

I shrugged. It was one of the few things I didn’t listen to him seriously about. I admit, I felt a bit silly doing the rituals and whatnot, but what appealed to me was the power (or perceived power) over my own destiny. After practicing somewhat halfheartedly for months – trying to see into the future, trying to influence life events – I became a bit disillusioned. The only thing I ever got out of it was a very real sense of the spiritual realm. I began to see things – black shadows, flitting across a room. Sometimes partially formed apparitions. I worried that I was going nuts…seeing things like my mother did. But people who are crazy tend not to doubt themselves – they believe wholeheartedly that the CIA is tapping their phones or they’re the subject of an alien experiment – you can never convince them otherwise. Somewhat distressed at this turn of events, I turned to Uncle Richard again. I braced myself for an “I told you so”, but it never came. He wasn’t like that.

Uncle Richard: Some doors are difficult to close once you open them.

Me: So…what are they? Ghosts?

Uncle Richard: Probably. And since most people can’t see them, they’re attracted to you.

I shivered. I had no interest in talking to ghosts. Truly, the gild was off the lily – I was no longer interested in harnessing the power of the supernatural. I just wanted it to leave me the hell alone.

Uncle Richard: Maybe they want something. Try asking them.

I didn’t like the concept…whatever they were, they scared the shit out of me. And the fact that they could possibly be totally in my own mind scared me even worse.

Me: Have you ever seen ghosts? Like this?

Uncle Richard: Many times.

Me: And they look like…that? Like shadows?

Uncle Richard: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes they look just like us, but a little more transparent. Sometimes just white figures.

He showed me some Polaroids he snapped around his house – at least one showed some sort of semi-transparent mist that looked vaguely like it had a hat on. He told me another story, about how he and some friends were staying over at this house (I guess they were sleeping on the floor) and he looked over and saw an Indian messing with a blanket. The Indian looked right at him, made some sort of hang gesture that Uncle Richard took to mean “Everything’s fine…lay back down.” The Indian rolled out his own blanket (in an honest-to-God Indian design) and then completely disappeared. The story gave me chills.

I pumped him some more on the subject, and he pointed out that there are different kinds of ghosts – some are intelligent and trying to communicate, and some are just trapped in some sort of repeating cycle. They’ll show up and do their thing whether you’re there or not – they just don’t know they’re dead. I decided to take his advice and try to communicate. I waited until the apartment was empty and stood in what I judged to be the middle of it.

Me: Hello?

Nothing.

Me: Um. Do you want anything? Why are you here?

Silence. I felt silly. I saw a shadow – looked like maybe the legs of a man in a suit – rush across the room.

Me: Knock that shit off. Tell me what you want!

I waited. Nothing else.

Me: Just…leave me alone. I’m sorry if I bothered you.

My attempts to communicate ending in failure, I just did my best to pretend they didn’t exist. If I saw them, I just tried not to freak out. I certainly told no one about them, besides Uncle Richard. I think he was the only person that would have taken it seriously anyway, and not suggested I be heavily medicated for my own safety.

Freaked out from my adventures in other cultures, I craved normalcy. I turned to what I knew – the Bible – and decided that it answered most of my questions. It was something I knew, and something I could get behind philosophically (in the sense of treating others how you’d want to be treated, being a good person and all that). There were no ghosts, there were no shades of grey, or reincarnation or anything like that. It was simple and neat. With relief, I collapsed into it. Perhaps as a result of seeking refuge for my spinning mind and my nagging questions, I became a bit of a zealot. I embraced cultural Christianity in a big bear hug – a hug, by the way, that it never really returned.

Still. There were questions. And there were ghosts.