Thursday, January 01, 2009

It seems like happiness is just a thing called...


I’ve been avoiding writing this.

For over three months.

Just like I avoided writing the final monologue in my play “Leave” even though I knew for a couple of days exactly what it was going to be. That time I was unconsciously trying to avoid the death of a fictional character. This time it’s real.

It’s not new. I got word that my friend Joe had died exactly two weeks after the last performance of “Leave” at the Bryant Lake Bowl packed up and the cast and crew drove back to Morris. In fact, they'd laid him to rest the day after closing night.

A co-worker on my day job ran across a notice of his death in a professional e-newsletter. No real details. He was gone. People missed him. A long list of the good things he’d done with his life. He was two years younger than me.

It took me another month to find some words to scribble on a piece of paper and put in the mail to his partner. It still ended up sounding like every other condolence card or letter a person gets - I’m so sorry, he was great, I know you must be hurting, hopefully your loved ones and your memories of him are giving you some comfort, call if there’s anything at all I can do to help. Words never seem so limp as when they’re supposed to be important and helpful.

Joe and I had been moving in different circles for a number of years. He had gotten out of the business of theater and into the more practical side of the non-profit world, working at fundraising to make things better for living creatures of both the human and animal variety. And of course he was very good at what he did, and did it with his signature sense of humor. Me, I stayed in theater.

But Joe was a big part of my life when I first moved to Minneapolis after grad school.

He was a big part of the reason I even moved to Minneapolis after grad school.

He was the first genuinely friendly face I ran into on my spring break scouting trip my last year of school. I was trying to figure out if Minneapolis was the kind of theater town I wanted to set down roots in for a while. I visited a bunch of different theater companies large and small, trying to get the lay of the land. I walked into this one theater office, and there Joe was. We hit it off immediately. Not only was he full of useful information, he was a real boost for my flagging energy and determination, wandering around a strange city by myself. I kept on looking. We met for dinner. One thing led to another, and the movie screen fades to black at this moment...

Phone calls were exchanged, pieces of mail went back and forth (these were the days before everyone had email, or internet access, or theaters had websites).

Joe helped me find the apartment which I still live in.

Joe helped me (and my Mom) move me into the place.

When my new theater job had me stuck in Minneapolis for Thanksgiving and I missed the holiday with the family for the first (and thus far only) time in my life, Joe engineered an orphan’s Thanksgiving of various friends where we all got together, ate, and watched the Turkey Day marathon of cheesy movies courtesy of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

One small way I repaid him for all this was when an actor friend had connections to the Mystery Science Theater crowd and was able to get a private tour of the Best Brains studio where they filmed the show. Of course, the first and only person I thought of to tag along was Joe. We were kids again, wide-eyed, loving wandering every inch of that industrial park studio space. There’s even a photo somewhere (in a pile that needs digging through, formed in the days before a laptop held electronic backups of all my pictures) of Joe and me in the prop shop, holding up the puppets Tom Servo and Crow, enormous grins on our faces.

Looking back, a chunk of the very first play I had produced in Minneapolis, “Heaven and Home,” has Joe’s stamp all over it, though he never saw it, or to my knowledge never read it. One of the first monologues I had published in an anthology is from that play, and though it was written for a straight female character talking about the relationship she has with her straight male long-term boyfriend, it’s essentially about Joe. Someone asks if the guy has ever said, “I love you...”

“It's just -- words. Three words. They don't mean anything anymore. No one believes them anymore. I'm not even sure I'd believe them if he said them. I probably wouldn't.
It's funny, but it's easier to believe God loves me. Because I can't see Him. He's not standing right in front of me. He's not sitting across the kitchen table waiting for His newspaper, wondering why I'm out of milk, waiting for me to leave for church so He can play basketball and not feel guilty. It's easy to believe God loves me. He doesn't have to say it. Someone else tells me and I take it on faith. I read it. I don't have to face Him. Look in His eyes and wonder.
Vince -- it's things he does, things I do. He's an easy movie rental. He'll stay up all night just talking, holding me in bed. I can't remember the last person I felt comfortable enough to talk with in bed. Laugh with in bed.
He shows me. I believe he loves me. Even though we both scrupulously avoid saying it.
Is it enough for me?
It's more than I've had in a very long time.
And no. It's not enough.”

Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis, Joe met the guy would would become his partner in life for the next seventeen years and settled down. They only moved a handful of blocks away from me. But we rarely saw each other. I recall being invited to a holiday party once. There were a few Christmas cards. We unexpectedly ran into one another once at a local neighborhood coffee shop that was off the beaten path for both of us. Not surprisingly, we both liked the atmosphere of the place and so it kept us driving the extra few blocks to return, though coffee shops are hardly in short supply, and closer, elsewhere. He even applied for a position at one of my day jobs a few years back. Because of our history, I absented my self from the interviewing process. He ended up taking a job elsewhere. We never saw each other. Of course now I’m wishing we had, even briefly.

His old apartment, on the corner of the first floor of a squat yellow brick building, is still there, just four blocks away from mine. I can’t help but drive or walk past it constantly in my travels. He hasn’t lived in it, and I haven’t set foot in it, in almost twenty years now, but I know the layout of that apartment like the back of my hand. Every room has a vivid memory.

Those were memories that we only shared with one another. And now he’s gone. So they’re mine to carry.

Without the other person around, memories start to feel more and more like stories I’m telling. Like maybe they didn’t really happen. But they’re a big part of who I am. So I’ll do my best to keep them sharp.

Joe was good people. He had that uncanny ability not just to make you laugh, but to make you feel better about whatever ridiculous situation in which you found yourself. Things were often serious, but not to be taken too seriously. It was laughter as encouragement, as a recharge for the personal batteries. That’s a gift. I’m glad he shared it with me. I’ll try to share it in my own way with others as best I can.

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of months, “Man, it’s such a shame Joe’s gone. He would have really loved this.” Voting for Obama, seeing Obama elected, watching Obama build a new government, the movie “Milk” (Joe introduced me to the Uptown Theater), the latest DVD collection issued by the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 for their 20th anniversary. Those things in particular, but hell, let’s face it, everything. Joe loved life, and laughing, and justice.

Every Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD has been pulled off my shelf and I’ve been watching them, one right after the other, the last several weeks. Laughing. Thinking of Joe.

There are many variations on this saying that keeps rolling into my head, the most basic being, “Every day is a good day.” (Meaning, every day you open your eyes and you have another rotation of the earth to enjoy, that’s a damn good start. And more than many people get.)

So take 2009 by the horns, everybody, and make the most of it.

And as they frequently said in that quirky, bewildering old John Irving novel “The Hotel New Hampshire” -

Keep passing the open windows.

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