Truth Dissolves in Fiction

I was teaching a workshop on telling true, five minute stories. The class was at a Storytelling guild meeting.

Storytelling before the era of The Moth, has been of legends, histories, heroines, myths, and make believe. But it was not until the last twenty years with the explosion of The Moth onto the Storytelling scene, that we see the idea of true stories told live on stage without notes. Of course, Spalding Gray opened the door with Swimming to Cambodia when The Moth pulled the roof off the house and tried to squeeze inside.

And stand-up comedians sometimes compromising their truths for a good laugh. But Storytellers traditionally have told stories to entertainment, to educate, or to share cultural or moral perspectives. And as most people would agree in general, the truth is a tricky thing once mixed with memory, sleep or any amount of alcohol.

My workshop was on true Storytelling at a guild with more storytellers of fiction than non. I got a question about the line between truth and fiction. It was a great question.

For the record, I side with the idea that if you report the story as true, you need to make sure you just tell the true parts. I also get on stage with my Improv troupe mates with the sole purpose of collaboratively creating fictional plays. But we don’t sell them as true.

I do lie by omission all the time in stories. I leave out things that happened to make my story fit the time allotted. I cut things that would unnecessarily complicate the story. My close friend, the one with the Ph.D. in Math, Dr. Math is always quick to point out those are his favorite parts. That is to say, in our conversations, his favorite parts are when I don’t say anything. I just smile.

I often fail to use someones name if it would make them feel bad if they were in the room. I may make them an archetype, highlighting one of their features, then use that feature instead of their name. As in, “my Doctor roommate was seething with anger when the house owner and fellow roommate, Mr. Athlete ruled that female overnight guests did not have to dress before entering the hall on their way to and from the communal bathroom.”

I will leave out a detail that may distract from my one clear point in a story. As in, “after slapping me in front of all our friends, my ex-girlfriend with the wicked smile, apologized for slapping me so hard.”

Sometimes I drop a part because it does not further the point of the story, in spite of the moment being wonderful to relive. As in, “the attendant at the gate, seeing my grandfather sweating in the 104 degree heat having walked from car to the Astrodome, gave us tickets on the ninth row above the dugout for free, rather than risk my grandfathers health walking back into the sun for three hundred yards to the ticket booth we missed.”

I am okay with omitting information in my telling, but I can not abide by adding. If you add something to your story that did not happen, you have to say you wished it happened or you have to not tell it as true.

Not all story events will require the story to be “true.” And most will give you space for a story “as you remember it.” As in, “I remember my future wife being drunk the first time I met her and she swears I am not funny and wrong. Specifically, wrong about being drunk that day and not funny in general.”

If you wonder if you can tell your story without adding anything, I recommend you try it. I have found storytelling audiences to be forgiving and not as mean as my ex-girlfriend with the wicked smile. Also, don’t bring your *wife to your show.

*That should read, don’t bring your significant other to your show if you are going to tell a story about them. And never bring your ex, especially if she is known for slapping too hard or if he has a Ph.D. in Math.

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Lost and Loster

I went on a walk the other day and I decided to take my credit card and my drivers license with me in case I decided to walk to the store. It was chilly, so I wore a hat and gloves. I never did go to the store.

When I got home, I did not think about those cards until I tried to pay for something online. I panicked when I opened my wallet then remembered I had them in my running shorts. When they were not there and I could not find them, it was 10:00 PM.

I realized I had pulled my phone out of my pocket a few times on my walk. With the gloves on and the wireless headset, I could have dropped them and never known I did. So I headed out again with a headlamp, a flashlight, and my wife in the car trailing me. With in 20 minutes we found the credit card. But over an hour into the search, I still hadn’t found my drivers license.

I walked the route in the light of day over the next two days. Then I agreed with my wife, it was a lost cause. I started the infernal procedure of getting a new drivers license made. Which entailed my wife asking the State of Rhode Island, where I was born, for a copy of my birth certificate. I could not easily do that myself without a state authorized ID, or in my case, my drivers license.

We (by we, I mean she) got the paperwork together, wrote the check, and put the stamp on the envelope. I walked it out to our mailbox near midnight last night, and slid the envelope into our box. While I was there, I pulled the recently delivered mail out. I walked into the house and sorted the mail in the kitchen.

There was a paper clip attached to one of the items. The clip was holding my drivers license. I smiled as I walked back out to the mailbox with all the mail in hand. I brought the envelope with the birth certificate request in it and set it down in the kitchen. Well that was over and we saved some money. Win!

I handed the mail to my SO without telling her what was in the pile. She laughed when she found my drivers licence. She commended on how lucky I was to have such kind neighbors that one of them found it and dropped it in the mail.

She said it was good that we were sending off for my birth certificate in case this happens again when I am not around our kind neighbors. I agreed whole heartedly.

At which point, I made an excuse to head to the kitchen to grab the birth certificate envelope.  I snuck back out the front door into the cold dark without alerting my wife. As I walked back to the mailbox, I wondered how cold it was outside. My hands were cold when I touched the freezing mailbox. I had forgotten my gloves. I placed the envelope into the mailbox again.

As I walked back in the cold, dark I saw the door was open. My wife was standing in the doorway. She pointed out how cold it was as she handed me the correct envelope to send off for my birth certificate and my gloves.

I put the gloves on as I repeated the cold, dark walk. I stood next to the mailbox anticipating the conversation with my spouse that would soon follow. My hands were cold in spite of the gloves.

Cold Mailbox

The above story is based on actual and notional events.

The Master of Orion

“4X is a genre of strategy-based video and board games in which players control an empire and “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”. The term was coined by Alan Emrich in his September 1993 preview of Master of Orion for Computer Gaming World.[1] Since then, others have adopted the term to describe games of similar scope and design.” Wikipedia

I had dropped out of college at Texas A&M in the Fall of 1984. I moved back home, that is to say in with my Mom and Dad. I got a job at an Italian restaurant.  When I realized how much I hated my life out of college, I made a plan to get back to it.

The Army had a plan for guys like me. If I gave them two years of service, they would give me $20,000 in college funds. I thought I could milk that for four more years.

Plus I wanted to explore and expand. The Army and I agreed to mutually exploit each other. If shit went south, someone might get exterminated.

After two months of pushups, sit-ups, and 2 mile runs every day, I signed up. I would finish my degree, and the Army would help. Their money for my body.

When I got to my duty station in Bamberg, West Germany, I realized I was the odd duck. I did not drink, toke, or go to brothels and never have.

So I bought an Apple IIe for my mind in that boring, boring place. Everyone else blew their money on those other things. I bought a computer. I really did not fit in there.

I had met Ken Burd from Seguin at A&M. We met in Phred (The Serpentine Lounge) playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in the Memorial Student Center. The serpent had been named Phred long before I got there. Ken was the new kid. A brainiac with an Apple IIe.

When I got my first care package from my Aggie D&D friends, it was a bunch of floppy disks. There were so many games on those disks. They sent my D&D books too.

Ken had sent the computer games. Good ones. My mind was finally at ease in that place.

I taught other soldiers in my unit to play D&D. It is the perfect game for tired soldiers who wanted to be anywhere else, even a dungeon filled with monsters.

When I got out of the Army, Ken needed a roommate and I needed a place to live. I was back in school at A&M with all that Army college money but not until the Fall Semester of 1987. The trade was complete but the money would not start until classes started.

I needed money until then. While I waited, I took up odd jobs with a temp agency. Admin work was plentiful for a guy with two years of Army Office work. (I got Radar O’Reilly’s job in the Army.)

So during the summer of ’87 I was collecting cable boxes from the kids moving away from A&M during the summer. I do well talking with strangers. So I chatted everyone up. I did the job, but I was nice and enjoyed it.

A young man came up and I did my routine. I read his paperwork.

Me: “My roommate is from Seguin too. His name is Ken Burd. Do you know him?”

Seguin Boy: “Ken Burd?! THE KEN BURD?!”

Me: “Umm?”

Seguin Boy: “Captain of the Seguin High School Football Team! Valedictorian! National Merit Scholar! That Ken Burd?”

Me: “No, my roommate, Ken Burd?”

Ken was bored at A&M. He read ALL the books for class before the semester even started and then would get so pissed when the professors would start on chapter one and do nothing but regurgitate the books. 

He was SO smart. And he wanted to get his degree, but this was not Oxford where they would have understood him and let him run at his own pace. This was a school of 40,000 people who needed to be churned out like so much sausage. (Central Texas is known for their sausage!)

I was always amazed by how fast he could read and retain things. His sense of humor was subtle, sneaky, and usually two steps ahead of the conversation. He was loyal and patriotic in a conservative small town Texas way. I never understood why he liked me.

He was quiet, introverted, and huge. I was skinny, silly, and sly. I could talk people into coming over to the house without any effort. And if they were women, I could talk them into my bedroom far too easily. If they were men, I would talk them into playing board games or D&D even if they were not into those things. Ken would just smile.

He would smile when these new friends would do the dishes, clean the house. or make dinner. He would smile because I would do those things but it would take me three times longer than anyone else. Even when all I had to do was order pizza, I took forever getting everyone’s buy-in first.

When we moved out of our place because I had pissed off the landlord over some silly display on our porch, Ken was pissed off as much as he ever got at me. But in preparation of moving out, I cleaned the house from top to bottom. Just like I had the last time we had moved. And just like the time before, he kept telling me it was good enough. And I could not stop once I started. If I did, I would have had to talk to him about getting us kicked out, again.

In my room, that I did not share with anyone else, I was scrubbing the baseboards and walls. He came in and asked what that red stuff was. I did not answer. He reached out and pulled some of it off with his finger nail. He looked at me. “Wax?” I started to explain and he smiled. He smiled as if to say it was okay. That all my idiocy was worth it because he knew why there was wax on the walls and baseboards of my room without me having to explain.

We moved into a big house in a nice subdivision far from school in a neighborhood of mostly faculty and staff, few students lived out there. I was in the master bedroom again with my own bathroom.

The house had a yard, big kitchen, and a sunken living room. It had lots of room for board games and roleplaying games. In those days, we played a lot of RPGs. That is to say, I would be the Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons, Earthdawn, and my favorite, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

When I finished my undergraduate degree and got into Graduate school at A&M, Ken and I were still roommates. I got a job at a financial institution doing IT work while I waited for grad school.

Ken had started working the night shift at a quickie mart. I convinced him to interview with the company I was with and he got the gig.

After two weeks in Graduate school I told Ken it was were he should be. I talked about how we read so many books for the each class, I could barely keep up. And in class we talked about everything in all the books. This did not make him feel better nor did it make me happy to see his response. He did not say anything, it was just on his face.

We did not talk about my graduate studies after that, except when I got three hours of graduate school credit for studying gender in online role playing games. That just seemed to simultaneously piss him off and make him smile, he always wore that smile when he liked what I had done. This time I had pulled off something impossible; playing computer games for graduate school credit.

While I went back and forth to graduate classes, Ken, our other roommates, and friends played games in the house. I never had time to join them during the week.

I was heading to class one evening, most of my classes were at night. Teaching in the day, take classes at night. The group was playing Revolt on Antares an old TSR crappy board game from the early eighties.

As I walked by, they wiped the game to the floor. They just pushed it off the table and onto the floor. They let the pieces fall where they did. No one was shouting as was the case sometimes when this would occur.

Usually Harold, pissed Ken or Vince had beat him again, would lose his cool. But they were all just frustrated with the game. I heard one of them say, “We could do better than this.” Then they all started to talk about what that would look like.

As I entered the garage and closed the door, I thought, I am just a few months into graduate school. I could drop out and we could all work on this. And then I laughed to myself. This would never happen.

A week later, really just one week, they had built the board game and were playing it. They had designed it, printed it all out at a copy and print store, and were playing it. I was on my way to class again when I heard one of them say, “We could port this to the PC.”

In the garage again, standing still, thinking should I? I liked graduate school and at the end I would have a degree and be allowed to teach High School (those were the rules back then.) But these guys were smarter than anyone I knew in grad school. More than that, they were my friends and Ken was the best.

I was always the weakest link on the team. (Harold used to accuse me of memorizing the Trivial Pursuit cards and justified me winning in this way.) I had doubts I could even help or that they would let me.

In their eyes, or at least Harolds, I was a conman. I worried that the others, and especially Ken, thought that too. I stuck with grad school while my friends made a game.

SimTex Software was created at my kitchen table in 1991. Master of Orion was their first game. 

I followed my girlfriend Vicki to Austin in 1992. She had moved in with Harold for a time when he was not invited to stay with SimTex. 

In the process, the crew moved to Austin from College Station. SimTex had followed us. And Ken moved in with us for a while. We were all together again. We all played games and I had learned disc golf then taught Vicki and Ken.

Ken and I became disc golf doubles partners. I could drive and Ken could putt. We were a good pair. We played for years. Every year he was in Austin, we would play National Doubles. My love for frisbee had been passed on to my friend.

They were rolling in money from MOO then Master of Magic (MOM), then 1830, then MOO2. They sold their company for some $20 million a few short years later. I was so very jealous.

Over all that time, Ken had very gently shared his newfound wealth. He had moved out and gotten a big house, but he came over for every Aggie and Cowboys football game on TV.  And to play a lot of other role playing games and eat Vicki’s cooking.

One Sunday during the playoffs when our big TV (32 inch CRT console) went out, he bought us a new one. A huge one, that was so expensive. So big!

When a royalty check would come in, he would take us all out to Carrabba’s for a nice meal. We did this even when the checks shrunk in size and frequency.

When I started teaching Sunday School, we played games Sunday afternoons. We would play in Ken’s big game room: our family, our college friends, and some of the kids from Sunday school.

When we couldn’t all be together, we played Computer role playing games together. Ken, the game designer, got a job in Boston to work on the Lord of the Rings Online – LOTRO for those in the know.

He was gone, but we played together online. We played new games, old games, and Ken’s game: LOTRO. Not seeing each other, but talking to each other online.

In 2009, Vicki and I went to New Zealand to celebrate our twentieth year together. When we rolled up to Tongariro National Park on New Zealand’s North Island, I saw Ngauruhoe for the first time.

When Peter Jackson first saw Ngauruhoe, he knew it was Mount Doom. I stopped the car on the side of the road and called Ken. We had talked about seeing Mount Doom. It was a big reason Vicki and I went. But without Ken, it was not what it could be.

Life had pulled me away from the gaming world. It was gradual, then it was gone. I didn’t see Ken IRL or online. But there I was on the opposite side of the world wishing he was there. I remember him crying too. I wanted back all of the time we had missed together.

People change. People move away. People regret that. I regret that.

Ken passed January 10th. It was expected. He got very ill in April.

We would drive up to see him in Plano some weekends. We would play games and watch Aggie Football. We would be present even when he could no longer talk. Even when that genius brain had no outlet to share his thoughts. We would just be together.

But never enough. Never as often as I wished. Always the four hour drive looming as part of the post hang out. Always the sadness and regret on the drive home. In April, Vicki and I sold our house.  It was Ken’s big Austin home we moved into.

Ken was close. Ken was safe. Ken was comfortable.

When I was sick with a heart problem, I asked Ken to be my back up plan. If I died, I had asked him to look after Vicki and Cindy.

Acquiescence to a sick man more than any formal agreement. Ken would be there in their grief, a friend, and a comfort to them and me in my fear.

But now I got no more plan. And I am sitting in this grief, angry and hurt, asking over and over in my head, “How do I honor this man?”

This is all I could think to do. This is all I got.

Ken and Paul 1989

 

 

 

 

 

Gone Tomorrow – Really!

Earlier this year, Ryan Hill was asked to direct a mainstage show in San Antonio. Cary asked him to have three rehearsals a week for four weeks in San Antonio. He said he could not spend that much time on the road. Cary said, “What about In Our Prime doing it together?”

So many months later, the first show went up. From our desire to do a format we had dreamed about, to the pitch, the collaboration of the how to do it, the auditions, and casting of the performers and the crew, IOP rehearsed for a month sharing the effort, developing the show, and sharing our vision with each other, the cast, and our tech gurus.

Friday, opening night, came and went. Saturday followed so quickly and it was gone too.

There are two shows left and I am the proud participant in the process. And I loved the process. Really, it was amazing and fun (and scary.) In Our Prime is happy to still be together. There was a risk. But we really love each other so very much.

So many things I learned from Jessica, Roy, Marc, Asaf, and Justin, and so, so many others. I could hear them in my head on days when I wanted something from the cast. How do I tell them what I want without putting them in their head?

How do we show them that slowing down sometimes makes for great theatre? That setting up real relationships, with distinct characters over a few scenes at the top pays huge dividends in a narrative?

Of course they did it. They did it the first night and it was very funny and they did it again on the second night and it was funny, serious, and creepy as hell!

I can not tell you how proud I am for getting to work with Gloria and Ryan on this. How happy I am that we grew even closer together over this time. How we worked so well together to get so many things done. Each of us pulled our own weight, but I think Ryan will agree, Gloria did a lot of the unglamorous work behind the scenes. But each rehearsal, email, photoshoot, and publicity piece we worked on together.

My friends are geniuses. And I love them with all my heart.

Over these last few months I have come to know Cary who is a dedicated and huge hearted human being who loves and respects everyone around him. He carries a burden of leadership that is hard to set aside when you are working in someone else’s vision of ensemble. Each time I have seen him face a challenge, he has lead with his heart. And we are all the better for it.

Each time I see Gina she is fully engaged and commits in the moment. She is a joy to have in the show because she wants to be there and wants to support everyone around her. She makes big, bold moves on stage and she never backs down or let’s go. I am sad we only have two more shows.

Carey and Luke are like two unidentical peas in two pods that have been grafted together. They play well together, having that impossible group mind in their group of two. They pick up from each other and run like two kids on the field of play in any sport, anywhere. Playing yin to the others yang. But they seem nothing alike. Each making bold, subtle moves that offer opportunity in each sentence of dialogue. Waiting for the other players to jump on them and take them for a ride. I can watch them all day.

This group mind has expanded from two to the whole cast and crew. Synchronization of ideas and jumping on offers.

Vanessa came to us with a drama background and grabbed us from her first scene. And her big characters filled with emotion and status from angst to love, from supportive to demanding, we see uncharted depths we have yet to push her to reach . . . yet.  

Mark offered us the mind of a genius in the body of a red bearded Viking. He makes big moves, taking in what he hears and moving to the beat of his own drummer. He is the namer of names and the patient player on stage that slows down, finding the truth in the moment.     

Our tech gurus, Amy Jo Rabold and Adrianne Brown have been indispensable. Amy keeps the lights in line with the shifting tones of the scenes. While Adrianne mixes music with the scenes, enhancing the tones and providing feedback to the cast. They are engaging, exuberant, and excellent at what they are doing for Gone Tomorrow.  

Tomorrow night, this will all be over. A wisp of a memory, like some many moments in Improv. But right now, in this moment before it all ends, I am so very happy to be present here, now.

The One Who Makes All The Noise

The chirping in the woods today had a gnarly sound of a woodpecker changing a tree’s form from a perfect tree to one with a hole in it. The woodpecker does not want to change the tree. The pecker just wants the sap to eat. It repetitively taps its beak over and over into the bark with its little head as a hammer striking a nail. It keeps tapping until it feasts on the sap inside. What a marvel to wake to on a spring morning at first light to the sound of a jack-hammering woodpecker proving it is alive and well, just like you have done for 40 years.

Thank G*d I moved off to college at 18. Off to the quiet world of marching bands, football games, celebratory cannons, yell practice, and six AM wake ups to go to Bonefire cut. I ran to college to avoid your incessant talking about the latest band, the newest boy, or your car’s horsepower. Seriously, who cares about your awesomely fast car? And that face you make when you tease me. OMG that face! Who would not run from that?

When you finally went to college too, I knew Texas was not big enough for the both of us in school. So, I joined the Army. Hell, I ran into the Army. To West Germany, where everyone combined was less chatty than you. The Army had sleeping quarters for 32, machine guns, and bombs, but I was free from your chatter. I stayed for years.

But all good things must end. And when they did, I went back to school and there you were. With a passel of people like puppies following your lead, hanging on your every word even when you talked about your cars amazing horsepower.

Then we both ended up in Austin. So close that we never saw each other. I was marrying one of your best friends and you were marrying the most intelligent, industrious man I have ever met. And then in a flash, you moved a thousand miles away.

The silence was deafening. The wisdom filled witty wisecracks wafting between us, went quiet. The distance was not a void, it was a vacuum, sucking up every thought we would have shared and leaving them to wither; unvalued and invalidated, vacated from our shared, collective consciousness. You with your thoughts and I with mine. Separated but unceasing.

Then BAM, some asshole makes cell phones and you call me any damn time you want to talk about your Tesla or your dogs or your kids! (Okay, well, I like the kids.) But seriously, cell phones! The void was gone. I heard everything you said. That damn, “can you hear me now” campaign actually worked! I could HEAR YOU EVERY DAMN TIME.

Now you are an elected official, a very important person, a mother of three teenagers, a caregiver for two dogs and our mom plus your husband. The silence returned. A new void has come.

Now I call you to talk to your answering machine. The message is specific to me, mentioning me by name, and talking about faxes instead of horsepower.

And like every tree in winter, I miss your pecking, about your amazing job, your brilliant kids, your perfect house, your genius husband, and the incessant jokes about my car’s shitty horsepower. I miss your face, the one you make after you make a joke at my expense. The one where you smile like the Cheshire cat wished he could smile. I miss that one.

I am the tree with the hole that misses the tapping in the spring. You know, you could call every once in a while. I’m just saying.

Happiest of birthdays to my hippiest of sisters.

The chatty one.

The little girl on the left.

Always doing what I do, only better.

Always smiling, like she won.

Always smiling, because she has won.

Would it kill you to let me win once?

Just once?

Is your phone broken?

Really, pick up the damn phone.

Call your older brother.

Hell, you can talk about your car!

To My Second Daughter On The Anniversary of Her Birth Or As I Call It: The Time Before I Knew You

I wonder what it is like,
To have an old man,
Think you are the best.
Every day he is saying
Nice things about you
To his friends.
Telling stories,
Naming names,
Making your eyes roll,
Again!

Introducing you to
New people in hopes,
You might make more friends,
Who will laugh at his jokes.
And make you want to scream,
“Stop that!
He is not funny!
Can’t you see!”

It can’t be easy
Being related to
Someone like that.
Or maybe it is worse
Because there is no
Blood between us.
Just some old guy
Who came along,
Hoping to help out.
Who overstayed his welcome,
And you wish would get out.
Of your life for a while,
I am not sure how to tell you,

But it is all your own fault,
You being an uptight
Twenty something Pharmacist
To be,
Needs an old person
Just like me!
You Know,
Someone Cool,
To balance you out.

With irreverence and great love
As any real father would.
Someone to brag on you
About your latest test grades.
Someone to tease and annoy you
Each and every day.

But I know the truth,
We both always have,
You don’t need me,
My Second Daughter,
You never, ever did.
It is I who need you,
So I can be your Dad.

One AM in Amarillo

Sunshine never came today

The Ocean was not near

The hole in my heart is infinite

And the pain is buried in fear

 

I square my shoulders

I square my jaw

‘cause that’s what men do

In the panhandle with loss.

 

Shake it off

Rub some dirt

Put a smile on

Head held high

 

There is no path to understanding the will of the universe

When the world makes no sense in the silence of night

When death comes for the young in the bright day

As the men must stand up tall and do their duty; strong.

 

I look outside at the winds through the window

I hear the howl and the roar of the grass.

Men who came before me, of the men who play

In the super bowl, the men who have grit.

 

What is it to be awake at one AM in a place

Where the winds blow you over?

Where emotions knock you down?

Where you bury the dead half your age?

 

There are silent demons here

Inside the ones who continue

We imagine them dragons but

It’s just sadness. And the winds howl.