The Birthday of Fred J. Adams

Fred and Irene

Yesterday, we celebrated my dad’s birthday in the traditional Adams Family way – with awesome ribs, some wine, and funny stories. On March 4th, my dad will turn 73. Here are some quotes from the evening:

My dad talking about how he got my beautiful mother to marry him: “Perseverance and lies. You know, if you can get someone to marry you based off of lies, and then they can forgive you and love you anyway, that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”

My dad regarding a tough joke somebody just made: “This isn’t a family for the weak.” My brother: “It’s a family that makes you strong.”

My dad on the fact I’ve been feeling pretty fragile lately: “We’ll always be here for you, Beautifuls. Whatever you need. Okay, I’m going to bed.” (My father’s retreats are sudden, but not hard to predict. The man goes to bed around eight and gets up at four.)

I love it when my dad is in a storytelling mood, and last night he was in rare form. It was yet another occasion where I realized that I am my father. So many of his stories sounded like pages from my own life. “So, I was drinking with this guy, and then…” random adventure ensues. Other stories involved visions. For example, my dad told the story of the financial crisis brought on my the surprise arrival of my brother. (He is 15 years younger than my oldest sister.) During this time of crisis, my dad spent a lot of time drinking and laying on the couch, wondering how he was going to pay for David’s college. He then awoke in the middle of the night with an epiphany that he would be a CPA in Atlanta. He wound up in Greenville, SC, but, you know, close enough. And from the point of that vision forward, his crisis abated. I am a big fan of visions, too.

My dad also talked about the diagnosis he received in 1996 that shaped all of our lives from that point forward. At that time, a doctor told my dad he’d likely pass away in three years, but that if he was incredibly lucky, he might make it to 70. I remember praying so hard that my dad would reach 70. For years and years, that was my prayer. Often times, God dreams bigger than we do. We are extraordinarily fortunate that my dad turned out to be a medical anomaly, and there is a strange blessing in twenty years spent in the shadow of death. Perhaps predictably, it teaches you to be grateful for the days you do have. But it also teaches you, through forced contemplation, to became familiar with death itself. I think our modern discomfort with death is a great tragedy. We outsource it to hospice workers and hospitals, we fight it in ways big and small. I see it in efforts like the desire to colonize Mars. We want to sustain, live on. We obsess over our health and nutrition and try to tack on as many years as we can. To me, these things seem born of fear, the fear of a failure to survive – when of course none of us survives. The loss of a loved one through death equals profound heartbreak. But if you believe as I do, that after death the person lives on, the hard scrabble, even desperate effort to cling to this mortal coil, as Shakespeare would say, is odd and sad. Far better to really live while you’re here, have fun, and not worry so much.

In this, my father has excelled. He is, in fact, far better than I am at it, but I like to think I’ve inherited some of his joie de vivre. I’ve told many people about how my dad introduced me to comedy. My father and I share a joint lexicon of phrases culled from W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, and Mel Brooks movies. “Say, is this a game of chance?” W.C. Fields: “Not the way I play it, no.” Laurel: “Don’t you think your bounding over your steps?” Hardy: “He means stepping over your bounds.” And most frequently used – Director Roger Debris in The Producers, who is dressed in drag and about to go to a costume contest: “What do you think? BE BRUTAL, BE BRUTAL! Heaven knows they well.” And Roger Debris again: “CONGRATULATIONS!” My dad also introduced me to amazing television, like Taxi. We were also big fans of Night Court. Best exchange ever – John Larroquette to a scumbag restauranteur: “And what are these ‘batter fried bits’ made of?” Scumbag: “Formerly living things.” “Formerly living things,” is the perfect answer whenever somebody asks you what’s for dinner.

Had my dad been born in another time and place, he would have made an incredible stand-up comic. I’ve seen him on stage as an emcee and roaster, and his ability to craft a joke is superb. He’s a natural. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if I had my dad’s talent for comedy I’d already have a Comedy Central half hour. I mean that, too. I have my dad’s instinct for storytelling, but not his gift for punchlines.

As I said, the older I get the more I realize that I am my father. We see the world through the same eyes. It is, of course, a great blessing to be like my dad. He’s a widely beloved man. But everybody has a shadow side. We’re both stubborn people. When we are hyper focused upon a task, don’t interrupt us. Like the Hulk, you wouldn’t like us if you interrupt us. We think we know exactly the way things should go and get very bent upon bending reality to our will. Most of the time we’re peace-loving folk, given to seeing situations in shades of gray, but our sense of injustice and correlating rage can be pretty intense.  We seem like we’re really easy to get along with, but secretly we can be difficult. Which makes it that much more difficult for those that find us difficult, aka, my mother. But on the plus side, we’re big on love and forgiveness and humor.

Long story short – I am blessed to have my dad for my dad. He is a great man, a great father, a truly rare creature that improves all of the lives he touches – and there are no shortage of people he has helped along their way. There is a very old African-American saying about sipping from the saucer. The idea is that if your cup runneth over, you can sip from the saucer. This saying reminds me of my father. He is an expansive man, capable of great acts of selflessness and giving, but he does not empty himself in order to fill others, because the well of his faith runs so deep. In this, I would like to be more like him.

Yesterday, watching my dad reminisce, in his beautiful home surrounded by his family who loves him, a successful businessman and living miracle, I considered how improbable his life story is. This poor boy from Alabama, kicked out of high school and who got into college having still not memorized the alphabet, found himself married to a beauty queen from Idaho, wound up back in the South, alive and well and deeply loved. Not everybody gets such a happy third act to their life story. I am incredibly thankful my father has. He’s a wonderful man, and deserves all the happiness in the world.

The Birthday of Cody Hughes

My favorite picture of Cody. We took a spur of the moment road trip to Milwaukee. Found a burger place that offered "samples" of beer that were nearly full glasses. It was a great place.

Two years ago, I found myself driving up to Greenville, South Carolina with one Alrinthea Faye Carter. For some reason I no longer remember, I’d stopped by Darren Linvill’s house prior to the drive up. He took one look at me and said, “Why do you look nice?” This is the benefit of best friends. We needn’t beat around the bush. His wife, Claiborne, was rather mortified and tried to say something to smooth over the moment, but I said, “No, he’s right. I do look nice and yes, it’s weird. I am going to a party in Greenville. A comedian party.” I’m not positive, but this may have led into Darren’s earliest threat/warning about the pending demise of our friendship.

In the car with Al, we debated what the party was going to be like. We considered ourselves queens of Clemson, to be sure, but the big fancy city of Greenville? That was a whole ‘nother thing. (Subsequently, Al moved to Greenville and took over the city by force after a massive charm offensive. It was truly a blitzkrieg of charm, you guys.) Michael Robinette was the host of the shindig and I was brand spanking new to comedy. I’d been getting onstage for only a month and was frankly surprised I was invited. Memories of schoolyard bullies firmly intact, I thought there was a good chance the boys would be mean to the new kid and I’d leave early.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, I met awesome people like Amanda Holcombe and Nick Murphy, Andy Cummins and Art Sturtevant. We all talked and laughed and so many of the people there spoke my language. It was crazy. I’d met other mes. I thought I was the only me, but that wasn’t so, there were lots of mes. They didn’t look like me, but they were mes. To be sure, they were mes. At a certain point in the evening, Cody was pressed into speaking. He recited a typical host introduction. “Tonight, we’re pleased to have at the Coffee Underground theater a wonderful comic, put your hands together for Cody Hughes.” It was weird and strangely hilarious, which sort of sums up Cody.

Later, around a campfire, somehow the fact I love horse racing came up and I bragged about my extensive trivia knowledge on the subject. Nick Murphy popped up with, “What’s the story of the 1979 Belmont?” Which, of course, happened to be one of the most dramatic Belmonts in history, with Ronnie Franklin – or a safety pin! – sabotaging the great Spectacular Bid, allowing underdog Coastal to grab the victory. Halfway through the story, I realized I was talking about horse racing and I needed to shut up, so I shut up. Somebody said, “No, finish, I want to know what happened.” And there was a sudden feeling of – I am around friends. I have found my tribe. It took 36 years,  but better late than never.

I remember on the drive home, Al said, “That was kind of weird. Instead of talking, people just sort of stood in circles and did bits at one another, hoping for laughs.” I was like, “AND IT WAS THE BEST THING EVER!” I’d so much rather stand around in a circle and try to find the funny than, you know, communicate. Communication can be a bummer, man. Comedy – never a bummer. Opposite of a bummer, in fact. I exaggerate, of course. Communication has its place. But so does comedy. And comedians put it where it belongs – front and center.

To be honest, I am not wholly a comedian. I am not fully a member of the tribe. If I was, I would never have written screenplays and novels to begin with. There are true, 100% stand-up comics out there, Cody Hughes being one of them, and they are a breed apart. But I have a deep love and appreciation for them, and they are very nearly mes. Even closer are comics like Fray Forde, who are creative jack-of-all-trades. Fray Forde can write the hell out of a short film, let me tell you what, and kill it on stage.

And so, Cody Hughes birthday means a lot to Cody, his mother, his father, his sister, possibly extended family members, and close friends, of whom I believe Cody has as many as three, but outside those people I doubt there’s anyone who celebrates Cody’s birthday as much as I do. Another comic, Elizabeth Brooks, recently posted on Facebook that she’d been doing comedy for one year. A non-comic  (or as comedian Becca Steinhoff would call him, a “muggle”) questioned Brooks, asking why comics pay such close attention to their comedy anniversaries. I don’t know how Elizabeth replied to his comment, but for me, the last Monday in January, and just as importantly, Cody Hughes’ birthday, are markers of the beginning of a new life. When you wander through the wardrobe door and find Narnia, it’s a date worthy of note.

Narratives

The United States of America

This morning, the Internet told me about three young Muslims shot in the head in North Carolina. At first, I thought my Facebook feed was filled with this story because it’s nearby and has an academic bent. (I am in South Carolina with a lot of academic friends.) I read an article about it that stated that police were determined to discover if the murder were “hate-related.” My first thought was, “Is there a murder that isn’t?” There are referring, of course, to the fact the victims were Muslim and the killer was an atheist who frequently posted anti-religious messages online. However, it appears a long running dispute about condominium parking played a role. I was once involved in a long running dispute about apartment parking. It definitely invoked deep feelings of rage, so it’s not hard for me to see how this happened. I’m not being facetious. I can see how it happened.

I went on Twitter and discovered these killings are now a major news story and I realized it’s not just local. It’s become one more plot point in the story our nation is telling itself.

I work in narratives. It’s what I do. On stage and on paper. But it’s also what we all do. We are constantly telling ourselves the story of our own life. Are we the scrappy underdog, constantly having to overcome an unjust world? Are we the loner nobody understands? Are we a determined winner? Are we lucky? Unlucky? Smart, stupid, brave, chicken? We have so many plot points to choose from. There is the moment your high school girlfriend dumped you and learned you can’t trust women. Or there’s the moment you realized we’re all flawed people, forgave her, and moved on. We believe that we’re simply living and remembering what has happened to us and what we’ve done, but really, we’re constantly constructing a narrative. And it’s easy enough to guess how a story is going to end. When was the last time a movie surprised you? When was the last time somebody’s life surprised you? It happens, but it’s rare, because real, authentic change is hard work. It happens because we decide to revise our story and create a new ending. Or, you know, sometimes you win the lottery.

Just as people are constantly weaving the narrative of their life, so are nations. We are choosing our identity with every murder we decide to make the tragedy du jour. It is a tragedy, beyond a doubt, that these three people were murdered over parking spaces, with perhaps the extra motivation that they were different, foreign, religious, Muslim. But they also may have been murdered over parking spaces, with the extra motivation that the killer suffered some kind of heartache, loss, rejection, or other emotional pain. Or maybe no extra motivation was required at all. Maybe he’s a psychopath. The point is, we don’t really know, but sure know how to fit this plot point into the story we’re telling ourselves. Keep in mind, on average 30 people are shot to death in the United States every day. This is the murder we chose. We could have picked the women killed by their husbands, the gang members killed on the streets, the burglary gone awry. Or we could have told a completely different story. One that didn’t have any blood in it.

I don’t deny the truth of this story, of course. There is obviously a lot of extremist hate out there right now. It’s just like the plot point of the guy whose high school girlfriend dumped him. That happened. But he has a choice as to how this figures into the narrative. Is it a plot point about the inherent unreliability of women or is it about forgiveness? Our country is telling itself a story about senseless hate with no end in sight. The story is scattered, random, there isn’t a strong through line anywhere. Even so, there are still countries that manage twist endings. Iceland, for example. But Iceland is like a little indie movie with a small crew. It’s easy enough to turn it around. The United States of America is the Spider-Man franchise of countries. It is a massive thing with a momentum all its own, incredibly difficult to alter once it sets course. Which is deeply unfortunate. Our story needs massive revision, because the ending we’re headed toward is not a happy one.

Predators

Yesterday was a bummer, man. On Friday, I’d gone to a comedy show. I’d invited a lot of friends to this show, coordinated a lot of efforts, entertained a lot of people while there. I love this sort of stuff and I am good at it. But it takes a good bit out of me. On Saturday, I was tired. It isn’t often that I feel this way, but what I wanted on Saturday was somebody to take care of me. Somebody I know well, somebody I am wholly comfortable with, somebody to make me food. But that wasn’t going to happen, so, I debated between staying in and watching movies, or going out. I decided to choose hope, and went out to the turn the day around. Hope looked back at me and said, “Nope. Not gonna happen.”

It would have been easier to turn an aircraft carrier around than my day. But this is life, my friends, not every day is going to be a winner. I am grateful that most of my days are pretty awesome. That said, yesterday I found myself going to Publix at 7:30pm to pick up two avocados, toothpaste, and a bottle of wine.

A few months ago, a video of a woman getting catcalled in NYC made big news. One of the things that struck me about the video was the woman’s posture. She was sort of curled up into herself. I felt her fear, her tentativeness, watching the video. Personally, I never get catcalled. It just doesn’t happen. And I’ll walk around New York for ten hours, through all kinds of neighborhoods. I generally go out into the world in one of two modes – totally shut down ice cold don’t-talk-to-me and completely game to make friends. I feel like I have control, the ability to click back and forth between these ways of being, depending on where my head’s at. In either mode, I do not perceive men as a threat in general. Sometimes my gut pops up to say “stay away” and I always listen to it, but fear just isn’t a part of my day-to-day life experience.

So there I was yesterday, feeling like a sad little monkey, in the nice Publix shopping center in West Ashley. Before getting my groceries I wanted to grab something from a side store. I walked past a man sitting on a bench. He asked me if I had a smoke, I said no and kept walking, but he didn’t stop talking. Instantly, I was disconcerted. On the way back to the Publix, to get my avocados, toothpaste and bottle of wine, I had to walk past him again. This time he got up from the bench, invaded my personal space, and followed me up to the door. I wanted to verbally confront him, but that guy picked me for a reason – I was already feeling defeated. I had no fight in me.

I said nothing, walked into Publix, instantly grabbed the store manager (who happened to be right there), and told him to kick the guy off the property. Which he did. I had no fight in me, but I certainly had the intellectual capacity to delegate that fight to somebody else.

I got my stuff, checked out and left. When I got to the parking lot, there was now an old black van with electric green stripes parked next to the driver’s side of my car. The man was sitting in the passenger side of the van, his hands and face pressed up against the window. He was laughing at me. If I could murder someone with a look, he would have been dead a thousand times before I drove away. As I left, he waved goodbye. Whoever was driving the van left at the same time I did, but they didn’t follow me.

In the movie Copycat, which I saw because it was about serial killers and had Sigourney Weaver in it, there’s this great line where Weaver says, “Don’t park next to vans.” In the movie, she’s a world famous expert on serial killers and famous author on the subject. She’s walking down a hallway, signing autographs on the move, and that’s what she says to a woman who asks for her autograph: “Don’t park next to vans.” Delivered as if she was saying, “Take care of yourself.” I thought about that as I drove away. Specifically, “What if the van parks next to you?” It’s like the zen koan of dealing with predators.

In conclusion, sometimes days and people are bad, but in the end, it’ll be fine. (That’s my paraphrase of Romans 5:2.)

Writing Advice: Part I – The Backstory

Conor McGregor, giving you writing advice.

When I first switched to novels from screenplays back in 2009, I read blogs voraciously, trying to figure out this new art form. These blogs intimidated me. They seemed to come from such a place of confidence. And with good reason. These were women (almost always women, which isn’t my comfort zone to begin with) who clearly understood the English language. I slept through language arts. I cannot tell you how literally I mean that. I fell asleep so quickly and easily in that class for two reasons. One, I’d stay up reading until 3am every night. Two, those people couldn’t fool me – language arts was just the mathematics of words. I knew the truth. There was nothing literary about language arts. That class was some voodoo math crap I didn’t want any part of. To this day, I struggle with grammar. I am a good mimic, of accents and impressions and also of sentence structure and language. I really don’t have an independent intellectual understanding of my native tongue. I’m just imitating the way I know it should sound. But frankly, language arts, like math, is abstract and arbitrary and my brain doesn’t want any of it, at all.

This was one of the benefits of screenwriting. Nobody on the other side of production ever reads the screenplay. I could always write dialogue – it’s just mimicry. The description needed to be effective, but rough and ready, short and to the point, was perfectly acceptable. I was drawn to screenwriting for a myriad of reasons, but the fact I could hide behind the screen, so to speak, was definitely part of the appeal. Novels offer no such cover. Your dangling modifiers are all out there for the world to see. (If anybody doubts how rough my writing was when I arrived at USC, they should ask my ex. Evan earned a merit badge in fixing convoluted sentences. He is an incredibly clear and effective writer, and God bless him, became my de facto language arts teacher.)

These blogs were intimidating in other ways, too. They said write in the morning, fewer said write at night, but they all seemed to say that you should write at the same time every day. They advocated word count goals. Methods of plotting stories. Ways to track story changes using post it notes. Software to better organize your ideas. So many ways to be a professional in your writing. I came away with the impression that authors blog about their writing process and give writing advice on their blogs. I felt this odd anxiety that, if I ever were to become an author, at some point I’d need to make an account of myself as a writer in a public way. And yet, here I was, unable to follow even the most basic pieces of advice.

In early January of this year, I came out to Charleston to write. At least, that’s what I told everybody. It’s a quick and easy shortcut. “It’s a writing retreat!” In truth, I had several motivations for coming out here. Early on, I was be-bopping around on Facebook and a good friend sent me a message, admonishing me to get off Facebook and write. I took umbrage. I wanted to defend myself, say I’d already written a lot. I resisted the temptation and instead said, “You needn’t worry about me or my writing.” I then puzzled out why my friend had sent the message and I quickly realized – I’d asked her to. In the past, I’d often asked my writing group friends to keep me on track. But something significant had shifted within me. I no longer wanted to abdicate responsibility for myself. And I realized it’s something I’ve done repeatedly in all areas of my life. My fitness is the responsibility of my coach. My writing productivity is the responsibility of my friends.

Not long after that, another friend posted about the UFC fighter Conor McGregor on Facebook. I’d heard the name but didn’t know much about him. I delved into his story and came away mesmerized. I don’t wholly admire him. He is motivated by money in a way I never will be. (You can’t serve two masters, the good book says. It’s either God or money.) That said, there are many reasons why I love Conor McGregor, his willingness to speak his honest truth and the fact he is wholly unapologetic for who he is being chief among them.

A few years ago, I read Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.” If you haven’t read it, you should. Even if you’re not a writer, there’s a pretty fascinating autobiography that kicks off the book. “On Writing” taught me there was a name for people like me. “Pantser.” To my wonderment, Stephen King was one, too. There are people who plot out stories and those who figure them out on the fly. King had nothing to say to the plotters, and bid them a polite adieu. He had advice for the pantsers, though, and in reading about his process I saw a lot of myself. I’d always thought of myself as an archeologist uncovering artifacts. To me, the story is already whole, intact. I just need to uncover it. There is a bizarre truth to this that is hard to describe. In deep revision, I’ll discover the thing that had been hiding all along, and when it’s revealed the entire thing suddenly works. It is very like the story was simply waiting for me to find that final piece, the piece that had been there all along, but unseen by me. I don’t feel like I create the stories I write. I feel like I find them. Although I saw a lot of myself in King’s book, there was a lot missing, too. He thrives on routine. He is prodigious in his output. So while I found some solace there, by and large I still had a pretty massive inferiority complex as a writer.

Cue Conor McGregor:  “At the end of the day, you’ve got to feel some way. Why not feel unbeatable? Why not feel untouchable? Why not feel like the best to ever do it?”

Why not indeed, Mr. McGregor?

Stay tuned for Part II – The Actual Advice!