Ruthless Reality Check

You know what this is? This is you, at the beach, reading Ruthless, one year from now.

Earlier today, I caught up with a blog I haven’t read in some time. It’s an author’s blog, one I used to read religiously back in the day. “Back in the day” is code for, before I sold a book, before I got an agent, before I’d finished my first novel. It’s a popular blog – a lot of aspiring writers follow it. Today, the author wrote about the struggles of being a writer. Although she did not use these words, the message was that the reality of being a writer can be a bitter pill to swallow. She wrote about making very little money, about how it’s very rare to sell to one of the Big 5 publishing houses, so on and so forth.

As I read the blog, I felt a sinking sensation. Namely, I have not spent enough time in gratitude for my good fortune. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful right off the bat, but I have a “now onto the next” personality. I’m always looking toward the horizon. Not a bad thing, necessarily – I think it lends itself toward getting a good bit done – but it can also lead to a shallowness of appreciation.

Just in case I missed the point, I sent an email to my editor, letting him know I’d be in NYC starting June 4th. He wrote back saying he couldn’t meet with me that day, because he would be busy promoting my book at Summer ’15 Launch, but that he’d love to meet with me the following day. Here’s the honest truth – I am egotistical and vain enough that the idea of people promoting my book, without me even being there, is, like, the coolest thing ever. I mean, HOW FUN IS THAT? HOW LUCKY AM I? Answers: Amazingly fun, amazingly lucky.

Then, I went on a walk in the woods with my dogs. It’s the first hot day of 2014. That means summer is almost here. That means my book comes out a year from now. Maybe a year and some change, but essentially, one year from now, and all of this will become very real indeed. It’s time to start promoting RUTHLESS, which will be an interesting learning curve for me, given it’s something I’ve never done before. I suspect it shall be tremendous fun, given my love of promoting projects. Granted, I am used to promoting shows, other comics, parties; always under the heading, “You should do this because it’s so fun!” RUTHLESS is far more personal and I don’t know if “Fun!” would be its leading descriptor. It is a fo’ real thriller, though, so – close enough to fun? Anyway, I’m sure I’ll figure it out.

In any case, I can’t wait to learn my publishing date, because I am going to be throwing the biggest party I’ve ever thrown – and all y’all are invited.

The Falcon, The Bridge & The Return of Ben LeRoy

There’s this guy I know named Nick Shaheen. Nick is a stand-up comedian. He’s the kinda guy who collects nicknames. The Godfather, The Falcon, Game of Shaheen, Nick of Thrones. Sometimes he wears a Members Only jacket. Sometimes there is a sleeve of Fireball mini bottles in the interior pocket of that Members Only jacket. The last time he hosted and I performed was on Valentine’s Day. After my set, he told the crowd that I was easy and they should buy me shots at the bar. It was funny because Nick knows I’m not and also because I got two free shots at the bar.

Nick Shaheen at Tent City. Antonio chooses to live up here instead of down below. It is quieter, safer, more protected.

Nick is also the guy who reached out to ┬áthe comedy community when Moo-Moo got leukemia, arranged a hospital visit and stay connected. So it didn’t surprise me when The Falcon suggested we put on a benefit for Greenville’s Tent City, or, as the residents refer to it, “Under the Bridge.” Along with our friend Tom, we threw out ideas as to how a comedy benefit might work, but it was a busy time for everybody and the conversation stayed just that.

A couple of weeks later, on March 3rd, I got an email out of nowhere from the inimitable Ben LeRoy. The subject line was sort of Pink Floydian (Are you out there?) but once I opened it, things took a turn for the Liam Neeson (Where are you?). (Answer: I was in my parents’ house filming exit interviews for a reality show. You know, typical Monday afternoon.) A few minutes later, Ben called and told me about Be Local Everywhere. Over the course of 2014, Ben is volunteering in all 50 states. He said, “You’re in charge of South Carolina. So, what are we doing?”

I paused, Ben mentioned an emphasis on homelessness, and BOOM! The Falcon’s idea returned to me. I pitched the under the bridge benefit to Ben, he loved it, and we were set for March 30th – the day Ben would be in South Carolina.

With only 27 days to organize, Shaheen and I hit the ground running. So far, we’ve been incredibly fortunate with how things have come together. Jason Fletcher, who owns High Street Hospitality, donated the use of a beautiful venue, The Loft at Falls Park. (South Carolina people, may I encourage you to go feast at The Green Room, Sip or Ford’s Oyster House?) Jason’s event coordinator, Candy, is volunteering her time to help us set up. The bartender, too, is a volunteer.

We needed comics who could commit to the date on the spot, and we were lucky to get a great line-up, with Tom Emmons, Shivani Nadarajah and Cary Goff. For the purposes of this event, we are claiming North Carolinian Cary as one of our own. (Asheville, Greenville, all ends in Ville…close enough, right? Much more importantly, Cary is a great comic who was on board with the mission.)

Yesterday, Shaheen and I paid a visit to Tent City to get a lay of the land. I spent most of my time talking to a man named Antonio. He lives in a wood shelter, maybe eight by three, kept neat and clean. He was reading when we got there and books lined the walls. Soft-spoken, articulate, intelligent, Antonio answered my questions about Tent City with candor. I wanted to ask him, “How did you end up here?” and “Why have you been here so long?” But I kept the conversation pragmatic.

The majority of the people live on the level ground beneath the bridge.

Nick, who had been taking photos, wandered back our way. After a little more conversation, Antonio asked Nick if he’d like to take pictures of his place. It was obvious he very much wanted his place photographed, but the question was quiet, hesitant, a request from a man used to disappointment. Nick told him he didn’t have a flash and therefore couldn’t capture the interior, but quickly added, “I can take pictures of you, though.” This pleased Antonio. When Nick raised his camera to take the shot, Antonio posed, lifting his open book and gazing upon the pages.

Antonio wanted the photo to be of him reading.

What better way to lay claim to his dignity as a human being than to be seen reading a book? Antonio is a smart man. A smart man who loves books. I want to help him and the other people who live under the bridge. I hope you do, too.

Join us Sunday, March 30th, 7:30pm at The Loft at Falls Park. Tickets are $25. To purchase tickets or make a donation go to: www.UnderTheBridgeBenefit.com

Moral Decision Making

Kennedy High. One time, I threw a frisbee out of one of the third story windows. I also used to jump off this handrail into those bushes. It was funny, because it looked like I was going to die, and then I'd completely disappear into the hedge. Miraculously, I never got hurt doing that.

The best class I ever had was at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, WA. It was called Moral Decision Making. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? Sounds opposite of exciting. It sounds excruciating. It probably would have been, had the class been in the hands of a less capable teacher. As it was, Moral Decision Making (I & II) was taught by Mr. Brian McCluskey.

He was not my favorite teacher. That was Mrs. Giles, my 7th grade science teacher. She taught me a tremendous amount, gave me much needed love and affirmation, and exuded joy. But as much as I enjoyed Mrs. Giles, no teacher made a bigger impact on me than Mr. McCluskey. In fact, I’d venture to say no one impacted me more, save my parents. It’s a big claim, I know, but here’s why I make it – Mr. McCluskey taught me how to think.

On day one, Mr. McCluskey taught us about something he called the “Pyramid of Opinions.” The idea being that there is one best opinion. For example, let’s say people are arguing about how the government should handle a problem. There will be a best opinion out of the group, never multiple best opinions. In other words, screw relativism. It may not always be easy to discern which is the best idea, but there is a best one out there. It was our job, in Moral Decision Making, to hash out who had the best opinion.

A typical day would begin with Mr. McCluskey solemnly handing out a sheet to each student. On each sheet was a detailed scenario describing a thorny ethical problem. Frequently, they were real life cases. We’d read in silence and then make notes. Over the year, we covered just about every controversial topic you can think of. Abortion, drugs, death penalty, euthanasia, you name it. After making our notes, Mr. McCluskey would make opening remarks, then he’d tell us where the Catholic Church stood on the issue and where he stood on the issue – because those were not always the same stance. His willingness to share his own unorthodox views (although to be fair, he was no radical by any stretch) set a tone of freedom of speech and the students exercised it – with vigor. After Mr. McCluskey laid out his opinion, he’d open up the topic for discussion.

To this day, that classroom remains the pinnacle of intellectual rigor and integrity in my life experience. On the one hand, it’s a sad thought – a bunch of high school sophomores expressing themselves with greater dignity and honesty than any group of people in my adult life. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if most everyone goes through life having never experienced anything like it. It was a tough, pull-no-punches sort of environment, yet unfailingly respectful. We were passionate, but not personal. Confident in our own take, yet willing to listen. If only all the world could be like Mr. McCluskey’s classroom.

On a personal level, I wasn’t a favorite student of Mr. McCluskey’s. I like to fight. Back then, I liked to fight even more, and I was born with innate certitude about my own righteousness. It wasn’t often that I crossed a line in that room, given the precision with which he governed the space, but sometimes my natural aggression got the better of me. Toward the end of the semester, we held debates in lieu final exams. We were randomly assigned a position by drawing a piece of paper out of a basket. No matter what your own beliefs, you had to argue the side you drew. So, you might be fervently anti-drugs because your dad OD’d, but if you drew full legalization, you were arguing full legalization.

I happened to draw pro-life in the abortion debate, which was more than fine by me. The person opposing me happened to be pro-choice. Our debate was a feisty one. At the end, we fielded questions from the students. One girl questioned me, and within the context of her question she shared the fact that she wished her mother had aborted her, instead of giving her up for adoption. She was, in essence, sharing a suicidal frame of mind. My response, delivered none too kindly: “Everybody has a burden to bear.”

Mr. McCluskey held me after class and said, “Don’t you think you were too hard on her?” I said, “No,” and just left.

Obviously, I am not sharing this story because it makes me look good. The point is that it is a weakness of mine. I can be cold and hard. My feeling can too easily drift toward, “Life is tough. Be tougher.” Up until Mr. McCluskey came along, I didn’t question this inclination toward hardness. It’s just the way I was and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.

But there was another semester waiting for me in Moral Decision Making II. It was pretty much just like the first one. There was no dramatic turning point, no sudden realization, but over time who Mr. McCluskey was as a human being made an impression. From him I learned that compassion is a greater form of strength than declaring one’s righteousness. I learned that people from opposing viewpoints still had much to teach me. I learned that quiet confidence is the best position to argue from and that sometimes, we are not called to argue at all, but just to love and accept and be still. He became my role model, the one I still look to today. I frequently fall short of the standard he set, but I never stop trying to reach it.

The spirit of intellectual integrity that pervaded Kennedy Catholic High School remains the high watermark in my life experience. The teachers there did not operate from the defensive crouch that I’ve seen in many churches since. Instead, there was a bright, shining confidence about the way we celebrated our faith, and that spirit allowed us to embrace the world. I believe Kennedy in the mid-90’s would have pleased Pope Francis greatly, because it was with that sort of joy and courage that the school operated.

The summer following my semester of Moral Decision Making II, Mr. McCluskey found out he had cancer. He passed away in 1996, leaving behind a wife and four kids. He was only 38 years old. I was extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to be taught by him. It’s hard to imagine what my worldview would be like now, without his influence.

***

“Where your treasure is, your heart will be there also.” – Matthew 6:21

Yesterday, I finally got paid. In case you’ve been playing along at home, yes, it took them four months to pay me. But in any case, I now have the check in hand. The very best thing about being single with my own money is that I can do whatever it is I want to with it. So, the first check I am going to write will be to St. Anthony’s of Padua Catholic School in Greenville, SC. The teachers there don’t make much. They’re there because they love to teach. That’s how it was at Kennedy, too. Mr. McCluskey could have made more in a public school. But Catholic Moral Decision Making isn’t a class they offer and he had a calling. It makes me happy to think I can help support teachers like him. It’s the least I can do, considering all he did for me.

Freak Show, or, My Favorite Poem of All Time

The Starry Night, by world class freak Vincent Van Gogh

On the Facebooks I like to post poems. Most often without comment, sometimes with a line or two of introduction. For a long time now, I’ve been wanting to post my favorite poem. I love it wholeheartedly. I love every syllable of it, every sentiment of it, as I discern those sentiments to be. It is a poem set in summer, so now, in the cold, cold, cold of January, it seems the right time to talk about it.

It’s nice, writing a blog post like this. All blog posts are self-indulgent. But no matter how self-centered they are, there’s something I want to share. Something I want to convey that feels important to me at the time. This, my friends, is pure self-indulgence, no agenda, no mission, and it is oddly pleasant and soothing, to wallow in such self-indulgence.

So, without further ado, my favorite poem:

The Two-Headed Calf

by Laura Gilpin

Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.

But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.

That’s it. Just four sentences. I can recite it from memory. The first time I read it, about three years ago now, maybe four, it hit me so hard it was like a physical blow to the face. It took a good twenty or so readings before the physiological symptoms left me. I can read it now without my body doing strange things, without a change in heart rate or adrenaline. But that’s more than three years into it.

For almost as long as I can remember, I have self-identified as a freak. As a coping mechanism, I learned to speak human, and I’m pretty fluent. You probably wouldn’t even know it’s not my native language. But I assure you, it isn’t my mother tongue. Before I spoke human, I spoke freak. It’s why I loved reading about The Elephant Man, why I loved Ripley’s Believe it or Not, all stories of the strange and tales from the fringes. It wasn’t my address, but it’s where I lived.

The world is ambivalent about freaks. Packaged in the right way, they’re embraced and celebrated. Turn it a hair, and they’re reviled. Especially in school. Life can look pretty bleak, especially caught in a place that rewards mainstream exceptionalism. And if ever there was a place that rewarded mainstream exceptionalism, it’s school. Indeed, school can be bleak for a freak, and there is something about bleakness that brings you up close to death. Maybe it’s because you feel like you’re not really living. In that life of not really living, you can look over the edge and see the other side, get familiar with it.

And that’s where this poem starts. With the inevitable. With death.

But it is no ordinary death. An ordinary calf would have been buried. This one will be saved, wrapped in newspaper and taken to the museum. Because make no mistake, there is no lack of egotism to the freak. Along with the oddball, misfit sense of rejection, there is also a sense of perverse superiority. If you are shunted to the side, is it because you’re worse than everybody else, or because you’re better? Freaks have a sneaking suspicion it may be the latter.

Even so, the second and final stanza hits closer to the heart of the matter. The summer evening is perfect. The perfectness of the summer evening into which he is born bestows upon the calf a benediction of perfection – despite his apparent, and massive, imperfection. His mother is there and there is a feeling that he is loved. That all is as it should be. And whenever is that the case? That everything is as it should be? For the normal, let alone the afflicted? But in this brief moment in time, it is more than simply as it should be, it is extraordinary, for when he looks into the night sky, there are twice as many stars as usual.

That, I believe, is the suspicions of freaks everywhere. That though they might be strange, and live a more brutal life than average, there is this secret benefit – they see twice as many stars. What is done with that vision varies from one end of the spectrum to the other, but at best, all those extra stars turn into works of art, scientific discovery, new philosophy. At worse, well, bad things. Those stars seen through a damaged kaleidoscope can morph into hellish visions, too often acted upon in this fallen world.

In the end, I’m really not much of a freak. Which I am more than fine with. The freakier one is, the greater the potential for good or ill. But I have enough in me than I can see it and identify with it. I certainly identify with Laura Gilpin’s “The Two-Headed Calf.” Thanks for reading my favorite poem and my thoughts on it. Your time spent on my self-indulgence is much appreciated.

Moo-Moo

Chris "Moo-Moo" Phillips and his wife Blair at St. Francis hospital in Greenville, SC.

It was somewhere between winter and spring in Anderson, SC. I was a new comic. Brand spanking new. Nick Shaheen had started up a venue in Anderson, at a place I knew pretty well, The Fox. I love The Fox. My beloved actress friend Tamara McNealy had introduced me to The Fox as the go-to hang out post plays, and it had always been a favorite place of mine. They have beautiful dark wood interior and yellow curry and a bulldog named Winston who greets the customers.

As a stand-up, The Fox has some interesting characteristics. It has a hot mic and an extra bright light in your eyes and it is the only place I’ve died on stage. (Twice, no less.) Dying on stage is pretty amazing. I highly recommend it. You’ll be pretty convinced you’re actually dying. The flop sweat, the heart rate, all that good stuff. You never feel more alive than when you feel close to death.

As a newborn comic having my near-death experiences at The Fox, I met a man named Moo-Moo. Moo-Moo is a big man, and he put pratfalls into his act. I’ll never forget the delight on Shaheen’s face as he watched Moo-Moo’s comedy. It was a magical. Moo-Moo’s comedy is unapologetic, loud, raucous. Moo-Moo the man is unfailingly kind, unfailingly encouraging, unfailingly respectful. As a new comic, maybe even especially a new female comic in the Deep South, kind comics like Moo-Moo are worth their weight in gold. You’re hanging by a thread in those first weeks, struggling and unsure, and no matter how much bravado you put out there, you want to hear somebody say they saw you, recognized your existence. Moo-Moo saw me. It meant a lot.

Months passed, I settled into the scene. I heard legends about Moo-Moo. About his past on Last Comic Standing, about another reality show from the recent past, about his time as a touring comic. Moo-Moo had a bigger than life quality to him, which is part of why it hit me hard when I heard from Nick Shaheen that Moo-Moo was in the hospital. Leukemia. No joke, hardcore chemo sort of leukemia. Shaheen and I paid Moo-Moo a visit. The spirit of the man lived on unabated. He told us about a new opportunity, a reality show with The Discovery Channel. A week later, I visited again with Tom Emmons, and heard again about all the exciting things he had waiting for him.

All he needed to do was beat cancer.

Moo-Moo is out of the hospital now. On Tuesday, he will make his debut on The Discovery Channel. A bunch of us who love and support him will be there at The Fox to watch his new show. He’s had a heck of a year. One filled with extreme highs and lows. I can relate, only Moo-Moo’s life took the intensity up to eleven.

Chris “Moo-Moo” Phillips is a force to be reckoned with. He is a man who has seen and experienced a lot, learned a lot, and has wisdom to share. I am honored to call him a friend. For all the local people reading this, I hope you join us this Tuesday at The Fox – to have a great time, to watch Moo-Moo’s show, and to celebrate everything he has accomplished as a comic, an entertainer, and as a man without any quit in him.