Friday, October 28, 2016

Chapter Thirty-Six. The End.

     “The opposite of the happy ending is not actually the sad ending--the sad ending is sometimes the happy ending. The opposite of the happy ending is actually the unsatisfying ending.” ― Orson Scott Card

     I hope I'm leaving it the right way. I really do. Tomorrow I celebrate (really? Celebrate?) 50 years of life. (Technically, my birthday falls on Sunday. But who the shit parties on Sunday?) I said I was going to finish putting the book online before my birthday, and I will at least have accomplished that. For those of you who have stuck with me from Chapter One, my appreciation and outright love for you knows no boundaries. And thank you to everyone who contributed financially, or simply by telling a friend or two about the blog, and passing these chapters along. If I ever get to see any of you face-to-face, I will hug the shit out of you. (That sounded way better in my head.)

     And so, here is the final chapter of Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life, which is a book I wrote. And lived. And a book you read all the way to the end. Thanks for that.

Chapter Thirty-Six
When Shit Comes Around

One last Wishbone story for the road. Whatever religion or belief system you happen to be a part of, I’ll bet there’s a bit in there somewhere that says, essentially, “It all comes back around.” What you put out in the world is almost always what you’ll get back. What follows is the best example of that from my professional life, and one that still chokes me the fuck up, even as I’m writing about it. Bear with me, kids.
     The year was 1997. We were in pre-production on the second season of Wishbone. I’ve already made it evident how I was feeling about the corporate types at Lyrick Studios during those days, so I was none too happy when I got a call from one of them, a woman from the Public Relations Department. She explained to me that she’d gotten a call from the director of Parkland Hospital in Dallas. The story went like this:
      There was a family of missionaries, deep in the African bush, bringing much-needed medical attention to some very remote villages. One night, while the entire village was gathered around a huge bonfire, one of the children of the missionary family, a boy of about eight years, tripped and fell head first into the fire. The boy’s father reached into the conflagration and pulled his son out, severely injuring himself in the process. But it was evident to all that the boy’s injuries were life-threatening. The family piled into an old Land Rover, and drove four hours across rutted dirt tracks to the nearest town that had an actual hospital.
     No doctor in residence at that clinic could have saved that boy’s life. But it just so happened that another group of American doctors was at that particular clinic, at that particular time. And one of them just happened to be the head physician of the Burn Unit at Parkland Hospital, in Dallas. The doctor immediately commandeered a private jet, and flew the boy and his family back to Dallas that night. The trip was excruciating for all, but particularly the boy, who had suffered second and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body.
     After days of treatment, and taking great care to avoid infections, the boy was finally able to communicate with his family. They were looking for anything to take his mind off the pain, and they asked him if he’d like to watch TV. And he said he’d like to watch Wishbone. Evidently he was a huge fan of the show. So much so that the friends of this family would tape episodes in the states, then mail them to the missionaries in Africa. But they had literally left all their belongings on another continent, flying home with their injured son with only the clothes on their backs. The director of Parkland Hospital heard about it, and he made a call to Lyrick Studios, and they made a call to me.
     The folks at Lyrick, to their everlasting credit and compassion, had created a gigantic gift basket for the boy. It contained every episode of the show that was currently available on video, several plush toys, custom book markers, advance copies of several of the new Adventures of Wishbone books for young readers, and various other little Wishbone toys and keepsakes. They wanted me to deliver the basket.
     I wish I could tell you I jumped at the opportunity. The truth is, I balked. I was scared shitless, actually. How would I react when I saw this kid? What if I freaked out? What if I did what I very often do in weird or awkward or tragic situations, and said or did something incredibly stupid or insensitive, and made it worse? Truth to tell, folks, I almost said no.
     But then the little voice started talking, the one that usually talks to me after I’ve fucked something completely up. This isn’t about you, asshole. Here’s a thought: why don’t you grow a pair of balls, and take a gift basket to a kid who could really use a pick-me-up right about now? You don’t have to be “on,” and you don’t even have to be comfortable. You’re not going to save his life, but you might just make him forget for a few minutes how much his life sucks right now. So man up, funny boy. (And yes. That’s how the little voice talks to me. Not like Yoda, or Mister Miyagi, or any wise old sage. Just a slightly smart-assier version of me.)
     If you’ve never been to Parkland Hospital, it’s easy to get lost. And I did. Twice. Fortunately a very nice receptionist walked me up to the Burn Unit, through a maze of corridors so bewildering, I was already planning on living at Parkland, seeing as how I’d never find my way out. We arrived at the proper room, and I guess I thought there’d be a suit or two from the Lyrick PR department to greet me. But there wasn’t. I knocked, and a very petite, weary-looking woman opened the door.
     “Hello. I’m Larry Brantley. I work on the television show Wishbone, and I was wondering if I could say hi to Marcus.” (Not his real name.) The weary-looking woman (Marcus’ mom) smiled. They were expecting me. Everybody, that is, except Marcus. His mom walked ahead of me, towards the bed in the center of the room. Marcus was awake, and she quietly informed him he had a visitor. Then she stepped to the side. Seeing that kid for the first time and not losing my shit right there and then was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m fucking crying right now at the memory of it.
     His face was, miraculously, unharmed. But from the throat down he was completely covered in bandages. And he was in such obvious pain. My heart broke -  fucking shattered - for this kid. In that moment, all I wanted was to punch the throat of God himself, so great was my sense of injustice for this little boy. Instead, I said, “Hey, Marcus. I’m Larry. I brought something for you.” I held up the basket so he could see it. I won’t tell you that his eyes lit up like it was Christmas, and he’d just gotten that Red Ryder BB Gun he’d been begging Santa for. The truth is, Marcus was heavily sedated to ward off the unimaginable pain that accompanies severe burns. But he recognized it as a gift, and what I saw in his eyes was gratitude.
     My plan had been to simply drop off the basket, tell Marcus I hoped he’d start to feel better, and make a hasty exit. But then his mom pulled up a chair for me, so I sat down beside him. And that was when I realized that the TV was on in his room. And he was watching my show. I can’t remember exactly which episode it was (it might have been Robin Hood, possibly Ivanhoe), and it occurred to me that Marcus had no idea who I was. He only knew I was some guy who worked on his favorite show, who had brought him a gift basket. The remote was on his bed, so I picked it up and muted the volume. Without looking at Marcus – and while he was still looking at the screen – I Flipped The Switch in my head, and began doing a running commentary on the episode – as Wishbone.
     Until that moment, I don’t think most of the people in his room knew who I was. The looks of utter shock were priceless. But the coolest part of all of it was that, the whole time I was talking about the show in Wishbone’s voice, Marcus never looked at me. He continued to watch the screen, and a big, goofy smile started to walk across his face. When that happened, I saw his mom put her face in her hands. I knew she was crying. Turns out that had been the first smile Marcus could muster since the terrible events of days before. It was so cool, the way you could tell that he didn’t want to break the spell by looking at me. So we both watched the TV, and I continued Wishbone’s live commentary, talking about how we pulled off a certain shot, or how many times that particular take got busted because somebody laughed, or farted, and other behind-the-scenes nuggets – all in the voice of his favorite TV character.
     When the episode ended, I finally looked back around at him. In my own voice I said, “Pretty cool, huh?” He nodded, but even as he did I could see the smile leaving him. The illusion was gone; the reality of his situation was crawling back over him. And in that moment I remembered Tony Fucking Vilardi, the one kid in junior high school who hadn’t been afraid to say the honest thing to me, when he’d heard my dad had killed himself.
     I looked Marcus square in the eye and, with tears in my own, said, “I know, man. It sucks. It really sucks. Keep fighting though, okay? Keep fighting even though it sucks, because eventually it won’t suck anymore.” That was it. That was all I had. It had sounded lame as shit to my ears, but it was the most honest thing I could say. The last thing that happened that afternoon was that his family requested some photo-ops. I had to be very careful leaning into the shot with him, because protocol dictated that I couldn’t breathe on this kid, let alone touch him. But we got some satisfactory pictures, and I bid Marcus and his family goodbye, making promises to stay in touch, which of course I never did. I held it together long enough to make a dignified exit from his room, and then I hauled ass out of the Burn Unit, out of Parkland Hospital, where I jumped in my car and fell the fuck apart for the better part of an hour. When I finally decided I was okay enough to drive, I made the 45 minute commute back to my house, totally ignored my wife’s questions about how it went, and proceeded to get knee-walking drunk. The last coherent thought I had that day was really just a dirty, selfish little prayer: Please, God. Please don’t ever make me have to do that again.
     But it all comes around, remember?
     Flash forward ten years. 2007. I was in my “Jesus Is My Homeboy” phase, and my family and I were part of a very large church in North Texas, where I was known, not as the Wishbone guy, but rather as the guy who appeared on stage in any humorous sketch that was a part of that week’s sermon. One Sunday after the last service, while everybody was milling around in the “worship center” (when you’re non-denominational and hip, you have a worship center, not a chapel), my friend Scott, the Worship Arts Pastor (aka the guy who chose the songs each week) came up to me, and began to tell me a story about going to a “Meet The Teacher” night at his daughter’s elementary school the previous week. In the classroom of his daughter’s reading teacher, he noticed something of a relic on top of the bookshelves: an old Wishbone plush doll, in his Romeo and Juliet costume. Scott, clearly in an effort to look like a badass in front of his kid, remarked to the teacher that he just so happened to be friends with the guy who provided the voice of Wishbone on the television series. And that was when, according to Scott, the teacher got very still, and very quiet, and he saw tears welling up in her eyes. And she proceeded to tell him a story: that ten years ago, she and her family had been missionaries in Africa. That her son had been terribly burned in an accident. And, while lying in the Burn Unit at Parkland, awaiting what would be a series of painful reconstructive surgeries, he had been paid a visit by a guy in a flannel shirt and a baseball cap, with a giant gift basket and a familiar voice.
     As Scott was recounting this tale, he reached in his jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope with my name on it. The envelope contained a letter, written by Marcus’s mom (the teacher), and two photographs. I will not reprint that letter here. Those words of appreciation are between me, and the family of a boy I was fortunate enough to make smile, during the worst moments of his young life. The first photograph I remembered well: a slightly askew picture of Marcus and me, I with my perpetual dopey grin, him with just a slight smile only around the eyes. But it was the second photograph that drove me to my knees. It was a picture of a seventeen year-old Marcus, in full marching band regalia, blowing on a trumpet like he was Dizzy Fuckin’ Gillespie. He had the special gloves on to protect his still-growing new skin. But he was in the fucking marching band, man. And he was killing it. It had sucked, and he had kept fighting. There were words written on the back of the pic that said, simply, “Thank you, Mr. Brantley!”
     And with that, it came back around.

Here Endith The Shit

The author, and the young lady to whom this book is dedicated. Love you, Boo Bear.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Chapter Thirty-Five.

     So. This is the penultimate chapter of Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life. "Penultimate" is a very fancy word for "second-to-last," and I'm only using it here because I've never had cause to use that word in my entire life before today. And since it's the second-to-last chapter of a book about my life (so far, anyway), it's about damn time to give some credit where credit is due. This chapter is dedicated to the man who -  in his own tragic, insane, fucked-up way - made me, in large part, the man I am today.

     This one's for John Larry Brantley:

Chapter Thirty-Five
Thanks, Dad. For real.

 Since we’re nearing the end of my twisted tale (TV nerd alert: the third episode of Wishbone to ever air was titled “Twisted Tail,” our take on Oliver Twist), I suppose it’s only fitting that I give props to another family member, who I have painted in these pages in a less than flattering light. In fact, earlier in this book I called my dead father an asshole. I stand by that statement. Some folks miss their shot at redemption, either because they never see their chance when it comes, or they check out of this life too soon. I don’t think my father put a bullet in his mouth solely to fuck the rest of my mom’s life (though, based on his last words to her, that clearly was a part of it). The simple truth is that John Larry Brantley was psychologically unhinged at the end of his short and tragic life. He suffered from a severe mental illness at a time (1980) and in a place (small-town Texas) where that kind of shit never even got mentioned, let alone talked about in the open. The legacy he left my sister and me was one of sadness, anger and confusion. But I do have to give him credit for one good thing.
     My dad was a reader of the voracious variety. He was the kind of man who never went anywhere without a book, usually a very dog-eared paperback, sticking out of his back pocket. If dad was in the bathroom longer than five minutes, it was a good bet that he’d long since finished his business, and was simply trying finish a chapter. There were literally stacks of books piled up in his bedroom, his bathroom (which he referred to as “The Library”), underneath the end tables next to the sofa. Oddly enough, I can’t remember any house or apartment we ever lived in having actual bookshelves. The books I remember the most were these serialized action novels by author Don Pendleton, about a character named Mack Bolan, aka The Executioner. Mack Bolan made John Rambo look like a mincing little pussy. Bolan fought the entire Mafia, and kicked its ass. Then he took on global terrorists, and kicked their asses. He hand picked two counter-terrorist teams (which each got their own spinoff series), Able Team and Phoenix Force, and all those guys did was fly around the world and punch evil dudes in the nuts, before utterly destroying them with their superior military tactics and firepower.
     They were pulp novels, to be sure, mostly devoid of anything approaching literary merit. The point is, I saw my dad reading a lot. When you’re a little kid, no matter how many times you’ve been emotionally scarred by your old man, you still look up to him. You tend to believe that whatever he is doing, is a good thing for you to do, also. If I’d seen my old man smoking cigarettes, I likely would have swiped a few when he wasn’t looking, and given it a shot. If I’d seen him shooting craps or throwing back Scotch, I probably would have given those things a try years earlier than I actually did. Dad does it; it must be a good thing to do. But what I saw my dad do most of the time – when he wasn’t watching television, or going off for long walks by himself – was read. Everywhere.
     So I started reading Dad’s books. And I started looking for books on my own. I read the Encyclopedia Brown series, the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, and everything by Arthur Conan Doyle. Then I stumbled on a book called The Hobbit, and that changed everything. Tolkien fired my imagination as nobody else had before, not even Stan Lee and his universe of Marvel Comics superheroes. In fact, there comes to my mind, finally, here near the end, one good memory between my dad and me. I think I was nine or ten when I first started reading The Hobbit. It was during the summer, I remember because I would spend hours and hours with my nose buried in those pages of Middle Earth. My dad must have seen something in that obsessive reading that he recognized in himself, because one evening, as we were eating dinner in front of the television, I was reading instead of watching The Carol Burnett Show – and everybody in the house knew that I adored Carol Burnett. (Red headed women that can make me laugh are still sexy as hell to me.)
     “Whatcha readin’, Bub?” I can still remember him asking.
     “A book called The Hobbit,” I answered.
     “What’s it about?”
     “It’s about a place called Middle Earth, and this guy named Bilbo, well, he’s not really a guy, he’s a hobbit, like a midget, but he’s friends with a wizard, and he has to travel to a place called Lonely Mountain and steal something from a dragon.”
     “Is it any good?”
     “Yeah. It’s really good.”
     “Hmm. Maybe I’ll read it when you’re finished,” he said.
      And he did. And then he burned straight through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and then – so help me God – he even read The Silmarillion, which even a lot of hardcore Tolkien fans are afraid to tackle, because it’s basically the Scriptures of Middle Earth. It was the first – and last – time in my life that my father tried something because I said that I liked it. For one all-too-brief moment we shared a connection – even if it only existed in a mythical land created by the mind of a brilliant English author. But it’s also why I’m a Tolkien fan to this day.
     The one habit that has contributed to my imagination more than any other – the fuel that has fired my Making Shit Up Engine – has been a lifelong love of reading. And I owe that to John Larry Brantley. So I say, without irony, or cynicism, or any other kind of –ism: Thanks, Dad.

John Larry Brantley.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Chapter Thirty-Four.

     So, I've decided to publish the last three chapters of the book before I officially turn 50. And since I officially turn 50 next Sunday, I should probably get after it.

Chapter Thirty-Four
Music and Mom

 Eight years ago, at the age of forty, I picked up a guitar and decided to learn how to play. I’d been regretting for years not having learned to play guitar when I was a kid, back when my mind was still malleable enough to soak up that kind of learning, and I didn’t have to work a job, pay bills, pay taxes, keep the fucking car in running condition, or worry (too much) about where my next meal was coming from. I also didn’t know then (as I know now), that most of the guys in my high school who did play guitar only knew three fucking chords. But those three chords were getting them noticed. By girls. Pretty ones. Those three chords were also getting them laid, by many of those same pretty girls. This was, naturally, the most closely guarded secret in the halls of my high school. If word had gotten out that taking just ten minutes to learn three chords yielded, like, ten thousand songs, every non-athletic dude in Montgomery County would have been buying, borrowing, or stealing a guitar, just to have a shot at getting into the Jordaches of that girl in class that they sat behind and fantasized about for an entire period.
     But it turns out that, for me, playing guitar was (and is) another artistic endeavor for making shit up. I was way too old (and married) at forty to start playing guitar solely for the purpose of getting laid, but I did learn something about myself that was kind of a surprise: I like making music way more than I ever liked acting. I’m not nearly as good at making music (I’ve been acting professionally all my adult life), but I have been picking, plunking, and strumming for eight years now. So while I’m never going to be Jimmy Page, or John Mayer, or even “Weird” Al Yankovic, I am turning into a pretty good Larry Brantley, who sings and plays guitar with his band, McKinney Root. Don’t look for us to be touring through your town any time soon. There’s only three of us, we’re all middle aged (except for my upright bass player, who is technically north of middle aged, but never acts like it), and we all have families and full-time jobs. (Actually, I really don’t have a full-time job – meaning a job I have to go to, and work forty hours a week, and fill out a time card and Incident Reports, or attend Sensitivity Training. For which I am profoundly grateful.) My point is, we like playing music together, but we also like going home after 10pm on a Friday night, to sleep in our own beds and beg for sex with our significant others. (I’m speaking only for myself in that last sentence. Mostly.)
     In music, as in every other creative undertaking I’ve ever had, I’m a collaborator. Yes, I could probably make a few extra bucks playing wine bars and restaurants and coffee houses as a solo act, but making shit up is just so much more enjoyable for me when I’m doing it with other people. I’m a huge fan of creating something that requires other people with skills and talents I don’t have. Technology being what it is today, I know people who are their own one-man bands, using foot percussion and looping and harmonizers to sound like more than what they actually are: a guy (or girl) sitting on a stage, spending more time pushing buttons than actually singing or playing an instrument. Mick Fleetwood, interviewed in the film Sound City, said it best: “The down side [of music technology] these days is thinking that, ‘I can do all this on my own.’ Yes. You CAN do this on your own. But you’ll be a much happier human being if you do it with other human beings. And I can guarantee that.” That’s coming from a guy who has been making music with essentially the same group of friends (Fleetwood Mac) for 37 fucking years. Pay attention, young people.
     I believe the reason I enjoy making music more than acting is twofold. First, making music feeds my need for instant gratification, the pure joy that comes from playing the right note, at the right time, and hearing my friends and me sync up a harmony that has been eluding us, and suddenly it’s there, and we all hear it. You don’t need an audience for that. You don’t need the appreciation of anyone other than the guys and girls you’re playing with. It’s not quite an orgasm, but it’s fucking close. Secondly, I’m much more willing to be vulnerable while singing and playing than I ever have been as a character on TV or in film. You’ve no doubt heard interviews with actors who say they are able to “lose themselves” in a role. I have never been able to do that. Not once. In twenty-three years of creating characters, whether they ran for years on a TV series, or just thirty seconds on a commercial, I was always on some plane of existence where I was still Larry. Most of the characters I ever played never required a ton of vulnerability, but any acting coach worth a shit will tell you that the first thing you must learn to do, if you wish to be a real, honest-to-motherfucking-goodness actor, is let go. Let go of yourself, your ego, your hang ups, your fears, blah blah blah. I could never do it. Still can’t. I don’t really need to completely let go of myself to be funny, and since funny is mostly what I’ve done in my career, I’ve been okay with it.
     Making music is the one artistic space in the universe where I can truly say, “Fuck it,” and let everything go. That doesn’t make me a great musician, or even a competent one. But it does make me honest. I’ve had dozens of pictures taken of me over the last few years while playing with the band, and I find none of them very flattering. But I do find them honest. I make faces when I sing certain songs that, taken out of context, might lead you to believe I was in the process of shitting a porcupine. I don’t care. I have no affectations on the music stage, because I simply don’t have the bandwidth for them. I’m too busy trying to not fuck up the song; I have no time to think about trying to look cool.

You totally thought I was kidding about the “shitting a porcupine” face, didn’t you?

     Since I picked up a guitar eight years ago, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of musical talent where I live in North Texas. Some of those talented folks even call me a friend, and have given me lessons, tips and advice here and there, that has improved the quality of my playing. But only one person gets all the credit for getting me started singing in the first place, and that’s Brenda Patrick Brantley Cook. Also known as “my mom.” I know I’ve said some unflattering things about my mom in these pages, even if they are true, but I believe in giving credit where it’s due. Mom was a hell of a singer back in the day. She was even part of a radio show back in the Sixties and early Seventies. The Hillcrest Baptist Church in Austin, Texas was one of the first to start recording sermons and music for later broadcast on the radio. Mom was part of a trio of singers that provided the music for those churchy programs. The trio was known affectionately as “God’s Golden Gigglers,” for their propensity to start snickering at something or other during each week’s taping, which led to giggling, which often proceeded to full-tilt howling laughter. Evidently the more the pastor and the audio engineer would try to get the girls back on task (they were, after all, singing traditional hymns – not exactly light-hearted fare), the worse the giggling would become, until everything had to shut down long enough for the cackling trio to wear themselves out. This happened, I’m told, almost every single week for the better part of nine years.
     I first started singing in church, because that’s where Mom was singing. Shortly after we moved to Conroe, our family joined the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, a tiny white clapboard chapel with a gravel parking lot, an out-of-tune piano, a reverend’s wife who could play a mean accordion, and a congregation mostly left over from the Civil War. Mom would often play the piano to accompany the choir, and one Sunday during service, while Mom was at the piano and the choir was giving hell to “The Old Rugged Cross,” I got up from my pew, walked over to stand beside Mom, and started singing harmony with her. I was, years later, told by some family friend or other that the general belief was that, at that moment, I’d been filled with the Holy Spirit, who had at that exact second given me the ability, not only to sing, but to sing harmony. The plain truth is, I liked the sound our voices made when she was singing one note, and I was singing a different one, but they somehow blended. After that I’d pretty much stand beside the piano every Sunday that Mom played. I had no real understanding of the words I was singing; it was the sound we were making together that thrilled me.
     Mom would spin me records from The Bill Gaither Trio, The Heritage Singers, even the Oak Ridge Boys. It was all a little hokey for me, even at that age – but it taught me to love harmony. We’d listen to tracks over and over, and she’d teach me how to pick out parts, and which ones were in my range. Once or twice we even sang duets at Mount Calvary, which was a little scandalous, given that most of the folks in that tiny congregation had zero musical ability whatsoever, and tended to look upon anyone demonstrating a talent they did not possess as “showing off,” and quote James 4:16 (”As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil!”).
     That was the first and only creative collaboration I ever had with Mom, but it turned out to be one of the most important collaborations of my life, because it gave me a deep and abiding love for music that is stronger now than ever. But after Dad killed himself and Mom crawled inside a bottle, there were no more duets for us around the old piano. I still sang, but only in my room, and now I was accompanying the likes of The Eagles, The Allman Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas and the Papas. As I got older and moodier, I delved into music where the focus was more on instrumentation than vocals. But the love of harmonies never really left. And when I finally decided in Middle Age to pick up a guitar, I picked up an acoustic. I never wanted to learn how to shred Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but I did want to be able to perform some old John Prine songs – in three-part harmony.
     And let me tell you: that’s some good shit.