Monday, June 30, 2008

Current Projects I: One-act play

One thing I'd like to do with this blog is to discuss projects I'm working on and projects that are in the planning stages. As you may know or have deduced, I am a writer. "Oh, what have you written?" is the common question asked me at parties. I assume the person making the query wants to know if I conceived last month's Cosmo quiz or have published one of those disposable summer paperbacks that are typically left to gather sand on beach towels. But the bubble bursts and the conversation concludes when I answer that I'm a copywriter. Even worse, I don't write bra or laundry detergent commercials. No, I write websites, brochures, white papers, and other marketing-oriented editorial consumables, primarily for technology companies and schools. So unless you recently bought a workforce management solution or applied to MIT in order to major in mechanical engineering, you probably haven't read my work beyond this blog.

In the movie Nothing in Common, Tom Hanks' character is an ad executive who tells a group of wide-eyed student visitors to his firm that he does not secretly desire to write the Great American Novel, that he likes writing ads. In this, as in many ways I presume, Tom Hanks and I have nothing in common. Not that I want to write the GAN (it's probably already been written, and it might be Beloved), and not that I don't like what I do, but writing I do for me is much more satisfying and meaningful than writing I do for someone else, no matter how invested I may be in my clients and their projects.

So, yes, in my spare time (often evenings from 9pm - 1am), I transform myself a la Clark Kent from Copywriting Man to Regular Kind of Writing Man. The first project that I completed, in 2005, was a one-act play drawn from the real-life experience I had of spreading my friend's ashes over a golf course on which we had partied when we were teenagers. He died a few weeks before 9/11 at age 38, and the experience was a powerful and healing one for me on many levels. It's called Four Friends (a nod to the Gentle Giant album Three Friends; Gentle Giant is one of my all-time very favorite groups - yet, oddly, neither heroes nor crushes of mine), and here is the Synopsis and Characters:

Four friends who were the best of buddies when they were younger are reunited as 40-something-aged men. Three arrive to the reunion – held on a bridge overlooking Sawmill Brook – on foot; one is carried in a jar. The purpose of the reunion is to dump in the brook the ashes of the friend in the jar, whose last request it was that the quartet get back together one last time at the site of their youthful adventures. As the uneasy reunion unfolds, the friends learn new things about each other, which help explain why they had gone their separate ways. With the help of the dead man’s girlfriend (who joins them with her own questions about her loved one’s past), they begin to come to terms with the fragile and long-frayed bonds of friendship that still connect them.

TY, writer, the friend who tried to keep in touch
PHIL, unemployed therapist, in recovery, the friend who was hardest to track down
FRANK, distant and arrogant, the friend who is the most financially successful
CHARLES, dead and cremated, currently occupying a jar, the struggling artist who struggled least with his past
DAWN, Charles’ girlfriend, who helped to fulfill Charles’ life – and death

I know what you're thinking: It sounds like The Big Chill. That was a big challenge for me, to not make it too maudlin and clichéd. But the facts are the facts: one of my buddies did die, and the rest of us had more or less gone our separate ways. Obviously, I'm Ty, and I did try over the years to get us all to come together but it never happened until that day on the golf course. The other characters are semi-invented and semi-composites of the core friends and other friends who were part of the scene in those days.

I would very much like to stage Four Friends, but I haven't had time to refine the dialogue. It's still a little too obvious in parts, and I haven't been able to fully plumb Ty's conflicts - no doubt a subconscious bit of self-defense. But it's a meaningful work to me because it actually happened and I think it would be very moving to see it performed.

Obviously, I can't reproduce the entire script of the play here, but last year, I wrote a 1,000-word essay describing the actual events, which I had submitted to a short-story website but which apparently never was published there otherwise I would have received a $40 check or some equally pitiful amount. So here it is:

The Last Time I Saw My Friend Marc
By Jason M. Rubin

The last time I saw my friend Marc, he was tumbling down from a bridge onto the ground approximately sixty feet below. I had a good view because I was the one who caused his descent. I didn’t necessarily want to do it, but he insisted. And he wasn’t hurt by the fall, because he was already dead. You see, I was spreading his ashes.

It was a sunny March morning, and we were enjoying an early thaw. By we I mean an assortment of Marc’s friends, his wife, his two young daughters, his brother-in-law, and his mother-in-law. The location was a golf course not far from where we had grown up. We partied there in the evenings during high school as it offered space, freedom, and privacy – none of which we were enjoying in our homes at that time. In his final days, he apparently told his wife that should he not survive the open-heart surgery he was soon to face, his wish was to be cremated and for his ashes to be spread on the golf course.

Marc and his wife were living more than two hours from the golf course, and his wife had never been there. “No girlfriends allowed” was an unspoken rule, although I had made love to one of mine on the cool grass of a fairway one summer night. As punishment for breaking protocol, I went home with more than a dozen mosquito bites on my buttocks. The point, however, is that his wife didn’t feel capable of fulfilling his final wish, and she told him so. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “Just call Jason. He’ll know what to do.”

Suffice to say this was nothing he had ever discussed with me. We were very close friends in high school and we stayed close during college years, although he never pursued higher education. Then life intervened and jobs and relationships created geographical and personal distance. We remained in touch but rarely saw each other. In the last two years of his life, we saw each other maybe once, spoke on the phone maybe twice, and sent maybe half a dozen emails to each other. I didn’t even know about his final operation until his wife called me three days later to tell me had gone into cardiac arrest in the OR and never recovered. The delay was because she couldn’t find my phone number and didn’t know where I lived.

Surprised by the honor and obligation thrust upon me, and still grieving not only his loss but also the distance that had forever kept us apart, I set about performing my duties. First, I had to call our other friends and tell them the news and plans. There were two camps of friends: there was a core foursome comprising me, Marc, Andy, and Larry; then there were others who had been in closer contact with Marc, yet not with me.

The core foursome came together in high school as we all discovered two key things we had in common: an obsession with music and an enjoyment of marijuana. We did everything together: concerts, trips to used record stores, midnight movies, excursions to the golf course. There were different things that we had in common with the other camp, including a fondness for Monty Python and the sense that we didn’t belong in any of the many cliques at our high school. We became, then, a clique of our own, and basically all one had to do to join was to make us laugh.

The core group was almost entirely in splinters. If I had been estranged from Marc, the others were completely divorced from him. Larry I was in frequent contact with; Andy I communicated with about as often as Marc. For years, I had wanted to bring the four of us together. I was intrigued by the fact that close friends should drift apart mostly due to time and circumstance. How is it we had so much in common when we were teenagers, yet went into different directions as we got older? When Larry’s mother died, I thought that might be a time for us to reunite. Didn’t happen, nor did it happen when my mother died or when Larry’s father died. It didn’t even happen at Marc’s funeral because both Larry and Andy were out of town. I was determined that we four would be together one more time, even if one of us would be in a jar.

We spread Marc’s ashes on his birthday. His family was nervous about sneaking onto a private golf course. His friends, in spite of the solemnity of the day, could not contain their excitement about being back at the site of past glories. As we walked along to a favorite spot, I found three golf balls that had been lost by errant swings some months before. I gave one to each of Marc’s daughters and kept one for myself.

I delivered a prepared speech about Marc, then invited people to speak if they wished. Finally, we walked to a wooden bridge that crossed a grassy bowl between two hills. We stopped on the center of the bridge and Marc’s wife handed me the jar. Inside the jar was a bag. Inside the bag was Marc. The contents were quite a bit whiter and heavier than I expected; not ash at all, but rather powder and bone fragments. I tested the wind with a wet finger to ensure that no one got an unwelcome embrace from Marc as he descended. Then I said goodbye and turned the bag upside down.

As Marc hit the ground, a gaggle of geese scurried over to see if he was food. After a few pokes, they decided he was not. Then we left the golf course, probably for the last time. As I walked back to my car, I smiled. Marc had done what I could not: bring together old friends in a place they had loved. And now Marc has all the space, freedom, and privacy he could ever want and ever need. Forever.
© 2008 Jason M. Rubin. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

So, like, what's up with the Heroes and Man Crushes?

Do people still have heroes? Are there heroes to be had? I don't know, I was young and impressionable in the mid to late 1960s and it was still a fairly unjaded, hagiographic time period. If Horatio Alger was out, there was still Boy's Life magazine and the "Goofus and Gallant" features in Highlights for Children to set you straight. I was born on Lincoln's birthday and read all the myth-making biographies for young readers; because of the connection, I was always drawn to non-fiction books and biographies, and throughout my life I have been open to being inspired and influenced by other people's lives and actions. My wife will tell you (should she start her own blog) that she can often tell who I am speaking with on the phone, because I take on their verbal mannerisms. Which is not to say that I am easily led and that anyone I like automatically becomes a hero. But I do have heroes and I do find it meaningful to have heroes, if not specifically to emulate then at least to take inspiration from their words, lives, and actions.

More recently, with the advent of the term "man crush," I have acknowledged having some of them, too, and I also think a man crush is something worth having - assuming you're confident enough in your masculinity. Here, then, are my heroes and man-crushes, explained.

Abraham Lincoln. I've already mentioned I was born on his birthday. His 154th to be precise. From a young, pre-literate age, my family had always made a big deal out of this, as if it were some kind of omen. I was often given pennies. As I grew older and began to learn about Lincoln, an uncle who was an educator would quiz me on the Gettysburg Address. He would recite it and make intentional mistakes (such as "far above our poor power to add or subtract") that I would have to correct. As I grew older still, I read more sophisticated books about him, eventually studying in college with one of his premier biographers, Stephen B. Oates (see below). The more I learned about the true Lincoln - his fears and uncertainties, his depressions and his fatalism - the more I admired him. As his flaws became exposed, he became more life-size, more approachable, more real. He and I were more alike than I ever could have thought. His writing ability and his boundless compassion are beyond my reach, but they are standards to strive for. He is my oldest, deepest hero.

Brian Wilson. It was 1975 or 1976, so I was either 12 or 13. I came upon Endless Summer, a 2-LP collection of Beach Boys hits. Twenty songs, each one indispensable. I had never heard 20 brilliant songs in a row before. How could it be that one man could create such a body of work? One song, though, stood out. "In My Room." The lyrics and music touched me deeply. "There's a world where/I can go and/Tell my secrets to/In my room." My own room was such a place. I knew he knew the same feelings I had felt. That artistic and spiritual kinship was very powerful to me. The more of his music I heard, the more of his life that I learned, the more knocked out I was by his genius, his endurance, and his incredible childlike wonder and innocence. He has no business being alive at age 66 in 2008, but he is and he's still creating wonderful works. He is a very special hero to me.

Bob Dylan. As a writer, my ideal is to be able to express a big truth in as few words as possible. No one does this better than Bob Dylan. My favorite line of his is "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"). I also dig "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" ("Like a Rolling Stone"). I once saw an exhibit of photographs of Elvis, Dylan, and the Beatles. In one room was a giant portrait of Dylan, the one from the cover fo the Biograph boxed set. I said to my wife, "If we had that on a wall in our house, I would bow and pray to it every day."

Mike Scott. Mike Scott is the leader, singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the Waterboys. He qualifies as a man crush. I'm not specifically attracted to him, but he has such rock star looks that he is sort of physically irresistible. But it's music that really makes me such a big fan of his. He's very literate and very spiritual, and both influences come out very overtly in his writing, singing, and playing. In fact, I almost called this blog "Light in My Head," a phrase from "Fisherman's Blues," but it was already taken. These days I'm pushing the Waterboys on everyone I meet, so I clearly have a crush, but I wouldn't be surprised if one day he became a hero.

Michael Nesmith. Not just the most talented Monkee, but an exceptionally unique songwriter with a voice that kills me. He's also a successful entrepreneur and a deep thinker. More a crush than a hero, but I do admire him a lot.

Carl Yastrzemksi. My all-time favorite Red Sox player. Part of what I love about him is the fact that he never won the World Series. He's a tragic hero. But that classic stance, that potato farmer work ethic, and that Impossible Dream season make him the most emotionally laden of all my heroes to me.

Tom Brady. Pure man crush. What can I say, he's just a winner, pure and simple.

Stephen B. Oates. OK, I've dealt with a president, then the musicians, a couple of athletes, time for a couple of literary folks. As I mentioned above, I studied with Oates at UMass Amherst. Yet while still in high school, I had read his Lincoln biography, With Malice Towards None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. I took his "Civil War Era" class and read it again. In the 23 years since I graduated, I've read it three or four more times (not only because I love it, but because for a while he would send me every new edition of it, signed). What I love about Oates (and he's a crush who became a hero) is his brilliant writing style, but also his extraordinary lecture skills. I took two classes with him and every minute was riveting. He brought the characters on stage to tell their own stories. The class in which Lincoln was assassinated was one of the most moving moments of my life. At the end of the class, I literally could not move. I felt as though I had witnessed the horrific act in person, as if a member of my own family had just died. Oates brought me closer to Lincoln than anyone ever could or ever will. I'm no longer in touch with him, but he's a highly intelligent and dignified man who taught me more than he intended.

James Thurber. I don't know, maybe he's neither a hero nor a crush of mine, but there's something about his clear, witty writing and deceptively simple drawings that has stayed with me for decades. Because of him, I created for myself the distinction between a comedian and a humorist: a comedian makes you laugh, a humorist makes you smile. Ultimately, it really feels good to smile.

Max Rubin. I'll post more about my great-grandfather later. Suffice to say, more than a century ago he fled persecution in Russia to build a new life for himself in America. He left behind two children and a pregnant wife. Max stayed with his brother in New York until the Great Chelsea (Mass.) Fire of 1908. A carpenter by trade, he figured there would be a lot of work for him there. So he moved to Chelsea and in so doing ensured that his progeny would be Red Sox fans instead of being Yankees fans. Eventually Max was able to send for his family, and he fathered 11 children in all. I found out only a couple of years ago that he and my great-grandmother Rose are buried a five-minute drive from my house. Now I visit often.

Surf's Up, 1966 & 2004

Friday, June 27, 2008

Who, What, When, Where, Why

Is there room in the blogosphere for yet another person's random rantings? Presumably yes, since here it is and here I am...and, I s'pose, here you are, too. It seems appropriate that my first post give a sense of what this blog is about. And what it isn't about. In fact, that's easier to articulate. It's not a political blog, though I can't guarantee a political point of view won't creep in from time to time. It's not a blog of ideas, since those are weighty things and I am weightier physically than intellectually. It's not an ego blog, though surely it's about me and what I do and feel and think; what I won't do, however, is talk about myself simply for the sake of having my reality accessible to the invisible online masses. My goal is to use this blog as a platform for sending up trial balloons about projects I'm thinking of undertaking (or currently in the throes of), sharing inspiring and/or entertaining words and images, and discussing things that move me - WITH THE PRIMARY GOAL OF ESTABLISHING CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION BETWEEN AND AMONG LIKE-MINDED SOULS. These bits of connection need not be acknowledged. Feel free to treat me like a street musician who has helped you while away the time until your bus came; I'm as happy to think my words will resonate after you've left as I would be had you dropped a coin, a note, or a Charleston Chew candy bar in my tin.

So if you've read this far, there's a decent chance you might read a little more. But rather than test your patience and generosity, allow me to bulletize:

WHO: My name is Jason Rubin, I was nine months old when JFK was shot, and I have been a professional writer since graduating college in 1985. I am a lifelong resident of Boston and its suburbs. I am married and have two daughters. To quote Hair, "I am Aquarius, destined for greatness or madness."

WHAT: This is my blog, titled after a phrase from the lyrics to "Surf's Up," the greatest composition from popular music's greatest genius, Brian Wilson. I'm not sure what a dove nested tower is supposed to represent, but it hasn't kept you away so I shan't dwell on it.

WHEN: As with most blogs, I presume, I will add new posts when I feel like it. I am the kind of person who speaks only when I have something to say. I've been told I'm a good listener, but just because I'm not talking doesn't mean I am listening. On the other hand, it's easier to listen when you're not being listened to, and you can learn more when you're not putting your own points across. So here, then, is the deal: I post when the spirit moves me, you comment when the spirit moves you.

WHERE: Anywhere my MacBook Pro takes me.

WHY: Well, now, that's a good question, isn't it? Why indeed. Maybe that will be clear to us both once this thing picks up a head of steam. For now, "why not?" will have to do.