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 clich├ęd. 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.


Sarah said...

Of course being a copywriter doesn't preclude writing the GAN! Old F. Scott himself, working for an ad agency, wrote that pithy and memorable tagline for a soap company: "We keep you clean in Muscatine."

Tami Mintz said...

Jason, that was beautiful. I can't even imagine how that day must have felt. Forget about high school....we knew Marc from elementary school. It was beautiful. Thank you for taking me there.