It was the first Christmas without the beloved Waddell, our deaf cattle dog with the huge heart. The guy was seventeen years old when he went, in the Fall. You could have laughed, you could have cried. You might as well take your pick because my considered opinion is that you might as well take your pick. Itís been one of those half-years, in other words. A fifty-fifty kind of a half-year. Here’s a thought – and it’s not much of a thought : Iíve spent so much of my life in a world that most people never experience and that experience is of being – in whatever small degree – famous-because-of-your-job. I make records. Most people donít. I think Iíve been living in a world of Protective Insanity, a Protective Insanity Program, long past the point that anyoneís looking for me, trying to get me, so that I donít actually have any reason left to hide in an innocuous ranch bungalow in, say, Ajo, Arizona under a false name with some goofy fake credit cards, pretending to be insane and hiding from enemies who are all dead and gone. Years ago, I coined the phrase ìNot Insaneî and most people donít know that the original speaker of those words, a description of himself, was a babbling crazy person I was improvising on a radio show. Itís been one of those years, now I think about it, an insane sort of time.
Christmas was fun and all about salt dough, with kids in the house we made diorama after diorama and animal after animal, shaping and painting and cooking and fixing.
With kids in the house, every meal becomes a huge project, every skill is loudly discussed and tried. Many friends were in the little house and The Big Blonde and I even got a Christmas for ourselves a few days after the calendrical one.
We went skiing and that was wonderful and then in late January and early February, we were to set off with the Firesign Theatre to do six shows up and down the West Coast of this Troubled Nation. Itís comedy, stupid. Thereís nothing harder than being funny when you donít feel very funny. Did I mention that I thought life was catching up to me? Did I mention, in the stunning words of Lucinda Williams, that Everything is Wrong? We were getting caught by life, me and The BIg Blonde and by late January it began to be evident to even us that there were a whole lot of people in our life who didnít particularly like us and who, in fact, wished us harm, the big incidents with the Firesign Theatre coming a year before. I think thatís why Oona and I find ourselves watching cartoons on Nickleodeon and Cartoon Network (Adult Swim) to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Weíve somehow abandoned the normal comedy of the airwaves. And we canít stand to go to see movies or rent them or even watch them unless Preston Sturgess made them. Sheís so tall that she needs to go to a Hollywood screening to see a movie so as to get her feet up on the seat in front of her. I used to say it was because of 9/11, that weíve become hung up on anime, but thatís drifting into the past now. Our actual life has sort of caught up with us without the benefit of global tragedy. Fooli Cooli.
We used to watch television sitcoms, so much in fact (at one time I was under contract at Sony to develop them) that I have even come up with a clever theory, dear to at least my heart, about them. Here it is: sitcoms are completely about forgiveness, and worse, they are about handling forgiveness with humor. Each one of them involves situations, if not actual plots, that have to do at their root with the forgiving of outrageous actions by outrageous people and the laughter evoked thereby. Their exact opposite are anything with initials approximating CSI, or ER or so on. These are stories that are at best about revenge and at worst about pathos and while there may be moments of humor in them, those moments are not their reason. If your family treated you the way Raymondís family does him, youíd murder them. He forgives them and we laugh. If your friends were like Willís and Graceís, youíd never talk to them again. Somehow, to them, itís funny and they talk. Itís not much of a theory, Iíll admit, but in real life, itís a skill thatís hard to come by, this forgiveness, this mutual laughter. Will and Grace, Special Victims Unit.
People who inflict pain are hardly ever forgiven, especially as people get older, nor is humor the usual result. Great, time to go on the road and make people laugh. I was mixed and mixed up, to be sure. Hmmm ??? wait a minute. Sitcom. Story about two older people, a comedian and an artist, who have a niece who has three kids and she and her husband have got into meth amphetamines, husband tries to run over wife, husband goes to jail, nobody – including the wealthy grandparents of the wife – makes any house payments and suddenly in January, three little kids are going to be thrown out of their house, living on battered wife welfare with a guy now moved in who has no job and seems to be only connected to meth, witchcraft symbols scrawled on the garage walls and he doesnít make any house payments either. The whacky Hollywood Aunt and Uncle buy the house at the last minute and for six months, no one living in the house or the Wealthy Grandparents help out with the house payments and then the Aunt and Uncle are told by the Meth Mother that they have committed horrible acts, are spying on Meth Mom and The Junkie and are forbidden to talk to the kids, whom theyíve had for most of the last summer, fall and winter. The horrible acts were – and this will be our pilot episode – when the Meth Mom and Junkie let household garbage pile up ten feet high along the garage wall – because they couldnít pay the garbage bills and couldnít actually take the rotting bags to the dump – were told to do it, when one set of Wealthy Grandparents showed up with a pickup, the Junkie stayed in bed. The Whacky Aunt told the Wealthy Grandpa (her brother) that he should have awakened the bastard and made him help and he replied that he did not have the authority to so do. The Whacky Aunt called the Junkie and the Meth Mom and opined that The Junkie should have got up. In retaliation, the children are forbidden to talk to her. Or me. Thatíll be our pilot episode, and Iíll get it written up any day now. With humor. And forgiveness. It needs a good title.
Portland was stormy in late January. A big wet one followed us down from the north and we stayed at a dog-friendly motel that was just horrible, one of those motels given over to basketball fans too drunk to drive home, although the best moment was talking to a family of Indians all piling into their car carrying the cutest damn corgi you ever saw. Normally, Oona researches hotels and books wonderful ones, but weíre too rushed this time because – right up to the last fifteen minutes – weíre buying the kidsí house out of foreclosure, abandoned by their meth parents, jail and assault and meth surrounding the poor little tykes. Two twin boys of eight – Oona calls them ìThe Dudesî – and a ten year old girl. Theyíve been with us since August, half of every week and all of Christmas. Oonaís yelling at the scumbag mortgage company foreclosing their little house for hours on end and spending every other hour trying to enlist the help of feuding relatives. So weíre late and weíre behind.
After a few days of rehearsal in Seattle, the show is pretty much set. Weíre carrying scripts and a good deal of the traditional pressure of memorization and costume changes and so on is off. The four partners and their families are inmeshed in the usual psychodramas and confusions, but once onstage, the old friendliness, the old forgiveness, begins to blossom, bit by bit, by pistil by stamen, metaphor by metaphor. The two shows in Portland are so well attended that we actually make some extra money over our guarantees. John Webber and Brian Westley labor mightily with the merchandise and sell quite a lot. Taylor Jessen is co-ordinating everything, very comforting to have him. Jeff Payne is back with us, and that’s the best news of all.
The theater in Portland is called the Aladdin, and itís a place where we played in 1999 for three awful nights of internecine fighting among the group, but where The Austin’s stayed at a nice dog-friendly motel that we were now hoping would appear to us at any time soon and didnít. We quickly booked something close to the theater, the only place friendly to dogs thatís close. Where did that old motel go? Gone. Not funny. Still, how bad can it be, we figure. Weíre only staying the one night.
And weíre playing for only two nights this time but the theater is small and vaguely depressing, renowned in the history of Portland for being the movie theater where, for years, ìBehind the Green Doorî played. Itís dirty and cramped and the backstage reminds us of nothing so much as our motel, but we escape the infighting and head for frenchfries and beer at the little bar next door to the theater, a nice, even cozy, place and the waitress had seen the show the first night, sheíd had fun and so speeds our order through the crowd. The guy at the bar next to us is a telephone line worker, no teeth, odd, young and drunk. Doesnít know us from any other idiot. And everyoneís an idiot, by the way, thatís his story. Talk, talk, talk. Guys at the bar start recognizing us, especially the dazzling Big Blonde. The other waitress has on no clothes. We drink beer and realize that itís nice that people like the Firesign Theatre so much, no matter what. No matter how many clothes they have on. Thereís a weird car out front, covered with civilization and Oona has me stop and she takes my picture with it.
On the morning of the second show, we check out of the Horrible Motel and head for the Portland Art Museum and the works of Charles Edenshaw and Childe Hassam. The parfleches, the bead work and basketry of the Columbia Basin, just a wonderful museum. The dogs sleep cheerfully in the Suburban under the leafless trees alongside the cute old buildings and grassy swales of downtown Portland, the cutest damn downtown anywhere. We have a really good time. Oonaís been painting oils over the last year and Hassam in particular has a lot to say to her. Sagebrush, for instance. But mostly we drag slowly past every beaded bag and painted parfleche and textile and basket displayed. The Columbia Basin Old People really knew what they were doing when it came to arting up useful objects.
No one from Portland that we know showed up to either show. Steve Sandoz is unfortunately firmly and completely dead. But the dogs know the neighborhood around the theater from the three nights in ë99. They expected a much better motel, having bragged to Molimo, the new puppy, but humans couldnít find it and settled instead for the Motel of Bad Trailblazings. Each dog (there are four of them at the moment, Molimo replacing the unfortunately deceased Waddell) and I walk and pee (well, they pee) and dump (only they dump) on the grassy strips surrounding the Home of the Unfortunate Trailblazers. What, we wonder, would Lewis and Clark and the exhausted travelers of 1803 make of the stunning collapse of the basketball team named for them? Itís sad, and the Lakers are losing as well. Still, the dogs are cheerful. Thereís nothing like a puppy to cheer everyone up. Heís taken to sleeping on the dashboard while driving.
Next, the Seattle show.