a few notes about Poochie, my play, that opens Wednesday

Production shot from 'Poochie,' (Bob Paolino and Chris Speer -- from The Salisbury Post)

This new play has been different from any production of any play I’ve ever had.

I’ve had plays in other cities or states where I just showed up and saw the show. And I’ve had some around here where I basically watched the sausage being made.

But I’ve been busy. So I wrote it, gave it to the director, Justin Dionne, and basically left it at that.

I’ve had very little input. Even if I had had time for input, it wouldn’t have been a good idea. The direction and design is way beyond anything I had in mind for the little black box theatre on Lee St.

Because I didn’t really have time to go to rehearsal, I even gave Justin permission to change any lines he thought needed changing. A new play needs a little work, and I trusted him to do that.

It opens this Wednesday.

Saturday night, I went to rehearsal and saw the second act for the first time.  I was moved to tears — and I’m not exactly sure where the emotion came from.

Maybe it came from the profound gratitude I felt for these people applying such talent and hard work to the task of realizing something I wrote. Or maybe it was just the realization that I’m putting this material out there for others to see. Or maybe it was that I wrote about a piece of my life and saw it given back to me.

The play is about caring for a person with Alzheimer’s Disease, and although I intentionally did not make this autobiographical — I have had experience watching the progression of the disease — with my aunt, my grandmother, and now my mother.

What it is, I think, is that my own play brought back memories in the staging that I didn’t experience in the writing — if that makes any sense.

People may think or say I wrote a play about my mother. And there’s some truth to that. But I realize now it’s not about the mother who is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.  It’s about the mother who took care of my grandmother when she had Alzheimer’s. And it occurs to me now (and not before now) that the granddaughter is me.

So that’s my note on autobiography. It’s all so personal and subjective. I don’t  know how audiences will react but will find out soon enough. Wednesday night.

Whatever happens, I’m awfully proud — stunned, actually — by what these folks are doing.

long time, no blog…

If you read this blog, thank you. And I apologize. It’s been so long since I last blogged.

I’ve been durn busy. And the time I’ve had for writing has gone into the writing of a new play.

It’s called Poochie, and it’s about Alzheimer‘s disease, how it progresses, and how it affects families.

And although I’ve finished a draft, the play is not finished. It needs some work. It needs a little something something — not sure what.

I’ve scheduled a reading, in order to get some feedback, for July 23. And I’ve booked the black box at the Looking Glass Artist Collective in Salisbury for Oct. 19-22. That’s for production. So wish me a couple of broken legs on that. I need to get the play in shape!

(Hint:  I’d love a few sponsors to help with production costs, if you know anybody…)

Meanwhile, speaking of plays, I got the nicest email from Laura Facciponti Bond — which I’d like to hereby share:

Dear Sam,

First, and most importantly, I would like to tell you how much I enjoy your writing. I very much appreciate how your blog encourages people to use, discuss, and perform your plays.  How generous!  I am a Drama professor at the UNC-Asheville, where I teach acting, voice, and directing.  I recently came across your plays and have used a few of them for class scene study, script analysis exercises, and discussion of directing approaches in my Directing I class.  I do plan to purchase your recent book of ten minute plays – in hopes of having my students use them in my future acting classes.

I have also been working on writing an acting text book – and am getting ready to publish it – hopefully in the next couple months. I was wondering about how you felt about my inclusion of some of your ten minute plays as appendices and recommended scene study material for the skills introduced in my acting book.  Would this interest you?  If so – I would be thrilled to include them, and would be sure to write to you for permission to use specific plays.  I would also include the address of your web site so readers can connect with even more of your plays.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this proposition.

Laura Facciponti Bond
UNCA Drama Department – www.unca.edu/drama

late night phone call

Last night, at 2am, I was up working.  This is not unusual.

What is unusual is that my phone should ring at this hour.  It was a local number.  It’s my business number also, and I usually answer as such — if I don’t recognize the caller.  But not at this hour.

I’ve gotten other calls in the wee hours.  It’s usually either somebody who is crazy and can’t find the little man we hide each week, or somebody who is expecting to leave a message on the answering machine.

But this is also my personal phone, and I always think it could be bad news.  My policy is basically this:  if I’m awake, I answer it.  If I’m asleep, I don’t.

“Hello,” I said.

The guy asked me how much we charge for our ads in Coffee News.

I told him.  We discussed the terms and he said he wanted to buy the ad.  He told me he wanted only his name — his nickname — in the ad.

“Everybody knows me,” he said.

He also had a tagline in mind.  It was a bit egocentric, and had nothing to do with what he did.

I suggested that he include not only his nickname and tagline — but also the service he offers.

After being on the phone for some time, I still didn’t know this myself and was curious, to say the least.

“What service do you offer?” I asked.

He kept responding that everybody knew him.  He said all the cops knew him.

I said we wanted only good, legal businesses in Coffee News.

We went back and forth about this.  I guess my imagination got the best of me, because I asked if he was a private eye.

“That’s it,” he said.

I wrote up the order.  When we sell ads, we ask for people’s name, address, etc. — and we ask for a birthday — so we can send a card.

He was elderly.  He served in Korea and spent time there in jail.  He described for me the circumstances of his arrest, how he had been shot and was lucky not to have been killed.

“I’m a survivor,” he said.

We talked for quite a while.  He was in New York on 9/11, a block away from the twin towers.  He saw one of the planes hit.  His cell phone kept working when others did not. He impulsively decided that he wanted a picture of the twin towers in the ad. He said he could give me a good picture, if I didn’t have one.

“I’m a survivor,” he said again.

He had high praise for my name.  “Every Sam I’ve known has been a good egg,” he said.  This includes a former boss named Sam who died 15 years ago.

He wanted to bring the payment to me.  I suggested I make him a proof for the ad and visit him — today, at 2 o’clock.  He could pay then.  He seemed to be pleased with this arrangement.

He asked what I was doing up at this hour.  I said I was trying to fix my computer.  He asked if I had a computer I could sell him, and I said I did not.

At 3am, he called again.  He asked if I had finished making his ad.

“I’ll do that tomorrow,” I said.

He asked if I could help him by locating the number for a taxi.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Catching a train,” he said.

“If you’re getting on a train, then how are we going to meet at two o’clock?”

“I’ll be there,” he said.

He asked what I was doing up at this time of the morning.  “Going to bed,” I said.  He supported that.

Today, I did not design the ad.  I called and talked with his daughter.

He has Alzheimer’s.  He was out, wandering.  She didn’t know where he was or what to do.  We talked for quite a while.  We talked about a variety of options (including the V.A.), but my primary suggestion was that she call Alzheimer’s Association hotline and talk to somebody there.

It’s a great organization.  Over the past four years, I’ve called several times for support and information — in regards to my Mom’s care.

He was a nice guy.  We connected.  Two night owl busy bodies who like to talk.  I hope they find a way to take good care of him.

a mother without words

I did not visit my Mom today.

Most every day I stop in — if only for a few minutes.  Sometimes I stay awhile.

Today, I was busy from the moment my feet hit the floor until late — and never made it.

Her Alzheimer’s has progressed, and her ability to speak has rapidly diminished.

For quite some time now, uttering a sentence has taken on the difficulty of balancing a chemical equation.  Her efforts have sometimes born fruit, but most often give way to mute frustration.

In the past few weeks, she’s hardly said a word.

It’s not important that she talks — or does not talk.  That’s not why I visit.  These days, it takes all of her energy to take a step, sit-up, open her eyes.  So I don’t aggravate her frustration further by trying to get her to talk.

But when those rare, fleeting, audible moments happen, they are special surprises — and big moments in my life.

In order to speak to her, I have to bend over, get fairly low, and look up.  She tends to keep her head down, eyes pointed straight down at the floor (if they’re open).

A couple of days ago, I got in her face, as I was leaving, and said, “Bye Mom!”

She said “Where are you going?”

This was quite a lot for her these days.

A few days before that, I said, “I love you, Mom!”

She said “I love you…”  Then she uttered another sound.  I’m pretty sure she strained briefly to remember my name — and quickly let it go.

I visited her two weeks ago, on my birthday.  I think I’ve talked to my mother on each of my birthdays — if not in person then by phone.

Last year, on my birthday, we had a little party at her house that included her, my wife, and her caregiver.  We brought a cake.  She knew it was my birthday and joined the celebration.  We had dinner and I blew out a lot of candles.

In past years, she did what most mothers do:  she made a point to tell me how happy she was that I was born, and shared a few awkward details about my life as an infant.

In fact, I think this was the first birthday of my life that didn’t include an enthusiastic commentary from my mother about the virtue of my existence.  I always found this talk rather uncomfortable, tuned out most of it, and now remember few of the details — although I remember the gist of the message quite well.

This year, I knelt in front of her, looked up, and said, loudly, “Hi Mom!  Today’s my birthday!”

“I forgot,” she said.

My mother had been quite a talker.

I’ve spent much of my life waiting for her to finish talking so that I could move on to matters more important to me.

How many times did she tell me to get a master’s degree?  Hundreds.  I never did.  How many times did she tell me to get a job?  Many.  (Even though I’ve always had a job; one job was never enough for her).  How many times did she tell me to stop chewing my shirt?  So many.  (It’s a habit.  I’m chewing it now, as I type).

How many times did she help me with my writing — offering insight and critique that only she could provide?  Every time I asked.

How many stories did she tell?  That would be like counting the leaves on a tree.

Alas, those are only memories now.  She was a person who did not withhold her opinion.  If she thought she knew better, she said so.  Now, by not speaking, she’s teaching a different kind of lesson — probably the most valuable of them all.

A few notes from the navel-gazing-sphere

I haven’t blogged much lately.  Haven’t updated my Facebook status or Tweeted much either.

So I thought I’d just run through a few things that have been going on in my life.  If anybody’s interested, fine.  If nobody’s interested, that’s fine too.  A little public navel gazing helps me sort things out for myself.

Alicia and I celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary on Friday.  We didn’t go out that night because she had to get up very early Saturday morning and take Emma to Greensboro.  It’s been our tradition to go to a movie at the Manor in Charlotte on our anniversary, so we went Saturday night.  We saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a really good Swedish film.

I’ve been working on a full-length play, writing a page or two each morning.  Hopefully I’ll be done with a draft mid-summer.

I took my mom’s recycling and garbage to the street tonight, possibly for the last time.  I’ve been doing that on Sunday nights for many years — ever since street-side garbage collection began in Salisbury.  Her house was in use by relatives last weekend.  They made a lot of trash and didn’t take it out.

Business was slow in May, but we had one great week that really helped.  June has been okay so far.  Last week, I trained somebody to do some of our deliveries.  I’ve been doing about 350 of our 470 Coffee News locations each week.  He’ll do about 100 a week, which leaves me with 250.  That basically gives me an extra day each week.  It’s going to cost — but I think I’d rather have the time than the money.

I like summer.  I always have.  When it gets above 95 and stays above 85 at night, I complain as much as anybody else.  But I generally like hot weather.  Days like today don’t bother me at all.  We have AC.  Until about mid-way through my childhood, we didn’t.  In fact, we lived in the house we’re in now for two years before we got AC, in 1988.

My 2009 New Year’s resolution was to walk 10k steps a day each day of the year, and I’ve kept it up now almost a year and a half.

My 2010 resolution was to do yoga every day, and I’ve done that.  There have been a few days when I made it brief — ten or fifteen minutes.  Usually I spend thirty to forty minutes.  If I have the time, I’ll take an hour or even 90 minutes.  I pretty much stick to the same routine, but vary how long I stay in the poses.  It’s almost the exact same routine I’ve used since 1974.  I’ve always done yoga, but haven’t made it a daily routine since Sarah, our first child, was born.  Yoga requires a quiet house, and kids aren’t all that quiet — so my yoga was sporadic for 27 years.  Now that my daughter Emma is 17, has her driver’s license and a job, the house is quiet again.  This was a great resolution.  Daily yoga is ten times better than yoga two, three, or even four days a week.  I feel great and have lost 23 pounds.

I was a little sorry missed the Six Pack of Plays that Lee Street Theatre just produced.  I knew some of the playwrights and would have liked to support the effort.  I never got done with work in time.  Saturday was an option, but we wanted to celebrate our anniversary.  It would not have been kosher to attend those plays as an anniversary celebration.  I had some highly egocentric emotion over the whole affair because they didn’t pick my plays (the scripts didn’t conform to the guidelines).

I did put those rejected plays online — on this website — and received  an email yesterday from an international student in China.  He said he was just writing to thank me for the play.  He was an actor in Nice Name for a Sky.  That’s all he said.  It’s nice to know somebody is making use of the script.  I’d love to see a picture.

Alicia took our dog, Jackie, to the vet.  She got some pill for fleas and the dog feels a lot better.

I’m really enjoying my new car — an 85 Honda Civic station wagon that I bought two months ago.  It rides well, is easier to load and unload, and is easier to get in and out of than the ’94 Civic I got rid of.  Every once in awhile, a spark plug wire gets loose, but everything is cool when I pull over and push it back in place (as long as I don’t burn my hand).  Thursday, the speedometer/odometer stopped working.  I’ve got to get that fixed.  I like to know how fast I’m going.

I’ve been visiting my mom each day in the Alzheimer’s unit.  She spends her days shuffling up and down the halls.  I’ve enjoyed being there and have gained a lot of respect for the staff.  They are special people.  I’ve also enjoyed getting to know some the residents.  They’re each at their own stage, dealing with the disease in their own way — and some of them are a real trip.

So that’s about it — and now it’s after one o’clock in the a.m. and I’ve got some work to do!  And my own garbage and recycling (mostly recycling) to take out.

a memory walk

Took a pleasant walk tonight, right after dinner.  I needed a couple of miles in order to complete my daily 10k steps.

It was a perfect temperature for walking.  The soft rain kept people inside, and made the evening dark and quiet.  The slick streets reflected the glow of the street lamps. I remember seeing two students walk through the campus parking lot with umbrellas.  Other than that, I had the streets to myself.

Sometimes when I walk, I listen to audio books.  Sometimes I walk with my wife, or my dog.  But I often walk alone and listen to the sounds of the city, or the woods, and give myself space to think, or not think.  It’s good for my spirit, and better for my head, if I enjoy the time away from noise (especially my own noise).

I love walking this time of year.  When it’s too cold, or too wet, I walk in the mall, or even Walmart.  If it’s hot, I walk late at night, usually on dewey grass, after the earth has cooled.  But April, for me, is far from cruel; it’s one of those perfect months.

Usually I’m quite eager to hit my 10k steps goal each day, but tonight I watched the latter half of Glee with my wife and daughter and didn’t feel particularly enthused about rising from the couch and finishing those steps in the rain.  But it’s a compulsion, and I did it.

It was one of those days.  I had worked a good bit, driven to Mooresville to drop off papers, driven to Kannapolis to pick up my car, and visited my mother twice, briefly, in the Alzheimer’s unit at Carillon.  While there, I also had a nice visit with my neighbor.  We’ve lived only a few feet away for 24 years, and she recently moved into the assisted living.  Today’s conversation is probably the longest one we’ve ever had.  I also had a few rather knotty conversations with siblings and health care folks.

As I walked tonight, I was thinking about my mother, whose dementia, for various reasons, has progressed quite rapidly these past couple of weeks.

The thought that came into my head was a book, and a memory.

It’s a common memory, one shared by millions and millions of people.

I remember, as a child, sitting beside my mother on the living room couch, listening to her read me a book — The Little Engine That Could — one of the most popular bedtime books ever read to children by their mothers.

It occurred to me that she set a good example of a little engine that could.

Me?  I’ve had it easy and complained a lot.  But she grew up poor in a Great Depression and World War.  Her parents spoke with an accent.  She had a somewhat ethnic name before ethnic was fashionable, and lived above a downtown store, before that was fashionable.  She once told me that her parents never took a vacation.

She had some ability and fulfilled her potential.  She was a star student and a star reporter.  She raised a large family.  Those who know her would confirm that she was a workaholic.

She’s a person who, when her mother had cancer, would take her to see her sisters in Latvia one last time.  Visiting relatives in the Soviet Union in the 70’s required a bit of scrutiny — and passports and visas, which they did not have.  And because she couldn’t wait weeks to get them, she would go to Washington D.C. and knock on doors and return in three days, with passports and visas.

She’s quite weak now, and has virtually lost her ability to speak.  But she still moves around as much as she can, shuffling through the halls of Carillon, investigating every nook and cranny, speaking to others who are similarly afflicted with Alzheimer’s, offering to give those in wheelchairs a helpful push.

Last night, as I slowly walked the halls with her, watching her point at various pictures and rooms and books and papers and people, I couldn’t help but to admire her energy, her desire to keep moving in such a confined but seemingly vast space.

And tonight, as I walked down my street, noticing, across the vacant lot, in the distance, that home I grew up in, thinking about her and how she’s declined so quickly in recent weeks and days, I enjoyed a vivid memory of her reading me that book she and so many mothers read their children, and realized that she was and still is the one who really lives up to that creed:  “I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can.”

A picture of Mom

Mom, 2/24/10

Normally, it might not seem so normal for a 53 year old man to post pictures of his mother on his blog.

But Mom has lived a public life, and some of my friends see this blog and will enjoy seeing this picture.

We were in the kitchen, at Mom’s house, and Kathy Chaffin was talking about having to get up very early and ride a school bus.  She’s writing a story about school bus drivers.  She mentioned that a photographer was going also.

Mom has always liked to brag about me.  Her criticism could be harsh also, but the motherly praise often fell into the “his  _____ don’t stink” category.

Alzheimer’s is a brutal disease that robs memory and leaves a person, at a certain stage, stuck with only a momentary, fleeting wisp of a thought — at best.

In this case, the word “photographer” prompted Mom to demand Kathy’s attention in order to tell her that “Sammy is a wonderful photographer.”

In high school, when I took grainy, barely visible, no-contrast pictures for the school newspaper, I established the fact that I’m not much of a photographer.  But this was just the convergence of a word and a person and a feeling that prompted such a coherent — if not accurate — remark.

Thanks to camera phones, I decided to make an effort to instantly validate her claim by requesting a smile for a picture.  Maybe not a “wonderful” photographer, but a photographer nonetheless.

Alzheimer’s robs memory.  It doesn’t necessarily rob a person’s capacity for joy — as you can see here.


like touching a splinter

that’s what it was like
talking to sisters
and brothers

about her

the past
two years
and a lost second ago

nobody forgets anything

then soon
there was no choice
but to cut it out

a sharp blade
no plan
then cutting flesh

a real incision
that leaves more than
a scar

more than lost
lost memory

brain cuts
can’t work

pains radiate

they shoot through
joints, limbs, gait, families
any memory of good memory

leaves one sibling
the superstar of remembering her
all cut out
no one to remember to