Tuesday, September 30, 2014


History will never remember the things you almost did.  The planes you never boarded, the jobs you didn’t get, the kisses you kept to yourself, these belong only to you.  No pictures taken, no stories told, no witnesses.  Only false memories generated by your own imagined potential will remain, and no one but you will mourn their passing or mark their anniversaries.  These are your private, empty spaces of regret, sometimes pockets and sometimes chasms, never to be filled, and the greatest mercy you can give yourself is to nail some boards over them, mount a poster of your favorite heartthrob, and move on.

But the ghost of one of my almosts keeps knocking, so I hope no one minds if I take it out for a little exorcise.

I almost got to see Richard Cheese in concert.

I became a fan in 2005 with the release of Aperitif for Destruction.  I’d been made aware of a few songs from his previous album, I’d Like A Virgin, but not until I experienced his music through the filter of watching my friends enjoy him did I develop an appreciation of my own. 

Man Singing Jazz Standards with Large Orchestra is one of my first favorite musical genres, one I discovered thanks to the likes of Harry Connick, Jr. and Robbie Williams, later with the tunes of Michael Buble and an exploration of Frank Sinatra.  Richard Cheese combined this aesthetic with the sensibilities of one of my childhood heroes, Weird Al, threw in some risqué subversiveness, and rarely recorded a track longer than two minutes.  Each song was designed to have maximum comedic impact with great musical talent, without extraneous padding, and by god he does it well.

He also sings within my vocal range, if at my upper limit.  This meant I could absolutely sing along (and well) while driving, a pleasure usually not afforded to me – not with my favorite music, anyway.  Singing along with a Richard Cheese album served as my vocal warmup in the days of recording voice-overs with FUNimation.  A thirty minute drive to the studio gave me enough time to suck down a cigarette and wash it down with a can of Coke while powering out a few of my favorite tracks before going in to record.  Combined with my elation of calling myself a Working Actor (at least for the day), the music cemented my mood firmly in the positive a few times a week for a good two years.

I’m not usually one for going to concerts.  Mostly because I can’t stand the crowd, but the biggest hurdle was my job in the service industry.  I usually couldn’t make it to a concert without taking a Friday or Saturday night off work, which doubled (or tripled) the cost.  There also aren’t many artists I enjoy enough to bother with an entire concert.

But a Richard Cheese album gave little tastes of his live experience.  A bonus track here and there provided the opportunity to hear him banter with the audience, a pinhole view of a larger experience I ached to enjoy if he ever came to my town. 

In February of last year I was in a professional slump, so I made myself feel better when I purchased a pair of tickets to see Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine at the Chicago House of Blues.  I didn’t realize just how badly I wanted to see him until I saw the tour dates and info, up to and including the fact that it was promised to be the last time he’d be in Chicago at least 2015. 

The tickets came in the mail – I opened the envelope for a single peek, then kept it next to my computer (where I spend a significant percentage of every day) where I could glance at them warmly from time to time if I ever needed a little pick-me-up.  The show was four months away, so I even had time to let it slip onto the back burners of my consciousness while I attended to other things, namely my career.

Holding out for a higher-paying job (or even a living wage) is a nice fantasy, but the truth is no one is likely to pay you as an artist until you’ve proved you’re not in it for the money.  No one who pays will hire you if you’re inexperienced, so the only way to get experience is to work for a stipend that’s almost enough to buy a week’s groceries if you don’t buy booze or meat.  So I counted myself lucky when, in early March, I was cast in a new play with a young theatre company.  It didn’t even pay enough to cover the cost of traveling to rehearsal, so I considered the net financial loss as a post-post-graduate education credit.  Perhaps one more line on the resume would lead to greater successes.  Eventually.

What I did not realize when I accepted the role was a scheduling conflict – opening night was the night of the Richard Cheese show.  When my Lady Love pointed this out to me, my heart sank into my boots.  Well, shit – not only did I feel honor bound to remain in my professional obligation and miss the concert, but I’d be out eighty bucks for the tickets.  The show was only paying me fifty.

I did a feasibility assessment on my ability to show up late and still catch something worthwhile.  Doors opened at HoB at 7:30, and our show, though short, didn’t start until 8.  After travel time I figured there was no way I could get to the concert before 10.

I took my story to eBay in the hopes that I could at least recoup my financial loss.  I presented the tickets on a seven-day auction that would end at noon the day of the show, challenged bidders to please allow me to live vicariously through them, and promised that any dollar amount above and beyond the face value of the tickets would be directly donated to Richard Cheese himself.  A string of gut-checks followed:

The auction had only four bids, the last one being a few hours after the auction began.

The winning bid was $10.50.

When I contacted the winner by email, she responded: “I already bought tickets. So sorry.”

One month after the show, Richard Cheese cancelled the remainder of the tour and, citing health issues, announced his retirement.


The worst bit wouldn’t occur to me for a few months.  Since I’m not a frequent concert goer, I had forgotten that “Doors open at 7:30” does not mean the show begins at anything like 7:30.  Indeed, a venue the size of the House of Blues would have taken quite a lot of time for people to file in, grab drinks, let those in the VIP section order dinner, etc.  And of course there would have been an opening act or two, concerts always have those, plus setup and breakdown time for each one.  There’s not much chance Richard Cheese would have been set to take the stage before 10:00.

I totally could have made it by 10:00.

…double fuck.

I don’t usually get excited in anticipation of an event, not anymore.  More than once, a genuine life changing experience evaporated before potential became actual.  My first marriage engagement, lasting more than three years, fell through six months before it would have taken place.  My second engagement, about a year in the making, suddenly ended six weeks before the wedding.  For eighteen months I took thrice-weekly Russian lessons, and either sold or donated any possession larger than would fit into a suitcase, so that I could move to Moscow for no less than four years, to study and build a career as an actor – only to learn, a month before my departure, that a handshake agreement is only as good as the paper it’s printed on.

These events and various, smaller others are why I reserve enthusiasm, but I made an exception for this this concert, and . . . well.  It’s not the most awkward letdown of what had been a surefire thing.  But now I’m engaged to be married again, and I keep hearing the mocking words after the last one failed: “Maybe your next engagement will be over just six days before the wedding, and your next one will fail six hours before, and . . .”

Let’s just say I hate countdowns.  It hurts too much when the timer never hits zero.

Monday, September 22, 2014

History Repeats

When I was a sophomore in high school I joined the wrestling team.  I no longer recall what appealed to me, exactly.  I was already on the football and track teams which filled my fall and spring, respectively, so maybe I was looking for something to do during the winter. 

I do remember my first day of practice.  It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and as a football player, I had been unavailable for practice before that day.  There is a hierarchy of sports, after all, and Texas proves the rule with no exceptions.  We only had one official wrestling coach, but we had three assistant volunteers, at least of two of whom were of blood relation to one of the team.

I was an hour late due to the required off-season football weight training (again, hierarchy).  Stepping into the windowless, fluorescent-lit, white-walled practice room was much like walking into a greenhouse in winter.  The sour air was moistened by the kind of sweat, testosterone, and aggression that only a dozen and a half teenagers could generate. 

Roger was the one of the volunteer coaches.  He stood as high as my chest, was built like a fire hydrant with only slightly more hair, and was immediately assigned to assist me that evening.  I spent the next two hours being forcibly removed from (then rapidly reintroduced to) the effects of gravity.  Walking into Roger was exactly like walking into a turnstile that moved at the speed of a blender.  He seemed to think that simply tripping a man took too long before he hit the ground.  I wasn’t just thrown; I was spiked.  I’ve been in gentler car wrecks.

Fathom my surprise, then, when I was told I’d be representing the team as a heavyweight against two schools the following evening . . . on varsity.  We had a JV team, but no.  Apparently it was the consensus that my human rag doll impression would be best witnessed by the maximum possible audience.

Tuesday night provided maximum embarrassment opportunity.  A wrestling singlet is called a leotard in any other context, and I couldn’t bring myself to put mine on until I saw someone else wearing one first.  The headgear looks like a jock strap with a protective cup both in front and in back, so having my ears covered by one made me feel like I was the victim of a locker room prank.

They didn’t have the slim-fitting wrestling shoes in my size because of course they didn’t, so I was required to wear my own comparatively bulky Nike Pump knock-offs.  For all the times I was asked where my actual shoes were, I may as well have been wearing the box they came in.  The referee wouldn’t even let me onto the mat until the coach apologized and explained on my behalf.

Finally came my first match.  I was pinned in 47 seconds, which was actually better than I had been expecting.

I reminded myself that I was new at this and got ready for my second match.  Mostly this involved sitting in a metal folding chair at the end of a row of my teammates, studying the space between my feet, and being very still in the hopes that no one would look at me. 

Time again for me to take the mat, and I screwed up my determination as best I could.  I knew I couldn’t win, but I didn’t want to lose as badly as I had the first time.  I never found out exactly how, but I was somehow flipped and folded, not at the waist, but rather at some point between my navel and the bottom of my rib cage.  I quit moving as soon as I couldn’t breathe.  Never before or since have I had such a close-up view of my own balls.

It took 41 seconds.

People win awards and recognition and say they’re humbled by it.  That’s not being humbled, folks, that’s being honored.  You want to feel humbled, see what it’s like to fail to stop someone twisting you up until the only thing you can smell is your own undercarriage.  Try it with a gymnasium full of people watching.  Try it with someone keeping an official record.

My opponent released me, and I stayed on my back for a moment to reinflate.  The referee eyed me with a mix of sympathy and humor and held his hand out to help me back to my feet.  Once I was up he leaned to a distance were only I could hear him, and said, “First day, huh?”  Perhaps he thought it would make me feel better.  I didn’t sense any malice.  Only pity.

I remember stepping outside under the guise of cooling off, which of course didn’t take long since I hadn’t broken a sweat.  There, amidst a quantity of pavement only a public school could provide, I sat and tried to figure out why anyone thought this would be a good idea.

At some point I realized how wrestling operates as a team sport.  At a wrestling meet, each team provides an opponent for each of fourteen weight classes ranging from 103 pounds to “heavy”.  Points are scored during each match for various moves: takedown, reversal, escape.  After three two-minute rounds, the point spread determines the number of points awarded to the team to a maximum of five.  If a wrestler pins his opponent, the match is over and his team gets six points.  If a team has no wrestler for a given weight class, it’s a forfeit, and the opposing team gets six points.

My team had no heavyweight before I joined.  Getting pinned, i.e. losing as badly as one could possibly lose, was the exact same consequence as my absence.  I was benefiting the team just by putting on the outfit and standing in the circle against no one at all.

I was placed on varsity to be filler.  A punching bag with my picture on it couldn’t have done any worse.  The only one with anything to lose was me.

Fast forward twenty years, and I’m graduating with a Master’s in Fine Arts from an Acting program rated one of the best 25 in the world.  I’m represented by a reputable and respected talent agency with no interest in the voice-over experience I’d had before I moved to Chicago.  This is true for two years.

A month ago, this began to change.  They called me in for one VO audition, and the next week they called me in for another.  Then another the following week, and two the week after.  By wondrous coincidence this began just a after I began a voice-over class for the purposes of brushing up my skills and doing a bit of networking.  When I thanked them for bringing me in lately, I was told they had decided to try me out because they had no one who fit my “sound profile.” 

Filler.  Nothing to lose. 

I gave my heart to the wrestling team for the rest of the season.  The coaches taught me a few techniques.  At the start of practice someone might show me a new move, and tell me I had to do it 100 times before I could go home (wax on, wax off).  I trained, I drilled, and slowly I began to conquer.  Every Tuesday there was another meet, and every Saturday another tournament.  Sometimes I’d get pinned, and sometimes I had the least points at the end of 3 rounds.  Sometimes I’d win.  I never placed higher than 3rd in a given tournament, but I earned half a dozen medals.  Nearly every week my parents would receive a Pride-O-Gram from my assistant principal with a clipping from the local newspaper when Head Coach Johnson singled me out in interviews about the team.  

I competed in the state championship, and got as far as the 2nd Consolation round – two rounds away from finals. I finished the season with a win-loss record of 21-21.  Of my 21 wins, two were forfeits in my favor, one was by points . . . and the other 18 were by pin. 

At the end-of-season banquet, my teammates made awards for everyone, and I got the only one that wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek joke: Best Attitude Award.  Coach Johnson gave me the trophy for Most Improved Wrestler and gave me significant attention during his speech about the season.

I never wrestled again.

Now I’m an artist, a performer, and I’m trying my damnedest to make a living.  Sometimes people bring me in because I’m the best, and sometimes people are taking a chance on me, and sometimes people bring me in because they have nothing to lose.

All I have to do to eventually succeed is remember and employ the lesson I already learned.  Train, drill, persist, develop new skills, and with time, no one will ever again make me smell my own balls.

Not without consent, anyway.