Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kiss The Wound [Updated]

Housekeeping hadn't touched the room all week. I made sure of that. Extended hotel stays hermitize me, and the thought of others rearranging and deodorizing my space on a daily basis was too much to take. I need private disorder to make sense of the outside world. Newspapers stacked in the corner. Empty bottles drying in large paper bags. Food containers scattered around. Bed permanently unmade. TV constantly tuned to either ESPN or NY1, muted or not, depending on mood.

The hotel's wireless connection came and went, which was aggravating, but I'm old enough to appreciate the technological advance, so my cursing desire to throw my laptop out the window remained checked. The laptop's used for screeds, fingers stabbing keys as observations and emotions race through my mind. My notebook's on the bed for when I want a tactile connection to words. My handwriting's gotten worse with age; not quite as scrambled as Carrie Fisher's acid-drenched letters to O'Donoghue that I found in his files, but close. Still, I love the feel of pen on paper. A step away from marking cave walls. That must be a sensual rush.

Jugs of Poland Spring keep me hydrated. Organic fruit shakes keep me somewhat healthy, undone by Absolut and Heineiken. I prefer Dan Aykroyd's Crystal Head vodka, the cleanest, best-tasting vodka I've ever had, but Danny's brand is 50 bucks a Head. So it's an occasional treat. Given the way I feel these days, sucking spirits out of a crystal skull makes more sense. Danny attaches mystical properties to his vodka, and after a few deep swigs you begin to see why. For now, I rely on the Swedes to deliver those visions, with some psychoactive seasoning . Then it's pound the keyboard, or watch well-dressed blowhards on ESPN HD argue about Brett Favre, LeBron James, or Eli Manning's toughness. Whatever the moment dictates.

Up till now, I've been better disciplined in my hotel behavior. I imbibe smaller doses at pre-planned intervals. This trip has been different. There's so much going on -- disease and death, creative transition, living two lives, one in Michigan, the other in New York. The latter reality informs so much else, leading to anxiety, sadness, and wistful meditations. The Project has exacerbated these feelings, as I suspected it would. I simply had no idea how hard it would hit me.

Without going into intimate detail, my 15-year-old marriage is at a crossroads. Our relationship has hit countless rocks, yet kept moving along, blossoming here, blowing up there, always fluid at one level or another. We are two intense people, so butting heads was expected, at times creating wonderful moments, both of us in sync. But it has also caused pain, anger, and fighting. Distances expand. Differences grow jagged. After awhile, you wonder what the point of it is.

Love and respect remain, but have moved into different areas. The wife has observed that in many senses, we should never have gotten married. I tend to agree, not out of regret, but based on the evidence. We jumped into this without really knowing each other. We both wanted it, needed it, so we did it. We produced a beautiful son, the shared love of our lives.

Yet over time, our conflicting personalities emerged, leading to scenes of incredible rage and hurt feelings. We yelled at each other from separate planets. Having grown up in a home where this was common behavior, I wasn't new to the sensation, only now I was the husband, not the kid listening behind his bedroom door. Her family experienced much less insanity on this front, her anger forged in young adult life. Whatever the source, we could go at it. And have.

All this came to a head while I was in NYC. It was very painful for us both. I had a set planned a day or so after we clashed, and wasn't sure if I could go through with it. I had a burning desire to get on stage, yet questioned the urge. A friend was giving a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club earlier the same night in the same neighborhood, so I figured I'd watch him and see how I felt later. Plus, I'm looking to perform at poetry spaces, and his connections could help.

I arrived on time, but he wasn't there. I stood in the back of the darkened room, watching older poets slowly read their verse. Checked my watch -- I had twenty minutes to reach the Teneleven Bar and sign up for its Freakshow Mic. My friend remained absent. On stage, a throbbing, strobe-light silent film flashed images of people in various positions, lending a Warhol Factory vibe to the place. Then a young man plugged in a guitar and played asymmetrical notes, plucking the strings as if picking stubborn flowers. Finally, my friend arrived in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I whispered that I had to leave. I knew what to do.

I toyed with several bits already written or thought out, but for some reason the strobe flick suggested a different route. I would talk about the state of my marriage.

Now, I had no material for this, no jokes or clever twists. All I had were my emotions, which surged each block closer to the bar. I improvised numerous lines in my head as I walked, rejecting most, a few workable. Whatever humor existed rose organically from the pain, no contrivance needed. Entering Teneleven, I let it all go in order to focus on the room. And the first comic I saw was Jeff, the shaven-headed joke writer I enjoyed at the gig where I received blank stares. If he remembered me, he didn't let on; he has a very guarded persona. I told Jeff how much I liked his material, advising him to get an agent pronto.

"You could easily write for late night TV," I informed him.

"Yeah, um, I don't know how to do that."

"Work whatever connections you have. Get an agent to see you perform. They're always looking for potential cuts of someone's income."

Jeff shrugged his shoulders and sipped his beer. Another comic Niles and I traded lines, with Jeff occasionally jumping in. A nice little riff-fest before the main show, hosted by an exuberant comic/actress, Margaret. The small back room filled up, and the conga line of comedians began moving.

My spot was in the middle of the pack. I sat directly off-stage, drinking a pint, studying each comic while considering possible approaches. Once my name was called, I took the mike, tremendous emotion ready to spill over. But before diving directly into what possessed me, I said that there were various routines I could do: Black Muslims on acid, Flavor Aid's forgotten Jonestown connection (a brand injustice of historic proportions), America's addiction to food porn. Yet because of how I currently felt, performing those bits would be false, which is what I'm trying to avoid on this path.

Brief pause. Then I just said it: "It seems my marriage is ending."

Half of the audience were women, several comics among them. As soon as I said that, they leaned in a bit to hear what was next. I had no idea what was next, but out it poured, the pain and anxiety of it, the sadness, the confusion, the guilt. I roamed the stage, gesturing, crouching, voice fluctuating, expressions changing. I honored my wife's life, looks, creativity and intelligence. I talked about how it used to be between us. I wondered if love is doomed to fade, or at least radically change its temperature. I made fun of the idea of me being single after all this time.

"The one thing about modern single life that perplexes me isn't the awkwardness of starting over, or trying to understand new women. It's the apparent need for today's single men to shave their balls."

This got a big laugh from the crowd, the women especially.

"You women demand bald balls. Why is that? Revenge for our sexist demands? If you shave your legs, then we gotta make our sacks slick? Okay. Fine. I'll do it, but what do I use? Gillette Mach3 Turbo blades? Or the Schick Xtreme? A little feedback would be appreciated."

This was easily my best set so far. Everything flowed beautifully. My stage presence held the room. My material connected on an intimate level. Even minor observations scored laughs. It felt great. It truly was a breakthrough. Sadly, it came from a crisis in my private life, something The Project touches on and more.

"Wow Dennis!" Margaret said retaking the stage. "The best comedy really is personal."

I guess. But am I still doing comedy?

AND NOW: The wife weighs in.