“THAT’S THE MOST I’ve seen you laugh in a long time.”
The challenge here is to find a way to talk about both The Pee-Wee Herman Show and my last year without:
- an ill-advised degree of detail (about either); or,
- a defanged and meaningless result.
So bear with me.
That’s a pun. There’s a bear in the show.
IT’S BEEN A year that pulls me out of bed and dresses me and sends me riding a bike around a dark city, alone at three in the morning, because there’s no mercy in a silent room. The past is a process server. It didn’t track you down so it could invite you to Disneyland.
2009 was the rattle of empty accounts; we fled from a vicious mega-slumlord, got fleeced by our own lawyer, I lost most of my income and forced my wife to work more hours than a human can survive, and there was the kind of marital lightheartedness and joy that, oh, you know, just make everybody feel sooo happy and giddy. 2009, you adorable, adorable trickster.
That’s not even the funniest stuff, but the really terrific jokes aren’t printable.
But you know? At least it wasn’t 2010.
2010 was really funny.
WE ALMOST SOLD our Pee-Wee tickets. Money’s too tight and too hard-won. We shouldn’t have splurged in the first place, all those months ago when for a minute, we had enough. When you’ve become used to saying no to the ice cream truck because Daddy doesn’t have any money, an expensive evening out as a couple can’t be justified.
But I guess we didn’t sell them, so we ended up at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, with even more money going for a babysitter. Because we do nothing fun together. Fun is not what our life is right now. It’s…well, other things. But we love Pee-Wee. We watched Pee-Wee’s Playhouse weekend mornings during its original run, before we were married, when we still lived in Pasadena and still aspired, with the vast, golden potential of talented, idealistic non-parents, to great things, and we watched it again on DVD this year with two little boys who call out the animals they see in the different animated title sequences, scream real loud at the magic word, pretend they’re Conky, and experience cycles of loving Pee-Wee, being a little scared of Pee-Wee, loving Pee-Wee.
And I’d only had four hours of sleep the night before, up late trying to format Cupid & Psyche for Kindle (which doesn’t handle HTML predictably), and five the night before, and five the night before that, so…these expensive tickets, if I’m too tired to be mentally present, will have been a waste. It’s been a long time since the Playhouse, too. He might not remember what used to make him great. This might be a fizzle of a comeback. My experience with hope is that the next step is almost always its loss.
LATE 2009, I’D been getting up every morning and fixing the image of a man in my imagination—a man who could handle everything I needed to handle, because I sure couldn’t. Somebody with a set jaw. Then a thing happened in early 2010 and I was incapacitated for a few days by the sheer reverberating shock of it, and then it turned into huge, rolling waves of grief and I couldn’t get through a training ride for the first half of the year without pulling over and sobbing.
Okay, that’s overdramatic. Sometimes it was just unnatural breathing and hopeless blinking. But the good thing about the delayed part of delayed emotional response is it keeps you together for a while. That means it might not hit until you’re 30 or 40 miles out on the bike, at which point you still have to go that far again to get home. So things work out, ridewise.
Late July or so I started being able to tell up from down again, but then a new thing happened and I learned that even when you already can’t tell where the ground is, you can still feel it dropping out from under you.
Where’s the ground!?
Oh, there it…was.
Which reminds me: Floory’s not in the new show. Not enough flattering camera angles, I guess, but I didn’t know he was such a diva.
SO THAT’S ONE way to solve the detail problem: Stay away from causes, just describe effects. And stick with only the funniest effects—like my very first alcoholic blackout, at age 44, out with an old friend in April. I came to—who comes to if they’re not in a pulp novel?—in a downstairs men’s room stall at the bar we’d ended up at. I hadn’t been able to swing drinks and dinner that evening, but we had this date and I could talk to my friend about The Things. So my choices having been narrowed to one or the other, I went with the drinks. Better to lubricate the jaw than sate the stomach before a heart dump. Except I also hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so there was nothing in my stomach since the day before. And hadn’t really slept in a while. And I guess I lost track of what was set on the bar in front of me. How’s that for a joke setup? Seriously, this one kills ’em in Poughkeepsie.
The punch line was, I didn’t know where I was and had no memory of entering the stall. The situation was so outside my experience that I thought I’d been drugged and feared for my safety. I’m told I was down there for two hours.
It was only five drinks, he ragged on me a day or two later. Now, I know I didn’t down five drinks, but I also know I don’t want to be blacking out and waking up in men’s room stalls after two or three. My alcohol consumption immediately dropped to nearly pre-parenthood levels and stayed there. I was going to let myself keep the almost-new bottle of Bombay Blue Sapphire in the freezer—that stuff’s expensive—until I realized I was reluctant to get rid of it, which pissed me off enough to say, Oh, you’re taunting me? and haul it out by the neck and pour it in the sink.
Which is money saved, and good riddance. There are addicts outside my immediate family, and I have an obsessive streak. Some heirlooms, I’m happy to let go to other homes. Emotional stuntedness? The cousins and odd relations are welcome to that one. Difficulty reading social situations? Doesn’t go with anything I own. And I won’t be fighting for possession of the schizophrenia, either. Really, no, that’s fine, you take it.
You’re very welcome. I am selfless.
Oh, was The Pee-Wee Herman Show wonderful.
To experience lightness from within the gravity of Jupiter—I’d say “there are no words,” but I’m kind of obligated to provide some, this being a blog and all.
Stepping down the carpeted auditorium stairs with those swirly light patterns on them—that’s when the “Oh boy” feeling started. Maybe. Tentatively. Really more of a tickle than an actual feeling. I could easily reactivate the heart-devouring gravity if this stage magic falters at all, though, so Oh-boy-feeling? you’re on notice. You think you’re good enough? Think you can take me? I don’t know, I’m pretty good too. You think the grooves in this brain evolved there by themselves? Those were worn in there, man. Nobody’s got nothin’ on me for obsessive mental pacing over bad things. You’ve got some work cut out for you if you think—
It’s Pee-Wee! It’s Pee-Wee!
And a US flag! What’s that for? What’s he gonna do?
Well, as it turns out, you need a US flag if the audience is going to stand up and recite the pledge of allegiance before the curtain goes up. A packed auditorium of grownups grinning like verklempt morons, chanting with our hands over our hearts. We’re third-graders.
I skipped “Under God” in the pledge, too, same as I did in third grade. But the transformation to child had succeeded despite me: My inner adult forgot to balk at “with liberty and justice for all.” I was in that universe: liberty, justice, and white shoes. They’re our best friends. We don’t have to think about them. And Penny Cartoons for all. And then the curtain rose, and I was in the Playhouse.
MOST OF MY writing in the first two-thirds of 2010 will never be shared with anyone but myself, and during that same period the current book took too much incoming flak and fire and lost its engines. This happened twice, actually. The second time was like…again? There was a big non-writing gap of several months, free fall while the horizon yawed and pitched, and finally the engines sputtered and fired again and the wings clawed their way back into lift. “Your new stuff’s got more edge,” Larry said recently. Why yes it does.
I got funnier again, too. There are reliable ways to attain things. You want debt, spend more than you make. You want funny, hurt a Jew.
WRITERS EXPEND SIGNIFICANT energy trying to make thoughts approach along unseen vectors, make the reader suddenly recognize what was already long-recognized and categorize it afresh. That makes it fresh. If we’re not quite attuned to the nature of the materials we’re working with, we go for kicky and punchy, the lesser dwarves of vivid thought. But despite all this wanton incandescence, the bitch of it is, sometimes what we’ve all heard before just says it better.
The metaphor of flying can’t be improved on. Loosening from the ground, slipping upward through gravity, unclenching, unfurling, the wind as breath, the chest no longer a vise. To give up the hope of flight is to be adult. We have jobs to do on the ground. We have other flights to nurture and encourage. We stick.
If we’ve flown, we have that memory to dip into; a sense memory. Rising and banking, breathing and lightening. Here I am above, where the bolts and bands can’t go, just a soul and a heart and a massless dilation of the spirit.
Flight is the shocking ebb of relief.
AND RELIEF IS a gift.
SO PLEASE, LET Miss Yvonne’s wish come true, and let me guess how Pee-Wee’s will. Let me giggle so hard I lose my breath and let me cherish the tiny flicker of genuine sadness—just a flicker, and gone—at the turnaround into the last act. Let me excite my five-year-olds about how WE SAW PEE-WEE FOR REAL NOT ON A TV NOT IN A MOVIE ON A STAGE FOR REAL, HE WAS THERE!!!! and about how I’ll take them when they’re older, if there’s a show then. Let me wake up and find them sitting on the kitchen floor, making up stories with the souvenir Pee-Wee fridge magnets. Let me google the third part of Jambi’s chant (go ahead, test me). Let some part of the lightness live on as lift, a degree or two of ongoing trajectory correction, a little charmed turbulence around the flaps and ailerons.
THIS IS A thank-you, a tribute, an unabashed fanboy letter, and I hope for the man himself to read it. If you haven’t commented here before, your comment will be held for moderation.
Thank you, Pee-Wee.