Tony Laiolo – Dates

Tony Laiolo shares about a date to a silent movie that ended…unexpectedly.

Laugh Track

In my 20s I went with an actress. This was back when I still thought drama was a good thing in a woman. She’d gone to Hollywood for a while, studied Method Acting, tried out for some parts, gave it a shot. She was good, but it didn’t happen. When I met her back in Monterey, she was doing damsel-in-distress roles, melodramas at a place called California’s  First Theater, which, you’ll be surprised to know, was California’s first theater, even though you’d never know it from the name.

We had fun. At least I think we did — I mean, she was, after all, someone trained in pretense. No, we did have fun, and her crowd — the people you meet through somebody new — was fun, too, also laced with actors. Good parties, good walls to be a fly on — a little improv, a little recitation, a little wine, a little pantomime, a little wine, a little regurgitation. Some parts were better than others.

They didn’t just have good grape products, they had a good grapevine. You’d hear about things off the beaten path, and one time we heard about a double bill that night at the local junior college. Silent films. Sounded different. Fit in with the melodramas she was doing. So we went.

It was in a small music hall, maybe 200 seats, with close to 200 rear ends packed into them. Apparently ours wasn’t the only grapevine.

There were none of the usual trappings of the movie-going experience. No popcorn, no Pepsi (in the cup or on the floor). No music either. The first movie started, and one would expect an accompanist, right? — a piano or organ. But no, none of that extravagant frippery for Monterey Peninsula College, thank you. At this minor bastion of learning, the literal truth would be served, and as these were silent films, silent would mean Silent!

Which was a little spooky. You’ve got strangers hemming you in on all sides, and in that kind of seating it was cheek by jowl, and try to keep your legs from wandering. Except maybe on the actress’ side. It kind of felt like everybody was breathing each other’s air. Usually, if you’re sitting in a big silent crowd like that, somebody’s speaking. Preacher. Teacher. Warden. Not that night. Nobody was talking.

Oh, there was some sound. Seats creak, tummies gurgle. But that didn’t so much relieve the silence as reinforce it. You knew the noises were not made gladly by their authors, were not a tonic to them, and in fact only made them even more self-conscious and uncomfortable than the rest of us.

So the movie rolled for a couple of minutes in total silence. I leaned over and whispered to my date, “This is just weird.” Given the circumstances, 23 neighbors may have heard the whisper and nodded in the darkness.

But then something happened. Someone laughed, and then someone else laughed, and — let me try to reconstruct this — that second laugh was kind of peculiar and sounded funny enough that maybe five others — let’s say two sisters in their 30s, a boys P.E. coach, a retired receptionist, somebody’s pet parrot — all laughed in their own unique and inimitable ways, and then something happened on the screen, something about half the crowd found funny and got them going, and then everybody else, the ones not already laughing, start to — because for one thing the seats are joined at the hip and almost every row has at least one person — let’s call him Jimbo — who cracks up convulsively, and who’s rocking the whole row, and they’re laughing at that — while looking for a seatbelt, or they’re laughing because everybody else is laughing and it sounds like fun and they don’t want to get left out, or they’re laughing because the lady one row back just let out a helpless snort that could not fail to amuse.

Did I mention these films were comedies?

You couldn’t help but hear the music in the room. The individual laughs — the solos — and their degrees of merriment. The ripples through the room, like waves at the beach, building on each other, bigger and bigger. The jackpot hallelujah moments of everyone exploding into laughter at once.

Now I was glad there was no piano. If you could hear it at all, it would only interfere. Laughter was all we had, and all we needed.

After a while I shut my eyes for a long time and just listened to this symphony and its various sections. You had your gigglers, your titterers, your chucklers, your chortles and guffaws, at least a couple of cackles, some whoops, some screams…..

And those categories are just a rough beginning, loosely grouped for simplicity’s sake, because now…

  • You factor in whether the one laughing is a woman, a man, a child;
  • You factor in each one’s god-given vocal equipment, its raw volume, its range, its tone, its timbre;
  • You factor in a life led for some stretch of time, things seen and done, that may affect what one finds funny;
  • And you factor in that every single one of us is a unique piece of work with a unique sense of humor, and what tickles us may not always tickle others.

Ultimately what you end up with is: No two people laugh the same.

This orchestra had 200 instruments, each one different. It was conducted by a flickering image on a screen, and had no idea what that image would do next. There’d been no rehearsal. There were no particular notes to hit, or rests to count. You just laughed when moved to do so, and you had no control over when that might happen, or if you’d be the only one laughing. It was free-form, random, sometimes chaotic.

And inescapably, unforgettably beautiful.

My actress friend and I walked out happy that night. I think everybody did.

Robert Benson – Dates

Author Robert Benson tells his first Tenx9 story at February’s theme “Dates”. He takes us through a year in his life by marking the changes in the seasons. 

Planting Sweet Peas

“A schedule — a calendar, a collection of dates and events and days — a schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”

Annie Dillard wrote that before I had a chance to think of it. I have almost forgiven her.
This is an old story of some dates and days I caught long ago. An old story, a story about the rhythms of the life at the house where I once lived. Those days are still so real to me, I still read the story in present tense. They were the days where I first learned to pay attention — to anything, to everything.

On February 14 at our house, we plant sweet peas. Sometimes we have to brush the snow away to do it, but we do it just the same. My grandmother says that no matter what gardening books say, St. Valentine’s is the day to plant sweet peas in Tennessee if you want sweet peas to bloom in May. We certainly do, and so we do.
By the time we plant sweet peas I am so sick of winter I can barely be civil. The darkness of winter always gets me down, no matter what I say or do. A little girl at our house calls it ‘waiting for lamb season,’ waiting for the season after March comes in roaring like a lion.

When March does finally come we watch March Madness. For drama and excitement, it is better to me than the Olympics. For one thing, it comes every year; for another, there are no equestrian events. In the early rounds, we go to a local restaurant where they have three television sets and we watch all the games simultaneously. Folks there know us and wave at us every year when we come in, with our copy of the USA Today brackets all marked up.

When the champion is crowned, it is time to mow the lawn for the first time of the year. The proximity of that date to April Fool’s Day crosses my mind every time I get the mower out for the first cutting. It is time to pull off the winter mulch and reset the sprinkler hose. It is time to do the taxes before April 15th — April Fool’s Redux. April is seed packet month, and seeds arrive in our mailbox almost every day. We get out the garden journals and charts and little sketches of new beds we dreamed up over the winter. We wear sweaters and eat supper in the yard and watch birds scurry through the hedges, all of us glad that the earth is turning green again.

When Cecile shows up, it is Cinco de Mayo, or sometimes Cinco de Ocho. Cecile Brunner is a rambling rose planted in the wrong place in our yard but does not seem to care. She has worked her way up a corner of the house and into a plum tree. One morning you come outside to take your coffee and there are roses blooming thirty feet above you. You sit down by St. Francis, who stands in the white garden just in front of the iris bed, and whisper that it is time. The next the garden is in full regalia—coreopsis and viola and violets and spiderwort, yellows and whites and blues and purples. It is the best day of the year so far, time to pack for Chicago.

I used to live in Chicago and know the city and Memorial Day weekend is the best time to go. We go every year because there are two booksellers shows we attend because of the work we do. For about ten days we wander through an enormous bazaar of books. There are 40,000 other book people there—people who write them, read them, publish them, sell them, collect them, and love them. If there is not a book fair in heaven then I am not going, or least I am going to need a leave of absence every year in early June. When the last exhibition is closed, we go home to children waiting in their bathing suits — Independence Day, sort of.

I have two young children who live in the same town but not the same house that I do. I see them every week and talk to them on the telephone most every night, but in July they come for a long visit. We go the YMCA pool every day and to the beach for as long as we can afford. We play baseball and cards and eat peanut butter and jelly and set up the lemonade stand. When the kids go home, the grass turns brown. It is August, time to think only about baseball.

It is too hot to do anything else in Nashville in August except think about baseball. So we buy Baseball Weekly each week, watch games on television when we can, and check the pennant races every day. We go to the Sounds park every couple of days, and if the young professionals are on the road we go over the hill to the Civitans Park to see real baseball, the kind played by young dreamers who play for love and cheers, a snow cone whether you win or lose, and a trophy to cry over some day in your thirties when you come across it in your mother’s attic. One morning you hear Denise shout and whistle, and Labor Day has come and gone and it is time to go back to work.

Denise is the school crossing guard in our neighborhood and her post is at the four-way stop in front of our house. When I hear her voice, it is time for me to go back to work.
I am not a teacher but I still consider myself a student of sorts, so I keep the same hours. I write September to May, five days a week. I also take a nap every afternoon, preferring the kindergarten plan to the middle school plan. I look forward to school supplies day every year, when I get to buy new paper and pencils and erasers. Like all students, I am just getting settled into the routine again when it is time for the World Series and my favorite week of the year.

My wife and I got married on the most beautiful October 23rd in the history of the universe. We spent the night on the road on the way to a Carolina beach and celebrated our wedding with spare champagne and cold chicken from the reception and watching Joe Carter hit a home run to win the Series. Our anniversary gift to each other each year is the gift of time. We go to the beach in time for our anniversary and Game One of the World Series. When we get home, there is a telephone message waiting for us — from George, our personal Mr. November.

George is one of three brothers I came into when we got married. He is the only one who still lives in Mississippi near the old home place. About two weeks before Thanksgiving he starts laying in groceries and then he starts cooking. Then he calls everyone to see if they might like to come to his cabin by the levee for Thanksgiving dinner. He always acts as though it is the first time he ever thought of it, and we always act surprised, and almost everyone just happens to have the date free on their calendar. We eat too much and and laugh more than our fair share for about twelve hours. If the weather is warm we take a boat ride on the Mississippi. If it is cold we huddle around the wood stove. We stay until dark to watch the barges glide around the bend, searchlights blazing away in search of the channel marker that sits by his balcony rail. When we get home, there are RSVP’S in the mailbox. December is upon us, the first Sunday of Advent.

We hold a tea at our house at the beginning of Advent each year. My wife makes two or three of her legendary trifles, we decorate the house for the holidays, and set out the dessert china we found at a jumble sale to use only for this annual occasion. Our friends drop by for a few minutes and stay until midnight. The candles burn and the champagne sparkles and the smiles glow and the vigil for the coming of the Light of the world begins in earnest that very afternoon. Before we know it, the holiday trips are all taken, the gifts are all exchanged, the children are all surprised, the masses are all attended, and the weather turns cold. When it gets cold here, it is New Year’s Eve. It gets so cold in our old house in January I am sometimes willing to share the bed with the cats, just to stay warm. We read all the books we got for Christmas and work our way through the seed catalogs and dream of the spring. The only joy there is on those cold days comes from watching the birds at the feeders we fill in hope we can trick them into living in our yard if spring ever comes again.

One day I wake up in the dark and cold of an early morning and it is time to plant sweet peas. We always plant sweet peas on Valentine’s Day at our house, my grandmother told us to.

Take a week or a day or a year or a month of your life apart apart and look at its twists and turns. Are there not patterns there — some delightful and some difficult, some hopeful and some discouraging, some light, some dark? Are there not markers and moments, dates and days by which you measure the passing of your time here?
In some ways our lives are a journey without a destination; we have already arrived all the time. The question is not whether or not we get anywhere, it is whether or not we we notice we are somewhere already, we are somewhere all the time.

It is a journey upon which we embark for the sole purpose of landing at the starting points again and again. Only more aware of and more present to, more astonished and humbled and delighted by our arrival than we were the last time we noticed we are indeed already home.

Home is not where we are headed, it is where we are. Progress is measured not by the amount of ground we cover, it is measured by the amount of attention we pay.

The stories told, over and over and over, by the dates marked in our calendars can open our hearts and minds to the riches and textures our own story if we will listen. They teach us that there will be times for us when we live in the dark and the cold and times when we live in the light and the warm.

The truth is this: If I will be present and be faithful, if I will live the seasons as they come, I will see home is not where I am headed, home is where I already and always am.

One day while I was out running errands, Mary Oliver wrote this before I had a chance to. think of it and write it down. Not very happy with her either.

‘One has to say this for the rounds of life that keep coming and going,’ she wrote, ‘it has worked so far.’

So I myself will keep marking the dates, setting my nets, and plant sweet peas on St. Valentine’s Day, even if I have to brush the snow away to do it. My grandmother told us to.

The Understory – Dates

Rob McRay brought us the understory of Tenx9 Nashville’s February theme “Dates”. 

Nashville, tonight we remembered some special dates in our lives.

We remembered green bears who showed us new dates to celebrate, and we experienced near tragedy and unrequited love from a Valentine’s kitten on a very special Spring holiday.

We remembered a great adventure that started with ice cream sundaes and ended with hives in the principal’s office in a moment of important self-discovery.

We remembered a dream house and wonderful vacations and constant chatter, followed by rebellion and pain…and a moment of terrible abandonment that led to court dates and years of silence—and profound transformation.

We remembered the 20th birthday of a cute choir girl with purple chapstick, and sophomoric sweetness and always ascending, till we found ourselves experiencing sunrise in the park in a moment of being truly vulnerable—truly, totally vulnerable.

We remembered looking marvelous—or so we thought—for a first date with a self-absorbed surgeon who gave us the finger; and after an encounter full of internal conversation that was better than the actual conversation, we realized we looked better to start with.

We remembered a time of scripture-filled dating on one-way streets, watching Lawrence Welk, and bleeding fingers that scarred us both for life.

We remembered planting sweet peas on Valentine’s Day, March Madness, lawn mowing, blooming roses, book shows, swimming pools, baseball games, and kindergarten schedules, beautiful fall wedding days, Thanksgiving at the cabin, Advent tea with triffles, cold nights with the cats…and noticing that we are already home.

We remembered dating a drama queen in the age of dinosaurs at a double bill of awkwardly silent movies overwhelmed by a spontaneous, contagious concerto of laughter, in which we were each a unique instrument of joy.

We remembered computer dating that made us feel very desirable…until we exchanged compliments over a chicken dinner with a bad comb-over in plaid green pants, and decided that maybe honesty—maybe—is the best policy.

Katy Kinard – Court Dates

For Tenx9’s theme “Dates,” Katy Kinard told of a dates should we never have expected her family to face: court dates. 

My parents had court dates.  MY parents.  My Leave-it-to-Beaver, church-going, conservative middle class parents had court dates… and were under investigation for child abuse.

Maybe my step-brother was wearing a whole different set of glasses than I was.

I saw sunshine and rainbows, and he was the shiny, fun unicorn that came into our lives when I was 6.  He quickly became my best friend…same age as me and made me laugh and discover new adventures my entire childhood.  He was always cooler than me, and I always wanted to be like him.
My sister and I never called my step-dad any other name than “Dad.”  That’s who he’s been to us.  My step-brother called my mother “Mom” and that was his only name for her.

And this is what I saw of our family life growing up:

I saw a dream home for kids… a cat and a dog, a backyard with a hot tub, tire swing, trampoline, volleyball net, rope swing, huge treehouse built by my step-dad, and places you could climb up to our flat roof and swing in tree branches while overlooking the neighborhood.  We had a boat in the driveway that took us waterskiing and fishing.  We’d play with nearby friends and explore the neighborhoods with a simple, “Gonna ride my bike!  Be back later!”  There was freedom, safety, the warmth of Texas weather, and comfort at home.

My mom would decorate for every holiday… different colors, different music, different treats baking in the oven.  We had dinner together at night, and it didn’t even include TV for the first several years.  My mom was a teacher, my dad a salesman for a lumber company.  Like other families, our mom was a taxi service for our soccer games, karate practices, bowling leagues, volleyball and basketball games, track and gymnastics events.

My dad built wooden race cars with Jason for “father/son” events and took him hunting and fishing.  They sat alongside us for science projects, helped us earn scout badges and encouraged us in talent shows.

Every summer, we’d take trips with my grandparents in their motorhome, traveling around the U.S…riding mules down the Grand Canyon, rafting the Colorado river, driving through the center of giant Sequoia trunks in California, boat rides to the base of Niagara Falls, dining across from Mt. Rushmore, week-long ski trips every Christmas, and Disneyworld visits…to name only a few.  But what really made life fun was the background music of humorous and anecdotal conversation: constant chatter and life teaching that was comforting to me.

Maybe none of this was comforting to my step-brother.

Maybe Jason didn’t fit in a Leave-it-to-Beaver upbringing.

Most of our immediate and extended family is of one mind when it comes to “how one should live,” and there are expectations…I will say that.

There were rules.  You got rewarded when you followed them, and grounded – sometimes spanked – when you didn’t.  Now I was a rule-follower, and I didn’t understand being rebellious as long as life around me was comfortable, meaningful, and entertaining.  Later, life became horrible and I became horrible with it.  But maybe that’s what Jason felt…sprouting up between an alcoholic, jealous biological mother who pulled him toward one definition of “truth and love” – and our family who taught another.

He ultimately chose one.

Jason lied about small things or big things…it didn’t matter.  It was a form of control he laughed about behind our parents’ back.  He would tell me things he wouldn’t tell other people, and I felt special that I was the one he would confide in.

Jason often did the exact opposite of what he was told.  If my parents reminded him to close the kitchen cabinets after putting dishes away, he would start leaving cabinets open on a regular basis.  This played out situation after situation.

He was caught stealing money.

He was constantly in trouble at school, and his teachers started getting so frustrated, the school mandated daily progress reports, signed by his teachers and my parents.

My mom would often help him with homework, only for him to throw it away or turn it in too late and get a failing grade.

He did turn in 3 different papers about how great drug dealers are and how he aspires to be a crack dealer someday and make lots of money.

Jason forged signatures, confiscated report cards and notices from teachers and ripped them up before my parents checked the mail.

He started skipping school and got into drugs.

He set fire to a girl’s hair in church.

One time, his fist was back and ready to hit my mom during one of their arguments when our dad ran in and intervened.

Months later, he put my mom in a headlock and laughed for several minutes as he held her in place and threatened her.

My parents tried many things…

In the early stages, they tried the old-fashioned task of sentence-writing.  When he did something good or followed directions well, he would earn extra play time for video games, TV, etc.  When he started deliberately disobeying, he would get NFD, or “not following directions” chores.  They tried grounding.  None of these methods worked, and they tried spanking.  My sister recalls that he would laugh during the spankings and would often hide a thin books in his jeans.

They tried counseling.  They talked about sending him to reform school but never did.

I felt caught between my brother – my constant friend – the one who showed me favor – the one who stood by me year after year – and the rest of my family, frustrated and exhausted because of him.

A month before everything hit the fan, we had walked home from school to an empty house when Jason suddenly pushed me down and pinned my arms and legs to the floor in the hallway and demanded that I do sexual things to him.

Who was this monster?  I struggled to get out from under his control and started yelling at him, as I was suddenly afraid of this person I had never been afraid of.  I was shocked and hurt.  He was laughing and apparently got a kick out of it.

He let this go on for several minutes and finally released me.  I ran to the back wall, and he ran after me and then pinned me to that wall.  I angrily reminded him that he once told me he would protect me at any cost if someone tried to hurt me.  To his credit, he thought about that and finally let up – and I slapped him and fled to my room, locked the door, and cried for an hour.

He ran away a month later.  He told me at school that he was leaving and wouldn’t ever be back.  He had tried this before, so I said, “Ok, I’ll see you tonight.”

That was 20 years ago.  I haven’t heard from him since.

I have to backtrack to Jason’s biological mother:  She was very jealous that Jason would my mother “Mom” and would leave threatening messages on our voicemail, would call and hang up dozens of times a day, once smashed clay pots against our house, and regularly used money to win my step-brother’s love.  If he wanted Air Jordans and my parents said no, she would buy them for him.  When he wanted a puppy, she presumptuously sent him home with one.  When my parents got him a bike that wasn’t nice enough, she told him to leave it unchained at school – to get it stolen so she could buy a fancier bike for him – and that’s what she did.

She’d let him drink with her.  She’d invite his friends over and they’d all drink and smoke pot together and have parties, and she was the cool parent.  He wanted to live with her, so he ran away and told people my parents abused him.

Court dates.  Investigations for child abuse (that were proved unwarranted).

Custody battles.  Family counseling.  That time in my life seemed to last forever.

The grief that came from his silence was deafening.

Trying to find him online over the years has proved difficult because of a famous soccer player with the same name – but finally, 4 years ago, I stumbled upon a myspace page.

I took a deep breath.

As a 30-year old woman, I would see how time had shaped him into a grown man of the same age… and I stifled a fresh sadness of having missed out on an older brother for so many years.

What I found in that profile was something I never even considered.

He was the same boy from middle school.

I scrolled through pornographic pictures of his girlfriend’s private parts, a picture of him peeing in the woods for the camera – highlight: the stream of pee, and photos of him drinking and blowing cigar smoke at the camera, eyes red and drooped and high.

He bragged on his own nickname “Jump Shot Jay” and how he was the best ever at basketball, the way you dare anyone to say otherwise.  He said dismissive things about religion/authority and told people where they could shove it… and everything was still about money, and name brands… and being cool…and proving himself.

I stared hard at that myspace page that was suddenly changing my life.

I recalled how close my (incredibly loving) sister and I have gotten through the years…as she was always edged out as the “too spiritual/not cool enough” third wheel growing up.  I remembered how I turned my whole life around after I hit a messy rock bottom.  I fully gave my life to Jesus – and everything I had ignored back then.  My parents told me a few years ago that if Jason had stayed, they would have divorced, as their marriage was hanging by a thread.  And I thought about how Jason’s influence on me would have continued to this day, because I know myself well.

I will always love my step-brother.

I hate that he felt like he didn’t belong…or that he didn’t want to.

I long for him to feel peace if he doesn’t – and for peace between us.

But the irony hit me in that moment: What if the worst thing that ever happened to me… was actually…the best.