#9 Improv

When we started our journey together, she was the better actor without question. My training was further in the past, my craft rustier, and, well, I was too lazy to really compete. Except in one area: improvisation.

I joined Taproot’s Improv company and did pretty well for myself. She didn’t do improv at all – it scared her, to be honest. No script, no rehearsal – how could the perfectionist in her know that her choices would always be right?

Fast forward a decade or two, and she decides to go back to school for her MFA. Approaching fifty is the time to re-affirm that one should never stop learning, never stop growing. One of the things she decided to tackle in her own growth was embracing fear, embracing failure, embracing the part of her that said “jump” instead of the part of her that said, “be safe.”

And one step in that direction meant diving into the unscripted world of improv comedy. We both tried out for the improv team. I didn’t make it. She did.

Of course, she wasn’t as good as I was.

By that I mean she was better. A lot better. Spontaneous. Witty. Fearless.

Oh, she failed at times. A lot. Jokes that didn’t work. Choices that didn’t connect. If you know anything about improv, that is how it is done: the only way to get to the golden moments, when everything clicks and you have the audience eating out of your hands – the only way to get there is by trying to go further than you can go. Trying things out, flying without a net, not caring if you fall – because you know that that the gold is in the trying, not in the waiting for it.

And she spent more time in the golden moments than not; which meant the audience spent more time in the golden moments than not. Which means I (her proudest audience member, if I may so claim) spent more time in the golden moments than most.

Dang, she is fun to watch. And an inspiration to follow.

So, if I am ever fearless, not caring if I fall, going further than I can go – well, chances are I’m just trying to emulate her a little.

Gotta say, it’s a good place to be.

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#10 Dents

Sanders Family

We know that rock beats scissors, and scissors beats paper. Did you know that spoon beats gold?

We learned that during rehearsals for Smoke on the Mountain. She was playing the sister who didn’t sing but signed. And played the percussion instruments – which for that musical style meant things like the washboard, triangle, and slapstick. And the spoons.

Turns out if you beat some spoons between your knee and the fingers of your left hand, your knee does alright, as do the spoons. The wedding band on your left hand? Not so much. You can still see the dents in her ring – even though she stopped wearing it to any rehearsals that involved spoons.

The rings, for those who’ve never attended a wedding, are a symbol of the marriage. The circle for never ending; the gold for value. The dents – well, most officiants don’t mention the dents.

They stand for the rough patches – the misdirected anger, the grouchiness, the miscommunications blown out of proportion. The frustration at the world taken out on the ones closest by; the loneliness of one partner growing faster than another; the jealousies that defy explanation.

While the wedding officiants may not talk about the dents, our pre-marital counselor did (thank you Van), so we weren’t taken by surprise when the years weren’t all honeymoon and roses. We also realized, in the long view, that the dents are part of the ring – not an aberration, or a mistake to pretend isn’t there. (As a current musical comedy TV show recently reminded us – true love is work).

We wear our rings with the pride of what they represent. The value; the eternal; and the dents. The dents show that the ring is real. They show that while the ring may be marked, it is not broken. They show that the buffets of life come to us both, together, and belong to the two-become-one.

And they remind us of the music that surrounds the dents; it is in the process of growing together, of traveling the road together, that the dents occur. Without making the music, there would be no dents.

And the music is always grander than the scars.

In fact, the dents are kind of beautiful in and of themselves.

She played the spoons a quarter of a century ago, and she still proudly carries those dents. How could I not love her all the more for it?

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#11 First Read

I’m a writer, and a teacher of writing. I firmly believe the old chestnut – writing is rewriting. Old doesn’t mean outdated, and this one is just as current as they come. Our first drafts are not the thing; the thing is that beginning draft crafted and reworked into something worthwhile.

I tell my students that the first draft they turn in to a producer, or a reader, or even your writer’s group should never actually be a “first” draft. You write several drafts, getting it from the one you first vomited onto the page to one that is readable – then you label it “first draft” and send it on. We all agree to the pretense.

Sending it on is a difficult process. Every writer lives under two delusions: the first is that everything they write is revolutionary, perfect, awe-inspiring. The second delusion, equally as strong, is that everything we write is pure drivel, utter trash, absolute nonsense.

Sending off our writing is setting up the proof that one of those voices is right – and it almost always seems to be the latter.

Which is why it is critical to find your critics – those that look at your script with the dual traits of honesty and love. If your early readers don’t love you, it is easy to see the joy of the work destroyed. I once quit a writer’s group because there seemed to be too much joy in tearing down one another’s work – and by extension, one another.

Honesty is also needed, however. A spoonful of sugar is good to help the medicine go down, but without the medicine, the spoonful is really just setting one up for weight gain. Critique without a critical eye is short term nice, long term damaging. I once quit a writer’s group because they had a rule: only positive things can be said about each other’s work.

She is my first reader for much of what I write; at least the stuff I write for me, the stuff that comes straight from my heart. (Present essays excluded, of course.) I don’t give her my vomit draft, I rework it first. After all, I want to impress her.

I admit that when she doesn’t like it, or isn’t impressed, or asks, “Is this your vomit draft?” the sting is pretty strong. I don’t always take it well. Sometimes I mope. Or I look at want ads for jobs in retail or the fast-food industry.

Yet I wouldn’t trade this first reader for any other. Face it, she’s good. She’s an actress and sees scripts from the inside out in ways that I miss. And she’s experienced, she knows story from well more than her 10,000 hours of mastery – as an artist, as an audience, as an accomplice to so many other storytellers.

And she loves me, and loves my craft, and loves my heart for story. She’s tough, and she’s love. The perfect combination.

Another piece of advice I give my students: find that right reader, and if you can, marry her.

“A man’s greatest treasure is his wife – she is a gift from the Lord.” Proverbs 18:22

{Originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}

#12 Cards

I come from a card playing family. So when we had a vacation coming up with my parents, I thought it best that she learn how to play pinochle.

She grumbled – so many rules, melds to try and add up, plus keeping track of every card played- too hard. And getting used to my family, which means understanding that talking across the board is against the rules; but mentioning that novel your book group is reading, or about Uncle Harry’s triple bypass, or that James Bond movie with Blofeld in Las Vegas, or how that guy starring in Joe Dirt just isn’t as funny as people think is in no way talking across the board.

She did well on the trip – in fact, remarkably so, winning just about every time. This is known as “beginner’s luck.”

She has been continuing beginner’s luck at cards for a couple of decades now. She wins all the time.

So I mix up the games, teaching her a new one so I have a chance. Until she gets it, and starts trouncing me again.

We played 13 with Gil and BJ across England. Gil and I soon learned the law of 13: us menfolk never get to win.

Crazy Eights, gin, Uno, single deck pinochle. Losing to her in a variety of ways seems to be my lot in life.

But then again, every night at dinner I get to sit across the table from her and complain about getting a hand full of nines…

So who’s the real winner here?

I think Gil will back me up in this: It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s the view across the table during the game.

{originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}

#13 Lights

Her and her ocean

She grew up in the San Francisco area, so she thinks any mention of “city” or “bay” automatically refers to SF. Sorry Packers.

Of course, having been raised better, I know that if you refer to “The city” to anyone other than locals, you mean The Big Apple; aka the city. Not just a city. You know, a city like LA, or Chi-town, or San Fran.

So when I told her that the theme to my junior prom was that song that starts, “When the lights go down in the city,” she expressed surprise. When I told her that we therefore decorated our gym to look like a New York City skyline, she looked at me in horror.

She insisted that the song was about San Francisco.

I don’t think so, I said, with a bemused smirk. “It says right in the lyric,” I clarified. “When the lights go down in THE city. Not a city, THE city. New York. Case closed.”

She says the next line is “And the sun shines on the bay.”

Pfft. New York has Hudson Bay. Duh. Not every bay means San Francisco. (Right, Packers?)

She still insists that the song is about San Francisco, against all reason.

I mean, sure, Journey was founded in San Francisco.

Sure they were a big hit there before moving on.

Sure the San Francisco Giants play the song at their home games – but then again, aren’t they really the New York Giants, just transplanted? I mean, if I were the SF Giants, I would pine away for the days when they played in the Subway series too.

Sure, the co-writer Neal Schon grew up in San Mateo. Coincidence.

And sure, Steve Perry claims that the song is about San Francisco, and walking the Golden Gate as the sun comes up and the SF lights go down. But what would he know?

Sometimes you just can’t reason with her. So I let her go on pretending her crazy Lights theory has merit.

Compromise, that’s the key to a successful relationship.

{originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}

#14 Vernon My Love, Come in from the Barn

A few years ago, she did a musical playing a woman with Alzheimer’s. Her character was mostly comic relief – gags about forgetting and misreading situations. She had one solo; one moment where we go into the character’s head, as she pleads for her mind to not fail her now. She calls to her husband, who she has been saying has gone out to the barn, to come on in – she needs her husband now, her rock to steady her failing mind.

As you can probably guess, her husband died years ago. But to her, he’s just gone out to the barn, and will be back to save her any moment now.

She killed me, playing that character. Every time, that song absolutely ruined me. Even though I knew it was coming; even though I knew the clichés it was playing off of -the way she performed it. Earnest, vulnerable, yearning, desperate – and just a little bit knowing that her husband wasn’t going to answer her call.

“Vernon, my love, come in from the barn.”

I can’t even type the words without hearing her voice; wishing I could stop the play to answer her myself. That I could save her. That I could come in from the barn.

This woman still moves me to my core.

{originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}

#15 Pretty Bird

When married to a voiceover artist, one gets used to overhearing strange conversations. This was impressed on me very early on.

I heard someone saying, “Hello, pretty bird” over and over and over again. Each iteration was slightly different, the voice changing qualities with each, “hello.”

Turns out, no surprise, but it was her, crouched at a window, attempting to get a bird on the other side of the glass to participate in a conversation. She seemed convinced that if she could find the bird’s “voice,” she could talk to the animals.

Just imagine it.

To this day, she continues to find the “voice” of birds, cats, and inanimate objects. I can’t complain – the check for voicing the game Twister (yes, that Twister) was pretty nice.

So let’s all say it together: “Hello, pretty bird.”

{originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}

#16 The Road

She started in Northern California (want to get a rise out of her? Call it “upstate” California.) She then went to Seattle. Her plan was then to go to Chicago, then New York City.

I started in Upstate New York (proper use of “Upstate”). Then I went to Iowa, then to New York City. My plan was to stay in NYC. I figure that’s where we were supposed to meet, but since she stopped in Seattle, I had to go get her.

Together, it was Seattle, then Los Angeles (for her, the deep south), then Virginia (the actual south) and now Kentucky. The last three are places that weren’t even in our imaginations let alone our plans when we got hitched.

Yet that’s where we’ve been called, and we learned together to go where called. When we do, God always has wicked cool things waiting for us. Come spend a spell with us in Kentucky, and we will be able to convince you of the Goodness within a few hours.

Two factors that make the places off the plan rather glorious. First, God, naturally; He puts Loki to shame in the trickster category – yet by bringing order rather than chaos.

Second: her. Naturally. Mark Twain puts it best in The Diary of Adam and Eve. Adam’s words over the grave of his “her” –

“Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.”

(originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary)

#17 She Teaches

Recently she began teaching at a college level. She has always taught – church drama seminars, or workshops, or coaching, or joining me for some camp or single classes. We taught a semester long course on Stage Management to undergrads.

The students love her. L-o-v-e h-e-r. Every female student wants her to become their mentor. The male students want her to teach all their classes.

Now she is (finally!) teaching classes on her own. I joke that I am no longer the favorite Professor Gaffney on campus. I don’t doubt it is true; the joke part is pretending to be upset by it. Instead, I’m pretty dang proud.

Cuz, truth be told, I think both the female and male students are on the right track.

(originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary)

#18 “He Did It”

When we watch standard cop procedurals on the telly, the moment a minor player is introduced she will turn to me and nonchalantly say, “He did it.” Or she, as appropriate.

And she is usually right. She can tell by the way the writers are trying to mask the character to make them seem unimportant; as well as recognize bit players enough to know they wouldn’t hire that guy just to be a one-off witness.

I think that police departments across the country should hire her on as a consultant. The solve rate for major crimes would go through the roof.

(originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary)