Sunday, June 19, 2016

Flashback Father's Day: The Drama of Life

(This article originally was published by The News Herald in Panama City on Father's Day, June 18, 2006.)


The drama of life
By David Angier

Most parents cringe at the drama their teenagers bring into their lives, but Tony Simmons applauds it.

Even when his son, Nathan, is engaging in drunken brawls, kissing random women and acting crazy,

Tony simply smiles and watches - at times from front-row center.

In the years before Nathan, now 17, discovered acting, the drama he brought into the Simmons' household was nothing to smile about. But next weekend, father will join son on stage for a Shakespeare in the Park production of "Othello," in an activity that has drawn them closer together.

Admittedly, Tony Simmons' part is a small one - he has a few lines that he says he's struggled to learn - while Nathan takes center stage as the too-trusting and honorable Cassio, the unwitting tool of Iago's complex scheme of treachery and murder. Director Chuck Clay said he picked "Othello" - the tale of a war-weary general who returns home after defeating his enemies abroad, only to find his greatest enemy in his own home - because it seemed relevant to the times.

"Of all of Shakespeare's plays, 'Othello' is universal," Clay said. "It's something that's going on in our lives today. It has events and themes that we identify with, that we read about every day in the papers."

Act I, Scene I

Tall, lanky Nathan Simmons steps on the 25-by-12-foot stage at Gulf Coast Community College's theater lab and stops being Nathan Simmons. He's still dressed in jeans and black Chuck Taylors. His eyes are still nearly obscured by shaggy blond hair, but his mannerisms alter noticeably. He stands taller and speaks with a force that is absent away from the spotlight.

He's Cassio.

"Reputation, reputation, reputation," Cassio exclaims. "O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial."

The only time Nathan Simmons comes out is when he misses a line. He stumbles over his words, smiles, rephrases and exits. Off stage he jumps up and down in frustration, then darts to a chair to study the line.

Nathan Simmons entered his first theater class during his freshman year at Bay High School. Before then, he describes himself as "pretty anti-social." Nathan's entrance into the theater magnet program coincided with doctors finally determining, after years of misdiagnoses, that he had a seizure problem.

Doctors initially thought he had an attention deficit condition and put him on medication that aggravated his seizures. Doctors finally realized the problem when Nathan was in eighth grade, but the damage to his reputation was done. Nathan was an outsider.

"I didn't have a lot of friends," he said. "But theater is a big family, and as I got into it I grew closer to all those people."

In four years of theater, Nathan has performed in more than 20 plays. He's won awards, acclaim and found a goal for the rest of his life.

"When mom and dad see me on stage, they're really proud of me, and that makes me feel good," Nathan said. "Before I started high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Now I have a goal to shoot for. I have a plan. I would like to major in theater and go to New York and perform there. If I can't do that, I'd settle for teaching theater."

He said he enjoys sharing his latest project with his father.

"We connect a lot more," Nathan said. "Before I joined the theater program I kept to myself a lot. Since then, I've become a nicer person, a happier person. Dad and I, we get along really well. He enjoys watching me on stage. Having him do this show is great because he doesn't have to sit in the audience this time; he can see it from the inside."

Nathan said it's nice the roles have changed in this aspect of their lives. "He's come up to me a couple of times and asked me, 'What exactly am I supposed to be doing here?'" Nathan said. "I've helped him in memorizing lines, and he's said that this is a lot more difficult than it looks. Dad's been more than willing to learn, and it's nice that he's let me be the teacher for once."

Act I, Scene II

Tony Simmons, online editor for The News Herald, is having a hard time "loosening up." He has to remember where to face, what to do and, above all else, what to say - while making it all seem completely natural. At the same time, he's got to project.

Shakespeare in the Park is a physically demanding endeavor. The actors don't have walls to bounce sound out to the audience, and it's up to the actors to make their voices carry. Simmons doesn't have a problem turning to his son for advice.

"He's having to teach me how to loosen up," Tony Simmons said. "This is an alien thing to me; these other people are just letting go. There's no sense of self, or self-consciousness, I guess, and that's something I have to learn."

His only prior acting experience was his senior play in high school 24 years ago. He agreed to do "Othello" — "because they asked me to. They assured me it was a small role. I thought this is something that Nathan and I can do together."

Tony Simmons isn't the type of father who rolls his eyes or shakes his head when he thinks about his son pursuing a career in acting - a difficult profession to succeed at. He's seen too many positive changes in his son's life occur in four years of theater to be pessimistic about the future.

"He's got a lot of promise, and I'd just like to see him take it as far as he can go," Simmons said, noting that Nathan has talent as a playwright. For now, Tony Simmons is learning to loosen his control of his son's life as well.

"I have to be almost less involved than I used to be," he said. "Nathan's found a way to make his own way."

Friday, June 10, 2016

Zen and the art of karaoke survival


Folks dancing at the party.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — I must have spent a good 15 minutes searching Google just now, and couldn’t discover the average age of first-time karaoke use.

I just experienced my first time. I’m nearly 52. I wish I could tell you it was magical.

I know singing in your car and singing in the shower are both considered to be karaoke gateway drugs. And while I’m often guilty of both of the former activities, I’d never before succumbed to peer pressure to take the stage. My son is the performer in the family. I just sit and type stories.

And I pray karaoke is not addictive, because I very nearly died from trying it just once. Then, either numbed or emboldened, I tried it a second time. I don’t remember too much after that.

We were at a 1970s-themed engagement party for one of my wife’s coworkers. The crowd at Hidden Dunes had been dancing to Bee Gees songs and other appropriately kitschy tunes, like “Lady Marmalade” (the version by LaBelle, 1974) until DJ Mike announced it was time to sing.

People dressed in glittery stretch pants and unbuttoned silk shirts clutched champagne flutes and sang “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” (1967), “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976), and “Annie’s Song (You Fill Up My Senses)” (1974). And you could tell they were accomplished cover artists — doing a little dance, playing to the audience, barely watching the video screen for lyric prompts.

While most of the crowd had embraced the disco style, I was wearing a David Bowie T-shirt. The cover to “Low” (1977). Bowie, who died in January, is my greatest musical idol. I learned to pay attention to songs after hearing a noisy cassette recording of a Bowie performance taped from an old TV. The song was “Space Oddity.” The rest is legend.

What I’m saying is, if I was ever going to sing in public it would have to be a Bowie song. Also, I was pretty sure alcohol would have to be applied liberally beforehand. But I was not drinking and had no intention of taking the mic, just enjoying the people with more self-confidence who did so.

Then DJ Mike came to our table and asked me what I was going to sing. I shook my head and grinned. “Nothing,” I said. He returned to his gear and started a chant of my name. The crowd joined in. My wife gave me a smile.

Something in my brain snapped. In retrospect, that might be how horror movies start.


Like a blurry Bigfoot photo.
I opened with “Fame” (1975), my feet shifting nervously, my hands in my pockets. I saw Bowie do “Fame” twice — the 1987 Glass Spider Tour in New Orleans and the 1990 Sound+Vision Tour in Pensacola. I tried to keep in mind that he often mixed up lyrics when performing, so I shouldn’t worry about it.

Then the darkness closed in. All I recall is the video screen, the words slowly changing color before my eyes as the song progressed. I had no sense of time or of the rest of the room, or even the sound of the crowd behind the rumbling in my head.

And then it was over, people applauded, my wife grinned ear-to-ear, and I started toward our table.

“What’s your second one?” DJ Mike asked. “Golden Years?”

I froze. The crowd chanted. I realized people had been dancing while I sang.

How could I not?

The music started, a rolling guitar decrescendo that then built and built into that Carlos Alomar funk. Suddenly, a woman I’d never seen before grabbed my right arm, pressed herself close and yelled into my face — something like “I can’t help it! This is my favorite!” — and started singing along.

No offense to the lady is intended, but I thought, “So much for ‘nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.’” I lost the rhythm. I stumbled on lyrics I’ve sung in my car a million times. I remember looking at my wife and mouthing “Help?” She shook her head. I  was on my own.

I kept waiting for the roadies to peel the woman off of me like you see at the concerts. They never came, but honestly I was still experiencing tunnel vision, one misfiring neuron short of an out-of-body experience.

So I soldiered through. There’s a secret I’ve learned that applies to just about any situation: Give it time, and it will pass. Find your center, which for me at the moment was a video screen with color-changing lyrics on it.

You, too, can survive karaoke.

Peace.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Books Alive 2016 Photo Blog

Books Alive returned last weekend, expanded to three days and moved to venues in downtown Panama City. Here are some of the moments I managed to record:
Ginger Littleton, me, and Cheri Leistner (Books Alive committee members)

Local authors area at the Civic Center

Cool projections by Public Eye featured the local authors' work

David Angier, me


Me with Mary McDonough (Erin Walton)



JD from Public Eye and author Milinda Stephenson


Rick Bragg with a Destin book club


Connie Gittard introduces Ellen Urbani, Annie Quinn & Mary McDonough


Kwame Alexander, Kathie Bennett, and Mr. & Mrs. Middlemas


Kwame Alexander meets a young future reader.


Librarian Sandra Pierce and author Olivia Cooley


Refreshments at the library


Margaret Webster of Public Eye & Jennifer Jones of Bay Arts Alliance

Friday, April 29, 2016

Flashback Friday: Doc Savage and 'The River Extraction'

(Originally published Sunday, May 6, 2001, in The News Herald)

Cover Art by James Bama
As a youngster, one of my greatest literary heroes was Clark Savage Jr., better known as "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze." A millionaire, surgeon and inventor, Doc traveled the planet righting wrongs with the aid of his World War I buddies, Monk, Ham, Johnnie, Renny and Long Tom (and sometimes his cousin Patricia Savage).

Written by Lester Dent under the pen name "Kenneth Robeson," Doc's adventures were set in the 1930s and featured in pulp magazines of the day. I became familiar with him in the 1970s when Bantam reprinted the serialized stories in the form of paperback novels, Marvel Comics published illustrated tales and Warner Bros. produced a campy movie starring Ron Ely.

Without doubt, Doc was the template on which other superheroes and adventurers were built. Clark Kent owes more to Clark Savage than a first name. (A "biography" of Doc released in the 1980s linked him by blood with the English nobleman called Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Lamont Cranston - "The Shadow.")

Ron Ely as "Doc"
Doc's base was on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, but he also had a secret "Fortress of Solitude" in the Arctic where he exercised his mind and body to the pinnacle of human perfection. Invariably Doc's physical exertions and hand-to-hand battles resulted in his safari clothing being reduced to tatters. (The number of shirts he went through was used to comic effect in the film.)

That image came to mind this week when I heard the tale of Ebro dentist John Savage ripping off his clothing as he dived into the Choctawhatchee River to pull a patient out of a sinking car. (Call it an emergency dental extraction.)

"It was strictly an immediate reaction," Savage said later. "They asked me if the water was cold and I had to say I never even knew if it was cold or not. There was just too much tension and too much tragedy about to happen.

John Savage, DDS
"I tried to get my socks off, but there wasn't time to get them off."

The car had raced out of control and bounded between trees and over a sand bank where Savage's riverside office (and Fortress of Solitude) sits; the driver initially had trouble getting out of the car and then struggled to swim while wearing steel-toe work boots.

"I'd try to help anybody in that condition," Savage said. "I didn't have time to think about it."

Once again, "Doc Savage" was the hero of the moment. Now he's back at his day job - fighting for tooth, justice and the American way.

Peace.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Flashback Friday: Digressions in infinite complications

(The following was first published in The News Herald on Sunday, April 29, 2001.)

She needed a spoon for her cereal, but none were clean, so she washed all of the dishes, wiped down the counter tops, swept the floor, mopped, noticed dirt on the baseboards and instead of washing them pulled them off the wall and sanded the paint off of them, refinished them, reattached them to the wall, which she suddenly realized needed a new coat of paint in a different color so she went to Wal-Mart, where she bought paint and brushes, and came back home to paint the dining room (and living room and bathroom) walls — never having paused for breakfast.

Did anybody see where that rabbit ran off to?

She wanted to re-seed bare spots in the lawn, so she bought seed, bags of top soil and cow compost, flowering bedding plants, decorative trimming bricks, and went to find a hoe in the shed, but the shed was in disarray so she pulled everything out of it and stacked boxes and junk for a trip to the dump, and stacked other items for Goodwill, then organized the shed and realized that the hoe was not in the shed at all but rather on the side of the house where our spring garden is usually planted but where pine straw was still heavy on the ground, needing to be raked, so she raked the straw into trashcans that also would be carried to the dump — never having got around to seeding the lawn.

Could someone help us catch these wild geese?

She wanted to relax before bedtime with the latest Left Behind book, but the dog had gotten hair on the bed, so she stripped the comforter and sheets and started a load of wash and folded clothes that were in the drier and went to put them away, but the drawers were full of winter clothes so she sorted the winter clothes — setting many aside for donation — and put the remainder in a tote that wouldn't fit into the closet until the closet was sorted — setting several items aside, again, for donation — and by this time the comforter and sheets had been washed and dried so she made the bed and went to sleep — never having cracked open the book.

But I digress.

Getting to the point (if there is one): The walls would not be repainted now if I had run the dishwasher the night before, as I had promised; the shed would not be cleaned if I had put away the hoe; the winter clothes and closets might not be sorted yet, if I had not played with the dog on the bed.

What would she do without me?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

‘Be Ye Also Perfect’

'Be Ye Also Perfect' by Robert O. Hodgell
(From the painting by Robert O. Hodgell)

By Tony Simmons

In the end, naked as the stars and black as the night, the girl knelt before the old woman and waited. The wise woman, holder of the village history, clutched her book of secrets to her shriveled breast — blind eyes focused on the future. Skin ashen with years and etched like bark, limbs like dried reeds, the woman hovered between the girl and her hut. She would almost disappear into the grain pattern of the wooden walls if not for the simple cotton dress she wore, its colors having faded to a uniform yellow, the flower pattern barely discernible.

The girl, head bowed and hand raised in supplication, caught her breath. For a moment, she thought she smelled the perfume of the flowers on the dress, but then she realized her own bare feet and bended knee crushed the nectar from a hundred night-blooming wildflowers. It was their lifeblood she scented, not the past, not the old woman. She hoped the wise woman had not perceived her confusion, and she bowed deeper, closed her eyes, trembling as the future bloomed and hovered.

“Have ye learned the words of the book?” the old woman asked.

“I know them,” said the girl.

“Are ye frightened of the truth?” the old woman asked.

“No longer. I am amazed and sorrowful.”

“Can ye keep a secret?” the old woman asked.

“If I could, I would not tell you.”

“Then ye are prepared,” the old woman said, lightly placing one palm on the crown of the girl’s head. “Be ye also perfect.”

The woman shrugged out of her dress, bent and folded it, and set her book of secrets upon it by
the girl’s bended knee. Her soundless feet treading night flowers, she walked away from the hut and the girl, naked as the stars, into the night and the jungle.

The girl took the dress and the book. She stood and slipped the dress over herself and stepped into the hut, her head raised, her eyes clear, her future having played out before her.

The Beginning

--

(Author's note: This flash fiction arose from an assignment I gave my creative writing students. We meet at the Panama City Centre for the Arts, and I directed them to stroll the gallery and pick out a painting that spoke to them. Then I challenged them to write a short piece based on the story they got from the painting. This is mine.) 

Friday, March 04, 2016

Flashback Friday: 'Trek' defense doesn'twork, no Bones about it

(Originally published in The News Herald on Thursday, March 8, 2001, as a "Bay Book" entry; a collection of snippets about the happenings, happenstance and personal experience that lend Bay and nearby counties their special character.)

Dr. "Bones" McCoy, whom you may recall was the crotchety Southern medical officer aboard the starship Enterprise way back in the day, had a fallback defense when asked to perform duties outside his realm of expertise.

"I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!" he said, for instance, when ordered to repair a wound in the rocky skin of an alien using some kind of space age plaster.

But then, invariably, he did the work anyway.

I thought about Bones Sunday as I struggled with two-by-fours and four-by-fours and two-by-sixes and screws and bolts and a level and a drill and sundry other materials to build a backyard play-fort for my kids using a truckload of lumber and a kit we had purchased.

"I'm a writer, not a carpenter!" I said.

I had moaned something similar the day before when pressed to install an air conditioner through the wall of my son's bedroom; and a few months ago when faced with replacing a hardwired drop-in range with a freestanding one; and a few months before that... . Well, the list goes on for light years.

At the risk of mixing allusions, I also recalled a Bill Cosby standup routine in which he said truly smart men purposely mess up these tasks so that, the next time there's work to be done, their wives will not expect them to do it.

I suspect that's just wishful thinking, as it never quite works for me. Like Bones, all it takes is a look or a word from one of the crew - my kids or my wife - and I roll up my sleeves. And if I mess it up, they just expect me to fix it.

In fact, the only time the "Cosby defense" worked was the time our central air unit was on the fritz. I argued we ought to call a specialist - "I'm a writer, not an electrician!" - but my wife wouldn't hear of it. It's probably just a reset switch, she said.

So I turned off the power (I thought), opened the side of the unit, reached in for the reset switch and blinded myself with a burst of electricity that landed me a few feet back from the box.

McCoy's other famous remark sparkled through my brain:

"He's dead, Jim."

But that was just wishful thinking.