Stranger Than Fiction

Many moons ago, long before I’d turned to writing fiction seriously, my creative life was an assorted patchwork of endeavors: music, poetry, film, a little bit of everything.  I even dabbled in live theater for awhile.  For two years I volunteered with a local theater company in Corpus Christi, Texas. 

My jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none background made me a pretty good fit for the local drama company.  I helped fit costumes, played music from time to time, designed programs, did what I could on the production side (I was a stage manager in high school), lead the band for a rockin’ production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, even acted in a couple productions.

During my time there, I had a lot of fun, and made many friends.  It was nice coming into the entry hall hours before a performance and hanging with the cast to chat things up, compare notes on the production, laugh at the lame jokes we all made, and wonder aloud whether that night’s house would be full or empty.  It was a wonderful piece of living, frankly, and after awhile, those folks became like a family to me.

But all good things come to an end.  I was moving to Austin, so my days with the theater were numbered.  One of the last events I participated in before the move was the yearly awards ceremony, where we recognized the best performances for the year, the best director, the best production–all the various accolades that could be heaped on volunteers who weren’t often gifted with professional-level talent, but more than made up for it with big, generous hearts and determined attitudes.

Speeches were given.  Songs were sung.  It was a great night, one to remember.

Fast forward a year.  I’d been away up at school but I got wind from a friend that the annual awards ceremony was coming up, and maybe I could make it down for a visit.  Why not? I thought.  What a great chance to see the old gang, catch up on all the news.  My girlfriend (now wife) and I drove down in great anticipation, dressed to the nines and thinking of all the great people we’d get to catch up with and with whom we could share some of our Austin adventures.

Now I know you’ve seen the scene dozens of times in movies and in books: MC is gone for a long time and returns home, only to discover it’s all changed.  Nothing is as it was.  You’da thunk I’d have seen it coming, but I didn’t.

We hardly knew a soul.  It seemed everywhere I looked, my gaze found the face of a stranger.  Where had all our old friends gone?  Who were these other people filling the audience seats and cheering?  I guess in the intervening year, some big corporate sponsor had been picked up, and the down-home, gee-whiz production values that had made the theater so beloved had been replaced by a slick, no-nonsense emcee in a tuxedo who kept smiling too much and doing his best Rock Hudson impression.

Many of the folks we knew had decided not to show up, perhaps because of these changes, or because they had, like us, moved on with their lives.  The actors and actresses who were there to accept awards seemed nice enough, but the whole event felt much more like a contest than a celebration.  Different winners were cheered by different factions of the audience, and some were even booed.  

What had they done with our theater?  MY theater?

I was in shock.  Really, it was so unexpected that we left mid-ceremony, stumbling out the front doors into the cool evening air like two refugees.  The vast parking lot felt like a maze; the flat edifice of the theater loomed over us in the darkness and looked unfamiliar and out of place.  We wandered around–me looking back over my shoulder again and again–until we found our car, climbed in and headed for the freeway.

Even now, thinking about it, I find the experience maddening, not only for the drastic changes that a year of rising suns had wrought on a group of people I thought I knew, but more so because I was naive enough to believe that they would all remain the same, together, as fun and creative and perfect as they still are in my memory.  Over the years, I’ve also come to wonder how much of it was real, and how much of it was simply an over-elaborate fiction in my head.

After a six-month hiatus from blogging, I wondered if, upon returning, I’d have the same experience I did with the theater.  Had people moved on?  Would people still remember me?

But I am pleasantly surprised.  Sure, a few things have changed.  I mean, of course they would, right?  But thankfully, much is the same.  Already, there are a few folks stopping in to say hello, and for every visit to one of the blogs I used to haunt, where I still find the prose crisp and the thoughts clear and inspiring, I smile a little bigger and mark it down as one more small victory.

Maybe what they say is true: you can never go home again.  But I’m not so sure.  Instead, I prefer Christian Morganstern’s view: “Home is not where you live but where they understand you.”

If that’s true, I’m ready to pull up a chair next to the fire and stay awhile.

On an unrelated note, the video below–which I couldn’t resist posting–is one of my favorite scenes from the movie Stranger Than Fiction.  It features Will Ferrell as the MC in a story being narrated by an author he can hear, who after a lifetime of not really living–or playing the guitar–finally starts to figure things out.  It’s a real classic in my book.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to stay groovy!