Category Archives: From The Vault

from the vault: fireworks

This was originally written and published on July 5, 2002, which simultaneously feels like years and days ago.

When I was growing up, we always spent Fourth of July with my father's aunt and uncle, at their fabulous house in Toluca Lake.

It was always a grand affair and I looked forward to spending each Independence Day listening to Sousa marches, swimming in their enormous pool and watching a fireworks show on the back patio.

This fireworks display was always exciting because we were in the middle of LA County, where even the most banal of fireworks – the glow worms – are highly illegal and carried severe fines and the threat of imprisonment, should we be discovered by LA's finest. The excitement of watching the beautiful cascade of sparks and color pouring out of a Happy Flower With Report was enhanced  by the knowledge that we were doing something forbidden and subversive.

Yes, even as a child I was already on my way to being a dangerous subversive. Feel free to talk to any of my middle-school teachers if you doubt me.

Each year, the older children, usually teenagers and college-aged, would be chosen to light the fireworks and create the display for the rest of the family.

I was Chosen in 1987, three weeks before my fifteenth birthday.

The younger cousins, with whom I'd sat for so many years, would now watch me the way we'd watched Tommy, Bobby, Richard and Crazy Cousin Bruce, who always brought highly illegal firecrackers up from Mexico.

I was going to be a man in the eyes of my family.

This particular 4th of July was also memorable because it was the first 4th that was celebrated post-Stand By Me and at the time I had become something of a mini-celebrity around the family. Uncles who had never talked to me before were asking me to sign autographs for people at work, older cousins who had bullied me for years were proclaiming me “cool,” and I was the recipient of a lot of unexpected attention.

I was initially excited to get all this newfound attention, because I'd always wanted to impress my dad's family and make my dad proud, but deep down I felt like it was all a sham. I was the same awkward kid I'd always been and they were treating me differently because of celebrity, which I had already realized was fleeting and bullshit.

Looking back on it now, I think the invitation to light fireworks may have had less to do with my age than it had to do with my growing fame . . . but I didn't care. Fame is fleeting . . . but it can get a guy some cool stuff from time to time, you know? I allowed myself to believe that it was just a coincidence.

The day passed as it always did. There were sack races, basket ball games and water balloon tosses, all of which I participated in, but with a certain impatience. These yearly events were always fun, to be sure, but they were standing directly between me and the glorious excitement of pyrotechnic bliss.

Finally, the sun began to set. Lawn chairs were arranged around the patio, wet swimsuits were traded for warm, dry clothes, and I bid my brother and sister farewell as I joined my fellow firework lighters near the corner of the house. I walked casually, like someone who had done this hundreds of times before.

As the sun sank lower and lower, sparklers were passed out to everyone, even the younger children. I politely declined, my mind absolutely focused on the coming display. I wanted to make a big impression on the family. I was going to start out with something amazing, which would really grab their attention. I'd start with some groundflowers, then a Piccolo Pete and a sparkling cone. From then on, I'd just improvise with the older cousins, following their lead as we worked together to weave a spectacular tapestry of burning phosphor and gunpowder for five generations of family.

Dusk arrived, the family was seated, and the great display began. Some of the veteran fireworks lighters went first, setting off some cascading fountains and a pinwheel. The assembled audience cheered and gasped its collective approval, and it was my turn.

I steeled myself and walked to the center of the large patio, casually kicking aside the still-hot remains of just-fired fountains. Casually, like someone who had done this hundreds of times before.

My hands trembled slightly, as I picked up three ground flowers that I'd wound together. My thumb struck flint and released flaming butane. I lit the fuse and became a man. The sparkling fire raced toward the ignition point and rather than following the directions to “LIGHT FUSE, PUT ON GROUND AND GET AWAY,” I did something incredibly stupid: I casually tossed the now-flaming bundle of pyrotechnics on the ground. Casually, like someone who'd done this hundreds of times before.

The bundle of flowers rolled quickly across the patio, toward my captive and appreciative audience.

Two of the flowers ignited and began their magical dance of colorful fire on the cement, while the third continued to roll, coming to rest in the grass beneath the chair of a particularly old and close-to-death great-great-great aunt.

The colored flame which was creating such a beautiful and harmless display on the patio was spraying directly at this particular matriarch, the jet of flame licking obscenely at the bottom of the chair.

The world was instantly reduced to a few sounds: My own heartbeat in my ears, the screams of the children seated near my great-great-great aunt and the unmistakable zip of the now-dying flowers on the patio.

I don't know what happened, but somehow my great-great-great aunt, who'd managed to survive every war of the 20th century, managed to also survive this great mistake of mine. She was helped to her feet and she laughed.

Unfortunately, she was the only one who was laughing. One of my dad's cousins, who was well into his 20s and never attended family gatherings accompanied by the same date, sternly ripped the lighter from my hand and ordered me back to the lawn, to sit with the other children. Maybe I could try again next year, when I was “more responsible and not such a careless idiot."

I was crushed. My moment in the family spotlight was over before it had even begun and not even the glow of pseudocelebrity could save me.

I carefully avoided eye contact, as I walked slowly, humiliated and embarrassed, back to the lawn, where I tried not to cry. I know the rest of the show unfolded before me, but I don't remember it. All I could see was a mental replay of the bundle of ground flowers rolling across the patio. If that one rogue firework hadn't split off from its brothers, I thought, I would still be up there for the finale, which always featured numerous pinwheels and a Chinese lantern.

When the show was over, I was too embarrassed to apologize and I raced away before the patio lights could come on. I spent the rest of the evening in the front yard, waiting to go home.

The following year I was firmly within the grip of sullen teenage angst and spent most of the festivities with my face planted firmly in a book -Foundation or something, most likely- and I watched the fireworks show with the calculated disinterest of a 15-year-old.

That teenage angst held me in its grasp for the next few years and I even skipped a year or two, opting to attend some parties where there were girls who I looked at, but never had the courage to talk to.

By the time I had achieved escape velocity from my petulant teenage years, Aunt Betty and Uncle Dick had sold the house and 4th of July would never happen with them again.

The irony is not lost on me, that I wanted so badly to show them all how grown up I was, only to behave more childishly than ever the following years.

This 4th of July, I sat on the roof of my friend Darin's house with Anne and the boys and watched fireworks from the high school. Nolan held my hand and Ryan leaned against me as we watched the Chamber of Commerce create magic in the sky over
La Crescenta.

I thought back to that day, 15 years ago and once again I saw the groundflower roll under that chair and try to ignite great-great-great aunt whatever her name was.

Then I looked down at Nolan's smiling face, illuminated in flashes of color.

"This is so cool, Wil!” he declared, “Thanks for bringing us to watch this."

"Just be glad you're on a roof and not in a lawn chair,” I told him.

"Why?"

"Well . . . ” I began to tell him the story, but we were distracted by a particularly spectacular aerial flower of light and sparks.

In that moment, I realized that no matter how hard I try, I will never get back that day in 1987, nor will I get to relive the sullen years afterward . . . but I do get to sit on the roof with my wife and her boys now and enjoy 4th of July as a step-dad . . . at least until the kids hit the sullen years themselves.

Then I'm going to sit them in lawn chairs and force them to watch me light groundflowers.

from the vault: meet me around back in five, buddy

All of my writing energy and creative motivation continues to pour into finishing Memories of the Future, and Mystery Project X, so I'm reaching into the vault for something fun today. This is many years old, so the style makes me cringe a lot, but the content makes me smile a lot more, so lower your expectations and enjoy a trip down memory lane…

meet me around back in five, buddy

Am I the only person who was crestfallen upon finding out that the voice of KITT was not, in fact, the voice of the car, but was, in truth, the voice of actor William Daniels?

(Fun fact: When I was on the board at SAG, Bill was president, and I frequently told Anne that I was "going into a meeting with KITT." She often replied, "in his office? Or did you talk into your watch and tell him to meet you around back in five?")

Back in the day, at Universal Studios, they had a KITT car on display for all the tourists to check out. You could sit in KITT, have your picture taken, and (this was the best part) ask KITT a question that would be answered by none other than KITT HIMSELF!

Most of the people would ask questions about the show, like "what did you do in episode [whatever]?", and all sorts of technical questions about the specifics of his design, like they wanted to stump KITT, or something. BAH! AS IF YOU COULD STUMP KITT. Stupid tourists.

Anyway, I once waited in line for a very long time to talk to KITT. I so badly wanted to get into the car, and say, "Hey, KITT, I was wondering, do you ever cut loose when the people go home? I mean, tell me the truth. You can kick the shit out of the A-Team Van, right? Do you ever just head on over to the backlot and do donuts, just because you can? You know, just to show off?"

It would have been awesome, and my fellow KITT pilgrims who were lucky enough to be around to hear it would have talked about it for decades as it slowly became legend … but I totally chickened out. When I sat in KITT's driver's seat, I panicked and lamely asked, "What's your top speed, KITT?"

The sad thing is, I can't even remember what the answer was.

I got it into my head a few months ago that I should watch some episodes of Knight Rider and CHiPs and A-Team. I guess part of me wanted to see if they held up, but a bigger part of me just wanted to remember what it was like to be ten years old and watching those shows on a giant 26 inch television set from the floor of our den in Sunland.

In their own way, I think they do hold up, but even if they hadn't, I think it would have been time well spent.

From the Vault: the safety dance

Last night, Nolan went through my iTunes library so he could put some of my awesome music on his iPod. He’s been after me for months to give him Radiohead, The Beatles, Tool, Decemberists, and a lot of my 80s stuff.

While he looked, the following exchange occurred:

Nolan: Why do you have The Safety Dance in your iTunes library? Me: So I can dance, if I want to. Duh. Nolan: You are so weird.

He ended up taking a little over 5 GB of my music, and I enacted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy about Men Without Hats. Shortly after he went to bed, I was washing dishes, and remembered this old blog post from 2003:

Anne and I were listening to Fred while we were driving home from Burbank the other day. That stupid “Safety Dance” song came on, and I said to her, “This is the weirdest song, ever.”

“Yeah, who thought this was a good idea?” she said.

“I mean, think about all the steps that went into this: someone wrote down all these words, then composed music, then produced the whole thing . . . and at every step of the way, they believed that this was a song worth releasing.” I said.

“Hey, Neil,” she said, in a really bad British accent, “Let’s make a song about the Safety Dance!”

“Oh, that’s brilliant!” I said, in my own bad accent, “We’ll have them all hoppin’ and dancin’ and –“

I started to giggle, and was unable to continue.

“You can dance! You can dance! Everybody look at your hands!” I sang, involuntarily.

CLAP! CLAP! went Anne’s hands.

“You can dance! You can dance! Everybody’s taking the chaaaaa-HAAAAA-nnnncccceeeeee . . . ” I continued.

“With the SAFETY DANCE!” We shouted out in unison.

“We are such dorks,” Anne said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

We sang the remainder of the song with extreme gusto.

I should also point out that when we got home, Ryan told us that he wants to buy “Thriller.”

I think there’s something in the water here.

2003 seems like an eternity ago. I guess in some ways, it was, wasn’t it?

from the vault: my awesome dog

When you break the world down into dog people and cat people, I guess I'm mostly a dog person, even though I've loved every cat I've ever owned.

Sometimes, though, my dog tests me, like in this entry from the vault…

When I was at CES [a few weeks ago] for InDigital, I got a phone call from Anne.

"I
just had to tell you how totally awesome your dog is." She said, in a
tone that indicated "my dog" (what Ferris is called whenever she does
something particularly irritating) was anything but awesome.

"Oh?" I said, "please tell me what my awesome dog did."

"Well,
I took some bacon out of the fridge for the kids, and put it on the
counter. Then the timer on the dryer went off, so I walked into the
laundry room –"

" — you mean the garage?"

Ha. I am so funny.

" . . . yes. The garage."

Oops. Pressed my luck a little bit, there. Shutting up, now.

"Anyway, when I got back into the kitchen, the bacon was gone, but your dog was licking her chops, awfully close to an empty bacon package on the floor."

". . . bitch!" I said.

"Uh.
Yeah. So you don't worry, I already called the vet, and it's nothing to
worry about. " She went on to tell me about her conversation with the
vet and why we shouldn't worry. We expressed our undying love for each
other, and I hung up the phone.

"Hey Hahn," I said, "want to hear how awesome my dog is?"

Fast
forward to yesterday morning. In my kitchen, on the counter, is a
jalapeño pepper in a plastic bag from the grocery store. I love
jalapeños, and I frequently slice and dice them into all sorts of
things. Like ice cream.

Anne woke me up at 7, holding the jalapeño in front of my face.

"Want to know how awesome your dog is?" She said.

"This couldn't wait until I woke up?" I said.

Grrr. Wil grumpy. Wil stay up too late playing poker. Wil sleep now.

"Your awesome dog grabbed this off the counter, and chewed the hell out of it."

"She didn't eat it, though, I see," I said.

"No, and I don't think she'll be jumping up on the counter any time soon."

At that moment, Ferris walked into the room, with the very adorable were you talking about me? look on her face.

"You know what she's saying right now?" I said. "'Mom, dad, I don't want to alarm you . . . but there's something really wrong with the bacon.'"

Ferris had a small tumor cut off her hip about six weeks ago. It wasn't a big deal, but it had the potential to turn into a big deal, so we had it removed. The surgery went perfectly, the surgeon's margins were completely clean, and now she's on some medication for a couple of months to make sure that whatever caused the tumor to appear goes off to the Land of Wind and Ghosts, and stays there.

The thing is, the medication she's on makes her extra antsy, extra thirsty, and extra hungry. For the last six weeks, she's been getting into everything, taking things off the counters in ways that I've always thought required at least one opposable thumb, digging holes everywhere, bringing all kinds of random junk into the house from outside, and generally being a huge pain in the ass.

It's not her fault, and we know she isn't trying to be disobedient, but we've had to dog-proof the house the same way we once child-proofed it, and it's worked out pretty well.

Um, until about an hour ago, when I walked into my living room and saw this:

Ferris_is_a_bozo
Yes, that would be the trashcan from my bedroom, caught on my dog's collar. This would also be a copy of the crappy cameraphone picture I snapped and sent to my wife with the caption, "Your awesome dog."

from the vault: the autumn moon lights my way

I reached into the vault and pulled this entry out today because a reader recently commented that it was one of her favorites, and what do you know, it's one of mine, too.

When I wrote this, Ryan and Nolan were barely 16 and 14, in the middle of what Anne and I called "The Pod Person Phenomenon" where our sweet, wonderful little children were taken in the night and replaced by Pod People who suddenly thought we were so lame and wanted to argue about everything, regardless of how insignificant it actually was.

The Pod People eventually departed as rapidly and unexpectedly as they arrived, but the moment I captured in this blog was a joyful island in the middle of a stormy sea of exasperated sighs and rolling eyes:

the autumn moon lights my way

I heard Led Zeppelin coming out of Ryan's room, so I put down my Sudoku book (yeah, I've been hooked for about a month), walked down the hall, and knocked on his door.

"Come in," he said.

I opened, and entered his sanctuary: astronomy posters hung from his walls, and a stack of books (Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, Macbeth, Divine Comedy and a host of other books that your average AP English student with a 4.0 in the class reads*) sat on his desk. A pile of (clean? dirty?) clothes lay in a heap at the foot of his bed. He sat at his desk, looking at The Internets.

He turned around in his chair. "What's up?" He said.

"Oh, I just heard you listening to Zeppelin II, and I didn't want to miss a chance to share in something we both love, that I happened to introduce to you in the pre-Pod days," I thought.

"I . . . just wondered what you were doing." I said.

He got very excited. "Oh! I found this awesome Family Guy Website, and I was downloading audio clips from it, and putting them on my computer." He clicked a few times, and showed me the website.

"When I was your age, I did the same thing, with The Prisoner and Star Trek," I said, "on my Mac II."

He frowned. "Weren't you on Star Trek?"

"Yeah," I said, "but the sounds were from the original series."

He looked back at me.

"So it was geeky, but it wasn't totally lame," I said. Why did I feel like I our ages and roles were reversed?

"What's The Prisoner?" He said.

"A show that I love, that I don't think you're geeky enough to enjoy."

He clicked his mouse, and iTunes fell silent.

"Wil," he said, "you didn't think I'd like Firefly."

"Touche," I said with a smile. "Any time you want to watch The Prisoner, I am so there."

Actually, any time you want to do anything, I am so there, because I don't want to be a stranger to you for the next five years, and I'll close the gap any way I can.

"Okay," he said. "Maybe after school some day next week."

"When –"

"When my homework's done," he said. "I know, Wil."

He wasn't snotty. He wasn't rude. He wasn't impatient or unpleasant. He just . . . was. I saw a lot of myself in him.

"I need to work my a–" he began, "I need to work very hard this semester."

I nodded my head. "I'm glad you know that, Ryan."

He turned back around to his computer. I stood in his doorway and looked at him for a minute.

He may not have my DNA, but I've given him some of the things that matter in life.

"Ryan?"

He didn't turn around. "Hmm?"

"I love you."

"I love you too, Wil."

"Ramble On, And now's the time, the time is now, to sing my song.
I'm goin' 'round the world, I got to find my girl, on my way.
I've been this way ten years to the day, Ramble On,
Gotta find the queen of all my dreams."

*Yeah, I'm proud of him. Sue me.

We ended up watching a whole lot of The Prisoner together before he went off to college, and we watched a lot of Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits, too. I meet grown-up kids and their parents all the time these days who tell me that watching Star Trek together was important to them, and after watching these shows with my own kids, I totally understand what they're talking about.

Ryan is in his sophomore year right now. Every day, it seems, he sends me a text message or an e-mail, or calls me and his mom to tell us what's going on at school, or just to tell us he loves us. While I do miss him, I can't be too sad, because my whole goal as his parent was to raise a smart, capable, independent, successful and responsible person.

Every day, it seems, he affirms for me in some way that we were successful.

from the vault: fifty-one seconds in the kitchen

I needed to double-check a date for the final Podcasts I Love post on Saturday, so I found myself in my old blog archives yesterday afternoon. An hour later, I was surprised to discover that I had been reading my own blog for an hour. It was like I was reading something someone else had written, and I really enjoyed the stories from that particular time.

I'm not sure where you're all coming from, but there are an astonishingly huge number of recent new visitors to my little hunk of Internet, and I thought I'd share something from the vault that you probably haven't seen before:

fifty-one seconds in the kitchen

I stood in front of the open refrigerator, and scanned the shelves. Anne spoke to me from the dining room.

"What are you doing?" She said.

"I'm thinking about having a Homer Simpson," I said.

"Donuts and a beer?" She said.

I stood up, a pink box in one hand, an Arrogant Bastard Ale in the other.

"Yeah," I said. "Isn't that horrible?"

"What's horrible," she said, "is that I knew what you were talking about without looking."

I opened up the box. A glazed donut clung to one side, and a devil's food with rainbow jimmies rested next to it. The crumbs and remains of their brothers surrounded them.

"You want to join me?" I said. "There are two donuts left."

"No. That's disgusting." She said. "I think I'll have a Flaming Moe instead."

"Okay," I said, "I'll get the cough syrup."

I love this silly little short story because it tells you almost everything you need to know about me and Anne, and what we're like together. Though the idea of eating a donut totally grosses me out now, if I close my eyes, I can see myself standing in our kitchen, in front of our old refrigerator, holding that flimsy pink box so many years ago.

I'm my own worst critic, and when I look at my acting and writing work, it's hard for me to see anything other than the flaws. But there's enough distance between me and these old entries to just let them exist on their own, and accept that they were the best I could do at the time.

I liked some of the things I read yesterday so much, I'm considering polishing them up and re-releasing them in some nifty way with a bit of context and commentary. Whether that's on my blog, on a podcast, in a book, or some combination of all three is yet to be determined, but I'm putting it on my short list of Crazy Ideas That May Be Awesome, Or Just Crazy.