I shook Leon Redbone’s hand once.

If you have no inkling who Leon Redbone might be, you have missed out, at least in my mind. His career yielded an array of talents ranging from expert musician to acting in movies and TV. I regard him as cult-worthy because he truly was one of a kind. And even if he wasn’t cultish in the normal sense, he was certainly cool enough to be cultish.

Bob Dylan became a huge fan when he and Leon met at a music festival in 1972.

If memory serves, Leon was featured as a musical guest on the very first Saturday Night Live.

I saw Leon some years back when he stopped to do a concert in Charlottesville at a small venue called The Gravity Lounge.

The Gravity Lounge seated maybe 200 people if you packed it out. The club went broke because they spent more on bringing in artists than could be made up for at the door. The rumor is there were other financial issues as well, but for $15 or $20, you could see people like Janis Ian and Dr. John. Peter Tork. Steve Forbert. And Leon Redbone. Intimate setting. And if you were looking for a moment with the artist you came to see, you could get one. Laid back. There was no other place like it in town.

Mr. Redbone’s shows were in a class all their own. He preferred to play old songs that predated rock by decades. He loved history, doing his part to keep songs of old alive. He showed up with an acoustic guitar and a stool or a chair, which he sat erect on, decked out in his iconic Panama hat, black string tie, and dark sunglasses which he never took off. According to all who knew him, he never broke character.

They say he didn’t use a set list – different every night. He talked between songs, often disarming his audience with humorous asides. He wasn’t just an artist, he was a unique personality.

Leon was an enigma, even to his decades-long manager who once said that as long as he’d been friends with Leon, he never knew where he lived. If his manager was dropping him near his home, Leon would ask to be let out of the car blocks before the final destination where it was said Leon would head down the street and disappear into the darkness.

Of all the Christmas albums I own, Mr. Redbone’s Christmas Island is a favorite. I play it every year – his version of Frosty the Snowman is a standout for me.

One of the people who accompanied me to see Leon secretly taped most of his concert and gave me a CD transfer later as a gift. I still play it once in a while when I’m writing.

Instead of reading up on Mr. Redbone prior to the concert, I went in knowing his music, but little else. But if I’d done some internet research beforehand, I would have seen more than one mention that he didn’t like to shake audience member hands. There are videos where he doesn’t take the shake when it’s offered. Maybe he was worried about some over-enthusiastic fan crushing his knuckles and/or maybe he was worried about catching something.

After the concert, which I had the privilege of seeing from front-row center, a mere 6 feet away, he remained on the 2-foot high stage momentarily and I took the opportunity to hop up and I stuck out my hand. He did hesitate, almost imperceptibly, but he shook my hand cordially.

After reading about his apparent distaste for the handshake, I was mortified to have been some goof that broke protocol. But at the same time, maybe he looked in my eyes and could tell I was too stupid to hurt anybody. Maybe he felt sorry for me.

Leon Redbone died in May of 2019 at the age of 69. Complications from dementia.

So I shook an enigma’s hand I can never shake again. But I can replay it in my head every time I listen to his music.

As I write this, we are deep in the waves of Covid-19, so even if Leon was still alive, and assuming I got into a room with him again, no one would be able to shake hands anyway. I’m glad I got my “illegal” handshake when I did.

There are lots of hands I can’t shake because of the virus.

That includes all the hands I used to shake at the annual Virginia Film Festival. The VFF this past fall was hobbled by the human interaction restrictions in force. They sponsored online presentations and they held drive-in screenings outside where everyone had to stay in their cars. Our beloved festival folks gave it the old college try and did the best they could.

Aside from shaking the hands of festival guests, fellow filmmakers, and fellow movie lovers, one of my yearly contributions to the VFF effort has been baking dozens of our specialty secret-recipe cookies for delivery directly to the film offices during their opening week. The cookies are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself. People at the festival office would light up when either Judy or I dropped the shipments. We’ve been doing it for well over 10 years – perhaps 15.

I’ve been approached more than once about attempting to market them, but I succumbed to laziness and never pursued. I guess I’m just an idea guy sometimes, short on the execution part of the stick.

I only made the cookies twice a year. One batch was earmarked exclusively for the film festival folks and the second batch, baked a few weeks after the VFF, was divided between my family and our local post office.

The “Bari 13” cookie recipe was developed over a 2-year period while we were living in Virginia Beach at the turn of this century. On many weekends, I experimented with ingredient portions and combinations until there came the Saturday where everyone in the family took a bite from a fresh batch and nodded yes simultaneously to what turned out to be a perfect blend of dried fruits and candy morsels. They are called the Bari 13 because in addition to the basic cookie recipe involving sugars, flour, baking soda, etc., there are 13 supplemental ingredients. The object was to have no 2 bites exactly alike and to have every one of those distinctive bites taste delicious. If the VFF and the Post Office and my family all agree, they must really be that tasty.

The physical act of making the cookies is arduous in the mixing phase. I have to put some muscle into the final hand-mix because the batter is extraordinarily thick. I don’t have a high-powered mixer that’s strong enough to push the stuff around in the big bowls, so my skinny little arms have to work the cement-mixing show.

I’ve played around, and due to the flow of heat I need surrounding each dozen I bake, I only get perfect results when I cook one dozen every 16 minutes. I always mix up a double batch which yields about 9 or 10 dozen cookies. I’ll let you do the math about how long it takes to produce these puppies a dozen at a time. Needless to say, between putting the mix together and doing the baking, I’m carving out a significant part of the day I choose to stay in the kitchen.

Clearly, this is a labor of love for me. I have never minded the labor. Except the one year when I was taking a batch out of the stove and accidentally touched the top edge of the 350-degree oven opening against my right bicep. This had never happened to me before. It was a balance thing. Like a dope, I hadn’t pushed the oven door all the way down when I opened it and as I went to pull the cookie tray out, the oven door started to spring shut and I knee-jerked the wrong way. Just by a hair. Just for a brief moment.

That’s all it takes.

If you’ve never had a third degree burn, it’s an experience. Some nerve endings are fried to the point of no feeling, but it mostly hurts. A lot. No doubt. And while my exposure was incredibly brief, the damage was done – I was branded. Literally. About a 2-inch horizontal burn, close to a half-inch wide. Eventually after puffing up, the skin layers split – it was a true third degree score.

I did not go to the doctor because…well, because I’m a man’s man, that’s why.

I burned myself on a Sunday and the fest started on Thursday proper. By the time we got to opening night, Dougie was going through mad stings. We usually have aloe plants in the house. Good thing. For a week (including while I was attending VFF events), I split gel-filled leaves, laid them flat on my wound and gauzed up to keep everything in place. Nobody could see I was burned because I had a sports jacket on when I attended screenings. The aloe did a terrific job of attempting repairs. Still, I would be lying to you if I said there weren’t some moments where extreme discomfort would raise its ugly head.

When I think about that film festival in particular, I don’t remember it as the time I got burned, I remember it for the handshakes. It was the weekend where I got to meet and talk with Richard Roundtree. And he shook my hand. You say this cat Shaft is a bad mother? I don’t know about that, but he was cool as hell. And he had a nice handshake.

That was opening night.

2 nights later, I shook someone else’s hand. Not one I was planning to shake, it just happened out of the blue, as many surprises at the festival play out.

The film was 5 to 7 and from the moment I saw it, it became one of my favorite movies. Even though I can stream it, I choose to own the DVD. It is a quiet film – no car chases or explosions. Two of the producers, Julie Lynn and Bonnie Curtis, came to introduce the movie and they gave a nice Q&A after the end credits rolled. Two of the stars in supporting roles are Glenn Close and Frank Langella. Frank was in attendance as well, and he was part of the Q&A panel. And yes, I got to shake his hand after the panel discussion, but for me, that didn’t compare to what happened between the end of the movie and the beginning of the Q&A.

As with all festival presentations that come with guests who are willing to sit and answer questions, there is a roughly 5 – 10 minute wait while chairs and microphones are set up on the theater stage for the Q&A panel. Audience members don’t all stay for Q&As. Some have other screenings to get to or they might not be interested in a Q&A at all. Some patrons leave the theater temporarily to go use a restroom and then they return in time for the panel.

Well, that particular night, there was someone in the audience who I had no idea was sitting with the crowd. It was Julian Bond.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, my mother liked to read Reader’s Digest, a half-size, half-inch thick magazine that featured articles about all kinds of topics. At the time, I’d discovered Sean Connery as James Bond in Thunderball. I, and all my friends, wanted the life of a secret agent. One winter weekend, stuck inside, I spotted an RD with an article about civil rights icon Julian Bond. My kid-eyes read Julian Bond and corrected it to James Bond. I couldn’t believe it! I was dying to read the article. So imagine my disappointment when I turned to the page number listed on the front of the Digest only to find an article about some black guy who wasn’t Sean Connery.

But since I was there.

That gray afternoon, I read about Julian Bond. Going over his accomplishments in the article, I wasn’t old enough to get the full import of what this guy had brought to the world stage. But over ensuing years, I read more things about him and his herculean efforts to make this planet a better place. Over the years as I matured, I came to admire the real Mr. Bond.

Prior to the screening, I had no idea he and his wife were playing themselves in a dinner scene in 5 to 7. I also had no idea he was in the audience until he and his wife Pamela were asked to stand after the movie finished.

The screening had ended. The Q&A was being set up. People got up to either leave or go to the restroom. I sat on an aisle seat in the luxurious Paramount theater watching folks mill around. And then I’ll be damned. Julian Bond came out of his row to walk up the aisle to use the restroom.

I didn’t stand. I stayed in my seat. Crowd members were shuffling forward in a slow crush and Mr. Bond ended up angling around someone, which steered him to walk beside me – not more than a foot away.

As he passed, I looked up at him, we made eye contact, and I said, “You and your wife looked great in the movie.”

I let it go at that. He didn’t. He took a step past me, stopped, and doubled back. He towered over me and offered his hand. And while we sealed the moment with a handshake, he said, “I really appreciate that. Thank you so much.”

He had an aura of warmth about him. He radiated kindness.

He died about a year later. Can’t shake that hand again. Ever.

When the film festival announced their program in the fall of 2020, I did not support them. It pains me to have to type those words. It pained me so much that the first time I wrote that last sentence, I backed up and erased it. Then I put it back. Since we moved here in late 2003, Judy and I have had 6 of our films invited to screen in the festival. The love shown to us by the festival staff and audiences alike is forever seared into our hearts. And yet, I ignored our friends who had always been so supportive. I didn’t even bake cookies for them. Part of me reasoned I shouldn’t attempt physical contact with the film folks because a) they might not even be in their offices, and b) I didn’t want to expose myself, especially right in the middle of the second deadly wave of the virus.

But did I call to check on them? No. I’d gotten to a place where I didn’t care.

I didn’t bake cookies for anybody.

You see, I got lost in 2020. Mainly, just lost to myself, but there were ripples.

During the early months of 2020, I was in gear, if you will.

I was finishing a first draft of a Christmas novel.

I was working on a horror script I wanted to film that May.

I was putting pen to paper on a variety of essays to post on my website.

In March, Covid19 was gaining traction. Not only in the spread, but also in the restrictions we needed to adapt to.

Places closed. Stores. Restaurants. Concert venues. Movie theaters. Places we liked to frequent shut their doors almost overnight.

Judy and I are both high risk due to the age factor, so we decided to stay aloof from the world. It’s a good thing we like each other.

I am considered mission essential at work which turned out to be a double-edged sword. On the plus side, we still had income. Food. Utilities. A house to live in. The downside was how work changed overnight. I am situated in a big building, made to seem even more cavernous when there are no users and you’re stuck watching computer wheels spin. When there are no other people present, the only sound is the air handling system constantly blowing above my head.

I went to work many days and wouldn’t come across a soul in the hallways. It wasn’t spooky per se, but a less-hinged person than my unhinged self might get the creeps occasionally. Not having people around is simply odd, like an old Twilight Zone episode where you discover everyone’s disappeared from the town.

Being home was better than being at work, but we were isolated at home, not venturing out. Not wanting to risk unnecessary exposure.

We stopped seeing medical professionals.

We minimized who went to the store and when. Our trips were infrequent.

I offered up a half-assed first draft of my Christmas novel to 3 of my writer friends. One was overwhelmed with other life events and didn’t have time. I understood. One had me send him the draft and then he ignored me. I had that coming. The third one was game, but it was a tough slog for her in places. Nevertheless, she persevered and went to a lot of trouble to outline where she thought things could be improved.

Over 20 years ago, when I was trying to get someone to look at an early feature of ours, I was cornered by a co-worker who admonished me. “You want to know why you’re not selling your movie? Because you’re not working hard enough,” he chided.

I was mad after he said that to me. Stewing. What did he know? But he was right. And I had to come to grips with that. Every waking moment I wasn’t trying to sell or improve my product was wasted. That is, if your goal is to be successful.

Everyone I gave the Santa book to knew when they read it that I wasn’t bringing my A game. Sure, there were snippets of goodness here and there, but for the most part, I’d delivered a bunch of demos that should have been polished into masters before asking folks to burn up their valuable time and take a read.

Mea culpa on the novel. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t worked hard enough and that I’d wasted the time of others.

I stopped work on the book. Not because it didn’t need the work, but rather because I needed to step away from my manuscript. Stephen King’s advice on a first draft is to put it in a drawer. Then open the drawer once a week and don’t rewrite until the week you open the drawer and the pages look foreign to you. That’s when you’ll know you have enough distance to approach a rewrite with newly opened and refreshed eyes. I’ve used this trick a fair amount of times and it works. Believe me, when you have attained proper distance, the mistakes on the pages are not just glaringly obvious, they practically reach up and gouge a Three Stooges poke to the eyes.

I have a lot of moments where I look at something I’ve worked on and ask myself, “What were you thinking?”

Around the end of April, I was still trying to work some magic on a horror script I wanted to film the following month. I could see the train coming. No one was going to be getting together on a movie set in the middle of spring 2020. So I abandoned the work midstream. Truth be told, I was okay with that decision. I’d been struggling with the script for over a year and I still hated most of it. The story was taking me down dark paths of thought and I think I may have worn that on my sleeve a bit from time to time. Anyone who tells you the horror genre is easy is a liar. Writing good horror is a skill. I took the easy way out and ceased my efforts.

Before I became totally disenchanted with filmmaking, I authored a short about Judy being addicted to Goldfish crackers. For months, our granddaughter who lives local would ask for them when she visited. She couldn’t get enough of them. At one point, I made a trip to the supermarket to buy her some and was stunned by the variety of Goldfish flavors. Seeing a wall of Goldfish packages gave me the idea for a comedic little movie about being addicted to them. Plus it was something I wrote so that Judy and I could film it alone in our house. Perfect. I hashed out a script that was 6 pages long which would yield a 6-minute movie. I liked it, I thought it was funny. I decided to cut it by half, or film all of it and then edit it in half. I wanted something about 2 – 3 minutes long so there wouldn’t be any drag on the humor.
Judy and I could have filmed this in a weekend. Maybe in a day. It would have taken me another day (or two at the most) to edit it together. Nope. Gave up. Didn’t care.

As I sunk deeper into the quicksand of malaise, it affected me mentally and physically. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I didn’t want to do anything. Nothing. No interest. I stopped writing completely and on the days I had to work, it was everything I could muster to put one foot in front of the other. I’d devolved to going through the motions of going through the motions.

I don’t sleep much anyway. I was sleeping less, wasting gobs of time watching home entertainment. It was not uncommon for me to watch 3 or 4 movies in a row, and by the time I finished the last one, I couldn’t remember even the titles of what I’d watched. Plots ran together.

Judy and I both became addicted to Below Deck – a reality series about working on the crew of a luxury yacht. It’s got everything Neanderthals want: Good looking boys and girls, gourmet food, scenery, and of course, all the drama that goes with having to cater to high-paying guests who often make the crew feel less-than. For us, it’s one of those things we can come in on anywhere and pick up – sort of like watching the Godfather movies.

Judy watched a show called Outlander back when it first came out pre-COVID and she tried to get me to watch it with her then. For some reason, I didn’t accept the invite. Then. But during the lockdown, we binge-watched. The show is very popular with women and it’s easy to see why. Years ago, I read a couple of romance novels, trying to get a handle on what made them popular. The whole premise of Outlander is romance novels on steroids. Lordy. Apparently, romance novel themes have advanced greatly since I first read them. If you like a healthy dose of violence and sex and a leading man that acts like women wish all men would behave, this might be your cup of tea.

Our big step-out into public was our 35th anniversary on June 13th. This was right around the time restaurants were allowed to open at an extremely restricted level after being shut down since March. We have a friend who is part owner of Charlottesville’s Oakhart Social. Charlottesville has always boasted a huge dining scene. It is a food mecca. Competition is fierce in a good way. It would be difficult to select one, but the Oakhart Social establishment stands out as one of the finest.

It was an odd experience. All orders had to be called in and paid for ahead of time. Outside dining only, seated at tables spaced over 6 feet apart, unless you only stopped by to pick something up and take it home. Masks on unless you were eating. Plates and silverware were replaced with cardboard containers and plastic utensils. Everything had to be disposable including the container our cocktails came in. No communing with other patrons.

Halfway through our entrée, it started to rain. We were under a big umbrella, but the wind picked up and we were getting pelted from the side. We laughed, closed up our cardboard containers, and drove home.

On my commutes to work, instead of blasting music, I often drove in silence. Not because I was meditating, but because I had tuned out. I wasn’t thinking about much of anything during my auto-pilot treks. As John Lennon wailed in Yer Blues: Even hate my rock and roll.

I spontaneously wept. It could be a certain song. An image that struck me in a way it hadn’t before. Sometimes I just got sad about getting old, not being able to do the physical things I used to be able to do. We had dinner with an older friend a couple of years ago and she lamented that this getting old thing is a cruel trick. Indeed. Indeed it is.

One of the best films I stumbled on during my middle-of-the-night screenings was The Last Movie Star starring Burt Reynolds. It came out in 2017 about a year before he died. In the story, Burt is frail, both physically and spiritually. He plays a famous actor (himself really) at the end of the line. His performance is probably the best thing he’s ever done. Through the magic of special effects, there are several scenes where old Burt is inserted into scenes from his famous movies. And in those scenes he gets to talk to himself as a young man. Visually and story-wise, I thought that was a neat trick. As I watched him be his compromised self and play it so daringly raw, I was just taken in. I could feel the guy. Maybe I was in a vulnerable place, but I thought if I was him, I would have been good with going out after playing that role.

One morning I had Avril Lavigne cranked up in the car and even though I’d heard the song many times before, on that day, it hit closer to home.

Everything’s changing
When I turn around
All out of my control
I’m a mobile

In the official lyrics, she definitely compares herself to a mobile, spinning around, but in my head, what I heard was “I’m immobile” – as in not moving. Motionless. Stuck. Which was a better fit for my personal situation.

At work, it was a ghost town for probably 6 months. I would come in some mornings and find areas taped off with yellow and black “crime scene” tape. Because of privacy rules, I was never told who had come down with Covid19 – I just hoped I hadn’t recently touched their computer equipment. Accomplishing tasks that used to take less than a day suddenly took weeks due to not having needed players to coordinate with.

Eating became a chore. I would either eat too much or not at all. It was not unusual to take a single bite from my plate and not be hungry.

I read some books, most notably Cloud Atlas. I’d seen the movie with Tom Hanks one night on HBO or Showtime or whatever the hell I was watching. I liked the movie, but I wasn’t sure why. For me, it was confusing like Inception which I saw in theaters twice, then bought the DVD to add to my home library. I’ve seen Inception probably 8 or 9 times, and with each viewing, I wonder why I continue to not understand what’s going on. With Cloud Atlas, I was intrigued enough to want to read the book because I’d heard a lot about it.

That was a difficult read for me. Okay, I’ll go further. I found myself drowning in incoherence – for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was going on half the time and it made me feel a little stupid. How come I didn’t get it? After I read the book, and like I said, it was a slog for Dougie, I went back to watch the movie again. Like Inception, I still was always an inch away from not knowing what the hell was going on. I looked up reviews about Cloud Atlas. Clearly, I had missed something. Upon my second viewing of Tom Hanks in the movie version, I became even more unsure about what was going on. But at least with the movie, it touched me deeply on an emotional level at the end and I can’t even tell you why. Maybe that’s the definition of good art – it can affect you on a visceral level without you completely getting it.

Or maybe that was just the atmosphere of 2020 – that everything seemed a little untouchable, but there was underlying emotion churning underneath.

One night, I was streaming YouTube videos. Like all the streaming services that keep tabs on what you’re consuming, YouTube lets you surf for a while and then begins offering viewing suggestions based on your appetite. Up came a nominee for my consumption that intrigued and troubled me simultaneously. It was about hazmat teams that go and clean up death scenes, either violent or natural causes.

I clicked on it.

A homeless man had shut himself into a temporary storage unit and died. By the time his bodily aromas brought reinforcements, he’d been dead a week. In a closed compartment with no A/C. Down south. You get the picture. The video didn’t show the body. The police had already retrieved his carcass and referred to the homeless man as a “popper” – a body so bloated and decayed that when they pick it up, it explodes. Basically.

In the video, 2 guys wearing protective gear go in saying they can smell the rot from the front entrance of the facility. When they get into the actual unit, the stench is sometimes more than they can handle. One of the team members commented that the odor permeates their garments and they go home to their families smelling like decomposed flesh. The work itself is nothing short of nasty. I mean, who would want this job?

I was staring at the TV, shaking my head, when an answer to my question appeared on the bottom portion of the screen. It was an ad giving me the number to call if I wanted to work on one of these teams.

What? Really? I know these kinds of employment exist, but I’d never seen an advertisement telling me how to sign up. And check this. You know what they pay you for cleaning up poppers? $18 an hour. Wow. Well, that little tidbit squelched any thought I had in the way of cleaning up cadaver leaks. No. If you want me to clean up a popper, you gotta pay me more than that. $19. C’mon, throw me a bone.

The video was about 20 minutes long. The job offer showed its face at the halfway point, so by the time I got near the end, I’d already answered the job ad, gone to the interview, been given an offer, and passed. I was pretty proud of my good taste, refusing to take the bait of seriously considering body cleanup as a new career. But then at the very end, another offer presented itself.

How about a franchise?

I didn’t dismiss that notion right away. Later on, the fact that I’d entertained a franchise – even for a couple of minutes – distressed me. And I was already distressed.

The lead up to the presidential election and the aftermath was sickening on so many levels. That didn’t help me in the de-escalation department. I remember when Fran Lebowitz was asked what she thought of Americans electing Obama as the first black president. Fran didn’t dislike Obama, but part of her response was: “I’m glad we got it over with.” That’s exactly how I felt about 2020’s politics.

Despite all the bad mojo 2020 brought, there were good things that came from the lockdowns.

Our bubble during the shutdown was mainly Judy and myself, coupled once a week for Sunday dinner with our son Ivan, his wife Jenn, and our granddaughter who turned 4. Because of Jenn’s job, she was tested for Covid weekly, so she was our canary in the coalmine.

A month or 2 into the shutdown, we were asked if we could take our granddaughter for an overnight once a week to relieve some of the stress off her parents who were trying to do telework while watching their kid who no longer had a daycare to go to.

The nights we had her, she ran us ragged. Talk about energy and a mind that pings from subject to subject like a pinball machine. However, our routine became something she looked forward to. We ate, played, gave her a bath, and always settled in with a big bowl of popcorn to watch Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig, Octonauts. She was pretty good about turning in at bedtime. On occasion, she’d yawn and tell us it was time for her to go to bed. We’d watch her brush her teeth and tuck her in with her favorite stuffed animal(s) of the moment.

The time with her is fleeting, and we know it, so we tended to enjoy all of those visits.

Our granddaughter’s into toys. And she has tons of ‘em. But I’ll give her this: She’s not the kind of kid that gets a new toy, plays with it for a while, and then abandons it. Oh, no. She plays with her toys. And all of her fantasy worlds co-mingle with ease. She has discovered the boxes of toys we saved from Ivan’s childhood, so in her mind, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles going out on missions with Paw Patrol dogs is totally acceptable.

When I was a kid, toys were primitive compared to what they are now. I’ve seen a lot of toys in my time, but I was totally unprepared for the Gotta Go Flamingo. If you are unfamiliar with this ground-breaking idea, it is an interactive plush toy flamingo that eats, sings, wiggles, and poops on a toilet.

Yeah, you heard me right. I didn’t believe it either until I saw it with my own eyes. Oh, and listened to it as well. You see, not only does it sing as it writhes around on the pot, if you talk to it, the flamingo echos back what you said, albeit in a slightly higher register than your own.

The “food” is a material used in road-building that goes down the bird’s throat as a powder. After the flamingo does its singing and wiggling bit, a solid “poop” comes out the bird’s butt, plopping into the tiny water-filled toilet it sits on. Then you take the solid poop and dry it out so it’s like sand again – fresh for reuse.

When I saw this in person, I must admit I was taken aback. One, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and two, I wished I’d invented it. If you go out on Amazon and read the reviews, there are hundreds of satisfied parents who entered comments like “It’s everything we hoped it would be!” Really? Do kids really want a bird that dumps? Apparently they do. See, I thought nobody in their right mind would buy that thing, says the guy who didn’t invent the pet rock because he wasn’t thinking outside of the box enough.

So there were good things in the midst of all the downers.

Right smack dab in the middle of my months long lost weekend, someone reached out to me. I got a message on Facebook from a woman named April. At first, I wasn’t sure how I knew this person. It had been 25 years since I’d seen or heard from her. She mentioned her husband Roosevelt and then it clicked for me.

Back in the mid-1990s, I wrote a play about violence in America called Beyond Mercy. The spine of the play is the narrator. I’d seen Roosevelt’s acting chops in a stage show and I knew he was the only one I wanted for the part of the narrator. He didn’t agree. He wasn’t sure he was right for the part. I knew he’d be brilliant and as it turned out, he was. He was the soul of that production.

Unbeknownst to me, Roosevelt died at the age of 50 in 2014. In a small way, that broke my heart. He was such a wonderful individual.

April had been going through his things and came across the script with my name on the cover. She looked me up on Facebook and wrote a message asking if I was the same Doug Bari that had directed her husband in the play, and if I was, she wanted to know if I still had the video of the show I’d given every cast member a copy of. She couldn’t find his VHS copy and wanted his grown sons to see him acting since they weren’t even born when we did the show.

I knew I had the original VHS masters stashed away, un-cataloged, but to tell you the truth, April was catching me at the wrong moment. I didn’t have the time or the inclination for this little interruption. I had too many irons in the fire. I wanted to say no. But I didn’t. I hesitated. I didn’t reply for a couple of weeks.

April’s request bugged me. I’d been living a vampire existence at night, wallowing in endless YouTube Karen outbursts and Netflix movies and series. I had real things to do, April.

April had, in fact, caught me at a bad time. But not because I was too busy. One of those nights when I was lounging on the couch watching a man try to eat a 12-pound burger in an hour or less, I had to pause for some self-examination. The bottom line was I had reduced myself to nothing. I had irons, but they weren’t in any fire. My irons were sitting around stone-cold, waiting for me to wake up.

I saw an interview on YouTube with Elton John where he discussed being invited to play years ago for Rush Limbaugh’s wedding. Elton’s partner David didn’t think Elton would do it, based on homophobic slurs Rush had bull-horned through the airwaves over the years. Instead of pissing on the invite, Elton decided to go and perform. His reasoning was maybe he could use the opportunity to build a bridge. And to everyone’s surprise, that’s exactly what happened.

I wasn’t ready to build a bridge for April. I realized the problem was pretty basic. I needed to build a bridge to me first.

It was sometime in early December when I got my act together. I had to find the tapes – there were 2. I found one of them almost immediately, but finding its companion tape took a little more detective work. Then I had to hook up old equipment to transfer from VHS to digital tapes and then load the digital files to my Mac. Using my editing software, I cleaned up what I could and then burned to DVDs.

The spirits did not get that all done in one night. It took a while, and what was funny, until about halfway through, I still wasn’t committed. I was doing it not because it was the right thing to do, but rather because I was aware I should be doing the right thing whether I was inclined to or not. But then something happened. I took a breath and was able to appreciate the import of what we’d created. Here was an original play I’d written a quarter of a century earlier. And here were these actors performing my words, putting meat on the bones of my script. And they were good at it. Admirable. I marveled at the production. We were brave. The material was edgy. At times, it was so edgy, I wondered if I’d ever been that sharp since. I found something in those scenes unfolding in front of me. Pride. A sense of accomplishment. And Roosevelt’s performance? It came across beautifully. The request from out of the blue, that initially irritated the hell out of my disconnected self, morphed into a true labor of love.

When I mailed April the disks, I wrote her a note about revisiting the play after such a long period of not seeing it. I still had an old program and flyer in my file cabinet that I included in the package. I thanked her for “interrupting” me. Sometimes Doug just needs a swift kick in the ass.

By Christmas, I found myself not completely surfaced, but I could see the light as I swam toward the surface.

There are always “in memoriam” videos at the end of any given year.

A lot of people passed in 2020. Lots of people got to shake their hands over the years, but not me. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Alex Trebek. And that 007 guy I thought I was going to read about in Reader’s Digest. They even took Dawn Wells.

At the time of this writing, there are hundreds of thousands who have passed from the coronavirus. Most of them wanted to have their loved ones around, but they couldn’t. No contact allowed. No shaking hands. No hugs. No final goodbyes except through an ipad.

Millions of tears have been shed away from the spotlight.

Since 2021 took hold, it’s been a mixed bag.

I have an old friend who lived and breathed coffee. He almost died from meningitis a while back and after spending weeks and weeks in the ICU, he came out the other end disliking the taste of coffee. I was only dying mentally and emotionally – yet I ended up losing my taste for bacon. Yeah, I know. Odd for a guy who used to drool over the prospect of a bacon cheeseburger. Now I have days where I can’t stand the smell of it.

I watched the election debacle and it made me nauseous.

I had to eject QAnon followers and their beliefs from my life. Both friends and relatives, which greatly upset me, but it was also a relief to divorce myself from the toxicity. I don’t miss drinking poison.

Jim Carroll was famous for writing the auto-biographical The Basketball Diaries which detailed his teenaged adventures as a high school basketball star who was also a heroin addict who sustained his habit via prostitution. His acclaimed book was eventually made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Jim came to my attention with a 1980 new wave/punk album called Catholic Boy. I loved that record and I played it a lot and I played it loud. My favorite track on that record is People Who Died which chronicles the deaths of some of his young friends who died way before their time.

In early February, two actors from our films died within a day of each other. I call them actors, but neither was trained to act. Rather, I talked them into believing they were movie stars.

The first one to go was Tripp Lee. He was the main star in our first 2 feature-length movies made in 1997 and 1999. Tripp was a personal friend for several years and when I asked him if he’d like to be the main squeeze in a movie, he was too naive to say no. Tripp was bumping up against 30 when we filmed. I was in my early 40s. We got along like a house on fire and Tripp was game for anything we threw at him. And he turned out to be a natural in front of the camera.

The last thing I filmed with Tripp was his wedding some 20 years ago. We saw each other only once in person after that – he came to visit when Ivan was graduating high school in Virginia Beach. Occasionally we would hook up via Facebook over the years, but we kind of drifted apart. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sometimes that’s just what it is.

I am 65 as I write this. Tripp was 52. He had an unexpected heart attack and was gone, leaving behind his adored wife and his 2 handsome teenage sons. I can’t even fathom what it would have been like to not have lived the last 13 years of my time here. So much happened. So many full-circle moments. He doesn’t get to live those and that made me sad. I am still sad about it.

A day after Tripp left us, George Cason got his wings. George was the youngest brother in Growing Up Cason – a documentary we made about 7 brothers and 1 sister who grew up during the depression on a farm in Charlottesville. All 7 brothers went into the military after World War II broke out, all came back in one piece, and all the men married hometown girls.

George led a varied and interesting life. With his passing, the Cason kids are all gone now with the exception of George’s younger sister Nancy.

George made it to 89. Every couple of years, we would run into him selling Christmas trees from the Cason farm – all profits going to Meals on Wheels which George heavily supported. He was a character right up until the end. When we would meet, I would greet him by name.

“Well, I’ll be, if it isn’t George Cason,” I’d laugh.

He’d laugh right back with, “Well, what’s left of him.”

A friend named Bob turned me on to the Cason saga in 2004. George Cason was on the Memorial Day cover of the now defunct Charlottesville newspaper The Hook. The cover story detailed a brief history of the Cason brothers and Bob thought it might make interesting subject matter for a documentary. Bob owned a store at the time and a young Cason relative worked for him. Bob asked if I would be interested in interviewing the family. I was, so Bob asked his young Cason employee to approach her elders.

I won’t say there was suspicion at first, but the family was wary of opening themselves up. Eventually, after repeated requests, the oldest son’s wife got her husband to entertain the thought of meeting me. I was summoned to meet Ezra, the oldest of the boys who was in his 80s at the time.

I won Ezra over. And then the other brothers fell into my web like dominos. They had nothing to fear. I spent over a year interviewing bonafide members of the greatest generation. I was catching them on camera while they still remembered details about their fascinating lives. It was a privilege to be invited into their circle.

The movie showed several times in Charlottesville over the course of a few years. The last screening I attended made me glad we filmed when we did. Middle brother Ralph, supported by a walker, approached me outside the theater to thank me. He was in decline and apologized for not remembering my name. I wanted to cry as I hugged him.

When George was gone, it was the end of an era. Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper printed one of the best obits I’ve ever read. Indeed, when I heard George was no longer with us, I was motivated to write something wonderful about him. But the words penned by reporter Bryan McKenzie were so perfect and fitting, there was no way I could compete. The obit mentioned George being included in our film Growing Up Cason. I’ll say it again – making that documentary meant as much to us as it did to the Casons.

Beginning in January, I went back to the Santa novel. When I opened the drawer, the manuscript looked foreign to me. Thank you, Stephen King. I was highly upset with myself over the fumbles. But at the same time, I’d come across a passage I didn’t remember writing and I’d grin a little. “Hey, that’s pretty good. Did I write that?”

My most valuable critique on the first draft came from a non-writer, although he is a person who reads incessantly and actually traffics in books. When I finished a draft of my first novel, I sent it to writers and non-writers alike, and one of the absolute best critiques I got was from a woman who read a lot to the tune of 3 to 4 books a week. She may never have penned a novel herself, but she knew about as much as you could know about plot lines and character arcs.

The muse I found for my Christmas novel spent a few distanced afternoons with me on his porch, going over my flawed draft page by page. Each time we got together, I would leave his house with my head spinning, wrestling with brilliant suggestions he’d made. Work on that project continues as I type.

Now that my head is swimming with Santa Claus possibilities, I see what the first draft should have been, but wasn’t, and I was embarrassed for myself. Again. Beating myself up for not working hard enough.

I’m trying to stay positive. But sometimes I get trapped in the barrel, unable to stop working myself over.

I’ve had to resort to doing things that heal.

Watching birds is restful for me. A couple of weeks ago, I took down our big squirrel-proof bird feeder. It’s time for male bears to come out of hibernation, so I don’t want to risk having a bear come through at night and mauling the hell out of the feeder. It’s happened before in previous years.

I like sitting quietly watching our Boston Terrier Sophie snore, her old dog-self sprawled across a couch or a rug on the floor in a sunspot.

And then there’s Judy, my life partner. We’ve known each other over 40 years now. There is no one on this planet I am more comfortable around. She brings me peace on so many levels. It’s nice to have a partner that knows where everything in the pantry goes.

For me, 2020 was kind of summed up with the last lines of the formerly famous Aunt Jemima commercial jingle.

“Only one thing worse in this universe, and that’s no Aunt Jemima at all.”

Well, we’re there. She’s gone. Her. Uncle Ben. Although Ben’s still around, he’s just not an uncle anymore.

Hey. Truth be told? I was glad when 2020 was gone. And though 2021 started out a little clumsy, I’m hoping it will be a step up.

Just like my happy accident finding Julian Bond in a Reader’s Digest years ago, sometimes things only can happen because you’re there. In a certain place at a certain time meant for you.

But this past year, I wasn’t there.

I apologize. I’m feeling better now and hopefully I will act accordingly.

Judy and I got our final vaccine last week. As with the first shot a month ago, we were both lucky to escape with nothing more than sore arms. As a matter of fact, we were mulching the very next day.

Things are lightening up in places. Spring wants to be in the air.

Perhaps I will get out more and stop spending so much valuable time watching cupcake wars. You know. Do my own cooking instead of watching other people do it.

I can see myself whipping up a double-batch of those cookies now.

I still want to do the Goldfish movie.

And hey. Spring is here. Daffodils are out. Purple, Red and Yellow tulips are coming up. Birds are singing. What’s not to like?

It’s a shame that Tripp Lee and George Cason are gone. I would love to re-shake both of their hands.

And hug them.

That goes for you, too.

With less labor in my love.

You know. You get what’s left of me.