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Rob Stafford Headshot

Searching for Spalding

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My father was a teacher. He taught science & history. Sixth grade and fourth. I always got the impression he moved to fourth grade because the sixth graders got to be too adult. Too cynical & jaded. His kids loved him. They defended him fiercely: decades after they were in his class they still remembered him in his obituary with great love and affection. But that was not the man I knew. I remember him teaching me one thing in my whole life -- he taught me how to nail together a frame of two by fours, and then to lay down a series of staggered laths over it -- I banged together dozens of these things for him one summer while he assembled the results to build a greenhouse. A little corner of jungle he could hide out in out behind my brother David's room, and then he built another outside his own. I earned more than a hundred bucks doing that -- real money to a ten year old. I bought a BB gun. I used it to kill a dove he told me not to shoot. He rarely spoke to me, before or after. I always thought it was something about me, but it could have been something about him, or about us.

I spent a lot of my childhood lonely. Angry, furious. The kind of eight year old who'd be expelled these days under a zero tolerance policy for keeping a journal of violent fantasies. Afraid. I like to think I was lonely by choice -- that I liked it, and I think I did. But I was still lonely. I felt misunderstood. I felt different. Odd. People tell me every kid feels that way -- maybe that's true. But not every kid is threatened & intimidated and humiliated by the popular & successful. I was. I was a nerd. A geek. A loser & an outcast. This will tell you all you need to know: I played D&D. AD&D. The hard stuff.

I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I'm not sure I know now.

But sometime around age nineteen or twenty, something happened. A lot of things happened really. The key though, I think, was that I started talking to people. Girls. Humans in general. I'd tell them what I thought. How I felt. I'll be honest with you -- in a lot of these early encounters my chest would get so tight I couldn't breathe. Sometimes people wouldn't notice I'd spoken at all. Sometimes they'd hear and when I was done speaking they'd give me the oddest looks, as if what I had said had made no sense, could not be processed. It wasn't easy -- and I still get those looks sometimes, but I persevered.

I had two or three good friends by then. We shared some interests, but to a large extent we liked each other because we were different from everybody else. We didn't quite fit -- and when one of us decided they wanted to fit in, they left us behind. I remember when Peter Woodson, who had been part of our little group decided to go out for sports & started hanging with the jocks. He was happier, I'm sure, and more power to him, but for us, it was like he was a pod person. He was dead to us. He would never speak to us with interest or sincerity again -- and I and my friend Chris would greet him with false bonhomie when we saw him around campus, "It's Peter Woodson!" we'd shout -- hoping to embarrass him in front of his new friends. Ah, high school.

I'm not sure when I was first introduced to Spalding Gray. Not in person. I never met him. I never saw him perform. I regret that. But in the early 1990s, somebody gave me a copy of Swimming to Cambodia. I was obsessed with that film. I think I've easily seen it fifty times. I would get home in the afternoon and put it on and play games or write, whatever, and there Spalding would be, softened by video tape, telling his amazing story. Every day. To me. What was it that drew me to him? His voice, his cadence, his stories, his irrational & hypochondriac take on the world? I still don't quite know. But he spoke to me. Told me about the world. Showed me how he thought and why he thought it, took moral stands, even sometimes slightly dubious ones, but he took a position, and he felt it, passionately. Perhaps he was a father figure of a sort. I think he was -- my father wouldn't even watch The Great Santini, because he thought I had an ulterior motive for showing it to him -- I did -- I wanted him to see how I saw him. Spalding spoke to me & I knew, I knew if I met him he would speak to me in just this way -- like his friend, like someone he loved and trusted (Maybe I was wrong -- but I don't care).

He was not like me. Not a lot anyway. But I could tell he had struggled. Had faced some of the same demons, and as I read more of his work, saw more films, I felt I knew him. I know I didn't. I know there were depths to him. I know that some of his public life was a deception. I know I didn't know him & he certainly didn't know me. But he had the power to make you feel like you did know him. He had the power to take something incredibly personal and make it universal in the telling. He was a fabulist at times -- a performer first and foremost, and the man I felt I knew was a front, a persona, a character -- but what a character.

When he disappeared, it was very strange. I felt a loss, and empty place, like a divot of flesh you've lost in an accident that hasn't filled in, just healed over, a new hole. I missed him and worried about him for months. This stranger. This suicidal stranger.

I did love my father, very much. Though in that twisted, distant way many of us do -- he had been disabled by strokes and other illnesses & spent thirteen years in bed or in a chair -- sometimes loving & talkative, at least as often angry & frustrated. I was working -- often hard, sometimes fruitlessly & when he finally died -- and that is a horror story for another day -- I was sad, I was empty in some way, and I hurt for my mom. But honestly, and I say this to my shame -- I missed Spalding more. I felt like I knew him better. Hell, I felt he knew me better. My father was a cipher. A puzzle with missing pieces. Spalding was a favorite book, dog eared and filthy & broken spined, a beloved & worn LP with soft fuzzy edges on the cardboard sleeve from so much use, an animated treatise on the human condition -- always, from where I sat at least, open and full of information. He possessed, at least, the appearance of being knowable -- by anyone who cared to.

I have not done him justice here, nor my father, and perhaps not myself, but I wanted to say something about him. I wanted to tell you I loved him as much as you can love someone you don't know. That I missed him. That we will not see his like again. & yes, if you think I have just finished Life Interrupted, you're right.

& I want to tell you this. It's important, so listen up: tell each other stories.

Tell them passionately. Use concrete detail and place names & don't steal & do exaggerate, but tell stories. Tell 'em to your friends. Tell 'em to your kids. Tell 'em to strangers & listen to the stories they tell you. Be knowable & share the truths you've learned the hard way.

Do it, dammit, do it for Spalding. Do it so there are more Spaldings -- somewhere down the line.

Tell stories.