Friday, October 30, 2009

COMEDY WILL MAKE YOU CRAZY or does that mean crazy people make great comedy?

Funny Hurts

Laughing away life’s aches and pains at Kyle Cease’s Comedy Boot Camp

By Carl Kozlowski

“I’m 19, unemployed and pregnant. My ex-boyfriend’s not happy about the baby — but the guy who got me pregnant was.”

Those words come from the mouth of a 20-year-old woman named Katie Wood. She’s standing before a room of strangers, revealing dark truths about herself — including the fact that up until she learned of her pregnancy, she had been casually using marijuana and cocaine for the past couple years.

She then evokes gasps by admitting she still takes “a few puffs on about five cigarettes a day. If my baby’s craving it, who am I to deny it?”

You might think that Katie is speaking to a support group before a circle of fellow single moms and drug users. Actually, she’s standing, microphone in hand, on the elaborately decorated, beach-themed stage of the Jon Lovitz Comedy Club at Universal CityWalk, learning how to turn her personal pain into big laughs as part of the Kyle Cease Comedy Boot Camp.

Cease is one of comedy’s fastest-rising stars, having beaten out even mega-selling monolith Dane Cook last year to win the “Comedy Central Standup Showdown,” in which fans voted for their favorite comic. He’s parlayed that into becoming a frequent presence on the network — his special, “Weirder. Blacker. Dimpler,” has become the channel’s most-played standup performance and led to the taping of a second one-hour special this week in his hometown of Seattle.

I have also come here, both as a reporter and as a 13-year part-time professional comic, to hone my skills and see what all the hype was about.

In Katie’s case, Cease isn’t trying to exploit her by prodding her to reveal her innermost self. He’s trying to get her (and everyone else he teaches in his intensive five-day, 60-hour camp) to break down their personal walls and reveal who they really are — in a (hopefully) funny way.

The idea is not just that it will it make their own comedy more unique, but will also build a movement in which Cease hopes comedy will become more of a part of American culture again in a way that brings positive change to both individuals and society.

It may sound like pie-in-the-sky ambition. But as Katie finally opens up, her thoughts spill out rapidly and — most importantly — humorously, leading Cease to say Katie could be the next Roseanne if she continues building on this breakthrough. It’s clear that a transformation has occurred, as this young woman who took the stage nervous and fearful just 20 minutes prior runs offstage to a wave of applause from Cease and her classmates.

“When he was asking me why I had walls up, I felt I should tell him and he made me feel really good about it,” Katie says. “Everything I said was true, and to get that response from people was amazing. It gave me the courage to run out and finally tell my mom about my pregnancy … It made me see how powerful standup comedy is as an art — not just about making people laugh, but as living art.”

Thought control

At the ripe old age of 32, Cease is already a 17-year veteran of professional comedy, performing at age 15 in Seattle, where performance venues were all-ages and his parents were supportive enough to drive him to Los Angeles for occasional auditions soon after he told them comedy was the only thing he wanted to do with his life.

That support paid off early. Cease scored a role as Bogey Lowenstein in the 1999 teen hit film “10 Things I Hate About You.” After his short but attention-getting part as the Slow Clapper in 2001’s “Not Another Teen Movie,” he fast became a college audience favorite and upped his appearances to over 200 shows a year. Young, level-headed enough to steer clear of drugs and with a seemingly never-ending supply of fans, Cease looked to be soaring into the stratosphere. But he instead collapsed with a combination of illness and severe stage fright that nearly derailed his promising career.

“I learned about the psychology of all this in 2004, when I got exhausted and was getting dizzy and worrying onstage and worried I’d make myself faint,” Cease recalls. “Then I started learning how we have control of our thoughts, but most people think their thoughts control them. Once I learned that, I took control of my act.”

The key, however, came when Cease began following the principles of self-help kingpin Tony Robbins. While Robbins is often derided as a late-night TV pitchman hawking an endless array of conferences, motivational books and tapes, Cease has become a firm believer in his teachings. He credits them not only with helping him regain his confidence as a performer, but also giving him the insights needed to build healthy relationships that led to his current engagement to fellow comic Jules Kline. It also helped him lose 50 pounds within two months.

“Live as if you’re already a master of what you do, and it will happen,” Cease says.

Sharing the pain

It’s become a cliché that comedians are often the saddest people around, but as veteran actor and comic Thomas Wilson takes the stage, he reads off a litany of zany entertainers who ultimately died way before their time from alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.

“John Belushi, Chris Farley, Sam Kinison …,” Wilson intones solemnly, with many more names following. He achieved his own greatest fame between 1985 and 1990 as the villainous Biff in the “Back to the Future” movies, but has maintained a thriving standup career and gets steady work as a supporting actor in films like “The Informant!” and TV series like “Freaks and Geeks.”

The ability to hang in when others have flamed out is paramount to his lesson to boot campers: don’t let your career and desire for laughs become your entire identity. Stay grounded with good things outside of the treacheries of show business.

“Comedy is my passion, but it’s not my life,” says Wilson. “If you don’t find balance and grounding and self-worth in real family, friends and other interests, this will eat you up.”

That sobering warning is but one topic from just one of the 13 star comics who drop in to give talks and evaluate performances throughout the five days of Cease’s camp. The appearances are well-regulated but nonstop, giving the neophyte performers the chance to ask questions of and rub elbows with some of the biggest names in the business: “Last Comic Standing” champions Alonzo Bodden and Iliza Schlesinger, veteran star comic Louie Anderson, “Hangover” co-star Bryan Callen and “SNL” superstar Jon Lovitz are just a few.

The students hang on every word as they hear Lovitz — a star many grew up watching on “Saturday Night Live” — talk about the struggles of his early days while urging them to find balance in life. They hear Anderson explain how he poured the pain from his bad relationship with his father into a career that earned him millions but left him bereft of true happiness until he was able to forgive his dad.

And most powerfully of all, they hear Ant tell the story of his longtime relationship with his partner, and of the mix of funny and sad moments that seasoned his last year, before dying last November of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

“I’m sharing the pain of my true experiences with you not only to honor him, but also to show that I’m willing to put it all up on the stage, just like I’m asking you to,” says Ant. “If you bring real truth to the stage about who you are, it will be unique and funny and heartfelt and memorable.”

Add in talks by Cease’s agent and manager as well as constant feedback from the Lovitz club’s co-owner Frank Kelley, who spent many years running the top Improv comedy clubs in the country, and the admittedly steep tuition of $599, $799 and $999 for various levels of interaction with the pros make a bit more sense. Still, the program has drawn some sniping on online message boards.

“Everything that anyone does that’s new and different is criticized,” Cease says in response to the naysayers. “They get hated until it really starts proving itself. I want to make things better for comedy; I want to get clubs full again, get a passion for comedy revived that’s been lacking.

“The work you get instantly and near-instantly, like me taking the best students to open shows for me, or Louie offering five minutes opening for him in Vegas to anyone who asks, or Frank Kelley offering spots right here at the club, and the long-term connections you get like meeting and exchanging numbers with 13 headlining comics — that’s priceless. You make way more back than you spent. I taught technique after technique on learning how to end nerves, market yourself — and anyone who chooses to can take action anytime. And we have a big crew filming it all so you get an amazing reel to use at the end.”

After each guest lecture, students indeed get to take direct action. Breaking into rotating groups or intermittently taking the stage for solo spotlight attention, attendees get to work out big chunks of material within the small group or receive one-on-one guidance from each star who visits. Within minutes, each person involved goes from being a face in the crowd of nearly 40 students to a readily identifiable, unique individual.

Among them was Myke Dehu, a 44-year-old Phoenix resident who spent the years from ages 16 to 32 bouncing in and out of jail before deciding to fly straight and narrow, only to develop and survive testicular cancer at the expense of a testicle. “Some of you are looking at me like you’ve seen me somewhere before. I have to admit, I was on one of the first ‘Star Search’-style reality shows. You might have seen me. It was ‘America’s Most Wanted.’”

Then there’s Lukas Seely, a 27-year-old who’s the youngest and only American-born member of a Laotian refugee family that got plunked down into the middle of Montana. “When we first got to Montana, we took a look around and realized there were no Asian people. So we opened a nail salon, a restaurant and a Laundromat.”

The Big Moment

Throughout the camp experience, I had seen people prompted into opening their personal closets and letting out their darkest secrets, confessions often accompanied by tears, before ultimately scoring a triumphant breakthrough to deeper, richer comedy than they had ever thought possible.

As I took the stage, I wondered what psychological Jedi mind trick they were going to use to make me break down and cry like a baby. I had no way to get pregnant and had never abused drugs or been abused, but I do suffer from narcolepsy and had made it my goal to write a killer routine about it that week. But the goal was for it to make people laugh, not cry.

So I grabbed the mic and started running through my new jokes professionally, timed just right, moving the way I planned — all to a deafening silence. It looked like I was about to be crying after all.

“It’s just not working for me,” says Kelley, as I feel a thousand daggers stabbing at my insides, certain that 15 years of performing was going down the drain. But then Kyle comes up with a solution that led to my own personal breakthrough.

“Carl, you tell more one-liners than almost anyone these days, and they’re mostly about your life,” says Cease. “It’s a really ‘50s style, or like vaudeville, one after another. Why don’t you try doing your material way over the top, but filtered through that general style?”

Within moments, I was completely out of control, acting like a ’50s Catskills comic, punctuating every joke with a “Zing!” a “Badabing!” or a “Zowie!” while punching or kicking wildly at the air. Kelley loved it, my classmates cheered it on. And with the addition of Cease backing me up with rim-shot sound effects during the night’s official showcase, I scored the wildest response of my entire career.

I now have a shot that I never had before at better quality stage time, and meetings with agents and managers who came to see the show. But most of all — like the dozens of other students at this and Cease’s prior boot camp in May — I had discovered new possibilities within myself.

“What I’ve learned from camp is that people who come here are not just numbers to make money or help the camp grow,” says Cease. “Each person has a story; even the quiet ones who seem boring have great stories. The second they learn that and that that story is their strength, their life changes. That’s great.”


His Royal Silliness

John Cleese fish-slaps Pasadena and Glendale with ‘A Final Wave at the World’

By Carl Kozlowski

“Of all the questions I’ve ever been asked, that’s got to be the stupidest!”

I never imagined hearing those words being spat at me in a raging fit of comic apoplexy by John Cleese, the British comedy mastermind who has made a career out of playing flustered upper-crust twits who are constantly enraged by the stupid behavior of everyone in the world around them. I must admit though, I’ve spent much of my life laughing at Cleese venting his frustrations at others onscreen.

Yet there I was last Thursday morning, surreally injected into a moment that could be found in any one of his hundreds of film and TV appearances. At the behest of my esteemed editor, I had just asked Cleese if he still engaged in the occasional bit of Silly Walking — an utterly ridiculous form of strolling that formed the centerpiece of one of his most famous skits with the legendary comic troupe Monty Python. His response made me want to duck for cover as I stammered an apology.

“Wait, I’m having a go at your editor!” Cleese explained, in a half-conciliatory tone. “I lead a very entertaining but not a high-key life seeking attention. When I was younger I used to do eccentric things to amuse myself. But now, no Silly Walks! Why would I do that? Good heavens!”

Cleese was on the phone from a luxury hotel in New York City, where he was staying while promoting “Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut),” the new six-hour Independent Film Channel miniseries about the troupe.

He was speaking with PW in connection with his upcoming Nov. 14 live performance at Glendale’s Alex Theatre of “John Cleese in A Final Wave at the World (or the Alimony Tour, Year One),” in which Cleese will ruminate on his life and work for a 100-minute, two-act stretch before engaging in a question and answer session with the audience. He archly noted that the “utterly shambolic” Q&A seems to be attendees’ favorite portion of the show, despite the fact that he poured months of effort into creating the show’s scripted portion.

Cleese is strikingly candid about his motivations for the tour. “I still need money, especially with having to pay alimony of $1 million a year until I’m 76,” the 69-year-old Cleese explained with much the same sense of joy he had just employed in scolding my editor. “She got $13 million up front and a million a year more until I’m 76. That’s a lot for having no children, but that’s California law, which I consider a bit mad.

“I was actually told to fix the back steps of my home because a burglar could fall and get hurt trying to get in!” Cleese continued, switching the conversation to his bucolic Santa Barbara estate. “The American legal system is a complete failure, except for making money for lawyers. There’s a little bit about that at the start of the show, and believe me, the Norwegians loved it.”

It’s not just the Norwegians who are loving Cleese’s show. While he played 10 cities there, he launched the show in another unlikely corner of the world: New Zealand. Cleese got the idea four years ago, after “a couple of irritating experiences” with Hollywood studios and executives “who didn’t know they didn’t know what to do, telling me how to make changes to scripts.

“If there’s a good idea given by someone, I pounce on it with a snarl,” Cleese says. “I got an Oscar nomination for writing ‘A Fish Called Wanda,’ but 13 people contributed ideas to it. I pinch any ideas that are good. But when the people at Disney told me my script was all wrong after I’d invested three months in it, and I got a call from someone who wanted me to take a stage tour of New Zealand, I thought that’ll be fun since no one will be able to tell me what to do.”

This will be a rare stateside performance for the current show, played only a few times in California back in 2006. He digs deep in his history for material, tracing how he got into comedy; about people he worked with like Marty Feldman, Peter Sellers and the Python guys; his years in the hilarious “Fawlty Towers,” and his richly diverse escapades as writer and actor since then.

“And then of course, there is the divorce to talk about,” he notes with a perfectly icy tone that could put a deep freeze on a desert.

Cleese was torn between the funny and the serious from birth, as the son of an acrobat and an insurance salesman. Similarly, he spent his student years mixing good grades with pranks, such as painting footsteps on a school’s grounds to make it look like a statue had come off its pedestal and gone to the toilet. But he was almost lost to the legal world — he was attending law school at Cambridge when he joined a comic troupe called the Cambridge Footlights Revue.

That decision to join the revue, then meeting fellow future Python Graham Chapman, saved him from a dreary life of briefs and court appearances. The breakthrough came when the 1963 Footlights highlight show became so popular that it toured the world, including stops on Broadway and in Cleese’s now-beloved New Zealand.

Cleese then dove into a career as a humor writer for British TV and radio, gradually forming the friendships that became the unstoppable force known as Monty Python. Earning worldwide stardom through their five-year TV series and a string of classic films that include “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and the controversial Messiah-centric “Life of Brian,” the group earned lasting respect and untold riches before unofficially dissolving after “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” in 1983.

While group members have worked on each other’s solo projects since then, Chapman’s death in 1989 meant the group could never be fully revived. Yet Cleese and the other surviving members re-teamed in a rare collective appearance Oct. 15 on NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to help promote the miniseries — belying Cleese’s jocular claims earlier in the day we talked that “we all hate each other too much” to work together.

“My favorite silly bit from Python was the fish-slapping dance, and my favorite sketch was the cheese shop,” Cleese recalls. “It was a little bit like the parrot in format, with me and [Michael] Palin. My favorite film within an episode was a spoof of a natural history program, a parody that was really really funny about a pantomime horse. My favorite Python movie was ‘Life of Brian’ but Americans prefer ‘Holy Grail.’”

It’s here that I tell Cleese that he might very well be in part responsible for my eternal damnation, since my hometown’s Catholic bishop warned his followers they would be banned from the Church for watching “Brian,” a wicked satire on the life of Christ. While I was only 8 years old when the controversial film was released, a decade later I almost literally ran for the video store during my first weekend away from home at college to rent “Brian” and see what the fuss was about.

“Very well,” he chuckles. “It’s always amazed me how big church authority finds the most incredible things to meddle with. A movie?! I think spirituality is alive and well, but I just think organized religion has always mashed it up.”

While he has kept a strong presence in the public consciousness through his colorful supporting roles in countless films and TV series (including Emmy-winning guest spots on “Cheers” and “Will and Grace”), Cleese has maintained a lucrative sideline by starring in, producing and co-writing a series of videos designed to teach business principles in a humorous way. Though the videos were only viewable by those lucky enough to work for a corporation that purchased the special video sets, and weren’t mass-marketed for consumption by individual fans, Cleese earned a mint on them.

“Businesses bought them as a business expense, and I did it for 19 years, from 1972 to 1991,” says Cleese. “We started out making films about selling, but we found what everyone wanted was how to interview, make decisions, how to run a meeting, all those kinds of things that happen everywhere — from charities, in the army, and even town halls. We made over 100 of them. I wrote the first 15 and then hired the best British TV writers. I liked the sense of continuity to it, because in show biz you often never see people again, even after you’ve made friends or a sort of family on the set. Here I saw the people all the time for 19 years. Then the directors wanted to sell up and retire.”

For now, Cleese is content to traverse the planet as a comic colossus, touring with the show and prepping two new major co-writing projects — a Broadway musical version of “A Fish Called Wanda” with his daughter, Camilla, and a film he won’t spill the details on with his friend Lisa Hogan that he feels has “an extremely good [outline].”

He also has long settled into Santa Barbara, both because he felt a desire to dissociate from his English upbringing and because he finds the town to be a cultural Mecca attracting the best musicians and authors imaginable amid their journeys between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In coming to the Alex, he’ll no doubt also make a point of visiting Pasadena.

“My two favorite places in LA are Pasadena and Santa Monica, but I haven’t been to all the areas of the city,” says Cleese. “In Pasadena, there are so many beautiful buildings, great shops and great bookshops, plus some wonderful restaurants.”

Yet in typical curmudgeonly fashion, Cleese found a cloud in even that silver lining.

“Apart from the air, Pasadena’s great,” he harrumphs. “The air doesn’t seem to be the cleanest.”

THE MAGIC OF NEVER HAVING ENOUGH SLEEP (aka my adventures with narcolepsy)

My narcolepsy scares the crap out of me. But you should SEE how it scares everyone else around me!

Narcolepsy is one of those medical conditions that make no damn sense. You can fall asleep anytime, and often do, no matter where you're at, but yet you're always tired. And it's utterly amazing both to the victim and anyone around them just how easy it is to just conk out at any second's notice.

Anyone can fall asleep in church. I”VE fallen asleep while standing in the middle of a crowded museum. I've added my own special sound effects of snoring to countless movies, often provoking more laughter out of the audience around me than the alleged comedies we're watching. On occasion, i've been told I was scaring children too – which is not what you want to happen during a showing of “Toy Story.” However, I drew some admiring comments for the stereo magic I added to a showing of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Let's keep going, shall we? I've fallen asleep at numerous jobs, which hasn't helped my employment history. I'm probably the only person in the history of Hollywood to sleep my way OUT of a job. Then of course I fell asleep at the unemployment office too, and on the bus ride over there. I fall asleep on all buses and trains to anywhere, which both protects me from seeing some of the scary people onboard but more distressingly makes me unaware of countless bad scenarios I really should be conscious for.

Tied in with the heavylidded wonderworld of narcolepsy is the even more bizarre practice of sleepwalking. I don't know what causes sleepwalking for most people, but for me it's the fact that I don't sleep right for nights on end when I WANT to crash, and then fighting to stay awake when I truly DO need to stay up. Eventually I think my brain reaches a sort of neurological traffic jam caused by the mixed signals finally jamming up so tight I decide to sleep and run errands both at the same time. Eventually it gets so bad some nights that I wind up freezing in place while standing and by the grace of God manage to reawaken while still upright, which makes me wonder how I wound up with a magazine in one hand and a glass of OJ in the other while standing two inches in front of my TV screen.

That's one upside of narcolepsy: it keeps life unpredictable and exciting! Each time I fall asleep unexpectedly or wake up suddenly in a new location thanks to the magic of conking out on the bus, it's like i've drugged, kidnapped and abandoned myself! One night last week, I was so tired I kept oversleeping and missing my train station on three different runs of the Gold Line! Woke up two stops too far one way, got off to catch the train coming back to my stop, and then woke up THREE stops too far on that one before finally managing to climb off at the right stop.

So what's the most embarrassing place I've fallen asleep, you ask? It has to be anytime I fall asleep while on the toilet. It's bad enough when my pissed-off roommates have had to pound on the door for hours to gain entry for their own desperate usage needs, but it's a particularly ghastly situation when a security guard has to pound the hell out of a stall door and assumes that i've nodded off after shooting too much heroin. I get to live the life of William S. Burroughs without the expense of actually buying the drugs.

So you might guess I don't drive. You're right – fell asleep at the wheel six years ago and crashed! Thats forced me to learn the bus and train system in LA, which is also scary but that's a WHOLE other essay. Thankfully my job as an entertainment reporter enables me to land tickets to a lot of cool events so my friends don't mind driving me around, but my job as an entertainment reporter means I've also fallen asleep while listening to some of the world's most glamorous and allegedly interesting people. Imagine the shock that coursed through OSCAR-winning actress Hilary Swank's veins when she was prattling on last week about her new movie “Amelia” - a real snoozer by the way, no pun intended – and I nearly fell forward out of my chair by an unexpected snooze attack. In front of a roomful of my journalistic brethren who all gasped in horror, she gamely offered the fact that she knew the Heimlich maneuver in case I was dying on her. If she had offered CPR, I might have faked my way through a worse situation, but I pulled it together and said I'd simply taken the wrong allergy meds.

On Saturday night, I went to see filmmaker Kevin Smith offer an audience Q&A and got a little too comfortable, sprawling my feet up on an empty seat or two in front of me until he saw me and, over the microphone and in front of a thousand people, screamed “Hey you! Sleepy guy! Wake the fuck up!” THAT scared me. I sprung awake and wound up nearly hitting the floor as my legs and arms splayed out in every direction.

You might wonder if i'm ever gonna do something about it. My mom's figured a way to scare me into it now. I just inherited some money from my beloved grandma, and she just told me I need to visit a neurologist and figure out just what the hell is going on before she'll let me see a dime of it. So next week I'm getting looked at and possibly even cured – which means i'll have to look at this scary world head-on for the first time in a long long while.

Monday, October 12, 2009


2000 Icons and a Fluffy White Cat

By Carl Kozlowski

Try as I might, I'll never be able to block out the image of my father standing with a shovel, digging furiously through the rose garden in front of my grandma's house, hoping to act fast enough to keep us from stopping him. He was a man on a mission on that gloriously sunny yet sad morning in January 2004, as family members bustled in and out of the house that my grandma had shared with her brother and housemate for the past 54 years in the San Diego suburb of Santee, California. Her husband, my mom's father, was killed in the Battle of Normandy in WWII and so she packed up with my mom and her brother to start anew in the promised land of California back in 1950.

Meanwhile, inside, my brothers and I scoured under the house's carpeting for yet another mound of money – wrapped clusters of Benjamins stuffed into long-forgotten corners of the house by these two sibling survivors of the Great Depression, in a seemingly foolish (yet presciently sharp, considering the state of the economy these days) attempt to hide it from both the banks and the tax man. We had come across pile after pile of them so far, yet as tempting as it was to take just one little roll of $20s from its hidden perch in a coffee cup that hadn't been used since 1973, we knew in our hearts that that was still stealing.

And worse, it would have been stealing from our beloved grandma and been compounded by being swiped under the now-omniscient eyes of my deceased, beloved uncle. I've always really believed that the moment someone dies, they take on the God-like power to see everything we're doing. Talk about Catholic guilt.

And yet indeed, it was Catholic guilt that not only kept me from grabbing enough greenbacks to look like I'd just won a game show, but also Catholic guilt that was compelling my father to dig away in the front yard just six years after having quintuple-bypass open-heart surgery. For dad was trying to fulfill his cosmic Catholic duty to bury any religious trinkets he had discovered and couldn't find a new home for.

Strangely, we are told to burn American flags when we try to dispose of them, despite the fact most of us would fight to the death to prevent them from being set alight in any other situation. And just as strangely (likely more so), my dad was now attempting to bury the deitized detritus my uncle had somehow secretly acquired throughout his 84 years on God's green earth, traveling coast to coast by car and across the planet to Japan by a troop transport plane in WWII.

Funny thing was, Uncle John didn't seem particularly religious during his time on earth. I remember he would at best drive us grumpily to church on Sunday mornings during our childhood summer visits and sit grousing throughout the hour-long ordeal we called the Mass. And at worst, he'd just keep popping open beers at home on holy days and then tell us to figure out our own way to church if we really felt the need to celebrate Jesus' Ascension on a Tuesday.

My dad, meanwhile, seemed to be Uncle John's polar opposite. Raised amid the draconian, all-powerful influence of the church in Poland – which also spawned the most powerful Pope in the modern age – he had even joined a seminary himself for six months as a young man before his sister Jola stormed the barricades and helped him face down their father and the priests in charge and let them know he really didn't feel the calling to be a priest. But even though he never completed his priestly studies, he often acted like he did – with crucifixes and iconic statues discreetly placed in nearly every room of our house and a daily required Rosary session each night.

So imagine my dad's shock – and frankly, all our shock – when my dad started cleaning out Uncle John's drawers after his death and found a collection of religious statues, pictures, prayer booklets, and crucifixes that could put Pope Benedict's collection to shame. The Legion of Mary could stock up for eternal battle here, and if he really wanted to, my Dad could have called in the Vatican Exorcist team and given them enough good-luck goodies to spare them even a taste of Satan's presence for the next 20 years.

It just went to show that you can't judge a person's spiritual status – their most private internal feelings - by their outward appearance and sometimes even their personality. Uncle John had earned the right to be a crusty, sometimes angry, sometimes hilariously boisterous old man – earned it on the battle fields he fought on in Japan, while working on the post-atomic-bombing cleaning crews that did their best to minimize the damage wrought by the worst bombs ever used by mankind.

He had a severe hip injury that prevented his ability to work throughout the last 54 years of his life, an injury that was always there even as he managed to hide the pain it caused by gritting his teeth while telling a story or by popping another beer open (sometimes doing both), and most of all by disappearing into his camper each day to block out the world for a few hours of rest while listening to the latest baseball games on the radio. Uncle John chose to keep that camper and live in it nearly all year round, perched out on the driveway or on the street in front of his house – as if always ready to roll, hit the road and move on at a moment's notice. Yet he never would move, except on his solitary drives into the desert “for a few days' rest” or to the sleepy and forgotten C-grade gambling town of Laughlin, Nevada, and then every couple years on a long-ass drive across the country to see us in Arkansas while on the way back to visiting the town he was raised in: Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

A man gets to know himself on trips like those, facing only himself and his God, with only his angels and demons to keep him company along the way. So who were we to wonder and judge his relationship with the Lord, to assume it was distant or nonexistent just because he didn't thrust his views and practice of faith out into the world with as much zest as our father? Even as it was odd and embarrassing to see my father turning the dirt and dropping in Ziploc baggie after Ziploc baggie of religious figurines (they were baggied because even though they were to be buried, they also needed to be pristine), it was also strangely satisfying to know that my Uncle John had taught him a lesson from beyond the grave.

But the clearing out of religious nuggets and discoveries of O.G.-quality money stashes were just part of the larger, deeper process of helping – nay, making – my grandma move out of the home she'd lived in for nearly five and a half decades. It was the house where she and her brother, Uncle John, had raised my mom the best they could after grandma's husband and my mom's father was cut down far far short of his time while heroically fighting in the Battle of Normandy. And in summer after summer of nation-spanning treks from Little Rock, Arkansas, to visit them as a child, that house had taken on a life of its own, embodying its own share of the forces of nature that were my grandma and Uncle John.

And now we were picking it apart, readying it for the next family to come along, a family we didn't know and had never met yet which had come into the picture and were ready to move along, move along my grandma in the hopes of launching their own 50 years of dreams and memories there. It wasn't personal, it just was the way things happen. One owner dies, others take over eventually.

My mother was heartbroken over her decision to move her own mom out of her house and tell her she couldn't handle life on her own. Grandma was the kind of tough yet loving woman who had chosen to never remarry after her husband was killed, even though she was beautiful and might have had dozens of suitors lined up at her door. She had known he was her soulmate, and it was enough to have had him even for a short while.

But perhaps in response to having lost that which was most precious to her, Grandma had turned her home into a de facto museum dedicated to every aspect of her daughter, my mom's,life. In her attic, my folks found dozens if not hundreds of boxes, filled with the graded tests and homework papers of seemingly my mom's entire school career. The garage , meanwhile, was Uncle Johnny's turf – and there my dad found thousands of little things, down to screws and nuts and nails , all meticulously organized into drawers . In the backyard was an ugly pile of scrap metal that Uncle Johnny had insisted for years would be worth hundreds of dollars whenever he got around to selling it – he was just letting it “grow in value” even though we warned him it was just an eyesore. Sure enough, it got cleared out and was worth almost nothing.

But that was the thing I learned, time and time again, in the countless little moments that week – and at the times like this when I look back as well. I learned that there is more than one way of determining value in this world, that what might seem to most is junk might be one particular person's stored treasure. That might be sad or eccentric to an outside eye, but if it doesn't hurt anyone else, we should learn to just let the “treasure” be theirs. While they might see some things that are eyesores as beautiful, so too do they often find beauty in the forgotten things that really SHOULD be seen as beautiful: like the school papers and projects and report cards of a child.

One of the things that most concerned my mom about my grandma's mental state at that time, after six weeks of displaced living away from her grown-up home and back in her childhood's, was that grandma kept mentioning seeing a big white cat – on the front windowsill, meowing at the back door, dashing through the garden out back. My mom never saw the cat herself, and kept wondering if my grandma had fully lost it and and was now seeing things that weren't there. Combining that concern with the fact her mom was over 85 and now living on her own with numerous other bad habits including an unbelievable coffee addiction, which doctors eventually figured out was a staggering 17 cups a day.

But as we packed up the last of the moving trucks to move Grandma back to the Deep South with us, I took one last look around the house for my mom – kind of like checking under the beds to make sure you don't leave anything behind in a hotel room, but also for my own emotional closure.

As I wandered under the trees in grandma's backyard, and through the tomato and grape plants lined up in neat rows, I found that it can be easy to see things that others might not – to see memories drift in and out of sight, of days past planting with my grandma or picking the resulting fruit with my uncle, of running through that yard. But I saw one last thing that I cannot ever forget.

I saw a big, fluffy white cat sitting on the back doorstep, meowing and scratching to come in. It seems my grandma really saw that cat after all. That's not to say she could have handled life on her own on any real level; she was getting frail with age regardless. But it did make me realize more than ever that our reality isn't just what we see, and our fantasies sometimes are more real than we could ever imagine.

That cat, like me, wished it could get back into that house.. And like me, it never would again.