As I said in my last post, I'm really excited for all of the events on my schedule at the Phoenix Comicon this weekend, especially the TNG panel, because I get to share the stage with Jonathan and LeVar. Even though I talk to LeVar fairly often, we've never spoken together at a con. Though I've recently seen Jonathan quite a lot, he and I haven't been on stage together since 2001, when I was in a very different emotional place, struggling like crazy to figure out how to handle my post-Star Trek life, while I was also struggling to just survive as a working actor.
I wrote about that con in Just A Geek. This is from Chapter 7, which is subtitled "a sort of homecoming":
When I worked on Star Trek, I always struggled to fit in with the adults around me. It was easy to relate to them professionally, but on a personal level, no matter how hard I tried, I was still a kid and they were still adults. I often thought that Wesley Crusher could have been a much richer and more interesting character if the writers had taken advantage of that very real turmoil that existed within me, and used it to add some humanity to Wesley in between the Nanite making and polarity reversing . . . but I guess it was more fun (and easier) to write for the android. I can't say that I blame them.
For whatever reason, I was never able to entirely lose that teenage angst, and whenever I attended a Star Trek event, or saw one of the cast members, I immediately felt like I was 16 again. Because of that feeling – and, if I was willing to be truly, fearlessly honest with myself, the fact that I hadn't done very much with my career since leaving the show – I avoided Star Trek events (and that inevitable feeling of shame and angst that accompanied them) for years. Of course there were exceptions, but they were few and far between.
In 2001, I was presented with an opportunity to share the stage with the Big Three of The Next Generation: Brent Spiner, Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes. The event was called “The Galaxy Ball.” Robert Beltran, the actor who played Chakotay on Voyager, hosts it each year to benefit the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles, Doctors Without Borders, the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and some other worthwhile charities. When I received the invitation, that familiar anxiety and apprehension sprung up immediately.
“What will I talk about? What have I done? How can I face them?” The Voice of Self Doubt was relentless.
“Easy,” Prove To Everyone said, “You've got your website. You've got the shows you do at ACME. You've got a wife and stepkids. You're not a kid anymore. You kicked ass in Vegas, and you can kick ass again. Besides, when will you have a chance to be on stage with these guys again?”
“You’re right,” I said, “but if you keep talking to yourself like this, they’re going to throw you out of Starbucks.”
I looked up, and offered a smile to the girl scouts who were staring at me. I bought several hundred dollars worth of Thin Mints to solidify my reputation as an eccentric millionaire playboy who hangs out at Starbucks in his Bermuda shorts.
When the day came to go to the ball, I dressed in my finest gown, and bid my wicked stepsisters goodbye as I got into my carri –
Wait. Sorry. That’s not my story. That’s Cinderella's story. I often get us confused.
The morning of the ball, I had a major fashion crisis. I was going to wear a suit, but I felt like I was playing dress up. I put on an ironic hipster T-shirt and black jeans, but then I felt like a child. I settled on this cool black cowboy shirt with eagles on the front and jeans. I looked at myself in the mirror that hangs on the back of my bedroom door, and thought I looked kind of cool.
"You guys stay here," I said to Prove To Everyone and The Voice of Self Doubt. "I'm doing this on my own today." I ignored the explosion of discarded clothes that littered the rest of my room, and left the drawers open when I left.
During the twenty minute drive to the ball, I went over material in my head. I prepared jokes and did improv warm up exercises, and by the time I got there I felt like I’d been on stage for three hours.
I parked my car in the self-park garage. I convinced myself that it was stupid to cough up seven bucks for a valet to drive it forty feet, but the truth was all the other guys have luxury cars, and my VW seemed a little . . . unimpressive.
I made my way to the green room, and discovered Jonathan Frakes, who had arrived ahead of me.
“Hi, Johnny,” I said. I felt my face get warm.
A huge smile spread across his face as he stood up.
“W!” he said, “You look great, man!”
I love it when he calls me “W” (pronounced “double-you”) – my whole life I wanted a cool poker nickname, and it’s the closest I’ve ever come.
He closed the distance between us in two strides, and wrapped his arms around me in a big, fatherly bearhug.
“You too,” I said.
“Have you eaten?” he said.
“Some coffee and toast this morning,” I said. I didn’t mention anything about my nervous stomach, and the barely-touched omelette I left on the table.
“Help yourself,” he said, and pointed to a table where some food was set out. “They always give us too much food, you know?”
I laughed. I haven’t spent nearly enough time in green rooms to know, but I took his word for it.
I opened a ginger ale and picked up a handful of veggies. As I munched on a carrot, he said, “How have you been?”
It was the question that I always dreaded. I would always smile bravely, ignore the knot in my chest, and say something like,“Oh, you know . . . Things are slow, but I have an audition next week.”
I spoke before that familiar knot could tighten.
“Not too bad. I haven’t worked in ages, but I’m doing a really good sketch comedy show at ACME in Hollywood.” I lifted my ginger ale with a mostly-steady hand, and took a long drink.
“And I made myself a website where I write a lot of stuff. It’s pretty fun.”
“Have you been doing any cons?” He asked.
“A few,” I said. “I did one in Vegas last month.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“How did it go?”
“I took my sketch group out there and we did a show. It was really fun.”
“Oh! I heard about that. I hear you’re really funny.”
“Yeah, I try to entertain the kids.” I said. The knot tightened so violently in my chest, it felt like a heart attack. I felt intensely uncomfortable and embarrassed. The feeling surprised me; here was the one thing that I’d been doing, and doing well -- I was very proud of my sketch work, yet I didn't want to talk about it.
“I may be funny in some sketch comedy shows that hardly anyone ever sees,” I thought, “but I'm struggling to pay my bills, I can't get hired for anything in Hollywood, and all of you guys have gone on to be rich and famous. I may be funny, but I sure fucked up the biggest opportunity of my career when I quit 'Star Trek.'”
I shoved several carrots in my mouth and I changed the subject.
“Have you been watching TNG on TNN?”
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s amazing how those old shows hold up.”
“Except Angel One,” I said.
“And Code of Honor,” he said.
“No vaccine!” we said in unison, quoting one of the actors in that show and laughed. The knot loosened.
“It’s so weird for me to watch them,” I said, “because I was so young. It’s like my high school yearbook has come to life.”
“That’s because you’ve actually grown up since then,” he said, “the rest of us have just gotten fatter.”
“Don’t let Marina hear you say that,” I said.
He thought for a moment, and added, “Okay, all of us except Marina.”
He winked. I smiled. The knot untied itself.
“Seriously, though,” he said, “we’ve just gotten older. You’re the only one of us who’s actually changed.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said.
I'm older and changed, now. I'm a fundamentally different person than I was when I wrote this: I'm much happier, I feel like my life is more or less under my control, and I spend as much time feeling grateful for what I have as I once spent worrying about what I didn't. I feel really secure and happy with my relationship to Star Trek, and when I speak at a con, I don't feel like I'm just resting on the faded laurels of something I did over twenty years ago, rehashing stories people know like the lyrics to an old pop song.
My acting and writing careers are doing better than I ever dreamed possible when I nervously drove myself to the Galaxy Ball almost ten years - wow, almost a decade - ago. It looks like I'll be a recurring character on The Big Bang Theory and Eureka, and I think I may get to do more episodes of Leverage. My manager says that casting people are asking about me all the time because they want to put me into their shows, and I've even had development meetings with executives at major networks who specifically want to work with me. w00tstock is just starting out, and it's already exceeding our wildest expectations; it's so much fun to do, but more importantly, it seems to matter to the people who come to see it, which fills me with joy.
I'm sitting at my desk right now, while my dog snores on the floor against the wall behind me, underneath the velvet Wesley Crusher John Scalzi gave me. On the bookshelf next to me, there are copies of every book I've written, and there are even a couple of awards I've received for some of my work. From where I am (physically and emotionally) at this moment, reading about the fear and anxiety I had in 2001 fills me with a mixture of sadness, relief, and gratitude. Just A Geek is about a journey, and for me, that journey wasn't fully completed until I wrote about taking it. I'm trying to find a way to turn some of that story into an entertaining stage show, so I've been rereading Just A Geek, emotionally reliving that journey, and viscerally remembering just how terrible it felt to be imprisoned by the voices of Self Doubt and Prove To Everyone.
Riding that emotional roller coaster again, even if it's only in my memory, reminds me how it feels to be at the other parabola on this particular horizontal axis of symmetry (I guess you could call this feeling my irrational normal curve, if you were into stretching a mathematical metaphor right past its breaking point) and every day I'm more than a little scared that I'm going to fuck it all up, somehow, that I'm standing atop some precarious house of cards that could collapse at any moment, and because the cards were designed by an evil wizard, they have razors for edges and will cut me to ribbons when I fall. (There's always an evil wizard, guys. I know it sounds crazy, but it's true; that's science.)
I've worked really hard to get from where I was in 2001 to where I am now, and looking back on the years in between, I can see more good times than bad, even if it felt that the opposite was true at the time. I also see that I was never alone. I was always accompanied by my wife and family, as well as everyone who read and commented on my blog, bought my books, and encouraged me, in one way or another, to just keep going and never give up. I don't know how many of you reading this today have been here since the old days, but for those of you who are: thank you for helping me not die of dysentery on the trail.
I'm really looking forward to this convention. I can't wait to see my friends, host the second annual RockBand party, reveal some fairly big secrets about some fairly awesome projects during my Awesome Hour, attend an actual nerd prom, and do something so epic with Scalzi, we're both preparing to pass out a white paper titled The Recalibration of Things What Are Epic. The only thing I'm even remotely worried about is not having enough energy to fully enjoy all of the cool things I'm scheduled to do ... and if that is my biggest problem, if that is what I'm worried about, well, my life is good.
Yeah, my life is very good, indeed.