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Posted: Mon Jul 19, 2004 4:27 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
I hope this can be a place where we can publish our creative work on any subject and have it enjoyed and, if requested, critiqued by one another.

This story is about us, or more specifically, about a few of us meeting. I was in New York in June and finally had the chance to meet a few people I'd only known online, through the forums here and on the New York Times site. Posting this may be the height of self-indulgence, or it may speak to the curiosity we have about each other's real lives, and how our online relationships translate when face to face. Let me know.

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Posted: Mon Jul 19, 2004 4:32 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Part 1: The Forum Summit

The last time I'd been in New York was Spring 2001, three months before 9/11. Now, three years later, here I was, flying into the city once again on a 3-day break from the grind to catch up with old friends I hadn't seen for awhile. I was also going to meet three or four old friends I'd never seen at all. These magically invisible friends were a group of people I'd been writing alongside for years, all of us online at the NY Times forum pages. Intelligent, literate, interesting people, and, up until now, existing only on my computer screen, handicapped with italicized crutches that restricted them to being my virtual friends and online relationships.

But after seven years and thousands of online pages these were more than ‘hobbies’ or ‘personas’ – these were personalities that had become as fleshed out as any I knew in my real life. How could I not want to meet some of them? Part of it was curiosity to see what these guys looked and sounded like, part was my ego wanting to compare my personality, my thoughts, my elocution, to theirs. But most of it was a feeling of an incomplete connection that needed connecting. I was yielding to the notion that these online friends were real friends.

It was Wednesday, June 9th, and part of the reason I'd chosen to arrive then was an invitation to see the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, courtesy of the notorious Dredpiraterob. He'd begun organizing this event months ago and had invited his fellow forum people online at the NYT Television forum. I knew I was going to be in town around then so I accepted the invitation and marked the day on my calendar. It was set -- about seven of us complete strangers from the TV forum would be meeting for the first time that evening. Rob had always been a readable crank who had alternatively pissed me off and made me laugh. It would be fun meeting him, along with the other handful of people who were onboard for this.

But that was the calm before the shitstorm. You guys know the story: over the next few weeks, the NYT moderators would monkey with the format, causing a chain reaction that pushed away practically all the regulars who would then create their own new hangout at Third Eye Film, leaving behind a few malcontent stragglers to chew on their own bile. Dred had always been a malcontent; now that we'd all deserted the sinking NYT ship without him the bile level was oozing overboard. He was mad at the NYT's moderators for screwing up a good thing, and he seemed to detest us for acting on that same observation. He was still posting up a storm back at the old NYT forums, and his comments about our new rival site had become sarcastic, resentful, even ugly.

And I was about to meet the guy for a show and dinner.

I walked into my hotel room at 4:00pm, figuring I'd do a quick change and head out on foot to the bar where the group was meeting for pre-show drinks, clear my head for the big forum meet & greet and get ready for the potential confrontation with Dred. The phone rang -- pretty good timing. My wife? The front desk? -- I picked up the phone and heard a raspy voice, "Hello, Lshap? It's Billyweeds!" Holy cow! Billy's on the phone and he has a voice!

Billy was the very first person to respond to the very first post I wrote way back in 1997. He was the first forum personality I felt I knew, and if there was one guy that personified this whole glorious virtual friendship phenomenon and only one guy I could meet on this trip, it would be him. Billyweeds on the phone -- how cool is that? We talked for a couple of minutes and confirmed lunch plans at the Saigon Grill for the next day. Checking my watch I told him I was already running late for the big Dred thing so he closed our first conversation with, "Have a good time and let me know what Rob's like." Nice, warm, open. A good sign, I thought.

I hung up with a goofy smile on my face. This was gonna' be fun! But first, I had a show to catch and a group to meet. Dred et al were meeting at Vinyl, which was a bar about 20 blocks directly north of my hotel. I was going to do a quick walk there to unwind and, I mean, I run 10K races, so this'll be a casual stroll, right? Thing is, New York was basting in 90 degree heat with a humidity factor surpassing Michael Moore's armpit. 10 blocks in it began to feel like I was breathing sand. Huffing, puffing, and a near heart attack later there it was: Vinyl -- with a group of electronic bytes waiting inside to meet me. And here I was: a sweaty Dr. Frankenstein -- about to turn those virtual personas into 3-D human beings.

I reached for the door to the club at the same instant as this blonde lady did. Rather than walking in directly, she stopped and looked at me.



It was, indeed, Sioux. Amazing thing these brains of ours, accessing minute crumbs of data that allowed her to remember a blurry avatar I had of myself running, and allowed me to recall a link she'd once provided with a picture of her in a group. Sue's got a warm smile to go with those killer blue eyes and, most important, she was my Third Eye ally. We walked in together to the showdown at the O.K. Corral, brother and sister Earp, hands on our holsters, waiting for the pirate to say "Draw!"

But instead of the Clanton gang we found a table with five mild looking middle-aged people having drinks. I holstered my weapon and said hello to Jenniferlewis and her husband, a comfy couple with a bohemian edge; Puddinhead, a tall professorial-looking lawyer named Josh; Carobin, a petite, warm lady; and the guy in the corner who needed no introduction.

Rob the person matches up closely with Dred the persona. First of all, he looked almost exactly as I had pictured him. Mid-late 40's with hair and body that are both giving way to middle age. His voice carries, so does his clothing. Rob is kinda' big and round, like a befuddled bull in Herb Tarlek's shirt.

We both smiled at each other, shook hands, I asked him what he was drinking. He asked me about Canada. Small talk. We don't do small talk in the forum.

Now, if you're looking for the Battle of the Film Forums, it never really came. I brought up the whole Third Eye issue a couple of times but Rob dodged and dipped away from confrontation. Hey -- who's the Canadian here, dude? I asked him what the source of all those nasty comments was, he smiled disarmingly, "Hey, Hippie called himself the turd in the punchbowl, I was just kidding around and called the site by the same name!" Dodge and duck.

I may have been spoiling for a fight, but a couple of things took the edge off. First, we never got to see Jon Stewart. We got in line for the show minutes after first meeting and were unceremoniously bumped by some clueless employee who obviously hadn't heard of famous Dredpiraterob, Sioux or Lshap. Despite Rob's protests and the months of planning that went into our grand reunion, we were told there was simply no room and would we like, instead, to go see Colin Quinn's show taping next door? We did, and the mixup didn't put a dent in the principal reason for being there, which was meeting each other. Still, I felt bad for Rob. He'd put this together, gotten tickets for all of us, organized a great evening, and now was very likely feeling like shit.

The second thing that softened my tone was getting a sense of Rob himself. After Colin Quinn's show we walked across the street to the nice little Italian restaurant Rob had booked for dinner, and it was there, sitting face to face, where we all got to know each other. Real life does a number on Rob's online bravada, turning it down a notch from "Loud" to a more palatable "Expressive". Not surprisingly, that torrent of words he throws at you in print becomes more carefully chosen face to face. That online confidence and those hair-trigger punchlines are still evident, but they emerge tentatively and with flesh and blood disclaimers that screams "Defense Mechanism". In person, this was a guy trying to guffaw his way past his own awkwardness.

Rob comes off as a smart, friendly person who gleefully admits to posting online as a means of attracting attention to himself. He compared his style to some of the other loud forum personas, saying he understood where they were coming from because they, like him, were there to be the center of attention. After all, he said, isn't that why we all post? Aren't we all looking for attention? My inner psychologist was furiously taking notes as I replied, "Well then, no wonder you're so happy to stay on the New York Times site -- there's nobody around to take the attention away from you." Everybody at the table laughed, including him. Duck, dodge, cover up.
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Posted: Mon Jul 19, 2004 4:38 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Part 2: Lunch With Billyweeds

I got off the subway in the Upper West side and strolled a couple of blocks, right on time to meet the man for lunch. From across the street, my eyes noticed the Saigon Grill sign at the same moment they noticed the white-haired guy in the brightly colored shirt walking in. He may as well have been waving a big "Billyweeds!" flag, I knew it was him. I crossed the street just as Billy was exiting the restaurant to check outside. I walked up to him: "Billy? Hi!"

"You're Lorne??” he said, staring at the space alien I had apparently become. As sure as I had been about him, that was as surprised as he was about me, expecting someone who looked completely different than the skinny guy with the buzzed head who was to be his lunch date.

The first few minutes were a jumble of food items and personal questions, a mixed menu of hunger and curiosity. Billy is 'out there' as only a straight guy in the arts is allowed to be. Everything about him shouts ‘expression!’ from the white coiffed hair to the young, animated eyes to the excited voice to the high-energy mannerisms -- here's a guy who finds an excuse to fall in love with something new everyday. The city, the wife, the daughter, the family and the friends he loves are fixed in orbit as if by Karmic design, all within a few Upper West Side blocks of where he lives. A good place to be in life, it seems. New York and Billy have been happily married forever and it's impossible to think of him living anywhere else.

Throughout the meal I kept flashing back and forth between the guy I was chatting with over lunch and the persona I'd known for so long. The passion in Billy's writing certainly comes alive in living color, but Professor Billyweeds is mostly absent. He's a lot lighter and less circumspect sitting across the table than he is responding to a post. He also can't correct your spelling. However, I learned there's a reason and resumé behind Billy's written perfectionism: Before his current role as actor, he'd spent years as a professional songwriter for some established names in comedy. Billy's the real thing -- a writer who's been getting paid to write for longer than some of us have been alive.

He told me that both his professional and personal life are dominated by people at least 20 years his junior. Not surprising if you've been reading his stuff. Billy's the same age as my in-laws, and I think they'd like him, but I think he'd be bored after 20 minutes. Some people act young; Billy's never stopped being young.

Seven years, thousands of posts and one Vietnamese lunch later, we were strolling outside in the sunshine, feeling at the same time intensely curious and intimately familiar. A weird sensation I was to become very familiar with over the next two days.

We spoke a couple of times the next day, seeing if we could fit in a film between our two sets of plans -- his Shakespeare rehearsals and my continuing series of meals. We never saw a film, but we did meet Saturday morning for breakfast at Café Lalo's, a beautifully serene little place on the upper west side where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan first met in You've Got Mail. Billy's warm, pretty wife, Delores, joined us for breakfast, and then afterwards for more talking, walking and gawking, where we drank in the great weather and beautiful part of town, ducking into Central Park to meet some of the cast of A Midsummer’s Night Dream who were performing with Billy that afternoon outdoors. A perfect way to start a weekend; a perfect way to end my trip.
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Posted: Tue Jul 20, 2004 8:47 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Part 3: Mr. Brownstone Comes Out To Play

If Billyweeds is the deep hum of a Mercedes, Tim -- Timdog, Indianrunner, Mr. Brownstone -- is the roar of a Ferrari, burning through the forum in a sonic boom of prose and then screeching off the road in a huff, leaving mile-long skid marks of splintered metaphors.

He's easily one of the best writers this forum has ever seen, and one sure sign you've acheived full-member status is when you've been told to "Fuck off" by Tim. It's not just an insult, it's an execution by prose. Whether you've intentionally crossed swords with him online or unintentionally pushed an invisible hot button, once his Red Alert goes off you are a Dead Man Writing. He'll pronounce your death sentence in a relentless train of paragraphs that barrel over your argument and self-worth, where he will rationally, logically, mathematically arrive at the inescapable conclusion you must now go fuck yourself.

As you've figured by now, Tim can be an intimidating presence, and I was completely unsure of how that would translate into a real life meeting. I knew we were meeting for drinks Thursday night and we'd already exchanged voice messages when, finally, I called and he actually answered the phone. "Hello?"

"Hi Tim, it's Lorne!"

The voice sliced through the phone receiver, "Hey bro! Whassup!" VROOM!! -- as the testosterone Ferrari raced past me. We quickly confirmed plans and location, and the dialogue ended with Tim barking, "Great, man -- see you later!" VROOOoommm. The dust cleared and he was gone.

Now, I like to pride myself on reading people pretty well, but this guy was moving too fast to track. With little else to go on I fell back on familiar references. Tim had always reminded me of a friend I had -- this guy was very smart, very interesting and a bonafide jock. Just like Tim. My friend was also very self-absorbed, and our conversations usually resembled monologues with him in the role of orator and me listed somewhere in the credits as the guy who says, "Mmm-Hmmm..." a lot. A genuinely good person but a real energy eater. If Tim was a reflection of this guy it would be a taxing evening.

It was 9:30pm when I walked into the bar on 23rd and 8th. I had seen Tim's headshot photo which he'd emailed to the forum group a month earlier. He, however, like Billy, had no idea what I looked like. I felt a twinge of being, well, a little old for this crowd. So now I was about to be listed in the credits as, "Middle-aged guy who says 'Mmm-Hmmm' a lot". Great.

And, suddenly, there he was. I looked around and saw the headshot of the Ferrari leaning on a barstool, his flourescent tank-top with the oversized picture of Cher glowing pinkish red under the lights. Okay, I'm just fucking with you -- Tim was leaning on a barstool alright, but maybe because he thought I'd be expecting it, or maybe because he simply doesn't bullshit, he was wearing a black Guns & Roses t-shirt and jeans. I walked up, said hi, sat down. Start your engines.

Funny thing -- after all that anticipation and after all my preconceived ideas, meeting Tim was like meeting an old buddy. An old buddy that I wouldn't have recognized if we passed on the street, but, nevertheless, that deep well of knowledge about each other we'd accumulated over all that time started flowing instantly, like two people who were picking up where they'd left off. Family, friends, work, current shit, all of it in a back and forth dialogue so natural it was like we'd known each other for years. Which we had. My eyes said 'total stranger', but don't trust your eyes, use the force Lshap, use the force.

I could see the Mr. Brownstone persona lurking behind his eyes as we talked. Tim carries himself with confidence, and his eyes, dark and hawk-like, carry the familiar intensity. But his tone is surprisingly...well...nice. Tim's business had just gone through a tough period and we were talking about it for just a few minutes when he stopped and said, "Man, enough about me -- I want to hear about you." Not evasively, more apologetic, totally sincere. That's him -- sincere and bullshit-free.

We hung out at the bar ordering drinks and snack food, and I realized that the reason I liked this guy was that he had that rare quality of being both interesting and interested. Tim sounds as smart as you'd expect him to be, but he listens just as well. He's part of New York's famous Actor's Studio, and gets close-up and personal with some big name actors who teach there. His business -- the one that suffered a blow and is now doing well -- is personal training, where he works the fat off some clients who are big names in film, too. But, see, he's never name-dropped on the forum because he considers that to be a breach of trust. Nice, sincere and bullshit-free all the way.

The evening flew by, and I never even had the chance to ask him half the stuff I'd wanted to. It was a few days later, back in Montreal, where I read one of Tim's posts that ended with "Lorne - I owe you a beer". I thought, "Man, I am definitely taking you up on that, bro!" I hope the two of us old buddies get the chance to pick up where we left off. I had a great time and Tim's a genuinely great guy.
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