Saturday, January 21, 2012

Simplicity of Being

I don't want to romanticize poverty, because there is nothing romantic about it, but there is something to be said of the simplicity it holds.

We Americans like to surround ourselves with stuff.  "Whoever dies with the most stuff wins," was a bumper sticker I saw once. If we look at people on the television show, Hoarders, we already have winners.  The rest of us can give up.

I have nothing against a beautifully decorated home, but I tend to find myself more comfortable in rooms that are open and functional. All I need is a chair to sit in, a bed to lay my head at the end of the day, and a flat surface to write on.

When I had my first apartment, two weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I had nothing but my clothes in a suitcase.  My first bed was an Army cot borrowed from a friend.  I decorated my first apartment mostly with found items.  Things I'd see put out for trash, or great steals in thrift stores.  A citrus crate became an end table.  A piece of plywood and two saw horses became a desk.  Everything I ate was cooked in an electric skillet or a toaster oven.

My big break came in the form of a JC Penney's credit card.  I went out and bought curtains, a decent set of dishes and my first electric typewriter.  Now I had everything I needed.

It must seem silly to some, but I didn't mind that my furniture was an eclectic collection of junk.  I was proud of that junk.  In my eyes they were diamonds in the rough.  With some polish and hard work, they were my masterpieces.  Besides, there was always the thrill of finding one of these gems sticking out of a dumpster or sitting on someone's curb.  These items had character, unlike the mass produced soul-less items you find in a mall or big box store.

I know some kids today are getting their first apartments and their parents are furnishing it from the Williams-Sonoma catalog.  I feel sorry for them.  Sure, they'll have 500 count cotton sheets, but they won't develop the creative eye that teaches you to make a lamp from a wastepaper basket and some wiring.  They see the world through two eyes: one sees treasure, the other sees trash.

I see the world through two eyes.  They both see possibilities.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Simple Kindness and an Unlikely Friendship

"What's the thing you like most about customer service," I asked someone recently.  

"The people," he responded.  

"What's the thing you like least about customer service?"

"The other people."

All too often, we in customer service have our days shadowed by the people who weren't happy, or the people we had to say no to.  It's always nice when you hear a story or experience a situation that reminds us why we do this.  Tonight I had one such experience.

Rosa Lee is one of our greatest volunteers.  She's a retired school teacher and you know she's sent a few kids to detention in her day.  She doesn't take any gruff.  The other side of her is that she's one of the kindest people I've ever known. Rosa is eighty four years old. (She'll kill me for saying that)

Tonight Rosa was telling me she hoped her  friend would make it down from Russell's Point to see the show.  He'd called her to tell her he'd be there. It was a forty minute drive and the roads were getting bad.  She said she only came down because he was going to be there. I listened curiously wondering if Rosa had a gentleman caller.  She told me the story.

Two years ago we presented Wicked.  One night Rosa Lee was volunteering and a young man of about nine or ten told her that he admired the lapel pin she was wearing.  It was from Wicked and was a promotional item.  He told her he would like to have one like that.  Since this particular type wasn't for sale, Rosa asked him if he'd like this one after the run of the show.  He eagerly said he would, so Rosa took down his address and promised to send it to him when she was finished wearing it for the show.  When the show closed, she put the pin in the mail. 

Over the past two years, Rosa has been buying lapel pins when a big show is in town and she's sent them to this young man.  They write letters back and forth and have even talked on the phone.  

Just as Rosa finished telling me the story, I see a young man with his family coming across the lobby.  I could tell the way his face lit up when he saw Rosa that this was the boy.  

I started to move away to give them some space, when a woman who was with the family came over to me and started chatting.  She said that Rosa had made such a difference with this boy and he was so excited about seeing shows because of her.  They even took him to New York to see Phantom of the Opera because Rosa recommended it.  

It wasn't long before I was overwhelmed by watching the two of them that I had to excuse myself and walk away.  There was something in my eye, or my hay fever was kicking in.  

I thought to myself, "Yeah, this is why I do this.  We never really know how we touch the people we come in contact with, even in the smallest ways."  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Things That Weigh Us Down

There is nothing like a move to make us ask, "Why am I keeping all this crap?"

I hate moving, but I know I'm not alone in that. I've yet to meet anyone who loves it.  What I do love is the opportunity it allows us to clear away the wreckage of our past.  Literally and figuratively.

As we move into new empty spaces our minds start dreaming up possibilities for those spaces. A small room with a large window becomes the reading room I've always wanted.  The deep windowsills become a place for potted plants.  The windows overlooking a courtyard become a people watching Mecca for a writer's muse.

As we leave behind the boxes of self help books we no longer need, or our parachute pants from the eighties, we make room for our new self.

As we ponder carrying those boxes or old habits with us, we will probably find we've outgrown them.  It's time to donate them to Goodwill or call bulk pick-up and have them taken away.

In the end, everything we really need to take with us is already inside us. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Defending Your Time and Saying No

A good friend once asked me if I had been writing much lately.  I admitted that it had been a few weeks.  "Yeah, I can tell," she said.  "You get really cranky when you're not writing."

My friend was right. I do get cranky and it always takes me a day or two to realize why.  Once I realize it and sit down at the keyboard and work on some fiction, it's like a drug washes over me and suddenly all is well with the world once more.  It's like a runner's high.  The endorphin rush.  Working out is the same.  Once I begin moving my body and pumping the muscles, the Earth falls back into alignment.

Like everyone, I usually have a hundred and fifty things going on at once.  My calendar is full and I see no end in sight.  I spend time spinning my wheels as I move toward the next project.  I get frustrated and angry and start snapping at people who've done nothing to deserve my wrath.  The problem is that I've said yes to too many other people and not enough to myself.  That's when it becomes impossible to schedule the writing time or the gym time.  The things that sustain me take a back seat.  Until now.

It's been a crazy week and I knew yesterday was going to be especially demanding, so I decided to be proactive and force myself to sit at the keyboard before anything else.  I was going to write for one hour.  Anything that interrupted me was going to add time to the writing clock.  I was getting my hour in, damn-it.  The phone rang.  I answered, talked to my friend for a few minutes and added the time to the hour.  The dogs needed to go out.  Another ten minutes added.  I'm happy to say that I got my hour in.  An hour and a half to be exact.

An author friend of mine says you have to put writing on your calendar and fiercely defend that time.  She is right.  That hour and a half of "me" time is what got me through the rest of the day. It made what could have been a bad day bearable.

This works for everything.  We all need the "me" time for something that sustains us.  Whether it's writing, or working out, photography, reading, having coffee with a friend, whatever...  Choose your time and defend it!    We don't get extra time later.  We have to use what we have today, wisely.

As I do this, I'll have to say no to other people more.  That's never been easy for me.  I've always been an overachiever.  I'm a nice guy. I want to say yes to everyone.  Not really.  I don't want to say yes to everything, I just haven't had enough practice saying no.  Like at work, whenever I have a meeting, it seems I leave with more on my plate and someone in the meeting ends up with less.  I need to learn how to flip that.   The plate is full, folks.

Saying no takes practice.  I'll get used to it and so will they.  If not, screw 'em.  I'll have a finished novel and I won't have bitten their heads off to get there.  Isn't that for the greater good?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's the Craft that Unites Us

It always amazes me how a group of strangers can meet in a classroom, or the back room at Starbucks, and these strangers can become unified in spite of their social, economic, religious, sexual, and political differences.  They enter the room as strangers, but leave the room with one binding commonality.  They are writers.

I'm taking another writing class and actually had the opportunity to attend two different classes this week.  I met about fifteen new writers in the past two days.  A lay person might say, "Great, you met a bunch of nerds."  And that might be true, we writers do tend to be nerds, but we understand each other. The way I look at it is, "Great, I met fifteen more people who are like me." They aren't just like me, of course, (and no one wants that) but we all relate when one person in the room describes the writing exercise as "like therapy."  You can tell by the nods around the room resembling a bobble headed dog sitting on the dash of your car.

I had this same type bonding experience recently with some actors as we were doing a play.  Beyond all of our differences, we all understood character motivation, working with other actors, building the "craft" of acting.  We understand each other in a common language.

Unlike acting, writing tends to be a solitary life.  There is no audience to feed off, or other actors to play against as you're plugging through a rough scene, or tightening dialogue.  It's the writer and his or her keyboard.  When he has a chance to share his experience with other writers, he jumps at the chance.  If for no other reason, to feel less the lone wolf.

Being around actors or writers accomplish the same thing for me.  They make me want to be better at my craft.  Whichever craft I choose.  Acting is a lot of fun, but it's writing that feeds me and makes me feel whole.  It is what makes me who I am.

I am a writer.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Accepting the Good When it Comes

I don't often talk about the specifics of religion, mostly because I think it's a private topic and I have no right to force my views on you, or yours on me.  Besides that, I'm still not sure what I believe.  I was raised Christian, but I've also explored Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Native American religions, and just yesterday I found the answer to a question that was bothering  me in the Quran.  I guess what I believe is there is more than one way to find "heaven" or inner peace.

Yesterday, I spent some time in my church, which is usually a theatre or book store. This time it was Barnes and Noble. I browsed in the religion section, which I don't normally do, but I'll come back to that. I picked up the Quran, and opened it to a random page.  Now, I can't tell you what section it was in, or even exactly how it went, but it was something like this: God does not undo man's gifts to himself and Man cannot take away God's gifts to you. Let me say that part again. Man cannot take away God's gifts to you. 

That struck me like a ton of bricks. A few days ago, after I blogged about the power of the positive attitude, something happened that made me realize I need to continue working on that positive attitude. I had a hard time accepting that something good was happening that I didn't have to fight for.  I did no work to earn it, it just happened.

My partner and I have been looking for a place to live.  Our landlord decided to sell our condo and we wanted to get out before it sold and we'd be forced out.  We hadn't had great luck finding anything we liked and in our price range.  We have a wonderful friend who did suggest the apartment complex he manages, and we pursued that and filled out all the necessary paperwork but it really wasn't what we'd hoped for.  We still wanted to live downtown.

Lo and behold, a friend told my partner about a condo a few blocks away.  We looked at it and it was perfect.  Perfect size. Perfect price.  Perfect location.  The landlord met us, told us we seemed like good people, and told us it was ours if we wanted it.  No application fees, background checks, credit checks, fifteen references, blood test, urine sample, etc... just his feeling that we were good people and we had a mutual friend who vouched for us.  Three days later, we signed the lease and gave him the deposit.  We start moving next weekend.

I don't know why this surprised me.  Good things have happened to me all the time, but somewhere in the past few years I stopped expecting the good things to happen and began expecting the worse.  The good things, I thought, would only come if I worked real hard and forced my will upon them.  I'm happy to report I was wrong.  Another lesson in all of this: when someone tells you that you seem like a good person, it makes you want to be a better person.  I'm suddenly wanting to give back more than ever before.  That's why I was browsing the religion section.

Back to the Quran.  The reason that verse struck me was a few days ago I spoke with a friend of mine and told him my anxiety over this good happening and I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  He said, "maybe it's a gift from God, or the universe.  Just accept it and say thanks."  What?  Can it be that simple?

Maybe he was right.  It was a gift and no man could undo it. Maybe I should practice expecting the best; not the worse.

Thanks, God.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Power of a Positive Attitude

The only disability in life is a bad attitude.  ~Scott Hamilton

I try to be a positive person.  I don't always succeed and I sometimes give in to the negative out of worry, fear or stress, but deep inside I tend to look at life as a glass half full.  This has saved me many times, along with my sense of humor.  I just don't think we can afford to take everything so seriously.  Speaking only for myself, I need to not take myself so seriously sometimes.   I look around and see so many people who have greater challenges or who are less fortunate than I and I wonder, "What the hell am I whining about?"
J.R. Martinez is the definition of a hero.

One of those people is J.R. Martinez.  If the name sounds familiar, he was the winner of the latest Dancing With the Stars.  I first saw him when he was cast on All My Children as a disfigured Iraqi war vet.  Today, he was the Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses Parade.  J.R. knows about challenges and having a positive attitude and he's not just another run of the mill celebrity.  He's a real live Iraqi war veteran who was burned in a land mine explosion.  He suffered burns on 40 percent of his body and has had over thirty surgeries since.  J.R. could have let his experience turn him angry and bitter, but he didn't.  He used it to his advantage and became a motivational speaker.  Aside from that, I think he is one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen.   His smile and attitude are contagious.

J.R. reminds me of a woman I met several years ago.  It's been so long I've forgotten her name, but not the lesson she taught me.  I'll call her Katherine for the sake of the story.  One night after a performance I was house managing, a woman with Cerebral Palsy, Katherine, sat in the lobby waiting for her ride.  She was in a motorized wheelchair and from what I recall, had very limited mobility.  I think she could only operate the joy stick that made the chair move.  She was the only one still in the lobby besides my friend, Melinda, and me.  

Ordinarily I would have dreaded the wait for the ride because the service that usually brought people with mobility issues was notoriously late.   I'd spent many hours waiting for rides for people in wheelchairs who were angry, bitter and blamed the world for everything.  I wasn't looking forward to that kind of evening but, Katherine, I quickly noted, was the opposite of those people.  Katherine was gracious, witty, and had a zest for life. 

I don't remember the conversation, I doubt is Melinda does either, but what I was most struck by was Katherine's attitude.  She had this light within her that beamed.  She wasn't angry. She wasn't bitter.  She was grateful for her life.  She was thrilled she could still come to the theatre.  She was grateful she could control the joy stick on the wheelchair.  She didn't look at all she couldn't do, she looked at all she could.

When the service finally picked Katherine up that evening, neither Melinda or I wanted her to go.  After she left, I remember bursting into tears. I was so moved by this woman in a wheelchair.  Whatever problems or challenges I had that day, or since,  couldn't compare to Katherine's. 

It's so easy to buy into the negative and moan about what we don't have, but in the grand scheme of things, we're incredibly blessed to have what we do.

Working in customer service, I get a lot of exposure to people who focus on the negative and want to blame everyone around them because their lives aren't perfect.  Saturday night, I had one such woman on a walker who I was helping on a wheelchair lift.  She complained the whole elevator ride to her seating area in the front of the loge.  "Why don't you have nicer elevators?  It's because you don't want handicapped people coming here isn't it?  You think you're doing me a favor?"  It went on and on.  If you've ever been on a wheelchair lift, you know how long it takes to travel a few feet.  After I escaped from her, I wondered what has made this woman so bitter.  Which came first, the walker or the bitterness?  I decided it was probably the bitterness. 

Life will throw a lot of shit our way, but if we can maintain an open, grateful heart, we can get through it.  We might even help someone else along the way. 

If you'd like more information on J.R. Martinez, check out his website by clicking here.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Consequences of Our Actions

So, I was finishing my second cup of coffee when I started flipping through channels on the television and came across a little "Train Wreck TV" I couldn't avert my eyes from.  It was a Biography Channel show on Celebrity Mistresses.  Now, I'll be honest and say I didn't know who any of these women were because I don't really follow tabloid news or follow who Tiger Woods or Gordon Ramsey sleep with.  Frankly, I don't care.   What I was surprised about was the reaction these women had to their fame and reputations.

If a woman has an affair with a married celebrity, gets caught, accepts a large sum of money as a "settlement" (isn't it really just blackmail?), or gives interviews for cash, poses nude, does a sex tape and parades around talking trash, why is she so surprised to find out people think she's a slut?  Really?!?  In all fairness, maybe she's not a slut, but the image she is creating is.  Isn't she responsible for that image?  It seems to me, and I was informed by this television show, that as soon as the publicity dies down and the fifteen minutes of fame have passed, then the woman begins to worry about her reputation and wonders if maybe she's handled that badly.

Now I've never had an affair with a married celebrity... Well, not a full fledged affair, but there was some rolling around in the back of a van with a certain famous country music star, but I was nineteen years old and stupid.  Okay, I digress.  Just seeing if you were still paying attention.  The point is there are consequences to our actions.

There are many ways to say it, "You reap what you sow. Don't write a check your ass can't cash. What goes around comes around."   Some interpretations of karma are not about getting in this lifetime what you sowed in a previous lifetime, but more instantaneous.  If you do something now, it's going to have a consequence (good or bad) either immediately, or later on.  It's just how it works.

I will be the first to admit that I haven't always made the best decisions and I haven't always considered the consequences to my actions.  Sometimes they've bitten me in the ass and sometimes I've escaped unscathed, but I'm rarely surprised.  Pissed maybe, but not surprised.  How many times have we done something and said immediately after, "Why did I do that?  I know better."

At the end of the day I hope I've done more good in my life than bad and the consequences are positive and ones I can live with.

Oh, and if I ever get caught having an affair with a married celebrity,  someone please remind me to keep my mouth shut and don't pose nude for anyone. Not even National Geographic.