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The Definition of Happiness

If every facet of the entire world has changed, then so must the definition of our happiness. What makes us happy, when we are cut off from friends and family and lovers? When we our favorite restaurants and bars and theaters are now forbidden to us? Some have the good fortune to be locked in with their children and partners, but in even those cases I have been told that this has its limits. With all this taken away, can we still be happy? 

I was talking to a friend this afternoon, and I asked her how she was doing. Long story short, she said “I don’t even know what a good day is.” We were both surviving. Both privileged and lucky enough to get by. But we weren’t feeling good, necessarily. We weren’t smiling. We were just living. 

Another friend told me “You’re only goal is to survive 2020. That’s it.” He said that out of love and concern. It was absolutely wise, but maybe not complete. There must be something more to surviving. If this pandemic continues for as long as some predict it will, I don’t want to waste a year of my life simply surviving. The worst part of Cast Away, is that after Tom Hanks returns to civilization the movie rushes into the romantic subplot. We don’t see that he’s learned anything from years stuck on an island. He hasn’t changed except to get a haircut and a new suit. Sure, I feel his heart break. But he should also be dancing with joy every time he warms up a Hot Pocket in the microwave. 

The need to find happiness is evidenced by the hundreds who gathered in front of bars, standing to side by side, well within six feet of one another and without masks. All so they could grab a drink. People across the country demanded to be let into restaurants, and to have their nails done and hair chopped and styled. When they were denied they reacted in fury and protests and verbal abuse. An ice cream shop in Boston opened, and when the employees implored people to maintain Covid-19 protocols they were met with abuse so severe that one woman quit. There are few things uglier than happiness denied. And it’s being denied us everywhere. But are there still places where we can find it today? 

I want this answer to be “yes.” I say that with no evidence or insight. I live my life believing I can still be happy with the same faith I step into an elevator and know it will not collapse and go hurtling down twelve stories. I just need to believe this because if I stop believing, I won’t be able to function. That’s how I felt this weekend. My malaise peaked on Saturday night and continued through this morning. Accidentally seeing a Tik Tok video of an ex (sort of, it’s complicated) doing a duet with a hunky guy who had an amazing head of hair, led to one random thought which spiraled into another, sending me spinning down towards feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and I no longer saw the point in anything. My walk through Manhattan helped for awhile. Someone asked if I found joy, and I couldn’t answer. I just said “It was OK,” and truth wasn’t in the words but in the ambivalence of my answer. 

During the following days I sat on my couch. I stopped cleaning. Workouts were abandoned mid rep. I slept all day. I stared listlessly at my favorite movies. There was no point. I was kept alive only by the reflexive pumping of my lungs and heart. Any voluntary attempts at life were ignored. 

And then I thought, “Enough.” I had to change. I had to do something to keep me going. I was tired of being tired. I credit this resilience to the one summer I was unemployed and homeless. Wandering through the streets and wondering how I could ever rebuild my life, I told myself that I had to be positive. It was a thought of pure faith and no logic, but mostly it was a reaction  coming from my survival instinct. I had to be positive if I was going to survive. 

But then the question, what is happiness? Is it going to a bar or getting your haircut? I actually feel sorry for the people who broke quarantine protocols for a beer. If that is the definition of happiness, something worth dying for, then if this pandemic showed us one thing it is that some people’s lives are shallow and empty. 

I was taught, mostly unintentionally, that happiness comes from being with someone. It has become painfully, and sometimes embarrassingly, clear that this isn’t true. Possible? Yes. And if that happens it must be wonderful. But not guaranteed. During last summer (I can’t believe it was a year ago) I was lucky enough to go on a few dates with a raven haired beauty. But she’s suddenly stoped talking to me, as have many other people I hold dear. I’m not bitter. Well, a little bitter. But beneath the surface I know that everyone is coping and handling this situation differently. Many have withdrawn. Emotional exhaustion and depression has forced some to avoid contact with anyone who might ask the ultimate loaded question, “How are you doing?” 

(Side note: I’ve noticed that the few people who do text and call regularly are people who are still working regular jobs. Maybe because their lives feel more normal and stable. Maybe they’re avoiding work.)

The multiple break-ups are just another side effect of survival. As my friend said, the only goal is to survive, and some do so by cutting themselves off. Maybe there’s wisdom there, intentional or otherwise. As Alan Watts said, “. . . I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”

How do you connect with everything when you have nothing? Perhaps by looking within. I’ve been asking questions lately. Like, who am I really? What do I want? What is truly important? Spoiler alert, it’s not haircuts and vodka sodas (if those are the most important things in your life, I ask you to think a little harder). It’s no small coincidence that I’ve written more in four months than I have in the entire previous year. But that’s not the most important part of my day. Sitting with my coffee, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to, I can finally sit and just think with no pressure or limits.  To quote the Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hath: 

“We need silence, just as much as we need air, as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.”

Are we isolated? Yes. But that isolation also brings silence, to leave space for us (apologies to anyone who’s raising kids, if you even had time to read this far). 

Maybe we’re all still connected. Joined together in a crusade to end the reign of Covid-19. Maybe the silence and the pain and loneliness are a badge of solidarity as we march against this life changing, life stealing virus. We can’t feel good by seeing our friends. We can’t find joy in a walk by the Hudson or in some bacon wrapped goodness at Criff Dogs. But we can feel good because we are surviving against the greatest catastrophe of this generation. It’s still possible to feel good. We just have to redefine what “good” means. Feeling good means being alive. Being healthy. Feeling good means knowing that thousands of people are no longer dying each day in New York State. Because almost everyone chose to lock themselves in isolation. To be able to breathe when so many thousands can’t. To see the sun rise and set. To know that those friends are still out there, alive and well. 

With all the tragic and horrible deaths happening, maybe we should learn that we can be happy simply by being alive. And in so doing realize what a gift life is. And when this is finally over and the doors are opened and we see our loved ones and the whole world gets a giant “do over” for life, we can really learn to love every moment for what it is. Maybe being happy is being alive. It’s a lesson I hope I can learn. Am I right? I don’t know. But believing that it’s true will keep me going for a few days more. 

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Return to Manhattan

I want to start off by being a bit of a hypocrite. I left my apartment to go into midtown Manhattan. I wouldn’t recommend anyone do that with Covid-19 still creating a lockdown. I have raged at people gathering outside bars and crowding the streets without masks during this time. In my defense, I kept my mask on and maintained my distance. But I needed to get out of my apartment. I have been stuck in here for four months, outside of brief walks for essentials. It’s a nice place, but it felt like a trap. Stuck here in isolation, any negative thought or issue I might be having reverberated in my head like an echo chamber, growing louder and more discordant with every passing evening, till all I wanted was release from the pain. I needed to get out and walk, really walk, before my thoughts took me to a dark place I had no business being in. Just take my word for it that my need to clear my head and revisit my old stomping grounds was worth the risk. So I put on a comfortable Hawaiian shirt, shorts, sneakers and my Sam Beckett sunglasses and went out into the real world, away fro the now painful confines of home. 

The first change I noticed wasn’t in the city. It was in my legs. Stairs are exhausting. Since I have nothing to do but workout I’ve taken leg day seriously, but the problem is endurance. As I went down the stairs to my former subway station, I missed the last step and landed jarringly, sending a wave of physical shock through my lower back. I had forgotten how to take stairs. Fortunately I bruised nothing but my ego. My trip up the stairs to the second level left me trying to catch my breath. 

Everything in the station was so clean. Clean like I’d never seen before. We’re talking iPhone fresh out of the box clean. The metro card kiosk (my card had expired long ago) was pristine and gleamed. Overhead announcements were made to an empty station, telling people to wear masks and keep a proper distance. A sign on the wall measured out six feet to remind people how far to stand apart. 

The trains were equally immaculate. Inside the train were a few people. Plenty of room to sit. Everyone sat quietly, hunkered down and staring at their phones, all looking very matter of fact and slightly bored. I guessed they were essential workers, by their nonchalance. New Yorkers have a great ability to get jaded quickly.

I got off at Grand Central Station. Here is where I noticed another change. Usually people cram the escalator to get up and out a quickly as possible. Today, everyone waited a second so they could maintain a few feet of distance from the person ahead. A few people ran on the left, ignoring social distance. Not adhering to quarantine rules has replaced walking slowly as the new pedestrian irritant. The subway station right below the terminal was almost empty. I never noticed till then how much I relied on the crowd to orient myself. The station is very confusing, and usually I would look at where the crowds were moving to get a feel to where the exits and entrances were located. Without the crowds to guide me, it took me longer to find my way out.

Grand Central Terminal is one of my favorite places in the city. Before I became a resident, it welcomed me to Manhattan with promises of grandeur and bustle and excitement. The beautiful vaulted ceiling, the crowds of people, the cheap coffee and gourmet markets always made the terminal a microcosm of the city.  A cathedral of hustle and stress and diversity. Today it was almost empty. There were maybe twenty or less people, making it feel more like an oversized lobby than the hub of Manhattan. Conversations on the opposite end of the cavernous terminal echoed to me. I could hear every hushed footstep against the marble floor. Everyone walked slowly, looking around them and up at the ceiling. It all made Grand Central feel more life a museum, and in some ways this was appropriate. Grand Central looked the same, but it was no longer a transportation hub. It was a reminder of days when the city was made of up of millions of people moving fast everywhere. Today nobody is going anywhere. 

The streets were even emptier. People walked casually. Some with masks, some without. I was struck by how normal everyone acted. One man pulled on the locked door of a fast food restaurant and said “What the shit? It’s closed??”

It wasn’t until I stopped at a corner when I realized how eerie the city looked without people. I still have the New Yorker trait of zoning out everything when I’m walking. Once I stopped to see how empty the streets were, the pandemic really hit me. It felt like a small town which happens to have giant buildings. 

The last time I was in Manhattan it was still winter, and the air was cold and clean and quiet. Now it was almost summer. It was hot. Humid. There were more cars and buses this time. By more I mean one or two. Not jay walking felt more like a courtesy or a habit than a necessity. Anyone could have easily crossed the street and avoided any oncoming vehicles. Some thing which struck me was how normal everyone looked. People smoking casually while leaning against doorways. Strolling along like everything was fine. 

The walk from Grand Central past Bryant Park was leisurely, even relaxing. The only stress was seeing people without masks, or who walked too closely. But the day was beautiful. Outside of WholeFoods, large plastic crates were placed on foot peddled carts for transport, as Manhattan kept its kitchens filled and families cared for. It was pleasant but odd. Like walking with an old friend who suddenly stops mid sentence. The silence is might be harmless but it’s an indication that something is amiss.

Times Square was crowded. Well, relative to the city, but not to the past. A few hundred people milled around, for what reason I don’t know. Maybe they were curious. Maybe they were families who refused to cancel a long planned vacation. Maybe they were like me and just wanted to get out.

Sadly, the number of homeless was the same. There were also street musicians still out. God bless him, a man played saxophone in the middle of the bow tie. I said “God bless you, you’re helping to make the city feel normal.”

“It helps,” he replied, as he mopped sweat off his forehead. I tipped him. Part of me wanted to say something more, but my conversation skills with strangers are rusty. I wanted to talk, and thank him. Solo saxophone, in my mind, was always the unofficial but real anthem of New York City. Instead I kept walking.

The Naked Cowboy was out still busking. He wasn’t wearing a mask, but I guess that was to be expected. It gave me a little hope seeing him. It felt normal. There weren’t many other customers, and he was talking animatedly with a man holding a sign which read “Repent now. Jesus is returning.” I walked away.

Seeing the theatre district was odd. It didn’t make me feel the way I expected to. My first reaction was it felt nice to see the marquees again. Especially my building. I walked the exact same route as my old commute, around Europan and down 43rd to the Stage Door, passing the New Victory on the way. The lights were off and the Marquees were filthy. No sign of vandalism or damage, except on the 42nd street entrance, where someone had written “Fuck the lockdown” across one of the posters. 

I could have opened the Stagedoor, but that seemed like a good way to lose my job. I also wasn’t ready to look inside the building. It might have been too overwhelming, especially since I have no idea when it will open again. I leaned against my old door for a few minutes. It was peaceful. Reassuring. Snapped a few photos of myself. Then I walked away, taking a few laps down Schubert Alley and past Juniors. I snapped a photo of Theatre Row. The sun was at a particular angle where the skyline was bright and alive with daylight, but the theatre were cast in shadow. A curious lighting effect, where the rest of the city was sunny but the marquees were in the dark. 

After about an hour I had enough. I wanted to get out of my home. I wanted to indulge in some nostalgia. I wanted a little sampling of an old life when I was reasonably content and grounded. But it was getting hot and I was becoming weary, and I wanted to leave while I was still enjoying myself and before the wallowing began. 

There was a moment of panic. I wanted to get back to my apartment, but was I leaving an empty city to go back to an empty home? Why did I leave, and did I get what I wanted? My instinct was to return, so I must have gotten something from this excursion, but what? Maybe I  just really loved the city, and I wanted to see it again. 

I took the train back home. The day was getting hotter. There are times when I forget to eat, and that was true today. Not hungry, but spent. There was a thick layer of sweat underneath my Hawaiian shirt. The actor f working for an hour stretched out and loosened my lower body and made my blood flow through me with more energy than had happened in four months. I felt more tired but more alive than I had since the winter. 

Then I walked into my building, the lobby looking dark after an hour in the bright sun. Up to my studio where I could sit down and relax. And I felt something I hadn’t felt since March. I was glad to be back home. 

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Why You Shouldn’t Use a Booster Seat at a Broadway Theatre (if you’re an adult)

Because at some point they’ve probably been covered in urine.

For those of you who are wondering, a booster seat is a contraception which resembles (but is not) a seat cushion. Usually the same color as the theatre seats. They go on top of your regular seat, and are designed to allow a small child to see over the head of any adults who are in front of them. Some mimic the regular seat. Some are small pillows. Some are plastic seats. A nice gesture that has gone terribly wrong. Maybe the second biggest reason ushers hate you (aside from your smart phone) is if you use a booster seat for an adult. Why would an adult want one? They are under the assumption that it is a cushion, and that it will be more comfortable. They’re not called cushions. They’re called boosters. They boost you up, but they do not cushion you. In fact, they are generally more uncomfortable. The outside padding barely covers the wooden frame and nails which give the booster its shape and allows it to bear the weight of a small child. They are very expertly crafted, granted, but they are designed to elevate children. Not for adults who want to feel like they’re in a fancy hookah lounge. 

There are a limited number of boosters at any theatre, and ushers need to make sure that the people who get them are the ones who need them.  Namely, innocent children. Nobody wants a child to be unable to see a show because some forty year old wanted to be a little more comfy. Nobody understands why some of these adults need two or three boosters, except for these pampered adults. Yes, some adults try to use not one, but two boosters at one time.  It’s not like having two pillows. You won’t be twice as comfortable. If anything, you are literally in danger of falling. You are also blocking the view of anyone behind you. In some Houses, the boosters are cushions, but after a few shows they are flat as Matzoh crackers and offer no cushioning. The smarter Houses use plastic boosters, like you see at fast food restaurants. Funny how you never see adults sitting on boosters at any McDonald’s.  

Ushers have to politely convince hundreds of Karens and Chads that they are for children. These Karens and Chads argue and often take them anyway, blocking the view of anyone behind them because they think they’ll be comfortable. And then they are not returned, like the ushers ask them to, and these ushers have to spend an hour gathering them all up.

But you don’t want to hear that. Not your problem.  But if you’re over five feet tall, and want to use a booster seat just because you think you’ll be more pampered, there are some things you should know. 

I should start by saying that I work for an organization which has voiced it’s dedication to audience safety and comfort repeatedly. So it’s a reasonable assumption that everything is cleaned and safe for usage. But this isn’t always the case all the time. The regular seats, and by extension the boosters, go through a lot of trauma. People can be careless. They’re focused on the show anyway, and they shouldn’t be worried about spilling their drinks. But it happens. Wine, beer, soda, coffee all find their way to the seats. Also chocolate and potato chips. Salt. Sugar. Body odor. All gets absorbed by these seats.

The theatre seats are cleaned on a regular basis. There is a very deep, professional clean before any new show opens for previews. A truck is parked outside the venue, and long hoses run into the lobby and up every stairwell as people dressed in Ghostbuster-like uniforms deep clean every seat, one by one. In some cases, the seats can even be removed entirely (and surprisingly quickly) to be sent to a cleaning facility. There are regular checks for bedbugs.Yes, done by a bug sniffing dog. But the boosters aren’t cleaned as often as the seats. And these seats and boosters get dirty. 

If that’s all you need to know, or want to know, go ahead and stop reading here. For everyone else . . . . 

The seats and boosters can get really, really dirty. Through no fault of the front of house staff. 

(Let me say here that all the following were learned from the inner circle of usher gossip, and that I cannot confirm or deny the accuracy of these anecdotes.)

I’ve heard a story from a reliable source about a young child, who was so entranced by a big budget, kid friendly spectacular that he refused to leave his seat. Even when he should have. He left his seat. Went to the restrooms. And did his business. Only not in that order. 

There was that time a patron vomited from the mezzanine onto the orchestra (some shows just seem to inspire a quick curtain call by one’s dinner). What gets me is that most mezzanine and balcony levels have a brass safety rail to prevent someone from possibly falling. So this sick patron had to lean forward considerably, then position their head above a railing to ensure that he or she did not get sick on their shoes but on the audience members below. The poor recipient in the cheap seats was offered dry cleaning, and no doubt several towels, by the House Manager on duty. Quite possibly a ticket for a future show was also offered, although these are rarely given out. When you see a House Manager and wonder why they’re not flustered by your complaint about the lobby temperature, it’s because they’ve seen much worse.  

There was a close call where a gentleman, who had five pre show martinis, soiled the entire front of his pants. And kept soiling them. Luckily this happened at ticket taking, and ushers noticed after he spun 180 degrees and fell to the ground. Twice. He was sent home, because it just wouldn’t be right to have him sitting on the seats. 

After one performance, a young man was passed out. Security noticed that he looked a bit off, but they couldn’t quite figure out why. It turns out he was on heroin. During the show he was passed out. Once the lights were on, he was found on his seat, completely out cold, with his pants half off and his bare ass on the seat. Lord knows for how long. 

There’s an apocryphal tale of a woman who saw a show featuring a high profile, very handsome, low key British actor. According to the usher circles, one night a woman in the audience enjoyed herself a bit too much. I won’t go into detail, but she wasn’t winning any Seinfeld contests. 

I’m trying to make a point without being crude. So I’ll stop with the examples before I get to anything more disgusting. Just know that stuff happens. 

Let me repeat again: I work for very conscientious people who value the safety and comfort of every patron. There is a very hard working house cleaning staff who are experts at cleaning stains you never imagined. Everything, including the most dramatic accidents of the human body, are swept up and disposed of like a Russian informant. But there’s a reason I never sit on the extreme front and rear seats of a subway. There’s a reason I never wear somebody else’s underwear. There’s a reason more theaters are switching to plastic seats, which are easy to clean and disinfect. I just want you to consider what these boosters have been through before you grab one because you think it will make you comfortable. The chances of sitting in someone else’s filth are marginal, but do you want to take that chance over a complete illusory concept of comfort? Because they’re not even comfortable. They’re for kids so they can see, watch, and enjoy a show. Not for adults. In case I am not being clear enough, let me say this: If you are over five feet tall and you use a booster, you are a self-centered, selfish, inconsiderate human being and you have no business enjoying theatre. 

A few Broadway houses use plastic seats to assist children. When theaters open post covid-19, it’s my hope that all other theaters will follow suit. A friend of mine pointed out that plastic boosters are the only reliable way to make sure seats are completely clean and disinfected. If the powers in charge are smart, they will make this switch. I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a law. 

For those who want, and should take their children to a show, and might be worried, let me say this. First, I am serious when I saw that a lot of hard, thankless work is done to make sure all the seats are clean. Second, my favorite moments as an usher was when I saw young children coming to the theatre. I see a new generation of theatre lovers. I see children who will carry fond memories into adulthood, and maybe pass these experiences onto their children. One of my favorite childhood memories is of going to see the Pirates of Penzance with my entire family. I want children to go, and I want them to feel safe. You shouldn’t be alarmed or worried, any more than you would bringing a child onto a subway. If it makes you feel better, maybe have your children clean up after the show. Or discreetly bring your own seat cover (if you’re an adult and bring your own seat cover, I fear for your dangerously low levels of self-esteem). Or do what Robert DeNiro did, and have your kid sit in your lap. The point of this piece is to deter the unnecessary use of boosters by uppity adults. If they’re too unreasonable to refuse a seat, they will be unreasonable enough to avoid a seat from the examples above. Your kids will be fine. Just don’t let them read this. 

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Who You Should Be Nice to When You See A Broadway Show

Be nice to your usher. That means saying “hello” and “thank you.” It’s amazing how many people treat ushers with all the respect and empathy they would give to a broken ATM. When they hand you a playbill, just say “thank you.” Maybe smile, because you’re there to have a good time and be in a good mood so why would you not act otherwise? Say “excuse me” when you bump into them. A surprisingly large amount of people fail to do this. Keep in mind that a Broadway house contains at minimum five hundred seats, so you can imagine this happens quite often. When an usher talks to you, make eye contact. This also happens rarely, and it is infuriating. Keep in mind that any question you ask, has already been asked at least a hundred times, so if an usher smiles and gives you a quick, well-spoken response they are smiling through sheer force of will. Because they are god damned tired of saying over and over again, like water torture, where the bathrooms are and that the playbills are free and that you can’t put your feet up on the balcony ledge. 

Also keep in mind that any time they ask you not to do something, 99% of the time it’s so no one gets hurt. Your shopping bags in the aisle are going to trip some poor individual who just had to use the bathroom while the house lights were still off. If you’re dawdling at the entrance to stare at the show poster, you’re blocking traffic behind you and creating a fire hazard. And yes, if your phone is on the actors on stage and everyone in the orchestra can see you. Everyone. And it’s distracting. Just turn them off.

There are two main reason to be nice to your usher. If you have a heart attack, or trip and break your wrist, or can’t find your child, they’re the ones who respond. That is literally the main reason they are there. They might not do it often, but when the need arises they are the first line of defense. If you see an usher who is not handing out playbills or taking tickets, they’re probably guarding a fire exit, or are standing in an area where someone could trip and hurt themselves, like a staircase or incline. As a casual audience member you may have never seen this. If you work in a Broadway house this happens quite often, and it’s frightening. At one particular show there were five heart attacks in one week. Factor in the average age of a theatre audience, and the number of inebriates handed out, it can happen quite often. When I see a house with a lot of ushers, I see a history of 911 calls. 

Secondly, you should be nice to ushers because nobody else is. Whenever you talk to an usher, it is entirely possible they just suffered some form of verbal abuse five minutes ago. Stagehands rarely interact with them. Some are nice to them. Others ignore them. Same with actors. This can change show to show, and individual to individual. Sometimes the actors and front of house can be like family. Where I work, that rarely happens. House managers might be nice to ushers. Maybe. Personally I’m nice to about half the ushers. I’ll help now and then. I’ll be professional. Half of them I count as good friends. The other half . . . I have to try a little harder to be nice.

Worst of all, the people who are really mean to ushers, the ones who can ruin an ushers day with just a look, are other ushers. There’s usually some drama happening somewhere. 

So, be nice to the ushers because nobody else is. And they can save your life. 

I’d tell you to be nice to the head usher, but you probably don’t know what a head usher is. Basically they’re like ushers, except they get to wear their own clothes. You can usually tell them by the way they keep looking down and putting a hand up to their earpiece, because they’re hearing about five different issues happening throughout the house. The House Manager looks like a head usher, except their clothes are more expensive. Should you be nice to a house manager? Well, if you’re talking to one you probably already screwed up. Or someone else did and they’re trying to fix the problem. So yeah, be nice to them. Especially if they’re being calm. A good House Manager looks more cool and collected amidst chaos. If they’re being nice to you, they’re working really hard to accommodate you. 

If the box office attendant is nice to you, definitely be nice to them. Out of gratitude. The majority of box office workers genuinely want to find you the best seat available for the least amount of money. They know all the sight lines. They know which seats are closest to the bathrooms and where the fifty year old air conditioning vent is going to freeze your ass off. I’ve seen my friend Max patiently explain to a woman where the best seat in the Dress Circle is, then explain what “Dress Circle” meant, then repeat that information three times only to have her change her mind so that he could go through it all again for a different seat. All while there were other people in line. There are a lot of good reasons to work in box office, but no amount of money will convince me to do it. It takes unearthly, divine patience. They are, inexplicably, the first to get blamed if a show doesn’t sell well (who cares that the musical is an adaptation of Top Gun starring Clay Aiken?).  They are forced to deal with anyone who walks in off the street. And on a day to day basis they endure the nastiest and rudest behavior more than anyone except maybe a stage manager. 

So when you encounter a box office employee who is being nasty, don’t try to win them over. Don’t make a joke. Just pay your money and take your ticket and go the fuck to your seats. You’re not going to win them over. You’re not going to make them nicer. If the seat is to expensive or behind a pillar, your choice is to take the ticket, or leave, or come back and hope you get a different person. There’s a grey haired man who who works box office at the Cherry Lane theatre, who was so condescending and curt I probably will never go there again. That’s how you handle box office. 

Be really professional and patient with security. Sadly, there are more security guards working in theatre today, and their jobs are getting more complex. They have one job: make sure no one gets hurt. They have to do this quickly and efficiently, executing a complex and thorough process (it might not look complex, but that’s by design) in little time. They might be brusque. Blunt. If you’re entitled they might look rude. But if they screw up someone gets hurt. Just remember that Lincoln was killed in a theatre, and let’s leave it at that. Let them do their job. 

While in the lobby, you might see somebody holding a clipboard, looking around as if they were trying to shoot laser beams out of their eyes and through the walls. This is the company manager. They are highly intelligent and experienced in many things. One item not in their job description is customer service. Just don’t talk to them. In my five years in the business, I’ve worked with two company mangers who were absolutely divine human beings, and even though it’s been years since I’ve seen them, I count them as some of my favorite people in the world. They are the exceptions. A company manager is required to be in the lobby but their job is not to help patrons. And they act like it. Unless you’re a young member of the appropriate sex with exceptional endowments, they won’t look at you. I actually have the utmost respect for the company managers who look stern and impersonal. They’re available energies are focused on the success of the show, and they literally have no time for niceties. It’s the ones who are all chummy with management and hand out their phone numbers whom I despise. They are proof to the adage, the person who is nice to you but mean to the waiter (or usher or housekeeper or attendant) is not a nice person. 

Of course you should be nice to the bartender. The question is how to be nice. Under no circumstances should you say something to the effect of “can you make it strong?” Jut don’t. If you think about it for a minute, you can see how insulting that is. It’s implying that they don’t know what they’re doing. That they’ve been mixing weak drinks all night. Just make your order, preferably deciding before you get to the bar, and tip appropriately. Better yet, tip before you make the order (that’s actually how you get a stronger pour). Take two seconds to find out the prices so you don’t explode in shock over the expense while they’re trying to serve you. 

Fun fact about anyone who works in merchandise at a Broadway house. They don’t work with the rest of the front of house staff, and are normally contracted through a third party. So they’re not trained in seat locations and customer policy. Yet they seem to get most of the questions, probably because they’re usually friendlier. And for what it’s worth, since many of them work other shows, they usually know a great deal more than they need to. But their job isn’t to be ushers, yet people treat them as if they do. Before you ask where your seat is, take a second to see if they’re dressed like an usher, or are holding a flashlight, or if they say “I’m not an usher.” Little clues like that.  If you have a question about the merchandise, by all means ask them. But do not – and I can’t believe I have to say this – do not try to figure out the softness of the tee shirt fabric by touching the tee shirt while it is being worn by a human being! Touch the ones on the shelves. Yes, this happens all the time. 

The people who probably deserve the most gratitude are the housekeepers. As it is, they are rarely seen by the public when the house opens. But they are the most deserving of courtesy and praise, because you don’t want to see what a theatre looks like if no one has mopped up the vomit and disinfected the urinals. Broadway attendees have lousy aim. Some don’t even wait till they’re in the rest room. Just show your appreciation by maybe wiping down the seat and not leaving your popcorn and soda underneath the seat. I never understood patrons who leave food and garbage under the seat as opposed to simply on the ground. It’s like they don’t want to do the courtesy and take the minimum effort of throwing something in the trash. But they don’t want to look like assholes, so they hide the evidence. Which means the housekeeper has to bend down and do a flashlight search for a box of chocolate covered pretzels like some member of the missing snack police. 

Just keep in mind that the front of house is tasked with ushering, on average, a thousand people into a theatre and to their seats in less than an hour. And have to make sure a thousand people can make it to the bathrooms in under twenty minutes, and half an hour to get a thousand people out of the theatre so preparations can be made for the next show. All while keeping everyone safe and happy. If you’re nice to them, you’ll have a more enjoyable evening. So be nice to yourself by being nice to them. And turn off your phone. 

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Getting Over Someone

Years ago, at work, I slammed a door on my thumb. The finger tips are particularly sensitive, and I felt an intense pain the likes of which took over my entire body. It wasn’t just my thumb, every nerve in my body seemed to flare up in electric agony. I felt nauseous. My brain couldn’t function. The only thought in my head was pain. My boss asked me to go sort out the DVD’s, and I thought, how the hell am I supposed to do that? A coworker saw my thumb the next day, and it hadn’t turned a dark purple, almost black, and he told me it would be like that awhile, probably a month. The pain was so intense I can’t even remember what it felt like. If I try really hard I can remember what my Mom’s cooking tastes like. I can remember the cool breeze off a beach on a summer vacation from years ago. I can remember what it feels like to hug a friend. The smell of coffee. But that pain I can’t recall, even remotely. The pain was so intense the experience has exceeded my ability to remember it. I just know I never want to feel that again.

Having your heart broken is similar. It is a pain so intense I struggle to recall what it feels like, unless it happened just a few weeks ago. The second time it happened, I couldn’t believe I survived the first. Every nerve in your body flares up in pain. Your brain is incapable of functioning because it’s too overloaded with agony. There’s loss of appetite. An inability to sleep. An inability to see past the pain to anything else in the world. 

The difference between smashing your thumb and getting your heart broken is that when you smash your thumb, you don’t think that your thumb hurts because you weren’t good looking enough, or charming enough or you didn’t say the right thing at the right moment. Smashing your thumb is just dumb luck, but you get over it. Losing someone you love is seeing a potentially happy life disappearing and dying. 

Not everyone has smashed a door on their thumb, but almost everyone has had their heart broken. A friend of mine broke up with her long term partner. Everything seemed perfect and then he left, and she spent hours on the roof of her building, crying in the rain. My Dad, who continues to get wiser with age, told me that you can’t know the pain of divorce until you’ve been through it. And I know a lot of divorced people. If you do a search on YouTube for advice on getting over heartbreak you will find thousands of videos. Look up the lyrics to most of your favorite songs, and about half of them are about chasing the elusive promise of romance, or at least lust. 

Love hurts.

Except it doesn’t. 

Most people think they’re in love, when usually it’s just a crush. Before therapy, I usually became enamored with someone to fill some void in my psyche. Having a girlfriend meant I was complete. I wasn’t good enough, or life wasn’t happy enough, unless I could attach the “girlfriend” label to someone. It’s a common phenomenon. Usually when I had feelings ti was because we happened to like the same three movies and she was halfway attractive. Those are crushes. They’re tough in the short term, but easy to get over in the long term. They may sting for awhile, but the sting more often than not has to do with feelings of rejection and low self-esteem. Thinking you’re not good enough or there’s somebody better looking or cooler with a slick leather jacket and a bad boy attitude who just happened to set the pheromones ablaze of that person you were so attached too. It makes for great movies, but in many cases what works in the movies doesn’t apply to real life. In real life, cars don’t explode on impact, Tom Cruise isn’t that nice of a guy, and true love isn’t grounded in over the top gestures. 

With the crush, the solution is simple. Go out and find yourself. Develop a skill, find good friends, travel the world. Grow. Learn. Build up that self esteem and realize you don’t actually need anybody to feel better about yourself. It’s not a quick solution but an effective one. Even an enjoyable one. You might become a better person for it, and that broken heart might lead to writing a great novel or a terrific song. Or maybe you’ll just learn to like yourself. 

When it’s true love, that can be more difficult. If you’ve know anyone who’s gone through a divorce, you can see the abstract scars. The thousand yard stare. The eyes which look full of life one minute suddenly going dead the next. The exhaustion. The air around these people just feels broken. There is scientific evidence that after extreme emotional trauma the IQ drops around ten points. When I left a long term relationship I was definitely dumber and more confused and couldn’t hold a thought longer for five minutes. And this was with someone I wanted to get away from. 

When you love someone, and they don’t love you back, it can be painful. 

Except it isn’t.

The rejection is painful. The disappointment is torture. The imaginary scenarios of walking on the beach hand in hand, impressing your friends with the love of your life, laughing, romance. Endless days of paradise. An astute friend of mine told me that the problem with romance is that the future is always perfect. It’s all white wine and red roses and laughter and kisses. You don’t think about how bad their morning breath might be, the irritating way they talk when they eat or how impossible it is to deal with them when they’re angry. When reality steps in the way, that promise of untainted joy is collapsed and pain swoops in like a vulture. 

Afterwards is chaos as you reach for whatever source of solace you can. It means calling that best friend you’ve lost contact with. Some tell you that they never really liked her, in the well intentioned attempt to break the spell that person had on you. The good friends offer advice The best friends offer to listen. Some friends yell at you because you haven’t eaten in three days. You wonder if you’ll ever be happy. You feel like it will never end. Its painful. It’s real. It’s normal. But it’s not love. 

What hurts is the rejection and the disappointment. But it’s not the love that’s hurting you. Not if you really loved them.

Amidst all the pain, there’s still a surge of beauty and joy when you think of someone. It’s mixed in with the pain. But it’s there if you look for it. I’m talking about real love. Something that was new to me and rare for others. You still love them. You’ll still be there for them when they’re in trouble. You still want them to be happy. They may find love with somebody else, and that may kill you, but above all else you’re glad that they’ve found happiness.

The unending desire to see somebody happy and safe and fulfilled, with no promise of anything in return. Selfless and true. And that’s the trick You can’t want to win them back. You have to let go of wanting to get even with them (yes, harder for some than others, especially if they were unfaithful). You need to be okay that there are words left unsaid. There’s no closure except what you give yourself. 

Doing this can give you . . . I wouldn’t call it happiness. It’s the bittersweet satisfaction of knowing you did something right. As my therapist said, to love somebody is a beautiful thing even when that love isn’t returned. 

You just have to let go. And if they don’t come back, as the cliche goes, they were never yours. Except that it was never about owning them. It was just about them. And that’s enough. And maybe, just maybe, you can sleep well at night. 

How do you get over someone? It’s simple. You don’t hold on to the resentment, and you let them find their own happiness. You endure the pain and bitterness and jealousy, because throughout all this you still want what’s best for them. You let them go out of love. And you do that because it will make you feel better. And it’s always been about you. 

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Talking About Hair, Mostly Mine

Imagine if you were in a room of a hundred people. And someone announced that one person in the room would get prostate cancer. I would immediately book out of there as fast as my legs could carry me. And that’s why I stopped worrying about my hair. 

Anyone who knew me ten years ago knows I used to be very, very neurotic about my hair. I had a ridiculously high fear of hair loss. I would constantly badger my friends. “My hair looks thinner, right? It’s definitely thinner. Look, you can see my scalp.”

They would roll their eyes and say my hair looked fine, then desperately try to change the subject like a zoo keeper trying to divert a herd of raging pink elephants. I never believed them. I would stare in the mirror and look, finding the thin areas, and once finding them obsess over them. A woman I am highly attracted to gushed over Chris Evans’ ungodly thick mane of blond hair and I died a little inside.

Almost every man I know, and a lot of women, worry about hair loss once they leave their twenties. One of my favorite guitarists, Vivian Campbell, was diagnosed with cancer. During chemo he lost all his hair, and he said (while fully acknowledging how ridiculous he was being) that his hair loss felt worse than getting the diagnosis. It sounds crazy. But it’s hard to describe the gut punch to the self-esteem which happens when your hair starts to go away. Why, I don’t know. It was one of the few questions no one, including myself, asked. Why was I so afraid of losing my hair. Would I be less attractive? Maybe, but do I really want to be with someone that superficial? 

Bernie Sanders helped. There’s a guy who owns his bad hair. He just does not care, maybe because he’s too busy and too passionate about more important things in life. Alton Brown is another guy who really owned his hair. 

During the second or third week of the pandemic, I noticed my hair was thinning faster than usual. Or that’s what I thought. In hindsight I was just staring in the mirror a lot more. I think for the first month of the pandemic I was not right in the head. Most people weren’t. I hadn’t adjusted yet. I didn’t have time to. The abrupt change in my life, which happened literally overnight. The financial worries. The forced solitude. The pandemic outside my door killing people by the thousands. Racial attacks on the news and social media. Just the sudden, 180 degree change in life as we knew it.  It was affecting me in ways I didn’t even have time to notice. I was acting out. I was belligerent at times. I was desperate for attention and lonely and stressed. And so my hair started to thin.

Many of us opted to shave our heads. If you’re reading this, God willing, years after this is all over, you should know that shaving your head became something of a trend. Part of it was the lack of access to barbers. Shaving ones head was a sensible way of dealing with that (more sensible than going to a hairstylist and getting infected, which has in fact been happening). And plus, we knew we were going to be shut out from society for a few months, so it would grow back anyway. Why not? We stopped caring how we looked. Shaved heads. Sweat pants all day every day. No bras or makeup or hair product. I asked my friend Jen if she wanted to talk via Facechat and she said no, she looked terrible. Then she said screw it and we talked anyway and neither of us cared. 

As for myself, I was approaching a level of hatred with my hair. I hated how thin it looked. I didn’t notice at the time that I hated everything. And I also didn’t notice that I had a desperate internal need for control. So the clippers came out, and I shaved my hair away. Halfway through I thought, oh no, I made a mistake. When I finished it felt great. There was such a feeling of relief. A sense of control. As the hair fell away I felt my worries sloughing off my shoulders. A drastic change to my appearance in response to a stressful situation. I think anyone who’s been through a break up might relate to that. 

Of course, the next day I hated the way I looked. I have another friend who shaved her head and she looked fantastic, but I don’t have her great bone structure and smile. I looked like that Dad who beats up his son because he doesn’t want to join the football team. And I wasn’t the only one who regretted it. Early on, before the world became even more serious, people were posting stickers on social media saying “I showered.” The joke is that people were avoiding showering and grooming because there was no longer any need. A distant friend said that his shaven head caused him to forget to shower. It’s funny just how many adjustments we had to make from the pandemic. 

And then I looked at photos of myself. And I looked a my hair. From that year. The year before. Three years ago. Then again at a photo from January. And goddamit, my hair was always the same. My hair loss was maybe ninety percent in my head. I spent so much time staring at the thin areas that that became all I could see. In my head I was one step away from a comb over. I had cut off my hair to spite my ego.

I saw a tv ad for an online service that could restore hair. I did some research, and basically what they do is send you a prescription for Propecia. It inhibits chemicals that cause hair loss on the crown of the head, where I was thinning. The success rate is eighty percent. About thirty dollars a month, which wasn’t great but doable. After all, I’m single and I would like that to change. Thirty bucks to look good seemed a small price to pay for not dying alone. Then I did some more research. There was a cryptic line in a scientific article, about a side effect that scared many men away. I researched some more. Turns out that if you take Propecia, there is a one percent chance of getting prostate cancer. 

Sadly, I have met many people who have cancer. I won’t go into details, but it is a terrible ordeal. Whenever I have a heart to heart with anyone about it, one incredibly sad detail comes out from all of them. The treatment gets so bad that they would all rather stop and just die. If you want a good look at what the process is like, made palatable by humor and music, find “The Big C Cabaret.” Here’s a clip.

This is what people go through because life is cruel and some divine being is testing them. And I want to risk that so I can have a full head of hair?

One percent doesn’t sound bad. But imagine if you’re in a room of a hundred people, and you find out one person in that room is going to die. No thank you. One percent is a big risk. And you want me to take that risk so my hair will be a little thicker? It’s not just a ridiculous risk to take for me. It’s kind of, in a weird way, an insult to everyone who had to go through the ordeal of cancer. They all wish they never had to go through it, and here I am taking that risk. Because of some joke a drunken ass hole made about my scalp.

In my head I imagine this scenario.

“It’s a shame Dan had to go so soon. We’ll miss him.”

“Yeah. But look at that great head of hair.”

So, I’m fine with my thinning hair. I can think of any number of friends who have thin or no hair, and I admire them to the moon and back and wouldn’t want them to change at all. I’m fine if someone I don’t like has another reason to make fun of me. If I need to risk my life to impress some stranger at a bar she can just fuck right off. Having hair didn’t bring me the friends whom I love. It didn’t save one long term relationship and it din’t bring me the woman I love into my life. It didn’t get me my job and it doesn’t make me write better. All it did was make me fixate on an illusory shortcoming and took my attention away from all the other things I have to offer. And I can stop driving my friends crazy.

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8:46

Nancy Pelosi led a moment of silence for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. She asked everyone to be silent for eight minutes and forty six seconds. The time George Floyd lay on the ground, facedown and helpless, while a police officer pressed a knee against the back of his neck. At the end of eight minutes and forty seconds, George Floyd had died. 

The moment of silence begins. The reporters say a few things as people kneel in solidarity. It’s 10:23 AM. 

The news goes to commercial. Ads for tv shows. Water purifiers. 

Commercial break ends and the news anchors are talking about a new police reform bill put forward by Democrats. I set my kettle on the stove to make coffee. 

Recently, I’ve begun having breakfast, a habit I neglected when I was working. I’m never very hungry in the morning, so I just have a little bit of strawberry flavored Greek yoghurt. Just a few spoonfuls straight out of the container. Not a lot, but if I eat a little it helps me feel better throughout the day.

I open the window. It’s beautiful outside. This is day one of phase one of the reopening of New York City. The weather, in my opinion, is perfect. The sun is out and bright and uplifting. There is a slight breeze that is cool and gentle and refreshing as it clears out the stagnant air in my apartment. There’s a jack hammer in the distance, a discordant, loud and obnoxious sound, signaling the beginning of normality in the city.  The sound is obnoxious yet an oddly perfect symbol of a slow return to normality. 

My reverie is broken by the sound of steam coming out of my kettle, and and I pour the scalding water over the coffee grounds in my French press. I need to let the water sit for three minutes until the the coffee is ready.

In the fist month of quarantine I made an attempt to wear normal clothes during the day. Today I put on some sweat pants, and think about putting on a t shirt. Not as dignified, but I’lm also more comfortable. And I feel better, not as anxious and lonely, so why change when things have been getting better for me. 

The time is now 10:32. 

The moment of silence finishes, and Nancy Pelosi has begun speaking. 

In the time it took me to do all of the above described activities, eight minutes and forty seconds have passed.

The time it took me to eat, make coffee and change clothes. I did all that in the same amount of time that a man held his knee against another man’s neck. That’s how long it takes me to start my day, and that’s how long it took to end a man’s life. 

On the television, a politician steps to the podium and recites this quote from President Barack Obama:

“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”

I’ve done what I’ve could to add my support to the protests. But I feel most of my non-black friends share the same inner voice, gnawing away like grit at our consciousness. We’re doing too little, too late. We can protest and talk and share memes and post uplifting and angry messages, but when this is over we will still never have to experience what it is like to be Black. At some point in the future, I will walk through the street and not worry about being stopped by a police officer. When I go to a restaurant, any rude service will be because the workers are overworked and tired, but it won’t be because of who I am. There are some seething hints that a lot of our efforts are misguided or insufficient. I’ll still try to contribute. I’d rather be criticized for being misguided than for being silent. 

I cannot, and will not, attempt to articulate the anger of the Black community. I won’t repeat what has been said so passionately already, about the need for equality and reform and systemic racism. I will just point out how long eight minutes and forty seconds really is.

Set your timer for eight minuets and forty six seconds. And then do some simple physical activity. Clap your hands for that amount of time. Clench a tight fist, or hold a cup of coffee up in the air. You’re supposed to wash your hands for sixty seconds. Try washing them for eight minutes. Stand up on two feet, without shifting your weight at all. Try holding your breath. Let that amount of time sink in. That’s how long someone spent choking another man. Pressed his knee against someone’s neck. I am willing to bet that after one or two minutes you got tired of doing whatever you chose to do. Your muscles might have gotten sore. If you clapped your hands, they’re probably in a lot of pain. If you held a cup of coffee your hands probably started shaking and the coffee felt like it weighed fifty pounds. You might have thought, I’m tired of doing this. Yet someone, a man in a position of power, pressed his knee on another man’s neck for that amount of time. Imagine how determined that officer was. Imagine the conviction of purpose it took to maintain a choke hold.6 Imagine the torment of George Floyd.

Now instead of eight minutes and forty six seconds, imagine enduring that torment for your entire lifespan And the lifespan of your parents and your grandparents. Imagine being choked for over four hundred years.

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Relationships, Self-Sabotage, a Little Self Pity

One of the little blessings during this time is the number of heart to heart conversations I’ve had. A lot of these conversations turn to relationships. I know a lot of people in my position. Over the years we’ve become more comfortable in our skins. We know what we want. But relationships are still tough. I’m older and wiser. But I’m also not in my twenties anymore. I don’t consider myself old, but I’m at an age where twenty year olds don’t look at me as a prospect and vice versa. Most of my friends my age already have marriages and kids and divorces. I’ve somehow avoided all of that, and though I don’t like it I’ve come to terms with it. 

All my life, every relationship I’ve had has ended with the other person leaving me for someone else. There was one exception. But otherwise it was always the same. Both in requited and unrequited situations. I would hear “I think you’re great, but I don’t want a relationship right now,” and then a few days later I would hear they were in a new serious relationship. Or I would be in a serious relationship, and then we would break up, and I would find out they had already started being involved with someone. The details are all different. It’s a different story with always the same ending. Once I become attached they leave me for someone else. I used to believe this was bad luck. But when it happens all the time . . . it’s like that joke. A woman sees that a maniac is driving the wrong way on a highway that her husband uses. She calls to warn him, and he says, “oh Honey, it’s way worse than that, there’s not just one of them there’s hundreds of them!”

In my most recent romantic episode, the woman in question suddenly stopped talking to me as frequently. We weren’t in a relationship but the emotional connection had grown strong over time. I was happy. Then she abruptly stopped talking  as frequently. And right away I heard that voice in my head.

“She’s seeing someone else. She’s fallen in love with someone. I just know it.”

There was no evidence or justification. And I knew that. My rational mind told me so. But it was like standing on the edge of a cliff, with a rational mind telling me it was safe to jump off. I trusted that voice but all I could see was the hundred foot drop.  The emotional instinct, misguided as it might be, was still there. Almost like a phobia.

Through various factors beyond anyone’s control, I grew up afraid of emotional intimacy.  The number one complaint I’ve gotten from any girlfriend was that I don’t open up. They feel like they don’t know me even after weeks and months and even years of otherwise bliss. I’m always flummoxed by this complaint. I thought I was being open. Till I see my writing and how I’ve opened myself up like a literal book to strangers, but not to the person who’s hand I am holding. 

Everyone tells me I’m closed. off. Everyone leaves me. A pattern is starting to show itself. 

I was precocious in my infatuations. My first two experiences of yearning happened at a young age. I don’t mean thinking a classmate was pretty and sitting by her in the playground. Though I did do that. I used to sit next to Mindy in elementary school and draw her crayon Star Wars pictures, taking requests from her and enjoying an innocent friendship. In hight school I had my first serious crush. Then in my freshman year there was another. At the time I thought I was in love, though in hindsight it was nothing but. It’s like a teenager feeling old. Their feelings might be real but their perspective is limited. The timeline is uncannily similar. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl hit it off. It’s okay, nothing special. Then I find out she’s already involved with someone. And then there’s a rush of longing and yearning. Once I find out they’re unavailable, they transform to just another classmate into a Rapunzel in the tower, their beauty intertwined with their unnattainability. I never did anything to win them over. Never tried to break up the relationship. I just kept yearning from a distance and sat with my feelings. It was naive and misguided, but also intense. I wonder how much of my adulthood has been shaped by the foolishnes of yourth. 

I look back and wonder why I didn’t let go. I look at myself and realize the attraction was the distance.  You can be comfortable with pain. In a state of unrequited feelings I was able to stay with what was comfortable and familiar. An absolute guarantee that there wold be no attachment. They couldn’t leave me if they were gone. I didn’t have to risk anything. 

As I got older there were real relationships. But somehow I reverted back to that freshman in college. By some miracle I met someone who liked me and we started dating, then when things got serious I became that kid who yearned from a distance. I stepped back, artificially creating distance. They wondered what was wrong. They found someone else.

You can’t be afraid of something without experiencing it. I developed a strong fear of abandonment, and I started overreacting, In my late twenties I was at my least mature. Not that I was incredibly mature as a five year old. But relative to where I was in life, I was less mature at 29 than I should have been for a man of my experience and education. Around that time I stepped up my unavailability game to a new level, and fell in love with someone who lived on the other side of the world. A wonderful woman who I still hold in high regard to this day. She was amazing and lively and funny and supportive and she was a thousand miles away, so of course I fell in love. More than the distance, was my fear and insecurity. Instead of distancing myself, I went too far n the other direction. Whenever she pulled back I pushed forward, asking her time and again why she didn’t email me or text me more often. The learned instinct that she had found someone else started to take over. I didn’t want to look jealous so I acted cray in a different ways, pestering her. To her credit she didn’t run away from me. She still felt a great affection and admiration for me. But she did realize she’d be happier with someone else. 

Since then I’m more prone to stepping back. If I put myself out there it will come back to hurt me. I’ll get rejected. So if I like someone I won’t tell them they’re pretty. I stop flirting. And the biggest sign, I start worrying that I’m annoying this person. They mean a lot to me, and I don’t want to drive them away because if I look for attention I’l be met with crushing indifference. If they don’t react the way I expect them to, I get disappointed. This is probably learned behavior from when I was young, but it doesn’t matter. I’m an adult now. I need to face this. 

I’m getting self indulgent. The point is, I set up my future based on what I believe, deep down. I believe everyone I love will walk away, and I act accordingly, and so they do. 

This time alone has given me a lot of time to confront these beliefs. Writing this, and posting it, is my attempt to force myself to open up. I’m willing to bet most of my friends know nothing about this. People who don’t like me will use this against me. I’m going to open myself up to judgment, because there will be people who think this is too much, and I’m okay with that. The people who care will feel closer to me. Maybe. And that will make it worth it. The niching about getting older is you learn more about yourself. The downside is sometimes you find out too late. Maybe not for me. Maybe I still have time. 

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In Praise of Keanu Reeves : “Bill and Ted” Through “Speed”

All my friends know two things about me. They know I’m a fan of Keanu Reeves, and that my first name is Dan. I try to remain subtle about it, not flaunting this fact or shouting it to anyone and everyone, but people do usually find out my name. I’ve been fairly clear about my feelings about Keanu. 

When Keanu Reeves came onto the scene I actually disliked him. Couldn’t stand him. I hated the fact that all the girls swooned over him. I hated how quickly he became successful when he didn’t seem able to act. Sure, I really liked Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But he was just being himself, right? The blank stare, the stoner California accent. That must be him just being himself. It didn’t help that I didn’t like Point Break.  Yes, I recognize this is a controversial point among that movie’s fans. Even more controversial when the topic is Keanu. Sorry, I was never a big fan. Keanu shouting “I am an FBI agent,” with all the stiffness of a month old baguette, and firing a gun in the air while shouting in anguish, are a lot of fun and produce ironic giggles. The movie has many fans. And to be clear I don’t dislike the movie. The stunts are graceful and breath taking, Gary Busey gets to put his eccentric humor on full blast, and Patrick Swayze got to put his talents to perfect use.

In response to my opinion of Point Break, my buddy Mike (check out his blog “The Starfire Lounge”) had this to say:

I love it for a millions reasons. I mean, name another movie about zen surfer bank robbers who wear president masks. You can’t! Keanu became an action star with this movie. No one thought he was a good pick by Kathryn Bigelow but she wanted him and I think he proved her right. He and Swayze had real magnetism together too. 

Okay, yes it did launch Keanu’s career as an action hero. And he and Swayze have some chemistry. Mike isn’t alone, and I get how odd it is that, as a Keanu Reeves fan, Point Break isn’t my favorite. But at the time it just reinforced my opinions on Keanu. It didn’t help that he surfs in the movie. I saw in as a surfer dude who lucked into a film career.

Bill and Ted’s Bugus Journey was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, this was followed by two low moments. Bram Stoker’s Dracule and Much Ado About Nothing were released almost back to back. It’s likely Reeves’ agent wanted him to expand his range and show he had real acting chops. Watching Keanu attempt a pseudo English accent in both movies is rough. It didn’t help that In Dracula Keanu had to share the screen with Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins, two actors who had the opportunity to chew the scenery with abandon while Keanu tried to just hold his own. This was even worse in Much Ado About Nothing. Directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring himself and Emma Thompson, two revered classical actors who made their careers with the Bard, along with Denzel Washington, Keanu is completely out of his depth. 

Both those movies also highlighted his then weakness as an actor. Not only can he barely do a British accent, his attempts to look aristocratic only magnified how stiff he used to look on film. He looks energetic but uncomfortable, as if he’s struggling through his first acting class. You can tell he’s trying hard, and his heart is in the right place, but he always looked slightly awkward.

It was around this time that he began to be regarded as a joke. The dumb jock of the popcorn world, appealing on occasion but never taken seriously. My friends would giggle and whisper “Dude,” when Keanu showed up in Dangerous Liaisons. Mad TV featured a skit called the “Keanu Reeves School of Acting.” I’ve included the link here (I don’t own the rights to it by the way, but I’m also not making any money from this so whatever).

Like another Reeves, Keanu was approaching George Reeves status, an actor whose assets brought momentary success but long term ridicule. 

And then his career hit fifty miles an hour. 

Speed stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. Both actors shared a lot of similarities at that point in their careers. Both had achieved some initial success. They were both young. Dark haired. Both attractive, but unconventionally so, especially in Hollywood terms. Keanu Reeves is handsome, but I haven’t heard anyone call him “hunky.” He doesn’t have the broad, over the top machismo of Tom Cruise or Vin Diesel. Jan de Bond actually cast Keanu Reeves because he wanted a lead who wasn’t physically intimidating. Sandra Bullock is a beautiful woman, but she’s more often referred to as “cute” than “sexy.” She’s not perceived with the same, hormone thick accolades as Angelina Jolie or Morgan Fairchild. The word “cute” is accurate, but it can carry dismissive connotations. More accurately, she projects friendliness and high spirits and humor. Watch carefully, and you’ll notice she makes pedestrian, obvious jokes seem witty. In Speed she gets some help from Joss Whedon, who did an uncredited rewrite of the script, reportedly responsible for most of the dialogue. She can be self-deprecating without any self-pity, not taking herself seriously just enough so that she seems human. She is beautiful but approachable. You want to date her, but you’d be just as happy hanging out with her.

Her most popular success before Speed was Demolition Man, and her talents began to be shared with a mass audience. Amidst the action and special effects and Stallone’s inhuman physique and Wesley Snipes’ neon hair, people came away talking about her. But while it’s one thing to act opposite Sylvester Stallone, she really found the perfect movie partner in Keanu Reeves, and vice versa. 

Visually, their combination of non-threatening good looks is terrific. You look at them and they just seem to belong together. And her spirited girl next door persona complemented his murmuring introspection perfectly. Their performances may not be remembered like Marlon Brando, but it continues to endure till today. Reeves gave Bullock the perfect foil for her energy and charm. Reeves found someone who seemed to be able to unwind him as an actor and set him free. Let him have fun. 

Keanu is more relaxed and natural in Speed than in any of his previous movies, with the exception of the Bill & Ted franchise. It doesn’t look like he’s trying too hard in every scene, as he just reacts to Bullock, and the bus, and the bomb without forcing anything. In the beginning, when he’s exchanging wisecracks with Jeff Daniels and figuring out how to stop an elevator from crashing, he looks focused but understated. He’s learned to underplay each moment. I get the feeling he realized he’ll never be  Kenneth Branagh, and learned to let the scene play itself out and just go along. Jeff Daniels, a former Hollywood “hunk” who settled into middle aged roles in this film, has an onscreen relationship with Keanu that is somehow intense and easygoing at the same time, in a way that two partners would have after working hours together in close proximity. Keanu is believable as a young police officer. *****SPOILER ALERT ******* The payoff is when Jeff Daniels is killed by Dennis Hopper. Look at Reeves’ reaction in that moment, and compare it to his emotional outbursts in previous films. Here, his eyes go dead, and then he smashes everything around him in a rage. In the past he would scrunch up his face and yell as loud as possible. When he witnesses Dracula’s Brides eating a baby he shouts, but it’s not clear if it’s in horror or disgust or indigestion. In Speed he is clearly angry. It’s the first initial reaction when someone is grief stricken. It’s specific. Not an Oscar worthy moment, to be sure, but it carries the story forward. We’ve all seen plenty of great performances in bad movies. Keanu Reeves just wants to make this movie good. And in this scene, who calms him down? Sandra Bullock.

“We’re really scared and we really need you right now,” she pleads earnestly. “I can’t do this without you.”

“We’re gonna die,” he responds.

“No, we’re not,” she says. And he calms down, and refocuses. 

It’s a terrific moment because you see how the characters need each other. He may be the trained cop, but he needs her as much as she needs him. There are other little moments of tenderness which can be quickly missed, like when Keanu wipes some blood off of Bullock’s forehead and she winces. Time after time, when events seem to get out of hand, she calms him down with a well timed joke. Name another high concept action movie where everyone was saved because they provided emotional support to each other. No wonder I love this movie. 

When he’s on the bus, Keanu feeds off of Bullock’s charm in a way anyone else would, providing a point of view character for her vivaciousness. He smiles, double takes, shrugs, and laughs with her like a real person would. He doesn’t dismiss her, like most action hero leads would to the female costar. Nor does he try to outdo her. He just goes along for the ride (goddamit I was really trying to avoid obvious metaphors). We appreciate him for appreciating her.

The movie is so fast paced it’s easy to overlook another key difference in Keanu’s evolution. This is a movie where his character thinks. The moments go by fast, but they’re there. When he catches the “Wildcat” clue you see his eyes dart as he processes the information and comes to a conclusion. Imagine a moment of insight in any other movie before this one. Keanu Reeves finally begins to distance himself, slowly, from the “dumb” label which was so stinging in the Mad TV skit. There are other firsts in Speed  which would later become hallmarks for Reeves. One was his intense physical preparation. He bulked up slightly, just enough to be convincing as a S.W.A.T. member. He also performed ninety percent of his stunts.

Patrick Swayze made Point Break the movie that it is. Keanu Reeves just happened to be in it. You could have another actor play Johnny Utah and it would have been more or less the same movie. Sandra Bullock and Reeves make Speed. A version of the film with two other actors is unimaginable, and they elevated it from a nineties action movie to a cult classic. Sandra Bullock would become one of the most successful actors in history. And Keanu Reeves would become a legend.

In my opinion. 

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What Happens When You Listen

Scrolling through Facebook, there is a lot of talking. There is not a lot of listening. Someone will make a point. And when I look in the comments I see a lot of counterpoints. Arguments. Or someone taking the original post and making it about themselves. There is a lack of affirmation or sympathy, except in extreme cases, and those are rare. I wouldn’t be surprised if the protests last longer than two weeks at this point. Protesters are still shouting that Black Lives Matter. They are still angry at police brutality. And of course they’re still protesting. Nobody seems to be listening except for the people who are shouting. 

I’m going to pull a major name drop. I know Noma Dumezweni. I try not to brag about it too much, but it happens. If you’v meet her you would know why. In order to avoid being that guy, I should say that Noma and I don’t share avocado toast at brunch every week, and we’re not in the same book club, and we haven’t posed in Instagram photos holding up the peace sign. But we do talk. And our friendship has passed what I call the “Fuck Off” test. It’s when two friends can tell each other to fuck off and laugh about it, because it is not remotely perceived as an insult. 

She is revered among acting circles but isn’t quite celebrity famous. This reverence doesn’t come from red carpet photo ops or a new line of living room curtains like other famous people. People love her for two reasons : An ethereal talent, and a personal charisma. She has a smoky, smooth voice. The tone is calming, and because it sounds almost like a whisper, when she talks it is as if she is sharing a secret. Even when she is speaking full voice on stage, the breathiness is still there, so that the effect is simultaneously theatrical and intimate, a rare duality which no doubt helped her earn two Olivier awards and one Tony snub. She also has clear, expressive eyes that are equal parts kindness and intelligence. And when you talk, she stops and listens and makes eye contact. You feel as if you are fully in her attention as she absorbs every word. It’s no wonder that everyone at work fell in love with her. Someone told me he either wanted to marry her or be adopted by her. I’ve seen, time after time, burly and jaded security guards rushing to her so they can talk about what they did that day, like a child telling their parents about their first day of kindergarten. And when I say everyone I really mean everyone. In my five years at my place of work, she is one of two people who have talked to everyone. Not just the production and the company management staff. She talked to the housekeepers (sadly, the most ignored group in any building), ushers, delivery people. Everyone. If you had a pulse, you had her attention. I’ve heard many a head usher and house manager sing the glorious praises of certain people who have brushed off and ignored the stage door attendants and ushers and house keepers like rats in the subway. I’ve talked to ushers and seen them bolt away mid-sentence to dive head first into the hindquarters of an actor. If there were anyone who I wouldn’t begrudge for thinking they were above everyone, it would be Noma. And yet she took the time to say hello to everyone. And listen to everyone.

That’s one of my strongest memories of her. Her ability to pay attention when anyone talked to her. Absorbing everything that was said. Making the other person feel important. Listening is a rare attribute these days. 

You all know this person. You will talk to them, and they are just waiting, barely able to contain themselves, for the briefest pause so they can jump in and talk about themselves. Some will interrupt outright. Others are very good at swerving the conversation back to themselves. You definitely find it a lot in the theatre business. “Oh, you have three days to live? That reminds me of when I played Rum Tum Tugger in Rhode Island . . . .”

I’m sure you all also know the person who just will not stop talking. Some people are able to pull this off. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The Dalai Lama. The Pope, depending on what year it is. People who have an area of expertise and want to share the knowledge, or just have a good story to tell. But there are those who can’t do that. They just want the attention. They really think you want to hear a thirty minute expose on the merits of Taylor Swift. They think you’ll bow down in worship and hang on every syllable as they regal you with stories of how hard it is to pay your own rent. Most people can instinctively read the social cues that they’ve lost people’s interests, and they’ll course correct. Some can’t. Some won’t. At best this creates boredom. In some cases it is dehumanizing. I had hung out twice with a woman, and both times I realized that after five hours together she had done nothing but talk about herself and her problems, and had not even asked me how I was doing or what I was up to or what my name is. As soon as we said good night, I realized I was her human recycling bin for the evening. She should have just started a blog.

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” That was from the Dalai Lama. I don’t know him personally but I’ll mention him anyway. Maybe someday I’ll meet him and try the “Fuck Off” test. 

It also goes beyond learning something. It’s about connecting. Intellectual intimacy. Emotional bonding. Spiritual support. To listen is to say “I value you as much as I value myself.” 

One reason so many people aren’t good at listening is it’s not easy. It looks easy. It looks like you’re not doing anything. But it’s not really like that. Talking about yourself is easy. You just say out loud what’s in your head. You get a quick dopamine hit from the attention you get. Issues are taken off your shoulders. None of those rewards happen when you listen. It takes some mental stamina. The temptation to interrupt and say something can be strong, and it takes some self control to stay quiet and let the other person talk. Patience is also necessary. Not that what is being said is necessarily boring, but if it’s a serious conversation you are carrying some of the other person’s baggage and stress. 

The long term rewards, however, are immense and endless. Yes, you absolutely can learn a lot. Never be the smartest person in the room. There’s always someone who can teach you about something. If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, then find another room. Or more likely, notice how bored everyone is from listening to you and take a second to think. 

There is an indescribable satisfaction of connecting with someone by listening. If the other person is equally willing to listen to you, then you have something very special. Insurmountable problems seem trivial. What seemed tragic now looks funny. The joy of other people is a strong one, and it happens when two people listen to each other. When you truly engage with someone your world becomes twice as big. The joys become bigger. And your problems become smaller. 

And then there is the ability to listen to oneself. There is a voice inside all of us. And sadly, when it comes to not listening, the person who is most often ignored is ourselves. What is important in life? What’s bothering us? What are we scared of and what is causing us pain? Instead of having a frank internal conversation, too many would rather shut out ourselves with distractions and bad drugs and meaningless relationships. Because, sad to say, a lot of people would rather be unhappy than be honest with ourselves. It’s not easy, and something I haven’t yet been able to do myself. But I’m trying. After a particularly painful moment in my life, someone told me to just let all my feelings be there. Experience it all. And it was a very painful three days, but I came out on the other side stronger and more self aware than I’d ever been. By experiencing my own pain I was paying attention to myself, and when I paid attention I realized that maybe I’m not such a bad guy after all. 

When you don’t listen, you get divorces, loneliness, and nine days and counting of protests because nobody took someone else’s problems seriously. Until it’s too late. 

Noma called me a listener. I was absolutely touched when she said that, and I am absolutely bragging about it now. Because it’s important. And because I would never say so in a conversation.