Sunday, September 30, 2012

Best Boy

If there has been one thing that I've always very grateful to my parents for - it was their unwavering support of the arts.   We lived in Miami and my parents loved the theater.   They enjoyed being season subscribers to the Ring Theater which was the University of Miami performance program, the Coconut Grove Theatre which had the distinction of holding the world premiere of Waiting for Godot, and the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts (TOPA).   I got to see incomparable Lena Horne in The Lady and Her Music, and Broadway legend Jerry Orback in Chicago, the traveling company of Porgy and Bess and Annie at TOPA.   I also got to see Hal Holbrook in Death of a Salesman whose portrayal of Willie Loman was awesome and heartbreaking at the same time.   There were always a host of original works and innovative plays from the Ring Theatre.   It was great as a kid who dreamed of performing to have parents that understood how important the arts were.  They loved to take us to the theater every opportunity they could.  I would get to see a live play or musical once or twice a month whether it was professional, amateur or college level.   I remember sitting next to my parents and the smell of the theater which was sort of musty with a slight hint of new paint if we were going to a preview or opening weekend and hairspray (back in the 1970's and 1980's - women were all about the hairspray).  The lights would dim, the murmuring of the audience would cease and those brave actors would enter to start the show.   I would settle back and get a big smile on my face, transfixed by the bravery of the people who came onto the stage to bare their hearts out to us.   How Porgy loved Bess, the many stories Lena Horne had about being a black woman singing and doing movies in the 1940's, how Jerry Orback give us the old razzle dazzle and how the orphans from Annie would remind me that I was never fully dress without smile.  It was some of the best times of my life and I wanted to be part of that world so badly. 

When I expressed my dream of being an actor one day, it was never dismissed as stupid or frivolous.   Their feeling was - "Hey, why not?"  Give it a try."   When I tell my fellow actors this, they are amazed and a bit jealous because their parents were not always that supportive.   But mine were different - I guess they were natural born hams who loved the idea of having a child in show business and secretly wanted to be part of it themselves.   I started taking drama in junior high and doing mostly short sketches.   Saturday Night Live was just a few years old then and Gilda, Lorraine and Jane were my inspiration.  I had to beg to stay up at least until midnight on Saturdays to watch the first 30 minutes.  I would be exhausted but happy the next day at church thinking about the nerd sketch or the killer bees instead of the scripture - to me comedy was a religion because it helped your soul feel good and isn't that what religion should be about?   My dad used to laugh at my impressions.   He had a great laugh - full, hearty and sincere - even if he was just humoring me.   My parents were usually pretty good about that - allowing us to create and not putting it down like a lot of parents would have back then.   With five kids, I imagine it would have been easier to let us be us then to expend the energy to make us into something we're not.   I guess they had the wisdom to know that was a losing battle. 

It was great to grow up in a household where you could have an imagination and be allowed to use it.   My brother Steve also has a wicked sense of humor and when we would rift an improv together - it was pretty funny.   In fact when I went to try out for a Mental Floss improv workshop for the first time - he was right there with me.   Now, he's an attorney by day and a iPhone App creator and novelist by night.  My brother Bill was serious as a kid but in adulthood has developed a good knack for the tall tale.   My sister Kathy was ernest as a teen - full of angst and willing to protest the Vietnam War but now, she dabbles in theater and has done some very solid performances at a theater in Tallahassee.  She also enjoys photography.   Sharon, my younger sister, used to do drama with me and was also really funny.   We'd get pretty silly together growing up.  She's now a professional photographer with her own studio.   So there we were, five creative very different kids and two parents in a small one story four bedroom, two bathroom house where you needed to learn the fine art of getting along because there just was not enough room to be able to go off by yourself and sulk. 

When I started to work with the improv group Mental Floss, my parents were there at the first show.   They loved it and loved me in it.  It was a great feeling to have that sort of support especially as you were taking that tentative first step out into the theater world professionally.  They were supportive in the good times and when things started to go bad in the group - they were there for me and encouraged me to do something which was hard at the time - leave a well established group and start my own.   I used to be one of those people who would put up with a certain amount of theatrical crap as long as the prospect of performing was dangled in front of my nose like a carrot.   I would jump through hoops for that group only to be denied the chance to perform over and over again even after I had established myself as a solid player.   If you've ever worked with an improv troupe or a theater company and there is not a strong hand to keep the actors (or inmates) from running the asylum - chaos ensues and the actors with the biggest egos start to call the shots and force out the anyone they perceive as a threat.   I would come home crying, not sure what I had done to have some of the key guys who I thought were friends turn on me.   My parents, especially my dad, were there to tell me that it was bullshit and that I was better than that.  He would tell me if I wanted it bad enough, that I should start my own company.    So I took his advice and it was one of the best, hardest and most exhausting things outside of parenthood that I have ever done.   I got away from an un-supportive passive-aggressive boyfriend who was in the group and made me feel like I was never good enough.  Thanks to my dad, that fear of being on my own turned to anger and then into action.  I started the Eclectic Company Comedy Troupe and never looked back.   They would come to my comedy shows and sometimes they were 40% of the audience, but my dad's contagious laughter would fill the theater and it felt like a full house.  I knew that I could do anything. 

When I met Max, I knew that I had found my creative soul-mate.   He was the first person that I ever dated who didn't put my dreams of performing, directing, writing and producing down.   That was his passion too, and he got me.   His stuff was more David Mamet plays and grittier fare, but we balanced each other out - after being together 25 years - we still do.   My parents saw how much he respected me and how happy I was when I was with him.  They overlooked the fact that this was just not going to be a guy who would wear a suit and tie to work each day - that just was not the man I was destined to marry.  

So after we had been married a few months, Max wanted to make a movie based on the life of the Mississippi Delta Blues artist Robert Johnson, a legendary musician who many believed had sold his soul to the devil.   Max wanted to expand on certain mythic aspects of the story including casting me as the bisexual she-devil that would lead the main characters to their deaths.   It was going to be a movie that was at least 60 to 75 minutes and it would take a huge amount of planning to accomplish.   Max would shoot some on super 8 film (back in the early 1990's you could still get it - but it was hard to find and it had to be mailed off to be developed) and the other on VHS video.   When he told my parents about it, my dad was intrigued (although I'm pretty sure Max left out the part of me playing the demon murderous whore).   My dad was excited about the prospect and wanted to help produce it in exchange for one thing - on the credits he wanted to be listed as "Best Boy."   He would always chuckle when he saw that credit in a movie.    For the record, a "Best Boy" is the first mate of the chief lightening or electrician on the set who is also known as the gaffer.   So for $2,000, my father got to have his dream along with helping to finance Max's.    Gentleman  in Black (which was produced years before the Will Smith movie series Men in Black) started filming in early the summer of 1993 and that adventure is a blog unto itself.   But suffice to say that my dad has a cameo role as a prison guard and loved every minute that he was on the set.   My mother was the set photographer and it was great to have them there cheering us.    When they saw the finished product, my dad let out a "hurray" when he saw his name next to "Best Boy."  

Since then, I've had the courage to start two improv companies - The Eclectic Company and The OTC Comedy Troupe and I've learned to be myself creatively and not let other people define me artistically.   After my dad died in 2002, I realized that I had lost touch with doing improv - I was teaching it but not performing it as much as I wanted to and it had been about three years since I had actually stepped on-stage as an improvisor.   I got back into it to help me work through my grief at having lost my biggest supporter and the man who was always there for me.    Every time I hit a milestone with the OTC like getting 250,000 views over a year for our web-show, I'll think about Dad and how much he would have loved it - watching it on-line and giving us suggestions in the chat-room. He'd love Steve's Apps like If You Give a Conservative a Cookie, Bill's work with for the disabled, and Sharon's and Kathy's photography- because by creating we're expressing who we are which is something he always encouraged. 

Luckily, I've passed that love of the theater onto my kids and they even look forward to seeing an OTC Comedy Troupe show.   It's great to have them in the audience and just when I think that a line or sketch is not working, I'll hear my son Daniel's infectious laugh - not a deep or full has his grandfather's but still serving as a giggly prompt for the rest of the audience to have fun and laugh with us.   I think about my dad when I'm about to go on stage and be that brave actor that we used to see when I was a kid.   Maybe I'll inspire someone out there to take a shot and fall in love with performing and want to make the world a better place through laughter.  There are so many things that I'm grateful to my father for.  Allowing me to be who I am is just one of many but most of all - he'll always be my Best Boy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Clooney It!

I've been doing improvisation since the early 1980's and if there is one thing I've noticed in workshops and performances (with probably at this point, hundreds of people) is that most improv actors have a hard time with over-talking.   There are actually two types of over-talking - one type is actually talking over another person so you have two or more people speaking at the same time.  The second one is simply talking too much.   Actors and particularly improv actors really hate the sound of silence.   I can see if you are doing a play and there is silence for more than a few seconds because then everyone thinks you've forgotten your line.  But in improvisation there are not scripts so silence can be organic to the scene and a way to draw the audience in.  In my experience when you try to pause for comic or dramatic effect, it gets treated like a cardinal sin by your fellow actor, like you are bringing the scene to a screeching halt.   The result is that your scene partner tries to over compensate - the scene becomes very frenetic, unfocused and hard to follow.   Over-talking is a note I've given a lot over the years to the members of the OTC Comedy Troupe.   So a few weeks ago, I decided to develop an exercise where we would "Clooney it" or communicate without really talking too much in the scene to see what happens.   This exercise was named after the master of the pause - George Clooney.   I love George Clooney for a number of reasons (okay ladies, I know we all have our own ideas about why we love him, but stay with me and stop thinking like that with the kids around!).  I love that he's not afraid to let his characters think before they act or reflect afterwards.   It's a cinematic way of acting that can actually benefit stage actors  and non-performers if they just give it a try. 

The Clooney Method (I've coined this term without his permission but he's welcome to call me anytime to discuss it) in my mind centers around a basic concept of film acting which is to "just think it."   I've seen him use it since his earliest days on ER which allows the audience to see how you feel without having to tell them how you feel.   It's a smart way to act but it's not an easy way to perform.   It's nerve wracking to experiment with silence in a live performance.  What if the audience thinks you are boring or you just forgot what you are going to say?   However, if you do it with intention, it's a very intriguing choice.  The thing I like most about pausing is the feedback you get from the audience.  They tell you how much liked it because they could interject their own interpretation into what was going on during the scene rather than having it spoon fed to them.   That's what makes George Clooney such a great actor - he respects his audience and their ability to get what he's doing.   He doesn't have to do it all for them.   The ending of Michael Clayton is a perfect example of this.   After exposing Tilda Swinton's character for the evil lying bitch she is - the last three minutes of the movie have just a couple of lines and a reaction close up in a taxi of Clooney contemplating what he's just done and what he's been through as the ending credits role.  It's a ballsy shot because it gives the audience a chance to think with the character in real time about what's just happened.   It's just one example from a whole range of movies in which his characters take their time to react to things. 

In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Clooney is the voice for a fast talking red fox who tries to stop stealing from three farmers that he's been victimizing for years so he can raise a family.  But despite his wife's pleas, he goes back to trying to get that one last big score.  Think Ocean's 11 but with cute little possums, badgers and foxes.   What makes this stop action animation movie so good is that the characters are not jumping around or singing but will pause to look at each other and blink before they say anything.   It's those moments of silence that are pure comedy gold.   He's perfected it in other movies like The Descendants, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, Up in the Air and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which was his directing debut.)   The "Pause" is something I've tried to incorporate more into my own acting and improv workshops.   It gives the actor a higher status and the audience a chance to reflect on what has just happened.

 In the Clooney improv exercise, I ask my actors to start the scene doing an activity and to not talk to each other right away.  I explain that 90% of human communication is non-verbal in real life and we need to explore how a character is at just being rather than forcing a scene to be funny.    So the actors will be doing something like packing and really exploring their surroundings and their physicality.   They need to show a physical reaction to each other without words.   At first it was hard for some of the actors to do - they could go maybe 20 to 30 seconds without speaking.   But as we did the exercise more and made people wait longer and longer to talk, something really interesting happened.   The pausing made the scenes really funny.  What wasn't said and implied physically was more comical then any one-liner we could think up.   The scenes had a new maturity to them and taking our time to respond just made the lines that were said with a straight face hilarious.    The players watching noticed that the scenes were actually easier to follow since there was not all the usual over-talking to distract from the scene - having the option to "Clooney it" gives the actors a wider range of techniques to pull from during the course of a show. 

In the show The Office, Steve Carrell, John Krasinski and the rest of the talented cast use the Pause on a regular basis.  In fact, most of the time, John Krasinski's character Jim gets the non-verbal reaction shot which is always priceless.   This sitcom mockumentary on life in a fictional paper company captures some extraordinarily moments between the characters which are unsaid.   Pam and Jim's early relationship and missed chances at love stem largely from their inability to actually speak to each other about how they really feel and those almost moments are the ones that are the most poignant.   I think any actor who wants to learn how to act for the camera needs to watch as many episodes of The Office as possible.   If you actually work in an office, you'll see a wide range of office dynamics and business prototypes that makes the show feel so authentic and the little silences feel real.

Now for those of you who are not actors might be wondering how the gift of the Pause might work for you.   How can learning to "Clooney it" make your life better?   I've applied it strategically in my own life and believe me using silence in a conversation can definitely give you the upper hand, especially in business.   My day job is as a fundraiser and I've been doing it for over 20 years.  At my last job, we had a consulting group come on who definitely had the market on condescension and arrogance.    Each week we needed to meet one-on-one with a consultant who would belittle us because their overpriced consulting was not getting the results they were hoping for.   I used to hate those meetings especially with one of the consultants who was about 15 years younger then me with far less fundraising experience.  She was also the daughter of the woman who owned the firm.   She was toxic and difficult to talk to because she would belittle everything you said - I suppose to deflect her own inexperience. It was demotivating for everyone.   However, she had the power to report to the powers that be that the staff was being uncooperative and that's why the their "methods" were not working.   So after doing an improv workshop where we did a status exercise in which you had one character not speak while another was allowed to speak as much as they wanted - I learned that when you don't talk very much you yield much more power.  I decided to try this theory the next day with the young consultant.   She would ask what I had done that week, I would tell her and she would begin to tear me down.   Rather than becoming defensive as I usually did, I looked her in the eye and didn't say anything.   She would ask me if I understood what she had said and I simply replied "Yes" and maintained eye contact.   The silence was very uncomfortable for her.    She would start to talk, repeating herself extensively and using circular logic.   I would simply reply "That's an interesting point," maintain eye contact and say nothing else.   She would talk more and more stopping only to ask me if I understood which I answered "Yes," still maintaining eye contact.   After an hour of her doing all the talking, I left the meeting knowing that she was exhausted.  I was elated.   It had worked in real life and my nemesis didn't know what had hit her.   Interestingly enough, she requested to meet with me less than the other people in the office.   When we did meet, I looked forward to it  - happy to play that little mind game and wear her out so she went easy on my fellow staff members. 

But silence does not have to be used to manipulate people.   It's also great listening tool.   When I've met with a potential donor and asked them what projects excite them and what they have a passion for - I sit back and listen.   I get great information because it's them and not me doing the talking.  When you are not worried about what you have to say - you flat out become better at understanding where the other person is coming from and it can help meet their needs.   The actor Larry Hagman of I Dream of Jennie and Dallas fame has been taking a "talking fast" one day a week for over 30 years and will not speak for 24 hours.   According to him, it is enormously freeing to not have the pressure to speak and you connect to people on a deeper level.   

So if you're tired of feeling like you talk too much and that gets you into trouble, try to "Clooney it."  Give pausing or hell just not talking for a while a try and see what happens.   It can help your acting, your business and can help you listen better to those that are nearest and dearest.  There is an old adverb, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."  So try not talking.  It can help you think clearer and rather then being pushed into reactive-defensive traps that keep you from being able to go to the next level.    Take a cue from George Clooney- a silver fox who is not afraid to use silence to get his point across.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Finding Amber

When I first saw the ads for Finding Nemo nine years ago, I thought to myself that Pixar had made a giant misstep.  After all, the monsters in Monster's Inc. were cute and had wonderful personalities, but a movie about fish without a mermaid - really?!  I was not sure that I could get close to Nemo no matter how cute his animated face looked.  But I took seven year old Amber and three year old Daniel to see a movie about fish because everyone else told me how good the movie was.   As we settled in and heard the voice of Albert Brooks as Marlin, I still had my doubts.   Then, after a playful scene with Marlin's wife Coral, you see his life changed forever after a barracuda presumably kills her and the hundreds of eggs she's laid except for one that has a small crack in it. That egg eventually becomes Nemo - a special needs fish with a "lucky" fin that is smaller than the other.  He is disabled so it takes him longer to swim then the other fish.   Because he had lost almost everything in the attack, Marlin becomes a recluse with Nemo, living in an anemone (a plant that stings) to keep bad things from happening.   He tells his son that the ocean is a dangerous place and refuses to let him out of his sight.   Nemo ends up resenting his father and rebelling which leads to them being separated - the quest to be reunited is the thrust of the movie. 

As I watched the story unfold in 2003,  I wondered if I as the mother of a daughter who has autism if I was like Marlin.   Although I had never experienced that sort of loss, I too thought the world was a dangerous place for my baby girl.   I was very protective because Amber's way of processing information was different than most kids.   Amber is on the mild spectrum of autism but it still meant that she was different than most kids.  She would repeat things and had a hard time making eye contact which also made it difficult for her to make friends outside of her school group.   When Marlin would step in and try to manage things for a very capable Nemo, I could see myself doing the same thing.   I would answer for her if someone asked a question.   I tried to not expect too much out of her or expect her to do things most kids did like clean her room, wash dishes or put her clothes away.  I did all that for Amber because she was special and I wanted to make her life as easy as possible.   She didn't rebel like Nemo - at seven why should she?  Mom was doing everything for her.  I worried because she could be talked into things so easily and I felt like her way of comprehending danger was not like most kids.   But then how many seven year olds actually understand that not every adult is nice like your parents or teachers?   I tried to never let her out of my sight when she was not at school.  When Marlin's worst nightmare comes true and Nemo is taken away, I held back tears because that is every parent's worst nightmare.  I sat in that dark movie theater and watched how Marlin handled seeing his child abducted, and he didn't give up.  He constantly went out of his comfort zone with Dory (voice by the incredible Ellen DeGeneras), a blue fish with short term memory loss.   I knew, like most parents in the theater, that I would stop at nothing to find my child.   This all sounds plenty scary and very un-Disney.  If it the story had a human family dealing with all this loss, it would have been sad and awful, but the brilliant people at Pixar were smart enough to make the protagonists fish so you could have a connection but not feel like it was too much like real life.

When Nemo is  captured by a well meaning dentist who thought that he was helpless in the big ocean, he puts him in a fish tank where he'll be safe.  Nemo meets a wide group of fish who are happy being confined to a glass ocean.   They get fed, there are no predators and life is predictable.   He meets Gil, a fish with a broken fin and scars on his face and body who wants more than a safe existence - a stark contrast to Nemo's father Marlin.   Gil doesn't see Nemo as a kid with special needs, he sees a kid who wants to be treated like everyone else and can do things that the other fish can't.   There is an urgency to get Nemo out of the tank before the dentist's niece Darla comes to see him since she has a reputation for killing the fish her uncle gives her.  So begins Nemo's quest to get back to his father and the ocean - a sojourn that he's up for because despite his father being overbearing - he still loves and needs his daddy. 

Marlin's quest has him battling not one but three sharks, a mine field, jelly fish and East Australian current and the belly of a whale.   He meets these challenges head on and realizes that he was wrong to stay so reclusive with his son.   That's an instinct that parents who have kids with a disability have to fight - the need to keep them home and safe is admirable, but flat out it's not living.   They'll never know how to fend for themselves if you don't push them and yourself out of that comfort zone.  They'll never get where they need to be as a human.   Dory's advice is simple, "Just keep swimming,"  or just keep moving forward no matter how hard it gets.   It's been tough for me to see kids not want to play with Amber when she was smaller.  I had to fight the urge to intervene, but she eventually learned what to do and what not to do to engage other kids in play.   She can now talk about things that interest them and not repeat herself too much or get obsessed on one subject.   Sometimes the kids on the playground would walk away and she would "keep on swimming" or playing until another group came by and played.  It always fascinated me how the ebb and flow of a playground worked, very much like an ocean - kids would flow in, kids would flow out.  If they wanted to play with Amber, great - if not - then she was happy to play on her own - for her it wasn't personal.   So little by little, we would go shopping, out to lunch, then dinner, then to the movies, then to places that actually had waiters - each time it was a baby step to establishing what was normal and what was to be expected, but my eagle eye was always on her.   

Being overprotective is something I was always afraid of being yet I couldn't help it because my daughter seemed to need me so much - and truth be told I liked being needed.   But I always wondered if I was crossing a line of demarcation in which my stepping in could be keeping her from making friends with other kids because I was afraid they would make fun or her or take advantage of her.   I got where Marlin was coming from - even trying to make Nemo's shorter fin disability seem like a good thing - a lucky fin.  When the other kids point out that he's different, Marlin tries to protect Nemo's feelings.   Subsequently his need to protect his son from everything backfires in a big way and he's somewhat responsible for Nemo being captured.   His guilt as a parent is a palpable.  Marlin's exchange with the spacey but wise Dory really hit home:

Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

That was my "Ah-Ha" moment - little Amber had to figure out things on her own.   Good lord was this movie more for kids or for their parents?  Again the amazing magic of Pixar is that their movies are generally at such a high spiritual level that you can peel the layers away and still find more universal truths.   Giving a child the self confidence to try new things or figure out how to solve their own problems is an invaluable skill.  When Amber has felt the sting of peer pressure, we've talked about how to handle it knowing that Max and I can't be at her side all the time.   Some of my proudest moments as a parent has been having her teachers tell me that she stood up for what she believed in even if it was unpopular and surprise, surprise - her friends still liked her.    Protecting her and telling her not to be who she is because it's easier to be accepted would have been terrible advice, but that would have been the easy route.  

Underestimating a child with special needs can be a big mistake.  Not allowing them to try something they want to do because you see failure at the door is not moving them forward - they have to learn from it and pick themselves up.  When Dory and Marlin are swallowed by a whale,  Marlin has a hard time believing that his ding-bat companion can actually understand what the whale is saying and that this mammoth mammal would actually want to help him.   In his frustration, he yells at Dory and makes a telling Freudian slip: 

Marlin: No, no more whale! You can't speak whale!

Dory: Yes I can!
Marlin: No, you can't! You think you can do these things, but you can't, Nemo!

He's so hard wired to say "no" and "you can't" that he doesn't realize that Nemo is trying just as hard to get back to him and not sitting passively waiting for his dad to show up.   Nemo is learning so much from Gil who doesn't see him as crippled that he is able to take the situation in hand and take control which he eventually does to save the day and Dory.   How many times, I wondered had I shut Amber down because I honestly didn't think she was up to the task, even though she had asked to try to do something new?    I came close to turning down a free trip to Six Flags over Georgia to ride Goliath and the Georgia Scorcher because I was pretty sure she would not be able to handle it (and because frankly I was afraid of heights and roller coasters).   But like Marlin, I faced my fears and had a wonderful time.  We had a blast riding seven roller coasters in six hours and we both come away from the experience closer because we tried something new that scared us.  

Later in the movie, when he and Dory must make a life or death decision, he asks:

Marlin: What if something bad happens?
Dory:  You have to let go and find out.

For me that one line sums up the whole movie. I'll have to let go one day and found out just what my little girlie bear is capable of.  I know that someday Amber will have to learn how to drive and the idea of that frankly scares the crap out of me (but then to be fair, doesn't it for most parents?)   But she's going to need to be independent and she can't do that expecting me to drive her everywhere.   Even taking busses will require her to pay attention and learn which ones will get her home and which ones won't.   She's going to have to take responsibility for that to get to work on-time.

So as I sat in the movie theater in 2012 with my 16 year old daughter next to me, I realized that while I hadn't completely let go, I had eased up on her.   She has her own blog on Fan which is pretty popular and she gets good feedback.   She's gone on church outings with other teens without my eagle eye because she just needs to be a teen without Mom around all the time.    We're looking at her being able to volunteer on her own at an animal shelter.  Like Nemo, she'll learn how to put her skills to work and have a productive life - I just have to let it happen.   Ironically, she's always wanted to be a background animator for Pixar, those Czars of awesome who can take the tale of a little fish and make it something everyone can relate to.    Between 2003 when I first saw this amazing movie and 2012, a lot of things have happened some good and bad: my girlie bear has gone from elementary school to high school, I've lost a job, found one, lost one, found another one, fought depression, had animals pass away, etc .  But if I've learning anything from Finding Nemo, it's that you always have to keep on swimming. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book 'Em!

The first thing that I bought when I heard that I was pregnant with Amber wasn't a stuffed animal, or a baby toy or even crib - it was books.   The Miami Book Fair was in town and I wanted to get my baby books so that I could read to her because the idea of giving my child that love of literature was so important.   I dreamed of sharing classics that I had grown up with like Green Eggs and Ham and Are You My Mother? at bedtime and having my child snuggle up with a good book.   From the time that both Amber and Daniel were born, our bedtime ritual was to go into one of their rooms and read that latest Arthur or Junie B. Jones book and laugh together as we discovered their exploits.    They would follow along and then take the books and point to the photos and tell me what part of the story was going on.  I loved our ritual of bedtime stories - of new books from the library or the bookstore.  The smell of cover and paper when you crack the spine and turned the colorful pages.  You see the artistry that went into creating the story and paintings that match the words.  I thought about those times wistfully as I visited one the Barnes and Noble at the Forum a few days ago and realized that in the next five years, book stores and paper books will probably be quaint relics of the past.   Kindles and iPads are quickly replacing real books.  Why go to a real bookstore, walk around and buy a physical book when you can run a search, find the one you want and download it?  While I consider myself an environmentalist and should cheer for all the trees that will be saved, there is something inside me that hates the idea that in a few years the only way to read a new book will be to press my hand against a pad to turn the page.   While it will cut down on the hazard of paper cuts, there is just something about touching the pages of a real book that connects you with generations of people who gone before you and shared that same experience. 

I have loved books since I was a very small child.   Being a someone who spent their developmental years in the 1960's, Dr. Seuss was and still is all the rage.   I loved the The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, and Oh the Places You'll Go.  I loved touching the pictures and looking at the words.   I loved the colors, the simplicity of the pictures and the expressions on the character's faces.   I loved the rhythm of the words - it was not the repetition of Dick and Jane but they were fun rhymes that stimulated the imagination.   I loved the concept that "A person is a person, no matter how small."   For me, Horton hearing that Who meant that little Kelley could be heard above the noise of the adults - although as an adult I realize that there is way more to Horton Hears a Who then just an elephant with amazing hearing.  It has so many interpretations, for instance, it could mean standing up for what you believe in, no matter the cost.   It could mean that everything exists in it's own world and we have to respect what we can't see.  If you are pro-life - it could mean that life and a person begins at conception- no matter how small.  I guess that's why I have loved getting that second look at these books as an adult.  I can see now more than ever what a genius that Dr. Seuss was.  He took complex social issues and simplified them - the kids got a great way to learn to read and the parents got something to think about.  How many children's authors are able to do that today?   That's why he is one of the most popular children's authors of all time.   I still have a copy of Green Eggs and Ham that I bought for Amber and Daniel.  I look at it from time to time because I flat out love that book.

One of the very first books that I read to baby Amber was Good Night Moon.  It's amazing to me that when you talk to other parents about that book, we can all recite the beginning at the same time -  "In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon."  I remember her at six months helping me turn the page of the board book and laughing at the pictures of the bears and chairs and the little old lady whispering "hush."   I know that now on the pads, you can pick an option on whether you want to read it or have it read to you.  Call me old fashioned, I used to love having a book read to me by a real person in the room and having them ask me questions about it while we were reading it especially if it was the first time for both of us.  It was the same thing for my kids.   We'd come home from the library with a book like Micawbur by John Lithgow and discover the artistic ability of a squirrel who loved to watch painters through the windows of an art museum.  The illustrations were amazing and detailed - much more than you could ever glean off an iPad screen even if you scrolled to zoom in.   You had to look at it in it's entirety to fully appreciate the artistry of the illustrator.   Physically turning the page is also good for a child's dexterity. 

It's not just the loss of passing down those original sacred silly texts to the next generation that bothers me - it's also cook books.   How many of us have our grandmother's favorite recipe beautifully hand written on a recipe card that we pull out for special occasions?   You can see the splatters of past forays into the kitchen to make the dish - some from you and some from grandma and you feel connected.  Max has two cookbooks from his family that are well worn.  One of them - The American's Woman's Cookbook which was printed in 1946 gives you ways to pasteurize your own milk because in 1946 folks got fresh milk from their own cows and well - you needed to know how to do that.  The great thing about these cookbooks is that they are not afraid of carbs but the portions are much smaller than what we're used to now.  The other cookbook is the quintessential Joy of Cooking from 1972 - another cookbook that tells you how to throw wonderful dinner parties that includes such staples as Swedish meatballs with four kinds of meat that you grind together using your own meat grinder.  Thumbing through these cookbooks you can see that the muffin recipes were popular as well as the salmon puffs and pot pies based on the amount of splatter on those pages.   That's what I love - life happened on these pages and life got messy.   You simply can't have that happen with your Kindle or Nook or you might be replacing it because that gravy got a little out of hand and splashed on the device that also has your copy of 50 Shades of Grey downloaded on it.    Sure, you can replace your Nook, Kindle or (gasp), your iPad if something gets on it, but it's a hell of a lot easier to replace a $15 cookbook then a device that costs $250 or more.   What's even scarier is that the earlier versions of those books will disappear completely and we'll only have the latest greatest so that sense of historical reference will be erased.  Whose going to download the 1972 version of the Joy of Cooking when you can get the 2012 version with calories, carb, fat and protein counted up for you?

Of course, I realize the irony of mourning the end of paper books on a blog in which my words are electronic and my stories are read on computers, iPads or smart-phones, but the idea of not being able to hand down a book that you physically touched to the next generation really makes me sad.   Borders Bookstores are gone and the Barnes and Noble just down the street from us closed after being in business for 15 years.  Going to the library has always been a fun family event and now I wonder if that is something my kids will be able to do with their kids.   Libraries and publishers are trying to figure out this brave new world - how to lend electronic books.  Seriously, do you need a physical building when you can just download a book in a few seconds?  For us, the library has always been this great place of knowledge where my kids can hear stories and learn about authors and that way of life is slowly being extinguished in the name of progress.  In many places, next to churches, libraries are central gathering places.   But as downloading becomes more common, you lose that connection with people who can help recommend a book in person rather than in a chatroom.  Let's face it, your 500 friends on Facebook are not your really good friends and being part of a chat in a chat room is not really honing good social skills.     Being able to be physically in the library or bookstore and touching the book and leafing through it is one of my favorite things to do.  How do you know that you'll like a book if you can only look at a small portion of it on-line before you buy it?  I love getting a cup of coffee at Starbucks and thumbing through a book before I buy it to make sure I'll actually read it. 

But as much as I might not care for this new world, it's going to happen whether I like it or not even if we save countless trees who give their lives only to have the book that once sold for $20 sit on the bargain bin reduced to $2.95.  In the next few years, authors won't need to have a print copy of their books to go on tour and can probably just do tele-interviews or tele-seminars to sell their books.   They'll need to include cool interactive graphics to compete in this short attention span world we live in.   Paper books will line shelves more as decoration then as one of the oldest forms of entertainment.   My hope is that children's books will probably still be printed because I have a hard time believing that a parent is going to hand their toddler an iPad and not worry that it can be destroyed.   A $10 board book of The Runaway Bunny seems like a much safer choice if your toddler is teething and drools all over the everything.  When you've survived through storms and electric outages from hurricanes like I have, the advantage to books is that they don't have to be plugged in to work.   You can sit on the plane and keep reading a book even after the flight attendant has asked everyone else to turn off their electronic devices.   So while Alec Baldwin might be escorted off a flight for playing Words with Friends, I'll be able keep reading my paperback version of Bossypants and find comfort with a real book that has always been my friend.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Mighty Wind

“Hey, Kelley, did you hear about Category 4 hurricane that is supposed to hit us in a few days?  They’re calling it Andrew and I’m freaking out!”  said Eric, one of the actors that I worked with when I was doing the Pandemonium Midnight Upraising on Miami public radio.   “It’s probably nothing, they warn us all the time about storms and this is the first one of the season, so they’re being super careful.  Folks panic and clear the shelves at the supermarkets and buy all the wood at the hardware stores.  Then its rain and a little wind and not much else,” I assured with the certainty of a native Floridian who’d been through this drill countless times.    “But you might want to fill up your car now and get some money from the ATM because if it comes and we lose electricity, you won’t be able to get either.   Just buy some water, Gatorade and provisions for a few days if you need to – go for crackers and peanut butter if nothing else because milk and bread are the first things to go.”   I hung up the phone feeling like I had helped my fellow thespian, but his panic started to gnaw at me.   What if this time they were finally right?  It didn’t seem like we had as much time to prepare as the last few hurricanes that ended up being nothing.   I told Max, my groom of exactly four months, that I would be going out to get us cash and gas for our cars.   “Do you think it will be bad?   Brian Norcross does seem more adamant than in the past,” Max pointed out (before going to the National Weather Service, Brian Norcross was the Miami local weather guy).    “No, he’s probably sounding the warning bells again because he has stock in Home Depot and Publix and their sales go way up,” I joked but feeling more uneasy as the hours passed.    “Let’s get some food just in case we lose electricity and all the stuff on the fridge goes bad.  When the lights go out you can’t watch Northern Exposure or The Wonder Years for a few days – which sucks,” I said believing that I would only be unconvinced enough to miss a few of my favorite shows.   But that’s the sort of skin you develop when you live very close to the Atlantic during August and storms are a constant hazard – you figure your worse/best case scenario is missing a few days of work and going without TV. 

In South Florida, you don’t get much in the way of seasons.   The leaves don’t turn a golden orange, the air does not get crisper towards winter and it definitely doesn’t snow.   In fact, the temperatures go from warm, to humid to sultry and then back to hot – those are the four seasons in Miami.    Living up in Atlanta, I appreciate the changing of seasons and now with it being close to September, the trees are already starting to change color.   There is one season that you can count on – which is hurricane season and it’s not one you enjoy but one you have to pay close attention to.   In 1992, it was late August and we hadn’t had much in the way of tropical storms or hurricane warnings.   The story of Andrew had seemed unremarkable – at first it was a tropical depression, then a storm, then a Category 1 hurricane, then a category 4 and then finally on August 24, 1992, it became a category 5 hurricane which meant that it was packing winds of over 150 miles per hour.  It was on August 23rd that South Florida was finally taking it seriously after so many reports of its ultimate demise.   I managed to get gas and hit the ATM before the crowds descended but Max did not fare so well as the grocery store.   He managed to get coffee and peanut butter but the bread was gone and there was a near riot when more was brought out.  He wisely decided to grab some yeast, flour and some evaporated milk to make his own bread.  The night of August 23rd, we put masking tape on our car windows and on the sliding glass door of our third floor apartment.  We made sure our parents who lived in cinder block frame houses had what they needed.  Our parents again were veterans of Hurricanes Cleo, Donna, Betsy, David and a variety of other storms that were not worth remembering.  They knew the drill and both their homes had hurricane shutters.  I had survived Hurricane Kate in 1985 in Tallahassee which left many people without electricity for Thanksgiving that year.   But you could feel the anxiety over this one – it was a category 5 and it was going to be bad, really bad.   Brian Norcross had been up for 24 hours straight at that point and was urging everyone near water to evacuate.   They were comparing it to the hurricane of 1926 which even someone in their 30’s like me knew about because there were so few buildings in Miami that existed before then - they had simply been obliterated

Max was making bread that night and the smell in the apartment was incredible.   He also made a ton of Cuban coffee so that we could stay awake that night and probably for a week – we had a massive thermos full and it was that strong.   Our cat Gizmo was hiding under the bed because he could feel the falling of the barometer and it was hurting his ears.   We kept the TV on and tried to not worry too much but living in an apartment meant that you were at the mercy of the rental company and our prayers were that or apartment would hold fast.   As the winds started to pick up, we took our battery powered radio and moved to the hallway which was away from the sliding glass door and the thickest part of the building – so we felt as safe as we could be.   The night wore on but we had fresh baked bread and a ton of sugary espresso so we were well fed and wide awake.   You could heard the sounds of breaking glass as the coconuts from the nearby trees acted as torpedoes smashing things like sliding glass doors.  You could hear the wind which sounded like a freight train going by.   After a few hours, the electricity went out and there was no more Brian Norcross to let us know what was going on – only a radio that was played sporatically because we had to conserve our D batteries.  Eventually, it sounded like the storm was dying down outside and Max and I decided to finally close our eyes and sleep for a while as the last bit of cool air settled on the floor of our hallway.   When the morning came, we opened our eyes and looked outside.  

Our apartment overlooked the pool which was now completely trashed with branches and debris from the roof floating on the surface.    Overall, our complex didn’t seem to fare that badly from what we could see but there was no way of knowing how our parents or anyone else did – the phones were out and in 1992, few people had cell phones.  When your land line was out – it was out and you were at the mercy of the phone company to fix the lines.   I wondered how others had done and when we did put on the radio, we heard that Homestead and Cutler Ridge had gotten it pretty bad – which sucked because my brother and his family lived in Cutler Ridge.  It’s hard to imagine that you could feel that out of touch but without TV, no phone or internet (again, there was very little in the way of internet - first website was not launched until 1990) for all you knew no one knew about where you were and help might not be on the way.   I hated not knowing how our parents and my brother did – especially Max’s parents since his dad was bedridden from a stroke that had happened 13 years before.   We ventured out and saw the destruction around us.  We knew not to go towards electrical lines and to be very careful.   The apartment complex across the way had all their outside balconies blown away and the residents of those apartments needed ladders if they wanted out of their apartments.   Cars were crushed by trees, boats were thrown around like toys.   Dadeland Mall, which was the mall that we were just across the street from, looked like it was fully intact.  It took two frantic days to find out that our parents and my brother had come through the storm fine with minimal damage to their homes.   We didn’t have electricity for five days and that forced you to keep the windows open to experience the true nature of a Miami summer without AC.  Ice was selling at a premium and there were rumors of looting.  That was scary since we lived just across from Dadeland and what would keep the looters from coming across the bridge to the apartment buildings?

 Yet, in these high tension moments, we got to know our neighbors better because whether you were rich or poor, not having electricity or phones was the great equalizer.  Everyone wanted a hot shower, everyone wanted fresh water that you didn’t have to boil and everyone wanted to know what the outside world was doing to help.   More news came in that there were busses taking volunteers to Homestead to help with the clean-up.  Max and I decided to go partly out of the genuine need to help people who were way worse off than us and also just to get out of our own house.   The commercial bus pulled out of the Dadeland Metrorail parking lot and ventured up US 1 with a fresh bashion of unwashed masses willing to help (of course under these circumstances, everyone was unwashed), but at least it had AC.   The simple act of being on a bus and going somewhere – anywhere was enough to lift your spirits and people were chatty and smiling as we roared past  that stretch of highway.  But as we got past Cutler Ridge, you could see the devastation.  Homes badly damaged, intersections of businesses were ruined.   But as we made our way into Homestead, it got even worse.   It was like a war zone – piles of rubble where homes used to be.   Businesses that looked like they had been blown apart by bombs – street signs were gone so you had no idea where you were because the landmarks were blown away.   I was grateful that the bus driver knew his way because it was hard to tell where we were.  As we passed miles and miles of destroyed homes and lives, the mood on the bus got very somber.  Here we had been bitching about not having electricity or water, but as least we had a roof over our heads.   But the people who lived here had nothing left and it was heartbreaking.  The mighty wind took its terrible toll. Tall pine trees were bent in the direction of the wind that fateful night and would stay that way for years to come – a reminder of those 150 mile an hour winds.  We got out of the bus and were given work gloves and asked to help move debris.  It seemed like a Herculean task to clean things up - there was so much debris that our busload could hardly make a difference.   But we donned those gloves and cleared what we could for the next 8 hours still dazed at the magnitude of the destruction.  The bus was quiet again as we rode back – we were feeling lucky and guilty at the same time.   There were people in Homestead that would live in trailers for a year or more before their homes were rebuilt and it took months for them to get their utilities up and running.

After five days, we got our electricity and water back.   My parents stayed with us for a few days until their lights came on.  I started driving to work again and saw KC of KC and the Sunshine Band directing traffic which was surreal.   There was now a new normal of 10 to 15 feet of debris piled up along the sides of roads – a sight you would see for six months and it made you stir crazy.  The doors and windows closed as the ACs cranked up again. Your neighbors were now the people you waved to  - the paradigm shifted back to just seeing them in passing and saying “Hi” quickly rather than genuinely asking how they were and exchanging damage stories.  
I was walking around our complex looking at where trees used to stand and now were twisted stumps of their former selves a week after the disaster.   I started to cry for all those lost and all who had lost everything – decades of memories.  It was just so overwhelming.  Then I noticed something.   A small plant was starting to grow through a dead tree.  It was pushing through the frayed stump and was defying the odds.  It was the first sign of new growth that I had seen since Andrew had taught us how fragile we really were.   It was Mother Nature saying – “I have cleared away the old and now there must be new because life renews itself even in the most impossible circumstances.”     I walked back to the apartment and told Max what I saw.   I felt better because it meant that life would go on – South Florida would get through this.   So as the anniversaries of Andrew and Katrina are met by yet another storm named Isaac – my prayer for those that have experienced that level of loss is to know that it will get better eventually and that life goes on.  Even if the news media moves onto the next celebrity meltdown or financial crisis, there are people who will understand what it's like because they have been there themselves and want to help.   It takes more than a mighty wind to destroy hope because life has a funny way of making you see that the people in your life are more important then things that can be destroyed – and that is the greatest lesson of all.