Help Is On The Way

When visiting family in New York City, we would ride an elevator in their building.  It had the usual floor numbers, a red “emergency” button and the regular elevator features.  But it also had a small pad that would illuminate that simply read, “Help is on the way”.  I always found that phrasing to be fascinating and somehow quite comforting.

While there were never any problems that caused me to use the “help” button, just knowing that other pad was there gave me a great deal of joy.  Not just in the elevator but in life.

“Help is on the way”.  What a great thing to hear when you are in need.  It doesn’t imply that you will be instantly saved or even how long it will take for someone to arrive.  It simply lets you know that someone out there is aware of your situation and they are taking action to get to you.

I thought about the darkest times in my life and how desperately I needed to hear that phrase.  There were no promises that the problems would be instantly solved or even that they could be solved.  But I found so much power in believing that I had to continue on until this mysterious “help” arrived.

Think of yourself in the middle of a heated battle.  Outnumbered and overpowered, you feel the creeping feeling of hopelessness.  The desire to simply give up is overwhelming and you feel yourself growing weak.  But then someone yells, “Help is on the way!”  It is just enough to bring that second wind back into your heart.  You fight on, not because you know you can win, but because you have to at least survive until help arrives.  Maybe it is simply the idea that now you have a finite goal.  Something to fight for when you feel all else is lost.  “Maybe I can’t win, but maybe I can stay on my feet just a little longer until help arrives.”

I think when people are really struggling, they need to hear that phrase more than “It gets better.” or “You’ll be OK.” or “It will work out.”  When someone tried to help me by saying one of these other things, it felt false and hollow.  I didn’t believe it would get better or it would work out or that I would ever feel OK again.  But there is something so powerful to me about the idea that help is coming.  I can’t argue that point.  It gave me something to believe in that was stronger than myself.  You may be alone now but someone else is coming.  When?  Who knows?  How many?  No way of telling.  What do they plan to do when they arrive?  Got me.

But…you are not alone in this fight!

There is power in hearing that phrase.  Whether it is from a friend, a family member, a stranger or even a pad located in a NY elevator.  We need to know that we are not alone and it is also our responsibility to let others know that when they need it most, “Help is on the way.”

Curiosity Killed The Omelet

“You keep thinking like that and you are going to make yourself sick!”  -My Mom….my entire life.

She used this phrase whenever I asked a question about the world that she found difficult to answer or didn’t want to think about at all.  (It was the equivalent of another parent being asked why the sky is blue and responding, “Just because.”)

I once asked her, “Do chickens need to have sex with a rooster in order to lay eggs or do they lay them no matter what?”  My question was basically, are eggs created as a result of sex or do the chickens just pass eggs by themselves?  Her response, “I don’t know!  Why would you even think about that kind of thing?”  (Insert her warning about being making myself sick here.)

I felt it was a valid question to pose to her.  After all, she was raised on a farm and spent most of her life collecting eggs from their hen house.  When I was younger, I had collected eggs with her many times.  My grandmother would always check them to see if they had a chick growing inside before using them.  So it made sense to me that all eggs contained a chicken.

On a side note, they raised Guineas on their farm.  If you are unfamiliar with a Guinea.  Imagine a chicken-sized Velociraptor.  They were mean little creatures that weren’t scared of anything and hated everything.  I once saw a pack of them viciously attack my sister and that image continues to haunt my memories.  Mystery of why I have a phobia of small quick-moving creatures, solved!

Anyway, I asked my Mom to see if her husband knew the answer.  His response was to just laugh and say, “Who would even ask such a stupid question?!”

Me.  That’s who.

It started when I read an article that a woman is born with all of her “eggs”.  While men create sperm over the course of their lives, the female develops her eggs as an embryo.  I wondered if chickens were the same way and if their egg production was part of a cycle of releasing unfertilized eggs or if it was the act of giving birth to a baby chicken each time?

Luckily the internet isn’t as concerned about my health as my Mom and gladly gives answers to any questions I pose to it.

A rooster is necessary to lay a fertilized egg but a chicken will lay unfertilized eggs without a rooster present.

If you have ever been curious or even if you’ve never considered it…here is the answer.  (If you don’t want to know, then I suggest you stop reading now and enjoy a delicious omelet instead.)

A chicken is born with thousands of tiny ova, which are undeveloped yolks.  Once she has reached a certain age, she releases an ovum and it is surrounded by albumen (egg white), wrapped in membrane, and encased in a shell.  It takes about twenty-five hours for the process to be completed.

If the egg is fertilized, you have an “unhatched” chicken growing inside.  The yolk provides the nourishment necessary for the embryo to grow.  Which may explain why eating egg whites is healthier than eating the yolk of an egg.

I find that fascinating!

And also quite disturbing.  Now that I know I am actually eating chicken ovum for breakfast, it doesn’t really sit well with my stomach.  Maybe my Mom was right and asking those kinds of questions can make me sick after all.

Leading with Insecurities

When I first started seriously thinking about dating again, I confided in a friend about my brilliant plan.  I would look at someone and say, “This is it.  This is who I am.  This is what you are going to get.  It’s not great and maybe it will get better but maybe it won’t.  But this is what you get with me.”  My friend shook her head and said, “That is a terrible plan.”

What I thought was me being honest and open was really a defense mechanism to protect myself.  If I was able to lower a woman’s  expectations then I wouldn’t have to worry about disappointing her later.  In fact, she would be pleasantly surprised when things turned out to be better than promised.

It was indeed a terrible plan.

Who wants to be told all the negative things about someone before they date them?  Nobody.  Not any more than we want our server to say, “Well, the fish is overcooked and very dry.  It’s served on a bed of bland rice and garnished with mushy flavorless vegetables.”  I don’t care if it turns out to be the best meal I’ve ever been served, the expectations are already there and no amount of reality can erase that feeling.

Another friend gave me this excellent piece of advice when it comes to meeting someone for the first time.  He said, “Don’t lead with insecurities.”  So simple but something many of us have done many many times.

There is an old saying in stand-up that goes, “Don’t ever tell the audience that something you are about to say IS funny.  They won’t believe you.  Don’t ever tell the audience that something you are about to say is NOT funny.  They will believe you.”

Plan B then!  Go the other direction!  Tell her how awesome I am and all the positive things about me!  I tried this once and the woman I was with said, “You know who says all those things about themselves?  Someone that doesn’t believe them.  Are you trying to convince me or yourself?”

So Plan A and Plan B were a bust.

That leaves Plan C…for confidence!

When I teach children’s improv classes, I always talk about being brave and not “playing it safe”.  We talk about people we admire and I ask them why we look up to these people.  The answer usually comes back to the fact that these individuals are confident.  But what is confidence?  It’s so easy to see and yet so hard to describe in words.  To me it means, someone that is comfortable just being themselves.  They have nothing to prove and therefore, nothing to fear.

It is tempting to mimic these people in the hopes that we can “fake it until we make it”.  But while false confidence may fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, you can’t fool yourself.

While I don’t know what the answer is yet, maybe it’s to stop trying so hard and just relax.  Be funny, if I feel funny.  Be quiet, if I don’t have anything to say.  Listen, when others talk.  React honestly and without an agenda.

In the end we spend more time with ourselves than with anyone else.  So if we don’t like who we are when we are alone, how can we expect others to want to spend time with us?  Often we look for someone to make us feel better by giving us affirmation or we hope that they can see “the real us”, what makes us special.  But that is an unfair weight to place on another and it always ends badly.

I wish I could say that I have reached some enlightened place where I can see everything so clearly.  Alas, that is not the case.  I still occasionally blurt out some self-deprecating remark, apologize too much or brag too loudly.  But I am getting stronger each day.  Not because I want to be more desirable to another person, but because I want to reach a place where I love myself completely and accept myself for who I am and what I feel.

The best part is that when I do reach that place, I won’t have to yell it from the highest mountain…I can just whisper it to myself,  “I love you.”

Don’t Die With Unworn Shoes

I wrote about this on Facebook but feel here I can give a little more detail to the story.

Fashion always frightened me.  Not because I didn’t like nice clothes, but because I had always told myself two things.  One, you don’t deserve nice things and two, don’t ever draw attention to yourself.  I lived this way for a very long time and only recently have I battled those dragons and won.

Last year I purchased a pair of brand new suits for a special event that I was hosting in Port Townsend.  I spent so much money on the suits that they gave me two gift certificates to use in the store.  I did nothing with them until a week before the expiration date.  That is when a friend said to me, “It’s time you got some grown up shoes.”  I looked down at my blown-out tennis shoes and couldn’t argue with her.  So I took the two certificates to the store and ordered a very bland pair of brown boots to be delivered in a few days.  (They had a wingtip design that I really liked but the color made them ordinary enough to keep me in my comfort zone.)  A few days later I went to the store to pick them up and was shocked when the clerk took them out of the box.  They were green!  Green suede wingtip boots!  To someone like me, they were the equivalent of being offered Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to wear.  But the truth was…I LOVED them!

That day I walked out wearing green wingtip boots and it was awesome.  Nobody pointed and said, “Hey!  What are YOU doing in those boots?!?!  Get back in there and buy something more ordinary!”  It was the beginning of my journey into wearing clothes that I not only liked but legitimately felt good wearing.

Each time Scott, my landlord, saw me in the boots he would stop me to tell me how much he liked them.  Scott runs a construction company and is a very “blue collar” guy in every sense of the word, who also happens to be a shoe connoisseur.  What he didn’t know was that I was worried about wearing them out, so I had purchased an identical backup pair of boots and kept them in my closet.

A few years ago my Uncle Roy passed away and we went to clean out his house. His closet was filled with brand new shoes that he never got around to wearing.  We buried him in a pair of shoes that never touched the floor.  Because of that experience, I decided that I wouldn’t die with new shoes in my closet.

Scott was working in the office below my apartment and I popped in under the guise that I needed to get costume pieces for an actor that was about Scott’s size.  I asked him what size shoe he wears, since the “actor” was about his build.  He told me that he wore size 13, the same size as me.  I returned a few minutes later and handed him the box with the new boots.  He was floored.

At the end of 2012, I was in a bit of a bind.  I needed to find a place to live that I could not only afford but was able to come up with the first and last month’s rent.  My options were not good and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.  That is when Scott offered to let me rent the apartment above his shop.  He said, “No need for a security deposit or any of that stuff.  I trust you.”  (Even though we had only met a handful of times and knew each other less than three-months.)  The plan was for me to stay in the apartment for just a month or two, until I could get my feet back under me.  That was seventeen months ago.  This apartment has become more than a place to get my footing, it has become my home.

I told Scott that I appreciated him giving me a place to stay and how grateful I was for his friendship.  He laughed and said, “I would have done it even if you hadn’t given me these boots.  But I am really glad you did.  I love them!”

But that is not the end of the story.

A few days later I was leaving and he stopped me to say, “Hold on a second!  I’m going to make your day!”  He ran into his office and emerged with an amazing pair of leather boots he had been keeping in his closet.  I tried them on and they fit me perfectly!

Whenever one of us sees the other wearing our “gift boots” we share a smile and a laugh.

It’s easy to point out the dark sides of humanity but there is much more beauty in the world than darkness.

Writers & Pet Bears

“A writer is a dangerous friend.  Everything you say, all of your life and experience, is fodder for our writing.  We mean you no harm, but what you know and what you’ve done is unavoidably fascinating to us. Being friends with a writer is a bit like trying to keep a bear as a pet.  They’re wonderful, friendly creatures, but they play rough and they don’t know their own strength or remember that they have claws.  Choose the stories you tell to your writer friends carefully.”   – Randy Murray

A friend once said, “If you hang out with Jonathan long enough, eventually he will incorporate you into one of his stories.”

This was in response to a rehearsal where we were work-shopping, Thirty-Seconds for The Lucky And The Strong: Life.  I was working with the very talented Krista Lally and Keith Reay on a piece about a pair of strangers who have their first date in a park.  I wrote in an earlier blog about how Krista explained to me that no woman would ever meet a guy in a park for a first date.  I said, “But it’s romantic and fun.”  Her response, “If you want to get raped and murdered.”  Point taken.

While we were working on the piece, Krista struggled with why her character said a line I had written.  She asked, “Why would I say this?”  I responded, “You tell me.  That’s the exact line you said to me, when we were talking last week.”  That’s when she made the comment about me eventually incorporating everyone I know into a script at some point.

She was absolutely right.

In the past few months I have written over fifteen new pieces for The Lucky And The Strong and I continue to write more for upcoming productions.  As a result, I have mined a great deal of personal material out of my own life and from every life that I share.  I do integrate everyone who I come into contact with but the knife cuts both ways and I also include a great deal of myself.

In Thirty-Seconds, the male character tells a story about asking a woman out and it going horribly horribly wrong.  (In the retelling of the “incident” he reveals to the female character that he used the phrase, “I would like to court you.” in his failed attempt.)  Keith, the actor playing the part, asked me, “What is wrong with this guy?  I mean, who says that?”  My response, “Me.  I said it.”  Unfortunately, I didn’t have someone to tell me beforehand what a tremendously stupid thing it was to say to a woman.

Tell Me A Story, is a piece about two young lovers saying goodbye after one of them has died.  Obviously, I had never gone through this experience but a lot of their dialogue was lifted from my life as well.  When working with David, the actor, I would talk about what his character was feeling at certain moments because I had actually felt those emotions.

If you’ve seen any of The Lucky And The Strong, then you have been privy to my life in the past eighteen months.  The pieces are often characters struggling with uncomfortable, dark and hopefully occasionally funny situations.  Just like life.

After the first performance I was shocked by the number of people who reached out to me to say that they felt I had really “exposed myself” in the writing.  I thought I had been so clever in hiding myself behind characters and situations that didn’t resemble my life in any way.  But what I thought was so well hidden, was out there for everyone to see.

Years ago, I read The Art of War and several quotes from Sun Tzu have stayed with me.  There is one that I think of quite often.  I tried to find the exact quote online but was unsuccessful and therefore will have to paraphrase it.  (I’m not even 100% sure it is from The Art of War.)  Basically it was, Listen to what your enemy threatens you with because they are revealing their greatest fears.  It is such an insightful statement!  If you want to scare someone, you can only draw on what scares you.

I believe artist do this all the time.  If we want to create something beautiful, horrible, uncomfortable, sad, etc. we can only draw from our own hearts and experiences.  So every creation reveals something about the creator.  When I share my work with anyone, I am really exposing the secret parts of myself.  The collateral damage is that I am also revealing the secrets of those who share my life.

So yes, my friendship is a lot like keeping a bear for a pet.  Unaware of my own strength and blissfully ignorant that my  razor sharp claws often cut deeply into those I play with in life.  Yes, the chances are very high that I will incorporate you into something I write.  But that is only because I have already incorporated you into my heart and that is the inkwell I dip my  pen into each time I create something new.

Like A Father – The Lucky And The Strong

A frequent question posed to anyone that creates is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I understand the need of the person asking to try and figure out how to create something out of nothing but the truth is…I don’t know.  While I don’t know where the initial spark comes from, I can talk about the process I use once the flame is lit.  With me, the idea usually comes first as an image, a character or simply a line of dialogue.

I have been writing quite a bit lately for my project, The Lucky And The Strong.  Each month we create, write, workshop, rehearse and mount a new collection of one-acts.  They are only performed once and then they are gone.  The exercise has been challenging and thrilling.  I am working on the series that will go up in March, we were unable to get a space in January & February, and I thought this would be a good way to discuss the question about where ideas come from for me.

I was driving in my truck and for no reason the words, “He’s like a father to me.” popped into my head.  Almost instantly a second voice said, “He is my father.”  That’s it.  Just one of a million unspoken conversations I have with myself each day.  The two voices speaking their lines back and forth to each other with some minor changes.  “He was like a father to me.”  “He was my father.”  I started to wonder who these two people were and what the circumstances were surrounding this conversation.

They both had masculine tones, so I assumed that they were two men.  But who were they?  What were they talking about?  “He was like a father to me.”  “He was my father.”  Back and forth.  Then, “He was like a father to me.  How did you know him?”  “He was my father.”

Suddenly all of the pieces fell into place.  Here were two men speaking of another that had recently passed.  They obviously didn’t know each other and their first interaction was so intriguing to me.  The world slowly started to develop around them.  Where were they?  A funeral for the man they were talking about.  Who are they?  Obviously, one is a man that was raised “like a son” to the dead man and the other was his “actual son”.

Next I started to not only hear them but see them as well.  Two men sitting in a funeral parlor, both are dressed in dark suits and are about the same age.  The first man turns to the other and says, “That was a really beautiful eulogy.  He must have meant a lot to you.”  The second, “He was like a father to me.”  (Pause)  “How did you know him?”  First man, “He was my father.”

The facts are so clear.  They don’t know each other.  The first man, didn’t speak at his own father’s funeral.  The second man, had never met the son of the deceased.  So we have an estranged son meeting the man who was like a son to his dead father.  Rather than creating from thin air, all you have to do is ask them questions and then simply listen.  Let them talk to each other and react to each other.  Is it uncomfortable?  Are there accusations?  Misconceptions?  Regrets?  Is there information that the other doesn’t have about the deceased?

Spending time with these two men, David & Luke, I have learned a lot about each and have really enjoyed their interactions with each other.  They are both really good guys in a very awkward situation.  I am now at the stage where I will start the actual writing of the piece.  I spend a great deal of time running a new piece in my head or out loud to myself before putting it down on paper.  (Perhaps one of the many reasons that I am not as prolific as I could be.)

When I have written the script, I will invite two actors to come in and breath life into the men and there will be more re-writes, inspired by them.  This is the most rewarding part of this whole project.  I work with so many talented people and their insight is absolutely invaluable.  (For example when Krista Lally work-shopped Thirty-Seconds and informed me that, “No woman in her right mind would EVER meet a stranger in a park for a first date.”  Shockingly, that never occurred to me, which may explain why my first date success rate may be so low.  But that information did force me to justify why the character would agree to do it and how she would handle herself at the top of the piece.)  I can only see the world through my own eyes and having so many creative people come in and talk about each piece is an amazing gift that I am eternally grateful to have from each of them.

Like A Father will be presented at the March 26th performance of The Lucky And The Strong.