Friday, December 23, 2016

Holiday Words

I have no problem with Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. In fact, I think it is a very polite and appropriate greeting during this time of year. I also think it rather hypocritical for people who claim to be Christians, to get all worked up over how people wish you well during a particular time of year. Be grateful, thank them, and return the greeting. It’s akin to men putting the toilet seat down. Just do it. It really isn’t a big deal. It takes you 5 seconds, no effort, and your wife will brag about you to all her friends. (Sorry, this is a rant for another day.)

Season’s Greetings is another holiday term some people use. Usually in greeting cards. Rarely in speech. Have you ever heard someone leave the office party with a hearty “Season’s Greetings, ya'll!” No. You have not.

The one thing I do like about the Merry Christmas greeting, however, is the word merry. I like that word. Every other holiday is preceded by the word happy. Happy New Year, Happy Valentine’s Day, Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Hogmanay. Happy, happy, happy. But then there is Merry Christmas. Merry is just so nice and smiley.  There is a cheerful and light-hearted feeling behind the word merry that happy just doesn’t have. You can be happy anytime of the year, but you can only be merry around the winter months. It even looks like a very convivial sort of word the way the letters all follow each other and finish off with that devil-may-care “y” at the end.

Jolly is another really good holiday word. Usually used in describing Santa, jolly is what I would deem an autological word -- a word that is what it describes. Outside of Christmas (and maybe a few times in Shakespeare) you never hear the word “jolly,” do you? Too bad. It’s fun. It’s one of those words, though, that if you try to use during any other time of the year, you will always sound a little pretentious. Or British. 

Other holidays are equally resplendent with fabulous vocabularies. Hanukkah has some fun words that are only heard during that holiday, too. Dreidel. Latkes. Shamash. Even if you don’t know what those words mean, just the saying of them makes you want to find out. Each of the seven principles of Kwanzaa are great to say out loud. Especially, Umoja (Unity) and Kuumba (Creativity).  Both Islam and Hinduism have holidays with fantastic vocabularies (Eid al-Adha and Diwali, respectively). But since those dates move from year to year, they aren’t always strictly winter holidays. 

I think my New Year’s resolution (or one of them anyway) for 2017 is to use more merry and jolly words in my daily life. Even at the risk of sounding like I went to Eton or Harrow, I’m going to make it my mission in 2017 to be creative and daring in how I speak. I’ll try to honor the intention of good words by enunciating them properly. (Mr. Cooke and Dr. White will look down approvingly on me for this.) I’m going to use fun and unusual words for more than just the holidays. I think I’ll even make a concerted effort to put the “g” back on words ending in “ing.” I’m not a Cockney, after all. The down side to this resolution for all my Millennial friends and students will be that if I hear you saying words like bitten, kitten, or written without pronouncing the ‘t” sound, I will correct you. You’re not a Cockney, either. 

Not that we needed the lesson, but 2016 has reminded all of us of the power that words can have when used improperly or carelessly. Words wielded by the wrong mouths can topple governments and influence elections. They can cause pain and fear. They can threaten and intimidate.  Thankfully, words can also inspire and heal. They can motivate and enlighten. Lined up in the right way, they can make children laugh, can serve as a tonic for a lover’s tears, or can trigger an apology in the face of an argument.  Using words, a person can also wish a total stranger a Happy Holiday – and mean it -- no matter what religion either of them practice or belief system they hold dear. 

I wish you all a Merry Holiday and a very Jolly New Year. Here's to using your words - old ones, new ones, right ones.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Rules of the Road Trip

You are doing it wrong.

Rules and regulations are everywhere. Some people may think that, as a society, we are over-regulated. However, there are reasons for rules. The road trip is no exception. Oh, sure, it seems harmless enough. There's the family outing to another state, you have your couple jaunting up the coast for a couple days, and the classic four friends gassing up for an epic journey across country. To the uninitiated, these are simple excursions in a vehicle to travel to a destination. To the serious road tripper, these are highly planned and completely immersive experiences. They require military level logistics and detailed organization.

As we look forward to some potential road trips over the winter holidays, here are some helpful tips to make sure you enjoy your road trip in the manner it was intended.
A. Dress Code
    1. Jeans and shorts only. No khakis. Please. Don't make me explain. Also, this is the ONLY time in your entire life you are EVER permitted to wear cargo shorts.
    2. No swimsuits or bikinis. A seat belt on bare skin can leave a mark. Plus it gets kinda sweaty. Also, when you get out of the car the back of your legs are red and have the imprint of your seats on them. 
    3. Wear shoes. Do not drive barefoot. What if you have to dash into a gas station bathroom? Gross. Do not wear flip flops (or thongs and some people call them) either. You are on a road trip in a car. Take the driving part seriously.
    4. Wear a hat. For men, a ball cap, flat cap, beanie or stocking cap, trilby, pork pie -- all acceptable road trip wear. No berets, cowboy hats, boaters, derbys, or bucket hats. You are on vacation not auditioning for a TV period drama or cop show. For women, anything you look cute in. Face it, girls are cute in hats. Maybe try a scarf. Go ahead and rock your inner Audrey Hepburn. 
B. Music.
    1. Generally, the best road trip music is from the 70s and 80s. You may not know this, but road trips are social activities -- you and everyone else on the road are communing. If you are a millennial, older road trippers will think you are way cooler than you are.
    2. Real road trippers customize their music for the trip.This is where you can sneak in some more contemporary tunes.
    3. No one listens to country music on a road trip. NO, they don't. Only professional truck drivers. This is a road trip not a job. If you really WANT to listen to country music (which I do not recommend) pull over and go into a bar or country diner. Order some chicken-fried-steak and mashed potatoes, get your fix, then get back on the road. Now, don't panic. Lynyrd Skynyrd is not considered country. If you need a quick primer on the difference between country music and southern rock, please DM me immediately. You obviously have some learnin' to do.
C. Food
    1. Plain potato chips and regular tortilla chips are for picnics NOT road trips. The exceptions are for things that are spicy and hot flavors. Stock up on Cheetos (any flavor), Chex Mix (any but the new chocolate flavored sweet ones - WTF, General Mills!), popcorn, and anything else that crumbles easily and gets all over the place. Barcel and Tom's are the best brands for road trips. Convenience stores and gas stations carry them.
    2. NO DIP. This is not a cocktail party - it's a freaking road trip. Don't get fancy, get serious.
    3. No chocolate bars. Only candy like Red Vines, Gummy Bears, Circus Peanuts, etc. If you really have to have chocolate M&Ms are fine. 
    4. No napkins. (See exception D.1. below)
    5. Ignore serving sizes. I know I didn't really have to mention this, but, there you go.
    6. Only get snacks with wide-mouth bags. (Basically, just buy a big regular bag.) No small or snack-size bags as they are unsafe for the driver. Oh sure, everyone in the car can manage the stupid teeny ones you put in your kid's lunch box, but you are a grown-ass adult and need to get a handful in one smooth motion. Here's how it should flow: 1) Hands at ten and two on the wheel, 2) Release at two, 3) grab, 4) shovel, 5) wipe on pant leg, 6) back to two. (If this is your first road trip, practice this a few times before you actually pull out of your driveway for the trip.)
    7. Don't bother bringing fruit. Too much trash. Bananas and apples have the skin,  apples have the core, grapes have the twiggy little whatever they are. Bag it. They are a hassle. Just wait until you stop somewhere for dinner and order a salad or a side of fruit. You'll live.
D. Misc
    1. Don't even think about packing Kleenex. If you need to blow your nose use a napkin. Even the little travel size are terrible. Leave those in you suitcase when you go on the airplane. Grab a bunch of napkins from a fast food restaurant or steal a handful from Starbucks. Do not use these for wiping your hands. (See C.4. above) These are official road trip snot rags. (Yes, that's the real name). 
    2. Road side rest areas are there for a purpose. Use them often. You need to get out and stretch your legs. Even if you are only driving for a couple hours, stop at a rest area. Chat to the couple from Wisconsin. That's their RV parked over by the pet poop area. Make small talk with the tattooed girl from Albuquerque and her skinny boyfriend in the sagging jeans. They are very nice people. You should probably stay away from the the really mean looking guy with the Chihuahua. He's probably on parole and not use to people yet. The Chihuahua might be his therapy dog.  Use caution in the bathrooms. The floors are gross and slippery and there will never be anything to dry your hands are. Use the napkins from D.1. when you get back to the car. Don't get grossed out, but you WILL have to flush the toilet prior to using it. Just do it. It's part of the fun.
    3. When filling up at the gas station, always wash your windshield. It's tradition and should not be ignored. 
    4. Over pack. That's right, I said it. You are in your car. Pack some extra of everything just in case you need it. Take twice as much underwear and socks, a couple extra pair of shoes, some dress pants, a nice shirt or blouse, a swim suit. You know -- extra stuff. Even though you are on a road trip, you don't lose your humanity. Be ready for a spur of the moment adventure.
This is far from a complete list. You are welcome to customize it a little (the food part, certainly has some wiggle room) so long as you don't stray from the main tenets.

Have fun! Don't drink and drive. NO TEXTING. Enjoy the trip, ya'll.*

*Road trips are the ONLY time you are allowed to say "ya'll" if you are not from the South. This will be D.4. on the revised edition.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving. Have a Happy One.

Thanksgiving is always about family, right? Well, usually, anyway. Family and food. And football.

Early in my creative career (read: when I couldn't afford to go home because I was a struggling actor without two nickles to rub together), Thanksgiving was about what we now often refer to as "tribe." Community. My peeps. A circle of friends, lovers, cast-mates, and theatre orphans that had one thing in common -- each other.  Well, that and we were stuck in LA together on a big holiday. If we pooled our money we could buy a turkey and some Almaden Savignon Blanc (or Carlo Rossi Burgundy if none of us had worked in a while.) Of course, my roommate and I would always have a bottle of Jameson in the house for special occasions and an orphan's Thanksgiving was always one such event.

For the last 20 years or so, Thanksgiving has been about driving 1000 miles (one way) to visit my mother and her long-time significant other. My younger brother in Las Vegas would also make the trek (500 miles one way). Our older brother lived very close to Mom, as did a couple of cousins, so we got a lot of obligatory "visiting family" points on Turkey Day. As the years passed, Thanksgiving morphed into an inconvenient few days off each year that took more and more planning to execute successfully. The holiday needed to be stage managed like some exotic expedition.

Logistical issues aside, a three or four day visit to Mom's was always just a little bit too long for me. Her computer was slow, she cooked with too much salt, and if I had to hear one more time about how my lawyer brother was a better actor than I was because he was  lawyer... Ack! Enough already.  Then again, this was my mother, my brothers, my family. So familial guilt made me believe that a couple days was never quite enough. I love my family, but (and let's be honest, here) there is a reason we live 1000 miles away (one way).

But we suffer through. We bitch and moan. We eat. We laugh. We drink a little too much knowing we can sleep it off during the Detroit Lions game. We bring up old memories and ancient feuds that continue through the years with no resolutions in sight. All of these things are part of what family means.

The great thing about Thanksgiving has always been the lack of any real pressure. Oh sure, there is the complexity of shopping. Try to find a 16 ounce can of anything. Can't do it. Don't make 'em anymore.  All the recipes still call for that size, though, so you have to figure out how to adjust recipes. I should have paid more attention in math class. Prepping and cooking can be stressful, but by the time you are an adult, you pretty much have your mojo working on the traditional family stuff. Try anything new and adventurous and you are on your own. You should know better anyway. Stick to the basics. Cleaning up is usually where the party breaks down. Once the food and drink is gone so are most of the helping hands you were counting on to scrape the bones into the trash and make sure the wine glasses are dry. Generally speaking, if you play your cards right you can drop a few hints that will let people know they are expected to, at the very least, carry their place setting into the kitchen without dropping a turkey leg for the dog to get. If someone does happen to fling some stuffing into the fish tank, just know that they are going to blame it on the youngest person there. Or the oldest, if there is a nasty aunt that no one likes.

Compared to the other holidays, expectations for Thanksgiving are relatively mild. Navigating a mall to buying Christmas presents is like being in a real Lara Croft video game - shimmying past the slow moving wall that is the family with corn dogs and pretzels; tripping over the old biddy with the fake "service dog" as she jerks it away from the fresh puddle by the perfume kiosk; digging through piles of unsorted ladies lingerie at Victoria's Secret looking for something in a red or black lace that is sexy but not slu...uhm, wait, oversharing. I digress. Shopping online is not much easier. So many choices. Is shipping included? Calculating delivery online can be like one of those sixth grade story problems that I sucked at. "A hoodie being shipped from Stamford, CT at UPS Ground will save you $5 if your total order is greater than or equal to X. Solve for X."

Then there is Valentine's Day. A whole day only for people in relationships. That is just sad. Sorry single people, you have to wait for New's Year Eve. Oh, and guys, don't get lazy on this one. Pay attention and you'll do alright. Fourth of July? Those parades are terrible, but the neighbor kids are gonna be on the Boy Scout's Statue of Liberty float, so you are obliged to go. And, by the way, admit it, you never get the best seat to watch the fireworks at the local park. Your kids always have to run around the family with the pop-up tent and the portable Weber kettle or you have to distract them from staring at the couple making out two blankets over.  Memorial Day? Veteran's Day? Stock up on flags, because if you don't people will think you are not a patriot. You can make up for it a little with some red, white and blue cocktail napkins, but nothing says patriotic holiday observance more than a faded flag that you only trot out a couple times a year.

Thanksgiving is the one. Camaraderie and canapes. Wine and wisecracks. Human beings sitting around a backyard fire-pit or a well appointed dinner table just enjoying one another. Somebody spilled something on the new sofa? No problem. A toddler reaching for some whip cream just broke a wine glass? You probably had that glass long enough anyway.
My Mom is gone now and I miss those ridiculous trips to Colorado. Yet, I am so thankful for them. My family has grown in a very special way the past few years, so this Thursday in November lets me ponder that. I have gotten closer to some family members and more distant from others. My tribe is changing. Sure, there are the founding members of my tribe/my family that have remained constant. There are the close friends and the friends that are close. Friends that were and are again. Friends that all but disappeared for decades but by some magic force of the universe become practically neighbors. Family members get married, divorced, married again. Some move away, others move in. Tribe is the right word. Thanksgiving, by it's very nature, is meant to be tribal. Whether it's the tribe you were born into or the tribe you choose for yourself - maybe both - you come together for the most basic of human reasons. To eat. To tell stories. To enjoy each other while you can.

Don't worry, as sure as you will have left over turkey, the Detroit Lions will probably lose and things will go back to normal on Monday.  But for a few days, enjoy the characters that make up your tribe. Give thanks for each and every one of them. Oh, and pass the sage and sausage dressing. It's my favorite.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

On Losing Things. On Finding Things.

Sometimes you lose stuff. You just do. Nobody's fault. Shit happens. A cuff link rolls off your dresser and gets sucked up by the vacuum. A ten dollar bill sails into the wind as you're pulling out your car keys. The world is cruel sometimes. Your Star Trek NCC-1701 Enterprise Pizza Cutter gets accidentally thrown away with the last pizza box. Good thing it was a gift or you'd be pissed off.  It was pretty cool, though. (Stop laughing. Have you ever SEEN one of those? They are COOL.)

Sometimes other people lose stuff and you find it. That's exciting. Occasionally, a little uncomfortable. I found a $100 bill once. I felt guilty for a month afterwards.  The poor sod probably needed that C-note for something important.

However frustrating losing something may be, when you find it again, the joy is immeasurable. Especially if you find it on accident. The tale of loss and recovery becomes epic. A party story told over and over again to rapt throngs. The cuff link winds up in the cat's litter box. (Yeah, don't ask. It's a mystery.) The ten-spot ends up blowing against a rose bush getting stuck on a thorn for a week and returned to you by your gardener. (Who clearly could use the money more than you). The pizza cutter mysteriously appears years later on the same day the new Star Trek movie opens. (Kismet.)

Sometimes, just sometimes, you will find something without having lost it at all. A relationship, a love, a friend, a memory. One of my very best friends from high school reconnected with me via a phone call out of the blue. I had forgotten how much that person meant to me and, strangely, still does. While I didn't actually lose him as a friend, I found the importance of him again. As a result, that simple little action of a phone call, we have gotten back in touch, have spoken many times and actually took the time to meet after a million years and visit for a while face-to-face.  So fun and heartwarming, really.

For those who read my posts or follow me on Facebook, you will know I "found" a daughter I didn't know I had. More accurately, she found me. While I didn't officially "lose" her, the change in our lives once we found each other was profound. I would daresay miraculous even.

Just last year, I had the pleasure of finding some "junk boxes" my mother had kept over the years. She kept Mother's Day cards from the 90s, birthday cards from the 80s, newspaper clippings from the 70s. Letters from her children. Not junk at all. At least not to her. What I really found was what my mom had held dear throughout her entire life. Memories.

It's not that I really needed that Star Trek pizza cutter. I mean, really, it's a pretty limited utensil. It was just awesome to look at, to hold, to have. It was fun. Naturally, I was able to cut pizza after it went missing. I bought a new pizza cutter at Ralph's. It worked. Cut pizza. I forgot about the lost item pretty quickly, to be honest. Until one day, you move something or clean out a drawer or rearrange a cupboard. Hum. What's...that? Hey, it's my  Star Trek NCC-1701 Enterprise Pizza Cutter! Then you cradle it like a long lost love. The memory of losing now itself a memory. So glad I got a couple DiGiornos in the freezer.  Now, where'd I put that corkscrew?

Friday, March 11, 2016

I'm Not a Writer. But, I Write.

Nobody writes anymore. We tap out 140 characters on Twitter. We post funny sayings and scatter birthday wishes around Facebook.  We scratch out a few lines in a thank you card or a text message. We don't really write, though.

Which is kind of odd when when you think about it. I don't know about you, but when I get an actual letter in the mail, I am as "giddy as a drunken man" to quote Mr. Dickens. I reschedule whatever I may have planned in order to locate a letter opener (yes, I still have one). If I can't find it immediately, any knife, pair of scissors or fingernail file will do. Carefully I'll slice open the envelope; gently remove the precious paper cargo as if it were a page from the Books of Kells; gingerly unfold the stationery with baited breath ready to absorb the contents. The subject matter is less important that the fact that this person just took valuable time out of their day to think about me and put words on paper.

I'm not talking about business letters, here. You get that, right? I talking writing of a personal nature. To family and friends and people you care about. I'm talking big sentiments with nouns and verbs and adjectives (no abbreviations allowed) that reach into the other person's mind if not their very soul. These kinds of letters don't have to be novels or even short stories. They can be a paragraph or a few pages. They should, however, be considered and contemplated. They should take some effort. It's okay to re-write a few bits here and there. If fact, consider that prerequisite to a good letter.

A long time ago I used to write letters. Lots of them if memory serves. Then I stopped. Don't know why. Inspiration got overshadowed by something less thrilling, perhaps. Time spent scribbling got shifted to time spent rehearsing. Not that either of those things are acceptable excuses, but whatever the reason(s) my letter writing became more, shall we say, sporadic. I only started writing letters again a few years ago. I picked up the keyboard to write letters to my daughter. [My previous posts address that little miracle.] My thinking was that if I could write her a letter on a special occasion here and there I would be able to subtlety sneak in some information about myself that she might find interesting. Maybe even useful. Or at least, she might get to know me better through my written words and not just my spoken ones. Honestly, I sometimes talk way to much and writing is a good filter. With any luck, I hope she has had a laugh or two while reading my little missives. She certainly has discovered that I have absolutely no regard for grammar or punctuation.

Should you choose to begin your letter writing adventure, start with letters to friends. Those are easy. Just start writing to a buddy to see how their doing. Crack a few jokes. Ask a few personal questions. Give them a couple of updates about your own life. I guarantee you will get an immediate response and, hopefully, a letter in return. Now, I am fully aware that some of you kinda do this already. At Christmastime. You know who you are. Imma let you slide even though you are cheating a Little bit.

The most elegant form of letter writing is, of course, the love letter. One needn't be a poet to write a good love letter. If the meaning is truthful and heartfelt, the person you are writing to will think it poetry. If sincere, the words will come. Just throw in a couple complements and some flower references and you are golden! (Spray a little perfume with some rose top notes on the envelope for good measure. Rose lingers. Viola!)

If you are not going to heed my advice and start writing letters, then at the very least -- start a blog.  Write something. Even if no one ever reads it. Write. Not all the time, just once in a while. Give yourself the  chance, even the permission, to be vulnerable, to spout off, to express yourself.

Here's the thing (pardon me while I step up on this soapbox for a minute), as I see it, our  society has developed a terrible avoidance to speaking from the heart. Oh, we can rattle off an uneducated or ignorant opinion faster that you say "Donald Trump's a racist asshole." But to share a real piece of our heart is much harder. We have come to think of anything even close to sentimentality as bad, uncool, silly, unbelievable. From movies to personal relationships, we shun the sentimental in favor of "being honest." Plain, blunt, often coarse talk has smothered our ability to cry at movies, our longing to sigh at songs, or our need to whisper in our lover's ear. But in order for a love letter (any letter, really) to be truly effective, the writer must let down their own guard. They must be emotionally available. A person who writes, must openly make themselves vulnerable to the person to whom they are writing. You must risk something of yourself to make the connection. No one can do that in a tweet a post or a meme.

There is also a very personal je ne sais quoi about signing your name to something. Especially, something other than a tax return or a credit card receipt in a restaurant. Even when I print out a letter written in Word, I will sign my name. With an actual pen. Your signature on a letter is the equivalent of a politician endorsing a commercial. It's you saying, "Yup, I wrote this and mean every word." This flies directly in the face of most social media that is hidden behind bogus screen names and false identities. There we hide our meanness behind anonymity. With letter writing we wave our heart around like a white flag hoping the person reading it will take up the order to parley.

I know a few people are real writers. I mean, pros. For reals. Gifted, creative friends who can expertly craft a movie script, weave together a story for book or magazine, invent a beautiful poem. I'm not suggesting that we all suddenly add another hyphen to our credentials and I would never insult my highly talented friends by comparing my own work to theirs. However, I do think there is value in the process of writing. You don't have to be a writer to write a letter. You just have to have something important or nice to say - to someone else.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Secret Stashes of Circus Peanuts

On July 13, 2015 my mother passed away. Now, don't worry, this isn't going to be one of those kind of posts. Yes, it was hard. Excruciating. Fortunately for me, I really had no unfinished business with my mom. We were good. But the grieving process got me thinking about a whole raft of things. Some linked to her directly and others just far away thoughts that would come rushing into the vacuum created by the loss. Some I had predicted would show up, others were little surprises. Still others -- earthquakes.

But life is like that, right? Sometimes in the middle of a perfectly perfect Southern California day there's an earthquake followed by some aftershocks. Then, all better, back to perfectly perfect.

After my mom's death, my brothers and I set about "getting her affairs in order." And while I remember little about what transpired over the course of those few days, I do remember one thing in particular -- and vividly. In what my mom referred to as her "computer room" was a desk. It had four drawers. As I opened the bottom most of those drawers I was shocked to discover...her secret candy stash. My 87 year old mom had candy hidden away. My audible laughter turned into sobbing. So much so that one of my brothers came rushing in to check on my state of being. This drawer contained two boxes of Dots, a bag of Cinnamon Bears, and two large unopened bags of possibly one of the most inexplicable candies in the world of confections -- Circus Peanuts. The fact that she squirreled them away like a teenager's porn collection just struck me as profound.

I cannot for the life of me figure these things out. They look like peanuts, but are made of some kind of strange marshmallow only not really marshmallow. And, if we are to believe Wikipedia, they are banana flavored. Right. Okay. Who thought that shit up?  Who makes a banana flavored marshmallow peanut? That's craaaazeeee! I love 'em!

Forrest Gump was wrong. Life is nothing like a box of chocolates. Life is like a bag of Circus Peanuts. Looks like one thing, tastes like another and is made out of something not quite what it should be. Our stroll through this life is littered with these bizarre little candies. People and events that make no sense in any way except the one way that matters most. The heart way.

We all have certain friends that continually disappoint or drive us insane. Family that embarrasses us or angers us with their small mindedness or opinions. But if we ever really needed someone to help us fix a flat in the middle of the Mojave Desert, they'd drive half way across the country with a brand new jack and a spare tire. We may hide them from the world like my mom's candy bags, but they'll always be right there if we need them.

Long lost friends, forgotten lovers, distant relatives, former classmates. People passing through your life that you may not have heard from in years. Memories that have been effectively sunken at the bottom of our muddy brain seem to bubble up out of nowhere (how they find our cell number is still a mystery) and we laugh through the whole hour long catch-up session like we had never been apart. Opening yet another bag of familiar sweetness and pushing the silly thing into our mouth like an orca eating a seal.

Every once in awhile, on an inexplicable whim, I'll buy a bag of Circus Peanuts. (They're only a couple bucks at Target.) Not because they are delicious. Not because of the health benefits of Yellow 5 and Red 40. Certainly not because they are gluten free. (Which they are, BTW.) My motivation for supporting this ridiculous treat is purely because that first bite releases a flood of memories. All of them good. It's hard to remember sad things when you're eating a Circus Peanut.

No one should live in the past. But it's totally okay, to taste it now and again. If for no other reason than to remember how delicious things can be if you only open the bag. Thanks, Mom.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"To Kill A Mockingbird" & Me

Last week, Harper Lee died. She was 89. I have been pondering her much this last week. (Maybe more so even than the passing of David Bowie and Glenn Frey though equal to my musings on my friend, Natalie Cole.) Until 2015, Lee had published only one book. One. One of the very few Great American Novels.

After my stint studying to be an actor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I was hungry, no, starving, to continue gobbling up every bit of great acting wherever I could find it. I sought out every important movie I could find (VHS days), every play I could afford (waiter's salary), and listened to the spoken word recordings of the likes of Richard Burton and John Gielgud (perfect for LA traffic). Many of my contemporaries were dressing like Dustin Hoffman and combing their hair like Al Pacino. They were delving deep into the psycho babble of Strasberg. Making meals of cigarettes, cheap bourbon, and Cup Noodle. I was being drawn to a different kind of actor and, ultimately for me, a different kind of career. I found myself gravitating to the class and style of William Powell and William Warren. I still love the Pre-Code films of the early '30s and the deftly acted and directed screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. I will stop whatever I am doing to dance with Fred & Ginger, light up a smoke with Bogart & Bacall, or muscle my way through a Gene Kelly number. (So, yes, I'm a fan of TCM.) I didn't want the mumbling anti-hero of James Dean. I didn't care all that much about the frantic intensity of the constantly-New-York-accented Pacino. I was looking for quiet power. Controlled technique. Acting choices based on writer's words not just personal reactions to internal, lizard brain desires.

Then I saw Gregory Peck in "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Everything changed. My search was over.

The story itself is a roller coaster of humor and drama, innocence and racism. Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch won him an Oscar - as it certainly should have done. He is, simply put, perfect in the role. To this day, this is mandatory viewing for my acting students.

The character of Atticus is a towering figure. From height to humility, he is the very definition of a hero. But he is also a father of deep compassion and strength. A lawyer of thoughtful consideration and weighted intelligence. In 2003, AFI named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. Not Rocky Balboa or Iron Man. Not Indiana Jones or James Bond. Atticus Finch. A small town lawyer in Alabama. A widower with two kids.

I left the theatre that day wanting to live my life like Atticus Finch, the character. Of course, that didn't last long. Youth and Hollywood soon dashed all hopes of me ever having that kind of courage or conviction -- or morality. But what did last, was my great desire to try to be as accomplished an actor as Gregory Peck. And if not as talented or skillful as he, then certainly as utterly believable as he was in that one role at least once in my fledgling career. Gregory Peck in "To Kill A Mockingbird" was my benchmark for acting perfection.

For some reason, my teachers always picked other things to make us write term papers on, so I didn't read Harper Lee's book in school. In watching this film for the first time, I had no frame of reference. Just the movie. It wasn't until years later when I finally got around to reading the novel, that I realized how gracefully Horton Foote's screenplay captured the book and, indeed, the character of Atticus Finch. But even Foote's tremendously gentle screenplay would have been empty without Peck's Atticus. Maybe not empty, but certainly, less perfect.

As I have gotten older I have gotten noticeably more liberal about my intake of art. (I'll even enjoy me some Pacino and Brando now! (Except "Scarface." Still, no. It's the accent.)  I am much more accepting of imperfection in films and plays. A musician blows a sour note - what of it? A painting may not speak to me, but I'm sure there will be someone who appreciates it. Don't get me wrong, I still point out errors and poor execution. I still cringe at poor diction during a Shakespearean monologue and I have little patience for over-gesticulation buy a fresh-faced leading man. My wife and I still make good sport about how we could have fixed a certain line reading. But "To Kill a Mocking Bird" may just be the perfect film. I honestly cannot find a single thing that I would change. Boo Radley, Dill Harris, Bob Ewell. Wouldn't alter a line or gesture. Tom Robinson, Calpurnia, Judge Taylor. Wouldn't vary an expression or camera angle.

Similarly, I can say the same thing about the book. Scout, Jem, Atticus. Wouldn't replace a single verb or tweek one little noun. Harper Lee's long life yet all-too-short career left us with so much heart and wisdom, it's no wonder that we feel that we actually knew her. We certainly knew and loved her characters. Certainly, the impact that one book and that one  movie had on one young actor, changed him for the better -- and forever. Thank you, Harper Lee. Thank you, Gregory Peck. Thanks, Atticus.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”-- Atticus Finch

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On Ian McKellen and Acting.

In an age of meaningless Kim Kardashian celebrity and Charlie Sheen media antics; in a Hollywood littered with the inexplicable behavior (intentional or other otherwise) of the Shia LaBeoufs, Mel Gibsons, and Amanda Bynes of the world; in a era fraught with fractious politics and insane ideologies; indeed, in a world of continuing violence and endless bigotry, it is nice to occasionally find refuge in...something. Something sane. Something hopeful. Something inspiring.

For me that refuge has always been the arts. Primarily the performing ones. Mostly with actors. I love being with actors. Working with them. Talking to them. Hearing them discuss their craft. War stories and backstage dalliances. Flubs and faux pas. Victories and conquests. Shakespeare, Shaw, Henley, Mamet, Simon, Wasserstein.

I get energized by the way actors analyze characters and peel back the emotional layers of humanity. I wonder with them as they dissect the world. I like the jokes many of them make at their own expense and the honesty with which most of them approach their very lives.

Recently, I was fortunate enough (along with a small crowd of others at a very exclusive little event) to find such refuge in the company of one of the world's finest (dare I say greatest) actors, Sir Ian McKellen. He is at once serious yet very approachable. He is funny and thoughtful. He is wise and witty and knowledgeable and well-read and deep of thought and emotion. To wit, he is an actor's actor. I would say the very definition.

I was first exposed to Ian McKellen when he was 44 year old. He was touring his one man show, "Acting Shakespeare." A couple actor friends and I pooled our bartender and waiter tips and cobbled together the cash to sit in the Westwood Playhouse (now the Geffen Playhouse) and watch a relatively unknown British actor (at least to Americans) perform scenes and monologues from Shakespeare. Dressed in a light blue, long sleeved shirt and what I remember to be grey trousers, he began, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players."

I was 25 and fresh out of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I had entered drama school after college in hopes of becoming a movie star or, at the very least, a regular on a TV show. That night, McKellen, alone on stage with no props or costumes, made me want to become an actor instead. Within about an hour and a half I had seen what an actor really is. What an actor really does. What an actor is capable of doing to an audience. I was changed.

There is an interesting thing that happens when you are in the company of real actors. "Real actors" as opposed to "movie stars." I make this distinction with all due respect to movie stars. They work hard in a difficult profession. I love Tom Hanks. He is a very good actor as far as movie stars go. I've never been disappointed with a Tom Hanks movie. But Hanks (and Clooney and others in the rarefied air of movie-stardom) will never play the massive variety of roles afforded to actors like Sir Ian. Sir Ian. Sir John. Sir Alec. Sir Ralph.

In listening to Sir Ian talk quite candidly about his actor life was personally reassuring and artistically comforting. There are no rules, he can give no advice, he has no process, hard work is important once you have the job, and luck ultimately gets you the job. Even for the most successful actors in the world, it is a hard career that must be tempered and nurtured daily. No, it is not fair. Yes, you are probably better than the people you see on TV and in the movies. Stick to your guns, remain committed, be fearless, work hard, study other actors, live in the world. Have a career not just a job. Love what you do. Be an Ian, not a Kim.

Here's the interview.