Monday, March 31, 2014

30x30: Failure and Other Points of Pride

The first F I ever got was in 3rd grade, long division. That shit just didn't make sense.

I was devastated. I still remember the feeling in my body. I felt ill. I felt dizzy. This wasn't right. I was good student. I was smart. I did not get Fs. Fs were for my classmates Keyon and Alicia. Fs were not for me.

But here it was. Big red F. Betraying me. Mocking me. It was embarassing. I couldn't let my parents know. The test had to be returned the next school day with a parent's signature. I'd gotten the test back on Friday. I had until Monday to make this right.

I wasn't the kind of kid to forge my mom's signature. (Not until high school, anyway). I figured the best course of action was to zip it up in my backpack and ask Jesus to turn it into a B. I tucked it away and didn't look at it again until Sunday night. On Sunday, just before dinner, I got my backpack from the closet, slowly unzipped it, and cautiously withdrew the test, with the full expectation that Jesus, at some point over the weekend, had improved my grade.

He hadn't. I started to cry. I had never failed anything before. I showed it to my mom, all weepy. I failed. My mom kinda laughed. She found it slightly amusing that I was so distressed over something that was ultimately insignificant, then sat down and helped me understand where all those ridiculous numbers were supposed to go. Happy ending.

But I've never liked failing. Still don't. And who does? To not get the thing you want, the thing you've been trying for, the sometimes critical thing, the thing you've given blood sweat and tears for, the thing that others might be depending on you for? Failing sucks.

But it's also a rule. It's inevitable; it's unavoidable. And a lot of the time, it's good. Psychologists say that failing tests us in a way that is essential for our development. When we fail, we learn to cope with less than ideal circumstances and we're better for it. 

They also say that those who haven't experienced failure have never had the chance to learn to cope with it, grow from it and, most importantly, have never been tested beyond what they're already capable of. Failure, it seems, is essential for growth. 

And! Failure is the thing makes success possible in the first place. There's so much information in failure. When I fail - in the rehearsal room maybe, or in an argument - I figure out what didn't work and get ideas about what I can do differently next time, and next time I'm better. When scientists fail in an experiment, they get that much closer to solving the mysteries that help us understand the world and, hopefully, help us lead better lives. Without failure, we'd still be in the Dark Ages. 

By failing, I slowly gain the potential to succeed more exquisitely. Failure, it turns out, is kinda the best.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Sunday, March 30, 2014

30x30: What I Imagine (For my friends who have recently suffered loss)

We are always coming and going. 

While we are here, if we're lucky, we come to love one another so deeply so that when it's time for one of us to go, it is as if half your own life is wrenched away. The times I've suffered loss have, so far, been few and far between. Still, I know it comes, and it must and it should.

In imagining loss, I think of the void that is felt. I imagine the grief, and I imagine the warmth and comfort that those nearby will surely give.

I imagine too, a well of gratitude. For having had the good fortune to encounter such a life, touch it, be touched by it, be impacted by it, slowly like a river carving out a gorge, or suddenly, like a meteor upon a great expanse of land.

I am imagining the quiet and the ache and the remembering and the hard-won, eventual peace.

And I am imagining how everything goes on. Unlikely as it may be. How the sun burns. How the grass shoots up again, eventually, and how the oil must be changed and the dogs must be walked and fed. I imagine how the energy just shifts and goes out again. How it cycles. How it comes back to you.

I am imagining echoes.

I am imagining how, in one another, we go on.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Friday, March 28, 2014

30x30: La Vie Boheme, Redux

Rent might've made being a so-called starving artist look like fun and shabby-chic games, but I don't imagine that there's too much that's fun about living in squalor and being chronically broke, cold, and hungry.

The friends that have populated my life for the last ten years are artists of every sort sort - actors, musicians, poets, illustrators - and lots of us are the total Boho type. Still, my best guess is that most of us do alright. Sure a bunch of us steal wifi; we have roommates and keep strange hours and shop thrift and laugh (to keep from crying) at the prospect of ever saving for retirement.

But most of us are pretty damn serious about what we do. A lot of us have got degrees in our art. Some of us have families. And all of us are working our butts off, making our art, teaching, working flex jobs for which we are often overqualified that subsidize our commitment to our mediums. 

We're everywhere.

We make your lattes, we transfer your phone calls, we nanny your kids, we attend to your customer service needs, we work thankless adjunct faculty positions at the universities and community colleges. Some of the most devastatingly talented people I've ever met are the ones quietly slinging grande soy caramel macchiatos with an extra shot, and most people would never ever know it.

When we're not working to make ends meet, we're working to make something that means something. We're curating a multimedia installation; we're choreographing a site-specific performance; we're writing the thing that, two years from now, will be sold out Off-Broadway. All the time we're hustling and grinding, hustling and grinding.

The New Bohemia is about the work. It isn't about a low-rent milieu, dilettantes, and starvation. It isn't about "the scene." The New Bohemia is about vision, and the fearless, self-sacrificing work undertaken towards its realization.

It's the work. No one's breaking into choreographed song and dance. Well, sometimes we are, but it's usually part of the show, and we've worked for countless hours to execute it perfectly.  

It's about the work. The rest of "la vie" comes, and is true, whatever its trappings. It doesn't matter whether he's wearing plaid, leather, or khaki, whether she lives in a condo, bungalow, or above a nail salon; the work's getting done, it's valid.

It's about the hustle and the grind and the hustle and the grind.

And occasionally, the glory.

And then right back to the grind.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Thursday, March 27, 2014

30x30: On Endings

"Only for Now," the closing number in the deliciously inappropriate puppet musical Avenue Q talks about how nothing lasts forever - not sadness, not your friends, and not your hair. They sing:

                               Each time you smile, 
                       it'll only last awhile.
                       Life may be scary, 
                       but it's only temporary.

Of course, most of us learned this truth at an early age, but it's any easy one to forget in the day-to-day task of living. 

It has been easy, especially through my twenties, to feel as though the circumstances surrounding any situation are fixed, lasting, and of the utmost importance. I've indulged in moments of despair that turned out to be fleeting, and moved blindly through other moments whose beauty and significance I didn't take time to recognize. 

But when I remember that every single thing is momentary - every relationship I will ever have, every breakfast I'll ever enjoy, every argument I'll have, or piece of music I'll hear - I see my problems in a clearer perspective and they seem smaller. Or I see beauty or feel joy, and just want to let it drop down into my bones. 

Living every moment completely is impossible. The experience of being alive is too rich and consuming to take in everything all the time. If we did, nothing would ever be accomplished; we'd be paralyzed by the depth and immensity of it all. So we ignore some things, we have to. But I can, if I choose, look up from my iphone, stop rushing for a minute, and look at everything that is going by so quickly - and be a part of that instead.

Everything is fleeting and everything will end. I'm trying to live in such a way that all of this ephemera will add up to a satisfying ending. I know that the actual ending is ultimately out of my control, but I hope that everything along the way will make the end feel right.

Favorite author Dave Eggers says it best:

And we will be ready, at the end of every day will be ready, will not say no to anything, will try to stay awake while everyone is sleeping, will not sleep, will make the shoes with the elves, will breathe deeply all the time, breathe in all the air full of glass and nails and blood, will breathe it and drink it, so rich, so when it comes we will not be angry, will be content, tired enough to go, gratefully, will shake hands with everyone, bye, bye, and then pack a bag, some snacks, and go to the volcano.

From A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

30x30: A Catalogue of Fears, Ages 4-30

Fear can confuse. It can blind. It can paralyze. 

It's not good for your health; it's not good for your life. I have found, however, that a certain level of awareness of my specific fears is good. When I can name my fears - when I can call them out - I gain power over them, rather than the other way around. I wasted a lot of time as a kid being afraid of things I couldn't name. I wonder, sometimes, what I would have been capable of if I'd had the courage then to call them out.

AGES 4-7: Getting lost in the grocery store.

AGES 5-6: Accidentally falling into a pit full of quicksand. (Like you do).

AGES 5-8: Falling down the steep, wooded hill behind the playground because there's probably snakes down there.

AGES 5-11: Going into the basement by myself.

AGES 8-12: Drowning.

AGES 8-18: Getting a bad grade.

AGES 8-30. My mother getting cancer from cigarettes.

AGES 11-15: Saying/doing something stupid and embarrassing myself.

AGES 12-16: Someone seeing me slip a pad/tampon into my pocket before going to the bathroom.

AGES 21-30: The prospect of not making enough money to live on.

AGES: 22-30: The prospect of not feeling ultimately successful as an actor over time.

AGES 24-27: All the fears that go along with questioning one's faith and religion.

AGES 25-30: Wrinkles.

AGES: 25-30: Getting breast cancer.

AGES: 26-30: Simultaneously running out of gas in my car and charge on my cell phone while driving in an unfamiliar place.

AGES: 26-30: Disappointing the people who care about me the most.

AGES: 27-30: The prospect of feeling unaccomplished over time.

AGES 29-30: The prospect of Bad Credit.

AGES 29-30: That Mitsi (my car 14 year old car) will die before I can afford a new one.

AGE 30: That something amazing and wonderful, but terrifyingly life-changing, will happen.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

30x30: On Being Black

I've written before about my cultural identity and legacy - 

about honoring the struggle and sacrifices of the generations that came before mine; about how I'm only here, free and happy, doing what I'm doing because of what they did; about making good on my own life so their fight won't have been in vain.

I've been thinking a lot about their fight.

The first generation of black people in America fought simply to survive.
Many subsequent generations fought for freedom. After that, the fight was for equal rights. And today? What is the fight today? How close are we to the place towards which the runaways fled, which the migrants of The Great Migration sought, towards which the marchers marched?

I spent a long time feeling estranged from my cultural identity. In my school days, ignorant peers made sure I knew that I was never black "enough," and it has only been within the last decade that I've come to understand and love all the ways in which my blackness is true and shapes who I am.

From this vantage point, I can see the new battles more clearly. They are subtler battles now.

There is the fight against a system of privilege that is biased against the non-white and the non-wealthy.

There is the fight to not be perceived as a probable fuck-up or likely threat when wearing a hoodie or listening to hip hop.

There is the fight to be perceived as not all the same - as individuals in a diverse group.

There is the fight to be included in a wider perception of beauty.

These new battles are tricky. Amid the entitled tears of Abigail Fischer and cries of bullshit reverse racism, these battles require sensitivity, conviction, precision, patience, and allies. It is a new frontier, one that's easy to shrink from, but we shouldn't. We should continue, too, towards that place were the runaways, migrants, and marchers wore a path.

And along the way, we have to pick up the mantle and advocate the causes of the "other": of the immigrants, of the disabled, of the mentally ill, of the gay, trans, and queer, of the working poor. Back in the day, King said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

I cannot ask for my place at the table, and keep another from her own. Today, my identity, my blackness, is as much about joining hands with those beside me as it is about pride I feel in the hope and fortitude of my ancestry.

It is both of things things together. It is taking hands and climbing.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Monday, March 24, 2014

30x30: Look Closer

Living in the city, I can get pretty misanthropic at times. I work a 9-5 at a desk downtown, and going downtown is not my favorite thing. Neither are desks.

I commute twice a day, during the city's two rush hours. The bus, to the train, then a ten minute walk from Clark Street to Michigan Avenue. Rush hour faces are everyone's worst faces. Rush hour selves are frequently everyone's worst selves. And offices are these liminal spaces where our inherent humanity goes in and out like a bad radio signal.

Commuting and desk working, it's easy for me to start seeing the world through poop-colored glasses, and it's extraordinarily easy, in these less than ideal circumstances, to encounter a person who might ordinarily be awesome, but mistake them for obnoxious, or selfish, or oblivious, or annoying. 

I did not like who I was becoming, feeling this way about people every day, practically all day.

On one occasion, though, I was riding the bus and happened to glance at someone with such incredibly expressive eyes that I couldn't look away. Looking at him, I felt as though I knew his entire life story in an instant. It was disconcerting. I wasn't prepared to feel so confronted, and made so aware of a stranger beyond his taking up space on the bus. But what was, at first, unsettling then mellowed into a feeling like comfort - something like feeling the ground under my feet and being able to breathe where before I had been holding my breath.

It was like being that much more alive in a time and space that requires a certain deadening.

So I started doing it on purpose - looking into the eyes of other strangers, trying to see who they really were, beyond just somebodies going somewheres.

There is an art to this. It is wildly creepy to just stare at people unabashedly in public spaces. You've got a solid 3-4 seconds before anyone who's not asleep or on their iphone starts to sense your gaze and catches you looking at them.

But in 3-4 seconds, if you're really looking, you can see a lot. It's all there. It's remarkable. Among these strangers that I once so easily dismissed, I see whole stories shining out through their eyes.

A lot of times I see anxiety. Sometimes I see fear. At the end of the day there's a lot of relief or anticipation. Sometimes resignation. 

But what I see most is hope.

And on the days when the noise and the push and the drudgery of it all make me and everyone else seem like little Sisyphusian ants, I just look at the person across from me, and wait to see their story, and know that I'm not alone.

Original Illustration by Isabella Rotman

Sunday, March 23, 2014

30x30: A Rose by Any Other Name Would...Not be a Rose


I hated my name, and since the age of four, have made several unsuccessful attempts at changing it.

Attempt 1:

Preschool. I was inspired by my first ever viewing of The Wizard of Oz. The next day, I went to school and instructed my classmates and teachers to call me by my new name: Glinda. They wouldn't. When beckoned, I tried ignoring them until they called me by my new, correct name, but they continued calling me McKenzie because they had forgotten that I had changed it in the first place. Glinda was short-lived.

Attempt 2:

Middle school. Favorite color: blue. I painted my entire room blue, and when my mother put down new carpet, I asked for it to be blue. I wore blue nail polish. I also decided that my name should now be Indigo. (Yes, I was that kid). 

I took a more nuanced approach this time. I only told people my name was Indigo if I was meeting them for the first time. This way, I figured, in a few years, everyone I knew would eventually know me as Indigo without having to ask anyone to awkwardly switch from McKenzie. But then I kept forgetting that my new name was Indigo. It was a confusing time for everyone.

All I wanted was a new name, a name that was pretty and not clunky like McKenzie. No one could spell it right, my own aunt always called me McKinley, and spell check always suggested that my name was actually "Macaroni" or "Magazine."

But over the years, amid the procession of introductions, sign-ins, sign-ups, and signatures, I began to think my name was kind of cool. There weren't too many others who shared my name, and I even began to hear the music in it - the hum of the first M, the percussive K, a sensual N, the electric buzz of the Z. I began to think that maybe these sounds, which I'd heard over and over again since infancy, had played a part in shaping me. I began to think that if my name were Ann or Barbara or Glinda or Indigo, I'd feel like a different person. I know that I would come to hear the music and beauty in those names as well, but I would be a different version of myself.

The beginning of feeling like my name was alright was the beginning of feeling like I was alright.

It's important for a person, especially a girl person, to be able to say his or her name from a pair of full lungs and with no apology. It is important to be able to announce clearly, and unequivocally, who you are and that you are. It is how many things begin.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Saturday, March 22, 2014

30x30: Ten Reasons Why Art

Art in American culture tends to be under appreciated. Artists too. 

When you're someone who has dedicated your life to art, it's hard to feel validated when society doesn't seem to place intrinsic value on your work. Reminders about the importance of what we, as artists do are important, as are reminders to the general public of the importance of the art that they consume. 

For faltering days, here's a handy list of reasons why art:

1. If it's in you to do, then you should find a way to do it, then do it.

2. Your perspective, your vision, your idea, your voice, is valid.

3. No one's going to do it for you, but someone might beat you to it, so get on it.

4. Art exalts the ordinary.

5. At its best, art resists the status quo, and compels us toward progress. In this way, art can be dangerous.

6. Even if there are no new stories, the world deserves your version.

7. Because art and artists are important parts of the economy.

8. Art gives expression to the vast and often ineffable experience of existence.

9. If it speaks to one person (including the artist), it was worth it.

10. Art let's us know that, whatever our experience in the world, we're not alone.

Original illustration, a self portrtait by Isabella Rotman

Friday, March 21, 2014

30x30: The City is a Fickle Lover

One day I'm gonna live cliffside in California, in a house - doesn't have to be big - that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. 

I'll drink lots of wine, have a big dog and a moody cat, and go around barefoot most of the time. That, or a house set deep into some woods somewhere where deer will wander onto the property with predictable regularity.

In the meantime, Chicago will do. Its beautiful summers and civic pride make up for its homicidal winters and downtown parking rates that require the ritual sacrifice of your first born.

I grew up in a suburb, though, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. But by the time I was thirteen, I thought the 'burbs were pretty lame. I hated how everything was so residential. I hated the chains and the cul-de-sacs. I hated that almost anywhere you wanted to go, you had to drive.

I wanted the city! I wanted to walk places. I wanted fast, and open late, and full sidewalks, and cultural gems, and night life, and weirdos, and tall buildings. 

A century ago, only two of every ten people lived in cities. Today, more than half of all the people in the world live in cities. That's a lot of people all mooshed together on various parts of the planet, and for the last eight years, I've been happy to be among them.

I've loved the lights and street noise and the push and the sweep of it all. The cities in which I've lived have been multicellular organisms, with wills and consciousness all their own, with us urbanites pulsing like blood through its veins.

But lately I've been noticing just how loud the noise can be sometimes. And how dirty the snow gets not too long after it's fallen. And the landmines potholes. And the corruption. And how hard it can be to get on. And the devastating circumstances under which some city dwellers are forced to live.

And seeing all that makes me miss the roads that cut through the woods back home. And the deer in the backyard. And a quiet loud enough to hear the crickets. And a dark thick enough to see the stars.

I don't know that I will ever seek out the suburbs as a place to live, but I am beginning to understand its allure - the relative ease of suburban life, especially if one's family includes children. Like Neil Young says, there comes a time.

For now though, the city and I will keep going steady. The city still sweeps me off my feet. The city is a good kisser. She has given me such a life.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Thursday, March 20, 2014

30x30: On Regrets

For some time now, a major tenet of my life has been that if I must have regrets, I'd much rather regret having done something, having tried something, than regret having done nothing.

I don't like thinking about what could have been "if I had only...". It's sad and a poor use of energy. So I'm trying to live in such a way that I need never wonder...or at least rarely wonder. 

I like to know what's on the other side, however promising or however foolish. Maybe it's something spectacular, maybe it's something that will blow up in my face. Maybe it's something spectacular that will eventually blow up in my face, but either way, at least I'll know.

Studying acting and subsequently shaping my life around the pursuit of such a career hasn't exactly been the best choice for security and financial stability, especially in this brave new world of recession, debt, and a level of economic disparity that frankly hurts my feelings. To be fair, no career towards which I've ever been inclined is guaranteed money-maker; writers, teachers, and freelance photographers rarely come out on top of the wealth heap. But I knew that if I didn't at least try to climb the mountain that is a career in art, that it would always loom in the periphery of my life of which I would spend the rest wondering and what-iffing.

So, hell, I starting climbing. No regrets. And if I ever come to a place where it all starts to fall apart, and the ground beneath me gives way, at least I'll know what the mountain was made of, and I'll never need look up and wonder.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

30x30: Sex

I grew up mainly Catholic so sex conversations were always taboo. 

My Catholic high school sex ed basically consisted of being shown graphic images of various STIs (they were called STDs in my day) and being told that we were becoming women now and should shower regularly. Other than that, sex convos were pretty much avoided and referred to as something dirty, dangerous, and sinful.

Growing up, sex was so taboo that even today I, as a liberal-minded, sex-positive urbanite, am still trepidatious to write a post about it. Still, in reflecting on the ideas and experiences that have been significant parts of my last 30 years, I'd be remiss and not a little prudish to leave out (*whispered*) sex.

It wasn't until I heard Paula Cole's song Feelin Love from the City of Angels soundtrack for the first time that I even began to recognize myself as someone to whom sexuality was applicable. I was doing a movement exercise in a theatre workshop, and I found my movements becoming sensual in a way over which I felt I had no control. I couldn't even make out the lyrics at the time, but there was something in the music that moved me in a different place. It was like suddenly being...awake. And aware. Was that what it was like when "Eve ate the fruit?" If so, who could blame her?

As I got older though, needless to say, all the STI pics from sex ed made me very cautious, and my initial ideas about sex were very Puritanical. As a kid, I once vowed that I would never have sex except in instances when I was actively trying to conceive a child. (I know; I've always been a bit of an extremist). And I thought of all of the more creative things that one might do with a partner as, at best, questionable, and at worst degrading.

Luckily, by going to college and spending lots of time with theatre people, my ideas about what's good and healthy and beautiful came to include a lot more than they did when I was in Catholic high school. Where before sex had simply been a necessary means for procreation and the gay kind was practically a capital offense, I slowly got to recognize sexuality as a way of connecting with, enjoying, comforting, and loving another person deeply, viscerally, and without the need for too many words. I got to appreciate its immense and varied potential for expression and meaning, among consenting adults who respect one another.

Aside from the anatomy and physiology of it, which we had also learned in high school, I finally got to understand sex in and of itself. Paula's lyrics started making sense.

Still, I've been a something of a serial monogamist, and growing up as I did, I've never had sex with someone new without having a conversation about it first. Salt-N-Pepa's Let's Talk About Sex must've had a strong impact on me. My tendency toward caution pretty much ruled out one-night-stands and other such Millennial and Gen X merit badges. But then again, having been born in the panic of the AIDS epidemic, mine is the first generation for whom sex has always carried with it the risk of death.

I've never once been sexually attracted to someone without first finding them appealing in my heart. That's just how I work, psychophysically. Perhaps because of that, I've been fortunate enough to have all of my experiences carry meaning, trust, and vulnerability. Where before I worried that I was missing out on the fun of less...measured experiences, I now recognize that with my temperament, I might not've had that much fun anyway.

I'm grateful now to be married to someone with whom I have a multifaceted and unparalleled connection. You couldn't convince me that I'm missing out if you had me brainwashed A Clockwork Orange-style. As for any activities that I never got around to, I'm happy to have any and all of them vicariously through the advice-seekers of Savage Love.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Monday, March 17, 2014

30x30: Busy is Officially Overrated

For an actor, being busy is very, very good thing. Our project-oriented work is often hard-won. Sometimes there's a lot of it, sometimes there's none of it. So when we have it, we count ourselves lucky.

For a lot of us actors, however, being busy often means working a day-job while rehearsing a show in the evenings and on weekends. That can make for some very long days (16 hours is my record), or weeks on end with no full day off in sight.

I'm in one of those places now. I am currently working a 9-5, performing one show, rehearsing another, and curating The 30x30 Project. Similarly, my husband is working two different teaching jobs - one in the city and one in the 'burbs, producing one vocalist's album, and writing his own. 

While we pride ourselves on our creative opportunities, and are grateful for our work, few things are sweeter right now than those rare moments when there's nothing that absolutely has to get done.

The other night, we were both home in the evening - another rarity - and sat down to eat dinner and watch a movie. As the movie started, he turned to me and said, "This is what we'd do if we were normal people." The most mundane of activities is a real treat for us these days.

I've tended lately to do the thing where I see empty space on my calendar and think, "Oh, I should put something there," forgetting that sometimes you need that space for doing the dishes, or eating food, or stretching, or maybe even sleeping. I'm learning that lesson the hard way, having just recovered from a flu bug in the midst of six consecutive, 14-hour days, and my second bout with the flu this season. The old immune system couldn't keep up with this level of "busy." My own stupid fault.

There's a lot to be said for balance, though throughout my twenties it was never a priority. In my field, every opportunity to work is precious and it's hard to pass on them sometimes. But I'm learning to let some of them go so that I can be a whole, cognizant person instead of the constantly harried automaton that's it's easy to become when I'm too busy. I'm learning the value of empty space on the calendar.

In fact, I'm in favor of everything slowing the hell down. I'd like to motion that America adopt the siesta. How many times has a person asked, "How are you?" and gotten the reply, "Busy!" That response is officially lame because 1. Who isn't busy? And 2. Busy isn't remarkably descriptive. It's the slightly asshole-y cousin of "fine." Busy is no badge of honor.

Next time someone asks me how I am, even if I'm busy, I'm gonna say, "Goin with the flow, G. Goin with the flow." Sometimes (a lot of times) I'm up to my eyebrows in busy; other times I'm not. But whether I'm busy or not, my ideal is to go with the flow - to get done what needs to get done with a measure of ease, grace, and a maybe a smile.

Right now I'm watching a guy talk loudly into his blue tooth, pace, and gulp a latte. He is super busy. I don't want to be him at all.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Sunday, March 16, 2014

30x30: Always Do the Next Right Thing


Almost 14 million people have viewed the video of the homeless lottery winner 

- the one where, in lieu of pocket change, a guy gives a homeless man an unredeemed convenience store lottery ticket, goes with him to redeem it, and it just happens that the ticket is worth $1000.

Spoiler Alert: the man who gives the lottery ticket is YouTube prankster Rahat Hossain of Magic of Rahat. The ticket was a fake, but the homeless man, Eric, won real money thanks to an arrangement Rahat had made with the store clerk.

The first thing Eric did when he realized that the $1000 was actually going to be his, was turn to the man who had given him the ticket and say, "I would like to share it." When Rahat refused the money, Eric insisted, then broke into tears, saying that no one had ever done anything like that for him. Then Rahat got teary too. Then so did the video's 14 million viewers.

While I imagine that this experience had a profound impact on Eric and Rahat, I doubt that the video has changed the lives of many of its viewers. Most of us probably watched, felt moved to some extent, then kept doing whatever it was we were doing without giving what we saw too much extra thought. 

Even so, a lot of us were moved, by Rahat and especially by Eric's unexpected response.

It's hard to live in the world, as Eric might testify. A lot of the choices that we make are based on the need for comfort and survival, and there's often not  much time left over at the end of the day to think about ideals. Eric could have taken that $1000 and walked; the guy gave him the ticket, ticket turned about to be worth a grand, done. And with Eric's apparent destitution, no one would've blamed him.

But despite his poverty, there was something in Eric that wouldn't let him leave the store without offering to share with the man who had made his good fortune possible. He didn't need to think about too hard; didn't have to convince himself. For him, it was just the right thing to do.

In aspiring to such actions, there are two thoughts that have given me a lot of guidance in these last few years leading up to 30. The first is:

Who do I want to be in the world?

What kind of person? And what choice can I make in this moment to help me be that? Like living in the world, it's hard to always be who I want - kind, courageous, patient, trustful, honest. But few feelings are worse than realizing that a decision I've made is moving me farther from who I want to be than closer.

The other thought:

Always do the next right thing.

Or ADTNRT which, if I got a tattoo, would be the tattoo I'd get. It's a popular AA slogan and is featured in one of the best movies of all time, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. As a phrase, I like its simplicity, though it seems like one of those things that's way easier said than done. But as a thing to live by, I like that it only asks me to deal with the moment at hand: the next right thing. 

Not all right things, just this one right here.

If I can string enough right things together, then I'm that much closer to being who I want to be in the world. I'm that much closer to, like Eric, doing the unexpected, the remarkable, and the right.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

30x30: On Sisters


All my life, it was her and me. Jasmine and McKenzie Bowling. The Bowling sisters.

One day our parents took us to a parade and we each got a balloon. I freakin' love balloons. I tied the string around my wrist so it wouldn't escape. 

We had balloons. The sun was shining. It was a good day to be alive.

But Jazzy's balloon got away. It was sudden and not a little tragic. We watched as it abandoned her grasp, floated away into the choppy currents with no remorse and without looking back.

She was sad now, I could tell, even if she was being quiet and brave. And here I was, balloon bobbing from the string tied to my wrist, no reason to not go on having the most amazing day.

But here was my sister. Here she was.

There was nothing to do but loosen the knot, wriggle my hand free of the loop, and let go. My balloon floated up, and by some insignificant miracle, joined my sister's. We watched as they floated up and off, and disappeared into a cloudless blue.

It was good thing, I could tell.

Driving home we felt good. It had been the most amazing day. "Maybe," I thought, "when we get home, we'll eat lunch, and maybe then we can play. And after that we'll eat dinner, and maybe watch TV or draw. Then we'll go to bed, and I'll sleep in her bed again tonight because I get scared, but we'll secretly be awake, and we'll make shadows on the walls with the light through the windows from the street lamps outside until suddenly we're asleep without even knowing."

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Friday, March 14, 2014

30x30: What About Your Friends?

When you live more than 700 miles away from your family, you're gonna need some friends.

I was running a fever of 103 degrees, was living alone, and was out of ibuprofen. I was in no condition to go out, but was afraid that if my fever got much higher things would start getting dicey.

I texted a few friends who I knew lived close by to see if they could bring me some drugs to get my fever down. My friends have busy lives; I was worried that everyone would be too busy dashing about being fabulous to help, or worse, that no one would think it was important enough to go out of one's way. Friendship is optional, after all.

Luckily, within a couple of hours, two friends were over not only with ibuprofen, but with soup, OJ, and Theraflu too. I think it was less the things they brought that made me feel better, but more the fact that they had cared enough to come.

Friendship is easy when you're a kid. You go to school and see they same people every day for long expanses of time and over many years. You work together, you play together, you go to each other's birthday parties, you study together. 

But getting older, it gets harder. People grow up and get busy lives, and spending time with friends - which had always been a foregone conclusion in the past - more and more often takes a backseat to the fatigue induced by the daily grind, the ladder-climbing, the housekeeping, and all the things required for survival in such a complicated, messy world. 

Friends get significant others, and in that indefinite honeymoon phase, would rather stay in and snuggle. Friends start families and it becomes understandably more important to attend to those than to grab a beer at a bar with a bestie. At a certain point, friendship becomes work. At a certain point, one has to choose friendship, work towards friendship, make time and space for friendship. Friendship must be cultivated and attended to like a garden, or it will wither and there will be a part of life that is barren and incomplete.

Friendship saved my life. There was a time, when my first marriage was ending, that I was in such despair, they I really didn't know if I'd make it. My family was supportive and loving, but they were so far away. Without the friends who spent selfless hours talking with me, taking me out, and showing compassion, I really don't know what would have happened.

Friendship is so unimaginably important because the best friendships, sometimes the ones you didn't see coming, will stand up when everything around you is falling apart.

I approach thirty with joy and hope due in no small part to the community of friends that has buoyed me, shaped me, and made me laugh sometimes so hard I've cried through every portion of this unwieldy life so far.

Thanks, friends. Let's keep up the work of being such to one another.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Thursday, March 13, 2014

30x30: Tiny Wins, a List

when every sock in the laundry has its mate

an album you can play from start to finish without skipping anything

cracking frozen puddles in winter

melting out in March and April

a perfectly sharp kitchen knife that slices through everything as if it were butter

an exceptionally juicy grapefruit

catching all the green lights

finding parking right in front of where you need to go

or being able to bike there instead

the first day of the year you can go outside without a jacket

an evening walk in the summer

first fireflies of the year

a house that smells like home cooking

sweet text messages just because

opening the windows in the apartment

a perfect hair day

buy one get one free on something you always need

a driver waving "thank you" when you let them in

unsolicited hugs from children

seeing a stranger smiling for no apparent reason

the opening credits of a movie you've been dying to see

when you hear someone you love at the door, getting home from work

the soft click of the light going out before bed

when you're tired and sleeps comes easily and heavily

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

30x30: You're Not Old and Neither Am I


Few things are more annoying than young people complaining that they're old. It's just not cute.

When I hear  25 year olds complaining about they feel so ollllld now, I kinda want to slap them in the style of the Batman and Robin meme and shout, "No!" 

I imagine that it's equally uncute when 30 year olds complain of old age within earshot of 60 year olds. What do we know from getting old? But then again, what does even an octogenarian know next to the 200 year old bowhead whale?

So 30 is seriously no big deal. 30 is fine.

Though I can't help but become aware of the small but irritating injuries I get from time to time that would never have happened at 22. And how I'm no longer immune to hangovers. And how all the new pop stars are now younger than me.

Physically, we get older not so much because time passes but because, in the process of cell division, mistakes are inevitably made. Oh, and because breathing oxygen will kill you, apparently. (Not even exaggerating).

But what about the mind? What about how old one feels? Certainly, this is connected in some part to the health and relative ability of the body, but what about the psyche? Certainly it seasons, and becomes more complex and faceted as experience and understanding accumulate. And maybe that can make one feel old. Maybe the specter of the accumulated past gets heavy and makes it so.

And then there's the fact that at any given age, we are older than we have ever been. That may seem like an obvious statement, but no matter how many have gone before us, each new age is personally uncharted territory. History might give us a roadmap, but the topography's always changing. 

That's the fun of it though, right? All of this living would be pretty dull if we'd be the same way we are now for all time, if we always knew what was coming and already knew how to handle it. And how could we really appreciate the gifts of any age if they were indefinite? 

I'm not suggesting that we always want what's coming. There are gifts and there are punches to the gut. But either way, what's coming is coming. It's just a matter of how we receive it. So I try to take care of myself - eat green things, do yoga, find occasions for laughter - and try to welcome each transformation with grace.

I'll never complain about being older if I can help it; it's in poor taste. It's a disparagement to the richness of the accumulated past, and a Batman and Robin slap in the face to the gifts that being older humbly offers.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

30x30: Apparent Introvert

There's a fun new way of labeling people based on their personality traits!

Well not new, exactly. The idea of introversion and extroversion has been around for about a century. The terms were pioneered by Carl Jung in the 1920s, and have recently enjoyed a spike in popularity thanks to highly scientific YouTube quizzes and Buzzfeed lists.

I had always thought of myself as an extrovert. I can be gregarious. I like parties and concerts. Hell, I chose show biz as my industry, perhaps one of, if not the most collaborative of the arts industries.

But lately I've been reading about how, contrary to popular belief, introverts often do like spending time with people and can hobnob with the best of them. For introverts, however, doing so requires a significant expenditure of mental and physical energy, and introverts often need to recover by spending time alone. I also read that, while introverts are often quite social, they tend to be more thoughtful and less demonstrative.

Cue Lauryn Hill's cover of Killing Me Softly.

I was on my first ever tour with a theatre company when I realized that I need alone time every day. Every. Day. I was with a delightful group of people, but after a few days, I was getting edgy. I was taking very little time to myself, not yet realizing how important that was for me. Living with my husband and stepkid (both major extroverts) has reinforced this realization. When I don't get time alone, I can become a not so nice version myself. 

But then I began to wonder why. Why these differences? Why do I need regular intervals of solitude when other people I know thrive on constant stimulation? Is it nature? Nurture? As we all do when seeking answers to our biggest questions, I turned to the Interwebs.

So far, science theorizes that intro/extroversion has to do with how our brains function. Some researchers think that introverts' brains experience high "cortical arousal," meaning they process information more quickly, and are therefore more quickly overwhelmed by excessive stimulation. Other research suggests that intro or extroverted proclivities are due to differences in neuronal activity and areas of blood flow in the brain.

So basically, brains work differently. Fair enough. But TED Talker and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that Western culture is biased towards extroversion and values the highly social tendencies extroverts over the more reserved tendencies of introverts. She argues that neither is superior, but both groups should be afforded that circumstances and environments that allow them to thrive and be most productive.

I spent a lot time thinking that I was shy or antisocial when I really just needed solitude in order to reboot. Most of the time, I find the intro/extroversion conversation relatively inconsequential, but I do realize that it has helped me understand myself and my relationships in a way that I hadn't before.

My husband is probably one of the most extroverted people I know. He is happiest when he busy and surrounded by friends. Rare is the free evening that he doesn't want to go out. Finding a mutually satisfying middle ground can be tricky, but one other good thing that these intro/extro labels have done is help us, in our new marriage, get one another. They have helped us appreciate how our different brains make us different, equally fantastic people - as well as how we compliment, temper, and uplift one another.

So I hope it goes with all such labels.

Original Illustration by Isabella Rotman

Monday, March 10, 2014

30x30: Being Bored Actually Just Means You're Boring

Louis CK pretty much nails it.

In an episode of his TV show, his young daughters are complain that they're bored and, in all of existential brilliance, he responds:


The French are on to something, too. In French, there's really no way to say "I'm bored." It does not exists in the language as a state of being. It does, however, exist as a verb, so one could, if one wanted, say JE M'ENNUIE, which literally translates to "I bore myself." In that sense, one's boredom is one's own shortcoming.
There is no boredom. I don't believe in it. I don't believe in boredom the same way I don't believe in gremlins. There is always something to do, or to make, or to prepare, or to question, or to seek, or to challenge, or to explore, or to find, or to build, or to open one's self to. 

Sure, sometimes there's lethargy. Sometimes there's restlessness. Sometimes there's lethargy and restlessness at the same time (the worst!). For me, both of these sometimes unavoidable experiences feel akin to boredom, but neither actually are boredom. Boredom, like a vampire, must be invited in. It requires complicity, is a kind of complacency, and is a way of denying the creative resources of the imagination. It is a lack of vision.

When I was kid, and was tired of drawing or riding bikes or building forts, I'd lay in my bed and watch the room get brighter, then dimmer, then brighter again as the clouds moved across the sky and filtered the sun. I'd just lay there and watch and think. These days, sometimes I catch my step-daughter just laying on the floor in her room, staring up. I ask her what she's thinking about and the technicolor life of her mind spills out onto the floor. Even in her stillness, there's no room for boredom.

Most importantly though, there's just no time for it. We're here once, for a handful of decades, and the old people say they go by in a blink. Being bored is a waste of a finite amount of time, for which there are no refunds. Louis CK is right (isn't he always?); any moment and any experience, even the most mundane, is too vast and complex to sustain even a moment of boredom.

And if I do, in some moment of self-pity, indulge phantom boredom, it's my own fault, and my own wasted, unretrievable time.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman