Friday, July 24, 2015

Give Up On Giving Up

Are you dead yet? No? Then why are you chasing dead people's goals?

I have at least half a dozen books going right now. I could actually use a few more book marks. One of them is almost finished. The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris has affected me deeply. It is based on ACT therapy, a school of cognitive psychology that emphasizes acceptance and commitment. The idea is that we can't change reality by wishing things were different. That only feeds a cycle of frustration and pain. A healthier approach is to accept feelings, ideas, and circumstances as they are, and include them as part of our journey toward a life that is purposeful, meaningful, and fulfilling. It's about a set of  skills, and it requires a lot of practice. My own therapist filled my mental medicine cabinet with them, and I return to them constantly as I navigate my own life's voyage. I won't try to summarize The Happiness Trap here but I did read an especially meaningful passage today that I want to share.

Don't Set a Dead Person's Goal: Never set as your goal something that a dead person can do better than you. For Example, to stop eating chocolate -- that's something a dead person can do better than you because, no matter what, they'll definitely never, ever eat chocolate again. Or to stop feeling depressed... they'll never feel depressed again. Any goal that is about not doing something or stopping doing something is a dead person's goal... You need to ask yourself, "If I was no longer doing this..., what would I be doing...? How would I be acting differently?"  (p. 186)

God didn't create the universe by getting rid of the stuff He didn't want. He made choices, the way a painter or a point guard does; but instead of dipping a brush into colors or throwing a pass, God spoke new things into being. We are not gods, but each of us is an artist creating our own lives.

Can you imagine trying to teach someone to dance by telling them, "Don't step there. No, not there either. And don't move that way." How meaningless! How impossible. No, you learn to dance by choosing where your body will go, and then discovering how to put it there.

What do you want from life? Do you want to stop being fat? To quit smoking? Lose weight? Banish depression from your life forever? Good news! You are guaranteed to achieve all those things... the second you are dead.

Give up on giving up. Don't waste another second trying to destroy the parts of your life that are not meaningful and fulfilling to you. Instead, try imitating the Creator. Ask what will I do with the next second, the next day, with this year, with this one, long, beautiful lifetime? What direction will I choose that really matters to me? What kind of person do I want to be, and what kind of life can I live as I become that new creature?

Me? I'm starting small. I think I'm going to re-budget some of my late night ice cream hours toward reading books that insightful, compassionate people write. I like the kind of man they are helping me become.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

#TBT Happy Anniversary, "Widow Maker"

I didn't realize it until Facebook reminded me. But today is an anniversary for me.

July 23, 2010 my 36th and final radiation treatment for head and neck cancer. Surgery had left me without a tonsil, a jugular vein, or the ability to raise my right arm above my shoulder. Chemo had shut down my immune system. I was so weak from radiation, my legs were almost useless. I could wobble to the bathroom to puke or to the car to endure the agonizing ride back to the Markey Cancer Center. The outside of my neck was burned black. The inside of my throat cooked to the point that sipping water felt like gulping ground glass. I woke up so Mrs P could feed me or wash me or give me pills. I wrote. Saw guests. Wrestled with God. And I was getting sweatier and dizzier by the hour. Death had been coming to me in my Percocet flooded dreams for weeks. That morning, he took his best shot.

Saddle Embolus. "The Widow Maker"

My doc ordered a CT scan after that day's treatment to look for a reason for my erratic blood pressure. That's when they found it. They rushed me to the ER, and started pumping me full of Heparin: the nuclear option when you are trying to blow up a blood clot. The Pulmonary specialist's first words to me were, "You are a damned lucky man. You have Saddle Embolus, a clot we call "The Widow Maker." I later learned that her kill rate is 80%. I had been living with 50/50 odds of living till Christmas. Suddenly I had a 2 in 10 chance of seeing the next click of the second hand.

The clots formed deep in my legs: Deep Vein Thrombosis, a result of treatment and weeks of lying in bed, stoned on pain killers. One clot, a big one had broken loose and gone on a little riverboat cruise up the Inferior Vena Cava, through my heart, (Sweet Jesus, through my heart!) and hung up at the fork where the pulmonary artery feeds blood into the lungs. It became a dam in the river, keeping blood from getting to my lungs. Had it been a millimeter larger, had another clot followed up behind it, it would have completely blocked my circulatory system. It would have killed me faster than I can type its name.

Now, maybe you don't believe in miracles. Maybe you believe in coincidence or good luck or just random events that come and go for no particular reason, but whatever you believe in you can believe this. Five years ago today, Death pressed his boney nose right up to mine, stared me cold in the eyes, and just as our lips were about to touch, he changed his mind. He pulled away, whispered something in my ear, and stepped back out the door. What he said was a secret between him and me. What he did changed me forever.

Five years. Recovery. Depression. Weight loss. Muscle gain. Crawling, walking, running, racing. Depression. The YMCA. Two full marathons. A Divorce. A nervous breakdown. Therapy. Friendship. Playing King Lear. Becoming a teacher. And tonight. Oh my gracious God, tonight...

Abner Dillon: Investor, Optimist, and Joyful Dreamer
July 23, 2015 I am opening as Abner in an Equity production of 42nd STREET in my own home town. I am part of something that is the polar opposite of death. Today, I play a tiny part in making decades of dreams come true for hundreds of people. Five years ago, I was a dead man. But today I am again what I always have been in my heart. Today I am a professional actor.

There is a classic speech in 42nd STREET. Peggy Sawyer has been pulled out of the chorus to replace the injured star. It is her first night on Broadway. The moment is part of the mythology of the American stage, but it isn't just about show business. Director Julian Marsh's words to her are for everyone who has ever had to choose between giving up and going on; between playing it safe and risking everything. This is what life is about, in or out of the theatre...
Now listen and listen hard. One hundred people. One hundred jobs. One hundred thousand dollars. Five weeks of grind and blood and sweat. And it all depends on what you do out there tonight. Oh, I know what you're thinking. Here comes March with another one of his pep talks. Well, this is the last of them, Sawyer, and it comes straight from the heart. Our hopes, our futures, our lives are in your hands. Go out there and make them shine with your golden talent!
Sawyer, you're going out there a youngster but you've got to come back a star!
You're damn right I believe in miracles; I am one. I don't just believe in God's grace; I have it flowing through my veins. I believe that my life kept squeezing past that lump of clotted blood so that five years later I could say this to you:
There is no last chance in this life. There is no such place as hopeless. No such thing as an impossible dream. Your life is more important and more valuable than you will ever understand. You're going to want to quit a thousand times, But I promise you, there are blessings ahead of you beyond anything you can ask or imagine. As long as you have life in you, use it to reach for the stars.
Whatever role you are playing today, wherever the next scene turns out to be on your life's stage...

Break a leg, kid.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Week We Changed Everything

Hundreds of people I know and love share a dream. In the next seven days, it starts coming true.
Since I came from New York to work at Actors' Guild of Lexington in 1995, many of us have dreamed about that elusive next level: a real professional theatre for adult audiences. Over the ensuing years, artists and producers have tried and failed to make that dream a lasting reality. A stream of talent flowed to other cities for opportunities that our town could not offer. Many who remained came to doubt that Lexington would ever support a local professional company. Seven days from now, we won't need those doubts any longer. 

The Lexington Theatre Company has assembled a company of national and regional professional artists, and blended them with local singers, dancers, designers, and actors to produce 42nd STREET: a classic American musical about hope, hard work, and the way a big enough dream can change everything. I didn't think they could do it. I didn't think I could be a part of it. 

I have never been prouder of being wrong. 

When a friend told me about auditions, I dismissed the idea. "They are seeing people all over the country. They won't cast anyone from here." I said I didn't want to be a bit player to a bunch of put of town ringers. But the truth was, after all these years as a big fish in a small pond, I didn't believe I had the chops to hang with real pros. I was wrong about them, and about myself.

I was invited to audition for a supporting role, after the nationwide search didn't produce anyone the director liked for the part. She gave me a fair hearing; I showed my best stuff, and I got the call later that day. Pre-production was as well organized as any I was associated with in New York. When the cast list came out, I realized I would be on stage with people I had only read about. I arrived at the first rehearsal in a kind of fearful awe. But as I looked around the room I saw other familiar, less famous faces. Performers I had watched grow up at SCAPA. Designers whose sets I had built and whose lights I had played under. A stage manager I first met in the heat of the June sun at the Arboretum. And a director who had grown up in Lexington, paid her dues in regional theaters, and climbed all the way to the Broadway stage before bringing her talented husband and their dream back to her home town. 

Our home town. 

These weren't carpetbaggers. These were Kentucky producers who believed that our city, our artists, and our audiences were ready to work with the pros. And guess what? They were right. 

I have spent the past week sitting on the house slack-jawed as nationally known performers crafted their roles. And right beside them, Kentucky's own were dancing, singing, earning laughs, and perfecting stage fights. These young people are learning lessons about the profession that they will never forget.  I know they are, because I am. 

Our theatre community has the opportunity of a lifetime here. We have so many smart, talented, hard-working people. There is no question about our passion or our willingness to sacrifice. What we lack is a true flagship organization: a locally grown leader that can put us on the map, and help point the way toward making our city a professional home for all kinds of artists. 

Look, I'm not a glamorous actor. I have always preferred grit to glitter and substance to spectacle. I know I'm not going to make my living as a song-and-dance man in Broadway musicals. I'm an Off-Broadway kind of guy. But I also know that you can't have Off-Broadway without Broadway. 

The people who make theatre in Lexington are my family. And I believe my family needs this company to succeed. I hope you will support the LEX however you can. I hope you see the show. I hope you talk it up. I hope you share this post. And I hope that 20 years from now, I will remember this week with pride and say, "That was the moment that this city decided to go for the brass ring. And together, we changed everything."

Click here to learn more about the show, the company, and ways you can buy tickets to be there when we take our first step together.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Into the Woods

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. (Henry David Thoreau. Walden: Or Life in the Woods.) 

I know of no better cure for the melancholy of lonesomeness than a walk in the woods. Here in the Bluegrass, it is our good fortune to have just such a place only a few minutes from downtown Lexington. At the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, our city has wisely set aside 734 acres of wildlands as a nature sanctuary for plants, animals, and the dramatic geology of this stretch of the palisades along the Kentucky river. The trees and meadows are home to all kinds of bug, bird, reptile, amphibian and mammal. But Raven Run's 10 miles of hiking trails are also a sanctuary for human critters. Although I have only recently begun to explore them, these ridges, rivulets and meadows are quickly becoming sacred places to me.

The first time I went to these woods, I was caught in a dark mood that threatened to slip into one of the depressive episodes that I have managed to stave off for so many months. "The woods," I thought, "will be a good place to go, sit on a log, and have a good cry until all this sadness is wrung out of me." 
I was disappointed to find the parking lot packed with cars that Sunday afternoon. The sun was blazing, but as I searched for a spot, it seemed to me that hundreds of people must be filling the shady trails. I feared I might never find the solitude that my planned catharsis required. I soon discovered that the woods of Raven Run are lovelier, darker, and deeper than I expected.

The sanctuary sprawls up and down hollows and hills, with trails that ascend to ridge lines and trace along beside the many tributaries that feed into the Kentucky River to the east. Minimal construction has left the woods pristine, and those few bridges, stairs, and railings that are necessary are built so unobtrusively that the almost seem like organic parts of the landscape. It wasn't long before I had managed to hike down into a lonely valley where I could no longer see or hear any of my fellow humans up the trail. I found a suitable resting place, and sat down to sob.

And the damnedest thing happened. 

My head filled with the musty fragrance of moss and the decaying forest floor. I heard a strange brushing sound overhead, and turned my gaze upward to see an aging cedar, gently bending in the wind, rubbing on his neighbor for support. Below me, a tiny stream chattered over the rocks and logs that had tumbled into its path. And somewhere in the distance, I am sure I heard the scolding cry of one of the great black birds from whom these hills take their name. And there in the shadows, hidden from the glare of the high summer sun, I found myself breathing deeply and easily, without the slightest inclination to shed tears. The sweet earthy air, the music of the trees, the cool water had all conspired to create such a sense of serenity in me that I felt not just refreshed; I felt redeemed. 
My father introduced me to the woods of Western Pennsylvania when I was a boy, and it wasn't long before I felt his calming spirit settle down on the log next to me. I am never in the trees long without him, and on that mystical, healing afternoon, he came to me with the same comforting presence that he always had when he was alive. I could sense his quiet breath beside me, and the warmth of his arm as it rested across my shoulders. It's been more than 20 years since I bowed over his coffin and kissed his face for the last time, but there in the woods, I could smell the tobacco stained fingers as they gave my neck a squeeze.

We did not speak. We hardly ever do any more. No need. After a few more moments, we rose and walked together under the green canopy: father and son striding confidently through the branches, smiling quietly to ourselves as the great black birds scolded over our heads.