Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Week of Comings and Goings

Survivors, Warriors, Victors
Graduation Time

While many of my friends were sending their children back to school, we at LIVESTRONG at the YMCA were celebrating our participants return out into the world. For twelve weeks, they laughed together, sweated together, wept together, and worked toward the day when each could look back at the accomplishments and say with pride, "I did that." I love this program. Everyone who has ever had cancer should have the chance to be a part of it. (If you are so moved, I invite you to support out work using the form on the right.)

The Value of Names

For some time, it was a source of embarrassment, and even shame to me that I did not know the names of most of the people in the classes I teach at the Y. I mean, I have seen some of them four or five times a week for almost three years now. It just feels disrespectful to me to see someone so often and have to call them, "Buddy," or "Sister," or "Sugar," (you might not want to use that one north of the Mason-Dixon, by the way.) So this summer, I decided it was  time to make a change. Every class begins and ends with the ritual Remembering of the Names. The participants are amazingly good sports about it. We always share a smile when I get them right, especially when we're outside the pool. ("I hardly recognize you with your clothes on!") An unexpected side benefit is that they are learning each others' names, too. It's a little thing, and it isn't the same as actually knowing a person, but it's a start.

Wellllll... Yes, and no...
Love and Hope

Someone who has been a faithful friend to me for a long time, and has had a stormy voyage on the seas of love has finally found safe harbor. Seeing their happiness gives me joy and hope for my own future. Love is always possible. And it is never too late.

On the Other Hand...

You know that book where Colonel Brandon just hangs around for years, being a great guy until Marianne realizes that he is her soul-mate? Turns out that just showing up in a real woman's life every few months makes her feel really uncomfortable and creepy. And so ends the career of an unintentional, well-meaning stalker. Sometimes it's just better to smile, say thank you, and move along. (different lady, by the way. I'm not that creepy.)

Should have studied harder...
Good News and Bad News

Experienced the double edged sword of negative test results from my sleep study last week. Turns out that I'm actually quite good at sleeping. I move a little more than usual, but am well withing normal ranges as far as breathing, snoring, alpha waves, and REM sleep. So while I was glad to learn that I won't have to wear a CPAP machine for the rest of my life, I got to hear the unsettling news from the doc: "I have no explanation for your excessive fatigue." Sometimes, even bad news is better than no news. So it's back to the drawing board.

Over Fifty Singles
Birds of a Ruffled Feather

I am part of several special communities: show folks; cancer folks; depressed and bipolar folks. Our common struggle helps us find our own strength. Well, I find I am part of yet another tribe: divorced folks. Being over fifty and single can feel like you've been dropped onto another planet where the inhabitants are all strange creatures who are at once suspicious and fearful of one another. Nothing works the way it did when you were dating in your twenties. I am finding friends and even, Lord, help me, a "singles group," where we aren't on the make, just hanging out together, learning how to be whole people again. When I was first alone, I thought life would never feel real again until I'd found someone to hug and kiss and share breakfast with. But I'm starting to think that there it might be a good thing to spend some time becoming a person I can love instead. Sounds profound? Trust me, it's a work in progress.

Just Keep Learning

The first half of my year was dedicated to professional development. I read, traveled, took classes, and earned certifications that have made me a better qualified, (and better paid,) teacher and fitness trainer. For the rest of 2015, I am investing in my artistic life. When I was 10 years old I started singing in church, "impressing the grown-ups." Unfortunately, the ego boost turned into a kind of neurotic arrogance that refused to accept any criticism of my voice. I had several teachers who tried to help me, but I always balked, terrified that this one thing I did really well might not be perfect. But life is the best teacher of all. If you can get to your fifty-fifth birthday without learning humility, you have wasted your life. So, I have found a vocal teacher. After all those years, I am finally learning to sing. I don't know how this will turn out. Maybe I'll never be good enough to impress anyone but the people in the pew in front of me at church. But who knows? If I can become a marathoner and an aerobics teacher, there's no telling what other surprises I might have inside me.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Let it Go... Let it Be...

Just a quick thought: I have never been able to wrap my mind around the idea of "let it go," when something bad happens (whether in real life, or in my imagination.) But what if I change that to "let it be?" Let the pain be what it is. Sadness. Loss. Grief. Hearts take time to heal, and nothing I can do will make that happen any faster. But sadness can not keep me from living a life that is meaningful and fulfilling. I can let it be what it is: a temporary emotional state. It will pass, like traffic on the highway or water in the river, and some new feeling will take its place. I have never been any good at letting go of hurt. But maybe I can let it be, and bring it with me as I live a life that is about the things that matter to me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Pennsy's Night in the Sleep Lab

I won't say I was tearful, but I was pretty agitated.
"It's been five years since my cancer treatment, Doc, and I'm still so tired all the time. I can't work for four hours without going home to nap. By Thursday, I'm out of gas. I wouldn't even try to balance my checkbook on a Friday. I can run a marathon! There's got to be a way for me to work a 40 hour week again."
She nodded sympathetically and maybe a little bit wearily. "So many people come in saying they are tired. And the truth is, we really don't know why. But the best place to start is with a sleep study."

If she had said that the best place to start was by plunging needles under my fingernails and setting them on fire, I would have seriously considered it. I'm a little desperate.  I have big plans for my life. I want to act more. I want to teach more classes and do more personal training. I want to get off of disability insurance, and stand on my own feet. And most of all, I want to get a full-time job at the Y. And I can't do any of those things if I can't stay awake for a normal work day.

Ever since my treatment ended, my surgeon had been asking if I thought I might have sleep apnea: the condition that makes a person stop breathing and wake up smothering several times a night. It can have lots of causes: overweight, drinking too much, high blood pressure, bombarding the muscles in your neck with toxic doses of radiation. I was a likely candidate. So, after my last class finished at 8:00, I drove over to the sleep lab.

The building is only a sleep lab at night. During the day, it is the receiving area where you go to wait to be escorted to the big, radioactive trailer where they do the PET/CT scans. Yes, I had been here before. I sat in the parking lot for a while, waiting for my 9:00 appointment. Taking in the creepy coincidence. Preparing to sleep for science. Would I be self-conscious? Would the instruments annoy and keep me awake? Would the nurse be weird and give me strange dreams? I really didn't know what I was walking into as I approached the door and rang the buzzer.

A pleasant, apple faced young woman whose name tag said she was "Kimberly" popped into the lobby and opened the door with a smile; a little too quickly, I thought. One might be slightly more cautious about who you let into a place where people were essentially wired down to beds all night long. I told her my name, and she greeted me. Kimberly showed me to my room, a small, pleasantly dim little nook with a closet, a bathroom and shower, and a Tempur-Pedic bed. There was also a TV with a DVR player overhead. I wondered if that would help me sleep, or keep me awake all night. I decided to ignore it.

Kimberly told me she had another study start across the hall. I should relax for about 30 minutes, and try not to fall asleep. I changed into my pajamas, and tried to check Facebook, but got no signal for my phone. It occurred to me that this might be a real plus. No playing Words with Friends until 1:30 in the morning. Kimberly tapped on the door, bringing me a glass of water. I gulped down my pills, finished the drink, and started thinking about what would happen if I had to pee with electrodes and straps all over my body. I took a couple of quick trips to the bathroom while I waited for her to return.

The room was silent. the only movement was the turning of the ceiling fan over the bed. It chilled me in the air conditioned dimness as I tucked the blankets up under my chin and started to read. I'm working on a book that a friend recommended, and haven't really gotten into it, but knowing that I had half an hour to kill helped me to stay engaged. I noticed that the story was a lot better than it had seemed before. I also noticed myself becoming more calm and relaxed.

Finally, the time came to connect me. Kimberly eased back on the AC a little and the temp rose to a more comfortable level. She asked if I would be sleeping with our without my shirt, (no need for a hospital gown,) and I said I'd just as soon leave my shirt on, if that was OK. She was fine with that and we chatted softly as she placed pads on my legs, my chest and back, my scalp. There was a weird contraption like the cannula on an oxygen tank that went around my head and up my nose. She knew the surgeon who had discovered my cancer, and we discussed his reputation and bedside manner. She asked me about my cancer, and about my work at the Y. I was very much at ease in her hands, and when she was finished, I laid down on the bed, signed some papers, and she plugged me in to the wall. Kimberly explained that if I had to get out of bed during the night, I should buzz for her so she could help me get the whole rig to the bathroom. I assured her she would be hearing from me several times. Finally, she turned out the light and said she would be talking to me for a moment over the intercom, just to make sure everything was connected properly.

There in the silent darkness, I noticed a circle of red lights, near the ceiling across from the bed. It was an infra-red camera. Yes, Kimberly would be recording a video of me for the next few hours. I was glad I had decided to change clothes in the bathroom, and wondered if there was a second camera in there. After a few seconds, I heard her voice in the dark. She asked me to hold my eyes open, which I did with some effort. I was already getting pretty sleepy. She asked me to look to the left and right, up and down, blink 10 times quickly, hold my breath for ten seconds, and move my legs. Then she said good night and I was alone.

Silence. Darkness. No Netflix. No email. No texts or Facebook messages asking "Who's awake?" I closed my eyes and practiced mindful breathing, my mind's eye drifting gently from image to image. Friends I loved. People in my classes. Women I had dated or wanted to date. I don't know how long I lay there in the dark, but if it was 5 minutes, I would be shocked. Several times in the night, I remember vague awareness of having things stuck to my fact and hair. Once I felt a little warm, and kicked the blanket off of one foot. But I never tossed or turned. I never needed to use the bathroom. When Kimberly greeted me with a gentle "Good Morning," at 5:30, I was in the same position I had been when I fell asleep.

She asked me to step over to the chair so she could unplug me, then warned me that there would be lots of stickum on my skin and hair. Letting the hot water flow over me in the shower would take care of that in no time. She gave me a clipboard with two questionnaires to fill out, then left me to change. One of the forms asked how I slept and how I felt now. I slept wonderfully, but I felt pretty groggy. I had to re-read most of the simple questions several times before I understood them. Of course, I hadn't had any coffee yet. The other asked about my experience at the lab, which was stellar. There was no mistaking it for a hotel room, but it was certainly more comfortable than any hospital room I'd ever been in. I dressed, and after a lengthy search for the large, clearly marked box in the lobby, I deposited my paperwork into the slot and made my way to the car. I went directly to Starbucks, then home where I had another cup of coffee, then fell back to sleep for another two hours.

Kimberly explained before the study began that she would not be telling me anything about the data or what she saw during the night. That is the doctor's job. So I'll be waiting for a while before I know what they found out. But I do hope they learned something that will help me to have more energy and stamina during the day.

After all, I have big plans.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Long, Last Look Down 42nd Street

Are you auditioning for 42nd STREET?
Audition? Seriously? Don't you know who I am?
 My friend encouraged me to take a shot. 
"I don't tap dance," I replied. 
"Abner doesn't dance," she answered, recognizing a lame excuse when she heard one. 
"They are auditioning Equity talent all over the country. They are not going to hire a local actor for a principle role. Besides, I'm tired. I need a break. No, I won't be auditioning for 42nd STREET."

Had I been honest, I would have admitted that I was intimidated as hell. On the community and semi-pro stages of Lexington, I was a big shot. Now there would be real pros in town: people who had paid their dues, not given up on their dreams like I had done. Auditioning for these companies would mean competing with artists who had been honing their craft for thirty or forty years. Bottom line? I was scared.

I told myself I was a serious actor, not some song and dance doofus who mugged and chirped for the crowd. I was King Lear. I was freaking Frankenstein's monster. So I stirred some arrogance into my cowardly stew and skipped the Lexington auditions.That decision, but for the grace of God and a couple of Guardian Angels, could have turned out to be my biggest mistake in a long, long time.
My Guardian Angels

Angels with a Dream
Jeromy and Lyndy Franklin Smith worked for years to bring  locally produced, professional musical theatre to Lexington. I met them ever so briefly last year when I was featured in the opening number of a musical review at the University of Kentucky called A Grand Night for Singing. They impressed me with their professional demeanor, their creative partnership, and their joyful spirit. Still, when Lyndy reached out to ask if I was interested in reading for the role of Abner, (yep, same role my friend had suggested) I was shocked. They had already been to audition sites all over the country. Now they wanted to see me, the clumsy actor who couldn't hold a candle to legitimate, trained singers, and couldn't even remember the dumbed down choreography they came up with for me. But for some reason, they believed in me. I auditioned. They hired me. And so began my post-graduate education in the art of professional show business.

The BEST People are the Best PEOPLE

Mr Big Shot
Two decades of considering myself as "The Pro From Dover" left me with some very bad habits and a shitty, shitty attitude. Many people here have always treated me like a Big Shot. The newspapers write about me. Younger actors tell me how honored they are to work with me. Directors put up with my wise cracks. I started thinking of myself as a star, and expected to be treated like one.
Karen Ziemba: A Leading Lady in every sense of the word
The pros showed me the best are also the best people. Nobody ever humiliated or ridiculed me when I screwed up. When I missed an entrance on opening night, the four-time Tony award nominee who I had left hanging on stage met me in the wings to laugh and tell me how much she was getting wrong that night, too. When I blew my last line and brought the show to what felt like a screeching halt just as we were racing toward the big finale, a 22 year old actress stood behind me before my curtain call and told me how well I had covered. When I would wise crack during rehearsals, begging for attention and approval from the people around me, people didn't judge or tell me to shut up, they just continued about their business, showing me in the kindest way possible that there were more important tasks at hand at the moment, and that we could be friendly and funny later. And, surprise! Even without my bag of tricks, I still received love and respect from everybody in the cast. 

The Iconic Opening Image

The Grandest of Finales
Something else about the pros: they work their asses off. I used to stand in the wings at the end of a 10 hour rehearsal and marvel at the energy and commitment the dancers threw into every turn and fah-lap ball-change. They never settled for good enough. Perfection was good enough, whether it was at 10:00 AM atwarmups, or 9:50 PM for the thousandth try at making a line laser straight or a fifty heel stomps sound like one. We started principle rehearsals 10 days before our first audience, and I probably saw someone carrying a book for lines about four times. College kids sat next to seasoned professionals pouring over their scripts, working every free moment to get the text down flawlessly, as if we were playing Shakespeare, and not musical comedy. And nobody complained. The crew busted their humps getting enormous set pieces on and off the stage. Lights and sound never seemed to stop fine tuning, right up to the moment the ushers let the first audience members into the auditorium. The dancers massaged their muscles, taped their ankles, iced their bruises, grabbed a snack, and jumped back on the stage for take after take. Two days (!) of ten hour (!) tech rehearsals were conducted with joyful patience. We all knew that something special was happening. And we trusted each other to be there when the time was ripe.

Back Dues to be Payed
They taught me a lot about myself. I need to be better prepared for the first day of rehearsals. We were two days into a five performance run before I felt really ready to open. I won't make that mistake again. I lost a lot of time feeling intimidated by people whose experience and training made them better at their jobs than I was. I have always coasted on my voice, but never really kept up my training as a singer. It's time to change that, too. And finally, I have gotten used to people making accommodations for me. If I don't have my blocking quite right or if I learn my lines wrong, I let others work around me. The Diva act stops here. Too much depends on precision and coordinated effort for me to play fast and loose with other people's work.
I don't want to come away from this experience with a bunch of empty resolutions that disappear as soon as the next Shiny Object catches my attention. I just spent two years becoming the best water fitness instructor I could be. I can put that same level of intention toward my acting. I've already started. I'm working with our musical director to find a voice coach who can help me sing at a more professional level. A generous photographer has offered to make me real head shots: the first I've had in about 30 years. I've started re-working my resume to make it a document I can be proud to send to any casting director anywhere. And I am assembling the repertoire of audition pieces that every true pro has at their fingertips. Just in case I meet Steven Spielberg at the Y some afternoon and he wants to see two minutes of comic Shakespeare. I don't have any intention of leaving Lexington to go off in search of my fortune on one of the coasts.  But it's time I started treating my art with the respect it deserves. Maybe then, I won't feel like I need to work so hard to pry attention and approval out of the people around me.


Come On Along and Listen
Along with my determination to improve, I felt a sense of glorious triumph. My Lord, that curtain call! It wasn't because people were clapping for me. Hardly. But, every night I stood on the apron of my hometown's beautiful Opera House stage, and saw hundreds of people smiling and applauding and celebrating something that ALL of us had accomplished together. The kids from local universities, the troupers from all over the country, the experienced pros, and one very grateful Big Fish from a Little Pond in the Bluegrass had joined with an audience that nobody was sure would show up and made an amazing evening of theatre happen. Proud of myself? Sure, a little. But I was so damn proud of Lexington as we stood together and grinned and waved and hooted at one another. I believe that my theatre family's world changed forever during those five performances. I know that mine did.

And it all happened because a friend, two angels, and a company of artists believed in me more than I believed in myself. I will never forget it.

Side by side, They're glorified, 
Where the underworld can meet the elite