I love to be on the stage; the center of attention. I’m fortunate to have found a career that fills some of that need. I’m a corporate trainer. It’s not surprising that what I enjoy most about my work is the part of being a performer. Enthusiastic teacher is probably a more accurate description. I’ve had my time on the stage and I get as much thrill from this as I ever did as a stand-up comedian. I spent about five years chasing a stand-up comedy career. Its hard work but I loved it. Eventually my wife said I needed a job withinsurance. That I ever would have had the desire to get on stage is a bit crazy. I didn’t get my start in comedy. My parents wanted well rounded kids so I began my performance career in song and dance. Good lord. I coulda been a star had I only had talent. My first two performance opportunities were humiliating disasters. It never occurred to me until now that maybe, just maybe, the humiliation of those first two performances instilled a need in me to confront those demons.
Catastrophe number one: Tap dancing. My father, at my mother’s urging I would imagine, convinced my brother and me that tap dancing would teach us footwork and be very beneficial to our football careers. He lied. Anyway, the year was 1967 or so. I had already begun to develop that adorable little paunch that I still carry today and I was costumed in a pink satin jumper with a baby blue satin cumber bun. The song was “A Spoon Full of Sugar” and the venue was the West Waterloo High School auditorium. Every prior performance had been in our dance instructor’s tiny studio. There was no dress rehearsal. If West Waterloo High School was known for anything, besides state champion wrestling teams, it was their huge stage and mammoth auditorium. The place sat 2,500 but to my seven year old eyes it looked like a million.
The closing choreography was for our little dance troup to circle the stage in a crack the whip exit to stage right. For some God only knows reason the leader of our dance line decided to utilize the entire stage. I happened to be anchoring the end of our line. By the time of the critical “crack” I was unable to keep hold of the hand in front of me. I was on a dead-arm-pumping-gasping-for-breath-sprint! That adorable blue satin cumber bun had slid down under my belly and was in serious jeopardy of falling further where it might trip me up. For some reason 2,498 audience members, I’m assuming my parents were hiding in shame, found this hilarious. The auditorium exploded in raucous laughter and I was all too aware of why. Sad. I was finished with my dance career.
My next performance came about five years later. I had been taking organ lessons at a local piano and organ store and they decided to showcase their students. My song was “Over the Rainbow” and I still recall my teacher pounding on the organ in frustration two days before the show. I just couldn’t get through the song without destroying it. She threatened to remove me from the lineup which would have been fine with me. My parents had invited family from out of town. They would have none of it. I came from modest means but you have to know this about my dad. He was a proud man when it came to his kids. If I was going to be performing in a musical recital I was going to look sharp. Part of that look apparently meant I would need a brand new pair of shiny black wing tip shoes for my performance.
The trouble was… anxiety began to get the best of me. I was sitting in the front row of the venue awaiting my turn to perform and I convinced myself I would not be able to feel the pedals of the organ in these new unbroken-in shoes. When it was my turn to perform I froze. My teacher called me twice from the stage before coming down to ask me what the matter was. I told her. She stood tall and laughed, explained my situation to the audience and told me to just remove the shoes. I did. And then I walked up to the stage in my stocking feet where again I was subjected to an amused audience. It got worse from there. The organ being used was nothing like the one I had at home and I didn’t know what to do about the presets. I froze again. The increasingly humiliated teacher ran up to the stage and again apologized for me explaining that I was not familiar with the instrument. Now there was nervous laughter from the audience. They were beginning to sense my pain. She adjusted my settings and signaled for me to begin. It got worse.
I misplaced my hands on the keyboard and my first notes were the most discordant conglomeration of misplayed notes in the history of recitals. The teacher bounded to the stage and although I hadn’t even noticed, grabbed my music and slammed it around right side up, glaring at me she curtly commanded, “Begin.” The audience couldn’t take it anymore and again exploded in laughter at me; the 12 year old boy in his stocking feet. And then a miracle happened. Through tear filled eyes from perhaps one of the greatest humiliations of my life I played that song perfectly. Beautifully. And I had found redemption in the audience to the point I earned the only standing ovation of the evening.
I guess I tell you all this as a means to encourage you to persist. No matter how much challenge and humiliation we face in life we must have hope that things will work out in the end. Have a great weekend!
I came across the interesting idea that mankind basically has two essential needs in life: community and security. I always liked Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” as a means to diagnose my discontent but I suppose you could smoosh everything except self-actualization into those two categories. Security is a tough one these days. So many people buy into created threats but I think we need to first focus on our need for community. How well are we meeting our basic human need for community these days? How is that need being met in our screen facing lives? What have we given up for the convenience of our treasured gadgets? Is there a price to pay when we subjugate physical community with electronic connections? Any foray into the comment section of online news sites or social media will give us an idea.
I think in this divided time we need to focus on physical community. A friend reminded me yesterday of the expression, “Think globally. Act locally” that’s really what we have to do. Ranting on Facebook didn’t quite get it done for us this past time around. Did it? So the question is, how do we frame the message in a way to reach the hearts and minds of people who were unable to internalize the non-negotiable idea that we can never abandon those who feel at risk? How do we communicate what equality and brotherhood really mean? We have to start by engaging them in a way that they can hear us. We need to forego only talking among ourselves and talk to those we disagree with. By acting locally we will put ourselves in a place to be with people who may not share our worldview. I almost said “people who share our values” But as 45 voters are want to tell us, they aren’t racist. They aren’t misogynistic. Or homophobic. Or Islamophobic. They don’t understand that subordinating an others human rights for whatever reason, in our minds, proves otherwise. Those are not values we share.
When someone can not get past the idea that they can not say”all lives matter” until they can profess “black lives matter” the challenge is steep. When someone advocates that health coverage should be denied others because they hate Obama Care do they mean they hate many things about the ACA that has been a direct benefit to their friends and family? Do they understand how insurance companies, big pharma and hospitals are making record profits? Pick your issue. When you consider Trump policies and their design to maximize profits for industry or fortify the status quo of white male dominance you need to frame the conversation towards humanity to begin to erode support for his unsustainable vision.
Regarding Trump voters, am I suggesting we let them off the hook? No. That type of thinking, that trying to get along, got us where we are today. People who chose to disregard the things Trump said in the campaign and the things he has done in life must recognize they supported that by supporting him. But all politics is local. When you get a chance to serve on a committee to build a new dog park, when you join the library board, when you attend city council meetings you can converse with people with differing views. When you engage them, when you fulfill that need of human connection in them we begin to disarm them. Show your progressive values rather than condemn them. Get them to see you, to want to know you and then let your light shine through the darkness. While you do this you will be filling your own need for community and that sounds a whole lot better than engaging trolls on Facebook.
To say I’m an extrovert would be an understatement. My family hasn’t really told me how they feel about that. I’m sure there have been some cringe worthy moments over time. I’m also confident my outgoing nature has produced some warm memories as well. It is almost as if I just can’t not engage people who come across my path. Sunday was such an example.
We were walking through one of the
Smithsonian gardens when I overheard two ladies behind us exclaim, “Isn’t that beautiful?” Not missing a beat I spun and inquired, “Are you talking about me?” the ladies burst into laughter and replied, “Oh yes! How did you know?” I was delighted beyond measure. The problem with engaging random people in public is that you never know what might happen. They weren’t done with me yet. I had met my match. They continued with a few more cajoling comments. “Oh yeah, he’s so fine.” And then, all the while invitingly laughing, “Looky there, I believe that boy gained a little pep in his step!” and her friend replied, “I do believe he is fully an inch taller!” And my family joined in their laughter. My work there was done.
The next engagement I subjected my family to on this day did not go so well. An innocent enough, “Hey, how ya doing?” was met with an all-out profane and manic diatribe about all the racists up around here and that he wasn’t gonna take it anymore. He continued to tell us he was going to kill some people if things did not change. Ya know… I didn’t really know what to do with that. Naturally the first thing I did was make sure I was between this man and my wife but I didn’t know what to say. I’m not sure that saying anything wouldn’t have made things worse. My daughter eventually asked the man to have a good day and we continued about our way. An awkward silence weighed heavy among us.
This man was in obvious pain. I could see it in his eyes. Perhaps there was nothing that could be done, by me, for this man. Maybe there was. My assumption is that professional mental health services were required. At the time the volatility of this man motivated me to separate him from my family.
Today the memory of the look in the eyes of that man haunts me. I know that I can’t personally take on the challenge of every suffering soul in the city. And yet I worry about how that understanding, that there was nothing I was willing to do at that moment, might cause me to do less than I could. Less than I should. People are talking a lot of being “woke” these days. I have some skills that can be employed to hopefully ease the burden some at risk people may face on a daily basis. It’s time to find a cause and put some time and treasure back into my community. This being an extrovert can be a lot of work.
Can I tell you what joy looks like? I live in metro Washington DC and Sunday was one of those beautiful first days of spring with an enormous blue sky. It was a day where you get that first feeling of hope that comes from soul warming sunshine. The family and I had made our way into the city to attend an “Islam in Washington: Then and Now” lecture which we hoped would provide us with a deeper understanding of the rich cultural heritage of our home. Yes, the cultural heritage of our home. The first Muslim’s arrived in America in the early 1600’s. But I digress.
By the time we arrived the lecture hall was standing room only and the overflow rooms were at capacity so we never got to hear the lecture. We proceeded to go outside and find a bench on the National Mall and more or less people watch. It seemed as if everyone was out taking in the first best day of spring. I’ve lived in DC eight years now and I still see the world through the lens of my Iowa roots. At once what stood out to me is the diversity of this magnificent city. Literally everyone looks as if they had gathered here from far away lands. And I suppose they have. I didn’t happen to notice anyone apparently Native American.
I lost myself in the rhythmic cadence of so many other languages or at least the accents of so many who obviously had a first language other than American English. It’s a beautiful thing to hear. It makes you yearn to know their story. How did they come to be here? What had they left behind to find themselves in this place at this time? And the smiles. I suppose it has a lot to do with the sharing a glorious day with friends and family and being surrounded by the beauty of the monuments and Smithsonian buildings that border the mall. For this moment there were no protests. There was no political angst. We just were. And that felt liberating.
After some time I began to notice the children. Some were cutting up, some running around frolicking in the wide open spaces and others stuck closer to their parents in awe of the scenes around them. But what I noticed most was that many of the older generations of these families were adorned in more traditional cultural attire. Their children wore Blue Jeans with Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale and Washington Wizards T-shirts. My favorite was the junior high aged girl walking hand in hand with her Indian mother who wore an elegant sari. The girls was proudly wearing a shirt that said, “Feminist” in bold letters across her chest. Some kids munched on Doritos and others sipped on Mountain Dew or Pepsi. How American. The notion of our great land truly being a melting pot was on display before me in all of its glorious wonder. And that gave me joy.
Between the election and inauguration I had both knees replaced. I found myself in a situation that required all of my attention to heal. I’m not sure which has been more challenging, the knees or my resultant despair from a Trump presidency. I’m not there but I’m making good progress. Healing requires work. As attentive as I am too my physical therapy I am mindful that my mental state requires more deliberate attention. Being angry and outraged has the hidden seduction of feeling warranted. One of the ugliest parts of social media and our current divide is the taunting that appears in contentious threads. When someone of a foreign, to me, ideology takes pleasure in my discomfort I want to blast back with both barrels. That won’t help me heal.
Just as my physical therapy requires daily stretching and exercise so does the search for my best path forward. I’ve started by talking more with friends. I have also started to go back to church. Some things are just so beyond me that I have to trust a higher power will handle them for me. I’m reading more. I want to be sure that much of what bothers me merits my outrage. Most does. Somehow focusing on the issue itself is better for taking action than responding to provocative memes. Later today my family is getting together to head into DC to attend an “Islam: Then and Now” panel discussion. I’m watching more documentaries and I’m here, writing more to consolidate my thoughts. Stretching and exercising.
Last night my wife and I watched “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and there is a scene where Rey is about to succumb to the light saber of Kylo Ren. Kylo suggests Rey should accept the power of the dark side and he is willing to “teach” her. Get over it, move on, and accept your fate are analogous refrains. It is at that point when Rey stands firm and lets the light of the force give her the strength to fight another day. That is where I am trying to get. If I continue to stretch and exercise I’ll be there in no time.
I cherish my roots in the never described as hustle and bustle that is Iowa. We were once recognized for academic achievement and literacy. We took pride in our work ethic and warm hospitality. I left Iowa in 2008 which was on the cusp of a transformation that I’m not confident affords the same descriptors of my beloved home state today. That makes me sad. It makes me sad not only for my like minded friends who remain but for all Iowans who could benefit from the more balanced open mindedness that existed before all our hyper partisanship. Divisiveness has ripped through the heartland. Rush Limbaugh and FOX News convinced good natured people that austerity politics would protect them from the onslaught of immigrants who would steal their jobs. It was foreign outsourcing and technology that eliminated jobs in the manufacturing economy. Not immigrants.
My new life in the Washington DC metropolis woke me. We pulled our rental trucks to the front of our new home in a heavy winter storm. Our utilities would not be activated until the following morning so we found a hotel and set out to find dinner. Close to our hotel was the Fairfax VA IHOP. Being immigrants to Virginia from homogeneous Iowa we found great humor that indeed this truly was an “international house of pancakes.” There were Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Europeans all eating breakfast for dinner like that was a normal thing. (I just noticed that my iPad did not auto-correct blacks with a capital letter like it did other demographics descriptors.) is that correct? I’ve edited as I saw fit.
As we settled into our new home my first best friend was a non practicing Hindu coffee shop owner named Sammy. We had so many interfaith conversations about love and misconceptions and life. It was great. Really great. Believe me. Then I got a job where a Muslim Jordanian and a Russian Jew made up the management team. The shop employed Hispanics, Asians, Blacks and Whites. A group of the best guys I ever worked with. And now I work for a large employer that seems to be equal parts men and women, every religion and consciousness and nationality known to man. It’s a Fortune 100 top place to work seven years running. A large reason for that is the cultural climate.
I say all this because “some” of the good people I left behind in Iowa and places like it don’t know what they don’t know. It is our job in these divided times to be a light to those who feel threatened by diversity. I admit that I felt betrayed when a campaign ran on divisiveness won out over inclusiveness. I’m done accusing those who don’t know what they don’t know as being racist. I won’t label them misogynistic, islamophobic or homophobic or any other political or culturally exclusionary name. Love will always trump hate. We know that. It’s time we acted like it.