Sunday, December 28, 2014

Suffer the Little Children...

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea... Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. " ~ Matthew 18: 1-6, 10

This morning's prayers turned my mind toward the children in my life. Though I am not a father, I am an uncle. There are children in my building and neighborhood. I meet them in rehearsal, in stores, on my walks and runs, and at the Y. My friends introduce me to their own children, and those children introduce me to their friends. And I have always thought of them not as "your kids," but rather as "our kids."

There are people who scoff at the expression, "It takes a village to raise a child." Let them scoff. I was raised by the people in my neighborhood, not just my parents. They taught me manners and respect. They also taught me that there were people who lived and believed differently than my own family did. They kept me safe when I was afraid or hurt. And they let me (and my parents!) know when I was behaving badly. Some of them had kids of their own. Others were just neighbors: the village of people who taught me what it meant to be a man. 

And so this man Jesus, this eternal Word made flesh, this incarnation of the Creator of the universe -- he came into the world as a child. He cried. He pooped and puked. He drove his parents nuts sometimes.He asked too many questions. And as a child, he learned what no God could ever know. He learned what it was to be helpless, to be at the mercy of people unimaginably more powerful than he. He learned what it was to be taught, to be raised by a village.

Did he also know pain and abuse? This passage from Matthew's gospel suggests that he may have. Jesus speaks passionately about the holiness of children in their humility and simplicity, but he is also fierce in his condemnation of anyone who harms them. "Do not despise them," he warns, for they have heavenly advocates before God. Heaven itself is diminished when anyone harms a child.

Jesus is not sentimental about children. He does not coo and weep about them. He holds them up as the model of what it is to be human. In their humility, their curiosity, their capacity for trust, and even their propensity for mischief, children taught Christ what the experience of being a creation was really like. 

We need to raise our children, yes. But as we offer them guidance and discipline, we must remember Jesus exhortation: better to die than to harm a child. When we meet a child, we are meeting Christ. In each of them, we encounter our strange, aggravating, surprising, curious, inspiring, and ever loving God. May we receive them not only as our responsibility, but also and always as our teachers.

A few days before Christmas, a woman brought her little granddaughter to swim in the pool where I was teaching a water fitness class. This is against the rules. During class time, the pool belongs to us. The girl jumped in the water in her little life vest, and her grandmother laughted as she squealed and splashed. I noticed a few heads turn disapprovingly, and finally one class member waded discreetly over to the lifeguard and whispered something I did not hear. The next thing I knew, the guard was speaking to the grandmother, asking her to take her child and leave. It offended something deep inside me. "Wait," I said. "There is plenty of room. Let's not send a child away at Christmas." I was afraid I might make a few class members mad by breaking the rules. But I was more afraid of what Jesus might think about being chased away. It is one of the first bible stories I remember hearing in Sunday school. Lord, may I never forget it.

Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them. ~ Mark 10: 13-16

Monday, November 03, 2014


KING LEAR, 2013. Fat Man Acting

     "I was hoping you wouldn't do it," Mum said to me. "I don't want you to get sick again." She was talking good sense. Ever since I was in High School, I've always gotten some kind of malady right before or after the run of a play. Fatigue and anxiety take their toll, and it's only gotten worse as I've grown older. After my last two productions, I've fallen into such deep depression that my therapist seriously considered involuntary hospitalization. I was determined to make this show a turning point. Whatever it took, I wanted to hold on to my artistic standards AND my mental health.
     And I'm happy to report success on all fronts.
The whole Summer Session class came to the show. (all but little Sammy)
   Even before going to the theatre to pick up my script, I sat down with my calender and scheduled my rest. I may be the only person in the world whose daily agenda includes naps. My work as a runner and a trainer had taught me the importance of rest and recovery. I also knew how much fatigue contributed to my depression in the past. I wasn't going to let that happen. Once the rehearsal schedule was posted, I contacted my supervisors and colleagues at the Y. I was going to need backup to cover classes, and my YMCA family jumped right in. They supported me from the first day, and a lot of them even came to see the show. I'm not being funny when I call mine the #bestjobever. It's a fact.
     Time was only one of the resources I had to marshal. I was going to need the people I loved, too. Friends and family all stepped up to support me. They checked in to make sure I was doing OK. Invited me out to lunch or a movie. Paid visits. Dropped notes. Joined me for workouts and walks. Offered support and laughter. Trusted me with secrets. Asked for help and support. 
     The emotional toolbox I had assembled during the past year with my therapist was packed and ready. Managing setbacks. Coping with distractions. Accepting the hards times without letting them take over. I didn't spend a minute buried under the covers; didn't miss a single commitment because of depression, and that is mostly thanks to the skills I learned from my head shrinker. 

Lot of pushups in those old arms.
 Once I was confident about my emotional health plan, I turned my attention to my body. I had already set my sleep program in stone, but I knew that the role of the Creature was going to make some pretty intense physical demands. I changed the focus of my training to increasing strength, especially in my upper body. I stopped training like a runner, and started training like a lifter. One of my jobs was to pick up and carry a grown man at the end of the play, and I wanted us both to feel good about my ability to do that. I won't pretend there wasn't some vanity involved. I was going to be shirtless for the creation scene, and I wanted to look as good as I could. Maybe I was no Adonis, but I looked my best.  
Frankenstein and Son. Tim Hull as Victor.
    I usually dive in to the script with a single-minded focus that neglects nearly everything else. I thought I was making the Theatre the center of my life; I now realize that I was using it as a substitute for my life: a place to hide from all the things that I didn't want to have to think about. I thought I was being an Artist. Instead, I was an Addict. I abused acting as a drug to take away the pain of real life. The unique thing about my preparation for this role was that I put my life in order first. How different my career might have been if I had understood this lesson when I was 20, but I am so very grateful to have learned it now.
A company I will hold in my heart forever.
     The play itself was a joy from start to finish. Part of that is due to the changes in me, but a large part of it is because of the beautiful script and the wonderfully talented group of artists who came together to make the play happen. I'm not going to call them out individually because there is no way I could do everyone justice. But I have to say that Bo List's adaptation of Mrs Shelley's story is a terrific ride, for the actors and the audience. The role of The Creature is a masterpiece. The chance to play a character from infancy to adulthood, climbing through each level of physical, mental, and spiritual development toward a final, magnificent epiphany... it is an actor's dream. I will always be grateful to Bo for endowing his "monster" with so gigantic, terrifying, and tender a soul.
     You know, it's funny: I always wanted to be a great Shakespearian actor. I wanted to be remembered as Prospero or Lear. And I don't think I stunk in those parts. But at one point during the run, someone told me that in a strange and wonderful way... I just may have been born to play Frankenstein's monster. There was a time when I would have been insulted to hear that. I'm glad I've lived long enough to be proud instead. And I can't wait to see what the Theatre has in store for me next.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pretending Frankenstein

We've been rehearsing about three weeks, now. Long enough to stage the whole play, and get a cautious, choppy run through in. Like Victor Frankenstein's famous Creature in the night, our production is starting to pick itself up from playwright Bo List's silent pages and stumble around the mountains and laboratories of Jerome Wills' increasingly fascinating set. I say increasingly, because every night we actors arrive to find that Tech Director, Dawn Connerley and her crew have built some new detail or structure for us to play around, under, or on top of. Last night, composer, Rob Thomas was in the booth, supplementing our on-stage rehearsal with some of the music he has created for the world of Frankenstein, and it was like having lightning bolts shoot through me as I played. So much talent is coming together to make this all happen.

Patti Heying, our director has conducted our cast like a maestro. She seems to have an instinct for knowing just how to work with actors of many different backgrounds all at once. She might tell one young actor, "You know what? I cast you because I liked YOU. You don't have to pretend to be somebody else, just be yourself and imagine what you would do if this happened to you." To a grizzled veteran, she can just nod with a furrowed brow or a knowing smile and tell you all you need to know about where to go next.

Getting my own Creature up off the slab has been a painstaking, joyful process of asking questions, and trying on answers to see if they fit. You ask physical questions. How does the Creature walk? What does his voice sound like? What does it feel like to be electrocuted back to life from the dead? What happens to your joints, your brain, your senses, your emotions when you are suddenly, violently reborn?

You ask psychological questions, too. What does the creature want? What stands in his way? What does he love? What scares him? What drives him? What does he learn? How does he change?

And of course, you point your curiosity toward relationships as well. Who matters to him? Who disappoints? Whose approval does he need? Who does he want to hurt?

And always, you are asking, "Why?" Why do I run away? Why do I hide? Why do I keep coming back when people are always hurting me? Why is the old blind man's love so important to me? Why do I kill some people and spare others? Why do I speak like a child one moment, and like a Shakespearean tragic hero the next?

See what happened there? Sooner or later, you stop thinking about "Him." The role stops being "That Guy." He isn't somebody else. He's me. He's Bob, pretending to be a monster in 18th century Geneva. You stumble and limp and chase down blind alleys and try all the possibilities, but finally you have to stop thinking about the guy and become the guy. I'm not there yet. But I'm getting tantalizingly close in spots.

In a famous video clip circulating on Facebook, Sir Ian McKellan explains acting the role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings this way: "I imagined what it would be like to be a wizard, and then I pretended..." And that really is what we all do. Because, you see, whether you are Ian McKellan or a 10 year old boy in a little community theatre in Versailles Kentucky, the way you act is just the same: you ask yourself, "What would it be like to be that person?" And then you pretend.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

To Build A Creature

Charles Stanton Ogle, Frankenstein, Edison Studios, 1910
Today is the first rehearsal of Frankenstein, a modern adaptation by Bo List in which I have been cast as The Creature. I was just thinking, I remember my first audition, way back in 4th grade, but I don't remember my first rehearsal. There aren't very many memorable ones. Still, the anticipation of the ritual is so exciting.

Nick Vannoy, Frankenstein ,2011
This afternoon, I will sit with a new company of actors. Some are old friends, and some are people I've watched and admired for quite a while. Some are strangers to me. We are going to review the routine tasks of scheduling and policy that go with keeping any herd of artists organized, and then we will open our scripts, pick up our pencils, and set about reading together for the first time. The script has had several productions around the country, and I was present for Nick Vannoy's moving performance as The Creature in the world premier at the Kentucky Conservatory Theatre's SummerFest in 2011. His work is sure to haunt me. He isn't the only ghost who will pursue me as I try to create my own interpretation of the role of the Big Fellow.

Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, Frankenstein, 1931
No, not alive, not yet. But the process of gathering pieces to stitch together has begun. I have had the script in hand for a couple weeks, and I've been pouring over it. I'm not really doing intense analysis at this point, just trying to take it all in through a wide lens. I've read Mrs. Shelley's novel. The story was born in her nightmares: the teen-aged free-thinker whose birth caused her mother's death, and whose elopement with the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley led to estrangement from her father and poverty. She wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus on a dare during the famous summer of 1816 when she and her husband were guests of the notorious Lord Byron at his home on Lake Geneva.

Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle, Young Frankenstein, 1974

The novel isn't a page turner like Bram Stoker's action packed Dracula. It is more of a psychological portrait, told mostly in the voice of Victor Frankenstein, the ambitious scientist whose grief over his lost mother led him to seek the secret of life and reanimation. It is also a moral examination of a man who, like Prometheus, seeks to serve humankind by bringing down fire from heaven, only to find his hubris punished by the gods with an eternity of bondage and agony.

Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 1994
Bo List's adaptation is faithful to this psychological, moral tone, but also draws on more theatrical parts of the Frankenstein myth that have developed since the novel was published. Consequently, I've been digging into some famous and not so famous films. I'm sure I'll be gleaning insights from all of them.

Bela Lugosi, Karloff, and Basil Rathbone, Son of Frankenstein, 1939
In our script, The Creature (who never does get a name,) learns reading and language from hours spent reading Paradise Lost, John Milton's cosmic tale of Satan's fall from heaven and revenge against his Creator. Digging through Paradise... is not exactly light reading, but it helps to understand how the Creature's psyche was rebuilt after Victor's traumatic experiments left his mind a nearly blank slate. It also sheds light in the deep longing for love and acceptance that underlies the "monster's" desire for a companion... and the tragic consequences of Victor's failure to provide a bride for his miserable "son."

Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, Bride of Frankenstein, 1935
Soon, it will be time to put all these outside resources back on the shelf, and turn my full attention to our script and  playing with my fellow actors. Till that time comes, I'll be relishing the opportunity to absorb the ideas and stories that will be components of my own Creature. It's a much more pleasant process than the one poor Victor had to go through. I won't have to dig up any graves.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: The Twelve Houses of My Childhood, E. Reid Gilbert

Everybody should have at least one teacher they remember with love. I hope you do. I've been lucky to know a couple, but none raises warmer feelings of affection and gratitude than E. Reid Gilbert. Reid was my movement teacher during the three years I spent earning my Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting at The Ohio State University back in the 1980's. He was unlike any teacher I had ever had, and didn't resemble any college professor I had ever imagined. Born and raised in the mountains of Carolina, Reid was country right down to his bones. There must have been something in the water up in that holler though, because Reid fell in love with learning there. He left the farm to go to Duke to study Sociology. Then he was off to Texas for a degree in Theology from SMU. Given his country background and his down-home upbringing, what could be a more logical next step for the young fellow than the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Union Theological Seminary for a degree in Religious Drama. He must have grown accustomed to Yankee winters, because he became Dr. E. Reid Gilbert at the University of Wisconsin, where he specialized in Asian Theatre. He travelled a little bit. Studied Mime at Lecoq in Paris; practiced the No theatre in Japan; preached some; taught some; acted and directed; earned two Fullbright awards, the first to study the Kathakali theatre of India. Thirty years later came the second Fullbright to travel to Thailand to teach storytelling. And somewhere along the way, he met a young actor from Pittsburgh, and taught him as much about the spirituality of art, the love of God, and living with integrity as anyone I can think of. I have never built a role in a play without using Reid's lessons. When I finally got the chance to teach acting to college students, I filled about half of my syllabus with the things he had taught me.

A few years ago, Reid and I were reunited on the great village square of our times: Facebook. I learned that he had written a collection of the "Jack Tales" he so loved to share with us. Sophisticated, cosmopolitan graduate students would sit wide-eyed and cross-legged on the floor in our stocking feet like children as our professor hunkered down and told us stories of joggle boards in the woods, of swinging on honey suckles, and of haunted trips to the privy in the Carolina winter moonlight. When I received my copy of Trickster Jack from Amazon, there was a miracle inside. Had the seller known how much I would treasure that title page, she would not have let it go so cheaply.

While Trickster Jack was a work of imagination, The Twelve Houses of My Childhood is Gilbert's true life memoir of growing up in the hills and small towns of North Carolina and Western Virginia during the Great Depression and World War 2. At least I hope it's all true. Like all the best stories, "if it ain't true, it ought to be".

It all began, as I was told, on November 15, 1930, after my mother's thirty hours of intense labor to bring forth her second child, her first son. The event occurred on East 22nd Street in Winston-Salem, NC. Decades later, I read with some chagrin that prolonged birthing labor by the mother often accounted for diminished intelligence of the new human creature. By the time I learned this factoid it was too late for anyone to do anything about it, but it does five me a medical excuse for any intellectual shortcomings.

Eddie Reid's story (he never used the "Eddie") meanders like a creek finding its way down a piney mountainside. Along its banks, we find stories of the gypsies Gilbert credits with instilling his life-long wanderlust,  and big sister Susie, who later insisted on "Della Sue" because she didn't want the same name as the milk cow. Brother "Baby Ott" and sister Mary Evelyn come along a few houses later, and spend the rest of their lives teasing and tormenting one another.

Evelyn ran to Mamma, crying again. "Evelyn, what's wrong now?" 
"He's still makin' faces at me."
"How do you know? Didn't he keep the door closed?" 
"Yeah, but I looked through the keyhole, an' there he was makin' a face."

Later, big brother Reid realizes "it was a game they both enjoyed playing... and would continue for years".

Gilbert tells his family's story with humor and empathy. His loving description of his Mamma scrubbing their clothes in a metal tub with lye soap, water hauled from the spring and heated over an open fire, and a washboard that left her hands red and raw for days after is both inspiring and heartbreaking. 

In one particularly moving passage, he tells of the lesson his Daddy learned  one day after church, while walking with his younger son on the way to check the traps for turtles.

     Daddy was feeling a little guilty to be doing something so enjoyable on a Sunday, He and Ott had to cross a newly plowed field to get to the creek. Because of his uneasyness, Daddy strode across the field rather quickly and in large strides before anyone might see them.      
    Suddenly, he heard Ott behind him, grunting and seemingly gasping for breath. As he looked back, he asked,"What's wrong, Son?" 
   "Daddy, it's hard stepping in your tracks."

Chastened, the young father and Sunday School Superintendent passed the lesson his child had taught him along to the adults in his class at church."
Folks, you better be careful where you're walkin' an' which way you're goin'. There'll be some little tyke followin' close behind, trying so hard to follow your example."

Yes, The Twelve Houses of My Childhood is a southern coming-of-age story. Young Reid encounters "the fair sex" from time to time, with mixed success. He hunts possum. He is introduced to the principles of social justice, not only as a witness to the segregation of his "colored" playmates, but also as a target of mockery and neglect from his more affluent white neighbors and teachers. But this tenderly rendered tale is also a loving portrait of a family and a time when things like running water, electric light, and a real Frigidaire to save Mamma from having to fetch milk from the spring house were faraway miracles, not givens of domestic life. Holding my electronic tablet in my hands, laughing out loud as my old professor learned to plow a straight row, or shift gears in the makeshift tractor that they called a "Doodlebug," I couldn't help feeling a little spoiled by all the gadgets and gizmos that fill my life. I wonder if a few less illuminated screens, and a few more walks in the trees with loved ones might not be better for my soul.

How to sum up the experience of reading the memories of a man I have loved every day, even though I have not seen him for thirty years? I was shaken almost to tears when I turned the last page. I'm still grieving, a little. I loved this book so much that it hurt to have to finish it. I appreciate the Kindle convenience, but I think I'll be ordering a copy for my bookshelf. I want to be able to share it.

Here's hoping my old teacher has another volume or two in him. Maybe "The Twelve Apartments of My College Years?"


Order The Twelve Houses of My Childhood  from Amazon, here.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Do I Want That? Or Am I Just Thinking About It?

     Been spending a lot of time thinking about... well... thinking about thoughts, actually. I've been considering the stream of consciousness that is the river of my life. As I navigate my little boat along that stream, thoughts float by constantly, like litter in the water. I can ignore some of them. Others I have to navigate around. But many stick to the sides of my vessel for a while, traveling along with me, before the water pulls them away and I am free to sail on again.
     Sometimes these thoughts are pleasant, and I'm sorry to see them go. Happy experiences and joyful memories make many parts of my journey a delight. But other times there are painful thoughts, memories of failure and shame, regrets, old hurts, damaging words about myself or others. These can also cling to the hull of my boat, slowing me down, distracting me from my course, even monopolizing my attention if I let them. Sometimes they can cling so tightly that it is hard to know where my ship ends and the garbage begins.
     The thing I try to remember is that no matter how firmly it sticks, the litter is not my ship: likewise, my thoughts are not me. They are just words. Thinking "I'm a failure" doesn't make it true. It might seem true sometimes. I might even build up a mountain of evidence to support it. But it isn't real. It's only a thought; one that will come and go from time to time like a branch drifting along in a river. It isn't me. And it doesn't define me.
     I've been contemplating this principle for some time now, and have been considering some more practical applications. I've started observing my desires as they float toward me, and asking myself, "Do I want that? Or am I just thinking about it?"
     One simple example: I've gotten into a strange habit. When I climb out of bed, one of my first thoughts is, "I am so tired. I'm going to need a nap later today." What a strange thought to have after a long night's sleep. Today I woke up after a restful night's sleep. My first impulse was to hit the snooze button. I had a water fitness class to teach, and a two mile run on my schedule. "I am so tired," I thought to myself. "I'm going to come home and pass out." That nap stayed on my mind all through my hour in the pool. Afterward, at my locker, I considered skipping the run and just going home. I could always run later. "No, I've packed my shoes and shorts. I'll just get it done." Instead of bailing out, I had a great run, enjoying a beautiful morning. When I got home, I went to my bedroom to unload my wet clothes and hang them up to dry. The pillow beckoned, soft and cool. "Wait a minute," I thought to myself. "Am I tired? My eyes are open. My thoughts are clear. My muscles feel strong and limber after a morning's exercise. Why do I want to go to sleep?" I realized that I really didn't. I was just thinking about sleeping. I finished hanging up my clothes, poured a cup of coffee, and sat down to read and write for a while. Instead of sleeping away a gorgeous morning, I was doing things that made me feel great.
     The second example is a tough one for me. "Am I hungry, or am I just thinking about food?" There's a Facebook meme that says, "You're not hungry, you're bored. Learn the difference." I admit that I do sometimes eat just to have something to do, but often I eat because I have food on my mind. I've noticed that at the end of a long walk, I start thinking about food about ten or fifteen minutes from the house. "What should I cook? What should I buy? What's in the house? Why not just stop at the Rite Aid and pick up some chocolate?" It's a habit: a pattern. It isn't my stomach asking for nourishment, it's a mental picture of a luscious bar of dark chocolate floating down the river past my boat. And much too often, I find myself reaching down into the water and picking it up instead of just letting it float on by. 
     It's a challenge, but I have found that I can make this kind of thinking work in my emotional life. I have a feeling or thought and ask myself, "Is that reality, or is it just a thought that will pass?" I've managed to avoid slipping into depression using this technique several times in the past few weeks. Now I'm wondering if I can do the same thing with other behaviors and desires.
     Am I really hungry?
     Am I really lonely?
     Am I really broke?
     Will my knee hurt like this for the rest of my life?
     Or are those just words; just thoughts floating down the river that will come and go from time to time? Are they just words: ideas to be accepted, acknowledged for what they are, and then left behind as I continue moving toward the goals and values that give my life purpose, meaning, and joy?
     It's been working with depression. Will it work with ice cream?
     I'll let you know.


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

July at Last: So Far, So Good...

Woke to a beautiful second day of my favorite month. July. Made it. The sunshine. The evening storms. Shakespeare in the park. Mum and my birthdays. The sun moving from the constellation of Cancer into the royal domain of Leo. The best produce of the year. Hot days, and cool showers before bed. July: the heart of summertime.

Halfway through the year. Halfway through #reboot2014. So far, so good in body, mind, and spirit.

The weight loss continues at a good pace. June was a plateau month for me. The scale hovered around 270 all month, but at 268 yesterday and today, I feel like I've finally broken through that barrier. Another 25 pounds to go to reach my goal, and I'm counting on the July sun to help me burn some extra calories. The aching knee has slowed me down for sure, but I'm encouraged that the pounds haven't piled back on. Walking and low impact aerobic exercise are doing the trick. I'm seeing the orthopedic guru in two weeks. At my friend Christy's suggestion, I intend to add some strength training with the kettlebell to my routine this month. A little more muscle mass can only help burn fat, and swinging the bell puts almost no strain on the knee. 

I still need better discipline about my nutrition, so I'm stealing an idea from another friend: one major change per week. Every day this week, at the top of my Outlook calender, in big red letters it says: "NO DAIRY QUEEN THIS WEEK!" I've managed to stay away from the siren song of the drive through window so far. Next week? Get rid of the diet soda that has snuck back into my fridge. Clean fuel and quality replacement parts: learning to treat my body as well as I treat my car.

Mentally, I am so very encouraged. June was a synthesis month for me. It felt like years of therapy started coming together in a sensible body of understanding. After a rough spring, I resolved to get through the month of June without missing any work or scheduled appointments because of depression. And I made it! With the help of my friends, my shrink, and a splendid book by Russ Harris called The Happiness Trap, I'm learning techniques for managing the unpleasant thoughts that have tripped me and dragged me down so often in the past. I've read a lot in the "self-improvement" genre over the years, but this one seems to have come along at just the right time for me. I intend to post a review sometime, but for now I am reading through slowly, letting the ideas and exercises sink in.

I'm also writing more, and keeping a lot more of it to myself. I've been trying to post less on Facebook and trying to limit my public sharing to inspiration, laughter, and unapologetic promotion of the YMCA. I'm way too much of a ham to live life without an audience altogether, but it feels good to have a part of my life that stays in the house. It turns out all my laundry really doesn't have to  dry on a line in the front yard.

I've been praying again, a private, personal practice that I really have missed. My Creator and I have had a rocky love affair over the past few years, but I'm coming to believe that what felt like abandonment was really a chance to find the strength of the wings God gave me. Every time I go to the Y and look into the eyes of a studio or pool full of people fighting for their lives; every time I stand in the light of courageous cancer warriors who refuse to let tumors, tests, chemo, or radiation keep them from staying as strong and active as they can be; every second I spend in that holy place reminds me that God is alive and at work all around me. They may think I'm training them, but the truth is, the members I work with are helping to make my faith stronger every day. For most of my life, I have wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. God is showing me that I am already much bigger than I though I was. For a while, I wondered if my spirit had died, or if I even ever really had one at all. I am learning that I do have a soul,  one that I share with all of Creation... and with the One who created it all.

The bottom line is that I'm starting the second half of 2014 feeling as healthy as I have in a long time. I know there will be good days and bad days ahead, and I don't know how those days will go, but right now, the Bluegrass is gorgeous, sunny, and cool morning air is starting to heat up. Time to get ready to head downtown to teach a class called "Fit for Life." 

I don't know when that title has ever felt more appropriate for me.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Values, Roles, and Goals: A Strategy for Living

What matters to you? There are a lot of ways to answer that question. 

There are people who matter a lot to me: colleagues, clients, and class members at the Y; friends; family; the animals I know and love; strangers I meet. 

There are things that matter: bank account, car; running shoes, computer, favorite books. 

Activities I do matter to me: keeping in touch with people; going to work; exercising; acting; prayer and meditation.

Then there are the principles that I value. What are my principles? They are the answers to this question:
What kind of person do I want to be?


Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People asks it this way: If you could go to your own funeral, what would you want to hear them say about you? I've mentioned my core values before, but as long as I'm imagining my own eulogy, please, indulge my repeating them one more time:

Courage: The will to take action that makes life full, rich, and meaningful
Strength: The ability to act
Compassion: Authentic connections to others
Joy: A spirit of celebration, gratitude, and delight

That's my list. Your values will almost certainly be different. You might say creativity, honor, love, security or duty. There is a whole universe of choices. The idea is to drill down to your foundations and to choose the primary cornerstones upon which you want to build your life.


Once you have a clear, simple list of the things that matter most to you, take a look at what you do each day. What are the roles you play? Some of mine are:

Cancer Warrior

You might have roles that I don't: 


 You can probably just look at your calender or think about your activities from the past week and come up with a dozen roles that you play. 

Now for the hard part. Prioritize them. Which roles engage you the most? Which are you passionate about? What are the three or four roles in which you could best embody your values? 


Next comes what may be the hardest question of all:
What ONE THING you could do to make the most positive impact in this role?
That ONE THING is your goal, and finding it can take a lot of thought. It might be something that's never occurred to you before, but I find that my own goals are often things I've considered and dismissed in the past because they were too hard, too time consuming, or too likely to fail. Some will pop right into your head. Some might require several days of contemplation. Here are the roles and goals that are in my windshield right now:
  1. Athlete: Raise $10,000 for LIVESTRONG at the YMCA by running a marathon in 2015.
  2. Artist: Earn $100 from my writing by the end of the year.
  3. Friend: Have meaningful (preferably face to face), contact with another human being every day.
  4. Cancer Warrior: Don't miss a single class or scheduled appointment because of depression.


I have smaller, more tactical short term goals that are milestones on the road toward my larger ones. I've actually been putting these into practice for the past few weeks: 
  1. Get down to 245 pounds 
  2. Read and write for an hour every day. 
  3. Get out of the house every day.
  4. Make LIVESTRONG at the YMCA my number one work priority.
We all have a lot of responsibilities: pay the bills; keep the car in good repair; wash the dishes; pay the taxes. All are important, some are even urgent, but keeping our primary goals always at the top of the list helps us to make daily choices that increase the fulfillment and richness of our lives.

Shall I stop for ice cream? Or call in sick? Or take a nap? Or ask this woman out on a date? When faced with choices, I can use this simple question to guide me: 
Will this action help me to embody my values, or will it lead me away from them?
In future posts, I'll talk more about how these principles are helping me to manage my mental health and increase the quality of my life. But I don't think this way of thinking is only for people with OCD, depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders. I think it is a strategy for living that can be helpful to anyone. 


Sunday, June 01, 2014

To The Shadowside And Back

Tra-laa, It's May...
Maybe next year, I'll just take the month of May off...

I had a scare this week. A bad one. I came close to returning to the mental hospital. While my response to life's events had me anxious and depressed, my feelings at the prospect of being locked up again brought me to a point of despair that was both frightening and painful.

What triggered all this? It isn't easy to pinpoint a single moment or event. Actually, it's been several weeks in the making. Maybe months. Maybe years. I suppose it depends on how far back in time I want to dig. The judge's signature on our divorce decree. Funerals for cancer warriors. Frustration with my acting. A lingering knee injury that's kept me from training hard for weeks. Disappointment about romantic false starts. The loneliness of single life. Financial trials. All the way back to separation from Mrs P. If I chose to dwell on it, I guess I could touch every descending tread on the stairway of depression all the way back to my childhood, but swilling the sour milk of history only leads to nausea.

Whatever the root cause, the results were agonizingly familiar. Harboring self-destructive thoughts and engaging in isolating behavior. Missing work. Skipping exercise. Eating garbage. Disrespecting myself and others. I embraced all the miserable drama of The Shadowside. That's the name I've given to the dark region where I travel when I allow my depression to define me.I was determined to put an end to it this time, one way or another.

My research and writing set off on two separate journeys. On one path, I began seeking out the thoughts of others who knew the hills and valleys of The Shadowside: people whose pain led them to take desperate measures against themselves. On the second path, I explored alternatives to the therapeutic course I had taken so far. Drugs didn't cure me; therapy didn't cure me; was there another coruse that might lead me to freedom from my depression? As I picked my way along these two divergent paths, it became clear to me that I did not really want to end my life; I wanted freedom; I wanted to live without the chains of mental disorder. Hopeful research led me to something called ECT: Electroconvulsive Therapy.

One flew east and one flew west...
I remembered the scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, where Jack Nicholson has the electrodes clamped around his temples and is shocked into convulsions and stupor. My research taught me that the procedure has changed a lot since then. It is safer. There are fewer side effects. The seizures are only in the brain; there are no full scale convulsions.The patient is sedated. ECT can even be performed as an out-patient procedure. I latched onto the hope that treatment might be the cure I longed for. I scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist, determined to convince him that my condition was serious enough to justify this dramatic measure.

I may have been a little too convincing.

After hearing about my mood, my actions, and my thoughts, he instructed me to check myself into the hospital at once. "Impossible," I replied. I have classes to teach. I have a play opening in five days. I can't simply fall off the map for a week. My reputation, which I have spent the past year rebuilding, will be destroyed forever.

"Come on, be serious," the doctor urged. He outlined the reasons I needed immediate hospitalization. "I will order the ECT. You can start tomorrow." Then he said he had no choice but to contact either an ambulance or the police to transport me.

I pleaded. "Let me talk to my therapist. Let me find another solution." The doctor agreed, and I went next door to make my case. In exchange for my freedom, I agreed to stay on my meds, schedule extra meetings, and to contact the shrinks if I felt any kind of crisis coming on.

Dinner, Balagula Theatre, May 2014
The next few days were torment. I missed all but one of the classes I was schedule to teach. I went days without eating. I stopped writing and reading. I stopped posting on Facebook. Rather than dwell on the voices torturing my mind, I slept. Two things kept me going: walking and the play I was rehearsing. I walked for hours each day, forcing myself out into the sunshine where I could at least see other people.I walked to the theatre and back home each night. I felt numb; emotionless. I didn't want to die; I didn't want anything. I only wanted to take the next step. To keep moving. To stay alive.

Even as I was struggling to save myself, God was sending ministers to me. A dear friend invited me to coffee. Mrs P wrote and phoned to check on me. Mom called, and sent me an email with information about how my insurance could help with treatment. I heard from someone whose friendship I thought I had lost forever. And finally, the play opened to wonderful audience response and received a very positive review in the paper. Even as I was preparing myself for the follow-up appointment with the doctor; the one that might very well send me into the hospital; God was flooding me with reasons for hope.

When I met the doc, I asked him to educate me about ECT. He gave me a lot of information. The most persuasive thing he said was that the procedure addresses only the biological causes of depression. It could not change my thoughts. It could not change my character. In other words, it could not change the way I respond to the trigger events that steer me toward The Shadowside. I made the decision. ECT electrodes were not the magic wand I was hoping for. I would not submit to the procedure. The doc affirmed my judgment, and we made a plan. Continue with the new meds. Continue with therapy. Check back in a month.

Since making the decision not to have ECT, I have experienced relief. I think I was afraid of side effects. ECT often results in memory loss, and I was worried that it would amplify the "chemo-brain' effect that I still have, years after my cisplatin treatments. But more than that, I think I was afraid that it might not work; that even after submitting to such a dramatic treatment, I might still be sick. I wondered how I might respond if the Magic Pill didn't work.

Along with the relief, I have experienced a renewed resolve. #reboot2014 continues. Until now, I have been focused on my physical health and weight loss. I have experienced great success and have lost 46 pounds as of this morning. Now I need to expand my attention to my mental health as well. The food I eat doesn't only affect physical energy and body composition; it also affects my brain's health and ability to function. More than that, the choices I make about nutrition, exercise, work, and leisure time affect the way I think about myself; they are expressions of my self respect. Like my commitment to my therapy, my life choices are expressions of my resolve to heal.

The Shadowside will always be out there, ready to welcome me back to the dark. And there will be times when I know I will stumble my way back into its dismal confines. The voice of my inner critic, the Toxic Passenger on my life's bus will always be around, whispering negativity and warning in my ear. Just as I had to renew my resolve to lose weight and run another marathon, I am now resolved to learn how to accept the hard times and to choose love instead of fear when they come along. I am resolved to express my core values, (Courage, Strength, Compassion, and Joy,) in my mental health as well as my physical being. I know I will fail sometimes. But I will succeed as well.

The sirens of The Shadowside have been tempting me for almost 54 years. They haven't killed me yet. Today, more than ever, I am determined that when Death comes, he will find me running in the sunshine, not hiding in the dark. #reboot2014 goes on.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Scraps From the Notebook


The inmates laugh and smoke
Read the same page over and over
Blue jigsawed sky turns slowly under idle fingers;
Out there, the sky
Is a hole at the top of a wooden well
Concrete pasture
Littered with sun bleached butt ends.
You watch from inside someone else’s face
Hypnotized and wary.
No visitors.
She appears beside you 
A butterfly on your windshield
Laceless sneakers for a passport
“All I want to do is cut myself,” she whispers;
Do it
Cut your damn guts out and leave me alone.


Pain is anger’s mother
Betrayal her father
Never judge a child
Until you have met her parents


She said
I know how guys are
(Like describing the taste of moldy bread)
They're always after it
Trying to get into it
And never knowing what to do with the damn thing
Once you let them have it


"I will not be your audience
I will not stand by and applaud
Your life's performance"
how could she have known
how much the player ached
for one face alone
her tears
her smile among the crowd


Two discontented lovers rudely stampped,
Unfinished, sent before our time to bedde;
In crookebacked love, wee lye together,
Twisted shadowes ‘neath the azure Moon.
Darke reminders of the damage done;
Undonne by bloody letters on life’s page,
While on the stage, a trail of murders guides
Our stumbling steps, toward our fatale end.
Here in our woeful bedde, your nightmare haunts -
Our dreams of youthful joy despair and die:
You cry aloud as I sob silently,
O mournful pendulum; Love ticking by.
Have mercy Jesu! I would give my kingdome
For a Harte Unbroken.


Cables that might have held the bridge
Another twenty-five years
Broken and dangling;
A single thread of ink,
A judge’s curled name          
Blowing across the bottom of a page


Incising slow and deep
The surgeon took the flesh until at last
Only the nerve remains
Burning in the open air
Waiting for the medicine of time.
Now that the cutting is finished,
Do I dare ask you to stay
Until the wound has healed again?