Sunday, April 27, 2014

Improvisation & Parenting: It's Time to Walk the Walk

I was brushing my teeth the other day and a thought that pops into my head every so often found its way back again.

"Why don't you practice what you preach and apply the truths of improv to your parenting?"

You see I am frequently annoying my students and friends and anyone who'll listen about how improv can save the world if given a chance. So, it seems time to put my money where my mouth is, walk the walk, physician heal myself and all that. So, let's see if this makes any sense.

First, a little about improv. Many mistake it for stand-up comedy. Many even believe it can only be comic in nature. Not true. Improv is the art of making things up as you go along(okay I am either a very gifted justifier or this is already sounding familiar). Improv is about building something with others that will exist for a moment in unique singularity and can never be repeated or recaptured in exactly the same way twice. When it works it is a near perfect merger of performer and audience in gleeful contract to play together and create something that is greater, deeper and richer for the collaboration than any individual could conspire on their own. I have devoted the better part of the last 26 years to improv and I am still fascinated by it's challenges, its capacity for revelation and for its relentless insistence on humility and hard work.

Yes, hard work. True it is the art of making things up, and like any art it requires skills and practice and failure and growth and innovation. And there are some constants, some truths about improv that I go back to time and again. I will not say rules or even guidelines, because even if you do all of the following there is no guarantee of success. Like an IKEA manual, the end result is often reflective of the individual assembling the bookcase.

Okay, so let's test this theory.

1. Say "Yes and"
This is all about accepting the reality of the moment and building on it. It is never enough to just say "Yes," you must add something of yourself to the moment at hand. You do not literally have to say the word yes, but you cannot deny the reality proposed. You must embrace it and be fascinated by it and add even a little of yourself to it in order to move forward. So, the reality is teenager #1 is behind on his homework. Mixed into that reality is his innate hate of homework and his strong desire to do anything else but. In this case our "and" was a proposed bargain: do an hour of homework, get an hour of free time-and then lather/rinse/repeat until all your homework is done. His "and," bitch and moan and then give it a try. Of course "Yes and" is hard if you're working with someone who may not be yes anding too. You need to constantly assess the subtle changes in the reality and then try again. So remember Mary-identify the reality to "yes" before you "and."

2. There are no mistakes, only opportunities
It is only a mistake if you treat it like one. Celebrate mistakes, they are opportunities to learn and sometimes they are happy accidents that lead to a delicious discovery. When was the last time I celebrated teenager's #1 & 2's mistakes? I honestly and shamefacedly cannot tell you. Instead I panicked and envisioned how this would most likely eventually lead to imminent peril and how can I correct it immediately if not sooner. So when Teenager # 1 breaks that light fixture while practicing his slam dunk fantasy, do not overreact, learn, discover and realize that they feel shame without me having to magnify it.

3. Actively listen
One of my favorites. How do you actively listen? You listen with everything you've got. For what is listening really? Taking in information, letting it settle, and processing it. You don't just use your ears for that. You listen with your eyes; you take in how they are communicating what they are communicating, you notice body language. You listen with context. Whaaaaat? I mean that you hear things differently based on what you know of the person you are listening to. You listen to subtext. Just like a good old Chekov Play or James L. Brooks' movie the words being said are rarely what's actually being said. So when teenager # 2 says as he goes to bed that his stomach hurts, what he's actually saying is " I didn't finish my homework and I'm feeling overwhelmed and I need a day off." Doesn't mean he always gets what he wants, but I must remember he is not being lazy he is simply full up and doesn't know what to do about it yet.

4. You should never worry about being the audience's favorite
So many improvisers define their success by whether or not the audience likes them. Face it, the majority of us humans feel that too. We want to be loved, adored, remembered, considered the best; and it's a rather narcissistic and desperate way to live. It is a horrible way to improvise. Someone who makes that their priority leaves other improvisers in the cold without a second thought and often winds up with no one ever wanting to work with them. I always tell my students that the star of the show is the story that's being told at that moment. Surrender yourselves to telling that story, use anything in your means, constantly ask yourself what does the story need and what can I do to serve that story. So what are teenager # 1 and teenager #2's stories? They are different for sure. Sometimes they are happy stories. Sometimes they are stories of overcoming overwhelming odds. Sometimes they are mysteries. Sometimes they are hideous after-school specials. And I must remember to be fascinated by them and that they are my favorite stories even when they are not and for the love of god Mary ask yourself what role you must play in their stories. Sometimes it is the bad guy.

5. Be Present and Play
Ahhhhhh, being present. There are really expensive seminars on that now aren't there? Here's how I do it, when I remember to do it: I recall the best acting advice I ever received-make the scene about the other person. Doesn't mean I sacrifice my point of view or relinquish all that I am in service to someone else. It means that the person in front of me is the most important person for right now and our connection in that moment will alter all the moments that follow. And isn't that more fun. That allows room to play, to explore with curiosity that shiny new toy, to tear off the wrappings and find out how everything works. So, Mary, when teenager #2 is telling you about his mage and his archer in the RPG(role-playing-game-yeah I know the lingo) of the moment, do not tune him out, be present and play.

6. You do not have to know the ending when you begin
So many improvisers, despite the tightrope act they volunteer for, still want to control the outcome from the first moment. They want a guarantee of success. They want to know that everything will be okay. So they often forsake all the above steps. They push, they try to control all of the information, they plan, and they believe their way is the only way. They are often seen as good improvisers, because they often make the most noise. They also work really hard and have the best of intentions. But as far as I know there is no scientific proof that we can actually control the future, and in spending so much time focused on the end game, we miss so many fun juicy unexpected options along the way that may in fact make the end game even better than we imagined. Ughhhhh. We parents do this all the time, don't we? We worry about college from the moment our kids enter pre-school. Not because we are assholes, we just want everything to be okay. Well, everything is not going to be okay all the time. Sometimes it'll suck, and sometimes it will be better than okay. So, when that report card comes home, or that call about that thing that happened comes in, or that buzzer beater 3-pointer goes in, that is not a predictor of what will absolutely be. That is one chapter on what is unfolding to be a helluva story. So, Mary remember not to forget everything else that comes before rule #6.

There are so many other truisms about improv that apply:

  • Specifics are our friends.
  • Ask questions that lead to the revelation of information, not ones that stop the scene in its tracks.
  • Start every show with a resounding "yay us." 
  • Seriously I could go on far too long, so I will stop.
Improv is the art of making things up as you go along. Sound familiar? I'm certainly not saying this is the way to do it. There is no one "way" to do it. Because despite all of the above, there are only two absolutes in improv: All these rules/guidelines/truths are meant to and will be and should be broken from time to time; and never go on stage, or out into the world, without looking every other player in the eye and saying "I got your back;" literally or figuratively.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Whiny Little Baby: My Alter Ego

Oh my god this is hard! At the risk of sounding like a whiny little baby, this is soul crushingly hard.

On one hand I'm supposed to be unwavering and consistent.

On the other hand I'm supposed to be flexible and understanding.

On another hand(and where is that coming from?) I'm supposed to be compassionate.

On a fourth hand I'm supposed to not worry if my kid is happy or not because they need grit to survive.

On yet another hand I'm supposed to relax and realize that ultimately everything will be fine.

On I don't know which hand I'm supposed to attend to issues immediately or else the future will be worse.

On what can only be defined as my squid hand I need to be patient because, developmentally, certain things need to catch up before they can take hold, and progress is sometimes microscopically impossible to see.

Until finally all these hands have pushed and pulled me into a claustrophobic corner where I do not trust a single instinct I have. Where I believe that every move I make is the wrong one. And waiting in the wings of this freak show are the voices of my self-appointed critics; my husband and the therapist and the teachers and administrators at school, and the loudest critic of them all-myself.

So get over it Mary. Buck up. It's just parenting, it's not rocket science. You're right, it's not. It's so much harder than rocket science. At least with science there are absolutes, there are facts and things can be proven or disproven. But with parenting, no two kids are alike, no two days are alike, no two moments are alike. The only consistency is the inconsistency of human nature. And then...and then, add the variable of emotion and rocket science looks like the ABC's in comparison. Sure, Malcolm Gladwell, go ahead and tell me about the science of emotions. Publish another slick white covered book with a kicky title that will help me negotiate a moment made up of love, disappointment, fear, frustration, anger and shame. Unravel that riddle for me. On the eighth hand, though, don't, because one more theory on parenting may just send me over my own personal tipping point.

I have no words of wisdom, no simple discovery, no epiphany for this. I am simply declaring that this thing we chose to do, parenting, is inexplicably hard. I know hard is good. It teaches us to cope. It helps us survive. It makes us appreciate life in a new way. But OMFG would just a little more easy really be the end of the world?

Here endeth the whining. I have to go do some ball-busting now.

Whiny Little Baby out.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Getting Dealt 15's

So, I'm feeling sorry for myself tonight. I'll spare you the details because the details rarely matter since in the telling we always skew them to justify our current brand of self-pity. Suffice it to say, my reasons are sound enough for the moment and my sense of entitlement feels entitled. Funny thing is 100% unproductive, accomplishes nothing and yet it is an emotional casino that is often hard to resist. Like casinos, I find it is useful to give myself a limit as to how much I will spend on this amusement, and once I have hit that limit, I walk away. I don't play one more hand, I don't pull one more slot machine, I don't roll one more set of dice.

So my first hand of self-pity is usually fueled by anger and righteous indignation at the obvious wrong that has been committed against my person. This anger is often disproportionate to the situation and yet it fills me with a magnanimous sense of invincibility which lead to emails and text messages to allies who I know will embrace the injustice of the situation and confirm my right to be outraged. That's right I got a ten and a King on the first deal, this is going to be a good night. At this point I begin to put my winnings in my pocket.

So, I've won a few hands, my narcissistic indulgences have been validated by supporters, it's time to double down. That's right ladies and gentlemen it's time to eat poorly and identify with Idina Menzel signature songs like Defying Gravity and Let it Go. It is time to envision a future where I am free from the shackles that confine my true spirit. It is time to widen my scope and realize the world has survived far too long without the full benefits of my awesomeness. (I'd say brilliance, but I'm too bound by the practicality that has me putting my winnings in my pocket so that I don't actually lose any money). This is a tricky moment, when doubt first rears it's annoying sweaty little head. Because is this sense of freedom true? Is it one that could truly lead to a risk that will open up my world? Or is it one not unlike a drunken confession that leads losing a boyfriend, getting fired or waking up in jail with a tattoo and someone else's shoes. And the thing about doubt is, once it sits at the table with you, you start getting dealt 15's. And when you start getting dealt 15's, suddenly what was fun becomes not fun.

So, now self-pity turns dark and dangerous. It turns from a confident gesture of "hit me" or "hold" into a wavering finger dance of uncertainty, and the dealer and everyone else at the table begins to get annoyed with me and secretly and not so secretly wishes I would leave the table and hit the $5 buffet and get fat like I was always meant to be. Now self-pity has turned into self-doubt. Maybe it's all true. Maybe I do suck. Maybe I do deserve to lose. Maybe I should play with the winnings burning a whole in my pocket and let go of the last shred of dignity I possess. And suddenly I'm seriously considering that pipe dream I had after reading Barbara Kingsolver's Bean Trees and chucking it all to move out to New Mexico and live above the diner I work at in the hopes of a simpler life where no one knows me and I am free to become someone more interesting.

So, when I reach this point ladies and gentlemen, I have hit my limit. I have a decision to make, stay at the table or heed Kenny Rogers and walk away. This is usually the time in self-pity roulette when I remember what I read on the front page this morning and begin to feel guilty. But I'm still pissed off, so my guilt is a bit of an act because I'm not ready to let go of the belief that the world really does owe me a break. And sometimes I am right and sometimes I am ridiculous.

Yes, sometimes self-pity is in fact justified and the universe does owe you a break because sometimes we all go through it(and by it, I mean shit). But most of the time, the universe doesn't owe you a damn thing and you need to get over your teenagery self and leave the casino and breathe some fresh air. Self-pity is definitely entertaining in moderation, like some sit-coms, and it can get you through some rough times, but just like I would never want to live in a casino, I have no desire to wallow in self-pity. There are bigger fish to fry and you can usually find those at the all-you-can-eat-buffets.

So, I give myself this night to feel sorry for myself, but come tomorrow I will walk away from the table with my initial investment in my pocket and live to gamble on the next something that is coming down the pike. I will remember that the world is bigger than I have made it, the possibilities are more numerous than I had originally counted, and Idina Menzel always sings the truth.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Eat, Pray and Hand me the Potato Chips

It's been said in so many ways in so many songs, books, movies, poems, Facebook memes, Tweets, and bumper stickers: "Live life to the fullest," "Get the most out of every moment," "Go big or go home." You get it.

Man that's a lot of pressure.

I don't disagree with the sentiment, but it sure ups the stakes for a trip to the grocery store or a morning of cleaning the bathrooms or a good old fashion session of paying the bills. I'm not kidding, I actually feel guilty if I'm not self-actualizing in an Eat Pray Love kind of way(disclaimer, I've never actually read the book since I became outraged that she could in fact afford to take a year off to find her gooey nougat-y center.). And I bombard myself with anthemic music and inspirational chuck-it-all-and-make-the-big-life-changing-choice movies. I buy all the greeting cards with the quotes like "what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail," and I frame them and hang them in opportune locations throughout the house. I take this shit seriously.

But somedays I want to sit on the couch and knit and watch Castle-doesn't even need to be a first-run episode, reruns do quite nicely. Sometimes I want to walk around the mall and look at awesome t-shirts in Hot Topic and then flirt with buying a cinnamon sugar pretzel at Aunt Annie's (though I always crap out and just get a Mounds or pretzel M & Ms at the kiosk by the food court). Sometimes I lose  hours to playing Candy Crush. And sometimes I search Etsy and Pinterest for an embarrassingly long time in search of unique Star Wars and Wonder Woman products. I think we can all agree that I am not living life to the fullest in those moments.

And if I'm confessing, I do actually want to be better than I am, live the examined life, seek enlightenment through spiritual journeys, but I'm not terribly ambitious, don't love to read non-fiction and am not in a financial or logistical position to pick up and move to Italy, India and Bali for an indeterminate amount of time. I don't mean to beat up on Elizabeth Gilbert, or any one who is braver smarter and more carefree than I am. Truth be told I am both jealous and resentful of them. Jealous, because that sounds like fun, and lord knows a little clarity in this muddled mind couldn't hurt anyone. Resentful, because hey what's so wrong with me? Right?

But resentment is really just a massive justification for not trying harder. I know I should meditate and buy yoga pants to actually do yoga and climb something big and natural. I don't really want to though. That wouldn't be my version of living life to the fullest. My version may be quieter. Given the moment and circumstances living life to the fullest can look many different ways. Some ways, most likely my ways, will not sell books or inspire masses, but that does not discount them. Somedays living life to the fullest looks like grocery shopping or cleaning the bathrooms, or paying the bills. Sometimes accomplishing all that in one day (okay one week, sometimes only monthly), fills me with a sense of pride and self-esteem, gives me enough confidence to go out and try something new. And I know the difference between that and when I've wasted a day. It feels good in the moment and is often justified as self-pampering, but ultimately just mimics the aftermath of eating a whole bag of potato chips-bloated, gassy and thirsty.

Ultimately the guilt and inspiration I feel when I see another re-worded aphorism telling me to live life to the fullest comes from the same point of motivation-I don't want to waste my life. And I don't think I am. I am fearless in many ways; in some ways, I can be moreso. I don't mind working on that. I'm not going to go bungee jumping to accomplish this, but I might speak up for myself more in this meeting or that. I might stop spending so much time worrying about my weight. I hope to lament less and less about where I thought I'd be right now and try to be interested in where I am. These strides are not huge, and sometimes they go backwards, but then again, my life is not huge. Right now my life is reminding folks to pick their underwear up off the living room floor and not to ponder too long over how it got there in the first place.

I just have to remember the next time I'm sitting in traffic and the bumper in front of me challenges my existence that full does not always mean huge or busy or universally memorable. Sometimes full means satisfied and looking forward to more. Like how you feel after eating a good meal or an entire bag of potato chips.