Posts tagged “life lessons

6 life lessons from acting class

The debates have me thinking a lot about acting – or, rather, not acting.

So it’s as good a time as any to post something I’ve been meaning to share for a while:  back in May, I took a one-week intensive acting workshop at the New York Film Academy – yes, the place with the big sign. I had a few things in mind:

  • I wanted to try something completely different and fun
  • As a cinephile, I wanted to step into the actor’s experience
  • I wanted to chisel away at my terror of public speaking
  • I really, really wanted to get out of my head, stop over-thinking things, and live more in the moment.

The week delivered abundantly on all these fronts.  Most of the time, I was busy scribbling away the pearls of wisdom from our main teachers, Lea Brandenburg and Dan Winerman.  Here’s the gist of it:

1. It’s all about the other person

In acting, you’re not supposed to be thinking about you or your lines.  If you do, you’ll look like you’re overacting.  You won’t give a convincing performance.  You’ll come across as weird and self-conscious.  You’ll make the other person uncomfortable – and everybody else who’s watching. What’s more, you’ll have a terrible time while you’re at it.

The audience wants real people, not people in their own heads playing their own lines.

At all times, it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. When you focus on whomever you’re with – without expectations – suddenly there’s connection.  Believability.  And what’s really neat is that that’s when you end up reaping the most rewards.

2.  Know that you WILL mess up

It’s not a question of if but when.  Everybody misses a line.  At the very least.  It’s what humans do.  Most of the time, the audience won’t notice.  You need to keep calm and carry on.  Cover it with grace.  Water under the bridge.

This was the big takeaway for me.  We all spent days rehearsing our lines, and we all messed up.  But I took it especially hard.  I always knew I was hard on myself, but I hadn’t realized just how much.  Not only that, but I volunteered to do an extra scene, which means that I actually set myself up for difficulty by creating impossible circumstances.   I need to work on giving myself the same compassion as I do others, and easing up on myself for not getting everything right.  Let myself be human. Which brings me to…

3. Accept everything that happens

In film, you can do as many takes as you need to.  On stage, there are no rewinds.  You can’t stop in the middle of a play and say, “I can’t believe I blew it.  I’m such a fool!” and then proceed to beat yourself up about it while the audience sits there.  Although that might make for interesting entertainment.

We don’t always have the perfect words in every moment. You have to accept that these are all the words you have in this moment. Say it (or don’t), and let it go.  It’s completely useless to self-flagellate.  It keeps you and everybody else stuck.  And while we’re on the topic of acceptance…

4. Don’t force the feelings

To quote Dan, “Have you ever had someone try to demand a feeling from you?  It’s exhausting.  So don’t demand it of yourself.”

Whatever you’re feeling or not feeling is okay. In acting, you’re not supposed to try to act out an emotion.  It just ends up looking like you’re acting.  As in life, emotions are believable when they happen without prompting.

5.  Acting well is acting in the moment

You can rehearse a scene a million times, and it will always come out differently.  You can have an idea of a certain intonation you want to use on a particular word; but if you stubbornly hold on to that, you entirely miss the point.

Even if you’re doing a monologue, you are never operating in a vacuum.  Everything is changeable moment to moment.  The only thing you can do is release expectations and pre-conceived ideas and just be in that moment.  And be guided by one principle…

6.  As an actor, your higher calling is to tell the truth

And so it is off the set.  You can never go wrong being you, whoever that you is in that moment.  It can be scary, but it’s the only way to get someone else to see that you’re also a human being – to believe you, and to believe in you.

Essentially, acting is simply about being human and creating a safe space for someone else to do the same – complete with all the foibles that come along with it.


when are you in “the zone”?

When I recorded my street interview last week with Taylor, the ukulele player, I was in the zone.  When I’m chopping vegetables with a hypnotizing seesaw of the blade, I’m in the zone.  Same goes for when I used to practice the metronomic strokes in a boat on the Thames and when I’m biting – ever so slowly – into a City Bakery chocolate-chip cookie (love story here).  When I’m writing a piece like this that gets me out of bed in the middle of the night, I’m in the zone.

If you’re looking to find your purpose and your passion, look no further than your zone.  The zone is that place where all other thoughts go quiet.  It’s where time stops, flies, warps, and plays tricks on you.  Your energy is boundless.  You merge.  Anything that commands your entire attention also falls into the zone – sports, a great piece of music, a really good meal, sex.  Why?  Because you’ve moved from the thinking realm into the sensing one.  You’re in.  And we’re wired to concentrate on only one thing at a time in order to derive pure enjoyment from it.

That’s why the zone is such a great way to define what you’re here to do.  The zone is at the basis of your big dream.  And, next to “how did you fall in love?” – it’s also my favorite question.

I’ve been able to ask this question a lot lately.  I volunteer at a local federal employment agency.  As a mentor, I help people who are out of work get back into it. Some of them haven’t had a job in years.  Many of them have been incarcerated.  Others have physical limitations.  All of them come to the session with more than a few reservations.  They might not look me in the eye at first.  They think I’m going to grill them.  There’s an air of formality and apprehension – that is, until I ask them about their zone.

I’ll say, “Tell me, sky’s the limit, what you’d love to do.  And what is it, now, that you already do that you love?”  The minute I ask this, the tension melts like butter.  Eyes widen, shoulders soften, a smile spreads across the face, and there is instant connection.  One guy, after first telling me he was looking for a construction job, admitted that what he really wanted was to write a book about redemption.  We went on to share a 20-minute conversation – he turned into another person, shedding the cloak of shyness he walked in with and talking very eloquently about his personal journey.

Sometimes the zone isn’t what it appears to be.  In this case, the spirited way he spoke clued me in to what his zone was; it wasn’t necessarily writing a book, it was telling his story however he could – and inspiring other people in the process.

The great news is that we’re not limited to a single zone.  But you’ll know when you’re in yours.  The zone is where you are your best you, and where you, by happy default, make the most positive difference to others.  Next time you’re feeling utter rapture for what you’re doing, ask yourself why you’re not doing it more often and how it’s lining up (or not) with your big dream.


the iphone guide to falling in love

Right at home: iPhone on my pillow

It was meant to be; it was only a matter of time.  With the Apple Store a mere block away from me – albeit an avenue one – and my increased dissatisfaction with the previous state of affairs, it’s only natural that I am head over heels for my new iPhone.

Some may say I am late to the game.  But I am actually right on time.  It goes in line with my thinking about being indecisive.  I dispelled that myth in my post How To Follow Your Heart, where I outlined that indecision is not indecision at all but rather a lack of having the right opportunity at the right time.  Ditto for being non-committal.  iPhone was the only one for me.  My heart knew it.  And that’s what’s so delicious about this:  one is “non-committal” for the same reasons that one is “indecisive” – that’s right, it’s all about the right option appearing at the right time.

Once I took the leap into iPhone, there was no going back. Which has had me thinking about what iPhone – and the very wise, giving lover that is Apple – can teach us about my favorite subject.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you

I’ve had it for all of three days, and it’s a heart-thumping honeymoon.  I can’t be apart from my iPhone.  I want to touch it all the time, learn everything about it, get under the tough skin I wrapped around it to keep it safe.  Apple makes it easy – hosting a free workshop all about getting to know your iPhone.  It was scheduled for an hour.  It ran over.  And I could have stayed longer.  As with anything that tugs generously at the heart, time slips through your fingers and skips from your mind.  Apple knows exactly what it’s doing with its doting, no-strings-attached approach to customer service.  You keep coming back for more, more, more.

Getting more out of it than you’re putting in

Any other conscious iPhone user can attest to it – even though it means a big jump in your phone bill, you get so much value out of iPhone that it’s worth it.  They say that when you’re with the right one for you, you have the feeling that you’re getting a better deal out of it than the other person.  You feel like, “Wow, I’m really lucky here,” which, of course, compels you to then show the other just how lucky…meaning the good stuff gets bounced back and forth, back and forth.  Yes, you’re putting in an investment – and getting any good deal is dependent on this – but you’re happy to do it.  You know you’d be a fool not to.

Your other relationships just get better

A sign of an unhealthy relationship is one that closes you off from everything else that’s important to you.  But iPhone does just the opposite.  It respects your life, enhances it, and gets you closer to the people in it.  I usually talk to my mother on the phone as I’m walking down the street.  This weekend, I was able to show her the street, the smile on my face, and how bright the sun was shining above me.

You just “get” each other

Apple is so incredibly intuitive.  And that’s why we love it so.  In mere minutes with my iPhone, I felt right at home.  I knew its body as if I always had, including which buttons to touch, push, slide.  Figuring my way around it is easy and exhilarating, not complicated and clumsy.  You feel good using it.  It understands what you need, and it gives it to you without much, if any, prodding.  It opens up a whole new world of opportunity.  In short, life is better with it than without.  That’s when you know you have a winner.

You feel like you’ve come a long way, baby

Almost as important as this I’m-so-lucky feeling is the complementary aren’t-I-so-smart feeling.  At first, iPhone makes you look back on your old phones as flings – “What the heck was I doing/thinking?!” “How could I have put up with that?!”  Then, after you’ve gotten over the where-have-you-been-all-my-life feeling, you start to feel really good about yourself.  You’ve explored your options, you’ve failed before, you’ve chosen smartly now.  Pat on the back and good, sweet lovin’ to you.

The heart overrides the head

You can list a million reasons why, intellectually, iPhone makes sense – and even why it doesn’t.  And yet what really makes you dig it is something you just can’t put your finger on.  You can’t explain it as much as you try.  All you can do is enjoy, be present, and appreciate.  Oh, and always remember – it’s up to you to take care of it and not take it for granted, no matter how safe that case may seem.

Speaking of apples – if you like all this suggestive symbolism, check out this post about applesauce and relationships.  And don’t forget to share the love by liking or linking above.


how to follow your heart

View from Hudson River Park with the Statue of Liberty in the distance

I used to think I was terribly indecisive.  I would agonize over possibilities in the shower, while I ate, in my sleep.  It got so bad that often I would hand my decision making to someone else or back myself into a corner so the decision would be made for me.

Then something happened last year that made me see things in a whole new way.  Something that showed me decisions aren’t to be “made” – they come.  And if they’re not coming, there’s no decision to be made.  Talk about relief.

What was it?  The decision to move back to New York.  But it wasn’t a decision.

Here’s how it happened:  I was in London, having been through some very difficult months and enough moving around to give you whiplash.

It was early October.  I was sitting in the kitchen of my sublet in Notting Hill, wrapped in a heavy blanket because of the notorious bad heating.  I had been debating what to do for weeks – I was ready to move back to the States, but where?  I had my eye on California – Santa Barbara, to be precise – but something in my heart pinched.  For some reason, I hadn’t bought the plane ticket.  I hadn’t made plans.  My body was making no movements in that direction.  There was no force moving me there.

And then that’s when I felt it – a force.  At first, it was barely a flutter.  And the flutter ventured: how about New York?

New York?  What?  Been there, done that, I’d always said.  But not this time.  New York?  Really?  Again?  No, not again, came the flutter/force…anew.

Anew.  Yes.  I could see my old city with new eyes, experience it again for myself, appreciate it all the more, and invite new, better beginnings.  Not to mention be a whole lot closer to my family and the friends I had left behind.  It just made complete and utter…sense.

And then everything clicked with tremendous force.  The apartment was found.  The plane ticket was bought.  The boxes were shipped.  All in a matter of days.  No thinking, no debating, no decision making.  It simply came.  And it all felt right.  Within less than a month, I was re-united with my first love.

That’s when I saw that all my “indecisiveness” in the past was simply about not having the right option at the right time.  Decision making is like falling in love – you just know.  You can’t control it, you can’t predict it; and, if it’s not happening, then it’s simply not time yet.

And here I am, over four months later, not regretting a thing and certain this is exactly where I need to be.

Deciding Not To Decide

I had the opportunity to share this learning with a friend in London over a Skype chat a few weeks ago.  She was in the middle of a big decision, and I immediately recognized the familiar angst-ridden expression on her face.  When I told her that she could decide not to decide, I saw levity wash across her face instantly.  Here’s what she jotted down after our conversation:

  • I focus on what *I* want, and once that is clear, I use that to inform my decision
  • I do what feels good
  • I take my time in making my decisions (i.e. I beat to my own ‘time’ drum!)
  • If making a decision right now doesn’t feel good, I do not make a decision
  • I listen closely to the voice that tells me what I want and I treasure and respect what it says

There’s a saying making the self-help rounds recently: that indecision is a form of self-abuse.  I disagree.  Not deciding is your heart telling you it’s not time yet, or that the options aren’t right.  “Decision making” is all in your head; and it’s bound to give you a headache.  Give up thinking you “should” decide, and your heart will irrevocably guide you to what you’ll really love.


my speech story: the curse and the “cure”

Me at age 4, before speaking became a big deal

Me at age 4, before speaking became a big deal

For a person who stutters, few things are more terrifying than a microphone.

Think stage fright coupled with someone holding a gun to your head, plus the feeling you get when you dream you’ve left the house naked.  Then multiply that by ten.

I know, because I’ve lived with stuttering for as long as I’ve talked.  But I’ve managed to manage my speech to the point where you’d probably never guess I’m any different from you.  I’ve also taken great pains to hide my stutter, only revealing it to a handful of people – until now.  Thanks to The King’s Speech, stuttering is suddenly fashionable.  But living with it isn’t always pretty.

Nobody knows exactly why some of us stutter.  Some say that stuttering is a neurological malfunction, and that our brains are structurally different.  It also seems to run in families.  Like Lionel Logue, the King’s speech “therapist” played by Geoffrey Rush, I believe that stuttering is actually a social disorder.  Those of us who stutter usually have no problem when speaking with children, pets, and to ourselves.  It’s the significance of the interaction in which speaking plays a part that makes all the difference – the higher the stakes, the higher the anxiety, and the higher the potential to “block” on a sound. But when talking with kids, Rover, or nobody at all, stress levels are low and so is the possibility for messing up.

The Two Flavors of Stuttering

When you hear the word “stuttering,” you probably think of someone who does so very badly – someone who repeats the first sound of a word almost endlessly, employs facial contortions when they get stuck, and makes you feel uncomfortable.  This type of stuttering is known as “overt stuttering,” meaning the person’s impediment is unmistakable and is present in almost all their speech.  The King’s Speech did not portray stuttering in this way.  If it had been true to the plight of those with an overt stutter, it would have been unbearable to watch.

In my case, I have what is known as a covert – or internalized – stutter.  This is what happens when you try to keep stuttering a secret, and doing so involves all sorts of mental acrobatics:  scanning words ahead of time so as to avoid – and replace – those that, from experience, will cause me problems.  For instance, I have particular trouble with words beginning with the sound “eh,” so something like “Elizabeth” would be difficult to say and would produce anxiety for me.   Instead, I’d substitute “The Queen” or even “Queen Elizabeth,” since placing another sound before the feared word somehow tricks my brain into thinking I can say it.

This is, interestingly, easier said than done and depends on the context of the situation.  If I were talking to one of my friends about the Queen, I’d likely have little trouble with the word, and the rest of my speech would also be fairly fluent.  I’d feel relaxed.  But if I had to stand up in front of a massive audience and deliver a speech about Her Royal Highness, it would be akin to torture.

On the Tip of My Tongue

The closest I’ve come to this so far happened while I lived in London and was invited to appear on television to talk about my old blog.  It was both a dream come true and a nightmare, and the only way around it was to memorize everything I was going to say – carefully avoiding the words I couldn’t.  If you watch the clip with this in mind, you’ll see what I mean.  Ironically, I loved being on camera and was quite disappointed that my phone wasn’t ringing off the hook with producers offering me my own show, although hearing myself stumble still makes me cringe.

If you want to see another example of what this internal run-around looks and sounds like, check out Joe Biden trying to avoid saying “Avatar.” The fact that he manages to get it out a little later in the clip only serves to illustrate that stuttering has a mind of its own, sneaking up on us and taunting us with its elusiveness – no matter how smart and able we are.

When I was a kid, stuttering was no big deal, and I was told I’d grow out of it.  I also heard all the things in The King’s Speech – “Slow down!” being the most popular, “What, you don’t know your own name?” being the worst when I couldn’t introduce myself. At some point, I stopped being able to answer the phone; an invisible force would snatch the word out of my throat, and silence would hang in the air before the caller would either hang up or say something first.

Testing, Testing, 1,2,3

As I got into my teens, hyper awareness kicked in.  I started concocting more elaborate (though I’d never say that word out loud) ways around my problem.  I’d have a tape recorder stashed away in which I’d recorded myself saying “hello.”  It was continuously set on pause, so that when I picked up the phone, I’d simply hit “play.”  Sometimes the recorder would misfire or I got the timing wrong, but I don’t think anyone caught on. To this day, I’m not sure my mother even knows about it.  Well, she does now.

Then there was the worry that I would grow up and fall in love with a man whose name I couldn’t say.  Heaven forbid it was Elliot, Eric, or Ernesto (Enrique, for some reason, would have been okay.)  While other girls imagined their wedding-day kiss, I pictured myself unable to get through the vows.

Stuttering felt like a lonely curse, but eventually I realized I was far from alone.  By the time I got to college, I was old enough to have had enough and to want to do something about it.  I went to the library and checked out everything I could on the topic (we still did that in those days, and I’m only 36.)  I started to believe that I could retrain my vocal chords and teach myself a new way of breathing – namely, always speaking on the exhale.

In Good Company

I also discovered that other people had a bunch of tricks up their sleeves – tapping their foot on the floor to get a word out, using singsong speech to link words together, adopting fake or breathy accents.  I felt quite buoyed when I learned of my famous stuttering counterparts: Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, John Stossel.  And trust me, nobody was happier about the invention of email than those of us who stutter.  Notice I never say “stutterer,” because stuttering does not define us.  To draw inspiration from JFK:  we are not stuttering people; we are people who happen also to stutter.”

Therapy was as frustrating for me as it was for King George VI.  I tried a few sessions with a speech pathologist in my early 20s, never to return again.  Meanwhile, my cunning word substitution became so refined that I was able to speak more and more fluently, and this in turn had the welcome effect of making me more confident in my speech so that I ultimately reintroduced the words that had caused me so much difficulty before.  At the same time, my vocabulary kept expanding exponentially, and I discovered that I could say anything I wanted to – in print.

So I became an English major and then a writer, finding redemption on the page.  I’m obsessed with words.  To me, they are clay; I get a particular thrill out of choosing them, twisting them, and making them submit to me rather than the other way around. My propensity for slicing and dicing speech is a double-edged sword when it comes to writing, and it is interminable – more than once have I needed to get out of bed to fix a single word in whatever I am working on at the moment, just because I can.  Every time, it’s a little victory over all the other times I had to settle for something other than what I meant to speak. Writing is where I can really be me.

Still, the old stuttering anxiety never died, and I carried the stigma with me every single day – shunning speaking engagements and shuddering at the idea of introducing myself to a room full of strangers.

Liberation At Last

It wasn’t until last year that I realized how far I’d actually come.  Still convinced I had a serious speech impediment, I registered for an intensive three-day course called “The McGuire Program.”  Taught entirely by people who stutter, McGuire felt like my last resort.  And, ultimately, it was.  On day one, I was completely humbled when I met the other students on the course – people who could barely speak a sentence.  To both my relief and chagrin, I was more fluent than ever; it was as if I had gone to the doctor only to have the pain go away the minute I stepped foot in his office.  The others were at once amazed by me and doubted me, telling me that I was making it up, that I was an imposter.  They wanted to know my “tricks.” I tried to convince them that my stuttering was pulling a fast one on me – playing hide and seek only to sneak up again on me later.

I dropped out on day two, not because the course wasn’t worthwhile or the other students weren’t inspiring – they were.  I left because, for the first time, I realized that the way I thought about my stuttering – and not the stuttering – was the real problem. I had put such suffocating pressure on myself to have perfect speech, never noticing that even fluent speakers speak imperfectly.  On the bus home, I marveled at the prison I had created for myself; and I alone knew the way out.  I felt incredibly liberated.

I still consider myself a person who stutters, and I’ve yet to give a formal speech; but my stuttering no longer reigns over me the way it used to.  Where once it sat on the throne I’d built for it – looming over me like a dictator – I now lead it firmly yet gently, as a good leader would.

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a downward dog and a cat stretch walk into a bar…

I met my friend Eric during one of the most torturous experiences of my life: yoga teacher training.  And he loves reminding me about it.

For the entire month of October 2009, we lived in an ashram in Northern California. The day started with a bell and chant at 5:30am and went until almost 11pm.  For Eric, it was bliss.  Meanwhile, I was like an inmate marking off the days on the wall.  I’d love to tell you that my time there culminated with enlightenment à la Eat Pray Love, but this was not the case.  Well, the revelation was that I’m never going to be cooped up in an ashram for a month – ever again.

Actually, Eric will tell you that I enjoyed much more about the experience: the two buffet-style meals during the day, to be exact, and these outrageously rich chocolate fudge balls they’d serve after we’d been sitting in lotus position for 16 hours straight.

And he’ll tell you that I memorized the menu rotation so that by week two I knew exactly what was coming out of the kitchen each day.  It’s all a little fuzzy a year and a bit later, but pancakes were definitely on Fridays.  And I think Mexican was the day before – with your choice of either real or fake cheese on the quesadillas.

It would take much more than a blog post to explain why I had such a hard time with the program; but suffice it to say that after it was (finally) over, I didn’t do yoga for a long time – until two months ago when I returned to New York.

I was home.  I was happy.  I was ready to stretch it again.  So I Googled “East Village yoga” and came up with Yoga to the People, a donation-based studio not far from me.  And the biggest selling point in my book was that the classes are only an hour long – enough so that it wouldn’t feel like a lockdown.

This place naturally gets very busy, so I got there early and rolled out my mat by the wall.  It’s always bemusing to me when people plonk down right in the middle of the room when they have the option of not having someone bordering them on every side.  I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m from Florida; but I like my space if I can get it.

Yoga to the People teaches Vinyasa, a quick-moving practice aimed at raising your heart rate.  Even though I prefer slower-paced Hatha, once class started I was immediately in my element, and then…

Ahhhhhhhhhh.  Uhhhhhhhhh.  Ohhhhhhhhhh.  Ooooooooh!

What the heck was this?  In my 13 years of yoga, I’d never heard anything like it.  It was a symphony of moans, and it was downright annoying. The teacher kept encouraging it, too:

“Exhale alllllll of the stale air out.  Then breathe in as much as you can, and then…H-A.”

Haaaaaaaaaaa erupts all around me, and in particular quite loudly from a blonde woman two mats away.  I shoot her the evil eye, hoping she’ll feel my gaze burning into the back of her ponytail, hoping I can Jedi-Mind Trick her into stopping.  I do this several times.  I realize this is very un-yogi of me.

After class, I approached the teacher.  I told her I wasn’t trying to judge the class, but that I was curious about all the, ahem, vocal expression throughout it.

“People comment on that a lot.  It’s just our way of making yoga accessible to all,” she said.

Really?  How about some chocolate fudge balls at the end?

I decided to stick with Yoga to the People and see if I could push myself through what was obviously my own personal issue.  Two months later, I barely hear the moaners.  Well, that’s a lie – I do.  But I appreciate so much else about the place that it hardly matters.  I guess that’s why Eric decided to stick with me though my grumbles and mumbles at the ashram.  Or maybe it’s because he appreciated knowing when it was Thai-food day.

Reviews may say that Yoga to the People is a factory, cramming as many bodies in as they possibly can, which makes it impossible for instructors to do their job.  And they probably have a point.  But the studio does have one thing going for it:  people first.  You’re bound to emerge more tolerant, if not more flexible.  Ahhh.