Friday, August 22, 2008

PRINCIPLE THREE: Arouse in the other person an eager want.

"Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are." - Dale Carnegie

Taking on this principle, the last of the book's "fundamental techniques in handling people," was tough, really tough, even though I've learned about it in improv class before and can apply it in my scene work. What does this mean to those of you who don't do improv? It means I can create characters who can come to understand what someone else's character wants, and I can build a scene around either helping them gain that goal or thwarting their goal.

Of course, in improv, it creates a better scene if you create an obstacle toward someone's goal. It creates tension, and tension is more interesting onstage than an easily solved problem.

In life, blocking someone else's goal for the sole purpose of building tension just makes you an asshole. Working to understand someone else's desires and concentrating on the benefits they hope to reap over your own wants, desires, hopes and goals is what Carnegie suggests doing.

And I found it tough to do it. I'm selfish and self-centered and self-loathing and self-indulgent, and my initial reactions to situations are usually filtered through that self-interest.

But, since I'm trying to map my progress in this project on a regular basis, I did find one example today of how I've dealt with this specific principle. And it's a fucking doozy.

My mom took the day off work today so that she could go to Glamour Shots and get her casket photo taken. She went with her best friend Debbie, who also wanted a coffin-topper portrait in soft lighting.

As Mom explained to me, she and Debbie had discussed doing this photo shoot for nine years, but the plan moved from discussion to action a couple weeks ago when Mom found a two-for-one Glamour Shots coupon in the newspaper. They redeemed it today.

Debbie and Mom didn't just want updated, good photos of themselves. They wanted their going-away portraits. Mom wanted the photo that we're going to put on her casket during her wake.

Debbie and Mom devised this plan, as I said, nine years ago after Debbie's sister died. Debbie's sister - who was fine-looking but not a knockout - had a framed, filtered-lighting Glamour Shots photo of herself in heavy makeup looking her most "fashion model beautiful" atop her casket during the viewing of the body, and Debbie's family loved the photo so much that there was an actual fight over who got to keep it after the burial. And Debbie's sister's lying, cheating ex-husband apparently stole it off the coffin during the service when it looked like the photo was going to go to some other relative.

My mom said she and Debbie made a pact after that white-trash funeral photo theft incident that they should have pretty pictures taken of themselves for their coffins before, as she suggested, they became craggy, ugly, fat old women. She didn't want us to use a photo of her that was from the 1980s, and she didn't want a more recent photo that was unflattering. So she went to Glamour Shots today.

(My mom's pretty. But my mom doesn't think she's pretty. Just like I'm cute. But I don't think I'm cute.)

She told this to my stepfather and me, and our reactions were different.

My stepfather Jerry, with his Southern twang and his idea that our family funerals should be all about weeping, wailing, snake-handling and histrionic, down-on-your-knees begging for mercy from an almighty God (even though he doesn't go to church), was vehement in his disapproval of my mom's funeral photo shoot.

"THERE AIN'T NO MATERIAL THINGS LEFT AT THAT POINT! YOU AIN'T SUPPOSED TO FOCUS ON WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE! IT'S SINFUL!" Jerry roused to my mother, and she actually would laugh and argue her point, rather than just stay quiet like she usually does with Jerry, who prefers to proclaim his conclusions rather than listen to other people's points-of-view.

"We've been talking about it for years, Jerry," she explained. "And Debbie and I want to do this before we get any uglier. Have you seen some of the photos they run on the obits page?"

Jerry scoffed and said he'd just have her cremated. (I scoffed at that, for I'm betting he dies first.)

My mom's whole perspective on this photo shoot for the past couple weeks has been refreshing, actually. She's been very matter-of-fact about all the deeper ramifications of this, like that she's openly acknowledging that she's going to die eventually. She knows that the photo shoot is shrouded in this morbidity, and she's tackled it with a certain admirable, sick sense of humor.

As a result of this, my main objection to the photo shoot was not that I didn't want Mom to plan her funeral. (She's been carrying around sheet music for it in her briefcase for years. I know that. She's just being zealous about preparation.) No, my main objection was her choice of photography studios.

"Seriously, Mom, I know photographers who could do this for you," I said to her today while she ironed three outfits that she wanted to wear. "Why Glamour Shots?"

"Well, we have a coupon," Mom said. "And Debbie and I want to do this together. You know how we'll probably get there and just start laughing about it. We've wanted to do this for years."

I understood what she wanted. I understood why she wanted it. So I tried to work with that by telling her what my fears about the whole thing were.

I said, "I don't want you to wear a hat. I don't want you to wear a boa. Don't clinch your collar. I don't want you to do any shots where you rest your hand on your chin. I don't want them to light the shot so much that it looks like you've been glazed. I don't want the photo on your casket to make it look like you were the madam at some New Orleans brothel."

It was wrong of me to concern myself over how potentially tacky this whole thing might be. It's not my funeral.

My mom explained to me that Glamour Shots has changed.

"You wear your own clothes now, so I won't be wearing a hat or a boa," she said, propping up the iron. "They do your makeup while you're there, but I'll still be in my own clothes. I've got the black-pinstripe suit, the red suit and this denim one that will, you know, look more casual. Don't worry about it."

My mom hasn't worn much facial makeup in years. She abandoned lipstick when she started dating my stepfather. She's never been a Glamour Shots type of woman before. I had mixed feelings about this whole thing because I couldn't quite grasp what she was out to prove about herself.

And then, while she was going over the clothes, I thought that maybe my problem with all of this is that, because I'm her son and because I love her, I see something in her that she doesn't. It's the same thing I can't see in myself.

And so I looked at my mother and said, "You know you're pretty, right?"

She rolled her eyes.

"Oh come on," I repeated, "you've always been pretty."

She kept ironing.

"Even when you were a kid, you were pretty. You're pretty now. You dress well. You're pretty, and you know that."

She thanked me, but, unfortunately, I don't think she quite bought it.

Still, this evening, she called me up and said, "I didn't wear a hat. I didn't wear a boa. There was one shot in close-up where they told me to rest my head on my arm, and I did that. But most of them came out really good. I got several 5x10s of one where I was wearing the denim, and you can have one of the wallet-sized ones."

My mother is not dying. My mother just allowed herself this fun, silly act of vanity to fly in the face of aging and death. And I just want her to like herself and have fun. I think she wants to like herself.

Today, at that photo shoot, she did.

When I put that photo on her casket one sad day, I hope I remember this. And I hope I laugh about it.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The lovely woman in the above photo is not my mother, just some nice person who posted her photo on the Internet.)

Friday, August 08, 2008

In appreciation.

"Take a chance! All life is a chance. The man who goes furthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare." - Dale Carnegie

My friend Zach Steele owns a bookstore in Decatur. It opened last June. Because I'd been out of touch with him, I found out about Zach's bookstore while I was hitting on this straight guy during the Armistead Maupin book signing at Outwrite Books. The heterosexual guy worked at Georgia Center for the Book, and he and I were doing this random chit-chat while I was trying to picture what he looked like naked. (I did not know he was straight at the time. I mean, jeez, it was an Armistead Maupin book signing at Outwrite. It's not my fault for jumping to the wrong conclusion. And he was cute.)

During the chit-chat, the straight guy and I were talking about self-published books, and I told him that the worst self-published book ever written was this Southern-fried, end-times novel called APOCALYPSE SOUTH by Kyle Watson. (The book has a scene that takes place in a traffic jam on I-285 during the Rapture. It's absolutely hilarious.)

And the straight guy told me that he'd seen APOCALYPSE SOUTH before and, in fact, had a friend with a marked-up copy of it with notes on the edges where an entire bookstore staff had commented on how bad it was. And I told the straight guy that I was familiar with that copy of the book, for I had once worked with the bookstore staff that created it. The straight guy told me that Zach, my one-time manager, had the copy and read it to the staff of his new bookstore at every meeting they had.

And, thus, the cute, straight guy and APOCALYPSE SOUTH led me to reacquaint myself with Zach. The day after the Maupin signing, I e-mail him and discovered Wordsmiths Books in Decatur. A few days later, I'd walked through the doors of their first location in Decatur, a pretty place with unfortunately low foot traffic. Zach wasn't there during my first trip to the store, which is why I was able to focus on the store and fall in love with its charms in my own way. It's a beautiful place with a warm vibe. It feels good to be there. It feels comfortable to read there. It was the sort of place where I wanted to know everyone's name.

I came up with my own dream for Wordsmiths that first day. I wanted to do a reading there. I wanted to sign copies of my own, as-yet-unwritten books there. I had this feeling stronger in Wordsmiths than I'd ever had in any location of the bookstore that had given me paychecks. In part, this was because it was independent. Mostly, I think I was just charmed to be standing in the middle of Zach's dream store. He had the idea. He wanted something. He went for it, and he achieved it. It made me want to tie my own ambitions to his. I envied his success, and I hoped that Wordsmiths was a place where fulfilled dreams were contagious. That was last year when I'd just begun discovering places like JaCKPie in the city, places built on optimism. I wanted a part of it.

So I e-mailed Zach the next day and told him that I'd enjoyed going to his store and was tempted to jump up on the microphone and read one of my essays. And, even though at that point he'd never read an essay of mine and had never heard me perform anything, he told me at the time that I was more than welcome to jump up on the mic whenever I was in his store. And within a month, Wordsmiths had its first Open Mic Night, and I brought "Prayer for the Waffle House Faithful" to read. When I stepped up on that stage, I'm fairly certain that Zach and his staff didn't know what to expect from me. During the reading, I noticed that I was getting a lot of laughs, particularly from Zach and his wife Alice. By the time I was done, Zach came onstage and said that I was more than welcome to perform at every Open Mic Night. It was one of the best compliments I've ever gotten in my life.

Since then, Russ Marshalek, the events coordinator for Wordsmiths, has proven to be just as supportive of my work as Zach. He's asked me to read at other events at Wordsmiths and said that my Phi Kappa brother Will Young and I are the store's favorite homegrown performers. Russ even helped me film a scene of THE AMBER NASH SHOW video in his apartment complex elevator.

I love these guys. I love Wordsmiths Books. It has shown me nothing but love, and it has supported my efforts as a writer and performer.

And now it's in trouble. Because of debt incurred at the location it has since moved from, Wordsmiths is in danger of closing, and I want to keep the place open forever. Fundraising efforts are ongoing, and I would like it very much if you could help out a place that's becoming an important part of the Decatur and Atlanta communities.

View it anyway you like. Go to their website, and read about what's going on from the owner himself. Just help them out if you can. Pick your reasons. Please help.

Do it because good people need your help. Do it because you want another place where you can buy books. Because people who've helped me out now need help. Because a local, small business needs help. Because it's a cool place. Because you remember what the cool, small bookstore in your town used to be like. Because I've not written a book yet, and I want Wordsmiths to still be there for when I do or for when any of my friends do. Because the continued existence of mom-and-pop stores suggest the basic American dream can still survive. Do it because places built on optimism are places that need to stick around.

And thank you for your attention and help.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

PRINCIPLE TWO: Give honest and sincere appreciation.

"I shall pass this way but once: any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." - Old saying referenced in HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE


Trying to think up a more interesting way to blog about this than just "I tried this principle this week, and this happened ...," I tried to think of something that I'm randomly grateful for. And, for some reason that hit me when I singing along with my car stereo, I realized that I am grateful that I never got to perform a solo number in my high school's choral variety show. The people I suppose that I can thank for this are Mr. Fowler, my high school choral director, and my late Grandpa Carr.

The reason that I am grateful that I didn't perform a solo isn't because I'm scared to sing in public. I like my singing voice, actually. I'm not great, but I'm not bad. Since I grew up singing with my mother the formal choral teacher-turned-mortgage banker and two aunts who also taught high school chorus, it was sorta expected that I'd be singing my whole life - even if I never showed the sheer talent for it that my elders did. (Seriously, Aunt Carol is a very, very accomplished soprano.)

Still, because I was one of those theater kids (or would've been if I'd been at a school with a functional drama department) and because I was a former member of the Atlanta Boy Choir, I wanted to be center stage at every concert and, after it was created my junior year, the song-and-dance variety show, which is a spectacular program in Buford even now. But my moment in the high school spotlight never happened.

And I am fucking grateful. Because now I have no embarrassing "song-and-dance" moments to live down.

It's all about song choice. You'll see what I mean.

My junior year, I heard this '40s tune on television because it was the theme song from my favorite show, "Homefront," which was this really, really good post-WWII soap opera. The song was "Accentuate the Positive" by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, and my mother - ever resourceful when it came to music - bought the sheet music herself so that I could try out for Mr. Fowler. It's a great song about spreading joy and being really, really happy in the face of adversity. But, when I tried out, I'd only heard the hook of it. I didn't know about the deep, deep bass, gospel-churchy "Come to Jesus" part that opened the song, and I didn't rehearse it enough. So I ended up sounding like a fool during the tryout, which made me angry and made me throw a stupid fit where I cried in front of the teacher. (I cried a lot in my younger days before testosterone kicked in and made my voice drop. I can sing that song's deep, deep bass parts now. Not so much when I was 16.)

So when junior year didn't work out, I thought I would try extra, extra hard my senior year to really get a solo and really give a performance that would amaze people. So I picked Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," which is a great song that I can really sing and did decently well with during first tryouts. And I was supposed to sing it, everything was set. And my grandfather died the week before the show, so my brother and I had to leave rehearsals to go to Florida. And coming back from Grandpa Carr's funeral, I really didn't feel like polishing a song-and-dance routine wherein I sang of my love for beautiful ladies to a group of dancing, dolled-up teenaged girls. The number was cut. Now, at 32, I can honestly say, "Thank you for dying, Grandpa. Your timing is excellent."

If you're reading this blog, you probably know my attitudes and preferences really, really well. Now, if I'd mentioned to you that I'd performed song-and-dance numbers to "Accentuate the Positive" and "Oh, Pretty Woman" in high school, what are the chances that my melancholy, homosexual ass would ever be able to live that down? (And you know I would have already told you this story if it had actually happened.)

I honestly and sincerely appreciate that I didn't get to perform those songs, even though I was really, really upset about losing both opportunities at the time.

Hindsight can be sweet.

Tonight, after an excellent improv class where my confidence and attitude is improving, I met my friend Scott (yes, that Scott - the ex-almost-boyfriend Scott) for dinner at Steak 'n' Shake. And I tried listening to him. I tried not bringing up all the baggage and bad memories that I usually bring up. I didn't dwell on bad things. I didn't bitch at him. I was happy to see him, for - because we are comfortable with one another - I have fun with him and relax with him. And I must say that it was one of the best evenings that we've had together in a while because I tried to pay attention to him and concentrate on what he wanted. I really, really tried to apply the principles of the book, and he said he noticed a change in me.

Yes, I'm typing this from Scott's. Yes, it's his webcam. Yes, it's 5 a.m. No, we did not. Thank you.

My improv teacher Jim does read this blog. I found that out last week after he e-mailed me to ask why I blogged about him not replying to my e-mails. That entry last week was me trying to reason out what I was doing wrong and how I could improve my approach with him. I applied those principles stronger this week, and I think I'm in a much better place with him and with my performances in class. Jim's an exceedingly positive, encouraging and supportive guy. As I read in this book about "recognizing and satisfying other people's wants," I'm reminded of performance lessons that he already taught my class.

As I continue to work on these things, now that he knows what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, I'm very happy to say that I have his support.

This week, I went back to my bookstore because Kurt wanted to see the new Tori Amos comic, and I got to see Daniel the Violin Guy, my friend Cheryl the Chef and James the Future Roommate. It was a really good day. I miss the bookstore and miss those people. I need to move back to town, but these things will all happen in time. I expected it to happen quickly, but patience will allow me the chance to work through some financial problems that come when you face the amount of change that I have this year.

I just keep reminding myself that the changes were positive.

Kurt's become a good friend to have around.

I really like this book. Thank you, Dale Carnegie.