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.)

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