Revelation in a $43 cup of Starbucks.

I just had a major revelation rise out of a $43 cup of Starbucks. Story:


I'm in Vegas this week, doing an Industrial show (or what we like to call Business Theater) for just a couple of days. We've been staying at the MGM Grand, and our show, for Country Financial, was an interesting little presentation on a huge conference center stage, woven through some long speeches being given by the top brass of this company. The greatest piece of Art? Absolutely not. But it's been a terrific gig. We've been paid well, got housed in a beautiful hotel in a fairly warm climate (while the East Coast was getting pounded by a huge snowstorm), got fed like Kings and Queens, and I even got to the gaming tables - and it looks like I'm actually going to leave Vegas 'up' about 100 bucks. Happy days!


So yesterday morning just before I checked out, I went downstairs for a $43 cup of Starbucks. Well the Starbucks cost $8 - (8 dollars for a cup of Starbucks drip and a scone! YIKES!), so where the other $35 come from? As I was stirring in some milk, I noticed that on the gaming floor not 10 steps away there was a five dollar Blackjack table with a nice, welcoming looking dealer standing behind it.   I sat, and I was the only one at the table – you can do this when it's 7 AM on a Wednesday, even in Vegas.

When you play Blackjack and it's just you and the dealer, it can be really fun. You can really play the game, and if your dealer is personable, you can strike up a conversation that can ramble nearly anywhere. My dealer's name was Audrey. And as she was casually hammering me with a very unfriendly shoe, the questions began: "What do you do for a living?" "I'm an Actor.". Usually, Actor gets some kind of reaction, but she barely blinked. Because this is Vegas, and she gets every kind of everything at her table. For a moment, I mused that in a certain way, she's a priest, and this is her confessional - but then I thought, no that's not right; she's a zookeeper, slinging cards and jokes at whatever kind of animal runs, flies or crawls by. "Could you break this for me please? " "Well I'm not strong enough to break it, but I'll definitely give you change." Bah-DUM-bum. 

She dealt me a 20 and then proceeded to deal herself 21 the hard way, and as my head sagged and she reached for my chips, another casual question: "What's your favorite thing you've ever done?"


Now as a person who makes their living as a Professional Actor I've easily been asked this question a thousand times. I usually have some kind of stock answer for it, and so I began my usual "Well, that's a really hard question, but..."

Revelation. BOOM.

And I realized that in that silly little industrial show, I had just as much fun in the moment, in the doing of it, in the performing of it, as I've ever had in any show I've ever done. Anywhere.

So who cares? Why does this matter? PROCESS. That's why. It is all about the doing of a thing, not where you are doing it. (As long as you're getting paid, of course - I mean I am a professional and all.) I've been on Broadway, on television, in film, I run my own series, and even in a conference venue at 7AM, I was having a fantastic time with fantastic people.


Perhaps getting hammered at Blackjack is a method for making that clear. (This is not a method that I would advise participating in frequently - but it is quite effective.) Thus: Are you enjoying what you're doing at the moment? If not, then you should probably find something else to do. Me, im going to keep finding every opportunity I can...  just to be in the show. Wherever it is. As long as it's paying.

Thank you Audrey. You took my money... but in the end, I owe you. 

A Dead Man's Facebook Page.

I've quit Facebook. I've deactivated my account and 'scheduled it for deletion' - turns out that you can't just snap your fingers and disappear from FB, it takes a while and quite a bit of hoop-jumping. Whether I stay off forever will be seen in due course, but my intention is to stay off. 

Full disclosure: I'm no Luddite. I love social media. I tweet, I manage an Instagram feed, a Pinterest page, Google Plus... but for some reason, Facebook has always been especially thorny for me. I'll gleefully admit that I've spent weeks, perhaps months of my life on Facebook, and enjoyed much of it. I loved the ability to reconnect with people I hadn't seen since high school, and I loved the vaguely voyeuristic way you could sneak into other people's lives. And the other night when I got home, I received a Facebook message from a friend asking if I'd heard the news about a certain person... 

And I realized that FB, for me, was no longer tool for expression, but an agent of censorship.

Let me explain:

In 1961, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of psychological experiments detailing how much cruelty human beings are willing to inflict upon others based on whether an Authority figure is present.

The set-up: The test subject took on the role of a 'Teacher', asking questions of a 'Learner' who was actually an actor in another room, disconnected physically, only heard over a speaker. If the Learner answered a question incorrectly, the Teacher was told by the Authority Figure (the Experimenter, who was in the room) to administer a punishment in the form of a small electric shock. This sounds somewhat unsavory but generally harmless... but it would escalate; the more wrong answers, the stronger the shock. Milgram found that as the wrong answers built up (as the experiment was designed to do), if the Authority figure told the Teachers to continue to punish, they would follow orders - and in fact, a huge percentage would shock until the 'Learner' was screaming, and many would go so far as to deliver shocks that were lethal.

Turn that over in your mind, folks; these perfectly normal people, if told to do so under these circumstances, would follow orders... and KILL someone.

So how does this connect to social media? One condition of this experiment that I believe is important, especially to our social media world, is that the 'Teacher' was disconnected from the 'Learner' - the Learner was in the next room instead of sitting in front of them. They only connected with them through the sound of their responses on a speaker. And we all know that lack of physical connection decreases empathy, and thus makes it easier to be cruel.

Here's my thing: 'Social' media is a total misnomer. In many ways it actually takes us further away from each other, not closer. I know that sounds crazy, but consider how empathy disappears in places like Facebook. I have witnessed people say/type things to others on social media that they would never, EVER say to each other face-to-face. They just wouldn't, both because of empathy for another human being, and simply to avoid getting punched. And because of this free-for-all, lately I've found it very difficult to be myself, to be simple and honest in my communications (on Facebook in particular) and true to my values; because I despise the kind of cutting remarks, cowardly trolling and dumbshit behavior that makes you see red and keeps you up at night.

Which brings us back to the other night: It turns out this person I was being asked about on Facebook had unexpectedly died, and in an utterly, utterly tragic way. I went to this person's FB page, and saw post after post about how wonderful this person was, what a tragedy this was, and how awful the world can be. It was touching, it was inspiring, and it made me slightly ill.

Because here's the kicker: In my experience (and I can only speak from my own perspective), this guy was a douchebag. I'll spare you the details that I witnessed personally, but the truth was that he was a guy with issues, who at times laid waste to those who challenged his issues. In fact, I rarely unfriended people on Facebook, but I had recently unfriended this man.

And now he's dead.

And I feel terrible. I feel terrible because I'm very very sad that anyone should die the way he died; and I also feel awful that because I have found it impossible to participate in the outpouring of love over his passing, because of the kind of person he was.

I wanted to post that - to say my truth about this person, my truth, from my experiences. But how do you get such sentiments across in a forum that is actually so disconnected from empathy, so far from 'Social'? The sad truth is that posting my feelings about that on FB that would earn me a clear conscience...and an endless, endless river of shit. So I'm taking the advice of Pat Morita: "Best way avoid punch? No be there."

I want the truth, I want real congenial discussion; and if these things were water, FB would be the Sahara.  So Facebook...I'm done with you.  

On fear, re-Mind-ing, and 'Life Stuff'. Do we ever learn the lesson?

photo by T. Charles Erickson

photo by T. Charles Erickson

2 years ago I received a possible death sentence. Story:

I was doing a show very near and dear to my heart - A Christmas Carol at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ. I'll admit it; I'm a SUCKER for this show - especially McCarter's production. Direction by Michael Unger, adaptation by David 'Tommy' Thompson, sets by Ming Cho Lee, choreography by Rob Ashford original music by Michael Starobin, the brilliance of this show is wide and deep. And every time Tiny Tim hugs Scrooge in the show's final moments, my heart fills, breaks, and fills again.

I've done this show for a few years now, and it's a wonderful journey every time. However, in 2012 I got an additional journey - one I wasn't counting on.

Halfway through our performance run in December, on the 19th in fact, the day began with a slowly evolving sour stomach that, after our evening show, had turned into a semi that somehow parked itself on my midsection. It felt like I was wearing a vice. A sleepless night ensued; and we had a student matinee the following morning. But I felt slightly better as the sun rose, so off to the gym to try and sweat out this bug, then on to the theatre. Somewhere during the second act, the diffused pain re-formed itself and landed squarely and sharply in my right lower quadrant - (can you tell I'm a doctor's kid?) - focused around a place that sounds more like a geographical location than a body part - "McBurney's Point". 

Ah, McBurney's. Not much of a vacation spot.

Ah, McBurney's. Not much of a vacation spot.

Diagnosis, medical types? You guessed it. Appendicitis.

I finished the matinee and limped to the company van for a trip to the E.R. - after the usual preliminary tests, my white cell count being not that alarming, I sat on my butt while they scheduled a CT scan. For those of you who've not undergone this fabulous process, it includes swallowing what seems like a gallon of a mildly radioactive substance, a longish wait for it to work its way through your G.I. tract, and then a date with the scanner.  

Dr. Elliot Sambol happened to be on call, lucky for me to have a badass thoracic surgeon handling my simple 'appy'.  After the scan, he came into my room immediately

"We're scheduling you for surgery." he said.

"Soon?" I asked. I really wasn't in that much discomfort.

"Now." he returned. "We found something besides the inflamed appendix. We won't be sure what it is until we can remove it and send it to pathology. But my preference is to take it out as soon as possible."

Princeton Hospital Operating Room. Beam me up.

Princeton Hospital Operating Room. Beam me up.

Something? There was little time to ask for details while I got a chest x-ray, signed many forms, and was dashed into a surgery suite that looked like something out of the 22nd century. No counting backwards for me; the anesthesiologist said something like, "You're going to feel a slight burning sensation in your arm-" and I was out.

I woke up briefly in recovery, then again in my hospital room, with my dearest wife (then girlfriend) KB, sleeping beside me on a piece of furniture that was pretending to be a fold-out couch. The next morning, as I struggled to walk and accomplish the suddenly monumental task of taking a pee, Dr. Sambol came in on rounds.

"We removed a growth just above your appendix," he said. "No idea what it is yet - it could be benign, just some kind of genetic malformation, or it could be... well, I have to give you every possibility because that's my job. It could be cancer. The chances are pretty low that that is the case, but there is still a percentage..."

Dawn? Or sunset?

Dawn? Or sunset?

His voice faded into a dull roar, like I had somehow dunked my head into an angry surf. His mouth continued to move, and I kept nodding, but inside my head, above the noise, I heard, "Cancer? Seriously?!?" My health was good. A month before I had run my fifth marathon. It was December 20th, Christmas was hours could something like this How was this possible? 

I spent the next several days trying not to think about lab results. But over and over, echoing in my head:

"I could be dead in a year. I could be dead in 6 months."

Death is always a possibility. But I have noticed that in American culture, we mostly ignore it. Death is never a part of our daily conversation like it is in other cultures. Tibetan monks pray while fingering beads carved to resemble human skulls to remind them of their mortality. But when death inserts itself into our lives, we react with great surprise, even though on Planet Earth there are approximately 2 deaths every second (and, incidentally, 4 births).

Shasta lessons.

Shasta lessons.

With my surprise came the questions, constant, and on a loop: What if this was it? What if my countdown clock was much closer to zero than I had thought? What would I do differently with the time I had left? Would I tell it like it is? Would I take that trip I had always wanted to take? And as I flailed for answers, one question brought me a glimmer. A glimpse...of a mountain.

A couple years before, as I had stumbled through a transitional period (marriage breaking up, moving on from a big Broadway job & now sliding towards the poverty line) my friend Matt Fabiano had called me. 

"Hey man, my family is organizing a big trip to Mount Shasta," (his family was from Northern California), "and we think you should come along. We're looking to climb to the top. Come summit with us."

"I can't, man," I answered. "I just - it's a bad time, I don't have the cash, my marriage is falling apart..."

Matt cut me off. "-Jim," he said. "Come on. When are you ever going to have a chance to climb Mount Shasta again? This is Life Stuff."

I flew to Cali and climbed the mountain with them. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life...and also one of the coolest. To this day it's one of my favorite trips I've ever taken.

The tree on Palmer Square, Princeton.

The tree on Palmer Square, Princeton.

So from there, cut back to Princeton, and the tense period as I waited for lab results. I vowed that if 'spared', I would remember that phrase, 'This is Life Stuff', on a daily basis. Tomorrow is not promised to us, ever, I said to myself. I'll live my life differently. Better. I'll smell the roses.

The results came in on Christmas Eve day. Kristen waited while I listened to the voicemail, the tension so thick you could make tires with it. Pathology's news: Benign. Nothing to worry about. It was one of the greatest Christmas presents I've ever received.

Now I realize that this may not seem like much of a "brush with mortality" in the great scheme of things - many other people have come much, much closer to the edge than I ever did. But I assure you, it was as shudderingly real as it could possibly be to me, especially in the dark moments when the whispers would echo thru my mind. But now they faded; I was clear. It was Christmas, I was healing, and all was once again right with my world. End of story, yes?

Hm. I wonder what's wrong with the Jeep?

Hm. I wonder what's wrong with the Jeep?

Cut to the days, weeks and months later, as I promptly fell back into a world of petty fears and worries; will the next check clear? How will I pay that bill this month? When will I get my next show? All the daily BS that we all say will not ever matter again, if we're given that second chance. And yet somehow, once again, that BS ruled my life.

And I felt like I had cheated the lesson - this blessing that was given to me. How could I toss such wisdom over my shoulder so easily? I felt like I had failed. A great big Life-Fail.

But then it dawned on me: At least I was still thinking about it. I wasn't just going through the motions, not entirely. Habit happens. That's human. We move forward, we drop back into our lives, we mostly ignore the rear-view. Habit gets us through our days, our tasks, puts food on our tables, keeps us going. We evolved Habit: It's a survival mechanism. But we have these fantastic, huge squishy brains on the top of our bodies; they do more than run our habits - and they can be changed.

So here's what I've learned: Without practice, any Life Lesson will be lost in the motions of habit - thus the lesson needs to be Minded, over and over. RE-Minded. Forgetting, or getting lost in the motions of the everyday, is to be expected. It's not failure. It's life.

The challenge then, is cutting through habit, even momentarily - and ReMINDing. As in, change out your mind: Remove that 'habit brain' and re-mind yourself with the 'smell the roses' brain. Will the habit brain return? Sure it will - we're wired that way. But you can always...

re-MIND yourself.

...and bring a GoPro if possible.

...and bring a GoPro if possible.

It takes practice. It takes looking past fear. It takes getting up and doing something a tiny bit different with your day, every day.

Find a reason. Ask the question:

Will I ever have the opportunity to do this again? Is this Life Stuff?

And then; do it.