Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My Breakfast with Donald


As I mentioned at the end of the post below, I've got myself back on track these days, and recently I took the opportunity to put my newly returned mojo to the test. I've been a fan of "The Apprentice" since it debuted a couple of years ago, and at least once each season I would find myself sitting in my living room and thinking to myself: 'some of these people are idiots...I could be on this show.' And then I would recline back in my Lay-Z-Boy and return to just passively viewing the television. Daydreams were one thing, but the logistics of taking a leave of absence from work and heading up to Manhattan for several weeks always brought a cold dose of reality.

But my free time is a tad bit more flexible these days, so when Donald Trump came on at the conclusion of last week's episode and announced that they were currently casting for next season's show, I decided that I would go for it. I downloaded the application from NBC's website and noticed that they were having an open casting call in NY on Friday. The audtions were going to be held at Trump Tower beginning at 9 a.m.--apparently wrist bands would be distributed to people about one hour before, and they asked that no one appear in line until after 6 a.m. I recalled seeing news reports from the first few seasons of thousands of people lined up around several blocks, so I figured that arriving there early was my only shot.

To get there, I would have to leave my house at three o'clock in the morning to drive to Trenton, take a 3:45 a.m. NJ Transit train to Penn Station, and then take 2 subway lines to make it to Trump Tower in time. I am definitely not a morning person, so rather than risk snoozing right through my alarm, I decided to stay up and chat online until about 2 a.m., and then hopped into the shower and put on my best interview suit. A minor mishap while attempting to walk my dog while drinking a cup of coffee required a quick change into my second-best interview suit, but I still made my train with plenty of time to spare.

The final subway stop put me just about one block away from Trump Tower around 5:45 a.m., and as I walked down Fifth Avenue, I was shocked to see only about 50 people in line ahead of me. I guess that by Season Six, the bloom is off of the rose a little. Either that, or more people just decided to submit their entries by mail, with a 10-minute video of themselves explaining why they should be the next Apprentice. It was apparent that the first ten people in line were die-hard fanatics who had camped out and slept right outside the front entrance overnight. I settled in and started talking with the people in line around me, and pretty soon a steady stream of people started appearing. By 7 a.m., the line stretched around the corner and almost all the way down 56th street.

There was definitely an odd mix of people in line that morning. A good majority were dressed like me, in sober business suits and little portfolios tucked under their arms. But there were also a couple of people eccentrically dressed, hoping to stand out like Danny, that odd guy with the guitar from a couple of seasons ago. Right in front of me was a woman in her late 40's who looked and sounded a little like Bette Midler, and who was holding court in our little section of the line. Apparently she was a veteran of this process, and claimed to have made it to the second round last time, sitting down at a table with Caroline and George. There was a lot of nervous energy in the crowd, and a few people were talking out loud to no one in particular, as if rehearsing their own little stand-up routines. I just passed the minutes in line by leafing through the NY Times and shivering in the cold.

Actually things heated up a little when Yes, and... Corp. faced its first challenge before even getting through the revolving doors. It was about 7:30 a.m., and I was looking over my application one more time to make sure that everything was in order. Completed questionaire...check. Signed release form...check. Current copy of resume...check. Valid U.S. Passport...che--what the f*#&??. I patted down the pockets in my suit jacket and pants several times, and then a cold realization hit me as I pictured my passport nestled safely in the breast pocket of the coffee-stained suit now lying on my bed at home. I confirmed with the Divine Miss M ahead of me in line that you definitely needed proof of citizenship to apply. I could just imagine myself sitting at the boardroom table watching the disapproval fall across George's face while Caroline crossed her arms and shot a question at me through that clenched jaw of hers: "If you can't even submit a properly completed application, how can you possibly hope to become the next Apprentice??"

I cleared my head and focused on the application guidelines again. They stated that a copy of a passport could also be submitted, and I quickly came up with a Plan B. I called home on my cell phone and, miracle of miracles, my son actually woke up and got to the phone before the answering machine clicked on. I directed him to the passport in my bedroom, and then gave him a one-minute tutorial on how to scan an picture using the copy machine in my home office. I explained to him the way to save the image onto the computer, and had him attach the photo to an email which he addressed to my Yahoo account. Once he received confirmation that the message had been sent, I told him to wait by the phone. I asked the people in line to save my spot, and dashed into the lobby to get directions from the security guard. I flagged down a cab and headed several blocks over to a Kinko's on Columbus Circle, where I ran inside and jumped online to access my email. I opened and printed out the attachment, and then hopped back into another cab and was back in line about 15 minutes from when I started, with a fresh black and white copy of my passport now tucked away at the end of my application.

Not ten minutes later, one of the production assistants came outside and escorted the first 50 of us through the lobby. We were taken downstairs to the ground floor of the atrium of Trump Tower, which is set off by a huge indoor waterfall several stories high. It was also right next to an elaborate a la carte breakfast restaurant, which was featured at the beginning of one of the shows from a few weeks ago when the teams were given the task of coming up with a commercial for a new brand of Grape Nuts cereal. Most of the people in line kept focusing on their portfolios, but with my hunger kicked into high gear from my little jaunt across midtown Manhattan, I grabbed a little something to eat. (FYI--I give the chocolate chip muffins 3 out of 4 stars.)

Pretty soon a buzz came over the crowd as the first sightings were made of The Donald. He was being trailed by about a half-dozen camera crews and several minions. He turned out to be dressed in the exact same suit and tie that he is wearing in the opening credits of the show, and he is actually much taller than he appears on the screen. His hair is frequently mocked by Letterman and Leno, but honestly it looked perfectly fine that morning. All in all, he really did look like a billion bucks.

Another P.A. from the show came over and grouped everyone into clumps of 8 people. Eventually, each group would be sent over to one of four tables that was presided over by a moderator. Our group's turn came after about 45 minutes, and as we arranged ourselves around the table and handed in our applications, the moderator explained the process. First everyone was to go around the table and state their name, their occupation, and where they went to school. Next, we would be given a topic to debate amongst ourselves. We weren't supposed to try to persuade the person from the show, but rather get our point across to each other.

Trump sauntered over to our table within a few minutes, and then the introductions began. Our table was located right at the base of the large waterfall, so everyone had to shout a little to be heard. People started going around the table, and things were pretty run of the mill until it came to the woman sitting to my right. She was a physician, and had gone to Harvard Medical School. She was also currently getting a Master's degree from Columbia. Trump raised his eyebrows and asked her what she was doing applying for a position like this. She smiled and said with sincerity that she wanted to branch out from just medicine and that she wanted to work for him. He nodded his head and complimented her on her impressive resume. Then came my turn.

I cleared my throat and gave my name and said that I was a trial attorney from Philadelphia who had graduated cum laude in economics from Villanova and received my J.D. from the law school there. Following right on the heels of Dr. Quinn, Ivy-League Medicine Woman, I might as well have said that I was a parking valet with a mail-order high school equivalency diploma. Trump nodded at me as if I had just recited today's specials from the menu, and then shifted his gaze to the person over on my left. I took a little consolation in the fact that he did not follow-up with more questions to anyone else in our group.

The Donald moved off to the next table, and then the moderator gave us our topic for debate: 'Should dating be allowed at the workplace?' Right off the bat, two people piped up. The first was an Indian guy in his early-thirties who started sounding off about how people had to be allowed to express themselves and pursue their desires. An African-American woman in her early twenties chimed in from across the table with a similar point of view. Even though the two of them were pretty much saying the same thing, they began to loudly volley back and forth while the rest of the group attempted to get a word in edgewise. I sat back and took in their main points while the verbal ping-pong match continued.

Personally I think the situation can get complicated at work, but I have no problem with the idea in general. But since most of the people in the group seemed to be advocating that position, I thought it might be a good tactic to weigh in with the opposing point of view just to stand out. I was able to break into the discussion and pointed out that first and foremost, the company had to be concerned with the safety of its employees and its own liability, and that clear workplace guidelines and employee training had to first be established. A couple of people agreed with my points, and I later followed up with the dangers of superiors getting involved with their subordinates. The Indian gentleman picked up steam once again, and started warning about companies limiting personal freedom and becoming Big Brother. I cut him off and said that at the end of the day it was an office not a singles happy hour, and if he wanted to use work to find dates then he should get a job at Match.com. The moderator had been quietly taking all of our comments in, but at that line he broke out laughing and continued to chuckle even when the next person started speaking. I hoped that I had scored points with that one.

After about ten minutes he cut off the discussion, and then he explained that we had to choose a project manager from our group based on their performance during the debate. We began to go counter-clockwise around the table and announce our individual vote and the reasoning behind it. He made it clear that no one could vote for themselves. Most of the people started voting for Mr. Loudmouth, giving the vague explanation that he seemed to be the most vocal. When it came to my turn I voted for the doctor, because she had made a number of valid points in a direct and focused manner. It turned out that she cast her vote for me based on the same reasons. The moderator thanked us all, and then we were done. He explained that they would make their decisions about who to bring back for the second round that day, and that those chosen would receive a call by the end of the afternoon.

I walked back onto Fifth Avenue just before ten o'clock, and then took a stroll down to Times Square. I tried to score some discounted tickets to 'Spamalot' on Broadway, but $300 for a single orchestra seat isn't quite my idea of a bargain. Needing a little energy boost, I went to a Starbucks and got a caramel frappucino, and then still feeling a little fatigued I crossed the street and ordered an expresso at the Starbucks on the opposite corner. I walked through Central Park in my overly caffeinated state for an hour or so, and then made my way back down to Penn Station to begin the return trip to Philadelphia. I forced myself to stay awake once I got home just in case the phone rang, but I'm pretty sure that if they brought back just one person from each table, the physician was the one who would have received the call. After about 36 hours of no sleep, I finally crashed during the most exciting moments of Villanova's come from behind win in the semi-final round of the NCAA tournament.

I'm definitely glad that I took my chance and went up there for the day, if only to say that I actually did it. And I got to meet Trump himself in person. At least now I won't be sitting there wondering 'what if' when I watch the show next season. Who knows, I might even find myself heading up to New York again for another open call someday. Except maybe next time I'll try to pad my resume with an impressive occupation to stand out a little from the rest of the group. Maybe something like: 'Chief Justice.'

And if that doesn't work out, there's always "Survivor"...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

"You do not have the right..."

"...to use this art form to feel inferior."
Martin de Maat (1949-2001)
I haven't been myself recently. For the past several weeks, I had allowed my ongoing job search to affect other things like my daily responsibilities, personal relationships, and yes, even blogging. As I started to search around for a little inspiration to snap out of it, I thought back to the final day of my Level 1 improv class at The Second City NY Training Center, where I was lucky to have been taught by a wonderful teacher just several weeks before he passed away.
Martin de Maat literally grew up around the original Second City theater in Chicago. He began when he was 9 years old, studying with his aunt Josephine Forsberg, one of the founding instructors in improvisation for the theater. As a teenager, he worked there as a dishwasher, and eventually went on to become the Artistic Director for all of the Training Centers. In many ways he was the heart of The Second City, influencing thousands of young improvisors including Chris Farley, Tina Fey, John Favreau, and Sean Hayes (from "Will & Grace"). He later moved to NY and joined the faculty at Columbia University.
I had enrolled in the Level 1 improv class more or less on a whim. I had seen a show at The Second City's main stage on a business trip to Chicago, and was caught up in the creativity and sense of fun the performers seemed to be having onstage. The training program was divided into six levels, each level consisting of a series of three-hour classes every Saturday for 8 weeks. For me, it involved getting up at 7 a.m., driving 45 minutes to Trenton, taking the NJ Transit train into Manhattan, and hopping onto the subway to reach my class in Greenwich Village--all in all it was a three-hour commute that would have to be repeated later in the day for the return trip to Philadelphia.
All of the other fifteen or so students in my Level 1 class were actors trying to scratch out a living as waiters, hostesses, and office temps while they went around the city to one endless audition after another, hoping to catch their big break. Our instructor was Chris, who had graduated from the main Training Center in Chicago and who was getting his Masters degree in theater. Technically, the entire Level 1 coursework was designed to have the students focus on non-verbal techniques to establish a scene, the idea being that many first-time improvisors tend to fall back on jokes and punch lines as a crutch to fill the silence, ignoring their partners just to go for a cheap laugh. Chris noted the progress that our group had made early on, and after swearing us to secrecy that we wouldn't blab to the other Level 1 classes, he began to have us improvise full scenes with dialogue.
Our classroom was a small rehearsal space in an old building with bare wood floors, dingy white walls with no windows, and a long mirror that stretched across the entire front wall. The only furniture was about twenty plain wooden chairs scattered around the room. In improv, there are no props or set pieces or costumes to hide behind. It is just you and your scene partner out there on stage, establishing whatever reality the two of you eventually discover by working together. The bare nature of the space allowed us to feel free to begin our scene anywhere from a corporate boardroom or a London pub to a brothel in the Old West. Chris would explain one of the advanced techniques for establishing and building an improv scene, and then he'd ask for volunteers to come up in groups of two and three to try them out. We would all be lined up along the back wall as he explained a particular idea, then he would call out "Give me two people up front." It was up to each individual to step out from the wall and put themselves out there in front of the rest of the class. The first two people to reach the center of the room would be the ones to begin the scene.
At the beginning of an improvised scene, neither person should have any pre-conceived idea about where the scene will be set or what the nature of the relationship is between the two characters. No dialogue, no plot--just two people working together to come up with a scene in the moment. I was always eager to step out quickly from the line whenever Chris would ask for volunteers, but especially in that first semester those moments as I moved towards the front of the room were often intense. To me it felt like standing at the edge of a high dive platform, willing yourself to take a leap out towards an empty pool below. You just had to have faith that you and your scene partner would be able create something together to fill the up pool before you hit the bottom.
I enjoyed my time spent in class, and loved being around my other classmates. As I got to know them all better, I really admired their willlingness to sacrifice and do whatever it took to pursue acting as a profession. I felt a little like an imposter sometimes, having a steady, good-paying job and just taking these classes as a fun hobby. As the end of the first level drew to a close, I began to question whether I should enroll in the upcoming Level 2 class, or just chalk the experience up to a one-time thing. My attitude changed on the last day of the semester, when Chris asked his former teacher Martin de Maat to sit in on our final class.
Martin just radiated genuine warmth and acceptance. He had us run through some improv exercises, and gave nothing but support and encouragement throughout the day. He took the time to make at least one positive comment to each of us individually after we would finish a particular scene. He was like a motivational speaker, coach, and favorite uncle all rolled up into one. The room was filled with an incredible spirit of trust and positive energy for the entire three hours.
He pulled a chair into the center of the room and sat down facing us during the last 10 minutes of class. He was battling the final stages of pneumonia at this point, and it had taken great effort for him to come out in the harsh winter weather to be with us that day. He began to speak in a quiet voice barely above a whisper, and you could see the physical difficulty he was having as he paused to draw each breath. I found myself leaning forward in my seat to be able to catch every word. We had expected him to end on a happy note, with more laughter and warm advice. Instead, a serious expression came over his face, and he looked straight at each of us as he said the quote that forms the title of this post:
"You do not have the right to use this art form to feel inferior."
We were all taken aback a little at first by the change in tone, wondering where this was coming from. He went on to tell us that we were each unique, and that it was important for us to accept ourselves and trust in the moment and the people around us. We needed to find the courage to say that we were each worthy to be here and to get behind our own dreams. We should take joy in our failures, and not waste time being judgmental of ourselves and others. If we put ourselves in a place of support and unconditional acceptance and love of who we were, we could only grow. It started to become clear that he was talking not just about improvisation, but how we should strive to live every single day as well. He said that ultimately, it was up to us to get behind our own goals and take action for them. His voice took on a heartfelt tone as he ended with his final words:
"I do not give you permission to fail--
I'm giving you permission to follow your dreams."
I imagine that as words on a screen, that all might sound contrived and a little like New Age doubletalk, but coming from Martin as he struggled to find the breath to say those words with complete sincerity, we couldn't help but feel empowered. He got up and wrapped each one of us in a hug, and thanked us for allowing him to be a part of our class. We should have been the ones thanking him. His words had been exactly what I needed to hear at that moment, and on the train ride home I decided that on Monday I would pick up the phone and enroll in the Level 2 classes. Which eventually lead to my signing up for the rest of the levels and culminated in a final class performance that turned out to be one of my most enjoyable nights ever onstage. My enthusiasm was soon matched by sorrow just a few weeks after the end of that first semester when the Training Center sent out an email that said Martin had passed away from complications from pneumonia, with his sister by his side at the hospital for his final moments. I took the day off of work and went up to NY for his memorial service, so grateful that I had the chance to learn from him just before he was gone.
I thought back to that day in the classroom as I took a moment to look at things recently. I had allowed outside events to get in the way of what was truly important. I realized that I needed to start taking action on my own again. I've already changed my approach to this job search and obviously I've begun to blog again. And earlier this week I went and booked a flight to Chicago and enrolled in some workshops during the 9th Annual Chicago Improv Festival at the end of April. I'm going out there not because I'm planning on rejoining a local improv group or because it might translate into skills that I could use in the courtroom, but because I wanted to experience that feeling of freedom and fulfillment from challenging myself to look within and create something out of nothing.
I just decided that it was about time for me to move away from the back wall and take a step forward again.

Friday, March 17, 2006

harmony

More than just being St. Patrick's Day, March 17th is important because it happens to be the birthday of someone who has meant alot to me. Someone who I met back in the late 90's and had an off-and-on relationship with over several years. Someone who I came to feel closer to in some ways than anyone before, or since. Yet someone who I also kept distant time and again when I foolishly placed misguided expectations above genuine emotion. Someone who I came to love, yet never told in person when I had the chance.

Heather and I met online when she sent a blind response to my profile on Love@AOL. She had sent a short note with a brief description of herself, and had attached a large group photo of her alongside of twenty other volunteers for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. She was the one with red hair and a blue suit over on the right hand side of the picture--except that there were actually a few women who fit that description. I remember moving closer to the computer screen and scanning the photo for other details, hoping that she was the girl that my eyes kept getting drawn towards. When I saw her in person a week or so later, that was exactly who she turned out to be.
We met for the first time at a restaurant in Manayunk, and later moved to another bar with music. As the place became more crowded we began to naturally move closer to one another while we talked. The attraction was immediate and powerful, and before long we were kissing just off of the dance floor, pressed up against one of the large speakers that was pumping the room full of music. We later wound up in my car in a secluded area of the parking lot, and took things a little, but not all the way, further.
We saw each other again the next week, and it was at the end of that second date where we went back to her place and had sex for the first time. From the start there was an intense sexual chemistry between us, and it only grew over time. I had never had such an intimate relationship with anyone else--I felt completely free to share my deepest desires with her, and she knew that she could trust me to do the same. At the time I didn't realize how unique that kind of bond truly was.
I've been stuck on this next paragraph for awhile trying to describe the nature that our relationship eventually took--it wasn't a traditional boyfriend/girlfriend thing, but it was much more than just physical desire. We would have a few weeks of intense nights together, followed by months of silence and separation. But sooner or later one of the two of us would not be able to resist the urge to reach out to the other, and then the pattern would repeat itself.
The truth is that the main reason why we never moved closer together as a couple is because I kept holding back emotionally. I was clinging to some idealized image of a perfect relationship--and while I was definitely feeling drawn to Heather I never let her know that while we were together. One night, while we were in the middle of having sex, she looked up at me and said "I love you." I knew in my heart that I loved her too, but before I could tell her the words caught in my throat. My mind was holding my feelings back, not willing to risk the consequence of where that next step might lead. I think I said something lame like I loved how it felt when I was inside of her. The moment passed and neither one of us mentioned it again that night. Looking back on it now, I know how open and vulnerable she must have felt to share that with me in that moment, and I am ashamed at myself for holding back my true feelings from her.
Once during our time together Heather had arranged for us to go see the musical "Rent". The show was incredible-- the songs filled with energy, passion, heartbreak, and hope; the voices moving against each other in counterpoint and then coming together in harmony.

For me, one song in particular now resonates a little more deeply than the others:
There's only now,
there's only here.
Give in to love
or live in fear.
We had a series of on-again/off-again moments, but eventually I got involved with someone else in a relationship that was closer to the image that I had formed in my head. It turns out that I need more than the house with the white picket fence and the 'Father Knows Best' relationship like I had seen growing up with my parents. With the perspective of time, I realize that they needed more than that themselves. I haven't written much about this side of my personality yet on this blog, but I am a very sexual person and I've come to find that I need to be with someone who is open and comfortable with their body and able to express what they want to be completely fulfilled in a relationship. I had learned too late that finding someone who you can share your most intimate self with, and who is willing to risk sharing themselves fully with you, is truly a rare thing and should never be taken for granted.
There's only us,
there's only this.
Forgret regret
or life is yours to miss.
Heather eventually moved out west, and there was a time when it seemed like we might never speak again. Even though we had become separated by time and distance, she was never too far from my thoughts. About a year ago I felt that I should try to get in touch because I didn't want her to go on never knowing how I had truly felt. I looked up her number and left a message. She called back a day or so later, surprised to hear from me and a little curious as to why I was contacting her now. I explained what had been running through my head, and I let her know that I had cared for her more deeply than I had let on, and that I regretted not telling her that while we were together. I told her how much I appreciated everything she had done for me and apologized for not being there more for her when I had the chance. She was understandably at a loss for words at first, but by the end of the conversation she said how much it meant for her to hear that from me, and that she was glad that I had called.

We've kept in touch over the phone since then--calling each other up across two time zones every couple of months to catch up on our lives. She was the first person that I told about this blog, and a few weeks ago she called with a question that I hoped she might ask. Back in my first few weeks of blogging, I had filled out a meme to provide some insight into parts of my background. One of the questions was "Ever fallen in love with someone that you met online?" She asked who I was thinking of when I wrote my answer: "once."
I told her that it was her.
We may not have found the right melody until after it was too late, but I am glad she knows that within me, my heart was keeping time all along.
No other life,
no other way.
No day
but today.