Maybe This Will Help …

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Early on in the life of this blog, I started a feature that I called Friday Fiction. The idea was that once a week, I would create a short story to share with you, my readers. That lasted all of three episodes before I ran into a fierce and unrelenting case of writer’s block which has persisted to this day.

Recognizing that I was suffering from this affliction, I found a Kickstarter project called the Writer’s Block Tarot. It intrigued me and, after reading the description of what the project would be like, I was sold and put my name in the book, quite literally.

The package that I ordered consisted of a tarot deck themed to writing rather than readings, as well as a pack of nine genre cards and a book to explain everything. I’ve been waiting patiently for it to arrive, which it said it would do in April.

I picked up the package from the mailbox yesterday.

The deck was created by Vivian Caethe and illustrated by Amber Peter. The cards are very lovely, photographic pieces of art in and of themselves. Just like a regular tarot deck, there are 22 Major Arcana cards and 56 Minor Arcana cards, split into ten pip cards and four court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page) in each of four suits (Keys, Pens, Pages, and Clocks). As the companion manual explains:

“In the Writer’s Block Tarot, the Major Arcana cards represent larger aspects of the plot and characters that the protagonist(s) experience as they go through the story. The Minor Arcana represent the detailed aspects around them that can influence the plot, both conceptually and directly.”

Just like with a regular tarot deck, cards change their meaning depending on whether they’re dealt right side up or upside down. Again, quoting the companion manual:

“A right side up card’s meaning is intended to convey the “loyal” meaning of the card (how it is represented in the spread in relationship to the other cards) versus the upside down or “disloyal” meaning of the card. This is similar to the concept of the synonym and antonym of a word. Loyalty and disloyalty in this case refer to the innate meaning of the card and how well it is conveyed in the situation in which it is placed.”

As an example of one type of card, card 10 from the Major Arcana is the Try/Fail Cycle. “This concept contains all the attempts the character makes to reach the end of the conflict, and their results.” The other type of card, for example, is The Eight of Pens from the Minor Arcana, which deals with Rage. “What enrages [the character]? What makes them so angry that they can barely speak? How do they present this anger?” (These quotes are exemplary and not the full description of each card in the companion manual, which goes into far greater detail for each card.)

Just as with most tarot decks with companion manuals, several spreads are included, and the writer is encouraged to do a spread for every major character in the piece. The writer is also encouraged to either use the deck as the manual suggests or use it in a manner which works for the individual – there is no right or wrong way to use this tool as a means to jumpstart a story.

I’m going to use the deck to write a short story this Friday to try to resurrect the Friday Fiction feature of this blog, and then on Saturday will write about my experiences using the deck. Here’s hoping everything works out according to plan.

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Anniversary Splurge

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So last night, we did one of the things that we promised ourselves that we were going to do with the tax refund – splurge on a nice dinner for the anniversary of the day we met. (See yesterday’s post for more on that story.)

After much debate, we decided to go to Estancia Churrascaria, a Brazilian steakhouse here in town. Dinner here is a little different. Meals are all-you-can-eat. Side dishes are brought to the table family style. Main dishes are brought throughout the restaurant on saber-like skewers, where they ask if you want what’s being offered on that skewer. If you say yes, then a portion of the meat being offered is either slid off the skewer onto your plate using a knife, or carved off the skewer where you, as the guest, use provided tongs to grab the carving off the skewer and place it onto your plate. There are 16 main dishes to try (the menu is here, for those interested) and we got in on the majority of what was being offered.

In addition to the polenta, potatoes, plantains, and fried bread that came to the table as side dishes, there was a cold cuts plate that offered prosciutto, salami, smoked salmon, and fresh mozzarella balls. We were served picanha, a cut of sirloin seasoned with either sea salt or garlic (we got both varieties); filet mignon wrapped in bacon (there was a version that was not bacon wrapped that we didn’t get); ribeye; Brazilian grilled shrimp; cordiero, a carving of leg of lamb; cordiero chops, lamb chops on the bone; lombo de porco, a pork tenderloin served with parmesan; linguica, a savory pork sausage link; frango, which was chicken breast wrapped in bacon; and costela de porco, or pork ribs. Everything was juicy, cooked to perfection, and needed absolutely no sauces or seasonings other than what was done in the kitchen. All totaled, we missed only five of the 16 cuts of meat from their menu, but we were delightfully full at that point.

The table next to us had two birthdays that they were celebrating, so we wished them happy birthday and took their recommendation on the crème brûlée for dessert. We split one, since my wife was getting full and I didn’t have any business with a full dessert of my own, and we got a couple cups of decaf coffee. Somewhere in passing during the meal we mentioned to our waiter that were were celebrating an anniversary, and after that point almost everyone that came to the table wished us happy anniversary. The crème brûlée arrived at the table just as you see it pictured above, personalized for our special occasion. It was absolutely divine and the coffee was an excellent compliment to the dessert.

We got our tab and noticed that they comped the dessert, along with a little note on the receipt saying “happy anniversary.” After we paid out, we made our way out with several of the staff wishing us a good night and a happy anniversary along the way.

It was pricey, but was exactly what the doctor ordered. It’d been so long since we’ve been able to do anything special for one another to celebrate a special occasion and we were figuratively starving for the experience. It was a beautiful ending to a very special day with the most special person in my life.

Yesterday was a good day.

Seventeen Years Ago …

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Today is a special day. Seventeen years ago today I met these two girls. One of them took an immediate fancy to me, and the feeling was mutual. The other was her friend, and I thought she was nice. Before the weekend was over I had both of their numbers, each for a different reason.

The mutual attraction wound up being a fling, but the friend and I started hitting it off as she was going through a rough spot in her marriage, and making the decision to end it. Since I didn’t know him, I offered her an objective ear while she vented about the troubles she was having. It wasn’t long before we were on the phone talking for hours at a time. We lived three hours away from one another, so there wasn’t much of an opportunity for face to face time over coffee, but we did talk about pretty much everything. Before we knew it, there was a mutual attraction growing there as well. Her divorce went through, and eventually we made the decision to try dating, and that led to a months-long series of three hour trips between towns on the weekends. That in turn led to us moving in together.

She was always very clear that she didn’t want to get married again, but eventually she changed her mind on that. I asked her to marry me in front of 400 people and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today is the seventeenth anniversary of the day I met the woman that would become my wife. It’s been a bumpy road in places, but I cannot imagine spending the last seventeen years of my life – and all the rest to come – without her by my side.

I love you dearly, Stacy, more than there are stars – and until they all go out.

Fortunes and Their Real-Life Applications

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I have a fortune cookie fortune on my laptop to remind me of something that I need to hear now and again.

“Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.”

I remember when I was younger, I wanted to be someone, anyone, other than the person that I was. I hated myself, and I couldn’t think of anything more unsatisfying, more boring, more unlikable than me. So I used to daydream about being anyone else. Sometimes it was a superhero – wouldn’t it be neat if I had powers? Sometimes it was a celebrity – who wouldn’t want a fan base? Sometimes it was someone with an interesting profession – I think we’ve all daydreamed about being something like an astronaut. Sometimes it was just some random person who had what I thought was a better life than me. When I would sing along to songs that I liked, I would always try to get my voice to match the singer’s. I never sang in my own voice, because I didn’t think anyone would want to hear it.

When I experienced the breakup of my first really serious relationship, I found myself looking for a whole new friend base, since I was basically starting over socially. (Long story, for another time, perhaps.) I decided to try my hand at improv comedy with a troupe in town, and so I entered their training program. Improv is hard, and I never made it to the performing troupe. However, while I was training one of my trainers told me that he was looking for people to come audition for a musical he was directing a few towns over. I figured sure, I’d go support the guy, especially since he said he was shy on male auditions. I figured I would join the chorus, fake my way through singing, and no one would ever hear from me again. Turns out that I was cast in a supporting role, with one song that I would be singing lead on. I was very nervous, but there was a voice coach who was there to help us hone our voices, so I’d have some training and hopefully wouldn’t suck.

We were a month into rehearsals. I’d already memorized my lines and my one song, when the director came to me with a problem. One of the other members of the cast had skipped too many rehearsals for them to feel comfortable with continuing with him in the role, and I was asked to step in and take his place. My desire to please people won out over my complete fear of my own voice and I said yes. The new role was the second male lead, who led most of the full cast songs and had a couple of duets, plus a few solo songs as well. I was terrified but was determined to make the most of it.

Time went on and the director and choral director really worked hard with me to refine my lines and my voice in time. I’d invited my parents to rehearsals – I was 23 at the time – but they said that they wanted to hold out for opening night. Rehearsals eventually moved from the little log cabin that the theater usually performed at to the local college’s main auditorium, which held just shy of 1100 people at full capacity. We started into dress rehearsals, and that’s when I got my first case of pink eye (the men started out sharing makeup until the infection hit several of the men in the cast, after which we were instructed to purchase our own makeup for our own personal use). At some point in the process the choral director got laryngitis and had to direct us by using a metal clicker for the better part of a week. In the movie Shakespeare in Love Geoffrey Rush’s character Philip Henslowe is often presented with a situation of great adversity, and somehow always gets asked how everything is going to work out in time for the opening. His response, which is something of a running gag in the movie, is always “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” Speaking from my experience, that’s pretty much par for the course in theater.

Things managed to mysteriously work themselves out by opening night, and my parents were seated in the half-full auditorium when the opening number started. Each of the major characters had at least a solo verse in the song, and usually would come from offstage to center stage, sing their bit, and then head offstage again, as if they were passing through the townspeople. Mine was about halfway through the song, and when I started singing it was apparent that my voice had been very well trained indeed. I was considerably louder than the rest of the cast that had proceeded me, and my father – who didn’t really believe I could sing – responded with the best critique I got in the entire run of the musical: “Well, I’ll be a sonofabitch.” I was using my own singing voice, although I was affecting a deep Southern accent, but it was clear, it was strong, and it was good.

We finished the run and I went back to concentrating on becoming an improv comedian. I was over at the director’s place one afternoon playing games when he got a call. A few minutes later, he passed the phone over to me. I was mystified. Why would someone calling him want to talk to me? It turned out to be the head of the theater, and he wanted to tell me that my performance had been nominated for Best Actor for the theater’s season. I was beside myself – I couldn’t believe that my performance was good enough to be considered for such an honor. I excitedly called Mom and Dad to tell them the news and together, we made plans to attend the awards ceremony.

The night of the ceremony came and they eventually got to my category. I was prepared to cheer on the winner as he went to the stage to accept his award. They read the nominees’ names and I think I blushed when they got to me. They opened the envelope … and read my name.

I was completely stunned. I didn’t even know what to do. Fortunately the ceremony was laid back enough for them to skip acceptance speeches, because I wouldn’t have had a clue what to say. (I imagine it would have gone the way young Anna Paquin’s Oscar acceptance speech went, which was – in its entirety – “I’d like … to thank … the Academy” before hurriedly rushing off stage.) I returned to my seat with my award in hand, something that I still proudly display to this day.

And that is the story of how I became an award-winning actor.

There’s a little side note to this. Theaters that present Tony-eligible productions must seat at least 500 people. Were the performance in Manhattan, in the same auditorium, it would have made the cut for the Tonys.

But this story is about that fortune I quoted at the top of the post. That experience at the theater is when I learned for the first time that being a first rate version of myself is usually much more rewarding than trying to be a second rate version of someone else. From that day forward whenever I sang in the car along with the radio or the tape deck or CD player, I sang in my own voice. I eventually started doing karaoke, and while I was doing that my performances were usually very well received.

It hasn’t always worked for me – sometimes I persisted in trying to be someone else, but eventually the daydreams about being someone else stopped. To be fair, to this day I still occasionally let my mind wander off to me being in a different life circumstance – holding a different job than I’ve held in the past, suddenly coming into money, that sort of thing – but it’s always ME at the center of that, not me trying to be anyone else.

And honestly, throughout all the trials and tribulations and troubles that my mental illnesses have given me, I’m pretty okay with being myself these days. I wish my circumstances were slightly different, but I’m working on changing them, slowly but surely. One of these days those circumstances will come to fruition, and my life will be improved by them. Until then, I’m fairly content being who I am – a first rate version of myself, rather than a second rate version of someone else.

The Vet Visit

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This morning my wife and I woke up earlier than usual, but later than planned, and scrambled to get ready, make coffee, and get the cat into her carrier (much more of a fight than usual this time around) in order to take my wife to work and the cat to the vet.

The cat’s been experiencing weeping and discharge from both eyes, and she’s been rubbing at her right one especially often, so between a sick kitty and being overdue for her annual checkup, it was time to get her in.

I got to the vet about a half-hour early, and they got me in a room almost immediately, but not before a lovely little tabby named Sebastian hopped up on the bench I was seated at, got scritches, then flopped against my leg so I could pet his belly. Our vet has a good number of office cats and they’re all super affectionate. Most of them have chronic illnesses of some kind, or are just there temporarily looking for a home. Sebastian is a delightful little kitty and I have a new buddy at the vet’s office.

They took inventory of what we needed to do – annual checkup, rabies shot, look after the eyes, mild sedation, and a nail trimming, which our vet does free of charge during the week as an alternative to declawing, which they refuse to do (and rightfully so). I was back out in the lobby with Sebastian while waiting for them to give our cat the once over in the back. Within about fifteen minutes we got word on what was going on – our poor little kitty has an eye infection going in both eyes, so we were sent home with eye drops, and dental treats to help with the very mild case of tartar that she’s got going. They gave her her first dose of drops at the vet, with instructions to do the drops three times daily until otherwise instructed.

I got her home, relaxed for a few hours, then went to pick up my wife at work for lunch. It took both of us some five minutes to finally get the second dose of drops in her eyes, so that’s going to be a chore that we’re going to have to figure our way around for the next few days.

As far as how I handled the change in scheduling and the general adulting of the day, I did fairly well. I was nervous about the vet visit, but handled it pretty well – better than the cat did, to be honest. This is more assertiveness that my therapist wants me to exercise, and I was glad for the opportunity, even though I wasn’t looking forward to the trip, nor did I like the reason for it.

Right now our cat is passed out smooth in the bed that we’ve put between us on the couch, so in her eyes all is forgiven and forgotten – at least, that is, until time for the next dose of drops.

Another Sleepless Night

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I went to bed around midnight, read until about 1 am, then tossed and turned until about 3. I got up and opened the computer for a few minutes, not really doing much of anything, until I got sleepy around 4 and went to lie back down. I finally drifted off about 4:30 or so. I woke up around 10:30 or so to get on the heating pad, and dozed back off for another couple hours, finally waking up for good around 12:30.

I don’t think that it was the new mask that was doing this to me – it felt more natural than the old mask did and it was much quieter than it was in the fitting. Maybe I was just excited to have the thing, I don’t know. All I know is that I just could not shut my brain down.

I hate nights like that. They throw me off for the whole of the next day, and I can’t really afford to be thrown off that much today, since it’s a show day and I have a deadline to be on the air with a programmed show. Fortunately, I’m somewhat ahead of schedule with my daily checklist, so there’s that. There’s just not going to be that much time that I can devote to leisure and socializing outside of my interactions with my audience during the show. My wife and I are up at 6:30 am tomorrow morning to get the cat to the vet. She’s got a problem with discharge coming from her eyes, plus she’s way overdue for her annual checkup. It’s going to be an early night tonight.

Strangely enough, I feel fairly confident that I can handle the changes in the schedule (my wife’s work schedule is changing for the day to accommodate the vet visit) – that is, assuming there’s coffee in the morning. Not sure I would have been able to handle the change this easily even three months ago. So … progress?

Here’s hoping the rest of the day goes smoothly.

A Repeating Theme

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I went to go see my therapist today.

We had a good session, talked about the streak of full marks on my checklist (today will be day 37, incidentally), and discussed one of the books that I’m reading, The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD. The exercises at the end of the second chapter had me identify factors that might be helping to maintain my particular brands of anxiety, rank them from greatest to least influential to my life, and then identify the three of those that I wanted to seriously work on over the next month. I identified avoidance of phobic situations, lack of assertiveness, and lack of meaning or sense of purpose.

The first one is easy enough: Get out in public more, since I’m more or less agoraphobic. That means trips out to coffee shops, trips to visit with friends, trips to the grocery store, pretty much anything that will get me out of the house. The lack of assertiveness is something that I’ll be working on with my wife, since a lot of times she tends to just do things, like driving, because I’ve let her for so long. The third is going to be a little more difficult.

My therapist has recommended that I find someplace to volunteer for some time now, and there’s always been something that’s prevented it – fear of the unknown, juggling schedules with one vehicle, you name it, it’s come up. Today we once again discussed my need to volunteer with an organization that does work that I believe in. I initially offered my future career as my sense of purpose, but she argued successfully that it lacks a “why” element to it, beyond “it pays the bills.” She wanted me to find something that I’m passionate about and commit to spending time with that. I offered the SCA, but while I’m passionate about it, it lacks the direction of volunteering with a nonprofit, something that is a passion of mine in its own right. So after some going back and forth, we decided that I would get in touch with the local chapter of the ACLU and donate some time to them.

Today I got so far as to find the volunteer signup webpage, but haven’t filled it out. I’ll be leaving that for tomorrow.