Mastery: Day 1 -- A New Journey

It's almost 3 AM, and I've been out of bed since 7:45 this morning. Almost exactly 24 hours ago, I awoke after falling asleep around 10. I felt far more energy than I would normally have after a few hours of sleep. There was something buzzing, something awakened in me, and I mean spiritually awakened, not just physically so.

I've been on a kind of journey for the past 14 months. After 10 years at a cushy corporate job, "the CCJ," I left at the end of 2014 to pursue a living where I had previously only had a hobby: as a professional enthusiast, by way of social media.

I didn't think of it that way at the time; I was going to be a social media consultant, but hadn't thought about why I was qualified for that job. It took me over a year to realize that my prowess in social media was based on previous success as a radio professional, and my success in radio was based largely on an innate talent for contagious enthusiasm. When I like something, I'm able to communicate that passion in a way that draws other people in at high volumes. My experience as a successful enthusiast ranges from being a sports talk radio host in San Francisco, to an a cappella disc jockey in Seattle, a spokesperson for Dove hair products to a social media phenomenon focused on the intersection between fan culture and the business of Broadway.

My driving force has become clear, but I spent much of the 14 months post-CCJ feeling paralyzed. I wasn't sure what path to go down, or even what such a path would look like, toward making this a job. I often felt as if I was blazing a trail into a wood that grew darker and more tangled with every step. I never doubted my decision to leave the CCJ, but I felt unsure regularly whether I ever find my way to a clearing. I spent much of my time grappling with the concept of monetization. I struggled in the throes of the imposter syndrome. Even when I knew I deserved to be paid, I often shied away from advocating for myself financially, shackled to a deep-seated suspicion that those around me were perpetually one annoyance away from banishing me from their lives.

Every day, it seems, I found new reasons and new methods for procrastination. Even when I had ideas that would capitalize on my skill, I regularly made excuses to avoid following through. Fear of failure is a crippling bitch.

I've had bouts of inspiration. I've had stretches of productivity. I've made enough money with relevant freelance gigs to keep from reentering a stifling workplace. It hasn't all been excuses. The motivation never stuck, though, and "knowing" that would be the case is probably the reason for its own manifestation.

This morning when I woke up at 3 AM -– now nearly 25 hours ago -– somehow I felt all of the motivation, none of the fear, zero worry that the feeling would subside, and a distinct thrill at the notion that I could capitalize on the experience of awakening, even if it were to eventually (short or long term) go away.

Normally, I would have tossed and turned, trying to get back to sleep. This time, I made an investment. I'd heard of a book, several times, from people I respect and admire. It's called Mindset. A podcaster of whom I've become fond recently had called it the most important book in the English language. He credited it with his transformation from essentially an angry money-grubber to a fulfilled and generous businessman and philanthropist. 

The book cost $13 on Amazon. I've been using my financial instability as an excuse not to make purchases that will help me grow. In this moment, it was crystal clear that my logic had been utter bullshit. How often is anyone given the opportunity for profound life change at only US$13? 

Still in bed, iPhone light on low, I logged into my Amazon account and ordered the book to be delivered on Monday. I was immediately struck by a surge of accomplishment. I hadn't done a single thing beyond completing an online transaction, but this was no buyers high. I understood that this purchase represented a major change in my life. 

This was day one, and I had gotten an early start.

I'm So Happy I got Hurt at the Gym: How an Injury Taught Me to Slow Down & Learn

I wrote this letter to the proprietor of my gym in November 2015, and invited him to share it with his staff. I didn't intend to publish it, but have been urged to do so after sending it privately to several other workout fiends who are struggling after acute or long-term injuries.

The slower I move, the more I learn. 

This is a lesson I treasure, and I came to it through an unlikely source of pride: an injury.

About a month ago, I tweaked my back swinging a kettle bell. I was devastated. My form had been correct; I was focused; the weight and shape of the bell were familiar; I’d even had a smile on my face as I started the movement. Yet something went wrong. When the spasm ripped through me mid-swing, my lower-back pain was secondary; it was shame that hurt the most. I had failed at something I thought I had down pat. My body had betrayed me. 

I dropped the bell. When I realized that “walking it off” wasn’t going to work this time, I crumbled to my knees. 

It was an old injury that I’d aggravated. I was about to celebrate the 5-year anniversary of a surgery that removed a piece of broken disc from crushing my sciatic nerve. I’d spent the years since then in a complicated relationship with fitness & strength, struggling to re-attain my dedication to the gym as well as the slim figure I’d rocked before the pain restricted my movement. After years, I had finally found a community that brought me strength emotionally and physically; I’d lost weight and gained strength superior to anything I’d known before or after the surgery. I was finally back on the right track, and now… this.

Michael, who was teaching the kettle bell class, along with my classmates and the gym management, could not have done a better job of taking care of me. Right away, Michael was at my side, giving me his full attention. He guided me into a breathing stretch, and gently rubbed my back as I began to cry. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he told me, and obligingly repeated it when I shook my head in disbelief.

Everyone in the clubhouse was generous. They gave me space to cry and feel, while radiating concern and care in my direction at all times. Alison from the front desk lovingly approached with a bottle of water and an ice pack. A classmate brought me tissues so I could stop dabbing my tears with a rough terrycloth towel. And between every set, Michael stood nearby in case I needed anything from him.

After I got to my feet and dressed to head toward home (where I expected to lie on my back for the next several days), Ali reminded me that my strength was not lost; in fact, it would facilitate healing. I smiled and nodded, even though I didn’t really believe her. I walked the mile back to my apartment, feeling ripples of discomfort with every step.

I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you to learn that Ali was right. Over the next week, I moved gingerly, but probably more so than I had to. I could feel my body taking care of itself; the core muscles I’d developed acted as a framework, a sort of cage that held everything in place — the way one might squeeze pieces of a broken object together while the superglue sets. Right away, I could tell I was healing more efficiently than I ever have before.

My decision to come straight back to class was easy, even though I knew I’d have to opt out of a lot of the exercises for a while. I had a deep sense that my healing would be expedited by the energy & support of the community. So, it was only a week before I returned to Michael’s class. 

Knowing I’d be working with a limited curriculum, I took a mat in the corner of the room. To my delight, everyone was excited to see me. I got hugs from staff members and classmates alike. Michael seemed to welcome the chance to help me develop custom movements that felt right. Best of all, I had regained trust in my body to take care of itself.

The first class back was all about experimentation. While the rest of the class did deadlifts, I slowly mimed the movement with no bell. When they did bear crawls, I stayed standing and tried out a cross-crawl. During pushups, I did an 10-second plank on my knees. 

I was gentle with myself, and I made sure to be in tune with my body. Absolutely nothing was by rote. Every movement, be it attempting to pick up the smallest kettle bell or simply reaching up to adjust my ponytail, was deliberate. In fact, I discovered that many simple actions I had always taken for granted — a hinge, for example — were actually made up of a myriad of micro-movements, and I was suddenly aware of all of them. I imagined myself as one of those musculature models in a physical therapist’s office, and in my mind’s eye I could see the muscle groups lighting up as I activated them with the slightest change in posture. This awareness of my own anatomy was a revelation.

It’s been about a month since that day, and I’m back on my schedule of two-to-three classes a week. Each time I enter the gym, I add a little more weight to my exercises; but I have not sped up my motion. On the contrary, I challenge myself to go more slowly every week than I did the week before. While I used to count out my reps, trying to beat a personal push-up record or squeeze in a couple of extra rows before the set was done, now I exult in, for example, achieving only two split-squats per side in the allocated time. Class is now both an ass-kicker and a meditation, and I leave feeling mentally refreshed while my muscles glow with achievement.

The slower I move, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I appreciate what my body can do. The more I appreciate my body’s abilities, the more I appreciate the scope of what I can achieve in every other area of my life. The more I believe in myself, the more I risks I take, and the faster I bounce back when they don’t pan out; I celebrate my efforts and find more successes. I am thriving.

I am so grateful to this injury for teaching me the truth of my own strength.

7 Steps to Nailing it When You Meet Your Favorite Star

Laura with Leslie Odom Jr and Christian Borle

Laura with Leslie Odom Jr and Christian Borle

It could happen when you least expect it: turn a corner or walk into a room and there is your favorite celebrity — not on a stage or screen, but right in front of you, in the flesh. You’ve always wanted to meet this person! Your friends will be so impressed! This might be the only chance you ever get! You absolutely, 100% can’t blow it!!!

So what do you do? How can you make sure to have a great experience that will also leave the celebrity in question feeling positive about the interaction?

You’ve come to the right place! Between 7 years as @BroadwayGirlNYC, on top of almost 15 working in radio, I’ve met hundreds of celebrities: from actors to politicians, rock stars to celebrity chefs, and everything in between. 

When that moment hits and you spot your idol, here are 7 steps to ensure you make the impression that will leave both of you feeling great.

Laura with Chita Rivera

Laura with Chita Rivera

Laura with Kristin Chenoweth

Laura with Kristin Chenoweth

  1. Read the room. Congratulations — you’re finally in the same room as your favorite celebrity! Take a deep breath; you’ve gotta do this right. This is someone you LOVE, and you want him or her to like you back, right? So make sure you’re in a situation where it makes sense to introduce yourself. Generally If you don’t take up much of their time, celebs are happy to meet someone who appreciates their work. But sometimes, it’s flat-out inappropriate to approach someone who doesn’t know you. Trust me, it isn’t worth pissing off your favorite star just to say you’ve met them. So if you’re in a doctor’s waiting room and you see Kristin Chenoweth, don’t ask for her autograph! And use extra discretion when a celebrity is out with his or her kids; the celeb opted into a public life, but the kids didn’t! On the street, at a coffee shop, at the theatre or a similar innocuous public locale, it’s generally acceptable to say hello, and a sure bet is spotting a star at an event like BroadwayCon, that comes with the expectation of fan presence (celebrities show up knowing — and even hoping! — that they will be approached). Listen to your gut and you’ll be golden!
  2. Smile and make eye contact. Once you’ve followed step 1 and determined that it’s cool to approach, put on that universal signal of friendliness: a smile! Establish eye contact organically, if you can do so without staring; in the absence of that opportunity, simply approach and say “excuse me” or “hi” and tell the star your name. Friendly eye contact with a smile, in any circumstance (even in any language!) says “I appreciate you; I respect you.” It’s the right way to begin any interaction that you want to go well.
  3. Follow the celebrity’s lead. The celeb WILL tell you what’s cool and what’s not, through body language if not with words. Did you get a warm smile back? Did the star turn their body to face you? Did he or she offer a hand or ask your name? These are all great signs to move forward with the conversation. If it’s not a good time, you’ll get a polite but cooler response; be attuned to signals like lack of eye contact, shifting from foot to foot, or keeping his or her body turned away from you. If you get a sign like this, consider that you might have read the room wrong, and exit the conversation gracefully with a simple compliment: “I loved you in The Drowsy Chaperone and I can’t wait to see what you do next.” Which brings me to… 
  4. Skip to the good stuff! If you followed steps 1-3, you’ve already received tacit permission to approach & speak to your favorite star. Don’t dilute the experience with statements like “I never do this” or “I don’t want to waste your time.” Not only are these comments unnecessary time-sucks, but neither of them really holds water: you can’t claim to “never” do something that you're in the process of doing, and statements about wasting time are what actually takes up time! As Jackie Hoffman likes to say, “Get to the Point.” If you really want to communicate that you respect a celebrity’s time & space, be positive & succinct — always while maintaining that smile.
  5. Be genuine & specific. Humans (including celebrities!) are programmed to relate to those with whom we share something: a common interest, a mutual friend, a shared history or experience. An exclamation like “Omigod I love you,” while complimentary, establishes a differential in power and comes across as generic and unmemorable. Instead, try “I saw you in The Color Purple in 2005 and it has been my favorite musical ever since.” If you’re tongue-tied, “thank you for what you do” is always a fantastic go-to. And on that subject…
  6. Don’t say “I’m sorry” when you mean “thank you!” Apologies are for actions we wish we could have avoided, so if you feel an apology is necessary, reconsider approaching in the first place. My guess is that you really mean “thank you for taking the time to talk to me.” So don’t say sorry — instead, let the celeb know how appreciative you are.
  7. Save the selfie for the end. I know, this is going to be the hardest part. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is such a prevailing axiom that pressure to get a photo with a big celeb can outweigh the desire to actually meet the star. This I can promise: if you concentrate on having an authentic moment with the subject of your adoration FIRST, you greatly increase your chances of a genuine photo, and a genuinely positive shared experience, with your favorite star.

Meeting a favorite celeb can be overwhelming, but when handled correctly, it’s almost always awesome. Keep these steps in mind, so the next time you spot Lin-Manuel Miranda on the street, you know just what to say.

Laura with Duncan Sheik, John Gallagher Jr, Lea Michele, and Jonathan Groff

Laura with Duncan Sheik, John Gallagher Jr, Lea Michele, and Jonathan Groff

Laura with Neil Patrick Harris

Laura with Neil Patrick Harris

Playwrights, Word Choice, & "Our Mother's Brief Affair"

Linda Lavin stars in Our Mother's Brief Affair

Linda Lavin stars in Our Mother's Brief Affair

Somewhere along the line, very early in the life of a play, there’s only a pile of pages: words that have come from a brain and been delivered via ink onto wood pulp. The story is there; the characters have been imagined and given voice; though no one — not even the playwright — has seen or heard them yet. By combining ideas with the mechanics of inscription, suddenly a new blueprint exists — a plan for a theatre production that could impact any number of lives.

This week I’ve been thinking about the nature of vocabulary in plays: word choice, to be specific. Why does one particular word come out of the playwright’s head instead of a near-synonym, or an almost-homonym? How can the meaning of a theatrical work be affected by the selection of one term in place of another? 

On Thursday evening I got to see a preview of Richard Greenberg’s new play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” which stars the elegant Linda Lavin as a parent who, late in life, confesses a deep secret to her discontented son (Greg Keller) & distant daughter (Kate Arrington). 

Early in the play, in a moment of quasi-narration, son Seth declares that his mother raised her children to have several distinct characteristics — including to be worriers. 

But wait — go back. Was that worriers? Or was it warriors? I couldn’t tell which of the two had been intoned. Raising a child to be a worrier vs. raising a child to be a warrior — these are two very different parental styles. So early in the play, I had no sense yet of whether Seth & sister Abby were either, or both (worriers or warriors). Suddenly, I was simultaneously watching the play through two different lenses: one in which I sought out signs of the adult children’s neuroses, and a second in which I strove to identify their undercurrents of warrior spirit.

In nearly every scene, I could see at least one of these traits in the characters. Here Seth is fretting; there Abby is fighting the good fight. I kept turning over the line in my head. Which was it supposed to be? Which characteristic had this fictional mother infused into her now-grown children? Which word — which maternal intention — had Greenberg chosen, when the script in his brain was first transferred onto a page?  

Briefly I thought: Could it be both? Could this have been done on purpose? Could the ambiguity have been actually written into the script, a play-on-words to declare both at the same time? But — no, it couldn’t be, I concluded. The line in question is exposition, not declaration; and the question of “worrier vs. warrior” isn’t even a central theme of the play. A playwright wouldn’t take the chance of such subtlety when invoking that level of ultra precision in wordplay.

Kate Arrington and Greg Keller in Our Mother's Brief Affair

Kate Arrington and Greg Keller in Our Mother's Brief Affair

So I went back to wondering — and marveling — at how two such similar-sounding words could cause me to think of these characters so differently. I wasn’t distracted by the question of lexicon; on the contrary, if anything I was doubly engaged. I listened and watched for signs of the worrier/warrior dichotomy; I used each scene as a roadmap into the head of the playwright, seeking clues into the mindsets & motivations of the characters.  

The script hasn’t been published yet, so the question continues to rattle around in my brain. I’m kind of obsessed with it, in an enjoyable way. I guess I’ve decided that both are correct; I wouldn’t be surprised to see either word in the script when it is released later this month. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to check, doesn’t want to read the word, whichever it ends up being. I like the fact that I wonder so much, and that I’ve gone back to so many different parts of the play to analyze which “w” word Greenberg must have intended. 

In a way that’s exactly when theatre is at its most successful; when, upon departure, the audience is left with questions that, when explored, give the play & its characters infinite depth.

By the way — I would venture to guess that few if any other audience members have felt their brains snag on this particular question of worrier vs. warrior in Our Mother’s Brief Affair. I’m sure the fact that I noticed has everything to do with my upbringing in California, where warrior is pronounced very much like East Coasters tend to say worrier. (Don’t misunderstand, though; Greenberg’s play presents a much bigger question that will surely lead theatre-goers into lengthy discussions over drinks at The Glass House post-show!)

The bottom line is that for days, I’ve been thinking nonstop about the implications of a single word in the script of a play. Recognizing that instance has made me extra cognizant of the importance of every word; and that awareness has led me to an intense gratitude for the playwrights that make those choices, as they transfer their visions onto paper so that we, the lucky audience members, will get to experience their plays.

Tickets to "Our Mother's Brief Affair" are available here.