Month: June 2008

Fame, the bitch-goddess

It is a big deal, being famous.

Most folks who self-identify as actors work quietly, whether they want to or not. All but the a fraction of the top 1% will toil away in obscurity, only a handful of those will end up recognizable to anyone for any length of time, and fewer yet of these will have a fame that lasts beyond the 15 minutes of critical media mass they get.

Who the hell cares?

Well, for starters, the thousands of actors living in L.A.

Wait, what am I saying? There are probably tens of thousands living in L.A., and that’s just counting the openly declared. Secretly, they probably number in the hundreds of thousands, and if you widen your net to stretch past the state line, mostly likely millions. Scratch a Mitty, find a McConaughey, or at least, that would seem to be the deepest hope of the denizens of reality television.

I know a bit about fame because I’ve seen it up close & personal. I have worked with famous people, and for famous people. I have known many regular people who became famous. (It doesn’t work the other way, you know, once famous, always once-famous.)

Even more pertinently (and potently), I come from a long line of people who wanted to, but never quite became, famous. A grandfather who wanted fame so desperately, he kept his young son (who also wanted it, at least for a while) from becoming famous. A mother who once traveled 2,000 miles across the country to sit in a Beverly Hills hotel lobby on Oscar night, so convinced was she that an upcoming lead role in a major motion picture was meant for her.

And the apple (that would be yours truly) did not fall far from the tree either way you slice it: I wanted fame; fame, as it turned out, did not have much use for me.

There are many embarrassing admissions one might make on the road to the Truth, but one of the most excruciating has got to be this taste for fame. It is profoundly uncool: a state seething with need, and we all know how wildly attractive a feature is need*. For most of us, the desire to gaze diminishes in direct proportion to the subject’s need to be gazed at: the faster you chase me, the harder I run. The exceptions, those few who wanted fame so badly they could taste it, and were actually rewarded with it? Most are wildly, profoundly gifted, which is compelling. At a distance, anyway, and in the kind of dosage that celebrity requires of its celebrants.

I thought I was done with this need for fame once I set acting aside. As if. Those of you familiar with the treating of symptoms vs. the addressing of root causes are having a hearty chuckle now, no doubt.

It followed me, this back-clinging monkey, into the blogosphere, helpfully hitting the “refresh” button when we’d visit Sitemeter. How many people clicked on my site today? How about now? How about now?

Today, despite my best efforts to CHILL, ALREADY, I feel it seeping into the groundwater of my new playground, Twitter**. What started out as a fantastic way to stay or even get connected (not to mention an Exercise in Writing Short) and morphed into a dangerous, if entertaining, diversion now seems to be devolving into a three-ring circus of smartmouthing, spambots and webcockery. I hold out hope, but it grows fainter as the weeks pass.

Did I say “pass”? I meant “fly by.” Because that’s what’s been happening to my weeks, along with the months and years they turn into. And the weeks are made up of days, which are made of minutes and even seconds, precious, precious seconds, that are chewed up by the hundred-thousand in pursuit of stuff which in and of itself, is ultimately meaningless. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself the question I just heard Jack Kornfield ask in my earbuds during my morning walk today: “Which parts of your life make you the happiest? I’ll bet they’re pretty simple.”

I gave it some very quick thought and confirmed: dog hugs. Falling asleep when you’re tired. Ice cream. The first hit of coffee in the morning. Sex, especially with someone you love. Hell, most anything with someone you love. Does it need to be a beach on Hawaii, or can it just be some of the time you’d have carved out getting there?

That’s the thing of it: most of fame is about getting there, and upon arrival, turns out to be like Gertrude Stein’s characterization of Oakland (there’s no “there” there). And its intangibility is matched only by its evanescence. Ask anyone who’s tried to sell it, or reclaim it, or even hang onto it.

On the other hand, if fame is a by-product of something you’d be doing anyway, much of its fraught-ness disappears. It might even be seen as kind of a pesky nuisance, albeit with a few bitchin’ perks.

I’m thinking a lot about this because I’m moving away from something I knew would never get me any acclaim (graphic design) to something that not only might, but must in some measure if it’s going to support me in my old age (writing). Fortunately, it doesn’t have to support me; there’s a long and fine tradition of writers toiling away in relative obscurity, supporting themselves with day jobs. Wallace Stevens, for one. Bukowski, for another. When I start to think it would be easier if I could just be famous NOW, dammit, I think of them, and think again.

Maybe it wouldn’t be easier.

Maybe it would just be different.

That said, I’d be lying if I told you I’d lost my taste for fame. I still see myself sitting on Oprah’s couch, my latest book between us. (From this blog to her ears…please.) I see myself answering calls to have my essays in publications, instead of having to make them. And I know that with the right level of fame, that dream I have of me, a laptop and an ocean view materializes on a much more spectacular part of coastline, and that when the sun sets or a chill comes on, I can continue to enjoy it from the comfort and privacy of a much more spectacular abode.

I will write, though, no matter what. Should I never have any more readers than I have right now. Should I somehow piss off the lot of you and have only imaginary readers.

The bitch goddess exists in my line of sight, but I lay garlands at her feet no more. Well, maybe just a token daisy every now and then, to keep a hand in.

For the most part, I’d rather spend the time writing, in there here and now. For you, I hope. For me, I must…


Image by SteveMcN via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*And it only gets worse with age. What can be amusing or even charming in the young (those crazy young people with their hubris!) is cringeworthy in the old (back away from the Speedo, Eurotrash grandpappy.)

**For you non-nerds, Twitter is a 140-character-per-post, social media messaging service that is as addictive as it is wonderful. More onTwitter later, I think. I’ve been promising various people an article on it for weeks now.


UPDATE: Dreamhost is, once again, experiencing wonkiness. Sorry for the lost comments earlier; I’ve reconstituted what I could, and did me PLENTY OF SWEARING while I did it. (Not at you; I love you guys!)

UPDATE (07/16/08): Bonus extra fantastic link on the inanity of chasing fame, which is probably not anything you want to get caught with, anyway. By Brad Warner, aka the Zen Punk Monk (oh, he’d kill me for reducing him to a catchy handle, but come on, it’s so great!)

For Kevin, on the occasion of his 50th birthday

It seems impossible that my cohort is turning 50, and yet, there it is.

I’m sliding into it myself, just three years and change to go. Truth be told, I can’t wait: my 40s were so much better than my 30s, which were so much better than my 20s, which were so much better than my teens, I figure my 50s are going to rock the house.

Or, at the very least, that I’ll get another decade or two of yum before I hit the point of diminishing returns.

On the other hand, it’s a good thing I’ve some time. Half a century is a significant achievement, and calls for a marker of equal significance. I received one such tribute about a week ago, from my friend and former art director, Kevin Houlihan. He assembled 50 of the people he’d met along the way, from the godmother who held him at his baptism to a friend he met in a bar about a year ago, and asked us each to write a little something for a book he wanted to assemble about the people he’d met along the way.

Here’s the beauty part, though: instead of asking us to write about him, he asked us to write about ourselves. His point? That, as his wise and no-nonsense New Hampshire-bred father used to say, “You can tell a man by the company he keeps.” So Kevin sent each participant a series of questions designed to help us unearth what it was about us that had helped him learn about himself.

The result? A breathtaking compendium of musings, stories and yes, a little haranguing, that is universally appealing because of the specificity of approach. I’m forever parroting every English teacher I’ve ever had about the key to great writing lying in the detail of the personal truth one lays out there; maybe instead of yakking, I could just direct people to this book.

Unfortunately, it’s a private publishing of 50, one for each participant. There has been a groundswell of support for a more public release, but until that happens, you’ll just have to content yourself with one of my entries and imagine the rest. The question to me was what, if anything, did the various & sundry creative outlets for my expression have in common, and how did I continue to nurture my creativity.

It’s a wonderful question for anyone to ask of themselves, or of their loved ones; it’s a glorious question to be asked…



I have called my life many things in an attempt to get across the idea of what it’s been like to live it, to express the heart of my journey. One of my fave-raves, coined several years ago upon quitting my Hateful Advertising Career, was that I was “Living My Life Backwards”: going from a hyper-responsible, overachieving, 401K-building, condo-and-cat-owning twentysomething to a foolhardy, largely unemployed, dream-chasing thirtysomething. (And then a sex-crazed, metaphorically-old-purple-wearing-lady fortysomething.)

Not a bad quip, you know us copywriters, always with the handy quip, but somehow too…pithy. As Einstein said, Everything as simple as possible and no simpler, please. (As an aside, that’s where a lot of advertising and marketing goes off the rails: oversimplification. That, and too many objectives. But let’s not go down that bad path, shall we?)

I wish I had a pithy answer for my life’s work now, for what motivates me, for what the thread is. But I don’t. I have a long and boring story, which I’ll summarize here:

Many years ago, when The Groundlings Sunday Company pulled over and dumped my baby-actor soul by the side of the road to fend for itself, I thought I needed a theater company to call home. And so it was that I found myself standing on a stage in a tiny, back-alley theater in Santa Monica in front of an insane French woman (sorry, redundant), “auditioning” to be a paying member of her highly experimental theater company.

She let me perform my wildly inappropriate monologue, but it was clear that what she wanted to do was get to the Q&A.

“What would you do,” she called out from the dark, “eef I asked you to take off your pants, take off your shirt, take off your shoes and stand zere nakeed on ze stage?”

“Uh…ask you why?”

There was a long pause. Then, whether to out me as a poseur or to see if maybe, possibly she could salvage this ten minutes and put an extra $35/month in the theater’s coffers I don’t know, but she threw out another one:

“Why,” she called out again, “do you want to be an actress?”

No one had asked me this; I had not even asked myself about the why. Why does one throw away everything with no promise of a something down the road? Why does a sane, smart girl with a career and a title and a condo and a cat toss it all out the window for what younger and more talented people will tell you is one of the world’s worst career options?

I stood in on that dusty stage, lit from above, threw head back and my arms open wide and let whatever it was inside me that had been responsible for my irrational decision do the talking:

“To tell The Truth!!!”

It was right, that Voice. (It always is, you know.) My whole life until then had been a quest to funnel The Truth as it is writ large somewhere in the cosmos into words and pictures that made sense down here. So I did it for awhile in advertising. And then in acting. And then in design. And now, with words, both on the blog and aloud, wherever someone will let me.

If I get off track, it gets me back on. If I need inspiration, I go back to the well.

The Truth.

I mean, come on, can that ever get old?

Don’t save “happy”

As with many who self-identify as Survivors of Well-Intentioned-But-Ultimately-Fucked-Up Parenting, the confounding mix of messages I received in my formative years served to demagnetize my self-esteem compass for decades to come.

“We expect a lot from you” really meant You will not be good: you will be excellent. Or else.”

“You can do it!” was mainly true, most of the time. Unfortunately, the critical phrase, “…and without any help, or it doesn’t count”, was left unspoken but did its damage anyway.

What has been the hardest thing to reconcile, however, is the idea that I should take pride in my accomplishments, but not too much.

W as the kids say TF?!

Not being able to discern between appropriate rejoicing and vile showboating has the same effect as not knowing which fork to use: you end up giving a wide berth to a lot of invitations, just to be on the safe side.

Safe may be safe, but it’s hardly fuel for growth. With the possible exception of Emily Dickinson, no one ever changed the world by making it smaller (and one could argue that even though her physical world was profoundly limited, that chick was 100% down with the Truth.)

Safe is also not very joy-making. I’m not a happiness addict, well, okay, I am, but I’m 12-stepping my way out, and besides, “happiness”, or really, “pleasure”, as it’s come to mean, has relatively little to with living in a joyous state, which I’m going to come right out and call “ability to live in the moment and thrive because of it.” Safe is about keeping things as they are, and any boob will tell you that it’s impossible to reside permanently in a state of pleasure. The ice cream melts. The orgasm passes. Crafting the buzz is theoretically possible, but even if you spend the time to become a Jedi knight of the bong, aren’t you eventually going to have to do something else with your life, if only to replenish your stash?

The Youngster, who in many ways was wise beyond his years, had a great saying: “Don’t save happy.” It is one of the World Champeen Sayings precisely because of its obliqueness-to-brevity ratio.

Don’t hold back on a compliment. Don’t be stingy with a loving impulse.

Pointless to hold on to a snowflake, or a gallon of whipped cream, they won’t keep.

And those gift cards? If you’re living in most other states besides California, land where the consumer reigns supreme, they expire, dude; use them.

I think the application of this rule works beautifully both for people with no self-esteem issues and for those of us who feel like tooting our own horns means forever branding ourselves as That Asshole. Slow and judicious application is the trick to digging your way out.

For example (WARNING: HORN-TOOTING ALERT!!), last year I was approached by a representative from a fairly large publishing house about writing a book.

(Hang on, gotta wait for my heart rate to go back down.) (Okay…)

The odds of this actually culminating in my being hired and paid actual cash money to write this book are long, and the steps along the path to getting there are many. Still, one cannot deny that it is a fantabulous thing just to be asked, and on the basis of nothing more than a bunch of blog posts. If a friend told me that, I would think it was hot stuff.

So that’s what I did: told a (few) friends.

And when I got the word back from my contact that she liked the chapters? Again, I told a few friends.

And when I heard that it had cleared the next hurdle of my contact’s boss, the editor? Friends got told.

It was not, shall we say, easy. My heart raced and my face flushed every time I said it out loud.

But to not say it out loud, at least to some one, is no longer acceptable. It’s something I need, for now, if for no other reason than it is, for whatever reason, difficult out of all proportion.

There is another reason, though: if I hold back and play it safe, how can I be of any use to you, who might need a nudge to break through your own personal roadblock? If I can’t deal in the Truth, how can I expect to anyone else to give it to me straight?

If I don’t move forward, if you don’t, if each one of us doesn’t, how will the world?

The truth is, something will always be hard. When a thing gets easy, if you’re living your life out loud, you move on to the next thing. You climb a bigger mountain or tackle a bigger equation or break a tougher record. Cynicism prevents me from dragging out that confounded Marianne-Williamson-not-Nelson-Mandela quote one more time, but it’s true, cheese factor and all.

Being small doesn’t serve. It just takes up less room on an airplane seat.


Image by Mike_fj40 via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.