be the person you need(ed) in your life

I got a couple of those Facebook Memories today that I’m glad I wrote. I’m grateful I saw them this morning, and I want to share them.

November 5, 2018

I wrote this yesterday on my tumblr thing. I’m sharing it here for anyone who struggles with the same things I do.

I’m having a bad day. It happens. So I take my own advice for people who are having a bad day, and I get out of my house. I go for a walk. I work hard to push negative and hurtful thoughts out of my head, and I replace them with positive things. It’s little observations at first, like the trees are starting to drop their leaves, a dog has a cute beard, this person’s Halloween graveyard has tons of great puns in it.

I take this positive voice that’s enjoying things in the neighborhood, and I use it to talk to myself. I remind myself that my experience is valid, even if random strangers who know nothing about my experience tell me that it doesn’t, on account of my privilege and success. I remind myself that this terrible way I feel isn’t forever. I remind myself that my wife and children love me. I remind myself to make an appointment with my therapist.

I’ve walked a couple of miles by the time I get back to my street, and when I’m a few houses away from mine, I feel better. I still don’t feel good, but I’ve moved my day from a 1 to a 2 on my 5 point scale. It isn’t the 4 I am hoping to achieve, but it’s better, and just moving from 1 to 2 is enough.

I am enough. I am enough for my wife and my kids and my dogs, and I’m learning to be enough for myself. I’m learning to let go — trying to let go — of the pain I feel whenever I’m reminded that I’m not enough for at least one person in my life, because it’s not my fault.

One of my neighbors comes out of her house and tells me that her daughter’s English teacher is a fan of my writing, and when he mentioned it to her class, she told him that we’re neighbors. He was excited by that, and asked her to ask me if I’d come into the class to talk to them about writing and being a writer.

I tell her that I’d love to do it. I don’t tell her how humbling and overwhelming it is to feel wanted by someone because I’ve done things that matter. I hope she doesn’t see me squeeze the tears back into the corners of my eyes.

Her daughter comes outside, and we talk about me coming to her class to talk about writing and being a writer. She tells me how much her teacher loves me (those are her exact words) and I feel so lucky and grateful to have done something that somebody cares about, something that a teacher feels makes me worthy of speaking to a class of 11th graders.

So I give them my email address, and we resolve to coordinate with her teacher next week. I’ll probably go speak to her class sometime in December.

By the time I’m done talking with them, I have moved from a 2 to a 3 on my 5 point scale, and that’s a HUGE improvement over the 1 I was feeling when I walked down my driveway.

So I’m sharing this good news that I hope inspires and comforts anyone else who is having a bad day. It’s possible, through loving ourselves and allowing the kindness of others to get past our defenses, to turn a day that’s awful into a day that’s okay, and it can happen really quickly.

I’m glad I took my own advice, and I’m grateful that I have an opportunity to share it with all of you who are reading this.

I ended up talking to that class of 11th graders shortly after I wrote this. It was as terrifying as I expected. The few times I’ve been on a school campus as an adult I have felt all the anxiety, insecurity, the feeling of not belonging, that overwhelmed me for the very brief time I was in public high school (as it turns out, I touch on that in the other memory I got today, which is coming up). This time was no different. But when I access my memories from that day, I recall feeling that the kids in that class were all on my side. It was like they sensed how weird I felt, and they made a choice to put me at ease.

I don’t recall everything we talked about in our Q&A, but I clearly remember the last minute or so before the bell rang. I have this short list of … I guess you’d call them rules? Maybe guidelines? Values? These are my guiding principles, I suppose, and they’ve worked out well for me. So I share them with kids whenever I have the opportunity.

I pointed to my head. “This is where nice comes from,” I said. Then, I put my hand over my heart. “This is where kind comes from.” I put my hands out, like, “get it?”

“We’ve been talking about about an hour, and if I’ve earned some credibility with you, I hope you’ll take some of this to heart,” I said, pulling a piece of paper out of my pocket. “You know how you would get in trouble for doing something ‘on purpose’? I want to take the concept of “on purpose” and make it literal. When you choose to do these things I’m about to share, you will be doing them “on purpose”. I don’t know if this will make sense now. If it doesn’t, maybe you’ll remember it later in life and it’ll be relevant to a choice or a challenge you’re facing.

“These are the things I do ‘on purpose’, to literally give my life purpose.”

I looked up. I saw that I’d lost some of them, while others seemed to be listening intently.

“I’m a reasonably successful person. I don’t mean in my work, or only in my work. I mean in my life. I have great friends, I get to do cool things, and I’m happy a lot more often than not. I believe that I got where I am in my life by choosing to do these things:

  1. Be honest. I’m a very old man, relative to y’all, and I’ve learned that the only currency that really matters in this world is the truth.
  2. Be honorable. This dovetails with number one. You attract to yourself what you put into the world. Dishonorable people will take everything from you and leave you with nothing. Do your best to be a person they aren’t attracted to.
  3. Work hard. I don’t mean, like, at your crappy minimum wage job you hate. I mean do the hard work that makes relationships work, that gets you ahead in your education, that gets you closer to your goals. Everything worth doing is hard. Everything worth doing requires hard work. Sooner or later, you’re going to run into something in your life that’s really hard, and you’ll want to give up, but it’s something you care so much about, you’ll do whatever you can to achieve it. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be less hard for someone who has practiced doing the hard things all along, than it is for someone who doesn’t know how to do the hard work because they’ve always chosen the easy path.
  4. Always do your best. Even if you don’t get the result you wanted, doing your best — which will vary from day to day, moment to moment — is all you can ever do. We tell athletes to leave it all on the field. Whatever your version of that is, do it.
  5. This is the most important one. This is the one I hope you’ll all hear and embrace. This is the one I hope you’ll share with your peers: Always be kind.”

When I read number 5, I looked up at them. I was so happy to see a classroom filled with teenagers who were all listening intently, even the ones I thought had tuned me out. “Here’s the thing about being Kind, versus being Nice,” I said. “I have interacted with lots of nice people who are incredibly unkind. Why is that? How do you choose to be nice but not kind?”

I pointed to my head. “This is where nice comes from,” I said. Then, I put my hand over my heart. “This is where kind comes from.” I put my hands out, like, “get it?”

There was this collective gasp of realization that I did not expect, at all. One kid said “Oh damn!” I saw a few kids look at each other like the trick had just been explained to them. They heard me. They really, really heard me. And it was amazing.

This happened … three years ago? So these kids are all around 20ish today. Since then, they’ve been challenged in ways I can’t imagine. We had a Fascist in the White House until last year. The pandemic we all hoped we’d overcome has been deliberately prolonged by people who want these kids and their peers to suffer, because it owns the libs. I could go on and on about the ways America has failed this generation, and I could righteously rage against the people who are perpetuating that. But I do that already, and that’s not what this is about.

This is about a moment I shared with some kids who I honestly should have been calling young adults all along, and how I remember feeling like that moment made a difference in some of their lives.

I’d forgotten about this, until I saw the memory this morning. I doubt very much that anyone who was in that class will ever read this, but if you do: thanks for making me feel comfortable enough to share these things with you. I hope it was helpful and meaningful to your life.

The next memory Facebook coughed up is a little more recent. It dovetails with the first one in an unexpected way.

November 5, 2019

One of my biggest regrets in my life is that I didn’t go to college. When I was 18 and desperate to get out of my parents’ house, I moved to Westwood, where UCLA is, and moved in with Hardwick, who I’d known for a little bit, and who was already attending.

I planned to enroll in two years of Extension, and then apply to the university after. I have no idea if that is even a thing that a kid can or could do, though, because the instant I started filling out my Extension forms, I panicked.

What if I didn’t know how to *be* a college student? What if I failed? I was certainly going to fail. I was a stupid actor. I knew that. Mrs. Lee told me that in 9th grade, and my dad has spent my whole life making it really clear to me that I was worthless (fun sidebar: when I was 19 or 20, I read The Portable Nietzsche. I thought a lot of it was bullshit nihilism, but some of it resonated with young me. I wanted to share that with my dad, whose approval and affection I craved, desperately. When I did, he told me I was “being a fucking intellectual” and “nobody likes a fucking intellectual.” I was so humiliated and kicked in the balls by that statement, I never pursued any further reading of philosophy, or mentioned it to him, again). I didn’t even have real public high school experience beyond one awful semester when I was a Freshman. I had no idea what to do, and I was so afraid of failure, I never turned the forms in.

Here’s how sheltered I was and how unprepared I was as a kid, crawling into adulthood: I thought you *had* to be in a fraternity if you were in a college. I didn’t know any better, and my dad was in a fraternity (which explains SO MUCH about what a jerk he was hashtag not all frat guys), and TV and movies were heavily focused on that whole thing, so I just extrapolated from what information I had and … well, garbage in, garbage out.

For years I told anyone who asked me about it that I had to withdraw because I was getting work as an actor. That’s partially true. I *was* getting work as an actor, but it wasn’t enough to justify not going to a single class. The truth was, I was terrified of the uncertainty. I felt like the only thing that mattered, the only thing I was any good at, was being an actor. And even then, at 18, I knew that it wasn’t my passion. I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I was living my mother’s dream, and trying so hard to do the only thing I was good at because I hoped it would make my dad love me, but when I met other actors my own age who hadn’t been pushed into it by their parents, they had a totally different energy around them. They had this incredible and wondrous knowledge of theatre and film and acting technique, that they’d devoured and studied. They had the artistic calling, of art for its own sake.

I had the fear of failure, and the growing awareness that I didn’t love the one thing I was good at. And, I have to be honest: I wasn’t even that good at it, then. I was OKAY, but not great. I knew that, and I knew that I would get better when I understood technique the way those other young actors did, as opposed to leaning on the instincts and experience I already had.

When I got older and eventually went to drama school, where I studied Meisner Technique for years, I did get better. I’m good at it now, I like being on the set now, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done, even the stuff that isn’t that great like The Liar’s Club. That work and those years of study actually contributed to me finding my own path, and discovering the confidence to be a writer and storyteller. I learned when I was in those workshops and scene studies that the performing wasn’t what I loved; it was the preparation, the deconstruction of the scene and the character, the *work* that went into getting to know who the characters were and *why* they were in *this* scene, what was at stake, and what all their obstacles were. As a writer, now, I use all that training I had for scene preparation, when I’m creating a scene from scratch. It’s awesome.

But, way back in 1990, I was just afraid of so many things, and I wasn’t supported in the ways I needed, so I let that fear consume me, and didn’t attend a single class. I have always regretted that.

A few weeks ago, I decided that I was going to take an online course, not for credit, but just for knowledge. I looked at TONS of courses, and decided that I would take a writing course. I have a lot of practical experience writing essays like this one, narrative nonfiction, and short opinion pieces, but I have no formal writing education, beyond reading some books. This is not to say that reading some books hasn’t been helpful! I have learned a TON about structure and character design and pacing from books. I’m a competent fiction writer, and I credit the books I read with helping me understand my own writing process a little better.

But I decided to take a writing class, anyway, because I thought I would get some insights that would help close up the gaps in my knowledge. I spent a lot of time looking around online, and decided to take Brandon Sanderson’s course at BYU. It’s a series of 11 lectures and a Q&A, that was recorded in 2017. I’ve been watching one lecture a day, taking weekends off, and tomorrow I’ll finish.

It’s been a fantastic experience for me. I haven’t learned as much new stuff as I thought I would, but even more importantly, I’ve had many of my instincts and experiences confirmed and validated by someone I respect and admire, who is successful in my field. The new things that I did learn have been PROFOUND for me. Like, huge, epic, explosive revelations and insights that I did not expect at all.

The biggest revelation hit me this afternoon, as today’s lecture was wrapping up: I doubt myself way too much. I’m smarter and more capable than I was raised to believe I am, and it would serve me well to trust my instincts more. I should listen to my OWN voice when I’m creating, and not invent voices that criticize me, humiliate me, or minimize my accomplishments.

I got a lot of good, useful, practical, experience and knowledge from Professor Sanderson’s class, but the most profound thing I got out of it wasn’t even directly related to what he was teaching, which I believe is what going to college is all about.

I don’t know what it’ll be, but I’m going to start another course when I finish this one. Maybe something in history. I’ve always been interested in learning more about the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and that seems really, grossly, horrifyingly relevant to this moment in our history.

I’m really grateful that I can pursue knowledge for its own sake, and I’m even more grateful that I’m not afraid to do it

So these two things were written on the same day, a few years apart. I never would have thought to put them together, didn’t even know that they went together, until I saw them side by side today.

I realize today that, when I talked to those kids, I was telling 17 year-old me all the things he didn’t hear, that would have made such a big difference for him. I was being the person I needed in the world, even if I was like thirty years late.

I still live by that list. It is my guiding star, and it has served me well.

Today, I’m adding to the list: whenever possible, be the person you need(ed) in your life. Do it on purpose.

Wizard. Time Lord. Fake geek girl. On a good day I am charming as fuck.