All you need are Friends and Music

I know my last post was a bit negative so let’s compensate with a different mindset. Some gratitude (a helpful article on how gratitude is effective in the workplace). Some perspective.

Although the world is ending around us, I can still find the silver lining in my personal life. I am truly grateful for my friends and I have such an amazing community of people that I trust and love and am comfortable enough to show my neurotic overthinking woes or my first second third pilot drafts. If I need a hug, they’ll hold me. If I need to vent, they’ll listen. When I’m hating myself and define myself by my failures, they hold me up and look me in the eye, showing me how much they appreciate me. How much they value me. I matter. To them. A simple “how are you.” An email blast to let everyone know it’s my birthday. Watching a movie with me even though they’ve already seen it. A shared meal, shared time, shared experiences.

I work with a lot of kids and I’ve seen how much pressure they’ve put upon themselves. And at such a young age, they define themselves by their limited experiences and accomplishments. Most of the time that’s defined by things, because it’s in front of their faces, because it’s measurable, but it’s not sustainable. I saw high performing overachieving high schoolers get wrecked up by the scores they get, the colleges they get in/or not get in, the student government positions they hold. And when I told them to not define their accomplishments by those things, they asked me point blank, well, what do you consider your greatest accomplishments?

My relationships with others. I’m so grateful that I have been able to maintain friendships with people I’ve known since diapers, since middle school, high school, college, Spain, work, this summer. I’m grateful that I get to be a part of their lives, and share within their milestones (weddings, first borns, second borns, birthdays). This year, I’ve officiated two weddings — that my friends wanted me to be a part of their wedding and to hear what I had to say, was an honor!

I am seen. I am heard. I am loved.

I’m also grateful for music. Especially Spotify. OMG, because I have access to so many different artists, different sounds, moods, tones, beats, rhythms, there’s a song for every moment that I live. It heightens my happiness but also sympathizes with my sadness. How someone I’ve never met can create and share something that truly understands the minute changes, ebbs and flows of my feelings and thoughts throughout the day is OMG fucking mind blowing. It’s a connection that transcends human understanding that is felt within every inch of my body. And I LOVE it. And it makes me happy.



The Contrast Becomes the Definition

“Everybody always asks if you have a career, if you’re married, if you have children. Like if life was some kind of grocery list. No one ever asks us if we’re happy.” – Farrah Gray.

I’m totally guilty of that. Especially last year, when I was turning 30. That list was on a loop in my mind that eventually got me crying on my 30th birthday. And then I got tuberculosis, ended up in the hospital for two weeks. Waking up in the hospital, completely disoriented, I realized, I could’ve died, but I didn’t. This caused a shift in the expectations I had had for myself. After the whole TB/hospital/isolation ordeal, I still didn’t have a career, I still didn’t have a partner nor children, but I was happy. The mere fact that I had almost lost my health and got it back made me really happy.

2017. Alright, so now that I have my health, has that happiness lasted? Absolutely not. I still don’t have a career, still making devastating mistakes in the dating thing (nowhere near marriage) and thank god I don’t have children. But does this shit matter towards my happiness? No. Because last year, I was happy without it.

I heard the phrase “optimal happiness” recently. Reflecting upon this phrase, I wonder, doesn’t putting these two words together make it redundant? Shouldn’t happiness be the highest, the best you feel? And if optimal is a qualifier, doesn’t that dilute the meaning of happiness? Also, who is to say that one is entitled to happiness? What if you’re a shitty person? And you deserve sadness, trial and tribulations and unfortunate events? But then … just wait a minute …

You can’t have happiness without sadness. The contrast becomes the definition. 2016, my health was deteriorating. I was losing it. So when I slowly gained it back, I was happy because that lost was felt. 2017, I didn’t lose anything. There was no contrast to gauge a sense of happiness.

And now reflecting on this past year, asking myself, Thi, are you happy? I’m not. I’ve been feeling very very very low.  The other week, I had a bad case of the Mondays where I had such an aversion to my surviving jobs. I hated the monotony of my life. I hated the thankless kids and rude adults as a substitute teacher by day and a waitress by night. I hated that I wasn’t being creatively challenged or fulfilled. And I’ve been sad, mad, angry, frustrated, upset (more redundancy for ya), and then I wonder. Is this perpetual hell hole necessary for that eventual happiness on the bend? Or am I delusional? That there is NO bend, NO horizon, just more hamster wheel to spin.

HOPE. You HAVE to have hope. Because if you don’t, what is the fucking point?

Oh May Oh My

So something significant happened to me during the month of may. Honestly, I’m so glad may is over.  It’s been a long month.  Tumultuous. -Sigh- alright out with it. I was let go from my survival job — the restaurant job.

Alright, it’s not that bad.  It’s not like I was a CEO and got fired because I lost hella investor money or was a doctor and got fired because of negligence, I was a mere waitress at a corporate restaurant and I got fired. What happened?  To be honest, I was unhappy.  I had let that restaurant plague my well being and I was too lazy to quit and find another serving job. I had been unhappy there for quite awhile, disillusioned with the politics of a corporation and frustrated with the whole mantra of “the guest is always right”.  (Here’s an article where that whole POV is wrong and harmful, especially for the employees: Top 5 Reasons Why ‘The Customer is Always Right’ is Wrong.) I didn’t feel valued.  I didn’t feel management had my back.  When I spoke up, management would pacify me and say they would take care of it but never did.  They were ineffective and there was never any accountability of wrongdoing.  My unhappiness was palpable and I grew increasingly frustrated with every passing day.  I was an ugly person when I showed up to work.  I was aggressive, I lashed out, I took everything 100% more personally than it really was. I hated that place.

But I was there for 4 years. 4 fucking years.  Why didn’t I just leave at the first hint of unhappiness?  In hindsight after every difficult shift that I would relay back to my friends, without fail, they would always suggest, “Thi, maybe it’s time for you to quit”.  And without fail, I always made excuses for that place, “oh it’s flexible, it’s consistent, there’s structure, I make money not working full time” Blah blah blah blah blah! It was like an abusive relationship.  In the end, there was no trust.  I just didn’t have the courage to leave.

So it was a blessing in disguise when I got the boot. Well actually, let me just say first, it hurt. A blow to the ego.  It stung.  I didn’t do the dumping, I was the one that got dumped! :{ And after getting dumped, you go through that whole spectrum of emotions.  First you’re in disbelief, like did that just really happen to me?  Then you’re mad, how could they do that to me? Then you’re sad and insecure, oh my god I’m nothing, I’m a failure, I have to move back home and live with my parents, the dream is over, yada yada yada. Then you’re numb.  Then you’re finally clear enough to think, blessing in disguise. Yea it took a while emotionally to get to that state. But I got there! Yay!

So now what? During the whole debacle, I went through a much needed career assessment.  I have a lot of debt (school loans and credit cards), bills (rent, utility, phone, internet, car insurance) and nothing to my name (no house and no savings).  So, on the one hand, I was panicked and stressed because I was in survival mode – find any job to make rent. Period. Finito. On the other hand, when telling some members of my family that I had been let go, they said, “good, now you can get a real job. You can finally use that degree.” my response to this was, “what about the dream?” this led to the argument that based on how many auditions I get a year (which averages to about one a month), I could get a real job (9-5), make a lot more money than I have been from my part time jobs (starting pay with a BA can be at least $40,000/year vs. my current $20,000/year), pay off my debts, build my savings, and depending on my relationship with my boss, go on auditions when or if they come up.  My family’s point, and I’m paraphrasing, “all we’re saying is that we don’t want you to wake up one day at 35 and realize that the acting ladder didn’t pan out and that you have no useful skill to make money. What happens if you get hurt tomorrow?”

So now, I’m super bummed.  My family is asking me, why prioritize acting when it’s not making you any money? And I’m left questioning not only my commitment to acting, but my sanity, as if pursuing acting is stupid and futile.  In line with my family’s reasoning, at least going for a real job right now, I’m still young enough to build a career with a degree that is not obsolete yet (it’s only been 6 years since I graduated college).

Feeling incredibly discouraged and replaying worst-case scenarios in my head, I go to my friend Daniel and I tell him, “Maybe this is a sign for me to quit the dream. Maybe I should just pack it up and go home to my parents.  At least I don’t have to pay rent.” my friend Daniel says, “Thi, you’re looking for a sign right?” he points up, indicating I mean from god.  I nod and he continues, “I’m your fucking sign, Thi.  I’m the messiah and I’m giving you one week to give it your all and get an audition by next Friday. In one week.  Think outside the box, do your hardest, your best and if you can say you gave it your all, and you didn’t get an audition, then maybe that’s the sign you need to get out of la and go home. But if you do get an audition, which I know you will, then that’s the sign to keep going.  You can do this.”

I rolled my eyes at this challenge.  I told him I would humor him but that I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Getting an audition is such a crapshoot.  My morale was low and to be honest, I thought his challenge was stupid.

Clouded by two extreme conditions from my family and friends, I couldn’t decide on how to move forward. So on that following Monday, I applied to everything on craigslist.  Getting fired gave me freedom.  I had the chance to start over, explore other career paths.  Nothing defined, I could be anything! I applied to be a health coach, a market analyst, a full time blogger, an administrative assistant for a doggy day care, a server, a caterer, a barista, a teacher’s assistant, a private tutor, a museum researcher, a telemarketer, a copy writer, full time, part time, open availability, remote, willing to travel, etc. I cast a wide net to better my chance in getting an interview.  Depending on the pool of interviews that I would get, would ultimately decide the direction of my career. I was letting fate take control.

By the following Friday, exactly one week, I had a lot of interviews.  One was for a full time writer/blogger/website updater, another was a part time market researcher/analyst and the other one was a serving/hosting job for a gastro pub.  Now I had to really decide.  Get a full time job and give up the dream (come on, if a company knew my commitment was to acting and not to that company, why in hell would they hire me full time?) or continue with the pursuit of acting, be poor and serve tables?

Oh yea, I also got two auditions by then. I really didn’t do anything different, maybe submitted myself more so than usual (I had a lot of time on my hands), but I did take it as encouragement to continue with acting.

Here’s another thing, my other part time job.  I’m also an administrative assistant for an entertainment career coach. The company is very small and it’s basically a start up, so I wear many hats in the company — writing marketing emails, updating social media, customer support, technical support, etc.  So actually, I am building a skill that is relevant to my mass communications degree AND I’m still a part of the entertainment industry.  The company is small, but growing.  It helps with rent, but is not my main source of income.  So when I was debating whether or not to pursue a full time job, I had to consider leaving this part time position as a possibility.  I didn’t want to leave it.  I have a really good working relationship with my boss.  She’s a few years older and has a career in the entertainment industry.  She’s a director and is right now in production for her indie movie. So I went to her for advice. And she asked me, “What’s your commitment to acting? Are you gonna be ok with being poor for a long time? I was a server for over 10 years and only now in my forties am I making my own money, I am my own boss and I am filming my first feature film.”

I answered, “Well looking at you, the dream is possible.

She says, “yea, and if you work for me, being an actor is still on the table for you.  Because you know that I will work around your auditions.”

And she has.

In the end, I took another restaurant job. The dream is still alive.  And I’m still broke and poor as ever with a lot more debt (I had to eat and get to interviews and I lived on my credit cards for two weeks). But instead of letting my unhappiness turn me into a nas-t person (pun intended), the change in my well-being lifts me and makes me shine. I’m gonna be ok.



So today in acting class, my teacher went over the basics of her method (it’s a good reminder).  She teaches intentional acting where you analyze the scene and the characters through a series of a questions.  (Btw I adore her, she’s Loren Chadima, if you’re ever interested).  There are 9 questions, but I’m only going over the first part of the first question: what is the relationship?  This question deals with the relationship between the two characters of the scene.

What I love about my teacher’s method is that it allows me to take the attention away from myself and onto my partner, whether it’s my scene partner or even the reader in the audition room, it allows me to ultimately make a connection.  And that’s what it’s all about.

Making a connection.  Having that chemistry.  When we watch a movie, when a scene works, often people will say, ‘wow they had great chemistry’.  You can’t fake chemistry, so to make a connection is something very special.

I guess that is why I strive to nurture and make full the connections I already have.  I rather spend time and energy with my friends and family than network and shake hands (which could be my demise in this business – another ironic thing at that).  But at the same time, I love acting because if I’m able to make a connection with a reader I just met a few seconds ago, then we had that something special.  Not only that, but acting allows me to understand a connection between two characters of a story and perhaps feel that connection and even be a part of it.

How powerful is that?  Connection is a beautiful thing.  In the book, “into the wild” by Jon Krakauer, there’s a lovely quote that says, “happiness [is] only real when shared.” although happiness is a personal state of elation, an object of subjectivity, for me personally, I am most happy when I’m having a moment with someone.  When we see that chemistry on screen, something so intangible surpass something so literal as a movie or TV screen, does it not glow or resonate?  Is it not felt and shared by everyone who sees it? Hmmm?


Good to know

A friend posted these rules on her Facebook and I thought it was neat.  Written by Milton Glaser.

Ten Things I Have Learned
Part of AIGA Talk in London
November 22, 2001

This is a curious rule and it took me a long time to learn because in fact at the beginning of my practice I felt the opposite. Professionalism required that you didn’t particularly like the people that you worked for or at least maintained an arms length relationship to them, which meant that I never had lunch with a client or saw them socially. Then some years ago I realised that the opposite was true. I discovered that all the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of an affectionate relationship with a client. And I am not talking about professionalism; I am talking about affection. I am talking about a client and you sharing some common ground. That in fact your view of life is someway congruent with the client, otherwise it is a bitter and hopeless struggle.
One night I was sitting in my car outside Columbia University where my wife Shirley was studying Anthropology. While I was waiting I was listening to the radio and heard an interviewer ask ‘Now that you have reached 75 have you any advice for our audience about how to prepare for your old age?’ An irritated voice said ‘Why is everyone asking me about old age these days?’ I recognised the voice as John Cage. I am sure that many of you know who he was – the composer and philosopher who influenced people like Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham as well as the music world in general. I knew him slightly and admired his contribution to our times. ‘You know, I do know how to prepare for old age’ he said. ‘Never have a job, because if you have a job someday someone will take it away from you and then you will be unprepared for your old age. For me, it has always been the same every since the age of 12. I wake up in the morning and I try to figure out how am I going to put bread on the table today? It is the same at 75, I wake up every morning and I think how am I going to put bread on the table today? I am exceedingly well prepared for my old age’ he said.

This is a subtext of number one. There was in the sixties a man named Fritz Perls who was a gestalt therapist. Gestalt therapy derives from art history, it proposes you must understand the ‘whole’ before you can understand the details. What you have to look at is the entire culture, the entire family and community and so on. Perls proposed that in all relationships people could be either toxic or nourishing towards one another. It is not necessarily true that the same person will be toxic or nourishing in every relationship, but the combination of any two people in a relationship produces toxic or nourishing consequences. And the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energised or less energised. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.

Early in my career I wanted to be professional, that was my complete aspiration in my early life because professionals seemed to know everything – not to mention they got paid for it. Later I discovered after working for a while that professionalism itself was a limitation. After all, what professionalism means in most cases is diminishing risks. So if you want to get your car fixed you go to a mechanic who knows how to deal with transmission problems in the same way each time. I suppose if you needed brain surgery you wouldn’t want the doctor to fool around and invent a new way of connecting your nerve endings. Please do it in the way that has worked in the past.
Unfortunately in our field, in the so-called creative – I hate that word because it is misused so often. I also hate the fact that it is used as a noun. Can you imagine calling someone a creative? Anyhow, when you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.

Being a child of modernism I have heard this mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I realised that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding. But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of the history of the world. If you look at a Persian rug, you cannot say that less is more because you realise that every part of that rug, every change of colour, every shift in form is absolutely essential for its aesthetic success. You cannot prove to me that a solid blue rug is in any way superior. That also goes for the work of Gaudi, Persian miniatures, art nouveau and everything else. However, I have an alternative to the proposition that I believe is more appropriate. ‘Just enough is more.’
I think this idea first occurred to me when I was looking at a marvellous etching of a bull by Picasso. It was an illustration for a story by Balzac called The Hidden Masterpiece. I am sure that you all know it. It is a bull that is expressed in 12 different styles going from very naturalistic version of a bull to an absolutely reductive single line abstraction and everything else along the way. What is clear just from looking at this single print is that style is irrelevant. In every one of these cases, from extreme abstraction to acute naturalism they are extraordinary regardless of the style. It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty. I must say that for old design professionals it is a problem because the field is driven by economic consideration more than anything else. Style change is usually linked to economic factors, as all of you know who have read Marx. Also fatigue occurs when people see too much of the same thing too often. So every ten years or so there is a stylistic shift and things are made to look different. Typefaces go in and out of style and the visual system shifts a little bit. If you are around for a long time as a designer, you have an essential problem of what to do. I mean, after all, you have developed a vocabulary, a form that is your own. It is one of the ways that you distinguish yourself from your peers, and establish your identity in the field. How you maintain your own belief system and preferences becomes a real balancing act. The question of whether you pursue change or whether you maintain your own distinct form becomes difficult. We have all seen the work of illustrious practitioners that suddenly look old-fashioned or, more precisely, belonging to another moment in time. And there are sad stories such as the one about Cassandre, arguably the greatest graphic designer of the twentieth century, who couldn’t make a living at the end of his life and committed suicide.
But the point is that anybody who is in this for the long haul has to decide how to respond to change in the zeitgeist. What is it that people now expect that they formerly didn’t want? And how to respond to that desire in a way that doesn’t change your sense of integrity and purpose.

The brain is the most responsive organ of the body. Actually it is the organ that is most susceptible to change and regeneration of all the organs in the body. I have a friend named Gerald Edelman who was a great scholar of brain studies and he says that the analogy of the brain to a computer is pathetic. The brain is actually more like an overgrown garden that is constantly growing and throwing off seeds, regenerating and so on. And he believes that the brain is susceptible, in a way that we are not fully conscious of, to almost every experience of our life and every encounter we have. I was fascinated by a story in a newspaper a few years ago about the search for perfect pitch. A group of scientists decided that they were going to find out why certain people have perfect pitch. You know certain people hear a note precisely and are able to replicate it at exactly the right pitch. Some people have relevant pitch; perfect pitch is rare even among musicians. The scientists discovered – I don’t know how – that among people with perfect pitch the brain was different. Certain lobes of the brain had undergone some change or deformation that was always present with those who had perfect pitch. This was interesting enough in itself. But then they discovered something even more fascinating. If you took a bunch of kids and taught them to play the violin at the age of 4 or 5 after a couple of years some of them developed perfect pitch, and in all of those cases their brain structure had changed. Well what could that mean for the rest of us? We tend to believe that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, although we do not generally believe that everything we do affects the brain. I am convinced that if someone was to yell at me from across the street my brain could be affected and my life might changed. That is why your mother always said, ‘Don’t hang out with those bad kids.’ Mama was right. Thought changes our life and our behaviour. I also believe that drawing works in the same way. I am a great advocate of drawing, not in order to become an illustrator, but because I believe drawing changes the brain in the same way as the search to create the right note changes the brain of a violinist. Drawing also makes you attentive. It makes you pay attention to what you are looking at, which is not so easy.

Everyone always talks about confidence in believing what you do. I remember once going to a class in yoga where the teacher said that, spirituality speaking, if you believed that you had achieved enlightenment you have merely arrived at your limitation. I think that is also true in a practical sense. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being sceptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between scepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right. There is a significant sense of self-righteousness in both the art and design world. Perhaps it begins at school. Art school often begins with the Ayn Rand model of the single personality resisting the ideas of the surrounding culture. The theory of the avant garde is that as an individual you can transform the world, which is true up to a point. One of the signs of a damaged ego is absolute certainty.
Schools encourage the idea of not compromising and defending your work at all costs. Well, the issue at work is usually all about the nature of compromise. You just have to know what to compromise. Blind pursuit of your own ends which excludes the possibility that others may be right does not allow for the fact that in design we are always dealing with a triad – the client, the audience and you.
Ideally, making everyone win through acts of accommodation is desirable. But self-righteousness is often the enemy. Self-righteousness and narcissism generally come out of some sort of childhood trauma, which we do not have to go into. It is a consistently difficult thing in human affairs. Some years ago I read a most remarkable thing about love, that also applies to the nature of co-existing with others. It was a quotation from Iris Murdoch in her obituary. It read ‘ Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.’ Isn’t that fantastic! The best insight on the subject of love that one can imagine.

Last year someone gave me a charming book by Roger Rosenblatt called ‘Ageing Gracefully’ I got it on my birthday. I did not appreciate the title at the time but it contains a series of rules for ageing gracefully. The first rule is the best. Rule number one is that ‘it doesn’t matter.’ ‘It doesn’t matter that what you think. Follow this rule and it will add decades to your life. It does not matter if you are late or early, if you are here or there, if you said it or didn’t say it, if you are clever or if you were stupid. If you were having a bad hair day or a no hair day or if your boss looks at you cockeyed or your boyfriend or girlfriend looks at you cockeyed, if you are cockeyed. If you don’t get that promotion or prize or house or if you do – it doesn’t matter.’ Wisdom at last. Then I heard a marvellous joke that seemed related to rule number 10. A butcher was opening his market one morning and as he did a rabbit popped his head through the door. The butcher was surprised when the rabbit inquired ‘Got any cabbage?’ The butcher said ‘This is a meat market – we sell meat, not vegetables.’ The rabbit hopped off. The next day the butcher is opening the shop and sure enough the rabbit pops his head round and says ‘You got any cabbage?’ The butcher now irritated says ‘Listen you little rodent I told you yesterday we sell meat, we do not sell vegetables and the next time you come here I am going to grab you by the throat and nail those floppy ears to the floor.’ The rabbit disappeared hastily and nothing happened for a week. Then one morning the rabbit popped his head around the corner and said ‘Got any nails?’ The butcher said ‘No.’ The rabbit said ‘Ok. Got any cabbage?’

The rabbit joke is relevant because it occurred to me that looking for a cabbage in a butcher’s shop might be like looking for ethics in the design field. It may not be the most obvious place to find either. It’s interesting to observe that in the new AIGA’s code of ethics there is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate behaviour towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer’s relationship to the public. We expect a butcher to sell us eatable meat and that he doesn’t misrepresent his wares. I remember reading that during the Stalin years in Russia that everything labelled veal was actually chicken. I can’t imagine what everything labelled chicken was. We can accept certain kinds of misrepresentation, such as fudging about the amount of fat in his hamburger but once a butcher knowingly sells us spoiled meat we go elsewhere. As a designer, do we have less responsibility to our public than a butcher? Everyone interested in licensing our field might note that the reason licensing has been invented is to protect the public not designers or clients. ‘Do no harm’ is an admonition to doctors concerning their relationship to their patients, not to their fellow practitioners or the drug companies. If we were licensed, telling the truth might become more central to what we do.