Something bigger than yourself

It was not by choice to join Twitter. Because I have a book being published in 2015, my contract indicates that I use at least one social media Web site in order to promote my book. Thus, I joined Twitter. I was flattered that someone wanted to follow me; someone I didn’t even know. I didn’t join Twitter to keep up, to get involved in chatter about this thing or that, or to keep tabs on people. I especially didn’t want to read tweets that consisted of judging and strong opinions. I never wanted to engage in the noise. I joined because of contractual obligations. Plain and simple. So then I needed to decide who I would follow. I wasn’t going to be the 2-billionth follower of a famous person. I’m not sure how that serves me. I think the famous get more than enough attention, and for what reason they use Twitter would not necessarily interest me. But I knew that I needed to start somewhere. Two people—and in the public eye—I admire and like are Marianne Williamson and T.D. Jakes. Marianne is the best-selling author of A Return to Love, and a lecturer. And T.D. Jakes is, well, Bishop T.D. Jakes.

So most likely my first Twitter follower followed me because Williams and Jakes are high-profile spiritual leaders. My first Twitter follower doesn’t tweet in a gossiping fashion or pontificate about whatever the ongoing political or social news is that otherwise dominates Twitter on any given day. She doesn’t share her personal life or give details about her shopping sprees. Her tweets, which tend to be at least a dozen or more each day, are about her love for Jesus. My first Twitter follower is devoted to her religion, and every tweet promotes Jesus, or shares her thoughts and love for Jesus. However, on occasion she adds photographs of herself: in Paris, at her new office on a studio lot, close-ups of her face like she’s posing for a photo shoot to advertise lipstick or hair products, a few times of her just as she’s getting out of bed (but she does a selfie under the sheets so not to wake her husband), she stepping out of a limo, her husband in the background—they have grand smiles on their faces as if they are blissfully happy. And sometimes she just says straight up: I LOVE JESUS as many times as she can in 140 characters.

In time I found myself curious of her agenda. There was something sincere about her tweets in relation to her love for “Jesus.” Still, the personal collage of photographs she often posts made me step back with, Hmmm.

And speaking of T.D. Jakes. Recently I heard one of his sermons on YouTube, and the sermon made me think of my first Twitter follower. In his sermon, Bishop Jakes refers to “something bigger than yourself.” Full disclosure: I have doubts about “something bigger than myself” and yet I still believe in “something bigger than myself.” I just struggle with the how that Bigger works in my life and in the world. But as Bishop Jakes’ sermon grew more passionate and deep, I kind of started thinking about my first Twitter follower and how much she promotes “Jesus” and her love for Jesus through her tweets. And I juxtaposed those seemingly sincere tweets with the photos she displays and started trying to connect the photos with the under 140 characters she sends out each time she tweets about Jesus. There’s ambiguity to her Twitter page. On the one hand she’s (definitely) about Jesus; her tweets are all about Jesus and her love for Jesus. And yet on the other, her personal photos display trips to Paris and getting out of a limo and showing her followers her new office at a film studio, and selfies. And I began to think a little differently about my first Twitter follower and the message she’s sending to those that follow her. Does her love for Jesus mean that she isn’t narcissistic? Most of those on Twitter upload photos of themselves. Yet if you are selling Jesus I’m not sure a photograph of the Eiffel Tower in the background while you smile gleefully at the camera or uploading a first-thing-in-the-morning selfie has anything to do with your love for Jesus? I’m not saying my first Twitter follower is not about something bigger than herself, but I question—at least on Twitter—who is she trying to sell?

Taking stuff for granted

Although it is never my intention, I have come to recognize that I take stuff for granted. We all do in some way or other. It is so natural to assume we will always be here or that we will always have what we have. Even when we lose something of value or someone we love deeply, in time we manage our lives with those losses and resume our lack of mindfully being grateful for whatever we have or have achieved. We have forgotten when, or are too distracted, to engage with someone present enough to smile as we pass them, or a kind and thoughtful hello from a stranger who sees us. Have we lost the ability to live without having an agenda?

Every year about this time we go about telling ourselves we are grateful or thankful, and I am not sure of the distinction, although I do believe there is one, however subtle. Why do we need one day of the year to remind ourselves how blessed we are, or that we have much to be grate—thankful for? Should it not be something we naturally sense in our daily lives? A morning or evening prayer does not cut it. There are times when that can be perfunctory because habits are oftentimes done without being fully present. Even prayer. We should make some effort each day to reach out to be kinder, more in the moment. Life should not be rushed; it should be savored. If we are too busy or too caught up, we cannot naturally participate in this kind of exchange. We lose the essence of being in the moment when we over-engage in social networking. It is compulsive; it can be a distraction. We need to be reflective sometimes, not always reactive. So many of us are losing our ability to hear or listen because we are not paying attention to the sound of words; human interaction is natural. It is not enough to text or keep tabs on Facebook. While it has become a very convenient way to maintain connections, both with those we know and those we would never have known otherwise, something poignant gets lost inside the public display of connecting.

I began by saying that I have come to recognize my shortcoming of taking things for granted. In a conversation with someone earlier today, whom I had not spoken with in several years, we shared this conversation which gave birth to this post. Our passionate debate went back and forth about the whole idea of taking, or not taking, things for granted. We had different ideas about this, yet we both agreed that the commercialization of Thanksgiving makes being grate—thankful superficial; to a degree. At the very least, it is a one-day event, preceding Black Friday, which often ends with college football, overeating, and less about gratitude. I am not suggesting that taking stuff for granted is a deliberate thing. It is simply how we process our way through life.

The fading glamour of l.a.

Several days ago, as I drove through L.A.’s Skid Row, I was blown away at how much things had changed in L.A. while I was living in different cities: Seattle, Greenwich and Stamford (CT), and New York. I had not been to this part of downtown in many years–probably 20. Since relocating back to Los Angeles fulltime a few months ago I’ve visited the downtown area four times, including three times to volunteer for a film festival being held at L.A Live. The fourth, for an interview in the Ernst and Young building. Making my way through Skid Row I was struck by the unabashed poverty. Since moving back, a few times I’ve found myself stunned at the distinctions of those getting by and those getting richer. Once a subtlety, the nuances of this multifaceted, multicultural city have become much more difficult to interpret.

But Skid Row? I was aghast. I am not sure why I am taken aback at something that has been troubling for decades. Perhaps my own circumstance has forced me to see things in a more discernible light. Once, while living in Paris, I was accused of being “materialistic” by Americans I associated with. Those same Americans would view me differently today. While I never perceived myself as materialistic, I understood back then that living in L.A. came with certain stigmas. That has since changed because the city has become extraordinarily diverse and complex. This is no longer Tinseltown. Like the dry, withering palm trees because of the drought, the City of Angels is not as charming as it once was. Among other things, Los Angeles no longer holds its economic power and national importance as it did in my youth.

When I moved to L.A. in the mid-70s, the starving actor waiting tables or the struggling screenplay writer tending bar and doing chauffeur gigs to at least make the once-affordable L.A. rent could pull off being middle-class: a studio apartment in Hollywood with enough left over to eat, get into a nightclub or two and buy drinks, and to put gas in a decent car (which back then was absolutely essential in L.A., and gasoline was très cheap). When I first moved here there was nothing cooler than living in Los Angeles. If you wanted to be real you moved to Manhattan, but if you wanted to be cool you lived in L.A. It had perks: the sun, the beaches, the casual but trend-setting lifestyle. It was–at least it was my mind-set at the time–the place to be. Citroëns, TR6s, Rolls-Royces and MGBGTs were plentiful on the road; no SUVs. People lunched at chic restaurants in tennis outfits, and the Hollywood types (i.e., wannabes) drank Perrier at sidewalk cafés. With its looping freeways and sprawling panorama, albeit laid back, Los Angeles was a bit of a superficial town in those days.

Back in the day, law enforcement worked at containing Skid Row, and its breadth was not nearly as extreme. In 2014, roughly 5,000 homeless occupy 50 city blocks. As I made my way to my destination, I caught sight of a man sleeping in the curb on Alameda. Briefly, while at a red light, I said a quiet prayer. (Subconsciously I hoped that he was alive, but then later I would ask myself why. What kind of life is this? In what way is God using this man? This man’s purpose is to suffer?) He was a block away from the cluster of other homeless that crowded the two blocks of Skid Row I’d just travelled through, as some slept on worn sofas, various other pieces of furniture they managed to confiscate around the area, and cardboard boxes. Shopping carts and plastic bags were everywhere; perhaps containing personal belongings. The man sleeping in the curb wasn’t a part of the party-like atmosphere and rowdiness of the others. He just wanted to sleep. Making my way to Factory Place, just blocks from Skid Row where artsy lofts make up the Art District, I couldn’t shake the sadness I felt each time I swallowed. How—or rather why—does this happen? America is still considered a Superpower; irrespective of downgrades and economic woes. Whether it has become a myth or not, we preserve the image of being the wealthiest country in the free world. Redefining oneself is possible here. We greet the tired, poor, and huddled masses at the entryway because our country was founded, in part, on freedom and opportunity. How can a country with so many resources allow this to happen to its citizens? I’d like to see the data that can adequately explain (or even justify) the why. Have politicians distanced themselves from this, or has no policy been effective, or is the task so daunting they have just given up trying?

The homelessness I’d witnessed stirred me for a minute, and in a way I might not have been stirred before; at least not about something like this. I, myself, have walked over or around plenty of homeless in my day, but likewise have stopped to offer a little something. This is not the L.A. I once held in high regard; defended. Even when I was living elsewhere, L.A. remained my adoptive home. The struggling artist is now a barista, working at Chipotle, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. He or she is no longer a waiter or parking cars for a living until their agent gets them a role on a TV pilot. The would-be artists that come from small towns across America now live in two-bedroom flats they find on Craigslist and share with five other people and a dog or two. Undoubtedly, among the thousands of homeless on Skid Row there are some who once had that same Hollywood Dream that faded due to circumstances, or life in L.A.

Talking on your cell phone while the barista takes your order is RUDE

The day following Election Day I stood on line at Starbucks, glancing at election results from a newspaper someone left on a chair. The queue was out the door, literally. A young woman ahead of me was quite conversational and laughing openly with someone on her cell phone. Her conversation wasn’t necessarily a private one; still, most of us could hear about something having to do with an incident at a bar the previous evening. Once she reached the barista, he asked what she’d like. He was professional and cordial. The young woman says to the person she is talking to (which I will refer to hereafter as a “friend”): “Oh, I gotta order. Hold on.” She studies the coffee bar menu, undecided on what she wants. She asks for one thing but then quickly changes her mind. Also, she wants a grande instead of a venti.

The barista tallies her order. Meanwhile the customer resumes her cell phone conversation. She’s exhaustively chatty with her friend, laughing, so full of whatever–joy, maybe? The barista, polite and patient, waits for her to produce a debit/credit card, app, or cash. But she’s caught up in the conversation she’s having with her friend. No sooner than, it occurs to her that the barista is waiting for her to produce payment for her grande latte. Then, to my amazement, she decides she wants a pastry! She mulls over the various baked goods and finally decides on something, and she wants it warmed up. She tells her friend to hold on, she needs to pay for her order. She takes her cell and puts it up to the scanner.

Without missing a beat, she pulls out a few bills and drops them into the tip jar and resumes her conversation. She would not know what color eyes the barista had, or if he was black or white, tall or lean. Not once did she actually look at the barista.

Don’t let discouragement steal your passion . . .

Over the week-end I lived through two dichotomies. I was overwhelmed by the talent I witnessed while volunteering for an organization in Los Angeles, WriteGirl. These young women, high-school age, have powerful, poignant voices. Their creative expression is so, so inspiring. Should they choose it, their words will ultimately impact and shape the world. There were no coy voices in the house. Each young woman, seemingly uninhibited, stood and shared her raw language to an audience as if no one else was there to judge. I loved being a witness to this level of mature talent in young voices. They reminded me of the power of the written word.

Following that, I headed downtown to volunteer at the La Femme Film Festival. Another volunteer and I were standing together, waiting for further instructions so we started talking. He’s an Italian who moved to L.A. to pursue his dream to be a filmmaker. He’s been in L.A. for two months, having moved from New York. Already discouraged by the Hollywood process, he’s talking about going for his MBA and ditching the whole idea of being a successful filmmaker. L.A.’s too tough; doors aren’t opening. I remind him that he’s only been in L.A. two months. In his early 40s, he shared his frustration at not making it in film, and fears he is now too old. Maybe it’s time to face the fact that this is not his destiny. Instead, he should do something responsible or mature, like get an MBA. This is not a new story. Everyone I know or have known who becomes discouraged by the never ending disappointments of trying to make it, especially in entertainment, has a remarkably similar story. But I am determined to get him to see this thing from a different perspective. He’s reacting to what he perceives as failure. (Been there!) He has decided—having been in L.A. for a short time—that it’s way too time-consuming and he’s already done this song and dance in New York. It’s never good to make an important decision based on being frustrated with a painstakingly slow process; or discouraged because the timeline isn’t working according to your age. I told him not to make the choice to get an MBA because at this moment in his life he’s deeply disappointed. Life altering decisions should never be made based on discouragement. Give it—give L.A.—a little more time I told him. Or at least wait until he’s in a different state of mind.

Oddly enough, the following morning I was online and decided to catch a Joel Osteen sermon. In it he states, “Don’t let discouragement steal your dreams . . .” I only wished I could have shared those words with the discouraged would-be filmmaker. It was fascinating to experience a curious juxtaposition in one day. I started the day listening to aspiring, poignant voices. Young people with fire, desire, and presumably wonderful and creative lives ahead them. To then listen to a middle-aged wounded would-be filmmaker who was about to jump off the ledge of his dreams because he was deeply, painfully discouraged by an arduous process.