I’m alive

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I’ve just been living in the present. ūüôā

Or, rather, have been too busy to write.

 

Expect more this weekend perhaps; in the meanwhile, the rule I’ve been working on for May is “Dig deep into relationships.”

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Musings

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I have no idea what the future holds.   This could (and typically would) freak me out.

But this month, I feel invincible. ¬†I am being present. I am living in the moment. ¬†I am staying out of my head and I’ve stopped writing my future.

I’m (we’re) happy right now, and that’s what counts. ¬†The rest will sort itself out as it comes.

Irony.

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This is a sad state of affairs that we’ve gotten ourselves into.

By “we”, I mean society.

Let me explain: a funny thing provoked me the other day.  I went to lunch with four colleagues, where we proceeded to have a great, intellectually stimulating conversation.  As we stood up to leave, an eery sense of silence blanketed the conversation.  Master of small talk that I am, I chirped in to alleviate the awkwardness, only to find that I was the only one to find it jarring.  Why? I was the only one actually there!

Nope, my colleagues hadn’t walked away from me, but they had abandoned me. ¬†For their phones. ¬†Almost immediately after our lunch (now remember, we all have to walk back to the same building together), they tuned out of the present situation and into their phones. ¬†I am making no judgments about them as people – they are wonderful, kind, friendly, smart people. ¬†But they are simply serving as a snapshot of what society has deemed an acceptable standard.

Then today, I was riding on the L. ¬†I was standing near a mother and her little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old. ¬† She looks up at me with these big, beautiful brown eyes of intrigue, and I couldn’t help but smile back at her. I’m telling you, we had a moment. ¬†Like any sensible 2 year old who makes eye contact with a stranger (albeit a friendly one), she begins to tug at her mom’s sleeve with both anxiety and excitement. ¬†“Mom, look at this lady! She’s smiling at me! But she’s a stranger! What do I do? Do I smile back?” ¬†Her mother continued to text away at her phone, with a rushed, “Honey, Mama is texting. Hang on.”

How do you ignore the opportunity to share this beautiful moment with your daughter? This creation of yours is looking to you for guidance!  What are you teaching her about love? About people and connections? About technology?

Now, you may think I’m being too harsh. Maybe there was an emergency, and that mother really needed to be texting to figure out the situation. ¬†Maybe it was one of those hairsplitting days where you just simply fall behind and need those five minutes on the commute to catch up. ¬†I get the merit of phones in a work situation; a friend finally convinced me to get a smart phone when he mentioned all of the career opportunities that he attributed to his being able to respond to emails the fastest at a time when he was one of the first to have internet on his phone. ¬†I get it – the internet gives us several advantages in daily life.

But what are we giving up, in exchange for this convenience?  Rich, meaningful connections?  Our well-being?  Are we purchasing unlimited data plans and asking for the social isolation option?  Are we being forced to accept Timeline and a dose of loneliness as well?

I do research on this in graduate school. ¬†I’m sure most of the people in my program think I’m a crazy hippie who is completely against technology and few would expect that I would keep a blog (hence the title of this¬†blog¬†post.) ¬†I mean, in a way, am I not my own perfect subject, putting so much of my life online for the world to read, instead of confiding in my close others? (Although, to be fair, I definitely do still do that, and to a greater degree than anything that I’ll ever put here… sorry blogosphere.)

I think that I’m different (ha, but then again we all choose to see ourselves in a positive light), because I would never pass up the opportunity to interact with someone in real life for the opportunity to interact with someone on a computer screen (which brings up a whole different set of issues about how to maintain long – distance friendships, but that’s another post entirely that I don’t feel like delving into.) ¬†I’m of the mind that the internet is a great tool to keep us in touch with those that we love, but that ultimately you have to be where you are. ¬†That is, life is meant to be experienced first hand, not in some way that is mediated by a screen. ¬†There is something special about the present moment, and you can’t let that escape you.

See, I say all of this. ¬†But I’ve caught myself using my phone more and more. I had to fight the urge to pull out my own phone when my colleagues all left the lunch table with theirs, actively reminding myself, “No, Liz. This month’s rule is to be present.” ¬†I catch myself checking my email compulsively as soon as I wake up in the morning (is there no sanctuary anymore, not even my bed?) ¬†When my brain is fried at work, I hit the refresh button over and over again on my email, hoping for something new to magically appear to entertain me, instead of walking down the hall to say hello to an equally brain-fried friend. ¬†YUCK.

A while ago, I limited my Facebook use to 10 minutes each day (which is sadly still a lot of time – that’s 70 minutes each week; 60 hours each year. ¬†I use StayFocusd for Chrome – and they’re not even paying me to say that!) It’s one of the best things I could have done for myself; I’m trying to get my time down still. ¬†I’d like to imagine that I spend all of the time that I used to spend on Facebook engaged in more productive pursuits. ¬†Although I unfortunately lost my watch recently and the new one I ordered hasn’t come in yet (hence for the meanwhile, I am inevitably glued to my phone as a way to keep track of time), I promise that as soon as I can, I am going to turn my phone COMPLETELY OFF during the day, and only check it a few times in the evening. ¬†And those of you who interact with me in person, hold me to that!

No one likes discovering bad things about themselves. ¬†So far this month (and it’s only been a little over a week), I’ve realized that I’m a bit of a hypocrite. ¬†You can’t research how the internet relates to loneliness and relationship satisfaction and think you are immune to the effects. ¬†In trying to stay in the moment, I’ve been more cognizant of all the times that I haven’t been present, where I’ve had to actively tune back in. ¬†And given the appeal/ease of virtual¬†communications, sometimes it’s been hard.

But you know what? ¬†So far, worth it. ¬†For that little girl’s smile, for the heightened smell of spring I got from walking in silence with my colleagues, for the feeling of closeness I felt when I chose to go over to my boyfriend’s apartment instead of proceeding to text him – all completely worth it.

Be present.

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Wow. Something really cool happened tonight. I got out of my head.

What a perfect way to start my month of April. ¬†At first, I didn’t know what my next move would be. ¬†Make statements really did help me with establishing my point of view (although this is still something I continue to work on in my improv; thanks for drawing the connection there, R). ¬†But what would come next?

It seems sort of counter-intuitive to this project, but I want to stop thinking so damn much about all of the rules. ¬†Between this project and my iO class, I’ve been finding myself so caught up in the details that I’ve been unable to appreciate the art of improv. ¬†(Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much enjoying both this project and my class.) ¬†But sometimes, it’s important to just be present and out of your head. ¬†That allows us to react honestly on stage, and to stop planning everything ahead of time. ¬†My improv teacher says don’t bring a cathedral. ¬†Bring a brick and we’ll build the cathedral together. ¬†In other words, don’t try to plan a scene ahead of time – instead, work with the people on stage to make something real. ¬†To successfully do that, you must be present in the scene.

So what happened in class tonight that was so awesome? ¬†We were getting individualized challenges/constraints on our scenework, which were focused such that we would work through some of our weaknesses. ¬†My instruction was to babble: whenever my scene partner wasn’t talking, I was just to begin talking immediately and to keep talking incessantly until she interrupted me. ¬†Oh, also I was supposed to focus on a particular desire that my character might have. ¬†We were best friends – I went into the scene thinking, “Okay, I want her to be my best friend for life.” ¬†But my scene partner gave that gift to me almost immediately, saying in one of her first few lines how glad she was that we could be so comfortable together and how she could never imagine that changing. ¬†I still had to babble, even in spite of the fact that I no longer had a clear motivational force. ¬†And that’s when something beautiful happened. ¬†It hit me: I love her as my best friend, but I¬†actually¬†want to make other really good friends, because I’m afraid of losing her (we might go to different colleges…, or one of us might get married and move away…) and afraid that my inability to replace her would¬†devastate¬†me. ¬†It was something magical, really – a discovery in the truest sense. ¬†(In improv, when we talk about “discoveries”, we mean bits of information, or “gifts”, that we did not know existed at the beginning of the scene but, through an exploration of the characters’ relationship and their behavior in their current situation, emerge as preeminent and fundamental facts about our characters.) ¬†All of the sudden, the stakes were higher. I was invested in what my scene partner had to say about my fear of being without her (maybe a bit co-dependent, but then again, who hasn’t occasionally had that thought about their best friend?) and I was less focused on planning what I would say next because I had no idea what she was going to say to me.

…my focus went from inward¬†(‚ÄúWhat am I going to say/do next?‚ÄĚ)¬†to outward¬†(‚ÄúWhat did my scene partner just do and how do I react to that?‚ÄĚ).–¬†Ben Bowman

So that is going to be my task for the month of April: Make honest discoveries. ¬†Be in the moment. ¬†Stay out of your head. ¬†There’s a whole big beautiful world happening out there – go see that, Liz, rather than hanging out inside your head all of the time.

You know.

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My improv teacher hounded us the other day:

“You don’t ‘think.’ You¬†know.”

She had asked a woman who was preparing to go onstage, “Who is this person to you?”

“I think he’s my fiance. ¬†I think we just had an argument.”

But in improv, there is no script. ¬†We are our own playwrights. ¬†When we make a decision, that decision is truth (re: Respect one another’s realities). ¬†We need to make statements and stop being so wishy-washy. ¬†The audience is looking to take our cue, so we need to be bold and confident when we assess the situation.

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This reminds me of something I’ve realized about the way women articulate ourselves. ¬†I scoured the psychological literature (and some of the sociological literature), but surprisingly and unfortunately, I can’t find anything about this. ¬†However, I’m not the only one who’s noticed; the web has a few forums where people have discussed it:

Women often preface their thoughts with, “I think,” or “In my opinion.” ¬†They end their statements with, “you know?” and litter “right?” throughout their speech. ¬†If you’re saying it, we know it’s your opinion – you are not an encyclopedia. ¬†If we are following you and not asking questions, then yes, we know what you mean. ¬†You don’t need to seek reassurance throughout your speech.

It frustrates me, because it makes women seem unsure. Subordinate. Like they lack confidence.  And I get even more frustrated when I realize that I DO THIS.

When we throw these clauses at the beginning of our sentences, we look like this:

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“I think that I have an opinion, but I just want to let you know that it’s just my thought and I may be wrong, so actually, I’m not really comfortable saying that I have an opinion of any sort afterall.”

Why do we slam ourselves this way? ¬†Perhaps it makes us ¬†more sociable, more open to hearing others’ points of view and exchanging ideas. ¬†Maybe we’re worried that if we didn’t preface our opinions in this way, people might perceive us as bitchy, or as cold (a double standard, for sure). ¬†The worst part is that I think most of us do it without conscious awareness – it’s been drilled into us from a young age that it’s okay, and socially preferred, for us to regard our opinions and thoughts in this manner.

I need to think more like my friend’s mom: ¬†she was featured in Forbes magazine as being one of the most successful female¬†entrepreneurs. ¬†She’s a very respectable person, a woman of power. ¬†And she talks like one, too.

I haven’t started my own multi-million dollar business or anything, but I, too, can be a woman of power, if I talk like one.

(For instance, I just resisted the instinct to write “I think I can be a woman of power too.”)

I don’t think – I know.

Be vulnerable.

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In improv, you’re supposed to play characters as a thin veil of yourself.

Instead of playing a doctor as I would expect a doctor to act from my vast array of experiences (i.e. my own doctors, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs), I should play Liz-as-a-doctor (i.e. Liz if she was given the responsibility of determining someone’s treatment plan, Liz if she was sleep deprived and trying to understand a complicated medical thing.) ¬†This makes the character more real – instead of being a walking, talking prototype, the character is a real, earnest, genuine person who you could imagine interacting with in real life. ¬†I can only speculate how a doctor would respond to making a wrong diagnosis, but I can imagine vividly how I would feel about screwing up my data analysis (oh, grad student Liz.) ¬†Using that emotion (the feeling of having screwed up as a PhD student) to compel me forward in the scene will be much more sincere and engaging to the audience than seeing me mimic what it might be like to screw up the job of an MD (of which I have no experience.)

Playing scenes this way, close to home and the heart, is the focus of my Level 3 improv class at iO. ¬†A lot of people in class have an issue with playing scenes this way and my teacher has to continually push them: “How does this make you feel?” ¬†Why do they have such an issue with it?

Vulnerability.

People don’t like to be vulnerable. ¬†Being vulnerable makes us weak. ¬†Vulnerability gives people the opportunity to see what makes us tick, but they could use that against us. ¬†But being vulnerable also makes us humans. ¬†It shows that we need other people (after all, we’re an innately social species… of course we need other people.) ¬†Being vulnerable lets us connect to other people. ¬†Being vulnerable shows that we’re willing to trust others – “I know you could hurt me, but I am willing to open up to you anyhow.”

One reason why we’re hesitant to be ourselves on stage is because we don’t want to go to deep in front of an audience of strangers. We think to ourselves, “Oh, surely I can’t play ‘heartbreak’ sincerely because I might risk touching upon my own experiences with heartbreak. ¬†I might let others see how much I was hurt.” ¬†(Personally, I find it exhilarating to do this, but that’s because I’m weird and love to do things that terrify the hell out of me. ¬†For instance, I’m afraid of heights and going skydiving this summer.)

I have this theory that every time you interact with someone – your boyfriend or girlfriend, your mother or father, your neighbor, a stranger on the street – you give them a piece of you (metaphorically) that you can never get back. ¬†But you do so willingly, in hopes that they’ll give you something in return. ¬†You take the risk, you trust someone else.

In improv, it’s the same way. You give a piece of yourself to your fellow improvisers and to your audience. ¬†You trust them to invest in your scene, to make you look good, to believe your characters. ¬†You trust that they will only make you love improv even more.

On stage, make statements about how you¬†genuinely¬†feel. ¬†Be¬†authentic.¬† Otherwise, what’s the point? ¬†The scene will not know depth that makes it believable – the scene will be a caricature with two cartoon actors. ¬†I know heartbreak sucks and it’s scary as fuck to take another stab at it. ¬†I know asking for help makes you feel small and incapable. ¬†I know sometimes your decisions don’t work out the way that you planned and admitting those mistakes means admitting confusion and possible defeat. ¬†But in real life, we have to make statements about how we genuinely feel. ¬†We need to open up and be authentic with the people that we care about. ¬†Otherwise, what’s the point?

Our ability to be vulnerable makes us beautiful.

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Author’s note:

Writing this post, I googled “vulnerable improv” and was (a bit naively) surprised at how frequently the topic has been discussed. (Even though this idea is new to me, it’s clearly not objectively new.) ¬†Here are a few:

http://thefiz.biz/Vulnerability%20in%20Improv.htm
http://forum.austinimprov.com/viewtopic.php?p=73000
http://www.yesandspace.com.au/?p=2008
 

This post was partially inspired by this great TedX talk, here: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

I think it’s ironic that I haven’t told you what else inspired it – for fear of putting too much of myself (of being too vulnerable, perhaps?) on the www.

An introspection: vulnerability explains why the people that I improvised with in college became some of my closest friends.

And finally, I leave you with this quote:

‚ÄúTo love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.‚ÄĚ – CS Lewis


What’s so bad about questions?

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My improv instructor makes a buzzing noise whenever we ask a question on stage. BEEHHH! Wrong.

Okay, so these are the types of questions that you don’t want to be asked on stage:

I don’t want to be held accountable for having a good, spontaneous answer to those questions while I’m in front of an audience. ¬†But in life, these conversations are actually interesting, and you have the opportunity to think through your point of view.

You can learn a lot about people from the questions that they ask and the answers that they provide. ¬†I get that by asking questions, you put a burden/responsibility on the other person. ¬†Maybe the other improviser hasn’t yet decided what their mother thinks of their tatoo, or in real life, your little brother hasn’t decided where he’s going to college yet (“So stop asking me, Liz!”). ¬†But in a way, by asking a question, aren’t you giving a gift? ¬†An opportunity for that person to share a little piece of themselves? ¬†If they don’t yet have an answer to the question you asked: you’ve given them a friendly environment in which to hash it out. ¬†Questions let people put their world-view out there to maybe impact someone. ¬†We influence each other more than we are aware – for instance, letting others know that you think voting is important might inspire them to vote as well.

In college, my then-boyfriend wrote a play. ¬†The main character’s girlfriend was loosely based on me (original, I know). ¬†Honestly, he did a pretty good job of characterizing my mannerisms and way of speaking. ¬†So good, in fact, that I became self-conscious when the actress that was playing her complained to my playwright boyfriend: “This character is so annoying! ¬†All she does is ask questions! ¬†Doesn’t she have independent thoughts of her own?”

I do! ¬†But I love learning about other people. ¬†Sometimes I still get self-conscious – when I catch myself in question mode, I think back to that offhanded remark. ¬†I don’t think I should be penalized for my insatiable desire to understand where significant others in my life come from, their stories, their background, their opinions, their characters. ¬†Plus, by asking questions, I’m making statements: “I am interested in X. Tell me what you think of it.” Or, “I am interested in you. Please tell me more about yourself.”

I’m in the questions camp. ¬†Don’t be a dick about it on stage or in life – respect others’ opinions and realities, and don’t make them do all the work (be ready and willing to open up, yourself). ¬†If you utilize questions as another way to build¬†relationships and explore new possibilities, then questions shouldn’t be prohibited. ¬†They’re just another tool you have at your disposal.

Invest.

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Nope, I don’t mean financially. ¬†I am not qualified to give you financial advice. (Hell, I need a little bit of help on that myself. ¬†Do you¬†know¬†how difficult it is to figure out taxes if your income is a graduate student stipend?!) ¬†Invest in your relationships and the lives of the people you care about. ¬†

I’ve heard many an improv instructor say these words. ¬†But this statement is a gift that keeps on giving: each time I hear it, I unearth a new meaning/life lesson from within it. ¬†My most recent exposure to this statement was in an exercise in my Level 3 iO improv class. ¬†We were performing two-person scenes where the improvisers had to focus on a specific task but could not discuss it. ¬†So, for instance, two women were conducting an alien autopsy. ¬†WHAT?! If I’m conducting an alien autopsy, my first impulse is going to be to discuss how disgusting I find its guts – to tell the other improviser on stage how this situation makes me feel. ¬†That’s a statement, right? ¬†Check! Done! Rule abided.

Okay, sure, that’s a statement, but that violates the constraints of the exercise. ¬†¬†Instead, the two improvisers were coworkers who were chatting about how annoyed they were when their sisters ignored their texts and phone calls. ¬†They acted like the alien autopsy was no big deal, because it¬†wasn’t¬†a big deal to those characters. ¬†Rather, they invested what they were saying to each other, and grounded the scene in their connection, rather than in some environmental detail. ¬†It made the scene more interesting to watch.

In life, there’s a lot of merit to making statements. ¬†It helps people see where you’re coming from, which facilitates relationships and understanding. ¬†But you can’t just walk around making random statements. ¬†You’d sound like a robot. ¬†(Image robot voice) “I am a graduate student. I do experiments. You are my friend. We are getting coffee.”

Make statements about how you feel, what you love, what you hate, and what you think about what the people you surround yourself with love and hate.  Make statements about your goals and dreams.  Make statements about the things that make you a dynamic human being.  That way, people can invest in you.

The other day, I was talking with my good friend, G. ¬†To my embarrassment, I had no idea what a typical day in G’s life was like. ¬†I have a basic understanding of his job, and I know some of the people that he hangs out with, but for being such a close friend, I felt like I should be able to recall much more about him! ¬†Am I really that terrible of a listener? I typically pride myself on my listening skills (although my memory is¬†abysmal.) ¬†But no, I actually know a lot about G. ¬†G is a very good example of someone who makes statements that make him a dynamic human being. ¬†G loves improv and wants to make it as a professional improviser. ¬†He loves getting to know people new people. ¬†He appreciates his family more than most people I know, but in a very subtle way. ¬†He is not afraid to be himself, even if it puts him in a vulnerable position. ¬†In fact, I think he prefers the excitement/raw connection inherent in that exposure. ¬†He holds his friends in high esteem. ¬†He is a people person. ¬†G used to be frustrated by status. ¬†G doesn’t like when people are half-ass committed to the things he loves. ¬†G makes dynamic statements about himself, and because G is someone that I care about, I invest in him and those statements. ¬†They tell me a lot about who he is, and guide my behavior and thoughts regarding him.

In life, what you do doesn’t matter. There are thousands of PhD students, improvisers, Chicagoans. ¬†What you do doesn’t matter. ¬†It’s who you do it with.

(Tell that to your significant other. ¬†They’ll get a little twinkle in their eye.)