Never stop learning

When were you last in a classroom? Some of you probably still are, while some of you may not have been in one for years, outside of the inevitable parents’ night for your own kids.

Next question: When did you last learn something new that was not related to your job? And by “learn something new” I don’t mean picked up a new fun fact on the internet or heard some juicy gossip. I mean actually studied a skill or subject in an effort to master it.

If the answer to the second question is a longer time than the answer to your first, then I have some advice for you. You don’t need to be in a classroom to learn, and you shouldn’t stop learning new things just because you’re no longer in school.

Now, I know the excuses a lot of people probably have. Number one: “Learning new things is hard…” Number two: “Learning new things is too expensive!”

As for number one, it’s really not that hard at all. The only block is the thing you stick in your own way that says, “No, I can’t!” It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, you know what? Self-fulfilling prophecies are utter crap. They only stop you because you put them there. If you want to learn a thing, the only obstacle in this age is not lack of resources, it’s the lack of you trying.

Imagine if you’d had that response to learning to walk or talk. You’d still be stuck in the corner babbling incoherently and relying on your parents to carry you everywhere. Short of actual physical impediments to learning — e.g., a blind person is probably not going to become a photographer — the only impediment is the defeatism between your own ears.

Regarding the expensive part, that used to be valid. But even then, not really. There were and still are things called libraries, where anyone can have access to books and other materials (including audio and video) on any subject for free. And for the last 25 or so years, we’ve had this thing called the internet, which is the world’s biggest, vastest library. If you have access to that — and if you have a smart phone or computer, or if you’re reading this, then  you do — then all of the knowledge in the world is at your fingertips, and resources for what you want to learn are just as far away as a simple search.

Sure, some things cost money, but a lot don’t. Funny thing about humans — some of us who acquire knowledge love sharing it for the sake of passing it on. And if you’re already paying money for a streaming or music service, then you probably have access to videos and podcasts on your subject via those, so it’s really a free bonus included in an amount you’re already willing to fork over.

As for learning things way after school, I have a few examples. The earliest one was not long after school, but of necessity, because I no longer had professional IT people to help with computer issues. So I basically learned how to be a PC mechanic, and so have installed, built, rebuilt, repaired, rehabbed, recovered, and re-everythinged a ton of computers in my day.

One of my proudest moments, in fact, was when I figured out — without any manuals or guidance — how to internally rewire a keyboard that was designed for one system to be compatible with another. Of course, I don’t have any official certifications for any of this and, unfortunately, it’s one of those fields, like being a doctor or lawyer, where you really can’t just walk in and say, “Hey, I can do that!” and get a job. Oh, if it were, though…

But life and learning goes on, and here are two recent examples, long past the day they handed me my degree.

I’ve discussed both of them here frequently. One is relearning Spanish after having learned it and forgotten it in high school, and my only expense has been voluntary costs for Spanish language magazines and books I bought to study with or read, many of them gotten cheaply at a local used book store.

I’m currently a third of the way through my first novel in Spanish and, although it’s a translation of the English book Ready Player One, I’m really following it easily, and that’s not a cheat, because I haven’t seen the movie yet. And yeah, it’s a YA novel, but that’s probably my Spanish level at the moment anyway. Cool how that works out, right?

The other example is improv, which I’ve also discussed here. While I’ve always loved to watch it, I didn’t start to study it until about two years ago. I had never studied it because the mere idea of trying to do it scared the living feces out of me. What — go on stage without a script and just make stuff up? Yes, I’m a writer and an actor but writers take time with their words and actors get scripts and rehearsal. Throw both out and go there and… whaaaat? No. I thought I could never, ever do that. But the chance came up, so I took it. (Note: This part was not free, but the minimal cost has been worth it. Don’t negate my thesis over that, please.)

Anyway… trying to improv scared me through all of those early classes and into actually doing it weekly onstage. But then a funny thing happened. I let go of the fear and started having fun and, suddenly, improv became enjoyable, and the more I learned how to do it, the more I learned how to be myself. Ironically, the big secret was learning how to shut up my writer brain and let my body take charge. And this tapped into another skill I had avoided learning for way too long only to find out that I enjoyed it: Dancing. But that’s a whole other story.

But the same thing happened with Spanish. The more I just forgot about the little grammar Nazi in my head and just strung words together with abandon, the easier it got to speak, and letting people know that they could correct me if I got it wrong and agreeing to not take it personally just helped with the learning. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And probably the key point in learning a new thing is to never take correction personally. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers are bad at giving correction without making it personal (like every math teacher I ever had — a-holes!). But the best teachers give correction by suggestion or question. “That was great, but have you considered…?” “Amazing, but now let’s try it this way…”

Now, I’m not saying that you have to learn a language or improv, but what I am saying is this: No matter how old you are or how incompetent you think you might me (you’re not) pick a thing you would like to learn, and go take a shot at it. If you can’t afford lessons from the pros, don’t worry. You’ve probably got a local library and can find tons of instructional books. You can probably also find groups of willing volunteers who do the same thing and want to help. That thing can be… whatever. Quilting. Scrapbooking. Trainspotting. D&D. Gaming. Activism. Some sport. Fanfic. Cosplay. Improv. Please let it be improv… or playwriting. Yeah, I’m that kind of nerd.

But I love all kinds of nerds. And, full circle. The common thread, I think, about us nerds, is this: We never stop learning about whatever interests us. And we need to spread the word to the muggles, and it’s this: Never stop learning ever. Period. Full stop. Learning to humans should be like swimming to sharks: To stop is to die. Unfortunately, way too many people chose to die when, instead, they could really enjoy living.

Don’t think, just do

As I’ve mentioned here before, improv was one of those things on my bucket list precisely because doing it scared the crap out of me even though I loved the art form as an audience member. Two years ago, I found out that a friend of mine was involved with a local improv company, ComedySportz, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1984. The L.A. franchise opened in 1987, making it now the longest-running comedy show in the city.

So I saw my first show two years ago, in October 2016, then found out that CSz had improv classes, figured “What the heck,” and dove in from there. After a year of classes, I joined the Monday night Rec League, and just began my fourth season, each season being three months long. So from first class to now, it’s been close to two years.

But… it really wasn’t until last week’s show that I had a major breakthrough and realized how I’d managed to make a leap in my abilities.

It was simply this. I came into improv as more of a writer than an actor, so I tended to play in my head. I would write the jokes ahead of time and then jump into a scene. The end result? It was all kind of forced and awkward, and it also cut my mind off from what my body was doing.

And then, one night, I turned that brain part off and it was a revelation. Instead of trying to plan the jokes out ahead of time, I made an effort to not think of anything beforehand and just jump into it and… damn. That made it feel like a quantum leap ahead.

Right off the bat, it led me to win a team head-to-head game that, normally, I would lose immediately. If you’re into improv, it was “What You Got?” This is basically a dance/rap battle in which we’re given a subject, and then the leader starts a chant in rhythm and movement that fits it, then the team follows. So, for example, if the suggestion is “Dairy Farm,” the first team leader might start with “Milking a cow, milking a cow, milking a cow, what you got?” combined with milking a cow gestures. After the first “milking a cow,” the rest of the team picks up the chant and the leader’s movements. If the team doesn’t get it or the leader can’t come up with anything, then that team loses and they ro-ro-rotate, bringing another player up.

Previously, in this kind of game, I’d try to be planning two steps ahead, with ideas in my head while the other team played. And they’d do their thing and I’d jump out and do mine and find out that I’d either really failed to plan it or had failed to listen to the other team and would just repeat their rhyme. Either way… ro-ro-rotate.

But once I stopped planning ahead, something interesting happened. I could just jump out there and do the thing automatically. It was like my body knew what to do and was just dragging my brain along. And so, in a game I’d normally lost, I was the last player standing and won, and it was not an easy suggestion. The Ref asked for a color and an audience member said “chartreuse,” and… come on. There’s not a lot that goes with that, but after my second suggestion of “Gotta repaint now,” the other team whiffed it really hard.

Funny thing is, this is how I generally write as well. Believe it or not, I usually start with the basic suggestion — i.e. the topic — with only the vaguest of paths in mind, but then I spark it up, let loose and… voila. The rest is stream of consciousness.

And yes, I totally get that writing this way would have made half of my English teachers in school apoplectic and the other half ecstatic. “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” I didn’t appreciate Joyce when I first met him via a fanatic in my junior year of high school. Years later, I read Dubliners and The Dead, then finally Finnegan’s Wake and… damn. He really did for Postmodern English what Shakespeare did for Modern English. He created a language and a way of thinking that really went beyond thinking.

And by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to the original subject. I’ve learned that the best way to think in improv is to stop thinking. After all, kids don’t think, they just act and react. It can be annoying to adults but, on the other hand, kids can be pretty damn creative and also don’t really care what anyone else thinks.

That is the true secret of improv and creativity. Don’t think, just do, and enjoy, and, most of all, don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks about you because… big secret? Everyone else is too worried about what you think of them to give a damn about what they think of you.

False friends and other stuff

As I wrote about previously, learning at least one other language is something that’s good for your brain, and not necessarily as hard to do as you might think, especially depending on how your native and second languages are related. For an English speaker, Germanic and Romance languages are probably easier to learn than Semitic or Japonic languages. Not necessarily the case — I know plenty of Americans who’ve learned Hebrew as pre-teens or learned Japanese because of a love of Anime and Manga — but sticking to other languages with common roots will help.

And if you learn one language from a family, while you may not be able to fluently speak related languages, you may at least be able to understand them. From learning Spanish, I can often understand spoken Italian, as well as frequently be able to read French and Portuguese. No such luck with Romanian, though. And yes, although it might be a surprise to some people, Romanian is a Romance Language, too. In fact, it’s the one that gave the family its name. Because I’d studied German, Dutch made sense to me when I dabbled in it. And so on.

But… a funny thing can happen as languages diverge from their origins and change. All of the Romance languages came from Latin. They are the remnants of the Roman Empire, after all. But all of them evolved and changed until they went from being street dialects of the imperial tongue to their own very separate things. The same thing happened with English. It started out as a language spoken by a tribe on an island off of the west coast of Europe with influences from a different language from other tribes on an island off of that island’s west coast. This got a heavy early dose of Latin thanks to Roman invaders. Then, a few centuries later, it was infused with Nordic Languages via the Vikings and, for a while, the kings there were Danish.

That all ended when ol’ William the Conqueror came roaring in in 1066, bringing French with him. In fact, for a long time, the nobility spoke French while the peasants spoke English and everybody went to church in Latin. We can still see remnants of the Norman Conquest today. It’s so often cited that it’s not really news, but that’s why we have different words for the animals: cow, pig, chicken, sheep; and for the meat from them, beef, pork, poultry, mutton. The former are all old Anglo-Saxon terms and the latter are French. The peasants grew the stuff. The nobility ate it.

The French roots are still really obvious in the latter: boeuf, porc, poulet, mouton. Meanwhile, the Germanic roots are really clear in the Anglo-Saxon words: Kuh, Schwein, Huhn, Schaf. The one odd one might seem to be chicken, Huhn — until you remember that we call a female chicken a… hen.

(Side note, looking at poulet and mouton: The reason that a lot of English words in British spelling have –ou where the American versions have just –o is that Samuel Johnson had a jones for preserving etymology, so words derived from French kept the French spelling — colour, behaviour, etc. Johnson was kind of a pedant — which is just a fancy Latin-based word for “douche.” But I do digress.)

The real point here is this: One of the big bugbears that language learners do face is what are called “False Friends.” That is, words in two different languages that look like each other, but actually have very different meanings. At their most harmless, they can lead to silly misunderstandings. At their most harmful, well… that’s self-explanatory.

Probably one of the most famous examples that any English speaker who takes Spanish 101 learns almost off the bat is this one: Embarazada. For those of you who haven’t studied Spanish, I’ll give you a moment to take a guess at what this word means. Hint: It’s an adjective.

While we’re waiting: One of the funniest (to me) Spanish errors someone can make is to leave the tilde off of the “n” in the word “años,” which means years. In Spanish, the phrase is not “He is X years old,” it is “He has X years.” So leaving the tilde off changes a statement like, “My grandfather (is) has seventy years (old)” to “My grandfather has seventy anuses.”

As for embarazada, what’s your guess? If you said embarrassed, then be embarrassed, because it actually means pregnant.

Speaking of actually… it’s generally easy to convert adverbs from English and Spanish and mostly be right. Adverbs that end with –ly in English end with –mente in Spanish. Probably, probablamente. So the word actualmente might look like it means actually… but it doesn’t. It means currently, as in “right now.” Actualmente escribo un artículo por mi blog. Right now, I’m writing an article for my blog.

Easey peasey. Or, in Spanish, pan comido, which literally means “eaten bread,” but I think you can see how that relates to another English saying: “piece of cake.”

Other fun false friends: Carpeta is not a carpet, which is alfombra, a word that Spanish borrowed from Arabic. Rather, carpeta is a folder, particularly a file folder. You’ll see this word all the time if you switch your devices to Spanish.

And there’s another one. Dispositivo might look like it has to do with disposing stuff, but it doesn’t. This is the word for devices, particularly phones and tablets.

If you work for a business or company, then you might feel like they’re getting all imperial on you. Easy mistake to make if you misinterpret the Spanish word therefore: Empresa.

Looking for a way out? Then you don’t want the éxito, which is actually a big hit — un gran éxito is a song or movie or TV show that earns a lot of money. If you really want to go, look for la salida.

If you want to introduce someone in Spanish, then don’t use introducir, because that means to insert something, and I don’t think you want to get that intimate with your… um… introductions. Instead, use presentar.

On the other hand, molestar in Spanish is a lot more innocuous than it is in English. If you molestas alguien en español, at most they’ll look at you funny and walk away. If you molest someone in English, you’ll probably wind up in jail and on a list. Molestar in Spanish simply means “to bother.” As Winnie the Pooh might say, “Ay, que molesta.”

Then, there’s this one: Fingir. I know what it looks like, but what it really means is “to pretend.” But if you go around fingering people in English… well, without their consent, don’t.

Finally, if you want to wash up, don’t reach for the sopa unless you want to bathe in soup. Otherwise, what you want is jabón… not to be confused with the Spanish word for ham, which is jamón. And this word may or may not have appeared in Michael Jackon’s “Bad.”

I haven’t done this in reverse, but let me know if you can. If you’re a non-native speaker learning English, what words in our language look like but aren’t words in your own? And if you’re an English speaker learning something other than Spanish, what false friends pop up in your target language?

Comment below!

If you love it, you’ll learn it

When you’re learning a new language, there’s one excellent method to increase your vocabulary and improve your fluency, and here it is.

Different people have different learning styles. Some people learn visually. That is, if they see it, they won’t forget it. Others are auditory learners, who pick things up via hearing. And there are also people whose learning method is tactile, through touch or physical motion.

Now, some of those skills seem to apply obviously to certain disciplines. Painters are probably visual learners, musicians are auditory, and dancers are tactile. In the case of language, you might think that it’s an auditory skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. Fortunately, you can use different tricks to learn a new language via your own method.

For visual people, it’s all about words, so the obvious best natural ways for visual learners to pick up a new language are reading and watching.

For auditory people, it’s all about sound, so they’re going to want to listen, although videos won’t hurt if they do have sound as well.

For tactile people, it’s all about sensations, so they’re going to be doing a lot of writing things down by hand.

That part of the lesson may seem like a “Well, duh” moment, but the key is in what you’re reading, listening to, or writing. If you want to learn a new language, treat it like your first language.

That is, whether you’re reading, listening, watching, or writing, you’re going to want to do it with things on subjects that interest you. I can’t emphasize this enough. What you should be doing is seeking out online resources in your target languages — generally newspaper and magazine sites — and then focus on the sections that pertain to your interests.

Whether you’re a fan of movies, TV, sports, fashion, politics, or whatever, if the content in the target language you’re scooping into your brain via your preferred method happens to be about topics you already love, then your contextual understanding is going to go through the roof.

Why? Well, because specialized topics happen to use specialized words, and the quickest way to start to understand the heart of a language — which is how words are derived, how idioms are formed, and so on — is to pick up those words that were created to describe your favorite topic.

I’m a fan of film and theater, for example, so a word I see a lot is taquilla, which means box office. As in English, it’s both a literal and metaphorical meaning. It can refer to the physical place where tickets are sold or to the amount of money a film or play took in.

But where did taquilla come from? Well, like a lot of words in Spanish, it came from Arabic (La Conquista lasted for centuries), and taquilla is a diminutive for “taca.” That word, in turn, came from the Arabic taqah, which referred to a window with bars — a good physical description of a lot of actual box offices, actually.

Incidentally, pretty much any word in Spanish that begins with “al” came from Arabic, where the al- prefix just means “the,” similar to how Spanish combines the articles “a” (to) and “el” (the) into “al.” For example, algodón, which means cotton, and which is also the source of the English word; or alfombra, which means carpet, and this gets back to the focusing on what you love idea. Alfombra was permanently cemented in my brain after seeing it in a few articles about movie premieres always in this context: “en la alfombra roja.” On the red carpet.

The best part is that this is not just limited to Spanish, thanks to the internet (either la internet or la red), because you can probably pretty much find resources in any target language somewhere. If you want to read, you can find national newspapers in the native language and probably plenty of websites — and it will also be a big help to adjust Google’s language settings to include your target. If you want to watch or listen, then there are also tons of videos in other languages. And if you learn by writing, you’ll need source material, so transcribing audio or copying the written word will help as well.

But, again, the key to it is this one simple bit: engage with what you’re interested in in the first place, and it will make your target language come alive in a way that rote lessons or drills or routines never will.

Love it, live it, learn it!

Image © Syed Ikhwan. Used via Creative Commons license 2.0.

Tiny changes, big results

Sometimes, the smallest changes in your working space can make big differences in your work. Here’s a how and why on the zen of writing by not writing.

It’s amazing what a small change or two in your physical space can do for both your mood and productivity. This is especially important for writers who work from home. You need to be comfortable in your work space.

I hadn’t been comfortable for a while because my desk chair had gotten old. The padding on one armrest had come off and I’d replaced it with duct tape and a sponge. Thanks to the time I spent overweight, the hydraulics had slowly given up until the chair sat way too low for me — I’m 6’2” and all legs, so that wasn’t good either. It also creaked like the Tinman’s knees before Dorothy got to him any time I turned it, which was annoying.

The other problem was that the keyboard drawer under my desk came off. Somehow, the rails had gotten bent and jammed, and in trying to fix that, the wood hold the rail on the right side shifted. End result: the rails were just a hair too far apart to hold the drawer up.

Enter a free chair. And not just any chair. I was given an Aeron that someone didn’t want anymore. In case you don’t know, these are the chairs that were infamously bought by tech companies during the dotcom bubble and have a reputation for being ridiculously expensive. How ridiculous? Used models go for a few hundred bucks, and new ones can be well over $1,200. My old office chair cost me about $99 at Staples.

The nice thing about this particular model is that it goes up really high. I can actually lean back and bring my feet off the ground, and for once my knees aren’t elevated when I sit. It’s also adjustable nine hundred ways from Thursday — tilt, height, armrests, backrest, and so on. It is a million times better than my old chair.

But…

(And there’s always a “But…”)

Suddenly, having my keyboard on my desk became terribly inconvenient and awkward, so it was time to figure out what to do about that drawer. I found a perfect replacement online. The only catch was that all of the brick and mortar stores I found it on didn’t actually sell it in the stores. But I had my new chair! I was full Veruca Salt: “I want it now!”

It was not to be.

The next day, I tried finding the thing locally, starting to think outside the box. I tried CVS and Walgren’s websites and found nothing. And then I tried hardware stores and suddenly it clicked. I didn’t need to replace the whole thing, since I still had the drawer itself. I only needed to replace the rails.

And there they were, for one-fifth the price of a new drawer — the perfect 12” drawer sliders. And the websites for both hardware chains told me they were in stock, so I was off to shop… and to find out that one of those stores lied. Out of stock, so I made the drive to the other store. At this one, they were in stock, but they were not in the aisle or bin their website or app said they were. In fact, they were one aisle over and six bins down, but I finally found them. I grabbed those and some extra 1.5” wood screws because I thought I’d need to re-attach a wooden edge to the drawer, and then it was home to play handyman. That’s right, I can cook, bake and use power tools! I can also improvise, on stage and off, and I had to. Remember, the problem wasn’t just bent rails on the drawer. I’d forgotten that the right rail support on the desk had shifted.

So… a little extra cardboard under the right rail on the drawer, and then a convenient foam tube that came as padding with something I’d once bought to brace the desk rail support against the tubular leg, and in a few minutes, voilà! Good as new. (That padding and cardboard were a reminded that my sometimes packrat tendencies to keep interesting things around sometimes come in handy. Don’t worry, I’m far from a hoarder. The cardboard came from a replacement scale I bought recently, as in “might still need a warranty return,” and the foam tube — think of a four-inch pool noodle — was just interesting.

But now to the point of this ramble. With just these two changes, my workspace has become really comfortable again, and it feels good to be sitting here. And successfully finding an off-label use for hardware and doing grown-up stuff like fix a thing all by myself was a great ego boost as well. I didn’t need an adult’s help, I didn’t look anything up online. I barely read the instructions that came with the sliders.

So there’s a dual lesson. First, do one thing to make your personal work space more comfortable for you. Define “comfortable” however you want. Maybe it will involve totally rearranging the furniture or getting completely new furniture. Maybe it will be as simple as finding a cute tchotchke in a thrift shop or a comfy throw to put on your chair. If you’re low tech, it might even come down to finding the perfect pen.

But make it a project, and then find other little projects to do around the house. Find things that are not writing because you will find, in those times when you’re focusing on that project, your brain is silently working on some plot point or structure issue that’s been blocking you. Or, if nothing is blocking you, your brain will spit out a completely new idea or two.

Did I mention that the entire idea for a TV series fell out of my brain while I was sitting under my desk with the cordless drill and three-way flashlight? Because it total did, although part of it was inspired by the misadventures involved in finding those drawer sliders in the first place.

Make your work space comfortable and you’ll make it inspirational. Occasionally focus on creative projects that are not writing, and your subconscious will inspire you. And thus endeth today’s lesson — quite often, our biggest writing helps have nothing directly to do with writing at all.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Chapter Fourteen

This chapter comes with its own cookbook, documenting DIY condiments and a few recipes I’ve customized. But first… advice on learning how to do something and a shout out to some friends.

Putting it all together

If you’ve come this far, then you’ve followed my journey through some really hard work, and if you’ve managed to get a good start at it, congratulations. Don’t stop and don’t give up. But half of the fun of changing your life is finding new and more creative ways to do it. This chapter is going to be all about the practical, and I’m going to share some of the recipes and replacements that I’ve discovered and altered to fit my diet over the last year and a half.

Previously, I’ve discussed healthier versions of various seasonings and condiments, but you can also make your own versions of the latter, and the best part about doing so is not only do you have complete control over what goes into them, but you can fiddle around and adjust the recipes to suit both your own dietary needs and your palate.

And, like anything else, the only way to get better is through practice. The more you do anything, the better you get at it. Look at one of my non-cooking examples: I walked into my first improv class at the beginning of 2017 being absolutely terrified of even trying it. Just under a year later, at the end of 2017, I started doing it for real for audiences as often as I could and I am loving it.

Another example I haven’t mentioned. At my (former) workplace but still freelance office away from home (long story), there’s a ping pong table. Before I got out of the hospital, I never even tried to play. I thought I’d be terrible at it, honestly. It was something that I watched my two office besties, Peter and Cooper, do all the time for well over a year, and they were both quite good at it, but I was intimidated.

But then, not long after I got out of the hospital and was feeling better, I figured what the hell, let’s give it a shot. And I sucked. Peter and Cooper could both kick my ass with their eyes closed, although to their great credit they really held back at first. And they also taught me, little by little. While I’m not as consistently good as either of them to this day, I can still manage to sometimes hold my own and win a game or two, although I will never take it as seriously as Cooper does and I will never mind losing to Peter because he’s nice about winning.

But I do digress.

My point was that my progression on both fronts — improv and table tennis — is one of the biggest lessons I want to share with you, my loyal readers. You can’t get good at anything if you don’t try, but you have to understand that when you try it at first you’re probably not going to be any good at it. If you are good from the start, then congratulations. You’re a prodigy, and you should absolutely keep going.

Don’t be afraid to ask others for advice or to teach you. Peter and Cooper taught me how to play ping pong, among many other things. Rick, Holly, Jen, and Abel, along with all of my fellow students, taught me how to do improv, among many other things — and every audience I appear in front of teaches me a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.

I’m going to share a little bit with you about how to cook, but don’t be afraid to seek out the help of others. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, an American chef and food writer, can teach you all about the science of cooking in his books and blog, and there’s a copy of his weighty tome The Food Lab in my kitchen right now — although be careful with his stuff, because he does lean a bit toward too much salt. Listen to him for the how of cooking; not so much for the exact ingredients.

It might seem strange that I’m both promoting and criticizing Lopez-Alt in the same paragraph, but the fact that he teaches science-based cooking brings up a good point. When it comes to the strict chemistry of things, salt is really, really useful. It’s a preservative. It helps to denature proteins and make them cook better, and it facilitates necessary reactions in baking. When I first discovered him, way pre-hospital, I followed his recipe for scrambled eggs, which involved tossing in a teaspoon of salt with the raw eggs, then letting them sit for fifteen minutes before whisking and cooking.

And yes, they were the best scrambled eggs I’d ever had. And they had at least 2,325 mg of sodium from just the salt, never mind what came from the eggs and milk. In other words, it was nearly twice what I’m supposed to have in an entire day in a single breakfast item.

So… not really a viable roadmap to follow without editing the ingredients yourself and acknowledging that some bits of cooking magic will be impossible. On the other hand, if you stick to his methods regarding cooking tools and times and techniques, then he’s absolutely worth following.

There are also cookbooks geared toward specific dietary needs, like both editions of the American Heart Association’s Low Salt Cookbooks, which happen to be sitting right next to my copy of The Food Lab unironically. Any brick and mortar bookstore or online retailer (although, please, go to the former first!) will have an array of books designed for low-sodium, low-fat, sugar-free, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, halal, and any other kind of diet you can think of. You can also find books, and plenty of blogs, teaching general cooking techniques.

One go-to blog for me personally is SodiumGirl which, despite the title, is oriented toward low-sodium diets. Other useful sites are FatSecret for tracking calories and keeping a food diary, and EatThisMuch for meal-planning, although you’ll need to set up a free account in order to customize beyond daily Calorie count. I tested it without being logged in, and the first suggested menu under vegetarian options blew my sodium count with breakfast alone, so be aware.

But let’s get to cooking and start it out simple, with the All-American trio of condiments: ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Thirteen or start with the Prologue.