Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sometimes I Forget...

...but luckily I have this photo on my handy iPhone to remind me that life is, in fact, whatever you make it. Planning a trip back east to visit prospective colleges, I was losing my smile and spark after five days of whatever-could-go-wrong-going-so-wrong. I was so upset by what was going wrong that I forgot to remember what was going right.

The college options I had meditated and prayed for were materializing. At that moment I thought that was a burden, until my phone buzzed, and I saw the 'expect the best' photo and listened as my daughter told me which of her brilliant, beautiful and talented friends did not get in to their dream schools that day.

I couldn't make flights following a visit at NYU work out so I had to book our visit to Boston early, at a great cost for flights, hotel and transportation to and from the airport. I was adding it all up, and then my phone buzzed and there was the photo you see above flashing at me again. My gigs were moved to this week - and I would make up in one day what it cost me to move our travel. Matthew arrived on time to grab our bags and whisk us to LAX. The traffic was thick but we got there, walked in, put our bags on a conveyor belt, walked straight thru to screening and to our gate and onto the plane. It was waiting because the previous flight had been delayed by 3 hours. Expect the best...

We arrived at our hotel after a harrowing cab ride, taking us all over the place, past road closures and orange cones and up and around the bend. As I was going to complain about the route I checked to see the time on my phone and there it was again - 'expect the best.' I took a deep breath and imagined the rest of our stay as being perfect.

For the remainder of our time in Boston I walked my talk and expected the best. And it was. Including finding out my kid's best friend was staying in our same hotel and would be taking the train into New York with us. Not knowing any better we accidentally got into the quiet car - and were shushing our girls for three and a half hours all the way into NYC - laughing our butts off. Be vewy vewy qwiet...

Penn Station was a zoo - and my happiness began to unravel. I seemed to have so many mixed emotions about NYC these days. It had always felt like my town - its heartbeat matching mine and the pulse of the people walking and talking synced. But I had let myself believe that a large part of why I loved the city so much is that I once loved a man who lived there. False. False premise. We've been over this. I knew it to be false, but still I had uneasiness as I struggled to get my bearings coming up out the ground like a mole rat - thinking ok...which way is east?

The four of us travelers split up for a few hours and were reuniting in Times Square for dinner. I don't like Times Square. I never have. It reminds me of the cruise ships I sang on when I was young and just starting out. It's a place for civilians and amateurs. It is crowded and smells wrong. It is bright and noisy and people are stopping in the middle of the street and sidewalk and photographing billboards. Billboards that in their own community they'd launch a FaceBook page to remove. I'm so small I'm afraid that one day I will be swept up in the tide of humanity, never to be found again.

My uneasiness was growing. We were serendipitously meeting up with my daughter's high school group at a play that night, the Stanley Tucci directed "Lend Me A Tenor." While I was looking forward to taking that little Stanley man in my arms and letting him dip me back for the big kiss - I couldn't shake a strong sense of sadness. I was checking my watch for the time all day and so I had not been reminded to expect the best. "Lend Me A Tenor" was so brilliant I wanted to jump out of my seat and run up to the stage, knock Jan Maxwell on her butt and assume the role of Maria Morelli. We waited in the ubiquitous autograph line outside the stage door but apparently Stanley leaves first thing - lickety split - and so no kiss would be happening that night. I turned on my phone to see how much of a charge I had left and up came 'expect the best.' Right then, a very drunk young man made a ceremonious bow in front of me and handed me a rose. Then he and his friend then staggered into traffic - in front of an NYPD cop on horseback! I wanted to shout RUN to the boys - but instead I just slipped the rose into my purse and pretended it came from Stanley.

Saturday was spent at NY University - and I found it hard to focus on the positive. Know what I mean? I found myself looking for the flaw, the crack, the negative. I didn't know where any of this was coming from! Then my phone buzzed and there was a text from my friend Jill in California that made me laugh and the 'expect the best' sign that made me smile inside. My daughter and I walked the whole day all over NY - from Union Square to NYU and then all over looking at dorms and eating halls. We went to a cafe called S'mac and I treated the kids to a meal at a place that would have my butt the size of Florida if I ever lived in NY.

If I ever lived in NY. Hmm. When did if come into play? Why couldn't I shake this ennui? Is this where the anxiety was coming from? Was I chickening out on my plan?

I came back to the hotel before she did to change and met the most charming Texan ever. We made a date to have a drink on Sunday afternoon and I invited him to accompany me to meet my girlfriends for dinner. When my daughter got back we walked all the way down to the 500's on Broadway to shop - then over to Little Italy to eat - then back up to Union Square to sleep. I swear it was five miles we walked. Sunday we were up early to get my daughter back on a plane to LA. She was in a foul mood and we left without a kiss goodbye. Something I do not recommend allowing to happen. I grabbed a paper and sat in the lobby lounge reading the NY Times, doing the crossword puzzle, and having coffee. My phone buzzed - yes "E.T.B." came up - and it was my daughter telling me she was safely at JFK - and loved me.

I decided to go for a run. The day was glorious. There was a street fair on and I weaved in and out of the vendors stopping only at the guy selling albums - LPs - just looking. Out on my run I saw the real New York and the real New Yorkers. People just like me, doing what I would be doing, in a section of the city without neon or cabs or tourists or jet hotels. I grabbed a coffee from Dunkin' Donuts and sat in the square listening to some incredibly bad music and eating organic grapes. I heard the accent all around me that I love so much - that reminds me of my family. I unwound from the pressure of the college road trip as performed by a single mother who makes her living as an actress and therefore has no steady income and is not in her 30s.

Just then, because apparently it is my fate - a truly crazy man in a beard and mustache and white leotard and tutu and tiara and carrying a wand passed by and screamed in my face - "EXPECT MIRACLES!!!!!!" So right then, right there - ok, after I stopped laughing - I found I just didn't care. I gave it up. I let it go, just as I had all the other things in my life, both recent and not so. It was like a deep yoga cleansing breath. I expect miracles. And voila - New York got me back.

My mood and anxiety was over wondering how I could do it. I had to be reminded that I am Candi Freaking Milo - I can do anything! I laugh in the face of danger. I run from strangers. The rules do not apply to me and never have. Moving to NYC was never about a guy. Moving there was about following my heart. So I put my hands on my chest and listened to my heart and found that the rhythm of it matched the city's. I promised to remind myself that in New York I am beautiful and funny and happy and free. To remind myself that the money for college will find it's way to me. That every curse of this trip was truly a blessing. That Stanley should have waited.

Up walked the Texan with a rose for me. He and his insurance group were out enjoying the day. We did end up going for a drink but the date ended there. I couldn't listen to a man in a bolo tie talk about the 'freaks he saw on the streets. Bunch of liberals.' Oops. These are my peeps he was talking about. So I walked away. Three blocks uptown to be exact and met my girlfriends at Giorgio's - and we closed the place giggling and being girly about where I was going to live WHEN I moved to New York...

A bit tipsy I wobbled the three blocks back to my hotel and flopped onto the huge king bed. My phone went off and EXPECT THE BEST flashed before my eyes. The text was from my daughter telling me I was the best mommy in the whole world and that she loved me.

I drifted off to sleep thinking to myself - wow, imagine what would happen if I expected miracles...


Monday, April 05, 2010

Have You Got 72 hours To Spare?

About 5 years ago I started to work with the USO of Metropolitan Washington DC. That's when I went on my first 'tour' with them. The word tour is in quotation marks because I live in the unsung world of animation voice over. So my tour was not to Iraq. My first tour was stateside. Yes, I am the type of celebrity that is able to eat in restaurants almost every day and am NEVER bothered for my autograph. Now I will admit that if I want to play around with kids I simply whip out a little "Maya" or "Dexter" or "Mrs. Wakeman" or "Cheese" or "Coco" behind their backs and let them wonder who it came out of...

Anonymity serves me. I act because I love to - and not for any fame it may provide. OK. That, and the check. My lack of TV recognition for anything other than the plethora of on-camera commercials I have done has never caused me a moment's concern - until my first USO tour.

I arrived at Washington Dulles airport and was met by a woman holding a USO sign with my name below the logo. I have not ever felt so unworthy of a sign and a free ride. I murmured while on the way to Walter Reed Medical Hospital that I didn't think any of our soldiers would know my voices, let alone who I was. I was assured by my driver Dick that they would. And that, in the big picture it really didn't matter. I wouldn't understand that last sentiment until I got there.

When we arrived at Walter Reed a young man took my ID and then asked our driver to pull to the side. He was heavily armed and I was a little worried. Do you think my moving violations preceded me? When we pulled over he asked me to exit the vehicle. I was nervous. I got out of the car and the soldier grasped me in the biggest bear hug and told me that he proposed to his wife while watching an episode of Dexter's Lab. And then he took his picture with me and waved us in. We pulled up to the USO spot reserved in the front of the hospital and a staff of three people awaited my arrival. When I got out they shook my hand and hugged me, grinning from ear to ear. This one's 5-year-old loved me in Maya & Miguel. This other one loved The Flea from Mucha Lucha. I was feeling less insecure.

We entered the building and my ID was processed, my phone confiscated and we grabbed the first elevator up to the admitting ward. I was handed off to a sergeant who led me around for the rest of the day and held my hands when I couldn't enter another room. The drill was that I was robed and gloved before entering any returning warrior's room. First permission was asked of their family - and then we were asked to come in. I was prompted not to ask how they were doing - but to thank them for their service, welcome them home, give them a photo, any goodies I had brought with me, and then take a Polaroid snapshot with them if they wanted.

The first room I entered was a boy's. It had to be a boy. His chest was torn apart and had been stitched together. He was missing an eye and his head was swathed in bandages. He wanted to meet me. I walked in and saw him and the first words out of my mouth were, "How are you?" And he told me. It had been less than 48 hours since his surgery and less time than that since his airlift from Iraq. He had come in contact with an IED - and it had torn the holes in him. All I remember besides his sweet, sexy smile was that he couldn't wait to get back to his unit. We took a photo - I gave him an autographed one of me, left a message in one of my voices for his cell phone and climbed into his bed for our Polaroid. He was loving it. He wanted to make his wife jealous. She had apparently stepped out to grab a bite to eat. He was 19.

The way it goes, I learned from him and others that day, is when you are injured you are assessed in the field. They decide right there if you can make it through the airlift to Germany. If you can, you are immediately taken from the field to Germany. There they make another assessment and get you immediately to the USA - and into Walter Reed or Bethesda Hospital. You are then worked on - and either 24 or 48 hours later some woman who does cartoon voices is climbing into bed with you. There is one image seared into my mind - the wounded able to walk arriving through the front doors of Walter Reed Hospital with their gear still in their hands.

Next room. Traumatic head injury. This man was a firefighter from Massachusetts with four young children when a device exploded and a balcony collapsed on him. He communicated by blinking and small movements of his index finger. After leaving him with a million bits of swag and a hug - and stuff for all of his children surrounding him I walked out grinning and collapsed myself into the arms of the sergeant. Twelve more rooms to go. Twelve more brave young people who had given all for us. The others on the ward too sick or exhausted or traumatized to see the likes of me.

Each person I visited was grateful to be alive and excited, willing and as soon as they were able - wanting to get back to their unit and support their efforts. The cart following me from room to room with the goodies sent by Cartoon Network was slowly emptying. But we weren't done.

I was whisked in the van from Walter Reed to Bethesda where the same thing happened. I was greeted by hospital brass, de-phoned and sent room to room. More amazing strong and brave warriors.

From there I went to a children's ward and sat and colored with the children too young to really understand the concept of a grown woman making funny voices for a living. I want you to know I colored a little bit better than the 4-year-olds. Thank you.

I was then taken back to my room and allowed to rest. The next day I visited Ft. Meade and Indian Head - to visit and sign autographs for children. It was July and the weather was stifling but these children, hundreds and hundreds of them, lined up quietly and patiently to get their autograph, a hug from me and some goodies. I spoke with the spouses of deployed personnel and asked them how they coped. It was as hard as you imagine.

I then had a quick bite of a sandwich, some popcorn and a bit of spun cotton candy and moved on to Quantico - where I met with many many many fans of The Flea. I signed autographs and made jokes and then I was done.

I had a bite alone at the Old Ebbitt Grill in downtown Washington DC - which is now my favorite restaurant in Washington. and just the act of being silent and alone allowed all the feelings, the signals, the emotions, the events of the past 48 hours to wash over me. Just so you know, THIS is where I first learned to say I was crying because my dog died...

The last day I was taken to one last base filled with kids anxious to meet me before I was whisked back to Dulles to fly home. I don't recall the base - but I recall noticing the tireless and fearless work the men and women of the USO were doing. They had arranged all the goodies that the kids were allowed to pick from, were manning the tables, had prepared and were serving the lunch the kids were eating, were supervising the cartoons being shown prior to my arrival and were cleaning up after the close to 300 children who had passed through the door.

I ran out of photos to sign and ended up signing my name to toys and t-shirts and napkins. I was thanked for not forgetting them, for thinking enough of them to fly myself out, for considering returning and finally for the work I do.

I thought back to the first day that I arrived and saw the USO sign with my name below. I had felt unworthy of the attention. But I now got what Dick meant about fame not mattering in this case. It didn't. What mattered was that I cared enough to come and say thank you. In 72 hours I had met people with true courage, true grace and true humility, and they were thanking me. Wow.

I committed right then to serving the USO of Metropolitan Washington DC - and have been back 7 more times to visit with our troops. I brought others with me - both voice over and TV stars - and I called us the "Toons on Tour." I even got an award for most miles traveled (their cute way of thanking me for my dedication) at a dinner with Jon Stewart.

I haven't been back for a bit because the economy made it impossible to rustle up a team of 'toon' travelers or to wrangle the studio goodies that once came so easily. But recently I reconnected with my friends there and am putting together another trip. I've put out the calls - but so far only 1 person has said a definitive yes.

Here is my challenge to you: If you have all of your limbs, a beautiful family, your health, a job and a life you look forward to every single day - I think you need to ask yourself - do you have 72 hours to spare?

Mr. Tucci - want to come with me this May?

You know you love me - Candi