Also, if anyone would like to purchase for me Brenda Ueland’s book of essays, Strength to Your Sword Arm, please feel free!
I’m not sure why I was staring. Big, dumb, racist motherfuckers aren’t exactly rare in Texas. Especially in the nowhere parts. And they all look the same, like a sheet of construction paper that’s been folded and unfolded, India ink running all over, pooling into homemade skulls, vague biblical notions, and delightfully misspelled racial epithets. It couldn’t have been the trappings that got me gawking, because I’d seen these goofs up close often enough. Our circles overlapped on occasion back in Houston. Rock shows, mostly. A menacing row of shaved heads, flak jackets, and ox-blood Doc Martens at the Social Distortion show. Never really there for the music, even on their very best behavior (never) making the one black guy I knew uncomfortable. Actually the one black guy I knew was a skinhead, too. S.H.A.R.P. Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. Yes, that was a real thing. Maybe still is? I’m not Googling it in case my computer is ever seized in a federal investigation.
So, in one of the innumerable gas stations that light up I-35 between Austin and Dallas, I’m staring at this walking crevasse as he waits in line to pay for his Bud tallboy (Miller Lite is for Mexicans). And he’s staring, too. Not back at me, thankfully. But something had his attention and I didn’t need to ask because he let me know. He let the whole dozen or so of his fellow travelers know, “Whoa! That van is on fire!” It’s not often you get to use the word pandemonium in everyday conversation, so I need to take advantage. Pande-fucking-monium! At the absolute nearest gas pump is a white passenger van (propers to church youth groups everywhere), gas pump still in it, and flames are pouring out. No, flames are shooting out, like, even they don’t want to be around for the explosion that’s about to happen. And everyone in that gas station fast-forwards a hundred million years on the evolutionary timeline and teleports the fuck out of there. BAMF! Gone. Except one dumbass. You guessed it - Me. Skinhead is gone. My ride split so fast he left his wallet spinning, cartoon-style, on the counter. And there I stood, fogging up the window twelve feet away from a white, ten-passenger bomb. And the only thought running through my head was “Whoa that van is on fire!” A smart dumbass would have been stuffing cans of Dr. Pepper down his pants before he shot out the back door.
Profound moments of enlightenment are difficult to find and even more difficult to face. Kernels of truth can be tough to swallow, especially when my particular truth is - I am too fucking stupid to save my own life. Or worse, I’m just not that interested. It really shreds one’s hard-fought self esteem to realize that in a disaster situation you’ll - just go with the flow. “FIRE!” “Yeah, it’s beautiful isn’t it?”
FYI, Part 1 can be found HERE. Enjoy!
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NO is such an easy thing to say. It’s safe. NO keeps you out of trouble and protects you if an idea doesn’t fly. Saying YES, on the other hand, leads to work. And then more work. Have you ever offered an idea only be told, “Sounds like you just volunteered yourself, buddy?” In performance improv comedy NO is the enemy. Why? Because nothing happens. It is, at best, stagnation. Entropy. Improv training reinforces that it is okay for the character to say “NO” if the actor pushes them along anyway. Into the uncomfortable, the painful, the unknown. YES! Always moving forward. Like a shark.
Even more insidious than NO, however, is the withering death of “EH, MAYBE…” On stage it might be the simple failure of the improviser to make choices. Failure to react with real emotion. Failure to take the Red Pill because they are waiting for a better offer. None of which are as blantant as NO. In the corporate environment you might recognize it as “YES, BUT…” Because outright NO is so negative. And we’re all positive people, right? Accepting of others ideas? Certainly not an impedance - the “problem person.” So we say YES WITH CAVEATS (which is really NO without actually saying NO) until the seeds of good ideas are left to sizzle in the sun. And no one cares to plant any more. We could all use some fertile soil. On stage. In business. In life. A Culture of YES!
Some will cling tightly to their NO and argue that it is an important failsafe. That if you can find reasons to say NO, then the idea must not be good. NO keeps the garbage out and the best ideas will always rise to the top. Wrong. In a Culture of NO it is the least objectionable ideas that rise to the top. And “least objectionable” is not the same thing as “the best.” Far from it.
“So, Jay, I just hand over the keys to the castle to any kook with a half-baked notion?” NO! (See what I did there?) Ideas are not decisions. But you must give ideas a chance to grow before you make a decision. Nurture and explore them. Heighten them. In improv comedy it is the philosophy of “YES, AND!” Agreement and addition. What you bring to the table is great. Always. And since that is a holy truth, what if we added ‘X’ to that idea? Not all ideas will make the cut in the end. But, now we can make a decision about what is the best of several ideas that have been explored and expanded (cuddled, snuggled, rubbed up and down). See what you did there? You’ve begun to create a Culture of YES!
Next Week: In Praise of Failure