Thursday, December 25, 2008

What do you want for Xmas?

Every year, most of us get asked, "What do you want for Christmas (or Hanukkah)?" This is to insure that the gift is appreciated and not reviled, like a fruitcake would probably be by most recipients. It's also to save the giver time and energy trying to figure out what you'd like. That's why Amazon and other sites let people create wishlists.

But sometimes the annual question can be a challenge to answer. Especially this year, when we keep reading about layoffs, foreclosures and how many people can't even afford to put food on the table. Saying, "I'd like some fleece pajamas," when I already have several pair or, "How about a sweater," when I have a shelf full, seems greedy. I am fortunate not to need stuff, yet I still enjoy giving and receiving gifts. Who doesn't like the anticipation of holding a wrapped package someone chose for you? Tearing off the paper (or carefully pulling off tape so you can reuse and be green)?

However, most of the things I truly want can't be bought. The main thing I want right now is to stop worrying. To not wake up in the middle of the night ruminating about the economy and when and if it will improve. Wondering what impact the downturn will have on my condo, my voiceover business, whether or not I'll sell a book(s). I try to turn off those nagging thoughts and go back to sleep, but it seems that once I get started down the worry path, my concerns feed upon themselves.

I keep reading about living mindfully, which means focusing on what you are doing in this moment...noticing details about each action you take, the sounds you hear, and things you touch. Doing this is supposed to not only help reduce stress but make you healthier.

That is the gift I am going to give myself this year. I'm going to devote time and energy to this pursuit, and hope I can incorporate some strategies and revel in the benefits.

Here are just a few sites on the topic:

What are you giving yourself?

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fast Talking and Persistence

What can you do that others can't? My special skill is fast talking. Some people open their mouths and beautiful singing comes out. I open mine and words pour out at an amazing, yet understandable, speed.

How do you make the most of your special skill? Is it just for fun, or can you make some money with it?

More than 15 years ago, I was on America's Funniest People. They were at Planter's 'Americas Funniest Nut' auditions. I'd put together a high speed history of the peanut. While many auditionees couldn't take the peanuts out of their auditions (they were dressed as peanuts, etc), I could talk fast about anything. So they videotaped me. The head writer of an original musical revue I'd been in for several years happened to see the program, and started having me do a short fast talking skit in the show. Over the years I did a high speed traffic report, voice messaging system, summation of the millenium, in the Gore-Bush election a review of hanging chad developments (challenging, because my lines changed every day) and in 2007 asked presidential candidates how they could help the US (including a line about what they'd do if the country plunged into a depression. Hmmm.)

Many times during an audition, a casting person reads the special skills section of my resume and asks me to do a sample fast talk. It still surprises me that people are so entertained, but they always laugh out loud and ask how I learned to do it, saying, "You should do legal tags," or something similar. I even auditioned for Joe Sedelmaier, the director of that famous Federal Express spot with the fast-talking guy. He said I was great but he didn't need any more fast talkers.

I have had other non-paying fast talker roles. When I played one of Will's six single sisters in The Will Roger Follies, the director asked me to summarize the first act after intermission. I had a small speaking part in a short, sweet film featured on Chicago's public TV station's progam Image Union . I'm about 1 min 15 seconds in HERE, and also about 2 minutes and 10seconds in HERE. (Reality TV fans will note that the kissee after me is Ambre Lake, from Rock of Love.)

Despite getting a lot of mileage out of and having a lot of fun with this special skill, impressing many and making audiences of up to a thousand people to
applaud (often a laugh and two rounds of applause in 45 seconds!), I hadn't earned a penny with my fast talking. Until this week.

One of the voiceover directory sites I'm on had a audition for a speed talker. I read the sample script and included my fast talking voiceover demo. And they hired me! So you never know when continuing to do what you enjoy and are good at will pay off financially.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Freelancers often have to choose between many opportunities...some presented to them, others they'd like to pursue. It's exciting to have a variety of options, but when none of them are sure things in terms of producing income, what's the best way to prioritize?

I could work 12 hours a day and still not complete all of the projects on my current list. Examples include: a former co-worker has expressed interest in having me turn a screenplay into a novel. For weeks, I've been spending a lot of hours on a huge, paying VO project (yea!), so I haven't made time to market my voiceover services to production companies or finish final revisions on my latest complete so I can send it out. A friend who has been adding humor to the beginning of another manuscript at the request of an agent will soon return the pages, and I'll need to review those in a timely manner. (I'll save the discussion of "what is funny?" for another day.)

Now the flurry of holiday activities has begun. For example, I spent a lot of time last week rehearsing for and singing in at Navy Pier's Winter Wonderfest, but passed on rehearsing last night and singing again today.

As a person who thrives on productivity, I'm annoyed when I hear that nothing happens in the publishing and acting industries in December. If I submit or contact potential clients, will my efforts fall on uninterested eyes and ears, or will my stuff at least be higher in the pile on their desks when they get around to it in January? Should I push on with my projects or take off like so many other people do? Do I just write off the remaining days of 2008and focus on having fun, or press on and try to accomplish some things amidst the revelry?

I'd feel too guilty doing nothing but holiday activities. So for today, I'll press on.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Wasting Time

Email, IMs, Facebook, email groups and text messaging have made communicating with friends so much easier and a lot more fun. Yet, if we aren't careful, all of these fabulous staying in touch tools can also be huge time sucks. One of my 2009 goals is to reduce the number of emails I receive and manage those I need more efficiently.

I am currently part of more than 40 Yahoo! groups...almost all are writing related. I'm on digest (which means I get bunches of individual emails combined into one), but I still get at least two dozen digests a day. On another email address, I get notification emails from magazines I subscribe to and stores I've shopped at. I will unsubscribe from most of those...but some I've tried to cancel keep coming back (like trying to get your name off a snail mail catalogue list--can it be done?).

How many times a day do you hop on Facebook or reply to comments/write on walls/tag pictures? How many chatty emails from friends do you answer/how much time do you spend IMing during the workday? Do you stop working on a project to IM? All these things take you out of "the zone" and reduce productivity.

I challenge you to add up all the time you spend on email on a given day. Then look at how much time you had to spend, for example on work emails or urgent matters, compared to how much time you chose to spend on casual blah blah blah, no matter how fun that might be.

The lure of emails is often difficult to resist. What can we do to take control?


--Instead of constantly monitoring your emails and responding haphazardly throughout the work day, set specific times to answer them, such as a half hour at lunch. Set a timer.
--Set up a separate email address for friends and another for Facebook/MySpace, so that you aren't distracted when you need to look at your business emails.
--Turn OFF IM while working.
--Turn OFF the incoming email sound on your PC. And your BlackBerry/phone.
--Decide to stop the chain and not reply to every reply with another cute joke or "Thanks" or "Talk to you soon."
--Ask friends NOT to send you links to videos etc. Or if you can't NOT look at every single thing a friend sends you, make sure to set a time limit.
--DO find an efficient way to organize your emails so you can easily revisit those you need.
--Do an end of the year cleanup and remove yourself from all lists, groups, store emails that you don't REALLY need.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Technical Difficulties

What frustrates you? I have a very low threshhold for remaining calm when dealing with computer problems. Everything from a loose cable to a malfunctioning USB port can cause problems, so they are often a time-consuming challenge to diagnose.

I'm having a static issue with a voiceover client. Though my 44,100Hz, 16-bit, 128Kbps file specifications (not that I know exactly what all those things mean, but I played Concentration enough to see when two things are alike) match those of other voiceover talents she uses, when she converts my clean-sounding MP3s to the format she needs, she hears static.

I've tried troubleshooting every which way. Fortunately the client is willing (for the moment, at least) to check out test files I send after trying potential solutions. I use Audacity, great, easy to use, free recording software. First I rerecorded the script to see if maybe my initial MP3 got messed up somehow, because she said the first few jobs I did for her were fine. And I have no idea what I might have done to my computer that makes it different from a week or so ago. Didn't work.

Then I tried adjusting some settings (faithful readers are aware that I am not a recording engineer, so it's frustrating enough to choose between ID3v1-more flexible or ID3v2-more compatible, or deciding if real-time dither and high-quality dither should be shaped, rectangle, triangle or none). That didn't work, either. I had a VO friend with more engineering skills try to figure this out, and tried yet another settings change. No go.

Today I downloaded the trial version of another home recording program, Sony Sound Forge Audio Studio. I'm figuring out how to get it to do the tasks I know how to make Audacity do. I'll send a test file Monday to see if somehow that solves the problem. If not, I'm not sure what else to try...sigh. Fingers crossed...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Room with a View

For the first time since fleeing corporate America to be Gainfully Unemployed, I went on San Juan, Puerto Rico!

Here's the view from my hotel room in Isla Verde:

The many benefits of taking a vacation include:

1) R&R. Slowing down the pace of everyday living, letting some stress go, by reading under a cabana by a beautifully landscaped pool (and sipping the occasional frozen drink). Walking on the beach through the surf in the morning and at night. Not being on a "I shoulds" or "I have tos." Turning your (carefully sunscreened with a high SPF) face up to the sun in a cloudless blue sky.

2) Expanding your horizons. Learning about our world is fascinating, but most of us don't make the time. Do YOU know where Puerto Rico is? I am admittedly geographically challenged. Until I decided to go to PR, I only knew it was south of Florida, but not its actual location (south east of Cuba, about a 4 1/2hour flight) or its place in US history. More on that next week.

3) Wining and dining. On vactaiaon, you have time to savor leisurely meals, partake in and learn about local cuisine, research popular and out of the way spots. Both of us really liked mufungo, which is mashed plantains mixed with meat or seafood...two we tried with red snapper were particularly tasty, one at the upscale Aguaviva and the other at Mi Casita, in a small strip mall next to a Baskin Robbins near our hotel, recommended to us by a cab driver.

4) Communing with Nature. Big city residents don't often get to immerse themselves in natural beauty. So we appreciated a half day tour to El Yunque rainforest in the mountains, with waterfalls and winding, precarious paths.

The minor downsides of vacationing:

1) Missed Opportunities. As discussed in an earlier post, freelancers can lose opportunities for work if they go out of town. Sure enough, I couldn't go on an audition for a bank commercial that filmed out of town. I was able to reschedule an audition for a play (they asked me to audition, so maybe that helped) and salvage an emergency VO recording by doing it the minute I got home, at 9PM). The friend I went with missed out on the chance to do a fast food VO audition and to participate in a backer's audition for a new musical.

2) Is there such a thing as too much time? Those of us accustomed to running around saying, "I have to do this, that and the other thing," may be surprised by how many hours there are in a day when you don't do any work, chores or errands at all. Settling into vacation mode and accepting that you deserve time off takes a mental adjustment.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Bright Side

As faithful readers know, I tend to be a worry wart. These days, the stock market freefall and horrible reports about the economy make it painful to check my 401k balance and read the newspaper. So instead of dwelling on things I can't change, today I'm going to look on the bright side of life (as they advise in Spamalot).

Supposedly if you act happy, you'll release endorphins and actually feel happier. On the other hand, excessive worrying/stressing out can result in various ailments from back pain to ulcers to lost sleep/concentration and headaches.

10 things I'm happy about today, in no particular order:

1) The price of gas, which even in my neighborhood is under $3.00.
2) Free TV shows on the Internet.
3) Good customer service. Kudos to US Cellular for having a rep who actually sounded concerned about my BlackBerry problem and knew how to fix (Unlike AT&T Internet, where I seem to have trouble even getting to a real person and wind up with the rep who is reading a script by rote, line by line, and when I say I've already troubleshooted wants me to redo the basic stuff like turning off my modem. Ooops. There I go with the negativity again. You see how easy it is, even with the small things?)
4) A great book to lose yourself in.
5) Supportive friends and family.
6) People who do what they say they will when they say they will.
7) Returning clients who are happy with my work and want to give me more. And without having to audition.
8) Events to look forward to, including my vacation, plans with friends, shows I have tickets for, and the holiday concert I'm singing in.
9) The sense of accomplishment when I get stuff done.
10) Good health.

What 10 things are you happy about?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Goofus, Gallant and Rules

Perhaps you too read Highlights magazine as a kid and remember Goofus and Gallant. Whatever the social situation presented, Goofus did the "wrong" or impolite thing, while Gallant did the "right" or polite thing.

I thought of them while in line to vote at 5:50am on Tuesdsay morning.

There were already 10 or so people there when I arrived at my polling place, but because of the configuration of the small lobby, no clear line had formed. I automatically asked where the end of the line was. As did each person who arrived
after me. Someone would point out who had gotten there first and who was last. Each newcomer took his or her place, and with cell phone or iPod waited to be let in. People were smiling, pleasant, and friendly despite the early hour.

I thought, "What a nice neighborhood I live in. This is the American way."

Until a woman barreled her way into the now crowded room and, as it happened, cut in front of me. She didn't make eye contact with anyone. She frowned. Clearly she was, at this moment, a Goofus. So I wondered, what would Gallant do? Would he let her get away with rude behavior, or call her out on it and put peer pressure to work so she'd go to the end of the line?

What makes some people think the rules don't apply to them? Are we obligated as Gallants to speak up, stand up for ourselves, or should we turn the proverbial other cheek and rise above rudeness? How bad does bad behavior need to be before we'll take action?

I chose not to say anything. But obviously I'm still thinking about it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Vacations and the Gainfully Unemployed

I've already expressed my views on holidays: paid days off cherished by the Gainfully Employed are to the Gainfully UNemployed days we 1) won't be contacted for new work or 2) should continue with projects in progress, especially if they are billable.

So if taking one day off is a mental challenge, its no surprise I haven't taken multiple days off to go on an actual vacation. Which I define as a period of relaxation and enjoyment in a nice place with no set schedule. As opposed to a trip: an out of town getaway from your day to day routine, usually short, to visit family/friends or attend an event.

I have taken various trips, including family celebrations and writing conferences, but not a true vacation since I left corporate America three years ago. I also traveled to Lithuania to be an extra in Highlander 5: The Source (my set report is still on the Highlander Worldwide site, HERE). While this was an awesome, once in a lifetime experience and I did see several sites, most of the time I had a schedule. And it was FREEZING standing outside all night until past dawn during filming, so not exactly relaxing.

How can I justify spending money and missing out on chances to earn more (by not being available for auditions or fast turnaround VO jobs from returning clients) while I'm gone? But then, what about the need/desire to relax/recharge/have fun?

It's not easy for me to set aside the guilt that I should be working or fork over the cash (particularly in these economic times). But I'm going to. Bask in tropical island sun...swim up to the pool bar...and hear the swish of palm trees overhead with a like minded friend.

Because I'm a freelancer, I can't afford to be completely out of touch with the mainland. I'll bring my laptop, and have the ability to send VO auditions via MP3. A compromise.

Do YOU need a vacation? These sites are among those that say we all do:

Stanley Bronstein


Thursday, October 23, 2008

What are you afraid of?

The roller coaster stock market scares many an investor. Talk of a recession makes employees fear layoffs and financial instability, and retailers fear a dismal holiday shopping season. Throw in any ongoing worries, such as health issues (yes, my foot still hurts!) and dealing with old age (yours or your relatives'), whether or not your relationship will last or if you'll ever be in one, and how your kids are doing in school/ could spend your entire day mired in anxiety and lose sleep at night.

One of my favorite quotes is: "Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its troubles, it empties today of strength." Easy to say, but many of us cannot just let our worries go. We'll need to do something to quash or cope with our fears.

Some, of course, may choose therapy and/or medication. I'm not a therapist, nor have I played one on TV, so I did a bit of research and found recommendations to:

--Focus on the present and live in the moment...because you can't change the past or predict the future.
--Catch your negative thoughts, particularly about things you can't control, and replace them with positive thoughts and/or action steps you can take in areas you can control.
--Try simple exercises to release tension...such as deep breathing from your diaphragm, not your chest.

A couple of sites that might be of use:

Molly Gordon's guide to Dealing with Fear and Anxiety Stress and Anxiety

What are your favorite ways to reduce stress?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

One step forward...two steps back?

The huge step forward: Good news. 1) lots of voiceover work! Did my largest project (in terms of word count) to date--tutorial narrations and some script editing for an Internet site going live next month. And so far at least, they haven't asked for any retakes. Also got a small project for a national warehouse club and a very small project from a returning client. 2) My WIP tied for first in the first contest I entered it in and the final round judge requested a full manuscript.

The two steps back (pun intended): Foot surgery recovery is enervating....having trouble sleeping, elevating foot is a challenge, driving isn't a problem but walking more than a block is harder than I'd expected. Grocery shopping remains a daunting prospect. It's only been two weeks and day, but seems like months. The boot comes off today, though, so my hopes are high for improvement and returning to a normal schedule.

My sympathies go to anyone dealing with a life setback. I Yahoo! searched that and found the following advice:

--Begin now during those routine, ordinary days to practice cultivating an eye for fun and humor. Debbie Mandel, BellaOnline's Stress Management Editor

--...when we criticize ourselves for steps backward, we destroy momentum. Instead, to recognize that backward steps can happen when we run into resistance helps us not be demoralized when it occurs. But we can't wait long before taking the positive steps forward again. When you find you have taken steps back in diet or exercise, for example, assess the situation quickly and continue on. Don't stop. Arden Mahlberg

--Make a plan. Given that negative emotions are the primary driver of major setbacks, you can encourage clients to create “stress response plans” by filling in the blank: “When I feel stressed or upset, I will deal with it productively by _____ .” Help them identify two or three options that work for them. They might exercise, meditate, call a friend for support, distract themselves with immersive experiences like going to a movie, and so on. Productive reactions to stress are a powerful predictor of life change. Dr. Stephen Kraus

And every day, take time to remember all the things you are grateful for.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Clutter Control

So many aspects of life are out of our control...from the economy's meltdown and the tanking of our 401Ks to what will happen in our microcosms. Will the cute guy I just met ask me out? Will I be called for any auditions this week, and, if so, will I book the job(s)? Will your kid make the football team/school play? Will you/your spouse get that promotion or be laid off? Why do bad things happen to good people?

To offset the stressful impact of impending events (like foot surgery) and deal with unpleasant experiences (like rejection), some people overeat or undereat. Some drink too much.

I clean.

Why? Because the state of my condo is something I can control. Years of sincere and persistent effort have not yet resulted in a sale of any of my manuscripts. But with some elbow grease and a time commitment of only a few hours, I vanquish dust bunnies and fingerprints. Mere minutes a day keep my papers, drawers and closets organized...with shoes lined up, clothes on shelves neatly stacked and aligned. Even my junk drawer is tidy.

I feel satisfied each time I open a drawer and see the orderly arrangement of my stuff. My little world is in order.

The day before my foot surgery, I cleaned. Everything, including the refrigerator shelves and underneath the sink. I wanted to come home to a clean house.

Friends and family have prevailed upon me to alleviate their disorganization frustration. If you Yahoo! search "remove clutter," you get 188,000 entries. Some suggest that clutter is a cause of stress. And can lead to wasted time looking for things you can't find.

What's cluttering your life? Try this: Devote five minutes a day to organizing/de-clutterizing for one week. Do you feel better?

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Everyone has rough weeks, and this was one of mine. It started out better than I'd expected, but ended worse.

Monday: foot surgery!! I was nervous, but the procedure was surprisingly painless and the doctor said it went great. No problems with anesthesia, and the block they was worked for hours after so my foot was numb. Thanks to a very supportive friend who brought me there and back and made me lunch, and friends' calls/emails, I was feeling good and bouyed by relief as I put my foot up as instructed and caught up on some TV shows I'd recorded.
Tuesday: Moved around as little as possible. Still numb so not in pain but keeping my leg elevated and hauling the boot around was uncomfortable and harder than I'd thought it would be.
Wednesday early am and most of the day: OUCH. OUCH. Vicodin not helping. Am glad to hear from friends/family but am starting to wish they'd stop being so cheery about my impending recovery and would just commiserate with me.
Thursday: Hmmm. Nauseated with sharp stomach pains. Head does not want to lift off pillow. Probably the vicodin. Same friend helped me to the car (I'm a long way from the elevator) and drove me appx an hour to post-op appointment, longer on the way back. Doctor says everything looks great. As I was standing on a platform and taking my foot out of the boot to have xrays, he introduced me to a perky girl, who, 6 weeks after surgery, wore heels the night before. I was way too cranky and uncomfortable to appreciate her success and envision my own. Ordered dinner in to thank my friend for all of his help, but my stomach was too upset to enjoy it.
Friday: Must go to Walgreens for stomach remedies. I made my way to my car and drove 3 blocks. That is the summation of my daily exertions.
Saturday: Stomach still upset, woke up 3 times overnight and drank some milk, which seemed to help. Really hoping tomorrow will be better.

Lesson learned: Friends don't want their friends to suffer. Most of us have trouble dealing with other people's pain, so we offer good wishes and cheery thoughts.

I know I'll feel better soon, my foot pain will diminish and in a few weeks I'll have greater mobility than I had before. But that doesn't change how awful I feel right now. I really wanted sympathy in these moments of unwellness, not reminders of how great I'll be eventually.

So the next time someone I know is sick/recovering from a medical procedure, I will cut back on the cheery prognostications, recognize how they're feeling right then and sympathize with them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Little Toe that Could

Faithful readers know that the toe in question is actually my big toe, which I first wrote about two weeks ago. Thanks in part to the amazing power of the Internet, my blog about my toe has already fomented change...on a personal and national level.

I'd written that Aetna wouldn't cover the toe joint replacement surgery I need because they considered it experimental, though the procedure is FDA approved. Another blog picked up the discussion.

Later that day, I got a call from Aetna's executive response team! My contact was very helpful, and sounded truly concerned about my case. And, he actually followed up on everything he said he would. Then the people he spoke with followed up in a timely fashion. (Having had a couple of frustrating experiences with customer service at large corporations recently, I am a bit skeptical about the quality and speed of response.)

One week later, my doctor had sent my information and discussed the procedure with a doctor there. The week after that, Aetna decided to cover my surgery...and to cover it in the future! They've already updated Clinical Policy Bulletin 0708 to reflect this change.

My feet and I thank Aetna, my doctor, and everyone involved for being open to taking action, and doing so quickly. But of course every insurance company won't and can't decide to cover every procedure because someone blogs about it.

P.S. How many people could be impacted by this policy update? I'll keep looking, but haven't yet found a statistic saying how many adults suffer from hallux rigidus, or degenerative arthritis of the big toe...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Too many irons?

Sometimes when I talk to friends I haven't seen in awhile, they say they're amazed by how many things I'm doing:

--taking improv classes
--singing in a chorus
--working on both new fiction and non-fiction projects while submitting completed manuscripts and proposals
--editing published friends' proposals and manuscripts
--freelance editing
--marketing to get more voiceover/on camera clients
--handling my dad's estate matters
--auditioning and completing acting jobs
--serving on the national board of an organization w/10,000 members and on the editorial board of the CBA's magazine

Of course I'm not doing all these things at once, plus I have the eight hours a day most people spend in day jobs to fill. I'd bet if you listed all the things you do, you'd be surprised at how many you came up with.

Can you have too many irons in the fire? Would you get better results if you focused on a few things at a time?

Should I, for example, stop pursing acting opportunities so I have more time to spend on writing and marketing my writing? Or vice versa? If I gave up the chorus and improv classes, I'd have 4.5 more hours each week, plus the time it takes to get there and back, to work.

For the Gainfully Unemployed, finding the best balance between work, activities and social life can be a challenge. I have actor friends who I don't think work hard enough, but complain that they aren't getting enough auditions/jobs/money. Yet I think I put forth a lot of effort to get those things, and I sometimes have the same complaints. Will my hours spent pay off in the long run because I'm building contacts and making connections? Or do I need to work harder?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What does YOUR health insurance cover?

My health insurance, for which I pay $395 per month, will not cover the foot surgery my doctor says I need: a toe joint replacement that is supposed to last 20 years and which will restore mobility and reduce pain.

Aetna won't cover this; according to them the procedure is experimental, though it has been FDA approved. Aetna will, however, apparently approve two other procedures: fusing my toe to my foot so it would never bend again, or removing the joint so the toe sort of flops around. Yuck. But both options are supposed to eliminate pain.

I'm going for the surgery. Just how much does foot surgery cost, per foot? Despite numerous phone calls, calculating the exact total remains an unsolved challenge, because so many entities and individuals are involved: the Dr, the surgery center (which at least offers a 20% discount for patients paying out of pocket), the anesthesiologist, physical therapy (no clue yet what that'll cost). Then there is the boot I'll need to wear, plus pain medications and??? I don't know what I'm missing.

Can you imagine a cost conscious consumer going into a department store and buying a dress without knowing precisely how much she'll pay? How can you dispute a charge after the fact, if you've been given and then used a product or service?

Can any government fix problems like this and make it easier for patients to be informed?

Anyone who is happy with his or her insurance provider, feels comfortable with finding out accurate information, understands those Explanations of Benefits and has needed procedures need covered effiiciently, let me know!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

What do you love?

In our busy busy world, sometimes we neglect to make time for activities that don't contribute to the bottom line but are still important to us. For me, one of those things is choral singing.

I actually got paid the first time I sang in a choir. Fifteen dollars a month, in 5th grade. We sang for women's groups. I cried when the director told me I had to be an alto. I thought singing harmony was a demotion. Later, of course, I realized that holding your part is more challenging than singing the melody.

By the time I reached high school, my main goal in life was to get into the Viking Choir. They sang on television, toured Europe every other year, made albums, and had lots of parties. And you couldn't be in school musicals unless you were in choir. Finally, it was an honors class, which meant an A was worth more.

But a grueling audition with our strict choral director, Walter Rodby, was required. You had to sight read--he gave you a piece of music and the starting note, then you had to read the rest off the page with no accompaniment. You had to repeat back patterns played on the piano, sing a variety of scales and chords, and hold your part in the Star Spangled Banner. Voice quality, not my strong suit, counted too. Scoring was kept secret, but rumor said that over 40 out of 50 meant you'd probably get in.

So I took voice lessons. My teacher said, "I have a good track record of getting people into choir. But I don't know about you." I scheduled a lesson right before my audition. I cried in the car on the way to school. The girl auditioning before me came out of the room crying.

I survived the audition. By squinting at the piece of paper on the piano, I could see that my score was 43. I got in. In addition to loving the process of learning new pieces and singing them, many of the best moments of my junior and senior years were because of choir...touring Greece, having a half hour Christmas special on WGN-TV, making friends.

I just loved choral singing. So I sang in a symphony choir in college for a couple of semesters and an oratorio society in law school, and sang some amazing music, from Vaughn William's Dona Nobis Pacem to Mahler's Symphony of 1000 to highlights from Philip Glass's Satyagraha. It's not every day you get to sing in Sanskrit with music that, instead of having every measure written out so you can follow along, had a bracket over a group of measures with a number on top, such as 9. Meaning you had to count while repeating that phrase 9 times.

I remember the thrill of singing Beethoven's 9th under the direction of the late Christopher Keene. There was something about the energy in the air during one of our the final chords echoed through the hall, the audience jumped to its feet.

But when I started working, choral singing fell by the wayside. Until a couple of years ago, when the Chicago Bar Assiation formed a chorus. I joined with a friend. We sang Beethoven's 9th at Navy Pier for 1,100 people. We sang the National Anthem at a Sox game (which can be heard on the CBA Web site.) Now we're starting Haydn's Creation.

I'm really enjoying singing again. But all of us...from young to retirees, must make time in our schedules for rehearsals and performances.

What, pun intended, strikes a chord deep within you?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sticking to it

Almost everyone has something he or she is working toward...whether it's finishing (or submitting) that novel, losing 10 pounds, cleaning out the garage, or trying to excercise more/eat healthier.

But how many of us actually reach the goals we set for ourselves? We do reach goals set by our bosses: finish that report by Friday. Because if we don't, there are getting fired. For personal goals, often the only consequence is how unhappy you're going to be with yourself if you don't succeed. Many of us have no qualms saying, "I'll just work out tomorrow," or "I'd rather do X, I'll get to that thing Y I want to do another time."

What makes some of us stick to our goals while others don't?

--careful planning is the key...breaking a big goal, such as writing a novel, into small, doable steps. Say you'll complete one page (or 250 words) per day, instead of letting the mind boggle at the thought of finishing an entire book. Or decide to clean one drawer at a time instead of letting the messiness of an entire room overwhelm you and stop you from getting started.
-- there's a discipline gene...what if some people have it and some don't?
--some want to be the Red Hen, not the other barnyard animals: wishing they could reap the benefit eating the bread without having to participate in the baking
--there are those who enjoy talking about what they will do, rather than actually investing the time and effort into making that dream a reality...and end up failing. The hope of "I could have..." vs. the defeat of "Now I know I can't."
--they need a motivational buddy, a coach, a supporter, so they know at least one person is recognizing and encouraging their efforts.

--it's fear of success, how their lives will change if they do succeed.

Are one of these reasons or something else holding you back? Figure out what's holding you back and take steps to remove or overcome the hindrance(s).

Now you've set another goal...will you reach this one?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Customer Service...Take Two

Everyone with DSL service pays his or her provider for reliable, 24 hour Internet access. Those of us who work at home and need to upload files to industry professionals in a timely manner rely on being able to get online whenever we need to.

My building used to have Comcast cable, so having Comcast Internet led to cost savings. Last summer a neighbor and I experienced Internet that came and went. Both of us spent hours on the phone trying to troubleshoot, and both awaited technicians who never arrived. And at least once, I received a recorded message that the technician was cancelled because the problem had been resolved. Not.

So when my building switched to DirectTV, I switched my Internet to AT&T. I was surprised by how easy the transition was and AT&T's much lower monthly rate. I was able to install the new modem and connect to the service by my un-techy self. The speed was amazing compared to Comcast, service consistent. All was well.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when my AT&T service started getting spotty. Of course, pinpointing why is the challenge. When you call, of course you don't get a person right away. The annoying auto attendant voice asks you to say a variety of commands, which he rarely understands. "I think you said ____," or "Sorry, I'm not sure what you entered." And there are those long pauses while he processes whatever you've said and moves to the next prompt.

When you finally make your way through the maze to a person, he or she starts all over, confirming your phone number and then collecting your complete name and address, last 4 digits of your SSN. I understand the need for security, but this takes too long. Then they want you to trouble shoot a zillion things, even when you know the problem isn't from your end.

"Turn the modem off. Check the cables." Like I hadn't already done those things. "Remove the filter from your DSL phone line." Ok, hadn't tried that one. No change. Your account doesn't show up as registered. So you shouldn't be getting service at all." Well, I don't recall being asked to register and I've used AT&T since last November.
That took around 26 minutes. Then a few hours later I got a recorded message that the problem had been resolved. Not.

Even when you call a second time the same day, and when you have a ticket number to refer them to, they insist on starting all over and walking you through every single step. Resolving that, then trying to get a credit on my bill for the time I'd wasted and loss of service took 39 minutes. However, I got transferred from department to department because DSL said Phone had to issue the credit, and Phone sent me back to DSL where I didn't get to a person but back to the auto attendant and would have had to start all over.

Then when I tried to call to reschedule the technician using the phone number in an email I'd recieved, it turned out to be the wrong number so that took more time than it should have taken.

On another note, why do the numbers you need on the bottom of the modem have to be so tiny?

While each AT&T employee was friendly as he/she read her obvious script, each seemed to have access to different information and advice. The last guy I talked to seemed the most knowledgeable and did some troubleshooting on his end to resolve my DSL issue. Time will tell.

But why does this process have to be so painstakingly frustrating? Can't customer service departments find ways to simplify and speed up incoming calls? At the very least there should be a way to allow callers to provide each piece of info once, and to track issues so when you call back you can either 1) talk to the same representative who is already familiar with your issue 2) know that the next representative can easily retrieve whatever has gone on before so you can start where you left off.

Now, back to getting that credit...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

When are you done?

These are common pieces of writing advice:

--Allow yourself to write a bad first draft. Get something down, because you can't revise a blank page.
--After completing a manuscript, set it aside for a few weeks. With fresh eyes, you can revise.
--Have critique partner(s) or beta readers let you know what does/doesn't work for them so you can revise.

So when ARE you done? When is a manuscript finished? I've heard many published authors say even if they reread one of their books already on the shelves, they find things to change or improve.

And then, of course, even when you think you're done, agents and/or editors may ask for more revisions, before or after you sell. On the one hand, having an industry professional point out what she considers to be a weakness is a great thing. Some authors take offense that anyone would dare to criticize their carefully crafted tomes, but most know that revision requests are often another step on the road to publication of that book.

The industry professional is interested enough in your writing and story to take the time out of her busy day to work with you. And at least now you know what to fix. But the mind boggles as I consider the advice of critiquers and work my way through requested revisions. The hard part is applying a suggestion you understand intellectually to your characters and plot.

Take, for example, the suggestion to add more motivation for a character. How much is enough? Do I need a whole new scene, or can I add to an existing one? How do I trust my gut, which obviously wasn't right in the first place or I wouldn't be revising?

One way, for the first 20 pages at least, is via my Romance Writer of America chapter. We give critiques at our meetings. You bring in copies of your first 20 pages and read them to the group. Then the 20+ people attending make written comments and provide an oral critique.

When I review the comments at home and see a bunch of smiley faces on a page, I'm confident that section resonates. If many members mark that don't like something, it's easier to accept that element should be changed than if only one person disliked it.

I used to think I knew when I was done. Maybe, as some say, the answer is you're never done. So how do you ignore the urge to go through the pages just one more time, looking for everything from typos to missed opportunities for emotion?

Maybe the question is, "When do you let go?"

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Back from San Francisco

Just got back from the Romance Writers of America conference in San Francisco. The Today Show stopped by...

If you watched the video, please recall that the reporter says something like "500 authors attended the convention." Actually, 520 authors autographed books at the booksigning for literacy shown in the story, which raised appx. $58,000 in two hours. Almost 2,000 authors and industry professionals attended the conference (not convention). A big difference, don't you think?

Comfortable shoes and stamina (and sweaters to combat the air conditioning) were a must. Attendees had at least nine events per hour to choose from...workshops on craft, publishing, research, career and the writer's life to chats with best-selling authors, publisher spotlights, editor/agent appointments, and publisher sponsored book signings.

I played the tambourine in the opening session, attended events hosted by special interest chapters I belong to (including Hearts Through History Romance Writers and Chick Lit Writers),
participated in a panel workshop with four fellow American Title II contest finalists on the importance of promotion before you sell, did a lot of networking and catching up with friends, and even left the hotel several times to go to restaurants and parties. I participated in the Golden Heart/RITA awards ceremony by handing the awards to the presenters.

The view from the hotel:

Now...back to work!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Life is a Hard Boiled Egg

Remember the "cake" 1 credit college class that turned out to be a lot more work and a lot more difficult than a 3 credit class?

Why is it that sometimes things that should be easy aren't?

Take boiling eggs. My neighbor decided to make a Nicoise salad. She covered two brown eggs with water, then boiled them for 7 minutes, but the yolks weren't quite cooked and her fresh eggs were a challenge to peel...chunks of the white disappeared with the shell. I too decided to make a Nicoise salad. I boiled 4 white extra large eggs (not exactly fresh, past their sell by date) for 10 minutes. The middles of the yolks weren't cooked and the eggs were hard to peel even though a couple of the shells were already cracked. The last time I'd tried to boil eggs, I'd used a "recipe" from the Chicago Tribune. That didn't produce perfect, firm yolks with or without that telltale subtle gray rim either. Like Goldilocks's efforts to eat porridge in The Three Bears, my eggs and my friend's eggs were edible but none were "just right."

A Yahoo! search of "how to boil eggs" retrieves 96,300 hits! Can there really be that many ways to, so to speak, screw in a light bulb? The first listings recommend boiling for 10-15 mins depending on how hard you want the yolk; boiling for 17 minutes; turning off the heat as soon as the water reaches a boil, covering and letting them sit for 30 minutes; and after the water boils removing them from the heat to let them sit for about 15-20 minutes.

The perfect boiled egg can take a lot of research, effort and trial and error...a metaphor for everyday life.

Despite our best efforts to plan ahead and anticipate contingencies, sometimes things just don't turn out the way we want. We can't control how boiling water impacts a yolk any more than we can control other people and make them do what we want: give us the job, a raise or a contract. On the other hand, sometimes the synergy of our preparation, positive thoughts and the universe yields results even better than we expected.

In life as with hard boiled eggs, we won't know which until it's too late.

When we're dissatisfied with eggs that don't turn out quite right, are we setting our standards too high? Shouldn't we be grateful for the eggs we have? Do we keep aiming for perfection by cutting out the cooked edges of the yolks or microwaving them until done (Hmmm. Wish I'd thought of that when staring at the mushy yolks)? Or do we refill our well of hope and put another pot of water on to boil?

In any case, we should know better than to put all of our eggs in one baskett.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Crying Bride

This week I was hired to be part of The Go Game , a team building corporate scavenger hunt held on Chicago's Magnificent Mile. Hundreds of players on more than 100 teams had to earn points by completing missions received on cell phones. The longer they took, the fewer points earned.

My role this time was The Crying Bride. I dare not reveal too many details about my mission, but... Garbed in white satin, veil, and Sketchers with rhinestones, I waited on the steps of Holy Name Cathedral for teams to arrive and find out why I was crying. I knew two passwords, to be revealed only when team members complied with mission requirements to my satisfaction. Then a team member had to text each password in order receive the next step in the assignment.

The sight of a "bride" seated on church stairs prompted many reactions from passersby. Many smiled and asked if I was getting married today, kids and bus tours waved, a few people took my picture. Two people actually stopped to ask if I needed help, and they were serious: a very nice post office employee in her truck, and a construction worker in a hard hat who said he'd been picked among his co-workers to talk to me. It was heartwarming to know that some people really do care about others.

My improv training and experience came in very handy because every team approached the situation differently. Some jumped right in and offered solutions to my "problem" of being abandoned by my fiance. Others, it seemed, would have let me go on wailing all day, losing precious points but appreciating my antics. I really enjoyed finding ways to make each team laugh. But in case you, dear reader, end up playing the game some day and make your way to my post, I will let you wonder what those ways might be.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Formal Wear Frustration

I need a formal dress/evening gown because I'm going to be handing out the awards at a black tie ceremony with around 2,000 people in attendance. And like those stunning, tall models at the Oscars/Tonys who distribute statuettes, I'll step back for the acceptance speeches and gracefully guide the winners and presenters offstage. But not like them, because I'm only 5'1" tall.

I feel like my quest has taken me to almost every store in Chicagoland and every fashion Web site. I have devoted far more hours to this cause than anticipated, with less than satisfactory results. In my closet hangs a boring navy gown, the only one that fit. Even extensive alterations couldn't have saved some that I tried on, according to an Evening Wear Specialist at Neiman Marcus. The saleswoman at Saks almost laughed out loud when she saw me in an size 4 ensemble that made me look like a little girl trying on her mom's clothes.

Thanks to Bloomingdales and Nordstrom for carrying petite formalwear. Bloomies wins on largest instore selection of small sizes. Conversely, Bloomies online has fewer petite offerings than Nordstrom's. But who wants to/is able to rack up credit card charges by ordering multiple dresses to see if one of them looks good, even with free shipping TO you (some sites have charges for returns)?

Thanks to Neiman Marcus for having by far the best selection, and surprisingly good sale prices. Thanks to (and, believe it or not,!!) for carrying some petite formalwear, if not as many offerings on sale. Kudos to and for their wide selection of dresses, if not in petites.

But no thanks to evening wear designers and stores who have decided that petite women:
--only need a couple of styles to choose from while those of normal size get dozens
--are all in their 20's, and only want baby doll/really short cocktail dresses, or are ancient or have no fashion sense, so conservative or Mother of the Bride-y gowns are de rigeur
--would prefer boring Navy over the lovely Lipstick the dress came in for nomral sizes (though I did find one hot pink gown online)
--are flat chested, so strapless, halter, and spaghetti strap gowns don't have enough fabric on top to contain a real petite woman's feminine bounty
--do not like wearing sparkles/sequins/beading as much as their tall friends
--appreciate that dress sizes seem to have been downsized, so a 0 is what used to be a 2, and a 2 what was a 4.

I wish I had enough entrepreneurial spirit/wherewithal to create my own line of stylish petite clothing. Any takers?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Holidays: Bah, Humbug

When I had a full time job, I used to look forward to holidays. How nice to go to a movie, read a book, and hang out with friends/family while work was paying you to take the day off and have a good time.

Living the Gainfully Unemployed life has led to a 180. Now, holidays make me kind of cranky. I turn into a Grinchy Scrooge who no longer views holidays as opportunities for fun. They're just days when no one will call for an audition, no one will book me for a job. There won't be any contact with agents/editors. Rehearsals and classes I enjoy and learn from will be canceled. Not only will I not make money, I'll probably spend it. At least some products will be on sale.

The sad part: while I realize and believe that everyone benefits from down time and relaxation to reduce stress and refill the creative well, I don't believe I deserve a day off. Why?

1. I haven't written nearly enough new pages so far this year, partly because I'm not really invested in a new project. Instead of keeping to my 25 new pages a week goal, I've been dabbling. Revisiting this idea, starting that one. I need to come up with an exciting idea ASAP so I can keep to my goal of completing a new book a year.

2. Then there's selling the manuscripts I've already written. Though I have a bunch of submissions out, I should continue to work on TGAH, The Great Agent Hunt. I recently bought an opportunity to submit to a major non-fiction agent from an online charity auction to motivate me to finish a proposal I've been working on for over a year, but still haven't.

3. I need to improve my audio recording and background music composing skills. I've downloaded Acid Express and Acid Music Studio free trials, but haven't been able to figure out a lot of the stuff they can do.

4. Maybe if I'd spent more time on self-marketing, I'd have more bookings. I could contact producers I've worked with before, update my agents on the most recent gigs I've gotten, find new places to submit to. Let more people know about the improv show I'm in.

So you see, I don't deserve a day off because the freelancer's job is never done.

While almost everyone else is celebrating at barbeques and parties and watching fireworks (and sweating and getting sunburned and mosquito bitten and ingesting far more calories than they probably need), I can't seem to help thinking about accomplishing something and being productive. Even if I don't work on any of the aformentioned projects, I could at least clean out my storage closet. Or tackle any of the other items on my To Do list. At least then I could put a big, satisfying checkmark through a task or two I'd been meaning to get around to.

My holiday would be worthwhile.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Recently I put a profile up on Facebook. You'd have to live under a rock not to have heard of it and MySpace, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I'm still not quite sure.

So far, FB seems like a huge online timesuck. You could spend hours searching for new friends, inviting and answering invites, writing on walls, checking everyone's updates and adding your own. I guess some people get emotionally invested in increasing their number of friends. And by the complexity of their pages, you can tell that some have spent hours customizing and adding info.

As a cousin wrote, for me there's just too much "social spam." How are people I've never heard of finding me? Some I have friends in common with, but some I don't. Maybe FB should include in the friending invitation info about how that person found you. I don't yet understand all the side applications (and I think I read somewhere that some of them aren't completely safe and might track your internet usage, etc.).

And what is the point of things like "green patch" and "friends for sale?" Someone bought me as a pet, and wants me to click to find out how much I cost. What does that mean? Nor am I that interested in playing the various games I've been invited to.

Maybe I'm too old to get it, or maybe I just have a different definition of fun.

Do people really meet new people via these sites? Do they connect with long lost contacts and friends...and if so, in a meaningful way? I'd bet if people took all the time they're spending on Facebook/online games, and invested that in their careers or with their live friends/family, they'd probably get a lot more accomplished. But perhaps in today's world, some find online relationships more satisfying than being face to face. Or...remember this...talking on the phone.

Let me know what you get out of Facebook. And maybe I'll finally understand why it's so popular.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Long Day's Journey into Night...

Yesterday I worked as a movie extra from 9:30AM until 2:00AM. You read that right. A total of 16 1/2 hours.

Extras here usually get paid $65 for the first 8 hours, then time and half after that, minus 1/2 hour for lunch.

The fun parts:
--hanging out with interesting fellow extras
--being so close to famous stars/directors you can hear them discuss the scene and see the results of the conversations with each take, so it's like a master class
--watching a scene being developed and changed
--the chance of my scene making it onto the big screen
--when the movie is released, comparing what I saw during filming to the final version
--when not on set, getting paid to read and check email
--eating tasty food I don't have to buy, cook or clean up after (often there are yummy homemade desserts and a salad bar that rivals many a restaurant, many times carved beef and grilled fish)

The not so fun parts:
--wearing their shoes that hurt your feet
--the "hurry up and wait." Yesterday lunch was ready, but since extras can't eat before the crew, we sat waiting. The minute we were allowed to get in line, they said we had to rush to we should box up our food and carry it with us.
--waiting for the camera(s) to be reset and for changes to lighting, etc
--uncomfortable working conditions: the set and/or holding can be very hot or very cold, or even very dusty (crew members may actually create extra dust, several times before each take)
--somehow the sitting and waiting is exhausting

I have now worked as an extra on 61 different major motion pictures/TV shows. Wonder who holds the world record?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Living in the Moment

How can we enjoy the now and live in the moment, when we are worried about the future and thinking about the past? I'm sure Carrie Bradshaw asked a similar question in a Sex and the City episode, but I'm not going to re-rent the series to see how she answered it.

Often we expend more energy living in the future...what we need to be doing vs. what we are doing, where we have to go next and not being where we are and enjoying who we're with right now. Just look at the number of people who pull out their BlackBerries/cell phones during take care of other stuff instead of the business they are in the room to transact.

In my world, the ebb and flow of my eclectic lifestyle is often what draws me out of being present in the present.

Last week, I had 6 days in a row of acting work!!! Mon-Thurs: rehearsals and performances with a serious improv ensemble that does employee training/development. Fri: recording session for a voiceover role. Sat: rehearsal with the improv team I'll be performing with.

Very exciting and productive.

But in the back of my mind lurked thoughts like, "What about next week? Not a single audition or booking scheduled. And look at what's happening to the stock market and the price of gas! What about your weekly new page haven't written a word!" The arrival of several rejections didn't help matters any.

This week, I'm going to make an effort to be 100% where I am and find some contentment in what I am doing and am accomplishing vs. what I need to do. To do my best to not worry about things I can't control.

What about you?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Making Life Experience Work for YOU

What life experiences have you had that are proving or could prove useful now?

For me, it's the 16 years I spent (sometimes kicking and screaming) in corporate sales and marketing. Many actors and authors, though extremely talented in their craft, lack the skills to self-promote and/or the understanding of the need or interest in doing so. A large part of both businesses is who you know, and no one can know you if he or she hasn't heard of you. Like the lottery slogan, if you're not in it, you can't win it.

So how can you get in the game?

Self-marketing in any field takes time, energy, confidence/moxie, creativity and money.

You need:
--To produce the best promotional materials you can, whether it's the right kind of headshot and resume or a great query letter. Your materials must best represent and differentiate you without going too far outside the box. There are standards and conventions for these items; if you don't meet them you'll probably end up in the circular file. I've heard many agents/editors comment on ridiculous query letters that they toss and too many casting directors/acting agents critique bad headshots they won't bother to give any consideration to.
A fellow actor recently commented about his difficulty in finding an acting agent. Unfortunately, his headshot/resume made it clear why, despite his great look...wrong kind and size of picture, wrong background, and giving irrelevant info with many formatting errors.
So don't shoot yourself in the foot before you even get in the door.
--Knowledge of the business world and professionalism. Sometimes the little things, which usually you can control, really count. Examples: Be on time. Arrive prepared. Follup up in a timely fashion.
--Willingness to invest in yourself. For example, a good Web site doesn't come cheap, and can take a lot of time to create and keep up to date.
--Discipline to do the work every week and not sit back and wait for the phone to ring because you have an agent.
--The ability to push past any fears, whether that fear is of talking about yourself or contacting strangers.
--Get help. Seek advice from those more experienced so you can avoid stupid mistakes.
--Get out there. When possible, get involved in your industry so you can network.

What can you do to improve your self-marketing?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why our economy is failing

Our economy is tanking, and consumers are paying the price in time, frustration, and money. Aside from the mortgage crisis and the high price of oil, here's why:

Poor customer service!!!!!

On the phone: How frustrating are customer service phone lines...where, if you have enough graduate degrees to figure out how to get to a live person, you still have to press or say a zillion commands the overly soothing voice won't understand?

And if you get an actual human, unfortunately chances are you won't be able to understand him or her very well.

The newest wrinkle: fake friendliness, which they think makes them seem like they care but actually wastes more time. In recent dealings with a credit card company, cheeryisms like, "How are you doing today?" made the call twice as long.

In store: how rare is it to want help, and actually find someone who knows the products? Even at Nordstrom, which prides itself on customer item I wanted had to be shipped from another store. I received a different item, with another shopper's receipt. Couldn't get the box picked up for weeks. The actual item I ordered never surfaced, despite numerous calls to and "I'm sorrys" from an assistant manager.

For many Chicagoans, one word exemplifies the problem: Macy's.
There are still people protesting the changeover from Marshall Field's...a recent news story told of a man who bought one Macy's share so he could attend the shareholder meeting. Learn more: here.

One bright note: at a recent trip to Ulta, an employee was helpful and knowledgeable about the benefits of various flatirons. She seems to be the exception to the rule.

In home: A Certain Cable Company. Need I say more? Last summer, a neighbor and I each spent hours on the phone to resolve very frustrating, persistent service outages (particularly so because I work at home and couldn't send files when I wanted to) and scheduling repair visits. And because they don't have dedicated service reps, often I had to re-explain the whole situation. I couldn't get them to show up when they said they would or at all. I think he got them to show up once, but then the required follow up visit to our building never happened.
I complained and got them to let me pay 1/2 for 6 months...then fortunately my building changed to a different provider.

In general:

--Almost every time I shop, no matter when I go: long checkout lines at most stores.

--What's on the shelf: How many times do you go to a drug or grocery store and the product you want isn't there...because it's out of stock Do you have the patience/time to track down an employee and see if they have what you want? I don't. More and more, it seems groceries are carrying fewer national brands and filling aisles with their own products.

The frustration of shopping these days often outweighs the enjoyment of acquiring and using new products. You'd think retailers would want us to shop more...what can be done?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On Portraying a Dog

Last week my musical improv class at ComedySportz had our show. We had a large crowd, including 6 of my supportive friends/family, and my team won. A great night.

If you're in a regular play, you know exactly what you're supposed to say and when you're supposed to move, and after all the rehearsing you pretty much know what everyone else will say and do. The fun and frightening thing about improv is that you never know what character or activity you'll be called upon to do...and all choices and decisions are made on the spot. In one game, A Day in the Life, an audience volunteer comes on stage and shares the details of his day. Then we perform a musical about that. My team captain had already chosen the two team members who'd take the leading roles, with the 3 remaining playing all other parts.

Our volunteer was a radiologist whose day began by forcing his dog, who'd had a bad weekend, to take medicine. Instantly I knew I should be the dog. A second later, the captain whispered to me that I should play the dog.

So when our "radiologist" called for his dog, Bootsie, I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled to him. I barked. I shook my recently shorn (more on that another day) but still somewhat curly black hair. I thought of Scooby-Doo, who sort of talked in words like 'ruh-roh,' and did that. I refused to take my medicine, even when he enticed me with a ball. And, the audience laughed.

In another game, Sideline Karaoke, one member from each team leaves the theatre while audience members suggest songs for the rest of us to silently act out, as in Charades, and for them to guess while singing as if they were at a Karaoke bar. I think this game is one of the hardest, so I hope I never have to be the guesser.

The songs we had to do were You're So Vain, and two I'd never heard of: Sister Christian and Woop, There it is. For Sister Christian, another woman (who also is short with dark curly hair) and I tried to show that we were sisters by linking arms and pointing to each other. Then we tried to portray nuns. Our team member got that, but couldn't make the connection to sisters. Then we tried praying, then taking communion while she guessed 'Catholic' and other religious things. A guy then tried 'sounds like fist', and she guessed the song.

The other team got hung up on Material Girl...she got 'mat' when team members drew on the floor, and 'girl', but couldn't get further. My team member amazingly guessed all three.

These examples illustrate some of the benefits of taking improv: enhanced team building and communication skills. Most of us have been taking classes together for almost a year now and have come to appreciate each other's strengths and weaknesses.

Note to self: figure out how to apply these lessons to every day life.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

How Much Can I Chew?

Ever have a brilliant idea that turned out to be more than you bargained for?

A friend and I had talked about submitting pieces to a local public radio station. Faithful readers may recall that I'd entered the Public Radio Talent Quest and made it to the Top 100 People's Choice out of more than 1400 entries. I've been a classical radio announcer and a news anchor at my high school and college stations.

Said friend loaned me a broadcast quality digital recorder and showed me the basics of use. Because I hadn't yet come up with a brilliant story idea, I decided to try the complex recorder out at my Romance Writers of America chapter's writing conference by interviewing a few authors and creating podcasts for their Web sites and mine.

Why interview one author when you can interview 17? In the midst of conference events on Saturday, I corralled 17 multi-pulished authors--including our keynote speaker Debbie Macomber, who has sold more than 60 million books!!! I talked with each about a different aspect of the writing life. Everyone was excited to participate. One author even contacted her publisher's publicist--who wants to post it and another Avon author's on the Avon site!

Except I didn't yet have a product, just digital files. I, the untechie, had to get the interviews off the recorder and into my computer. The manual made my eyes glaze over. I was afraid I'd lose the files or convert them to some format my computer wouldn't read. Fortunately, my friend helped...that part was easier than I thought. Then I had to edit each interview with Audacity software, add music (which I created myself via another program) and add an intro/outro...a lengthy process.

I'm calling the series Authors Tell All. The first, with author Jenna Petersen who also writes as Jess Michaels, will be posted on my site under Features soon.

I hope to do more in the future. But this time around, I'll be charging for my time and talent!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Major Motion Picture Audition!!

Yes, faithful readers, yours truly had her first audition for a major motion picture this morning. And not to be a day player--the receptionist, pizza guy, friendly neighbor who has one or two scenes and a few lines--but for a supporting role: the main character's mother.

I've thought for years I could easily handle being a day player, and have tried to get auditions. Anyone who is comfortable in front of the camera and doesn't quake under the gazes of the director and 40-50 crew members should be able to say, "Right this way, sir" or "Here's your pizza. That'll be $18.99." But actually acting a role with many scenes and extensive interaction with the lead characters is another thing entirely.

Got an email about the audition Tuesday afternoon, the script for part of two scenes followed. Ran out to buy the book. Scanned the very long book the movie is based on for scenes with the mother to learn more about her character. Interestingly, very few descriptions. And it was interesting to see how the scenes appeared in the book and who said the lines vs. the screenplay pages.

Learned the lines and had a friend help me run them over coffee. Pondered and pondered over what to try to embody the character or not? Printed several sets of directions because there's so much construction I wasn't sure which way to go.

When I got there, one of the talent agents rehearsed with me. Very helpful, because it a) made sure I knew the lines and b) helped burn off nerves. Again came the challenge of balancing my theatrical nature with the comedy in the lines and the need to be real. The actual audition simply consisted of doing the scenes on camera with the agent reading the other parts. Then they send the video to the movie people...not like a theater or improv audition where there could be more than 10 people scrutinizing you.

Apparently not very many people are being submitted for this part!!!!!! But I know better than to count a single feather, much less a whole chicken.

No one said to keep this confidential, but I didn't ask if I could share info I'll just say that one of today's most famous teen stars is the lead.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fatal Execution Engine Error?!

I bought a new computer because mine was over 3 1/2 years old and I feared a major crash. After researching, decided on another Dell, and stuck with XP after hearing many Vista horror stories.

Spent the better part of two days setting it up, loading and downloading software, transferring files, customizing settings. I even managed to open my old PC and remove the firewire card.

I'm quite proud that I was able to do all this computery stuff myself (with the help of the Internet) tho I confess to several periods of extreme frustration.

The surprises:
--how many programs I use.
--how much updating a brand new computer needs
--all the fairly common software, like iTunes and QuickTime, it didn't already have.

The good:
--my new Dell is SOOO much quieter than the old. Amazing.
--it's SOOO much faster, since I went with the new Intel Quad core processor. Amazing.
--love, love, love my wireless mouse.

The bad:
--I turn on my brand new system to see: FATAL EXECUTION ENGINE ERROR.
AARGH! Something to do with the JIT debugger, whatever that is.
Instead of freaking, I clicked cancel.
Everything seems to work fine. Whew.
A bit of Internet research led to a couple of fixes. I tried the easy one, which is unchecking the script debugging boxes under Tools/Internet Options/Advanced ...we'll see if that works. The next way seems to be downloading a dotnetfx.exe file. Hmmm.

--the widescreen monitor, which is awesome for my voiceover recording program Audacity, has the tiniest, most infinitesimal font and many attempts to change the settings/display seem only to affect fonts in randomly selected locations. I fear I'll need a magnifying glass to read my AOL. Advice, O techies in Internet land?

--can't get my PC speakers to play music and leave my headphones for recording only, the settings I had on my old PC. Tried and tried.

--let's just say Word 2007 has quite the learning curve.

--while my wireless keyboard has some nifty features, it doesn't fit with the nice gel wristpad on my keyboard tray and so far isn't as comfortable to type on...and some keys are in different places. like end and page up. So far I automatically go to where those keys used to be.

To think this is a process most of us will go through every fewe years...there must be an easer way?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Too Stupid to Live

When reading/critiquing romance novels, when the heroine does something completely out of character, something totally stupid, we say she is TSTL, or too stupid to live.

(For more on the issue, Jenna Black recently blogged quite nicely here.)

Unfortunately, TSTL moments also occur in real life. Though I'm usually a very together person, I've recently experienced more than my share.
1. Sunday, went with my brother to clean out a family storage locker we hadn't been to in 4 years. I had the keys, the locker number, and a key card. We followed my Mapquest directions until we saw the storage place. The place required a code. Which we didn't have, and I didn't remember needing. No problem, we'd go to the office. I'd written down from the Web site that the place opened at 9, about 15 minutes. But the door said 10. So we went to breakfast. When the office opened and I asked the clerk for a code, she realized we were at the wrong place...the right one was around the corner. No wonder the info we had didn't match.

2. Monday, worked as an extra on The Unborn . After I was done, got the shuttle back to crew parking. Got off, went to get in my car and realized I'd left my garment bag in extras holding. Like I haven't been an extra enough times to remember my clothes.

3. Wednesday, had an appointment in my calendar for 4:30. For some unknown reason, I thought it was at 4:00. Since I'm always early, arrived at 3:45.

Why this sudden rush of carelessness? Maybe I'm thinking too much about other things I need to do and where I'm going instead of focusing on where I am, instead of being in the moment.

I sure hope these aren't "senior moments!!!"

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Trusting the Universe

Last week happened to be great, acting wise...but this week loomed with nary an audition or booking on the calendar.

Sunday evening (for some reason my least favorite time of the week) arrived with lots of blanks on my schedule. A couple of lunches with friends, though fun, do not make for a productive week. I have contest entries to judge and could work on a new book, but if at all possible I don't want to have a week without something developing on the acting front.

Many people, including those behind and following The Secret, believe if you put those good thoughts of what you want out there and believe it will happen, the universe will provide. Well, I've been doing that for YEARS about selling a book. Faithful readers know I'm still waiting for "the call."

It's a challenge for me to sit back and trust, and rely on all the irons I've worked so hard to put in the fire. So I usually tend to take a proactive approach, and find some online auditions to submit to. Remind people I've worked with of my existence. Monday, Tuesday...this approach yielded zip. Hmmm. Hard to keep the stress from boiling through the top of my head.

Then on Wednesday:
--a talent agent called with an audition for today.
--got asked to do a quick reshoot later in the week because of a script change.
--tho I wasn't chosen by a major film director for a scene I'd been asked by an extras casting director to submit for, he's considering me for another, much smaller scene.

What a lot of good news in one day! On the other hand, the roller coaster continues...

--received another rejection for my newest novel.
--the smaller movie scene conflicts with a commitment I'd made to give a workshop. So do I accept the movie, which I believe could have more impact on my career, and back out/find a replacement for the workshop? Or honor my previous commitment?

The universe giveth, taketh away, and occasionally confuseth...

Thursday, April 03, 2008


Scheduling and previous commitments continue to be a bane of my existence. And I'm not getting better at adjusting my time or not being bummed that I can't do it all and take advantage of every opportunity.


1) Overbooked: I was hired for two days of mock trials, something I've been interested in doing for several years. Not only is my nephew's birthday party one of the days, an agent called with an audition for an even better paying gig that would shoot on the other. So I had to say no to the agent and my nephew. Friends/classmates are in a show I want to see but it's at 11PM the night before the mock trial, which starts at 8:30AM. Of course there were days that week with nothing specific on the calendar.

2) Over-YESsed: I can't seem to say no when asked to judge writing contests, because I've appreciated and benefitted from feedback I've received over the years...but each entry takes a lot of time and mental energy. Some days, work for the board of directors I'm on requires immediate and significant attention. My sister asked me to help her with something. My writing group invited me to do a workshop. All things I want to do and enjoy doing.

But adding these activities to auditioning, rehearsals/learning lines, acting jobs, improv class, self-marketing and critiquing friends' books means many workdays go way beyond 9-5. Which means less time to read the books on my overflowing 'to be read' shelf and less time for a social life: two of the reasons I quit my day job in the first place.

Worse, I wonder if I'm using all of these commitments to avoid dealing with more serious issues/projects. Like working diligently on a new book.

Lately I've been falling into the trap of believing I have no time. I say, "Oh, I have this, this, this and this I have to do today. And, hmm, I really need groceries. And look, I have a Dr. appointment. And I'd better buy this birthday gift." Thus whittling away the day with things I do need to do, because I said I would. I need to get back to choosing how I use my time, vs. letting busy-busyness choose.

But what is the best use of my time? How do you decide the best use of yours?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Show Must Go On...

....even when you're sick. I've been stricken with the severe and long-lasting cold/cough that has been making the rounds. But not even the GU (gainfully unemployed) can collapse on their couches without some ramifications. I did engage in much collapsing from Good Friday through the Easter weekend, making my way through copious amounts of TheraFlu, tea and Puffs.

But I had an audition Monday from an agent for a train the trainer video that could not be missed. So whenever I could manage to lever myself off the couch, I laid down the 3 pages of copy on my ear prompter and practiced. An ear prompter, for the uninitiated, is a tape recorder with a news anchor-type earpiece attached. The script plays back in your ear, then you say it. This enables the actor to audition with large amounts of copy without having to memorize it. Try repeating whatever the radio announcer or news anchor says, and you'll get the idea.

Thanks to the miracles of makeup, I managed to conceal my red nose and make my eyes look less puffy. I drove to the audition and even found a parking space. I must say, it went very well, and the auditioner said she was very pleased, but the client would choose who got the part. I was so happy to get back home and change out of my audition attire into my sweats. Then the phone rang. It was my agent. No way they could they have decided that fast. Maybe he had another audition for me.

Neither of the above.

My audition had been videotaped without sound. Could I go back right away and redo it?

I changed clothes. I drove all the way back. I did the audition again. Not sure it was quite as good...
And I didn't get the part. Sigh.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Homeless Washerwoman Lives On

Waiting is an inevitable part of the acting (and writing) worlds. You wait to find out if you've gotten a part you auditioned for. You wait for agents to send you on auditions. You wait for your paychecks. When you're an extra, you wait to see if your scene made it into the final film. If not, you wait even longer to see if it shows up in the DVD's deleted scenes.

In November, 2005, I won an online fan auction and travelled to Lithuania to be a featured extra in Highlander 5: The Source. I had to wait almost 2 years to see if my scene made it in.

In mid-September 2007, the movie finally came out as a SciFi Original. I watched with baited breath. Yes! About 10 minutes in, there is a shot of just me walking away from the new villain, The Guardian.

But what became of the rest of the shots we did, and the interviews I'd done for "the making of" featurette? I had to wait until the DVD just came out a couple of weeks ago. No interviews appeared, which is probably for the best...I was so excited to be there I have no idea what I said. About 52 and a half minutes into the special feature on the making of the movie, lo and behold! There are several shots of me and my three fellow homeless compatriots. And you can see the shot during the entrance of Zai, another character new to the Highlander universe.

For readers who want to know more, my Set Visit Report is still on the Highlander Worldwide Web site.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

I'm a model!

Yes, this is true. I shot my first print ad yesterday!!! Out of 8 people cast from many who auditioned from various talent agencies, I was the only female. The ads will appear in some newpapers, magazines and the Internet.

The process was just like the shoots on America's Next Top Model. Had my hair/makeup/wardrobe done. Stepped onto the light-strewn set, where the photographer, an ad agency representative and the guy who seemed to be the director (never got his title) and a guy who manned the computer (never got his title either) could see every shot appear on a huge computer monitor.

Just like the ANTM models, I was asked to keep "giving them something different" in terms of facial expression, attidude, and gestures. Even when you have a clear idea of what they're looking for and they offer suggestions, doing this is over and over is harder than you might think. And you try "smiling with no teeth" while people are telling jokes.

Watching every ANTM cycle (they're on #10 at the moment) definitely helped me get and succeed at this job. Thanks to Tyra I've learned how to make sure my eyes convey emotion instead of being flat and lifeless. Thanks to Tyra, when they said "smile with your eyes," I knew exactly what they meant.

Everyone seemed happy, and said I was very photogenic. At one point the director showed me a closeup on the HUGE monitor and said something about how great my face was for closeups. Pretty much all I saw were the bags under my eyes and the wrinkles that have recently appeared above my top lip...but all that matters was that the client liked it. My eyes looked good, tho. Will be very interesting to see the final product!


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Typecasting: Who are YOU?

Last weekend I went to a workshop given by two of Chicago's premier casting directors (CDs). They were willing to take questions about almost anything. So I asked about my look. I have a mass of very curly, frizzy, black hair that falls past my shoulders (longer than in my headshots) and is hard to tame no matter how many defrizzer gels, conditioners, shampoos etc. I try.

One of the CDs, Claire Simon, who casts many commercials, films and TV shows, said I needed a more sophisticated haircut so I didn't fall through the casting cracks. She also didn't like the color...too black. Or my bangs. The other CD agreed.

Some people might have thought: Screw you, I look fine the way I am. An actress who wants to get called in by Claire Simon thinks: What can I do to make myself more marketable in this business? How can I fit my type? Especially in commercials, and also in film & TV, everyone has a type. You don't get to choose, you just are what you look like.

One man in the class commented that he wanted to be seen as more than a Chicago cop type. Which he actually was, looks, and sounds exactly like. The verdict: because of his look and Chicago accent, chances of him getting cast as a doctor or something along those lines were very slim. Another woman wanted to get sent out for more than "young mother." Which, of course, she looks and sounds like.

Actors may be able to adapt somewhat, by being a lawyer one day or a doctor another. But we can't choose to be "the person next door" if we are perceived by those who do the casting as "upscale attractive." So we might as well be the best of our type we can be.

Fortunately I already had a hair appointment scheduled for yesterday. I brought in a couple of pictures and talked to my stylist. She hacked at least 4 inches off the back (I couldn't look at the piles of hair on the floor), reshaped the front and my bangs are now off to the side, so I have sort of a slightly longer than Julie Christie at the Oscars look. I am pleased to report that I like it.

I shall send Claire a picture (before I invest in new headshots; my new cut is sort of similar to my current headshots and I have TONS of copies). We'll see if my attempt at sophistication yields any results.

As to the color, I have a lot of gray...and though I've tried many brands, only black covers it. Even the darkest brown shades fade on the first day. My hair grows so fast that if I got highlights I'd have to take time and fork over more $ for new ones every three weeks. I talked to a colorist who suggested either internal highlights that would show off my curls but not be impacted as much by growout. And/or a two shade color correction requiring some bleaching to lighten my hair just enough it wouldn't look blackest black. Lots of $$$$$ involved. I will think on these options.

What type are you?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Too Much Yet Not Enough

There are times when we commit ourselves and our money, which seem like the right choices. Then events transpire to make us wonder if we've made the optimum use of our resources.

Case in point A: I paid $325 for a weekend audition intensive with two of Chicago's premier casting directors, one from a major theatre company and one who does mostly TV/film. It seemed like a win/win: 1) my theatre and on camera monologue auditions (a previous bane of my acting existence, covered in an earlier post) had to improve under the tutelage of these experts and 2) the old networking adage 'who you know' can be a factor in maybe at least one of them would call me in for some auditions. Which could lead to 3) my acting agents seeing their interest and maybe sending me out more themselves.

Case in point B: A new author friend is coming to town for a book signing two blocks from my condo. She invited me to dinner before with 5 of her friends. I made the reservations and was looking forward to the evening.

The scheduling sprites saw that I was happy with my decisions.

So the only auditions for another director's festival I'd been looking forward to auditioning for fell on the first workshop day. Auditions for an improv program I was thinking about taking were also that weekend. I got called to be an extra in a movie starring Freddy Rodruiguez, Debra Messing and John Leguizamo. My brother said he was available that Sunday to help me complete a sizable family chore we've been putting off.

Auditions for another popular director's festival fell the evening of the booksigning. I managed to sign up for the last time slot, 9:25 pm. So I will have to leave the signing early, go home and get my car, drive 20 or so minutes and find parking. Not the end of the world, obviously, but still a stressful hassle when I could have simply enjoyed a single event, the booksigning.

Of course I wish I could have conveniently fit in all of these things, and can't help wondering why at least one couldn't have been on a day when my calendar is bare.

Maybe I should just be happy with what I have, and assume that more fun opportunities will come my way. Does everything happen for a reason? Only time will tell...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

All the World's a Stage

Let's say you've asked your husband to take out the garbage, or your kid to clean up his room. Or you've asked your boss for information you need to take a project to the next step. Or something has happened at a community organization that offends or upsets you, and you speak up.

How do you ensure that your choice of words clearly conveys your message without annoying the other person? And how do you know you're not asking too much? If you don't get the results you want, how soon is it appropriate to restate your request?

When do requests for action cross the line of communicating your needs and wants in any relationship to become nagging? When do you become a pushover instead of a person who stands up for herself?

Of course the answers are subjective and depend on the situation at hand and people involved. Which means we are all actors and authors. Every day of our lives, we take on different roles depending on who else is in the room. We are often afraid to epxress how we really feel, because we don't want to offend. We often bite back things we want to say, and instead write scripts that will mollify our bossess or spouses. On the other hand, sometimes when caught up in the moment, we say things we don't really mean in tones and volume levels we may later regret.

Or like the contestants on American Idol who can't believe it when Simon says they can't sing, we get defensive. And we take objective issues and make them personal. Yet we deserve to express ourselves and make our thoughts and needs known.

Keys to success include the wording and timing. So consider the old adage: think before you speak. Try to look at both sides. And especially, think about that e-mail before you hit 'send.'

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Mysterious Ailment

Faithful readers know I'm pursuing work as a voiceover talent. This means I need to sound like my 4 voiceover demos: commercial, character, narration and of course fast talking. Or, at the very least, if I book a job, I need to sound like my audition. Consistency is key. Headshots are the same way. If you have shoulder length hair in your picture, you'd better not show up at an audition or shoot with short hair.

Unfortunately, I'm having issues with my vocal cords. I have had laryngitis twice in two months that didn't seem to be accompanied by a cold. My voice is not as clear as usual, and the sound sometimes changes during the day.

I happened to visit an ENT for a different problem. Fortunately, he's a voice specialist. He used a cool little (and painless!!) camera, had me say 'E' at various pitches and volumes. I could see the results on the monitor. Not only is there persistent mucus (without visible cold symptoms), but one vocal cord isn't lining up with the other. They're supposed to be straight, like guitar strings. But one sort of curves when I talk.

He thinks I might have laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD)...similar to GERD but, again fortunately, with no heartburn. He recommended medication and diet changes. I'm supposed to avoid/eliminate caffeine, chocolate (!!!??!), tomatoes, citrus and mint (as in no minty gum). And, avoid stress. Ha.

I'm going to try not to worry about this, and believe it will clear up. I've gotten through a couple of auditions but only with a lot of throat clearing and retakes. I doubt right now I could do a long script in one take.

If the medication and diet changes don't work, and he can't find another solution, I'd probably have to redo all of my demos with my now slightly hoarser voice...a significant expense and time commitment. It's not that I don't like how I sound now, it's just too different to the trained ear.

And then I'd have to hope my voice didn't change again....