On Earning a Five-Star Rating in Life

My all-time favorite female keynote speaker/comedian Jan McInnis recently wrote the following piece in her regular ‘Humor News’ publication The Keynote Chronicle. (You may want to get on her mailing list.) I thought it so much fun — and simultaneously profound — that I’m sharing it here, with her permission.

What $19.99 Will Buy You

comedian and keynote speaker Jan mcInnis

Jan McInnis

I like hotels. I stay in a lot of them, and most of the time I stay in really nice ones. You know, where the bathroom is big enough for ballroom dancing, and there’s a TV embedded in the mirror? I guess if I want to feel like I’m a beautiful newscaster, I look at that instead of my reflection.

And as nice as these hotels are, they’re still worried about making a good impression. After my stay, they always send a survey so I can rate everything: did you use the internet? Yes? On a scale from 1 – 99, how was it? Did you use the gym? Yes? On a scale from 1 – 99, how was it? Did you use the toilet? You get the picture. I check “no” to all of it; otherwise there are more questions to answer. Nope, no gym, no internet, no toilet. . . I didn’t even sleep under the covers. Stop! Your hotel is nice, ok!

funny hotel article

Jan’s room in Africa

I’m still a fan of cheap hotels, however, because they kept me afloat in my early comedy years. Back then, it was kind of a crapshoot as to what you’d get with some of these hotels. There could be a TV in the mirror, but only because some drunk guest threw it there. Occasionally the bedding could be a little sketchy. I toured with a sleeping bag.

One of my first big gigs was at a major comedy club in Chicago. I was very excited, but I had to get my own hotel room. Plenty of really great comics live in that area, so no one was gonna put up an out-of-towner. No problem! I found an excellent hotel about an hour away in Portage, Indiana. . . and by “excellent,” I mean cheap: $19.99 a night!

The manager was a very nice older lady, and I explained that I was a comedian on tour. We had a pleasant chat, and I got my keys. The room was kind of what I expected: no TV smashed into the mirror, but I did have to wear my socks while walking on the carpet. . . and in the shower. But the week at the club went well, and at a little under $140 for my room, I could still go home with some money.

Funy picture

Hotel bed decoration — “To make me feel welcome, I think”

When the club booked me again a year later, I had the same hotel dilemma, so I headed over to my friends in Portage. But there was a different woman at the front desk, and the price had gone up dramatically: $29.99 per night! (Probably due to paying for new TVs and mirrors.) That $70 extra bucks was gonna break the budget, and I didn’t know what to do. This was back before cell phones and wireless internet; finding another place would be time consuming!

As I was discussing dropping the price to no avail, the manager popped out. She must have seen the panic on my face because in a moment of true kindness, she turned to the desk clerk and said, “I remember her. Give her the old price.”

Relief! I could kiss the ground (almost. . . the carpets were still the same). I had never been so happy to unroll my sleeping bag in a bargain bed. I thanked her profusely.

I’m sure she doesn’t remember now how much she helped me then, but I do. It probably wasn’t a big deal to her, but it was a huge deal to me, and she did it simply because she could. She had the opportunity to help someone, so she did. Without any fanfare, without any expectation that I’d give her a good review, without anything: she did it just because she could.

Jan & crowd

Jan onstage, well rested

There’s always an excuse to not do something: “It’s not my job,” “It’s not our policy,” etc., and many people hide behind that because it’s the easy route. (Yes, you, Mr. Airline Gate Agent who wouldn’t put me on the earlier flight recently, because you said it would be too much of a hassle.) But, I think doing things that are in your control to help someone is how you earn a five-star rating in business and in life.

I once heard Tony Robbins say that we should look at everyone on the planet as being on the same team, and I agree. So be on the lookout for ways to help out your “team members” with the things that are within your power. You’ll make a great lasting impression on them. . . without the 99 question survey.

(Jan has shared her customized humor keynotes with thousands of associations and corporations, and is the author of 2 books: “Finding the Funny Fast” and “Convention Comedian.” She has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and on Huffington Post. I’m proud to be a fan.)

 

 

 

 

Hanging Out With Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, in town to promote his new film “Human Flow” is less like a global icon than a kid on the first day of vacation. He gleefully mugs for photos, takes selfies with – and of – his audiences, bears a perpetual crinkly smile and when asked “When are you happiest?” replies, “Now.”

Ai Weiwei 10.3.17

Ai Weiwei smiles for a fan

But the message of the internationally renowned artist is deadly serious. He wants the world to confront the fact that over 65 million human beings are displaced, most of them living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and only a tiny fraction (about 3%) being relocated. “Human Flow” depicts refugees in 23 countries – in camps, on the move, struggling across deserts, through murky waters and occasional war zones. It documents a staggering amount of human suffering which its creator wants us to face as fellow human beings. “The world is shrinking,” he says; “people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.”

Ai appeared before a sold-old crowd at the Commonwealth Club recently, in conversation with Climate One founder and host Greg Dalton, who started off by asking what his guest felt Europe should do. “It’s not just a European problem,” Ai Weiwei responded, “it’s global – Iraq, Myanmar, elsewhere. Policies in the U.S. seeking to reduce immigrants, enforce a travel ban, move away people who have been here since childhood – there is a strong trend to violate human rights and traditional beliefs. We are all refugees.”

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With Climate One’s Greg Dalton

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the year his father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing  was arrested and denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He was one year old when the family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. According to his Wikipedia page, they were later exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family returned to Beijing. At one point, during his lively conversation with Dalton at the Commonwealth Club, Ai said he used to be jealous of his father. “He got all those years, and all I got (referring to his imprisonment for “economic crimes” in 2011) was 81 days.” His 81 days were, however, no picnic. “If you argue with the government,” he said, “you never win. They become so powerful you can get suicidal.”Ai Weiwei 1-10.17

On the issues closer to the focus of Climate One, Ai spoke of how China “has made huge progress, and has become quite economically powerful. But the dark side are environmental problems: heavily polluted air and rivers. Besides that there is huge corruption. There are internal struggles inside the party; no trust, no real creativity because there’s no freedom of speech.” To Dalton’s remark that Ai had once tried to work within the system, Ai laughed. “I was very naïve.” Despite his history of battling the government Ai was given his passport in 2015 and now lives in Berlin.

“When they handed me my passport, the guy said, “We’ve known each other for so long . .  .”

Art & the Protection of Democracy

Ward show w Fran

Schumaker with the writer

Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about  human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.

I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?

Ward show 1“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.

To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and The New York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.

Ward show 2Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.

Plus: this is how democracy is protected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

diego-rivera-murals-sfai

The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Age, Agility and National Stamina

It is a little known but verifiable fact that this writer is a graduate of Circus 101. Well, I completed the course, that is, some five or six decadespast my turning-cartwheels-in-the-backyard days.

The author and sister Mimi, circa 1940

The author and sister Mimi, circa 1940

This comes to mind because of all the recent stamina talk. At the time of my circus experience I was several years younger than the current candidates for president of the United States. I am still the age of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and frankly, Justice Ginsberg and I (I am not officially authorized to speak for my 1933-babe sister) resent the stamina talk. She, of course, is making her debut (speaking only, opening night) with the Washington National Opera this year; I’m afraid opera performance is not on my bucket list. But still.

Stamina-wise there is at least the circus thing. As I recall, my late-life circus experience began with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a class offered by the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (now Circus Center) titled Circus 101. It sounded interesting, and at least worth undertaking for a good story. So I called the Circus School.

“Could a reasonably flexible 60-something woman be eligible to take your Circus 101 class,” I asked the nice lady at the other end of the line? She replied, essentially, if you’ve got the money we can work you in. “You can set your own limits,” she said.

So I showed up for the first class, raising the median age by two or three decades, and quickly learned my limits: upside-down is not for 60-somethings. Oh, I could still do upside-down, headstands with my feet on the wall or the occasional cartwheel; but then I tended to get dizzy and throw up, which is not in the curriculum. I found I was very good, though, at balancing the peacock feather on my chin and at being part of the human pyramid; I always got to be the top of the pyramid because nobody wanted to step on the little old lady. I was also quite good at the Ooze – a sort of backward roll-over with a collapse at the end.

In my class was a lovely Chinese-American girl named Yvonne, who measured approximately 24-18-24 and could juggle three balls before we even started. By the second class her husband Ken had been talked into joining. Ken and Kit, another husky young man who showed up at the same time, could perform great feats of strength and skill, but because they had all those muscles getting in the way I could beat them at grabbing my ankles and doing bend-overs and such that they couldn’t even approximate – which made me feel initially quite superior.

Rola-bola performer, not the author

Rola-bola performer, not the author

All feelings of superiority quickly disappeared. We learned the egg roll, the diablo and the rola-bola, that last being a balancing act on a board set on a large pipe, which when circus people do it looks easy as pie. It is not. (Nor is juggling four balls.)

I did discover that I really shone at the human caterpillar. This begins with a base person on all fours (hands and feet, not knees.) The next person rests on top of the base person, feet crossed, hands on the floor, and additional caterpillar people are similarly arranged. The rear legs and all hands move in unison, theoretically, until somebody giggles.

Is any of this relevant to today’s world, nearly two decades later? Well, it provides food for thought and some great metaphors.

One can only hope that everyone on the political spectrum will have the stamina – not to mention agility – required for running the country at all levels and branches of government. And that our collective community can master the rola-bola without turning into one great Ooze.

 

Music as – – – the better alternative

The author with the Lewis' - father & daughter

The author with the Lewis’ – father & daughter

If music is balm for the soul, what else might it be?

A lot, according to Peter Lewis – musician, composer, songwriter and founding member of the 1960s rock band Moby Grape. Lewis and his daughter Arwen Lewis – also musician, composer, songwriter, and someone who holds down a day job as a waitress – explored this question at a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

The event was officially billed as a discussion (with live music!) of Music as an Alternative to Adversity. It evolved into a rambling discourse on good love and bad, on the sixties, spirituality and freedom, and how music winds through it all. The elder Lewis did the lion’s share of talking, with daughter Arwen benevolently looking on. But Arwen, an accomplished musician who bears a resemblance to her glamorous paternal grandmother Loretta Young, repeatedly brought her father back to the song they were about to sing.

It was an hour of memorable music and musical food for thought:

Peter Lewis on music overcoming adversity: “When you get born you cry until you’re fed; later you’re singing for your supper. It’s spiritual. Spirits move through us, and through each other – but there are all kinds of different songs.”

On “Sailing,” the first song played by the duo: “I wrote this with Skip Spence of Moby Grape; its first recording will be released in February. It’s about longing. Songs are not written in a vacuum; you feel something – and the song is born.” Spence, who suffered from addiction, bad drugs and schizophrenia, died in 1999 at the age of 53.

On loneliness and the blues: Arwen – “I live with my parents near Santa Barbara and drive 65 miles a day to work as a waitress. I wrote ‘The Lompoc Blues’ when I was having a bad day.” Peter: “We live in a nice community near the Air Force base and the penitentiary. But you can go all day and never see anybody smiling.”

On being the son (and granddaughter) of a famous movie star – Peter: “I asked my mom what it was like . . . She was brought to Hollywood by her mom, who ran a boardinghouse. I went to Purdue, in the pilots program; it was my mom’s boyfriend who got me in. I wasn’t one of the seven best pilots in America. But it was a scary deal, the draft. I’m in this line, and you don’t go home from the induction center; I was crying like a baby.” (According to his Wikipedia page, Lewis served in the Air Force, and afterwards worked as a commercial pilot.) “My mom said, ‘Either cut your hair or get out of my house.’” Loretta Young, whose two sisters also began acting as children, died in 2000 after retiring from a noted career in film and television. Arwen: “She used acting as an alternative to adversity.”

On bad love – Arwen: “I sing lead in this, which is more sing-song-y. It’s about the sixties, when there was a lot of loneliness . . .” Peter: “Love’s a two-way street. We were all trying to be characters in a Jack Kerouac novel – so you write some facetious tunes. The sixties were not so much about rebellion as about freedom.” The duo then launched into a song that included the lines, “If you can’t learn from my mistakes, honey I can’t learn from yours;” and eventually, “If you can’t pay for my mistakes, honey I can’t pay for yours.”

Nearing the end of their time, Arwen reminded her talkative father that they still had several songs to go. Only one could be squeezed in: a closing number with an almost Latin/blues rhythm, “You must believe in love.”

Good love won.

 

Jan McInnis: Clean Comedy & Attitude

Jan & crowd

Clean comedy packs ’em in

“I went up in a hot air balloon 2200 feet in the air,” says Jan McInnis, whose taste in adventure is as zany as her comedic genius. “The scariest part was as we were climbing in, the guy asked us our weight. I’m not telling him that! I gave him my goal weight. This thing may crash, but that secret’s dying with me!”

The above (copyrighted) quip was included in the latest Keynote Chronicle newsletter circulated by comedian McInnis, sometimes known as The Work Lady. She is also co-star, with Kent Rader, in the Baby Boomer Comedy Show.

It’s hard to read The Keynote Chronicle – or see McInnis onstage – without either a chuckle or a guffaw, or two or three or more. And at the same time, you may fail to notice that the material is utterly without profanity, vulgarity or in-your-face sexual innuendo – the basic elements of much of today’s comedy. A Wall Street Journal article once noted that her clean comedy “still has plenty of attitude.”

Jan pic

Comedian Jan McInnis

This writer first saw Jan McInnis at a comedy competition more than a decade ago at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room. She didn’t win the competition – although she said recently that she is now good friends with others she met at that event – but I have followed her career ever since. 2016 seemed a good time to interview her about the trajectory of that career.

McInnis grew up in D.C., the second of four children in a fairly traditional family whose home was in a nearby Virginia suburb. “My parents said they’d pay for college anywhere in the state,” she says. “So I chose Virginia Tech, which was as far away as you could get from D.C.” She earned a traditional (communications) degree, and went to work back in D.C. at a few traditional jobs, including the National Ocean Service and the National Academy of Sciences, where she worked on the original “Planet Earth” PBS television series. But her lifelong ambition to do stand-up comedy never let go, and at 34 McInnis started doing open-mike gigs. She spent two and a half years working at her day job while doing comedy clubs up and down the east coast. This involved grueling hours and often staying in what the clubs referred to as “Comedy Condos,” that customarily housed “twenty-something boys.” McInnis, meanwhile, was aiming for a manageable career. “The great thing about working in marketing (at the traditional jobs),” she says, “is that I knew about the convention market – as opposed to clubs.” And The Work Lady was born.

Jan onstage

McInnis joking on the big stage

McInnis moved across the country to Los Angeles 16 years ago – “It was either New York or L.A., because otherwise nobody’s going to see me” – and never looked back. From early on her parents were fans. “They heard me on the radio in D.C. a lot,” she says, “and I made sure they only saw me at the good clubs.”

There are apparently all sorts of clubs. “My goal when I started out working in tough one-nighters,” she writes in a recent book, “was to get so successful that I’d never again have to perform in a room in which you can hear the blender.”

On the road to what is today a highly successful career, McInnis performed at venues that would seem to make the noisy bar appealing: in a bakery, on a gigantic bowling alley with people inside gigantic, see-through bowling balls rolling by, on a turntable (“Lazy Susan for those of you over 50”) that made a 360-degree lap every 10 minutes, and in “a multimillion-dollar gymnasium with a $20 sound system.”

If you’ve missed McInnis at these or other appearances, you may be seeing her before today’s  political dust settles. She does a spot-on Hillary Clinton.