I had 45 minutes before meeting a friend at the Symphony. Bored in downtown San Francisco on a brilliantly sunlit late afternoon, at the Main Library right across from City Hall. Couldn’t go for coffee, because a friend and I were catching a quick dinner in between pre-concert talk and concert. Couldn’t hang out in the library (Duh!!) because I was still drinking my mint tea. Wondering how to entertain myself, I ventured outside, surveyed the scene and found:
A gaggle of police and security types surrounding a homeless lady, patiently explaining to her that she could not be hanging out on the Library steps with a rifle. “It ain’t loaded,” she was saying; “I ain’t pointing at nobody.” Some friends were vouching for her. Nevertheless, the rifle was confiscated and the lady admonished not to walk around downtown with an assault weapon.
Around the corner, two extremely agile skateboarders were having a contest, enthusiastically applauded by a small audience.
Back on the Library plaza, the now rifle-less lady sat talking things over, with only a few bags of belongings but still some supportive friends. Several of them seemed clearly in need of mental health services. (In my city’s defense, San Francisco continues to make heroic attempts to address homelessness and mental health issues but the need overwhelms the problem. Thanks a lot, Ronald Reagan.)
Also on the scene was the traditional errant seagull, surveying other settling-in homeless people, passing tourists and 6:30 traffic.
Eventually I strolled past the Library/City Hall area, a few blocks west to Symphony Hall. As my friend and I were waiting for the house lights to go down and the concert to begin, someone came down the aisle to reach his seat. His evening attire included strips of multi-colored blinking lights. The ladies on either side politely made way for him. Before the conductor came onstage he unplugged himself and all was calm.
Just another twilight in downtown San Francisco. But as darkness fell, calm prevailed — and the symphony was glorious.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.)
On a recent cross-country flight I sat one row ahead of a family I had first noticed in the gate area: a young mother with one child about four and a baby, none looking as though they’d had a bath, a new pair of shoes or a good night’s sleep in some time. They were one row behind me, and I was one row behind six rows of excited high school kids accompanied by several adults from Salinas, California, heading off for spring break. (It was not a quiet trip.)
The child was hungry, the baby cried, and the mother looked helpless. Mother and child wore ill-fitting clothes and sandals not well suited to the 40-degree weather. The baby might have needed changing and the mother made me feel sad. In fact, the entire family made me feel sad. At what cost, I kept wondering, could they be flying all the way across the country, to find what relief?
It could have been my imagination, but it seemed as if everyone managed to make them invisible in a way more extreme than how we generally avoid noticing each other when strangers are in close quarters. It felt as if there were two parallel universes – the Regular People one degree removed from the First Class people, and the ignorable family.
When the flight attendant came by with snacks I was grateful to be able to pass my caramel-filled wafer to the child. This was nothing magnanimous on my part; I’m gluten-intolerant and couldn’t eat it. But what balanced my sadness for the little family happened after we landed. As the exiting unfolded, a young man in an Ivy League college jacket wound up right behind the mother. She was struggling with baby, small child, huge diaper bag and a canvas bag retrieved from the luggage rack. “Here,” said the young man; “Let me help.” With that he slung his duffel bag onto his back, grabbed both diaper bag and canvas sack and smilingly sent mother and brood ahead of him down the aisle. When I passed them at the end of the jetway he was pulling something out of his duffel bag – presumably a snack of some sort – for the 4-year-old.
This flight ended in Washington D.C., where a lot of millionaires are working to cut their own taxes and eliminate funding for a variety of services to people like my fellow-traveling family.
The day after my arrival I had a joyous reunion with one of my best friends from long ago college days, whose daughter drove her several hours through stormy weather so we could visit. Her daughter’s name is Lisa.
Lisa and her husband Gary, it turns out, are moving to the unincorporated hamlet of Lucketts, Virginia. Four miles south of the Potomac River, Lucketts features trailer parks and very fancy new upscale homes, an old schoolhouse now on the National Registry of Historic Places, one gas station, and a stoplight at the intersection of Route 15 and Stumptown Road. Vineyards developing nearby partially explain the fancy new homes; according to Wikipedia, you can hear distant train whistles, and bluegrass music every Saturday night at the community center (former schoolhouse) from October to April.
Lisa and Gary, who have already met with community members from both ends of the Lucketts economic spectrum, will live in an old (built in 1924) manse across the road from a recently-closed (built in 1885) Presbyterian church. They plan to hold open house – you’ll know you’re welcome to drop in if the porch light is on – at (well, almost) all hours. If it turns out that people get to know one another and eventually feel so inclined, they will reopen the church. Gary had a successful career in business before going into nonprofit work in search of something more meaningful; with their children now grown the couple see this as an exciting new chapter in life.
The point of these two stories – interrupted by an observation on our current political scene that is simply too pertinent to ignore – is not that all shabby travelers are poverty-stricken, or that you have to be very rich to wear a Yale jacket (though you might) or that all baby boomer couples should seek new career paths. The point is: while the rich get rich and the poor get poorer in this divided country, it’s going to take a lot of random acts of kindness to keep us together. And that, happily, they do occur.
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.
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.”
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)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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!”
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.”
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.
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.