Archive for the ‘motivation’ category

Eyes on the Prize

October 7, 2015

I’ve been swamped with video production work, and taking care of business before my trip to New Jersey for a high school reunion, followed by a week in NYC where my wife and I will be seeing four Broadway plays. Even though I’m accustomed to high hotel prices since we live in Hawaii, I was surprised just how much it would cost us to stay in Manhattan (over $2,000 for six nights). Plus, we were paying premium prices for the theater tickets because I figured if we were going all that way, might as well get the best seats possible instead of trying to save a few bucks and sitting further back.

In any event, I should be excited about seeing old friends from NJ and my days in New York, but the truth is I was in a funk the past couple of months. After writing what I felt was some of my best stuff ever, I was disappointed when my screenplays didn’t advance in the big contests. On top of that, I had applied to a Hawaii-based accelerator program that is supposed to help develop local TV and film projects, and thought I had a very good chance to get in. I expected to be one of the chosen few… forgetting a zen saying I keep repeating to myself: When you cease expecting, you have all things.

Easier said than done! I suspect that if you are reading this blog, you are a writer and probably competitive by nature. Why else would you care what another struggling wannabe screenwriter has to say? Rather than dwell on my personal disappointments, however, I would like to share the positives that came out of my latest setbacks. Maybe it will help you deal with future rejections and close-but-no-cigar outcomes. In the past year alone, I’ve had three scripts get a fair amount of attention from producers and managers, who shopped them around — but no deals.

Anyhow, after I got the impersonal losers email about the Hawaii accelerator snub, I sulked a bit. Then I decided to play catch up on my journals. Each day I scrawl a couple of lines in a notebook to summarize highlights or low points of the day, just to keep track of my progress (or lack of it). When something significant happens or I have some down time, I transcribe my jotted notes to my computer journal entries. A funny thing happened though when I started typing up what I’ve been doing the past two months… I saw that I had actually accomplished a lot and should have been happy instead of fretting about what might have been.

For my monthly half-hour Career Changers TV show, which airs daily on Oceanic Time Warner cable in Hawaii, I had gotten to interview two Olympic gold medal ice skating champions (Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano, who had a TV cooking show and remodeling show as well) for a paid gig to produce videos about a benefit show they’re doing to help early childhood literacy programs; a week later, I was doing a story on a company started by a talented singer that offers Storybook princesses and superheroes for customized party packages; a couple of nights after that we were shooting a pro wrestling match for a segment about a local actor who runs the wrestling league while managing a self storage facility during the day; and I produced segments about energy and agriculture-related startup companies that are using innovative approaches to help make our world a greener, better place. At the same time, I was getting calls left and right from companies asking me to produce new videos and commercials for them.

Yet all I could think about was what I didn’t achieve or get because the dream of being a successful writer seems so much more glamorous and rewarding than being a mere video producer or copywriter for local commercials. What’s ironic is that the more productive I’ve become on the local level, the more rich and famous people I’ve gotten to meet and work with… and what I find is even Olympic champions aren’t really all that different than you or I once you get to know them. They put their skates on one at a time, they’re excited to be visiting Hawaii, they talk about the hard work it took them to get where they were. And then after they win the gold medal, they have to find new challenges in life. They look for meaning in what they do instead of resting on their laurels or counting their money.

It reminds me of a trip my wife and I took to Vegas when we were still newlyweds and not experienced gamblers like we are now. She sat down at a slot machine, but had her eye on another machine she really wanted to play. While she was watching the other woman plunking silver dollars into the slot, she bided her time by playing one coin at a time in the machine she didn’t want, just waiting for that woman to finish playing and move on… then my wife looked up and saw she had hit the big jackpot! Except nothing happened. No bells or music, no flashing lights. Turned out to win the big jackpot, you had to play the maximum number of coins: three bucks. Because she was fixated on the other slot machine, she had neglected to read the fine print and missed out on the jackpot right in front of her.

The takeaway is if you’re going to play to win, go all in. But don’t overlook the prize right in front of your eyes because you’re fixated on something that may only be an illusion.

Making Sense of Contest Results

July 18, 2015

It’s July, and for unproduced screenwriters this is the cruelest month when big contests like the Nicholl Fellowships and Page Awards send out their dinks or congrats emails for the first round of cuts. Like most of you who are reading this post and seeking solace for not getting the good news you hoped and prayed for, alas I didn’t advance either — in those competitions. Trust me, it’s not the end of the world or last contest you’ll ever lose.

Remember that in the grand scheme of things, negative setbacks in any subjective venture judged by anonymous readers aren’t necessarily an indication that your script sucks. I know people who have never placed in a big contest and now have solid careers making money as produced screenwriters. And I know others who won thousands of dollars in prestigious contests, yet have zero produced credits or actual script sales.

What is particularly vexing for those who have previously done well in certain contests is how one year you could be a top finalist… and the next, zilch. No love at all for your masterpiece, which theoretically is even better since you have “improved’ it in the months between entering that same competition. Like hundreds — nay thousands of prior finalists — been there, done that.

I can see their perplexed, then anguished expressions as they click on the notification email, eyes scanning for one word: “Congratulations!” Once they see the dense block of copy at the top of the message, you already know it’s a fait accompli. Next, your eyes scan for the “P.S.” note saying although the script didn’t make the cut, at least one reader didn’t take a dump on it.

So, you’re sitting there hours or even days later, feeling like Job and wondering, Why hast Thou forsaken me? Listen, God doesn’t give a damn whose script was better. That is the nature of the universe. No one can answer that question. You just dust yourself off, look for other opportunities to sell your stuff or write another script with the hope it does have that bit of indefinable magic you sometimes achieve when all the stars align.

The simple truth is the odds are against you when it comes to the numbers game. To get the highest scores, you need the right person reading the right script at the right time and hope like hell the other scripts the judges also like are a tad less enamored with the competition. Different years, different readers, different results.

Meanwhile, before the latest round of dinks hit my email box, I was contacted by a filmmaker through InkTip. He has no produced credits as a director, but has been working in the movie biz for a few years and made enough connections to scrape together a small budget for his first feature project. He liked my logline and pitch for a big budget spec enough to read it, then gave me a call to see if we could work together to develop a very low budget genre movie. Was it my dream project? Hell, no. But it’s another chance to achieve my goal of writing a real movie, albeit a much smaller, less grand vision of Hollywood success than any of us start out with.

Coincidentally, I turned on the college radio station this morning and DJ Tanya, who I have a crush on because of her voice and musical tastes, was playing an old chestnut from 1980 by The Babys: “Back On My Feet Again.” I smiled, then sat down to write this post. To survive disappointments and rejection, you gotta be tough. You gotta be resilient. You gotta keep writing.

Mad Men, Letterman, Rupert Gee and Me…

May 22, 2015

Late Show signI stopped watching David Letterman’s Late Show regularly a long time ago when he seemed to be falling back on stale bits and spending most of the show on digressive grumblings that went nowhere. He wasn’t the quick-witted, anything-goes sardonic young host I grew up with while living in NYC as a bachelor in my mid-20s during the go-go 1980s. By “go-go,” I mean there was lots of drinking and copious amounts of cocaine in the bars, jazz joints and after hours clubs I frequented from the Village to the Upper West Side. Bruce Willis, who I knew from Montclair State College, was still bartending at Cafe Central in 1985 — the year I pulled a geographic and moved to Hawaii, in part, to avoid the fate of people like John Belushi and others who were part of that scene.

Generally speaking, I’m not the nostalgic type who likes to post a bunch of old photos on Facebook and tag people I hung out with way back when. Yet it’s hard for me not to reflect on the passing of the Mad Men television series and Letterman show because of personal connections to both that remind me how far I’ve come or gone, literally thousands of miles away, and how old I am. Aging sucks — unless you consider the alternative. Just surviving long enough to grow into a crusty, cynical curmudgeon like Dave, can be considered a success in itself. It’s like that old song, “I’m Still Here” from Follies: Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all.

The other day I had a business meeting with a former New Yorker and during our chat, this younger woman asked how old I was to compare notes about our respective time frames in the Big Apple. I hesitated, thought about fudging by saying “I’m in my 50s” or “mid-50s,” then shrugged and admitted: “Fifty-eight. I’m old.” Ugh. Why did I feel like I had to apologize for not being young any more?

She appeared to be caught off guard. Her New York and mine were decades apart. She only knew the Disney-tized Times Square version. My NYC was dirty, dangerous, dying from the AIDS epidemic, yet still retaining some of Don Draper’s Mad Men business trappings from the 60s and 70s. I even interviewed at Grey Advertising, one of the biggest agencies in the world, rivaling the agency that swallowed up Don’s firm. At the time, I was news editor of my college paper and a friend’s dad at Grey introduced me to their head copywriter — a woman, just like Peggy on Mad Men! She looked over sample commercials I wrote, liked a couple, suggested I write more, then get back to her after she returned from vacation. But I needed a job fast, so I never followed up with her and wound up stumbling down other career paths.

After I moved to Manhattan in the early 80s, I got a marketing job in publishing down in the Greenwich Village area. I ducked into a jazz club to get out of the rain one summer evening, and that’s where I met musicians from the Late Show band and Saturday Night Live orchestra. It was named Seventh Avenue South and was owned by the Brecker Brothers, well-known jazz musicians in their own right. It became my pau hana hangout, where I held court with Hiram Bullock, the original Letterman band shoeless guitarist (played with David Sanborn often too); Sammy Figueroa, a percussionist (the conga player on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”); Will Lee, still playing bass with the Late Show band; Paul Shaffer would pop in; Jaco Pastorius, the late great electric bass player with Weather Report was a regular… plus a host of other young actors, musicians, artists and riffraff. Hiram told me how Belushi was at his place one night, found a box containing all of Hiram’s tax info and receipts, and proceeded to throw them out the window. A few months later, Belushi would OD.

I also befriended David Murray of the World Saxophone Quartet, who I learned was related to Walter Murray — the UH football receiver, best remembered for dropping a pass that would have given the ‘Bows their first victory over vaunted nemesis, BYU. As it happened, on my final night in New York before getting on the long flight to Honolulu, a co-worker scored tickets to the Late Night show as a going away gift for me. I had always wanted to see it live, so it was a big deal. However, David Murray also offered to put me on his guest list for a gig he was doing with another jazz legend, Ron Carter, at the Lush Life that same night. I opted for the Lush Life instead of Dave. Sigh. That was New York in a nutshell — too many choices, too much to do in too little time.

It’s strange how things come full circle. Three years later, I was married, had gone through rehab for alcoholism, got sober and started growing up at the age of 31. That’s when I began writing screenplays based on my wild nights in NYC and 28-day stay at Castle’s treatment center in Kailua. Eventually, I would get to meet staff writers for Mad Men, who were doing a UH screenwriting workshop. They had worked on the Baywatch Hawaii series, along with former Honolulu Star-Bulletin columnist, Charlie Memminger. He got that short-lived TV staff job as a result of winning the Maui Writers Conference screenwriting contest — the same one I came in second place for a script that was set in NYC a year before 9/11 would change the skyline forever.

Me and Rupert JeeIn 2006, my wife and I stopped by the Late Show theater to see if we could get tickets but none were available. We did get to meet Rupert Jee, the Hello Deli owner and frequent guest on Letterman (often put in amusing, uncomfortable situations when Dave would fit him with an earpiece and instruct Rupert to do odd things to unsuspecting parties outside the theater).

I’m still searching for that illusive first big script sale. Heck, I’d settle for a small low budget straight-to-video deal. I used to snicker at shows like Baywatch Hawaii, but now that I’m older, wiser and less full of myself, I realize what it takes to be a professional screenwriter no matter what you or I may think of the quality of the show itself. The Mad Men writers I mentioned had gotten to know Matt Weiner long before he achieved critical acclaim with his series about a Manhattan advertising agency, and the characters we watched grow up (or not) before our eyes. Most don’t know what a hard sell it was for the creator of that series to get it on the air. It’s really an inspiring story for any writer, artist or entrepreneur. You can read the Fast Company piece by clicking here.

The last night I spent in New York, I remember coming back to my apartment on 14th Street, still intoxicated and high from the Lush Life show. Down on the corner, there was a lone sax player I could hear through the open window, blowing sad, sweet notes — a serenade for no one in particular. But in my heart, I believed he was playing his song for me. I miss the city… I’ll miss Mad Men and Dave too.

Hello Deli sign

 

 

Dirty Water Dogs and Stub-Nosed Monkeys

May 15, 2015

Although I haven’t been posting any updates about my screenwriting projects of late, it doesn’t mean I’ve given up hope or stopped putting my stuff out there. When you’ve been at it as long as I have, you build up a body of work. If the scripts you wrote were any good, they should stand the test of time. With experience and distance from the original inspiration or catalyst that motivated you to crank out the first drafts, revisiting old material can yield fresh insights that improve the story and writing itself.

Since my last blog entry about renewed interest in my Menehune family feature script, I’ve signed a 90-day shopping agreement with a producer who is working with a Chinese multimedia company that is making low budget films in the USA. He found my Amish horror spec, SNALLYGASTER, on the Jason Scoggins Spec Scout site (free listings) and liked it because he grew up near Pennsylvania Dutch country, where my script is set. I used that producer’s interest to prod a small prodco to get back to me on my Muslim baby/doll murder mystery suspense script — and over the weekend, their director of development read it after he got back very good coverage from their readers. Now the doll script is also being shopped to distributors through the prodco. That lead came through the Inktip weekly e-newsletters (also free). And via another Inktip e-newsletter request for scripts, I got a producer request for a big budget sci-fi spec I cowrote.

I also continue to enter screenwriting contests while I’m still eligible — that is, I haven’t made enough from options or an outright sale to disqualify me. I’m in that lull stage where you have to wait… then wait some more for news. I don’t want to jinx anything by pestering the prodcos for updates, and cling to the hope that no news is a good sign that those projects are still in play. The benefit of being a more “experienced” writer (old guy) is I don’t lose sleep over it anymore. I get on with my life. Instead of thinking about my prospects of selling, I’m more reflective of my solitary place in the universe and how small we all are in the grand scheme of things.

The other day while jogging to the beach, I counted my blessings and my mind drifted to dirty water hotdogs in New York City, where I misspent a good portion of my 20s before escaping to my present home in Hawaii. In spite of the jokes about the dangers of scarfing down those boiled frankfurters plucked out of the battered, weathered street carts, there was something I liked about the consistency and taste of those onions simmered in a red sauce that to this day, I cannot identify. It was the ideal hangover food after a night of partying and heavy drinking would leave me with less than three bucks in my wallet. No matter where the hot dog cart was — Downtown, Upper West Side/East Side, the Village or Soho — they always tasted the same.

Back then though, I never stopped to think about it much: how immigrants brought these sausages to the New Land, and renamed them for Americans; or the newer immigrants who took over the hot dog carts and introduced other foods from their respective countries; what it took for them to get that beat-up cart; where they got the red sauce recipe from — or was it sold by the originator? So, after my jog, I showered and Googled hot dogs and the red onion sauce recipe. Found some interesting tidbits too!

Snub-nosed Monkey19The dirty water dog memory stirred up a more recent image I recalled from watching a PBS Nature show about an orphaned snub-nosed monkey I identified with. I wasn’t abandoned and left to fend for myself like that poor little monkey, yet my days as a young bachelor in NYC, longing for connection and love, often left me feeling painfully alone. Drinking and partying was part of my survival mode. I convinced myself I didn’t need anyone, or their approval. In some ways, you could say it toughened me up for the inevitable rejections I would later have to endure as a writer. But damn, at the end of that nature show, I was really pulling for that cute little snub-nosed creature to find a friend and reconnect with his missing mother. And I think about that young lonely man, dressed in his business suit with day old razor stubble, savoring a warm hot dog with red onions, with no clue as to what the future might hold for him. Selling a screenplay was the farthest thing from his mind.

Proof of Concept

April 3, 2015

Before I pick up where I left off about my nearly disastrous presentation at the Global Virtual Studio Transmedia Boardroom Pitch in Kona, here’s some script sales news you can use: in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen at least two movie and TV deals that were attributed to “proof of concept” — a term I first heard in conjunction with high tech startups. But now that TV and film projects are becoming more franchise-driven commercial enterprises, it makes sense that investors are embracing the same “show, don’t tell” demo model for movies and TV shows.

An example of this would be THE LEVIATHAN teaser posted on AICN. You may recall that Neill Blomkamp, who is attached as exec producer, did the same thing with his DISTRICT 9 short, which then became a full blown feature. Proof of concept is just another term for movie teaser or short film that is meant to entice producers to invest in the filmmaker’s vision. I think all aspiring screenwriters — even book writers — should be thinking the same way, and coming up with their own creative, doable proof of concept pitches to promote their projects. It could be as simple as a sample book cover or movie poster. Or as elaborate as a short high def video with all the bells and whistles of a feature film. It might be a combination of text, images and video… say, a Powerpoint presentation.

Which is what I did at the GVS Boardroom event. Some of the other presenters had actual film footage to show. Others made short trailers to partially pitch their multimedia or transmedia projects — smart because they didn’t have to fumble through as much “live” talking as I did. The allotted five-minutes is not a lot of time to include everything they wanted: the elevator pitch (logline or premise); a synopsis of the story; how you would monetize the franchise; why you feel the market “needs” your product; and something about yourself. Still, I thought I had it all covered in the Powerpoint I put together the week before the pitch.

First mistake: just because you write something and read it to yourself, do NOT assume you can wing it when the lights come on. My excuse for not memorizing my pitch and practicing it out loud was lack of time. Another dumb excuse was that I didn’t want to sound too “rehearsed.” I figured if I got stuck, all I had to do was look at my PP slides and read the “notes” section on my laptop that the audience doesn’t see on the big screen.

Except when we did our practice run-through in the Kona studio, they had their own set-up for any media being used. There was no laptop screen on the podium, just a keyboard or clicker to advance the slides. They did tell us we could use our own laptop, but my screen was too small to read the notes and I didn’t want to put on reading glasses, since I already look old enough as is. However, I did print out my PP notes in large type just in case I couldn’t use my laptop PP Presenter’s View option.

So I’m standing at the podium facing over 5o empty chairs, plus two long tables in front of me for the panelists who would be giving us feedback and asking questions about our franchise pitches. To my right, slightly behind me is the big screen to display the PP slides. To my left, sitting at the end of the panelist table is a GVS staffer holding a digital clock showing us exactly how much time we have left. Also, there are cameras that are going to be trained on us since we will be shown on the video screens as well. The first three presenters get through their practice pitches without much problem.

Then it’s my turn. I hate public speaking or getting in front of groups. That’s one reason I’m a writer. My gut is churning, I haven’t eaten for hours because I’m afraid it might come back up at an inopportune moment due to nerves. I purposely wear an aloha shirt with a black background to hide my armpit sweat stains. Yet I smile and exude fake confidence as I recite my opening from memory while clicking to the next slide… I turn to look back at the screen — that’s not the right slide! Click again. No, no, no. Try to back click. There is a delay in the clicker that I didn’t know about, and now I’m off track. I glance to my left and see the staff holding up the clock, and I’m running out of time. I try to jump ahead in my presentation, but it’s hopeless.

I can feel the pity from the other seven presenters and the GVS staff who watch helplessly as I flounder. After I step down, they all assure me it will be okay. The remaining presenters get through their pitches just fine. I’m the only one asked to stay after they’re done to try it again. This time I ditch the clicker and use the keyboard arrows to advance the slide, which works better for me. Still, what I’ve written in my notes is way too long now that I’m reading it out loud.

For a few moments, while the panelists and audience members took their seats, I considered bailing. My excuse would be I wasn’t feeling well. But years of rejections, being picked on as a kid, being told I wasn’t big enough to play sports (then making the football team) or good enough as a screenwriter to advance in contests (then winning and placing in a bunch) had prepared me for this. I got up and did it. It wasn’t perfect. Still, the panelists said they loved the concept and that once I stopped reading from my notes, my passion and knowledge came through very well.

And here’s the kicker: the Boardroom pitch wasn’t meant to be anything other than a means to get feedback from people with investment backgrounds, which could help the presenters when it’s time to apply for the GVS Transmedia Accelerator program later this year. However, the following day after I returned to Oahu, I got an email from an audience member. It turns out she loved the pitch for my Menehunes movie franchise — and she has connections in the entertainment industry. Stay tuned!

Virtual Life

January 19, 2015

The holidays are over, and although we’re only halfway through the first month of 2015 I feel like I’m already falling behind. Each year I vow to get off to a stronger start on my writing and life goals, but I get distracted by college football bowl games, then the NFL playoffs, while systematically emptying the kitchen cabinet of accumulated Christmas gift cookies and candies. I often find myself in a funk too after spending time with my parents and siblings, temporarily reunited for a week or so at the end of each passing year.

It’s been tougher of late because my mother has been losing her short term memory as a result of Alzheimer’s. I first noticed signs of delusion years ago, but my father insisted nothing was wrong with her and doctors kept prescribing more and more drugs to treat whatever aches or pains she complained of. Meanwhile, he was taking more meds himself to sleep and deal with his own depression. I kept sending them articles and links to scientific studies that showed how important it was for older people to exercise and do physical activities to stave off common aging problems such as memory loss. That only angered my father even more. “You don’t know what it’s like getting old!” or he’d snidely cut me off with, “Oh, when did you become a doctor?”

The latter was probably a not-so-subtle jab at me for choosing to become a writer instead of a lawyer or some better paying profession they approved of. So I stopped offering any advice or help a long time ago, since they made it clear they weren’t interested in changing a damn thing about the way they were going to live out their remaining years. They have no hobbies, interests or desires to do anything other than sit in their living room and watch television. My mother used to read a lot, but a few years ago I recognized something was seriously wrong when we were talking about a book I knew she liked and she couldn’t recall whether she read it or not. That was the last time I bought her any books for Christmas or her birthdays.

Despite my differences with my parents, at least I used to be able to talk about books with Mom. She appreciated my intelligence and interest in writing more than my father, whose reading preferences  were Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. She also used that mutual interest in books as an excuse to call and complain about being mistreated by my dad. Those conversations often ended with her in tears or becoming hysterical to the point that my father would pick up the extension and start yelling at her for twisting the truth. The sad irony is now she cannot recall all those arguments and accusations, and he must endure hearing her repeat the same questions over and over, day after day, week after week, while having to watch her all the time. It must be hell for both of them.

Yet when we get together for the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas dinners, everyone smiles, acts like things are fine, and Mom even makes jokes… repeatedly, while we all pretend she’s normal. Dad doesn’t say much. I can’t tell if it’s the meds or if he simply doesn’t feel like he has anything worth sharing. We sometimes break out old pictures and ask them to talk about those times, but neither seems to trust their fading memories.

Anyhow, I’m writing this because I saw a movie review for “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore. I’m not sure I want to see it since it hits so close to home. However, I read the book, “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast, and have to say, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a very long time.  Here’s the Amazon link. It’s a comic book that is funny, honest, humbling, observant, sad and truthful about the disease of being human. If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, please get this book. I only wished I could have shared it with my mother.

As for my sibs, we’re all so busy with life and work, we don’t have much time to read all the books we know are supposed to be really good (I’ve got a stack from last Christmas I’m still trying to get through) so we try to talk about recent movies and TV shows we like. They’re always surprised at just how much TV my wife and I watch, but it’s not that hard to cram 6-7 hours of TV shows into 4 hours each evening if you DVR everything and fast forward through all the commercials, credits and redundant stuff. The fact is television can be a wonderful tool for entertainment, education and escapism. It can be a form of virtual life in itself.

Which brings me back to my folks and their chosen lifestyle of sitting in a dark room, blinds closed to keep the sunlight and outside world blocked out, eyes focused on the television. Okay, I can accept that. But why not make it the best experience possible then? I’ve suggested they get a better TV and offered to pay for high definition, got them a gift subscription to Netflix, and sent them recommendations on good movies I thought they would enjoy. Instead, they’re watching Fox News or CNN and banal junk.

I guess my point is, whatever you choose to do with your life, go all the way. In the end, when our memories flicker like dimming pixels on a screen, the only thing we will have are the transcendent moments when we felt we achieved something grand… be it real or not.

Posts from Christmas Past

December 24, 2014

Note: Of all the articles, screenplays, blogs and other stuff I’ve written over the years, this piece I wrote for the old Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s 2008 Christmas Day print edition best sums up the story of my life… and why I feel so grateful to be where I am today. BTW, OC16 is running a Christmas show marathon on channel 12/high def 1012 that will include a special Career Changers TV compilation of stories from past episodes. For daily viewing times of our regularly-scheduled show, visit www.CareerChangers.TV. Mele Kalikimaka!

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A Wrong Turn Leads to the Right Place by Rich Figel

Like many people, my wife and I collect Christmas ornaments as souvenirs from places we’ve traveled to. My favorite is a delicate piece from Venice made of green, white and red glass shaped into candles. It’s missing one candle though. That’s why it holds special meaning for me.

In recovery, we’re taught to live in the present because we can’t undo the past. I try not to dwell on the wrong turns I made. But I can’t minimize the wreckage alcohol and drugs caused in my life either. My flame could have been snuffed out by two drunk driving accidents I had when I was a reporter in New Jersey, fresh out of college. I was lucky. No one was injured by my reckless disregard for others. Instead of giving up drinking, however, I gave up driving and moved to New York.

All of that was a distant memory when Isabel and I took our first trip to Italy in the summer of 1999. This was a reward of sorts for living sober. To make the most of it, we studied guidebooks, listened to Italian language tapes in the car and carefully planned our itinerary months in advance. Nothing was left to chance — or so we thought.

After nearly 24 hours of flying economy class and long layovers in Newark and London, we arrived in Venice. Our luggage did not. Wearing smelly clothes, we checked into our hotel on the Lido, a small island across the lagoon. International movie stars flock here for the annual Venice film festival. But when we opened the door to our room, my wife’s face dropped. It looked dingy and rundown, nothing like the charming photographs on the website. The trip of a lifetime was off to a disappointing start.

Things began to look better the next morning. The hotel’s breakfast room had a a glorious view of San Marco, where the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica are located. We hopped on the vaporetto, an unglamorous water bus, and as we cruised down the Grand Canal, I became oblivious to the stifling heat and the B.O. of tourists crowded around us. I only saw the fading grandeur of this dream of a city.

Venice on foot is a different matter. The guidebooks are useful as long as you stay close to the major tourist sites. Venture into the heart of the city, and you soon discover that streets often go by two names, smaller canals and bridges don’t correspond with maps, and many passageways are dead ends. We got completely lost, which can be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. But we were like those couples on “The Amazing Race” TV show, who blame each other for every mishap. When we returned to the hotel and saw our luggage had been delivered, I thought we had turned the corner.

Wrong again. The next day was even hotter. Shorts and bare shoulders are forbidden in Italy’s centuries-old churches, so we had to dress appropriately and sweat it out in line with hundreds of others who were waiting to get into St. Mark’s Basilica. You’ve probably seen pictures of it: the Byzantine domes in the background while lovers embrace amid flocks of pigeons. Since we were quarreling, the grubby birds were merely a nuisance to us. We came to see the church treasures — not for romance.

A group of German tourists were ahead of us. They seemed to know where they were going, so I followed them. Awed by the marble geometric designs under our feet and the ornate ceilings above, I missed the entrance sign for the museum where the church relics are displayed. Before we knew it, Isabel and I were back outside the Basilica. Despite my pleas of ignorance, a guard told us we had to stand in line again if we wanted to reenter.

Screw it, I said. We decided to move on to a less famous church. According to our map, Santi Giovanni was a short walk from there. But I made a wrong turn somewhere. What should have been a 10-minute stroll became another frustrating excursion that stretched into an hour of wandering around in a steamy maze.

Finally, we found Santi Giovanni. It is huge. Inside, the soaring vaulted arches resembled the bow of a gigantic wooden ship turned upside down. The stained glass windows and altars were works of art. Yet it felt strangely empty to me. We walked over to another section that was like a small chapel. As we were leaving, a priest walked past us with a beatific smile on his face.

Back in the main area we saw the German tourists again, standing in the center of the church. The men had cameras around their necks and their heads were bowed. They stood in a circle, holding hands, and began to sing a hymn in perfect harmony. Their voices filled the church. It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.

Tears streamed down my face. Perhaps it was their devotion, or the acoustics … or maybe it was the collective effects of being weary and flustered, but the church that seemed cold and dead to me was brought to life by their singing. I looked at Isabel and she was crying too. Neither of us is religious, but I felt blessed to be there with her. Had we not gotten lost and taken so many wrong turns, we would not have been here to witness this moment. I held my wife’s hand and listened in rapt wonder.

When the men finished, they simply smiled at each other — the same smile I saw on the priest’s face as he walked past us. Then the Germans quietly left and we never saw them again.

That was in 1999. Two years later, after the devastation of 9/11, we went through the ritual of decorating our Christmas tree. It was a somber time. Isabel’s business, which depended on tourists visiting Hawaii, was struggling. I worried about the future, and stopped writing. What was the point? Nothing made sense.

A couple of days later, the tree toppled over. It was a mess. The strands of lights were tangled and twisted. Ornaments were strewn about. A glass candle from the Venice piece had broken off. Isabel was at work, so I asked a neighbor to help me stand the tree back up. I restrung the lights and was able to glue together some of the broken ornaments, but the glass candle wouldn’t hold. I couldn’t fix that one.

While I was washing my hands and thinking to myself that the tree didn’t look quite as nice as it did before, I heard a commercial on TV. It said it was all right to grieve for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but the best way to respond to terrorism is to live.

I broke down and cried. There I was, fretting and cursing earlier because our tree fell over and some ornaments broke. It was nothing compared to what happened three months before. I thought about the church in Venice, and how lost I felt at different times in my life. I can’t say if it was chance or fate that I survived the car wrecks and alcoholism, to wind up here with Isabel in Hawaii. I can only wonder, and be grateful for what I have.

So each year when I unwrap that ornament, I remember how fragile life is. I think about the missing candle, and it puts everything in perspective.