Thursday, July 30, 2009

Smile Train Wrap-Up

Follow Up: The final donation toward our Smile Train efforts came through and I sent a big, fat check off to New York today. With performance ticket sales for three nights, the Jars of Pain, online donations, concession sales and random checks (Thanks, Mom & Christa's Mom!), we scraped together $1,940.55.

Of course, we set our goal at $3,000 but perhaps we were being too ambitious and a tad ignorant of the current economic realities. Still, it's nearly $500 more than last year and enough money to fix eight whole kids FOREVER. I'm so jazzed!

I could not have done it without the help of my steady-eddy improv boyfriend, Steve, and his actual boyfriend, Daniel. They did all the really hard work while I excelled at fretting. Also, bringing together 15 performers within three improv groups made it feel like half-party/half-asylum but entirely hilarious. Please see sampling below:

That's Miranda (l) and Ben (r) dressed as slutty cheerleaders and Jason (c) as Russell Crowe's stylized pet orangutan, Krikey, for an episode of audience-favorite, "Dye My Bitch."

Here we are celebrating afterword at Hamburger Mary's. My horse teacher, Beanie, even came along with her husband, Chris. It was fun and I was mighty relieved to have it all be over. You can be sure I got drunk that night and slept until 11 the next day, dreaming of smiling kids the entire time.

When I finally rousted the next day, I discovered that Walter Cronkite had passed away the previous night during our final benefit performance. It is notable because Walter was one of the first celebrities to publicly endorse Smile Train when it was founded over a decade ago and he was featured in their very first promotional video.

One of the founders and current president of Smile Train, Brian Mullaney, recalled in an email remembering Walter:
"As I sat there speaking with him I looked around his office and saw photos, newspaper front pages and headlines of many of the biggest events that have happened in America and the world over the past 50 years. Walter was front and center at each and every one of them: JFK’s assassination, man on the moon, Vietnam, Watergate, The Berlin Wall, etc. I felt like I was in a museum and sitting across the desk from an American Institution."

In addition to the donation and helping the kids, I'm especially pleased that we unknowingly honored Mr. Cronkite as he was leaving us. He was an amazing friend to humanity and he'll be sorely missed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Can we move on now?

The iPhone quandary

But OF COURSE I want an iPhone - who doesn't? The dilemma is giving up my beloved Verizon, which never, ever lets me down. After all, isn't the number one function of a phone supposed to be making/receiving calls? The rest is gravy, right?

My contract is up next month ... maybe Verizon and Apple will fall in love by then.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ridin' the Rails

This year for BlogHer, I went hobo. Yup, instead of flying to Chicago for the annual blogging convention, I took the train.

‘Twas not only cheaper ($214 round trip) but much less hassle - no shuttles, no parking, no lines, no security disrobing, no cramped seats - and about eight thousand times more interesting. True, it may have taken 18 hours but I’ve got more time than money these days so off I went.

Pre-trip, wondered if I should get a banjo, acquire a stick with a kerchief - perhaps rub charcoal on my face - in order to get hobo-ready. So, imagine my delight when the conductor of the California Zephyr made the the welcoming announcements over the intercom and ended with this:
“And if anyone is traveling with an instrument - banjo, guitar, harmonica, whatever - please come see me in the lounge. Don’t be shy.”
Later that evening, a few musicians came out of the woodwork and took him up on the offer. A fellow near me played his base guitar and a handful of Amish girls showed up with their homemade harmonicas. It was quite the jam session. Now, when is that going to happen on a plane?

The passing countryside was so lovely - rolling green hills, quaint farms, small town, contented livestock - the backyards of America. With so many storms lately, everything was an intense emerald hue. Puffy white clouds dotted perfect blue skies over field after field of head-high corn. Later, we were treated to thunder and lightening - always dramatic over the plains.

The experience is vastly different than the shuttles, crowds, lines and tight spaces of air travel. You do not have to remove your shoesbeltsjackethat and such. You merely step on board, find a seat and settle in. The steady vibration and passing scenery make for ideal travel; it felt more like an adventure, as opposed to just being herded.

The freedom of mobility is a key selling point here. Not only do you have outrageous leg room compared to a plane - not to mention foot and leg support - but you are not trapped. Sit in your seat. Don’t sit in your seat. Take a walk. Sit in another empty seat. Whatevs. As long as you know where you are supposed to be at sleepy time, you’re on your own.

I met so many people - a couple of teachers on vacation from Sacramento riding across the country. He was going to see his 93-year-old mother for the first time in three years. A young mother with two young daughters, headed off to visit the grandparents; her husband is, meanwhile, riding his motorcycle, headed for the same destination.

On the ride home, I met man traveling with his wife and son. Although his job was secure (nursing home), he was worried about the economy. So many of his friends have been laid off at Caterpillar and he wasn’t sure that Obama could help.

Then there were the smattering of crazy people who had just completed Southern Iowa’s Ragbrai, the longest, largest and oldest touring bicycle ride in the world. After a week on their bikes, the group had toured across approximately 500 miles of gorgeous countryside, which was not always flat.

One Ragbrai couple told me that the cyclists were greeted enthusiastically by every small Iowa town they passed through. “Every single town would roll out the carpet,” she said. “One day, I ate homemade pie three times.”

On the trip home, I also tested out the dining car. If you are alone, you are seated with other loners. I ended up across from the Ragbrai couple and an older gentleman who openly missed the class and elegance of earlier train travel. He was hard of hearing so we all had to yell over our Spinach Lasagna. Still, we younger folks sat captivated by his stories of chandeliers and mahogany walls. When the meals arrived on thin cheap plates, he almost whimpered.

I met another older gentleman named Don, who lives in Dallas. He had been traveling by train for a few weeks alone, just seeing the country. You could tell that he was thirsting for adventure, despite being timid in the past, and was perhaps trying to make up for lost time.

On the trip out, I hung out a lot in the lounge, where seats - one, two and three together - faced outward to the passing countryside. People sat and talked quietly or read. There are also tables where families played cards or board games. One guy sat at his laptop, iPod buds stuffed in his ear.

I also hung out down in the snack bar area where Frank - the snack bar guy - ruled the roost. He was funny and playful and passengers loved him. When his break came, Frank held court had told story after story of life on the train.

So, I’m in the snack bar lounge and working on a presentation and I call out a plea to the general population: “Anyone good with numbers?”

The next thing you know, I am surrounded by folks of all ages, wondering who I am, what I am working on and why I am worrying about math when we are crossing the glorious Mississippi River, fer chrissakes. My favorites were two young boys - Robbie and Chad. They were polite, funny and amazingly self-aware. When we asked one of them his age, he giggled. “Well,” he said with a gleaming mouth silver with dental correction, “I’m 14 but I look 10. I’m short for my age.”

He seemed okay with this. “It has its advantages. Sometimes, it means I can still act like a 10-year-old and get away with it.” What a savvy little shit, I thought. I listened to him openly discuss how he hates his stepmother, step-siblings and vice-versa. Having been through that experience at his age, my heart hurt for him. “She’s really mean to me and calls me names when my dad isn’t around,” he explained.

I made friends with a truly funny couple sitting behind me and together, we were peppering the boys with questions. “What do you guys want to be when you grow up? I’m still looking for ideas myself.”

The young/old boy said, “I want to be a psychologist so I can help people with their problems. I’ve been through a lot and I think I could understand.” Dang. He seemed awfully mature for a short teenager.

Yup, no shortage of stories on the train. Hearing that whistle throughout the day and night pleases me to no end. When Johnny Cash sings, “I hear that train a’ callin’” I understand completely. It’s a pull, a real tug to the road and it promises all kinds of things you’ve never seen or heard or experienced before, plus a bunch of quirky characters. It’s irresistible.

Some folks may play recordings of ocean waves or babbling brooks to lull them to sleep, but I think for me it would be train whistles.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Capitalism - Alive and Well

Running errands yesterday, I came up two sets of neighborhood children, each engaging in that age-old American tradition - the lemonade stand. Of course, I had to pull over and get me some.

I remember doing the exact same thing with the neighborhood kid gang and again, when I was older, selling grape Kool-Aid with Donna Clark. Our stand was a giant cardboard box.

Beyond the obvious cute factor of business partners like Sarah and Zoe here, I took it as a healthy sign for the future of America. Sure, we may be in the middle of the worst economic shitstorm since the Depression but we'll recover eventually with the promise of Tomorrow.

The mint iced tea that Sarah served me was delicious and cost $1. I asked her about the recipe and she obliged: "First you bowl the water and then you add the mint. Then, you add the sugar, if you want some."

"When do you add the tea?"

"Ummmm, I'm not sure."

Of course, there was a boys v. girls thing going on here - another age-old tradition. Just one block down, at Iowa and Steele, Hyram (sales) and Alex (marketing) represented the healthy competition.

They didn't have an actual stand per se, but worked their enterprise out of a big blue cooler - very grass roots. Hyram served me lemonade - only 50 cents! - while Alex tried to flag cars down with his large green cardboard sign. I asked Hyram if the lemonade was homemade.

"Um, well, we poured the stuff in and mixed it up ourselves," he said hopefully.

"Well that sounds homemade to me."

As I wished them luck and walked away, I saw a woman with a stroller approach the corner. Hyram yelled out, "Mom! We made nine dollars already!" This made me smile. I couldn't help pondering how the mighty of today was tiny yesterday. Wal-Mart started as a wee five-and-dime in Rogers, Arkansas; both Hewlett-Packard and Google began in suburban garages and America itself began with a ballsy bunch of scrappy rebels, daring to defy a world superpower.

So yeah, I'm happy to see that the daily headlines of gloom and doom have not soured the DIY spirit of this country. I guess that's why I pulled over. That attitude must be encouraged if we're going to pull ourselves up and outta this mess.

And besides, I was thirsty.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Still Smiling

When I joined the Rodents in March of 2007, Jeff (who took these photos) asked me just two questions:

Do you have cute underwear?
How high is your pain tolerance?

I quickly discovered why these elements are crucial. The underwear issue comes from the game, "Pants, No Pants", where the players do a scene and when someone offstage dings a bell, your pants go down and you continue the scene. If they are already down, they come up. And so on.

With a number of players onstage in various stages of undress, the scene takes on certain slapstick vaudevillian qualities, which (hopefully) the audience finds amusing. Christa was always kind enough to let me borrow her Star Wars boxers - with the words: "The Dark Side" printed on the butt - for the occasion.

The pain question is a real one and it pertains to the game, Mousetraps. The stage is covered in live mousetraps and two players are blindfolded, removed of their shoes, and forced to conduct a scene while walking blind over these snappy little contraptions. We've all had various body parts snapped and snipped during this game and yes, it hurts, but 'tis a small sacrifice in the name of comedy.

I have successfully avoided playing the game again for a while now but it finally caught up to me last night. To raise more funds for Smile Train, we've got mason jars with a photo of each player on the front. At the beginning of the show, we encourage the audience to put money in the jar of the player they most want to see in pain. Last night, I suspect that comedian-favorite Emily's Mom put enough cold hard cash in my jar that I found myself barefoot and blindfolded and playing with ex-ROUS, Emily.

Emily hates the game and I'm no big fan either but that is where the hilarity lies. We were a mother and daughter in Italy, trying to get some food - each trying to get the other one to walk towards them. At some point, we were in a bank and there was a hold-up: "Everybody on the floor!" Down we went and I heard a snap with Emily screaming, "My butt!"

Why do we do this to ourselves? Dunno, but people laugh and that's really the point. I still have a tiny purple bruise on one of my toes this morning and looking at it made me giggle. I mean, really, if that's how I get hurt these days, I'm doing alright.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Today - Good Kicks Evil's Ass

As my wise philosopher friend, Dr. Dowdy, once observed, "Evil has a strength that good just doesn't have."

I know what he meant, he's referring to Good's always-in-the-way social conscious, and I tend to agree with him. But I also think that what Good lacks in cold brute power, it makes up for in sheer persistence.

Tonight, my comedian friends and I will put on the first of three shows benefitting Smile Train. I've discussed before how this is a personal issue for me and what a great cause it is, fixing the cleft palates of kids in developing countries. (Coloradans who want to come to a show, click here. Anyone else who would like to donate, click here.)

ANYWAY, when I got up this morning, I pondered the genuine good we were doing with our intentions - regardless of how much money we end up raising. And then I thought, "Something or someone evil is going to get their come-uppance today in exchange." This is how my mind works - crazy, I know.

But it was done.

My beloved NPR and Wall Street Journal informed me that this morning at 11:15 Eastern Time, Bernie Madoff became Inmate #61727-054 at Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina. I can only hope that about the time we kick off our show, Ponzi Boy becomes the new girlfriend of his cellmate, Bruno. I also hope he gets the bottom ... bunk.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Colorado: Home of the Seriously Fit

I realize this is old news but I'm just now getting around to processing. Whilst doing some research on an article, I came across this alarming map on the CDC website. Maybe it was the color choice but it kind of blew my mind.

"In 2008, only one state (Colorado) had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. Thirty-two states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25%; six of these states (Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia ) had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30%."

Ever since I moved to Colorado in 2006, I have taken note of this annual study that rates each state according to their fitness. Mississippi is always the fattest and Colorado is always the leanest; this instills in me both pride and fear.

While the majority of my family lives in Mississippi, none are fat. However, you see it everywhere in the South. Instead of Starbucks on every block there are Waffle Houses and fried chicken joints.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs, plans began for a new one. Connie Moran, the forward-thinking mayor of Ocean Springs suggested adding a pedestrian walkway to the new bridge and received the majority reaction: "Why would anyone want to walk over the bridge? No one is going to do that when they can just drive." She pointed out that it would be for exercise purposes and people just blinked, perplexed. (To her credit, the walkway won out and people use it a lot, my family included.)

Meanwhile, I'm living in a place where people regularly discuss the number of Fourteeners they've conquered. (The terms refers to the 51 mountain peaks above 14,000 feet.) I met a guy the other day who actually said to me: "I've only climbed 6 or 7 this summer. I really need to get up to 20." Seriously. I really think people get addicted to the thinness of the air and it makes them kinda loopy. Don't even get me started on the topic of skiing, hiking or mountain biking where the self-competition really goes into overdrive.

Of course, I have been helplessly sucked into the 'fanatically fit' culture of the Centennial State. It often reminds me of New Zealand where TVs are simply handy flat surfaces to set your energy drink on while tying up the laces on your hiking boots. I now find myself running every morning and - and here's the weird part - looking forward to it.

I mean, who is this person I've become????? Ah, well, I've still got a long training road ahead. Go ahead and ask me how many Fourteeners I've climbed .... ? (Hint: It rhymes with that hunky Greek philosopher. Nero.)

Chicken and waffles anyone?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Smile Train Shows

This coming week, my comedy improv pals and I will be putting on three benefit shows for Smile Train in Denver and nearby Lakewood. I thrust the idea upon my fellow Rodents last year and they jumped right in. Together, we raised $1500, enough to provide cleft surgery for SIX kids. I couldn't believe it.

This year, we've upped the ante - our goal is $3,000 - but we've spread it out over three nights, not just two. Also, we're going to have help from our pals at Monkey's Uncle, The Denver Wigs and several ROUS alumni. The venues are secured, the flyers are posted, emails are sent and the Smile Train t-shirts have arrived.

Now, we just cross our fingers and hope that people show up. And that we're collectively funny.

No matter what, Smile Train will get some money (We've already raised a healthy amount through our online donation page!) and a few kids will get a new life. It's hard enough dealing with a facial deformity here in the Western world, but in third-world countries so many of them are abandoned, killed, ostracized or simply treated as though cursed. Such an easy fix to a big problem - it's irresistible to me.

Also, it's been a handy reminder of how much I love putting on big events. In the corporate/VC world, I did my share and as nerve-wracking as it is, it's a helluva lot more fun than being chained to a computer all day long. Blech.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Finally, I've Caught Up!

If there has been a dearth of postings here lately its because I could no longer stand to wrestle with my six-year-old laptop. It was so slow that when I typed, I had to sit back and watch it catch up. Each sentence took 30 seconds to load. It became excruciating. It would not load my photos, could not play videos and the disc drive was broken. Scrolling made me want to poke my eyes out - it just couldn't handle the assignment.

I am famous for running my machines into the ground and this was no exception. Today, my pals Daniel (a computer expert) and Steve (my improv soulmate), went with me to MicroCenter and together, we did the deed. An older saleslady named Mary (she was maybe in her 50s) helped me with her no-nonsense-no-pressure sales approach. They must not be selling too many laptops these days; the sales manager came over to shake our hands.

I feel seduced but in a good way - in a way that is going to make me sleep better and wake up wanting to get shit done.

Lots of debate on PC v. Mac - thanks to Facebook - but in the end, I had to go Mac. There's too much I want to do with media - photos, videos, sound, etc. - and I've experienced the PC virus scenario and it's like being held hostage. No thanks.

Eventually, I will have to tell Gins that I spent a chunk of my survival money but I'm hoping this is an investment in my future. As I am starting to discover, I won't be landing my next job so much as I will be creating it. And this new thin, silver friend of mine is going to help me make it happen.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Off to Aspen

Lucky me. After days of frenetic tasks - both fun and obligatory - I'm hitting the road and headed West to Aspen, mountain playground for the rich and pretty. A good friend is working up there and has scored a free hotel room - key word being "free."

My toes are painted red and blue and I've got a vintage dress given to me by Lenora Roman, friend and mother of the mighty Laurianna. Lenora used to wear it in the 60s - I'll try to get a photo of me in it - but you can bet your buns that it's red, white and blue.

Speaking of buns, I just remembered a holiday-themed childhood memory:

I'm probably about 6 or 7 and we're visiting family in North Dakota. This is the age where I follow my brother (age 9 or 10) around everywhere and, since he can't get rid of me, he starts fucking with me.

"Heather, Mom wants you." (She didn't.)
"Heather, phone's for you." (Nobody there.)
"Heather, ride your skateboard down this hill. The bottom is totally smooth." (Sand pit at bottom of the hill, I totally wipe out.)
And so on.

Y'know, just for entertainment.

So, we're playing lawn darts on the cousin's front yard. I'm watching, feeling like an outsider. I go over and sit down on a lawn chair. My brother looks over and yells, "Heather, you better get off that chair! Heather!!!"

I say my 6-year-old version of 'fuck you' which is probably something like, "Shut up, Robbie! I'm not listening to you any-" KA-BOOM!

Evidently, I had sat on a live firecracker.

At first, total shock from me, terror from the adults and hysterical laughter from the kids. I was picked up and taken inside where my shorts were pulled down and my ass inspected for damage. All I got was a terrible stinging welt but my ego had suffered the most damage. As you can imagine, the store is now told and re-told and has become a solid piece of family lore.

I found out later that when my father was expressing deep concern for my health, he was actually supressing his own hysterical laughter - a sacrfice that was much appreciated.

Happy Independence Day, everyone! Watch where ya sit!