This past summer, I met up with my brother in Southeast Asia to do some traveling. We spent time in Luang Prabang, Laos, one of the poorest places on Earth. Aside from the best egg sandwiches you’ll ever taste, Laos is also home to some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. This is from a journal entry I made after one such meeting…
We woke up the next day and made our way to the Luang Prabang Library, where they were taking volunteers to spend a couple of hours teaching English to some local kids. I was paired with a 17-year-old novice monk, named Giarry. Bright and extremely dedicated, Giarry would make an hour long trek (on foot and in sandals) from his Temple to the library, just for the chance to practice English for a couple hours with foreigners. (He would make the journey everyday, not knowing if any foreigners were even in town). I was immediately struck by his extreme eagerness to learn. Not something that I see to often here in the States, especially in myself. It was inspiring.
Giarry brought with him a list of English words that he wanted to know the meaning of. Not sure where he got them, but it was a difficult list of words and I found that clearly articulating the simple definition of words (“imperial,” “willingness,” “Phoenix”) isn’t all that easy.
He and I also just sat and conversed, taking turns telling each other about our very different lives. Good practice comes from simply doing, and Giarry knew this. He relished the opportunity to practice the language. He had left home to live in the Temple because it was the only way he’d be able to go to school (the monks pay for their education), plus with five other siblings, it was hard to find time “for study” at home. I also found out that the monks had recently left the Temple, leaving the novices to fend for themselves. Giarry, along with the other unsupervised, teenage novices, gets up at 4 every morning to pray. They cook their own meals, maintain the Temple grounds and take care of each other. All on top of his daily treks into Luang Prabang to practice his English. When I was 17, I had to be coaxed into taking out the trash.
His dream is to go to University, to study English like his big sister, and then possibly become an actor.
I told Giarry that I’d never walked that far for anything in my life. He smiled and shrugged it off. “I just really want to learn English.”
Whenever I go back home, I have a habit of going through books and journals and other random junk in my old childhood room. The last time I was there, I came across my East High School Senior Yearbook. Being the vain actor that I am (ask my roommates how many times they’ve had to bang on the bathroom door because I’ve spent the last half hour making faces at myself in the mirror), I flipped right to my picture. I noticed immediately that I’ve only recently learned how to smile, but that’s neither here nor there. The second thing I noticed was my senior quote from the endless fountain of wisdom that is Calvin & Hobbes. It read, underneath my acne-scarred half-smile, “There’s never enough time to do all the Nothing you want.”
My first thought was, damn, I was lazy. My second was, damn! I miss being lazy! I haven’t been lazy in a long, long time! Now, I know what you’re thinking… Harris! Laziness is bad! Didn’t you see se7en? Sloth is a deadly sin! Kevin Spacey will kill you if you’re lazy! (I know, I’m a mind reader). Well, I say to you, dear reader, laziness isn’t that bad.
I feel like laziness has been elevated to a crime worthy of federal prosecution. Multi-tasking isn’t even enough for me to feel busy anymore; I need at least 6 tabs on Firefox open, an iPhone in my hand and a meal either being prepared to cook, currently cooking or being eaten so that I can feel like a fully functioning member of society. As I type this sentence, I am simultaneously watching the Nuggets game on-line, looking up “simultaneously” on thesaurus.com to sound smarter and responding to a txt message about getting this blog-post done on time. The Nuggets are barely hanging on against the lowly Hornets, by the way, so if this blog suddenly takes a sharp turn for the negative, you’ll know why.
We’ve entered the Age of Efficiency, alright. Next time you’re driving look to your right and left and I guarantee that at least one of the drivers next to you will be head down, typing away on their “smart” phone, instead of, you know, just driving. That is, if you’re not busy yourself, composing an e-mail on the 405. Why is it so impossible for us to focus on one thing at a time? Whether it be simply eating an undistracted breakfast, or talking to a friend without talking to six others on Facebook chat. Would you rather watch a juggler juggle ten different things at once and drop half of them, or an archer send one singular arrow flying through the air into a direct bulls-eye?
Remember all those math classes in Middle School where you had to take all the fractions and simplify, simplify, simplify? Well, simplification works in Middle School math, it works in acting and it works in life too. Put your focus on one thing at a time and realize how much more efficient you’ll become. Maybe you’ll even carve enough time into your day to just sit and watch the clouds move across a brilliantly blue sky. And when someone looks up from their phone to ask what you’re doing, you won’t feel guilty in saying, “Oh, nothing.”
This week, we find our heroes, Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman at a party in East Los Angeles. The season is Summer. The temperature, high. Sugar intake, even higher…
The party had devolved into madness pretty quickly. The parents had rented out the lot of an old airplane hanger. They filled it with one of the more elaborate Play Place’s I’ve ever seen. Kids were lost for the entire party in the dark recesses of it’s intricate and overly complicated obstacle course; more than one child lost their top layer of skin jumping down the black rubber slide, which had been expertly placed to take in all of the 95 degree summer sun. At one point, a child climbed out of the ball pit and promptly vomited at my feet. Because of the bowls of candy at their disposal, his vomit was neon blue.
The heat wasn’t just getting to the kids, either. Us super heroes were feeling the effects, as well. I’m sure the real Batman could have had Morgan Freeman install an air-conditioning unit in his suit, or a sprinkler system, something to combat the East LA summer. Alas, I’m not the real Batman and I don’t have Morgan Freeman’s number. All my suit consists of is layer upon layer of thick, black rubber. For a Olympic wrestler cutting weight, perfect. For an actor trying to maintain control as six-year-old, Cesar’s birthday party slowly spirals into chaos -not so much.
When my partner, a delirious and blinded-by-his-own-costume, Spiderman accidentally punched a child in the face while attempting to demonstrate web-slinging, we knew it was time to leave. Only one problem: we needed to get paid and Birthday Boy’s dad was nowhere in sight. In fact, there weren’t many parents around at all. It was me, Spiderman and Wonder Woman, and thirty six-year-olds running around, hopped up on sugar and their new party favors: BB guns. Yes, someone decided it was a good idea to pump a bunch of six-year-olds full of sugar, give them all BB guns and then promptly leave the premises. Yay!
With my body increasingly on the verge of over-heating, I sifted through the mass of lil’ gangstas and their BB guns to look for dad. At this point, my vision began to get blurry (mostly due to the mixture of my sweat and the black paint I wear around my eyes to make Batman look dark and mysterious). Of course, Batman, teetering back and forth, drunk on heat, made great target practice for their new party favors.
Somehow I made it to the back of the airplane hanger without dying. And, what’s that…
There’s dad! I found him! Finally, we can get paid and leave this madness! Oh wait, he’s not alone. He’s standing in a circle with some Birthday Clowns. And they’re blowing coke. That’s fun.
After one of the more awkward money exchanges I’ve ever experienced, we were on our way. Batman and Spiderman had survived to fight another day.
Sssshhh, no… Wonder Woman was never with us. We didn’t leave her behind, no way.
…Sometimes freedom requires sacrifice. Justice League, ho!
Editor’s note: We are fully aware that Batman and Spiderman are of different Universe’s and really have no right to be at a party together. Just be glad this party wasn’t Anakin vs. Darth Vader.
“The real Darth Vader wears pink froggy shoes,” she said, her face scrunched, hands on her hips. I’d been in Los Angeles two years at this point, taking classes in Improv comedy for almost all of them, and I had just been rendered speechless by a six-year-old girl. And she was mad. Really mad. I stood there, looking at her through the tiny slits in my Darth Vader helmet, wondering how so much judgement could have made it onto such a tiny face. I started going through the Star Wars rolodex in my head. Vader wears all black, right? Of course Vader wears all black, come on. Pink Froggy Shoes and Lord Vader? What the hell was she talking about?
“Well…” I mustered, thinking “yes, and! yes, and! yes, and!” to myself.
“I left my froggy shoes on the Death Star. The laundry room was pretty slow today…” I cringed behind the mask. There’s no way she’s gonna buy that, I thought.
“Oh.” And with that, she smiled and pranced off towards the birthday cake.
The amazing thing about little kids is that they allow themselves to believe anything. That childlike ability to give over to any imaginary situation is acting. Acting is playing.
It wasn’t the birthday party from Hell, but it sure was in Hell’s zip code. About half an hour in, I’d given up trying to stop the kid in the Green Striped Shirt from choking me with my own cape. I figured, if his parents were gonna sit there in front of us and watch all this go down without saying a WORD, it was probably meant to be. I’d never imagined that my death would occur by asphyxiation via a Darth Vader cape, but you gotta admit, it would have been pretty poetic.
Usually when the pinata comes out at a party, it’s a huge relief because it means that my fellow Jedi partner and I can sit back and do jack shit for ten minutes while the kids wail away on a papier-mâché Vader head. And not only that, but the pinata also allows me to drop my favorite party joke of all time: seeing Vader hanging from a tree and turning to the parents, wagging a finger of shame. “That’s just wrong.”
Not this time.
At the party-not-quite-of-Hell-but-in-Hell’s-neighborhood they had a pinata. Not a Vader pinata, but a paper-mache Death Star pinata. So far, so good. However, that’s where the “so good” stops. Some genius graduate of the School for Excellent Parenting thought it would be a good idea to layer the pinata with so much papier-mâché that it was nearly as indestructible as the real Death Star. We were gonna need Luke, an X-Wing and Obi-Wan’s ghost to break the damn thing.
But, wait! One unbreakable pinata, you say? Child’s play! I see your brick of a pinata and raise you one five-foot wooden beam.
Throw in a group of six-year-olds hopped up on sugar and a lack of parental control swinging that wooden beam around like a bunch of Tasmanian Devils on crack and you’ve got yourself a party!
Yup. I will say, if there was anything that was gonna break that pinata open, a wooden beam taller than any of the children swinging it surely would do the trick. And boy, were these kids swinging. You know how in golf they always tell you to check your backswing to make sure that no one’s innocent bystanding face is in the way? Yeah, these kids never got that lesson.
What happened in the next five minutes was nothing short of a miracle of close calls and near misses that Buster Keaton himself couldn’t have choreographed better. As Mom would duck to scold one child, the Beam would whiz by the space previously occupied by her head just a split second before. The Little Toddler almost got it a couple times, as she rather liked to crawl in the space directly underneath the pinata… Um, Dad do you see that toddler there underneath the pinata? The pinata your holding the rope to and your son is Mark McGuireing on? Oh, that’s right, you’re checking e-mail on your phone. You multi-tasker, you.
Finally, after my face had turned into a permanent cringe (luckily hidden behind Lord Vader’s mask) the Death Star began to crack. Little bits of candy started to leak out, hitting the floor. It would all be over soon, thank God.
The birthday boy winds up and delivers the pinata a SMACK! for the ages, just missing all the other kids already rummaging through the fallen candy who couldn’t bother with waiting for the whole pinata to break and senile old Grandma, who wandered to within an inch of losing her head, to ask, “What’s going on? Why is everybody gathered around here?”
In the end, everyone survived, no one was hurt, except for maybe my dignity and the Birthday Boy got his medallion and became a Jedi. I guess it wasn’t such a bad party after all. Plus, they tipped me twenty bucks and half a tomato and mozzarella sandwich. Just don’t ever ask me to coach Little League.
A year and a half after graduating from college, I was back in the Mile High City for the winter holidays. I had spent the previous year living in Los Angeles, rediscovering a latent love for the craft of acting. The hardest part about starting a life of acting is going home. I had nothing tangible to show for my year of work. That’s the thing about acting. At its purest form it is fleeting; only passed on in the hearts of those to witness the performance firsthand. In the end, isn’t that a lot like life? We are not the physical objects that reside in our attics, but the emotions emanating from our hearts.
At the time, of course, this beautiful struggle wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a TV show! I wanted my friends back home to be watching a basketball game and see me chugging beer in a commercial. I wanted to be able to hold in my hands the fruits of my labor.
I don’t remember if I was able to articulate this frustration to my family (who were the only reason I felt I could make it in Hollywood in the first place) or if I expressed myself through incoherent grunts and mumbling. They could, however, tell that I was getting frustrated. Frustrated with the business of acting, the politics of Hollywood and the fact that I wasn’t even sure if I was getting frustrated over something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.
It was one of the eight nights of Chanukah (which one, I’m not sure) and our house was packed with people; most of whom weren’t even Jewish. That’s the thing about a Markson Family holiday; it’s never been about the religious aspects, but being around the people we love.
As the snow dumped outside and the Manischevitz flowed inside, my dad pulled me aside. He took me into our kitchen to a wall that had accumulated a couple dozen photographs over the years. Most of them are of my brother, Jack, and myself on the series of adventures known as childhood. My dad pointed out a wrinkled old photo of a man sitting out in the sun on a tractor.
“Do you know who this is?” He asked me.
I shook my head.
“That’s Yehuda. He was my Kibbutz father.”
I had known that my dad had spent his time between college and medical school on a Kibbutz in Israel, but I couldn’t recall much else about the time he spent in the Cradle of Humanity.
I set my glass down and tuned out the rest of the party. I could tell this was going to be one of those special moments I’ve had so many times with my dad.
“Here’s a story about Yehuda,” my dad said. “My job on the kibbutz was picking oranges. Everybody had their job and mine was to climb up into the orange trees to fill bags and bags of that luscious fruit.
“One morning, I was up in the tree, a canvas bag slung over my shoulder and I was picking oranges like a madman. I was moving so fast that most of the oranges didn’t make it into my bag, but onto the dirt below me.
“‘Jay,’ I heard a voice call me from the ground. ‘Come down here.’ It was in Hebrew, which I didn’t understand, but there was no mistaking his gesturing.
“I climbed down from the tree to see Yehuda standing some yards away. He motioned for me to come to him. I walked to where he was standing, expecting to get chastised for my terrible orange picking.
“Instead, Yehuda took out a cigarette from his jacket pocket and placed it on the ground. He motioned for me to sit and he joined me on the ground. He took off his eyeglasses, placed them on the dirt next to the cigarette, just so, so that the sun was magnified through the glass onto the tip of the cigarette.
“Ten minutes pass.
“Twenty minutes later, Yehuda picked up the cigarette and took a long, slow drag. The tip lit up like the Israeli desert sun. As he let the smoke crawl out of his mouth, he looked to me and said, ‘Savlanout…’”
As my dad finished his story, he smiled at me and put his hand on my shoulder.