Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Peace Be With Me... And Also With Me

I stared at the screen of the outdated PC in my brother's old bedroom, hoping to find a diamond in the rough of monster.com. Moving back in with my parents after college wasn't the plan, but since I didn't do much to prevent it, I sank myself into finding whatever job an unsure, unfocused and academically underwhelming woman could find. The phone rang and my attention was pulled to my parent's room about 20 feet away where my father answered. After about 15 seconds, the yelling started.

"Over and over, same thing!! Just figure it out yourself! I don't know what to tell you!!"

He hung up the phone and I sat in stunned silence. The call was from one of his oldest friends and I had never heard my father speak to him in that way. Earlier I had noticed that he seemed quiet, but I just shrugged it off as normal grumpy-old-man behavior. Ever since my dad had been forced into early retirement during my junior year at Michigan State, his moods could never be predicted. The phone rang again. I reached for the phone, but heard my father answer before my hand hit the receiver.

"Hello," my father said in a tone only reserved for funeral parlors, "Oh hi, Haren."

Haren Uncle was another close friend of my father's who never missed a weekly call. Only this week, I'm sure he wasn't prepared for what he heard on the other end. At first I thought my dad was choking, but then I heard the unmistakable sound of restrained sobs.

"I'm... I'm just... going through a lot, Haren," his words struggled to escape between whimpers.

My own tears, sharp as thorns, arrived on cue at the backs of my eyes as they always did when my father got emotional. I tiptoed to the doorway to see my father sitting on the bed, turned away from me. One hand rubbed his temples and his shoulders bobbed up with each gasp of tearful breath. I desperately wanted to understand what was wrong, what brought on such despair on a Wednesday afternoon. Haren Uncle must have been asking the same question and the answer was probably not one my father wanted his daughter to hear...

"I'm... I'm not at peace with myself."

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With every passing year of my life, I go back to that spied moment of my father more times than I can count. We never talked about it and I pretended not to know anything about that heartbreaking confession. That was just the way it worked in our family. Besides, even if I did ask, I'm not sure I could bear my father's unhappiness with the way his life turned out.

The last decade of my dad's life was tough to watch. Sure, there were happy occasions like the birth of his grandchildren and my wedding, but I could always sense an underlying sadness to his demeanor that I felt helpless against. The final 6 years he was battling prostate cancer, so the despair related to that was easier to spot, but prior to that diagnosis, I knew he was battling something far more intense than an illness of the body.

In the years since his passing, I've hypothesized a lot about what caused my father's final years to be ones of internal heartache. While he wasn't a man who spoke a lot about his regrets, I could identify few things that perhaps left him feeling unfulfilled or regretful. I dare not put them in this post out of respect for him, but my theories include struggles to which many can relate, and for me, ones that can be learned from.


Dream Leaver
I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live. As a child, I was obsessed with mimicry and spent hours in front of a mirror trying to master impressions of friends, family, teachers, lunch ladies, you name it. Seeing that show and the many masters of impersonations like Dana Carvey, Eddie Murphy, Jan Hooks, Cheri Oteri, and Phil Hartman was mesmerizing. I didn't know how to get there, but I knew that if I could do what those funny people did every Saturday night, I'd be very happy.

Today, becoming a cast member on SNL is not my dream. Well, if by some miracle Lorne Michaels wants my 40-year-old ass on the show, I'd jump at the chance, but I know better than to bank on that happening. No, today my dream is much broader and nuanced. If I had to Facebook characterize my relationship with my dream, no doubt would I click, "It's Complicated."

First of all, I've been abusive to my dream. Until recently I spent years ignoring it, insulting it, being embarrassed by it, trying to abandon it... all the things no dream should ever have to put up with. But, my dream didn't give up on me. That is to say, it kept nagging me to pay it proper attention and a few years ago I finally woke up. The dream didn't look the same as when I was sitting on my couch laughing at Wayne's World, but just as I had, my dream had evolved into something I could actually commit to. It gives me great pleasure to report that my dream and I are now very happy together.

Today my dream is still to make a living with my talent, but it doesn't have to be on Saturday Night Live. It could be as a writer, performer, director, producer, teacher or coach in the field of entertainment, preferably comedy. I've come to the realization that some of the choices I made earlier in life have narrowed my field of dreams, and sometimes that does bum me out, but I also know that it's never too late to work hard at your goals. There were so many years where I denied that my dreams were worthy to follow, and the fact that I've turned that around opens the gates to being at peace with myself.

Regret and Envy
Having my first kid did a number on me when it came to pursuing comedy. Staring at this little human cued a surge of emotions, most of which were hormone induced, but after that it was about wanting this child (and future child) to see her mother as someone who won't settle for something less than her true purpose. So, at the age of 33, I signed up for Intro to Improv and the trajectory of my life totally changed.

Now that I've been in this field for over 7 years, I regret not doing it sooner. As I look around at my improv peers, some of them still in college, I can't help but ponder what my life would look like now if I had entered that improv classroom 10 years younger. Before marriage and kids, no encumbrances preventing me from taking every class and workshop, auditioning for every show, rehearsing as much as I could, properly bonding with my fellow improvisors. It's a dangerous path to go down, yet I do it more often than I like to admit. Regret serves no purpose in life, but many times I'm powerless against it.

Envy is another emotion I'm embarrassed to say I've felt many times. Growing up as 1st generation Indian-American, I was the only one of my peers who had a dream to be in show business. I was surrounded by friends who were all following the "normal" path of medicine, law, engineering, business... all the respectable and lucrative fields worthy of our community. When I'd sit in my room, dreaming of accepting an Oscar or Emmy, I was convinced that I'd be the first Indian woman to do so and it would be me paving the way for future brown boys and girls.

Now, you see Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, Sarayu Blue and many others gracing the big and small screens. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love seeing Indians who grew up like me becoming successful in Hollywood. I've read both of Mindy Kaling's books and often cite her as one of my biggest influences to keep pursuing my dream. What I envy is that they figured out how to break that mold of expectation that every 1st generation Indian kid goes through and, unlike me, they didn't let fear get in their way. I envy their drive and regret not finding mine sooner.

Keeping It Real
I don't want to sound like I'm giving up and saying I'll never achieve greatness in comedy. Quite the contrary... this is about acknowledging that if my ultimate dream is never realized, I can be at peace with myself and the way in which I pursued my purpose. Speaking of my pursuit, there are a lot of alternative ways I'm hoping to climb that ladder of success. Instead of waiting around to audition for the perfect role in a show or movie, I'm writing my own scripts and shows. Instead of only teaching theater-specific curriculum, I'm designing my own workshops based on my performance strengths. Instead of keeping my thoughts that may be helpful to others in my head, I'm sharing them every week on this blog.

After reading and listening to countless interviews with comedians and actors I admire, I've learned that no one's path is the same and 95% of the time, you have to make your own opportunities. It was such a freeing concept that was so foreign to me. My perception of "making it" in Hollywood was always the traditional route of getting an agent, auditioning for years and then getting some big break. Matt Damon was one of thousands of white dudes in Hollywood when he was going on auditions, so instead of waiting for the perfect role to come to him, he wrote Good Will Hunting. Mindy Kaling wrote a play conceived of her own style of comedy (where she played Matt Damon), which she put up herself and that led to her writing job at The Office. Every stand-up comedian writes his or her own material and works tirelessly at little clubs across the country with the hopes of it turning into a sustainable career.

I'm well aware that these types of successes are rare, but I'm still a dreamer. In this moment, I am at peace with myself because everyday I'm working toward my dream... a dream I've had since I was a little girl, sitting on my bed, repeating the midwest accent of the school librarian saying "Mondee" instead of "Monday." Of course, I do think about nothing coming to fruition after putting in years of work, but you know, I just don't believe that's going to happen. Plus, my definition of success isn't necessarily seeing my name in lights, it's more about making my unique contribution to the world of entertainment, on whatever level it ends up being. I'm realistic, but at the same time I assign no limits to the possibilities. Hell, maybe I WILL be the first cast member of SNL who started over the age of 40! Twice a week I stare at huge block letters on the wall of my daughter's gymnastics gym that read, "HARD WORK BEATS TALENT." I believe in my talent... I just have to put in the work.

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My heart still aches for my father. How I wish I could remind him of everything he contributed to my life with so much love. The flaw in that reasoning, of course, is that my view isn't the one that matters. It was about how he saw himself and his own evaluation of his life. Perhaps he didn't pursue something he always dreamed of... maybe there was a secret passion of his that he never nurtured. It's that perspective which has become a mantra of mine thanks to him. That private moment I witnessed so many years ago often flashes in my thoughts...  almost like a blinking warning sign on the highway to change lanes. It tells me work hard and focus on making my life mean something... to me.

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