Listen to Your Mother

8 05 2016

I backpacked across Europe for six months in my 20’s and jumped out of a plane for my 50th birthday. I was my daughter’s Girl Scout leader for 13 years and taught them how to hail a cab in NYC and how to appreciate art in Italy. So as I start my 59th year, I closed the show with my mom’s stories for the inaugural performance of Listen to Your Mother in New Orleans. Once again she was center stage. 

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My Mom, my daughter and me

The Wild Woman

My Mom would say, “I don’t drink or smoke…but I lie.” She certainly never let the truth get in the way of a good story. She passed away last year at the age of 86, and I have a few true stories that couldn’t be told at her funeral.

What makes Mom’s stories so wild to me is that I watched her grow into her wildness. She got feisty in her senior years. She could always read her audience like a book and knew just how outrageously she could push it. She had that sweet, little ole lady thing going for her. Think a southern, genteel, frail Betty White. I could never deny that she was a drama queen, and when she had an audience, she liked to perform.

I’m wearing a piece of jewelry that was hers (it’s the one she’s wearing in the photo). One of my guilty pleasures is “Long Island Medium,” and part of me believes the sparkle I’m wearing helps me channel her stories. While she was a diva, she was also known for her style. We were a little surprised at the home jewelry party when she went for the “big country music star,” blingy cross. And it wasn’t because she was that devout. When asked why she wanted it, she said, “Well, you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the girl.”

We traveled to her Texas family roots for a holiday a few years back. As we gathered round the table, Mom tells everyone about her new boyfriend at the nursing home, Dick. She tells us one night she carried her boom box down to Dick’s room, very late, when everyone was asleep. She slipped quietly into his room, turned the sexy music on and she proceeded to do a strip tease for him. She then picked up her boom box, put her robe back on and went back to her room. The next day, Dick tells her that he had the strangest dream. She never tells him it wasn’t a dream.

Not long after this, Dick and Mom move into the same room. She tells us all that she can’t get any sleep. “The night shift, she says, keeps coming in our room all night trying to catch us doing it!”

Only that’s not really what she said. Instead of the genteel phrase “doing it” she went for top shock value and used…another term.

Her last year involved a few trips to the hospital as she became frailer.

She had a young doctor whom she called Doogie Howser. I appreciated the time Doogie spent with her, especially when her answers were long and had nothing to do with the question. I knew he was about to ask her about Do Not Resuscitate orders when he said he had a final important question to ask her.

That’s when she said, “You want to know if I still have sex?!”
He actually blushed.

I am an only child and so is my daughter. The three of us had a very special connection. We knew when she told us that her 90-year-old boyfriend was building something with wires and batteries that she thought was a bomb—it was his hearing aid—that something had fundamentally changed in her mental state.

In those last weeks as she slipped away from us, either my daughter or I went by daily to check on her. She had the most amazing hallucinations. In them she was a strong, powerful woman. After one visit, my daughter called me.

“Nana was sitting in her wheelchair by the nurse’s station,” she said. “Nodding toward the wall, she asked if I saw that big hole in the wall.

I did that,’ Nana said. ‘There was a gas leak last night, and I punched through the wall and saved everybody here.”

At her funeral, my daughter delivered a beautiful eulogy full of Nana stories that could be told in church. A few months later, my baby girl moved to Chicago to pursue her dream of becoming a comedy writer.

I told my daughter about Listen to your Mother, pointing out that Chicago had a big production, that she should try out, and that we’d both have the same Nana stories. To which she replied, “What makes you think I don’t have stories about you?”

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CREATIVE HEROES: Jade Th’ng

17 04 2016

When I started this series my idea was simple; interview people who were living fully creative lives. I often say our lives make sense in hindsight. That’s especially true when you reflect back on your life as a creative journey. The interviews, so far, have been people looking back on long, adventurous journeys. This interview is someone at the beginning of their adult journey.

jade cover

Jade Th’ng is a talented, smart, beautiful woman in her mid twenties. As a child she preferred crafts to dolls and Office Depot with its endless supply of markers, pens and pencils, to Toys R Us. She would be the last one to finish when working on a group creative project, paying attention to the tiniest details. She was drawn to music. She says it has it own language; one that all musicians—around the world and throughout the centuries—understand. She also always loved the sound of applause. Her audience could be just her parents when 4-year old Jade sang the entire Sound of Music score to keep from going to bed to 17-year old Jade performing an oboe concerto in front of a full theater.

Crafts

Creative projects

As a teen she was still creating; sewing and making jewelry, painting and drawing, baking and decorating cupcakes. She started a jewelry business with her mom called Nekkid Girls Designs. I know all this, because I’m that mom. Both her father and I are graphic designers, so she grew up in a home where creativity and making things were just what we did.

Performing

Always performing

Jade entered college as a music major. She hit a roadblock her sophomore year when she recognized she was not thriving. This future of being a musician did not fill her with passion and her grades suffered. Changing majors was a hard, tear-filled decision. She meandered for a while and it took her 6 years to graduate. She ended up with a liberal arts degree with three seemingly unrelated concentrations; Italian, film, and communication. Her Nana never understood and kept asking when Jade was going to cook her an Italian meal, since she was studying Italian.

jewelry

Jade made her first pair of earrings at nine. She’s still making jewelry.

Learning Italian allowed her to be an au pair in Italy one summer for the only daughter of a pair of doctors. She polished her writing skills with a quirky and funny blog chronicling her adventures called “Twenty-One in Tuscany”. Her jewelry making skills creatively connected her to the strong Italian mother in a way that nothing else did. She also returned home with a wonderful authentic lasagna recipe and her  Bellini’s now make brunch a memorable event. So her Italian did make her a good Italian cook, which pleased her Nana.

Italy

Jade in Italy from a summer as an au pair. She brought a great lasagna and Bellini recipe home.

Student jobs included waiting tables, bartending, and working in production on TV commercial sets. Her sewing skills put her in the wardrobe department and she once made a caveman costume for a small budget commercial. Her attention to detail led her to assisting Louisiana’s top food stylist for several national commercial brands.

In her meandering she took a class that ignited a new passion—screenwriting. She discovered while her classmates were all writing dramas; she had a talent for writing comedy. She once filmed me for a mockumentary to talk about the evils of Comic Sans (my own personal nemesis).

After graduating, she knew she wanted to pursue comedy and set her sights on Chicago. She studied comedians she admired, like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. What many of these comedians shared was learning comedy and improv in the windy city, Chicago—1000 miles away from the sleepy, southern city she grew up in. So off Jade went last summer, to what is her unofficial graduate school. She’s taking comedy classes at the renowned iO Theater, she’s honing her writing skills, she’s getting her work produced on stage, and she’s waiting tables to pay the bills. She has also found a creative tribe of friends who are creating their own art while starting their own adult lives.

I know one day all her skills will fuse together. It will make sense in hindsight. I don’t know where her journey is going to take her, but I do know that creativity will always be a part of her life. She is making her dreams happen. She is living a fully creative life. That is why Jade, my baby girl, is a creative hero. She will always have my applause.

Click here to watch an extended conversation with Jade (be sure to watch the very end—it’s the best part).

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CREATIVE HEROES: Raymond Strother

24 03 2016

Ray and my sweetie’s friendship goes back decades. While he was down from his Montana mountains and in Louisiana, I grabbed him for a conversation for my Creative Heroes series. A creative hero is someone who lives a fully creative life and Ray teaches us all how to do that. Ray believes that creativity is about seeing the world differently and breaking the rules to create something unique.

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Ray has lived a big life. He’s gotten the powerful elected. He’s a renowned author. He’s piloted planes. He’s taught at Harvard and is an esteemed professor at the small Louisiana university that kicked him out when he was a student for his political views. He is still married to his high school sweetheart and together they have traveled the world. Their home houses a stunning, eclectic art collection from their life together. His musical tastes go from opera to rap. He is a master woodcrafter and can bake a damn good loaf of bread. He is a true renaissance man.

It took breaking the rules for Ray to break out of the life he was born in the blue collar, oil refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas where neither parent graduated from high school. As a young adult he learned to embrace a new direction when faced with a roadblock. After it was “suggested” by the small town university president that he transfer to the more “liberal” LSU in Baton Rouge, Ray packed up his new bride and moved. Having lost his track scholarship in the process, he knew he could write and became a Journalism major. The seeds of his professional life had been planted.

His life proves that all things one learns are useful. A student job of sorting the printing letterforms gave him an understanding of typography, which evolved into an understanding of design. A teacher taught him the basics of photography and he created a studio in the unused attic of LSU’s journalism building. These learned skills would eventually lead him into writing and directing commercials when he entered the political advertising world.

His understanding of living a working class life drove his life mission of trying to make the world a better place. From Ray’s Wikipedia page, “My father taught me that you had to stand on the picket line … and you had to get involved in politics — because people like us had no other choice. So I became a political consultant. It was a calling like the ministry.”

Knowing himself well enough to know that his personality was not suited to being a politician, he used his creative skill set to help people he believed in get elected. It was Ray’s fearlessness, insatiable curiosity and hard work ethic that propelled him on his own creative journey that eventually led him to being a top political consultant based in Washington DC, the most powerful city in the world.

Creativity is the spark of God
Ray does not believe creativity ever grows out of a committee decision. His creativity grows out of solitude. He isolated himself to write his novels. He fell in love with the rugged majesty of Montana while working on a political campaign there. The locals thought he was crazy when he bought the vertical slope of a mountain. Thinking differently allowed him to create a mountain retreat built on that impossibly steep slope, which he named Heroes Ranch.

Hero's

Hero’s Ranch, the Strother’s Montana mountain retreat

Wise Chair

His decades of experience have turned him into a sought after professor. The university that once kicked him out now has an honored chair for him. It’s called the Wise Chair. Ray believes creativity grows most intensely when youth and passion are combined.

“Creativity is the spark of God,” Ray said. What a blessing that a few teachers saw that spark in Ray’s early life. Today he see’s that spark in his students. He is still helping change the world by turning those sparks into creative fire. He is a creative hero.

Click here to watch an extended video conversation with Ray.

Ray video

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Listen to Your Mother – New Orleans

22 03 2016

I’ve heard that if a TED Talk married the Vagina Monologues that it’s offspring would be Listen to Your Mother. Listen to Your Mother (LTYM) is a performance about motherhood and LTYM performances will be held in 41 cities across North America around Mother’s Day. Each performance is unique to the city that births it and yet all are related by the same theme. Each cast member reads an essay that they have written. One does not have to be a writer, or a performer, or a woman to be in the cast. The only requirement is that your story be about motherhood. The inaugural New Orleans performance is Mother’s Day weekend. Click here for details.  All past performances can be found on the LYTM website.

LTYM

The Big City
My Dad always referred to New Orleans as the Big City. Baton Rouge is only 80 miles away. I love my hometown, but it’ll always be a country cousin to that big city down river. I remember going there only once in my childhood. I still remember how exotic it felt. There were giant palm trees in the medians of major boulevards downtown. Only the medians were called the neutral ground. There were buildings taller than any in my hometown, wrought iron balconies, and lots of people were out walking the broad sidewalks of those busy city streets. The homes were narrow, and had tiny yards, and were called shotguns. Even inside, the ceilings were higher than what I was used to. People rode streetcars and buses to get to places. It was so different from the small, comfortable world I knew.

As an adult, New Orleans still has the same exotic feel to me. I’ve loved it since that first visit. When I saw someone in a blogging group I’m in was going to produce the first LTYM in my favorite city, I immediately asked her to let me know when it would be because I wanted to attend. When she asked why don’t I audition, I thought about it for a day and said, why not!? I became the first to sign up. Before I knew it, I was reading the story I had written to the producers. And I was chosen for the cast.

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I knew deep down that my story had the right spice for New Orleans. And speaking of spice, every trip to the big city during this adventure has involved experiencing another landmark restaurant. It really is the best foodie city in the world. I could almost live on the bread, coffee and Bloody Marys alone.

Gumbo
I sat and listened to my cast mates stories at the first read through and got a taste of what the performance would become. Like the best gumbo there were the unique elements that gave each story it’s own flavor. Most people say that their mama makes the best gumbo. Together the dozen in the New Orleans cast created an extraordinary gumbo that only stories about motherhood could make. I am trembling with excitement (and a little fear) while I wait for this performance to be served to its audience on Mother’s Day weekend. 

Between the first practice and the performance, I will turn 59. I made a conscious decision when I entered my 50’s to do things that moved me outside my comfort zone. I entered my 50’s by jumping out of a plane and on the eve of my 60’s it feels appropriate that I’m taking center stage. I can now confidently say, “listen to this mother!”

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CREATIVE HEROES: My Advertising Friends

28 02 2016

My sweetie, Steve Davison won a lifetime achievement award at the Annual Advertising (ADDY) Awards.* And BAM…it hit me afterwards. I’ve now started my new series on Creative Heroes, which is about someone living a fully creative life and not only was my sweetie a creative hero, but as I watched the intro video of past winners, I realized they were all creative heroes of mine. As I watched the show and saw brilliant, beautiful, touching and funny work, I realized I was in a room full of creative heroes. That award show and that evening was a love fest. My advertising peeps have somehow married design, writing, marketing, business and have turned it into a career. We actually get paid for this! It is an industry that I am proud to be a part of. It is the filter though which I see the world.

The night of the ADDY Awards was about honoring creativity. It was about those in the business that show up with their A game. As a friend said in the introductory video, “good is the enemy of great”. That’s really a hard thing to do. We get bogged down with life, people who don’t understand, and all the other excuses we come up with, when we settle for good enough.

Maybe because it’s hard to continually push yourself that the advertising people I know live by the philosophy, “work hard and play hard.” I’m invigorated when I’m with my tribe. It’s a multigenerational tribe; with friends who go back to the Mad Men era to 20-somethings who are fearless in their brand new careers. As my sweetie said in his acceptance speech, “the business may change technically, but it doesn’t change creatively. It’s not the tools that matter, it’s the people.”

The lifetime achievement award Steve received was a surprise to him, but I knew about it. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was that I kept the secret. Our table was filled with family and industry friends. These are friends that he gets together to watch football with, and they are also past AAF-BR club presidents and lifetime achievement winners. Our table was jokingly called the Mt. Rushmore table because of its collective age. But that table was also filled with a lot of creative wisdom. As I progress through this new series, I’m realizing a hallmark of living a creative life is surrounding yourself with creative friends.

I’ve written about my sweetie before. We met 30 years ago when he was the hot, tv commercial director in town. He knows every aspect of film/video production. He is an artist with the camera and I’ve heard him say, “it’s like painting with light.” One of the things that drew us together as a couple is the history we shared in the advertising world in our southern city. One of the things the South does really well is storytelling. And that’s really what advertising is, telling a story.

Living a Creative Life
Steve’s creativity is not left at work. He is a talented furniture maker. Our home is filled with pieces he’s built. He’s renovated our master bathroom and built a new deck in our garden. He is also a remarkable cook. I’ve got the extra pounds to show for it from our six years together. His dishes are not only delicious, the presentation is also carefully considered. A perfect evening for us is sitting outside on that deck with friends laughing and storytelling, and eating a great meal that Chef Steve has prepared and paired with the perfect bottle of wine.

I am so thrilled that Steve was honored by his peers. I’m also honored to be reminded by how much I love my creative tribe. We are all creative heroes.

Connections: Steve pointed out in his acceptance speech that he came back from Viet Nam and started his career in 1970. That was the same year that his father won this same lifetime achievement award. A few years later Steve was a volunteer producer for the ADDY Awards at the long-gone Aubin Lane Dinner Theater. I realized that I was also in attendance at that show. My father produced his own commercials and I was thrilled as a young teen to go with my Dad to my first ADDY Awards show. There is just one degree of separation in Baton Rouge.

* It’s called the E. A. “Pete” Goldsby Silver Medal Award and it was awarded by his peers in the American Advertising Federation–Baton Rouge (AAF-BR).

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CREATIVE HEROES: Marie Constantin

11 02 2016

Marie Constantin, photographer, home renovator, fiddler, lives a creative life. She lives in the present moment, sees the holy in the world around her, and infuses her life with joy. She has a loud laugh and her friends hear it often. We also hear righteous indignation when she sees injustice. Her creative soul radiates her humble joy. I immediately thought of Marie when I thought of starting a series on Creative Heroes.

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Mother Teresa
As I start to write this, Marie’s photo of Mother Teresa is on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The journey of how it got there is about her living a creative life. Marie makes a living as a photographer. I met her when I hired her for a photo shoot, when she was fresh back from a trip to India where she went to volunteer for Mother Teresa.

She learned early in her photographic career that she needed to spend her volunteer hours doing something other than photography. Marie would often volunteer at the soup kitchen run by Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity. Her helping out at the soup kitchen led to friendships with the nuns. They invited Marie to go to the Mother House in Calcutta. She went as a volunteer to do whatever was needed. What later evolved was whenever Mother Teresa was in this country, Marie was asked to photograph Mother Teresa attending to the business of the order. She got to know this remarkable woman up close and personal.

Not long after Mother Teresa died, Marie got a message from someone with a thick Spanish accent, which she promptly ignored. Fortunately the caller was persistent and they eventually connected. It was the Vatican and they wanted to use a photo she had taken for Mother Teresa’s Beatification. CBS Sunday Morning told the story of Mother Teresa through Marie’s eyes. I watched Marie on this national news program the morning of the Beatification. She was in St. Peter’s Square being interviewed with the huge billboard size photo she took, behind her hanging from the Basilica. Now that Mother Teresa is being fast tracked to sainthood, it’s still Marie’s photo that is the official Vatican image.

Marie's photo at Mother Teresa's Beatification

Marie’s photo at Mother Teresa’s Beatification

What makes Marie’s Mother Teresa story so powerful as a creative journey, is that it started a recharge from her day job as a photographer. That down time from work enhanced her professional life in a huge and unexpected way.

Living a Creative Life
The same creative energy she brings to her professional life fills her whole life. She bought a run down craftsman home in Baton Rouge’s oldest neighborhood that she saw potential in. Today she sees her home as living in a work of art and it’s on the Historic Registry. She’s bartered her photography skills for things like a stained glass door and she used color experts, designers and craftsmen to help actualize her vision. One of my favorite spots in town is sitting on the big swing on her wraparound porch, having a glass of wine, watching the world go by, while we solve the problems of the world. She has built a community of creative people who inspire her and who are inspired by her.

She also loves the rich culture of south Louisiana. She turned a fishing camp outside of town on the mighty Atchafalaya River into a Zen oasis and named it the Flying Alligator. It’s complete with a swinging bed and an outside shower. It took her a year, with her chain saw and lawn mower, to cut a trail through the woods. It’s a magical place where one can find solitude and meditation within nature.

Marie on stump

Marie Laughing

Marie at the Flying Alligator

It’s also a place where friends and family gather for eating, drinking and music. She decided to learn the fiddle a few years back. She went deep into Cajun country to find authentic teachers. She’s now friends with Grammy-award winning musicians and it’s common for a bunch of musicians to jam together on her camp’s big screened in porch.

The pier in front of her camp is named Flyin' Alligator waterfront lounge

The pier in front of her camp is named Flyin’ Alligator waterfront lounge

Marie can be seen in a traditional Mardi Gras costume made by her Cajun friends at the pink-flamingo-filled Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade that rolls by her craftsman home. Or she can be seen taking a photographic portrait of Louisiana’s new Governor. She brings the same joy and passion to both.

Mother Teresa said, “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” Marie’s life is a joyful, creative net. She is a creative hero.

Click here to watch an extended conversation with Marie on creativity.

CH opening still

CREATIVE HEROES
Click here for
The Birth of an Idea

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CREATIVE HEROES: The Birth of an Idea

31 01 2016

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I’m filled with creative energy as I start the New Year. I’m in the process of giving birth to a new idea. It’s about living a creative life. Since this idea is in the birthing process, I’m not sure what this idea will grow up to be.

This baby idea is about how small details full of creative energy can grow into a full life experience. Those experiences make a richer and joyful life. Sometimes the seed of that experience grows out of a difficult time.

Our lives make sense in hindsight. This baby idea has been 10 years in the making and has grown from a time when my professional life was going to shit.

Ten years ago, I had a new, young, smart boss who didn’t like my design style—I’m an art director in an in-house corporate setting—she felt I was an old dinosaur. She told me I would not make another round of budget cuts and should consider a job in sales. Eventually all she allowed me to create were flyers that went on the inside of bathroom stalls (really the shits).

I then believed I was no longer hirable and I began to seriously ponder on what did I want to do in this upcoming new chapter. I was freshly divorced and responsible for my aging mother and my teen daughter, so I didn’t feel free to walk away from a job with great benefits, where I had invested a dozen years. This is what propelled me through the next decade of living a fully creative life.

Whereas my boss saw me as a dinosaur, my professional organization saw me as someone with experience and asked me to be on their Board of Directors. I used this experience to grow my life in new directions. I started to face my fears and pushed myself into doing things that made me uncomfortable, like public speaking.

I eventually became the President of my club and that young boss followed her own ambitious rise up the corporate ladder and left the company. As I regained confidence, I wanted to share my life experience with others and created workshops on creativity. I knew firsthand how fragile it could be and that the creative spirit needs to be nurtured and encouraged to thrive.

While my day job improved, I still needed a place for my creative voice to be heard unedited. So I created this blog, My Creative Journey and a side business with my sweetie, which we named Greenview Designs. I’m about to audition for a performance play called Listen to Your Mother, where I’ll read a story I’ve written that grew out of this blog. That’s something I couldn’t have imagined doing a decade ago.

Today I’m a designer, a writer, a marketer, a speaker, a teacher and in a loving relationship. This all grew out of embracing fear. It has been a creative journey of many small steps that has me living a full, creative, joyful life.

My baby idea is to record others who are living creative lives, people who inspire me. This blog is going to hold their stories and Greenview Designs is going to create videos. I’m calling this series Creative Heroes.

So welcome to my baby idea. I hope you’ll enjoy watching it grow. Let’s see where this journey takes us.

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