From a Marathoner with Love

Closed Central Park

Dear Friends, Fans, and Family,

To those of you who’ve supported me by donating funds to Team for Kids, running with me, or cheering me along my training, thank you. I couldn’t have come this far without you.

As you know, this part of the world has been ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, and I have no words to express my sadness and heartbreak for the victims of this storm. That it has begun to polarize our community about such a life-affirming event as a marathon further breaks my heart. So many of us have spent months training for a challenge designed to makes us stronger and raised donations for very worthy causes, and I believe in this marathon and that it should continue on Sunday. I believe we each should run with our heads held high, celebrating 26.2 miles of this amazing city and the inhabitants who now fight daily to keep it running in every way.

Although I think it practical and important to keep the marathon’s spirit, income and revenue rolling despite this difficult time, my heart does truly goes out to my friends especially in Staten Island, Long Island, lower Manhattan, and NJ, as well as those affected in other localities. Throughout the days leading up to the race and on Sunday, volunteers are encouraging runners to donate to help victims of the disaster. As participants, may we use this moment as a call to volunteer our time or donate as we can and not turn away from those who need our help. As spectators, please meet us with a cheer rather than a protest for our months of hard work.

Let’s not turn our backs on each other in this time of need. If you need disaster relief or volunteers elsewhere, please post where we can help in the comments. If you have a donation to give, please begin with the Red Cross Hurricane Sandy Relief here: http://www.redcross.org/hurricane-sandy. If you’d rather give to another similar organization, this Huffington Post article provides some good tips for giving well to the disaster relief efforts.

If you’re interested in giving also to Team for Kids, please send your donations in the way of my friend Kristen Kasarjian’s page. She’s running for the same charity I am and still needs to reach her goal. We all have goals, after all… Some of us want to finish a race, some want to replenish our incomes so we can pay our bills, some of us want heat, water and electricity, some of us need a new home. It’s the energy and beautiful stubbornness behind people like marathoners that make this city great. Please don’t hide behind the glow of your television, computer, and smartphone while criticizing people bringing revenues and hope to a city we love. If you want to help, unplug along with those who have no choice and look for an opportunity. I promise you, there are plenty… and if I can help, please tell me how.

Gratefully Yours

Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” To those of you who have helped me raise over $3000 for Team for Kids for this year’s ING New York City Marathon, you have made possible one of the major experiences of my life and the motivation and encouragement of countless children who will benefit from your donation. Thank you! One of the many beneficiaries of your kindness left me a voicemail the other day… this is who you have helped.

Still haven’t had a chance to contribute? Meet Kristen Kasarjian, an amazing friend of mine running the race for the same amazing charity. Please help her reach her goal, since I’ve already reached mine! Anyone who donates at least $100 to her campaign can still sponsor a mile in mine (I’ll think of you during the marathon in the mile of your choice)… Just let me know when you do. In the meantime for me, lots of training continues, as I keep running to prepare for the 26.2 mile course I get to complete on November 4. Today, I ran 16 miles, and I get to train in some of the most beautiful areas. Here’s your bird’s eye view into some of my favorite runs so far. Thank you, thank you, thank you for making it all worthwhile. I can’t wait!

An Early Run at Bard
An Early Run near Bard College
Run in Palisades Park
Run in Palisades Park
Sunlight in Palisades
Sunlight in Palisades
Back in the city
Back in the city

My Greatest Gift So Far

As I sat in the doctor’s office on Friday morning, awaiting my final visit this month, I reflected on the past year of life and change. Two nights ago, I administered a shot that will send me into the hospital for surgery. Strangely, I can’t remember the last I felt so elated.

New Year’s Eve, 2010. Another exciting occasion for glasses to clink, the ball to drop, lovers to kiss. For many years I’ve known this holiday to carry significance, chances to change, mindsets to mend, and even some unexpectedly major events (not always positive, but definitely not subtle either). Somewhat quietly, I spent this year celebrating uncharacteristically at home with a dear friend from out of state who had come thousands of miles to celebrate with me in the city. To most, my new year continued a quest for adventure and new challenges and seemed similarly unusual, like the majority of my recent days.

Those who know me intimately may have seen me through a different lens and noticed the momentary spark that seems to have altered my perspective and motivation in a flash. Almost as if the early-thirties, adult version of me everyone said would arrive suddenly kicked in, I saw my mounting debts against my values and couldn’t quite reconcile the vast chasm between them. Overwhelmingly fortunate to have a great apartment to myself in one of my favorite cities in the world, doing what I love for a living, I yet had to decide how to survive all of my monthly expenses – ninety percent of which came from previous choices and purchases, none of which I imagined having to pay off while struggling to follow my dreams in the city.

My momentary short circuit arose when my reality failed to match what I had conceived of as a solid path. Brent Sooner’s character Data, the artificial lifeform on Star Trek: the Next Generation would have called this “a cascading failure in his neural net.” I was scared and determined to change this path that would otherwise lead me into certain financial suicide.

Looking into every possibility, I gave myself the time and space to seriously and without judgment consider my most extreme boundaries. How far could I go to rescue myself without sacrificing my values, psyche, or career? Yes, I perused Craigslist job and gig postings and even entertained the idea of taking jobs that would have officially devastated my mother, should I have actually decided to pursue them. Who knows the lasting affects such experiences on the fringes of my already fairly liberal sensibilities might have had on me, as well!

A couple of months ago, I wrote that hardship and loss incites me to respond by embracing, encouraging, and creating life whenever I can. And so I am. Beginning a thus far relatively silently journey in March that culminates tomorrow morning, I will donate some of my eggs and therefore my genes, and my energy, to help anonymous recipients fulfill their dreams of having children. I can’t wait.

Although I’ve experienced some discomfort and made several sacrifices in order to participate in what sometimes I consider the fertility Olympics, I so look forward to contributing to the universe in this way. Never knowing whether I might have children someday, I feel blessed to have the opportunity to afford to pass on my genetic code to future generations. Part of that feels so oddly like mythology, finding ways to achieve a legacy beyond death, and admittedly much of the experience resembles science fiction. Simply from the process of qualifying alone, I have pictures of my chromosomes, a new diet suited to my somewhat low blood sugar, and an official knowledge of my actual blood type.

Yes, aside from the idealistic altruism and happy opportunity to revel in my nerdy nature, I will receive excellent compensation for giving myself nightly injections, committing to five weeks of no exercise (among other less mentionable restraints), traveling quite far from home every morning at 6:30, and subjecting my body to minor surgery. In fact, as you read this, I likely have already spoken to the anesthesiologist and await the procedure about to begin. Before someone undoubtedly begins to equate this endeavor as my way of shallowly selling my body for money (and I know some will), know that I have come to this decision after ten years of its seed growing in my subconscious.

When my boss at a temp job told me a decade ago about her experiences in the process of donating eggs, I lost my hearing, my vision blurred, and my coworkers had to sit me down with water to keep me from fainting. Seriously. Nevertheless, when I auditioned for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire earlier this year, both interviewers asked, “What would you do if you won $100,000?” Truly examining my values against my finances, I realized I wanted two things: financial independence (not wondering how I might pay rent every month, at least!), and the freedom to contribute to humanity – such as to buy Marcos, the homeless man down the road, a yogurt sometimes when he mentions his hunger to me in conversation.

By undergoing this journey, I have the opportunity to contribute something uniquely precious and beautiful to the world and participate in the act of conception and creation. Although only a beginning, the compensation I receive will help me pay down a limited but helpful portion of my debt and give me a little more breathing room to continue pursuing my goals as an actor and singer. As hard as some may try to convince me of a downside, I feel honored and grateful to have the opportunity to both generously give and receive at once in this way.

Think of me fondly today and as I recover over the next several days. May Irene’s winds bring good change and minimal damage this weekend of weekends, as I rejoice in a year that has brought me so many challenges and joys. Of course should anyone have any questions, while this is an anonymous, out of state program, I would happily answer as much as I can for anyone interested… just message me from my website or leave your email in the comments below.

Defeating the Seasonal Funk, Day 147

In a funk, not quite functional, preoccupied and a bit derailed – so I felt a few days before Christmas. We all have known a stray day here or there like this. I suspect the homeless man currently ranting across the subway car at another passenger who somehow insulted his honor has had quite a few himself.

Last week, I experienced a much lesser version of such a day, bewildered by past emotions from months and even decades past in the face of present and future circumstances. Wondering if I would regret the choice to RSVP to attend Nancy Wertsch’s caroling-centric holiday party on my only full day off from singing in weeks, I dragged my issues and attitude up to Riverdale nevertheless. My good friend Alex asked, “How are you?” “Fine,” I responded not terribly enthusiastically.

We went to a local nursing home, Schervier Nursing Care Center, and donated our time and talents to wander the halls singing carols. Given the quality of the singing, we discovered many patients who seemed surprised to hear such caroling streaming through their rooms and corridors. It didn’t all go smoothly, of course. After cleaning vomit, into which I accidentally stepped, off my new boots, it seemed that one of the residents who requested our presence in their room really wanted to watch Family Guy instead. On the contrary, the patient loved us despite the background noise of the television, and everyone we encountered from the elderly to the nurses, supervisors, and maintenance workers greeted us with kindness and gratefulness.

On the fourth floor, a lovely pale-skinned woman in a wheelchair thanked us, offered to pray for us, and insisted that she would include us all in her will. Another woman painstakingly left her room with her walker to greet us in the hallway and listen. On the fifth floor, after a fantastically talented whistler couldn’t remember what carols he liked but kept whistling “Silent Night,” we began the song again for likely the twelfth time that evening.

Reminding me of our earlier encounter, my friend Alex said, “Why don’t I give you a ride home after this, and you can explain to me why you just feel fine?” At least an awkward twenty seconds later, I finally remembered to what he referred  – my mood upon entering the nursing home. “Oh, I had forgotten all about that! I’m actually doing something productive and worthwhile,” I responded, insisting upon basking in the goodness that for an evening filled the Schervier Nursing Care Center.

In an instant, I remembered caring for my grandmother for a couple of days in a similar center in Malone, NY years prior. Unlike most of the patients with whom we interacted at Schervier, she couldn’t walk by herself or even operate a wheelchair to sit and socialize with the others. Most often alone in her room, she began to lose her sense of reality, and I found it incredibly difficult to help her in conversation. Finally, on my last day visiting, I gave her a back massage. As she sat there, moaning a little and thanking me profusely, I thanked God that I could do something to make one moment of her final days just a little more livable.

Living at a much more rapid pace this year upon my return from Washington, I launched immediately into the hustle of a classical singer’s Christmas in New York, rehearsing or working at least two and often three gigs per day. I honestly forget how many Messiahs I’ve sung these past few weeks, and I know some of my colleagues worked more. Between performing in Amahl, the Messiahs, the Mozart Requiem, three Christmas services, and two temple services and recording a voice-over and with a choir for an Iranian composer,  I had plenty of stimulation. Friends somehow still managed to schedule time for lunches and coffees, two operas, overnight conversations, and a social media party. My apartment morphed a bit further, with new lighting fixtures and a few new shelves and pictures on the walls, and I survived an exhausted trip to visit family in Pennsylvania for Christmas and a blizzard that dumped a foot and a half on our Washington Heights roofs and vehicles.

Ultimately, after a moment to pause and reflect, I have so much for which to be grateful. What a wonderful, if hectic, season I’ve had! I feel infinitely better about the present and optimistic about the future. I’ve had a chance to let go of expectations and longings and, perhaps more importantly, to embrace the grand gestures of those interested and willing to make investments of time and effort in my life. Such time and effort spent for free on my only day off at the nursing home caroling party, after all, turned out to give me even more joy and fulfillment than any of the truly wonderful gigs for which I received payment.

Unfortunately, the time between Christmas and New Year’s has a reputation for inciting more depression and suicides than any other throughout the year. During these days, we pause, we reflect, and sometimes we don’t like what we have or lack. Another friend tonight confided in me that he often doesn’t feel good enough or worthy of affection from loved ones. Once we sense ourselves entering such a holiday funk, we have to climb out in ways that sometimes seem to make us uncomfortable, challenge us, and help us to refocus. I may have stepped in some vomit along the way, but giving joy to those gorgeously happy faces in a nursing home made every minute worth my time and investment. This truly is a season best spent in giving.

On a personal note, I have a very dear visitor from Washington this week and may not have a chance to write again until after the new year. May yours excite and enliven you, give you joy for the present, and show you infinite hope for the future to come. I can’t wait for us to share next year’s challenges together.

Casual Heroics, Day 136

Since last week, I’ve done countless “blogworthy” activities, from odd spa services to wine tasting to comedy and jazz shows and an impromptu trip to Portland, Oregon. As I began uploading pictures and video from my camera, I realized that while I’ve always loved and found myself drawn toward more idealistic people as a whole, a very common trait binds together so many fiercely amazing friends in my life. Generosity, especially of the passionate and sometimes stubbornly loving variety, easily hides under the rug below the pride, self-assertion, and individual rights our American society so often promotes.

As our beloved president would say, let me be clear. Fighting for our rights and the freedoms of others ranks high on my list of difficult but crucial tasks for humanity in general; however, sometimes the greater and less applauded challenge involves laying aside our needs, wants, and even liberties to support another person or passion. Take for example my friend who, like so many animal-lovers I know, brought in a stray cat fourteen years ago, only to spend years caring for him physically, financially, and emotionally as his cat aged, lost his sight, and developed diabetes. After his beloved friend passed yesterday at twenty-five years old, he volunteered his services for another funeral and comforted his friend at the loss of a close family member, all while preparing for upcoming concerts and gigs in a busy musical season in New York.

Out here in the Northwest, I can’t go a single day without personally experiencing and witnessing the care and generosity lavished upon her entire community by the woman with whom I feel so privileged to live these next several weeks. Ignoring physical discomfort or fatigue, she packs each moment with concerns for her family, local schools, arts organizations, community events, political issues, her wine business, and even some children in Africa who she supports and encourages to the point of visiting there and inviting them to come here to perform. I smile to think of how life and my perspective will change as they reside here with us at some point this fall.

Audience at B&N

In the meantime, I had the welcome but rare chance to set aside my own selfishness and volunteer my services to sing for several hours to benefit the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers this Saturday. Himself a devoted and tireless supporter and participant in the musical community of the Tri-Cities region, my friend Justin Raffa arranged a fantastic opportunity with Barnes and Noble to raise money for his talented and enthusiastic choir. From 9am to 9pm, Justin spoke with customers, sang again and again, introduced and promoted his volunteer singers and pianists, ran an hourly ticket lottery, and announced repeatedly instructions for customers to check out and tell the cashiers, “I’m here for the Mastersingers.” Each purchase donated a portion of the sale to the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers all day.

Justin and Mitzi singing at Barnes and Noble

Molly and Abigail Singing at Barnes and NobleI did my part, bought hot chocolate and tea and various goodies at the cafe throughout the day. For those of us in less of a position to donate financially to much of anything, we had the opportunity to sing. Singing arias, musical theater songs, and duets from both genres, I definitely gave my voice a workout, rotating with Molly Holleran, Mitzi Lundberg, Mark Barton, and Justin Raffa while Sheila Zilar Gephardt accompanied us for about five hours with little break. Karaoke was never so hard. Still, I had a wonderful time, trying out new songs, watching audience reaction to gauge whether or not to use a piece in the future, and enjoying the performances of my friends who tirelessly sang throughout the day.

We all have choices to make about how we spend our finances, time, energy, and talents. Doubtless without focusing on ourselves from time to time, we diminish our usefulness to others and ourselves. On the other hand, in terms of truly improving our happiness and quality of life within our communities, selflessness goes a much longer way than we as independent Americans often realize. Today and tomorrow, you have the opportunity to also support the arts in Washington and the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers. Anything you purchase at Barnes and Noble by bn.com/bookfairs from October 23-28 by entering Bookfair ID 10253680 at checkout will contribute a portion of your sale to support my talented friends. If you can’t do that, I encourage you to find another way to support another person, animal, or cause. I’ve started to see that it really does transform the world… and our lives.