Though I played sports in school (soccer and basketball), I was never a gifted athlete. At first, in grade school, I played because it was more or less expected. At the time I lived in small town Indiana, and sports were one of the few activities available. That was when I started playing soccer. There were no expectations when you played soccer in Indiana in the 90s. Basketball was, of course, KING. Baseball was Prince of the Realm. Football (Go…Colts?) was the Power Behind the Throne. Soccer, if it was even royal, was the lowly Duke of somewhere very, VERY remote, and it would CERTAINLY never ascend to the throne. If you ran and kicked and seemed to try, you were “good” at soccer.
So that was what I played.
Later, when basketball became my sport in middle school and high school, I played because the people I knew played. Fine, there was a girl. She played. And since I wanted desperately to be noticed by that girl, I practiced hard and played basketball whenever I was able, and DOUBLY so whenever she was around. I liked the game fine, but I liked the girl more. And the fact that I was not all that good at basketball never really bothered me. I’m only 5’11”, after all. (Fine! I am actually 5’10 and 3/4”. THAT IS MY ACTUAL HEIGHT. What. A. Joke. To my everlasting disgust, I never reached 6’. BOTH my younger brothers are taller than me. And yes, that does sting.)
I mention this brief history of sport by way of introduction. Today, we will be talking about staying in shape. I’m going to crawl out on a tangled, leafy limb here and guess that YOU are not a professional athlete. Well, as you can tell by the preamble, neither am I; therefore, I will not be laying out some grand exercise plan here. And I do not intend to insult your intelligence by explaining the health benefits of staying fit. You already know all this. We have all seen the TV infomercials and watched the documentaries.
I would simply like to share a smidgeon of my own, deeply subjective experience. Exercising has helped me immensely in ways BESIDES keeping me healthy (although, as a lower-incomed individual, that side benefit is nice, too).
Please allow me a short list.
So there you have it. I am not a professional athlete. I will never be one. And, despite all my desperate dreams, I am not an action star in the movies. But I can choose what kind of man I will be today. Exercise has helped me with that, and I harbor hope that it may help you as well.
So here’s to hope.
Last week, I wrote about eating on the cheap – an extremely useful skill for an aspiring actor, and yet one which easily applies to the life of ANYONE looking to conserve funds. I will continue down this same path for the next few posts, presenting lessons learned while acting which might still be of interest to non-actors. You know who you are. If you are reading this, presumably you are profoundly bored and killing time, completely lost and looking for help, insatiably curious to your very core, or you are related to me. I will try to stick to topics of interest to all. That said, I reserve the right to rant on non sequitur subjects at any time. This is my site; I pay its bills. If I want to drive off road, this metaphorical jeep is mine to command!
Today I would like to talk about surviving (and even thriving) when faced with repetitive tasks. As a stage actor, I have had ample opportunity to wrestle with this subject. Many jobs require you to do the same sorts of things over and over; however, this is pushed to extremes when you perform a show for weeks and even MONTHS on end. In the theater (if you are fortunate enough to be working), you LITERALLY do the exact same thing every night in precisely the same order. This can get old quickly. And, unless you make efforts, the experience can be hellish.
My first brush with this was back in college, when for inexplicable reasons I was hired as a “disciple” (code for CHORUS MEMBER) in that well-intentioned, arguably lackluster musical, Godspell, a hippie-ish retelling of the Gospel story. This was the summer after my Freshman year of college. I had never performed in a musical before, and so learned to sing and dance (cough, cough – kind of) from the ground up during the 2-week rehearsal process. This was a bus and truck tour show, funded by my university’s department of admissions, and we performed the show 44 times in 3 states. It was a completely surreal experience for me, fresh as I was to the concept, and the drudgery of it was lost in the general newness.
I collided violently with the real GRIND of a long-running show the autumn AFTER college, when I accepted my first longer contract. As the leaves fell and fall turned to winter, I performed that first show, The Confession, 76 times. It was rough. My current record stands at 97 performances, though this is peanuts compared to the numbers put up by performers of year-round touring shows or Broadway. All told, I have broken the 50-show barrier 15 or so times. And yes, it gets easier.
In college, you perform a show three or four times – possibly as many as eight times if the show sells well and they add a second weekend. There you perform always in the first flush of nerves, ever fueled, whether you know it or not, by the rush of adrenaline that comes with fumbling your first few performance out before a gathered crowd. What awaits you behind the bend, when you have been running a show for weeks and weeks, is the real WORK. When all thrill is gone, you must still present the same product.
I’ll cut to the chase. What I eventually learned, after years of foolishness, was that repetition is a gift. It gives you the ability to seek out the BEST way of doing ANYTHING. Rather than fighting the nature of a repetitive chore, you can embrace the fact that you HAVE done it before. You can learn from past mistakes. You can trim the unnecessary. You can reach for EFFICIENCY. Pare your actions down to the fewest possible moves. What is the easiest way to get to where you’re going? What moments NEED effort? Focus on those. Am I breathing before I speak? IT IS UNBELIEVABLE HOW MUCH YOU ALWAYS NEED TO REMIND YOURSELF TO BREATHE. And know this - there is a fierce joy to be found in carving out the best version of a thing.
At this point, let me rush in with two qualifiers. Yes, “best” is an indescribably subjective word. And yes, it is essentially unattainable. You will never REACH “best”. But you can improve immeasurably by reaching FOR it.
What I have discovered, after years of blighted ignorance and woe, is that it takes till the third weekend of a show for me to really ENJOY it. It is not until THEN that I have made enough mistakes to see those mistakes for what they are and correct them. It is not until then that I am familiar enough with the flow of the evening to RELAX.
This does not just apply to the world of theatre. I have found the same rules apply to any work I have done, be it yardwork, bartending, customer service, or whatever. At my current day job, I unload and then reload sound equipment and supplies into carrying cases. (I do other things, too, but let’s focus on a simple example.) I COULD simply throw equipment in there any old way if I wanted. But I choose not to. Instead, I take care. I am (slowly) figuring out the perfect way to fit each thing in its assigned spot, learning the best order in which do each thing. I am getting faster and faster at it. Each time it is easier, and each time I do it better.
When your goal is to figure out a better way to do each task every time, your brain stays engaged. The end result of all this striving is that you wind up with a product to be proud of. Rather than simply going through the motions for ever diminishing returns, you are choosing to polish your performance, whether that be onstage or in life.
So that’s my advice, whether you asked for it or not. Faced with a boring, repetitive task? Make it a game. Look for the BEST way to do it. As my mother always told me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
And remember to breathe. Always breathe.
Since graduating with a degree in Theatre Performance six years ago, I have, for the most part, spent my days as an actor working for small professional theatres in odd corners of our vast and multi-cornered country. This odd work history has left me with a random carpetbag of “special” performance skills, several collections of memorable anecdotes, and a few (poverty-induced) insights. I thought that for this FIRST essay no one asked for I would trot out an example of the latter. I present, for your bemusement and possible alarum, a poverty-induced insight. The following is my ACTUAL game plan for eating on a small-time actor paycheck.
But first, a short, explanatory interlude. This is not going to be a food blog. I am not a chef, and hopefully you are not currently having to pay for food using a monetary supply comprised mostly of pennies. This is probably not going to add anything to your life. If, perchance, you ARE a young, aspiring actor-in-training who has stumbled upon this blog, these tips may prove useful. As soon as you graduate school, you will NEED such stratagems. Everyone else, feel free to simply shake your head and marvel at my voluntary follies. These are the sorts of things one really does do for love.
Back to the business at hand. When most people begin to contemplate eating on the cheap, their thoughts inevitably turn towards Ramen, that food favorite of cash-strapped college kids the world over. It is indeed inexpensive, but it is PACKED with body-inflating sodium and eating it three meals a day will swiftly force you to think the grimmest of grim thoughts. Avoid this. There are other ways.
In order to stave off both boredom and depression, you need to eat different things for each meal every day. Also, focus on HEALTHY inexpensive fare. Many cheap foods are full of crap that kills you slowly. When formulating this cheap diet, I operated under the assumption that we in America do not traditionally eat enough plants; therefore, most of the foods (though NOT all) contained herein are plant-based. If you ARE budgeting this stringently, affording healthcare is no doubt also a concern. Why increase your need for pricy doctors, drugs, and sundry by failing to eat your fruits, veggies, and whole grains? The latter can be surprisingly affordable if you play your cards correctly.
For breakfast, I recommend oatmeal. Buy it in the big tubs to save pennies. Just add water and a little salt and cook it (salt and water are dirt cheap). Then add whatever extras you can scrounge. I like mine with a little honey, peanut butter, and cinnamon. This ends up being much cheaper then milk and processed cold cereals. And I find it keeps you feeling fuller longer. Eggs and toast are another good breakfast option, though you can eat them anytime. I DO. Just buy the best eggs you can afford (the cheapest ones are better than nothing) and always get bread that says 100% whole wheat. (White bread is basically cake to your stomach, and “multi-grain” is typically 49% white flour. If a company can cut corners, it will.)
Eat fruit every day. Watch for what is in season and inexpensive and buy that. I tend to always have apples and oranges around, and I tend to eat at least one of each a day, usually at breakfast or lunch. Berries are great. Frozen ones are cheaper, and since they are flash frozen shortly after being picked, they are actually “fresher” than the fresh ones nutritionally speaking, which have usually been sitting on a shelf for a goodly while. Eaten while still frozen, they are a healthy popsicle. (Also, freeze grapes. They are DELICIOUS that way. You are welcome in advance.)
While we are on the subject of frozen foods, I will share another hard-won truth. Buy frozen vegetables. A lot of frozen foods are bad for you, but the frozen veggies aren’t. They are cheap. And they stay frozen in your freezer till you are ready to use them. Buying fresh vegetables in the heat of passion, when you are flushed with nobly inflated notions of cooking them all soon is ALWAYS a mistake. You will forgo and forget and end up chucking half of them out when they swiftly spoil. BUY FROZEN. And actually eat them. Preferably with each meal. Always be eating veggies.
Noting my rapidly escalating word count, I will make a quick call. It would be needlessly tedious for me to list all the possibilities for cheap lunches and dinners. While there is theoretically digital space to spare here on my site, your interest is definitely limited. Let me instead focus on a few of my primary findings.
CARBS ARE YOUR FRIENDS. As long as you are active (and actors are, when performing), the concern most people feel over them is misguided. As long as you stick to the proper sorts and practice reasonable moderation, you needn’t fear them, unless you have found yourself to be particularly reactive to them (i.e. unless you KNOW they alone make YOU gain weight). Stick with whole grain pastas, whole potatoes (skins and all), and brown rice, for they are all cheap AND nutritious. Buy them all in the big bags to save pennies.
PROTEINS ARE IMPORTANT, BUT CALM DOWN ABOUT THEM. All foods, even plants, contain some proteins, which, yes, your body does need. So, eat all sorts of plants and add some animal proteins as you can afford them and don’t panic. We aren’t all body-builders, looking to gain forty pounds of muscle in three months. If that is not your goal, you do not have to eat like it is. A few inexpensive protein choices include the aforementioned eggs, chicken, pork chops, some steaks (“eye of round” is a good cheap cut), and (occasionally) tuna. (Bigger fish like tuna live longer and thereby build up higher levels of mercury. Smaller fish such as sardines can offer the same health benefits with lower risks. I recommend sardines on top of avocado on toast, an idea I stole from Alton Brown.)
FINALLY, I CANNOT RECOMMEND BEANS HIGHLY ENOUGH. Beans get a bad rap, as we all know. If your innards are not accustomed to beans, they WILL react with noisy protest when they confront something that contains so much nutrition and fiber. Yes, they can be murder on your personal atmosphere, but I find this effect diminishes quickly over time. In essence, your body adapts; it is amazing what the human body can do. During this transformation phase, just open windows and take walks. If you are pinching pennies, buy the bags of dried beans. Soak them overnight, then rinse them off and stew them for an hour and a half with a chopped onion and some garlic, adding hot sauce and salt to taste during the final half hour or so. These spicy beans make other things, such as a baked potato or brown rice, taste significantly less punishing, and they add a super inexpensive protein source to your underfunded edible arsenal. Store them in a large container in the fridge and ladle them on anything that needs a dash more flavor. Just don't ladle them on desserts.
Thus ends the first essay. If you would care to challenge my nutritional assumptions, or if you would like for me to point you towards the books that back them up, leave a comment below. It has been six years since I graduated college, as I said at the start, and as no one forces me to cite sources these days, I have fallen (gleefully) from the practice.
Friends, let us first address the obvious question. Why am I now starting a blog on this, my personal website, after a solid, six year record of staunchly, even proudly, NOT having a blog on this, my personal website?
That...is an excellent question. And one to which I can offer no airtight answer. I mean, I can explain WHY I feel compelled to publish a series of essays here, articles commissioned by no one, destined to be read by few. I can explain my reasons, and I will, but I MUST first acknowledge that there is no acceptable excuse for starting a blog in 2017. Their moment of cultural relevancy has passed. We all can feel it. I apologize to the universe for beginning one well after the mutually agreed on window. I AM just howling into the already crowded void. You are right. MY BAD.
But, yes, I am doing so despite all the overwhelmingly compelling reasons to NOT. Yes, I realize this website (www.philipdavidblack.com) has thus far functioned as a portfolio of my professional, though unspeakably regional, theatre career. Beginning a blog at this point runs the risk of exposing me as an actual human, capable of thoughts outside of the slavish, single-minded pursuit of an acting career. I realize that, and I whole heartedly welcome THAT. I act. I love acting. But I also love cartooning, and writing, and teaching, and improv-ing, and reading, and woodworking, and playing music, and podcasting, and I AM getting married this year, and I DO naively dream of possibly being able to pursue other interests while still acting (on occasion) and somehow still managing to make a living.
My friends, let me make a confession. I loved the library before I loved the theatre. And though I could not now pick a favorite between the two, so dearly do I love them both, I will admit that even while I have BEEN an actor, I have always thought of myself as a writer, without a single shred of justification. I have published NOTHING. Short of sincerely enjoying the writing we are all required to do in school, I have never dipped even a singular toe into the literary lagoon. I can claim only a lackluster comet-tail of half-filled, embarrassingly self-aware journals. If I were to die tonight, that is the only literary legacy that I would leave.
And that is something I cannot allow to continue. Life is short. If you have been alive even a few years, I am sure you have already collided with that cruel fact. I turn twenty-nine this year. Yes, that is still a young age. Sweet of you to say it! But you do not have to be designer of rocket ships to recognize that life, already moving fast, will only accelerate from here, much like the rockets others (probably not you) design. If I do not begin writing now, actually writing, actually setting one word down after another no matter how painful or thankless or wretched the process is I never will.
And because this IS my website, founded, maintained, and financed by me, I shall begin HERE. This is MY blog. It is stupid in 2017 to begin a blog and to assume that it will matter in some deep way, or, indeed, in any way at all. But it is never stupid in 2017 or any other year to begin doing something you love. The writing I do here will begin badly. It may continue poorly. It may never come to much. But I love writing. I love words. And I choose to use them.
I am titling this blog ESSAYS NO ONE ASKED FOR. Each entry will begin with that heading, because I, self-aware to my dying breath, cannot help but acknowledge facts. Mostly, these essays will consist of me griping or ranting about a subject only I care about. Occasionally, the unfurled sail of my ravings may catch hold of an actual, serious idea. I may sometimes argue a point. I may make painful stabs at fiction. I may regale you with tales of my unimpressive acting career, or unload stories from my childhood as the son of Protestant, American missionaries in the suddenly-politically-relevant-again land of RUSSIA. These are all possibilities. Who can say where the winds may take us?
But let's actually start. Enough bluster. Stay tuned.