If I Had a Fault…

One of the things I loved most about playing Mary Poppins is how crazy bold she is. I mean, the woman sings an entire song about being Practically Perfect:

Each virtue virtually knows no bound
Each trait is great and patently sound
I’m practically perfect from head to toe
If I had a fault it would never dare to show
I’m so practically perfect in every way

Whether or not she’s being 100% serious is a topic for another blog post, but there was something freeing about declaring—even for just the 4:26 it took to sing the song—that who I am is not just good enough, but pretty fucking fabulous.

**

Sometimes, when the world is trying to tell you something important, an idea follows you around for a while. That thing you need to hear pops up here and there—in conversation, on that podcast, in the book you’re reading. And it keeps showing up until you say, “Okay, got it. Thanks, universe!”

I started hearing this saying about a year ago, first on the Better Biz Academy podcast I listened to for work. (I write show notes for podcasts to pay the bills.) The host said something that really struck me:

Done is better than perfect.

And I thought, Is it?

I’ve always prescribed to the belief that if you can’t do something right, if you can’t give it your absolute ALL, you probably shouldn’t bother doing it at all. I used to say these exact words to my students when I taught theatre. Usually when they showed up to rehearsal unprepared or handed in a costume rendering that looked like a page from a very small child’s coloring book.

So I resisted this whole ‘done is better than perfect’ business. Most of the things I’ve done in life that I’m most proud of were the direct result of my desire to be perfect, of working so hard that nearly all of the kinks were ironed out—completely.

And most of the projects that I still have regrets about were the direct result of not having the time to get the thing exactly the way I wanted, of being forced to settle.

**

I am a perfectionist. And I’ve always thought of it as one of my best qualities. At worst, I figured it took a little extra time—and in some cases may have been unnecessary. Like when I used a yardstick to write on the whiteboard so the lettering would be perfectly straight, or the times I recut the shapes for storytime crafts at the library because the volunteers’ circles were wonky. I knew these things didn’t really matter, but I like things to be just so… So I took the extra time to make it ‘right.’

Yet in the last few months, this idea of ‘done is better than perfect’ continued to follow me around and tap me on the shoulder. One of my podcasts for work did an entire episode about it.

The host was creating the core values of her movement, and she wrote a draft. A draft she knew was only, maybe, about 80% perfect. And she published it.

Even just hearing that sentiment nearly shut down my autonomic nervous system. How could you put something into the world, knowing it wasn’t quite there? It sounds crazy to me, lazy even, to say, “I want to see what resonates with the community and get your feedback around what I’m missing.” Maybe that makes sense for her, but I just don’t operate that way.

And then came the 2X4 right between the eyes. I’m reading Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic, and here’s her take on creativity and perfectionism:

“Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes—but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother to be creative in the first place. The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as virtue. In job interviews, for instance, people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point—taking pride in the very thing that is holding them back from enjoying their fullest possible engagement with creative living. They wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards. But I see it differently. I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”

Holy shit.

There it is. Most of what has gotten—and kept—me stuck in so many aspects of my life: If I can’t be perfect, I probably shouldn’t even try.

**

Liz Gilbert happens to be right. I’m totally scared. What if I share an idea and people hate it? Or it makes them uncomfortable? What if I create something, put my whole heart into it, and people criticize it? Or worse, I get no response at all?

And not just about creative endeavors like my writing. This extends to my relationships as well. This goes all the way back to being an awkward, introverted high school kid in small town Nebraska. Most of the Sidney High classes of 1991 through 1993 thought that I was beyond full of myself because I was afraid to talk to people. Afraid I’d say the wrong thing if I did, and afraid that they didn’t want to talk to me anyway. My family was artistic and eccentric, and rather than just embrace that, I decided in advance that I’d be rejected for it.

I saved myself from potential heartache and embarrassment by putting myself in a safe little box. If I couldn’t have perfect social interactions, I wouldn’t have any at all. The only people who knew anything about the real me were my seven closest friends.

The whole thing was worse because I was a performer. If you can get up on stage and tap dance in a nun’s habit or twirl fire batons in a parade, then surely you have the confidence to say ‘hi’ to a classmate at Safeway, right?

Here’s the thing, though. When you’re onstage, you’re playing a role. It’s not YOU. Not to mention, you’ve had the opportunity to rehearse exactly what you’re going to say and do, and it’s a thousand times less terrifying (for me) than talking to a person you don’t know in real life.

I had the time of my life meeting families outside the theatre after the show in character as Mary Poppins. I had zero problem chatting with people, posing for pictures. But take away the English accent and the umbrella? I get a ridiculous red rash that travels from my chest to my neck to my face. And the urge to run—I get that too. (I even have a hard time taking picture with my friends. My instinct is to make a goofy face so that I look ridiculous by intent rather than accident.)

**

Even with people I know well, I hesitate to speak my mind. I’ve been so worried about being seen as perfect, of doing and saying what I think people expect, that I don’t share all of me. Sometimes I just shut the hell up to avoid rocking the boat.

I’m singing the song without really believing it.

But Mary Poppins would never shy away from a little discomfort or conflict to get to the deeper lesson or truth. She knows it’s going to make Banks nuts when she brings Jane and Michael to the bank where he works, but she does it anyway because she knows he’s forgotten that being a good man is more important than a sexy investment. Until, that is…

Jane: When you invest the bank’s money, what are you looking for, Daddy? A good man or a good idea?

George: I suppose I should say it’s a good idea, but a good man is much rarer, and much more valuable.

Without that key realization, the happy ending doesn’t happen.

Maybe being practically perfect is not about keeping everyone happy and staying out of their way. Hiding and walking on eggshells sure hasn’t gotten me very far. Maybe being practically perfect is about a willingness to really share yourself with other people. To challenge popular sentiment. To really tell the people you care about, unapologetically, what you believe. To get in their way when necessary. To create things that reveal who you are, even if they’re not perfect—or popular.

That’s what’s held me back for so long: the fear that someone won’t like me if I speak my mind or create something with an offbeat point of view. That people will see flaws and criticize. But when did ease become the most important thing? All of these people that I didn’t want to make uncomfortable? They don’t even know ME. They only know the cardboard cutout ‘perfect’ illusion of me I’ve allowed them to see.

And you can count me among the people I didn’t want to make uncomfortable. Most of the things I wanted to do or create but didn’t stemmed from that malevolent idea that I wouldn’t be perfect and people would criticize.

People will judge, and that’s okay. You may not like something I create, or something I believe in, but four decades of playing it safe has held me back in every way—writing, relationships, you name it.

All this comfort has turned into a pair of cement shoes. (Like, the opposite of the Red Shoes.)

Maybe it’s time to get over myself—and put myself out there.

Maybe who I am IS enough. Maybe I really AM practically perfect.

And maybe it’s okay to just be practically perfect. I still find it unacceptable to give anything less than my best, but I see that I will get a lot more accomplished if I can accept that I’m never going to be perfect-perfect and keep that word practically close to my heart.

And maybe carry an umbrella for moral support.

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Tonight’s My Evening Out

The one moment in Mary Poppins that just really went beyond anything I could conceive of doing myself?

The flying? Bringing Michael and Jane’s toys to life? Talking ‘dog’?

Nope. Didn’t have a problem imagining any of that.

The most difficult scene was when Mr. Banks loses his job. The children come into the house singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” at the top of their lungs, and he loses it. He rails about Jane and Michael’s behavior, calls them savages, blames Winnifred and Mary for the fact that the children are acting like… Well, children. My favorite part is that he is bitching about the very behavior he happens to be exhibiting himself at that very moment. It was hard not to shout, “They learned it by watching you, all right? They learned it by watching you!”

Just as it becomes apparent that Mr. Banks is about to fire Poppins, Winnifred steps in and ushers him to his office. When Mrs. Banks returns and asks everyone’s favorite nanny to give up her night off to keep the children out of their father’s way, MP simply says, “I hope you haven’t forgotten, ma’am. Tonight’s my evening out.”

I had a really hard time with this moment. Which is nuts because Poppins is simply asking the family to honor the previously-determined agreement re: her work hours.

**

A few months back, I had a pet-sitting gig with a family that is a real piece of work. I’ve never been able to figure out if they were just socially awkward, or simply of the opinion that I was “the help” and didn’t deserve much in the way of amenities—or both.

They lived in a super-fancy, upscale apartment complex in City Centre. How fancy? The Christmas gift for tenants was a $50 gift certificate to a nearby steakhouse. Brunch is catered every Saturday morning. Free Starbucks for everyone, every day.

When I stayed with their sweet Saint Bernard (who I still think may have been a person in a dog suit) and angry orange cat, I was provided with an air mattress—in its box—a sheet and a pillow. There were three perfectly good beds in the house, but I got an air mattress that I had to blow up myself. (Note the absence of a fitted sheet and comforter from the bedding inventory. Sheesh.)

Even after Angry Cat poked a hole in the air mattress during an epic battle with my feet in the middle of the night (it was only a matter of time), they were going to patch it up with duct tape and make me sleep on it one more time before they moved to Boston. That is, until they realized that their 11-year-old was going to be at camp and “wouldn’t be sleeping in her bed again.” Nothing makes a girl feel as special as being told she can sleep in a child’s bed … only because said child will never have to use it again after my second-class ass slept in it.

Strangely, the Man Human had asked me, after my very first gig there, if there was anything they could do to make me feel more comfortable. And I said that I didn’t mind the air mattress for weekend stays, but that I wasn’t sure how my back would handle the week-long visits they had scheduled over Christmas and Spring Break. He smiled and nodded and left the air mattress for me. Every. Single. Time.

On another visit, they ran out of dog food, and I bought some at Natural Pet so the Saint Bernard wouldn’t go hungry. Man Human promised to leave cash for me to cover the cost next time I stayed. But when I got there the next time, I was told to take the bag with me and return it to the store. (Opened? Eight weeks after I bought it? FYI, the bag of dog food cost less $10 and their rent was a minimum of $4K/month.)

Like I said, hard to tell if they were clueless, condescending, or a combination thereof. Condeslueless? On a side note: I got the impression that this couple was a lot like the step-brother and his wife in Sense and Sensibility. You know, the character who starts off with the intention of giving his step-sisters 3,000 pounds to live on, but the battle-ax he’s married to talks him down to “an occasional gift of fish and game”? I suspect Man Human was like, “We need to leave ten bucks for Dinah,” and Lady Human was like, “We didn’t tell her to do that. And we didn’t even use that bag of dog food.”

The last time I stayed with Saint Bernard and Angry Cat, the family was slated to return midday on a Saturday. I was scheduled to sit with another dog that afternoon, and I had a couple of other furry friends to walk at dinnertime as well.

But when the family texted at 7am to say that Lady Human wasn’t feeling well, and they were going to wait a day and take the same flight tomorrow, I simply said, “Okay.” It never even occurred to me to say, “Sorry, I can’t.” It made my Saturday incredibly hectic. And it was offensive that they didn’t even really ask if I could do it, but simply told me there was a change of plans.

The scary part, though, is that I didn’t consider the fact that I had a choice in the matter. Even if it had been presented as a question, I would have agreed without hesitation.

When friends call me on this, I say that it’s because the pets weren’t to blame for the selfishness of their humans. And I could never, in good conscience, abandon a fur-baby even if their people happen to be assholes.

But I suspect that’s only part of it. I think the other part is that I don’t feel like I’m worth more than that.

**

I know with absolute certainty that given the same situation with the Banks, had Winnifred asked me to stick around on my night off, I would have caved and said, “Of course.” Why do I do that? Make everyone else more important than me?

In the actor’s exercise of thinking character thoughts, I often wondered what plans Poppins had that night…

But what does it matter, really? Even if her plan was scrabble with Mrs. Corry or a beer with Bert, she had every right to it.

So how do I learn to do that? To say no, to establish boundaries? [Seriously, if I were a country, there’d be no Customs.]

How do I break free from the belief that my only function on the planet is to serve everyone else?

**

Perhaps the first step is to ask if these people can live without you. If it’s truly an emergency and someone will be in harm’s way without an assist, then I think you do say yes to helping out.

But if they just think it’s an emergency because they don’t want to have to handle it on their own, and they’re taking advantage of your kindness, maybe you let them hate you a little and say, “No, that’s not what we agreed to.”

Or at the very least, “I might be talked into it if you can pay me double my usual rate.”

**

I know a big part of my problem stems from the fact that I hate confrontation and I want people to like me. [I am also aware that respect would be better than like.]

The other part of it is that I get stuck in thinking that since I don’t have a husband or kids or even pets of my own, I don’t have anything better to do. I don’t deserve it. Like it’s selfish for me to say, “No, I can’t take care of this for you,” when I don’t have anybody else to take care of.

I know I need to learn to prioritize me every now and then, because it’s a quick trip to resentment and bitterness if you don’t.

Poppins didn’t feel selfish or guilty about saying no. In fact, in the very next scene when she realizes the family doesn’t appreciate her, she packs her carpet bag and heads out—without notice!—so they can go ahead and hit rock bottom.

She outsources the children to Bert with a hasty, “Keep an eye on them for me,” and flies off to… Well I’d like to think she went to the early twentieth-century version of a spa, where she could get in a little self-care—and get a little respect.

This part of my life is a work in progress, and I know I’m going to have to practice this whole saying no thing for a while until I master it. I do deserve time to myself, even if my plans simply involve laying on the couch and watching the Boys2Men episode of Psych for the thirty-seventh time.

My new mantra?

You can serve without being a servant.

A Walk in the Park

All that it takes is a spark… Then something as plain as a park becomes a wonderland. All you have to do is look anew… Then you’ll understand.

It’s not news to anyone that the only thing we can really control is our reaction to the crap circumstances life throws at us. We fallible humans, though—it’s so easy to dwell on the unfair. To place blame. To wallow and wander, wounded, wondering…

How happy we could be IF ONLY…

But Mary Poppins has no time for IF ONLY. You want to sing with a busker? Dance with a statue? Meet Queen Victoria?

You want to fly?

Well, come on then. Spit spot, bitches.

You may not have a choice about what you’re going through right now. Your nanny may have taken you to the park against your will. But you do have a choice what you see when your get there. Is it all just statues, ducks and grannies? Or is there something you’re missing because you’re too busy blaming the big bad world for the fact that life isn’t quite what you signed up for?

If you are interested in ending your misery, try asking yourself:

What is magical about THIS MOMENT?

A few months before I got the role, I heard a podcast about the Top Five Movement. Designed by Clare Desira, the approach suggests that you capture and list the top five moments of your day, every day. It’s similar to a gratitude journal, but better because you can’t go generic and say, “I’m grateful for my family.” Rather, you record a specific instant, like when I received a text of encouragement from my dad that said: Oh Yeah!!!!! :fist pump:

Listening to the podcast, I thought, “What a great idea!” But it wasn’t until I was in rehearsal, hearing Bert sing the intro to “Jolly Holiday” that I started to put it into practice.

I revisited Clare’s website, and putzed around online until I found her Ted Talk: Honesty and the Top Five Movement, and I’ve been on the bandwagon ever since.

What I love about it is that I am compelled to keep an eye out for the beauty, to focus on the good stuff in my world.

There is plenty of bad stuff, I know. I get it. We can’t—and shouldn’t—ignore the shit. But honestly, I used to have days where I was so overwhelmed by just how shitty people can be, it was hard to get out of bed—let alone smile. It’s tough to fight to make the world better from a prone position, eh?

But making a conscious effort to see the wonderful things that also exist in this ridiculous world of ours? The world is not just bearable, it’s extraordinary.

Take September 20th, for example…

The Top Five makes me more present, attending to my world rather than just numbly passing through. And it makes me proactive. If it’s 5pm and I only have three moments, I go on offense—seeking out something inspiring that is sure to deliver an item or two for my list.

This practice also helps me get through the tough days. Last Saturday, I was really struggling. My feelings were hurt, and even though I knew it was irrational to feel the way I did, my logic brain wasn’t really fixing my heart. Maybe I did wallow for a couple of hours, and maybe I did drink one too many mimosas, but I was able to bring myself back.

I only had one top five entry, after all. I needed four more, and I was burning daylight.

What would Mary Poppins do? I can’t imagine her spending any time feeling sorry for herself. She would pick herself up, dust herself off, turn her toes out and fly off to a new adventure. So that’s exactly what I did.

I didn’t get to dance with Neleus, but there’s always tomorrow.

 

Stars Thrown In

Anything can happen if you let it.

Seriously.

I have directed a lot of shows and played quite a few roles, and each one has been a gift in its own way. But this summer, I had the opportunity to play—and I do mean play in every sense of the word—the magnum opus that is Mary Poppins at the historic Crighton Theatre in downtown Conroe, Texas. I’ll dig deeper into the show itself as time goes on, but for the moment can we just talk about what a force this character is?

First thing you need to know, if you’re familiar with the movie and not the musical, is that the stage production draws a great deal of detail from the PL Travers books that the Disney film simply didn’t have time to pack in. Please don’t misunderstand: Julie Andrews is an absolute dream, and she was utterly charming in the role. The musical, however, allows for Poppins to be a total smartass—but she’s adorable, so she pulls it off and everyone loves her anyway!

She tosses around lines like “I never explain anything” all matter-of-fact like. You can’t help but raise your eyebrows, and then shake your head at how the things flying out of her mouth are so incongruent with the buttoned-up way she carries herself… From my first read-through of the script, I was surprised—nay, shocked—at how much she gets away with and how she just owns her crazy.

The more I studied the role, the more I thought, “I want to BE Mary Poppins when I grow up.”

And every rehearsal and performance, I discovered another life lesson Poppins was teaching me. Just like she saved Mr. Banks, she brought me back to myself. I was inspired right out of the rut my life had fallen into, and the goal of this site is to share that ongoing ride with you.

Playing the quintessential English nanny gave me the poise to adopt a few of her better characteristics IRL. I’d gotten a little lost in recent years, allowing people to push me around and not fighting for myself. And more than anything, Mary taught me that you can care about other people without losing yourself.

It’s not all about you. But it’s not all about NOT you either.