Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

From Princesses to Pro Wrestlers

October 6th, 2015

TRICK OR TREAT! Our Halloween episode premieres Weds., Oct. 7 at 9 PM on Oceanic Cable channel 12/high def 1012 (which still goes by the misnomer of OC16). For other daily viewing times, visit www.CareerChangers.TV where you'll also find a link to segments from past Halloween shows... including one for Lopaka Kapanui that apparently got him a lot of attention, according to Lopaka himself. (click here for his update).

First though, we have a segment about Storybook Hawaii, which provides costumed fairy tale characters and superheroes in customized party packages (options include personalized songs, story book readings and craft sessions). You may have seen the owner, Casey Thompson Fortuno, and her performers making guest appearances on TV and at special events. What you may not know is the local demand for Princesses is red hot. Her company is booking up to 50 parties per month during their busier times at a price of about $90 to $200 per appearance, depending on the package that is chosen.

So, there we were -- our host Theresa Tilley, cameraman Stanford Chang and myself -- at the Z3 Sports Academy in Kapolei (another interesting story we're going to be doing later this year!) to shoot our October show intros with Casey and her cast of Storybook entertainers. She had run a Facebook contest asking kids to tell why they would like to be a princess for a day or something to that effect. The winners, all young girls, got to attend a special princess party at Z3 that was going to be filmed for a music video Casey is doing.

When the costumed princesses arrived en masse, the girls erupted in squeals and shouts as they hopped up and down while the Disney look-alikes entered. It's important to note that for legal reasons and fear of the Mouse House corporate lawyers, each princess or fairy tale character differs slightly from the Disney versions or original creations. People assume Snow White and Cinderella are owned by Disney. Wrong. They were fairy tale characters long before Walt picked up a pencil and sketched his first cartoon. Which means they are in the public domain. However, other popular characters that Casey gets requests for have been slightly altered. For instance, Iron Man is Iron Superhero (she got the 3-D printed costume from a company in China, which her hubby, Johnny Fortuno wears... we featured the Elvis tribute artist in a piece we did about Legends in Concert).

Then two nights later, Stan and I were at the Waipahu FilCom center shooting a pro wrestling event for the segment we did on Daryl Bonilla. Don't recognize the name? You'd probably recognize his face and voice from the old Bank of Hawaii "That's my bank!" commercials. Turns out he's the one that came up with the line while doing some improvisation when they were shooting b-roll of him and another actor driving around in a car.

How he got into pro wrestling is an interesting story in itself and involves master storyteller Lopaka Kapanui, who suggested we interview Daryl. As it happens, before Lopaka became know as the ghost tour guy, he had a long career as a masked wrestler and trainer -- Daryl was one of his wrestling proteges. (Here's that link.)

To be honest, wrestling is not my bag, nor is MMA fighting. But the AZW matches that Daryl runs is more like comedy slapstick or surreal theater. Highbrow types can look down their noses at it or dismiss it as silly... and that's fine since everyone has different tastes when it comes to entertainment.

Yet it reminded me of that old Preston Sturges classic movie, Sullivan's Travels in which a famous fictional director of comedies embarks on a quest to learn about the "real" America during the Depression with the goal of making a serious dramatic film. Incognito, he joins the ranks of the homeless and when his shoes are stolen by a hobo who gets killed, his ID is found in the shoes and is mistakenly assumed to be dead. The director winds up wrongly imprisoned and it appears things are hopeless. But while he and his fellow inmates are watching a silly cartoon, he sees them laughing and realizes he was wrong -- the world doesn't need another somber, serious drama about what's wrong with life... we need release and escapism, even if it is silly. Eventually he gets out of prison and announces he's going to make another comedy because people need laughs as much as we need love or food. I saw lots of people laughing and smiling at the FilCom Center.

Anyhow, I forgot to mention that for this same show, I got to interview two Olympic gold medalists -- figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano, who were in town last month to promote their November Golden Moment show. Proceeds from the all star skating event will go to her Always Dream foundation program for early childhood literacy. It's a wonderful cause, so please buy tickets! You can see Kristi's segment by clicking here. Brian's piece will be shown in November.

From princesses to pro wrestlers and a real life ice princess. Sometimes I look at the show I produce and have to smile. It's a weird, wonderful world we live in. Check out this month's show on high def TV if you can!

Mad Men, Letterman, Rupert Jee and Me...

May 21st, 2015

Late Show signI stopped watching David Letterman's Late Show regularly a long time ago when he seemed to be falling back on stale bits and spending most of the show on digressive grumblings that went nowhere. He wasn't the quick-witted, anything-goes sardonic young host I grew up with while living in NYC as a bachelor in my mid-20s during the go-go 1980s. By "go-go," I mean there was lots of drinking and copious amounts of cocaine in the bars, jazz joints and after hours clubs I frequented from the Village to the Upper West Side. Bruce Willis, who I knew from Montclair State College, was still bartending at Cafe Central in 1985 -- the year I pulled a geographic and moved to Hawaii, in part, to avoid the fate of people like John Belushi and others who were part of that scene.

Generally speaking, I'm not the nostalgic type who likes to post a bunch of old photos on Facebook and tag people I hung out with way back when. Yet it's hard for me not to reflect on the passing of the Mad Men television series and Letterman show because of personal connections to both that remind me how far I've come or gone, literally thousands of miles away, and how old I am. Aging sucks -- unless you consider the alternative. Just surviving long enough to grow into a crusty, cynical curmudgeon like Dave, can be considered a success in itself. It's like that old song, "I'm Still Here" from Follies: Good times and bum times, I've seen them all.

The other day I had a business meeting with a former New Yorker and during our chat, this younger woman asked how old I was to compare notes about our respective time frames in the Big Apple. I hesitated, thought about fudging by saying "I'm in my 50s" or "mid-50s," then shrugged and admitted: "Fifty-eight. I'm old." Ugh. Why did I feel like I had to apologize for not being young any more?

She appeared to be caught off guard. Her New York and mine were decades apart. She only knew the Disney-tized Times Square version. My NYC was dirty, dangerous, dying from the AIDS epidemic, yet still retaining some of Don Draper's Mad Men business trappings from the 60s and 70s. I even interviewed at Grey Advertising, one of the biggest agencies in the world, rivaling the agency that swallowed up Don's firm. At the time, I was news editor of my college paper and a friend's dad at Grey introduced me to their head copywriter -- a woman, just like Peggy on Mad Men! She looked over sample commercials I wrote, liked a couple, suggested I write more, then get back to her after she returned from vacation. But I needed a job fast, so I never followed up with her and wound up stumbling down other career paths.

After I moved to Manhattan in the early 80s, I got a marketing job in publishing down in the Greenwich Village area. I ducked into a jazz club to get out of the rain one summer evening, and that's where I met musicians from the Late Show band and Saturday Night Live orchestra. It was named Seventh Avenue South and was owned by the Brecker Brothers, well-known jazz musicians in their own right. It became my pau hana hangout, where I held court with Hiram Bullock, the original Letterman band shoeless guitarist (played with David Sanborn often too); Sammy Figueroa, a percussionist (the conga player on David Bowie's "Let's Dance"); Will Lee, still playing bass with the Late Show band; Paul Shaffer would pop in; Jaco Pastorius, the late great electric bass player with Weather Report was a regular... plus a host of other young actors, musicians, artists and riffraff. Hiram told me how Belushi was at his place one night, found a box containing all of Hiram's tax info and receipts, and proceeded to throw them out the window. A few months later, Belushi would OD.

I also befriended David Murray of the World Saxophone Quartet, who I learned was related to Walter Murray -- the UH football receiver, best remembered for dropping a pass that would have given the 'Bows their first victory over vaunted nemesis, BYU. As it happened, on my final night in New York before getting on the long flight to Honolulu, a co-worker scored tickets to the Late Night show as a going away gift for me. I had always wanted to see it live, so it was a big deal. However, David Murray also offered to put me on his guest list for a gig he was doing with another jazz legend, Ron Carter, at the Lush Life that same night. I opted for the Lush Life instead of Dave. Sigh. That was New York in a nutshell -- too many choices, too much to do in too little time.

It's strange how things come full circle. Three years later, I was married, had gone through rehab for alcoholism, got sober and started growing up at the age of 31. That's when I began writing screenplays based on my wild nights in NYC and 28-day stay at Castle's treatment center in Kailua. Eventually, I would get to meet staff writers for Mad Men, who were doing a UH screenwriting workshop. They had worked on the Baywatch Hawaii series, along with former Star-Bulletin columnist, Charlie Memminger. He got that short-lived TV staff job as a result of winning the Maui Writers Conference screenwriting contest -- the same one I came in second place for a script that was set in NYC a year before 9/11 would change the skyline forever.

Me and Rupert JeeIn 2006, my wife and I stopped by the Late Show theater to see if we could get tickets but none were available. We did get to meet Rupert Jee, the Hello Deli owner and frequent guest on Letterman (often put in amusing, uncomfortable situations when Dave would fit him with an earpiece and instruct Rupert to do odd things to unsuspecting parties outside the theater).

I'm still searching for that illusive first big script sale. Heck, I'd settle for a small low budget straight-to-video deal. I used to snicker at shows like Baywatch Hawaii, but now that I'm older, wiser and less full of myself, I realize what it takes to be a professional screenwriter no matter what you or I may think of the quality of the show itself. The Mad Men writers I mentioned had gotten to know Matt Weiner long before he achieved critical acclaim with his series about a Manhattan advertising agency, and the characters we watched grow up (or not) before our eyes. Most don't know what a hard sell it was for the creator of that series to get it on the air. It's really an inspiring story for any writer, artist or entrepreneur. You can read the Fast Company piece by clicking here.

The last night I spent in New York, I remember coming back to my apartment on 14th Street, still intoxicated and high from the Lush Life show. Down on the corner, there was a lone sax player I could hear through the open window, blowing sad, sweet notes -- a serenade for no one in particular. But in my heart, I believed he was playing his song for me. I miss the city... I'll miss Mad Men and Dave too.

Hello Deli sign


For daily viewing times of my Career Changers TV show, visit www.CareerChangers.TV. You can also watch segments from past and current episodes on the CCTV YouTube Channel... including commercials written and produced by this former NYC mad man.



My Annual Obama Parable

December 26th, 2014

NOTE: I wrote this story in 2008 for my nieces, Sasha and Ana, who are about the same ages as President Obama’s daughters, Malia Ann and Sasha. Since the Obamas may only be returning to Kailua for Christmas another two years, I figure it's worth rerunning in the hopes that he or someone from his entourage will stumble across my cockeyed parable and invite me to lunch with the First Family. Or maybe they could just walk out in front of their beach house and wave to folks like me and my visiting relatives who walk down to the checkpoint to get a glimpse of where they're staying. Anyway, in the little hand-made books I created for my nieces, Uncle Monkey was a cynical chimpanzee writer of animal-centered tales that mirror current events. Six years later, despite all the positive improvements in our economy and world standing, President Obama continues to get dumped on instead of the pat on the back he deserves. But as Uncle Monkey cheerfully reminds the kids, things could always be worse!



“Can you tell us a Christmas story?” little Ana asked.

The chimp scratched his chin and nodded. “Hmm,” he hmmm’d. “Yes, I can, as President Obama would say. Actually, he would say, ‘Well, um, yes’… except it’s a sad tale that will leave you weeping with joy or laughing in sorrow. It’s about a character named Sandy Claws.”

“You mean Santa Claus, don’t you?” interrupted Sasha.

“No, Sandy Claws was a crab who lived in the ocean. But he liked to hang out on the beach too, where he would scavenge for odds and eggs –”

“You mean odds and ENDS,” Ana said.

“No, eggs — fish eggs and bird eggs, which he liked to eat for breakfast. Now stop trying to tell me what I mean and listen, or I will not continue!” Uncle Monkey snapped. In truth, he was cranky because he had a beginning for his fable about human greed, but he was still searching for a satisfying ending. He often told himself, It will all work out in the end. Yet all the troubles in the world never seemed to end! So how could things ever work out? This thought made him sad and depressed.

“Well,” he said, sounding a bit like the President. “I did, um, say it was a sad story… and… look, these are troubled times with enormous challenges facing crabs and sea life due to global warming –”

“AHEM, ” Ana interjected. “We want to hear a Christmas story, not a political speech!”

“Oh, okay,” sighed the grizzled old chimp. “Here is The Fishy Tails of Sandy Claws, The Crabby Crab of Christmas Beach, which was rejected by all the fish book publishers.”

“Did you try to sell it as a movie or TV show?” asked Sasha.

Uncle Monkey nodded yes. “My agent thought it would be perfect for Animal Planet Shell-o-vision, but they felt it was too depressing for kids. They thought Sandy Claws acted greedy and shelfish.”

“You mean selfish?” said Ana.

“No — shellfish! Ever since ‘Finding Nemo’ became a big hit, they only want fish stories. Not crab fables or shrimp tails. They’re prejudiced against shellfish. But I will tell you the story and you can judge for yourself if Sandy Claws was selfish.”

“I thought you said he was a shellfish,” Sasha noted.

“Yes, he is a shellfish. But I meant selfish this time… oh, never mind. Just read the darn story, okay?” he grumbled.

EMPTY BOXES by Uncle Monkey

Once upon a beach in Hawaii, there lived a cranky old crab who constantly complained about the litter and mess people left behind or threw in the ocean. It made him so mad that fish and “honu” (Hawaiian sea turtles) would ask if he had sand in his underpants, which might be irritating him. But since none of them wore underwear, this only made the crab even crabbier.

Christmas was the worst time of all for him. Sea birds and monk seals would mock the crab for the way he walked sideways. When he angrily raised his claws and snapped them at the birds, they laughed at him. “Ha! You couldn’t snip your way out of a wet paper bag with those weak little claws of yours,” taunted the birds.

Turning red with embarrassment, the crab retreated to his hole in the sand. Sandy Claws didn’t have many friends. Like many crabs, he was shy and at parties would not come out of his shell. And his habit of eating dead fish he found on the beach was a turn-off for live fish he wished to befriend.

The reason he disliked Christmas so much was that more humans would flock to his beach for the holidays, and many would toss their flower leis into the water or throw wrapping paper from their gifts on the sand. Sandy Claws had to pick up all the bows and ribbons these careless people threw out. But he was jealous too because no one ever gave him any gifts. All he ever got was the empty boxes people left behind.

Then one Christmas Eve, something remarkable happened. He noticed there were more humans than usual with cameras, all stopping and staring at a particular house near his hole in the sand. There were men in long pants, wearing dark sunglasses, talking into radios while standing around the house. Obviously a Very Important Person was visiting. But who could it be?

“Pssst… wanna know who it is? Do ya?” whispered a little birdie. “It’s the Obama!”

“What’s an Obama?” asked the crab.

“I dunno, but everyone is wearing shirts or carrying signs that say something about Obama,” the birdie replied.

“Well, whoever or whatever this Obama is, I hope he does something to clean up the ocean and beaches,” the cynical crab said.

As more people came and left, Sandy Claws saw that some were leaving gift-wrapped packages next to a palm tree by the Obama house. What could be in those boxes, and who were they for? “Maybe they’re for me!” thought the crab. Oh, he knew they were not meant for him, but he could not resist the temptation to pretend that these presents had his name on them.

And when he sneaked closer to the packages, what did his beady stalk eyes see, but the name Santa Claus on some labels. “Close enough,” said Sandy Claws as he began to drag the boxes back to his hole. Using his claws and smaller pincers, he carefully removed the ribbons and unwrapped each package. Then he took out the gifts and replaced them with wilted, soggy flower leis he found on the beach or other plastic junk he plucked out of the ocean. Some of the boxes he re-wrapped contained nothing at all except a little sand. After he put the bows and ribbons back on, he placed the packages next to the palm tree where they were originally left.

Sandy Claws looked at all the gifts he had taken: candy, cookies, Hawaiian goodies and also things for little girls such as dolls and toys. So it was clear this Obama had children. And Sandy Claws disliked children because they were always chasing after crabs like him or poking sticks into their holes in the sand.

“Ha! I’m glad Obama and his daughters will be getting trash and empty boxes for Christmas,” the crab muttered to himself. “Besides, why are people giving them more useless stuff when they obviously have so much already?” Which made Sandy stop to think about the gifts piled up around his humble hole. To fit in all the pilfered presents, he had to dig out more space. It was exhausting work to make room for things he didn’t really need.

Despite his constant grumbling, the cranky crab realized he didn’t have it so bad after all. He had eight good legs, plenty of garbage to eat, plus a beautiful beach he called home. “I should share my bounty with the honu, fish and dolphins. They’ll see that I may be a shellfish, but I am certainly not selfish!”

That evening, the men in long pants with the dark sunglasses (which they wore at night to make themselves look more mysterious) picked up the “re-gifted” packages and brought them into the big Obama house. Meanwhile, Sandy Claws put all his pilfered presents into a large mesh bag he had swiped from a kayak, and dragged it into the sea to deliver his gifts to less fortunate sea life.

“Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas to all my ocean friends,” he called out. Soon he was surrounded by curious dolphins, fish and honu. Even a couple of sharks cruised by to investigate what was happening. He opened the mesh bag and began to give presents to the smallest and youngest creatures. Unfortunately, all the candy and cookies had dissolved into a messy mixture.

Nice,” snickered a sarcastic starfish. “Some gift!”

Undeterred, Sandy Claws gave a silver necklace with a silver flower charm on it it to a baby parrotfish…. who ate it by mistake. “That’s just great,” the angry parent parrotfish squawked. “Why don’t you just hand out sharp hooks to all the baby fish, huh?!”

“Sorry about that,” the crab said. “How about a doll then for your other baby fish?” However, as he pulled the cheaply-made doll from the mesh bag, his claw severed the plastic head. The monk seals and dolphins began to play an underwater version of soccer with the doll head. Sandy looked at the label on the doll’s body: MADE IN CHINA. “Tsk-tsk,” sighed an old honu.  “That doll was probably made by underage kids who are forced to work for slave wages!”

Sandy Claws was very sad. He tried to do a good thing by sharing his gifts. But all he got in return was scorn and scoldings. This was his worst Christmas ever. As he turned sideways to crabwalk away, he heard a small soft voice call to him from the ocean floor… “Hey, Sandy,” the tiny starfish said.

“Yes?” he replied hopefully.

“YOU’RE NOT GONNA LEAVE ALL THIS CRAP HERE, ARE YOU?” yelled the angry starfish. The gifts that looked so nice and new when he first unwrapped them were just more useless junk and garbage — because, as the dolphins would say, they had no useful porpoise for these sea creatures.


On Christmas morning, Sandy Claws woke up and decided he would return to being crabby since being generous did not work out very well for him. But as he walked home, over the sound of gentle waves breaking on the shoreline, he heard two young girls giggling with delight. It was coming from the big Obama house. “Oh, no! Those girls will be so disappointed when they open their presents and see they got garbage, or worse — nothing at all!” he blurted out to the little birdie pecking around in the sand next to his hole.

“Whatcha gonna do, Sandy? It’s too late to fix things now that you ruined their gifts… unless — nah, it’s too crazy,” the birdie said, his voice trailing off.

“What? Tell me!” the crab implored.

“You could make up for it by offering yourself as a gift to the Obama,” chirped the bird.

“Huh? You mean…” said Sandy, slowly getting the bird’s drift.

“Yeah. Crab salad. Self-sacrifice is what Christmas is all about, right?” the birdie noted.

“Maybe they don’t like crab meat though. In which case, it would be a wasted sacrifice,” said Sandy. Depressed and dejected, the forlorn crab looked up and saw the entire Obama family was gathered outside in front of the house with their presents. He quickly scooted over the sand and rocks to get a closer look at the famous family. There was the President, his wife and two young daughters, all beaming with anticipation.

The father handed wrapped presents to his wife and girls. “These gifts are from the good people of Hawaii. I wonder what they gave us! Let’s open them, and, um… let’s see, shall we?” While he and Michelle carefully opened their packages, Malia and Sasha gleefully ripped open their gift boxes.

“Hey! There’s nothing in my package,” whined the older daughter.

“Mine is empty too,” frowned the younger sister.

The wife held up a wilted flower lei that was still dripping sea water. “It smells like wet dog,” she sniffed. The father held up his empty box. A few grains of sand and pieces of plastic junk fell out. He smiled though and took the wilted lei from his wife. Then he put it around his neck.

“Dad, are you crazy?” asked the younger daughter.

“I think the people who gave us these empty boxes are the ones who are crazy,” said the older sister. “Not just crazy, but mean too. Why would anyone wrap up boxes of nothing!”

Their father nodded thoughtfully, paused for a second as he looked out at the beautiful blue ocean and white sandy beach. “Well, girls… um… maybe someone less fortunate than us needed what was in those boxes, or wanted those things because they lack, um, something. So they took the things inside the boxes… and, um… they forgot that they could not take what the gift-givers intended to share with you — with our family. And that is the gift of love. What I see in this empty box is Hope and Love.”

Sandy Claws’ eyes welled up with tears. But as he tried to wipe them with his big claw, he nearly cut his eye stalk off. He sniffled and turned to the little birdie. “The Obama understands the true meaning of Christmas. Sometimes the best gift is… nothing!”

Then they heard loud laughter — it was the father and mother, who were consoling the crying girls. “Nah! Just kidding. Your mother and I got you real presents that are inside. You think we’d give you nothing for Christmas?” the father chuckled.  The sisters wiped their tears off and smiled. Their father sniffed the soggy lei and made a face. “I bet some crabby old McCain-Palin supporters left us those packages. At least we can be thankful it wasn’t a bomb.”

So Sandy Claws was right after all. Sometimes an empty box is the best gift.



Ana and Sasha looked at each other. “That’s a terrible Christmas story, Uncle Monkey!” said Sasha. Ana agreed: “Nobody would give a bomb for a Christmas present!”

“Ah, but they could. That’s the point of my story. Things can always be worse than they are,” the chimp replied. “So, a box full of nothing can be better than a box that has useless stuff in it… or worse, BAD things in it.”

Mele Kalikimaka! May all your empty boxes be filled with good memories and room for better things to come. You can still catch the Christmas edition of Career Changers TV daily at different times on OC16. Click here for the viewing schedule and links to videos on the CCTV YouTube Channel.

Posts from Christmas Past

December 24th, 2014

Note: Of all the articles, screenplays, blogs and other stuff I’ve written over the years, this piece I wrote for the old Honolulu Star-Bulletin's 2008 Christmas Day print edition best sums up the story of my life… and why I feel so grateful to be where I am today. BTW, OC16 is running a Christmas show marathon on channel 12/high def 1012 that will include a special Career Changers TV compilation of stories from past episodes. For daily viewing times of our regularly-scheduled show, visit www.CareerChangers.TV. Mele Kalikimaka!


A Wrong Turn Leads to the Right Place by Rich Figel

Like many people, my wife and I collect Christmas ornaments as souvenirs from places we’ve traveled to. My favorite is a delicate piece from Venice made of green, white and red glass shaped into candles. It’s missing one candle though. That’s why it holds special meaning for me.

In recovery, we’re taught to live in the present because we can’t undo the past. I try not to dwell on the wrong turns I made. But I can’t minimize the wreckage alcohol and drugs caused in my life either. My flame could have been snuffed out by two drunk driving accidents I had when I was a reporter in New Jersey, fresh out of college. I was lucky. No one was injured by my reckless disregard for others. Instead of giving up drinking, however, I gave up driving and moved to New York.

All of that was a distant memory when Isabel and I took our first trip to Italy in the summer of 1999. This was a reward of sorts for living sober. To make the most of it, we studied guidebooks, listened to Italian language tapes in the car and carefully planned our itinerary months in advance. Nothing was left to chance — or so we thought.

After nearly 24 hours of flying economy class and long layovers in Newark and London, we arrived in Venice. Our luggage did not. Wearing smelly clothes, we checked into our hotel on the Lido, a small island across the lagoon. International movie stars flock here for the annual Venice film festival. But when we opened the door to our room, my wife’s face dropped. It looked dingy and rundown, nothing like the charming photographs on the website. The trip of a lifetime was off to a disappointing start.

Things began to look better the next morning. The hotel’s breakfast room had a a glorious view of San Marco, where the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica are located. We hopped on the vaporetto, an unglamorous water bus, and as we cruised down the Grand Canal, I became oblivious to the stifling heat and the B.O. of tourists crowded around us. I only saw the fading grandeur of this dream of a city.

Venice on foot is a different matter. The guidebooks are useful as long as you stay close to the major tourist sites. Venture into the heart of the city, and you soon discover that streets often go by two names, smaller canals and bridges don’t correspond with maps, and many passageways are dead ends. We got completely lost, which can be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. But we were like those couples on “The Amazing Race” TV show, who blame each other for every mishap. When we returned to the hotel and saw our luggage had been delivered, I thought we had turned the corner.

Wrong again. The next day was even hotter. Shorts and bare shoulders are forbidden in Italy’s centuries-old churches, so we had to dress appropriately and sweat it out in line with hundreds of others who were waiting to get into St. Mark’s Basilica. You’ve probably seen pictures of it: the Byzantine domes in the background while lovers embrace amid flocks of pigeons. Since we were quarreling, the grubby birds were merely a nuisance to us. We came to see the church treasures — not for romance.

A group of German tourists were ahead of us. They seemed to know where they were going, so I followed them. Awed by the marble geometric designs under our feet and the ornate ceilings above, I missed the entrance sign for the museum where the church relics are displayed. Before we knew it, Isabel and I were back outside the Basilica. Despite my pleas of ignorance, a guard told us we had to stand in line again if we wanted to reenter.

Screw it, I said. We decided to move on to a less famous church. According to our map, Santi Giovanni was a short walk from there. But I made a wrong turn somewhere. What should have been a 10-minute stroll became another frustrating excursion that stretched into an hour of wandering around in a steamy maze.

Finally, we found Santi Giovanni. It is huge. Inside, the soaring vaulted arches resembled the bow of a gigantic wooden ship turned upside down. The stained glass windows and altars were works of art. Yet it felt strangely empty to me. We walked over to another section that was like a small chapel. As we were leaving, a priest walked past us with a beatific smile on his face.

Back in the main area we saw the German tourists again, standing in the center of the church. The men had cameras around their necks and their heads were bowed. They stood in a circle, holding hands, and began to sing a hymn in perfect harmony. Their voices filled the church. It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.

Tears streamed down my face. Perhaps it was their devotion, or the acoustics … or maybe it was the collective effects of being weary and flustered, but the church that seemed cold and dead to me was brought to life by their singing. I looked at Isabel and she was crying too. Neither of us is religious, but I felt blessed to be there with her. Had we not gotten lost and taken so many wrong turns, we would not have been here to witness this moment. I held my wife’s hand and listened in rapt wonder.

When the men finished, they simply smiled at each other — the same smile I saw on the priest’s face as he walked past us. Then the Germans quietly left and we never saw them again.

That was in 1999. Two years later, after the devastation of 9/11, we went through the ritual of decorating our Christmas tree. It was a somber time. Isabel’s business, which depended on tourists visiting Hawaii, was struggling. I worried about the future, and stopped writing. What was the point? Nothing made sense.

A couple of days later, the tree toppled over. It was a mess. The strands of lights were tangled and twisted. Ornaments were strewn about. A glass candle from the Venice piece had broken off. Isabel was at work, so I asked a neighbor to help me stand the tree back up. I restrung the lights and was able to glue together some of the broken ornaments, but the glass candle wouldn’t hold. I couldn’t fix that one.

While I was washing my hands and thinking to myself that the tree didn’t look quite as nice as it did before, I heard a commercial on TV. It said it was all right to grieve for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but the best way to respond to terrorism is to live.

I broke down and cried. There I was, fretting and cursing earlier because our tree fell over and some ornaments broke. It was nothing compared to what happened three months before. I thought about the church in Venice, and how lost I felt at different times in my life. I can’t say if it was chance or fate that I survived the car wrecks and alcoholism, to wind up here with Isabel in Hawaii. I can only wonder, and be grateful for what I have.

So each year when I unwrap that ornament, I remember how fragile life is. I think about the missing candle, and it puts everything in perspective.

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Success and Happiness

December 4th, 2014

TT and Surf Santa

PROGRAM ALERT: The new December episode of Career Changers TV premieres Thurs., Dec. 4 at 7:30 PM on Oceanic Cable channel 12/high def 1012. You can find daily viewing times on www.CareerChangers.TV and watch segments from past or current shows on the CCTV YouTube Channel. Plus, we have some gift suggestions from our sponsors that would make great stocking stuffers!

For our Christmas show, I got to interview Martin & MacArthur CEO Michael Tam and Pictures Plus/Plus Interiors CEO Kent Untermann, as well as magician/professional Santa Mike Ching (pictured above with CCTV host Theresa Tilley at M&M's Ward location). We also did an update on Mermaid Kariel's latest spin-off venture -- custom made mermaid tails. Turns out there is a big demand for functional tails from aspiring professional mermaids, who are willing to pay upwards of $3-5K to shake their waterproof money-makers in pools or aquariums all over the world!

What they have in common is they're successful at what they do, and you really get the sense that these are people who are genuinely happy with their occupational choices. Yet each has had to overcome challenges, difficult business climates at times -- recessions, 9/11, changing social norms or personal tastes -- and evolve to stay in the game. Where they find their individual motivation and strength varies, but they all exhibit the same characteristics: discipline, perseverance, and a a clear vision of their long range goals. For instance, Kent cites lessons he learned as a football player at UH as a major reason he was able to weather ups and downs in growing Pictures Plus into Plus Interiors. And he's not shy about commenting on the current state of the UH athletic department in the piece we did on him (click here).

However, as a former football player and ultra-competitive person myself, I know it can be hard to be "happy" when you're driven to win in sports or business for that matter. If you're not number one in what you do, every loss seems like a nagging reminder of mistakes made or personal shortcomings... the dreaded could'a/would'a/should'a self-talk that pervades your daily life. So what is the key to being successful and being happy at the same time?

A recent scientific study I read says happiness is exceeding expectations. That's pretty much it in a nutshell. The more you expect, the harder it is to be happy. That seems like such a no-brainer you wonder why they even bothered to do research on it. But when you think about the current perception of UH sports, for example, it makes perfect sense. We've seen what UH teams and athletes are capable of doing, and our expectations have grown. I remember going to my first football game at Aloha Stadium in 1986, not long after I moved here from New York City, and the Bows were playing Big Ten powerhouse Michigan. To this day, I will never forget hearing that "RAIN... BOWS!" call and response chant filling a stadium of over 40,000 fans as Dick Tomey's underdogs stood toe-to-toe with Michigan for three quarters before finally succumbing late in the game. They lost, but no one expected them to be even close -- so it felt like winning.

Kent had graduated by then, so he wasn't on the field for that battle. Still, he remembers the feeling from his own UH football days and he believes we shouldn't lower our expectations by dropping sports or going to a lower division. And that's the paradox of life I think... on one hand, unless we strive for achieving more than others expect of us, most of us won't be happy just settling for what we know we're capable of doing. On the other hand, it hurts like hell when you reach for the stars and fall flat on your face.

As a writer, I'm constantly torn between wanting to be successful, i.e. sell screenplays that become big movie hits, and staying true to my artistic aims of producing original work that is at least different than the usual cookie-cutter formula movies making money at the multi-plexes these days. So to keep myself sane, every month I write two quotations at the top of my desk calendar: "Write with no attachment to outcome" and a zen saying, "When you cease expecting, you have all things."

Anyway, check out the new Career Changers TV show this month! Hopefully, watching it will exceed your expectations.