The Man in Seat 11A

Man in 11A

Man in 11AHe was a large man, the man in seat 11A. Large enough to to require that the armrest between the seats be raised in order for him to fit comfortably in his seat on the Southwest Airlines flight.

I am an actor…part of my job is to observe people. It’s something we do as a part of our craft. Observing people is one of the tools we use in creating new characters. Sometimes I do this intentionally and other times…like this one, the opportunity just falls into your lap…so to speak.

My lap tends to feel rather cramped on airlines so I like to take advantage of my A-List status on Southwest Airlines – which allows me to board in the first group. (No assigned seats on Southwest, so getting on early is essential if you hope to have an aisle or a window seat.) I head to the middle of the plane to hopefully snag the aisle seat in the exit row, which has extra leg room. In this case seat 11C is my destination.

I’m in luck as I arrive at row 11 and 11C is available. The man in 11A – the window seat – is already occupied and settled in. The flight attendant announces that this will be a full flight and every seat will be taken. This flight will have a number of “larger people” on board as a college football team has booked about half of the seats. However, the man in 11A is clearly not one of the team, being older and, let’s just say he didn’t have the physique to match the rest of the team.

The first occupant of the middle seat, 11B, is a middle-aged man, and has a look of all business. At first he seems happy to have scored a seat with extra legroom. Then he sits and the look on his face changes as he realizes that the armrest is missing between the seats, forcing body contact between him and the man in 11A. He almost immediately pops up and looks to the back of the plane. Without a word he grabs his bag and squeezes out to move to another seat.

The man in seat 11A seems oblivious to this as he is focused on his iPad. In fact he has not engaged anyone since I have arrived in row 11, looking at the screen the whole time.

The second occupant of seat 11B is a younger man. He also has the look of a business man, although less traditional than the first occupant and thankfully he is skinny, not built like one of the football players, and should be a better fit in the space between me and the man in 11A. However, it doesn’t take long for him to also realize that this seat is going to be less comfortable than he imagined; he fidgets and squirms and he too begins to look back, a bit frantic even, to see if there is another seat. But it appears he is out of luck. All the seats are taken and the flight attendants are starting their routine announcements in preparation for departure.

The flight attendant is required to ask all the occupants of an exit row if they are willing to help and if necessary open the exit door in case of an emergency. I am surprised and amused when 11B says no, he is not willing and will need to be reseated. I see the slightest bit of an incredulous smirk on the face of the man in 11A.

Now what has been an interesting observation taking place in row 11, suddenly becomes public as the flight attendant has to make announcements over the PA looking for a volunteer to replace the man in 11B.

It takes several announcements with no takers before finally a hand shoots up from the front of the plane. The man in 11B quickly gathers his stuff as if he can’t get out of there fast enough. A few seconds later an attractive woman makes her way down the aisle to replace him. I hear the first words from the man in the seat 11A, “Alright!–that’s much better” as the woman finds her way to the seat between us…it was almost as if he had planned it…and I got the feeling that this is not the first time he has experienced this dilemma.

The woman in seat 11B is outgoing. As she gets into her seat she says, “Oh, I get to sit next to “Ralph Lauren,” referring to me. Well that certainly made my day. She immediately engages 11A in conversation. And we are off.

It doesn’t take long for 11B to raise the question, “So what was the deal with the other guy who was sitting here?”

11A replies, “I guess he didn’t want to sit next to me. You’re the third person to have that seat.”

“That’s ridiculous!” says the woman in 11B.

11A and 11B hit it off well and converse while I turn to my iPad and headphones to watch a video. A short time later I unplug and the question is asked by 11B, “What football team is this anyway?”

I happened to have observed their logos and tell them the name of the college.

11A is connected to wifi on his iPad. A few seconds later they have the football team’s webpage up on the screen. Guess who the first occupant of 11B was? The coach of the football team.

The woman in 11B says, “Let’s see if we can find out who that other guy was that I replaced in this seat.”

Anonymous no more.


So as for my acting lessons:

  • From the first two occupants in seat 11B I observed different ways to “squeeze” out of an uncomfortable situation.
  • From the third occupant of 11B I observed how to make the best of an awkward situation and how being just a little outgoing can put people at ease.
  • From the man in 11A I observed ways to appear oblivious when in reality you are very much aware. I also observed self-control when those around you are being insensitive, while trying to appear that they are not.
  • From the man in 11C I observed that you don’t have to worry about getting stuck in the middle seat if you are A-List. And that being told you look life Ralph Lauren, can go to your head if you let it.

Interesting observations to say the least. I am left to ponder what I would have done, if I had happened to be one of the first occupants of 11B. Of course I could have offered to take 11B right from the start and solved the problem…but…but I was A-List.

Somebody ought to write a script…

Honesty in Church?

young man wearing a mask of himself

“You know, I find that one of the hardest places to be honest, as an artist, is in the church.”

Whoa! Say what? The statement took me aback a bit.

Then another voice chimed in, “Oh, I totally agree. There are a lot of audiences much more accepting of honesty in our culture. The church is one of the hardest places to speak the truth.”

Wham again! I mean of all places for honesty and truth, shouldn’t the church be at the top of the list?

The conversation was at an intimate gathering of Christian artists in a retreat setting—oddly enough, in a church. Most of the people in attendance were professional performers with a focus on ministry. For most, their audience was the church.

Among the attributes of an artist, speaking the truth is at the top of the list. And yet…

“Oh, you can be honest about some things—the ‘approved topics’ that the tribe accepts. Of course, you can talk about ‘Gospel’ truth. You can even talk about certain failings, certain areas of brokenness; the ‘acceptable sins.’ But there are lots of areas that you can’t touch.”

As the conversation continued I began to understand. There was much brokenness and hurt gathered in this room; divorce, betrayal, addictions, and other issues that are not easily dismissed. Stuff that real people deal with on a daily basis.

And they were saying that both personally and as artists they found it difficult and even impossible to speak about these things in the one place where issues of brokenness should be welcome.

I recalled a conversation with a friend who is a well-known Christian recording artist. He had echoed some of the same sentiment. His passion was to write songs about brokenness but was hitting a wall of resistance. He was told the songs he wanted to write would not be “marketable” to the church audience he was playing to. Only positive and uplifting music was desired and would be commercially acceptable.

In recent years I have been sharing personal stories from my life in my performances. One of the things I have found encouraging is that people are overwhelmingly affirming about the “honesty” and “transparency” I share in my stories… but to be even more honest and transparent, I filtered those stories to stay away from the taboo topics, that I knew deep down inside I couldn’t share. I knew my audiences wouldn’t accept those stories in the context of a church setting. I have to admit it would be very easy to be “more honest” about some of the issues if I were not playing to the church.

I am in a lot of churches… virtually a different one or two every weekend. A lot of churches advertise “come as you are” and try really hard to project an image of being a place where the broken are welcome. But are they being honest?

I don’t have an answer.

I do know that, for the most part, the group of artists gathered in this room are exceptionally qualified to speak honesty and truth, but are not feeling the freedom to do that for the audience they feel called to serve.


Then vs. Now

ihscropped-COLLAGEFor many years I was used to hearing comments like, “You look younger in person than in your publicity photos.”

Then there was a time when I heard, “You look just like your publicity photos.”

Recently someone said, “You look older in person than in your publicity photos.”

Okay… I guess it is time for some new photos.

I believe in truth in advertising! I enlisted a good photographer, who happens to be my son, Jon, and spent a bit of time this month updating the website with new photos that I hope will give a more accurate depiction of what this actor guy really looks like. (If you like the photos and need a photographer, please consider Jon. Check out his work here:  Jon Neighbors Photography.)

chuck08-COLLAGEBut this whole issue of my not looking like I used to look got me to thinking about all the things we once took for granted that are no more. When it comes to my profession as a performer working in churches, I came up with these observations:

I used to hear, “We might book you for a potluck dinner.”
Then I heard, “We would like to book you for our worship service.”
Now I hear, “We don’t book outside artists or speakers.”

I used to hear, “Drama, that would be great for the kids.”
Then I heard, “We have our own drama ministry that performs in our worship services.”
Now I hear, “Drama, that would be great for the kids.”

I used to hear, “We can’t move the pulpit; it is bolted to the floor.”
Then I heard, “We bring out the pulpit after the band finishes their set.”
Now I hear, “What’s a pulpit?”

I used to hear, “No food or beverage allowed in the auditorium!”chuck11-COLLAGE
Then I heard, “Only water is allowed in the auditorium.”
Now I hear, “Grab your latte and find a seat.”

I used to hear, “Turn in your Bibles to Acts Chapter….”
Then I heard, “The scripture from Acts is on the overhead screen.”
Now I hear, “Click on your Bible app and scroll over to Acts…”

I used to hear, “We meet twice on Sunday and once in the middle of the week.”
Then I heard, “We only meet on Sunday mornings.”
Now I hear, “We watch our church service in our pajamas at home via livestream.”

I know, this all smacks a bit of the ol’ “Why, when I was a kid…” stories we heard from our grandparents. But maybe that’s not so bad. Times do change…some for better and some for worse.

For now I hope to hear once again, “You look younger than in your publicity photos…” Hey, a guy can dream!

Your Stories are the Best Stories.

Group of people watching boring movie in cinema

I was excited to hear a well-known author and speaker address a conference I was attending. I’d read this man’s books and had always been impressed with his stories and his ability to craft words in ways that move and inspire people.

As he got up to speak, my expectations fell like a rock. He opened his talk with a joke. A joke I had heard numerous times before. The audience laughed…but it was a “polite” laugh, giving me the impression that I was not the only one who had heard that joke before. He went on with his talk, and it was a good talk, but couldn’t get past the fact that this renowned speaker and master wordsmith would open with a joke.

A few weeks ago I was privileged to share a meal with another author and speaker. In the course of our conversation we were both laughing almost constantly with funny stories about our lives, travels, and families. At one point in the conversation he said, “I got rid of all my sermon illustration books. I discovered that I had more illustrations from my own life that were infinitely better than the ones in those books.”

It is not that those other illustrations were bad, and perhaps some were more dramatic or funny than his own stories, but they were not “his” stories. He discovered that his personal stories had more impact, humor and relevance than another person’s stories. When he told his stories there was a ring of authenticity that made the listener connect and want to hear more.

As I have watched the really good comedians over the years, my favorites are always the ones that focus on telling their own stories or observations, not telling jokes.

It is not that I don’t enjoy a good joke; in fact telling jokes was one of the ways I discovered my talent and ability as a performer. But I have learned, like my author/speaker friend has learned, that there is great power in telling your own stories.

So the next time you are preparing a speech, sermon, or emcee, don’t go digging through illustration books. Just spend a bit of time looking at a diary, photo album, old Facebook posts or even looking in a mirror. Trust me, there is some great material there!

(I’d love to share some of my stories with your church or organization. Check out Truth Be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up or Go Ask Your Mother…a Father’s Story!)

The Parable of the Lost iPhone

IMG_1304The other day I was driving home from Costco. I had placed my iPhone on the console between the seats and as I made a turn a little too abruptly my phone slid into the little cavern between the seat and the console. It’s that area where you just can’t fit your hand. You try a few attempts while driving, making faces and contorting your body in ways that make other drivers passing you shake their head and wonder how a person with your condition ever got a driver’s license.

The only solution it seems is to pull over and get out of the car to do a proper search and rescue.

As I resumed my trek I was struck at just how panicked I felt for even those few moments when my iPhone was lost. Getting it back where I could see it and touch it suddenly became of the utmost importance. Before the iPhone went missing I was running lines in my head for my upcoming performance of Not The Way I Heard It. Since this presentation is a modern-day retelling of some of the parables, I suddenly felt the inspiration to retell this familiar parable of the The Lost Sheep. Think about it…Jesus used sheep in his parable—they were something of value that the culture understood and readily related to. I don’t think many of us would relate to sheep and place the value on a lost lamb in the same way we might other things today. If Jesus were telling that parable today it might sound more like this:

The Parable of the Lost iPhone

Suppose one of you had 100 tech gadgets
and then lost your iPhone.
Wouldn’t you leave the 99 other gadgets at home
and go looking for your iPhone?
And once found you can be sure
you would put it in your palm rejoicing!
And when you got home you would text all your friends and contacts saying:
“Celebrate! Like and share my Facebook status! I have found my lost iPhone!”

Count on it, there is more joy in the Cloud over one rescued user profile
than for 99 other user profiles in no need of rescue!


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