Friday, May 29, 2009

Be Wary of Happiness

You know how there are times when your life seems in perfect sync. The traffic lights all turn green in front of you while driving with the windows down and a perfect breeze (both temperature and strength of gust wise) blows through your hair and the sky is a particularly beautiful shade of blue you really don’t think you’ve ever seen before and the radio starts playing your all-time favorite song. The world seems to be a perfect place where only happiness and joy reside so you find yourself grinning so big the corners of your mouth are meeting somewhere on the back of your head. You know those kinds of moments? Be very careful what you do in those kinds of moments.

I had a moment like that once. Then I did it. I made the fatal mistake. I said something out loud. I remember it very well. Things were all top of the morning and the devil doesn’t know you’re dead until you’ve already been in heaven for an hour. I felt like I was in a sugar-coated Norman Rockwell painting when I said, to no one in particular because I was alone in my car, “Life is good.” A quarter of a mile later I was standing next to my car which had just made horrible noises and decided the only way it would ever move again was either with a tow cable or an earthquake whichever came first. True story.

In my family we refer to this phenomenon as the Cosmic Equalizer. If you are a sports fan you’ve heard coaches say things like, “we have to make sure the highs don’t get too high and the lows don’t get too low.” This sounds like hokey cliché number 759 for sports guys to say, but there is some advice we can glean from this which can keep the cosmic equalizer at bay. Don’t get too happy or the powers that be will have no choice but to bring you back to a certain level of dismalness which most people dwell in the majority of the time.

I tell you all of this so I can make a confession. I am currently in a state of panic and terror only rivaled by the fear felt by pretty young girls in movies featuring guys wearing hockey masks wielding weaponry Genghis Khan would think was overkill (pun was unintentional, but keenly accepted). Things are going entirely too well for the cosmic equalizer not to step in and balance my glee with misery.

Through dogged determination and clear attention to the task at hand my wife has guided this Pyle family into a state of financial health not before known. She jumped on the Dave Ramsey bandwagon and after 32 months has rid us of debt. I feel I can say this without the cosmic equalizer getting too vengeful because we timed this right when the rest of the world has gone into the financial garbage disposal so investing the money we no longer have to send to credit card companies in anything other than a mason jar buried in the backyard makes as much sense as hiring Hannibal Lector to plan the menu for the vegan convention. Timing is still everything.

Living in a state akin to financial stability is a contributing factor to my ever growing fear of the cosmic equalizer. Another nail in the coffin is I got a promotion at work, with a raise in pay. Oh, man, what are my bosses trying to do to me, get me killed or something.

Due to the various positive things currently popping up in my life I feel very strongly I have to temper this with less happy things in order to divert the attention of the cosmic equalizer. To that end I have to self-inflict some discomfort or strife in my life. In the olden days people would wear a hairshirt to cause pain for repentance and atonement. Some would even go so far as to whip themselves causing great pain and leaving behind some truly nasty looking marks. Okay, I don’t think I will use Arthur Dimmesdale or any other self-flagellating guilt-monger as my guide on how to avoid karmic backlash (once again, pun not intended but gladly welcomed).

I think I’ll just watch reality television instead. That should be painful enough to dull the happiness without leaving physical scars, just emotional ones. Scars which linger like when Kris beat out Adam on American Idol…oh, the humanity.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A World of Opportunity, or Not

On May 16th I was witness to the graduation ceremonies for the Dodge City High School class of 2009. For some reason passing understanding I was not invited to give a speech at the commencement exercises. (Hard to believe, huh?) So, I will take this opportunity to hand out my words of wisdom to the youth of Dodge City as they gird their loins for the adventure which we call adulthood. Stop, for the love of everything good and true in the world, stop, turn around and return to where you came from. Adulthood bites.

Okay, I may be overstating things just a bit. Let me put it this way. When you are in high school the requirements are pretty well spelled out. The classes for a diploma are prescribed by the state. The ways to pass the classes are delineated by the administration and faculty of the school. The expectations for levels of success are laid down by one’s family. Sure there are problems, heartaches and traumas, but out here in the real world they change the rules a heck of a lot more often. Expert type people who are paid money to explain to the rest of us how to get ahead in the world can’t make up their minds.

Last summer I was given a book by my bosses entitled “A Whole New Mind” written by Daniel Pink. This book was purported to be the harbinger of what was to come in regards to which skill sets were going to rule the next great age of humanity.

Mr. Pink tells us the “right-brained” skills are going to be what makes individuals successful. These skills include inventiveness, empathy, creating narratives, and play. He also says the right hemisphere of the brain controls one’s ability to see the big picture and function more intuitively. The left brain is logical and sequential. It recognizes and understands the components of something. It is less creative while doing great with details and plodding along with the individual steps of a process.

I enjoyed the message because it said things I wanted to believe were true. It would be nice for me if the world started revolving in a way which valued right-brain people because I tend that way myself.

I distinctly remember when I was in college (the first time around) the general media rabbiting on about how people who had achieved liberal arts degrees were going to be in high demand throughout the employment world. This was because liberal arts majors were well-rounded individuals who had skills beyond the narrow scope of folks who had gotten very specific degrees in business or the sciences.

You will note that I said this information was being touted the first time I was in college. It turned out the first time I went to college wasn’t going to do the trick. I got one of those highly valuable liberal arts degrees and promptly became entrenched in middle management retail sales. Thank you, Mr. University of Kansas Chancellor for the diploma which states that you have conferred upon me a Bachelor of Arts Degree with “all the rights, privileges and responsibilities given under the seal” of your institution of higher learning.

The sad part was the chief “right” was to tell people I owned a degree in theater and media arts. The “privilege” was I was eminently qualified to get a job renting movies to people who had no idea how mis en scene editing was different from montage editing nor who Truffaut, Eisenstein or D.W. Griffith were but really loved it when Jackie Gleason told Burt Reynolds right where he could stick his CB radio or Arnold Schwarzenegger used a hand gun capable of holding six bullets to shoot fifty-seven bad guys in the head. The “responsibility” was to go back to college and get a degree in something which led to a non-hourly wage.

This time it had to be different. Mr. Pink would be right. My skill set was now going to be the gold standard for what a man should be able to do. How did I know it was true this time? The answer is a single word…Oprah. Oprah, the one true arbiter of all that is worthy and valuable in the world said it. It had to be true. Hallelujah!

This week I read in the New York Times there is a new study describing the skills required to be a true success in today’s economy. The traits listed are attention to detail and analytic thoroughness. Blast, those plodding left-brainers, they win again.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Hey, let's put on a show

It is often said that everyone should have a hobby. I guess the reasoning behind this idea is individuals who only do the things they have to do would not be very happy people. As Jack Nicholson wrote “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Of course he wrote that about nine hundred thousand times before he went stark raving bonkers and started chasing various people around with an ax whilst doing Ed McMahon impressions. (For the more literal among you that all happened in a movie. Mr. Nicholson is not genuinely a menace to society beyond the unfortunate rut he has fallen into of simple parodying himself in every movie he does.)

Some people have calm, thoughtful hobbies with names which are at once intellectual yet have a double entendre air to them. Philately is the collection and study of stamps. Numismatics is the collection and study of currency. Both of these do not require strenuous activity but they do require the highest threshold for boredom I can imagine. Coin collector conundrum: Can the coin in my hand be graded at a level 4 (Good) or does it only rate a 3 (About Good)? Can’t you just feel the tension? This is not to say these hobbyists don’t have a sense of humor. The guaranteed laugh line at a stamp collector convention: If you can’t lick ‘em, collect ‘em.

Here in Dodge City there is an opportunity for a different kind of hobby. The Depot Theater uses strictly local talent to put together big time shows at an impressive facility. Nearly 20 years ago my wife introduced me to this group, back when they still worked and performed at the Boot Hill Museum complex on a stage about the size of a Lincoln Continental. Since then I have done a variety of things with the group as they have evolved into a few different forms.

From that first show I saw, right up to today, I have always been very impressed with the talent level of people who have regular day jobs and give up a month of weeknights rehearsing and month of weekends performing these shows. Many of them do get paid but when you do the math it works out to just under $2.50 an hour and that is not counting the time away from the theater memorizing lines and longing for lost sleep while working the aforementioned day job.

So the inquiring mind is now asking: Why would one want to do that for a hobby? The answer I give is simple: It’s fun.

At least it always has been for me before. I am about to take on the biggest challenge of my theatrical career. I know that sounds pretentious as all get out since I have acted in a whole eleven productions and directed four over the last seventeen years but us theater types are prone to hyperbole. Next fall the Depot Theater Company will be presenting Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical and I am directing.

This is well out of my comfort zone. I do funny. I love working on comedies and getting the instant gratification of hearing the audience laugh. Jekyll and Hyde ain’t funny. I don’t sing. The last time I sang in the shower the “Soap on a Rope” hung itself. Jekyll and Hyde is a musical. When you take those two facts into consideration you have to ask why am I doing this. The answer I give is simple: It’s fun.

Working with a group of talented individuals to create something artistic gives great satisfaction and joy. The rehearsal process has always supplied laughter and I mean laughter which starts at your toes and turns your diaphragm into a trampoline at a Cirque du Soleil performance. I am sure this guffaw-fest will still happen even if Dr. Jekyll and his hedonistic alter ego are not a barrel of monkeys themselves.

Where else can you dress up in 19th century style clothing, sing pretty songs, pretend to be someone else, and maybe even fake your own death ten evenings, and one matinee, in October? At least where else can you do it and not have people call the authorities to report your need for psychiatric intervention.

Auditions for this show are Tuesday, May 12th and Wednesday, May 13th at 7:00 PM in the Depot Theater. Interested parties need only come one of these evenings. So if you want to join Patty Ahern (musical director), Sarah Schaeffer (set designer and co-stage manager), Lee Griffith (co-stage manager), Connie Penick (does more things than I have room to list here) and me having more fun than mere humans should be allowed to have, see you there.