Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Word of the In-Crowd

I like words. I like knowing odd words. This knowledge can come in handy. Just the other day my wife was reading a magazine and asked, “What is a monotreme?” I spouted off an answer and as she read further my answer was proven correct. I had filed that word away years and years ago. I got it from the zoology class I took as a junior in high school (thanks Mr. Harris). Just because it only came in handy once during the 31 years I knew the word doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It proves patience is a virtue because running around telling people the definition of monotreme in the aisles of Dillon’s or on street corners leads to ridicule and possibly even restraining orders.

Sometimes using an unusual word in a usual setting can work as a shibboleth amongst collectors of arcane terminology. What is that? You do not know what shibboleth means? Well, pull up a chair and welcome to the first in our continuing series “Learn an Only Slightly Useful Word.”

The origin of the word comes from a Biblical story. A group of people were being kept from crossing a certain river and since the people being kept out spoke a native language which did not include the “sh” sound anyone trying to cross was asked to say “shibboleth”. If the person said “sibboleth” it was clear they were not the right kind of person and would be killed. The word has much less of an impact nowadays. The first definition listed at Dictionary.com reads as follows: a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., which distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.

Think about it for a minute and you can probably come with half a dozen shibboleths. Every job has its own special terminology which folks outside the loop would be pretty clueless about if it was thrown into other venues. My real job is in the world of education and we don’t even use words. This could be an actual sentence spoken by a highly educated professional: My PLC designed some RtI to be delivered during MTSS time in hopes of meeting AYP, EIEIO.

Move out of professions and you still have opportunities to test others to see if they share your background or interests (just please don’t feel the need to kill them if they mispronounce your word they might just have a speech impediment).

Some of the bigger pop culture worlds have a canon bigger and more complex than actual civilizations of the past. You can find out a person’s level of devotion by getting more and more arcane as you test them. Harry Potter has more lore than you can shake a stick at, even a stick eleven inches long made of holly with a phoenix feather core. Some people just got a huge laugh out of that joke and others are even more bewildered than usual at my obtuse description. That, my friends, is a five star shibboleth.

The world of Star Wars has just as many testing points. Do you know who Luke Skywalker’s best friend on Tatooine was before he went off to fight for the rebellion? Do you know what job Phil Tippet did for ILM in the filming of The Empire Strikes Back? Do you know the name of the newsletter sent to charter members of the Star Wars Club? Do you know how long it was before Chris Pyle could get a date after dedicating himself to knowing all the answers to the previous three questions?

Another distinction point is there are the people who liked the prequel trilogy more than the original trilogy and then there are those who are not patently wrong.
Music can also be a great way to see if someone is “our kind” of person. If you mention the Bee Gees and someone else in the room has heard of them you know they are probably from your same generation. If someone else in the room starts flawlessly singing one of their greatest hits you know they are a big fan (and can sing really high). If someone else in the room rushes out only to return moments later wearing a white suit and a black shirt unbuttoned to the navel and begins dancing wildly you know psychiatric intervention might be required.

My final shibboleth: if at any point in your life you wanted to be Rob Petrie we are kindred spirits.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Some Things are Less Equal than Others

There really ought to be double standards. Not everything and everybody merit the same treatment. I am not saying people do not deserve equal opportunities under the law or anything that draconian. If you think the cheese slid off my cracker I have the perfect example. ESPN broadcasting Pop Warner football.

ESPN broadcasts sporting events via the internet which is something I really appreciate as a huge college basketball fan with no television. So this past Saturday I was checking out the schedule for the day when I saw they were, at that very moment, showing a Pop Warner football game. For those of you who do not know, Pop Warner is to football what Little League is to baseball. In the case of the game I “tuned” in to it was boys 9, 10 and 11 years old playing.

I only watched for a few minutes but in that time I got to see little football players who looked more like Violet Beauregard from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory after she turned into a blueberry than anyone from the Green Bay Packers. Truly, a ninety pound boy wearing all those pads has a certain weebles wobble but they don’t get sacked quality to them. Even with that quirky imagery the weirdest aspect of the whole experience was the broadcast was exactly like an NFL play-off game. The play-by-play guy and the color analyst (yes, they had both) were just as urgently talking about the clock management as the final few seconds of the first half were running down as they would if it had been Joe Montana and Bill Walsh making the decisions. (It wasn’t.)

Here is my main problem. When Eli Manning and Ben Rothleis… Rothleesbi… Rothelbee… , uh, Tony Romo are playing there is a multimillion dollar industry hinging on who wins and who loses. When Little Timmy and his best friend Not So Little Jimmy are playing the only thing hanging in the balance should be which set of kids feel happier when they go get ice cream after the game. Unfortunately that is not the case and I happen to believe one of the reasons this is a problem is the big wigs at a huge media entity like ESPN think it is a good idea to show prepubescent kids play a game in the same manner they broadcast grown men (albeit many of whom are rather stuck in barely post pubescent maturity levels) pursue their career.

Sport should be fun and a way to teach children teamwork, engender camaraderie, and create healthier bodies. Sport can be an excellent way to show kids that the effort you put in directly relates to the ability to do something well. This is not the case as often as it ought to be. Sport is too often a way to prove we are better than you, strength is power, and losers are unworthy of respect. I am sure I am overstating things to a degree and that there are still places where competition is healthy and kids have fun but the more often we broadcast ten-year-olds playing tackle football the more often we increase the number of children in the grasp of those who believe winning is everything.

There was one person involved in the ESPN presentation who seemed to realize it was a little ridiculous, the sideline reporter. Yes, they had a pretty girl sideline reporter just like they do for their big money making broadcasts. She was interviewing one of the coaches as the teams left the field for halftime. She asked the normal hard hitting journalistic questions that all the hairdos with a microphone ask of Rex Ryan and Bill Belic…Bellish… Beelich…, John Fox on NFL sidelines. The difference here was the look on her face as the coach answered the question. She was obviously not at all interested in the answer and was much more concerned with the inexplicable turn her career had taken. (A degree in broadcast journalism from Northwestern and here I stand asking a systems analyst who played Div II football but could have gone pro if only he hadn’t had chronic turf toe his senior year how he is going to maintain his lead in a game with a bunch of athletes who would rather be playing Super Smash Brothers or watching Spongebob.) Out loud she says, “Do you think your team can continue to dominate on both sides of the ball in the second half?” Interior monologue, “Somebody shoot me, please.”

It may shock the reader to find out Christopher Pyle never played organized sports beyond his summer playing t-ball. He can be openly mocked at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pry My Priorities from Me

Frequently in today’s media we hear complaining about how so many people just don’t have their priorities straight. Sometimes the people doing the complaining are doing it so vehemently they show just how out of whack their own priorities are. I’m going to chime in on the subject. Hopefully, I won’t expose personal deficits.

As an educator I am frequently trying to impress upon young minds what is important and more significantly, what is not important. First, let me say I do not take advantage of this opportunity to teach them Bugs Bunny is genuinely funny and the Three Stooges are not which I personally think is a very important distinction that all younger generations should have firmly placed in their aesthetic sensibilities. What I do try to impress upon students is that doing the right thing, including following the concept of treating others as you would like to be treated, caring for those less fortunate and choosing to open presents Christmas morning instead of Christmas Eve (okay, maybe I shouldn’t include that last one) is done simply because it is the right thing to do. I ask. I cajole. I plead. I lower myself to abject begging. I do all this with a level of success similar to the winning percentage of Kansas City Royals over the past decade. Then in walks the counselor with her stickers and everybody shapes up immediately.

Even though I appreciate the counselor helping this is a perfect example of priorities not being what they ought to be. A student is willing to sit in the cafeteria flicking bits of tater tot at his neighbor even after being chastised the previous day for throwing pieces of his pig-in-a-blanket. However, if the counselor offers a sticker to everyone sitting politely eating their lunch they all become the Stepford children, angelic examples of behavior. This says to me a child is not willing to behave in a positive manner because it is the right thing to do, but they are willing to do so for a brightly colored picture of a cartoon dog with glue on the back which will be in somebody’s trash can within next three hours.

I understand where they are coming from. People crave reward and often they would prefer tangible ones. I doubt I would show up for work each day if there was not a paycheck attached but I also realize that being kind to people and working hard to make their lives more pleasant or even easier is not part of my job description so it is not what I am paid to do. There have been times recently I was bothered that the people who are my superiors seem indifferent to the “soft” people skills I work very hard upon as long as I get the paperwork turned in on time. Even with those feelings, unfounded or not, I will continue to work towards kindness even if my reward is personal and not cool stuff. I will do this because my family instilled the ideas that kindness is what you do, that everyone is fighting some sort of battle and if you add to their load you are not behaving in a positive fashion.

Actually, I think my biggest concern is not that people cannot see what is important. It has more to do with people placing high value on things which are not important in the grand scheme of things. The other day there was a news story about a man who dropped his child in order to reach for a baseball hit into the stands. Let’s examine this decision for a moment. A man is holding his child, a person, a person who shares a great amount of his DNA, a person who depends upon the man for safety and protection, a person who will one day be selecting the man’s long term care facility. Into the equation we insert a baseball, ten dollars worth of cork, yarn and cowhide. Which should demand the man’s attention? If we believe the gentleman in Taiwan the cowhide wins. Now, if it was a ball Barry Bonds hit breaking one of the most revered records in baseball history which means catching the ball might make it possible to earn enough money to pay for the child’s college as well as buying yourself a contract for a really great long term care facility thus taking that decision out of the child’s hands maybe it would have been the right choice. After all, the kid didn’t break any bones or anything.
Christopher Pyle doesn’t think everyone should have the same priorities but the more people who agree with him the better. You can agree or disagree with him at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Typhoid Mary and Me

The other day I was walking into the grocery store. As I was entering a lady was exiting pushing a cart with a toddler riding in the odd little seat thingee next to the handle bar. I did a hop and a skip out of the way in a decidedly goofy manner, smiled big at the certifiably cute passenger and then did the closest thing to a Fred Astaire move my less than agile feet could approximate. All this was accomplished while wearing a hat some would call urbane (probably just me) and others (most everybody else) would call nerdier than a t-shirt which reads “Who stole the wookie from the wookie jar?” and glasses which truly are the cherry on the banana split of affectations I choose to wear each day. I should also mention for those readers who do not know me (I still think people other than my mother and wife read this) that I am very close to 50 years old and some 20 pounds overweight (I am guessing the fact checkers at this paper do not concern themselves with my stuff).

All of the previous paragraph was used to paint the verbal picture in order to explain what happened next. A person I work with witnessed the entire event. Her comment was very nice. “Are you always this happy?” My answer was a simple, “no”.

After a little bit more small talk I walked on into the store still thinking about her question. A much better answer came to mind. “Actually, I am just a carrier. I do not suffer from the condition myself.” I realize my more thought out response is at once egotistical and pathetic. It takes a special kind of rhetorical talent to pull off that duality.

First let’s look at the egotistical side. Saying I am a carrier of happiness makes it sound like I think of myself as some sort of purveyor of mirth making people feel better wherever I go, a man whose very presence makes moods lighter, a man whose voice sounds like banjos and laughter, a man whose breath smells of baby giggles and YouTube kitten videos. (OK, that last one was a stretch.) I wouldn’t go that far but I have found if I truly put my mind to it I can make pretty much anybody smile and most of them laugh.

I have done this in front of well over a thousand people as the mascot of the Dodge City Legend basketball team. I have done this in front of few hundred people doing an introduction at an all staff meeting with my school district. I have done it in front of over a hundred people at productions at the Depot Theater. I have done it one-on-one with angry and/or sad children who have been sent to the principal’s office. The only place I truly stiffed was in front of a small audience at an open mic night in a Kansas City comedy club September 1988. (When you tell a joke and the audience does not react in any manner whatsoever they actually do look like an oil painting. How different would my life be if I had killed that night?) All of this proves to me I can be a carrier of happiness, maybe not long lasting life changing happiness but a good solid laugh can do a lot for your day.

Now let’s examine the pathetic side of the statement. I need to state right up front I am happy about a great deal of my life. My family is a blessing beyond what I deserve. I have a job which allows me to pay for all the things we need and most the things we just want. I am reasonably healthy (remember that 20 pounds overweight statement). My upbringing was as close to idyllic as one can get outside of 1950’s television programs. My wife shields me from a great deal of the grown up junk parents and homeowners have to deal with and does so without complaint.

It is at the odd crossroads of the carrier/sufferer of happiness that the rub truly lies. If I could spend a greater portion of my life being that carrier of happiness I would be a much happier person myself on a daily, no hourly, basis. Dealing with unhappy, cranky, unwilling to bend, individuals who put little to no effort into being happiness carriers themselves has worn me down. This world needs more carriers and givers of the happy. I highly recommend it. You’d be surprised just how much better it makes you feel.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Find the Funny

Long time readers of this column (hi, Mom) know that one of my chief contacts with the world beyond the somewhat narrow swathe of life I inhabit out here in Dodge City is the wonderful world of podcasts. Podcasts are proof that the more technology changes the more it simple does the same stuff in niftier ways. Podcasts are radio, but radio that you have more control over and radio with a much bigger breadth of content than any station out here in western Kansas (which isn’t all that hard).
Truthfully, I very seldom turn on the radio, even in my car. The musical selections are sometimes what I like but invariably the happy blast from the past (that Styx song you were embarrassed to acknowledge as a favorite even when you were young and your taste in music was allowed to stink, but always secretly rocked out to) is followed by an epically horrific song (even Casey Kasem had to hold his nose whenever he played Alone Again, Naturally).

I spend a lot of time listening to people who get to be funny for a living talk about becoming funny, being funny, and getting paid to be funny. People who can find the funny are people I admire. Ever since I was young and watched Tim Conway unabashedly pummel Harvey Korman with improvised goofiness until poor Harvey was a mass of quivering straight man I have valued humor and worked in my own meager ways to get others to laugh.

The podcasts I am sure not to miss belong to two very different comedians. Marc Maron has a lot of, uh, issues and if you are easily offended you should steer away from his work, but I find him very funny and he interviews comedians in a way nobody else can. He and I are a similar age and if my parents had been the polar opposites of who they were I could have ended up more like him. Larry Miller is a happily married man with kids (very like me) and his podcast is just him telling stories. He has been a stand-up comedian since the 80’s and still is. Their work is just more proof that funny can come in very different packages yet still be funny.

My most recent podcast discovery is a series of panel discussions with television writers (Nerdist Writer’s Panel). As interesting as I find the discussion of how people went from would-be to actual writers (a combination of talent and blind dumb luck, emphasis on the blind dumb luck part), the insights into what makes a successful show (nobody really knows), and the different processes people use as they write (most writers use a mixture of procrastination and self-loathing), the biggest thing I took from the podcasts is that these people value kindness and teamwork quite nearly as much as talent. You have to bring something to the table but if you come to the table as a card carrying jerk, “Thanks for your time. We will just do this ourselves”.

This concept was first brought to my attention when I read a book written by Phil Rosenthal (co-creator of Everybody Loves Raymond) in which he said when he selected the writers for the show he placed a premium on kindness and he also made sure that the workplace was welcoming and built to make people feel comfortable. This did not mean people never had to work unfathomably long hours or they never got out of sorts (or downright peeved). It meant that when those things happened it didn’t fester and poison the whole place.

Especially as I get older, I find I value humor and kindness above all else which may be the reason I so frequently fantasize about working in a writers’ room for a television comedy. A place where funny is highly prized. A place where everyone present truly wants to spend time. A place where people work together (not just in word, but in deed as well) for a common goal. A place where if you drop the ball somebody else is willing, no eager, to pick it up. A place where the more laughter you hear the more proof you have the work is getting accomplished. I know it isn’t all fun and games and there is genuine stress but all jobs have stress but few offer the laughter and the joy of creation.

This may be another indication I am getting old, my fantasies revolve around a really swell workplace and have nothing to do with swimsuit models.

Christopher Pyle is about to disappear into another podcast induced reverie. Maybe this time the really swell workplace will have cake, oooo, cake. You can contact him at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The College Experience

Not long ago we took our oldest daughter to start her college career at the University of Kansas. It was karmically correct. I matriculated and (eventually) graduated from the same institution. Both of my parents received their college degrees from KU. Emilyjane was officially a third generation Jayhawk and her mother and I were officially not emotionally ready for her to actually leave.

She had been considering KU for quite a while. We would visit Lawrence at first just so her father could wax nostalgic about his salad days and later because we just liked it. Emilyjane liked the vibe of the place. She is a closet boheme. When it became time to truly choose a college she intelligently chose KU because it offered a degree program she was suited for and liked. (Truth be told she might have preferred K-State because the boyfriend goes there.)

Then we started the orientation process. Thus began the never ending stream of “they didn’t do this when I was here” comments from her old man. Admittedly, I was not a very involved and engaged college student. I went to class (frequently) got good grades (surprisingly at times, but consistently) but I was a bit of a loner. Okay, I made Howard Hughes look like somebody from the cast of Jersey Shore. So some of the things they described might have actually existed long ago when I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshman, or more accurately, a rather lethargic, socially inept freshman, I just didn’t know it.

The first I-didn’t-do-that process was two full days of orientation meetings in the early summer. My older brother brought me up to Lawrence (actually he had filled out the application paperwork too, have I mentioned I wasn’t terribly motivated) for an afternoon of enrolling in classes and getting a few tidbits of information. That was it. Emilyjane’s college experience was obviously going to be more varied and chock full of so much more than learnin’ stuff.

Actually, this brings me to my first complaint. Why does everything have to be a production? I can’t help but think the huge bill might be mitigated if colleges didn’t feel it was necessary to create gigantic divisions such as “Student Success”. Support is good and kids leaving home for the first time will obviously benefit from an institution which employs people for this purpose, but does it have to be to this extravagant?

When choosing an institution of higher learning does it really matter if it possesses a recreation center the size of two football fields boasting 268 cardio and resistance machines (I am not totally sure what those are but it sounds awesome when they mention them on their website promo), six basketball courts, two swimming pools and a three story tall rock climbing wall? A three story tall rock climbing wall? This belongs as a selling point for a university if at the top of that rock wall sits a wizened old man dispensing enlightenment to those who bravely pursue truth in spite of great personal risk.

I blame the Walt Disney Corporation. They were the first people to say that everything needs to be an experience. They had imagineers creating bigger, better all-encompassing everythings. Now everything needs to be bigger, better all-encompassing. You can’t just have a college with able professors, well outfitted classrooms and libraries, comfortable and safe housing, plus a few nifty clubs and chances for exploring the arts. Nope. We need a community dedicated to the “whole person”, a place with 6,749 clubs and organizations from Aikido to Zoo keeping, plus a staff of hundreds whose raison d’ĂȘtre is to support and nurture the epic journey of discovery that is your college experience. (That last bit was pretty nifty, maybe I should apply to write college brochures.)

One last note about our orientation experience at the ol’ U of K. There were a number of tables and small rooms strewn throughout the Student Union all labeled with what service they offered. There were the easy to decipher ones like Financial Aid (that was easy to find because of all the fathers sitting motionless with stunned expressions) and Textbooks (stunned and even some tears). But my favorite was a room labeled “Major Changes”. I am sure they simple meant switching from English Lit to Business because you suddenly realized eating was a life goal worth pursuing. What I envisioned was a bit more philosophical. I wanted a cadre of psychologists with sofas and tissues counseling parents on dealing with sending their babies off into the world (at least it is a world with a three story tall rock climbing wall – I feel way better.)

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Word Smart and Smart Words

It was June 29, 2007 when my first column showed up in the pages of The Hutchinson News. I didn’t miss a deadline for the next year and a half. Since then I have failed to hand in a column 8 times. This means I have a batting average of .926 and I would like to point out this was accomplished with absolutely no performance enhancing drugs of any kind.

The column you are reading right now is my 100th for this newspaper and the 235th of my newspaper “career”. That adds up to more than 183,000 words (which is less impressive when you take into account I used some of the words more than once). Obviously this is something I enjoy doing otherwise why would I do it so much. Wait a minute, that logic is flawed. I do things I absolutely abhor much more frequently.

The chief motivation behind this endeavor is to make people smile. If I can make someone laugh out loud that is a huge bonus. Since I cannot be in the room when most people read my work (after the first two restraining orders it loses its allure) I don’t know if there is any auditory laughing. I like to imagine it happens and pathetically I often sit in my office and do just that.

There have been times I wanted to get a message out there. Humor is a great way to stealthily guide people to truth without bludgeoning the audience. If you spend your time yelling and ranting to deliver your message it is not all that likely someone who does not agree with you in the first place will come over to your way of thinking. However, it seems yelling and ranting at people who already believe exactly the same as you do can get you a whole lot of television exposure and enough money to make it even more likely you’d hate the idea of taxing the rich.

As I get older I thought I was supposed to get more mellow. Not so much. All this recent stuff with Congress has made me so angry I have to find something to laugh at in order not to scream bad words into the wind, drop kick the cat into the next county or do something truly nuts like run for office. Even if reading this column has never been remotely cathartic for you writing it has frequently been so for me.

I firmly believe that genuinely funny people are genuinely smart people (this postulate is likely proven by watching C-SPAN broadcast from the floor of Congress, not exactly a laughter machine). The process of “finding the funny” is one of my favorite things to do and those exercises have helped me hone many other skills that enhance my intellectual powers. Please don’t think I am placing myself in some sort of Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Mr. Peabody echelon of intelligence. I don’t even want that kind of brain.

I believe that words are the building blocks of every idea. Be the ideas brilliant, humorous, or even weapons grade stupid, words are how we convey the grand majority of these ideas and funny people usually have the greatest facility with the language. Or is it the other way around? People with the greatest facility with the language are funny. (That is a circular question similar to who crossed the road first the chicken or the egg.) Therefore, the better I get at finding the funny the better I get with words and making connections with other words and the not necessarily intended by-product of all that is becoming smarter. I think…

Just the other day in one of my a-whole-bunch-of-educators-get-together-to-talk-about-education meetings (how’s that for a facility with the language?) the following were listed as 21st century skills: critical thinking, communication skills and collaboration. In my own mind I thought, whoa, those have been some of the most useful skills since people started doing things other than sitting in caves worrying about mastodons. Those were skills very much in the forefront of the late 18th century when the powdered wig guys wrote such things as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So, the next thing I thought was maybe we stopped teaching those things in the 20th century and that is why way too many people (especially the elected ones) cannot use them when deciding how best to take care of the people who live in our country today, and I mean all of the people who live here.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Or is it just me

Okay, I give. Uncle! You win. I surrender. I willingly yield to the stronger opponent. Capitulation is what I am doing. Can somebody call off the heat hounds and cool this joint down? I’ve lived in Kansas the majority of my life so I have experienced high temperatures before, but this is ridiculous.

I worked at the Airport Drive-In Theater the summers of my high school years (give yourself thirty bonus points if you remember going there to see a movie – but deduct fifty points if you went to any of the four show marathons featuring movies with women in scarcely any clothing and storylines with scarcely any plot). One of the tasks given to me and one or two of my lucky co-workers was painting the poles the speakers rested upon. There is not much in the world more pleasurable than using a wire brush to scrap the old paint off of and add a couple new coats of paint to several dozen three and a half foot tall metal posts. Then add the fact we did this in the dead of summer and you have found an existence approaching unremitting nirvana, or was that just because of the hallucinations. Still that was more pleasant than the last several days.

There are lots of things we have lived through in summers past that were uncomfortable. All of us have put our hands on a steering wheel in August only to remove our hands from the steering wheel faster than Charlie Sheen can think of something else stupid to say. We do that because if we don’t let go all ten of our fingers will spot weld in place and the only destination we’ll be driving to is the nearest hospital. Those of us in too much of a hurry to wait for the air conditioner to cool the car sufficiently in order to genuinely take hold of the wheel have been known to steer using a combination of alternating index fingers and thumbs in conjunction with our knees.

Here is an advantage of driving a crummy 1989 two door Ford Escort with nothing of value inside it. I can leave the windows open no matter where I park it (goodness knows the interior isn’t going to get wet when it rains because rain in the foreseeable future is as likely as Michele Bachmann inviting that Kurt kid from Glee to perform at her next campaign event). As hot as it has been my eldest daughter, who drives a black car with a black interior and who rolls up the windows whenever it is parked, characterizes getting into her car as getting into an oven full of soup. Not a tepid chicken broth but rather a piping hot serving of full bodied cream of mushroom cloud soup because it is nuclear explosion hot in here.

This heat wave has been epic. When I get up in the morning it is already warm. I walked to work the other day. It was before eight o’clock so I thought I’d be safe. By the time I got there my face looked like the bad guy from Captain America and my deodorant had mailed in its letter of resignation. It also stays downright hot well into the night. When the temperature at ten o’clock at night is equal to the latitude of the Geographic North Pole it is too darned hot.

Some people covet money. Some people covet power. Some people covet the ability to be invisible and sneak into places to overhear what other people say about them. (Some “covets” are more realistic than others.) This kind of weather just makes it crystal clear to me that I covet comfort. I am addicted to Freon. If I had been born 200 years ago and a summer day rolled around with a temperature above 93 degrees you wouldn’t find me showing great stamina and perseverance working in the field. I’d be hiding under a shade tree in nothing but my skivvies valiantly holding on to the feet of an owl as he furiously flapped his wings thus functioning as an improvised high powered fan. He would even kind of oscillate….nifty.

I have been trying all sorts of tricks to beat the heat. My internet radio is tuned to Christmas songs. I covered my office with pictures of Samuel L. Jackson and Dean Martin. My doctor even gave me a prescription for an intravenous drip of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Downside is Just Easier

I think I’ve found a basic flaw in human nature. It seems to me the natural default setting for the grand majority of people is negative and this is mostly just because negative is easier than positive.

While I am not egotistical enough to believe I am the first person to postulate such a theory, I have never seen it discussed anywhere else. This may mean it is original to me but it is more likely due to the fact my reading history revolved around Robert B. Parker, John D. MacDonald and Jerry Siegel’s Superman and not Bertrand Russell, Soren Kierkegaard and Frederich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch.

Think about it. Being negative is just easier.

“Hey, John. You want to go water skiing?”

“Why would I want to do something which turns water from the comfortable consistency it has as it comes out of the bathtub spigot to the hardness of concrete as my body slams into it going thirty miles an hour. I’m staying home and watching television.”
See, unadventurous, and negative, but also infinitely easier to do.

Look at the world of politics. (I realize this is annoying so I will make it as brief as possible.) When one side puts forth an idea the other side immediately disagrees with the idea, then states the idea was stupid, then states the idea was un-American, then states the idea will cause the downfall of our nation as we know it, then states pursuing the idea means we will face an apocalypse of Biblical proportion, then states the person on the other side who first introduced the idea has a mother who wears combat boots. This is so much easier than actually listening to the idea, considering the true facts and possible merits inherent in the idea, sitting down with the other side to alter and enhance the idea to better fit the needs of a larger number of people, admitting that someone from the other side may not be a blithering idiot, then going out to dinner together instead of just talking to another exact same point of view ideologue on television in order to make sure your constituents are convinced you are doing their will even if doing the opposite might have made a positive impact on the grand majority of humans. Fomenting anger and fear mongering requires a lot less effort and sophistication than implementing the sometimes complex processes required to actually make government function in a manner conducive to bettering our quality of life. (Sheeesh, that may not have been as brief as I first intended it to be.)

While I do not think it is the best way to be, it is very possible this negative tendency may be hard-wired into us. Early man had to assume there was a man eating something or other around every corner if he wanted to see next Tuesday. Caveman Shecky sitting on the ground laughing at the absurdity of a glyptodont (an armadillo the size of a Chevy Malibu) becomes Hors-d’oeuvre Shecky in a Paleolithic minute.
To better prove my point let’s look at the most basic, least sophisticated or educated example of a human being, anybody on Jersey Shore. No, let’s look at a newborn. Ticked off and sad is what they do best (come to think of it that is true of the Jersey Shore people too). It takes weeks of existence and great effort on the part of the adults in the baby’s life to elicit that first smile. There was even an early culture that believed the first person to cause a child to laugh was to be a special person for that kid for the rest of his life.

If we are to fight this predisposition for negativity we need to start early. Think about when a baby is born. The medical staff wants to get the kid to breath. Do we show the kid Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers to make him laugh? Laughter is really just happy breathing. Nope. Somebody slaps the kid on the backside to make him cry. Crying is really just unhappy breathing. I understand the expediency of the slap but I have to think if the first thing we did as a human being no longer attached to another human being was fun we might be more inclined to be happy. We go from the optimum of comfort, it is warm, it is soft, it is dark so napping is simple, and the food arrives without any fuss or bother. We are ripped from this and smacked by a stranger. No wonder grumpy is our natural state.

Christopher Pyle believes delivery room staff should at least try funny faces. You can contact him at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Time to work...ooh, look ...shiny

School is out. We already had several days in which the temperature climbed into the hundreds. The solstice occurred on Tuesday. The Royals are in last place. It’s official. Welcome to summer.

Summertime is often equated with laziness. I fully agree that summer should be used for revitalization, but without anything too vital because it’s hot outside. I made a new year’s resolution against sweating.

I’m an elementary school principal by day so the summer brings a dramatic change in tempo. If I can sit at my desk for thirty minutes to concentrate on one task and one task alone during the regular school year it must be after 4 o’clock or a weekend. I have been known to whine about the frequency of interruptions at work. Well, this week I have been able to spend extended periods of time focused on Common Core Curriculum and reading books about building better background knowledge for students so they can be more academically successful. Somebody, anybody, interrupt me, please. Is it possible for your brain to get nauseous? I think I intellectually threw up the last half of that chapter about data analysis for continuous school improvement. (With apologies to Mr. Coleridge – Data, data, everywhere and boy I need a drink.)

Don’t get me wrong (especially if you are a member of the Dodge City Public Schools Board of Education), I want to enlarge my knowledge base. I want to get better at my job. I genuinely enjoy learning new things about how the brain works and how educators can better serve the students in our charge. However, the sheer volume of stuff I don’t know gets a tad overwhelming at times and summertime affords me the time to more fully examine my dearth of knowledge. It’s depressing, worse than sweating.

It is possible my difficulty climbing the mountain of ignorance is made more problematic by the trend in society for short bursts of superficial information. It is very hard to describe a process designed to enhance direct instruction of vocabulary for elementary students in 140 characters or less, but that is more and more what I am used to. My bosses did not assign me to “follow” any educational gurus on Twitter or “friend” them on Facebook. They gave me a stack of books about a foot tall to read. My attention span is going to be stretched to levels I haven’t attempted in a while.

Truthfully, I had a healthier attention span when I was a kid. So often in the media you hear folks complain that kids today don’t have an attention span longer than your typical Hangover II preview. I say nay. My 13-year-old son can play a game on his Nintendo for a timeframe longer than it takes bread to get moldy. He can also get lost in a book for hours on end. I can’t do that anymore even if I am reading a spy novel for mindless entertainment.

There is tons of research out there about multi-tasking, the pros, the cons, who does it well, who doesn’t. My problem is not that I have deficiencies in the multi-tasking department. My problem is I have epic, downright Herculean, skills when it comes to multi-procrasti-tasking.

Multi-procrasti-tasking is my own word for one’s ability to do two or three OTHER things at a time rather than what one really ought to be doing. When I was a college student my apartment was spotless only when I had a deadline for a big paper. (Go to the library or clean the grout? Hello, scrubbing bubbles.)

A major contributor to this phenomenon is the fact that so many of the tools we use for productivity are built to do many different things. If a phone only made phone calls it would be easier to carry on a conversation. If I really wanted to stay on task while writing I should use a typewriter. This computer makes it too easy to wander, a lot.

Why, just in the time between writing this sentence and the one before it I have checked e-mail, read a few tweets, went to ESPN.com to see how the Royals are doing (they’re behind), googled three different tidbits of information of zero importance and watched a video clip from last night’s Colbert Report. I did all this instead of writing the next sentence and writing this column is of one of my favorite things to do. Just think how I can multi-procrasti-task when I don’t want to do something.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Twitter-Tweet and Twitter-Dumb

The other day my daughter Alice said something I found very astute. “If there is so much technology why are there still so many stupid people?” Granted, her choice of words may sound harsh but when you think about it she’s right on target.

With the continuous growth of the internet and the tools available to anybody with a computer we have access to more information than ever before in history. If you are missing some tidbit in the personal encyclopedia residing in your brain it only takes a modicum of perseverance and know-how to fill the gap. Why, just now, in a matter of seconds, I was able to find out the rainiest month of the year for Bora Bora is January when they average 18.6 inches of rain. Will I ever truly need to know that? Probably not, but if it is that easy to obtain a fact so obscure there really shouldn’t be any excuse for being ignorant about things of most any kind.

At least that is the way it should be. There is still the problem that not only can anyone with a modem find information on the World Wide Web but anyone with a modem can also put information on the World Wide Web.

(Short digression: Have you ever noticed it takes longer to say the abbreviation of World Wide Web, www, than it does to say World Wide Web? Saying the initials requires nine syllables while saying the actual words requires just three. My personal best saying “World Wide Web” is 0.8 seconds while my best for “www” is 1.2 seconds. Yes, I timed myself.)

I was once told there are more distinct pieces of information being created each week than would have existed in a decade at other times in human history. The thing to remember is many of today’s distinct pieces of information pertain to Kardashians.

I was once given advice by someone in the entertainment industry saying I just needed to get my stuff on YouTube to get discovered. My response was they make filters to keep adult material off your screen but not to shield you from sheer junk. Being on YouTube does not guarantee being discovered when the discoverers have to wade through thousands of hours of cats being painfully cute and skateboard dudes being painfully pained.

I guess the answer to my daughter’s question lies in the fact that no matter how advanced and amazing technology gets it is still used by human beings and we are very flawed creatures.

As a person who refers to himself as a humor columnist I would be drummed out of the corps if I didn’t spill a little more ink in the matter of Anthony Weiner. Here is a man who had gained the respect of many caring, intelligent people. I didn’t always agree with him but I really liked his passionate fighting for what he believed in. How does he use one of the most immediate and pithy ways to communicate? Does he re-state the battle cry of his political raison d’etre? Nope. Does he call to task the others in the legislature for their short-sightedness? Not so much. He uses Twitter as a purveyor of puerile pornography.

While I am not in Mr. Weiner’s league, my use of technology isn’t all that venerable. I do not use the vast amount of technology at my fingertips for high aesthetics and/or contributing to the greater good. Mostly I just want to be entertained. All the favorites on my internet browser are either sports or humor sites. I have a Twitter account, but the only things I have “tweeted” are musings and whinings. The people I “follow” with interest are Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, and Alec Sulkin (a writer for Family Guy) who use their 140 characters to be funny and not much else.

One of my very favorite technological tools is really one of the most basic, e-mail. E-mail is perfect for the timid. It is a way to communicate with or ask questions of others without being face-to-face or even very insistent. If I call you some contraption on your desk or in your pocket makes an interrupting noise and requires your attention right now. E-mail allows the recipient to respond at his own convenience. This also means I am at his mercy. One person I e-mail with some regularity answers in one of three timeframes, either within the hour, at the end of the week when catching up on all correspondence or never.

Christopher Pyle loves the self checkout technology at grocery stores because it removes one more human interaction from his life. You can e-mail him (he’ll probably answer) at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

This or That? Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

Choices seem to be constant. Do I wear the blue shirt or the white shirt? Do I have eggs or cereal for breakfast? Do I ignore the guy who dangerously cut in front of me or do I chase him down and ram his expensive I’m-having-a-mid-life-crisis sports car with my completely unremarkable I’d-love-to-have-a-mid-life-crisis-but-I-don’t-have-the-time minivan? Some choices are more typical than others.

When you’re young decisions are made willy-nilly, indifferent to their ramifications. Do I wear the blue shirt from the top of the pile or the white-ish shirt from the bottom which is irretrievably wrinkled but smells better? Do I have Oreos or Twinkies for breakfast? Do I ignore the beautiful redhead moving down the hall towards algebra class or do I just let her ignore me because she does it astonishingly well? Some choices are more emotionally painful than others.

There are, of course, some decisions which have longer term consequences. Say you are an eighteen year old person who has always loved television and movies so when heading off to college you select film studies as your major. That decision made perfect sense at the time and it was arrived upon with deliberation and following all proper goal setting protocols. Then upon graduating, six and half years later, (some other choices were made which will not be gotten into at this time) you find you are qualified for working retail sales jobs. This leads to more choices some of which you made with the same uncanny ability to perfectly predict what would lead to nearly the right thing.

My own children have gotten to the point they are actual people, not just shorter facsimiles thereof, and they are making decisions which will create rewards or penalties on down the line. This means I have another choice. Do I step in and try to convince them to do the things I think they should do? Not so much because I made stellar decision after stellar decision but rather so they can learn from the bone-hea..uh, less than stellar decisions I’ve lived through.

Most every parent faces this conundrum. Do I simply encourage my children to follow their bliss or should I hammer home they must be responsible and able to support themselves with gainful employment? At this particular juncture in my life I am really leaning towards the follow your bliss side of the debate.

When it comes right down to it the lack of success in my field was due to my lack of gumption. I shied away from making the leap and putting myself in uncomfortable situations and simply stuck with selling books to people. Hey, I was really good at it.

Each of my children is talented and very interested in the artistic aspects of the world. Emilyjane is a singer and has shown great skill in musical theater. Alice loves playing her clarinet and dedicates herself to music. George has worked hard on his violin skills and spends his free time exploring literature and history. The likelihood of any of my children making tons of money and buying my way into a really swanky retirement village is slim to none. Which is just fine with me. (Hey, I can always fall back on my mad cash register skills.) I hope beyond hope they are able to follow their passions and also pay the bills for their own modest, yet safe, lifestyles. Poor and happy is possible while middle class and grumpy is much more prevalent.

Over the last few years I have communicated with a guy who is truly successful in Hollywood. He is not a star and does not pull in huge salaries. If I were to tell you his name I doubt any of you would recognize it. He is a comedy writer. He has worked on shows like The Drew Carey Show and The Simpsons (those are shows many people would recognize). He makes a living.

If a doppelganger is a replica of an individual this gentleman is my wishicouldaganger. He was inspired to become a comedy writer by watching The Dick Van Dyke Show and Johnny Carson, me too. He worked crummy retail jobs in his early years, me too. He wants to be funny, me too. He wants to work with funny people, me too. He wants to have a happy healthy family, me too. He showed the grit and sacrifice to get there, me…

Hey, kids, (not just the ones who live in my house) follow your bliss with determination.

Christopher Pyle feels the bliss when he is with his family and when he comes up with a solid joke. You can contact him at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Friday, May 13, 2011

This Isn't the Way I Thought it Worked

I have frequently complained about how the world works but truthfully I have a very good life. My whining is warranted in my mind but when compared with people who are living genuinely crummy lives I should just shut up. Will I? Nope.
This is my current rant: The people who do everything “right” do not get the occasional leg up that living right is supposed to afford them.

Here is my personal case in point. My daughter is getting ready to go to college so we have been jumping through more hoops than a trained poodle working for Barnum and Bailey. The main goal is to figure out a way she can go to school without setting up a standing weekly appointment for the whole family to sell our plasma. Higher education is expensive. I’m starting to think it might be cheaper to build a college and hire a bunch of professors.

This is what I thought I was supposed to do. Go to college. (Check) Get a job. (Check) Get married. (Check) Return to college to improve our lives together. (Check) Get a better job. (Check) Have children. (Check) Raise them to be individuals who value kindness, posses a strong work ethic, spread humor and stuff like that. (Check) Get a graduate level degree in order to improve all of our lives. (Check) Not get divorced. (Check) Avoid going into irretrievable levels of debt (Check, but that was a close one) Send my children to college so they can start their own adventure through the circle of life. (Not so fast my friend)

Because I swallowed the American dream hook, line and sinker my kids (and I) will now borrow something equivalent to the budget deficit of Texas to facilitate getting my children the college education which was always peddled to me as an integral component of success. This is proof that my own education was not complete. I never learned to use my own personal empirical evidence to the contrary as a method of contradicting the aforementioned reverie of the United States. I did learn to use big words and stuff.

Here is my empirical evidence. My first college degree was in Film Studies. This meant I was eminently qualified to work at a video rental store, which I did for the first few years out of college which was also what I did while I was in college. See the degree made all the difference in the world. I made more money after college because I had more time to devote to my minimum wage job. My second degree was in elementary education. This meant I no longer worked for an hourly wage. It also meant I got to re-live my college years because every other meal consisted of Ramen Noodles and my furniture came from stores which also sold tires, milk and shaving cream. My graduate degree was in Education Administration. I was now able to earn the money which made it possible to buy a house and go to an honest to goodness couch store but not to properly maintain college funds for the kiddos.

So even though all that book learning did not lead to financial gains and the posh life I still value the education I received because I firmly believe it made me a more fully rounded, intelligent, caring human being which is really what I was after. I hope my children can get that out of their schooling as well.

Now back to the point of my rant. So my wife and I both went to college and then proceeded to get advanced degrees. We worked hard, not coal miner hard or Afghanistan soldier hard or Goldman Sachs CEO hard (it takes a lot of effort to beat down basic human compassion to that level) but our noses have grindstone scars. We made sacrifices in order to give our children what we thought was most important for them (love, attention, solid nutrition, frequent hugs, giggles and belly laughs, bedtime stories and all that Ozzie and Harriet stuff). But now when we look for scholarships and the like we find the grand majority of those are designed for very distinct demographics described by characteristics we do not possess.

It turns out I should have dropped out of high school, divorced their mother, possibly even arranged to have my permanent mailing address be 25-2-Life Penitentiary Avenue if I wanted my 3.98 GPA oldest daughter to receive some federal aid to go to university.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Unnatural Selection of Manners

There have been times I have used the space afforded to me by this illustrious publication to bemoan the fact that civility is careening down the same path previously traveled by the ill-fated Dodo bird and the, less celebrated, more fabulously named, but just as dead, Big-Eared Hopping Mouse. I know I sound like everybody’s curmudgeonly Uncle Charlie ranting about how the world is going to Hades in a handcart and when he was young people knew what manners were, chivalry was not dead and it was not nearly so difficult to find a really good hamburger with French fries that weren’t too crispy and also weren’t so limp they couldn’t even support a healthy dollop of ketchup from the plate to your mouth without dropping its tomato-y load on your favorite tie with all the pictures of tiny golf clubs. Really, is that too much to ask? Sorry, I sort of jumped the rails there.

Anyway, I genuinely fear that civility is endangered and will soon be extinct in the wild. We will only be able to experience it under contrived circumstances. Like people can only see the Wyoming Toad in zoos (or in pictures of the Vice President of the United States between 2001 and 2009 – that is an arcane and impolite joke, sorry) we will only be able to see manners in movies starring Cary Grant. I am going to continue the analogy comparing human behavior to animal species because I think there is one chief contributing factor in the demise of both: effectiveness.
Some animals became extinct because the skills and physical attributes they possessed were no longer effective at keeping them alive and procreating. (The Big-Eared Hopping Mouse was no match for the Gigantic-Incisored Sprinting Cat.) That is the problem with civility. Practitioners are not given the kind of evolutionary leg up those who practice greedy selfishness and rudeness receive.

Clinical Study Number One: (Okay, it is not a real study and it was not done in a clinic and it would not stand up to any sort of scrutiny by honest-to-goodness scientists but it is what I believe…so there.) The younger males of the human species go out into the jungle, in this case high school, in search of females of the species. One subset was raised in households in which kindness and courtesy were valued attributes. The other subset gives significance to roughness and disdain for the feelings of others (as well as a disdain for words like disdain which gives you a big hint which subset I belonged to). The first male subset listened empathetically to the feelings, hopes and dreams of the females of the species and couldn’t get to first base. The second male subset forced the females of the species to come running out to their Trans Ams when they honked their horns which were barely audible above the AC/DC blaring from their car stereos possessing enough wattage to power Poughkeepsie and, shall we say, the third base coach was pretty much continuously windmilling his right arm indicating it wouldn’t even be necessary to slide. (By now there are no doubts which subset I belonged to.)

Clinical Study Number One proves the evolutionary advantage of being selfish and if you need more evidence proving the advantages of the me-first-and-everyone-else-can-eat-me-dust attitude simply look at the legislative body of your choice. (We can kill medical coverage for anyone born post 1957 but we are guaranteed free medical services for life because we are members of congress.)

Clinical Study Number Two: (see parenthetical from Clinical Study Number One.) This study shows another aspect of how rude is more effective. Scientists monitored polite soft-spoken people dealing with insurance companies, any sort of phone sales, and guys who just cut in front on line at Dillons. They were as successful in getting their way as the control group of life-sized cardboard representations of Mister Rogers.

I have to say Clinical Study Number Two makes total sense to me. I am often calm, polite and ignored. However, if I become a mash up of Howard Beale and Sam Kinison the outcome is more likely to go my way. I want to go on record saying I do not allow my inner screamer to come out very often at all, unless I am dealing with a certain cell phone company. Suffice it to say they could sure as heck hear me now.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Useless Bits of Information (yes, again)

Not long ago, I learned about a rather odd animal, a fainting goat. These animals are perfectly named. When they become startled their muscles freeze for about ten seconds. Typically this means they stiffen and fall over on their sides. Older fainting goats have learned to position themselves against something so when they are startled they lean rather than fall. Another piece of information which indicates with age comes wisdom and a desire not to do anything uncomfortable.

These goats are domesticated. This cannot be a shock, because animals that stiffen and fall over at the first sign of danger aren’t exactly perfectly designed for flourishing in the wild. Their peculiarity explains the chief purpose for owning fainting goats. They hang out with your flock of sheep. A coyote comes by and starts stalking your investment. There is no sheep dog like the one in the old Chuck Jones cartoons clocking in to make sure the coyote (who also punched in on the time clock affixed to a random tree) does not eat the sheep.

Boo! The coyote jumps out from behind a tree. The sheep shriek and the goats faint. The coyote is then faced with choosing between sprinting after an adrenaline charged ovine or strolling up to the hors d’oeuvres table full of very still goats. Mr. Darwin did not discuss “Survival of the Stiffest” so evolution is not a fainting goat’s friend.

Even if you don’t own flocks of sheep, fainting goats might be fun to have around. You could set a couple dozen of them side by side in the back yard. Then you go up to the one at the end of the line and whisper in his ear, “I just saw a wolf.” He falls over. When he falls over he bumps the next one in line who is startled by his neighbor suddenly falling into him. This continues through the whole line of goats. You have now created bovid dominoes, great for children’s birthday parties and Fourth of July Barbecues.

This brings us to a strange chapter from the history of the state of Kansas. In 1918 John R. Brinkley first started his medical career. He had not graduated from any medical school, but he didn’t let that little hurdle stop him from opening a practice in Milford. He had previously worked at a meatpacking plant and observed the high level of amorous activity carried on by the goats. So when a patient went to him with a complaint about his own lagging amorous activity, “Dr.” Brinkley decided to surgically implant goat glands into the man.

Brinkley became quite rich and famous performing his operations which had no effect on patients. Well, let’s say the promised results were bogus, but the occasional death was a truly nasty side effect. He started the very first radio station in the state. He used it to advertise his medical miracle cure.

Eventually the proper people realized what was going on and revoked his broadcasting and medical practice rights. So, Brinkley did the only thing a reasonable man would do when faced with the destruction of his livelihood. He mounted a massive write-in campaign for governor. That’s what was so great about the kinder, gentler days of the previous century. The candidates for major political offices were much more open about being megalomaniacal whack jobs. He received 29.5% of the vote. There’s another reason to wax rhapsodic about the good old days. The general populace was more than willing to vote for bald-faced megalomaniacal whack jobs. (Although that seems to be coming back into vogue.)

Just think about how the state of Kansas might have gone down a whole different path if Doc Brinkley had become governor. Instead of huge beef packing plants in Dodge City, we might have gigantic goat feed yards. The state motto could have been changed to “Ad Capra per Aspera”, to the goat through difficulty. Brinkley’s radio station (KFKB) could have become the cornerstone for a media empire like the one Ted Turner started in Atlanta giving us GNN, the Goat News Network with the catch phrase, “We report the news good and baaaad, no ifs, ands, or butts.”

Be sure to tune in next week for the next episode of Wild Kingdom (arcane information about something in the animal world) Meets Your Are There (semi-worthless historical information).

Christopher Pyle had a another joke about Doc Brinkley trying to restore a man’s virility with goat parts combined with the information about fainting goats, we decided to err on the side of good taste. If you want to know what it was, e-mail him at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

That's How the Ball Bounces

One year ago I went to Oklahoma City to attend two rounds of the NCAA tournament. As a lifelong fan of KU basketball it was a fantastic present from my wife to send me. As I was driving down I thought about all the fun I could have and it occurred to me I might be able to get two or three good columns out of the experience. Then Ali Farokhmanesh happened.

The University of Northern Iowa punched their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen, punched the ticket for the Jayhawks to take a trip back to Lawrence to face disappointment and recriminations from fans and media and sent me back to my cheap motel room in the middle of a blizzard.

A year has passed. I am over the March Sadness and can remember the fun.
For the KU versus UNI game last March I was seated in the second to last row from the top (yes, the usher was of Sherpa descent…or should I say Sherpa ascent). The view was not all that different from watching the game on a giant screen television, a giant screen television that was fifty-seven feet away. Everything else was better than watching on TV.

The vast majority of people were rooting for the Jayhawks but there were about 8 guys sitting together a few feet from me who were obviously from Iowa and cheering wildly for their guys. There was no animosity between the two factions. At one point there was one of those calls by a referee which can be easily (and vehemently) argued either way depending on who you want to win. One of the UNI fans stood and yelled at the ref (knowing the laws of physics and sound travel my guess is his epithet hit the floor around 3:30 the next day). The KU fans nearby hooted. The UNI guy laughed, turned to all of us wearing crimson and blue, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Hey, you’re gonna win. I’m just havin’ fun.” It turned out he had a lot more fun than he expected.

Even though I do let losing a basketball game affect me more than I ought to basketball has given me a lot of positive experiences and helped me develop some of my better attributes.

From 2000 to 2006 I worked with the Dodge City Legend, a minor league basketball team which was part of the now defunct United States Basketball League. I started out as the mascot (Marshal Hoops) dressed from the waist up as a cowboy and from the waist down it was more mascot like. I wore the same basketball shorts the players wore and I had a pair of tennis shoe cowboy boots hybrids. Since it is not really politically correct to wear six shooters in a family entertainment venue I had two mini basketball hoops attached to my belt where Wyatt Earp would have holsters. I was a public goofball and I had a blast. Later I worked my way up to being the general manager. That doesn’t happen very often.

My oldest daughter, Emilyjane, was a ball kid most of the time I worked with the team and she got to know the guys better than I did. She developed friendships with some players and they always treated her great. Once a former NBA star joined the team, he was going to be a huge help as we tried to win a championship. His first game with the team something didn’t happen the way he wanted it to and was downright rude to Emilyjane. The other members of the team made him apologize to her. Picture it. A seven foot one inch athlete standing in front of a four foot nothing middle school girl saying he had been out of line. Is that great or what?

Emilyjane probably got the most out of it but my whole family was shown in no uncertain terms that people from very different backgrounds than our own were really great people with more things in common with us than not. A couple of the guys still e-mail her once in a while. Lazarus Sims played with the Legend three different seasons and came to dinner at the house. He played for Syracuse back in the 90s (even beating my beloved Jayhawks in the 1996 NCAA tournament) and now is an assistant coach for them. Whenever the Syracuse Orange are playing on TV we all carefully inspect the screen and whenever he is visible we all jump and scream, “There’s Laz!”

Friday, March 04, 2011

Is all this really necessary?

I have frequently heard the old axiom that one must suffer for one’s art. The way I always interpreted this was an artist must live through the tough times, the rejection, and the lack of appreciation from the masses in order to get to the point when his art will be accepted and he will be given adulation, respect and possibly even monetary gain. It appears I was wrong.

The more I hear the background stories of great artists of every stripe the more it seems in order to be truly successful as a painter, a musician, a writer, or a ventriloquist (wait a minute, forget that last one) you had to have an upbringing Oliver Twist would find breathtakingly sad. Think about it. How many times have you heard an author’s early life described like this? A life of nightly beatings suffered at the hands of the older boys at the boarding school run by the sadistic headmaster who later married his mother so he couldn’t even escape the malevolence during Christmas break or upon graduation thus ensuring meals consisting of larvae infested bread crusts and a water dish he was forced to share with the dozen or so Rottweilers doted upon by his evil stepfather and total servitude to his craven stepbrother who had the IQ of a dinner roll until one day he was using a stolen spoon to scratch his thoughts and dreams on the back of the rock under the hedge next to the moat to which he was chained every night at bedtime and a passing traveler stopped to ask directions, read the brilliant prose exposing surpassing beauty and a depth of human understanding never before put into words and was thus whisked away to a life of adoration and exultation as a writer of inestimable skill. Believe it or not I just described the adolescence of Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin. Who’d of thought growing up in Scarsdale would have given his family access to a moat?

Okay, I may have overstated things a bit. The thesis is still correct. I have been intentionally writing for over a decade and have not gotten beyond the 620 area code. My problem may not be talent or drive. It probably all has to do with the fact I had a childhood completely devoid of sadistic headmasters (I was scared of the assistant principal at Liberty Junior High but that was mostly due to facts which lived in my head and nowhere else). I was never forced to eat anything worse than peas (actually my mom never really forced me to eat anything). My siblings were all kind-hearted and their IQs dwarfed even the most gifted of baked goods. My upbringing was pleasant…rats…

My next options for proper artistic suffering are crippling substance abuse or unrelenting mental illness. Hmmm, that would be a no. I am not willing to do either of those choices just for a large advance from Simon & Shuster and a three picture deal with Dreamworks. Maybe a preternatural craving for Junior Mints and an irksome feeling that I left the water running would suffice for eight hundred words published in Cigar Aficionado (which is an actual, honest-to-goodness magazine).

Like so many afflictions it appears my suffering (which oddly enough is the massive lack of suffering) is a cycle which is being handed down to my children. I’m sure they have their moments when they believe their lives are terribly hard but that usually revolves around the fact that the internet went down as they were watching Glee reruns on hulu.com. All three of my kids love to read and enjoy music. They have all had opportunities to show some skills in the performing arts but unfortunately they will never be giant successes unless some changes are made.

It may be too late for the oldest one. She is 18 and getting ready to scamper off to college. Kid number two might benefit from some emotional cruelty but whenever I try it we both just start laughing at the lack of conviction in my performance. Kid number three has the greatest amount of time left living with me. Maybe I can turn his life into a Dickensian morass of despair. Naah, that will never work. His mother likes him too much.

It appears all of us will just have to settle for being mostly happy and reasonably well-adjusted instead of being world famous artists of talent and deep melancholy.

Christopher Pyle still holds out hope Aaron Sorkin has a google alert set for his name which causes him to read this column and hire Chris to write for his next television show. Mr. Sorkin, your people can contact Chris’s people at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Being a Person or a Commodity

The bottom line seems to have fully migrated to the top of the page. How are we going to get our money? How much money are we making? How can we get even more money? This mindset seems to have overtaken, grabbed by the throat and stomped to the consistency of a fine paste the old adage – money isn’t everything.

I have frequently spent my column inches bemoaning the fact that too much of our modern world only gives value to the utilitarian and cares not one whit for the aesthetic. Just ask most anybody in charge of government budgets. (Better yet ask our esteemed lawmakers the definition of “aesthetics” or even “whit” and see what you get.) We can dissolve the Kansas Arts Commission. We can stop giving money to NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But if we ask the Koch brothers to pony up a bit more tax money to help float one of the few countries in the world which would even allow people to get that stinking rich we are being un-American.

The thing that I have noticed recently which bothers me about this belief system is not just the overt desire for money (heck I want money too) but that skills which directly lead to earning money are the only skills worthwhile. My real job is in the world of education. Over the last several years there has been a shift to what is called outcomes based education. This means we decide what students should be able to do and engineer our schools backwards, from the “outcomes” to the “how-to-get-theres”. We can’t be surprised that almost all the outcomes are skills tested with multiple choice questions. Just to show that multiple choice tests do not necessarily show great intelligence try this one. The winner of this year’s Grammy for Best New Artist was: A. Justin Bieber B. Esperanza Spalding C. the Square Root of 12 D. Milli Vanilli. I recently read a quote from some renowned smart guy (I forgot his name because I didn’t know there was going to be a quiz) stating all we learn from a person’s results on the SAT is how well he can do the SAT.

My daughter is a senior in high school and has been looking closely at the University of Kansas, my alma mater (that’s Latin, a dead language which will not lead to a high paying job). I was not a stellar student. I went to class (most the time). I did all the work (usually late at night just hours before the deadline). I took some hard courses (not just Popular Culture of the 1930s – Busby Berkely made some far out movies). The thing about my curriculum was I took classes just to learn stuff which no longer seems to be the goal of higher education. I took Western Civilization I and II (those are Roman numerals, something else which does not lead to a high paying job) which had me reading the thoughts and philosophies of great minds from long ago. I took a course all about the Civil War which helped me understand many aspects of human nature, both the darker and brighter aspects of men’s souls. I took logic to become better equipped to make decisions about everything from which peanut butter to buy to who to vote for for President. None of these things led to marketable skills sets which jump off the page of a resume but I firmly believe they made me a better human being. My goal was not “employee of the month”. My goal was “caring thinking growing person”. My goal may not have been achieved but I did a fine job avoiding the marketable skills trap. My degree from KU was in Theater and Media Arts. This meant I was eminently qualified to work at Blockbuster and now they are simply Blockbusted.

So, my kid is looking at the list of classes put before her in order to get a degree in music therapy, a degree, I might add, I think is a pretty good fit for her skills and ALL the classes have to do with music and therapy. There is no Western Civilization, no forays into history and no room for Popular Culture of the 1930s which was quite fun. They are creating a resume and an employee. I really wanted her to go to college and become a multi-faceted person. Oh well, maybe she can support me in my old age because my skills never contributed to a viable retirement fund.

Christopher Pyle can quote Shakespeare but he can’t describe a hedge fund beyond the money one saves to buy shrubbery. He can be contacted at occasionallykeen@yahoo.com.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Look Who's a Year Older

Somebody’s birthday is right around the corner. This somebody is right around the corner, every corner. At least around every corner in Hutchinson. This somebody is in quite a state. This somebody is quite a state. This somebody is adding another candle to the cake. If this someone put that many candles on anything the fire marshal would have an aneurysm. I am sure all of you have figured out (that is all of you who haven’t turned to see what Beetle Bailey is up to today) I am talking about our own home sweet home, the great state of Kansas.

I have lived in Kansas the grand majority of my life, some of it even on purpose. Kansas does not have the best image throughout the rest of the country. When I lived in Los Angeles and told someone I was from Kansas first they would make some inane joke about either Marshal Dillon or Dorothy but when they turned away from movies and television the only thing they believed about Kansas was that it was flat.

(DIGRESSION) I went to Los Angeles to take Hollywood by storm and couldn’t work up a drizzle (one of my favorite jokes from an old episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle). I found when I worked on any kind of production (I was a production assistant on a few commercials and a television show nobody has ever heard of, even when it was on the air) everyone I talked to was not from Los Angeles. However, when I worked at the bookstore in Santa Monica all of my co-workers were from Los Angeles. I guess one thing we can learn from that is nobody moves to sunny southern California to work at Waldenbooks. Fancy that.

(RETURN TO THE COLUMN) Let’s examine the prevailing image that Kansas is entirely pool table flat. Not the case my fine deluded coastal friend. Just ask anyone who has tried to drive in Dodge City after an ice storm. I will go well out of my way to avoid certain hills and inclines making my path to the store look like a drunk mosquito trying to find his way home. And then there is Lawrence, Kansas.

The University of Kansas rests at the top of Mt. Oread. Granted, calling it a “Mt.” is a little like calling Zac Efron the greatest actor of his generation, but it is on a fairly steep grade. My four-cylinder Chevette required a running start and was frequently passed by tortoises as I drove to campus. You’d be surprised how many wild tortoises there are running around KU. But my favorite Lawrence is steep story revolves around my best friend, Rob. He and I were walking (I forget where, I bet it was to the library to study, yeah, it had to be the library) on a particularly icy evening. We were crossing a street which had a rather sharp downward grade. Rob slipped and fell and then proceeded to slide about a block and half down the hill. He was not hurt but as he slide his hat fell off, he lost a glove, his scarf was left behind and even his glasses hit the ground. Since I am a tender and kind-hearted person I stood at the top of the hill pointing and laughing. That is until my feet went out from under me. The cool part was as I was involuntarily sledding downwards I was able to grab the various articles of clothing and accoutrements Rob had deposited on his travels seconds before. We picked ourselves up, had a laugh and then to thank me for retrieving his stuff he bought the first round at the library.

OK, so Kansas is having a birthday. Not just any birthday this is the big one five-O. Even though she doesn’t look a day over 135 on January 29th she will turn 150 years old. Yes, boys and girls, Kansas is celebrating its sesquicentennial. Is that a great word or what? “Sesqui” is Latin for one and half so a sesquicentennial is one and a half of a centennial. I think we should add “sesqui” to other words just to make life more fun. Let’s say someone sees Bigfoot walking through the woods but this Bigfoot is half again as big as your run of the mill Bigfoot he would be a sesquisasquatch. Or if there is a man with three legs walking down the street he would be a sesquipedestrian. Or if there was a gigantic test to be taken in your math class it would be a sesquiassessment. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Friday, January 07, 2011

You Know What I Mean

The key to communication is commonality. Doesn’t that sound like an intelligent distillation of the most important requirement for successfully conveying information from one person to another? I did not make that up I read it somewhere and wrote it down in the notebook I always carry in order to record tidbits which interest me about a myriad of subjects (and yes, I am as surprised as you are that I ever got a girl to kiss me). But it makes sense. In order to send a message from your head to someone else’s head the heads involved have to have something in common. Sometimes that just means a passing knowledge of a particular language (or articularpay anguagelay, for aficionados of ancient tongues) and sometimes it can be a shared deep, abiding love for sitcoms starring Alan Young meaning a single elongated utterance of the name “Wilbur” communicates a multitude of soft, warm feelings. (Give yourself 80 bonus points if that made sense.)

If we are talking about people who have things in common we need look no further than those who share a house and a large amount of DNA, a family. Every household has words and phrases which have meanings known only to them. The Pyle family is no exception. Some of the words aren’t really words. For reasons passing understanding our first child (or as my wife and I often refer to her, the experimental child because we really had no idea what we were doing) created some words of her own. They were words in the sense that they were recognizable phonemes strung together and they obviously represented a very specific concept in her developing brain.

One of the oddest things about these unique “words” is there were perfectly good words already in place for the concepts she was trying to get across – words that we are sure she heard spoken by her loving, if rather clueless, parents. The first one was “dachese”. Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Stephen Pinker would have been able to figure out what she meant by this word without spending time with her, specifically spending time with her at the dinner table while she ate French fries. She would pick up a French fry and with her free hand point dramatically to the tray of her high chair and announce dachese. We would look at each other as if she had just proclaimed she was from the planet Yaboo. After holding up various household objects and asking more questions than John Dean answered in 1973 we finally figured out she wanted ketchup. Occasionally someone at the dinner table (more than fifteen years later) will ask for the dachese.

Sometimes people share the meaning of their words even if the receiver hears something different than what is said. I try very hard to be a polite person and I am very deferential in dealings with most folks. This reputation seemed to overpower the nonsensical words a person thought she heard. A teacher in a school where I was an assistant principal was leading a discussion. The class was trying to think of polite ways to express their confusion other than just uttering “huh?” Suggestions included “excuse me” and “can you repeat that?” When one girl offered this response: “You can say what Mr. Pyle always says --- a big apartment.” After the less than polite, but appropriate, “HUH?” went through the teacher’s mind she realized what the girl meant. I would often lean down to students when they had said something to me that my much older ears had not picked up and say “I beg your pardon.” The girl obviously understood the message of a courteous request for forgiveness and the need for a repetition of the missed dialogue even if what she heard me say simply described a particularly sizable dwelling for humans.

One of the inside terms developed in my family as I was growing up was used to describe the somewhat nebulous concept of time to a very young concrete thinker. When we would take long car trips and I would politely ask (remember in the previous paragraph I said I am always polite…I am sure I did not ask in an annoyingly whiny voice) how much longer my parents struck upon something I could wrap my brain around. They did not say it would take two hours. Hours meant nothing to me. They said it would be four Batmans. I was devoted to the Adam West “Batman” television show which was a half an hour long. Four Batmans made perfect sense as units of measurement.