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

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.)