Sunday, May 27, 2012

Matriculate, Graduate, Sorry I'm Late

I apologize for my tardiness. Most everyone in our neck of the woods has already done the graduation thing. But if you will allow, I would like to give a commencement speech. I am aware nobody invited me to do so (a person of my stature not being invited to give the commencement speech at an institution of higher learning – go figure) but I submit the following anyway.

 Greetings and salutations to all, to the staff of the school, to parents, families and guests and most of all to the graduating class of (insert your school name here). We are gathered here to say inspiring things to a large gathering of people wearing silly robes and hats of irretrievable goofiness. As I look out before me at this sea of young faces eager to meet new challenges, keen on exploring an infinite number of opportunities and enthusiastic about getting out of here so they can eat cake and open presents there is only one thought in my head…will the movie “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” be as good as the book.

This ceremony is called a “commencement” because it is the beginning. It is the beginning of the rest of your life. It is the beginning of the real world looking to crush your spirit and make you long for the carefree days of high school when your worst problems were math homework, carrying a backpack the weight of an NFL offensive lineman and being mocked by classmates for doing anything remotely individualistic. Ahhh, memories…

It is at times like these people tell you your possibilities are endless. That is true, but you must remember one of those possibilities is being the carry out boy at Dillon’s for the rest of your natural life. Another possibility is you will invent the newest technological gadget everyone in the free world simply must have making you rich beyond your wildest imagination. It is most likely you will land somewhere in the middle of that continuum of chance.

Common advice for young people is to follow their dreams. This is good advice unless your persistent recurring dream involves flying like Superman through the sky while wearing a Viking outfit reciting the lyrics of the complete Barry Manilow catalogue (maybe that’s just me).

Actually, I do believe in following your dreams or more accurately I believe in a phrase made famous by Joseph Campbell – follow your bliss. Here is my interpretation. If a person is to be fully actualized, reach their top potential, that person should be doing for a living something they genuinely enjoy. If you genuinely enjoy it you will probably be very good at it plus getting out of bed each day is easier because you look forward to the day’s endeavors.

Getting to that “follow your bliss” point in life is not easy. When I graduated from Hutchinson High School I was not an excited, driven individual. My brother actually filled out my application to go to college. I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life. The plan was I would be a filmmaker. Now, if I was a driven person I would have screwed my courage to the sticking point and made the sacrifice to go to USC or NYU film school to get genuine training in the writing, directing and actual creating of movies. Instead I went to KU where their film department was almost exclusively watching movies, not making any. Heck, I could have done that with the Betamax in my room. (Yes, that is how old I am. I had a Betamax.) It was this lack of courage which meant I made choice after choice which boiled down to the easier path, the path that “made sense”, not the path that used my best abilities and most fed my psyche. Now that I am older I can make better decisions.

I have a great life in so many ways I do not regret anything I did which got me where I am (wonderful wife, great kids and a job which pays all the bills). There are still times I look back and think of some shoulda, coulda moments. So my advice to graduates is: please have the courage to do things which are difficult and maybe even downright scary in order to follow your bliss. That way you can truly enjoy your life as you hurtle through the sky wearing reindeer pelts reciting those immortal words “her name was Lola, she was a show girl…”

Christopher Pyle hopes every graduate will be a success and if you are truly happy being a carry out boy at Dillon’s more power to you. You may contact him at

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Your Brain Can Get in the Way

So, how is your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or the DLPFC, as it is known to its friends, doing these days? What? You do not know what the DLPFC is? To be honest I didn’t either until about four days ago. I am reading the book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. It runs through different models of how and why individuals and groups come up with new stuff, sometimes discussing the different areas of the brain integral to the process. That is where the DLPFC first came to my attention. Mr. Lehrer describes it as “a neural restraint system, a set of handcuffs the mind uses on itself.” If your DLPFC is fully functioning you will be less likely to swipe that candy bar from the convenience store or admit to your boss you haven’t actually accomplished anything of value since the Reagan administration or answer truthfully when your wife asks if her new dress makes her look fat. I bet if you wanted to you could spend a pretty entertaining day hanging out at Wal-Mart playing “Spot the person with a fully developed DLPFC” – hint there may be fewer than you expect. This part of the brain is one of the last sections to fully develop. This helps explain why kindergarten students are perfectly willing to invoke the death penalty if someone cuts in front of them in line. Even if it was a line leading to a lunch comprised entirely of cauliflower, lima beans and sawdust a kindergarten kid would scream bloody murder if another one budged in front of him. If the DLPFC is a mechanism of restraint why is it being discussed in a book about creativity? Isn’t creativity about pushing past restrictions to find the new and unusual? You are correct ma petite neurotransmitter. Mr. Lehrer cites a study where a scientist type person hooks a musician type person up to one of those brain camera thingees (he used different words but I’m not a scientist type person) and observes what happens when the musician is asked to do different tasks with his talent. If the music person is asked to play a memorized piece of music one set of brain structures becomes active, including the DLPFC, but if he is asked to improvise the DLPFC is actually deactivated. If you are going to be truly creative you have to take off the handcuffs. This is shown to be true of people improvising in different modes. Second City is an organization which, among other things, trains people to improvise. It is in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles and has produced dozens of world famous comedians from Alan Arkin to John Belushi to Tina Fey. One of the chief skills taught by the folks at Second City is the ability to not care what others think, not only to turn off the restraint mechanism of the brain but to beat it into a fine paste and serve it on a Triscuit to your mother-in-law. Okay, that analogy was a tad gross, but I am trying to push to new levels of creativity. Most often the natural state of adults is worrying, worrying about saying the wrong thing, worrying about being embarrassed, worrying about offending someone, worrying about that time in seventh grade when you had your first slow dance with a girl and the only words she said to you were “Boy, this is a long song.” Maybe that last one is just me (the song was How Deep is Your Love by the Bee Gees and it was a whole four minutes and five seconds – not that I ever really think about it). Once a Second City student has passed the worrying and embarrassed stage and become practiced at shutting down his DLPFC the next thing is to become automatic with the “yes, and” way of thinking. Improvisational comedy is most often a group exercise. In order to truly build a scene that works and makes people laugh things have to build on each other and DLPFC interference can kill the whole thing. So the students are taught the “yes, and” method. Everything that is proposed is instantly agreed to, the “yes” part, followed by something new the “and” part. Often in real life it would be great if people would agree and build upon rather than negate and tear down. I propose every politician go to improv classes. It might not actually fix the nation but it would be a stitch to see Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell pretend they were two girl scouts lost in a forest. Christopher Pyle would like to point out the difference between improv and improve is simply one letter. You can contact him at

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

I Love Jokes

The old fashioned premise, set-up, punch line format is one of the most tried and true formulas for making people laugh, been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. (Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus walk into a bar. The bartender asks if they want to see a menu. Cassius says he already had dinner. Brutus says he already had dinner. Caesar answers but it is hard to hear him because he mumbles a lot. Brutus asks him if he wants to order any food. Caesar answers but again he is hard to hear because he mumbles. Brutus is frustrated and yells at Caesar, “Do you want to order some food?!” Caesar is angered by Brutus’s bad manners and yells back, “I ate too, Brute!” That joke killed at open mic night at the Flavian Amphitheatre.) I venture to bet the format will be around for centuries to come. (A starship captain, a synthetic human and the thawed out, re-vitalized head of Walt Disney walk into a bar. The hostess asks if they want a booth or a table. They say they would prefer a booth. The hostess says, “Walk this way.” The thawed out, re-vitalized head of Walt Disney says, “If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need the XP 38 anti-grav pulsar locomotivator.”). Like many people in my age group I was first introduced to funny by Bugs Bunny. Saturday mornings were for giggling on the floor and spitting Pop Tart crumbs at the television screen. Later comedy became more of a late night thing. Johnny Carson was my hero. He was born in Nebraska. I was born in Nebraska. He started his Tonight Show career in 1962. I started breathing in 1962. He grew up to be an icon of American humor. I grew up to become a grade school principal. (We now drop in the sound effect of a phonograph needle being scratched all the way across a record album as an auditory signal saying: Well, that didn’t quite work out for you, did it?) My best friend growing up (the inimitable Rob) and I spent hours trying to make each other laugh. We got cassette tapes of old radio shows like the Shadow from the public library and then would make parody versions on our own cassette tapes. I don’t think the public library was missing much by not making our tapes available to their clientele. We took Lamont Cranston from the story “The Werewolf of Hamilton Mansion” and created Lamont Pantsdown in the story “The Werewolf of Smith’s Outhouse.” We made a two minute animated version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” with troll dolls calling it “Trollius Caesar”. We listened to Monty Python albums, watched Mel Brooks movies and genuinely enjoyed laughing with and at each other. To this day the funniest thing I have ever seen was when Rob walked directly into one of the pillars in building A at the high school – Buster Keaton couldn’t have done it better. Rob didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. I didn’t really fully discover The Dick Van Dyke Show until I was in college. I made sure when I enrolled in my second semester at KU I would have a break long enough to run from campus to my apartment, which was roughly the size of a Honda Civic, and watch Rob Petrie and his pals on channel 41 every weekday. It turns out I am just one of many who watched Carl Reiner’s show about a young comedy writer living in New Rochelle who thought that would be a great way to make a living. I have corresponded with an honest to goodness television comedy writer and he also confessed he first thought of becoming a comedy writer watching that show. When I found that out I asked him if his wife looked as good as Laura did in Capri pants. He said yes. I don’t get to write comedy for a living but I do get to take my hacks in this column. I did write a short comedic movie, a comedy play (with the inimitable Rob) and I have joined the ranks of Twitter. Really good twitter joke writing is hard. It is like writing a sonnet (sorry Mr. Knauer, but this is the best analogy I could think of). You have to get everything accomplished in a very restricted format. Here is one of my favorite’s: There’s a new line of toys for the very literate child. Oddly enough the batteries needed for the Hester Prynne doll are double A. Christopher Pyle can be “followed” in the Twitterverse @ChrisPyleisOK. You can also contact him at