Why Live Theatre is like Plinko


 

Working on a live show isn’t like working on a novel or a school project, outside of the fact that you break your back and your brain working to make it happen. The novel? The project? When they’re done, they’re done. You ship it out the door or turn it in, and it is what it is — nothing has the potential to change it, really.

A live show? Sure, we’re done working on it, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished. It’s never finished. It’s a living, breathing organism, powered by living, breathing humans susceptible to the nerves and emotions and follies and foibles that all humans — to say nothing of high school teenagers — are vulnerable to.

Every show will be different: new highs, new lows, new notes in the solos, new dead spots marking the missed cues, new pauses for laughter you weren’t expecting, new silence when you were expecting laughter.

When I was a kid, and I’d visit my grandmother’s house, we’d always watch the Price is Right together. Old school: the Bob Barker days. It was her daily ritual and my novelty: I think she loved vicariously watching a schmo from Lubbocksville, Nowhere go up on stage, win a game of skill and/or chance, and win a car or a vacation or a toaster. I just loved watching the colorful games, especially the one where the mountain climber hiked up the side of the mountain (and if the contestants overbid, he’d fall right off the side… man, it still brings a smile to my face!).

I still watch every now and then, though these days my greatest pleasure is watching the cynical, smarmy a-holes who, when they think everybody else has overbid, will smugly bid $1. (Even better, when that card gets played too early, the doubly cynical, triply smarmy SOB that bids $2.)

But my favorite game back then, without a doubt and bar none, was Plinko.

Image result for plinko board

I don’t know why. Of all the games on the show there was no game like it. All the other games either required some consumer savvy (which item costs more?), some physical ability (they had a minigolf game that I adored, because once upon a time I thought golf was cool, a misconception I am happy my life and my distaste for the pastimes of the especially affluent has cured me of), or some combination of the two, but not Plinko.

Here’s a game that gives you a handful of chips and says “good luck,” like a roulette wheel with a bad attitude. The goal is to get your chip to land in the $10,000 spot down there, or maybe the $1000 slot — and notice that the only way to win nothing is to almost win the big prize. So: the contestant climbs up the stairs to stand behind the board, agonizes deeply about where to place their chip, as if strategy would help them in the least, and then — lets it go.

Plink, plink, plink. The chip bounces down the board like that guy in Titanic who falls off the capsizing ship and clangs off a rail before spinning, spine shattered, into the deep. Sometimes it swerves this way and that, dancing a mad jig across the board before settling at the bottom; sometimes it beelines, as if guided by a nervy surgeon’s hands, to its destination. Sometimes the chip seems to hit every single peg on the board as it clatters home, sometimes it seems to get home without a single disruption.

Then the game is over, and the player goes home with either her winnings or her idiotic regret that she should’ve placed that last chip one slot to the left.

But it’s not the board’s fault, and it’s not the player’s fault, if the chip doesn’t land where you expect — it’s simply chance. (And air currents, and the microscopic imperfections in the surfaces of the chip and the peg, and the rotational forces you imparted when you dropped it, and the residual oil on your fingers, and the quantum particles that jumped in or out of existence on the plains of Africa while your chip was dancing madly toward the bottom.) The moment the chip leaves your hand, in other words, all you can do is watch and hope.

And a live show is like that. You do all the preparing you can, you hem and you haw over the minutiae — should that actor stand here or there as he delivers that line, should that set piece maybe be angled a bit more steeply, should I abandon the whole thing and go raise goats in New Zealand? — and then you make like Elsa and let it go.

And it’ll plink plink plink its way to the bottom, with wholly unexpected twists and turns some nights, and seemingly divine guidance on others, until it inevitably reaches the end of the line.

All you can do is hope to avoid the goose egg.

In other (possibly related) news, it’s show week — AKA hell week — for our musical. See you on the other side.


Nothing Left to Give


Been a quiet week around here (well, not exactly quiet by any stretch, but AI here has been quiet, no doubt), so I wanted to give out an update.

We’ve been doing work around the house for the past month or so — and when I say work, I don’t mean tidying up and deep-cleaning, I mean work — fixing things that should’ve been fixed long ago, tearing into walls to get at pipes, painting, liquid nails-ing anything that’s even the slightest bit loose, and generally turning this place from a depressing pile into a place that looks like it might be a nice place to live.

Because we’re trying to move.

So it’s been daily trips to the Home Depot, a daily devotional of instructional home-improvement youtube videos, the near-constant losing and re-finding of tools (especially screwdrivers: seems like I can only keep track of one for about fifteen minutes before the dark elves spirit it away to some obscure region of the house), and occasional bouts of stress-crying, stress-screaming, and stress-hammering-things-that-don’t-really-need-hammering. From sunup to sundown, we’ve been busting our butts giving this place a makeover, and we have very little left to give.

I could give a list of things that we’ve gotten done, but it would probably depress me, so I will refrain.

Needless to say, all that work hasn’t left time for any writing this week — either on the novel or around here — which bums me out a bit, but at the same time, there were really no two ways about it. With rehearsals on the musical ramping up — the show opens in two weeks — there’s no time for this stuff during the week. So we had to use this week — spring break week! — to get it all done.

So we’re exhausted from working ourselves down to the nub, and frustrated from giving all our time to this old house rather than doing the things we’d actually enjoy doing. On the other hand, there’s a certain satisfaction to knowing that the day was fully utilized, with not a minute wasted on frivolous things. (Well, maybe a minute here and there — we’re not machines, after all. Saw the new Beauty and the Beast while the grandparents were kind enough to babysit the kids for a couple of nights. The Terrible Review in one word? Meh.)

At any rate, Accidentally Inspired didn’t just vanish from the internet; I didn’t suddenly give up, board up the windows, and label this place condemned. There was just– no exaggeration here, and I say it fully cognizant of my usual statements against the very sentiment — literally no time for it.

And for that matter, time will remain short at least until the musical goes up, although going back to work is ironically going to free up more time for me to sneak my daily writing in. Sad thing is, I have tons of stuff I want to write about; the days just aren’t giving me the time. Instead, I’m hurriedly banging this post out on a Sunday morning — a day late, but what can I say — while my wife sleeps in a little bit and we wait for it to warm up outside so we can start on some yard work.

Yard work. Two of the dirtiest words in my lexicon.

Sigh.

Normality will be restored once we are sure what is normal to begin with.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.


Any Words Are Good Words


Writing is a little bit like owning a dog.

You have to deal with it every day: give it some attention, let it out to poop in the yard, feed it, love it, clean up its poop from the yard — elsewise it gets antsy and angry and starts chewing on the furniture, peeing in your shoes, snapping at the kids. Except in this metaphor, the furniture is your sanity, the shoes are your productivity, and the kids are your own kids.

Writing is a monster, in other words, in a cute, lovable outer shell — one that needs taming every day. Not a lot of taming, of course — a well-exercised writing habit remembers who its master is and will generally come when called — but a neglected writing habit will turn on you faster than you can say “bad dog.”

Problem is, unlike a dog, who, when it needs water or food or to go take a dump, will paw at the walls, nose at your feet, and generally bug the hell out of you, the writing habit will quietly turn sour when you neglect it. It won’t snap at you right away — it takes a passive-aggressive approach. The words don’t come as easily. Or even when they do, they turn to hot sewage on the page. Or the urge to write just doesn’t show up.

Which is where I found myself this week. Lots going on at work and at home. Little time and energy left over for writing. Neglected the habit a little bit and found myself struggling to even want to do it.

But in that situation, any words are good words. Because if a writing habit is like owning a dog, the writing itself has the attention span of a dog. Ideas and words aren’t flowing on your main project? Just take the words for a walk — write about anything: Donald Trump, ridiculous naming conventions, whatever — and the dog will quickly get distracted just being out in the world. They’re flowing anyway, and all of a sudden, the ideas and the words are bending themselves toward what you wanted to write in the first place, just because you let them out of the house.

Writer’s Block is only as real as you allow it to be. It doesn’t block you from writing, it just blocks you from writing what you want to write. It’s your dog saying, I’m not gonna eat that new kibble. So what do you do? You give it something else it wants to eat, and mix some of the kibble in. Write about anything — any words are good words — and soon enough the kibble, which looked so unappetizing a moment ago, is disappearing from the bowl.

The same principle works on almost anything. Breaking the momentum is the hardest part. Don’t feel like going for a run? Put your shoes on anyway and jog to the end of the block — odds are you’ll feel like continuing. Any miles are good miles. Don’t feel like cleaning? Wash a single dish or pick up a single toy off the floor, and you’ll feel silly when you think about stopping before it’s all done. Any thing cleaned is a good thing.

Any words are good words.

Have you walked your dog today?

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.


Throw the Bloody Ball


The Donald will not be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for the Nationals’ baseball season this year.

Big deal. There are more important things to worry about, like his systematic destruction of the EPA, the selling of your internet privacy, the fact that his campaign almost certainly colluded with Russia and Republicans in Washington seem perfectly happy to look the other way.

But for an image-conscious president (and the DT is nothing if not image-conscious), this bloody well is a big deal.

Throwing out the first pitch is just another in a long line of Things Presidents Do that Donny has given the middle finger to. His staff says he’s busy, which is weak tea. When you ask somebody out and they say,  “sorry, I’m washing my hair that night,” you know there will be no hair-washing that night. Of course he’s busy. The president — and put aside the tepid list of his accomplishments thus far — is always busy. But you make time for things that matter, things that remind the country you’re a person, things which are symbolic. Which is why presidents have been doing This Thing for a century.

Baseball? The national pastime? As American as baseball? Nah. He’s busy.

I’ll put aside petty personal jabs about whether or not he could even get the ball across the plate (though for the record, my assessment there is: doubtful — tiny hands and all). The real reason?

He’d get booed.

Mercilessly. For an extended period. By a stadium full of people. On national TV.

Not by everybody, to be sure. There would be Trump fans in attendance. But a baseball game isn’t a Trump rally; he wouldn’t be insulated from the people who can’t stand him if he stepped out into the unfiltered masses of a ball game. He’d be stepping out of the warm, pillowy bubble of support that he lives in and going out into the harsh reality of the world.

He knows what his approval ratings are, even if he calls them fake news.

For Trump, it’d be stepping out into the desert.

He knows that if he steps onto that field and takes that mound, he’d be met with a chorus of boos unlike anything he’s ever heard in his life. And he can’t have it. His massive ego would blow out like the Snoopy balloon at the Macy’s parade. The narrative that “real Americans” support DT would unravel like a Christmas sweater the moment he met some real real Americans at a baseball game. Because unlike a Trump rally, a baseball game actually represents a pretty decent cross-section of a community.

And getting booed on a massive scale like that would shatter him, and shatter the cocoon he’s spun around himself.

Supporters can make all the excuses they want — this doesn’t matter, he has bigger fish to fry, etc — and they’re right, in writing. In the scheme of things, what this thing literally is doesn’t matter. But we also have to face reality.

Things always mean things, and it’s a “ceremonial” first pitch for a reason. This could be a humanizing moment for him. Symbols have that kind of power. Just being there would do wonders for his image, and who cares how the actual pitch goes? Obama’s was terrible, and he got booed, but he took it like a man. It’s not about the pitch, it’s about the moment, the optics. DT could do the same thing. Show some humility, some appreciation, some willingness to actually connect with people. Do a Thing Presidents Do instead of just letting Bannon take a dump in a blender and then turning the blender on in the middle of our democracy.

But no thanks. He’s busy.

And, come on. Odds are he couldn’t do worse than some of the worst first pitches in history.

Image result for baseball pitch fail gif


Parents Who Hate Their Kids, Ch. 1


My son has a classmate named Taylor.

But not “Taylor.” It’s pronounced “Taylor,” but it’s spelled “Taeler.” Nothing against the name — I have a new niece named Taylor (and I hope I spelled it right, as I haven’t seen it in print yet, and HOO BOY am I about to make things awkward at Thanksgiving if I guessed wrong) — but this strikes me as a problem. Not because I don’t know whether Taylor is a boy or a girl; there are plenty of those names these days and that’s cool and trendy and whatever. But because poor Taeler’s parents have doomed her (or him) to a lifetime of interactions that begin with “actually, it’s spelled T-A-E-…”

Isn’t life hard enough?

Then there are C’Niyah and Zaniya. Pronounced the same, just starting with an “s” sound or a “z” sound. So is the apostrophe required? Or the “A”? How about the “H” on the end? Or are all of these things just flopping around like vestigial tails? And when it’s time to learn about capitalization, I pity poor C’Niyah — she (or he?) has to do it twice in her own name! How confusing is that?

In my own classes — this year alone! — I’ve got Michaela, Mikayla, Mikayela, McKayla, and Macayla. And maybe Mikaela. All pronounced the same. I’m pretty sure one of them has an “H” on the end as well, but does it even matter at this point? C’s, K’s, Y’s, E’s, H’s … they’re all flying around like cows in a tornado (RIP Bill Paxton), and there’s no telling where they’ll end up, or why. These poor girls (because there are plenty of other Michaelas, Mikaylas, etc enrolled) must ever clarify their identity by adding their last name, and have given up hope of ever having a teacher spell their name correctly — I personally couldn’t properly tell you which spelling goes with which girl with the first degree of confidence. These, too, might as well have the middle name “actually, it’s spelled …”

To say nothing of Caila, Kayla, and Kaela, whom I taught last year. Guess which one was pronounced “Ky-la”. You can’t, because there are no rules when it comes to names.

Here’s a fun one. How do you spell the name that’s pronounced “Jay-len”?

Trick question. I’ve seen it dozens of ways. Jalen, Jaelan, Jaylen, Jaelen, Ja-len, Ja’lin, Jalynn … I could go on. The possibilities are almost endless, because you can apparently capitalize whatever letters you like and throw around punctuation like you’re mixing salad with the SlapChop.

Image result for slap chop

Point is, none of these spellings for any of these names is “correct”, because there is no “correct” spelling when it comes to names. Which means — wait for it — ALL these spellings are INCORRECT! That’s just logic.

As a teacher, I dread meeting these kids for the first time, because inevitably, my first question will not be something insightful like “how was your summer” or something easygoing like that. No, the first thing I’ll have to say to them is “…spell that, please.”

And I know, I know. We want our kids to be unique, and we want them to stand out from the crowd because they are our delicate little snowflakes. But having been a teacher now for seven years (if that doesn’t make me the grizzled elder waving a yardstick around and get-off-my-lawn-ing), I can tell you that these names don’t uniquely identify a student to us, and certainly not in a positive way. Rather, these students are more likely than others to be frustrated with school, and people in general, because nobody can pronounce or spell their name! (Take it from a guy with a last name that’s vaguely eastern-European. I’ve heard so many different pronunciations I could start my own alphabet.)

If you want your kid to stand out, the way to do it is to bring them up to be a decent human being. One that seeks out learning and opportunities for their own sake. One that treats people with respect as a baseline. One who greets the world with positivity and optimism and effort.

You don’t do that by telling a child that they’re special all the time (and make no mistake, spelling your kid’s name “Taeler” when it’s pronounced “Taylor” only sets her — or him! — up to think that she’s special, that she’s different). That only confuses them when the world doesn’t back up that belief, and then they get mad at the world.

No, you make your child stand out by teaching them humility. Yes, to me you are special, but to the world, you are just another person like everybody else, and you have to earn what you want. In our new, technologic, me-centric world, it’s the person who actually lives in the real world, who pays attention to the people around them, who acts with compassion and good will instead of out of attention-seeking, who really stands out.

This post brought to you by M’ahtT, because apparently I can spell it any way I like.


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