Playing it by Ear

I have spent the past year or so planning for what is happening right now. The funny thing is, I was planning so I could do something spontaneous.

In 2010, I traveled to Los Angeles for a work event. On one night, the co-worker I traveled with had other plans, so I set out on my own. I had examined the many entertainment options and settled on one not too far from my hotel – the Upright Citizens Brigade.

UCB is one of the most influential improv comedy groups. Early members of the group included Amy Poehler. They started in Chicago, moved to New York and now have theatres on both coasts. I bought a ticket for one show at the LA theatre, which is across the street from a really creepy Scientology mansion.

So if you’re thinking “top-notch improv comedy theatre in LA,” you might get a vision of this fantastic space with comfortable seats and organic, vegan, gluten-free water bottles for sale. Not a chance. The UCB theatre is sparse and the chairs uncomfortable, but the show put one thought into my head.

“I need to do this.”

I had only just become comfortable with going on stage in a scripted performance and now I had designs on making things up on the fly? Sounded crazy, but the way the group – which included a woman who wrote for “Parks & Recreation” and will likely help write the upcoming all-female “Ghostbusters” move – made things happen on stage captivated me.

At that time, I had absolutely no clue of how to discover improv close to home. This was a problem. I don’t know how much I explored the possibility back then, but the idea remained in my head until a year or so ago.

That’s when I discovered a group in Baltimore that not only put on improv performances, but had an educational component on the side. I could take improv classes right after work. Just like Michael Scott from “The Office.” This was perfect.

Life, however, got in the way. I had trouble finding room for classes over seven straight weeks. They only offered them two nights, making scheduling a little tight. Then I ended up performing in a couple of Hanover Little Theatre shows, which took precedence.

At one point, I wondered if my subconscious wanted to keep me from taking the class. After all, some of the conflicts could be re-arranged, but that would just be hard. They will offer the class again, I told myself. There’s always next time.

Well, next time started last week. In December, I looked at my calendar and made the decision before anything else could fill the time. I paid the fee and crossed my fingers.

At the end of the first class, the only negative thought I had was that I would have to wait another whole week for the next session. I felt completely in my element. I had a chance to meet a bunch of new people who will help me figure this out over the next month and a half.

Who knows what will happen? I don’t have a plan after that, and that’s just the way it should be.

Survivor

Something amazing happened to me a couple of weeks ago. Something that some people thought could never happen. I enjoyed closing 2014 with a bang.

I walked through the streets of Hanover alone in the evening and no one hurt me.

Now before I go on having fun, let me be clear – I am not making fun of anyone who has actually been victimized by a crime locally or anywhere else. I feel terrible for folks who have to go through things like that.

I am, however, making fun of people who take small pieces of information and conflate them into a larger narrative that just is not true.

This happens all too often with the state of Hanover. Sometimes it’s in reaction to something horrible, like the assault and robbery of an older couple on Moul Avenue last week. An event like that certainly should remind us that bad things can and do happen sometimes, even in our backyard.

But that does not mean that everyone’s personal safety is constantly at risk, like you see some people intimate if you get involved in discussions on local issues on social media.

The recent talk of revitalization efforts on Hanover spurred some of these false fears. Some people reacted to the stories in the paper about what was, what is and what will be happening downtown with comments about how they felt unsafe downtown.

I just laughed. Just look at the news, especially the police log which is printed on a regular basis. People aren’t getting jumped at random intervals in alleys, much less on main roads like Routes 94, 194 and 116. The notion that people enjoying downtown businesses put themselves at risk is just silly.

That’s why I tested the theory one night between Christmas and New Year’s. I wanted to put myself in harm’s way just to show people that it’s possible to survive. I also may have been better off not driving and was just a mile or so from my house. But we’ll go with courageous crusader instead of “guy who knows when he isn’t OK to drive.”

I ventured out on Carlisle Street and then headed to (street redacted so as not to compromise future walks in public at night) and crossed to (I will not give away my location to the hoodlums who may be lurking) before heading straight for my house.

I arrived safe and sound. I also got a nice little workout, which is an added bonus of this mode of transportation. Far from dodging gangs of opportunistic bandits, I think I saw three people. On a Saturday night around 11 p.m.

Hopefully I see more bodies on the street in 2015 when I put my life in my hands again. The opening of two craft breweries will hopefully give others the courage to head into downtown after the sun has gone down.

Those people can rest assured that I stand before them as a survivor. I managed to take a leisurely walk through town without any major incidents. Stranger things have happened.

Burning or Binging?

The final season of “Parks & Recreation” premieres tomorrow night. The NBC comedy – one of the best shows in the history of TV in my opinion – will conclude just seven weeks later. The network has decided to run the 13-episode season with back-to-back episodes on six straight weeks followed by a one-hour finale on Feb. 24.

I have seen a number of people criticize this strategy. The gist of the complaints is that NBC is “burning” off the final season to be rid of a show that they don’t particularly want, but feel like they have to keep because it does have a cult following and most of the network’s other shows have just tanked miserably.

I can see that mindset. The show has had to hang on for dear life since it’s premiere. Now that the network is letting it go out on its own terms, it can look like they want to get it off the airwaves as soon as they can.

However, let’s consider something different that might show NBC in a better light. I don’t know why I would consider that possibility given that they gave us “Whitney” and burned off the funny “Bent” over three weeks with any publicity whatsoever.

But when you consider that people take binge watching very seriously, maybe that is part of the mindset behind the “Parks & Rec” schedule this season. The show has had trouble finding a large following, so maybe the network thinks if they compress the season, people will feel more engaged. After all, a lot can distract people in 13 weeks. Cut that time frame in half, and more viewers may stay focused on the last look at like in Pawnee, Indiana.

This concept may give too much credit to the people who run television, but the possibility makes me think. Maybe they are doing me a favor by giving me an hour of Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson each week.

Adjusting New Year’s

As we approach the beginning of a new year, I have started to notice the grouchy old man inside of me getting ready for an appearance. I have no problem with people celebrating on New Year’s Eve except for one thing.

Why does the New Year have to start so late?

More often than not, I stay up to midnight to watch the ball drop and all that jazz. My wife – the smarter one in this couple by a country mile – has usually already headed to bed. Or she’s asleep in her recliner as I watch the TV quietly a few feet away on the couch.

Either way, she doesn’t give in to the peer pressure that society puts on people to actually stay awake until we can turn the page from December to January.

Sometimes I understand her position and hit the hay early, but more often than not I stay up simply because that’s what I think I should do. I have no reason why since it’s not like anyone will really hold it against me.

We have never really found an event to attend that fits into our schedule. We used to visit friends in Maryland, but had to stay the night so we could properly have fun, and that just made entry into January more difficult than we wanted.

Ideally, we would attend a fun and safe celebration that lets us sleep in our own bed, but we just end up staying home to celebrate together. That makes an early bedtime an ever-present temptation.

After all, the clock strikes midnight more than once. Celebrating 2015 at 7 p.m when much of Europe sets off their fireworks is a little early. We could align with some islands west of the European coast and celebrate at 8 p.m., but I think I’ll still be awake.

The Sandwich Islands – British territories off of Argentina – will welcome 2015 when our clocks strike nine, but they don’t seem significant enough. I think I might make it until 10 p.m. and bring in the New Year with the good folks of Greenland.

I wouldn’t miss anything interesting if I did that and went to bed at a normal hour. I have spent enough years flipping channels from 10 p.m. to midnight to know that the folks who program television networks either want us drunk or asleep that night so they can show the worst shows known to man.

The only time I can really remember finding something entertaining to watch on New Year’s Eve was when a channel showed a bunch of episodes of “Friends” that focused on the holiday. But I distinctly remember all these shows starting after midnight, which meant I stupidly stayed up even later than normal to watch a bunch of episodes I had seen a bunch of times before.

Maybe I just need to embrace that. After all, I stay up too late watching TV on random occasions throughout the year. That’s kind of who I am. And maybe that’s a tradition in Greenland too.

Embrace the Giving

Something is happening this Christmas season that makes me sad. I don’t know how wide this phenomenon has spread, but I’m worried.

More and more I hear about people opting to not give Christmas presents.

Like any good and right American, I love the speech Linus gives in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I also worry about the overcreep of commercialism. But does that mean we need to quit such a great tradition whole hog?

Some of you may read this and think of me as a greedy little mongrel, begging for another gift card or some trinket I will forget about before 2015 starts. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

I don’t like people talking about not giving Christmas presents because then I can’t experience the joy of getting something for someone else.

As I have grown up, I have learned how to get more pleasure from giving than from receiving. I know I have enough and can go through the holiday season without getting any gifts, but I can’t imagine spending all the weeks leading up to Christmas without hunting to find that right gift.

Now sometimes people have legitimate concerns about gift-giving and would prefer a donation to a charity or a gift for someone less fortunate.

I can totally get behind that. I mean, it might not give me the same thrill as looking through stores and wrapping the gift so I can see the look on the face of someone I care about when they see what I got, but a gift is a gift.

My problem comes when I hear people say that we shouldn’t exchange gifts because the whole process if too hard or too stressful. To be honest, that kind of perspective just bums me out.

I know that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas can fill up quickly. Like a lot of other people, I have to go to holiday concerts and Christmas parties along with my regular day-to-day responsibilities.

The idea of heading into a crowded store doesn’t always get me excited. And I loathe the idea of rushing to get all my shopping done before we all sit down for turkey and stuffing.

But the notion that I have to put my generosity on hold because it might be inconvenient feels a whole lot worse. Maybe I want to go through a lot of trouble to get the special people in my life a gift. Maybe the hassle makes it even more gratifying.

I think we should just stop talking about presents. No more price limits, no more lists, no more ground rules. If you want to get something for someone, go ahead and do it. If someone gets you a present, thank them sincerely. If you buy a gift for someone, and they don’t reciprocate, let it go. If someone gives you something, and you have no gift in return, consider doing something nice for them.

But most of all, stop worrying about who gives what and what you get. Just do nice things for the people you care about. Because, in the end, isn’t that what Linus was getting at?

Take a Chance, Get Involved

The question came out of the blue. My wife and I had volunteered to help with Hanover High School’s production of “Miracle on 34th Street” five years ago because our daughter was one of the elementary school students taking part in some scenes.

So we joined in as bodies for the background in lieu of leaving Bridget alone in the high school auditorium during rehearsal. As we sat there one night before rehearsal, George Matthew – “Mr. George” of library fame – approached me with the offer I never anticipated.

He had a couple of openings due to people pulling out of the play, and he wanted me to fill one of them.

I deflected at first for a variety of reasons. First of all, this was a high school play and, even though the cast featured a handful of adults to make it a district-wide effort, I just felt out of place. Secondly, I had a trip coming up for work so would miss about a week of rehearsal time.

Lastly, and most importantly, I had no idea what to do on stage.

Growing up, I participated in the programs we had to take part in at my parochial school. The only one I really remember was a holiday program that included – I swear to God – eighth-grade students acting out popular commercials in between the other grades singing Christmas carols.

I was cast in a mouthwash commercial. I remember all of this for two reasons, three if you count the fact that I always remember really weird events in life.

I remember that there was much discussion over whether the boys and girls in the commercial would actually kiss like they actors did in the real commercial. We didn’t. I also remember that someone dropped a bottle of Listerine in the hallway as we prepared to go down to the gym. That stank to high heaven.

These memories rushed back to me as Mr. George cajoled me onto stage that night during rehearsal, promising me I was just standing in for the night and could decide for real after my work trip. In actuality, there was no decision. I couldn’t let Mr. George down.

We just passed the five year anniversary of that show, which packed the HHS auditorium for three performances. I ended up having one of the best times I could remember and ended up taking the chance at some Hanover Little Theatre auditions a few months later.

That led to five years of annoying people about coming to see me in my shows at HLT. That led to some wonderful new friendships. That led to realizing that so many opportunities exist out there if you just take a chance.

We have a community filled with civic groups and service organizations and performance groups just dying to get some new blood. Don’t worry if you have an upcoming trip for work or if you have never done it before.

If I can get up there and pretend to be a dog owner like I did this month in our production of “Sylvia” at HLT (and shame on you who didn’t come – we had a blast), then anything is possible.

Little Blue Light

We all seem to live and die by our electronic devices these days. We need to make sure we charge our cell phones, our tablets and any other device that allows us to never talk to anyone because we really need to see that funny photo of a cat.

When you have multiple people with multiple devices, you need to find ways to guarantee that no one ever runs out of juice. That led me to recently purchase a plug for the power strip by our bed so I could charge my tablet right there instead of hunting down an open USB port.

This is where I started to discover a terrible problem plaguing our society.

When I bought the plug, I didn’t really take a close look at the packaging. It fit two USB cords and didn’t cost a lot. That’s all I needed. I don’t know if it included a warning that might have convinced me to look at another brand.

We didn’t realize any of this until after I had plugged it in and settled in for the night. When I woke up, I noticed a strange glow in our room. My wife also noticed when she woke up. I think the guys at the International Space Station noticed.

The plug had a blue light that lit up whenever it was plugged in. A really bright, annoying blue light.

I have no idea why the manufacturer did this. Maybe they thought people could not find the outlet with the plug and needed some help. Or maybe they want to blind all of their customers.

My wife solved the problem with a small piece of electrical tape. Some might say we have nothing to worry about, right?

Wrong. The blue light has invaded our lives now. I have a few chargers that plug into car cigarette lighters. They came free from a conference I attended. They also have the blue light of death. I fear I could get pulled over for using my bright lights incorrectly because of this life.

The problem goes far beyond chargers too. I bought the charger for the bedroom because I have a small humidifier that works on USB power. The thing sits on top of a water bottle – it’s pretty convenient for my nightstand.

In fact, I bought it at the same time I bought this plug. I did not notice that the contraption emits a “soft, relaxing blue mood light.”

I’m not sure what dictionary they are using if they think this light is soft and relaxing. When I plugged it in with the lights out, I worried that an airplane would change its course and try to land in my bedroom.

We have one soft and relaxing blue light already in the world. We call it television, and it solves all our problems and teaches us the lessons we need to learn. Why do some companies try to compete with this? Why can’t they just give me products that will make my life easier without turning my bedroom into a rave?

The American Soccer Conversation Problem

NOTE: The headline and first few paragraphs are different than when I first posted this. I swore Alexi Lalas said something that Taylor Twellman said. But my main points stand – Klinsmann is not talking about anything new when there are plenty of new things to discuss.

Those of us who have followed soccer in the U.S. for many years have gotten used to former men’s national team player, former general manager, and current broadcaster Alexi Lalas taking up whatever opinion suited him at the moment. It’s what makes him a divisive figure, among other things. But at halftime of last night’s MLS game on ESPN2, he outdid himself I thought he outdid himself.

While he argued both sides of the Juergen Klinsmann-Don Garber kerfuffle, he Taylor Twellman pointed out that Klinsmann was hardly the first men’s national team manager to bring up issues such as where America’s top players should ply their trade to best maximize their talent. Less than a minute later, as Lalas and Taylor Twellman took the obvious line of “it’s good to have these conversations,” Lalas credited Klinsmann for asking questions that we haven’t heard before.

I initially thought Lalas had made the first point, but have re-watched the video and see he didn’t contradict himself. Even though I was initially wrong on that, an important question remains – is Klinsmann really asking questions we haven’t heard before? He also said some of these questions are ones we don’t want to hear the answers to. I disagree with that. We’ve heard all the answers and then some.

In recent weeks, Klinsmann has been lauded by some for addressing promotion/relegation, speaking “truth” to how Landon Donovan didn’t reach his true potential by staying in MLS and criticizing Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley for making a similar decision after their years in Europe.

These aren’t new conversations. They aren’t even interesting conversations. These topics have been well worn for years. They were staples of the heyday of Big Soccer. Hell, I had to endure the “players in Europe are by default better than MLS” back in 1997 in a bar in Hanover, Pa., when some clown told me how the future of the national team rested on the shoulders of Jovan Kirovski alone simply because he played on ManU’s reserves.

Klinsmann has done nothing new. Every topic he has addressed has an easily accessible history for anyone with access to Google. Maybe they are important topics to him, but they are hardly new, and the opinions expressed by both sides are far from ground-breaking.

And this is why Lalas needs a new schtick. American soccer fans have discussed these things to death. That’s not to say there’s nothing to discuss and American soccer is sitting pretty with no obstacles on their way to world domination. Let’s just use some critical thinking skills to focus on some other things.

Like why does Klinsmann only criticize the career path of 2-3 players? If he’s such a big picture guy, why does he zoom in on Donovan (personal connection), Dempsey (spurned his advice) and Bradley (father was former coach)? Why not lambast Graham Zusi and Matt Besler for a long-term pledge to MLS? Why not wax poetic on the decisions of Mixx Diskerud of Aron Johansson? Why not tell us all the bad moves Timmy Chandler has made? Twellman did bring that up some, but we need more of this.

And why focus just on what the players do? Why not take on the culture in Europe which still makes it harder for US players to truly succeed? Why not issue a challenge to managers who ditch Americans so often at the first bump in the road? Why not take on agents who sometimes have no Plan B when their player’s first stop doesn’t work out?

Instead of people worrying about promotion and relegation – a pipe dream – why not take a look at youth programs that invest in the development academy program, but offer nothing substantive beyond the U-18 level? Why not encourage those teams to get involved in USL PRO or the NPSL? Why only focus on how MLS teams develop players?

Why simply pillory MLS for playing through FIFA international dates when that practice is actually growing in other countries? Brazil played through this break. Costa Rica had a full schedule the day after a friendly. The Copa Sudamericana played its Round of 16 during the break!  Maybe the discussion should be on scheduling in general instead of “Garber sucks.”

We shouldn’t ignore the fact that a career in Europe can do good things for some players, but we also shouldn’t focus on picking the nits out of this one subject that is far more complex than the current discussion allows. And the people who pretend they are thought leaders shouldn’t pretend this is a new conversation. Maybe we need to send some of them to Europe to learn how to truly discuss the sport.

Settle Down

Things have already started. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As we all try to wring the last bit of summer out of the season (even though summer technically goes on for two more weeks, but I’m willing to work with the colloquial definition here), the scourge has crept its way into conversation.

People are complaining about winter. Already.

Not one team had clinched a spot in baseball’s playoffs, and I saw moaning about a possibly harsh winter in my Facebook feed. Never mind that the meteorologists predicting this are probably the same ones who routinely miss snowstorms. That’s an inconvenient fact when snow alarmism is involved.

I have already had one friend tell me that I should just avoid them this winter if I don’t like to hear people complain about the weather. But why would I do that? If I don’t have some friends who complain about the weather, I wouldn’t get the chance to complain about people who complain about the weather.

This is not an indication that I love bad weather. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. The days I can just relax and enjoy the beauty of the snow make for some of the best winter days. The days when I get stuck in the snow on my way home do not.

But I try not to waste my breath talking about how bad things are when it snows for one very simple reason. I can’t change the weather.

My pragmatic side dominates things when this topic comes up. Enough things in this world can raise my blood pressure. I try to keep things that I can’t control off of that list.

Besides, I have the good fortune of working at a place that will close when the weather gets bad, meaning I will never curse bad weather when it gets me a day of sleeping in and watching television. I know not everyone has that luxury and sympathize with those who get angry when they can’t take a day off when school is cancelled for their kids.

But the recent phenomenon didn’t even rise to the level of complaining because a snow storm disrupted your plans for the day. Like I said, the first pumpkin beers were barely on the shelf when this angst started to bubble up.

Complaining about weather that is actually happening is one thing, but complaining about a report that weather in the future might be bad – especially when predicting these kinds of things is horribly unreliable – makes absolutely no sense to me.

We have a chance to buy our Halloween candy seven weeks ahead of time, and some people want to worry because there are reports that think winter might be a bad one? It isn’t even Snuggie weather yet. Can’t we wait to freak out until we see a snowflake or maybe even some falling leaves?

Get outside and pour yourself a summer drink. We have a couple weeks left before fall officially starts. Watch some football. Carve a pumpkin. You have plenty of time before it’s appropriate to complain about snow.

Then I’ll tell you to knock it off and make some hot chocolate. Mother Nature doesn’t care what we think.

Up All Night

Sometimes, life gets in the way of some pretty important experiences. Take the recent television marathon of every episode of “The Simpsons” ever produced.

I admit that I don’t have the same affinity for the legendary cartoon that some people do, but this event really caught my attention. Just because I can’t remember which season was the best of pull out obscure quotes doesn’t mean I’m not thrilled by the idea of showing a couple decades worth of a TV show in order.

The problem is that I have a job and a family and a life. All three of these things are completely incompatible with seeing how far I could push my body before I collapsed out of exhaustion.

For the record, I probably wouldn’t have made it more than 20-some hours. I don’t have the stamina that I did when I was a kid, but it would have been fun trying.

OK, that’s not completely true. I probably wouldn’t have lasted much more than 20-some hours as a kid either. As much as I wanted to stay up for ungodly amounts of time watching TV, I could never do it.

The task had greater obstacles back in the day. I remember looking through the TV Guide – yes, kids, we actually had to look through a printed publication to see what shows would be on TV when I was young – to plot out marathon viewing sessions.

These sessions only existed in my mind. First of all, I would always find gaps in the schedule where nothing good was playing, even in the early days of cable TV. Second, the presence of my parents and siblings never guaranteed me unfettered access to the TV. Lastly, I’m a wimp and would conk out in the middle of the night regardless of how much soda I drank.

I can only think of a few times when I overcame this inability to satisfy my urge to stay up for long hours simply so I could tell people I stayed up for long hours. None of them involved television.

I managed long spells awake two of the times I flew overseas. The first time, when I was on a high school trip to England, I stupidly took some generic caffeine pills because I heard that’s how kids in college pulled all nighters. I didn’t feel so good afterwards.

One time in college, I stayed up all night to write an important paper, turned the paper in, went to my classes and worked the entire next night at the campus newspaper. I may have napped a little, but I was probably up for close to 48 hours.

When I finally got to my fraternity house, I went to our TV room to wind down before sleeping. I threw a quarter in the soda machine – which also had beer interspersed in it because we ran the thing ourselves as a cruel game of Russian roulette – and promptly got a Milwaukee’s Best.

I sighed, dropped another quarter in the machine, hit the same button and received another beer. My friends celebrated because that was the lone double whammy they had put in the machine.

Chagrined, I sat down, drank both beers and slept for an eternity. I guess I will never find out if 48 hours of Bart Simpson could replicate that slumber.

Burning or Binging?

The final season of “Parks & Recreation” premieres tomorrow night. The NBC comedy – one of the best shows in the history of TV in my opinion – will conclude just seven weeks later. The network has decided to run the 13-episode season with back-to-back episodes on six straight weeks followed by a one-hour finale on Feb. […]

Happy Birthday, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’

On this day in 1986, something very special happened. I had no idea at the time. R.E.M. released Life’s Rich Pageant on this day 28 years ago, the band’s fourth album. I had yet to discover the Athens (Ga.) quartet at the time even though I saw them open for The Police a few years earlier. […]

Playing it by Ear

I have spent the past year or so planning for what is happening right now. The funny thing is, I was planning so I could do something spontaneous. In 2010, I traveled to Los Angeles for a work event. On one night, the co-worker I traveled with had other plans, so I set out on […]

Up All Night

Sometimes, life gets in the way of some pretty important experiences. Take the recent television marathon of every episode of “The Simpsons” ever produced. I admit that I don’t have the same affinity for the legendary cartoon that some people do, but this event really caught my attention. Just because I can’t remember which season […]