Fur Sure

As midlife changes go, this isn’t a bad one.

There’s no hot sports car sitting off the curb of Casa Rochat, attached to a huge bank loan and a running tab at the garage.

There’s no blonde or redhead on the side, no sudden resignation of my job to hike the Andes, no purple mohawk with an accompanying earring.

Instead, there’s just a bit more facial fungus  than there used to be.

Yep. The head shot on Rochat, Can You See is now inaccurate. Scott’s sporting a beard.

It’s not the first time I’ve flirted with the idea. The trouble is, there’s at least three stages to wearing a beard and Heather only likes two of them – smooth and smelling of shaving cream, or soft and fully-grown. The rough, scratchy, in-between stage that resembles my lawn during a Colorado summer isn’t comfortable for either of us, and that’s usually when I call retreat.

I made an exception once, back in Kansas, and let it keep growing. And by “keep growing,” I mean “Did nothing whatsoever to trim, thin or otherwise tame it.” All I was missing was a cardboard sign and a spot in the supermarket parking lot.

When people look at your face and ask if things are going all right at home, that’s not a good sign.

I knew it could be done better. I’d seen so on Sean Connery, on Dan Simmons, on my own Dad before he opted to return to a clear-cut. It just seemed like more of a hassle than I wanted.

But when I auditioned for and got a part in “Camelot,” the director had one question. “Do you think you can grow a beard by opening night?”

And thus the wildland restoration effort began anew.

As it happens, there’s a few advantages to going furry. You save a lot of money on razor blades. (You know, the ones they seem to alloy with platinum these days?) You pass the initial hurdle for any opening of “Fiddler on the Roof.” You get instant portable climate control, providing insulation in the winter and a handy sun screen in the summer.

Most of all, you create an instant conversation piece, once you’re far enough along for people to see that you didn’t just oversleep the alarm.

“Hey, what’s this?”

“You’re going to keep it, right?”

“I don’t usually like beards.” (Pause) “But this one suits you.”

Between this and some springtime weight loss, it’s even made me take a fresh look at myself. Usually, studying the mirror means a grudging acknowledgement of the Growing Thin Spot atop my head (which is a little like saying Jupiter has a reddish area somewhere in its middle). Now, it’s like meeting a new neighbor.

Besides, it’s quite the novelty to see hair advance instead of retreat.

Maybe this is the real reason – or at least a real reason – for the stereotypical midlife crisis. After so long of creating an identity, even the smallest change looks huge. It’s intriguing. Even exciting. And it makes you wonder what else can lie beneath the surface.

And really, that doesn’t have to be a crisis at all. Not when it can be an opportunity.

Learn an instrument? Why not?

Take the trip you’ve always put off? Go for it.

Start that book that’s been “someday” for 15 years? Sure.

I’ve known people who did all the above, or variations of it. Sometimes the experiment didn’t work so well. Sometimes it blossomed into something beautiful. In all cases, the self-portrait expanded, not so much changing who they were, but discovering more of it.

Funny thing about discovery. It’s addictive. There’s always more to find.

Just one thing. Be careful about discovering the Maserati.

Some situations, after all, are hairier than even Gillette can handle.

Teacher, Teacher

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2013, congratulations.

You’ve done a lot to get this far. You’ve sweated over finals. You’ve dodged cars in the school parking lot and marveled at “snow days” that lacked even the smallest touch of white. You’ve even survived the ultimate indignity – the disclosure of your middle name in a graduation program to all and sundry. (“Hey! Guess who’s named Chauncey!”)

Before long, you’ll be on your way, far away from infinite loops of “Pomp and Circumstance” and commencement speakers who think quoting from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” is an original idea. Some are bound for college. Some for the military. Some might not be thinking about anything beyond the great backyard party at Steve’s in a few hours. (Psst – bring the sunscreen, OK?)

It’s going to be interesting to see where you guys end up. I know it was for us. My own class has seen actors and cops, photographers and engineers, even some poor soul who thinks newspapers are still a good job opportunity. I don’t expect to see anything less here.

But I’ll dare to make one prediction now. Each and every one of you will be teachers.

What’s more, you always have been.

For me, it started early. I was about five when I helped teach one little sister how to read; by the time I was in college, I was editing papers for my other sister at weird o’clock in the morning, hours before they were due. In between were a lot of study sessions and book-cracking with friends and family alike. (To this day, I suspect one of my high-school friends will never forget how to pronounce Von Steuben.)

But it’s funny. As I look back, tutoring has been the smallest part of the teaching and learning I’ve done in a lifetime.

The fact is, we’re teaching at every moment.

Regular readers of this column remember my wife’s disabled aunt Missy, whom we care for. From her, over the past two years, I’ve learned patience, wonder, an appreciation for simple things and a slower pace. (I’ve also learned how to overcome bedtime resistance and early-morning waking-up grouchiness, but that’s another story.)

I’ve learned reliability and a certain odd sense of humor from my parents. I’ve learned tricks and habits, good and bad, from colleagues in the newsroom or on the stage. I’ve learned in hundreds of interviews and stories, often with amazement, what people are really capable of. Sometimes it’s led me to a little soul-searching of my own – if a grade-school student can rally a small army of folks behind Hurricane Katrina relief or a teenager from small-town Kansas can learn math well enough to be accepted by Yale, what might I be capable of that I’ve sold myself short on?

And what am I teaching now? Are they lessons I want others to learn?

Every action teaches something, sets an example for what we think is good, bad or irrelevant. That has consequences. Some of them you see in the headlines. Maybe a president, or a CEO, or an attorney general had nothing to do with a controversial decision that was made. But what tone did they set, what unspoken lesson did they teach by their own behavior and attitudes that told a subordinate “This is OK. Don’t worry about what you’re doing”?

Stephen Sondheim, as usual, had a word for it. (Actually, he usually had several words for it, interlaced with an intricate rhythm to a deceptively simple tune, but we won’t go there.) In his musical Into the Woods, he concluded the fairy-tale action with one simple reminder:

“Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the things you do, children will see – and learn.”

Careful. Not fearful. Not with anxiety or fret. But not without thought, either. Children are watching, and more than children.

School’s out. But class is in.

Teach well.

Spaced Out

I don’t dare show Missy the latest Internet sensation. Not yet, anyway.

Not if I want to preserve the speakers on my computer.

By now, I think most of you know Missy, the developmentally disabled young lady who’s become both our ward and our dear friend. When it comes to music, she’s never seen a volume knob she didn’t like, blasting out rock anthems and Christmas carols alike as though they were the closing act of Spinal Tap. Cool video? Even better – and possibly even louder.

So once Missy makes the acquaintance of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his unique, zero-gravity take on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” … well, all bets are off.

If you’ve not run across Hadfield yet, you have my dearest wish that your Internet connection gets repaired soon. Recently returned from five months in orbit, the International Space Station commander capped off his tour – a tour already marked by frequent, and often witty, comments to the folks back home –  by recording an outer-space music video, with the aid of a three-person production team and a handy Larrivee guitar.

“This is a marvelous, marvelous experience,” Hadfield said when he first assumed command. “The only thing that gets me mad is I have to sleep.”

How do you beat something like that?

Now, I’m a long-time space lover. So are many of my friends. There’s a lot of solid, sober reasons ranging from economics to psychology to the value of the numerous spin-off devices. But in making the case, it’s easy to overlook one of the most basic reasons of all.

It’s fun.

Almost sounds childish to say it, doesn’t it? In a way, it is. After all, that’s what gets a lot of kids hooked on space to begin with – not the dollars and cents, or the need for a new frontier, but the fact that space is so cool. A world where you float into your clothes, where Earth turns into a marble, where your music video comes with its own special effects; really, what’s not to like?

That kind of joy is important.

It’s OK to do fun things. In an often grim and cynical world, it may even be important to do them, for our own survival. We’re a playful species by nature, and something about that play – the art we create, the songs we write, the things we build purely for the pleasure of building – gives us the spark to not just keep going, but to make the going worthwhile.

In a recent column, I mentioned the importance of doing what you love. This is part of that. If you have to put it into pragmatic terms, the fun now can open the door to the passion later. A teacher once commented that “I open their mouths with laughter, and while they remain open, I feed them a point.”

That’s not to say that the road to any skill or career is going to be bedecked with Muppets, rainbows and space guitars. Anything worth doing requires work, sometimes very tedious work. But it starts with the joy. And if it doesn’t turn into a career – well, you’ve still found something that makes your mouth smile and your heart glad.

What’s wrong with that?

“Decide in your heart what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction,” Hadfield once said to a student online. “Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow and the day after that.”

And if that direction happens to include a space guitar – well, I suppose you just have to live with that.

I just hope my speakers can.

In the Mirror

I know I’m at the end of a very long line, but I still have to say it. Thank you, Charles Ramsey.

In case you missed it – and if you did, where were you? – Ramsey is the Cleveland man who helped rescue three women that had been held prisoner by his neighbor for a decade. As he was eating lunch next door, he heard one of the women screaming for help, ran to see what was happening and, with another neighbor’s help,  broke in a door to find and free the ladies.

That alone was sure to put him in every headline in America. But it was his humility afterward that lit up the Internet from Honolulu to Bangor, Maine. No, not a hero, he said. No, he didn’t need a reward; give it to the victims.

“I got a job anyway,” Ramsey told Anderson Cooper. “Just went and picked it up, paycheck.”

That sealed it.

It’s strange, the way we can hold someone we’ve never met to our hearts. Sometimes it’s for incredible nerve under fire, like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger safely landing a crippled airliner on the Hudson River. Sometimes it’s for endurance in an impossible situation, like the miners in Chile three years ago. Once in a while, the sentiment gets betrayed and turns to outrage – remember “Balloon Boy?”

But the warmest reception of all may go to the ones like Ramsey. Ordinary people who, for a moment, did the right thing.

The ones who could have been us.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: we have a strange turn of mind when it comes to the very good and the very bad. The actions of a Mother Teresa or an Adolf Hitler exist on a scale that boggles our minds: “I could never be that,” many of us say, with either awe or relief.

It’s not true, of course. They, too, were human, however much we might want to deny it in the case of a certain Austrian. Their actions could be another’s actions, given will and opportunity; as John Lennon put it, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.”

But with someone like Mr. Ramsey, it’s just a little easier to believe.

Maybe we can’t see ourselves ministering to the poor of Calcutta. But we can see ourselves startled out of an ordinary day, called over to help a neighbor. It’s the sort of thing many of us have done many a time under far less dramatic circumstances.

And if those circumstances suddenly became extraordinary – well, most of us know we’ll never be Rambo or James Bond. But a neighbor in need doesn’t need James Bond. They need you.

Simple actions, kindly taken. They make all the difference in the world.

It can be argued endlessly whether you can call that kind of thing “heroism.” Frankly, the debate doesn’t really matter. The right thing is the right thing, regardless of the label; a helping hand is what it is.

It doesn’t take a hero. Just a heart.

And when we see something like the Ramsey rescue, it lifts us all up for a little bit. Yes. I could do that. That could be me.

It’s not a bad reminder to have.

Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight – welcome home. You’ve been through hell; may your trials from this point on be lighter.

Charles Ramsey – thank you. For being a neighbor. For being a friend. For reminding the rest of us that the right thing is always in reach.

That’s a reward worth remembering.

A Life in Harmony

I’ve waited seven months for this. But now, I can finally get back to unreality.

Granted, some of my friends might argue that I never left.  After all, I live in Colorado. This is the land where May Day welcomes you with seven inches of snow in her arms, where residents petition Washington to build a Death Star, where someone can actually say absurdities like “the first-place Colorado Rockies.”

But until you can sum that all up in a two-page monologue and a baritone solo, I’m afraid it simply can’t compete.

Yes, I’m back to acting after a long break. Too long, really. Ever since childhood, it’s been the perfect refuge: a chance to throw off shyness and uncertainty and dive into another life, to say and do and be things I had never dreamed.

And this one’s special.

This time, I’m back in a musical at last.

I know, I know. Believe me, I’ve heard the jokes. And no, I’ve never walked down Main Street and suddenly seen the passing crowds break into a perfectly tuned chorus number, complete with precision choreography. Well, except maybe on ArtWalk night.

But musicals are a second home to me. I came into community theater through “Oliver!” and never really left. I’ve lived in the vanishing towns of “Brigadoon,” stepped to the plate for “Damn Yankees,” even signed up to sail with “The Pirates of Penzance.” Now, thanks to a re-located Colorado Actors Theatre, I even get to don sword and armor and join the court of “Camelot.”

But it’s more than just familiarity and nostalgia. In a real way, I think musicals speak to a part of the soul that no other story can.

We’re feeling beings, as well as thinking ones. We’ve all had moments in life that were too powerful for words – tragedy, ecstasy, total hilarity or utter peace.

It’s those moments that music was made for.

Through it, we remember the feeling of  trying to hang on to who you are in a world changing too fast. (“Fiddler on the Roof.”)

Or recall the moments when the convictions of your childhood run into the certainties of your heart. (“South Pacific.”)

Or maybe, just maybe, we take hope again that we can make the world a better place – or at least, inspire those who come after us. (“Camelot.”)

These are not small things. Or trivial ones.

And to see them all around you, to give them concrete form – that’s a special power indeed.

That’s the world I love.

I hope I see you there. We’ll be re-establishing Arthur’s realm throughout May (the details are online at coloradoactors.org) and I’ve never turned down an audience yet. If you’re too far away – well, feel free to turn on the stereo and dream with me.

And if you’re not quite sure about entering this strange land, consider this. We feature a King Arthur who promises that in his realm, “The winter is forbidden ‘til December/And exits March the 2nd, on the dot.”

If that’s not appealing these days, then what is?