Clocking In

Twice in a year.

Once with winter staring us in the face and once on the edge of spring.

An event that shakes things up and marks a changing time.

Yes, of course I’m talking about the Denver Nuggets going 2-0 against the league-leading Boston Celtics. What did you think I meant?

OK, to be fair, I have written about the clock changes associated with going to and from Daylight Saving Time until I’m blue in the fingertips. I’ve argued for “locking the clock” on health grounds, safety grounds, common sense grounds, and probably even the number of coffee grounds that could be saved each year by just letting people keep their sleep patterns intact. We’ve seen the movement have its moment … and then come and go with our bi-annual temporal insanity left intact.

At this point, I’m throwing up my hands. Basketball makes more sense than the twice-a-year time change ever will.

Even when it’s something as wild and wacky as this.

We used to be pretty sure what would happen when the Nuggets and Celtics shared a court. Sure enough to bet money, anyway. Go back through the previous 10 years and Boston has a 14-8 record. And three of those Denver wins were grabbed in a row about five years ago, so there’s been a lot of barren country before and after that.

Until now.

Two and oh.

Not without effort. Not without a bit of luck here and there. (Is any win in sports ever claimed without at least a little luck?) But enough to create a consistent Wearin’ Out O’ The Green … and maybe some much-needed reassurance as the playoffs loom ever closer.

Last season, in retrospect, was practically a coronation. We dominated the West from December on and still managed to surprise everyone in the playoffs, especially the army of sportscasters who were convinced that any brilliance from the Rocky Mountain way had to be a fluke. The only moment we didn’t get was a championship series against Boston when the Miami Heat – who really did pull off something of a fluke – snuck into the Eastern Conference championship instead.

This year has been harder. We know it. The West has been a tussle with the Timberwolves and the Thunder for the top seed with a bevy of others close at our heels waiting for the first mistake. There have been injuries and should-haves and moments of doubt.

But the same tools that took us to the title are still there. Tight teamwork. A strong bench. A jaw-dropping star in the Joker, whose many talents include making everyone around him better, and a teammate in Jamal Murray whose rapport with him is darned-near telepathic.

And just like last year, they’re a heck of an example for those of us in the larger world. The one where we don’t get millions for our aim with a basketball.

We succeed when *we* succeed – working together, interlocking our strengths, compensating for our weaknesses. That’s true whether we’re talking about a team … or a company … or a community … or a nation.

It’s never all about the leader. It can’t be. Sure, having a Jokić  or a Jordan on the team makes a huge difference – but if the rest of the team isn’t there, it’s just a lost opportunity.

Hard work. A common aim. Being ready to take advantage of the breaks that come your way. And most of all, a mutual earned trust.

It’s not easy. But it’s how you build something that lasts.

Best wishes to the Nuggets. And to all of us.

May we all do the most with our moment in time – wherever we finally set it.

All Together Now

The dreams of October have come true. 

Back then, I found myself startled by an unexpected prophecy. If you’re a regular reader, you may remember it, too: 

“No illusion. The sports analysis still said the same thing: the Nuggets were the favorite to win the West. With about one chance in eight of winning it all – better than anyone but the Boston Celtics.

“This had to be a joke. Or at least a Jokić.” 

Well, we’ve hit the punchline. And it’s a lot better than we dared dream. In a few weeks of near unstoppable play, the Denver Nuggets have tamed the Timberwolves, dimmed the Suns and dried up the Lakers. And based on what we all saw in Game 1, they should be ready to make like an air conditioner and beat the Heat. 

I know, I know. Prediction’s a dangerous game in the sports world – ask any number of NFL teams who held a fourth-quarter lead on John Elway. It’s not over ‘til the last buzzer sounds, you’ve gotta play all the games, etc., etc., etc. 

Fine. True. But it’s not just THAT the Nuggets have been winning that impresses me. It’s HOW. 

In theatre terms, this team is a true ensemble production. 

Most plays, movies and TV shows have a simple structure: they focus on the leads. Sure, supporting roles can be memorable and beloved, but most of the action is dominated by a small number of key characters.

Ensemble shows are different. Even if there’s someone whose name is officially on top of the marquee, it’s often in name only. Everyone’s got a heavy lift and the show rises or falls on the strength of all the performers and the connections between them. Think of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” or Marvel’s “The Avengers,” or for the stage buffs, the wild lunacy of “Noises Off.”

That’s Denver. It’s not just Nikola Jokić and his Backup Band. It’s a full cast of characters, all of them dangerous in the moment. Shut down one, and you still have all the others bearing down on you. 

That’s hard to beat on the court.  Or off it, for that matter. 

Sure, we’d all like to be the lone gunslinger. And heaven knows a lot of us have experience with “group projects” that were mostly an excuse for one person to do the work and five people to get an “A.” Sometimes the crowd even feels stifling; I’m an introvert at heart, so I understand just how healing and powerful some time alone can be.

But a real team, one that plays to everybody’s strengths … that’s a force of nature.

Even the best of us aren’t strong enough to do everything alone all the time. We need each other. That came through with razor-sharp clarity in the early days of the pandemic, when isolation exposed just how many connections we relied on in the world – connections that had to be rebuilt in new ways – and how daunting “alone” could be at times.

When other people are just extra bodies on the stage, that’s frustrating to navigate around. But when each of them is a source of strength, it opens up the world. New solutions become possible. The story changes.

So once again, best wishes to Joker, Murray, Porter, KCP, Gordon, Brown and all the rest of the Team-with-a-Capital-T.  Together, you’ve reached the brink of a dream.

And if that isn’t a Nugget of truth, I don’t know what is.

Living Upside-Down

Some things just have to be mentioned in the same breath. Like Beethoven and the Ninth Symphony. Or Sean Connery and James Bond. Or John Elway and “The Drive.”

So now that my friend Brie Timms has taken her final bows, it’s only right that someone brings up “Noises Off.”

If you don’t know the show, “Noises Off” takes every nightmare an actor’s ever had about the stage and blends it into a smoothie. It’s a comedy – no, an outright farce – where backstage jealousies lead to onstage chaos, with stalled entrances, sabotaged props, and an increasingly bedraggled cast. It’s also a notoriously difficult show to do, including a stretch where the story has NO dialogue for several minutes, relying on perfectly-timed action to get the laughs.

Brie came back to that show again. And again. And again.

No surprise. It fit her so well.

Let me back up: I’m not calling her a soap opera on wheels. Quite the opposite. Brie didn’t have time for unnecessary drama. Anything that distracted from the show didn’t belong. It’s the kind of focus that made her such a terrifying Nurse Ratched – a role quite opposite her real-life personality – and that built fantastic loyalty in her casts whenever she directed.

But she understood the paradox behind the best comedies. It’s an upside-down world where the golden rules are as follows:

  1. Silly is funniest when it’s taken seriously.
  2. It takes great acting to portray “bad acting.”
  3. Division onstage requires tight teamwork backstage.
  4. And most of all, if you want chaos, you have to plan for it.

Brie loved that. Especially the last one. And because of it, whenever she took on “Noises Off,” it ran like a Swiss watch. But a lot funnier.

And now that she’s gone, it feels like a gear in the watch is missing.

But even as the show goes on without her, I think there’s still something to be said for living an upside-down life.

Unlike comedies, life doesn’t give most of us the luxury of planning our chaos, which may explain why it’s often more tiring than funny. But it does tend to send us situations that work best when we flip the script. Where paradoxes make sense.

And the biggest one is that in a world ruled by isolation, we need each other more than ever.

Over nearly two years, we’ve all learned the pandemic litany. Cover your face. Wash your hands. Get your shots. And keep your distance. But we don’t always talk about the why. Maybe it just seems too obvious – in virus times, a person’s got to protect themselves, right?

But it’s not about each of us. It’s about each other. It’s about making ourselves living breakpoints so that the virus doesn’t wreak further havoc among all of us, especially among the old, the sick and the vulnerable.

When we think of our neighbors first, we win.

Teamwork matters. In comedy. In disasters. In life. And when it’s a teamwork born of compassion, one where we each give a little of our strength to help another, that makes all of us stronger.

I wish the team still had Brie in it. We need her. We need all our loving storytellers. But if we keep up that best paradox of all – to help yourself, help another – then I think we’ve kept one of the best parts of her, too.

And that’s a showstopper even “Noises Off” can’t beat.

Unexpected Lives

When I found out that my immunization period would end on May 4, I joked that it was perfect for a geek like me.  International Star Wars Day – “May the Fourth Be With You” – what better time to wrap things up?

But lately, it’s not a John Williams theme I’ve been hearing. And that’s appropriate, too.

You see, while the mainstream world knows this time as the day before Cinco de Mayo and the would-be Jedi flood the internet with Star Wars memes, musicians know that there’s another meaning to 5/4. It’s a rhythm, and  a tricky one for many people to feel. Compared to the steady walk of a 4/4 or the lilting waltz of a 3/4, it sounds offbeat, like there’s a slight hitch in it, even though it’s completely regular.

Only a few 5/4 pieces are well known to the general public. But one of them is very well known indeed.

You know it as the “Mission: Impossible” theme.

“Bum, bum, BUM-BUM; bum, bum, BUM-BUM …”

Heather and I have had a lot of Mission: Impossible on lately – not the Tom Cruise movies, but the old 1960s and ‘70s TV show where a team of sharp-witted agents had to think their way through a sensitive assignment. Instead of the abilities of James Bond, an Impossible Missions Team relied on the skills of the con man: planning, misdirection and an ability to steer an over-eager mark into engineering their own doom.

The structure was completely predictable and easy to parody. The team leader would get the latest assignment, “should you choose to accept it,” on a self-destructing recording. He’d assemble his team of experts – usually the same ones every time, unless a guest star was in store – and then put together an elaborate plot of fake identities, careful timing and a little technological magic.

And every single time – EVERY single time – that careful plot would go off the rails halfway through, if not earlier, requiring the team to improvise.

Does that last part sound familiar?

For more than a year, we’ve been living unexpected lives. OK, it’s fair to say that life is never utterly predictable (John Lennon did say “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”), but most of us aren’t used to the disruptions being quite this relentless. We’ve had to rewrite how we work, how we learn, how we live … not just once, but over and over.

It’s dizzying. Even infuriating to some. Certainly tiring. Constant alertness, constant adaptation can exhaust anyone.

But two realities from the old show are also in play for us.

The first is that survival and success require a team. We’re not in a Hollywood world where one superstar can save the day, no matter how powerful or famous that person might be. It needs all of us, looking out for all of us, doing what we need to do together.

The second? Simple. The team’s success was never based on “Did the plan anticipate everything?” It was “Did we accomplish the mission?”

We’ve learned. We’ve adjusted. Sometimes we’ve failed. And we certainly won’t see quite the same “normal” at the other end of the pandemic as we did at the start. But as long as we reach that other end, still together, still finding a way to do what we must … then we’ve succeeded.

It hasn’t been easy. But it can be done. Like a certain theme, we all feel a little offbeat, but we are moving forward.

You might even say we’re heading Fourth.

A New Direction

When the director says you gave a fantastic audition, you usually didn’t get the part. And I didn’t.

But this one had a surprise for me.

“I wonder if you might be interested in being the assistant director.”

My response may have set land speed records at Daytona.

“Absolutely!”

After a long time away, I was back on the bridge.

If your life hasn’t included the wonderful vistas of community theatre, you may not be aware of the invisible world that exists away from center stage. (You may also be a lot less sleep-deprived and have a much more normal sense of humor, but I digress.) Behind the performers who spin the stories and create the characters are an entire army of people, all of them dedicated to keeping that secondary reality alive and vibrant.

Most of those folks have pretty specific jobs – the light designer, the props master/mistress, the crew chief for building the sets, and so on. Some are wider-ranging: the producer who oversees the logistics, the stage manager who keeps the show running smoothly when the curtain rises, and of course, the director who brings it all together with their own unique vision.

Assistant directing is a little different. The job has basically two pieces:

  • Whatever the director wants it to be, and
  • Whatever you make it, within the constraints of part one.

A few directors turn this into a “gofer” but most know better. In essence, the AD is a second brain, a second set of hands and eyes, and a filler-in of missing pieces.

A director who’s more creative than organized may have an AD who helps create plans and schedules.

A director who’s not technically savvy may choose one who can translate their ideas to the technical director (or in smaller companies, may also BE the technical director).

And any director who can’t be everywhere – which is all of them until we manage to invent that pesky time machine – benefits from having someone who can see the action from a different angle, think about the scene from a different perspective, go over the notes and say “Have you considered …?”

Speaking as someone who’s been a director long ago and far away (in that otherworldly dimension of Kansas), those gifts can be invaluable. It’s that “click” that creates peanut butter and jelly, John Williams and Star Wars, three-day weekends and a full tank of gas – good by themselves, but even better together.

And the best part is, you don’t have to be a theater person to get it.

Most of us have the chance to be someone else’s missing piece, if we think to look for it. A lot of us don’t. We focus on our own needs, we look for familiar situations. And when we do team up, we often look for someone just like ourselves – no risk of conflict, but limited chances to grow.

It’s when we step outside what we’ve known that the magic can happen. To not just pursue our own needs and visions, but help others with theirs.

The more we do it, the more opportunities we see. And the easier it gets to accept help when we need it ourselves.

And personally, I can’t wait to see what this opportunity brings.  My notebook is ready. My eyes are open. My mind is eager.

The invisible world awaits.

Let’s go set the stage.

Rules of the Game

Look out, world. Your next dangerous mastermind has arrived.

My 8-year-old niece Ivy has discovered chess.

In case James Bond’s descendants need the data later, some family photos have captured this historic global turning point. In one, Ivy and my dad have squared off across the board in the midst of a carefully thought-out match. In another, my grinning niece is throwing herself into a solo game, complete with self-generated commentary that my mom called “a mix between a roller derby match and the Hunger Games.” (“Let’s get out there and take chances, but play smart!”)

I had to smile. And not just at the thought of the next Bobby Fischer also being the next Howard Cosell.

After all, it hasn’t been that long since I was in the same chair.

Dad taught me to play chess. He taught all of us to play, really, but I was his most frequent opponent, carefully internalizing the values of rooks and queens, the surprises that knights could pull, and why you never, ever touched a piece until you were ready to make a play.

It was absorbing. Mind you, I was grown before I finally won a game against him – Dad believed in treating us with respect by not holding back on the chessboard – but it didn’t matter. It was the game that mattered, the time together, the fun.

And just maybe, the tools I was picking up without realizing it.

From an early age, I had petit mal epilepsy. After a couple of years, it was readily controlled with medication, but there were still some related neurological issues that needed to be addressed, ranging from physical coordination and balance to simple concentration. Among other things, this meant spending some time in the “resource room” at school each week, playing games.

That always sounded cool to my friends – and to me, come to think of it – but it was only later that I thought about what the teacher and I were doing. Sometimes it was card games like Concentration, building up memory. A few times, it was a noisy parachute game called Bombs Away, helping me with my timing and hand-eye coordination. And a lot of times, maybe most times, it was chess.

Chess requires planning. Memory. The ability to weigh choices. And most of all, situational awareness – the ability to be in the moment, thoroughly aware of what’s coming at you and what you have available to meet it.

Invaluable skills. Then and now.

I’ve thought a lot about those unspoken lessons. But it’s only recently that I started thinking about the other lessons that were being taught – by that teacher, by family, by the other professionals that worked with me. Not by a game or exercise, but by example.

Things like patience. Persistence. Taking the time with someone who needs it, no matter how small, no matter how much time they may need. Learning to value each person you encounter, to see not just what they are but what they could be someday … and to help encourage that, if you can.

Invaluable skills. Then and now.

For all of us.

It starts with pieces on a board. Then grows to people in a life. None of it comes easy. (Thanks, Dad.) But if we learn the real rules of the game, all of us can win. Not by storming our way to checkmate, but by being willing to sit down with the other players in the first place.

So good luck, Ivy. Take chances. Play smart.

And have fun storming the castles.

Teaming Up

The threat of rain had passed. The clouds lingered, leaving a perfect day for softball. Missy and her friends were all geared up, and nothing could stop the launch of another great season.

Not even a little thing like having enough players.

Some of you may remember the Monday night softball league from previous columns. The rosters feature disabled players, great enthusiasm, and absolutely no concern for strikes, balls, outs, or even runs. It’s an hour in the sunshine to hit, throw, and run (or walk, or wheel) to the cheers of friends and family as each lineup makes its way around the bases.

“There’s a lot of love on this field,” one parent told me at the season opener. I had to agree.

It’s a couple of steps beyond informal, and that’s its glory. Sun Tzu once called a formless strategy the pinnacle of military deployment. I’m not sure how many softball teams Sun Tzu coached, but the same idea applies here: things are so loose that anything can be adapted to.

So when one team showed up with practically every member who had ever worn the jersey, while another had a bare handful signed up and ready to play, the answer was obvious. No, not forfeit.

Share players.

Minutes later, about a third of Missy’s teammates had crossed to the other dugout. The uniforms no longer meant a thing. The game had always been friends playing with friends, now it became even more so.

The different teams didn’t matter. The game was more important. And the game went on.

That’s an example to learn from.

It’s easy to get attached to teams. One way or another, we do it most of our lives, and not just in Bronco orange or Rockies purple. We stake out grounds based on politics. Creeds. Histories. Origins. We find a thousand ways to draw the line and define who we are – or, sometimes more vividly, to define who we’re not.

Now an identity is not in itself a bad thing. I’m not advocating that we all join the ranks of the formless, the gray, the uncommitted who just move through the background and leave without a ripple. Ideas CAN be important; concepts CAN be urgent enough to fight for or toxic enough to oppose with spirit and conviction.

But when the team becomes more important than the game, something is out of balance.

It happens when winning becomes more important than how you win. It happens when rules, or consideration, or even simple civility become less important than self-aggrandizement. It happens when conversation stops and the participants begin talking past each other – beyond not seeing each other as equals, all the way to literally not seeing each other.

It happens when “I” becomes paramount. When “we” becomes the people that agree with me. And when “they” ceases to exist in our awareness altogether.

Each of us could quote a dozen examples in just a week’s headlines. I won’t waste the space here. But we all know the atmosphere it creates, as deadly as any greenhouse gas.

The thing is, teams are temporary. The Federalists were once the hottest thing going. Now they’re a line in a Broadway musical. Parties, movements, loyalties of a hundred kinds are born of a moment in history. They change, they grow, they merge and split, they even disappear – and the players almost always find another team.

But the game has to go on.

Without the game, there’s no reason for a team at all.

I’m hoping that most of us believe that. If we do, if we act on it, the toxic clouds can lift again. We can have disagreement, even passionate argument, without the discord that drowns out any useful theme.

We can walk in the sunshine again. I think we will.

Maybe we can even play a little softball.

Batter up.

Sound Off

There are a lot of wrongs to rail at in this world. Hunger. Injustice. The continued existence of the Oakland Raiders.

And since all those are taken, I’m going to snark about the Tony awards instead.

At least, I will if this microphone is working. No guarantee, that.

The Tonys, you see, decided that next year there would be no awards for sound design. Now, don’t everyone riot at once. I know, most of you stay up into the wee hours to see if this will finally be the year for … well, whatshisname. And the other one, too. The one with the hair.

Ok. I’ll admit it. To the general public – even the general theatre-going public – sound designers have all the renown of congressional interns. Unless there’s a scandal, you’re not likely to ever learn their names. And even then, it would have to be one heck of a scandal. (“Imported mayonnaise? Oh, dear.”)

But when you think about it, that’s exactly the point.

The anonymity, that is. Not the mayonnaise. Stay with me here.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to a lot of movies. And at every single one, we stayed until the final credit had rolled across the screen. Dad’s mom had worked in a behind-the-scenes job for one of the studios, you see, so he knew how important those miniature letters zooming past at high speed were.

Always stay, he told me. Always honor the work. For many of these people, it may be the only recognition they ever get.

That stayed with me. Even during the Lord of the Rings films, where half the New Zealand phone book had to roll by before we could leave.

Always honor the work.

It’s easy to cheer the actors. We see them, we hear them, we feel like we know them. And directors are not without honor. We know who’s (officially) in charge, whose name is tied to the success or failure of a production.

But there’s a whole invisible world in theatre that most audiences never consciously notice. Costumers. Light and sound designers. Stage managers. Prop masters. People in the shadows who, arguably, are more important to the success of a show than the cast. Anyone who’s worked in community theatre will tell you that finding performers is easy compared to finding capable backstage crew.

They rarely get bows. They rarely get recognized. But the work of the best can sink into your soul.

And that’s not a story only belonging to theatre. In most walks of life, there are people who serve as a living foundation – all but invisible to a casual glance but vital to keep things standing.

When we do notice, it’s usually because of a crisis. Think back to the flood. Sure, we saw a lot of cops and firefighters, the heroes we justly cheer every day. But we also noticed the folks who build the roads, who fix the water lines, who haul away the trash. (Actually, judging by the reaction to the neighborhood roll-offs, the trash haulers may have been the most popular people on the block!)

The foundation had been exposed. And it held.

And it’ll keep holding long after the spotlight has burned out.

If those people don’t deserve a moment of recognition, nobody does.

So to the ladies and gentlemen of the Tony Awards committee, I offer one word: reconsider. Sure, you might save five minutes on an already overlong night of glitz and glamour. But think of what you’re turning your back on to do it.

Honor the work.

Let it be heard.

Claiming Space

By the time I came to bed, a furry mountain range had already seized most of the acreage.

“Blake…”

Big Blake, the Clydesdale Canine, remained motionless, the dark fur of his muscular body almost invisible in the night. He may not have known the principle about possession being nine-tenths of the law. But he certainly knew how to sprawl across nine-tenths of the bed, leaving only the space my wife Heather was sleeping in, and a small corner of empty mattress that might fit an adult hobbit.

Might.

“Come on, Blake.”

Even appealing to Blake’s bottomless stomach won’t always move him off the bed at times like this. And since my own back isn’t up to lifting 80-plus pounds of sleepy dog, what usually follows is half negotiation and half dance, until the thought finally penetrates his mind. “Oh. I am not a Chihuahua. Perhaps I should move over a bit.”

And with great reluctance – and no small amount of nudging – the mountain finally moves.

What makes it frustrating sometimes is that Blake is not a bad dog. Not really. Sure, he’s a klutz who tends to think with his belly instead of his mind, like many a rescue dog before him. But he loves deeply and is loved dearly, an enthusiastic member of the family who practically flies over Pikes Peak when one of his people comes home.

But when he takes up more than his share of space, it still gets on your nerves.

For football fans, that might sound familiar.

The first direct exposure many of us had to Richard Sherman, a cornerback in the Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” was last Sunday. Over the last couple of days, I’ve heard a lot about what a decent guy he actually is, and his background seems to bear it out – the guy who got out of Compton and into Stanford; the guy who, off the field, usually has time to spare if someone else needs it.

But all that got shoved into the background after the NFC championship game, where his game-sealing interception in the end zone was followed by a quick round of trash talk. “Well, I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like (Michael) Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get! Don’t you EVER talk about me.”

Now, this is sports. A certain amount of braggadocio comes with the game. To compete before a crowd requires supreme confidence, whether it’s the quiet certainty of a Champ Bailey or the flamboyance of a Muhammad Ali. Most fans know that.

But when someone seems to take up more space than he should, when the interior monologue becomes too exterior, especially in an unguarded moment – that’s when it’s going to rub the wrong way.

And that’s why Sherman made a lot of Bronco fans on Sunday.

For that moment – a moment, admittedly, with his “game face” still on and his adrenaline soaring – he came across as rude, obnoxious and willing to put himself before and above the team.

It only takes one of those moments to obscure a lot of nice.

To his credit, Sherman seems to recognize that. When he apologized at a recent news conference, it was for pulling focus from his teammates. Not for believing himself great (or Crabtree mediocre), but for letting his passion push the rest of the team off the stage.

I’m not a mind-reader, so I can’t tell you how sincere he was. Only those who watch him carefully will be able to say for sure which is the posturing, the behavior on the field or the apology off it. But at the least, he understood what it was that had pushed the button and sent things over the edge.

That’s a start.

(It’s also starting from a better place than the Seahawks fans who threw food at an injured San Francisco player, but that’s another story.)

I’ll give the guy a chance. After all, I give Blake plenty of opportunities to clear some space, too.

But if the “best corner in the game” gets beaten a few times by Denver’s high-flying receivers – well, I won’t be terribly disappointed, either.

Now, let’s put this whole thing to bed.