Great Blogs of Fire

What I want you to know. Which is everything.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Survivor: Ranking My New Addiction

Last April (or March, or May, who can remember?) I started watching Survivor: Worlds Apart on a lark and found myself intrigued. I had never watched an entire episode of Survivor before and only had a vague, simple understanding of the show. It's, of course, a true story about 20 strangers picked to live on an island and have their lives taped to see what happens when you stop being polite and start getting REAL! I may be confusing my reality TV, but I got the gist. I enjoyed the show, but was a little lost when it came to all the lingo and "game play" talk. What does it mean to split votes? What is the significance of alliances and why are these people talking as if they aren't starving? Basically, I was watching a show that assumed the rules, both written and unwritten were understood by the audience. I thought I'd understand better if I went back to season 1 and watch it from the beginning, a time when Survivor, and even the concept of competition reality shows, was new to everyone. I already knew who won that season because if you were alive in 2000 there were 2 things that were impossible to ignore in the media: Gore v. Bush and Richard Hatch's naked butt. I loved the first season anyway, and wanted to continue watching but after falling in love with Borneo the production of the newest season seemed season too slick and manufactured, unlike the gritty documentary feel of the first season. Essentially, Survivor seemed to emulate the fast paced, boom-chicka soundtracked, fast camera angled reality shows of the genre that Survivor helped to create.

 So, I came to the Reddit/Survivor page to have longtime, hardcore fans convince me to stick with it. They did, and, I did, and now it's my new addiction. Over the course of Season 30: Worlds Apart I watched seasons 12-16 on Hulu in the intervening days between episodes. I took a break during the summer because I was starting to lose all sense of reality, but once Season 31: Cambodia, Second Chances I fell right back into wanting more of the show during the week, between episode airings. With more episodes to conquer I immersed myself, yet again, in the episodes available on Hulu, right where I'd left off in the Gabon season. The added bonus to watching old episodes for the first time was that I was getting to know players that were now returning for Cambodia, only with that kind of surreal notion that they are actually younger and less wise than the version I was getting to know through the current season. Now, having just finished Tocantins and deeply entrenched in Second Chances I wanted to return to Reddit to fulfill my need to discuss the show, something my friends and family will appreciate, as they are likely getting sick of me telling them about what Joe and Wentworth did last night, or about the inspiring bromance between JT and Fishbach, or the tears I shed when Taj got to see her husband. And, Coach. My friends didn't quite understand why I was so amused by a soccer coach/Maestro/world adventurer.

So, now to commemorate my 10th season (including the current season) of Survivor I want to rank my favorite seasons so far, in order of my least to most favorite. While, not unlike beer, my favorite season may be the one I'm enjoying at that moment, I'll do my best to be objective.

10. Cook Islands-While looking at any of these seasons in retrospect differs from how I was feeling at the time, as I truly enjoyed watching every season, in its own right, I can't say that I really connected with this season that much, compared to the others. The racially divided tribes aspect was an interesting idea at first, but quickly lost it's significance in the game. I had a hard time thinking of any of the players that I really connected with, other than perhaps Penner, but he was loathed by everyone else, it seemed, and I got tired of feeling sorry for him. Other than watching Ozzie's impressive physicality, this was a relatively dull bunch. Even the likable Yul Kwon wasn't that interesting of a character, despite playing a well orchestrated game. A bonus reason to put Cook Island at the bottom of my list is that Adam and Candice were the two most insufferably unlikable players I've seen thus far. I wanted to punch Adam in the face every time he flashed that cocky, douche bag grin. For me to hate the core members of the most interesting plot within the show is reason enough to rank this one last.

9. Fiji-Like Cook Island, I didn't really connect with any of the story lines or players this season, as much as some of the others. The relationship between Earl and Yau-Man, and maybe just Yau-Man, himself, gives it the edge over Cook Islands, for me. Also, Dreamz was an intriguing character, as the ultimate fish out of water, socially, that found a surprisingly strong correlation between being on the island and having spent part of his life without a home. Dreamz, more than almost anyone else who I've seen play the game, thus far, understood what it is like to survive in a harsh world. Still, the season over all was uneven and had lots of dragging moments, without many big moves to make things interesting.

8. Gabon-This was the first season I watched after taking a long break from past seasons on Hulu. There were many interesting and compelling people to watch in Randy, Ken, Chrystal, and Bob. The initial relationship between Ace and Sugar was a little disturbing to watch, as he came across like a Bond villain, just stringing his puppet along. Where this season fell off, for me was in the mean spirit of some of the players, like Corinne and Randy, and even Marcus. I tend to watch the players’ "Ponderosa" videos after each of their eliminations, and the way that they treated Chrystal after getting voted off was disheartening and sad. While it may be unfair to judge a season based on these "bonus" videos and not solely on the show proper, when I watch them intermingled with the episodes, it's hard to separate them out. Plus, by the end it was a pretty forgone conclusion that Bob would win and Susie's presence was superfluous throughout the whole game.

7. Worlds Apart-Unlike many other fans whom I have read that disliked the whole "Blue Collar vs. White Collar vs. No Collar" concept, I found it pretty compelling and enjoyed watching and thinking about how each players' jobs and normal lives influences their play in the game. Which character in any season you identify with probably says a lot about you, but I think this is especially true of Worlds Apart, since those personalities were separated out so distinctly. Interestingly enough, as we all saw, there were still a wide variety of personalities within each tribe, where someone as free spirited as Shirin was considered "white collar" while Hali was a "no collar" because of her current status as a student, despite her future as a lawyer. Still, like Gabon, I found the grating personalities of some of the players off-putting and the way some of the players took things too personally. Seasons that are dominated by angry, immature people don't really connect to me as much.

6. China-I really loved the backdrop of China and the beauty the scenery, as it added to the overall watching experience. This was also the first time I really noticed major moves that affected the game in big ways, and began to appreciate how strategy and social skill worked in the outcome of the game and the enjoyment of Survivor, overall. While James seems to push against my dislike for "mean" players, it never seemed personal and I found him to be a lot of fun to watch, with sole and kindness that betrayed his rough exterior. He and Denise were two extremely enjoyable players to watch, the latter being the anti-Susie-from-Gabon. A player who seemed out of place in the later rounds of the game. But, unlike Susie, I completely loved how she had come out of the shadows and took on a major role as a highly affective player. Watching how Todd bobbed and weaved his strategy through the game was the first time I'd really seen such an effective game play outside of the first season.

5. Panama-This was the second season that I finished watching all the way through, due to Hulu not carrying seasons 2-11. I don't particularly remember a lot about the game play, but this season gave us so many likable and memorable players, like Cirie, Terry Deitz, Aras and Austin. And, while I've only watched 10 seasons, based on the number of people on the internet that feel the same way I do, there has likely never been another player quite like Shane Powers. At first, I thought this guy must be crazy, but as the season progressed and his self-awareness endeared itself to his fellow survivors, he endeared himself to me. I loved the relationship he had with Cirie and the love he showed for his son was touching. Shane Powers made this season one of my favorites, and one that I continued to place on a pedestal in subsequent seasons.

4. Fans vs. Favorites-Two moments really stand out in my mind when I think about Fans vs. Favorites. Number one, the Black Widow Brigade's "stir the pot" moment was both hilarious and empowering. I loved seeing these women take control of the game and put the dudes in their place. Parvati, after coming across in Cook Island as a bit of a high school mean girl, aligning herself with the cool kids, Candice and Douche-Bag-Adam, struck me during this season as a more mature, more strategic player, who ran that game from the beginning. The next moment that sticks out was the way the BWB blindsided poor, naive Erik after convincing him to give up his immunity. It was a brilliant, bold move that placed the final etches on the plaque that would hang over Parvati's door.

3. Cambodia/Second Chances-My initial thoughts on bringing back old players were not positive. I'd read about how many people loved the seasons featuring returning survivors from previous seasons, and wondered why. Isn't part of Survivor’s appeal the fascination with watching people discover how to survive in the wild? After 9 1/2 seasons and two of them featuring returnees, I have to say that the old players generally make for better players and by extension these seasons are pretty great. It's certainly too early to say for sure whether or not Cambodia will go down as a great season, or not, but as of this writing I've seen one of the greatest blindsides I've seen in any of the previous seasons. I think these seasons work because they are all there to play and play hard. There isn't the obligatory waffling that goes on when you have all new players, or people who are unsure whether or not they can make it. Even the super-fans that make their way onto the show are usually way over-eager to prove their game smarts, when they are not returning players. Returning players are usually relaxed and better understand the nature of the game. Gone is the pettiness (comparatively), the personal attacks (at least outside the game context), and the annoyingly irrelevant concept of honor or trustworthiness within a game that is all about deception and manipulation. It is understood in these games that the truly "honorable" thing to do in the game of Survivor is to be dishonorable. Otherwise, you disrespect the game.

2. Tocantins-The idea that playing the game the right way is to be dishonorable and sneaky was front and center in Tocantins. Coach, the completely delusional, hyper-spiritual "Maestro" kept asserting that the game should award the player with the most honor, and lying deems you unworthy to win Survivor. That is like saying that everyone in a game of Texas Hold-Em should just lay all their cards out on the table and accept the cards they are dealt with honesty. You should not attempt to deceive the players about what you are holding, as if it should completely depend on luck of the draw and nothing else. If that were how you played poker, you would not have a game, you would have the lottery. The very nature of Survivor is about deception and manipulation in the same way that tennis is about hitting a ball over a net. What I loved about this season is that every player in Tocantins seemed to understand this, except for Coach. The lovable Taj, the lovable JT, the lovable Sierra, the lovable Stephen, the lovable Debbie. These were all great players who, while at times being emotionally swept away in the game, knew deep down that it was a game, and it wasn't to be taken as a personal slight if they were voted off. Instead, they focused their energies on playing the game the way it should be played: to win. That means making big moves, alliances, lying, manipulation, and even backstabbing. I have no doubt that had Stephen won immunity in the final challenge he would have brought Erin instead of JT to the final vote. As well he should have. It would have been the right strategic move. As JT correctly observed in the Tocantins reunion episode, he wasn't in the same spot as Stephen. He had the votes needed to beat Erin or Stephen and even could have earned more votes by appearing to take the high road by choosing his friend, instead of the girl that betrayed her alliance. But, how many of the jury would have voted for Erin, regardless, after JT and Stephen voted off Taj, who was as beloved as almost everyone? The argument could be made that the correct strategic move for JT was to bring Stephen. Fishbach had no such luxury. One of my favorite quotes of the season was when he was asked if he deserved to be sitting at the final vote, despite having hidden in the shadows, instead of running the strategy (a premise with which I vehemently disagreed, by the way. I never understood why the other survivors saw JT as the strategic leader, when in my mind it was always Stephen), Stephen responded that hiding in the shadows is a valid strategy. A wonderfully, strategically played season with heart, a bit of kookiness and players who knew how to keep perspective. Despite my dislike of Coach as a player, every season needs that outlier, and he certainly made for a fascinating character to watch. Even Coach’s presence helped make Tocantins my favorite season since watching Borneo. Which brings me to...

1. Borneo-When the forward pass was used for the first time in a football game it was decried as cheating. Likewise the stolen base in baseball was seen as low and dishonest. When it became apparent that Richard, Sue, Kelly, and Rudy had packed together to eliminate the rest of the players, they cried foul. Gretchen and Gervase mocked their "strategy" by wearing sitting duck and target T-shirts that seemed to imply their fate was based on nothing more than an unfair advantage, while the rest of them had been voting on...what? Who they liked? Who was a better "survivor?" The alphabet? It seems so quaint and naive, now. That there was ever a time when it was just a bunch of strangers battling the elements together and voting off the individual who didn't have the grit or skills to make it in the wild on limited food, seems strange and other worldly after watching 9 seasons of strategy and the "unskilled" making it to the later rounds, not based on their physical attributes or contributions to camp, but because they could manipulate people, or fly under the radar. When seen through the lens of later seasons, Borneo wouldn't really be anything other than mediocre, perhaps. If you don't understand the significance of what Citizen Kane brought to film, then it just seems like a typically old, black-and-white movie. It must be acknowledged that much of we take for granted in modern filmmaking owes itself to the Orson Wells classic. The first season of Survivor could have made or broken, not just the Survivor series, but also the entire reality competition show genre. While I could have gladly done without The Bachelor, or American Idol, or most of the shows in this category, for that matter (with The Joe Schmo Show being a hilariously awesome exception), if Richard Hatch had not turned a social experiment into a game of strategy and social manipulation, there may not have ever been a Naked and Afraid! For better or worse. Borneo is the alpha, the New Hope, the George Washington of one of the most successful shows of the past 15 years that launched a new era in television. It's also probably why we don't have to suffer through summers of reruns and instead get to spend the summer watching American Ninja Warriors. So, thank you Survivor: Borneo. Thank you Sue for delivering a speech that became the ultimate metaphor for how this game was to be played henceforth. Thank you Richard Hatch for orchestrating the structure of the game. It’s not often that the players of a game get to determine how it’s played.

And, thank you Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst. Without you I might actually have to get the work done that I am actually paid for in my real life, instead of spending hours on a Saturday writing a more than 3000 word diatribe. I have now begun to see life through a Survivor filter. How I deal with my coworkers, my students, and even my own family are all subject to the scrutiny of a Survivor scenario. This may seem like I’ve gone off the rails, and you may now feel sorry for anyone who has to come into contact with me, let me assure you that this way of seeing the world really only extends to the stretches of time when I am on a Survivor binge. I will eventually burn out and need to take a break, as I did before. And, soon enough I will burn through all 31 season, at which time Survivor become like any other show I DVR and watch when I get a chance. For those who may think that thinking of real life from the perspective of Survivor is a dangerous way to see the world, you’re probably right. But, just for fun, let me entertain the idea anyway. In life we have to deal with many different personalities, often in close surroundings with tasks that we should accomplish. Thankfully, we have our homes to go to at the end of the night with people whom we choose to live. Survivor is just an extreme version of our lives that marries the two worlds in which we already live and survive. Survivor can actually teach us how to better coexist with our loved ones and coworkers. To live in the real world takes patience, cooperation, alliances, and compromise. Ultimately, we also have to think of ourselves and our families and if that means cutting someone out of our lives, moving jobs, or simply moving away, we must do what is best and learn how to deal with what is in our control, and not worry about that which is not. That is really all a survivor can do and all that we can do in the real world. We have to vote people off of our island, sometimes. But, hopefully, we don’t have to do it often and in the meantime we discover how we can make life in our own little tribe as comfortable as possible for the short time we have here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Should an Expensive Cordless Power Drill Break in Half After Falling From Four Feet Up?

So, this happened to my expensive drill gun after falling to the floor off a counter. Bummed, but hoping that Hitachi Power Tools will hook me up. Feel free to help by emailing them on my behalf. I only had the drill for about a year when this happened. It had never been mistreated and hadn't even been used that much, due to the fact that I wasn't teaching theatre last year.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Chicken on the Fence

I have been on the fence. Not about Gay Marriage. There's no question, gays and lesbians should absolutely have the right to marry. I've never heard a relevant or reasonable argument otherwise.

No, I have been on the fence as to whether or not I should demonize, or more specifically boycott Chick-Fil-A over the recent remarks made by their CEO, Dan Cathy. There's other people to think about, like local franchisees and employees who are innocently stuck in the middle of this controversy.

I've always been aware of the Evangelical Christian nature of Chick-Fil-A, and despite some minor annoyances when I get a chicken craving on a Sunday, I've always admired the way they seemed to conduct business. I felt that they represented Christ well, without being in everyone's face about it. I'm now hearing about lawsuits due to wrongful termination of women and gays, but I don't know enough about those to really use it as a basis for any stance I might take. So I won't comment on the lawsuits further, except to say that it's reasonable to assume that a company that size would be ridiculously lucky to avoid litigation of that kind, from time to time.

The money they donate to anti-gay organizations is certainly troubling. I've heard a myriad of claims about what these groups stand for, from wishing death on homosexuals to their imprisonment. I didn't dig deep enough into their websites to verify any of the harshest claims for myself, but I took a look at the website for the Family Research Council, and the rhetoric and fervor with which they demonize homosexuals and same-sex partnerships got pretty ridiculous to the point that I believe it falls way outside the mainstream beliefs of most Americans. Still, there are lots of companies that likely give money to organizations with whom I might disagree. A Facebook friend of mine did some looking and listed all the oil companies that purchase from Saudi Arabia, a country with laws that degrade and sanction violence on women, not to speak of their stance on homosexuality. Would it not reason that, unless I'm willing to do the research on every single company I patronize, wouldn't it be hypocritical for me to boycott Chick-Fil-A, simply because it is fashionable to do so in this moment?

Then I read this article that another Facebook friend posted. And, it made me realize, if I really believe what I say that I believe, if I really do love my gay friends and family, if I truly believe that they should be given the same rights as I have, and that it matters whether or not they are treated like a second class citizen then I need not support organizations and companies that actively support such oppression of gay Americans. To be clear, there is a difference between a company with a CEO who is against same-sex marriage and a company that gives money to organizations that are dedicated to making life more difficult for homosexuals.

As for other companies that might support misogynist governments or other social problems with which I disagree, perhaps I need to be more vigilant, and do a little more research on these companies before I give them my business. But I already know where Chick-fil-A stands on this issue that I believe is a matter of civil rights. They make no apologies or qualms that they are against giving gays a right that all straight people take for granted. The groups they support financially go even further by rallying against legislation that would simply allow gay people to keep their jobs and not have to fear for their safety. I don't have to guess or shrug and say, "who knows how they are spending my money?" because I do know. To say that I disagree with them, but they have the right to disagree would to put it on the level of an opinion regarding taxes or economic theory. They do have the right to disagree, but they should not have the right to discriminate or infringe on the rights of others. It's a matter of right and wrong, rather than simply agreeing to disagree.

So, as for future visits, I can't say whether or not I'll ever set foot in a Chick-fil-A again, but, to be perfectly honest, it is very likely that I will, I'm sorry to say. Amanda and I are bound to break down amid the regular indecisiveness and "where do you want to go" routine. I certainly wasn't going to go today given the amount internet activity surrounding "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day." Going today would have been tantamount to a cruel stance of betrayal to those gay people in my life for whom I care, dearly. Every Facebook post I read from a Christian boasting of their haul from Chick-fil-A broke my heart a little more, because it was an open display of their allegiance to a chicken store above the feelings of their LBGT peers. With the new amount of knowledge I now have about the company of Chick-fil-A (including the way the "f" in "fil" is not to be capitalized), and where my chicken-dollars are going, it's far more likely for me to think twice about eating there, and choose to go somewhere else. Here in Abilene there's a Rosa's Tortilla Factory right next door. They serve chicken there, too, although I doubt they can do a Peach Milkshake. But, the Chick-Fil-A can't really do tortillas, so we'll call that a draw. All I can say is that I'm urging Cane's to open here ASAP.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Best BLT Sandwich in Existance

I just created a BLT Sandwich that was so awesome I want to share it with the world. I made this sandwich with lower fat ingredients due to me being on Weight Watchers*. However, as you'll see, it's not really that good for you. Oh, we'll. Here it is.


2 slices of whole wheat bread
4 slices of Center Cut Bacon (or regular bacon, but center cut is lower in fat, but that probably doesn't matter)
2 slices of American Cheese
1 leaf of iceberg lettuce
2 slices of tomato
1 sandwich stack sliced Clausen pickle (Clausen are crunchier than regular pickles)
2 tablespoons of light mayonnaise
1 tablespoon of light butter or margarine
Spicy brown mustard
Salt and pepper


1. Fry the bacon like you normally would in a frying pan. Do not microwave or bake or do some other kind of ridiculous thing. Once the bacon is finished place on a paper towel covered plate to cool and collect some of the fat. I'm not really sure what the point of soaking up the fat is, given what is about to happen. (DO NOT throw out the bacon fat that remains in the frying pan.)

2. Spread butter or margarine on one side of each slice of bread.

3. Place a slice of cheese on the buttered side of each slice of bread.

4. Place the bacon on one side then close your sandwich.

5. Spread mayonnaise on both sides of the outer side of the sandwich. Make sure you still have about 1/2 Tbsp remaining.

6. Fry the sandwich in the bacon fat remaining in the frying pan. About 3-4 minutes on each side. Place on a clean paper towel to soak up some of the bacon fat. Again, this is sort of a laughable thing to do, but it might give you some sense that you are a reasonable person.

7. Carefully open the sandwich. It's okay if the bacon doesn't all end up on the same side. Just don't let the bread tear. There will be cheese all over the place. This is a good thing.

8. Place the lettuce, tomato and pickle (in that order) on one side of the sandwich.

9. Slather the remaining mayonnaise on top of the pickle.

10. On the non-vegi/mayo side squirt a respectable amount of spicy brown mustard.

11. Salt and pepper the mayo/vegis to taste.

12. Close the sandwich.

13. Cut the sandwich in half at a diagonal...A DIAGONAL!!!

14. Eat that thing and thank me in your dreams. Chips go well with it.

15. Go to the gym.

*Weight Watcher PointsPlus: 25**

**Based on 7 points for the bacon fat. It may be more or less, for all I know.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Beauty of E=mc2

Yesterday I watched an 80 minute video of an interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, but more importantly (and the reason I knew who he was) a frequent guest on the Daily Show and Colbert Report. The interview, which was conducted by Steven Colbert, himself, out of his normal egotistical character he plays on his show, was held at a local middle school as part of a series their PTA holds as a way to help inform and cultivate knowledge to their students, faculty and community. (Educators and lovers of knowledge in Texas may sigh with jealousy now.)

I highly recommend spending an hour and a half watching the interview, which I've linked below. The whole interview is fascinating for lots of reasons, and because it is hosted by Colbert it's pretty funny (Tyson is funny, in his own right). but a few key points really stuck out at me from the interview.

I posted a couple of quotes from Tyson on my Facebook page yesterday after hearing them in the interview. The one that got me the most is at about the 22 minute mark. Colbert had asked Tyson if he sees beauty in science and, if so, which is the most beautiful. Tyson answers with very little hesitation that E=mc2 is the most beautiful thing in science. After his explanation, one would be hard pressed to argue that it may not be the most beautiful thing in the world.

Not just a famous equation that is a cliched "sciencey" thing to quote and throw about, E=mc2 is the concept that connects all human beings to each other, the earth and the cosmos. If you aren't aware, E=mc2 essentially means that if we (or anything, I guess) could travel at the speed of light times itself we would become energy. Read that sentence again and wrap your head around that for a moment or two.

Energy, which for my non-scientific brain is easiest to understand as light, and matter are essentially made out of the same thing. All of the elements in the world, in space and throughout the known universe are biproducts of the same material and can, infact become that material again. We are all connected in a very real way.

This struck me from a spiritual perspective, as well. Tyson, from what I've been able to gather is either an aetheist or agnostic. And yet, when he speaks of physics and science, he does so in a way that is reminiscent of theologians and spiritual leaders. He sees hope and beauty in the world through the lens of science in the same way that I, myself have learned to view it through God and through worship. I don't want to speculate or come to conclusions as to what this means for religion or Tyson, himself, but I find it incredibly fascinating and oddly coincidential. I love when he calls us "stardust" referencing back to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song "Woodstock" that says, "we are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." The way that I interpret these lyrics refers to the grandest idea of the hippy movement and Woodstock, itself as a time and place when the idea of coming together and recognizing our spritual and psysiological link to each other. This idea reinforces the need for us to not hate, not hurt, and help each other. This is a concept that is understood by Christians and scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson alike, whether or not they recognize it on a normal basis or not.

Finally, after reiterating his expertese as an astrophysicist and not as a poet, Tyson said this:
"Some of the greatest poetry is revealing to the reader the beauty in something that was so simple you had taken it for granted."

Tyson is specifically referring to the relative simplicity in Einstein's E=mc2, but the grand and wonderful conotations that are revealed because of it. However, I loved this quote so much because it is very true in a much greater sense. Often the best art, whether it be plays, films, paintings or poetry, are that which ask us to look at something simple or common with a new perspective.

Here's the link to the interview.

1/4/2012 UPDATE: So, I likely misinterpreted E=mc2. Regardless, watch the video and you will get what I'm talking about. Maybe.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Defense of The Arts

This is quoted from an article at Theatre Ideas the blog of . I'm taking it out of context, but I loved the quote, nontheless.

"Culture and the arts are essential means by which all people explain their experience, shape their identity and imagine the future...People need the arts to make sense of their lives, to know who they are. But our democracy needs the arts, too. The arts animate civil society. They stretch our imagination. They increase our compassion for others by providing creative ways for us to understand and deal with differences. The arts protect and enrich the dignity and the public discourse that are at the heart of a healthy democracy."

This is a quote from Holly Sidford of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. The quote is made in reaction to the disparity between the amount of funds that go toward large theatre and arts in big metropolitan areas and smaller, rural communities.

The article on the Theatre Ideas blog addresses this issue in a 3 parter on the similarities between the financial disparity that Occupy Wall Street protesters are arguing against and the disparity in arts funding. Read all three parts if you have the time.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How Life Decided I Needed to Stop, Part 3

I had just left the Administration building after turning in my resignation notice, and placing myself a pool of teachers who would receive a financial incentive for saving the school district the task of firing us. The mood in the Human Resources office was understandably sad. I stood there with young and old teachers, all visably shaken and bewildered. The ones who were talking were rambling and flustered, unsure what the next move was.

The news of losing my job couldn't have come at a worse time. In late March, early April every theatre director in Texas is focused on the One Act Play contest. The week before our play had advanced past the first round of competition for the third year in a row and that Saturday, the day after I was told I was being let go, was the next level of competition. The year previous we had gone on to the third round and hoped to move even further this year. The play we were performing was August: Osage County, the play de jour for the theatre world at the time. I felt like we were really stepping out with this production, due to it's edginess, it's brilliance, but mostly because it had never been done before in the UIL One Act Play competition. It was right in the sweet spot of being well-known, but not overdone, and impressive without being out of range. Or, at least I thought so. The point is that I had very high hopes for our production's success at the competition.

By the time a play has already had been through 5 weeks of rehearsals including several clinics, and one round of competition, hopefully it is self-sustaining and the job of the director is over. If that were the case my own state of mind wouldn't have mattered much, as I would have simply told my students to do the great job I knew they were capable of and left it at that. Unfortunately, high school theatre, especially when traveling a show to a competition, is an ongoing process. That Friday afternoon and into the day of the contest, dispite the students' ignorance of my situation, there was an aura of chaos. The kids were a talented bunch, and very much wanted to do well. While no one has told me this, it's always been my feeling that they could sense something was wrong with me. I had a feeling they were cueing from me, even unwittingly, to be unfocused and haphazard in their preparation. There were missing props, confused sound elements, disorganization throughout the preparations on that Friday and the morning of the competition. Perhaps it was just because they are high school students and it's a lot to handle, but my feeling all weekend was that it was because of me.

As much as I wanted to continue our run of success and show the school district that they were getting rid of the wrong guy, we didn't advance that night. When we got back to the school after the contest I gathered the students and the parents that had stuck around and told them the news. There were a lot of tears and hugs and parents asking what could be done. I genuinely thought, at that time, that it was a done deal, but told them anything they wanted to do would be appreciated.

By Monday word had spread and the general population knew about my dismissal. I recieved lots of support from other teachers, students, and parents. Before I was told I was being let go my ego had elevated some, and I started thinking of myself as the goldenboy of the district's theatre teachers. Within some exclusive circles, this might be considered a big deal, but I'll understand if the gravity of this distinction doesn't quite land with all of the readers. After all, I had been in the district now for 4 years and had built a theatre program that consistently won in UIL, but also had made a reputation for producing daring materials and pushing students to go beyond what was typical for high school theatre. Being let go kind of put me in my place, as I was extremely humbled, left wondering if I had actually made an impact, at all. The support that I was being shown and the way that everyone seemed to think I was being wronged made me feel very good about what I had done there. Regardless, I knew I had some cosmic humble pie in my belly.

Nevertheless, I still didn't have a job for the next school year my focus now turned to looking for and applying for jobs in the Houston area and throughout the state. While only a few years back I was being approched by other schools wanting me to join them, now it seemed that the jobs were going to be very few and far between. Every school district in the state of Texas was cutting back and the arts were not in the sites of any school to be able to hire, let alone expand. So, I also began looking at other types of jobs doing other things. I had worked the previous summer setting up lights and sound for trade shows for an audio/visual company in Houston. The General Manager was a students' parent and he told me he might be able to hire me full time in a project manager or sales capacity. Maybe this would be an opportunity to see if there was something other than teaching theatre that I would like doing.

As it was, even without being RIFd, I had been considering a possible change in scenery. I taught at a very large high school and every year more students were signing up for theatre. My second year there they had hired another theatre teacher to take on a couple of lower level classes, but she didn't help out very much after school. The next year we hired an honest to God assistant theatre director, but after two shows, she decided that she didn't want to work with the theatre program after school and wanted to focus on teaching English. So, for the majority of my time there I was a department of one. The next year looked to be even worse as the other theatre teacher wouldn't even be taking theatre classes all of my sections would be filled to the brim, and overflowing. For the third year in a row, my advanced theatre class would have to combine with another class, making it very difficult to establish the high level of theatre I knew was possible. I had thought that I would just ride it out the best I could, but with this new development, I began to see returning as a very scary proposition, fraught with large inconveniences and even more time spent at school, away from my family. Leaving began looking more and more appealling.

While I was going through all the stages of grief, (disbelief, anger, blame, depression, acceptance... are there more?) there were apparently things working in the background. My students parents had organized a letter writing campaign on my behalf and were inundating the Human Resources office with emails and phone calls. The students went in mass to a school board meeting, along with band and orchestra students, who also lost teachers, to tell them what kind of teacher they were losing. Even more importantly, and to my surprise my principal was working behind the scenes to affect the final outcome. I was shocked when, only three weeks after I'd been told I wouldn't have a job next year, my principal stopped me in the hall to tell me that I had gotten my job back. She told me not to worry about why, but just to know, while it wasn't official, it looked like I would be back next year, after all.

But, in my mind, things weren't that cut and dry. I had multiple applications in to various school districts, including two districts in Abilene, where my wife was from. I had even lined up an interview for a theatre job at one of the high schools, where I would head up a much smaller program, at a smaller school, with less stress, teaching well-to-do, well behaved kids. I decided to go to the interview, which I was confident I could get, and then decide if I would take the job or stay in Houston.

But, as the year drew to a close, and the district was asking if I was going to accept the offer to stay in my position, I became more and more confident that I would be staying. After all, starting over at a new school, doing the same thing wouldn't necessarily fix my problems. Even small schools have issues, of course. I even decided to hold auditions for the first show of the next school year. On the second to last day of school I got a call from the principal of one of the high schools in Abilene. He had a job for me. It wasn't teaching theatre, but I would work with a new grant-funded program at the school helping struggling students recover credit they needed to graduate. It would be less hours, allowing me time to work on my Master's Degree, which I'd put off due to the hours I was spending at the theatre. The job didn't require planning, after school hours, or weekends, which I'd spent mired in for 4 years.

My initial reaction was a big "no." I couldn't see myself working in something not remotely theatre related. I felt like I would miss it too much. Furthermore I had a strong sense of loyalty to the students in my theatre program. It was my baby, after all. But, that was the problem. I had an actual baby at home. This new job would give me more time with her and with my wife. I had always been heavily involved in theatre, and as a teacher, I had always been very busy. But, over the last 4 years, my job wasn't just a part of my life, it had become my life. I was neglecting several things that I had always been passionate about. This included my family, but also music, exercising, writing and doing things in the community. I hated that I had lost all of this, and moving into this new job would give me time to do all of these things, again.

I talked to Amanda to get her opinion, but I knew what she wanted to do without asking. This was going to be my call. I thought about the stress of running a theatre program, and about how much I've always envied people who had time for hobbies. Then I thought about how the next year was already shaping up to be difficult and frustrating, with even more on my plate than before. I thought about how happy this would make Amanda. Every now and then in life, an opportunity comes along that a person just has to follow their gut and take a plunge. It was this same intuition that brought me to where I was to begin with.

So I took the plunge. I wanted to tell the school before we let out for the summer. I felt like I owed it to my students and my principal to let them know what I planned as soon as possible. I especially didn't want my kids to find out over Facebook or when they got back in the fall. So, on the last day of school I went into my principal's office and informed her that I'd been hired by another school district and would take the job. Later that day I gathered as many of my students as I could and let them know my plans. I thought they would hate me, but to their credit, despite their disappointment, they were happy for me. A few weeks later they even threw me a going away party.

I still went to the other job interview in Abilene. The job wasn't for me, and even though I didn't get it, I had decided that I would definitely take the position in the credit recovery classes. I figured that if I was going to take a break from teaching theatre that I needed to really take a break from teaching theatre.

The move was fairly painless. I know my parents were sad to see me move away from the Houston area. We had been there for 8 years and it had become common to meet them for dinner or to schedule a Sunday afternoon together with extended family. I knew I would miss that. Amanda and I had also become close with several people at our church in Sugar Land. It was sad to say goodbye to them, but finding friends in Abilene wouldn't be too difficult. We already had Amanda's sister and one of my best friends from college there. While I had never fully fallen in love with Sugar Land, I certainly would miss many of the people I had come to know there. With Facebook and Twitter we could stay in touch, but of course, it's not the same as being able to walk down the street and share a beer. It's not the same as handing your daughter over to the same person who has cared for her since she was born, then seeing that same person at school to work on costumes. It's not the same as knowing that any day you could just get in the car and drive less than an hour to see your brother. That is, if you have the time.

So, that brings me to where we are now. It's been 5 months since Amanda and I moved here. In that time we've rented a house, been to Fort Worth to see Amanda's sister, twice, started new jobs, and helped host a party for my 10 college reunion. Personally, I've lost 15 pounds by eating better and running, written the first few chapters of a novel and generally relaxed. I've also been working on my Master's Degree and read 4 books. These are all things that I wanted to do before, but didn't have the time or energy. Things are quantitatively looking pretty good. I would like to do more to meet more people, get involved in church and travel on the weekends, now that I have the time. But, all in all, I can't complain.

Sometimes I think about the stage at my previous school. I think about standing on the stage when no one else is there and looking out at the empty seats. From there I can look up and see rows of batons, hanging silently from the high ceiling above. Behind me are old set peices, placed against the back wall for storage until we need it again. The black floor, newly painted, clean and free of marks, is the perfect surface to recall some of the old tap moves I learned in college, made difficult by the rubber soles of my running shoes, that I rarely run in. I walk around the edge of the stage into the house and sit in one of the auditorium seats. Sitting in the dark, looking at the shadowy stage, florescent light from behind the curtains spill out and create an erie, but calming mood. It was never given to me by any authority, but it was mine. I controlled that space as if I had bought and paid for it myself. It was, without any sense of metaphor or exageration, a second home. And, when those students whom I had trained and watched grow in talent as well as character and maturity walked out on that stage and performed under the the halogen lamps (I had to fight tooth and nail for the district to pay for) songs and speeches and dances that would have never occured if not for a confidence they did not have when they arrived in my class their freshman year; and sound cues and scene changes happen at the exact right time, set in motion by students who had come to me only months before with only a vague sense of wanting to belong to something larger than themselves; when all these things happen at once and all I have to do is sit back and know that the whole process has been rehearsed over and over, and the students who are backstage barking orders into their headsets feel as much of a sense of responsibility toward the outcome of the production and the future of the theatre program as I do--when I can sit in the seats and feel confident that I have had an impact by setting these peices in motion, the sense of pride that builds in me is very real, even when the their existance only survives in my imagination and memory. And I miss it.

The past five months have convinced me of three things: One, I needed the break. The time I've had with Olivia and Amanda, not to mention the time I've had to run and take care of my health, has been extremely valuable. I don't regret this year and the break from theatre, at all. Two, I'm not finished with theatre and theatre isn't finished with me, and I will be back there someday, directing and teaching and building sets. The question a theatre major is always supposed to ask himself is, "Can I imagine myself doing anything else?" If the answer is yes, you shouldn't do theatre. I can honestly say that, for me, the answer is no, I can't. It's what I'm meant to do on this earth and the legacy I should leave behind. Finally, when I do eventually get a chance to either teach theatre or run a theatre company, or wherever I'm led, I need to learn to control the program and not let the program run me. Theatre is what I do, and it's what I know, but it won't always be there when I need it. The theatre program I ran, the job that I left and the art form itself may run through my blood, but my heart will always be lying next to me at night and bringing me coffee on Sunday mornings. My soul will greet me tomorrow morning with big blue eyes, a wisp of blonde hair and a big grin saying, "Wake up, Daddy!"