Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Trouble With Nirvana

The road to contentment, to nirvana is a perilous road, fraught with dangers in the ditch on either side. Contentment lies between the white lines, for in the ditch on one side lies addictions, gluttony, and the hollow life of one who floats from one compelling experience to the next in search of a better thing. The other side of the road is not so much a ditch as it is a rut, the place you get stuck when you play it safe and settle for less.

How to keep it between the white lines is the trick. And I’m not talking about happiness. Happiness is way too easy to find. But contentment? Now that’s the hard thing.

Going through old computer files last week I found a letter I wrote in July of 1999 to my sister, Cindy. It was written at Duck Lake in Michigan. I described for Cindy what everyone was doing on that hot summer day and said a thing or two about each person’s personality

Describing my then, 8 year old son, Jack, I wrote to my Cindy:
“Jack works about earnestly to keep up with his big brother. He wants to succeed, to do as well as older kids. But because he’s younger and smaller, of course he can’t, and nobody could ever be as hard on him as he is on himself. Like so many other middle children he’s forever convinced that he’s cheated in things, that others get more of everything. No amount of love or success could ever convince him otherwise. I remember once when you and I were younger, you confided in me with dismay that there is never enough love and kisses to convince you that you are truly loved. I fear Jack will feel that way about the world.”

Finding and rereading that letter was such a pleasant surprise, I shared a copy with each of my children.

Jack, now 6’ tall, 20 years old, and away at college, sent a touching, emotional reply, part of which read:
“I love that description you wrote of me. I still am almost that exact same way. No amount of success or love will ever be good enough. That quality may be my greatest downfall.”

I responded to Jack with one sentence: “People chase gold, money, love, and sex, but contentment is the most rare, precious, and fleeting thing known to man.”

The experts think of Nirvana in varied ways. Some as freedom from suffering, some as transcendence above earthly needs. The word literally means, “blowing out,” as in blowing out the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.” I think of it as contentment, the accepting of what is rather than constantly clamoring for what might be.

It’s amazing how illusive contentment can be and how much of it is guided by our expectations.

It’s a delicate balance. And having everything you want isn’t the answer. Most people dream of fame and fortune, but a study of Hollywood actors and professional athletes reveals a group of people with staggering rates of divorce, substance abuse, and a shorter life span than the average American. Clearly, having everything you want won’t buy contentment, in fact probably makes it harder to see, harder to achieve.

Many philosophers have said it before, but I suspect that contentment, like so many other important qualities in life is not a destination, but a journey – not a place you arrive at, but a thing you juggle.

Recently, an old friend with a lovely home, happy children, and a successful career, but no spouse, shared her deep sadness with me. With her youngest off at college, she confided, “I’m tired of doing this alone.” Yet, I’m sure many in her little town think she’s got it all figured out.

Another friend I truly admire has shared tales of the lost years he spent looking for contentment at the bottom of the bottle. He did drugs with rock stars in San Francisco in the 1960s, owned successful restaurants at a mountain resort, and was married, but eventually destroyed everything he’d built thanks to alcoholism. Today, he runs a small business and makes a modest income, attends church, works out daily, travels as often as he can, and lives a carefully managed, alcohol-free life.

Contentment looks different when you have the extreme opposite to compare it to.

I have known a few people who projected contentment – even claimed to have achieved it, but most really had just perfected the ascetic – that ability to deny themselves pleasure for long stretches, so to enjoy it at precise moments of opportunity. Most of these had not found contentment, but simply had learned to wrestle their desires to a truce. These are the most frozen people I’ve ever known, though they look on the outside anything but frozen. They fear the commitment of choosing and being trapped by the choice and so enjoy pleasures as little vacations. Which is fine with a real vacation. But when deep friendships and intimate relationships are treated like vacations – things isolated from your daily life, enjoyed briefly before returning to your ascetic routine, you end up making a very disciplined, but very lonely, hollow person, because the contentment that comes from the permanence of commitment cannot be substituted by a mountain of temporary experiences. And for these sorts of folk, I fear their ascetic discipline hardwires their fault. Might be easier to change an alcoholic or drug addict.

Oh what a slippery thing contentment . . . nirvana can be.

And of course I’m left thinking of the rock band, Nirvana. Their song "Lithium" is 4 minutes and 17 seconds of churning, surging, screaming, musical nirvana. It’s a song for which there is no volume high enough to satisfy me. With a chugging base line behind him, Kurt Cobain sings the opening lines, “I’m so happy, ‘cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head.”

Perhaps that’s where contentment is for everyone; it’s in our heads.

Cobain was tortured by mental illness, so the reference to Lithium, a drug used to prevent frenzied excitement in manic-depressives is no surprise. Nirvana (the state of mind, not his band) was so out of reach for him that a shotgun in the mouth seemed like a reasonable option. And at least it finally settled once and for all his search for peace and contentment.

So as the years pass, I am more convinced than ever that contentment doesn’t come from having everything you want or from having complete control, but from a mixture of deprivation and comfort, and freedom and commitment, all in their proper measure.

But I haven’t a clue what the proper measure is.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Betty Lou Kyle's Passion For Theater

Betty Lou Kyle is a living legend among Noblesville’s theater community, having directed or acted in 44 local productions in the past 5 decades. She returns after a 6 -year absence from the stage as the director of the Belfry Theater’s next production, The Perfume Shop.

I ate lunch with Betty Lou recently at The Hamilton restaurant and asked her why she returned to the theater after such a long break. In her typical self-deprecating style, she said, “I wanted to stay involved in something - not just play cards,” she chuckled.

She recalled her first local play, The Emperor’s New Clothes, presented in the 1968 in the O. V. Winks building at the 4-H Fairgrounds, before the Belfry’s current location on State Road 38 was even created. It also marked her creation of the Apprentice Players, an annual play staring local children. In addition to directing, she has acted in productions such as Driving Miss Daisy and Little Foxes.

Betty Lou told me about studying drama at Indiana University, where she met her late husband, well-known attorney, John Kyle. Theater was a family affair from that moment on. Both Betty Lou and John were founding members of the Hamilton County Theater Guild and acted in plays there throughout their marriage. Betty Lou laughs, recalling, “John even tied me to the railroad tracks once in the play 10 Nights In A Bar Room.”

All of her children, son John Kyle Jr., and daughters Amy Bradburn and Kathy Abrell appeared in Apprentice Player shows. And coincidentally, her granddaughter, McKenzie Kyle, now a professional actress in Los Angeles performed in a production of The Perfume Shop in Sarasota, Florida recently.

At age 82, being back in the theater with actors, set designers, props people and costumers looking to her for direction is admittedly intimidating, but Betty Lou says the excitement for building a show returned quickly. “Once the actors took the stage for preliminary readings I was drawing energy from them.”

The Perfume Shop is set in early 20th century Hungary during the Christmas holidays and is a light-hearted love story about two bickering co-workers who unknowingly exchange love letters as anonymous pen pals. It was the foundation of the Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan film, You’ve Got Mail.

In a series of coincidences, Betty Lou’s family history at the Belfry is echoed by the experiences of several other families involved in The Perfume Shop, giving the entire production a cozy feeling of close emotional bonds.

Mary Jo Bick, wife of assistant director, Jeff Bick, is the stage manager, and their son Michael is acting in the show. Long-time Belfry actor, Ginny Burt is joined on stage by nieces Anne Auwaerter and Fran Knapp. Gina Beckner and her small children, Emma and Jackson are all sharing their first stage experiences. And Jannette Wiles, a costumer on this production and a Belfry veteran of 37 years, will see her granddaughter, Grace perform in the show.

I stopped by the Belfry on a damp weeknight earlier this week. A scene was being rehearsed on stage. Other actors studied lines in various corners of the theater. Betty Lou and Jeff Bick sat side by side in the theater seats, note pads and play books in their laps, fielding questions from a costumer, then an actor, then they whisper ideas and questions back and forth together while three actors continue their scene on stage. Betty Lou shouts out to one, “Louder, Tom.”

Betty Lou attends to fewer details now than she might have 10 years ago, instead focusing on the actors and the final presentation of the story. Though she is a slight and soft-spoke women, when she begins offering direction to actors, many young enough to be her grandchildren, they fall hushed and focused, respectful of her professional stature and authoritative knowledge of what works on stage and what doesn’t.

Watching Betty Lou orchestrate this close-knit handful of families and Belfry veterans in what is likely her theatrical swan song is stirring. It reminds me of the many giants of this community I’ve been fortunate enough to know over the years, people who have, with passion and inspiration, made it a great place to live.

The Belfry Theater is located on 10690 Greenfield Avenue, just east of State Road 37. The Perfume Shop will run from November 25 to December 11th. Tickets can be reserved at http://www.thebelfrytheatre.com/

Friday, November 4, 2011

We Get The Government We Deserve: Coasting in Noblesville V

We’ve all gotten good lately at listing the things we hate about politicians in Washington. So why do we keep electing John Ditslear as mayor of Noblesville? As an office holder he embodies everything we say we dislike about politicians in Washington – and he does it right here in our town.

Unethical Campaign Financing
We groan about politicians who line their campaign accounts with special-interest money. That’s exactly what John Ditslear does. He holds golf outings, inviting businesses he knows want something from him or his employees.

Last time he ran for office, Ditslear had asked for and gotten over a quarter of a million dollars from city contractors and other entities that want or need city approval. Of that, more than 75% came from people who couldn’t vote for him.

The Indianapolis Star reported last week that a third of campaign funds raised by Indianapolis mayoral candidates, Greg Ballard and Melina Kennedy came from out of town sources. In little ol’ Noblesville, John Ditslear more than doubled that embarrassing figure, then defended it. In a Star article last January, he actually argued, “They [the donors] offer to help me get re-elected because they think I do a good job,” and “I don’t invite people because they do business with the city; I invite people who I think would enjoy a round of golf and a nice meal.”

Why would somebody from Naperville, Illinois (who last year gave Ditslear $1,550) or Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin (who last year gave $500) give a damn how good the mayor of Noblesville, Indiana is? Because they want something.

When was the last time you sent a campaign contribution to the Mayor of Naperville, or Sheboygan Falls?

And it’s actually gotten worse. Since April of this year Ditslear has raised $47,807. Of that, only 8% came from Noblesville voters*. That means 92% of his most recent influx of donor cash came from people who don’t live here, can’t vote here and don’t pay taxes here. That’s 3 times as much as the Indianapolis mayoral candidates.

Such campaign methods are illegal in 7 states and laws are pending to make it illegal in scores more.

Loose With The Facts
We say we hate politicians who spin their meager accomplishments into fantasy resumes. That’s exactly what Mayor Ditslear does.

He recently bragged of bringing 53 businesses to town last year. Look at his list (as I did in last week’s post) and you’ll find businesses that are already out of business, some who simply changed locations, others who only changed their name when bought out, and at least one who downsized because they were struggling, and yet Ditslear claimed it was a new business.

He also claims his Economic Development Department has created 2,200 new jobs in the past 10 years. But I can’t find any proof that this is true. I can only find a list of promised jobs – promises made over the years by corporations that the mayor gave tax breaks to (many are also his out of town campaign contributors). As best I can tell, nobody follows up to see if the promises are kept.

Despite these happy-horse-shit press releases from Ditslear’s City Hall the latest unemployment figures show Noblesville has the highest unemployment rate in the county. Carmel 6.1%, Fishers 5.8%, Hamilton County 6.2%, and Noblesville - 7.8%.

Sweetheart Deals To Insiders & Big Corporations
This past July Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear and his handpicked city council members approved a $7 million corporate welfare package for a company called Positron.

Positron is a Fishers company, so their employees already live nearby and won’t be relocating, the leaders of the company are under a constant cloud of suspicion for illegal activity, their stock value has been below ONE PENNEY! during recent weeks, and Fishers had the good sense to refuse the deal and say, “Go ahead, go to Noblesville. We don’t care.”

Meanwhile, other city projects, facilities, and services are subject to budget cuts.

Bullying and a Sense of Entitlement
We say we hate politicians who intimidate dissenters and feel entitled to their office. But in many ways, that describes John Ditslear’s conduct as mayor.

In 2007 I wrote a series of columns detailing Ditslear’s campaign finances and his successful plan to pack the city council with candidates sympathetic to him. He immediately went to the newspaper I wrote for (The Times) and tried to get me fired as a columnist. The publisher refused, but offered Ditslear equal space to rebut my columns. Ditslear didn’t rebut. He instead used his campaign war chest to fund mailers that accused people like me of “personal attacks,” then he went higher to the paper’s owners and tried again to get me fired as a newspaper columnist.

People told me Ditslear kept saying of my columns, “That’s not the way we do things in Noblesville.” Apparently he thought that being elected entitled him to power without scrutiny.

Sorry John, that’s not how we do things in America.

After the elections he went to a local civic group’s board meeting (whose board I sat on) and tried to get the Times’ publisher, who wouldn’t fire me as a columnist, removed from a city committee.

Petty retribution from a thin-skinned bully.

At that meeting I was more embarrassed for John Ditslear’s conduct than I’ve ever been for a local leader - ever. Every single person in the room lost respect for Ditslear that night.

That publisher – the one Ditslear was trying to blackball from city committees was his current opponent in next week’s election: Mike Corbett.

Mike never told me about Ditslear’s repeated verbal attacks on him for running my columns. I only heard about it from other employees at the paper and local citizens who witnessed them. When I tried to thank Mike for defending me, he brushed the issue aside. He didn’t do it for me. He did it because it was right. And even though Distlear was rude to him beyond imagining, Mike kept offering him equal space in the paper.

That’s because Mike is a gentleman, and a stand-up guy.

When Mike threw his hat in the ring last summer it required that a specified number of registered voters sign a petition on Mike’s behalf. By law, those petitions became public knowledge. After the signatures were verified by the county and Mike became a candidate, Ditslear apparently accessed the list and began harassing people who had signed it. I’m told he called some on the phone and confronted others in public asking why they signed. Most told me they replied something like, “Because I believe in democracy,” or that, “no politician should run unopposed.”

This is a tough time for politicians like John Ditslear. As a mayor he embodies all that offends us about politicians. He employs unethical campaign financing tactics, he inflates his meager successes beyond reason, he’s prone to inexplicably sweet deals with powerful insiders, and he apparently feels entitled to be in power, bullying those who dare question him.

We get the leaders we deserve, and Noblesville deserves better.

*I have not personally evaluated the 4/11-to-present campaign contributions. This particular data came from the web site of Candidate, Mike Corbett.

If you know someone who wants to receive The Contrarian columns, reply to kurtmeyer@talktotucker.com and include their email address. © 2011 by Kurt Meyer