Only Connect, Stephen Sondheim, Magic Puzzle Company, Hit-and-Runs, Tony Romo’s Confidence

A Collection of Current Consumptions – December 2020.

For me, the act of discovery is engaging because it’s akin to that of solving a mystery. Not a mystery that necessitates any decoding, nor a mystery with any real stakes, and frankly not even a mystery that qualifies as a mystery, but a mystery in the sense that clues can be unearthed and followed to understand a subject’s story.

What do I mean by a “subject”? Well, I’m using it as an all-encompassing term that includes people, shows, concepts, moments, comforts, flavors, thrills, philosophies – the word “subject” is intentionally vague, and that’s what makes it useful.

Specifics come into play when I’m digging deeply into the trajectory of a subject to learn what it is, where it came from, and what it could become. As I dedicate more time to understanding this type of story structure, it simultaneously becomes easier to consume general narrative while also generating a hunger for more.

These stories are valuable because they improve my understanding of the landscape of the world by demonstrating what makes the planet tick at both macro and micro levels.

In a perfect world, stories operate on two levels: in the long-term they teach meaningful lessons about the human condition which can then be recalled at opportune junctures, and in the short-term they can serve as compelling escapism.

The discoveries I’ve assembled below are the subjects that have held my attention most thoroughly over the past few weeks. While the entries on the list may lack a firm connection to one another, I’m deliberately presenting them as a smorgasbord from which to sample.

OK, enough preamble. Here we go.

Only Connect – UK Game Show

Only Connect host, Victoria Coren Mitchell.

In Only Connect, two teams made up of three players face off in a four-round battle to answer questions and collect points. The format for each of the four rounds is distinct, and is as follows:

Round 1 — “Connections”. Teams attempt to discern what the given clues have in common with one another. Teams are awarded more points for correctly answering the question by using fewer clues, with a maximum of four clues being offered.

Round 2 — “Sequences”. Teams attempt to uncover what the fourth component in a sequence might be. Once again, teams are awarded more points for a correct answer if they use fewer clues, but this time the maximum number of clues offered is three.

Round 3 — “Connecting Wall”. Teams are given 16 words or short phrases and have two and a half minutes to try to sort them into four equal piles, with each grouping linked by a shared theme. If the teams can’t solve the wall entirely before time runs out, they will be given the correct groupings and awarded points for solely stating the connections.

Round 4 — “Missing Vowels”. The two teams go head-to-head by buzzing in and solving a mystery phrase using only a general category and the answer’s consonants as their clues.

Only Connect is a very difficult game on its own merits, but it’s especially tricky for non-UK citizens, with many of its questions revolving around heavily specific British culture. While I personally don’t get many questions correct (sometimes the answer is revealed and I’m still in the dark), I love that it forces my brain to think in a dynamic and underused manner.

What really elevates the show is the host, Victoria Coren Mitchell, who is at once both hilarious and highly intelligent. Due to this unique energy that she transmits, the show finds a way to not just be stimulating but also eminently watchable.

Stephen Sondheim – American Composer and Lyricist of Broadway Musicals

Though Stephen Sondheim is still alive and kicking at age 90, his legacy in live theatre is that of legend, with Company, Sweeney Todd, Sunday In The Park With George, and Follies counting amongst his major works. I must point out though that this short list doesn’t do his career justice, because he also produced Into The Woods, A Little Night Music, Assassins, Pacific Overtures and Passion. But even that list sells him short, as it doesn’t include shows in which he strictly wrote the lyrics, like West Side Story and Gypsy. If a person composed any single one of these shows, their career would be deemed a success, and Sondheim did it so often that it’s easy to become numb to his towering force of talent.

At present, as I attempt to scribble a short note that feels worthy of Stephen Sondheim, I become hyperaware of the grand scope worth saying about the man and his career, and I struggle to know what to include and where to stop. One day I’ll more completely formulate my thoughts on Sondheim and his legacy, and I’ll dedicate an entire piece of writing to him, because he deserves it.

For now, in lieu of any shard of certainty on that matter, I’ll just link a couple wonderful videos he’s in as an introduction to his personality, and then follow with a few specific notes about his character which help establish his all-around brilliance.

—> Once a musical reaches Broadway, the production rents recording studio time to create the Original Cast Album, so that a piece of the show will always live on. When the new musical Company went to record their album in 1970, a documentary team was granted access to record the day’s proceedings, which provided a visual window into the behind-the-scenes of a group of highly talented people as they went about their work. Chief among them was Stephen Sondheim, who the camera treasures as he thrives and agonizes in his element, balancing perfectionism and partnership.

The documentary is split into nine parts on Youtube, but this playlist includes all of it.

—> Sondheim has sparkling insight in every interview he gives, and because he’s such an intensely smart and well-spoken man, he can’t help but ooze charisma. Here’s a wide-ranging and wonderful talk with a lively James Lipton.

—> An observation that one can’t help but remark upon when listening to Sondheim speak is how mathematically he conceives shows. Music and math are brothers in arms, after all, but the beauty of conversing in arithmetic using melodies is that the audience can understand purely by feel why a show is first-class, despite not always knowing why.

Though I’ll never draw even with the way his mind works, Sondheim is the kind of person whose thoughts you want to consume, because he forces you onto your toes, and makes you play catch up. This is something that the listener grows a greater appreciation for over time, and it’s why audiences can’t help but come back for more.

—> I think my favorite takeaway from consuming lectures that Sondheim has given is that for as singular of a man as we know him to be, he was always first to point out that collaboration was his greatest strength while writing a show.

In any team environment, and especially in creative endeavors, ego is always an underlying threat to derail the process. Yet the man whose talent dwarfed all others treated partnership as his secret weapon. This is a lead we’d all be better off following.

Magic Puzzle Company – Puzzling With A Surprise

These puzzles were a Kickstarter project that went live over the summer and raised $3.4 million. For me, the allure of the secrecy was enough to pique my interest, but the fact that an independent company was employing independent artists to make the puzzle art was really what won the day and made the financial commitment easy to make.

I funded the project at the top level ($50), which meant I received all three puzzles that were created. As soon as I received the package containing the puzzles, I couldn’t help myself and quickly completed two of them, having fun both times. As advertised, the level of detail in every puzzle piece was remarkable, and the way the pieces locked together demonstrated that the quality of the product was strong at every level.

I don’t want to say too much about the specifics of what happens when you complete the puzzle (why ruin the fun?!), but the “surprise ending” brings an enjoyable finality to the process.

In my opinion, puzzles should be treated like books in that when you’re finished with one, it should be passed on to someone new who might also appreciate its journey. To that end, I’m looking forward to the first-hand feedback I’ll receive from the people who I pass these puzzles on to, after they’ve taken a crack at solving them.

So, for those on the lookout for a puzzle that’s more difficult in a way that’s not just “more pieces”, the Magic Puzzle Company is for you. While the Kickstarter for this round of puzzles has finished, the good news is they worked out a deal with Target, so the puzzles can still be purchased in time for the holidays! Enjoy!

Hit-and-Runs – Caring For Our Fellow Human

These types of numbers are incredibly eye-opening, and the only way we can begin to improve them is if, as a society, we come together and better educate and encourage people to do the right thing when they’re involved in a hit-and-run. This means being proactive with educating people before they find themselves in the delicate situation.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do want to be part of the solution, and the first step is to draw attention to the problem’s existence.

To some sizable extent (it’s obviously impossible to put a number on it) the act of people fleeing in the aftermath of an accident is rooted in the overwhelming feeling of panic that accompanies the moment. Once again, we must combat this instinct of choosing flight over fight by finding a way to continually educate and remind the public of what the proper steps to take are before the situation occurs.

Particularly in the more serious incidents, every second matters, and it’s foolhardy to believe that any of us wouldn’t feel emotionally compromised on some level in the resulting moments, thereby inhibiting our ability to think and act intelligently. For this reason, we should spend time strengthening the muscle memory within ourselves so that a sense of “training” takes over when the brain has seized up. This can potentially limit the total harm that comes from the situation, and if even one life can be saved it’s worth the minor time commitment that comes with the education.

No one wants to end up being the reason an accident has occurred, but they happen, and consistent re-teaching of proper accident protocols is the best preventative measure from things spiraling from bad to worse.

One final note is that on top of equipping ourselves with better protection against disaster, when armed with the skillset of “being prepared in difficult moments”, we have the ability to use that in other contexts, including deploying the knowledge as a bystander when other people are in need of help. Through preparation, not only do we strengthen ourselves, but we become available to shape the world for the better as well.

Tony Romo – A Quote On Confidence

Tony Romo was a long-time NFL quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. After he retired, he stuck around the league and picked up a part-time job by shifting into the play-by-play booth to become a color analyst on Sundays. As a result of this career change, Romo found himself with a lot of extra time on his hands, and he decided to follow in the footsteps of other retirees by dedicating himself to the game of golf.

Unlike most retired people though, Romo is still only 40 years old and has trained and competed as a professional athlete his entire adult life, so when he mentions his aspiration to one day qualify for The Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, his words can’t be entirely brushed off.

If the odds of successfully making it as a professional athlete in one sport are astronomical, Romo doing it twice would be an accomplishment that few in history ever achieve. To that point, when Romo was asked in a recent interview about how he approaches the art of practicing golf – and specifically why he’s confident he will eventually succeed – Romo’s competitive spirit came out, and he dialed in a terrific response:

“You get confident by showing yourself you should be confident. Go practice, make it 100%. You want to eliminate left? Eliminate it. Hit 100 balls, never start one left of the flag. Go ahead, do that. Now you’re gonna get confident. It’s demonstrated ability.”

Confidence is demonstrated ability. Perform enough intentional practice, and The Masters might not be such a long shot after all.

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