There are 14 steps leading to the top floor of my house, where the bedchambers are located, and 13 down from the main floor to the man cave. I know that because I’ve occupied my castle for some 35 years, and I count them each time I ascend or descend those steps to avoid a misstep and potential fall, which surely could bring disastrous consequences to a man of my age. That’s especially true if the misstep is on a descent. As anyone knows who’s had trouble on flights of stairs will tell you, a misstep during an ascent is a mere break in the day compared to one that happens while descending.
The fact of the matter is my counting steps or brushing my teeth at the same time each morning or my two loads of laundry a week I do at the same time or a variety of other activities that are so very predictable are all parts of a life that have chosen me as much, if not more, as I have chosen them.
I think for most of us, the familiar patterns we’ve gathered over time, on the surface, may seem mundane because of their predictability. But those patterns also provide us a level of comfort because they are predictable. And, in an uncertain world, we need that.
I thought about that quite a bit recently after listening to a podcast of “This American Life.” The show’s episode, entitled “The Walls Close In,” originally aired last October when many were still in COVID lockdown. For fans of the series that runs on NPR, there is a theme for each installment of the long-running and very well-produced series, and in this episode, the segments were about people stuck in small spaces, such as in an elevator, an attic and an orchestra pit.
Of the three vignettes, the one that really captured my attention and reminded me of the importance of the predictabilities in life was the one that focused on those whose professional existence under normal circumstances is in an orchestra pit. Those musicians perform the same exact notes on their instruments at the same exact time and in the exact same way, night and matinee in and night and matinee out, for one of the most well-known, beloved and successful plays in Broadway’s history, “Phantom of the Opera,” which is the longest-running show in theater history.
Those who signed on for a very good salary to sit in the cramped confines of the orchestra pit when the show debuted in January of 1998 expected, as most plays, that their gig would last two, maybe three years. Much to their surprise, what several originals of the 27 musicians came to realize is they basically got the better part of an entire career. So, given the limited number of jobs available for classically trained musicians, that’s good, right?
Well, based on the interviews from some of the musicians before the show was shut down, the monotony of playing the same exact music in cramped quarters eight shows every seven days did breed some contempt as a result of its sameness. One musician likened that sameness of each day to the movie “Groundhog Day,” a movie that shows Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors, who was sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the holiday festivities, trapped in a time loop that forces him to relive the same day over and over.
However, after the Covid shutdown last March finally stopped all of Broadway and the Phantom’s record 13,000 straight shows, those on forced hiatus who were re-interviewed, as Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard once opined, realized the true worth of their water after their wells ran dry. The musicians said it wasn’t just the salary they missed but also the routine that once so defined their day-to-day lives, routines about which they once complained but routines they came to realize were important. What once seemed to be irksomely monotonous in hindsight had such great worth because it provided the framework for their lives and, thus, offered daily structure.
And, that’s the feeling I get about all of my routines, from the way I count those steps to the way I mow my lawn and on to the way I attack those deciduous trees’ leaves once they fall each late autumn. It’s a box I escape from time to time when I travel, but a box in which I’m always more than ready to return at the end of a trip.
Yes, so very much like those 27 musicians who will joyously return to their musical routines on Oct. 22 when the show commences yet again, to play the same notes in the same way day after day beneath the apron of those boards that the thespians will trod, there is indeed comfort in the same figurative notes I play day after day.
They are indeed the rhythms of my life.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest.