The Sh*t and the Pendulum

When I was in graduate school at Columbia University fifteen years ago, I was honored to serve as the great script author Peter Stone’s Associate for the Broadway production of The Will Rogers Follies.

Peter Stone

Peter was having a birthday and his friend, brilliant performer and director Mike Nichols (his wife is the gracious Diane Sawyer), visited us during rehearsal to watch the show. Mike is a genius. He can fix any script. His opinion is respected.

Mike Nichols

Mike makes people money with his advice. After viewing a run-through of the musical, Mike gave Peter a wonderful handwritten note: “You wrote your own birthday gift.”

Peter, a tough man as hard as his last name, glowed when he read aloud to me what Mike wrote to him. It was a rare and miraculous moment of Stone’s pride bowing to his own vulnerability in the darkness of the back row of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

In a conversation with me I am certain he does not remember Mike and I briefly discussed careers and living a good life. Mike loved Arabian horses at one time in his life and he purchased them from a farm in Nebraska so we had an immediate, if fleeting, tether.

I was surprised when Mike gave me this advice: “Life is a pendulum swinging into and out of sh*t.” After getting over his blunt take on life I realized his advice was accurate.

The key to living a good and happy life is being self-aware enough in knowing which way your pendulum is swinging: Are you swinging into the sh*t — if so, hunker down, conserve, be quiet and pinch your nose — or are you swinging out of the sh*t — get ready to take chances, be bold and live aggressively without holding your breath.

Too many people make life-changing decisions the moment they’re swinging headlong into sh*t.

When I was younger I took a personality test. One of the concepts you had to define was your take on the passing of time:

A). An old woman sitting in a rocking chair.B). A calm pond.

C). A waterfall.

I remember choosing the waterfall but now I wish Mike Nichols’ The Sh*t and the Pendulum had been a choice because as crass as it sounds it vividly rounds down all human senses and ticks away the messy, daily, routine of living an interactive life.