I've given some thought to excellence over the past few days. My work on a two minute video for a Cleveland Tourism contest was interrupted by the nine hour road trip to my nephew's senior concert at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Sam did a great job, as did the other guitarists, high school students demonstrating the lush reward of preparation.
Most of my time en route to and from Michigan was accompanied by randomly downloaded TED talks offered by titans of creativity like Ben Dunlap: The story of a passionate life and Louise Fresco on feeding the whole world. At TED, each speaker distills his/her expertise into 18 pure and often evocative minutes. One of my favorite 'talks' was wordless, Eric Lewis: Striking chords to rock the jazz world. Excellent.
By the time I emerged from the Vulcan mind meld with TED on wheels, I knew I'd pass on the Cleveland video project. Why? Because I had no heart for excellence-lite.
Here's an analogy. I once worked in Switzerland with barely a word of German to my name. On the Swiss farm we spoke with hands, copious head nodding and kind smiles. We lost a lot in translation.
Three years later, I lived in Germany with an excellent tool to fit the experience: fluency. I talked with Germans about slavery, the Holocaust, WW II, Vietnam, religion, food and art. I dreamed auf Deutsch, got the jokes and made lifelong friends who no longer thought of Americans as vacuous gum-chewing TV addicts.
What do you call a thing that excites you, intrigues you, enriches and enthralls you? Love. Right.
Kiran Desai conjures young love in her novel, The Inheritance of Loss, with words like these:
When they would finally attempt to rise from those indolent afternoons they spent together, Gyan and Sai would have melted into each other like pats of butter - how difficult it was to cool and compose themselves back into their individual beings.
And old love with these:
Father Booty looked about at his craggy bit of mountainside - violet bamboo orchids and pale ginger lilies spicing the air; a glimpse of the Teesta far below that was no color at all right now, just a dark light shining on its way to join the Brahmaputra. Such wilderness could not incite a gentle love - he loved it fiercely, intensely.
And here we have a modern myth shattered by a few exquisite phrases. The myth that tells us fiery love is for the young, with a bland assortment of affection left over for the elderly.
But of course, all that warrant-less ageism serves no one, for all of us do age. Why not face the truth of inexhaustible ardor?
They've been community organizers all their young adult lives, traveling the US, Brazil, Nicaragua, Nepal and beyond to learn, and help. One of them recommended I read Nonviolence, by Mark Kurlansky; the other sent me The Inheritance of Loss, by Karin Desai.
I started reading Nonviolence before going to see the young gift givers, dug into The Inheritance of Loss during the visit and plan to finish off Nonviolence (as would the rest of the pampered few) when I'm done reading the novel.
The two books tell the same story in very different ways. The journalist sets the stage, the novelist fills it with humanity as I, the audience, weep. It's a story a lot of us fight to ignore, and one a whole lot more, who barely survive the underbelly of the beast, can't.
Add to my reality book-burger (vegetarian, of course) a certain picante dressing served up by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot on Bill Moyers Journal, talking about a passion-rich life at any age:
Burnout is not about working too hard. Or working too diligently or being overcommitted. Burnout is about boredom.
Answer: The story.
So Chilean novelist Isabel Allende tells the story of carrying the Olympic flag for the 2006 Olympic Games.
She shared the honor with Italian actress Sophia Loren, American actress Susan Sarandon, Nobel Peace-prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya, Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco, Manuela Di Centa of Italy, Maria Mutola of Mozambique and Cambodian human rights activist Somaly Mam. It was the first time eight women carried the Olympic flag.
In this story, Sophia Loren ('the universal symbol of beauty and passion') is the star; Isabel Allende is her foil. It is a humorous, self effacing segue into Allende's passion for writing. Some quotes:
Consider the gradual co-opting of religious capital by the world's power brokers:
'The religious doctrine of peace meets the power politics of state, the rules are bent for the 'just war,' and once the first few doses are administered the state becomes an addict that will tell any lie to get its narcotic. War is simply the means. The real narcotic is power. As Hungarian writer Gyögy Konrád said of the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, "Men can invent few libidinous fantasies more enjoyable than those of world domination." The African-American poet Langston Hughes called the leading nations "the nymphomaniacs of power."'
Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence
If artists and other thinkers are called to speak truth to power (and I think we are), just maybe it's the artists who have the most effective voice.
BILL MOYERS: Can fiction tell us something about inequality that journalism can't?
Is piracy a lost art, recently revived by industrious Somalis and Wall-Streeteers?
Pirates are bold, adventurous, swash buckling advocates of social change. So far, so good. Except for the nature of change they seek, amounting to millions in cash delivered to their treasure vaults. They're in it for the booty (not the beauty).
I complimented a swimmer on his elegant stroke yesterday, to which he replied, 'Elegance doesn't win races.'
'Why do swimmers compete with speed instead of style?' I asked him.
'You can't measure style,' he said.
Lately I've been out on the deep blue sea of Drupal, the content management software that makes a site like this possible. Setting up a podcast within the site is not a streamlined process, but the elegance of having it here keeps me going. When I get this entrenched in something I have no business learning (I studied theology and nursing, not computer science) I have to ask, 'what's the payoff?' Clearly, it's not about dollars, euros or Somali shillings.
Then, of course, I need look no further than the latest inspiring bit of art to remember this: technical skill is the life blood of any artist. Without it, the necessary work of art dangles in thin air, without a clue.
OK. So I'm excited. Podcasts will soon be found on this site and you may be my next featured guest. Its name is a secret (unless you click on the player at the top of this post). Through podcasting, I'd like to explore creative process in conventional and not so expected art forms. To get to the nub of artistic productivity.
There must be compelling reasons so many people do art.
'Soon' is a relative term, of course. Right now I'm learning with Podcasting for Dummies, GarageBand tutorials, Drupal screencasts and manuals. The peach is ripe. Things like 'Wow!' 'Cool!' 'Huh?... oh!' spurt out of me at regular intervals. And we have yet to record the theme song -- yes!
In a certain episode of the popular Battlestar Galactica TV series, Laura Roslin, president of the colonies, receives a cancer-curing blood transfusion from a human-cylon baby.
Cylons, for the uninitiated, are robot slaves originally created by humans. The Cylons not only rebelled and escaped from the colonies, they retooled themselves as human look alikes and have now, 40 years later, returned to avenge their grievances. They nuke the humans. Some 50,000 colonists escape into space, with Laura Roslin more or less in charge.
The expansive story arc, digital effects and social commentary of BSG's universe give the willing imagination enormous sci fi pleasure. In a recent podcast, BSG writers discuss one possible future for the Laura Roslin character post cylo-human blood transfusion: Let's say the cylon blood type, besides curing cancer, begins to change Laura into a (much hated, especially by L.R.) Cylon. Cell by cell, she morphs into her worst enemy.
I've been spending a lot of time with trainers and tech forum members on the web lately, because they have a lot to teach about the tools for making the movies and podcasts I'm aching to dig into. Except for just a few ornery souls, the computer savvy form an exceedingly helpful community, often giving away valuable expertise for free.
This approach defies the supply & demand model of Capitalism, where a product in limited supply, desired by many, can and often does command a hefty price. Here's a little insight from a self proclaimed nerd, Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. He talks about nerd values in a 2008 Think interview:
Q: You’ve said you’ve built a business based on “nerd values.” What are nerd values? And what would our country be like right now if we had leaders who embraced them?
April 7th has always pleased me. For one thing, I was born on it, 'a lovely spring day,' according to reliable sources. Thanks Mom (and Dad). Here in northeast Ohio, where the seventh of April is often blustery cold, today is no exception. But it stirs my inner nymph without fail, sensory evidence notwithstanding.
Last night was the perfect birthday party, nine of us came in out of the white stuff to the sushi bar, tanked up on weak green tea, chowed down with chopstix and porcelain spoons. Our chef produced intricately decorated entrées on wide plates; we served each other soy sauce on wee rectangular ones, mopping up the overflow with white napkins, all hands on deck. Our movie after the meal had us settled in and laughing in a relaxed, storytelling mood the Hanks father-son serve up as haute cuisine in The Great Buck Howard - a film none of us knew much about but didn't mind imbibing since, hey, the company was stellar.
If you've read this far, you may be wondering where I'm going with all this on a site about art and creativity. The one small fact I failed to mention is that I was one of three in the bunch who knew it was somebody's birthday eve. For me, this was perfect. The hoopla of birthday bashes, when I'm in the hot seat...