Saturday, December 22, 2012

What Kind of A Wonderful Life Is It?

            We take the kids to a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life at the downtown theater.  I’ve always been ambivalent about the film.  It seems a version of The Giving Tree, a narrative of destructive self-sacrifice.  George Bailey foregoes his own hopes and his future for the needs of his family and community.  Then, what happens to his dreams deferred?  They explode.  George cracks, lashes out, and is driven to the brink of suicide.  But then, the film pulls back, and gives a seemingly happy ending with a deus ex machina.
            Nevertheless, off we went.  I hadn’t seen it for years, never with my children, and never on the big screen.   This combination made the experience much more interesting than I thought it would be.
            I was struck by the way the movie gets some small details about family right.  The putting of tinsel on George’s head even as he’s losing it.  The daily annoyance of the imperfect house that literally comes apart in his hands.
            My children were struck by the fact that George Bailey smoked.  In fact, they were shocked.  How could the hero smoke?  And, from their point of view, he wasn’t much of a hero anyway.  He didn’t seem to do anything (which, of course, is the film’s central theme).  They kept wanting to know when the story was going to start.  And, having been introduced to the idea of the angel from the beginning, my son kept asking, “When’s the angel coming?  Where is he?”  Clarence has very little screen time, but when he does arrive, he’s wonderful with quirky mannerisms, an odd reticence, and old-fashioned charm.  However, I think my son was somewhat bewildered and disappointed.
            Late in the film, when George comes home, frantic, unable to find the money that Potter has stolen, he rages at Mary, “Why did we have to have all these kids anyway?” My wife and I laughed out loud.  We understood the complexity of this moment.  His frustration and ambivalence.  His love and sense of confinement.  It’s more powerful and believable than his attack on Uncle.  (And what is he doing giving Uncle Billy, a life-long air-head, such responsibility anyway?)  Our reaction to George’s poor parenting, however, made our children nervous.  Why were we amused at this attack on the kids?  Nor did they understand why their mother, a teacher, was laughing at the argument between George and Zuzu’s teacher and husband. 
            As with many films, I find myself most intrigued by little details.   There is a skull on Potter’s desk with a chain that leads to George.  When the men watch Violet cross the street and walk up the block, one says something to the effect, “I have to go see my wife.”  There are several references to “potter’s field” – the cemetery of the poor.  Without the Bailey family’s presence, Potter would make the place a graveyard, a dumping ground, one that doesn’t recognize people’s individuality even in death. After all, many are simply “garlic eaters” – a slur against Italians that I had to explain to my wife.
            After having learned that, in a world without George Bailey, his brother would have died, the people on the troopships would have died, the town would be a degraded cesspool of sin, what is revealed to be the worst possible consequence?  Mary’s fate. Without him, this beautiful, educated, intelligent, strong woman would have been a spinster and . . . gasp . . . a librarian.  Oh, the horror.  In a film of fantasy, this seemed hardest to believe.
            Afterwards, when I asked my kids what they liked, the seven year old son said, “When they all jumped into the pool.”  My daughter agreed and added, “And when she lost her robe.  That was funny.”  That was about it.  How this came to be considered a “family film,” one for children, is puzzling.  And what they remember isn’t any supposed message, but the moments of cruelty: spraying seltzer into the face of the drunken broken pharmacist, keeping the money Uncle Billy misplaces, getting punched in the face and thrown into the snow.  It’s the age-old problem of representing evil; it can be more memorable and affect us more.
            Although this won’t end up being a holiday tradition of ours, I am struck by the movie’s audaciousness.  In 1946, immediately after World War II, here is a story offering a complicated examination of the nature of heroism and the way doing “the right thing” can stifle and corrode us.
            Then, it pulls back.  We love snowfalls, in part, because they cover up, temporarily, the ugliness of the world.  Even a garbage dump looks beautiful under a layer of snow.  So, it’s not surprising that the stopping and starting of snow falling is a key concept of the film.  The ending is a willful glossing over of what the story has revealed. 
            Or perhaps this feel-good film, this “inspirational” holiday classic, is actually a masterpiece of irony.  After all, it seems to say that it would take a miracle, a supernatural event, an angel coming from heaven, to understand and appreciate what you have accomplished and to keep even the best of us from jumping off a bridge.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Questions for Musician and Composer Michael Dodds

Michael Dodds serves as Head of Music History at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he also conducts the UNCSA Wind Ensemble. A specialist in Baroque music, Dodds completed his Ph.D. in musicology at the Eastman School of Music.  In addition to his work as a teacher, musician, and director, he currently is writing a book on the role of the organ in Baroque Office liturgy.

How would you describe what you do? 

I express creativity in many ways, but for purposes of this conversation, I compose music, and sacred music in particular. In my “day job” I’m a musicologist, but musicology and composition have always been linked for me. What first drew me to music theory and history as a kid, and what still motivates me, is the desire to understand composers’ compositional processes. That said, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started composing music for public use, so I consider myself a novice. A recent milestone for me was the performance of the first movement of a choral symphony, commissioned for my church’s 150th anniversary. Discussions are currently underway regarding a performance of the full four-movement work at a choral festival in the spring.

Is this different than what other people think you do?

I’m not sure what people think I do, but most people in my life see only one or two of the areas where I express creativity. Probably some people think of me as a musicologist or music history professor, while others think of me mainly as a church musician or a conductor. My roles at UNCSA and my church differ quite a bit, but each nourishes the other in many ways, including compositionally.

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?

Early in my compositional process, I begin to hear in my mind what I want the music to be. Increasing confirmation I’m on the right track comes in stages—at the first imagining, at the first notation, upon completing the notation, and then at first hearing and at performance.

How do you go about making choices?

For me, composition (and pre-composition) involves several different mental states, and the nature of choice differs in these different states. Some choices are so intuitive I feel the work is simply finding itself; others require careful analysis and deliberation.

For me the biggest challenge in composing comes with when and how to move from one mental state to another. Too soon, and I get bogged down in the next stage; too late, and I lose good material. If a sacred text is involved, I often employ the monastic practice of lectio divina:  read it over and over, analyze it, pray it, and finally let the text read me, so to speak. That’s mostly pre-compositional, but the music comes out of that. When I am doing what I call dream-work, I open my mind and the music simply comes to me. I’m not really conscious of making choices until I begin to imagine alternative versions; but then I usually find those choices easy to make. Notating what I am hearing in my head requires a different mental state. As I begin to notate what comes into my head, I face lots of little choices that were not necessarily envisioned in my first intuitive imaginings, and I easily get bogged down at this stage, especially if a computer is involved, so paper works best for me until I’ve got a certain amount down. Likewise, for me, writing counterpoint involves a completely different state of mind than writing a melody and finding harmonies for it—there’s a lot of calculating involved. In orchestrating, I usually know early on what colors I want to hear, but at times—particular when figuring out how best to support a choir or achieve a particular, complex effect—I have to think very analytically.

I might add that throughout the whole creative process, my choices are guided by knowing who I’m writing for—these specific singers, this congregation, these particular instrumentalists. My choices are guided by what I think will make them sound their best, and, within the realm of my own imagination, what I think they’ll connect with.

How do you know when you’re done?

When the performance is over. In my recent big piece, I tweaked a few things in the orchestration at the dress rehearsal, and there are a couple of very minor details I’d like to change for the next performance.

What’s your workspace like?

I don’t have just one workspace; each type of mental task I do best in a different place. My best “dream work” I accomplish at the beach—the sound of the surging waves helps me hear my own thoughts like nothing else. When I’m working through harmonies, I often sit at the piano in a beautiful little chapel at my church. The very time-intensive work of orchestration I have to do sitting at my office desk at home—I have to have a computer with a huge screen turned to portrait orientation, or I can’t see the entire orchestral score all at once. When I’m trying to solve a particular harmonic or contrapuntal problem, it often doesn’t matter where I am; a few times, I’ve found solutions to complex contrapuntal or harmonic problems while driving, gardening, or even sleeping.

What are your essential tools?

Pencil, paper, piano, computer with notation software.

What’s the most surprising tool you use?

I’ve composed some choral miniatures by singing into a Zoom digital audio recorder, improvising and revising take after take until I get it just right, and then writing down that final version. The audio recorder helps ensure I don’t lose anything, but by the time I’ve improvised my way to the final version, I don’t usually need to actually listen to the recording.

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?

One time I was having a trombone ensemble play at my church, so I wrote an anthem for trombone sextet and choir. Quite aside from the challenging instrumentation, my compositional choices were not inspired ones. In particular, I did not spend enough “dream time,” really imagining what I would want to hear from that unusual scoring—I just started writing, falling back on some familiar strategies that fell flat. People were nice but it was a lead balloon. But there was one good bit from that piece, a little Alleluia, which has made it into the worship life of my church as a liturgical response, so it wasn’t a complete failure.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

As a music historian, I know too much for my own good as a composer, and this can get in my way. I’ve read lots of music criticism from all eras, and until recently the values of most critics, especially from 20th century, crippled me as a composer. If you buy into the prevailing critical perspective that you have to be original, you’ll never write anything, because there’s usually going to be someone who’s done it already, and done it better than you could do it. But I’ve come to reject that suffocating notion, and just as painters talk about painting as a way of seeing, I regard composing as a way of hearing—re-expressing past musical languages in my own voice to a community uniquely situated in the present.

What’s the best?

This year, I’ve been holding on to two good bits of advice. Every year at UNCSA commencement, actress Rosemary Harris, the honorary muse of UNCSA, gets up and reads a famous Martha Graham quotation:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.

Hearing this year after year in UNCSA commencement, it has gradually sunk in, and given me courage to renew my aspirations as a composer, which I’d had since childhood but had shut down for various reasons. I especially like the line “you do not even have to believe in yourself or your work,” because there are times that I haven’t, or don’t, so I trouble myself less with that now, and just compose.

The other good advice was from composer David Maslanka, who reminded me that, as he put it, “no one else is listening.” You don’t have to please anyone except yourself, musically speaking; write what you yourself want to hear, and then you’ll write much better music than if you try to match somebody else’s notion of what’s good. I don’t know any other path toward authenticity in artistic expression.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

American Kite Flyers

            There are two famous kite flyers in American culture, and they stand in contrast to one another.  The first is Benjamin Franklin.  The image of him flying a kite in a thunderstorm has become iconic for a number of reasons.  It is a symbol of curiosity and courage.  It contains the idea of flight and play.  The key is important as Franklin, through ingenuity, unlocks nature’s secrets about electricity.  He is the common man who makes discoveries about the universe using things around the house.  It doesn’t require expensive equipment.  It doesn’t require living in a cultural capitol or having a university education.  It requires a DIY sensibility and an active mind.
            Franklin goes from being an indentured apprentice to one of the most important figures of his time. The exemplar and representative of the self-made man, he is a founding father, diplomat, business person, journalist, inventor, writer, craftsperson, philanthropist, community organizer.  There is little he is not able to do.
            The second American kite flyer is Charlie Brown, and he is not nearly as successful.
            Whenever Charlie Brown tries to fly a kite, it gets eaten by a tree.  Nature, malevolent nature, continually defeats him.
            Growing up I read Peanuts collections like You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown over and over.  I loved Charles Schulz's work. Perhaps I instinctively understood I knew these people.  In my thirties, when I went to Brooklyn for the first time, I recognized for the setting of Sesame Street, and, I realized urban kids might have a different understanding and relationship with the show.  The environment of “Peanuts” is Midwestern.  They don’t go hiking in the mountains; they don’t boat or ski.  They don’t live in high rises. The speech is flat, and the land is flat.  They are the solid, flat children of American, struggling to find some kind of meaning and purpose.
            In college, however, I began scorning the strip as "cutesy." I felt it was feel-good humor as opposed to hard-hitting satire.  I became too hip and too intellectual for Charlie Brown.  I lumped "Peanuts" together with those other archaic strips:  "Hagar the Horrible," "Beetle Bailey," "Dennis the Menace," and "Family Circus."  They were a stale, even fossilized, humor.  I still read comics, but my tastes ran to the seemingly more sophisticated "Bloom County," "Calvin and Hobbes," and "Doonesbury." 
            Then, one day, I began glancing at "Peanuts" again, and I noticed the strip was full of oblique humor and non-sequiturs.  I joked to friends that it was improving as Schulz became senile. In a strip I taped to my computer printer, Sally asks Charlie Brown, "Are the days getting longer or shorter?"  He responds, "Actually they're getting narrower.  Some mornings when you get up, the day is so narrow you can hardly squeeze in."  In the last panel, as Sally says "I never know what you're talking about," Charlie Brown notes, "Today seems to be pretty wide."
            Re-watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, with its portrayal of a world of commercialism which reveres pink aluminum Christmas trees, I realized Schulz wasn’t changing; the subtle surreal satire had always been there.  I looked seriously at the strip and began to appreciate the wordplay of miscommunication and non-communication, the unthinking cruelty and self-centeredness of some characters, and the poetic loneliness of others. A sadness permeates his work, and nowhere is it more evident than in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Charlie Brown and Linus try to connect to an authentic emotion.
            Far from being sentimental, Schulz draws characters who are flawed, cruel, deluded, materialistic, and egotistical.  They are vain, dirty, and loud.  They have irrational beliefs, such as The Great Pumpkin, and obsessions.  They are, in short, us.

            In a PBS documentary, Ralph Lerner points out that Franklin never tells us something important in his Autobiography.  He never tells us that he’s a genius.  Consequently being like him is impossible.
            Charlie Brown stands in contrast.  “Peanuts” composed one strip at a time over decades is a monument to failure or, as Schulz said, “rejection” and unrequited love.  It’s key figure, Charlie Brown, cannot fly a kite, cannot kick a football, cannot win a baseball game, cannot get the little red-haired girl to notice him.  No one respects or believes in him.  He could be any of us.
            Ironically, in offering this vision, Schulz, himself, becomes an astounding American success story.  By the end of his life, he has created a beloved cultural institution and a financial and artistic empire.
            Benjamin Franklin flew a kite once and in his autobiography gave us an inspirational story, one that suggested who we could be.  Charlie Brown failed to fly a kite over and over, and in his work Shulz’s gives us a funny, sad, beautiful, story, one that shows who we are.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Next Week Game

            In graduate school, I had to take an American Literature course that I was interested in, but, as it turned out, the professor was not.  Perhaps he had grown tired of teaching or bored with the standard works on the syllabus, or perhaps he had other distractions, but he never made it through the three hour seminar. Each week, after making a half-hearted effort to cover the usual literary elements, such as symbols or characters or clichés like “half-hearted,” he would conclude, "It’s pretty self-explanatory.  Any questions?"  When he said, "For next week...," we knew we would be outside within seconds.
            At some point, as we filled our coffee mugs before class, someone said, "I bet we're done by 6:15" and when another replied, "Or even six," The Next Week game was born.  A half dozen of us would put money into a pool and pick the time we thought the class would end.  From then on, the seminar became much more interesting.
            Like gamblers at a racetrack, each week we would discuss what we thought were the key elements to consider.  What did the day's reading involve?  Was it close to his specialty?  What was the weather?  Was something happening in his personal life that might make him want to go home or avoid going home?  Some of us would wait to pick a time until he came down the hall, hoping to distinguish something in his posture, facial expression, or gait.  (It was, in a way, a practical analysis and application of setting, character, and motivation.)
            I was good at The Next Week Game.  I seemed to sense which days he would end exceptionally early and when he would seem to have resolved to stay a respectable length of time. I even became a little scared by my prowess.  Did I have a special insight into this seemingly burnt-out professor?  If so, what did that say about me?
            As the term progressed, we developed a code.  No questions could be asked which would deliberately prolong the class.  In fact, no questions should be asked at all.  We would sit in silence and look back and forth between the professor, our watches, and the list of bets that each of us had copied.  Of course, thanks to our behavior, classes were let out earlier and earlier.
            Then, one day, I found myself conflicted.  It was a sunny crisp afternoon, so most of us had bet on a particularly early dismissal.  No one would want to stay indoors on such a day.  Except  . . . I did.  I had found the assigned reading fascinating, and I wanted to hear people's ideas about it.  When the professor said, "Any questions?," I felt torn.  I didn't want to violate the unspoken rules of the game, but, yes, I did have a question.  A lot of them.  People began packing their bags, and then, just before the professor said, "For next week. . ." I spoke.  "There was something I was wondering about," I said.  My classmates turned to me in disbelief.  This was an unsporting tampering.
            I wish I could say that we ended up having the best class of the term, that we had a deep, meaningful exchange which crackled with enthusiasm, but that didn't happen.  It was far too late to change the dynamic.  Classes like cakes become set after a while. I asked my questions, but even the one or two people who had read the material didn't want to discuss them.  After a painful few extra minutes, the professor let us go.
            Outside, my colleagues confronted me:  "What were you doing?  You screwed up the game."  Some were convinced I had engaged in a deliberate ploy.  For a moment, I felt a surge of anger and frustration.  I felt like reminding them we weren't spending thousands of dollars for a chance to win six bucks a week. We were there for an education, and maybe we were going to have to insist upon it.  If he didn’t feel like teaching us, for whatever reason, we would have to teach ourselves.  I felt like being sarcastic and saying, "Excuse me for wanting to learn something.  I don't know what I was thinking."  But I also realized this sudden shift to righteousness would be ridiculous. Instead, I shrugged.
            "Sorry," I said.
            The next week we played the game again.  The professor looked at me when he asked if there were any questions; I stayed silent.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Beer Lessons

            Years ago, in graduate school, I moved into a house, one with a garage, and, suddenly, after living in dorms and apartments, I had space. I could have used the garage for all kinds of things: a workshop, a game room with a pool table, even as a place to park the car; I decided to use it to make beer.  I’m not sure where the idea came from.  I might have passed a hobby kit in a store, or maybe someone gave me one as a present.  I had never known anyone who made beer or wine, and I had no cooking, scientific, or mechanical skills, but I did think that it would be cool to say I was a brewmaster (rather than a graduate student).  That seemed motivation enough.  I had the space and the casual curiosity, so I bought myself a bucket, a hydrometer, and a bag of bottle caps.
            Over the course of my career as a brewer, I made two batches, and I learned some key lessons.
            One, as every beermaker and winemaker will tell you, cleanliness is key.  Dirt destroys the process, and the “five second rule” is no longer a viable guideline. Two, cleanliness takes time and energy and attention to detail. “That’s good enough” is usually more hopeful than accurate. And three, things don’t stay clean.  You may sanitize the bottles, but you can’t then leave them outside while you go play Frisbee golf.
            The first batch I made was undrinkable. Whatever had happened in the containers, the result wasn’t a “smooth mellow Oatmeal Porter with hints of chocolate and coffee.”
            I decided to be more focused and purposeful in making the second batch. I sanitized and scrubbed and actually tried to follow the directions.  As a result, I ended up with liquid that was much more beer-like.  However, while the bottles of the first batch were inert, the bottles of the second foamed viciously when you opened them.  A sink didn’t provide enough of a catchment; you had to uncap them over a bathtub or outside. We named them Volcanoes. They were difficult to drink, tasted terrible, and, as it turned out, gave cruel hangovers.  And yet, my friends and I were in graduate school.  The idea of pouring beer down the drain just because it was bad and might make us sick or blind didn’t occur to us. We drank them all.  Eventually.
            When you make something, you learn about yourself and this includes what you might be capable of, but simple don’t or won’t do. I had none of the technical or aesthetic skills needed to make beer.  Nor was I interested in developing them.  And I quickly realized that. No matter how romantic the image of brewer seemed to be, I wasn’t that interested in doing what it took to make a drinkable, let alone a good, product.  This was a valuable lesson.
            Another, however, may have been just as important.  At a party, where I was trying to unload the second batch, a friend tasted one, hoisted it in the air, and said, “You have mastered the beer-making process.” I thought that he was mocking me.  Everyone knew the stuff was terrible, and I noticed that he didn’t finish the bottle I gave him.  Since that moment I’ve known, don’t take reviews too seriously, especially when they come from friends.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Questions for Diana Greene, Multimedia Artist

A journalist, documentarian, author, photographer, and editor, Diana Greene also works as a visiting artist in the schools, teaching students narrative writing and photography. Her photographs have been exhibited at The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, The Light Factory in Charlotte, N.C., PhotoSPIVA, university and commercial galleries as well as public libraries.  In 2011, the University of Melbourne added several of her works to its permanent collection. She has earned numerous awards and fellowships, including the Weir Farm artist in residency fellowship in 2010, and residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  She's also been awarded teaching grants from the Arts Councils of Arizona, North Carolina, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. 

How would you describe what you do?  

I’m a Sagittarian. Couldn’t you have started with something simple like what’s my sign! I was born on December fifth at 8:18 in the morning, which may be a fact or it may be the train my father always took into Manhattan, the 8:18. In any case, I create photo narratives that are loosely based on real life but made with a great deal of chance and looseness. I blend documentary work with dream life. Long ago, when I began writing personal essays, I decided to call my writing faction – a blend between fact and fiction. I like the blurry lines, the smudgy possibilities, the left out and inserted elements. This year I created a performance piece called A Dozen Dresses: The ReCollection, which finally distilled all my loves – stories, images, music, video, memory, humor and emotion. I spent a long time learning photography and this project made me feel that my writing and images really danced well together on stage that night.

Not to be forgotten, I also teach. I absolutely love it and find it a creative charge to figure out how to explain well what I do to others and inspire them to try. I’m a creativity evangelist. 

Is this different than what other people think you do?

I have no idea what people think I do, but I bet they’re confused because I am.

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?

Ideas and images start showing up, waking me up, bringing me up to the studio where I work.

How do you go about making choices?

Does it tell you anything that I could answer that question in a number of ways? Choices are a part of every moment. In my work, I like to limit the elements in play. There is something minimal and tailored about the work I create. I love form. I love playing with forms. The work I make is always changing, so the form also varies and I’ve had to learn a ton of techniques and technology to keep pace with my muse. I began my career at a CBS radio station. Then I went to CNN. Television and radio are extremely formulaic, tight, and exhilarating. Photography is also confined by its frame, its form - the rectangle or square. I’ve written almost everything but have never wanted to write a novel, for example – too rambling and vast. I’m guided by two ideas that are not my own – one says art is selection and the other defines art as a means to creating experience. I do aim to create an experience whether it’s in a still frame, a story, or a classroom. 

How do you know when you’re done?

I start ruining the work.

What’s your workspace like?

It’s a big, faintly pink room with a high ceiling and three windows but not enough light. I sit at an old wooden desk that my husband bought for me when Pleasants Hardware went out of business. It’s a lovely beast. Oh, and I had about 12,000 images on bulletin boards that line the wall across from my computer, but early this year I took every one of them down. It was time to clean the slate. Now I have big sheets of beautiful blue handmade paper covering up the cork and one quote I posted last month. It’s from guitarist and singer, Seth Avett, who said in an interview: “Anytime something’s not going off the rails, you should be really grateful for it.”  

What are your essential tools?

Good pens, Nikon D700, paper cutter, Photoshop, notebooks, eyes, ears, and heart.  

What’s the most surprising tool you use?

Saran Wrap, which I use to warp the lens and reduce reality. 

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?

Truth be told, I’m a serious late bloomer. I lost some time being a rebellious little rascal – it was fun, possibly a mistake, but not terribly instructive. A mistake that taught me something was the failed memoir I wrote shortly after my father died of leukemia in 1998. Long story short: I found a 280 page oral history of my great grandmother, Ada Alden, stashed in my dad’s desk drawer. Her story blew my mind. She was an award-winning poet, a Virginian born on the cusp of the Civil War, a wild pantheist, Victorian naturalist, mother of five, a widow, the second wife Henry Mills Alden, the publisher of Harper’s Weekly, the mother in law of Joyce Kilmer, and my father’s grandmother who lived with him when he was a boy growing up in a house with three brothers, two parents, and one bathroom. I wrote an essay about discovering her after my father died. The piece touched on God, destiny, dogs and light. My agent said, great work, now write a memoir.

Oh, okay, I said, and commenced a two-year writing project that sucked wind and cost me my agent.

Still, I got to spend time with Ada, who became in important and mysterious ways the mother I never had; I also learned tons about the Civil War; and I grieved for my father in a creative way.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

You must choose one thing.

What’s the best?

Approach life with a sense of wonder. Ada Alden taught me that. When I bring myself back to wonder, the shades lift up.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What Teachers Can Do

A version of this recently appeared in my high school alumni magazine.  I thought I would share it here.

Although I’ve often referred to my high school years as a period when I was waiting for my life to start, this makes it sound calm when it actually was a turbulent time.   My family was going through dramatic changes, and I was as well.  But, regardless of the emotional roil at home, or my after-school job, or among my friends, I had two havens: the classrooms of the English teacher, Klem, and the French teacher, Gregory.  Entering these, I felt safe.

Compassionate, learned, and funny, these teachers offered me something that I desperately needed although I didn’t know it at the time.  They treated me seriously, and they talked to me honestly.  When I said something thoughtful they considered it; when I said something ridiculous, they pointed it out.  They acted as if I was someone who would understand their love of books, culture, and art, and they validated my own love of reading.  They were some of the first people who talked with me about ideas rather than at me.

In Klem's class, I also wrote some of my first poems, and they were horrible (although I didn’t know that at the time either).  But he encouraged me.  He didn’t tell me they were great, and he didn’t tell me they were terrible.  But he made it clear that the effort itself was worthwhile.  I began to get a more realistic understanding of what it might mean to be a writer.  It would involve more than mastering grammar, or knowing “cakes are done; people are finished,” it would require the ability to shape one’s passion and emotions with discipline.

As for Gregory, stepping into his class was like stepping into a foreign country.  Not because he taught French, but because he loved art, artists, ideas, and beauty, and he insisted people could actively surround themselves with these.  Outside the school were McDonalds, Pizza Huts, and malls; in his room were Colette, Camus, and cathedrals.  Paradoxically, this small space revealed a larger perspective.  There was more for us than Fort Wayne, Allen County, and Indiana. There was Europe.  There was the past. There was a world of wonders and delights.

Both Gregory and Klem revealed possibilities to me.  And, they seemed to see what I could become rather than what I was (yet something else I needed).  They didn’t offer false encouragement or vapid cheerleading.  There are people who if you say that you want to be an astronaut or a space alien or a yeti will say, “Great.  Go for it!  You can be anything!”  This isn’t encouragement; it’s condescending head-patting.  And, it requires nothing of either involved.  In contrast, I worked hard for these two teachers (mostly), and they made me want to work hard (always).

Ronald Reagan once said, "Education is not the means of showing people how to get what they want.  Education is an exercise by means of which enough men, it is hoped, will learn to want what is worth having."  These two beautiful men helped me learn to want what is worth having.  I absolutely believe that thirty years later I am living a richer, fuller, life because of them. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Power of Baked Goods

            When I began this blog, I called it “Icing and Ink” because I thought that in addition to writing, I sometimes would post about baked goods.  Finally, here’s one.

            I write a lot in cafes and bakeries.  I am motivated by muffins as it were.  In fact, I believe in the power of baked goods.   They have physical, emotional, even spiritual qualities.
            How do we stereotypically welcome someone to a community?  By bringing over a pie or cookies or brownies.  It is a symbol of celebration and fellowship.  It shows abundance.            
            Most descriptions of feasts have some kind of table “groaning with pies.”  In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one of the first thing Ichabod Crane notes in the Van Tassel mansion is: “the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea-table, in the sumptuous time of autumn. Such heaped up platters of cakes of various and almost indescribable kinds, known only to experienced Dutch housewives! There was the doughty doughnut, the tender olykoek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller; sweet cakes and short cakes, ginger cakes and honey cakes, and the whole family of cakes. And then there were apple pies, and peach pies, and pumpkin pies…”
            In Washington Irving’s story, the food has a metaphorical connotation, both sexual and avaricious.  This makes sense.  Years ago a study showed the number one smell that arouses men isn’t perfume, but pumpkin pie.
            There’s a reason that grocery stores place their bakeries at the front and waft the air towards people as they walk in.  It quickens our step.  It both comforts and excites.
            There also is another aspect to baked goods.  The New York Times reported on recent studies that show people up for parole stand a better chance at being granted it if their cases are heard early in the morning or right after lunch or a snack break.  We are more open-minded and willing to consider choices when our blood sugar level is up.  When it declines, we mentally shut down to conserve our energy.
            Years ago, when I was in graduate school, there was a tradition of bringing baked goods when you defended your thesis.  On the one hand, I thought it was ridiculous.  It struck me as a submissive, fawning, gesture.  On the other hand, it made sense.  Good fences may make for good neighbors, but good brownies make for good moods.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

John Denver

15 years ago this month, John Denver died in a flying accident.

            The first record I ever bought was John Denver's Sunshine on My Shoulders.  I probably was in fifth grade or so, and more than thirty-five years later I clearly remember the sleeve.   It featured a close-up of a smiling round-face man wearing wire-rim glasses in some sun-lit meadow and holding a hat on his head with one hand.  I don't know how I became a fan -- maybe it was because my older sister sang "Country Roads" as part of a high school talent show -- but this was the first of many Denver records I would purchase.  I also watched his TV specials, saw Oh God!, and did a book report on his biography.  I still remember presenting the shocking information to my classmates that John Denver was really born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.
            Decades before country became a self-consciously cool juggernaut, Denver was singing, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy."  He did it with a goofy “aw shucks” manner rather than tight jeans and big hat macho attitude, but this too had a world-wide appeal.  Denver was huge.  I didn’t realize how popular he was until much later (or how much he had contributed to political and charitable causes).
            For me, it wasn’t the country elements of his persona that were appealing, but the western ones.  At the same time I was listening to "Rocky Mountain High," I was reading all of Louis L'Amour’s work and the biographers of mountain men.  In my Indiana bedroom I would trace the rivers and mountain ranges and recite the names.  Medicine Bow.  Salmon.  Snake.  Sweetwater.  I may have unconsciously realized that Denver offered a type of role model.  I couldn't be a cowboy, trapper, scout, or mountain man, but I could wander around with a guitar.  On his t.v. specials, he went all over the world, and he was (or seemed to be) just a regular guy.  If he could do it, maybe I could.
            Denver offered a sense of optimism and enjoyment.  He was (or seemed to be) a non-drinking, non-island Jimmy Buffet.  He wasn't angry or rebellious.  Rock is supposed to appeal to teens because of its outlet for aggression, but as a pre-teen I wasn't aggressive.  There was plenty of aggression around me; I was looking for something else.  An alternative.  Denver was safe, even sterile and bland, and maybe that was comforting, but he also suggested the possibilities of a larger world.
            On one album, Denver sang about a boy "who never learned to read or write so well/but he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell."  Naive about cover songs, when I later heard Chuck Berry doing "Johnny B. Goode," I first thought, "Hey, he stole John's song," and I probably didn’t like this “new” version.  Most people would laugh at a Denver cover of Chuck Berry.  It's a joke like Pat Boone singing heavy metal tunes or John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn.  It's a man not knowing his limitations.  Yet, in a way, this also was appealing.  Denver sang what he wanted.  When he sang "Johnny B. Goode" he wasn't trying to be bad-ass.  He liked the song.  On Denver albums, I heard the work of John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Lennon and McCartney, Tom Paxton, in short, great song-writers, and those songs ended up going deep.  I still know all the words to “Blow Up Your TV” and “Casey’s Last Ride.”
            Denver definitely wasn't cool or edgy. Years ago, one on-going joke in Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury was the fact that Duke, the cartoon persona modeled on Hunter S. Thompson, lived next to Denver in Aspen.  The ironic twist was that the drug-taking, violence-addicted, immoral Duke was enraged by Denver's presence.  The clean-cut singer was toxic to him and brought the property values down.  Being close to Denver damaged your reputation.  And so my relationship with Denver had to end by high school when I replaced his albums with edgier, hard-rocking ones, by Styx and Journey.  In college, I moved on to Steely Dan, B.B. King, and the Rolling Stones.  I discovered soul and blues.  I began to value music for its complexity or authenticity or rawness or sophistication or almost any element that Denver didn’t have. 
            I certainly didn’t talk about Denver in my later years.  My early admiration, even adoration, of him was childish.  It would be like pointing out that at one point you needed training wheels or were forced to wear water-wings.  First loves are often embarrassing, but even more so when the object seems so inconsequential. The teen-age girls screaming for Sinatra or Elvis or The Beatles might be a little ashamed at their behavior later, the fainting and hysteria, but they still must feel, "I was a part of something.  I recognized how special they were."  No one looks back smugly at singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with a twelve year old passion.
            And yet, early loves shape us in elemental ways whether we admit it or not.
            I began to get a sense of Denver’s importance to me recently when I rewatched Oh God, the film he made with George Burns.  Denver's acting is like his singing.  Unforced.  Casual.  Likeable.  He isn't trying to be Marlon Brando.  He isn't trying to be cool or emoting for an Oscar.  And yet, Oh God explores some fundamental questions.  Is there a God?  How do we know?  If you saw him, how could you convince others?  What is true spirituality?  Denver's character is a grocery store manager to whom God decides to reveal himself and ask to spread the world.  No one believes him, and he finds himself frustrated, demoralized, and eventually sued by a televangelist.
            Like Denver's music, the movie is not particularly edgy or intellectual.  It is ... well-intentioned.  At the end, Denver's character has tried to do what is right.  He, at least, has forged a personal relationship with God, and, in a reversal, God testifies for him at a trial.
            Oh God offers a simple humanism.  A statement of responsibility.  A plea against hypocrisy, self-righteousness.  It also deals with scale.  We’re not Moses or Jesus or a president or “great”; we’re average people trying to do what's right.
            And that first album that I bought offered a fairly simple world view as well.  Sunshine can feel good or make you cry depending on where it touches you.  It sounds ridiculous, naïve, sentimental, and it is.  But it insists on the importance of the physical body and its relationship to the physical world.  It’s a hymn to corporeality, to this world.
            In Hi Fidelity, the narrator Rob Fleming wonders, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”  For me, it was the opposite.  Did I listen to Denver because, despite my seemingly cynical exterior, I’m fundamentally an optimist?  Or am I optimistic because I listened to this music.
            Sure Denver may offer a faux wonder at how gosh-darn far-out the world is, but there’s a real wonder there as well.  And, it’s an attitude and music that I still carry in my head, and, frankly, in my heart.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Questions for Diego Carrasco Schoch, Dancer and Choreographer

Diego Carrasco Schoch is a performer, guest artist, choreographer, and educator.  He has over 25 years experience as a dance artist, including being the Principal Dancer at the Milwaukee Ballet (1991-2003) and a soloist with the North Carolina Dance Theater (1987-1991).  His choreography has been called “joyful” and “dynamic.”

(Photograph:  Steve Clark)

How would you describe what you do?
I make dances. I try to make dances that will have some kind of emotional resonance. I try to create something that will define space and time and will affect both viewers and participants in some manner. I try to do this by directing the use of shape, space, time, energy, and focus, around and/or between 1 or more bodies. The X-factor is that how these essential elements are received and interpreted is entirely dependent on both the viewers and performers. There’s no telling how they might change my best-laid plans simply by what they bring to the process of viewing and creating.

Is this different than what other people think you do?
I don’t believe audiences think about dance as a way of defining space and time. And I’m not sure it would help if they did. I believe most people think of choreography as a way of synchronizing moving bodies to music and having those bodies do things that are amazing, or, at least, outside of the perceived norm. Which, while perhaps a little limiting, isn’t wrong.

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?
I don’t. I enter into a project with a few ideas and begin creating or directing movement that reflects those ideas in some way or another. I basically hope that at some point the dance will begin to reveal itself and coalesce into something that I recognize and shows me that I’m on the right track. This doesn’t always happen. When it doesn’t and opening night is fast approaching, I’m most likely not on the right track.

How do you go about making choices?
Often the ideas I have are disparate ideas that have been on my mind and much of my time is spent figuring out how to make sense of those ideas. Choices are made predicated on the notion of what seems to belong and what doesn’t, what seems to be consistent with the ‘world’ I’m creating and what isn’t. It’s a very intuitive process as I try to ‘feel out’ the dance.

Also, the moment the curtain goes up, the audience begins to build a set of expectations based on the information they are given and as the dance progresses those expectations get stronger, building on each other. If the expectations are not fulfilled or dealt with in a satisfying manner the audience will most likely be perplexed and have a negative reaction. My artistic choices try to navigate those expectations to a satisfying solution including how I might subvert or alter them in a way that surprises or delights audiences.

Choices are also made based on my own set of expectations. What do I want from a new work? What am I trying to do with it? What’s the goal? Often the answers to these kinds of questions are unknown to me at the beginning and don’t begin to rear their heads until I’m deep into the project.

(University of North Carolina School of the Arts students 

Justin Dominic and Wesley McIntyre in "A Place Apart." Photograph:  Rosalie O'Connor)

How do you know when you’re done?
When it’s opening night and I no longer have time to continue working on it! Or when I seem to be out of ideas. There’s also a point when the piece is in the hands of the dancers and they have taken ownership of it. Unless I have an opportunity to restage a dance on other dancers, which is rare, I can only look at a dance and hope for a chance to make changes another time.

What’s your workspace like?
The bulk of my ‘workspaces’ are dance studios. These range from large, airy, and clean to small, claustrophobic, and dirty and any number of variations in between. But given an open space of any sort, I can work out little movement ideas. My daughter points out that I embarrassed her severely making little abstract gestures and movements while waiting to pick her up at school or while walking down a grocery store aisle.

Written notes are a kind of workspace and I try to keep a journal for the piece I’m working on, but often I don’t have it on me when I have an idea and end up with notes on various pieces of paper and a couple different notebooks.
The last workspace is my backpack. When on my way to a rehearsal, my backpack is stuffed with 1-3 notebooks, a video camera, an ipod, pens/pencils, socks, yoga belt, therabands, plenty of t-shirts, and various odd items that kind of live in the backpack until I get tired of seeing them there.

What are your essential tools?
The human body and imagination.

What’s the most surprising tool you use?
Snippets of movement I didn’t create. I often utilize movement created by the dancers in response to an assigned task. Sometimes I use a movement or gesture I’ve seen or experienced and use it as a catalyst to develop new material.

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?
Words of wisdom - don’t retell the Pygmalion/Galatea myth as an allegory of female rebellion against the yoke of male domination, idolatry and obsessive search/need for unrealistic perfection in the feminine form and present it on Valentine’s Day weekend!

Diego Carrasco Schoch's's website