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, na├»ve, 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  

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Long Haul

           As I walk along the sidewalk, a phrase comes to mind.  I consider it, repeat it, turn it back and forth, say it out loud (something I’m doing more and more of and which can worry passersby).  I suddenly realize that it could go with a poem that I was working on five years ago and eventually abandoned.  I had liked the poem, but it had never quite worked.  This phrase could be the solution, or at least a way towards a solution.  When I get home, I find the old file and start revising the section of poem where the phrase might fit.  It becomes better, much better, but it still isn’t right.  And then, perhaps because I’ve been writing a lot of fiction this summer, I realize the poem isn’t a poem, but a piece of short fiction.  Or – to not even bother with these distinctions – the piece doesn’t need line breaks and stanzas, but paragraph breaks and looser sentences.  When I make these changes, it comes together.
            If someone should ask one day, “How long did it take you to write that?” what should I answer?  Several afternoons?  A couple of weeks?  That’s how much actual time I spent, but those afternoons were separated by years.
            I’m often asked for advice about writing, and the main piece I have, perhaps the only one, is:  be in it for the long haul.  Not because it takes years to achieve success or recognition, but because it can take years to finish even some small works.
            In a preface to Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare explains how he read about one of the play’s key events in a newspaper, but he didn’t write about it, or even think about it explicitly, for six years.  He also mentions writing another play, but not having a beginning for it.  Then, in his notebooks, he found material that he had written two years earlier that fit perfectly.
            Or to offer a different example, Neil Gaiman has talked about how he had the idea for The Graveyard Book, started to write it, and realized that he wasn’t good enough to do it (or didn’t think he was).  So, he put the idea aside and developed his skills.  Twenty years later, he tried again, and discovered that he could write the book in a way that satisfied him.
            Some might find this discouraging.  I find it reassuring.  Writing is something that – at least theoretically – you can get better at as you get older.  Our physical skills decline much faster than our mental ones.  I have long past the point where I can improve at basketball, soccer, or swimming, but I think my writing is getting better.  Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote when he was 57, and then, he is believed to have hit his “creative stride” at 65.  Saul Bellow, John Updike, Adrienne Rich, all continued to do important work until they died
            Some consider writing an act of faith.  I consider it an act of optimism.  My advice?  The usual.  Go home and write.  For years.  Hopefully the rest of your life.