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.