What are we prepared to do?

What we must decide is how we are valuable rather than how valuable we are… Edgar Z. Friedeberg

I love this quote because I spent far too many years of my youth wondering if I was worth anything instead of noticing how my worth was accruing through my actions. The operative word here is “how.” Not whether we’re valuable, but in what ways we set about establishing our value to others, for others. I can hear Sean Connery’s voice, the crustiness of his Irish/Scottish brogue playing a beat cop in David Mamet’s film “The Untouchables.” “What are you prepared to DO?” he rasps. It’s a great question. Perhaps THE great question.

What are we prepared to do to create real value in a world that equates notoriety with worth? In our decadent, greed-is-good culture, can we get as excited about earning respect as we do about “earning” billion dollar windfalls? Can leadership trump celebrity? I’m giving a talk in two weeks about “being the boss” at the Woman’s Power Strategy Conference in Marin County, CA. It’s a way-big topic that’s way-too important. I’ll be talking to women and girls, for sure, but maybe some guys will be there too. I hope so, because we’re all in the same boat, practicing leadership by asking–[note the verb]–asking not what the world can do for us, but what we can do for the world. And then rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

Women’s Power Strategy Conference
March 24, 2012
San Anselmo, CA
 
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How Fragile We Are…

Thinking about our Great Wide World

BEING NEEDS NOTHINGNESS

Thank god, everybody’s writing about it. In today’s NYT articles on  “Groupthink” and Doug Wheeler’s Light And Space movement. Or reports of the recent takedown of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. I’m sure you heard: 89 minutes into a 90-minute musical journey, the New York Philharmonic is quieting into its final adagio and a cell phone starts. And doesn’t stop. So the orchestra has to. Yes, the conductor has the players pick up where they left off. But does that mean the concert-goers can simply “pick up where they left off?” No. We all know the answer is no.

Because it’s a spell, people. Mahler’s casting a spell. Over us. In this concert hall. And, increasingly–sadly!–we just don’t seem to value such experiences anymore.

How is it that there has to be a Quiet Floor in my local university library? It’s a library, for god’s sake. And how is it that I have to be the crazed Harpy asking pods of phone-talkers or student-chatter-ers who have chosen to work on the–wait for it!–Quiet Floor–to find somewhere else to talk? Yes, for just two sentences. Yes!

Because it’s a spell, people. And spells are fragile. They are unbelievably powerful. In a single measure, a stepping through a door, they transport us completely. They are the wormholes through which all creativity flows. And yet they pop at the first pinprick.

In the arts, quiet moments are intended. They hold space open for us. They’re not to be filled. Or, rather, they most certainly are to be filled. But not superficially. Not reflexively, with pulp, trivia. With our monkey-mind nonsense. Rather, they make room for “it.”

That’s exactly how creatives describe inspiration. “It comes” to them. So important, that phrasing. “It” comes.  Never “I.” An idea isn’t me. A vision visits. A design emerges. It is Other, at least that’s how it feels. It comes from beyond, transcendent by nature. We could be talking about Wozniak or Picasso or an Ah-Ha we have at the end of the day between bathing the four-year-old and rocking the two-year-old.

“It comes” because it is invited. Because space is made for it. We say, “it speaks,” but the fact is, it may be speaking 24/7. This is what the mystics say. It is speaking, but we aren’t quiet enough to hear. You know the metaphors: We need quiet, not simply as a void but as an active medium through which we are tuned, like radio, to the frequencies of ideas and insights. We must walk into a clearing, give our eyes a moment to adjust to the light, in order to see that which we have been looking for, that which has, so often, been right in front of us all along.

When was the last time you went to a movie, even a fine art movie, and not had to listen to the couple two rows down chatting through the movie as if they were in their living room? “We’re whispering!” they hiss when you beg them to stop. “You can’t hear us!” Well, let’s see: if I’m asking for quiet, I guess I can. But more important, much more important, you, my fellow movie-goer who’ve paid a pretty hefty price to sit in the dark and watch, say, “Melancholia,” you’ve missed the point of seeing the movie not in your living room. You’ve paid hard-earned money–as have I–for the privilege of entering a bigger-than-most-living-rooms, empty vault of space, to have the lights go down and then to be bathed in a volume of blackness and flickering image-after-image and surround-sound so that you can surrender to an experience carefully crafted for you of music and silence, of jolt and quiet, a rhythm of fullness and emptiness that is meant to transport you to somewhere else. To the world of the movie, not that of a whispering neighbor.

Here’s my prayer: may we notice how difficult it’s become for us–you and I–to tolerate emptiness. May we change up something in our lives to help us remember how good emptiness can feel. May we choose to sit unwired. May we practice breathing through the fermata rest, through the pianissimo passage, through the turn in the film when the heroine collapses wordless on a park bench. May we breathe, waiting for something to speak to us, for wisdom from beyond. May we honor such moments with each other in public places. May we prepare but postpone discussion. May we notice, as we go, not just bright-noisy things, but that which surrounds. The nothing that defines something, all things. May we invite and protect the spell.

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On Tolerance and Toleration

Different colored pumpkins jumbled together.Thinking ’bout the South

THE LANGUAGE OF RESPECT

My address says CA, but all I see from my writing desk these days are my old familiars, the mountains of NC. Given a continent’s remove from those parts, I speak of them on paper, but seldom in company.

That changed last week over hot chocolate with Waights Taylor. He’s a fellow writer. Hails from regions southeastern as do I, but he’s an AL boy. (He’d say “boy” of himself just as I’d say “girl,” in spite of the the fact that both of us can remember a time before TV, a time when mobile communications meant putting on some shoes and walking oneself to wherever one was going…)

Out on this other coast, Waights and I sound like cousins. Of course we’re not. Waights comes out of Plantation South while my provenance is Appalachia. And even Appalachia, Lord knows, is as oddly silo’ed into nano-cultures as any other neighborhood within these united states. Nevertheless, to CA ears, there’s a twang to our talk. And a pace. A slowing in conversation as we search for the right words, the ones that balloon up with lots of vowels and syllables and mouthiness. Words like “tolerance.”

We were chatting about America’s avowed aspiration of tolerance. It made us laugh. When that word “tolerate” came up in my family–and you can bet it did on many an occasion–it was never good. “I will not tolerate horseplay at my table.” That was my mother. Or, “What in toleration were you thinking?” My mother again.

No, tolerating was something you did not do. It never communicated happy acceptance of whatever was to follow. So we’d never dream of recommending tolerance of others. In fact, the very word implied a passive resignation to things or company deemed to be intolerable, but to be “put up with” nonetheless. Well, nobody wants to be put up with.

In my family, the code was respect. Respect actively given and received. It was transactional, mutual (see my earlier post of mine on civility). It was offered to everyone encountered regardless of class or background, regardless even of superficial manners or moral failings (“His buddy’s Jack Daniels,” or “Haven’t seen her in church since that Easter hat last spring…”). It was offered regardless of all things save one: lack of reciprocity. Woe betide the ignorant or arrogant or sense-impaired individual who did not comport him- or herself respectfully in my family’s presence. Then there was “no toleration.” Which meant, of course, that there was only “toleration.” We were to continue–always!–to treat such persons with respect. But now that transaction was meant to be instructive. And, until such time as said fool embraced (or recovered) the language of respect, she or he was “tolerated,” the modifier “barely” being implied.

Establishing a common ground of parity upon which to meet all respectful folk: now, that’s an aspiration, a restoration I can get behind in our jumbled up, crossroads of a world.

Waights Taylor is the author of “Our Southern Home,” a work of literary non-fiction that literally brings home–to his own doorstep–the history of the Scottsboro trial.
 

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Going to Solace, LIFE, PAGE, Small Towns, The Little Things, The South, Uncategorized, Writers and Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Star is Born

Thinking about the Performing Arts

THE COOLEST HEAD PREVAILED

I’m going to stretch out in this blog post and tell you a story. The little girl on the left (the one with the giganimous headset on…) deserves no less.

You know those Sports Illustrated action shots of a wide receiver leaping into the end zone, his fingertips barely touching an in-flight football? That’s what you’re looking at here. This is high-speed photography of a Vocal Touchdown.

Soprano Jenni Samuelson is on the far left. And next to her: introducing wonderful Jessica Spencer. You’re looking at her very first-ever-in-life professional studio recording debut for our new collection of songs: Once Upon a Lullaby; Beautiful Songs for Bedtime.

Okay, so let me set this up. It was Jenni’s idea to ask a child to sing some harmony on a track called “Once Upon an Evening.” The song is a big prayer for peace-on-earth couched in a little prayer for peace-in-the-nursery. Jenni thought one of her students might be up to the task, so she sent Jessica home with the score.

I have to talk music here for a second to do Jessica justice: these deceptively easy-to-listen-to lullabies are no cake walk for singers. They’re tough to learn. They’re tough to perform. The melodies (that is, the lines of music Jenni sang) require agility. They’re full of difficult intervals (that’s the space between one note and the next) and long arcs of sound that your average singer just can’t manage. These are challenges that classical singers are trained to handle as if tossing off a ditty. So that’s what Jenni had on her plate.

Meanwhile, you’ve got the harmony. That’s where Jessica came in. Whew! Tricky stuff! Not simple thirds tracking along beneath the melody (in most popular songs, the harmony parallels the melody). Here, Jessica’s harmony is an independent chromatic vocal line with its own big intervals. In other words, it’s not what the average ear would call tuneful.

In the backs of our minds, Jenni and I thought, “Well, let’s give it a shot.” If the music proved too difficult, we’d have Jenni sing the harmony herself.

As if!

Months went by. We found ourselves on our last recording day. Things had gone well enough, BUT (those of you who have ever spent time on a recording project know just what I’m talking about), we were out of studio time. We’d lost the main recording booth. The concert grand we were using was being moved out for a recital. And yet, here was Jessica (and her mom and newborn little sister), right on time. Beautifully dressed up. Poised. Not a hint of nerves. Ready to record. Ready to do something she’d never done before.

So we scrambled. We set up an impromptu recording booth, rigging mics and cables to capture Jessica’s performance. That’s what you’re seeing here. It looks as if their eyes are glued to a conductor. Or maybe sight-reading off the score. In fact, they’re inches away from a blank wall of sound baffling in the kind of environment that sends divas into hissy-fits. Certainly one that distracts your average newbie. Not Jessica.

I do not exaggerate. She nailed it. NAILED it. Take after take. Crazy-hard music. Kooky surroundings. She was totally on from first note to last. Cool as a cucumber. Sailing right through. Laying down re-takes for mic problems, for safeties. No problem. Here it came, every time, note-for-note perfect.

“How did you do it?” I asked after we were done. (Keep in mind, Jessica is no Juilliard student. She lives in Merced, California. That’s farm country. She goes to school, sings in choir, takes some lessons. She hasn’t been steeped in early-learning music theory. So how did she do it?)

She told me her grampa taught her the harmony at the kitchen table. One note at a time. Watching the score. Memorizing the music a cappella (that means, without accompaniment). Establishing pitch, then working as if she were singing a solo. It was a family affair. Making music at home. Grampa and grandchild. Wow. That’s how things used to be. And still are, at least in one tiny corner of Merced.

So here’s to Jessica. I’m thrilled she sang with us. She’ll have this recording for the rest of her life. To listen to with her kids and grandkids around whatever a kitchen table might look like in the future. How fun to think of digital music as an old-fashioned technology, as weird and scratchy as a 78 seems today. Here’s to making music as a family. Here’s to one special girl who quietly, confidently showed us how it’s done.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Artistry, LIFE, Music and Singing, Once Upon a Lullaby, Once Upon a Lullaby, PAGE, Small Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Civility

Thinking ’bout the South

THE SEMIOTICS OF REGARD

Today’s New York Times ran one of those borderline-quaint regional features about the decline of manners in the South (“A Last Bastion of Civility”). I suppose it’s not easy to find an apt source for the requisite photos that must accompany such an article, but my heart sank when I saw pix of tragic cotillion-prep kids complete with white gloves, looking like miniatures of their great-grandparents, posed in strained pairings of boys and girls who clearly wished they were out head-butting a soccer ball or dreaming up an iPhone app. And of course, all of them are Caucasian. The subtext being that old codes of Southern civility are phony foistings on/for the children of upper-middle-class whites. They’re an empty charade.

Well, those pictures (and those children, god bless them), do not evoke the Old School civility that I remember. I didn’t go to tea-dance class. I didn’t study etiquette. What I did do was “speak.” That’s how my mother taught it: we were to “speak” when first meeting anyone–friend or newcomer–and if we didn’t, we’d get a little tug on the elbow. “Speak!” my mother would remind me, and I’d say, “Good morning” or “Good evening” to whomever was passing by. I remember this being particularly important–particularly powerful–in settings where I was among strangers. It is quite beautiful to be bound to folks we don’t know through a greeting whose meaning of mutual respect is shared.

And yes, I always said, “Sir” or “Ma’am.” That never rang hollow for me, even as a child. Certainly when I was being reprimanded or sent to my room, my rueful “Ye-e–es, Ma’am” had an edge to it. But I am fortunate not to have those niceties tied to memories of hypocrisy or oppression as some do. In my family and among my circle, the code of respecting one’s elders was absolute. That did not mean not questioning: but the tone of such questioning was to be respectful and the spirit, one of settling an issue not insulting an adversary. That’s a state-of-mind I sorely miss these days with people of all ages.

It wasn’t so much about manners, this storied civility, it was about “regard.” I love that word in its many meanings. William Ferris, folklorist, cites the “distancing and maintaining space” that manners artificially establish. “Consider what that politeness veils,” he says. Fair warning. But maintaining a little bit of distance is also what permits regard in its most literal sense. With distance, we can see each other–and communicate that seeing. To be held in another’s gaze is to be held in regard, even high regard. That all feels fresh to me. The surfeit of familiarity around us has, proverbially, bred contempt. We come in at each other without invitation. Or pass as ships in the night. We do not (and such things come with training), interrupt our selfish agendas to acknowledge each other. We simply blunder on.

These Old School values and experiences I can only hint at here. Suffice it to say, they weren’t always window dressing. I too despise false falderal. Where politesse reinforces servility, it’s quite sinister. Furthermore, I’m as fond as the next modern girl of the unwinding of formality in our world. I’m not nostalgic for hose-and-heels, for girdles. But. But. I miss the finer messages in that lost theater of manners. I miss those gestures, universally understood, that say, “I see you,” “I respect you,” person to person, peer to peer, soul to soul.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Expression, Family, Going to Solace, Home, LIFE, Small Towns, The Little Things, The South | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Apple: What

A child's drawing of Merlin.

Drawing by Daisy Samuelson

Thinking about Design

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

I drafted this part deux on Apple a couple of days ago, then set it aside to edit. Now it’s a eulogy. Like everyone else, I was aware of Steve Jobs’ grave illness. But wandering through a local MacExpo last week, an experience that gave rise to the thoughts below, my mind was on Apple not him. What a perfect example of what Jobs did perfectly. 

Let’s shake off the worn-out market-speak of “brand.” For me (and most), Apple is a place. It’s not its products. It’s a live-work-play space those products shape into place. It opens creative space, yes. But it’s not empty potential (from what I read, neither is what we call “outer space.”) No, this is place. This is space with character. More important, it invites character. Our character(s). It says, “Come on in. Bring your stuff. Move things around. Make this your own.”

How? We refer to Apple “products,” but that’s too dry a word. And inexact. As if what mattered about what Apple makes is that it is purchased. Oh no. What matters is what we do with what we buy. Apple’s products are tools and channels. That’s important. They’re beautiful, yes, but not merely so. In a global economy driven by eye-candy, they’re not merely decorative. At the same time, while they’re useful, we wouldn’t call them appliances. No. They are tools and channels by nature, because, as Apple has always understood, they exist to help us shape and share our experience. They exist to open/guide/enhance creativity under the working principle that all human endeavor is creative.

Apple’s tools and channels create a place where work can feel like play. Where things are (or can be) beautiful. As Jobs himself said over and over again (his name, such a marvelous pun), she who is working, she who does a job no matter how mundane, must not be seen as a drone. She’s a human spirit of flexible mind and yearning heart. And such human beings–the “common” woman, the average bear, John Q. Public–all human beings deserve to work with and through things of beauty. Toward beauty. Of all Jobs’ admirable qualities, this is the one I admire most. That he carried and found a way to concretize in things (!) a conviction that everyone deserves beauty. Beauty as elegance. Beauty as efficiency. Beauty as wit. Beauty as…

And then it is for us to define. He gave us our place. A place both decidedly Apple and decidedly ours. What a hat trick given how many of us there are, how diverse. I stand at a Mac Expo among a group of passionate strangers with whom I am suddenly kin, bound by tribal pride, a legacy of mutual experience and combative disagreement about what that all means.

The place where Apple is–is where we are. Which is everywhere. Again, what a miracle. It’s gone from the literal and metaphorical desktop to our pockets. Or, the tools have. They’ve migrated. Gone nomad. But Apple is still right where it’s always been. In the personal-global space called me. The me that’s for and about us. Our better me. Thank you, Merlin, Mr. Jobs, for tapping and coordinating the Merlins around you, stirring (pun!) their genius into a primordial soup of human creativity to make and re-make this place for me, for us.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Artistry, Design, Expression, I:DEAS, Identity, Our digital culture, Stuff | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Apple: Who

Painting of an old apple by ukopost

Old Apple by ukopost

Thinking about Design

THINK SIMPLE, AGAIN

On Saturday, a lark. I attended my first Mac Expo, billed as the largest outside of San Francisco. The info-harvest was bountiful. The subtext, bountifuller.

Let’s start with who was there. Not the folks in Apple ads–those attractive, informally dressed (mostly European-American) young people cradling iPads in their laps. No, to my surprise, most of us had lived enough years to have graying (even whiting) hair and not do anything about it. Seniors ruled. Why? Everyone agreed that the under-30 crowd stayed away because they were bottle-fed on computers, weaned on iOS. Why on earth would they sit in cramped rooms listening to tech-bedevilled presentations that may or may not address their particular concerns when they could dial up anything and anyone on the comfort of their sofas while watching Andrew Luck re-define quarterbacking for Stanford? That was a no-brainer.

But we were there, Apple. Your young-minded, older cohort flocked. Grizzled, loud and proud. At least, that’s what you’d notice if you looked at a still picture of us. But a movie would tell another story. Because the energy among us–the irritable bustle of know-it-alls, the mental over-drive of timeless wonks–was decidedly adolescent. How much did I love ultra-nerds in the audience who collaboratively (but insistently!) corrected their moderators? How fun was it to have trivia contestants challenge the “right” answer by pointing out that it derived from the wrong question?

We were/are a bunch of sharp cookies, slow of step but not of mind. And yet, judging by the collective shrug that our questions seemed to elicit among the Expo’s various guest panelists, we’re beside the point. Mere users. Mere buyers. The journalists, sales folks and tech preachers who presided–all were helpful. But where were the anthropologists, the field biologists? We were committed enough to show up for a nerd fest. But no one in those conference rooms brought any curiosity to bear on us.

I did. And I learned a lot. I learned that some of your loyalest customers, Apple, are struggling with contradictions inherent in your core principles. Your promises of elegance (in all that word’s meanings) and ease are perceived to be in conflict with its equally compelling promises of creative customizability and participatory development. How will you address this, Apple? Some of your acolytes want you to maintain at least one well-defined area where there are fewer choices, where there aren’t 20 apps required for a single workflow across platforms. Anytime now, iCloud may gallop in and resolve this. But all we heard last Saturday was a byzantine litany of third-party apps and interfaces, each of them proclaimed “cool” and guaranteed to get us in way too many steps from A to B if not Z.

Mind you, I love that stuff. I’m jazzed about fizzing out crazy new worlds as fast as I can with a bucket of tools. I like the sprawl, the welter. But I “feel” my brothers and sisters in Macdom. This isn’t about their hair-color. This isn’t a function of age. The values that brought them to Apple 30+ years ago (there were Lisa-owners in the room!), have not changed. They’ve always wanted elegance and ease. They fear those values have eroded. They want them back.

Once upon a time, your advertising said, Think Different, Apple. Time to think different about us. You’re a dazzling company that toggles (simultaneously!) between innovation and continuity. You’re also, now, a built-to-last company with cradle-to-grave users. Yours is not a family of products but a family of customers. Including, for the first time in your history, grandparents. We are you, Apple. We were young together. Now we’re “maturing.” Together we’ve got generation gaps to bridge and the tricky task of winnowing enduring values from the shape-shifting we need to morph our way into the future.

So among the toy-peddlars and gadget-worshippers who shape these crazy Expo gatherings, you might want to seed in your own listeners and observers. Time to send folks up into the trees with binoculars and notebooks to watch us circle around the watering hole. In all of our anecdotal fussing, there are patterns of response that will tell you something about yourself, Apple. About how and what you are in our hands. We think that’s a beautiful thing. Do you?

Coming soon, part deux–Apple: What.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Artistry, Design, Expression, I:DEAS, Identity, Our digital culture, Stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments