Pickets

Marcella uses the hand shears rather than a power weed-eater

so the white pickets won’t stain green.

At dawn she is up watering the roses, red and white ones

in front of pink shutters.

Now, the sun rises in the late July sky

to wick the water from the soil,

drawing it up with an invisible straw.

You can only be so meticulous, then, once in a while you have to act and pull a weed, even if it uproots something nearby.

Her muscles tense, she bends, digs, tugs. She is strong today. The roots come clean.

She looks at the sun. “Scorcher,” she mutters, and drags out the hose for another round.

 

Then

 

Marcella gets on the bus and goes downtown

and stands and links arms with her neighbors:

African-Americans or girls dressed in rainbows.

She passes out bottles of water, reminds them to hydrate,

there is a chance of bloodshed so she is ready with a medical kit

in a fanny-pack, to keep the blood from staining

the streets. And even

when the sun goes down she stands erect, waves her carefully-lettered picket sign,

feels the burn on her shoulders, revels in the blisters on her heels

waits to go limp in the arms of an officer and (hopefully) a gentleman,

who will take her down to the station and book her. Meanwhile,

Marcella worries only about

the roses at home, red and white and

the people on the street, black, and blue, and LGBTQ.

She is strong today, but– did they get to the root?

Have they gotten enough water? Are they thirsty still for justice?

 

Making it Hard to Shoot People

The officer approaches my car.

I place my hands on the wheel. Don’t want to make a false move.

“Sir, were you aware of the art you just drove past?”

“Was there art? Sorry, I missed it, I was in too much of a hurry, I guess.”

“Well, sir, it’s not just a local ordinance, it’s a state law to come to a complete stop at the art.”

“Right, right.” What was it? A freaking miniature? An Orthodox icon? A Van Gogh reproduction painted on the head of a pin by some insomniac convict? Jeez. They should make it bigger. All the art should be so big you can’t miss it. Right?

“Well, I’d give you a citation but since I’m holding this book of poems, and my partner back there in the squad car is busy painting a watercolor, I’m going to go easy on you and give you a recitation instead.”

She reads me Maya Angelou. I am late for an appointment. Goddam. How long will this poem take? Maybe it would be faster if I just had the citation without the “re”.

“Sir, what’s the theme in that poem?”

Seriously? I wasn’t really paying attention. “Um, Black Lives Matter?”

The officer smiles, a bit condescendingly, I think. She thinks about my answer for a minute. A long minute. Finally: “More or less. That will do. Sir, please, slow down and pay attention to the art. It’s a grave matter of public health and safety. Next time, we’ll have to have you come in on weekends to paint the county courthouse pink with green polka dots.”

That doesn’t sound like it would even match! Maybe we should elect a new Art Commissioner. Crap. I’m too busy to vote. Never mind. Just get me out of here.

Chagrined, I arrive at my meeting twenty minutes late. Apologize.

“I blew past the art and got pulled over. I had to listen to poetry.”

Everyone shakes their head. They’ve done it too.

Dandelions

The old growth gives way to young

In a space where there was a burn.

Clearings are no accident.

By natural law, species push ahead, overcome, find new spaces to flourish, travel on wind or beast; take hold again, fall apart, crumble well.

The way is clear and, as quickly as all that, obscured.

So seize your wings, find your trail.

You are never lost completely: only once in a while unsure of your direction.

NOW! TODAY!

Go back again to the place where the burn has left a scar.

Fly with me to the river, swim with me to the shore, climb cliffs, send up a signal, tendrils and vines. There will be room for us all to send our roots out across that meadow.

There is a home for every bloom and blossom;

Every dandelion connected to every other by this web underground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peace (Thailand #4 – ish)

We’ve been working hard to set up an entire room full of artwork. I think the team that has been stressing to overcome jet lag and install the gallery is ready for the conference to begin. I don’t mean that everything is installed yet (and we only have a few hours left) but I mean in the sense that we are ready for the peace of mind that comes with saying “It has begun.” In fact, several of us will be adding to the art or working throughout the conference, but it’s a bit like starting a race. You train and train, you warm up (jogging) but you wait for the starter’s gun just so you can run some more. And then, after the initial adrenaline rush, you settle into a moment of peace. There is serenity in the journey. Somewhere between the preparations and the finish line is that time when you say “we have now begun to really run.” And we are ready for that moment, even if not all the work is quite in place.

Offhand I’d guess we have about nine to twelve people exhibiting some visual work, (several of whom are not attending, and so we have a team of people installing for them via instructions), and a musical team of seven (I count sound guys) and lots of other creativity beginning to flow. Megan leaned over to me and said, “This is becoming an arts conference. But I guess that is the point.” Well, not entirely. But the arts are becoming more and more a part of how we live and breath in a world where we work cross-culturally. Languages lose something in translation, but image can gain communicativeness, as can melody.

Thailand is a great place to be at peace. This sovereign nation resisted colonialism due to a strong monarchy, and there is room for rest here. We are already feeling it, and yet in some ways we still wait for that to be wholly unleashed.

It takes some work to be at peace with being an artist. The value of the arts is much discussed during this time, but becoming established if still elusive.

It turns out I’ll be painting. I’m going to primarily use words, and I don’t have to worry much about color. Thematically there’s a lot of black and white work here, with reds. I can paint that way. I’m content to have a 4×8 panel to work on, and ran my concepts by Megan. There are things I wish I was doing; for example I love to sing but have not done it with a team for so long that it’s not on anyone’s radar. But with blogging, photojournalism, and now a painting to execute plus lots of opportunities to listen to people quietly and ask them questions, I’m at peace with my role. You can’t do everything, and I’m doing a lot. I like to DO stuff, but to be at peace, BEING is the key.

I’m bringing that edge to my painting, as you’ll see.

I’ll start with something that looks pretty abstract. Letters.

Want to join in? Okay, here’s what goes at the top of my canvas:

AAEEFGGHILLLNOOPRSSSUUVX,

AAAAABCEGILMMNRRSSTTUY.

Just letters? We shall see.

There’s more, but all shall be revealed in due time. The starter’s gun is about to bang, and then, we’re off. We’ll settle in, we’ll be at peace, we’ll rest together.

Thailand visuals Saturday (#2)

Clockwise from upper left: 1) sunrise. 2) Jerimae and Ben, Christa’s art. 3) Anneke working. 4) An Asian tourist holds up the fisherman’s creel as if she caught the fish. Cracks me up. 5) Sitting with Kirti and Luke. 6) Glen and Christine hang Christa’s work, Karen works on the next iteration of the same piece.

Visuals, Thailand #2

Clockwise from Upper left: 1) Eric Good and Ben Metz discuss setlist. 2) Ben Metz and Megan Fleming analyzing the installation. 3) Sunrise at Cha-Am. 4) Jonathan Reuel’s piece assembled. 5) Megan Fleming assembles work from Christa Reuel. 6) Megan Fleming looking great with a frangipani flower in her hair. 7) Fisherman at dawn.

Eephus ain’t nothing

A Philosophy of Listening

Carpe diem

One day I think in 2010 while I was volunteering at a local soup kitchen, I walked past a bookshelf full of romance novels. Serendipity means finding a book worth reading on a shelf full of romances. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable was sitting there. I’d never heard of it before, but even the way the spine is designed said “this is not a romance novel.” So I seized the day, plucked it from the shelf, took it home, and began to read philosophy again.

In fact, I had read Why Art Cannot Be Taught by Elkins a few years before but perhaps didn’t see it as the philosophical book that it is. But the point is, since graduating college I hadn’t really engaged my brain that way. Once I read The Black Swan I had to admit to myself I was reading stuff that was a bit over my head, and from there I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and so on. I began again to engage philosophy, this time in a much more serious way than I had during my undergrad years. You don’t have to have a graduate program to make yourself read.

My basic conclusion after reading Why Art Cannot Be Taught was that Elkins was correct in saying that Art cannot be taught, but incorrect in failing to offer a more excellent way to engage with art students. Coaching, I believed, and a community of authentic relationship, may not teach anyone to become a “great” artist as defined by fame or wealth. But it could help artists to become better people, more well-adjusted, less prone to isolation and even to suicide or self-medication – things which have been known to destroy artists in their prime. If you want to become an artful motivational listener, that is, if you want to listen to people and watch them walk away and succeed at attaining goals and dreams, this is a science to some extent which can be studied like the science of mixing color. Just because you can mix red and yellow to get orange doesn’t mean you can move people. Just because you can ask powerful questions, like “What do you hope to get out of this session” doesn’t mean you’re going to become the most famous or wealthy coach. But then, this isn’t necessarily the end of an art-form like listening. As Ronald Reagan said (or repeated) “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Perhaps the first thing we have to lay down to learn this art is the idea that it will somehow become a great career and that it might make us famous. (Incidentally the same goes for writing. You have to come to the place where you don’t care how much money it makes or how famous you will become – you simply have an idea or story to tell. Then you become productive.)

One of the biggest philosophical questions of all time is this: What is Truth?

As a motivational listener, you’ll be listening for that too. But not so much in the way of a judge or lawyer in a courtroom. Instead, you’re listening for the truth like a hunting guide looks for bear or cougar spoor. Yep, the old biologist’s joke is true: bear spoor happens. The real value of being a hunting guide is in recognizing the unexpected for what it is. If you were teaching people to hunt for deer in northern Indiana, where I live, you’d think it’s not so difficult to avoid the danger of becoming prey. But there have been stories in the area of bears visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some years ago, perhaps around 2007, I was working in Ohio and saw a newspaper article discussing the fact that several people had spotted a cougar in their backyards. A representative of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was quoted as saying “there are no cougars in Ohio.” Now there are many current articles about cougars in Ohio woodlands. As unusual and unexpected as they may be, you would do well to recognize the signs of this animal in your vicinity – and to be able to say to yourself the first time it happens, “I know there are no cougars, but here is a cougar,” and to take appropriate action. Being able to recognize something which is highly improbable is a key component, possibility as a critical piece of truth, that takes awareness and alertness that’s worth paying for.

On the flip side there are things we may uncover as we track that could help, as we listen to people’s story, which could lead to discovery of something spectacular, perhaps even resulting in some sort of breakthrough, and dare we say, greatness. To continue with the hunting guide analogy, knowing how to find not just any buck, but the twenty-point buck; to not just locate the hole where any northern pike are hiding, but to catch a record fish.

So, the art of motivational listening, like any other art, perhaps cannot be taught. But there is one thing I can tell you: you are looking for something you do not know. This is the core idea behind Taleb’s Black Swan. The Black Swan event is “an outlier, as it lies outside the real of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly, it carries an extreme impact… Third, in spite of its outlier statues, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurance after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. … It Is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks… Black Swan Logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.

This is what we’re looking for when we listen. Where are the handful of shocks, positive or negative? To refer to an earlier essay where I discussed the nature of the knuckleball, say for example that you are the batter, and the knuckleball pitcher makes a mistake. He throws a pitch that rotates, and the ball, rather than knuckling impossibly, suddenly becomes very hittable. The only problem is that you may be so surprised by the relative ease that you miss the pitch anyway.

Another pitch, even more rare than the poorly-thrown knuckleball, relies on the surprise. This pitch, called an eephus pitch, is served up to the batter in such a way that it is intended to be so hittable that the batter misses.

Wikipedia notes: “The delivery from the pitcher has very low velocity and usually catches the hitter off-guard. Its invention is attributed to Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1940s. According to manager Frankie Frisch, the pitch was named by outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays replied, “‘Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” Although the origin is not known for certain, Eephus may come from the Hebrew word אפס (pronounced “EFF-ess”), meaning “nothing“.[2]” 

The Eephus pitch must be used with terrible infrequency – a complete outlier. The minute it becomes expected, it becomes worthless. It’s no longer a Black Swan Event. Sometimes it’s called a ball, sometimes a strike, usually makes the batter laugh, fools even the umpire, and once, Ted Williams hit a home run in the All-Star Game on an eephus pitch. Ted Williams was the kind of batter who was always ready. Ted was one of the greats.

Greatness, in terms of “no limits to what may be accomplished” is often the result of flexibly and appropriately responding to a Black Swan event when it happens. It means the ability to recognize bear or cougar spoor and get out of the woods, or being ready for the eephus pitch, that moment in which things become so easy for you to knock it out of the park that you’re likely to completely miss your chance. I think the worst thing we could do when we see the eephus pitch coming is to freeze. Better to swing away and miss than not to try at all; as Shakespeare famously said, “Better to have loved and lost than never to love at all.”

The issue becomes one of preparation. How do you seize the day if you aren’t awake? Again, the quest for not only the truth of what is now, but the truth of what might be possible even if it has never been done, seen, or thought of, is where greatness exists, and yes, it’s improbable.

All the more reason to be on the lookout for it.

Eephus ain’t nothing

A Philosophy of Listening

Carpe diem

One day I think in 2010 while I was volunteering at a local soup kitchen, I walked past a bookshelf full of romance novels. Serendipity means finding a book worth reading on a shelf full of romances. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable was sitting there. I’d never heard of it before, but even the way the spine is designed said “this is not a romance novel.” So I seized the day, plucked it from the shelf, took it home, and began to read philosophy again.

In fact, I had read Why Art Cannot Be Taught by Elkins a few years before but perhaps didn’t see it as the philosophical book that it is. But the point is, since graduating college I hadn’t really engaged my brain that way. Once I read The Black Swan I had to admit to myself I was reading stuff that was a bit over my head, and from there I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and so on. I began again to engage philosophy, this time in a much more serious way than I had during my undergrad years. You don’t have to have a graduate program to make yourself read.

My basic conclusion after reading Why Art Cannot Be Taught was that Elkins was correct in saying that Art cannot be taught, but incorrect in failing to offer a more excellent way to engage with art students. Coaching, I believed, and a community of authentic relationship, may not teach anyone to become a “great” artist as defined by fame or wealth. But it could help artists to become better people, more well-adjusted, less prone to isolation and even to suicide or self-medication – things which have been known to destroy artists in their prime. If you want to become an artful motivational listener, that is, if you want to listen to people and watch them walk away and succeed at attaining goals and dreams, this is a science to some extent which can be studied like the science of mixing color. Just because you can mix red and yellow to get orange doesn’t mean you can move people. Just because you can ask powerful questions, like “What do you hope to get out of this session” doesn’t mean you’re going to become the most famous or wealthy coach. But then, this isn’t necessarily the end of an art-form like listening. As Ronald Reagan said (or repeated) “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Perhaps the first thing we have to lay down to learn this art is the idea that it will somehow become a great career and that it might make us famous. (Incidentally the same goes for writing. You have to come to the place where you don’t care how much money it makes or how famous you will become – you simply have an idea or story to tell. Then you become productive.)

One of the biggest philosophical questions of all time is this: What is Truth?

As a motivational listener, you’ll be listening for that too. But not so much in the way of a judge or lawyer in a courtroom. Instead, you’re listening for the truth like a hunting guide looks for bear or cougar spoor. Yep, the old biologist’s joke is true: bear spoor happens. The real value of being a hunting guide is in recognizing the unexpected for what it is. If you were teaching people to hunt for deer in northern Indiana, where I live, you’d think it’s not so difficult to avoid the danger of becoming prey. But there have been stories in the area of bears visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some years ago, perhaps around 2007, I was working in Ohio and saw a newspaper article discussing the fact that several people had spotted a cougar in their backyards. A representative of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was quoted as saying “there are no cougars in Ohio.” Now there are many current articles about cougars in Ohio woodlands. As unusual and unexpected as they may be, you would do well to recognize the signs of this animal in your vicinity – and to be able to say to yourself the first time it happens, “I know there are no cougars, but here is a cougar,” and to take appropriate action. Being able to recognize something which is highly improbable is a key component, possibility as a critical piece of truth, that takes awareness and alertness that’s worth paying for.

On the flip side there are things we may uncover as we track that could help, as we listen to people’s story, which could lead to discovery of something spectacular, perhaps even resulting in some sort of breakthrough, and dare we say, greatness. To continue with the hunting guide analogy, knowing how to find not just any buck, but the twenty-point buck; to not just locate the hole where any northern pike are hiding, but to catch a record fish.

So, the art of motivational listening, like any other art, perhaps cannot be taught. But there is one thing I can tell you: you are looking for something you do not know. This is the core idea behind Taleb’s Black Swan. The Black Swan event is “an outlier, as it lies outside the real of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly, it carries an extreme impact… Third, in spite of its outlier statues, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurance after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. … It Is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks… Black Swan Logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.

This is what we’re looking for when we listen. Where are the handful of shocks, positive or negative? To refer to an earlier essay where I discussed the nature of the knuckleball, say for example that you are the batter, and the knuckleball pitcher makes a mistake. He throws a pitch that rotates, and the ball, rather than knuckling impossibly, suddenly becomes very hittable. The only problem is that you may be so surprised by the relative ease that you miss the pitch anyway.

Another pitch, even more rare than the poorly-thrown knuckleball, relies on the surprise. This pitch, called an eephus pitch, is served up to the batter in such a way that it is intended to be so hittable that the batter misses.

Wikipedia notes: “The delivery from the pitcher has very low velocity and usually catches the hitter off-guard. Its invention is attributed to Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1940s. According to manager Frankie Frisch, the pitch was named by outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays replied, “‘Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” Although the origin is not known for certain, Eephus may come from the Hebrew word אפס (pronounced “EFF-ess”), meaning “nothing“.[2]” 

The Eephus pitch must be used with terrible infrequency – a complete outlier. The minute it becomes expected, it becomes worthless. It’s no longer a Black Swan Event. Sometimes it’s called a ball, sometimes a strike, usually makes the batter laugh, fools even the umpire, and once, Ted Williams hit a home run in the All-Star Game on an eephus pitch. Ted Williams was the kind of batter who was always ready. Ted was one of the greats.

Greatness, in terms of “no limits to what may be accomplished” is often the result of flexibly and appropriately responding to a Black Swan event when it happens. It means the ability to recognize bear or cougar spoor and get out of the woods, or being ready for the eephus pitch, that moment in which things become so easy for you to knock it out of the park that you’re likely to completely miss your chance. I think the worst thing we could do when we see the eephus pitch coming is to freeze. Better to swing away and miss than not to try at all; as Shakespeare famously said, “Better to have loved and lost than never to love at all.”

The issue becomes one of preparation. How do you seize the day if you aren’t awake? Again, the quest for not only the truth of what is now, but the truth of what might be possible even if it has never been done, seen, or thought of, is where greatness exists, and yes, it’s improbable.

All the more reason to be on the lookout for it.

Kinshasa Symphony

I got my yellow fever vaccination boosted on July 6, and have been preparing documentation to apply for a Visa. There are five or six Congo Reflections posts in the archives now, and you may want to take a look at those.

I went to my local public library where I like to pick up films out of the foreign section, and as I was on my way to look for a movie, perhaps in French to brush up on listening to that language, I was walking past the documentary section, glanced down, and this title jumped off the shelf at me. “Kinshasa Symphony.”

So I watched it. Twice. This 2010 film follows a group of Congolese through the slums as they perform everyday duties; one woman works as a wedding decorator (can that be a steady job?) while some of the men run pharmacies and barbershops; then, in the evening they gather to rehearse for the biggest symphonic performance that the Congo has perhaps ever seen.

Sometimes my friends ask “what is the purpose of art?” Why not do something productive?

The people in this documentary answer that question in the simplest of language. Find a copy of it. I highly recommend it.