Brick by Brick

Brick building

The trendy thing to do in Southern New Hampshire at the moment is to renovate old mill buildings and re-purpose them for homes and offices. Mill buildings are turned into apartments in the town where Karen and I live, and the largest city in the state has a riverfront of old mill buildings that have become university campuses, sport bars, shops, and offices of various shapes and colors. My day job is in one of these buildings, a cool, creative loft-space that offers a really nice view of the city. Construction is still ongoing in the adjacent building, and my lunch conversation with a colleague this week centered around watching the workers one floor below and one building over. Bricks were being chiseled out and hauled away by the dumpster full, and mention was made of the worth of those bricks in monetary terms.

I think there’s more worth to them than that. Something that you notice quickly if you transplant to New England is the age of the buildings. Things have been around a lot longer up here. That initially brings some headaches if you’re not accustomed to the differences in architecture (getting a bed frame up a flight of the notoriously narrow staircases of many homes here is a challenge of occasionally epic proportions), but it’s a good thing overall. There’s more character here. When I watched those workers haul bricks away by the wheel-barrow load to place onto a front-loader, I thought of the hands that would have initially carried those bricks, and carefully placed them together to form the building in which we stood, so many years later.

Brick by brick.

I grew up with a father who worked in a technological field, but whose love was crafting things from wood. He kept a fully-equipped workshop in a detached building, and escaped to it whenever he could. He carved shapes and built small structures, many with surprising usefulness, others for simple aesthetics, but all with the best craftsmanship of which he was capable. There are other woodworkers out there of much more skill, certainly, but he was quite good himself, and with no formal instruction. My father loved handling the wood. He enjoyed the feel of it. Watching his creative synergy happen with the shapes that he carved was inspiring.

My grandmother created with needle and thread. Quilting is an art that borders on extinction, and she left a legacy behind her that has helped others to know her. My father will leave his creations behind, as well, one day. My mother was a ceramic potter of sorts, and has gifted things to me that she has made. I sincerely hope that the words I’ve penned will be left for our daughter, because that’s something that she will be able to hold onto, something tangible that I created, as my father’s wooden sculptures and my grandmother’s quilts are to me.

As I’ve watched the workers carry away those bricks this week, I think of the history left behind by the workers who originally built the structures. It’s important to do good work, because the work we do is a gift, a legacy, to the culture as a whole. I doubt that the workers who built the building that houses my office originally were all happy about their labor. I also doubt that they could foresee the future of their labor. And, so it is with all of us, because all of us create in some capacity.

Whatever your craft, know that it carries a legacy, that it will be something that you leave behind for others as you practice it. Respect that.

And do good work.

Photo Attribution: Ryan M under Creative Commons

Acting In

Girl in theatrical makeup

One of my theatre professors in college talked a lot about how going out for coffee after seeing a show to discuss what you had just seen was an essential part of the experience. The audience is, after all, a part of the story, just as much as the actors on stage are, but are unique in the sense that they didn’t really know what to expect at all (it’s always in flux, but the actors have at least some idea). Talking after a show is really about de-briefing as much as anything else.

Part of the beauty of a theatrical performance is that it never really ends up the same way twice. That inconsistency is a beautiful thing, and a provocative thing. A huge part of the reason that it’s never the same performance two nights in a row is that the audience is completely different, and their reactions alter the performances of the actors on stage. Theatre isn’t so much a performing art as it is an interactive art, which is why it has become a lens for understanding communities, minorities, oppressed people groups, and theologies.

The understanding of interactivity, though, often stops with the question, what did the audience take away? The story being performed, after all, is ultimately being performed for the audience.

I’ve been involved in a lot of performances in a lot of different venues. I’ve done shows in huge auditoriums with state-of-the-art lighting equipment and elaborate sets, and I’ve done it on the street for community outreach projects with no sets or even costumes. What’s consistent is that the audience is always impacted.

What’s also consistent, though, is that the cast and crew are just as deeply impacted. And it’s not always through the performance.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself through the performances with which I’ve been involved. I’ve learned a great deal about others. I’ve learned a great deal about my faith. Theatre, in it’s capacity as a performing art, is a uniquely collaborative art. Many artists from different disciplines come together to form a production. Especially when you’ve been involved in several productions with the same group of people, you find that you’ve had a “foxhole” experience of sorts.

So, the experience for the audience is a huge part of theatre. Audience members going for coffee and discussing the show is a huge part of realizing what new things you know and appreciate about what it is to be human after a show. The cast and crew going for drinks after the curtain call is much the same. Theatre, being uniquely collaborative, is uniquely geared to delve into the experience of being human. So, whether you’re in the show or seeing the show, you’re having a deep experience with the person or people with whom you’re experiencing the show.

I just wish that the two sides…the actors and the audience…would connect and talk about what they’ve experienced more.

Have you seen a show lately? You should go do that…

Image credit: Alastair Barnsley  under Creative Commons


Taking Care of the Instrument

Something that Karen had done a lot of before we were married, but that she’s had very little opportunity to do since we’ve been married, is sing. Which is really a shame, because her voice is angelic. And, while I know I’m biased, my opinion is reinforced by the observations of many other neutral parties.

Karen has most often practiced her gifts within a faith community, and, as we were previously heavily involved in theatrical endeavors in the community that we attended before moving to New England, she just simply couldn’t make the scheduling commitments of both work out. Recently, however, she was asked to join the musicians that play for the Saturday night “unplugged” worship service that we attend in our new town. She’s come alive lending her voice to these events. I’ve seen something in my wife that I haven’t seen before, something amazing, something carefree and in love. It’s been amazing to witness.

While I was out at work this Saturday afternoon, Karen told me that she was trying to take a nap while our daughter took hers (the only time that this is possible, as any parent will attest). Her rest was disrupted, she said, by a guy cleaning his car in the parking with screamer music pounding out of his speakers while he worked. That doesn’t make for good resting conditions.

Rock history, as you may know, is a bit of a hobby of mine. I’ve never been particularly attracted to what is alternatively and most commonly referred to a screamer or hardcore music. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate it. Music expresses the feelings of it’s era, and this genre contains a (quite literal) scream of angst and frustration, a rage against the machine, if you will, at the injustice that is so commonplace around us, the system that fails everyone, and generally being sick of the pain.

There are a handful of hardcore songs that I like, but they are rare. I respect the genre, and what it says about our cultural landscape…it’s just not really my taste. Karen’s opinion of it is slightly stronger.

In her recollection of a nap disrupted tonight, she reasoned out why she dislikes this music. She feels that, despite the urban legend that the screaming vocalists are using “a different part of their voice” and know how to scream without detrimental effect, any of us who have taken vocal lessons know that these vocalists are risking the long-term of effect of destroying their voice. The reason that this bothers Karen, she expressed, is that the musicians are thus not respecting their instrument, and, by extension, are interested only in doing what is popular, not in making true art.

(Umbrella of mercy…I’m summarizing someone else’s thoughts, and likely horribly over-simplifying. It sounded so much more logical when she said it…)

Not certain where I land on this issue. I agree that serious artists respect their instruments. I don’t for a moment buy the myth that these vocalists have learned to scream in a way that isn’t damaging to their voices. I also don’t buy the stereotype of all of these bands…their are hardcore musicians out there doing serious work and saying serious things. The sound is part of the musical landscape, and it says something about our history.

I also think that there are others that capture the angst and the edge with instruments other than their voices.

There’s also something to be said for sacrificing for the art, perhaps. I’m caught in the tension. The message of the sound is important, it says something, it’s an historical marker. The method producing the sound smacks of the amateur sound technician that thinks the way to make the band sound better is by turning everything up. There’s a way to accomplish what’s needed and remain true to one’s art. Sometimes, that’s not at all an easy balance to strike.

…Thought Control? No Thanks….

When I was freshman in college, I worked as a DJ for the campus radio station. The experience was invaluable. The real perk , however, even though I worked every weekend, was that, while all of my freshmen friends got the dining hall as their work study, I got to spin tunes (yes, I know how dated that sounds, but seriously…there were turntables and vinyl in that radio station).

One afternoon, the CD machine broke (that was new technology at the time), and we had to figure out a way to keep the dead air at bay. So, one of my co-workers put on a Pink Floyd album and we were covered for some time.

Pink Floyd is a classic piece of our musical heritage, we can’t deny that. I’m going to come out and say, though, that, despite their technical skill, I’ve never been a huge fan of their music. I think it’s more because their sound just doesn’t click with me, but…I digress.  I still respect them artists. The song that’s always been most prominent in my noggin when I think of Pink Floyd is Another Brick in the Wall, and one line in particular:

“We don’t need no education…”

The writer in me cringes and weeps in the corner.

I listened to a great discussion on NPR last week…and, of course, I can’t find the audio anywhere now…about artistic license for musical artists. Basically, when do we let artists get by with such atrocious grammar, and when do we not? Of course, Pink Floyd is saying something with their poor grammar…like a good poet, their meta-message is augmented by their sentence structure. And rock n’ roll, lest we forget, is an art form with its roots in rebellion against the status quo. The posture, the hair, the distorted sound and guitars in overdrive…these are all pushing back on something. Back when music had poetry in its lyrics, the language worked to convey that message, carrying with it hints for which the listener had to work to find the meaning. In short, when the grammar was bad, it was generally bad for a reason.

Now, in the interest of being objective, I’m about to sound un-objective, as you might have guessed when I said “back when music had poetry.” You can imagine, then, that I don’t hold any particular love for a great deal of modern music. The teacher being interviewed in that NPR article talks about role modeling proper grammar in music for students in the impressionable time period between high school and middle school. She was concerned about artists such as Justin Bieber and Shakira using poor grammar and hearing her students repeat it, because music is such a powerful memory aid.

Yet, so much of the music to which I listened as a child had incorrect grammar, and I turned out just fine.

Rebellion in popular music certainly hasn’t changed…there’s a lot of machine to rage against out there, and a lot of rage with which to do so. That sort of expression is one of the most important things that rock music gives us, I think. Where does artistic license begin, though, in regards to grammar in the lyrics?

I propose an answer, and that answer is at the end of ignorance. When an artist (any artist…this is apropos for the poet as well as the musician) knows a rule and then breaks it for intentional effect, that is artistic license. Beethoven wrote much of his music by breaking the rules that contemporaries such as Mozart valued so highly, and we are without a doubt richer for it.

I can’t help but think, though…and if this sounds judgmental, I’d encourage you to look at statistics…that most poor grammar in the modern music industry is the result of being uneducated.  That is, the grammar errors aren’t made for effect, they’re made out of ignorance. These kids are just looking for something that rhymes.

When artists break societal norms out of ignorance instead of with intentional purpose, then they’re not making art…they’re making excuses. I can look back on Pink Floyd’s anthem and recognize what they’re saying, and their grammar choices lead me to that. Many modern artists don’t use their grammar choices to say anything, but rather boost their popularity by using trendy expressions. The poetry, my friends, appears to be dying.

And certainly it is preceded in death by lyrics than meant anything of substance, anyway. That, though, is a topic for another day.

Playful Recollections

G.I. Joe action figures

When I was young, I played with action figures. I had both a Transformers and a G.I. Joe collection that were quite impressive. And they weren’t the only ones: my geekier friends will remember the likes of M.A.S.K., and the Super Powers collection.

There was this room in our home that experienced multiple reincarnations during the course of my childhood. It was a den, it was a guest bedroom, it was other things here and there. At one point, it became the secret mountain headquarters for the G.I. Joe team. I filled most of the room with just the good guys. There was difficulty finding somewhere else in the house to put the bad guys.

It was a modest collection.

As I grew, I made a close friend with one of the neighbors. He was older than I was a by a few grade levels, and he won me over to the world of role playing games and other things that older kids do. One day, I was playing with some of my old toys having some of my usual imaginative adventures play out. Later, my older friend was visiting and commented on the toys still laying about. He was trying not to judge, but this just wasn’t the sort of thing that older kids did.

Last week I enjoyed the final of this year’s Reith lectures, which was about finding self-fulfillment through art. And while you might guess that, as powerful as I know art to be and as much as I love talking about it, I rolled my eyes at that title, there was an important point in the lecture about how we forget to play as children play, because that is what creativity and art are at their simplest impulse: play.

Life has a way of pushing us out of the playful mindset. All of that adult responsibility sort of stuff…working hard, staying late, dressing up for work every day. I’ve experienced my lot of that, especially over the last year (although I at least don’t have to dress up any more). Even when you have the opportunity to work in a creative profession, daily life is fraught with a specific set of resulting concerns that carry an overwhelmingly burdening load at times. It’s no wonder that our creativity suffers a blow from the constraints with which we deal.

And that’s to say nothing of the other aspects of a stressful but full life…say, having a two-year-old, for example.

Looking back on that evening years ago when my friend saw those toys laying around, my feelings of embarrassment regarding being found out were seriously misplaced. I should have been proud to have toys about, in the same way that I’m proud to wear comic book t-shirts now. It has nothing to do with being part of a subculture or being a geek. It has everything to do with remembering to play.

Because that’s such a very, very important part of life.

Photo Attribution: Lunchbox Photography under Creative Commons