Stasis and Movement

perfectwaterweb

Now that spring is bumping its way into view I long for summer. I think part of us (part of me, anyway) never loses the Platonic ideal of that season we developed when we were children. When I think of summer I think of long, sunny days in which I have nothing to do but please myself and grow—days of swimming and dreaming and playing with friends.

In reality as an adult I juggle work and social obligations daily during the summer months. Still, I try to spend at least a few minutes of each afternoon sitting at my neighbors’ magical dam. I let my mind wander and soak up the joys of sun and water.

The dam today doesn’t look much different from the dam of my youth. The sound of the water flowing toward and over it is the eternal sound of my childhood. Resting by the dam, or gliding through the water with a breaststroke, I feel as though time has stood still.

Of course, time—like the water—is always moving. It’s one of life’s paradoxes that even when we think we are at rest, as I believe I am now typing this into my laptop with my dog Truffle snoozing at my side, humans and the cosmos are moving in myriad ways. Our globe spins on its axis and rotates around the sun. The sun and its solar system move around the Milky Way. Everything in the universe expands every second.

Similarly, the dam, which I think of as always the same, is transformed from instant to instant as thousands of drops of water whiz by. The very sound that symbolizes eternity for me—the sound of water flowing—is the sound of change.

Maybe change is the point. Perhaps the reason I so love the dam and summer is not because they are always the same but because they are, like life, always on the move. They breathe with me … nourish me … play with me. They remind me that we are most centered when we are busiest.

Come to think of it, I don’t have to wait until summer to regain the feeling of childhood. All I have to do is strive to be more aware of the ways in which stasis and movement coexist—and the spirit of youth, of learning and play and dreaming, will fill me.

I won’t tell Truffle about this just now, however. She is enjoying the illusion that she is at rest while napping.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

Advertisements

Return of the Country Mouse

George

I recently spent 24 hours in New York City.

My main purpose was to attend the Peabody Award luncheon on Monday, May 20. The Peabodys, administered through the University of Georgia, were originally founded to honor excellence in radio. Now they encompass all forms of electronic communications.

I wish I could tell you that I went to the Peabodys to accept an award! Not yet.

I went because this year is the final one in which my former graduate-school professor, Horace Newcomb, will serve as the director of the Peabodys. Once he moves back from Athens, Georgia, to his home in Austin, Texas (and stops making Peabody-related trips to New York City), I’ll be unlikely to see him.

So I decided to attend the ceremonies, to which Horace has invited me every year for more than a decade. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to talk to Horace or his wife, Sara, in the hubbub of awards, congratulations, and food. I didn’t. But I wanted to talk to them one last time. I did.

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

My father always said that if one is truly lucky in higher education one will find at least one professor who really matters, who teaches one to think and encourages one to do one’s best work.

For me, Horace was one of those professors.

He is pretty much the founder of television studies in the United States. He began by teaching in an English department, in fact, since early in his career few official departments existed in which one could study or teach television.

By the time I got to the University of Texas, where I got my Ph.D. in American studies but specialized in media history, he was a well known figure in the university’s Radio-TV-Film department.

He never completely shook off his English department roots, however, which meant that in a pinch I could discuss my American literature reading list with him as well as the one for television studies. He taught me to appreciate Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser as well as Stephen J. Cannell and Tom Selleck. (Okay, I admit I didn’t need a lot of teaching to appreciate Tom Selleck, but Horace helped me understand WHY I appreciated him beyond his good looks.)

I wasn’t Horace’s best or even favorite student. He was always generous with his time, however. He inspired me to hone my writing and my analysis of stories told in any medium.

And he occasionally talked me down from the metaphorical ledge when I was feeling stressed out by life as a Ph.D. candidate.

When I decided to ask outside readers to give an honest appraisal of my new memoir, Pulling Taffy, Horace was one of the few people to whom I sent the manuscript. He offered insightful suggestions for reshaping the book. I didn’t implement them all, but they set me on the path I ended up taking.

I was happy to hand a copy of the book to him and Sara after the Peabody luncheon.

I was also happy just to be there for the awards, which went to a remarkable bunch of people and radio/TV/web productions. Some of these (Lorne Michaels, HBO, Doctor Who) were known to me. Others were new. These included Filipinos who had created a video exposé of child malnutrition in their country and a Phoenix news station crew whose in-depth reporting on the cause of a local automobile accident eventually led to a federal inquiry and the recall of hundreds of thousands of vehicles.

I left with a happy feeling from having encountered Horace and Sara; a few celebrities (I saved a departing elevator for Judd Apatow!); the glorious art-deco palace that is the Waldorf Astoria Hotel; and the hustle and bustle of New York, which always invigorates me.

Judd didn't offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

Judd didn’t offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

I also left with a piece of chocolate shaped like a Peabody Award and a bouquet of aromatic flowers that survived the bus ride back to Massachusetts and graced my table here for more than a week.

Most importantly, I left with inspiration. All the people accepting Peabody Awards were passionate about their work, and all of them had told stories that mattered.

I hope that my next big story will matter, too. I’m not sure what that story will be, of course; I’m running around like a crazy person publicizing my current book! But I’m cogitating. Stay tuned….

waldorf

One Today (or the Forest/Tree Dilemma)

Richard Blanco performs a sound check for the inauguration (courtesy of Richard Blanco)

I love watching presidential inaugurations on television. Even if I haven’t voted for the current president, at least one day in four years I feel a sense of common purpose with our chief executive, with other elected officials, and with fellow citizens glued to the spectacle in person or over the airwaves.

I am sometimes a little petty so of course as a chanteuse I found things to criticize in some of the musical offerings during yesterday’s inauguration. (Is it now against the rules to perform a patriotic song the way it was written?)

I thought the basic theme of the president’s speech was solid, however. And I was moved to tears by Richard Blanco’s poem “One Today.”  As I age (and I age very slowly, of course), poems seem to speak to me more and more. This one invoked the many landscapes, languages, and occupations of Americans in order to draw us together as one people to visualize, name, and create our future.

It may seem odd that a poem about unity should rely on so very many individual images—of prayers, of stalks of wheat, of doors and clotheslines, of blackboards and trains and tragedies and smiles. Nevertheless, it is detail that makes life rich. So each lone image Blanco added to his poetic soup kettle made the flavor stronger and more distinctive.

I am a detail-obsessed person. One of the agents whom I approached about representing my forthcoming book about my mother felt uncomfortable with its reliance on vignettes. She told me that she would be more inclined to represent the book if I reworked it into a narrative instead of a mosaic.

I considered taking her advice but ultimately decided against it. I experience life in mosaic form. Perhaps others do not. But to me, life’s narrative isn’t clear or well structured. It shifts shape messily all the time. And it is the richer because of its shape shifting.

I am aware of the dangers of eschewing the forest for the trees. We have to have a sense of how our life is going in general in order to understand that life. Nevertheless, I will always err a little bit on the side of the trees. I can see my whole last year with my mother—indeed, her whole life—in her favorite poem (“The Owl and the Pussycat”) or a bowl of succotash or the image of her weak little body poised on top of a cardboard box trying to balance itself.

It is life’s individual moments that make us laugh, cry, feel, and connect with others—that make us feel alive.

So I stuck with the mosaic form. Thanks to Richard Blanco, I feel better today that I did. And I feel proud to be part of the mosaic he described.

Just for fun, a photo from my book. This picture could in fact sum up my mother's life: her smile never changed.

Just for fun, a photo from my book. This picture could in fact sum up my mother’s life: her smile never changed.

The Heath Fair and the Creative Process

I participated in a book reading/signing over the weekend at the annual agricultural fair in Heath, Massachusetts.

The Heath Fair is my favorite fair in the world. One can walk through the entire thing, from the exhibit hall to the grandstand for tractor and animal pulls, in 20 minutes … although generally it takes much longer to walk through it since one has to stop to look at wares for sale, buy something to nibble on, check out the animals and the children’s games, and talk to the people passing by.

(The Heath Fair is like our local general store. It’s impossible to go there without running into people one knows.)

Composer Alice Parker and I, the Divas of Hawley, were scheduled to discuss our writing around midday on Sunday. The local-author tent in which we appeared was organized by Jack Estes and Betsy Kovacs, who run a small press called Pleasure Boat Studio from their homes in Heath and New York City.

The discussion crystallized some thoughts I had been having about the nature of creativity.

I recently read Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer talks about the ways in which individual brains and groups of people work most creatively. His book has been recalled by the publisher in recent weeks because the author got a bit too “creative” himself and made up quotations from Bob Dylan. (I have never been able to understand the suicidal impulses that lead some journalists to exaggerate their reporting in this fashion.) Nevertheless, Lehrer’s writing helped me understand the ways in which I work.

His “individual brain” section indicated that there are two particularly fertile ways in which brains can come up with new ideas. One is by just working and working and working and working away at a problem. The other, ironically, is by letting go of worry, letting go of conscious thought, and daydreaming. Somehow when one does this, he argues, the brain can make totally new connections that shed light on the problem at hand.

I realized as I read the book that I indulge in both of these modes when I’m writing something important to me. I outline and make lists and write and rewrite. When I’m really stuck, however, I lie down, close my eyes, and let my brain drift. Frequently, a moment of insight occurs during these drowsy moments.

Our discussion helped me hone that realization … and apply it to singing as well as writing.

Alice read a passage from her book The Anatomy of Melody, in which she described the process by which Ella Fitzgerald might have approached a song by George Gershwin. Alice’s point was that Fitzgerald was truer to Gershwin when she left the written music behind and interpreted a song than she would have been had she just sung the notes “as written.” In fact, Alice suggested, a song doesn’t really exist “as written”; it is dead until a singer breathes life into it.

The next author to speak after us was religious historian and philosopher Jim Carse. Jim talked about (among other things!) the ways in which he learned to write, think and talk by NOT thinking. The trick, he explained, was to think and think and think and do lots of research and then stop thinking and forget all the research.

Jim Carse at the Heath Fair (Courtesy of Betsy Kovacs)

Alice asked me how I learn a song. I explained that I start with the notes on the page—or, if I’m lucky, with a tape recording of the melody. Once I get the melody running through my head, however, I let go of the notes and start playing with them. I act them out and feel them.

“A song is emotion,” I said. “If you’re not feeling it, if you’re just thinking it, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Some days I’m a little profound. (And some days I’m a little immodest.)

Today as I remember our discussion I feel lucky … to have meaningful work to do that involves my mind and heart, to have creative people to listen to and work with, and to live in a community that offers events like the Heath Fair.

I hope I never stop learning … or enjoying country pastimes.

For more details on the Heath Fair, including photos of the fair in general and author links, visit this post by the wonderful Pat Leuchtman, another author who appeared at the writers’ booth!

The Divas of Hawley