A Black Poet, a White Politician, an SNL Parody - and How to Avoid the Danger of Being Too Sure
Lucille Clifton, Richard Nixon, Steve Martin. It’s not every day you’ll hear these three names mentioned in the same breath. But we live in a world of unusual juxtapositions. Look no further than postmodern art by Romare Beardon and Robert Rauschenberg. Or any city skyline with a Rennaissaince style church shadowed by a glass skyscraper.
Sometimes groupings like this are ironic. Others are accidental or focus on incongruity or commonality. But I’ve handpicked my threesome to make a point about the ‘perception trap’ — the perilous belief that your particular way of looking at things is the right one. There’s a lot of that going around these days. Almost no one seems immune. In American and UK politics, for example, it’s led to extreme polarization fueled by social media platforms that turn anyone with a smartphone into an instant bullhorn.
It’s only human to perceive the world around you and draw conclusions based on the information you’re processing. But it’s pure folly to pretend yourconcepts are the only correct interpretation.
So I’ve concocted a mental flu-shot comprised of life hacks gleaned from the lives of three iconic individuals from entirely different walks of life, chased by a little something extra to top it off — the pièce de résistance, if you will.
Three Lovely Things to Think On: Rilke, Paul Gauguin & Music from Wong Kar-wai's 'In the Mood for Love'
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I spoke with an educator who told me about an essay written by a 16-year-old student. Like the advice Nick Carraway received from his father on the opening page of The Great Gatsby, it's something I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
Donald Trump won the election, the high-schooler said, because he only thinks positive things about himself even if they're not true. But that's not all he did. He also managed to get everyone else to think negative thoughts. You can't win when you get negative. You just can't.
This was one of those insights about which I could only say, "Out of the mouths of babes." Surely there were many quantitative factors that led to the election's outcome. Systematic, carefully orchestrated help from Russia, for example. An electoral college system that permits a minority vote-getter to secure the Oval Office. James Comey's ill-timed statements about the Clinton email investigation. And many more. But the words of that 16-year-old essayist seemed to get to the heart of the matter. They also reminded me of her famous 20th-century precursor.
In 1903, James Allen wrote a significant little book which says, "As a man thinketh, so shall he be."
I've been reflecting on that line lately because I've taken a few days to absent myself from the news. Funny how a little adjustment like that can make a difference in the way you feel. Not that I've got my head in the sand. You can't do that entirely.
But backing away from the daily mayhem seems to have improved my overall sense of well-being.
I've heard it said that you can't solve a problem by focusing on it too much. That only makes the problem larger and more difficult in your mind. Solutions come when you step back far enough to see the big picture.
It also helps, I've found, to bear in mind what St. Paul said about thought. You know the line. "Whatever is true, honorable and right, whatever is pure, lovely, and of good repute--if there be anything excellent worthy of praise, let your mind think on those things."
To that end, dear friends, here are three things that seem to fit Paul's paradigm. They make me feel better. Maybe you'll get something from them too.
With Albert Finney’s departure from the world stage on February 7, there’s plenty to say about his exceptional career. Two favorite scenes from The Dresser (1983) are included here. The film is about a small ragtag acting troupe that brings Shakespeare to the provinces. It’s a sendup of bombastic old-school acting and a poignant study of the lead actor’s personal assistant or “dresser.” The film opens with Finney's character in the role of Othello. As you can see from the above photograph, his entire body has been darkened. Tom Courtenay, his dresser, is shown assisting him with a post-performance bath.
Taken on its own and out of context, the image is both compelling and off-putting. It seems especially relevant to the current social moment when blackface is trending yet again. What does it mean when a white actor darkens his skin to play Othello? Is that the same as the kind of blackface historically used to denigrate African Americans? Or something different?
Most people live life dying. It shows in their attitude, their response to circumstances and ultimately in their physical health and appearance. But there is an alternative, an open secret, which is also the key to a happy and fulfilling life: Live life living.
The foregoing paraphrase is my key take-away from Robert Henri's wonderful book, The Art Spirit, which was loaned to me years ago by an 80-year-old sculptor, who was also my neighbor in the island-country north of Seattle and one of the most youthful people I have ever known.
I mention it now because Robert Henri was born on this day, 6/24/1865. He was a leading figure in the Ashcan School of American Realism, a founding member of "The Eight," and a gifted an inspired teacher.
If you check out comments and reviews for The Art Spirit on Goodreads or Amazon, you will find a common theme — it’s not just a book for painters, though it contains technical guidance they will find useful. It’s a book for anyone who wants to live a richer and happier life. In the end, it’s about connection to spirit. Connection to source. Make that connection, and you find the secret to life, the key that makes it possible to “life life living” instead of the daily dying most people settle for. That quiet desperation Thoreau spoke about.
You don’t have to be a painter, sculptor, poet or musician in order to life a creative life. If your goal is to live life to the fullest, to remain youthful in spirit all your life, here are five ideas you’ll find in Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, which offer a bit of motivation, inspiration, and guidance.
Ann Patchett , Julie Harris, Georges Seurat & Maria Callas Give December 2nd a Good Name - Happy Birthday
Born this day in 1963, she is NOT the author of Bird by Bird, though Ann Patchett says she is sometimes mistaken for Anne Lamott at book signings. The reason people line up to see her is that she made them fall in love by turning out one beautiful novel after another. Best known for the prize-winning Bel Canto, she has also given us The Patron Saint of Liars, Run, State of Wonder, and (one of my favorites) The Magician's Assistant. It was just a few weeks ago on November 19th, that she spoke at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, where her warmth, intelligence and insights left no doubt as to why her fans wait for her latest book and line up outside bookstores for her autograph. Here she is in a YouTube reprise of that delightful event.
In her 87 years on the planet, this actor gave us many memorable performances, which have set the bar for any others who attempt roles she made her own. It is difficult to imagine anyone else in The Belle of Amherst, for instance. When I wonder what poet Emily Dickinson looked and sounded like, it's Harris who comes to mind. The year she spent studying theater at the Yale School of Drama served her well. She moved easily from Tony Award-winning performances on Broadway to film adaptations of the same material. Carson McCullers' A Member of the Wedding and The Last of Mrs. Lincoln come readily to mind. Nominated ten times for a Tony, she won five of them and received many other awards during her brilliant career. Here she is with James Dean in the screen adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden.
Even if you've seen Sunday in the Park with George a zillion times or tacked posters of his pointillist paintings to your dorm-room wall, you will not be prepared for the way Seurat's work envelops you. It's a little like falling in love the way it happens one dot at a time until all of a sudden you're completely involved. If I could bear the winters, I would move to Illinois to be near the Chicago Art Institute for the pleasure of seeing his massive A Sunday on La Grande Jatte at least once a week. Here's one of those delightful 7-minute clips from SmartHistory with more. Thanks again to Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. By the way, Seurat was born this day in 1859.
Listen to the following recording of "Ave Maria," and you will understand why this soprano was known as La Divina (The Divine One). It is a matter of record that she gave up her career in opera after falling in love with shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis, who basically dumped her some time later for Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he eventually married. But that is not the record that will stand when we think of Callas, who would have turned 90 on this day. Thanks to the fine art of digital remastering, some of her best recordings are now accessible and can be fully appreciated on decent stereo equipment. My personal favorite is "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma. So what the heck - I've been on vacation for a few days - why not throw that in too. Enjoy!
Born this day in 1887, she is the quintessential artist. Not only was she a photographic model for her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, who may have exploited their intimacy by exhibiting his private photographs of her, but was - and is - a model for the rest of us who want to live lives that reflect our values. Independent, creative, in touch with the natural world, she continues to inspire. Most of us recognize her famous flower paintings. But take a look at the beautifully edited piece below, put together by "starrynight003." Her landscapes are lovely, too.
Born in Buenos Aires on this day in 1942, this Israeli-Argentine pianist and conductor has won seven Grammy Awards, received a knighthood, and racked up more honors than you can shake a stick at. A charismatic figure in his own right, he was famously married to the equally charismatic cellist, Jacqueline Du Pre. Much has been written about her tragic illness, and as outsiders, we can never really know what their relationship was like. However, there was a moment before their troubles set in, when they shared something remarkable as artists. The following clip from an early recording session shows some of the joy they ignited in each other, which found its way into music.
Born this day in 1920, this wonderful painter turns 93 today. The clip below is from an interview conducted five years ago. Love what he says about painting anthologizing the sum human consciousness from all of our sides, from the majestic and spiritual all the way down to brute terror and the tremendous inhumanity of man. As one of the YouTube comments points out, this man is a national treasure.
TAGS: Truth & Beauty, Muses & Music, Famous Birthdays
Wally Shawn (My Dinner with Andre) Born Today; Also, Rodin (Filmed in His Studio) & Anne Hathaway (Devil/Prada)
Put him in a line-up with a dozen hunky guys, and you'd never guess that Wally Shawn is the playwright, essayist and actor whose credits include Woody Allen's Manhattan, Toy Story, Murphy Brown, The Incredibles - and of course, Louis Malle's phenomenal two-man tour de force, My Dinner with Andre, a few mind-blowing moments of which are included in the clip below. Happy Birthday Number 70, Wally!
Born this day in 1840, this French sculptor gave us The Kiss, The Burghers of Calais, and The Thinker. It's impossible to show that moment during the creative process when, as Ingmar Bergman once said, the artist ceases to exist, becomes, as it were, invisible. But at least this scratchy old clip gives us some idea of what the physical Rodin looked like while at work in his studio.
Yes, we all know by now that Anne Hathaway, born this day 31 years ago, won a much deserved Oscar for Les Miserables. But wasn't she also amazing in Rachel Getting Married? For many of us, that was the film that told us she knew how to go deep.
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