Give thanks for who you can become

It was delightful to meet the young singer/fiddler/songwriter Sara Watkins and to hear her play with her brother Sean and bassist Tyler Chester.  They performed live in WNYC's studios, capping off my second day as guest host on the Leonard Lopate show.  I think Sara's interpretation (with Fiona Apple) of the Everly Brother's You're the One I Love on Sara's new album Sun Midnight Sun is my new favorite song.

I also love the song and the sentiment in Sara Watkins' song Take Up Your Spade, which finished her short set.  In it she gently tells us all to get to work, and to "Give thanks for all that you've been given/Give thanks for who you can become." 

On being a pattern interrupt

On being a pattern interrupt by Sparkwork

Ed Zimmerman is a lawyer who specializes in tech deals. He's happiest in gatherings where he's the host, so for many years he's organized conferences and workshops for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists so they can get to know each other, and he can get to know them. Ed came up to me at TED right after I'd given my talk, and invited me to one of these meetings, where I got to see up close the informal and engaging way he gets people to talk about what they do. I was interested in how he chose this kind of work, and in talking with him found that the answer is complicated and fascinating, and that part of it comes directly from his father. Here's the interview, which is full of Ed's humor and generosity.

Samuel and Edward Zimmerman at Edward's bar mitzvahYou can also hear some of the music Ed talks about in this 5:00 story I produced for Studio 360 for Fathers' Day about Ed and his dad, Samuel Zimmerman, who had unrealized dreams of being a writer and a singer, and whose passion for words and music had a profound impact on his son.  

The sound of slaughter

My family went to see War Horse on Christmas day, and the kids loved it -- Zeke remarked that that the cinematography was fantastic.  I didn't see much of it, because I couldn't bear to watch the combat scenes and spent most of the movie with my head buried in my husband's shoulder. 

But I couldn't close my ears, and I did marvel at the extraordinary soundscape, which was gruesome but also had a lyricism to it, at least when listening without looking at the carnage on screen.

So I was fascinated to read Melena Ryzick's story in The New York Times about how the sound designer Gary Rydstrom did his work.  Here's his description of creating the feeling of an incoming shell, which was so jarring in the theater that the sound was felt as well as heard:

“That’s one of the scariest sounds in war to me, knowing that a shell is coming in to explode near you. I recorded my vacuum cleaner. I was vacuuming my stairs and if you vacuum in the crack of the stairs in the carpet, it makes this crazy whoosh. This happens to sound people all time, you’re doing something mundane one day and you hear this great sound. My wife has long thought I’m crazy; she probably had to be quiet for a few hours while I recorded a vacuum cleaner. The cracks of my stairs are so clean now.”

Rydstrom's comments reminded me of Ben Burtt's wonderful descriptions on Studio 360 of how he came up with the sounds for Star Wars and Wall-E, which is always worth another listen.

October's breath

William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Cole by Asher B. DurandLast Sunday was beautiful, crisp and clear, an unexpectedly perfect afternoon to drive with my mother and my 16 year old son Zeke to visit the cemetery where my father and grandparents are buried.  It's on a hill, very verdant, my grandmother chose a spot halfway up, just below the Workman's Circle section, which pleases my mom a lot.  As Zeke noted, it's beautiful if you look uphill, you can hear the birds singing, but once you look downhill, there's a clear view to the Jersey Turnpike and a factory belching smoke.  A very New Jersey cemetery.

What was lovely was that Zeke really engaged with my mom and me, asking questions about my dad and my grandparents. As we walked away from their graves, downhill toward the car, Zeke said "This reminds me of a poem we're studying in school," and proceeded to recite a poem that perfectly captured the day, and the moment. It's by William Cullen Bryant, and here it is:


Aye, thou art welcome, heaven's delicious breath!
When woods begin to wear the crimson leaf,
And sons grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief,
And the year smiles as it draws near its death.
Wind of the sunny south! oh, still delay
In the gay woods and in the golden air,
Like to a good old age released from care,
Journeying, in long serenity, away.
In such a bright, late quiet, would that I
Might wear out life like thee, 'mid bowers and brooks,
And dearer yet, the sunshine of kind looks,
And music of kind voices ever nigh;
And when my last sand twinkled in the glass,
Pass silently from men, as thou dost pass.


Photo by Joy Yagid

Grey matter in technicolor

Ibn al-Haytham (circa 1027, published in 1083). From Book of Optics. Courtesy of the Süleymaniye Library, IstanbulA human brain is remarkably heavy when you hold it in your hands.  I had the chance to do just that when I attended my friend Wendy Suzuki’s first neurobiology class of the semester at NYU last month. 

Wendy told her students that she became a scientist because of an experience in a class just like this one, which she took during her freshman year at UC Berkeley.  She was hooked when her teacher, the renowned neuroscientist Marion C. Diamond, opened up a hatbox and pulled out a human brain, saying “This is the most complex structure known to us – it’s the only structure that can think about itself.”

Wendy had invited me to her class because she talked about a chapter in Spark during her lecture, using the painter Chuck Close’s experiences with severe learning disabilities to explore why neurobiology is central to our lives.  She also spoke about Portraits of the Mind, by Carl Schoonover, which has extraordinary images of how we’ve tried to imagine and capture what happens in the brain.  The oldest known image in the book is almost a thousand years old, a startlingly accurate drawing of the optical system by Ibn al-Haytham of Cairo.

Wendy also projected this drawing of a dog's olfactory bulb by Camillo Golgi, from 1875.  Camillo Golgi (1875). Courtesy of Dr. Paolo Mazzarello, University of Pavia

Golgi's draftsmanship is so beautiful that his drawing could hang in a gallery as a work of art, but he was a groundbreaking scientist who invented a way of staining tissue so it can be studied.  The Golgi Stain is still in use today. 

Thomas Deerinck and Mark Ellisman (2004)Portraits of the Mind offers athought-provoking journey through how we've tried to make sense of the brain, from Ibn al-Haytham's schematic drawing to contemporary technicolor images of the hippocampus.  These pictures were much more vivid than the preserved human brain Wendy placed into my hands, a wrinkled, tannish double handful.  She described how the elaborate folds in the brain allow it to have maximum surface area in a minimum amount of space, so that babies' heads can fit through the birth canal.  The mass of wrinkled matter wasn’t visually inspiring, but I found myself in awe, holding in my hands a mind that had once thought, moved, lived.


I spend so much of my time shielding myself from the carnage being perpetrated by my sons playing Halo 3 just outside the kitchen.  But last night my 16-year-old and I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Julius Caesar, and we came home feeling almost as blood-soaked as the Roman senators.  Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences loved watching the actors beat each other bloody, and violence can still enthrall and terrify even those of us who usually try to avoid it.

When the senators killed Caesar, it was a gruesome, intricately choreographed mess.  From our seats in the balcony of the RSC’s facsimile of the Globe Theater, set up in the cavernous and beautiful Park Avenue Armory, we could see the anguish, fear and anger in the eyes of everyone, murderer and murdered alike.  This was not video-game gore, distant and clinical, where your character can die but always returns.  This was awful, personal, and final.  After Caesar utters his famous “Et tu, Brute?”, Brutus embraces his old friend while thrusting in his dagger for the final cut, and Caesar dies in his arms. 

The murder scene made both my son and me shudder.  Later he said “Did you know, mom, that the word brutal comes from Brutus?”  I hadn’t, but after watching this performance, the derivation made perfect sense.

Here you can watch the scene just before the carnage, when Caesar’s wife Calpurnia pleads with him to stay home that day, and also the scene just after the murder, when Mark Antony, red up to the elbows in Caesar’s blood, laments his friend’s death and vows to “let slip the dogs of war.”

In Antony’s public speech, made “to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” the soldier says he’s no great orator like Brutus.  Yet he cunningly turns the tide of public emotion with his sarcastic words against the murderers. 

The way Antony manipulates the crowd by subverting their expectations of him made me think of the new movie The Guard, out today in New York.  It's a dark, hilarious film whose main character, Gerry Boyle, brilliantly played by Brendan Gleeson, is also not what he seems.  On the surface he’s a big, lumbering, bored, racist, and not very bright cop in a remote seaside town on the coast of Ireland.  But as his unlikely partner, a black FBI agent played by Don Cheadle, says, “I don’t know if you’re really fuckin’ dumb, or if you’re really fuckin’ smart!”  Both Antony and Boyle understand the power of playing with people’s expectations, and revel in messing with their unsuspecting audiences.

I had the opportunity to interview Don Cheadle on Monday about the unexpected pleasures and challenges of The Guard.  He was open and generous, and talked about the pleasures of playing a character who mostly reacts, rather than acts, and about his love of jazz and how music plays a part in his performance as an actor.  Here’s the conversation:


If you're in New York City and want to travel through time with some of the most creative people who ever lived, you must spend an hour at the New York Public Library in the exhibit "Celebrating 100 Years."  It's literally breathtaking -- I found myself gasping each time I caught sight of something new. 

First it was a copy of the Declaration -- handwritten by Thomas Jefferson.  Declaration of Independence.  ... Digital ID: psnypl_mss_1228. New York Public Library 

It was thrilling to be able to lean in and almost touch my nose to the glass to peer at his very sensible, legible handwriting.

I turned around, and there was the exquisitely beautiful scroll of the Tale of Genji, still luminous and dreamlike after so many centuries.  Scene 2b Digital ID: psnypl_spn_592. New York Public Library

e.e. cummings' typewriter sat in a case, another held Jack Keruoac's glasses and rolling papers, yet another displayed the notebook George Eliot kept when she was learning Hebrew as she wrote Daniel Deronda. Malcom X's diary was writ large upon the wall, there was an illustrated Megillah, a brilliantly colored book of prints by Matisse, the walking stick Virginia Woolf carried with her into the river, after filling her pockets with stones.  Near the Declaration, a heartbreaking letter from a slave to his wife, who had been sold, telling her that his owner wanted him to forget her and marry someone else. Just a few of the objects that fill the gallery on the main floor of this beautiful building, now 100 years old, guarded by those famous lions.  Sculptured lion in front of N.... Digital ID: psnypl_prn_1082. New York Public Library

These artifacts, created by hands long gone, still speak in strong, clear voices today.  I'm grateful the New York Public Library has shared them with all of us!


"How old is your son, Cello, Mr. Greenhouse?"

This weekend I was brought back to the years I produced a radio show for Carnegie Hall when I read that the cellist Bernard Greenhouse had died. He was a founding member of The Beaux Arts Trio, and I had the good fortune to interview him and his colleagues Isidore Cohen and Menahem Pressler when they came to perform at Carnegie years ago.  Their camaraderie and musicality came through in their conversation, and it was a delight to talk with them in the plant-filled, sunny living room on the Upper West Side where they rehearsed. 

Bernard Greenhouse played with the Beaux Arts for more than 30 years, and after he retired in 1987 continued performing and teaching into his 90’s.  His life and music are lovingly described in the obituary that ran in the NY Times this weekend – and also his sly humor.  The obit ends with a story about how, when the trio would travel, they would book a fourth ticket for Mr. Greenhouse’s cello:

Once, at an airport check-in counter, an agent, reading the name on just such a ticket, asked, “And how old is your son, Cello, Mr. Greenhouse?”

“Two hundred fifty years,” Mr. Greenhouse replied promptly, before collecting his son’s boarding pass and lugging him to the gate.

Take a listen to his wonderful musicianship on the Beaux Arts recordings – you can hear their lively performances of Haydn’s Trios here.


What happens after arts school?

Does majoring in the visual and performing arts doom you to struggle and frustration, waiting for your big break?    A new study confirms some of the conventional wisdom (graduates are not thrilled about their income, and for a few disciplines one of the three top occupations is “food preparation related”) but also contains some encouraging results (92 percent of graduates who chose to stay in the arts currently have jobs in the field, and most are quite satisfied with their education, whether they remain in the arts or not).

The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project was released on May 3, and it surveys more than 13,000 alumni from 154 institutions.  In April, I met one of the lead investigators, Steven J. Tepper from Vanderbilt’s Curb Center, and he mentioned that more students who graduate with arts degrees find jobs within the field than science graduates find jobs in the sciences.  There’s a nifty interactive graphic of the findings here, and an article about the study here.  Food for thought if you’re a parent or student, or just passionate about the arts.

Another solution for the Four O'Clock Problem

Yesterday during my afternoon tea break, I was finally able to take a look at the business section of this past Sunday's NY Times.  In it is a fascinating interview with Doreen Lorenzo, the president of Frog Design.  She talks about her company's approach to what sculptor Richard Serra calls the Four O'Clock Problem, when creativity hits a wall in the middle of the afternoon: at Frog Design studios all over the world, four o'clock is coffee time, when everyone takes a break.    

"They might play a game of Ping-Pong, they might play a video game, and there are pool tables, foosball. Different studios have different toys. That’s a ritual and that’s just accepted. . . These are intense people. This is a time for them to take a break, to talk to people they might not work with, and to listen to things. That’s every day, Monday through Friday. We often joke that if we ever took coffee time away, we think everybody would quit."

I wish there had been coffee time at the companies where I once worked!  It neatly addresses a couple of institutional problems at once -- the deep need for caffeine in the middle of the afternoon, the creation of a public space where employees who might not ever see each other can meet and share ideas, and the recognition that in order to nurture creativity, you must take a break sometimes! 

Photo of Frog Design's CompostAll, finalist in the Greener Gadgets Design Competiton

Perfection: enemy of powerful

When my kids were little, they liked to draw, but sometimes crumpled up the paper in a fury because the image they were able to create didn’t look like what they were trying to do, it wasn’t “perfect.”  It made me sad to watch their frustration and unhappiness, in part because what they created was often much more resonant and exciting than if it had been a perfect copy of what they were focused on.  But I could also completely relate to the irritation.  In Spark, I write about my own youthful quest for perfection, and how I learned to make my best work only when I was able to let go of the goal of perfection and revel in the messiness and unexpected grace of accident and imperfection.

This morning on the BBC Newshour, drummer Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) talked about  how he hates listening to music on the radio that is so perfect it no longer sounds human.  “We should be imperfect,” he said.  "This is rock and roll.  Not everything is lining up perfectly.  And that’s what it gives it swing and groove, and feel, and that’s what we’re after.”  Digital tools allow us to play endlessly in the pursuit of perfection, but, Grohl says, that pursuit disregards where the power lies in rock and roll – in the emotion, not the surface perfection.  Which is why he recorded his new album Wasting Light with the old technology of audio tape. 

My family and I went to see American Idiot on Broadway yesterday.  We're all Green Day fans, and the kids loved the show, but said that they’d choose to see one of Green Day’s concerts instead any time.  The show was a lively, nihilistic 90 minutes – but too polished, too, perhaps, perfect, for it to have the same emotional punch as the original rock and roll.

In your art, do you find yourself seduced by pursuing the perfect?  Or do you have the courage to present work that is more raw, yet may be able to touch people more directly and deeply?

Devastation and rebuilding

My heart has been so heavy reading about the devastation in Japan. A number of years ago, I was fortunate to spend six months in that beautiful country on a fellowship, meeting artists and designers, and I have a deep love for the people and the artistic culture there. 

Looking at the satellite images on the NY Times website this morning, which show what the seaside towns looked like just a few days ago, and what is left in the wake of the tsunami, I thought of one of the most sacred places in Japan, the Shinto shrine at Ise Jingu, which for more than a millennia has been taken down and rebuilt nearby every twenty years.  The ground where the old shrine once stood is covered in stones until it becomes the site for a new shrine 20 years later.  Japan has a deep understanding of the terrible, inevitable cycle of destruction and rebirth. 


While listening to the news and feeling so sad, I heard a powerful interview with the playwright Tony Kushner on WNYC which was a balm to the spirit.  His work delves deep into the human response to loss and devastation, and in the interview he said that he thinks that hope is not just an emotion – it’s a moral obligation. 

It’s so difficult to think about hope at a time like this.  But the effort to rebuild, after devastation, is a creative act that can help us develop hope for the future. 

You can listen to Andrea Bernstein’s interview with Tony Kushner here.

Photos of Ise Jingu by ajari and yuichirock

"If you don't know anything, it's probably better."

I was in Dallas last week to speak about Spark at the Dallas Museum of Art.  With any new city, I love to explore on foot, but walking is definitely not fashionable in most of downtown Dallas, in fact it’s rather unpleasant.   

Thank goodness the newly expanded Dallas Arts District has been developed to encourage pedestrians -- especially after the new park is completed.  You can easily spend a day walking from Edwin Larabee Barnes’ barrel-vaulted gallery filled with contemporary art at the Dallas Museum of Art at one end to Norman Foster’s vivid red Opera House at the other. 

To fill up my imagination before my talk, I visited some of Dallas's museums on a pleasant, late winter morning. In the beautiful Nasher Sculpture Center Garden, I couldn’t resist walking through Richard Serra’s My Curves are Not Mad, and thought about something he says in Spark about how sculpture has changed since it came down from the pedestal.  Serra says that with his sculptures, we're the subject: 

 “This is you’re your experience, in relation to your walking. You don’t have to know anything about anything. In fact, if you don’t know anything about sculpture it’s probably better.”


I loved entering the mysterious space of My Curves are Not Mad.   As if she had heard Serra, too, a young girl darted in between the ominous headless figures Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Bronze Crowd, her nervous parents asking her to move away from the statues.  I think the girl had the right idea. 



The surprise for me, though, was that the most magnetic figures in the garden were not the sculptures, but the curvy, bare trunks of a grove of crape myrtle, planted on a terrace at the back of the garden.  Stunning!




Photos:  My Curves are Not Mad: cogdog; Bronze Crowd:chascar; crape myrtle: cygnus921

The Four O'clock Problem

This weekend on Studio 360, Kurt and I talk about the ways that artists figure out how to get to work, what to do when they get stuck, and how to figure out when something is done.

One of my favorite stories from the chapter in Spark about work is from sculptor Richard Serra, who talks about what he calls “The four O’clock problem.”  When he was young, and working in his downtown New York City studio with his assistant Philip Glass (yes, Philip Glass the composer, who was then supporting himself as a plumber), they would invariably find themselves wrestling with a problem that they couldn’t solve at about four o’clock every day.  So this is what they would do:

“We’d get on the ferry or we’d get on the subway, because we found that if we took ourselves out of the studio and got into a space where you didn’t have to walk and you were being transported, that actually ideas were exchanged more rapidly. So we used to take ferry boat rides, sounds strange but we did, or we used to get on the subway, and ride back and forth, then go back to the studio, just to get ourselves in a different mindset.”

Excellent advice for whatever work you’re engaged in – when you get stuck, take a break!

What do you do when you hit the four o’clock problem?

Photo of Richard Serra's To Lift by wallyg



"Poetryman is suiting up!"

In Studio 360 this week, I talk with Kurt about three of the artists I write about in Spark who look squarely at tragedy, and create work that weaves the world back together after it has been shattered.  One is the poet Donald Hall, who, after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, wrote poems that sear the heart, but also help to heal it.  In his book Without, Hall describes her illness and death, and the terrible mourning afterward.  And he also talks about how poetry saved him. 

“In Without, at one point, I talk to my dog before I sit down in the morning to work on my poems, and I say to him in a manic glee, ‘Poetryman is suiting up!’ And that’s how I felt. For that first year after Janey died, I could work on the poems for a couple of hours perhaps, and then I had twenty-two miserable hours to wait until I could get back to them, because I can’t work on poetry all day. But the two hours were the only hours of happiness at that time.”

Donald Hall often chooses these poems of death and mourning when he gives readings around the country. 

“Again and again, people will say to me in a question period or a reception afterwards, ‘How can you read them aloud?’ I have no problem; I have no difficulty reading them aloud. They have become poems. They start out as screams of pain, and the first drafts are terrible. But all my first drafts always are, whatever the subject. I work over them and over them and over them, and I love working over them. I don’t write, I rewrite. As I work on them they will come to be something outside of me . . .It’s as if I were hacking away the piece of stone to make sculpture, or modeling, or trying to paint, adding a dash here and there. So that they become works of art. They become a work of art in the art that I love and I’ve tried to practice since I was twelve years old. Then, they are then objectified. They start from the pain, they start from the anguish, these poems do, and then they become something that needs to be in itself as language, as sound, as imagery, objects of pleasure, objects that give pleasure. So they have—and this is true of so many poems—one of the paradoxes of poetry. I’m talking about poetry for four thousand years, the subject is so often defeat, death, and loss. Even with triumph, there are aspects of loss always, and yet the material itself is beautiful and gives pleasure. The process of working out of the raw material of this grief and loss and the raw material of the scream is to try to make it into something that does not change the death that is spoken of, does not alter things. But it does use that material in a way that is in itself to be an object of beauty.”

You can find Donald Hall's books The Painted Bed and Without here.  It is powerful to hear Donald Hall’s voice, still strong into his 80’s, and here you can listen to him read a poem called “Her Garden:” 

Her Garden

The Wild Braid

Stanley Kunitz, who was our poet laureate twice in his long life, gave Studio 360 a tour of his beautiful Cape Cod garden in 2001, a few years before his death.  He is an inspiration, and his poem The Wild Braid beautifully evokes our connection to the natural world.  It is a treat to hear him read it himself, which you can do here.

If you love poetry, and gardens, you must read his book by the same name, which he wrote with his longtime assistant Genine Lentine, and has photographs of the poet in his garden by Marnie Crawford Samuelson.

Always listening

Ben Burtt was still a graduate student at USC when George Lucas asked him to design the sound for Star Wars.  The first thing Burtt tackled were the light sabers, and he says he had in mind something almost immediately to crate that now iconic sound:

“I was a projectionist at the time at the USC cinema department. In the projection booth there was an interlock motor on the projectors that made a wonderful hum. It was a musical hum, and sounded like a light saber to me. So I recorded that sound.”

But the projector’s hum alone didn’t sound quite fierce enough to him, so he kept hunting.

“I was doing some other recording in my apartment. I had a broken microphone cable which, when I carried the mike past the television set, picked up ‘buzz’ from the TV picture tube. Just the kind of thing you normally would not want in your recording. You’d reject it. But I thought, ‘Oh, that buzz sounds dangerous.’ So I combined the buzz with the hum of the projectors. The two together became the basic light saber sound.”

Ben Burtt says that he’s always listening for new sounds to use in the movies, whether he wants to or not, and that his passion for sound goes way, way back:

“As a child, I remember playing with my grandfather’s shortwave ham radio set in the blisteringly hot attic of his Ohio home during summer visits. I loved tuning between stations and listening to all the tones and beeps and whistles and static. Often I will do that today. I’ll turn on a shortwave radio, put it next to the bed, and mistune it somehow so I’m really not hearing any station directly. There’s something cosmic and enchanting about the endlessly different textures of random noises and tones—I find that it opens my mind. I find peace and excitement at the same time. So I guess that’s something that I’m always going back to.”

You can hear Ben Burtt on Studio 360 this week here, when Kurt Andersen and I talk about artists who take familiar materials and transform the way we see – and hear—the world. 

I love Burtt’s description of finding peace and excitement at the same time – is there a place where you go to find both?

Photo by dryfish.



Working it out on stage

While David Plowden and Richard Serra talk of a parent as champion, filial relationships can also be complicated.  In Spark,  Rosanne Cash talks about growing up as Johnny Cash’s daughter, and his unwavering support of her choice to become a musician and writer.  But, as with all parents and children, there were moments of discord – Rosanne describes one played out backstage in one of the world’s most famous concert halls.

“He was performing at Carnegie Hall, and I was going through a period in my life where I was angry with him, and all of the childhood resentment had surfaced at that point.  I had stuff to talk with him about, and he asked if I would sing with him at Carnegie Hall that night. I was just angry and said, ‘No I’ve got a headache I don’t want to.’ He kind of just nodded and said, ‘Okay.’

“He got up and walked away and there was just something about the look of his back that I had seen onstage a million times, that back framed in spotlight, and it just broke my heart. And I called after him and I said, ‘Dad, I’ll do it.’ So, we sang I’ll Still Miss Him on that night at Carnegie Hall. It was a transcendent moment; it was like everything was washed clean. And it made me realize that the stage is where my dad worked out all of his deep problems and where he got healed. And there was a space to contain me in that that night. It was beautiful, it was a really sweet moment.”

Black Cadillac, the album Rosanne Cash recorded after her father’s death, includes extraordinary, beautiful songs of memory and lament.  You can listen to Rosanne perform some of them live on Studio 360 here, or find the album here.

Was there a moment of conflict and forgiveness with your mother or father that stays with you?