Friday, April 15, 2011


"There is something fundamentally anti-democratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people. When the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. ..The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountability." — Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education)

On the face of it, arguments that call for more accountability, greater efficiency and better outcomes make good sense. When those arguments were first offered to support Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, they won a lot of support from both sides of the political divide. Once in practice though, it became clear that the overseeing power was being used not to serve students or teachers, but rather to help those who wielded the power to gain more and more control over the public education agenda. They did this by legislating a classroom agenda that was singularly focused on test-results which were then directly correlated to teacher evaluations. The intervening years have not delivered greater accountabilities, efficiencies or outcomes, but in spite of that, Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative builds on the failures of NCLB and applies them even more broadly and forcefully.

Instead of standing up for the integrity of the profession, and calling upon parents, communities, businesses and governments to work together to address the difficulties at the local level, the Obama administration has decided that performance must continue to be tied to testing, and that if the test results are low, the the schools and the teachers will shoulder the blame. Forget the enormous differences that exist between English and ESL students, between upper and lower economic class students, and between engaged, disengaged and entirely absent parents. Judgment will be passed from on high via one-size-fits-all testing procedures. And should the class fail to do well, then the heat really comes down, with forced interventions and even forced firings. And in all this, where does class size figure in, or proportion of children with special needs, or even how many of these students are malnourished? As a nation, we clearly have a problem here, but these kinds of punitive measures that can only bring more pressure on already stressed teachers and students, are NOT the solution.

Could the unstated agenda here be any clearer? Recent conservative efforts to break public sector unions are bad enough, but teachers are a unique constituency in that an attack on them also constitutes an attack on children, as well as on the working and underemployed communities for which those teachers and schools serve as fragile anchors of hope in a sea of despair.

It may be that our public schools have always been less than they could or should be. They have always been more about rubber-stamping and indoctrination than we want to admit. But at the same time, they remain the only route out of poverty and hopelessness for millions of American children. Reduce opportunities, increase regulations, limit the curriculum, wipe out arts and science education - and what happens to that upward staircase? Is the goal of education efficiency or excellence? And what does efficiency mean in this context? These are humans we are talking about, not chickens or pigs. It is quality of mind and purpose that bestows self-esteem, and it is self-esteem which is the single most accurate measure of an education. On this score, where are the respected (and non-partisan) educators who see any possible good coming out of these “teach-the-test” initiatives? Rather, knowledgeable on-the-ground voices seem to be speaking as one in calling this plan, like NCLB before it, an unfolding disaster, one whose true cost will not be measured in lost dollars, but rather in lost lives – the lives of our own children.

The root causes of our problems in education lie as much in our disintegrating socio-economic fabric as they do in our schools. Talk to a public school teacher, as I have. Ask them how their days have been altered by "No Child Left Behind." Listen to what they say and to the frustration in their voices. They are the ones who understand the complex nature of the relationship between students and teachers. They are the ones we should be listening to, not to a bunch of bought and sold politicians who even if they had working class roots, gave them up long ago in their pursuit of power. Instead of helping teachers by giving them more support and more resources so that they might better do their jobs, we demonize them, threaten them and put all kinds of constraints on them - all at a time when lower and middle-class families are experiencing unprecedented levels of psychological and economic hardship.

Amidst all the posturing and pontificating that attends to this debate, there is little sense of what is really going on in individual classrooms (or in kitchens) across this country. Nowhere in the mainstream media are we seeing the depth of people’s suffering being accurately represented, or the reasons for it accurately explained. In place of compassion and clarity, all we are fed is another advertiser and media-driven battle for ideological supremacy. The truth is not an ideology. The truth is a reality. It is an experience that moves within us and that expresses itself across the full range of human feeling and possibility. If the "official" story is the only one that gets airtime, if the debate for the future is restricted to the tweedle-dum and tweedle-dumber offerings of our major political parties, or to ginned-up corporate-funded propaganda pieces like the film, "Waiting for Superman" - then how in the world are we to find our way home again, and back to some sense of truth?

The sad fact of course, is that to do so requires confronting suffering and despair, which unfortunately, makes for very poor ratings, and in our time, that is the cardinal sin. That is what keeps truth from being heard above the clamor, because if it were heard, we
might have to do something about it. We just might be forced to once again throw the money-changers ("market"-based moralists) out of the temple (common good institutions,) and turn a good deal more our collective attention from those least in need to those most in need. And who could be more in need of our help than the young people of this country? To express our compassion does not mean that we must give up any of our freedoms, our comforts or our opportunities, but rather that we give up stupid and false dichotomies and work instead to restore balance to a situation (and even to a world) sliding quickly to the brink of dark chaos.

There are undoubtedly some problems in this world that are too far gone to be rescued. It may be too late to stop the ice caps from melting or the world’s oil reserves from drying up. It may even be too late to prevent millions from dying of starvation. But if you are alive, then it is NEVER too late to give some child a sense of purpose and hope. This among all the battles we face, is one that we can actually WIN! If we start right now, if we can muster the love, ONE generation can make ALL the difference. Where is the will to be found to make this future a reality? Obviously, we must stop listening to those people who really don’t give a damn about your children or mine, and start listening to those who do.

So it is, I have been compelled of late to do some research on these issues, and I wanted to share some of what I have found. I am no expert on the subject - far from it. I went to public school though, and my daughter went to public school as well. I also believe that when love meets suffering, there compassion is born; and how we express that compassion is in many ways, the truest test of our humanity.

• First, a 3.20.11 article in Newsweek by historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch (@dianeravitch), entitled “Obama’s War on Schools “The No Child Left Behind Act has been deadly to public education. So why has the president embraced it?” Dr. Ravitch has a deep knowledge of the issues at work, and she knows that the reasons behind the current reforms are strictly political and financial. At 72, and with nothing more to be gained for herself, either personally or professionally, she has nevertheless taken up this battle as the single most notable opponent of corporate privatization and de-professionalism of our public schools.

Here is Dr. Ravitch being interviewed by Jon Stewart on the 3.11.11 Daily Show. (See below for other excellent video links with Dr. Ravitch.) And here is Dr. Ravitch again, this time being interviewed by Terry Gross on the 4.28.11 Fresh Air Radio Show.

• A second article, "Taking On Teachers by another historian, Lawrence Davidson, looks more specifically at the various assumptions that underlie these governmental “reform” efforts. These he lists as..

1. The American public school system is performing poorly.
2. This is the fault of bad teachers.
3. Getting rid of the tenure system will get rid of bad teachers.
4. Using standardized tests will allow you to measure necessary levels of learning for specific ages.
5. Having instituted such tests, the attainment of adequate scores means that both the student has successfully learned and the teacher has successfully taught.

Davidson then proceeds to expose the ineffectiveness of addressing these assumptions in the way that these initiatives propose to do.

Of course, teachers differ in their commitment and effectiveness, just as they do in ANY profession. No doubt there are outdated rules left over from when teacher's unions still had clout, that are in fact deserving of reform and modernization. The debate around bettering education should never go silent. But to use legislative means to hack away all protections, to pit teachers against each other, to put administrators on the backs of teachers and to basically scapegoat the whole profession for the failures of a system that is SO much a reflection of our grossly imbalanced cultural and economic priorities, is an unspeakable assault on reason. The indictment itself is bizarre enough, but THEN to use such unsupported arguments to justify imposing draconian and across-the-board curriculum standards, (even on 5 year olds!) is an affront to all that a decent human society might want to give to its children.

It seems to me that what’s REALLY happening here is yet another policy directive enacted at financial and corporate boardroom levels to cripple public education along the way to ultimately privatizing it in much the same way that the army and the prison system are being privatized. (We're not talking just billions here for the testing, textbook and management companies.. we're talking serious money.) How can the real intent here NOT be the continued unraveling of our social safety net, and the further cutting loose of our underclasses to fend for themselves. And how can that NOT result in more and more people becoming entrapped in the criminal justice system? The big difference in this particular power play, is that while the target may be teachers, the real victims are future generations of innocent children.. OUR children - and that is a moral outrage. Follow the money to see who wins by these so-called reforms. Corporations of course, because they'll make their money either way.. school or prison or the military - it will make little difference to them. Who loses? Working people whose taxes go to paying for a public education (and other public services) that are being dismantled right before their very eyes. And with that dismantling, so goes a large part of America's hope and promise for the future.

For those of you who are moved to learn more about these and related issues, I offer these other links.

Jon Stewart and company again in another related segment from the 3.3.11 Daily Show more focused on Wisconsin’s attacks on teachers.

• Here’s Diane Ravitch again in a video of great summary speech to the United Teachers of Los Angeles. And g
oing even deeper, with a keynote address to the American Association of School Administrators annual meeting on 2.18.11 [Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3] And most comprehensively, an hour long video on an academic interview show from 6.11.10 [Part 1 - Part 2] In addition to her own website, here is Ravitch's Blog for Education Week.

And onto some of the many other voices.

• Chris Hedges: "Why the United State is Destroying her Education System." (Always a champion of the disenfranchised; in some ways our noblest champion (writing his column weekly @

• From The Rachel Maddow Show of 4.22.11, Why a Michigan School is Ground Zero for US Politics - a truly tragic tale of a highly effective and legendary Detroit "public" school for pregnant girls that is being closed by an emergency manager who has "seized" control of Detroit's public school system. This elimination of the people's control over public education (and other services) being discussed here is not some looming ghost of what might be. It is already here TODAY! When the girls protest vacating their school, they are herded into police cars while sirens wail to drown out their cries. A
n educator and blogger named Gary Stager (@garystager) picks up the story here.

A stirring defense of the inherently "subversive" role that teachers have historically had to play, particularly when confronted (as they are today) by scientific "efficiency" managers. This was delivered on May 18th by Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond on the occasion of receiving the Columbia University Teachers College medal for distinguished service, and printed here in the Nation Magazine.

• From the 5.01.11 New York Times, Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari take up the issue of teacher pay in The High Cost of Low Teacher Pay.

• From Truthout (4.28.11) a more bare-knuckled article called, "Pedagogism": Prejudice and Hatred Directed at Teacher.

• From The Nation magazine, a good article from 4.21.11,
Teachers Aren't the Enemy which looks at some counter-efforts being taken at more local levels.

• From the New York TImes of 4.23.11, Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie,
about how the nasty process plays out in real life using one clearly excellent teacher as an example.

• When education becomes a commodity, those formerly known as students now become consumers of educational products. U of Texas journalism Professor Robert Jensen frames the contest well in this 5.3.11 piece.

• Alternet's Jim Hightower offers an update on what's happening in six states in this 5.12.11 piece succinctly titled, "6 State Battlegrounds in the Right-Wing War Against Teachers, Firefighters, Caregivers and the Entire Middle Class."

• "New York City Middle School Teacher shares her own classroom experience about the need for social studies. (4.29.11)

• From 3.14.11, teacher-generated media, Two LA Teachers Rap About Getting Unjustly Fired (VIDEO)

As anybody who has gone through public schools knows, there have always been suspect motives and dysfunctional aspects to our educational system. Some critics of the system from an earlier time, considered that disconnect in clear and still-timely ways.

• A contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Wright Edelman founded the Children's Defense Fund in 1973. Listen to this morally courageous woman on this Smiley and West radio segment.

• A wonderful article from 1991 entitled "The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher" by the great educator, John Taylor Gatto.

• For those of you on the hunt for the roots of the education dilemma, might I suggest a book that greatly influenced me in college.. Growing Up Absurd, by the sadly too forgotten, Paul Goodman.

Jonathan Kozol was another great advocate for children beginning in the late 60's, whose work you might find enlightening.

And beyond the immediate challenge of public education reform, there is a related issue - the new and present danger of the ever-expanding bubble of student loan debt, which outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year and is likely to top a trillion dollars this year.

• From The New York Times of April 12, 2011, "Burdens of College Loans on Graduates Grows"

• This great infographic "The Student Loan Scheme" explains and spills a LOT of ugly beans about the mechanics and inequities of the student loan “crisis” - and believe me, it IS a crisis.

• There has been a 900% increase in tuition costs at U.S. colleges since 1978. This and much more in this excellent article, Bad Education in an NPlusOne Magazine from 4.25.11

• On a slightly tangential note, here is an interesting article about venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and his views on the growing bubble in Higher Education.. from the guy who funded Facebook, and who correctly predicted the first tech-bubble meltdown. His solution is perhaps not surprising for someone of his class and wealth, but his predictions for a coming debt collapse are insightful.

• From the Economist, a 4.13.11 article that picks up on the Thiel thread and also includes some good external links.

• On a more inspiring note, here is Kevin Spacey recently delivering the Nancy Hanks Lecture at the Kennedy Center on the need for the arts in education.

• A funny and poetic defense by a teacher named Taylor Mali.. "What Teachers Make."

• And lastly, the great educator himself, George Carlin, on the American Dream and why we shouldn't expect education to get any better.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


This past weekend, I had a revelation of sorts. It wasn't exactly out-of-the-blue. It was more a breaking over the horizon kind of revelation.

On Saturday, I dropped by the Burning Man offices where there was a conference-like gathering of about 150 folks all representing the various "regional" groups from around the country.

I went to see my friend Tom La Porte from Chicago, present to a break-out session on how arts organizations (or even art disorganizations) can better navigate the ins and outs of government bureaucracies, the permitting process, police and fire departments, etc.

Though I wasn't at the conference for very long beyond that session.. in the time that I was there, I was much impressed with the people and the issues being discussed.

Different folks spoke of the projects they had been working on; in some cases, for long periods of time; civic projects, community art centers, large free to the public events, etc. There was clearly a dedication and an altruism that came through in what they were talking about. I heard several references to the "10 Principles" behind the Burning Man project. Those would be Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation and Immediacy.

What united the various speakers I heard was this; each person was speaking to the point of what it would take for them to succeed on their own terms. What they were there to do it seemed was simply to help each other to sustain their various collective visions.

What defines "sustainability?" That was the question I found myself asking.

And what I began to see more clearly was how an expanded definition of that term, "sustainability" - could apply across a much wider spectrum of disciplines and activities than I had heretofore imagined.

The key for me was in seeing sustainability not only as a process, but also as the organizing principle by which that process is generated. What I saw was how sustainability could stand as a new and more specific definition of "collaboration" - a word that I had long been familiar with and whose meaning I had by now long absorbed into my core - and perhaps taken for granted.

Sustainability could then be seen as a system-wide ability of several levels of collaboration components collectively striking an effective and economic balance among all those parts so as to enhance the competitive edge and influence of the larger system. Thus the system could better hold its own alongside less distributed but perhaps better "armed" systems in the subsequent scramble for resources and public mind-share.

We tend to think of political systems and economic systems in this way because of the great number of components and "collaborative" participants involved in their operations. But the same principle could apply to 'art' systems as well. Art, at least art that is created by more than one person is by it nature collaborative. We know that. What we are less inclined to see is art as a broad social movement, as a more public and even civic-minded pursuit.

In its persistent way, and by cleaving to those 10 Principles, particularly to those radical ones.. Inclusion, Self-Reliance and Self-Expression, a great many people who have been through the Burning Man experience, and might not otherwise have seen themselves as "artists," have now become responsible for initiating all sorts of actions and techniques that are essentially no different than any of those practiced by artists who practice in more traditional ways.

Much of our current popular "alternative" discussion centers around alternative "energy" initiatives; solar, wind, bio-diesel, greening, re-cycling. And that's as it should be.

What hasn't been so obvious (at least to me) is how the act of working on such bottom-up team projects, can over time help generate new "prosthetic" affordances usable by all members of the system that has spawned them. This is the lesson people learn working inside their "theme" camps building art collectively. Afterwards, they find themselves changed in subtle but lasting ways. In a way Burning Man is art school for those who never went to art school. And if you did go to art school, then Burning Man is church for ye of little faith, in that it teaches humility, and makes a virtue of generosity, group effort and personal responsibility

If we accept in the bi-(ped) centennial spirt of Darwin, the primacy of "evolution" to all that we do and are, then we can perhaps see how such collectivized activities can have a completely unpredictable side-effect, which might be to steadily transform individuals into collaborators; into better team players, and by so doing, to extend the range and reach of our previously disconnected and isolated selves into entirely new dimensions of possibility. And whereas before, we could only sustain such activity intermittently, now we suddenly find ourselves more and more feeling the inevitability of this direction.

In a sense, a great many people by virtue of their being exposed to such seriously alternative versions of reality, have by instinct begun to "mutate," if you will, in this new and most promising, positive direction.

If the various prophecies of the future that circle us each day mean anything, it just might be that they are a call to follow this path.. to work together locally in collaborative realization of deserving systems and by so doing, to erode the focus and direction of those consumptive, isolating, and selfish principles that have brought us to this historical and globally frightening turning point.

It has often been said that the path to spiritual awakening can only be taken individually. Perhaps something conversely could be said about art.. that the path to artistic awakening can only be taken collectively. And that the crossing of these two paths can only result in a third new thing.. a more evolutionarily awakened species of human.

At this point, the call seems clear, the alternatives few. We have little to lose and much to gain by giving our hearts and minds to such generous and creative purposes. Where, of where, shall we each begin?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Let's see, howzabout we commence with a spoonish history of art in six lines?

You spend years making mistakes, false starts, following bright stars that blaze and then implode. You rise with every excitement and fall with every disappointment.. your heart breaks and then it is reborn. Surely it must even out, you say.. and it does, because over time, you realize that you are in fact the sum of all that. You respond to what moves you, you learn to practice what sustains you, and eventually you evolve a rather specific personal ritual-coded appreciation for what you consider beautiful - and with that vision tucked tightly into your cells, you go forth and paint the roses your own favorite shade of blood.

So, post-historical, what is it that keeps you going - especially when no one seems to be giving you the high sign and the road ahead is looking long and lonely. Where do you put your focus?

To the pattern, I say - to the finest and most intelligent pattern which you can raise from the blended chaos of your thoughts and those that lie embedded in the collective conscious of the time.

In my experience, I cannot escape the "impulse" - the impulse towards extracting patterns. It's what pulls us to archetype and to ritual, and what keeps drawing us back to the wellspring of the body and to those patterns of expression by which we "embody" our thoughts.

To see those patterns, we must hold multiple points in focus long enough for such patterns to emerge - like some kind of flickering 6-D image. There's a kind of "sacral" geometry to it.. to those ideas which we feel so physically, that they literally alter both our chemistry and our sense of balance. They provoke and offer us insights into where evolution has brought us - here inside this god machine physical body/bio-circus space bubble.

I am drawn to do this kind of pattern-making as a collaborative process - one to be engaged in with fashion designers, burlesque and belly dancers, circus performers, jazzy improvising musicians, beatboxers and deejays, puppeteers, unconventional ritualists and street poets, video mixers and arty visual finger pointers of all kinds. To my mind, together we reinvent the vocabulary of what is possible. Together, we become an ever more expansive paint box filled with beautiful and active agents, who each drawing from their own paint box of patterns, reveal evermore beautiful reflections of the collective death and re-birth experience.

Puzzles and maps reveal how things fit together. Art and culture forms through juxtapositions of points and places. When the relationships are dynamic, you take notice. You maintain focus long enough - your practice of patterning, becomes a pattern in itself. In this way, the range of your pattern-making expands, and so begins to appear with both greater frequency and urgency. This is the dubious gift that gives you extra aromatic insight when it is time to turn your attention back to the outside world. Through such a back and forth process, we train ourselves to reframe our experience in increasingly personal ways.

I saw an Alexander Calder show some years ago at SFMOMA. A real holy-moly experience that was.. every single piece balanced like an acrobat defying gravity.. shapes flush with color that opens on memories that glow with pure thought - like a great e.e. cummings line that teeters on the edge of expression - so very close to not being spoken, that once it does burst forth, it does so shockingly - like a newborn frog.

Makers of alternative cultures must draw soul and sustenance from inspiration wherever they find it and from whomever is willing to throw down alongside them in the name of truth and beauty. We must find the connective threads between unlikely instances - between what you cook and what I sew, between what he sings and what she hammers.

If you see it, you own it. That's the rule. What you see is yours by virtue of the fact that you made the connection, you found the hidden joint and you squeaked the hinge, and now it moves and so do all the tendons and ligaments connected to it. This is how new culture forms, and how with a WHOLE lot of focus, some section of that emergent web of influence and action might learn to speak in a more unified voice, and so better ask for what it needs to sustain itself, and even to one day possibly - oh, god-forbid, "professionalize" its radical ass. Not an easy thing to do when starting with only an empty bowl and little bits of silence, light and breath - not easy, but still VERY possible!

We are all but babies, and yet so evolved.. so fortunate really to live where nothing is certain, and all is such fuel for revelation.

The tourists take the turn-off... they can't survive the thin air of growing older and still feeling amateur - and that's the way it should be. A calling - a reason for being, is not something you EVER want to fake. For those who hear it though, the echo of your own footsteps may be reward enough.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008


As with so many things in the playa frame, what starts as a goof ultimately with practice grows into a conscious gesture.

Just as fire-art at Burning Man has evolved over the years from an anarchist hobby into a real discipline, so has fashion-art evolved as well.

The many glittery clothes creatures that skitter across the ginger-colored playa surface continue to undergo radical mutations.

Imitation plays no small part in the evolution of any art form. It was no coincidence say, that Paris of the 1880's produced such an abundance of "impressionists." In retrospect, we label it a "school," but in its time, it was a group of awake and talented individuals who upon seeing each other's work, couldn't help but compare what they saw to what they themselves were doing.

There is a rapid and subliminal conversation that goes on around art which makes it difficult to escape the influence of the milieu in which it exists. Burning Man gives artists a chance to view each other's work in the disordering and deep single-point perspective of the isolated Dali-esque frame, and to reflect upon what it is, how it was made and what "messages" it conveys. In the course of our annual visits, we learn not only to carry plenty of water, but also what kind of fabrics and building materials best hold up in the desert's rapidly changing micro-climates.

In the desert, everyone is a fashionista. It is after all something of an inalienable right, reducible to the power of one, to express and represent your self however you like.

But even beyond this broadly democratic cross-section of individuals, there stands the ever-evolving body of work of our "serious" clothing and costume designers who continually press hard against the boundaries of the possible.

It is rare to find any dedicated fashion designer who does not deserve to be called an "artist." That said, there exists quite a spectrum of variation along which that "body as art medium" might be displayed. 

Some of our local treasures are captured below in a compilation video (produced by Satsi & Mouse) of several 2007 BM-sponsored "Trashion Shows" that featured the entirely recycled (thus "trashion") designs of Bay Area designers Miss Velvet Cream and Estar, Bad Unkl Sista, Lucid Dawn, Domini and Patchwerk Press (Field Day & Remade In America)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


A very bright light lifted into the upper atmosphere yesterday.

An artist and fashion designer who has probably done more to influence our local art and design culture than any other, has passed away.

Tiffa Novoa, known locally as part of El Circo, was a creator in the true and mythical sense. She designed not just clothing, but the shape of the beings who wore them.

She stood astride the crashing waves of fashion time with a legendary sensibility and prowess.

There is a point in any artist's life, when they must decide to what divine force they will dedicate themselves. Oh, to imagine that moment when Venus first called and Tiffa answered.

There is in the Greek, the concept of "Arete." It roughly translates as "excellence", but more essentially, it is that guiding principle that leads to the fulfillment of life's potential.

Tiffa's was a superior soul, one whose very presence provoked humility in those wise enough to know the difference between the great and the sublime.

How many did she influence and inspire? Look around you at your next gathering, at your next "conference of the birds." Will an endless number suffice? It will have to.

She was not on the cover of Vogue because no one at Vogue had yet developed the eyes to see the "excellence" that Tiffa herself saw. They would have come around eventually, assuming Tiffa was still interested in such campy haute b'ness.

The point for her, I don't think was fame or money. I didn't know her well enough to know for sure, but from all that I have seen and heard and all that I read in her face and in her words, I would guess that the point was transformation - the inevitable transformation of humans into what they might become; given enough light, given enough beauty and given enough love.

The constellations in the sky were as god-like instructors for early man. Their names and powers were born from the stories that people made up and shared around fires.

Such stories were driven by extraordinary beings who came to earth to inspire us and to send us on great and adventurous journeys.

Look up there after tonight and you might catch a glimpse of a newly returned goddess dancing among them; her shoulders encrusted with tiny stars and laced by whispy seams.

• Jenka's Social Creature Blog

Friday, September 21, 2007


I heard Sheila Chandra sing last night at Grace Cathedral. A British citizen of East Indian ancestry, she gained some fame during the Peter Gabriel Real World Records era. In fact, my friend Liz told me last night that she had danced a sixth grade dance solo to Chandra's 1982 hit "Ever So Lonely."

Shandra's voice is wonderful sweet and simple .. a very pure sound. The majestic shadowy cathedral provided a beautiful frame through which to experience her considerable gifts.

After a few songs, I found myself at once tuning out and tuning in - tuning out of her performance and tuning into my "experience" of her performance. It was as if the song somehow came alive in me - equally sweet and simple. This near seamless union of outer sense and inner imagination makes for a very compelling phenomenon. It's almost as if you can't tell the two things apart. It is also, in my experience, reminiscent of the type of ardent activation that occurs when a spiritual seeker comes upon their soul's teacher.

As she sang, it was as if she became a tree and I was the pool in which that tree found itself reflected. She splashed notes like a series of leaves and just so, the reflection of those note-like leaves rippled in me. It is simple, this back and forth - but at the same time, it happens so rarely - and usually it takes an especially gifted performer to effect such a transmission.

I experienced something similar many years ago, when I was invited by a friend to come hear a traveling "bard" who was in town just for that evening.  Beyond knowing that Shakespeare was called a bard, and that the phrase had certain ceremonial or shamanic connotations, I had no idea what to expect.

The audience of 25 or so gathered in a living room as this younger fellow welcomed us and began to tell stories. The stories were drawn from the native American Indian tradition... stories of coyote, of crow and of spider. I had heard most of the stories before. Their content was not new to me. What was new was the simple way that the young man told these tales. There was an ease and a steadiness - a very pure sound and rhythm to them. One thing he did that I found irresistible was to interject every so often a repeated phrase into his narrative. When he would reach the end of a movement in the story, he would mark it for us by gathering us in his gaze and saying... "and it was just so." I remember feeling surprisingly reassured and increasingly glad each time he repeated that phrase.

By the time he was into his third story, something changed for me. I remember feeling as if he was moving farther away from me, and that I was no longer able to pay close attention to what he was saying. At the same time, I remember feeling completely absorbed in the listening experience. The only thing was - I was listening to him as if he were "inside" me.

Afterwards, when he had finished, I went up to where he was standing by a table, next to some cassettes tapes he was selling. I thanked him for his stories and told him simply, that they had made a deep impression on me. His face lit up and he said, "You know my favorite part is when you stop hearing "my" story and start hearing your own story." I remember the cassette tape that I was holding at the time dropped from my hand. Yes, exactly, I said - that is what happened. The "bard," I left thinking, was the storyteller that lived outside of time and inside of me.

Listening last night to Sheila Chandra - I felt that here too, I was able to touch the bard-like spirit that had manifested itself once again as the singer inside of me - inside all of us, raising its voice in simple songs of praise.

Blessings to creation for that little gift.

I suppose not so curiously, her selection of songs were largely drawn from the Celtic and Scottish folk tradition.

Methinks there is more here than meets the eye and ear.

Imagined Village - An Interesting New Collaborative Music Project of which Sheila Chandra is a part.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


I spent a good chunk of my life as an actor. From the beginning, I rather saw myself as a physical type actor – a comedian really. What captured me early on I think was the theatrical nature of the imagination and the blood-red notion of the holy clown’s tragic but entertaining fall from grace.

You know how it is, don’t you? By a spider’s thread, we hang… and when we do happen to catch the eye of god, it only seems fitting that we should be found expressing ourselves with something approaching an acrobat’s sense of commitment.

In any case, to be an actor is to try and learn more than you can possibly perform – so that you won't come up shallow when questions of lifelikeness are at stake. Young actors must be hungry to devour the world – and I was no exception.

One common thing that actors do, is immerse themselves in movies. In the period I'm talking about - before VHS, Cable and DVD, the class movies were all foreign, and the only way to see those films was in dark art house cinemas.

Among the filmmaking giants who dominated that 1960's to 1980's period, were two who died this week, both at ripe old ages. I am speaking of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Closing the book on these two adds a lush posthumous infusion into the world’s collective cinematic memory.

These were two very different filmmakers, but each a master of the art form. Remember too, at the time of Antonioni’s birth in 1912, the art form itself was less than 20 years old! These men were of the generation that literally brought the medium to its first maturity.

Check out some very thoughtful writing in the New York Times (8.12.07) with Martin Scorsese writing a tribute to Antonioni, and Woody Allen in a tribute to Ingmar Bergman.

For a young actor looking forward one day to roles of substance and depth, projecting yourself into the films of Antonioni and Bergman was a very guilty and justifiable pleasure.

Now, add to these two, that other European icon of the World War II generation, Federico Fellini, (who died in 1993), and you have, what was for me, the greatest constellation of 20th century filmmaking.

As I am not likely to go back and write something separately on Fellini, allow me to add him to this triad of transcendent filmmakers.

Now, as this is a spooniversal musing you’re reading, you can be fairly certain that there is a trigrammatic graphic lurking hereabouts to help me illustrate my point. And here it is.

Of course, this is a crude simplification of distinctions overflowing with subtle complexities. But nonetheless, the extent of my tribute is simple enough that I can allow them to stand like totems in the following trigrammatical spread.

Bergman (Spirit) was a stalker of human moments. He told stories of the sort that emerged in the course of daily life. He loved women, and his camera was never in a hurry to leave contemplation and admiration of their joys and sorrows. His great gift to us was his unflagging fascination and energetic devotion, which was revealed again and again in his patience with and connection to all that was authentic in human character.

Antonioni (Action) was a stalker of the unseen. In his newly re-born into modernism post-war world, beautiful men or women were powerless to do much more than surrender themselves to the unfathomable vagaries of life and survival. They also had to surrender themselves to Antonioni’s camera, which he used with such devlish style, that one comes to feel both dumbstruck and enlightened by the glistening Italian geometries that he so meticulously inks onto our retinas. If in life we never know whom or why anyone is, then why should film know any more? For Antonioni, life was the mystery of life, and it was his job to reveal it through mapping unintended consequences against crystalline surfaces.

Fellini (Message) Our old friend Fellini – where did he fit in? Well, more than anyone else, Fellini saw the world as he would dream it to be. A child’s spirit caught in the cocked hat persona of a maestro – a dreamer who only has to shout the name “tiger,” for one to magically appear – right on cue and twice as pretty as a sunset. Fellini was the undying power of the imagination… that daily wakes us with a loving mother’s touch and sends us upon our day, assuring us that she will be there when we return from our little adventures out in the big, wild world.

More than either of the other two, Fellini’s moments are postcards of the imagined.

An Antonioni postcard would be a suspenseful glimpse into a world not so different from what is right in front of you.

Bergman’s postcard would capture the moment when revelation strikes.

That’s all. The wheel turns, but the conditions that brought these three filmmakers and 20th century film into being no longer exist. So, what we are seeing really is beauty and truth as it existed once in a long gone world – a world that thanks to these artists and their films, will never lose its appeal or its immediacy for those of us lucky enough to wander darkly through it with them.