“And In My Hour of Darkness”

9 08 2017

“When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom

Let it be.

And in my hour of darkness

She is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom

Let it be.”

 

If you’re a Beatles fan, you recognize this classic.  What you may not know is the story behind the song.

In the late Sixties, Paul McCartney was going through a difficult season.  He had a dream.  In the dream he saw his deceased mother.  She said to him, “Let it be.”

His mother’s name is Mary.  Mary McCartney.

Those of us with a Catholic background probably thought he was speaking of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  But he wasn’t.  At least not consciously.  Paul was baptized a Roman Catholic so perhaps his upbringing was leaking through.  You’d have to ask him.

If nothing else there is a message in “Let It Be.”  One, especially if you’ve been graced with a good mother, is this: Listen to your mom.  Remember her encouragement and wise words.  Remember her self-sacrificing behavior.

 

Suggested Resources:

Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics, 1965-1999 (Paul McCartney)

“Let It Be” (The Beatles)

 

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Act As If You Already Are

4 08 2017

We’ve all heard these phrases.  “Fake it ‘til you make it.”  “Show love and then feelings of love will follow.”  The big thing in all of this is that action, a result of the choice of one’s will, results in desired emotions.  Sometimes it’s the other way around.  You feel ready to burst with love towards someone and then act this out.  But, time and distance taken as variables, it’s more often the opposite. Feelings follow upon definitive actions.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, says this:

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

Writers learn to write not by reading about how to write but by actually writing.  Musicians learn their instruments with their instruments in their hands, not sitting only behind music theory books and instrument manuals. We learn by doing.

Challenge:  Find some skill—art, music, technology, relationships—and try this.  Act as if you were already the expert you both admire and aspire to be.  Do your homework, to be sure.  Then do the thing you want to be good at.  Then do it some more.

 

Suggested Resources:

The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (Jack Canfield & Janet Switzer)

Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell)

 

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Blackwing 602

11 07 2017

This is a Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil.  Blackwing?  Sounds like something out of Gothic horror or at least Batman.

No.  It’s an iconic writing instrument, the Mercedes-Benz of pencils.  Not the original Blackwing 602s, manufactured by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company.  [Those of us half a century or older remember Faber pencils in grade school.] Those gems, which went out of production in 1989, can fetch upwards of $40.00 per pencil on eBay.

Years later, the Blackwing 602 brand was acquired by California Cedar Products Company which started making them again under their Palomino division.  Purists still prefer the original Faber Blackwing 602s, but they are disappearing.  And who wants to pay $40.00 for a pencil?

The script on the barrel of the pencil says HALF THE PRESSURE, TWICE THE SPEED.  There is something about the recipe of the 602’s graphite that gives the user a very smooth writing experience.  I test drove one and compared it with a number of other pencils last Christmas.  There is a difference.  All pencils are not created equal.

Other coolness factors:

  • The flat, square and replaceable ferrule-encased eraser gives one the added bonus of an expensive pencil not rolling off the table and breaking the lead. At $22.95 for a dozen through Amazon.com, this is a big deal.
  • Luminaries in many artistic fields have sworn by the Blackwing 602 for years. Writers (John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov); Composers & Arrangers  (Stephen Sondheim, Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mercer); Cartoonists (Chuck Jones).  It’s even shown up on Mad Men!  

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There is something wonderfully sensual about the experience of writing longhand, composing music, or sketching with a superior writing instrument.  You can try this famous pencil for yourself.  Be aware, these pencils are not easy to track down in most towns.  You won’t find them in Staples or Office Max, unless they’ve begun selling them.  They’re not carried in a lot of brick-and-mortar stores.  However, you can find them here for about $2/each, including shipping.  I never dreamed I’d consider a single pencil worth two bucks a piece but this one is.

Try it and see for yourself.

PS  Buy the Blackwing sharpener and sharpen your 602s by hand. Never sharpen a Blackwing 602 with an electric sharpener!  You’ll discover soon enough that not all sharpeners are designed well–well enough, that is, to get a long life out of your Blackwing 602.  Here you are.

 

Suggested Resources:

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants (David Rees)

Blackwing Pages: For Fans of the Genuine Blackwing 602

 

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Perspective

10 07 2017

Leonardo da Vinci used to draw things upside-down.

Parents of little children are encouraged to crawl around on their hands and knees to see the world as their kids do.  “Hmm, what can I grab?” (This insight courtesy of my lovely and sharp-as-a-tack wife.)

Why?

Perspective.  Often we need to approach everything from sketching a portrait to seeing the world through another set of eyes, like those of pre-toddlers, to seeing the upside of our current difficulties by entirely different approaches.

We’re human.  That means we have limited understanding of stuff, imbalanced and one-sided approaches to knowledge and problem-solving.  We need people and new views and algorithms to see the many dimensions of the things we face day-to-day.

One thing knowledgeable  art teachers do is teach their students how to see.  It’s not as obvious as you might think.  We tend to have certain universal ideas about how things look.  A hot dog is long and tubular.  Eyes tend to be oval and dark in the pupils.  Hands generally have four fingers and a thumb, the middle finger being the longest.  So we draw what we think, rather than what we actually see.  Instead of seeing digits, one learns to see light and shade.

We all find, if we haven’t already, that we need the input of other people and other approaches to help us experience the relief that a balanced perspective brings.  Got laid off from your job?  Maybe it’s because there’s something much better suited to your skills and temperament just ahead of you, if only you’ll apply yourself.  Someone did not return your text?  Maybe it’s because they’re callous and ill-mannered.  But it might just be that they know you love them and they don’t need to respond immediately.  They’re safe with you.  And probably buried in some task.

It takes humility to admit that perhaps you’re viewing things, usually the stuff that bugs the crap out of you, in an incomplete way.  Our minds seem hardwired to assume the worst.

Often it’s not so bad after all.

Here’s some things I’ve learned about acquiring that treasure called perspective:

  • Ask those who know and love you if you’re viewing something bugging you correctly or are defaulting to worst-case scenario thinking.
  • Find a way to draw your circumstance, problem, difficulty upside-down, like da Vinci. One of the easiest ways is to mentally put yourself in another person’s shoes to understand them.  Your boss probably doesn’t have it in for you; he or she is probably overwhelmed with stress.

 

Suggested Resources:

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: The Definitive, 4th Edition (Betty Edwards)

Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm (Robert J. Wicks)

 

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Bron-Yr-Aur and Creativity

10 07 2014

DCF 1.0I am a guitarist.  I took up this amazing instrument in the mid ‘70’s.  I saw a friend of mine play three songs—“Time In A Bottle”, “Dream On” and “Smoke On the Water”–the riff that launched thousands of guitarists in those days.  I freaked.  And fell in love.  The love affair continues thirty-eight years later.

I owe a great deal of my early formation as a guitarist to Led Zeppelin in general and Jimmy Page in particular.  I learned a lot of the classic rock Zeppelin tunes in those days.  But I was especially drawn to their acoustic work.  It was just so interesting.  Rare chords.  Alternate tunings.  Mandolins.  J.R.R. Tolkien in the lyrics.  A world of wonder and colorful sounds.

A fair amount of Led Zeppelin’s creativity in those days emerged as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant retired to the Welsh cottage pictured above.  Bron-Yr-Aur.  It was here that music was inspired and created that endures to the present day.  Pastoral. No electricity. They even named music after this quaint locale.

Where are your creative spaces?  A cottage?  Water?  Forests (my personal favorite)?  Urban life?

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Just Practice? There’s No “Just Practice”

9 07 2014

Just PracticeI read a story some time ago that, while sad, was not at all surprising.  Former NBA standout Allen Iverson has fallen on hard times.  He made millions but is now broke.  It is a tale oft-repeated about people in popular entertainment (and make no mistake, professional athletes are, in fact, entertainers).

I recall watching his now-famous press conference–video gone viral–after he’d been fined by his team for missing practice.  He repeated over and over again, “It’s just practice.”  In other words, “when I’m playing the game, I’ll be all there.”

Really?  Try selling that to Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, or Magic Johnson.

God alone knows how this capable man went from riches to rags.  His career spanned the period of the mid 1990′s to 2010.  It’s a sad story, one that could happen, I suppose, to any of us.

I’m going to be candid.  I can’t help but wonder if Iverson’s dismissive attitude towards practice didn’t play some part in things going south for him.  Again, God only knows.  But ideas and mentalities have consequences.  Blowing off practice or refusing to run out an infield fly ball in baseball (something we’d have gotten benched for in the 1970′s) says a lot about a person.

I get bored very easily.  As a guitarist and pianist, I’m not content playing the same things over and over again.  Stale food.  No thanks.  So I have to do things that keep me growing and sounding interesting.  I don’t want to bore my wife or anybody else with ears.

In recent years, I’ve been doing some different things that have helped me play and think differently on the guitar.  And I’ve been having a blast doing it as well.   So I thought I’d share the wealth.

Play in alternate tunings.  A few Autumns ago, I got totally inspired watching Jimmy Page demonstrate how he plays Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes) in the outstanding documentary It Might Get Loud.  Jimmy came up with this years ago while playing around in an alternate tuning: DADGAD.  Operative phrase: Playing around.  It’s profoundly simple and cool.  (I’ve been playing “Kashmir” a lot and my wife digs it.).  With alternate tunings, you get a lot of voicings not available in standard tuning.  If you’re into this, learn a song by artists who’ve used alternate tunings a lot—Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin, Phil Keaggy, Pierre Bensusan, The Rolling Stones.  Better yet, create your own.

Play musical theatre.  A good deal of Broadway music is very involved, sophisticated and colorful.  Usually written by brilliant composers on the piano.  As a guitarist, you will find this extremely challenging.  Here’s something fun—learn really complex chords at various positions all over the neck.  You’ll love the colors.  Pick a show you like (A Chorus Line, Wicked, West Side Story, etc.) and go from there.

Learn a song by one of your heroes.  Eric Johnson used to learn—and I mean really learn—a song a month by Jimi Hendrix.  Eric would take the song apart like a car engine and study it.  His own readings of Hendrix classics are quite good.  Years ago, I’d learn songs by sitting next to the record player and picking up the needle, over and over and over again, and repeating the song until I’d nailed it.  Digital technology makes this so much easier.  Whether your hero is Stevie Ray Vaughan or Joe Satriani or Tommy Emmanuel, find something you love and learn it cold.  You’ll find that eventually you’ll develop your own voice and style.  It’s what millions of guitarists have done for the past sixty years.  Join their ranks.

Practice.  Yes, proficiency on a musical instrument involves drudgery.  Faithfulness outside of the eye and applause of the crowd.  Your fidelity to practice will absolutely show when you hit the court.

Now go play.  And remember:

It’s not just practice.

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Poke the Box!

4 01 2014

poke-the-boxThis past year, I discovered Seth Godin.

You have to check out his writings (blog and books) and watch his videos.  I am currently reading Poke the BoxFirst introduced to his unique view of life, marketing, innovation, the labor force, creativity and status-quo-challenging thinking when a friend sent my wife Seth’s book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

Seth has the unique, almost Einsteinian approach to thinking, problem-solving, analysis—the wonder of a child coupled with razor sharp wit, graciousness and complete lack of pretension.

The essence of Poke the Box?  Try stuff.  Do something.  Push buttons.  Get your crayons out and create.  Pay no heed to the voices that say you can’t bring something meaningful and marketable to the marketplace and the human condition.  Again, Seth points out that there are lots of people who make plans and can follow orders, but not many willing to unilaterally start stuff.

Sooooo…..

Go start something and see what happens!

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Currently spinning:  The Best Yet (Switchfoot)