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Archive for July, 2009

One of my current favorite performance pieces is my ridiculous story of recently cutting through the backyards of suburban Connecticut, where I attended high school, only to discover that there are now fences, motion lights, and people who have no idea why a middle-aged guy would be in their backyard carrying a six-pack of beer.

My main purpose in telling the story is to try to establish a connection between ourselves and the land that we live on – to what extent do I (and you) carry some sense of aboriginality, even if, as a white guy, I’m an interloper with a pretty sordid cultural history? What responsibility do we have to the place where we live? My main point is that if you live somewhere for a long time (long for me being twenty five years), you start to feel part of the land and care about what happens to it – space becomes more important and time less important. You come free of time, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Now, I stand in my back yard in southeastern Massachusetts and can still envision the trees, now gone, that were there twenty years ago, hear the calls of the umpteenth set of fledgling hawks nesting in the oak trees, and have some inkling, or feeling, that King Phillip (Metacomet), defender of aboriginal land in my area in the 1600’s, probably walked, and still walks, across the place where my house stands.

No one on the planet is more in tune with those feelings, I would guess, than aboriginal Australians, who have been in the same place for fifty thousand years or so. The mind boggles. I have no idea what fifty thousands years in one place does to you. Trying to understand the way they think, and what they see and feel is pretty presumptuous – my friend Kevin Kling, who has spent time with different groups in Australia says “whatever you think their dream time is, it’s not.” But it’s still worth thinking about. Or feeling.

I came across this video of an Australian aboriginal group, Yothu Yindi, on my friend Marcy Marxer’s Facebook page. The song rocks – it would work at a disco or a rave – but its words are about ancestors and our life on Earth here together. The song has synthesizers and digeridoos living comfortably next to each other in the mix.

Some wisdom from the elders.

Hey, one more thing. I’m going on vacation for two weeks. This means I’m going to try not to work – that includes this blog, perhaps. Don’t give up on me.

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One of my favorite books is The Gift by Lewis Hyde. In it, Hyde proposes that artists (and let’s use that term broadly) are forever going to be at odds with our culture because they live in a different kind of culture and economy. Hyde writes that today’s society is a commodity culture: I give you money, you give me something back, and we’re even – the relationship is complete.

Hyde says that artists really live in a gift-giving culture – someone gives a gift without worrying about being repaid. The gift he says “goes around the corner”. The belief of the participant in a gift-giving culture is that things will even out – they act on that faith. And their giving is a symbol of their health and wealth. When you give a gift it’s not immediately compensated – it would be crass to do so. If someone brought you a bottle of wine because they know you like red wine, you wouldn’t give them ten bucks so you’d be even. You let it be a gift.

When the gift is given, a relationship is established. It’s that web of relationships that marks a gift-giving culture. If all artists were worried about is whether they’d be compensated fairly, they’d never create anything, or they’d never let their art go out into the world. Most art isn’t compensated. And then they would dry up and stop creating. That does happen to artists who become bitter about the difficulties of being an artist.

Hyde’s book is an affirmation for those people who can’t help but create, even if their work isn’t compensated or appreciated.

But I’ve been thinking that the concept of a gift-giving culture also makes sense in a learning community – whether it’s a public school, or a university, or a night class, or a guitar lesson.

There’s a structure of finance, and numbers, and measuring in many learning environments (school budgets, testing, grade point average, blah blah blah), but the deeper structure is the relationships established. Teachers, wanting their students to learn, don’t measure their hours, or make a mark on some ledger every time they do something to make sure they get paid back. (That’s why “work to rule” in contract disagreements seem so distasteful to us – we inherently know that teachers aren’t just selling widgets and feel they shouldn’t care about money.) Students are eager to please the teacher- and for many of them, there’s no idea of the money behind education – what they see is the people offering their time and care.

The good learning places I go to are filled with evidence of their being gift-giving cultures. Children bring in cupcakes and teacher presents. They happily wipe the blackboards or write get-well cards to sick teachers or other students. Math teachers show up at piano recitals; English teachers give books from their own libraries to interested students. All teachers buy supplies for which they aren’t repaid. These are all gifts, given freely, without thought of compensation. There is no way we can untangle the web of relationships that form in a learning environment.

And so, teachers and learners are up against the same problems as artists – when someone wants to start measuring everything, there’s bound to be confusion. Teachers have to make a living, and so have to live some kind of divided life – most won’t make what they “deserve” because they’re participating in a gift-giving culture. And when the bean counters succeed in presenting themselves as the arbiters of good educational practice, the gift giving suffers.(Wow, that was a long way to get to the question of testing, but….)

Schools make a lot more sense to me when I look at them as gift-giving cultures, not as some model of corporations with hierarchical structure.

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The artiste scouting the opposition - note the crafty disguise

The artiste scouting the opposition - note the crafty disguise


Several years ago, I did a show on a Sunday afternoon in late fall at some library in central New Jersey (nope, can’t remember where). There were a couple of hundred people there – a pretty good turnout for a library. The show went really well. I had a great time, and so did the audience.

Still, as I drove home in the late afternoon, headed up the New Jersey Turnpike, I lamented that there weren’t more people there. I was sure there were people in the area that would have really enjoyed it if they had bothered to come.

I thought these thoughts as I approached the Meadowlands stadium. From the highway, I could see the lights were on. The Giants or the Jets were playing. I could almost hear the roar of the crowd from several miles away. Seventy thousand people, some of them so far away from the field they would need good binoculars to have any idea of what was going on down there.

What’s that about? Stupid football, I thought.

“Surely,” I said out loud to no one, “there are five hundred people there who would have had a better time at my show. Somebody there is miserable and cold and hates football and detests the drunk person next to them. They should have come to see me. It would have meant more.”

I know it would have meant more to me than to whomever the tight end was for the New York Jets.

I’ve often thought that about the arts – why don’t we attract audiences like sporting events? How do we get people in the seats?

The issue of getting audiences into arts events is a very large question with many different aspects, but as far it relates to the question of why arts don’t get the crowds sports do, I got a little bit of an answer this week at Fenway Park.

My wife Debbie got me tickets for the Red Sox for my birthday. We go to, maybe, one game a year. It’s expensive, it’s a hassle. I can watch it on television. I’m annoyed at the hoopla and adulation and egos and expenditure of public funds. Sports fans can be real idiots, mistaking their team’s victory for some personal accomplishment, and thinking it actually has something to do with what God thinks about.

But…

But they were great seats. The best seats I’ve ever had for a Red Sox game. (I don’t want to know how much they cost – it was my birthday). You might have even seen me on TV – I was wearing a clown wig and holding up “John 3:16”.

Just kidding.

There were, as usual at Fenway, over 37,000 people there. As there were the night before, and the night after that. Eighty two times a summer – 37,000 people.

Crowd at a typical Bill Harley concert, er, I mean Red Sox game

Crowd at a typical Bill Harley concert, er, I mean Red Sox game

It’s just a baseball game, for Pete’s sake!

But…

But it was a great game. The crowd was a huge living thing and I was part of it. In spite of myself. What struck me about the crowd, too, was how expressive and emotional they were. More so than at any arts event I’ve been to lately. We talked with everyone around us. We laughed. And we sat at the edge of our seats. We all rose as one when Ortiz hit a HUGE home run, and stood as one when Papelbon, after almost blowing a save, struck out the last batter. It was, while not of great importance, a cathartic experience, and we left completely satisfied.

Of course, it helped that it was close and the Sox won. Some games are realllllly borrrrrring.

But I think this is one of the reasons that many people go: We don’t know what’s going to happen.

I am struck by the notion that athletes don’t know what’s going to happen either. They are acting out a drama to which there is no known outcome. They don’t know if they’re going to get a hit, or if the catcher will throw them out when they try to steal second, or if the game will go into extra innings and they won’t finish until two in the morning. They are trying to do things that are hard to do, and they might fail. In front of 37,000 people.

And, maybe even more interestingly, they are not trying to make the audience feel anything (and the arts is about the communication of feeling and ideas). All they’re trying to do is succeed. And we watch and feel ourselves. While the game (or agon in the Classical sense – from which we get the agony of defeat!) doesn’t matter – the striving is real. We sense their tension and anticipation and despair and joy. And we feel it, too. And all those other people feeling a similar thing encourage it in us. We are, after all, a group animal. Suddenly, we care.

I’m not saying this never happens in arts – it’s what performers are always working towards – when a group of musicians reach some kind of communion that raises their performance to another level, or an acting troupe presents something in a way they’ve never quite done before, the audience senses and is deeply moved. But it’s harder to reach it, and there’s a critical aspect of our minds that must be dealt with and overcome.

As a performer, I’m always aware, challenging myself to be so present, so much in the moment, that I bring the audience along. And I want them to experience something together –as a group.

Sports has an easier time of that.

Yeah, Springsteen can fill the Meadowlands with 70,000 people. He’s a great performer – maybe, to my mind, the best performer out there. But even the Boss couldn’t do it eight times in the space of three months.

There’s a lot of reasons why, but one of them is that the drama of sports is real.

Darn.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job.

But second base for the Red Sox would be good, too. Let me know if Pedroia gets hurt.

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fence
I’ve written earlier (The Secret Lives of Children) about the constriction of freedom in children’s lives. One reason we don’t let kids out of our sight is because we’ve come to believe the world is a more dangerous place. It makes us nervous to have children out on their own- things go wrong when we aren’t monitoring their behavior. All of us sit around and remember fondly the freedom we had, but don’t grant it to our own children. We’d like to, but things are different now, we say.

I confess to accepting this notion in my own parenting. My children had more leeway than many others, but not as much as me. Part of it is the strictures in society – if there are no kids in the neighborhood because they’re all at adult supervised structured activities, what’s the use of letting them run around in the neighborhood? There’s no one home to administer band-aids. And what if the neighbors don’t want them messing up their nice Chemlawn? But part of the limiting was the result of my own fears – I bought into the notion of the dangerous world. (What if they do play on the Chemlawn? I can’t let that happen!)

But is it really more dangerous?

I think, by and large, it’s not. (Oh, great, Bill – your children are grown, and now you have this announcement for us.) It’s a belief fed by the constant stream of media content focusing on the dangers of childhood, gleefully reminding us of that very small number of really horrible accidents. But what we get from the media is not representative of the vast majority of people’s experiences. Yes, we all know someone to whom something happened, but it’s questionable whether that experience should radically change our behavior. For every measure of security offered, some freedom is taken away, and learning is based on the exploration of the world. Freedom is required for growth. Does our fear of the regret we might, possibly, conceivably feel keep us from allowing room for growth?

Michael Chabon (great writer!) has an article in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, “Manhood for Amateurs; The Wilderness of Childhood” in which he questions all this. He notes that the rate of abductions of children has always stayed the same – what has gone up is our awareness of them. And a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about Jodi Picoult’s fiction notes how popular the genre of “children-in-peril” literature is. If you read all there’s offered about children as victims and watch Nancy Grace enough, you’ll just put your kid in a bubble suit and helmet and never let them go outside.

It’s an act of boldness to let children explore. There is a letting go, and the fear is that if we do let them go, “Something might happen”, and it will be our fault.

Something might happen, it’s true. Just as sure as something happens when we don’t give them space.

I don’t mean to say that children don’t require some special care, but I wonder about what different kinds of care there are. I don’t have this all worked out yet, but I’m looking at all of our protection of children with a rather jaundiced eye.

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