How to suck.

As a surprise, I signed up for ballroom dancing lessons with Jenny. I had rosy visions of twirling her around the floor while brilliantined men in dinner jackets played peppy tunes on from the bandstand.

Alas, after two or three sessions, it was obvious that I suck. While my wife is graceful and athletic as a prima ballerina, I clearly and congenitally have no innate sense of rhythm, no ability to remember steps, no actual understanding of music at all. Despite her brave smile, I finally acknowledged I’d have to buy Jenny steel-capped pumps or hang up my dancing shoes. 

What if you try doing something and find you’re not very good at it. What are the consequences?

Continue reading “How to suck.”

Smoky memories of setting myself on fire

edw1. In this morning’s paper, I read Edward Herriman’s obit which mentioned that he had appeared in a play called Moonchildren by Michael Weller. That sounded familiar to me but I wasn’t sure why. Something to do with high school?

2. I googled “Moonchildren” and the initials of my high school. An article appeared from our school paper about the controversy around the school production because the play used obscene language. Listed among the cast: my name.

3. I found a copy of the play online, read through the characters and one of them stood out like a beacon. Norman, a character who declares he is going to set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War. I realized I still knew most of Norman’s lines by heart. I had played him at 1 5.

4. My high school paper also had a review of another play I was apparently in, Impromptu by Tad Mosel. I remembered this one vaguely. I played an idealistic and brave young man who tried to overcome the cynicism of the other characters.

5. Next to the review was an editorial I had written, excoriating the school’s administration for making students do janitorial work, especially when the unemployment rate was over 10%. Around that time, I had established a Marx-Engels study circle and was adamant about workers’ rights, particularly if violating them forced me to sweep the stairs with an uncomfortably short-handled broom.

Unexpectedly, Edward Herriman’s death had some unexpected repercussions on me as I contemplated the new year from my snug bed. The main one is a new vision of myself as an adolescent.

Though I often think back to those days, they are  a little hazy. I had just come to the USA a couple of years before, after several years speaking just Hebrew, before that go to a number of schools in Pakistan and Australia. I have always assumed that I was probably a hopelessly awkward dork lurking on the edges of the crowd. The fact that I had plum roles in four or five school plays and was usually chosen to play a naive, idealistic youth suggests something quite different about how I was viewed by the students and teachers. I am now starting to see that I was actually a part of a circle of artists, actors, and writers, a political idealist and a bit of a firebrand.

My point in starting off the new year with this story is not just to stroll down memory lane. To me, it’s about the importance of art-making, risk-taking, and preserving our cultural past. My little example shows us how art can crystallize who we are and how important it is to preserve that for the future, not just so we can create memoir, but so we can have a clearer sense of the inks between us, of the unreliability of memory, and that we never know when one insight will connect with another to create and reveal something new.

It is so important to allow our creative expression to go where it will, not to control it and lock it into the compartments and definitions we think suit it today. What I thought about art-making in general or particular at fifteen and what is think about decades later is one thing or another, but the art itself, as the Romans pointed out, is long while life is increasingly short.

A hundred feet of eighth graders

(A somewhat funky video I made in my hotel room in China)

Learning to draw is not like learning to drive.  You don’t have to master the fundamentals, take courses, pass tests, put thousands of dollars of equipment at risk.  You just have to start.

Drawing isn’t a learned skill so much as it’s a process of discovery that starts with skills you have had since you were a toddler. And that process requires a willingness to stretch and practice, things that can be scary or boring if you approach them with the wrong set of expectations.

One thing that has been reinforced with me over the past few weeks that I have spent drawing with kids is that the most crucial thing is to have fun. If you are all enjoying yourself and slopping ink and paint around, well, you want to keep it doing it. As as you do it, you encounter new situations, you have questions, you want to stretch. And that’s where a decent teacher can step in and show you how to make progress. You also start to feel more comfortable with what you are doing so you are willing to make mistakes and take new risks, and that’s how your adventures to new places begin.

We all need to accept that creativity is not about immediately achieving some sort of awesome finished piece; it’s an exploration of discovery, not a straight-line commute to Perfection.

Of course, this insight isn’t just for junior high. It’s the core idea behind Sketchbook Skool: having new experiences, having fun, exploring with friends, and having opportunities to grow. Speaking of which, the new semester is about to begin. I assume you have already signed up, but if not, get over to our site and enroll.