Posts Tagged 'writing'

Cameron Crowe: Our Rock and Roll Warrior for Optimism

“There is a good bet that I will erase all of this from my laptop, and you will never read it.  But if you are reading it, and you’re reading it right now, it is only because I was unable to stop.” Those aren’t my words; they’re from the mission statement in Jerry Maguire—you’ll need the special edition to read it—but I can relate.  Cameron Crowe wasn’t the guy who got me interested in filmmaking, but his movies have been a big reason why I’ve kept at it in spite of the heartaches that have come along the way.

It’s hard enough to write about someone whose abilities I greatly admire,  but it’s a whole other ballgame when his work has impacted my life in a deep, sometimes searing way.

Photo credit: flickr.com/michelleu-c

break

I figured I could either do a polished, impersonal pass at it, or I could tell the truth. It’s an obvious choice if I want to honor the things Cameron Crowe values: the power of telling the truth even when it hurts is a recurring theme in his work.

Some examples to prove my case: “Let us be honest,” are the first words we see Jerry Maguire write in the mission statement I mentioned at the beginning. Writing it changes his life.

In Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s character gets a chance at true love only when he can honestly confront the ugly parts of himself.  William, the Cameron Crowe alter ego in Almost Famous, has to choose between looking cool and being honest.  Like almost every other Cameron Crowe hero, William chooses honesty and takes a beating for it, but he emerges stronger by the end.

Photo credit: flickr.com/yewenyi

break

Don’t forget, the first movie Crowe directed was titled Say Anything.   The name comes from an understanding between a father and a daughter that they can say anything to each other as long as it is honest.  When the dad gets caught lying, it destroys their relationship.

OK so we’ll be honest, but let’s get some context before we dive too deep.  “Rhythm,” “dissonance,” and “rebellion” are words you might expect to find in a rock & roll discussion.  But optimism? The word seems a little out of place.  That is, it seems out of place until you throw Cameron Crowe into the mix.

Photo credit: flickr.com/bluepisces

break

An accomplished filmmaker, Crowe has earned rock & roll cred by writing for Rolling Stone, where he got to interview and tour with some of the biggest rock bands of the 70s.  Plus, he’s penned liner notes for bands like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd and  done music videos, and he’s currently finishing up a documentary on Pearl Jam.

Then, of course, there are his movies. Singles and Almost Famous are both grounded in specific music scenes, Seattle grunge for Singles and 1970s rock in Almost Famous.  Along with Nancy Wilson, he  created a fictional band for Almost Famous and then recorded a few of their songs.  His other films have compelling soundtracks that he’s helped to arrange.  He plays music on set to get his actors in the right mood and talks about his movies in musical terms.

With just a line or two of dialogue like the quote that follows, he gives us insightful music commentary but makes it feel like it’s the most casual observation in the world: “So this is what’s become of rock and roll, a smashed guitar behind a glass case displayed in some rich guy’s wall.”  Oh yeah, and he was married to Nancy Wilson, the guitarist from Heart.

Photo credit: flickr.com/edberman

break

So where does optimism fit in? To hear Crowe tell it, it’s as if optimism and rock & roll were made for each other. In this interview with beliefnet.com, Crowe states, “I think if you have an open mind and you aren’t too strict about where the greatest messages in life can come from, and honor the message itself, you’ve got to say rock & roll is a powerful, powerful messenger for goodness-as well as subversive elements that are there in all elements of the world. But I love great music and the transcendent place that it takes you to.”

It was Cameron Crowe who described himself as a “warrior for optimism” in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, and he’s earned the title with his body of work. His movies remind us of why we’ve grown cynical but then conquer that cynicism with sincerity and decency.

Before she meets her true love, played by Campbell Scott, Krya Sedgwick’s character in Singles gets conned by someone who only wants her body.  That makes her a little more guarded.  Steve has his own setbacks to overcome.  He has committed all of his efforts at work to building a monorail.  In most movies he would succeed at his goal, and win the girl in the process.  In this one, his project fails entirely.  Still they make it work by sharing their frustrations with each other.

Pearl Jam, “The Fixer” directed by Cameron Crowe

break

If you haven’t seen Singles yet, give it a shot.  There are lots of fun cameo appearances.  Some of the guys from Pearl Jam are in it, playing in a band called Citizen Dick. They’re as cheesy as you’d expect with a name like that.  Then there’s Tim Burton who we learn is going to be the “next Martin Scor-ceese.” He makes ridiculously awful dating videos for his clients.

And let’s not forget our friend Paul Giamatti of Lady in the Water fame.  He plays “Kissing Man,” but he does so much with his few moments on screen.  There is passion but vulnerability.  Ferocious intensity, but also a longing desire to get past the superficial aspect of it all.  It’s like he’s channeling James Cagney and Earnest Borgnine at the same time. OK, I’m just kidding … about the James Cagney bit.  Still it was a good moment for the Giamaiester, and I’m guessing the casting director for Sideways liked his work in Singles enough to give him the keys to kingdom. Anyway…

In Almost Famous, the band does sell out.  They listen to Jimmy Fallon’s promoter and opt to go the route that will get them more money and publicity.  In the process they leave young William high and dry, and they do away with their beloved band bus, nicknamed Doris, to get a jet.   Symbolic of their decision to sell out, the jet literally almost kills them. Eventually, the band members confront their flaws, and Russell Hammond does right by William. Only when the band rediscovers its soul does Doris the bus return.

Photo credit: flickr.com/jerryjohn

break

Jerry Maguire is inspired to write his mission statement because he notices that “in the quest for the big dollars a lot of the little things were going wrong.”  People at his agency were willing to do anything to make more money, even if that meant lying or putting the health of their players at risk.

Everyone remembers the phrase “show me the money” from that film, but Jerry’s mission statement actually emphasizes putting personal relationships above profit. He wants to be in the business of caring about his clients, of doing the right thing.  That’s why he gets fired.

Oh yes, I do remember when I first saw Jerry Maguire.  I was in London, studying abroad. It was a new city for me to explore, full of history, of drama, of possibility. We were sort of a family, me and all the American kids in my program, but slowly the all-too-familiar feeling of being out of place returned.

How awful to feel that way even in a seemingly magical metropolis. I had to numb myself.  It was the only way I knew to deal with the pain. Doing that sort of thing only hurts when the numbness wears off, but when it does, it is so very hard to get up and fight again.

I didn’t want to get up and fight again. Things did not change for me, no matter what I did or where I went.  I was about to go to sleep, but something told me to turn on the TV.  I did and saw that Jerry Maguire was playing.  I thought, “no way do I want to watch an egotistical jerk shout about getting more money.” Still, the voice insisted. Curious, I started to watch.   Soon the movie got to the part where Tom Cruise’s character realizes that he’s good at business but horrible at intimacy. That got my attention.   It did more than that, in fact.

Photo credit: flickr.com/thomashawk

break

On one level, Jerry Maguire is about a man who carves out a new and noble sports business for himself, but on a deeper level it is about a man who learns to love by remembering the notable example of his now-absent father. As he tells us in voice over, Jerry becomes his father’s son again when he writes the mission statement. Then, he bonds with Dorothy’s boy because they both miss their fathers, and the boy wants Jerry Maguire to be his new dad. That brings Jerry closer to Dorothy, which forces him to break through his fears of intimacy and finally arrive at love.

Seeing Jerry Maguire find love made me a little more hopeful that I could someday make things work. My reaction was like that of the kid in Say Anything who hears about how Lloyd Dobler, a financially challenged jock, is daring to make things work with a more affluent girl who happens to be the school’s valedictorian: “This is great. This gives me hope. Thanks.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/thomashawk

break

It was Jerry Maguire and the hug of one girl in London that made it possible for me to write my first script. The girl was the first one who ever hugged me in a way that felt like it meant, “I am so very glad that you are here.” I didn’t know hugs could do that.

Back to our director’s films.  It’s not just in Jerry Maguire that Cameron Crowe makes dramatic use of an absent, noble father.  There’s no father in Almost Famous, a dead one in Elizabethtown, an incarcerated one in Say Anything, one who abandons a boy in Singles, and a distant, corporate one in Vanilla Sky.

The absence of a caring father is so devastating to Tom Cruise’s character in Vanilla Sky that he imagines a surrogate father into his life.  Add to that what Tom Cruise the person has shared about his own abusive father, and Vanilla Sky becomes, more than any other film that comes to mind, a sort of cautionary tale about how the absence of a noble father can sour the development of a young man. (There is also a bit of that in the TV show Lost, but you’re in a different category when you have lots more hours to tell your story.)

Photo credit: flickr.com/alan-light, 1989

break

Vanilla Sky is actually a retelling of the Spanish film Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes).  Both are excellent films, but Vanilla Sky has an added layer that examines celebrity culture.  It comes with the territory of having Tom Cruise in your movie, and his performance consists partly of playing up to our expectations of him as a celebrity.  That’s why it has more of an impact when he also plays against those expectations in the film.

Taking into account Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky, I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that Cameron Crowe has a bit of a love-hate relationship with celebrities. On the one hand, the famous ones are often capable of awe-inspiring greatness, but on the other hand they can be thoughtless in how they treat others. They’re also sometimes enabled to damage the world by those who protect them from the consequences of their actions.

In Almost Famous, the band trades Penny Lane to another band for a case of beer.  When Penny finds out she tries to kill herself.  At first, even Jerry Maguire protects the sports stars he represents from sexual allegations until he gets a change of heart.  Tom Cruise’s character in Vanilla Sky is oblivious to how his actions are hurting others, until it is too late.

Photo credit: flickr.com/brandoncwarren

break

Still, one of the big ideas in Vanilla Sky, as Crowe himself tells us, is the value of being able to take the sweet and the sour that life has to offer. That’s also not a bad way to think about celebrities.

Sure, a band might abuse drugs and women, but that doesn’t negate the joy they spread when performing.  Celebrities like Joan Crawford or Tom Cruise might have their dark sides, but that doesn’t detract from their dedication to their craft or their capacities for emotional honesty.  It is possible and quite healthy to admire others without overlooking their flaws.

That kind of approach has been enormously helpful to me.  It allows me to confront bad behavior even when it comes from people I admire, and for almost everyone there is the sour that goes with the sweet, even for Cameron Crowe.

Photo credit: flickr.com/margolove

break

He is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I still wince at some of his tendencies.  He does fight for optimism, but his movies also encourage a more casual attitude toward swearing.  It’s not that swear words offend me or that I don’t ever swear myself, but there is something to be said for civil discourse in public.  It bothers me a little more when it’s the young kids in the scene who say the swear words, as happens in Say Anything and Jerry Maguire.

And then there is Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  That’s the one he wrote but didn’t direct.  Prior to listening to that commentary track, I thought his commentaries always added depth and texture to his films. I mean, how can you not admire a guy who includes the perspectives of his mom and his wife in his discussions?

Well, the Fast Times commentary is the only one I’ve ever heard that has made me like a film less.  In it, Crowe explains how he was so excited to hear Sean Penn say “dick” that he would plead for him to say it every time he saw him.  When I heard that, I imagined Cameron Crowe as the kind of  kid who would punch the piñata he carried in celebration every time someone described a girl’s breasts.  Classy.

Photo credit: flickr.com/brandoncwarren

break

Also, he and Amy Heckerling bemoan the mean ol’ ratings board that would not allow them to show erect penises along with the two naked chicks that they already featured, one of them almost showing full-frontal nudity. Crowe laughs off concerns from the critics that they were exploiting teenage girls for their film.  The characters might have been underage he tells us, but the actresses were at least 18, and the girls wanted to go even further with the sex scenes.  If anything, the filmmakers were showing tasteful restraint, Crowe suggests.  What a jerk, I thought.

I enjoy seeing beautiful women as much as the next guy, but it is such a challenge not to get caught up in treating women like sex objects, and movies like that don’t help. Sex is such a big part of our lives, but it can be devastating when we get it wrong, so why make things tougher on the audience by showing them such explicit images?

Photo credit: flickr.com/seeminglee

break

On top of that, one of the girls in the movie spends more time deliberating about what dress to wear than about whether she should get an abortion.  In this movie, picking the right dress requires consultation, but getting an abortion doesn’t.  It’s just a matter of finding the right person to drive you to the clinic.

I know that abortion is a tough subject, and I don’t expect every filmmaker to share my point of view, but how disappointing to see that getting an abortion was played as such an obvious choice.

I was actually depressed for a few hours after watching the movie and hearing the commentary.  Why was I admiring the guy largely responsible for such a shallow film?  Clearly he was just like everyone else, and I was so wrong about him, and if Cameron Crowe is like that then why not settle for a shallow existence?  Then I got a nice text message from a friend, and that sent away my sour thoughts.

To be fair, the book version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I read shortly after re-watching the movie, was more enjoyable.  That’s the one Cameron Crowe wrote before he turned it into a screenplay, and it has more nuanced character moments in it.  For example, Spicoli the pothead isn’t just there for comic relief.  He’s trying to cope with his dysfunctional family and his struggles in school.   As to the abortion scene, we actually read about the girl’s feelings of dread and isolation at the clinic.  She asks the doctor, “Does it hurt more to have a baby?”  He responds, “Yes. But you mind it less.” That does change the context a bit, don’t you think?

Photo credit: flickr.com/brandoncwarren

break

It’s encouraging that Crowe’s depictions of sex have matured in his later films. There’s nudity in Vanilla Sky, but it is handled in a more tasteful way.  In his comments about that film, he talks about the merits of not having sex right away and about how casual sex is never as casual as people pretend.  Then there’s the line from Cameron Diaz:  “When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not.” In Elizabethtown, Kirsten Dunst’s modesty is protected by a few foaming bubbles, and so the scene becomes flirty but not lascivious.

A few days went past before I realized why Fast Times affected me the way that it did.  I had been idolizing Cameron Crowe, and doing that can lead to trouble.  No man is God, regardless of how talented or famous.  Cameron Crowe is a big inspiration, but he’s human just like the rest of us.  He has his virtues and his vices.  I just wasn’t willing to acknowledge that before I started preparing for this post.

That’s why I defended Elizabethtown as a great movie when it first came out.  It isn’t.  It’s a well intentioned film with terrific music and moments of greatness, but it has its flaws.

Instead of allowing the ensuing action to develop from the inciting incident, Crowe tries to expand the story by resorting to attention-grabbing set pieces like an over-the-top wedding party unrelated to the main characters, a TV show about exploding houses, and Susan Surandon doing a comedy routine about boners.  Her routine actually causes a plane-like bird to crash and start a fire.  Subtle realism that scene is not.

He didn’t have to resort to those kinds of tricks on movies like Jerry Maguire or Vanilla Sky.  I’m guessing the problem was that certain aspects of his own father’s death were still too painful for him to explore in a creative project.  Still, the movie made enough of an impression that it inspired me to take a road trip and to seek out some of the cities that the movie mentioned.

Photo credit: Me, road trip 1: Beale St., Memphis.  (Photos from Road Trip 2 are here.)

break

Anyway, my reaction to Fast Times got me thinking about how people might see me if they only  saw certain moments of my life in isolation.   Some moments might suggest that I’m a monster, others that I’m a saint, but I’d like to think I’m just a guy trying to do the best I can with what I’ve been dealt. I’m still waiting for God to fix the parts in me I can’t resolve.  Someday.

I’ve definitely done things I’m not proud of doing.  I’ve tried to move on, to do better, but sometimes I still stumble.  Meaning well doesn’t change the fact that there are still consequences to the things we do, no matter how much we try to avoid them.

Remember the girl in London I mentioned earlier? Things never work out. At that point in my life I wasn’t ready to meet her.  I was too busy trying to numb the pain, and so I lacked the character I needed to really connect with her. Sad when that happens.

Photo credit: flickr.com/c-reel

break

It’s like Jason Lee explains to Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, “You can do whatever you want with your life, but one day you’ll know what love truly is, it’s the sour and the sweet.”  You can’t have one without the other.

The holidays can be a time of celebration, but they can also be a reminder of all the things in our lives that aren’t working.  If you’re hurting, don’t give up.  Actions do have consequences, but to quote Vanilla Sky once again, “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.” What’s done can’t be undone, but it’s not too late to fix the future.

Photo credit: flickr.com/bea-258

break

In Say Anything Ione Skye begs a banker to “be a little decent,” but why be just a little decent? Be boldly, outrageously decent and take that leap of faith. All kinds of interesting things might happen if you do that, but you’ll never know if you never jump off that building.  Good is out there. It’s just a little harder to see in our cynical world.

In a featurette for Jerry Maguire Tom Cruise tells us, “Optimism in many ways is a revolutionary act today. People who are optimistic tend to get battered a little bit in this world at times.”   That’s true even for Cameron Crowe. Elizabethtown, the last movie he made, took a beating from the critics, and his divorce to Nancy Wilson just got finalized this month.

Photo credit: flickr.com/bea-258

break

So, this Christmas lets send our prayers of gratitude and hope to Cameron Crowe: May you stand up once again, like the noble warrior that you are, and lead us bravely into battle once more.  For what it is worth, I’m still fighting, and you’re a big reason why.

Let’s end with a story.  My mom is the kind of person who always seems to walk in on a movie at the most inopportune moments.  One year when I was watching Jerry Maguire at home, she came in during the sex scene at the beginning.  “Why are you watching this trash?” she asked.  I tried to explain that it wasn’t as graphic as it could have been, and that the movie actually had a positive message.  She walked away unconvinced.

Later she came back during the climactic football scene at Christmas.  She studied the screen for a moment then spoke.

Photo credit: flickr.com/pagedooley

break

She mentioned John 3:16, as if she had just won an argument.  “What do you mean?” I asked. She pointed it out.   Sure enough there is a poster prominently positioned in the stadium that says “John 3:16.” I had never noticed that before.  At least the movie has something that is right, her words and gestures conveyed.  Yeah. Rock and Roll, Cameron Crowe.

Merry Christmas everyone, and God bless.

break


To learn more about Cameron Crowe or to read some of the articles he wrote for Rolling Stone, check out his site at cameroncrowe.com.

If you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment to say thanks or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep writing and sharing bits of my heart with you.  But, I don’t want to keep spending time on things that people don’t value, so would you please speak up if you want me to keep writing.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post or some of the others I’ve written, consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.

I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.  As always, thank you for reading.

Walt Disney, the Illusion of Life, & Being Less Corporate

Walt Disney films are largely responsible for my interest in making movies. I’m not afraid to admit that.  I couldn’t say that in college.  I was too preoccupied with what  my classmates and professors thought of me.  Back then I was more likely to talk about Citizen Kane and Stanley Kubrick films.  Those are masterfully crafted movies, sure, but they had practically zero influence on my aspirations. Not so with Walt Disney’s creations, but in my effort to matter to the world I had forgotten that.

It’s taken me a while, but I have slowly returned to the things that I loved for their own sake and not based on what other people said.  Reading The Illusion of Life, a marvellous book about the story of Disney animation lovingly told by two early Disney animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, helped me to restore my unashamed enthusiasm for many of the Disney animated films I grew up with as a kid.

book_the_illusion_of_life

The first film I remember seeing in the theater was Snow White.  Pinocchio was the first film that compelled me to stay up late and ponder its mysteries, in this case I was trying to figure out what it would feel like to get transformed into a jackass.  (A few years later, I would understand the jackass thing all too well, unfortunately. I’m working on getting things right these days, but it’s a process.)

During the holidays, going to a Walt Disney film became a tradition for my family.  It was a time when we’d stop fighting with each other and informally agree to be temporarily harmonious.  It was a nice time.  But moving on, my  interest in computer animation too was colored by my exposure to the Pixar films that Disney distributed.

Not everyone in my world had a similar admiration of Walt Disney. My college professors carefully avoided any reference to Disney’s influence on cinema history, although the man pioneered new techniques for working with sound and color and had won twenty-six Oscars before he died.  (For all you film kids doing the math at home, that’s a few more than the nine Oscars that Stanley Kubrick’s films won.)  It is also worth pointing out that while Hollywood was still years away from conceiving of the effects film, Walt Disney gave the world Snow White, the first movie in which every single frame featured a created effect.

One of the books I had to read in college was Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard.  He wrote several long and loveless paragraphs about how Disneyland was the ultimate example of our false and simulated existence.

Baudrillard’s book was a joyless thing, perfumed with important-sounding philosophical concepts. I don’t remember much from the book beyond an impression that Baudrillard wanted to convince me that he was smart and very well read, and that his work  anticipated the Matrix films (films that I enjoy much more than Baudrillard’s book).

For comparison, let’s look at how  The Illusion of Life discusses Disney’s accomplishments. In the book, Walt is quoted as saying “I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with expressing myself with obscure creative impressions.” Did you notice the emphasis on serving others in that quote?

That’s a lesson that the book’s writers, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, absorbed well.  Consider their advice to aspiring entertainers: “The ancient counsel ‘Know thyself’ is full of wisdom, but, for the entertainer, it is possibly just as wise to suggest, ‘Know your audience.’

snow white

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

What a contrast with Baudrillard’s style that is.   Disney’s work has brought a sense of joy and wonder to millions of people around the world.  Jean Baudrillard has filled the minds of philosophy students with intellectual contempt and a sense of superiority over the uninformed.

I know that the Walt Disney Company is a very powerful multi-national corporation, and I don’t celebrate everything that the company does, but I’m talking about the man who started it all, the man who lived up to his well-known quote: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.”  I tend to root for the philosophers, but in this case Baudrillard comes off as the more banal and  corporate one.

To delight in a thing for the sake of the thing itself and not for the potential profit it brings is an essential aspect of being less corporate. If you can’t tell that the writers of The Illusion of Life created the book out of a deep, delighted love  for animation and for Walt Disney, then you probably can’t recognize love when you see it.  There’s the cover that transitions gracefully from black and white to color, the textured yellow paper that greets you when you open the book, the full-page color stills that appear in the first few pages, and the playful, yet thorough, prose.

All of these things are clues that this is a book that cares very much about getting the details right.  The book has 489 colored prints, thousands of black-and-white drawings, and it was printed in Italy; that’s definitely not the way to produce a book if you care only about maximizing your profits and keeping costs low.

On top of that, there are several flip-book sequences on the top-right corners of the pages that beg for your attention.  I would have still bought the book without that feature, a feature that must have taken a bit of time to sync up, but how magnificent to discover one more extra that Frank and Ollie threw in for us.

teacups

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

The animator-writers of the book speak fondly of Walt most of the time, and they dedicated the book to him, so obviously they liked the guy.  But, they don’t give him the idealized  hero treatment that I’ve seen the Walt Disney Company do on occasion.  Instead, the writers give us examples of when Walt was abrasive, difficult to please, and even wounding.

Look at how they critique a bonus system that Walt tried at one point: “The bonus system did not produce better pictures or even good ones.  Few regulations do.  Efficiency is better built through dedication rather than speed for its sake.”  How refreshing that they were not afraid to discuss the strengths and the weaknesses of their boss and the man they admired.

Since Frank and Ollie are honest about Disney’s flaws, we are more likely to believe them when they sing Disney’s praises, and sing they do.  They talk about Walt’s incessant curiosity and his high standards.

Walt Disney didn’t fall into the corporate trap of  resisting change merely to do things like they’ve always been done, and his drive to innovate wasn’t limited to technology.  For example, he didn’t hesitate to hire women for his ink and paint department, even though it was accepted knowledge  at the time that only men could do the job effectively.

Nor was Disney afraid of failure. Apparently, he wanted to be a live-action director when he first came to California, but that didn’t work out so well.  Instead of giving up, Disney returned to animation and worked hard to produce Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons.

But, thanks to strong-arm negotiation tactics by Charles Mintz, a producer working for Universal, Disney was soon locked out of the very cartoon he helped to create.  On top of that, most of his workforce was signed away from him.  Disney had every reason to get bitter, but instead he stayed focused and created a character known as Mickey Mouse.

2430476513_8485095a3d

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

Frank and Ollie also talk about the spirit of cooperation that Disney encouraged. Everyone was expected to share knowledge and to help those who were struggling on a concept.  They quote Disney as saying, “Everyone has to contribute or they become laborers,” and they give a few examples of Walt’s determination to find the right job that best suited the strengths of his people.  The assumptions that everyone matters and that everyone has distinct skills are seemingly obvious, but they are still ignored in more corporate environments.

Since Disney animators helped to define the craft of animation, Frank and Ollie could have thrown around corporate phrases like “proprietary information” and “intellectual property” when discussing their animation processes.  Instead, out of a desire to see their beloved field of animation advance, they broke down their technique into twelve distinct principles that are thoroughly illustrated with one example after another.  Those twelve principles are now the cornerstones of all the animation training programs that I’ve seen.

By giving information away and trying to be helpful, Frank and Ollie earned for Disney the loyalty of thousands of animation students who succeeded by studying their work.  Too bad more companies aren’t as generous with their resources these days, since their businesses could benefit greatly if they did. It’s the curse of the all too-powerful legal departments and of the frivolous lawsuits that make such departments necessary, I suspect.

While discussing the craft of animation Frank and Ollie write, “The animator should be as surprised as anyone at the way it comes out.”  Exactly right, but that should be true for any work that isn’t corporate in nature.

You can do all the planning in the world, but you’ll never know all the conditions and the particulars that might come up until you dive into the thing.  When you react to changes in the moment, your work has vitality.  Otherwise it is a representation of a preconceived idea that grown distant from reality.

Think of the last corporate event you attended.  Were you surprised at all when the wacky speaker made lame, self-aggrandizing jokes and then talked about how the numbers  for that quarter were great news for the company, regardless of what the numbers actually looked like? That kind of speech is bad because it stays the same regardless of what happens in the world or with the audience.

Anything with vitality, whether a service, product, or person, has to be surprising at least in some sense, by definition. Otherwise, let us call the thing in question dead or corporate.

3042741167_afe6a2cfe3

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

I will end with two more  quotes from the book.  “Our true personalities are best revealed by our reactions to change we did not expect.”  Not bad insight from men who make cartoons, don’t you think?

Toward the end of the book, Frank and Ollie throw in a quote from William Faulkner.  Faulker explains that it is a writer’s “privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” At that point, Frank and Ollie add that “even the cartoon can try for such ideals.”

If animators aim for such lofty ideals, maybe it’s not asking too much for you to reconsider the merit of animation in general and Walt Disney in particular.  Or, you could go back to reading Pretentious Quarterly and producing and endorsing things that bring more despair and decadence into the world, but don’t expect me to applaud you for that.  I’ll be too busy celebrating the things that make me smile and keep me hopeful.

On the Wondrous Madness and Merits of Confronting Failure

The possibility of writing about some subjects is exciting enough to keep me motivated until the end of thing.  Failure is not one of those subjects.  I did not want to write this post, but the universe, or perhaps its God, would not let me forget about it. 

From past experience, I’ve learned that it is best not to fight these things.  In Vegas, the odds favor the dealer; in the cosmos the odds favor the guiding will of Providence, whether you like it or not.  I don’t always like it, but it is presumptuous of me, is it not, to assume that the universe should unfold exactly as I expect.

Yes, there is more metaphysical talk ahead.  Consider yourself warned.  In case you haven’t figured this out by now, I don’t write for everyone, and perhaps you would be better served by watching Entertainment Tonight or by reading Seven Secret Steps Toward Infinite Profitability or something along those lines.  You could always just read another article on the amazing marketing potential of Twitter, if you prefer.  

For those of you still around, thank you for staying. Now onward to more metaphysics.  I am not one of those people who proclaims that success or failure is entirely up to fate.  Our future is in many ways what we make it, and yet the turtle can work as hard he wishes, he can watch all the inspirational videos in the world, and read all the textbooks, but he will never fly with the same gracefulness of an eagle.  Like our friend the turtle, we cannot necessarily become anything we want to be, but we can live up to or fall short of the potential we’ve been given. In other words, fate and free will both have a hand in our successes and failures.  

"Faded Glory" from flickr.com/jamesjordan

"Faded glory" from flickr.com/jamesjordan

 Let me elaborate.  Sometimes repeated failure can be a good clue that tells us to put our energies elsewhere.  In other cases, it’s just a sign that we aren’t trying hard enough.  Fail enough times at something and you’ll discover that it can be tricky to distinguish between these two categories.   When you get to that point, maybe it’ll help if you take note of the circumstances that have or have not worked out in your favor.  

Have you ever gotten assistance in your endeavors, where something worked out unexpectedly at just the right moment?  That could be God whispering in your ear to persevere.  On the other hand if the doors you keep fighting to open swing shut with uncanny consistency, perhaps you should rethink your endeavors.  Or maybe not.  You have to make that call for yourself.  

The idea for this post first came when I saw this commercial from Honda about failing.  I was intrigued that a car company took such a strong position on the subject. The Honda employees being interviewed not only mentioned specific failures that Honda experienced, but they also gave fairly recent examples, as late as 1994.  It’s a bold move; someone could say to themselves, well if Honda made engines that had problems at one point, then I don’t want to buy from them ever again.  But, that person would be a fool. 

Everyone who does anything worth doing makes mistakes at some point, so wouldn’t you rather buy from a company that publicly acknowledges those mistakes and then works to correct them?  I would.  But all too often our success-worshipping world strives to sanitize failure out of our awareness. That’s one reason why it’s politically more appealing to shield others from the consequences of their failures.  Unfortunately, that kind of thing just keeps the AIG fat cats of the world healthy enough to be rapacious.  

In our haste to protect others from tragedy we sometimes forget that allowing others to confront their own failures can be the most considerate course of action. Enough unsheltered failure can cause others to re-evaluate their pursuits and to redirect their energies toward areas where they can better succeed.

Not sold on failure yet? Well here’s something else to consider: A free society is one in which its citizens can openly discuss the perceived failures of themselves and their leaders.  It is by no means historically inevitable that a person can choose the kind of work that he or she does. With the freedom to choose your work comes the freedom to evaluate whether your occupation provides the best rewards for your abilities and whether you’ve fully developed those abilities.  Slaves do not have the luxury of considering such things.  

"oasis" from flickr.com/photos/jonnelson

"oasis" from flickr.com/photos/jonnelson

Do you think that former President Bush was an unconditional failure? (I don’t.) Because we are still a free people in the United States, you can, if you wish, declare that he was the world’s biggest failure and a Nazi,  and you could do so in the most juvenile way imaginable without fearing for your life.   How odd that the citizens of Nazi Germany did not have such freedoms. But since we’re speaking of dictators, when was the last time you heard Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chávez talk about the failures of their countries?  It’s been a while, I think.  In comparison, both President Bush and President Obama have, in the past few months, acknowledged that their country and even their respective administrations could have made better decisions about some things. 

All of these points that I’ve made about failure are not the reasons I was dreading this subject.  Here’s the thing, the topic of failure actually hits a little too close to home.  As I write, a short video project I’ve been developing for a few weeks now stands a good chance of crumbling into nothingness, due to factors outside of my control.  If that happens then the project will become one more resident in the expanding graveyard of my unsuccessful endeavors.  

I recall those failed creative projects and think, “I had such high hopes for that little guy, and I saw so much of myself in you, and you, you had so much potential that I’d smile when thinking of you.”  I imagine that’s not too different from what parents feel when they lose a child prematurely.  And yet, I am determined to persevere through another failure if a failure it becomes.  I must.  It’s already hard enough to keep my self-destructive tendencies in check, and giving up on my creative aspirations would only fuel the flames.  

My work is not the only aspect of my life where failure resonates.  Too many of my relationships have whithered away in a similar manner.  You see, I’m not easy person to get to know. I long for deep, meaningful relationships and a sense of community, and yet I do everything I can to keep people at a comfortable distance.  Shallow jokes are good for that sort of thing.  So too are metaphysical rhetoric and political commentary.

For those of you keeping score, I used all those tricks in this post.  It was the only way I could persuade myself to write this.  I take comfort in knowing that most readers will not get this far.  But the possibility that even a few of you will read this is a little unnerving. How can I possibly keep a safe distance now that I’ve revealed so many of my secrets?    

 

"A gift of golden light"

"A gift of golden light" from flickr.com/photosan0

There is the beauty of it, though.  As transparency grows, it becomes harder to avoid the difficult subjects, the very things that stand in the way of real progress.  For me, less wiggle room might mean that I eventually learn to form more sincere, more radiant relationships as I move closer to wholeness.  But to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, because even the devil should have his day in court, there is also the possibility that such openness could leave me vulnerable to more heartache, the very thing that could drive me to despair and toward a purposeless, dissolute life governed by booze and whores.  I do not favor such an outcome, but I don’t think it is an entirely impossible scenario.  

That kind of life would be the ultimate failure, and I want to do what I can to defend myself against it.  It helps when I can find God’s presence in the quiet beauty of the moment.  In those all too rare moments, I discover a sense of harmony and purpose that has been otherwise absent from my life.  It is a kind of self-correcting presence; In those moments, I do what I should just because of that presence reaching out through time with love.  And yet, most of the time that presence is hard for me to see. My perception is distorted by the ugly stains of lust, anger, and anguish in me and by the stupid, banal and vicious aspects of our material world.  

My dad helped to shape one of the more contorted stains.  We got mad at each other for some inconsequential reason that I can’t even remember, and in a moment of anger he called me a failure. He did not mean that had I failed at a recent endeavor but that failure was a defining quality of who I was. The words did not sting as much as the raw honesty they conveyed.  We were celebrating my birthday that day, and he told me that right before we were going to bring out the cake.  Nice timing Dad.  My response was to tell him that he was going to die soon, and that I wouldn’t cry at his funeral. 

He didn’t live to see my next birthday. He died two years ago from this week.   I did cry, but at the funeral, I was more restrained.  Still I did cry even then, in spite of what I told him.  We had talked a few more times after that big argument, but he never convinced me that he didn’t mean what he said, even though he apologized, as did I.  

His words haunted me for a while.  Last year, around this time, I did something I’m now ashamed of doing, partly out of anger at him, at the world, and at God, mostly at God.  At that point in my life, though, I was willing to do anything to prove to myself and to him that I wasn’t a failure, even if that meant doing something self-destructive.  That’s what a sense of failure can do if you don’t confront it.  

"Marsden" from flickr.com/sovietuk

"Marsden" from flickr.com/sovietuk

I have (mostly) forgiven my Dad for what he said.  I’ve said my share of hurtful things too, and he was a well-intentioned, but not an entirely good man, who dedicated his life to helping others battle cancer.  That’s admirable enough.  As is often the case with me, he did not intend the harm that he caused, and he said what he did  in part because he couldn’t quite come to terms with his own personal frustrations.  

I could never have written this last year, but God is good (at least that’s what I believe most of the time). He’s brought me little moments that helped to get me to this point.  Here’s an example:on Monday afternoon, when I first started writing this post, I discovered that the May 2009 edition of Reader’s Digest had arrived in the mailbox.   It featured a story about several people who bouncing back from failure in an inspiring way.  One of the people profiled was a lady in Norfolk, Virginia who failed to save someone’s life in the past, but that experience helped her save someone’s life a few years later.  

The naval base in Norfolk, Virginia was the reason my family first came to Virginia, so the story about the Norfolk lady had a special significance to me.  I’ll be honest, I thought about deleting this post a few times, but the Reader’s Digest story was one of the reasons that I didn’t.  It made me think that maybe one day something good could also come from my devastating failures and heartaches.  Wishful thinking perhaps, but it made an impact at the time.  

It’s an interesting coincidence that the magazine would come on the day that I was preparing to write this and that it would have a moving story from a lady in Norfolk and that  I unintentionally ended up writing this post on the week of my Dad’s death.  As it turns out, tomorrow is also the first day of Passover, and again that wasn’t something I planned.  Maybe there is some deeper significance to those coincidences, maybe not.  

In any case, it’s encouraging that I am now at a point where I can write about something that was once so hard for me to acknowledge even to myself, namely that I sometimes assume that my value as a person is defined entirely by my professional accomplishments or the lack thereof.   With that kind of thinking, it is tough not to conclude that I don’t matter when my world is overflowing with failure.  But anyone who is loved does matter, and I do believe we are all at least loved by God.  

My faith takes for granted that everyone will fail at some point and that those failures can’t truly be set right without God’s involvement.  That involvement is not always what I expect or want, but it is there, as best as I can tell.

 

"Singapore White" from flickr.com/dinesh_valke

"Singapore White" from flickr.com/dinesh_valke

 

I’d like to end this messy, meandering post with a quote that caught my attention from the Reader’s Digest story that I’ve been referencing: “You might never fail on the scale I did.  But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”  The author of the quote: J.K. Rawling.  Here’s to facing failure and to living life with a little less caution.

Happy Passover and Happy Easter everyone!

What Canon ITS Teaches Us about Being Less Corporate

Whether you like it or not, your day job, the things you do to pay the bills, is a big part of who we are. This is not to say that our work defines us.  Quite the contrary in most cases.  We aren’t all fortunate enough to get paid doing what best represents our interests and passions.  And yet, work lets us show the world what we’re like when faced with challenges and with things that we wouldn’t normally do.

Retrophone - from flickr.com/l-ines

Retrophone - from flickr.com/l-ines

During the day, I work for Canon ITS providing phone support to our customers who own digital SLR equipment.  Sometimes I also provide email support for customers who have our camcorders and compact digital cameras.

This is not something I was quick to admit when I first started working for Canon.  You see, I studied to become a creative type in college, and tech support is not the kind of work I had in mind.   But my thoughts on the subject have changed over time.  Even though I don’t want to work at Canon for the rest of my life, I now believe that I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have the job I do.

I’ve learned a lot at Canon, not just about technology but about the value of being focused on serving others.  My interest in design and in improving other people’s user experiences have grown from the service mentality that was instilled in me with Canon.

Writing this post has been in the back of my mind for a while now, but I’ve resisted it.  (That’s one reason why it’s been a while since my last post.)   I was worried that I’d write Styrofoam-like cheerleader prose where I celebrate everything my employer does for the sake of preserving and advancing my career.  And yet, I write about how to make the world less corporate, and there many things that Canon ITS does that aren’t corporate and worth celebrating.  The question was whether I could write about those things in a way that would be both helpful and honest.  I guess we’ll find out.

So what’s not corporate about Canon’s tech support?  For one thing, I don’t get pressured to end my calls within a certain number of minutes. I can spend as much time as necessary to resolve an issue without worrying about getting reprimanded by my supervisors.  Of course, I try to get things resolved as fast as possible, but I don’t have an incentive to end the call prematurely.

Solving problems for others or helping them choose a lens that’s appropriate for their needs is generally an enjoyable thing.  There are always going to be a few jerks who aren’t as rewarding to assist, but they are in the minority.  If no one is waiting in the queue, I will take time to explain more details about our equipment that I think the caller might appreciate.  Not only does this allow me to be potentially more helpful, but it also makes my job far more enjoyable.

Here’s another remarkable thing: Canon works very hard to ensure that most calls coming in are answered in less than a minute.  Sometimes the wait time is longer, especially if you call the day after Christmas with a 14-part question, you lovable Canon enthusiasts you! But, the point is that complicated scheduling and staffing matters are handled by Canon behind the scenes, so that you can have a better, less stressful support experience.  Camera support is free for the life of the camera at Canon, so someone in management could have easily decided to provide bare-bones service to our customers, making short-term profit statistics look better.  But we chose to offer not merely functional but excellent service, a desirable quality from a business perspective but harder to measure in terms of profitability.

It’s been over three years, and I’m still with Canon.  Initially, I was only planning to stay for a year.  The people at Canon are a big part of the reason why I haven’t left. Canon has allowed and encouraged the EOS camera department to develop into a cohesive group.  We know each other well enough to joke around when we aren’t too busy.  That helps the job from getting too stressful, but it also helps us learn what areas of expertise each person has.

This is so much less corporate than a hierarchical approach that requires you to go to your superiors for every bit of unknown information.  Just because someone is higher ranked than you doesn’t mean he or she will know more about the particulars of Wi-Fi networking, or video editing, or lighting, or anything really.

My supervisors have also been exceptional.  They’ve been personable and ready to manage me as an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses.  I was never handled like just another faceless number.  When I made my first mistake in the early months when I was hired, I was expecting to get yelled at.  Instead my supervisor calmly told me that I had to call back the customer and explain the situation.  Not only was I allowed to make a mistake, but I was given the chance to learn from it and then correct it. If my supervisor hadn’t allowed me to fail with dignity, I would have been too hesitant to try things that have led to my current level position.

Brian, one of the senior support managers at Canon ITS has taken time out of his busy schedule to hear my concerns on more than one occasion, and he went out of his way to provide invaluable assistance with a side-project I was developing.  That one thoughtful gesture had more of an impact on me than the thousands of dollars that Canon spends on employee benefits.

When my father died, Canon sent flowers for the funeral.  The Contact Center Director at Canon ITS, Doris,  even stopped by my desk to share some sincere, comforting words.  She offered to do anything she could to help.  (Most of my indie-rocker friends who are contemptuous of businesses in general never even called to see how I was doing.  Does this explain my tendency to mock hipsterista indie-rockers whenever possible? Perhaps.) If Canon had a mentality of only doing things that directly impact profitability, then I wouldn’t have these stories to tell.

"Listen up - in red" from flickr.com/davidtrindade

"Listen up - in red" from flickr.com/davidtrindade

Some days, it is true, I find that I am overwhelmed by my job, so much so that it is hard for me to be myself.  This is more of a reflection of who I am than what my job is like.  A whole and harmonious person can find a state of grace no matter what he is doing, while radiating himself in a good and elegant way.  I am not that person, not yet.  Sometimes the banal, bewildering moments of the day trick me into believing  that I don’t matter, that the divine spark God put in all of us isn’t there.

You see, every now and then, my job involves dealing with an angry customer who gets abrasive, and even insulting, because his equipment isn’t working the way he wants.  To some extent, I can understand those strong sentiments; many of the photographers we serve have trusted Canon with their entire livelihoods.  That’s a big responsibility. But if I don’t make an extra effort or if I don’t already have a healthy level of respect for myself that goes beyond my work, then I can let their frustrations get to me.

When I define my job as one that involves listening to others complain about their problems, it becomes very difficult for me to be engaged by my work.  But, at some point, I realized that I didn’t have to think about it that way.  I could instead see my work as a chance to help others appreciate photography in the way that I do, to help them take better pictures, and to make their days a little better with friendly, useful information that solves problems.    Just a simple change in how I thought about something, in this case my job, made the world seem far less corporate.

I’m not saying that everything Canon ITS does is perfect or uncorporate.  By my cubicle, a big poster of a bar graph (we’re talking larger than life) with some meaningless abbreviations reminds me of this.  I have wondered about this poster and its intended function for many, many days.  It hasn’t helped me remember any new information, even though it has been up for several months, and it doesn’t inspire me to work harder.  It certainly does not add aesthetic appeal to my environment.

I suspect that the people who commissioned it are people who look at numbers every day.  When the numbers go up, they get a sense of euphoria at  a job well done.  To them, perhaps, a bar graph that goes up and up has wonderfully positive associations, and they wanted to share that feeling with others.  An admirable sentiment, is it not?  Even so, my supervisors would never convince me to work harder by calling my attention to the remarkably large bar graph on the wall.

Let us suppose, though, that the poster represented something I did care about that was also relevant to my job.  For example, what if it was a poster of some Canon photographers that I admired like Thomas Hawk or Vincent Laforet, and my supervisor asked me to work overtime to help provide better service to guys like them. That could very well convince me to give more effort or time than I originally planned.

If you look at Canon’s advertising, it becomes very clear that our marketing department understands the value of tailoring a message to the interests of a particular audience. In National Geographic we run beautifully photographed ads that feature exotic animals with text about their unique qualities and our efforts to preserve them.  In business magazines like Forbes we run advertisements that discuss Canon’s innovative capacities as a global business leader.  In Entertainment Weekly and on popular television shows we run fun, light-hearted ads with the lovely tennis star, Anna Kournikova.  Wouldn’t it make sense to also tailor internal company marketing efforts based on what would be of interest to the  employees? Our polished, informative, and well-produced internal company magazine, Imagine, is an encouraging step in the right direction, but we could do more.

I spend enough time in this blog talking about my own struggles and about the things I need to do better:  being transparent is a good way to motivate change, and the world has too many people who are ready to tell you how unconditionally awesome they are at any given hour.  So, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for me to comment in a respectful manner about how others, even my employer, can improve what they do.  I would not have written this if I did not have an overall admiration for Canon, but I also would not have written this if I felt compelled to write only positive things.   I know there are risks that come with that kind of mentality, but writing honestly is more important to me than job security.

from flickr.com/tomooka

from flickr.com/tomooka

It is only recently that I’ve gotten to the place where I can acknowledge that working at Canon plays a big part in who I’m becoming, more so than the creative freelance projects I do on the side.  My work at Canon doesn’t define me, but what I learn from the experience and how I react to the work, toward both the friendly and frustrating moments that come, will shape the person I someday become.  A bad employer can leave someone more broken when his employment ends, but when I leave Canon I think there’s at least a good chance that I’ll be a stronger, more vibrant individual than when I started working there.  For that, I am sincerely grateful: Thank you Canon for helping to make the world less corporate.

How the War of Art Can Help Us be Less Corporate

This written conversation pertains to a book I finished a few days ago called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Like other good books I’ve read, it is filled with ideas that have stayed with me and taken on a life of their own as I’ve wrestled them into my view of the world. I want to share with you how those ideas can help us become less corporate, but first let me  reiterate in a new way about what being less corporate means and why it is a good thing.  

To do that, please allow me a confession: I face an ongoing battle in my mind about the merits of advocating a less corporate existence. For one thing, I work for Canon and I hope to work for and with other companies in the future, and there is a real possibility that my thoughts may come off as anti-business. They are not.  

I am very enthusiastic about businesses, big and small, that help people to improve the quality of their lives, learn, and make positive contributions to society. As I’ve explained before, I don’t fight against businesses but against the banal, thoughtless, and evil things that businesses, organizations, and people do to interfere with our chances of becoming the radiant individuals we were meant to be. 

I place a significant value on honesty in my life, but even more so in my writing. There are a lot of rough edges and murky spots in my life, and these stains on my soul are things that I’d rather not face moment-to-moment. I try, but I don’t always have the courage to do so with dignity and fortitude all the time.

My hope is that if I write with an honest and open heart, I will get better at living with an honest and open heart on a daily basis. Here’s another way to phrase that: I’m trying to be less corporate, but there’s this fear that haunts my mind.  It suggests that I accomplish nothing more with my writing than convincing the world that I am crazy or not worth hiring. 

 

Ancient of Days - William Blake

Ancient of Days - William Blake

 

 

Also, my inner accountant likes to remind me that this kind of writing takes longer to do and it depletes time that could be used to do or find more paying gigs or to at least schmooze for the sake of recognition and career advancement.  As a somewhat related side note, if you want to see me at my most corporate, bring me to a networking event and trick me into thinking that my potential for success depends not on being myself while striving for excellence but in finding the right people who can advance my career if I win their favor. The devil’s minions have used that trick on me more than one occasion, and unfortunately it can still work all too well for them.

I think Mr. Pressfield would describe these doubts I have as the resistance I face in my own personal war for art. (See, it wasn’t a pointless digression after all.) For me, writing about this stuff is something I have to do.  It helps me get closer to what I’m supposed to do with my life.  

I can’t explain why. It is just something I know to be true, at least I know as much when I’m writing. When I’m not writing, I doubt and find reasons not to do more writing or more of the creative projects that sing to me from the depths of my heart, begging for attention even as I try to muffle them.

By now some of you might think I’m a little insane , but some of you, I believe, know exactly what I’m talking about. You can relate; so can Mr. Pressfield. The art he advocates doesn’t pertain to a few cliched talking-points about the value of the humanities in our lives. No, his is the art that pleads with us to pursue our own unique calling, our reason for being put on this earth that only we can discover.

Presenting his case, he writes this: “Unless I’m crazy, right now a still small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times, the calling that is yours and yours alone.” Did you hear that voice whispering as you read that? I did.

So what is less corporate about the book and it’s ideas? First of all, Mr. Pressfield writes from experience. He has written books like The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire, both of which are well-regarded best sellers. In other words, he’s not writing just for a paycheck.

He’s also not afraid to define the enemy in bold terms. He calls it resistance, a force inside and outside of us that gets in the way of our God-given purpose. Corporate thinkers do not like this. They care more about conforming, about being agreeable, about avoiding conflict.  How can you live up to other people’s expectations and be like everyone else while also seeing a menace both inside and outside of your tribe or yourself? You can’t.

That’s why corporate people don’t talk about such things. They prefer to tell you that you can be anything you want to be and that the customer is always right. The customer isn’t always right, and as Mr. Pressfield explains “ We can’t be anything we want to be. We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny.”

About that idea of having a special purpose, a destiny: it’s a strange one isn’t it? And yet it still resonates with us in a way that corporate pie charts and bar graphs do not. I’m fairly certain that our lives have more significance than the amount of profit we generate for Sony, but it’s hard to see that sometimes with all of the distractions and desires that consume us.

Accepting the idea that my life may have a greater meaning than just the sensations of the moment is one thing, but it is another thing to believe that even the irritating guy at the office, and the high-school kid who makes life miserable for others, and the dropout who posts stupid videos on YouTube all have a special purpose in this world that they may or may not achieve. Did He who made the lamb make thee?  Indeed Mr. Blake, indeed.  

When I think about people like that long enough, it becomes harder to reduce them to simple character types, to talking, breathing adjectives who are there only to serve my ends. It makes me wonder what things would be like if everyone was as complex as I am.  (Here’s a secret: I think they are.)

 

Jacob's Ladder - William Blake

Jacob's Ladder - William Blake

 

 

To discuss pre-programmed purpose for our lives in any meaningful way without acknowledging God somehow is virtually impossible. Sure enough, Mr. Pressfield admits that he believes both in God and in a metaphysical reality that transcends the truth of our daily existence. Does he care that metaphysical thinking is out of favor with today’s prominent intellectuals?  Of course not.  Only corporate thinkers care about such things. 

You are free to conclude that only measurable results matter. Forming your own opinion  is a respectable thing, something I celebrate even when the perspectives in question conflict with mine.  Today’s technological world of quarterly reviews, productivity stats, and page clicks certainly fuels and validates that kind of thinking.  

And yet, history’s great thinkers and creators, people like Socrates, Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Kant, Goethe, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Frank Capra, Dr. Martin Luther King, George Lucas, and J.K. Rowling, among others, would reject the idea that a merely materialistic view of things is good enough or all there is.  It is possible that you are wiser than those men and women, but it is just as possible that you are not.  With that in mind, perhaps you should not be so quick to discredit the things you cannot understand, especially when those things have survived the test of time.  I too will do likewise.  

To his credit, Mr. Pressfield builds his case without statistics.  Statistics and citations have their place, but sometimes they become a handicap that corporate types use to avoid appealing to a person’s own inner sense of things.  Do you really need a survey to know what’s right to do in the moment or to conclude that the iPhone is a well designed product?  Only if you’ve forgotten how to trust your own instincts.

The only point of contention I have with Mr. Pressfield’s excellent and inspiring book is his claim that “Creation has its home in heaven.”  I would be more comfortable saying that Creation often but not always comes from heaven.  

Call me judgmental if you like, but I don’t consider Hitler’s Mein Kampf or the Saw movie franchise to be divinely inspired creations.  As I’ve explained before, artists can produce corporate and evil stuff just like anyone else, but this is a small dispute with an otherwise inspiring and life-affirming book full of resonating truths.  

If you want to make the world less corporate by focusing in on your own special purpose for being on this earth, I cannot recommend this book enough.  

(Somewhat) Unnecessary Creating

This time, it’ll be short.  I’m generally a long-form kind of guy.  Not because I think I am worthy of more of your time.  No.  I just don’t know how to convey my ideas in short, but effective, bursts.  I admire those who can.  It is an art.

Anyway, I have projects to finish, so I have to keep it brief.  Writing a long piece is satisfying in some ways but exhausting in others, for me and also for you, I think.  None of that today.

<i> Rain, Steam and Speed </i> by J.M.W. Turner, 1844

Rain, Steam and Speed by J.M.W. Turner, 1844

I’m going to donate the extra time that comes with writing a shorter post to some unnecessary creating, design stuff probably.  Todd Henry talks about the importance of unnecessary creating at the Accidental Creative.

He explains it better than I do, but here’s my take: it’s about creating stuff for the celebration of the thing itself, whether or not doing so has any long-term benefits.  Now that I think about it, that’s what gets me excited about writing and sketching and playing with videos and graphics, when I’m not worried about finding work or gaining respectability or finding validation.

It’s my small way of being a little less corporate today.  I’m going to play with stuff that I don’t have to do in a strictly business sense, but on the other hand, it’s something I absolutely need to do.  Do you know what I mean?

Norman Mailer: A Theologian for Those Who Dislike Theologians

Religion is often a corporate experience, and that frustrates and saddens me.  Sometimes it even leads me to vice.  I take responsibility for my choices, but bad religion has been, on more than one occasion, a toxic influence that tipped the scales.  

Soon, I want to write about what makes religion corporate, but that’s a tough topic to tackle.  If I don’t articulate ideas in a thoughtful and nuanced but principled way, I could do more damage than good, and I don’t want that.  To warm up for that discussion, I’ll tiptoe into the topic by looking at specific religious-minded people and things that aren’t corporate in the next few weeks.  Today we’re talking about Norman Mailer.  

Here’s a quick background for Norman Mailer, in case you aren’t familiar with him:  Along with writers like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Truman Capote, he gets credit for developing the New Journalism style, a style that smiles at story-driven techniques in nonfiction work.   For his 1979 novel, The Executioner’s Song, Mr. Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize.  That’s not why I find him interesting, but I wanted to establish his respect within literary circles before looking at his theology.  

401px-keppler-conkling-mephistopheles

I had heard of Norman Mailer in college, but I didn’t go through an entire book of his until this interview that he did with Entertainment Weekly (found here).  The interview led me to pick up The Castle in the Forest, a book about the demons who had been assigned to oversee and corrupt Adolph Hitler when he was a child.  Suprisingly enough for a modern novel, it’s a book that takes seriously the idea that angels and demons fight for influence over our personal lives  and our collective histories.  Think C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters with more sex told in context of one history’s greatest villains.  

When C.S. Lewis writes about supernatural forces battling for a soul, he can count on the support of his faith-based audiences.  (I say that as someone who considers C.S. Lewis to be an excellent, under-rated writer who has had a great influence on my life.)  But, when Norman Mailer does it, he is earnestly embracing an idea that his fellow literary contemporaries would mock with condescending sophistication.  Doing that takes courage and cojones, and that gets my attention.    

In fact, I was so intrigued by the theology and the philosophy found in The Castle in the Forest that I picked up Mailer’s book On God: An Uncommon Conversation to learn more about his religious thoughts.    While some of his other books have religious themes, this is the first one that is  entirely focused on thoughts about God.   I don’t even agree with all of the ideas in it.  So why mention him here?  Because, believers and unbelievers both need people like Norman Mailer to bridge the gap between the secular and the spiritual camps.  

On God has very few quotes or summaries from other theologians or thinkers, and Mr. Mailer begins the book by admitting his limited formal training in theology.   Those are both good, uncorporate things.   I’ve read too many books that have countless citations but no original thoughts.  That happens, I suspect, when the author places more value on what other people think than on what he can discover and observe for himself.

A variation of this is the absurd notion that formal education alone determines someone’s competency in a subject.  I’ve met a good number of talented artists, craftsmen, and thinkers who were self-taught, and I’ve known a few exceptionally incompetent people who were formally educated.  Sometimes formal education can enlighten and illuminate matters, but other times it merely corrupts and clones carbon-copies of the teacher overlords.  Why do you think so many theologians, scientists, or English professors share nearly identical opinions about almost everything?   

There’s no formulaic rehashing of well-known theologies in Mr. Mailer’s book. Instead he weaves all of his experiences together into an imaginative theological quilt that doesn’t whitewash the evil that men can do, nor does it hide doubts.  

Plastic, a tool of the Devil meant to turn our attentions away from solid, lasting things and toward a disposable mentality according to Mr. Mailer, makes its way into his theology.  So does bureaucracy: it can tie up the resources of heaven, giving the Devil a temporary advantage.  So too does the Enlightenment: a time that Mr. Mailer praises for the scientific advancements but condemns for the way it anointed reason the supreme king of our time.  

 

<i>An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump </i> by Joseph Wright

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright

 

Norman Mailer may be accused of many things, but I can’t imagine any sensible person would accuse him of having a faith that is fragmented and inconsistent with his life and his work.  People who do not bring all of themselves into the things they advocate tend to produce corporate results.  It’s what happens when a salesperson tries to sell you on something that he doesn’t value.  It’s why the work of an uncommitted dilettante artist is rarely compelling.  It’s not what Norman Mailer or any good writer does.    

When a religious leader advocates a principle that doesn’t mesh with how he lives his life, then corporate religion results.  That’s not the same thing as advocating an ideal that you yourself struggle to meet if the struggle to live up to an ideal is part of your theology.  Norman Mailer is no saint: he stabbed his second wife with a pen, perhaps with an intent to kill.  But in his theology he sees souls as an ever-shifting mix of good and evil, a percentage that can change based on the things we do, so his own life fits into that scheme.

In Mailer’s theology, there is something good even in a mostly vile soul, and there is a sliver of corruption and darkness even in a saint.  This kind of nuanced perception of things is more precise, but it involves extra effort to individualize, and that’s not something corporate people do.  

One of the boldest ideas in the book is Mr. Mailer’s claim that God is not all powerful or all good and that the ultimate triumph of good over evil is not a guaranteed thing.  How else to explain a Holocaust, he argues.  I disagree with that conclusion.  In my way of seeing things, the ability to love is possible only with an ability to choose what and who to love, and that love is such a defining quality of God and of goodness in general that God would cease to be fully good if He deprived us of our ability to make choices or to face the consequences of those choices.  

Still, I admire the sense of mystery that Norman Mailer promotes.  He doesn’t claim to have all the answers.  That’s what corporate people do.  Instead he encourages us to do our best moment by moment, listening to our hearts and to God’s promptings about the good we should do in the moment.  That’s advice I can wholeheartedly embrace, even though I don’t agree with everything he says.  Likewise, I don’t expect you to agree with everything I have to say.  Just listen to heart about the things that are true and the things that aren’t.  If you really want to know, you’ll know what’s right for the moment at hand, but be careful because it may not be what you want to hear.  

I can’t be entirely sure about this, of course, but I suspect that in the grand scheme of things, it’s much more important to do what’s right and good in the moment than to get the theology exactly right while ignoring the dictates of the moment.  How about you?  

Thanks for reading and God bless.

How to Avoid Being a Corporate Artist

(Normally, I aim to do updates every Saturday, but this is a subject that means a lot to me, and it took me a little longer to get things right, or as close to right as I could manage.  Sorry about that. The length is also a little longer, so you can get the main ideas from the words in bold if you prefer.)

A corporate artist is not an oxymoron. It’s what a creative-minded person can become when he or she pursues fame, money, or passing fads instead of the deepest things in his or her heart. That’s a tragic thing, but sadly it’s not an uncommon occurrence.

At its best, art inspires and enlightens.  It helps us understand each other, and it reveals the problems in our societies and the evil in ourselves.  A great piece of art encourages us to do and dream great things that are worthy of its company.   That’s why it makes me sad to see creative types become corporate artists who screw up the world in uniquely monstrous ways.

Plumbers do important work that requires training and specialized knowledge, but I’ve never a met a plumber who  puts his soul on display when fixing the sink.  (Perhaps there is such a plumber out there, and if he exists, I’d love to watch him work.)  In contrast, artists I admire, whether musicians, actors, writers, or painters, captivate me by putting at least a sliver of their souls into their work. It’s hard enough to show that part of yourself to the world, but it’s even harder to do when faced with potential rejection, criticism, and exploitation that comes with the territory.   If you think this is easy stuff, try going to work completely naked, and do your job while everyone else stays fully clothed.

"Ballet Class" by Edgar Degas

Ballet Class by Edgar Degas

I’m not trying to be provocative.  There is a point to the nudity.  It is not gratuitous, and so it meets my criteria for use here.  (I apply the same criteria when considering the merit of nudity in art.  It’s like Madeleine L’engle writes in her book Walking on Water, “A painting of a nude body can glorify the wonder of incarnation, or it can titillate and degrade.”  With that said, dear Hollywood friends, you don’t tend to err on the side of wondrous incarnation very often, so be careful.)

Anyway, I believe we were meant to live in harmony, with our hearts naked and exposed to each other. They were once naked in the Garden of Eden, were they not?   There was nothing to hide from each other, so Adam and Eve could be themselves without hiding behind lifeless, corporate facades.

Good artists do what they can to slowly nudge us back toward the harmonious state of being that was once found in the Garden. But it is hard to live with an open heart, whether professionally or just in general.  Try sharing that light long enough, and some vultures and villains are sure to notice it, and they’ll try to stomp it out or consume it for their own selfish ends.  There’s a real risk that these dark forces, whether outside or inside a person, will turn an artist corporate.

Take another look at the painting above.  Look at how lovely the ballerinas are, but the dark gentleman on the right isn’t very interested in their overall beauty.  He’s a little more preoccupied with a certain part of the ballerina’s body.  His compatriot in the picture doesn’t appear to be much more noble.  Note also the disturbing blotches of black that frame the dancers, trapping them in their confined space.  When these kinds of dark forces infect artists, they corrupt them and turn them into horrific variations of Britney Spears, who is perhaps the ultimate corporate artist.

Yes, Britney is a talented dancer, she looks hot, and she’s making a lot of people a lot of money, so what the hell is wrong with that, right?

I’ll tell you.  Instead of helping me better perceive truth and beauty, corporate artists like Britney Spears try to sell me on sex, popularity, and mass produced sounds and movements. I get a cheap thrill, but each time I indulge I’m trading against the possibility of future lasting happiness with a girl who has character, who doesn’t sell everything  to anyone who will make her famous.  You see, the more I listen to Britney Spears, the less convinced I am that there are still attractive girls with integrity out there.  That’s why I’ve stopped listening to Britney Spears.

It’s so easy for us in general and for artists in particular to do things just to validate our egos or to scratch a burning impulse or to overcompensate for insecurities. I’m just as guilty as anyone of that kind of thing.  When I treat a lady like she’s a mere source of physical gratification, I am taking away something from her that she could better enjoy with a man who truly loves her.  Maybe she’ll never get married, or maybe her future relationships won’t be as sweet because of the way I used her up.

Whatever the case may be, I’m ripping the social fabric, the unseen threads that keep our society cohesive, when I act only to satisfy myself.  With the wrong focus and the right circumstances, I too could become the ultimate corporate artist, but that’s not something I want to be.  Knowing that is half the battle.

I don’t want to come up with a list of dos and don’ts for art.  I’m just asking artists to stop making decisions just to make more money, build up street cred, or do anything for the sake of doing work.  Instead, dare to build a career by bringing the depths of your heart to light. I’m not arguing that every piece of art has to be full of eternal meaning.  There is a place for light romantic comedies, singable pop songs, well choreographed dance routines, scary films, and mystery books.  Still, all of these things can be presented using good taste within the context of a moral universe, or they can be built out of a narasistic, chaotic framework that is filled with pandering to the basest human instincts. William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Alfred Hitchcock could convey a moral universe even when exploring darkness.   Can you?

When you undertake whatever creative ventures you pursue, dare to stand for something.  Just because so many modern artists mistake vulgarity, cheap thrills, and chaos for artistic technique doesn’t mean you have to go along with that.

I don’t mind profanity when used with restraint to make a point, but if you use it in every other sentence, I start to suspect that you are compensating for a limited vocabulary.

Also, Grace Kelly never did a super-skank stripper movie for the sake of getting more exposure to new audiences, or for proving herself as an actress, or for whatever the preferred PR phrase is these days.  I think she still did OK for herself, don’t you?  She was attractive, but she maintained a sense of class, and that is much more alluring, much more sexy, than any of the shiny, transparent strings and sequins posing as clothes that the mass-produced Britney clones wear these days.

I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but you can’t be everything to everyone. A writer may get acclaim for writing both family dramas and perverse sex books, but to me he is no longer someone with enough integrity to avoid writing a reprehensible book.  He’s just a corporate climber, doing anything for more money, power, and fame just like everyone else, and that will make me less likely to buy his next book.

Again, I don’t object to depictions of vice in art as long as the depiction is not the gratitious, glamourized selling point of the production.   There are prostitutes, thieves, and murderers even in the Bible, but they don’t get the glamour girl treatment, now do they? Context and purpose behind depicted vice can make all the difference.

The folks who come in to see your self-loathing play or art exhibit probably won’t know that you’ve been trying to get a break for months and months, or that you were going through a difficult divorce when you wrote that ultra-violent misogynistic film.  All they know is that they worked hard all week, faced their own difficulties, and gave you some of their money and/or time so that they could be entertained, inspired,  enlightened, or engaged by what you have to offer.  Do you really want to be the one who demoralizes them, with a reprehensible role in a reprehensible production just because you were desperate to get whatever work you could get? Is that really what you want your legacy in this world to be?

I can’t tell you what you should and shouldn’t do with your art.   You have to listen to your own conscience for that kind of thing.  But don’t be so selfish and so corporate as to not take into account how your “art” will affect other people. If a plumber’s shoddy work caused physical injuries to others, we would ask him to make amends, or we’d put him out of business.  And yet if an artist’s work strains the social fabric by encouraging infidelity and violence against the innocent, while driving people away from their God-given sense of dignity and faith , we smile and talk about the bold artistic choices involved.   That’s nonsensical corporate talk, worse than the stuff that comes out of the most corporate of meetings.

I used the word “Being” in the title instead of “Becoming” or something altogether different, because you can stop being one thing as soon as start being something else.   Just like anyone can choose to become a corporate arist by thinking only about themselves and their money and fame, anyone, even Britney Spears can choose to start being a true artist who creates from the heart and does so out of love for others.

America was once a land that inspired others with the noble sentiments found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Now we send the world works of hateful bloodlust, porn designed as story, and vulgarity masquerading as art.  Let’s fight to change that.  If you’re an artist, then make meaningful stuff.  If you talk about art, don’t celebrate reprehensible stuff just because it’s popular. Together, we can make the world a less corporate, and a more beatiful, more harmonious place.

Why I’ll Write (This Blog)

The world is a very busy and hectic place with everyone rushing around trying to achieve things and pay the bills, while finding ways to feel good about life. Nothing wrong with those things when handled properly, but in the rush, the things that make life special and meaningful, things like sincerity, community, and love, can get lost in the shuffle.

I’m tired of seeing so many relationships in my life stay on a strictly corporate level, you know, the kind of interaction where you see someone again and again and you say the same Styrofoam-like phrases to each other. And, it’s so discouraging to see our world’s failures at meaningful interactions turn into compulsions to consume things, to self-medicate, and to self-destruct.

Going beyond that takes effort. It means being honest about things, facing uncomfortable truths and finding the courage to believe in and fight for things bigger than ourselves. I don’t know about you, but if I don’t make an extra effort, I will end up keeping to myself and fortifying my defenses, so that it will become even harder for anyone to hurt me again.

Sure it’s comforting to know that pain is less likely under certain conditions, but that’s a questionable benefit if it means keeping everyone at a safe distance from the real you. That’s an awful way to live, and that’s a big reason why I’m writing this blog: it’s my way to fight against that kind of thing in me and in the world we inhabit.

Yes, I’d like to see this blog lead to new business possibilities as well. Working with creative, authentic individuals and groups to design meaningful things is something I care a lot about, and it would be great if I found like-minded business partners because of this blog. But, if this blog just leads to more thoughtful discussion about how we can make our world less corporate and more magical, then this blog will have served its purpose.