Working with Meaning (Part 5)

(Please refer to the Intro of this essay series and the Parts 1 through 4 before reading Part 5.)

In my prior post, I referred to Csikszentmihalyi describing how many people feel “Sunday mornings are the lowest part of the week, because with no demands on attention, they are unable to decide what to do….For many, the lack of structure of those hours is devastating.”  

Years ago, I read Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and heard echoes of the same theme: 
The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”  Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 133). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  
Here Orlean is referring to John Laroche, an eccentric who has whittled his world down to collecting orchids. Her interest in him exceeds his desire to collect flowers, though. It's his desire in general that fascinates her.  Before orchids, Laroche collected turtles, fossils, 19th-century Dutch mirrors, tropical fish. When Laroche directs his passion so devotedly, so acutely, to something, he thinks of nothing else, yet when he stops, he never thinks of it again. Orlean writes: 
Years ago, between his Ice Age fossils and his old mirrors, he went through a tropical-fish phase. At its peak, he had more than sixty fish tanks in his house and went skin-diving regularly to collect fish. Then the end came. He didn’t gradually lose interest: he renounced fish and vowed he would never again collect them and, for that matter, he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was seventeen years ago. He has lived his whole life only a couple of feet west of the Atlantic, but he has not dipped a toe in it since then. Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (pp. 2-3). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
A few years ago, I heard an interview with Woody Allen describing how he never considers what critics say about his work because once he finishes a film, he immediately begins working on the next one. Allen’s legacy is certainly tainted with the various allegations that have come out about him, but, for what it's worth, you certainly can’t question his work ethic. As of 2018, IMDB has Allen directing 51 films which is nearly one a year since his first film in 1965. What struck me about the Allen interview is the odd sort of faith he has. I say "faith" because Allen’s films for the last twenty five years or so, with a few exceptions, have been unwatchable, yet, to Allen, it doesn’t seem to matter.  With each film, he shows up on the set each day, pushing
the proverbial rock back up the hill. Is faith what we actually admire in people with passion? The fact they just believe, blindly at times, that what they’re doing is significant and meaningful in spite of reason or criticism? Returning to Csikszentmihalyi’s passage about Sunday Mornings, Orlean's interest in passion comes into focus: 
Why is solitude such a negative experience? The bottom-line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic—Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.) (pp. 168-169). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
No doubt Allen’s passion for making films and Laroche’s passion for collecting orchids “whittles the world down to a manageable size." Most people consider such passion to be rooted in desire but what if faith actually is the seed that begets such energy? Most who feel stunted by not having a passion like Laroche or Allen, likely begin “collecting” or “making” something only to eventually stop because the pursuit seems illogical or futile. One initially feels interest or enthusiasm but for whatever reason, can’t sustain it. If faith actually is the seed though, then knowing something or feeling something should have very little to do with pursuing something passionately. One or both might begin the endeavor but faith transcends what one feels or knows. I’m sure Allen doesn’t always feel like going to the set or to the editing room, but he goes because he believes in it.  Laroche describes it this way: 
'It’s not really about collecting the thing itself,' Laroche went on. 'It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.' Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 344). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  
Orlean envies Laroche, and I suspect someone like Allen, because neither appear to struggle with Sunday mornings.


Webpage for Bing Liu's Minding the Gap 

Nike's: Skateboarding is Not a Crime commercial

The Document:
 Return to Rockford

Hollywood Reporter Roundtable: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Bing Liu, Rashida Jones

Bing Liu interviewed by Salon

Bing Liu on The Daily Show

A.O. Scott; New York Times

They grew up together in Rockford, Ill., three boys united by their love of skateboarding. At a certain point — around middle school, it seems — one of them, Bing Liu, began videotaping their exploits.
 A pleasure of Minding the Gap, his astonishing debut feature, is to observe how skating and filmmaking flow together. As the young men get stronger, bolder and more dexterous, Mr. Liu’s camera skills keep pace, and he captures the sense of risk, freedom and creativity that makes their pastime more than just a hobby. 
It’s not only the glue that binds them to one another through tough times but also a source of identity and meaning, a way of life and a life saver. “Minding the Gap” is more than a celebration of skateboarding as a sport and a subculture. With infinite sensitivity, Mr. Liu delves into some of the most painful and intimate details of his friends’ lives and his own, and then layers his observations into a rich, devastating essay on race, class and manhood in 21st-century America.
Daniel FienbergThe Hollywood Reporter:
Liu is in a unique position because he's become almost a priest hearing confessions, forcing him to ponder the line between dispassionate filmmaker and concerned friend, while also looking for the right opportunity to get his mother on camera for a talk they've never had about their unspoken family secrets.
Michael Phillips; Chicago Tribune:
Around the midpoint Liu turns to his own part of the story. He interviews his mother, born in China as was the director, drawing out her memories of Liu’s abusive stepfather. The director’s half-brother, Kent, appears briefly on camera as well, recalling the “unnerving screams of anguish” coming from his sibling’s room at night. 
Much of “Minding the Gap” is painful to witness, but as past and present intersect and recombine and Liu’s wealth of footage coalesces, the finished film becomes a cautiously hopeful and even cathartic experience. It’s fully responsive as cinema. Liu, who served as editor along with Josh Altman, deploys the lyric skateboarding interludes just often enough to keep everything flowing. Akin to Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, or Richard Linklater’s narrative feature “Boyhood,” at one point we see Zack hurtle through a few formative years in a lovely video montage. Life is beautiful, and cruel, and this film is a dialectic between the harshness and the beauty.
As most of the critics describe, Minding the Gap has a deep vein of violence that runs down the center of the film. What's more disturbing is that we see how such violence is perpetuated.  One of Liu’s friends, Zack, has a child with his girlfriend, Nina, when both are just teenagers and we witness the difficulties in their relationship. In a revealing scene, we see the boogieman face to face as Zack tries to explain when it's justifiable to hit a woman.  Until this scene, the abusive men were faceless and lost in the past, but here, we see exactly how the pattern of violence comes full circle and is passed down from one generation to the next. 

It should be noted that the film isn't just about violence. The tone and pace of the editing by Bing Liu and Joshua Altman is what sets this film apart.  In lessor hands, a film like this could come across pedantic or as a tool for self-pity, but we have something else here. The way Liu as a director approaches his friends reminds me of a scene in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. A character named Dignan is in the middle of a foiled crime with his best friends, and, as we hear the sirens in the distance, he tells them to run away and so the cops chase him instead. His friends are confused and not sure what to do when Dignan interjects, “They’ll never catch me. I’m fucking innocent.”  
It's a curious scene because Dignan isn't innocent of the crime but what Anderson seems to be implying is that Dignan is innocent in intent; innocent at heart.  

Bing Lui's approach in Minding the Gap has an innocence at heart which helps us look at the painful subject matter with both eyes open.  Liu seems more interested in just being present than making a grand statement.  There is something grand about the film, but like with the boys' skating, what occurs never seems premeditated but instead happens organically with balance and grace. 

Working with Meaning (Part 4)

In Parts 1-3, we discussed the three common denominators for reaching a state of Flow:
  1. A clearly defined goal as well as agreed upon rules and boundaries that dictate the terms of how this goal can be accomplished.
  2. Freedom for decision making and creativity within these set rules and boundaries.
  3. Immediate feedback for the incremental steps made toward achieving the goal and recognition when the defined goal has been accomplished.
In the previous posts, we were primarily discussing how these components related to work, but Csikszentmihalyi's ideas expands to even game theory. Of the three components, the second is the most nuanced and I would argue, often what makes one game more or less enjoyable than another.  In fact, the next time you’re playing a game and find yourself sort of bored, it’s likely from an inability to make creative decisions within the game's rules or boundaries. 

For participants and fans alike, professional sports display a nearly perfect execution of the these three components. Most of the major sports have not only rules in place but referees and umpires to enforce them, as well as instant replay to enforce this enforcement. The vast differences among players in style and skill illustrate the range of creativity and decision making allowed within the rules set into place. Immediate feedback is not only displayed on the scoreboard during each second of the game, channels like ESPN and sports radio provide recognition and commentary about each accomplishment. In addition, there are a myriad of awards presented each season, culminating with the most gifted players being inducted into a Hall of Fame.

Working with Meaning (Part 3)

In Part 2, we discussed the scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Brick is looking for an ever-elusive click "that turns the hot light off and the cool one on."  A few years ago, Wright Thompson wrote a great article titled “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building” that illustrates Jordan looking for this same click.  Why is it soothing to hear that in spite of his accomplishments Michael Jordan is still a restless, unhappy soul? Is this the sentiment Shakespeare's Richard II suggests when he says let's sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings? It's clear this is the appeal Thompson's article is trying to foster. He even uses some of Jordan’s material possessions as pointed metaphors: his cigar not staying lit, a lost championship ring, a missing pair of glasses.  It's an easy story to tell:  If I can't be like Mike, I want him to be like me. 

Obviously, work is how many turn the hot light off and the cool light on. Yet, why does some work provide meaning while other work offers only boredom or dread?  Similarly, how was the narrator's father in Shane able to feel "rest" while actually doing a grueling task? Is any of this related to what Jordan experienced as an athlete that he seemingly hasn't found as an executive? I think a possible answer to all these questions can be found within the work of Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has spent decades studying the phenomenon of FLOW which he describes as a sort of hypnosis where all sense of self, time, and place drift away and only a singular focus on the task at hand remains. For Flow to occur, some fundamental components have to be in place. For one, a person's skill has to be in proportion to the difficulty of the task being performed, and as one's skill increases, so must the challenge.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow can be achieved within a wide variety of activities- athletes, musicians, artists, even a mother piecing together a puzzle with her child can all experience it. Within each scenario though, there are always 3 common denominators:

Working with Meaning (Part 2)

In Part 1, I quoted a passage from an essay by John T. Price suggesting work in and of itself is redemptive. I hear echoes of Price's essay in this passage from Jack Schaefer's western novel Shane when the father of the narrator is laboring with the title character, Shane, to uproot an enormous tree trunk:
What impressed you as Shane found what he was up against and settled to it was the easy way the power in him poured smoothly into each stroke. The man and the axe seemed to be partners in the work. The blade would sink into the parallel grooves almost as if it knew itself what to do and the chips from between would come out in firm and thin little blocks.  
[My father] picked a root on the opposite side from Shane. He was not angry the way he usually was when he confronted one of those roots. There was a kind of serene and contented look on his face.   Shaefer, Jack. Shane. (pp. 25-26). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
When the boy's mother, Marian, comes to see what they are doing, she is surprised because initially her husband intended to take the day off and rest.  Not sure what to make of the behemoth task her husband and Shane are attempting, Marian says: 
'Humph... [t]his is a funny kind of resting you're doing today.'  
The boy's father puts the axe on the ground, leans on the handle, and responds, 'Maybe it seems funny... [b]ut this is the best resting I've had for about as long as I can remember.'
Of the entire passage, I find these sentences to be the most interesting. Shaefer is working with a paradox here- not only illustrating the physical strain required to accomplish their task, but suggesting one can simultaneously feel "rested" within and during the task. 

Working with Meaning (Part 1)

There's a great scene in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL says “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”  The fact that HAL is a computer is disconcerting enough but even more unsettling is how it nudges the viewer, who is in fact a conscious entity, to ponder am I putting myself to the fullest possible use? 

Occasionally, I'll hear the phrase What's the meaning of life? spoken in a casual conversation. I say "phrase" and not question because it's usually said more as a punchline than an honest inquiry.

The meaning of life is at the core of HAL’s quote.  He (it) has found it: I am putting myself to the fullest possible use. Of course, the word "use" here does seem subjective. If HAL were a philosophy professor, I doubt he would tell his students that his reference point for usefulness was, in an a priori sense, THE reference point. HAL seems content because he has found his own fullest possible use.

Working with Meaning (Introduction)

When my niece and nephew graduated from high school, I saw each struggling with the same question- "What now?"

I was reminded of the predicament you’re in when you’re 18 and start fumbling around with answers to this quandary. On one hand, you want a career that provides financial security, yet you also want to pursue something that offers a sense of meaning and purpose. Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that pursuing one often leads in a different, sometimes opposite, direction from the other. So… What's one to do?

To try and answer the question, I have begun writing a series of essays that I’ll be posting here titled WORKING WITH MEANING. When I finish, I will shape them into a documentary that will include interviews with individuals who’ve cracked the code so to speak and are getting financially compensated to do meaningful work they enjoy along with interviews from scholars who have spent their professional lives researching and writing about this very topic. If you're interested in this idea, subscribe to my blog in the right column and you will get an email every time I post something new. Hope you enjoy!

Critically Speaking

Recently, I watched Life Itself, a documentary about film critic Roger Ebert directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and was reminded of just how counter Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were to the public's perception of a critic's role. Most see a critic as someone who can’t be a musician or a filmmaker or a writer and has to resort, often bitterly, to critiquing those who are.  What better representation do we have than Salieri in Milos Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus
All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing... and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?

Metaphorically Speaking

If you go online and look up “Bad Metaphors or Similes,” here are a few examples you’re likely to find:

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

What makes these so comically terrible? For one, they each violate the blueprint of a good joke: recognizable set up, a moment of tension, then a hard right turn.  With the examples above, the turn, rather than being poetic or descriptive, is blunt and obvious- a U-Turn.
I realize that being a former English teacher makes me part of the home team so to speak, but it's difficult for me to imagine understanding anything complex or abstract without having a coinciding metaphor to illustrate it. I would even go one step further and say that metaphors can become a part of our personal stories, and that like personal stories, they become our "compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice." Solnit, Rebecca (2013-06-13). The Faraway Nearby (p. 3). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

Leonard Cohen, briefly.

When Leonard Cohen passed away, I rewatched Lian Lunson's I'm Your Man, the 2005 documentary about Cohen and his career. It's is a concert video of sorts with clips of other singers covering Cohen's songs. Interspersed throughout concert footage are interviews by the singers as well as interviews with Cohen himself.
I've included quotes from my 4 favorite scenes:

“If it is your destiny to be this laborer called a writer, you know you’ve got to go to work everyday, but you also know that you’re not going to get it everyday. You have to be prepared, but you really don’t command the Enterprise.”

"Is this the true burden of being a writer? Being a part of a craft that among other things, demands a strange faith? There is no goal line, no clock, no score? Being a writer demands faith. It's true, you're not commanding the Enterprise, but you're still on board as it hurls through space. You have to trust that you are going in the right direction and that you will get to where you're going, when you need to get there."

“Sometimes when you no longer see yourself as the hero of your own drama, expecting victory after victory, then you understand that this is not paradise. Somehow we embrace the notion that this veil of tears is meant to be perfection that you have to get it all straight. I’ve found that everything became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win.”

"After my father died when I was nine, I took one of his bowties and slit it open. I put a little message in it and I buried it in the backyard in the garden. I had no other way of connecting with the event that was so mysterious, and curiously, not devastating. It seemed to be alright that my father died. It seemed that he died and it was in the realm of things that couldn’t be disputed or rejected or even judged. And so, my writing, and I don’t remember what it was, perhaps just some kind of prayer to speed him along in whatever realm he was traveling."