December 28, 2005

What Price Creativity?

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 2:39 pm

Sometimes I drive myself crazy with the need to be creative. I value original thought and creative expression so highly that the compulsion to honor these impulses often tromps practicality, pragmatism and rationality to the point of certifiable insanity.

A recent and arguably most insane example began last May when I was stripping grass paper from a hallway off our entry. The hallway housed a large, 50-year-old door chime, covered in matching grass paper to “conceal it.” The chime offended my aesthetic sensibilities and I took it down, intending to easily replace it on a trip to Home Depot.

Wrong. Everything at Home Depot that didn’t look ugly, sounded ugly. I turned to the Internet.

I Googled “doorbells” and hundreds of sites came up. Looking at the vast array of door chimes, it dawned on me that this could be an opportunity put a personal stamp on the experience of entering our home. I wanted to find a chime that could greet visitors with the strains of my favorite music programmed into it. This door chime is located in a public area so it also had to look as good as it sounded.

I found a company called Doorbell Expressions that made an oak unit with a faceplate that could be custom engraved with any design. The guts of the unit was a tiny computer that recorded 12 seconds of music. I placed my order. The custom faceplate would have the Comedy/Tragedy theater masks logo, our unofficial family crest.

It took two months for our new door chime to arrive. For eight weeks straight my mom asked me if our doorbell was working yet. When the chime finally arrived, it looked great but we quickly discovered the little unit couldn’t handle the rich range of frequencies produced by an orchestra. What we got was more static noise than music. Then we remembered the single-instrument introductions of the characters in “Peter and the Wolf. The mellow clarinet of the cat theme recorded beautifully. We hung the doorchime, pushed the bell and nothing happened. We re-wired and tried again. Nothing.

Rich at Doorbell Expressions conferred with his doorchime engineer and they hypothesized that our 50-year-old, two-wire system was incompatible with their unit. But they did not give up. After two weeks, the engineer sent drawings of a way to re-wire the unit without tearing into our walls. It worked — for four days. Then the music started playing uncontrollably by itself. I unhooked it from the wires, but that darn cat theme looped itself into eternity. I had to kill it to make it stop.

Rich told me to send the doorchime to Jim in Iowa, whose company made the unit. I sent the chime off and waited for two months. They eventually found a software glitch and repaired it. I got the chime back in a box postmarked Kansas City, Missouri. This was a well-traveled door chime.

Impatient to wait for a break in my husband’s schedule to help me record the cat theme sound bite, I decided to play the notes myself on the piano. After all, I took 10 years of piano lessons and it was time I put them to good use. It worked — for four days. Once again, I had to kill it. I was frustrated, angry and even shed a few tears. I chanted, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” I blamed the old house wiring. I blamed the new computer technology. I blamed Rich and Jim.

Jim graciously repaired the unit one more time. Upon its return, it worked for four days. Jim said he’d replace the unit with a new one, which he sent promptly. It lasted for 13 days, but only after my husband replaced our doorbell, thinking that might be the problem.

With a heavy heart, we returned the doorchime to Rich and Jim, but kept the faceplate as a souvenir. Google helped me find another programmable unit that isn’t outwardly artistic but sounds nice. Our current doorchime transformer isn’t powerful enough to get a whole tune out with one push of the button, but that’s easily fixable. The unit made a clunky debut over the holidays when the transformer could only manage to power two notes of a song with each push of the doorbell as the relatives came over for a visit. But those two notes made people smile, although I don’t know if they were amused, bemused or confused.

Was it worth all the time, extra expense and frustration just to have a few seconds of personalized music? As soon as they let me out of my padded cell, I’ll let you know.

September 14, 2005

Drinking In the Artistic Spirits of New Orleans

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:36 pm

By the time you read this, it will be almost four weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I have been hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of reminiscences about New Orleans. Part of that is due to the statistical probability that with all the New Orleans press, someone else must have already said what I have to say about New Orleans as an exemplar for celebrating the arts in everyday living. Remarkably, I haven’t seen that perspective voiced yet.

I also feel somewhat guilty giving New Orleans one more warm fuzzy memory piece as if the lives and culture in that one city are more important than anyone or anything in Mississippi. Coverage has been lopsided, I feel, with less ink and airtime going to the Mississippi devastation and aftermath. But I have never been to Mississippi, and I have been to New Orleans and New Orleans happens to be a place I can’t forget.

My one and only visit was two years ago. I was prejudiced against the city going in, with its famed Mardi Gras celebrations, 24-hour bars and the laissez-les-bons-temps-rouler attitude. I’m not a big drinker or partier and you would never catch me in the Crescent City during Mardi Gras. It seemed like my personality and the city’s were diametrically opposed. And as it turned out, during my visit I never went into a bar and I was in bed by 11 p.m. every night just as the city was waking up.

But New Orleans by day surprised me and I felt incredibly at home, as if I had visited many times before, if only in my imaginings about an utopia for the arts. In the daytime, when the streets were relatively empty of people and the noise from the bars and neighborhood hangouts was silenced, the true heartbeat of the city pumped loud and clear. New Orleans was undeniably a city that celebrated the arts and artistic expression in the small, everyday moments of life.

Distant strains of music played constantly. If it wasn’t a lone instrument several blocks away, it was a person singing as they passed on the street. I saw high-end art and street art, local art and imported art everywhere. I saw people dressed with an individualistic flair that most of us don’t have the guts to even imagine. Performing artists on street had genuine talent rightly commanding the attention they garnered.

I liken the artistic approach to life by New Orleanians to my experience with their food. Whether I was eating in an inexpensive eatery or the grandest of fine restaurants, every bite was exquisite. I can still taste several delectable dishes from my stay. That’s also how I felt about the visual and performing arts I experienced in New Orleans. From the lowest rung of the arts echelon to the highest, every sampling was exquisite.

I don’t have a romanticized view of New Orleans. We did not stay in the best part of town. Our rental van was stolen and trashed our first night in town, including my son’s car seat. A discourteous streetcar driver did not give me (seven months pregnant at the time), my two-year-old son and my husband enough time to get off at our stop, abruptly closing the door in our faces just as we reached the last stair. When we asked for directions at the next stop to get back to our intended destination, she slammed the door in our faces again and drove away. And the all-time rudest exchange I have ever had with another human being was with a restaurant bathroom attendant in New Orleans.

Still, the so-called Great Cities of the World that I have visited didn’t have the visceral impact on me that New Orleans did. Two years later, my memories are as fresh as if they were just made, and they pop into my head on regular occasion. Paris, New York, London and Rome are fabulous cities, but they didn’t nestle their way into my heart.
As a Bay Area native, I’ve always felt we have a lot going for us where the arts are concerned. The general community is supportive of the arts. San Francisco and Berkeley provide a wonderful stage for artists to take risks and push the boundaries of their genres. But I would call the overriding nature of the Bay Area arts scene to be rather refined and highly intellectualized. In contrast, the day-to-day arts environment in New Orleans felt raw, and was as easy and natural as breathing. Nothing else could have been more intoxicating for me.

July 18, 2005

Falling Off the Pop Culture Bandwagon

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:42 pm

The parent of one of my son’s friends recently moved here from out-of-state. Upon learning that I was a Bay Area native, she asked me, “How do listen to new music around here? All of your radio stations play oldies.”

I opened my mouth simultaneously planning to get defensive and offer her the call letters of a station or two that would meet her needs. But I ended up saying nothing. The truth was, I didn’t know a radio station to recommend and I didn’t have enough evidence to be defensive. There could very well be someone playing new music but they are not programmed in to my memory buttons on the car radio. For the most part, I am out of touch with current popular music.

This realization took me by surprise. I know I have young children and “Sesame Street’s Greatest Hits” is the Top 40 play list in my house. But those few moments I’m in the car by myself, I thought I was listening to enough different stations to keep up with the music scene. My true realization was that although the stations I listen to sprinkle in a new song every once and a while, I usually turn the channel to see if one of the other stations is playing a song that I know. I have become my mother.

Flashback: Fourth Grade. I am just beginning to key into popular music. Within the past year I have bought my first record albums, an eclectic mix of Dolly Parton, Styx, Rick Springfield, Blondie and Danny Kaye sings Hans Christian Andersen. My mom listens to the radio while she sews in another room. She is listening to music from “her era.” It does not appeal to me. I analyze why she does not listen to contemporary popular music and run my theory by her. I hypothesize that she used to be hip and happenin’ and then for some reason, at some point in her life, she turned off the radio for an extended length of time. When she turned it back on one day, she didn’t like what she heard. Mom agrees that this theory was probably valid. I vow never to let that happen to me.

And now it has. As I think about it, music is the least worrisome indicator for me of how my radar for the popular arts scene has been shut off. Other artistic outlets for me, which I used to find very important no longer, exist in my daily life.

I don’t watch any broadcast television. I do read the newspaper, so I know about hugely successful shows like “Desperate Housewives” or “The Sopranos,” but I have never seen them. I don’t even have a desire to see them.

I don’t read any bestsellers, save for “Harry Potter.”

I rarely go to movies because there is hardly anything that compels me to go to the trouble of setting up a babysitter and saying goodbye to my hard-earned money in order to see a movie that has more than a 50% chance of wasting my time. I used to be selective in my movie viewing, but also very experimental and willing to take risks. Now I go for the sure-bet only.

I have continued to keep in touch with the theater world, but even there I have switched focus. I used to have a cursory knowledge of what American theater was up to but I put energy into keeping up with what was happening in the British theater which I found more exciting. I had a chance last week to look at a London theater guide and discovered that my global interest in theater has yielded to domestic offerings.

I guess this is the artistic manifestation of the maturation process. I know I can tell you a lot more about the Contra Costa and San Francisco visual and performing arts scenes than I could 15 years ago. I have read some darn good books, even if there is no I can talk to about them because no one else has read them. My bent toward edutainment on television is more than satisfied by the myriad cable channels producing informative and captivating programming. Quite frankly, I don’t miss the movies. If I see only one movie a year, and it is a movie like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, then that one movie can hold me for months. Especially with the advent of DVDs.

People tell me I’ll get back to pop culture once my kids stop watching Barney and start keying into what their peers do. I’ll be curious to see what happens to me then. I don’t want to be clueless about the pop culture they find nurturing, but I have to realize that keeping up with the times may be more of an intellectual exercise for my brain while my heart seeks more compelling avenues. This could get very interesting.

October 11, 2004

Completing my Senior Thesis 10 Years After Graduation

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 2:27 pm

My 10-year college reunion is this weekend, and in honor of the occasion, I have finally finished my senior thesis for my Bachelor of Arts degree in history and communication. As far as my college knows, I turned the thesis in 10 years ago, got an “A” and my degree, but I think my professor was mostly rewarding the fact that I could skillfully use all the b.s. smoke and mirrors available to me in writing an academic research paper on an esoteric subject, which she, an expert in 18th-century England, had never dreamed of tackling.

I wrote my paper about the 18th-century British stage actors who have the historical distinction of the being the first generation of thespians in England to be considered “stars” and not low-life professionals one-step-up from prostitutes in their career pursuits. I queried, “Why did actors suddenly become ‘stars?’”

Ten years ago, I turned my thesis in with a bogus, unfulfilling conclusion. Over 41 pages, I expound on the fact that there was a confluence of good P.R. and marketing factors in 18th-century England to lift those in the acting profession to stardom and socially acceptable celebrity. It was a time when printing and mass media put theater reviews, gossip and collectible images into the hands of the theater patrons from the middle and upper classes. The monarchy supported the arts and passed Acts to legitimize theater. And a talented and popular actor named David Garrick lived an enviable artistic life full of perceived virtue with a stellar Puritan work ethic making him as worthy of positive attention as the local bishop. I only fell asleep twice when re-reading my paper to prepare for this column.

The paper I turned in for a grade needed to have primary sources to back it up. I found fantastic primary sources about the concrete reasons actors might have become “stars.” However, the research paper I really wanted to write had to do with ineffable emotional connections between artists and audience and the innate human need to live an artful life directly or by proxy. It’s the same thesis I hammer bi-monthly in this column. Perhaps if I had access to hundreds of diaries of 18th-century theatergoers, I could have written the paper I really wanted. But my university archive didn’t have those, and so the paper had to change a little in order for me to finish by the end of the quarter.

Ten-years later, with a little perspective, I realize that my dissatisfaction with my research is underscored by the title I chose, “Living in a World of Make-Believe: The Implications of Actresses on the Public Stage in Eighteenth Century England.” It’s a pretty heady title, but not at all what I actually wrote about. I was obviously confused then, and that confusion has plagued me since.

Through this column, I believe I have finally found a self-satisfying answer to my research question. Actors with a cult of personality feed the human desire to feast on the arts in everyday life. Actors became “stars” in 18th-century England because for the first time, through the use of mass media, they were able to touch large numbers of people with their art. Even if someone couldn’t always go to the theater, they could follow the art through the newspaper, or the local trinket manufacturer selling mass-produced portraits or sculptures. The ephemeral art of stage acting became a part of our daily celebration of the arts during 18th-century England.

I can’t substantiate my new conclusion with primary sources and speculation from world-class scholars, but it feels right to me. Art is mostly about feelings, anyway. Cue the “Pomp and Circumstance.”

September 12, 2004

Preschooler Bids an Artistic Farewell

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:11 pm

Every kid has to endure at least one topic that his or her parent gets really heated over — a topic that causes great embarrassment to the child, the parent, all the family’s ancestors and every generation yet to come. For my kids, I suspect that topic is going to be the arts.

When the arts come up in conversation, a news article, from someone’s personal testimonial, or when I am simply touched through an artistic experience, it is not uncommon for me to cry, shriek, laugh loudly, jump up and down, get angry, whoop — whatever response is appropriate for the ultra-positive or ultra-negative nature of the moment. I can already envision my kids rolling their eyes, slinking out of the room and denying that they ever knew me.

Right now, however, my daughter is 18 months and my son is almost four. They get just as excited, if not more so, when the arts touch their lives. And no one is a harsher critic than a preschooler who doesn’t like a particular song, movie, story or painting. Young children seem to have an almost primal relationship with the arts, creating it and receiving it as a pure, unadulterated communication between human beings.

And even at their young ages, my kids have learned that they can make the most profound connection with their mom not through words, not through a hug, but through the arts.

The day after Labor Day was the first day of preschool for my son, Tyrian. It was a big day, but not the huge deal it might have been since Tyrian had participated in a summer program at the school he would be attending this fall. I wasn’t nervous about it, and Tyrian happily got up, got dressed, ate breakfast, grabbed his backpack and announced it was time to go.

When we arrived at school, the door wasn’t open yet and only one other mom and her daughter had arrived. That mom told me she had spent the entire weekend with her tummy in knots. I was grateful that I had been able to relax during my holiday weekend.

As kids started arriving, some were accompanied by both parents and grandparents. There was an excited buzz from most of the crowd. I hadn’t even thought to ask my husband if he wanted to come, or to invite the grandparents to be part of the entourage.

The teacher opened the door and the kids rushed to their cubbies to hang up their bags. Cameras were flashing as tots picked their first activity and dived right in. With the summer program under our belts, this was so old hat that I hadn’t even considered bringing a camera.

One or two moms started weeping a little when it was time to say goodbye. I can cry with the best of ‘em, but on this day, I was caught up in the fun and wonder of the bright and cheerful classroom.
Tyrian sat down at the art table, grabbed some colored pens and began drawing. He seemed settled to me, so I went over to kiss him goodbye.

“No, don’t leave yet,” he told me.

My stomach clenched. I thought, “Oh no, he’s more nervous than I thought.” In a millisecond I envisioned an ugly goodbye scene.

But Tyrian shoved the picture he was working on out of the way, got himself three fresh pieces of paper and whipped off three drawings. He gave them to me saying one was for me, one was for Daddy and one was for his sister. Having given me a bit of himself to tide me over until we were reunited in three hours, he off to play.

So it was I, the cucumber-cool Mommy, who went home weeping.

July 1, 2004

Loss of Imagination’s Innocence

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:22 pm

My first-born was barely a few days old when someone remarked, “Wouldn’t it be great to be a baby? All you have to do is eat and sleep.” Although I was only a new mom, there was nothing I had observed in my tike’s daily life that made me think he had it so good. The only way he could communicate with the buffoon adults in his life was to cry, and nothing that I take for granted, like muscle control and bodily functions, was easy for him. But that first person wasn’t the only one to make the comment, and every now and again I run into an adult who wistfully gazes upon my children and sighs about how great it is to be young and carefree.

I find this attitude intriguing, and I don’t subscribe to it in any way. Kids have a lot of things they have to sort out in their day-to-day lives to give them the library of experience that once again, I take for granted as an adult. They may not have to worry about paying the bills, but they do have to navigate hairy situations like sharing their favorite truck with other youngsters at the playground. Now that’s stressful. I had a good childhood and a fairly smooth adolescence but there is nothing in the world that would make me go back to any other age than I am right now.

Well, maybe one thing.

In my adulthood, my imagination has lost its innocence and I really want it back. This realization became clear to me just last week when I was confronted with the first example of life experience ruining a perfectly good childhood memory.

My kids discovered the wonders of the DVD version of “Free to Be…You and Me” and started playing it repeatedly. At first, this made my heart soar. As a true child of the ’70s, I loved Marlo Thomas’ reinvention of storytelling stereotypes, and the record played continuously in our house during my formative years. I still know every song and story by heart, and they still make me want to dance and sing.

By I had a rude awakening when my 32-year-old brain accessed its bank of knowledge while watching the DVD version. When I was a kid, I didn’t know Alan Alda, Mel Brooks, Harry Belafonte and Michael Jackson were supplying some of the talent. But now when I listen to their voices, I’m continually thinking, “Hey, that’s Mel Brooks.” Or I’m envisioning the familiar body language of Alan Alda. Or the irony of Michael Jackson singing, “We don’t have to change at all” in a song about accepting yourself and others for the way they look.

And as an adult, I may be able to appreciate the multiple levels of meaning imparted by casting Rosey Grier to sing “It’s All Right to Cry,” but that song was already pretty deep for me, so I don’t necessarily embrace the enlightenment.

The loss of my imagination’s innocence is an unwelcome visitor, showing up when I least expect it. Another recent example is when I watched “Finding Nemo,” which I think is a wonderful film. But I will always see the lead fish not as Marlin and Dory but as Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. Both actors are superb in their voicework for the film, but I am unable to completely let go of their real identities and travel under the sea with them in suspension of disbelief. I envy my kids who are getting the full thrill of the movie by knowing the characters only within the context of the story. Enjoy it while it lasts, kids!

June 18, 2004

Journey of a Reformed Arts Snob

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:02 pm

I’m a performing arts snob. People who perform dance or music or acting in a formal theatrical setting with a designated stage carry more weight with me than street performers, folks dressed up in animal suits at Disneyland, mariachis or magicians. Puppeteers barely make the cut, existing on the fringes of “legitimate theater” along with ice shows. I’m not saying this arbitrary hierarchy is appropriate, but it is a construct in my head that has been bolstered by the fact that I haven’t ever found myself connecting with performers outside the four walls of a building that has the words “theater” or “amphitheater” in its name. A lot of people do connect with the performers I’ve mentioned. And it’s not to say that I haven’t stopped and admired the talent of someone performing outside the conventions of my mind, but I haven’t gotten chills or cried or laughed due to their talents.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey-style circus is on the top of my cringe list. I think it’s because of the clowns — if a show has clowns, it can’t possibly be high art (please, no letters about Commedia del’Arte. I haven’t rationalized that yet). The animal acts don’t help any.

Last summer, my son, Tyrian, went to the circus with his grandparents and ten months later, it still comes up regularly in conversation. He was two-and-a-half at the time and everything about the show tickled his fancy. He chatters on about the animals and the ringmaster and the acrobats and the dancers and the music and yes, the clowns. He still pores over the over-sized 70-page souvenir program narrating the highlights of the show and asking if he can go see it again. Since he is comprised of no less than 50 percent of my DNA, this reaction astounds me. Definitely a triumph of nurture over nature.

Since Tyrian is now three-and-a-half, his father and I decided it was time to take him to his first big-time musical, “The Lion King.” I was certain that if he liked real elephants, he would surely love people dressed up as elephants.

I may be the first to go on record saying that “The Lion King” is not a great show. I agree with the rest of the world that director Julie Taymor’s theatrical interpretation of the movie is brilliant, but the story itself is quite boring, and the show suffers from a slow downhill slide beginning right after the invigorating opener, “Circle of Life,” hits its last note. Tyrian loved the opening number, and he clapped enthusiastically throughout the show after all the fast songs. He wiggled through the slow songs. When the show ended, he seemed more excited about going home on BART than the spectacle he had just experienced. Before leaving the theater, his dad forked over $10 to the souvenir program seller because I wanted to give Tyrian every opportunity to relive the theatrical event.

In the past two months, Tyrian has never cracked the spine on that program. He’ll politely answer “yes” when adults ask him whether he liked the show, but he has only spontaneously mentioned it once to me while we were passing a BART train on the freeway.

The circus, however, continues to come up. So I took a moment to read about the circus performers who so profoundly sparked my son’s imagination. They are dancers, singers, performers and athletes whose bios read very similarly to the credits of “The Lion King” cast. They have triumphed over “the legitimate theater” by touching the heart of my open-minded son, and giving his mom a lesson in what it means to be a performing artist.

May 8, 2004

Meet My New Friend, Duncan Phillips

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:06 pm

I have never had an answer for the hypothetical question, if you could invite any three people from any period of history to a dinner party, who would they be? Then I saw “Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips” on PBS and now I know that at least one of the seats right next to me at the table would be saved for my new best friend Duncan.

There is a lot about Duncan Phillips that makes us soul mates. From the early 1920s until the mid-1960s, Phillips was a critic, collector and patron of the arts, and particularly a champion of modern art in America. He opened his Washington D.C. home to the public as the first museum devoted to modern art in the United States.

Although our artistic tastes are disparate, the core belief system to which Phillips committed his life makes me a great admirer. He believed art had the power to comfort, transform and redeem an imperfect world. He believed all works of art had this power, whether they came from major or minor sources, from a composer’s pen or a painter’s brush. He exhibited the art on his walls in a viewer-friendly manner, inviting people to sit in a comfortable chair and commune with the artist.

As I learned about Phillips in the documentary, and then continued my research about him on the Internet, I was continually whispering “yes, yes, yes.” But one of his tenets particularly struck me. He always bought local art because he thought it was an important marker of time and place.

Bells went off in my head as Phillips’ notion introduced me to this new approach to forging a relationship with art, no matter what a person’s personal definition of art may be. Seeing art as a marker of time and place appeals to both the history buff in me, and to the way I view everything in the world as potential fodder for a scrapbook. It is not, however, a concept that I have had in my conscious mind, although subconsciously is has been part of my modus operandi.

We already have a strict dictum in our house that nothing goes on the walls that doesn’t have meaning. And we call everything on the walls “art,” even though we may be the only ones calling it that. We find these objects to be beautiful, but more importantly, they are markers of time and place for us, and the people and experiences that go with those markers. We are surrounded by the scrapbook of our lives, we are enveloped by physical manifestations of our own personal history everyday. This explains why I have trouble taking down the small watercolor from San Juan, Puerto Rico, that we were given for our wedding by a friend. We have never been to Puerto Pico, but our friend grew up there and so while we are cohabiting with that watercolor, we are actually living our daily lives with our friend.

It makes so much sense now. When kids are growing up, the walls of their rooms are often the first place they post indicators of current passions – rock stars, movies, school events, photographs of friends. Siblings who share a room often bicker when their personal markers clash in the combined space. The artful reflection of ourselves on the walls makes a very powerful statement.

We may not all have Phillip’s eye or inclination for filling our homes with universally accepted works of art, but we are all founders of the (Your Name Here) Museum when we open our doors to the public.

February 29, 2004

Solace for Teen Angst Found in Musical Theater

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:18 pm

Crowning the walls of the chorus room at Acalanes High School are student-designed plaques commemorating the annual musicals produced by the department. Decades of choral classes comprised of hundreds of talented and creative individuals are represented by those plaques. With only a few exceptions, there is a repetition of Broadway titles that have become high school production staples over the last 50 years. A lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics are on that wall, and “Guys and Dolls” pops up every few years.

I was a student in that choral department from 1986-1990. “Les Misérables” was the hottest show in London and on Broadway at that time, and for me, a musical theater lover, the world was forever changed. The completely sung libretto, the romance, the violence, the emotional extremes all entranced me and the original cast recording became my constant audio companion.

I used to stand in the Acalanes chorus room and wish we could do “Les Misérables.” At the same time, it saddened me to think that someday my beloved “Les Miz” would reach the point in every big show’s life when it becomes fodder for high school students to learn the art of stage production. I would look at one of the “Oklahoma” plaques and try to imagine what that mighty show must have been like in its heyday before it became a high school musical. Then I would cheer myself up by rationalizing that “Les Miz” was far too technically difficult and too long to ever become a high school musical. Besides, if it did become a high school musical, it wouldn’t be for a long, long time.

I hadn’t thought about any of this for 14 years, and then I heard Campolindo High School was doing “Les Misérables: School Edition” as their musical this year. I couldn’t believe the time had come for teenagers to take over the story for a show that has become a Broadway legend. It was a rude awakening to realize that time had moved on and the “Les Miz” of my youth no longer existed.

I also realized that I hadn’t given “Les Miz” a lot of thought for a long time. I saw “Les Miz” 10 times over a 10 year period, and then just stopped having the need to go anymore. What changed? I thought of a comment John Lithgow once made on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” saying that he thinks people take from the theater what they need at any given time. I completely agree with him. When I saw “Rent,” I wept for the disillusioned bohemians because I was one year out of film school and had chosen to get a real job rather than eat rice and beans in a rundown apartment in Los Angeles. Part of me envied my friends in L.A. who were still collecting rice and bean recipes, while the other part realized that I wasn’t cut out to suffer that much for my art. “Rent” was cathartic for me at that time.

I saw “Ragtime” when I was a month away from giving birth to my son. When the character of Colehouse Walker, Jr. sang, “I see his face/I hear his heartbeat/I look in those eyes/how wise they seem./ And when he is old enough I will show him America/And he will ride on the wheels of a dream,” I became a sobbing puddle on the floor of the theater. That sentiment suddenly meant much more to me than when I had seen the show for the first time three years earlier.

I have realized that “Les Miz” was my pop outlet for teen angst, providing the same function James Dean or The Doors had for previous generations. While my peers were sharing their growing pains with The Cure or Depeche Mode, I connected with a 19th century novel about revolutionary France set to music. Now, I find it wonderfully poignant that a show which served such a need in my teens and early 20s is in the hands of teenage artists. Fate is such a clever dramatist!

October 28, 2003

Take a Deep Breath and Refresh Through Art

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 3:56 pm

I was having one of those days and it was only 10 a.m. I had gone to bed very late the night before. I awakened with a knot in my stomach due to several personal and global situations that were out of my control but I still felt the need to worry about them. Then I had to call three people and talk to them about three completely unrelated topics, however all were guilty of the same crime — tardiness in finishing something I had expected them to do by a certain date.

Since infants are stress sponges, my baby daughter was having trouble settling down for her nap. The constantly ringing phone didn’t help. And although the morning chores had to be delayed due to unforeseen circumstances, I still let it get to me.

Then my plan for the big morning project, washing the car, was thwarted. My toddler, Tyrian, had been eagerly anticipating soap suds and garden hose spray nozzles for two days and I was going to use car washing as a sneaky way to exhaust him before his nap. But Daddy needed the car for work. Goliath’s tummy couldn’t hold the supersized knot I now carried, and I felt a headache coming on. In theory, I would love to stop sweating the small stuff, but my adrenal glands are afraid they’d be out of work if I did.

I finally got the baby down and asked my son if he wanted to paint. He always wants to paint, so it was an easy sell. Usually when we do art projects, I have a hidden agenda. Tyrian has complete creative control, but in the back of my mind I know that Great-Grandma hasn’t gotten a care package from us in a while, or our walls need a colorful addition to the decorating. This time, I was just going to relax and watch him play and let the art dealer in me have a day off.

Then he came up with a great idea. He smeared finger paints on big pieces of paper, and then pressed pristine white smaller sheets on top. He had stumbled upon a primitive printing process. And it was beautiful! What great note cards this would make! Making note cards had been on my to-do list for several weeks. I rushed inside, grabbed some plain notepaper and starting folding it in half to fit our envelopes. So much for relaxing.

My brother recently brought to my attention the fact that I am a workaholic. He said that even thought I don’t get paid for all the projects and hobbies I take on, I set tight deadlines for myself, lose sleep and become preoccupied with a task until it is finished. He reminded me of a voluntary book report I wrote for no one other than myself on Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember” when I was in fifth grade. Actually, it was the summer between fifth and sixth grade, and I did it while the family was vacationing in Hawaii. My brother was right, and like all true -aholics, I didn’t realize I had a problem.

I rejoined Tyrian and started pressing paper into his work. We were both delighted with the results. Tyrian had fun trying new color combinations, and I enjoyed putting the paper down at different angles. Then Tyrian decided he was done and wandered off to rinse himself with the hose. How could he leave? We had five note cards unfinished!

Then I realized something. For the past hour I had been stress-free. No knot, the threatening headache was gone, and I think I maybe smiled a few times. I had undergone art therapy. The morning zoomed by, I had a happy kid, and I was starting the afternoon with a fresh attitude.

Of course, I still had to finish those last five cards. To be successful in a workaholic recovery program, I have to want it first.