Kendall Ruth

Kendall Ruth is a Writer and Photographer from Boulder, Colorado. He can be found on Twitter, and at kendallruth.com, or out running in the mountains.

No Kind of Dancer

It was Robert Earl Keen who sang, on his debut album No Kind of Dancer, I tried hard to tell you I was no kind of dancer, and I have always felt I was no kind of one either. Dance was always the one art form I looked at and thought, “I can’t do that, but wish I could.” Maybe it was inhibition. Maybe it was growing up in Texas as a white kid assuming I wasn’t given a dance gene. But that hasn’t dampened my desire to get out on a floor and know how to cut a rug.

It was at a wedding in Austin that my then fiancé and I discovered just how much we needed dance lessons. We stepped onto the floor and looked more like two bears in a wrestling match than a pair of graceful dancers. That night a friend, gentle but firm, told us we needed lessons before our wedding day. Enter our dance instructor Matthew. For the price of a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft per lesson, we met in his double-wide trailer to learn how to dance. We found him through a friend who was also getting married in the same month. He was her mother’s boyfriend. He soon became our saving grace, our Obi Wan.

The author and his wife on their wedding day. Photo by Casey Wigotow.

In his makeshift studio, we sipped wine while he choreographed the song we would dance to on our wedding day, Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy.” I’ve always been told that the man is supposed to lead in a dance but it took 38 years for someone to actually show me how my body is supposed to be in order to do it. “Lead from your core,” Matthew would say. I always thought it was about arm strength, but that’s where the bear gets to wrestling. So I tried from my core and by doing so, I wasn’t pushing my partner where we needed to go. I was going there and she responded to the movement. The wrestling bears disappeared and two human beings took their place as we could feel each other respond to the slight movements of the other. I could feel her slight tensions when she wasn’t sure where I was headed. She wasn’t fighting me and I wasn’t forcing my way. I could simply be in my own skin as she could be in hers.

Dance requires presence to one another’s movement and this really came into play when we learned the various pieces of the choreography. Though we were taught certain foot movements, and turns in a certain order, I wanted to play with the order once I became comfortable. My wife wasn’t ready for the play. She would try to anticipate my next move based on the formula we learned, only to discover I wanted to do something different, something not in the script. At first, I would become frustrated at the missteps, but soon realized I was defaulting to using my arms again. In my lack of confidence I would try to force what should only come from that core movement that is essential to dance. When I relaxed into the sturdiness of torso strength, she gelled into the improvisation. There was a new sense of play because we were now in it together – she trusting where I was going and me trusting her to join me in step; feeling her relaxed allowed me to relax in the fun.

Actually listening to the music while dancing seemed to come only as I moved past the mechanics of choreography. To discover that space where I no longer focused on the structure of the dance but heard the music and let it lead the way felt more natural than I expected. I have been a musician since picking up my first violin in grade school, going on to learn several other instruments over the years. I know I hear music differently than the average Joe, but I never knew how much the naturalness of that hearing could be felt in my bones and muscles as I moved across a dance floor. I discovered a new kind of joy – something I suspect is at the center of all professional dancers – in the synchronistic way music and motion create this thing called dance. Entering into that space with my wife, I saw how her enjoyment of it accentuated my own.

For years I have heard that marriage is a kind of dance. As one who always believed I was “no kind of dancer,” this metaphor made marriage an even more daunting prospect. What does it mean to “lead” as a man and not come off as some chauvinistic stereotype? What does grace in motion look like when my partner or I miss a step, struggle to be in the dance? How will we learn to enjoy the Greater Music that is moving us along, together, if all we focus on are the technique and mechanics? Will I let myself step out of the routine and into “play,” improvising with my wife in such a way that we both have fun? And, of course, when she discovers that new joy, I have the opportunity to let it increase my own if I am willing to stay in my own skin on the dance floor with her.

Keen finishes his song, “You guided me gently, though I thought I could never, we were dancing together at the end of the song.  It might have been a contained disaster the first time my wife and I stepped onto a dance floor, but with six-pack instruction in the small space of a double-wide, we both discovered new places in each other and we were indeed dancing together at the end of the song. May we find this again and again until the Greater Song of our lives comes to end.

 

Listening Past a Writer’s Block

At the end of the summer, an old friend asked about the latest writing venture I was working on. The question was nothing out of the ordinary from this man who, for years, has been one to wave a fan at whatever burning embers he saw in my creative hearth before I ever trusted the heat glowing there. I had no answer. I wasn’t writing and I hadn’t for at least a month.

After a pretty steady stream of short stories, various essays, and some novel development, I was in a place that many call Writer’s Block. I’ve driven down that particular block a few times, seen the various shanties and campsites of other lost, muse-abandoned creatives waiting for their purgatorial moment to pass. What I was experiencing looked nothing like this. But in my determination to figure out why I was not inclined to write, I considered that I might be in a different part of the same neighborhood as Writer’s Block. I started to question if I was really a Writer at all.

Photo by Maggie Stein.

Summer turned to autumn. Leaves turned yellow, orange, red just before the first big snowfall. I headed up to the mountains to help a friend split wood for the oncoming winter and expand his deck. It’s a yearly tradition that gets me out of the city, off the technology, and into simple things. It’s a day of pure, high-altitude, manual labor that requires more endurance than thought. Few words are spoken.

We worked from sunrise to sunset, fingers slowly losing feeling as the light disappeared and the cold filled the air.  The following morning, I had nothing to do but keep my coffee warm and listen to that silence that comes when there is no perpetual humming of cars blazing down concrete streets, no semis jake-braking their diesel engines like the gurgling sigh of a dragon, no sirens of emergency or pursuit. The only noise that time of year in those mountains is wind blowing through pine trees, snowing the Aspen leaves in golden blizzards.

As I listened to that silence I still wondered with an almost grievous angst why my writing seemed to be so dead in the water. I was reading Frederick Buechner’s Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. It’s a reminiscence of Buechner’s early days, when he was trying to determine if he was a writer or a minister, or if there was such a place for one who is both:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life is grace.”

Somewhere in the gazing out a massive window on the Collegiate Peaks covered in snow, in letting these words tumble around inside, I “heard” this: “You are a Writer and always will be. You just stepped back to listen for a time before writing again what you hear.”

The anxious questions ceased.

I am like so many: if I spot an interruption on what I believe to be the road to Somewhere, then surely something must be wrong. I will try to force what can’t be forced. In my gazing down the road I expect to see the next key moment, forgetting that they are all key moments.

In all the angst and doubt, all the trying-to-figure-out-where-things-went-awry, it never occurred to me that listening was an option. Listening to hear anew how a story is told, how words play together. Listening to the sound of voice–be it an elderly foreign accent, a little child’s self-musings, a regional dialect with its pauses and short stops. Listening, even, to the noise of everyday life, for that is where texture and characters are shaped. Sometimes there is a legitimate case of Writer’s Block, but what if to simply listen–and not force a thing–is all that is required?

There are plenty of inspirational books and essays out there about the creative process–the kind that make you think you could be the next Wordsworth or Rembrandt. There are even books on the neurological mechanisms of Writer’s Block. There are few that say, “Don’t beat yourself up. Just put the brush, the pen, the camera down…. and listen.” This listening is an art form in itself. How else will the good stories, the kind that speak to the True, ever be heard and, thus, written?

It wasn’t long after that weekend that I ran into the same old friend who asked me again about the latest and greatest words on a page. Instead of conjuring up some frantic cover for anxious unanswered questions, I simply said, “I’m still not writing much if at all. I guess I am listening for a while. Somewhere out of that listening I will write again.”

 

Caught and Taught

One of the creative venues in which I dwell is photography. Dare I call myself a photographer? I did until I read a post on Rodney Smith’s blog in which he wonders, “If I am a photographer in the first place (which is extremely questionable with great aspirations, and I know one when I see it, but whether I have achieved the Holy Grail of being a photographer is a whole other matter) . . .If Rodney Smith, who has created some of the most compelling photographic images of the past few decades, thinks it questionable to call himself a photographer, then hubris would abound if I were to make such a claim. So I spend quite a bit of time behind the lens learning how to see. I see an enormous number of images, and often explore the work or websites of various creatives to see what inspires or draws them in. The problem is I accumulate more images than I have time to consider, but the nuggets are there in the numerous URLs and RSS feeds I follow.

I was cleaning up my RSS inbox recently and noticed one site in particular had over a thousand unread posts. That caught my attention, as I was pretty sure it wasn’t nearly that high a week before. I started to scroll through the posts and soon realized they were all photographs rather than the usual text or story from this author. On some days the author posted upwards of sixty photos. Given a few weeks at this volume, it’s no wonder there were over a thousand posts waiting for me. While deleting them I looked at each image, even if only for a moment. And something happened. Certain images caught me, stirring an emotion or captivating me. It was akin to casually walking through a museum and suddenly being stunned by a piece of art in such a way that you forget you were walking at all.

Detail of The Invasion by Adolphe William Bouguereau.

We live digitally but often can make claims that the digital realm is the bane of true artistic existence. The flood of information and images and videos on a given day can make any head spin. There is something to be said for standing in the presence of the original, something that can be seen live that isn’t seen otherwise. It is, after all, the same reason most of us value human contact in real space instead of phone calls, text messages, and all the other disconnected connections available. Certainly, another human is an art to behold, live in space and time.

That said, images still have power even on a LED screen. Not all those images in that folder were deleted. I kept some to come back to and explore why I had a response and to let that response play itself out and see where it might lead. Many took me to memories or longings; others gave context to emotions I could not put in words until then.

One of the first was a cropped version of The Invasion by Adolphe William Bouguereau. Only the lower quarter of the image is visible, the grasping cherub on blue, the white wings, almost like a pleading, a divine attempt at detour, one I have experienced numerous times in my life. A cut of a painting that tells a different story when seen in full, wherein it doesn’t seem to be a detour at all but, as the title says, an invasion, like a swarm coming on.

Then there was an image titled Tree House. It gave me a sense as if I just arrived on the scene of a long coming collapse and destruction; the sense of immediacy yet well past time from some other era. It reminds me of the years I spent as a mountaineer guide and would discover strange scenes like this in far remote wildernesses.

Poppy Field by Eliot Porter.

Eliot Porter’s 1970 photo titled Poppy Field first evokes the place where Dorothy and her Oz friends fell listless and sidetracked on their way to the Emerald City. The poppies stand out in such contrast to the rest of the landscape that they almost look painted onto the print afterwards. It also stirs a verse of John McCrae: “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses row on row / That mark our place . . . ” The words were written nearly 100 years ago by a Lieutenant Colonel after watching a friend die on the battlefields of the First World War. Poppies, a brilliant marker of the dead among Flanders then, are still worn on this Veteran’s Day, this Remembrance Day so to not break faith with the dead. As McCrae’s poem ends: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

This leads me to one of my own images taken a few years back on medium format film. It’s titled Faded Glory, as it was taken at sunset on the edge of winter at the Crested Butte Cemetery. An old soldier’s grave in a land too cold for poppies (and maybe even Remembrance), the cross and the flag — symbols both, and both losing much of their intended original meaning as iconic images that have saturated our psyches and so lost their power to speak without words unless captured in a manner unfamiliar.

Pictures still speak though most are lost amongst the noise of so much visual overdose. Like the chatter of a cocktail party, the amount of imagery I encounter in a given day becomes a droning wash, indistinguishable. Still, regardless of medium, when a work of art is excellently crafted by paint or by lens, it will still stop my breath in its subtlety or its screaming beauty. After all, something extraordinary doesn’t beg for attention. It doesn’t need to.

Faded Glory by Kendall Ruth.

As I clean up the “noise” collected over weeks on my RSS reader, those images of beauty, slipped in between the thousands, still grab the attention, the emotion, and memory of my busy and noise-filled world. And maybe they will woo me to the local museum to see more of their kind in the quiet stillness of their presence with only the click-clacking of the security guard’s shoes to break the moment. They, and others like them, check my vision such that the next time I look through a lens, more of my heart sees out into the world around me. Maybe that is what Rodney Smith senses, after all these years and all he has accomplished, that he is still learning what he sees, and can’t bear to claim the name Photographer.

 

The Stomping String Rock of Uncle Daddy

In our over-stimulated, access-to-everything digital universe, seeing a band perform live is an increasingly precious commodity. When Uncle Daddy came through town I knew I was going to get a good show, but what I didn’t see coming was the intimate energy so finely-tuned by such well-versed musicians.

Hard to nail down, but hope with a side of southern homefries is one way to describe Los Angeles-based Uncle Daddy and their latest album Good Mourning. If you go looking for a clear definition of the term “Uncle Daddy” you will find a spectrum of answers ranging from the strangely disturbing to the unorthodox hopeful. These guys got their name from cellist and member Jacob Szekeley, who, upon hearing a sound that has become their signature, said, “That’s so Uncle Daddy!”

Put a mandolin, violin, cello, acoustic guitar, bass and drums together and there tends to be a certain expectation, something that should sound like a Nashville studio session. Uncle Daddy, though, came together in L.A., so while there are some elements of Country/Southern Rock, it sounds more like an intentional rough and rugged roll through a mud-sloshed Mississippi creek bed, the kind where you come out covered in dirt, sweat and a smile. “We’re doing things with our instruments that people keep saying to us, ‘you can’t do that,’” explains Andrew Jed, who sometimes uses a brass slide on his Mandolin. Those things “you can’t do” are bending classical and acoustic strings with blues notes backed by a busting John Bonham-like percussion from drummer Christopher Allis layered in the hip-hop lyrics of L.A. Riots’ Thurz or SensMusiq.

Good Mourning is filled with challenges to the status quo, uninhibited confessions of doubt, and throughout there is a calling out invitation to something more, something akin to a homecoming. Opening their set with the album’s first track, TJ Stafford proclaims, “I wanna scream til my lungs explode/Fight the Devil til it kills my soul/Burn in hell til there’s nothing left/ And I will rise again,” while Andrew Jed’s mandolin and Robbie Anderson’s violin contrast the despair and hope with Allis’ drums and Noah Needlman’s bass rhythms.

In a live show they cover the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” replacing the opening scratch synth and power-chord guitar with Jed’s banjo while maintaining all the thrust and energy of the original. They then transition to a gentle, unplugged acoustic in-the-round sendoff with their own “Come To The Well”—a benediction of sorts as the lyrics suggest, “Lift your eyes up from the ground/Find out where the lost are found/When the desert dries your bones/Come to the well and I will take you home.”

When you bring together six guys who have moved beyond the years of youth-filled-angst songwriting into the professionals that started Uncle Daddy at the beginning of their 30s you get a cask-aged maturity and honed energy with a tight performance that thrives both in the studio and on the stage. Lead vocalist and guitarist Stafford says, “There’s a release of ego” within the group. They aren’t fighting for the spotlight but laying it aside for each other. This generosity of play results in a humility and visceral quality that creates space for the listener to join the revelry.

There are plenty of bands that sound more like untrained kids in a jam session. Uncle Daddy has a level of play and performance reflective of its members’ formal educations and extensive experience. Each member brings to the round a curriculum vitae that lists contributions to film and TV such as Toy Story 3, Battlestar Gallactica and The Walking Dead. Anderson and Szekely also run a music school called String Project LA that teaches improvisational string performance. String Project gives kids permission and the instruction necessary to play the likes of Hendrix and the blues on a violin while learning how to perform professionally. So not only are the members of Uncle Daddy top-shelf musicians who know the intricacies of their craft, they keep looking for ways to invite anyone and everyone else to participate.

Good Mourning is an album that begs the “repeat” setting in your player. It is a rollercoaster ride of mixed-genre that will have you wanting to punch your ticket for another ride. Add them to your list of most sought-after live shows. Whether you catch them on tour or in your headphones, you will enjoy the rumpus that is Uncle Daddy. That said, just plan on both.

Good Absences

In the span of a week, two things seemingly in opposition began forcing me to rethink how I interact with technology and how even this medium shapes the way I process information and observations.

1) I picked up a book by Shane Hipps called Flickering Pixels, an exploration of how technology shapes our thinking, our relationships, and our understanding of God.

2) A few days later I was given the latest in technological relationships, an iPad2.

Hipps was in advertising before making a sharp turn into seminary and eventually becoming a pastor of a Mennonite church. One of his advertising accounts was Porsche, and as he says at the start of the book: ”My task was to hijack your imagination, brand your brain with our logo, and then feed you opinions you thought were your own. You’re welcome.” Hipps goes on to reconstruct the historical movements and pieces that formed our way of thinking and engaging the world, each other and, of course, God. Exploring everything from Guttenberg to Socrates to the Reformation to the more recent media oracle Marshall McLuhan, Hipps steps out of the water to examine what each of us are breathing as we swim along unawares.

As I spend quite a bit of time in the virtual world of Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and various outlets on the Interwebs, reading Flickering Pixels has me thinking about how I communicate and what these various tools are doing to my imagination, comprehension, worldview, and humanity. Unlike paper, or other humans, all these interfaces are digital and therefore without borders. They lack a physical tangibility and the possibilities within each are endless, but there is always an underlying disconnect with flesh and blood reality that bothers my core.

Take the Japanese earthquake this past spring. Between the onslaught of Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, and the e-mails from people in-country, there was a tremendous amount of information transmitted and received. How, realistically, can we process that much information and form rational, concrete, and discerning responses? The images spark our emotions. The news feeds stir our anger. Now imagine none of these tools were available, how would you hear about it? How would you understand it in any context?  Does it make you more human to be inundated with information, or do you feel more fragmented and so grasp at far away tragedies to feel more human while ignoring the very tragedies in your own town, neighborhood, maybe even in your own house? As Hipps says, ”The human psyche isn’t designed to withstand the full gravity of planetary suffering . . . the task of recalibrating our psyche and reigniting compassion must begin with local relationships.”

Maybe it’s a de-cyborging, but in some small way, the iPad I was given seems to redirect me to something more along the lines of local relationships. Akin to driving on small, foreign country roads, the iPad is an absence of so many things I have grown accustomed to.

It is what is missing that I notice most. Those things missed are good absences. I don’t have numerous windows of various applications running, always begging for my faux-urgent response. I am forced to do one thing at a time. In an ever-increasing multitasking world, Apple created a top-selling device that makes the one thing before you all that is before you. This makes book-reading singular. I am discovering I want to read a book more than anything else. Talking with a friend recently, he said he’s read more books since he got an iPad then ever before. And in the truly rehumanized sense, I am seeking to be more present with real people and not their avatars. Maybe the one-thing-ness is reminding me the value of being present with the One Thing.

The Luddites — that 19th century group of disgruntled textile artisans “that destroyed machinery to protest the dehumanizing technological advances of the Industrial Revolution” (as Hipps writes) — knew the greater value in a person lay not in how efficiently he works, produces, receives, or transmits information but in the flesh and blood heart artisan in us all. Would a Luddite have used an iPad? Maybe, but only after having to live through the past century of ever-increasing demands on our psyches to take on more than they were designed to handle. Then again, he might just toss it on the pile of broken and rusted metal, pick up a needle and thread or a brush, and make something with his friends and fellow craftsmen close by, breathing the same air they breathe. What they created alone together may have had an impact somewhere else across the oceans, but more importantly it impacted the community around them.

In a non-Luddite manner, a piece of technology made me aware of the need for more good absences, alone and with others. I will not completely abandon the technology before me, but I am surprised to discover that some of it can actually create a space in which to become friends — be it with the void of visual and mental silence or a real person with real life right before my eyes. I’m reminded that technology is only as good as the compliment it forms to the human relationships around me.

Learning My Voice

Last autumn I presented two projects to a gathering of artists, actors, poets and Nigel, a British theater actor who has worked with the likes of Judi Dench and John Hurt. One project was my first photography installation and the other was an excerpt from a book I am writing. No matter how certain I am that they are worthwhile, I have never been a confident orator of my own creative endeavors. In critique, Nigel, in his clearest British eloquence asked, “Have you ever taken a drama or acting class?” And without waiting for my reply he continued, “Because you really should. It will help you loosen up your mouth and maybe work on this talking through your teeth thing you do. You are holding back your words.”

He is right. I mumble. It is probably because I am never sure if what I have to say is worth hearing. Which can be a bit of a problem as a Writer.

So after putting it off for too long, this spring I signed up for a Voice and Speech class through the Denver Theater Company. I made my way up to the third floor studios in downtown Denver and crossed through some looking glass into that side of the arts– the side I always observed with the curiosity and wonder of a child, face pressed up against the glass in the wildlife exhibit at the zoo. I joined the eclectic mix of other students in the stuffed, silent performance room, huddled in chairs near the A/V equipment. The awkwardness broke when an older man next to me asked in a radio DJ-like baritone, “Is this Voice and Speech?”

The instructor arrived and pulled us out of our silent grouping and onto mats in a circle as if it were “Quiet Time” in kindergarten. We needed to learn how to breathe, or better put, how we each breathe.  We would spend three classes on breathing. Breathing on our backs. Curled up in a fetal position. Sitting. Standing. Crouched over as if an unplugged robot. And the only two or so words we spoke for the first few weeks were “hey!” and “hello,” more as sounds than enunciations. As it turns out, all those years of running long distances taught me to breathe from the very place our instructor is trying to isolate, but that only means I carry my tension elsewhere.

As it turns out, most people speak from their upper chest or even their throat, hardly using their breath at all, because speaking means putting the self out there, and none of us, I discover, not just me, are too comfortable with that. To speak with my full breath means to say not just words but to give and have full control of my self. It means being comfortable in my own skin, literally, enough so that I am comfortable in my own voice.

The instructor tells us that actors will spend six months just lying on their backs, becoming aware of their breathing, their body, their quirks and compensations.

I soon discover that the mumbling and teeth-talk is from all the tension I carry in my face and jaw when speaking, never allowing my mouth to open enough to make strong sounds. All this breathing is rattling the steel girders in my face, and the resonance is shaking the tree loose. By my third class, I am feeling sore in the face. I am stretching muscles there I didn’t know existed. It’s even opening up sinuses, changing the resonance of my voice.  In my head I am trying to be aware of numerous moving parts: from which part of my body am I breathing; trying not to stop breathing when listening to another; how am I carrying my posture; etc. It’s like trying to play the drums while reciting poetry and walking down the street chewing gum.

I ask the instructor how actors keep all these things in mind while on a stage: exchanging lines and actually listening to what each other is saying, while staying in character. She points out that this is no different than how we interact with each other in regular life. If we breathe while the other is talking then we are likely listening to them, taking in with each breath their words– and not just waiting for them to finish so we can say our “lines.” So if I hold my breath in a heated discussion, (because I am waiting for my chance to give my two cents) then I am not listening at all.

The Rabbis say that when God spoke his Name to Moses, it was the sound of breathing. And of course, when God gave life to the dirt clod that became you and me, He breathed His breath to animate the mud. It makes sense then that when I am insecure or stressed or anxious and can’t speak, I am, in essence, holding back the life I am given to be creative.

Writers often talk of finding their “voice” — that way of writing that is unique to the individual writer. So many of the great writers write the way you hear them speak. You can hear their voice in the words on the page.

As this Voice and Speech class ends, I not only find my voice in all the ways it has been held back audibly, but I am discovering a new hue to the voice I write in words, embodying a more full humanity as I breathe the words I write. Before entering the theater side of the arts, I was one of those spectators that might say of a certain actor’s performance, “Oh I could do that!” I am coming to see that one of the hardest things an actor will learn is to be fully human. And it starts with breathing…

The Illegitimate Son of God

Every religion needs its leader, and in Owen Egerton’s The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, it takes Harold Peeks, the “Most Improved Sales Analyst” for Promit Computers declaring his Messiah-hood at the company’s annual awards banquet to start Haroldism. But it takes a complete economic collapse and the destruction of the American Dream to seal Haroldism’s place as one of the great world religions.

The account of Haroldism’s early days is narrated by an older, end-of-the-road Blake Waterson. He begins with words that most have uttered under our breath at some point: “…I am not a godly man. In truth, God and I have never been on good terms. I’ve always suspected that perhaps God was hunting me. Not in a good way, not the shepherd searching for a lost sheep. More like a pissed off loan shark looking for payment.”

Harold is Egerton’s third work of fiction, and it is comedic irreverence, a true satirical commentary on American Christianity, if not religious idealism in general.  Unlike so many works mocking the banality and ignorance of the religious, he tells a story that makes good fun of ritual while alluding to the greater truths so often missed by the devout. It has all the makings of a response to the question: What would it look like if Jesus came to America today instead of Israel 2,000 years ago– and was named Harold?

The narrative is from Blake Waterson’s perspective, a memoir of the devout, or a “Gospel” of sorts. He describes the “Son of God” as one who “carried a roll of pudge just above his belt. His hair was juvenile, slightly longer than a crew cut. Wally Cleaver all grown up.” In other words, Harold looks a lot like every other American you might see at an Applebee’s on a Sunday night– our version of “he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him.” (Isaiah 53:2). And yet, people start to follow Harold the way they followed Jesus, leaving everything to join him on a journey from the suburbs of Houston, to the Capital of Texas, Austin. They are a motley crew from all walks of life and ages, and Blake Waterson is among them as a Matthew, Luke, John, or Judas.

The name of Egerton’s Messiah is a play on the word “herald” – an official messenger bringing news, a sign that something new is about to happen. Harold Peeks’s “news” is the kind that gets you kicked out of cocktails parties and churches, while attracting the less preoccupied, the lost or longing of the rest of society.

Like any good Messiah Harold performs the miraculous, but they aren’t the kind of miracles we would expect. Then again, miracles never are. Waterson’s dead dog -– obviously and inconveniently stiff as a board in the living room during an evening with neighbors — comes back to life for a minute after Harold has managed to make the room unbearably tense by naming off statistics about the suffering in the world. It is as everybody is leaving, the night ruined, tears flowing, that the rigid, dead Pickles suddenly yelps with a bark when Waterson bumps the dog, then goes back to being dead. Was the miracle the dog’s small moment of resurrection or was it that Harold managed to show just what a shallow, absurd, and mundane existence the Watersons and their neighbors live? Through Blake Waterson’s own transformation the reader sees that one can laugh or cry or both, but there is indeed something lacking in those niceties with which we are far too numb. Harold has shaken them all from their own stiff deadness, but some will simply fall back to dead like Pickles.

Egerton used the “Harold,” a type of improvisation used in comedic theater– another realm in which Egerton has quite a successful history– in his first novel Marshall Hollenzer is Driving. There are elements within the structure of The Book of Harold that hint at this comedic form even if Egerton was not consciously writing it as such. He has placed momentary pauses titled “An Introduction to Haroldism,” where in the reader is given a snippet of the liturgy behind the religion.  These are much like pages from a Book of Common Prayer or an order of worship, but they are comedic pauses, a reminder to the reader that often the things that are taken seriously are most deserving of laughter.

As a whole The Book of Harold is a brilliant response to Wendell Berry’s words: “By taking oneself too seriously one is prevented from being serious enough.” For anyone who spends time among the religiously serious – those that often take themselves too seriously – it is clear that Egerton knows where to make fun of their kin while hinting at the stuff that deserves being serious enough. It is rare to find rich, balanced satire – the kind that makes you laugh while making you think – but Harold is one of these gems.

In the dedication, Egerton says of a friend that he was “scarred by faith and a golf cart.” There is hardly a soul on this planet who won’t be scarred by faith sooner or later. And in the more mishap-laden, laughable side of life, most have had their version of being scarred by something so comical as a golf cart. In essence, Egerton’s dedication is to every man and woman making a go of it in this world.

What Is in a Piece of Paper?

What is in a piece of paper?

I am reading a Paul Tillich book, bought used from Red Letter Books in Boulder, CO.  Toward the back I found this blue slip of paper. It is a dental appointment reminder, the kind that is now just mailed because most of us don’t want to be reminded and will toss the slip of paper into the trash on the way out of the office. But not this patient. She kept hers and must have used it as a bookmark.

I try to imagine her story. Who is she? Did she ever make her appointment on that day in September? What year was it? How old was she? If her dentist recommends cleanings every 6-8 months, then she got this notice during the early days of Spring. OR maybe she was coming back later in the week for a root canal? Did she drive one of those floating boats of a late 70’s sedan with Devil’s Food red fabric interior, soaked with 30 years of Dunkin Doughnuts coffee and the lingering scent of cigarettes from when her husband smoked; the paint faded by sun, by time and it only has 87,000 miles?

One piece of paper can set off a slew of storytelling manufactured out of nothing more than a running imagination. A little piece of culture on a 3×4 note, left in a book.

What happens, though, in our information free-for-all when I can do the kind of research on this single piece of paper that used to be left to the likes of rotary-dial journalists, the Woodwards and Bernsteins of old? Does it help the story? Does the story become more news-like and less a true fiction?

After I Googled the dentists’ name at the top of the slip, I found that he is based in Rockford, Il. That led me to search the name on the slip of paper. Based on the obituary that showed up, the woman – who at one point had a dental appointment scheduled for 4:30pm on September 23 of some year – died at 77 on May 10, 2006.

She “graduated from Edgewood High School in 1946 and then St. Anthony College of Nursing in Rockford, Ill. in 1949… worked as a registered nurse at the V.A. Hospital and Oscar Mayer. Always concerned about the welfare of family, friends and strangers, Ruth was a dedicated volunteer who made endless meatloaves for those in need. Ruth taught her children to never shy away from a challenge, was a strong advocate for education and was very proud of the professional achievements of her three daughters and two sons.”(via Madison.com)

How does this change the story? What happens when an imagined entity now has flesh and blood and lived what looks like a good, noble life in a real location?

Ruth’s real life was likely filled with all kinds of rich drama and details that make the best of our fiction nothing more than leaves on the wind. And it may be that there was nothing extraordinary about Ruth’s life, but I am guessing she had some stories die with her – all those years as a nurse taking care of injured veterans some had to have confided moments of their most fear-filled moments.  Let’s not overlook that Ruth was born just a year before the Great Depression came crawling across the country like a plague of locusts. What did the little girl Ruth think of all the poverty and hardship in her first 10 years of life? Was this the formative time that would later lead to her to teach her children “never to shy away from a challenge?” Where was she when the news came about Pearl Harbor a few years later, a teenager in the Midwest soon to watch boys go off to war and never return? Did this inspire her to go to nursing school and take care of another war’s vets? Was it her first child that changed her from a nurse to a stay-at-home mom (before we even knew we needed that term of distinction)? Was it an empty nest that led to her work at Oscar Mayer?

She had known sorrow. One does not lose two brothers and not taste the sourness of grief. She had known joy. All those grandchildren, regardless of whatever untold tensions might have lay dormant between her and her sons or daughters, had to light up her day when they came to visit.

There is a whole life in a misplaced slip of paper, left in the back pages of a used book.

As people read more and more books downloaded from some server in some unknown location – words becoming zeros and ones and a bit less tangible – are we going to lose the surprises that can be found among the analog world of a stale used bookstore?

That said, if it wasn’t for the ease with which I accessed an enormous amount of information in the digital realm, that slip of paper may not have had carried the significance it does now.

To propose that all things digital are the bane of our creativity would be a true hypocrisy on my part. I would never have taken the time to research a slip of paper in a book, nor find such a depth of information without the ease of a Google search. But then, to live in a world where there are no more slips of paper to be absently left in a book is to live without those pleasant mistakes that are catalysts to great storytelling.  Maybe that is why the stuff of culture makes for such a beautiful mess.

Human Beings are Miracles: an Interview with Gary Lundgren

The independent film world has its share of tectonic shifts, and out of that upheaval come films like Calvin Marshall – a film that keeps the bar high in its visual, audio, and character-driven storytelling.

Writer/Director Gary Lundgren’s film is a story of blind optimism, misguided intentions, redeemed failure, and human complexity. Oh, and it’s about baseball. The title character, Calvin, played by Alex Frost, makes another go at the local junior college baseball team, coached by a defeated pro-baller, Coach Little, played by Steve Zahn (in one of his best roles to date), who has a soft spot for the passionate, yet failing, Calvin. Calvin also chases Tori Jensen, (Michelle Lombardo) the gorgeous volleyball star, who so outshines her teammates that they don’t even have names, and who is as out of Calvin’s reach as his dream of becoming a legitimate ball-player.

Intrigued by the film’s movement through the festival circuit and its search for a larger audience, I wanted to hear not only how Gary came to make Calvin, but also what he’s learned in the process.

Calvin Marshall is a “dramedy” disguised as a baseball movie. Did you always have this in mind?

Yeah, this really never was a “baseball” film in my mind.  It was always more of a coming-of-age story.  Even the first draft was subtle and bittersweet.  Character driven. We always joked that we were making an art film masquerading as a sports film. My favorite stories and films generally have more realistic characters that are more complicated and possess both good and bad qualities.

Why baseball?

I suppose Calvin could’ve been pursing anything, really.  But I like the connotations of a protagonist pursuing something connected to the American dream.  Baseball has such a rich history in this country. But you’re right — this could’ve easily been about an aspiring screen actor finally facing the reality of having to walk away from Hollywood.

There is more of a redemption theme than a “happy-ending” sense to Calvin. How did you come to this ending?

It would’ve been difficult to spin a believable happy ending with the theme we were pursuing.  I was most excited about wrestling with the idea of giving up something you desire most in life.  And then, of course, the looming possibility of growing into a bitter person because of it.

Coach Little is really just a good guy who can’t let go of his bitterness after seeing his dream die.  And the bitterness is palpable and killing him slowly.

The “happy” ending for me was seeing Calvin get back on his feet and get moving again. Just to see Calvin begin to recover his great personality and his drive for something new is still inspiring to me.  I think overcoming disappointment and bouncing back is the most underrated achievement in life.

The film is beautifully lit and each scene is distinct in its cinematography. How much thought went into this aspect of making the film? Did you have an image and feel you were shooting for or was it more a collaborative effort?

I love shooting 35mm because it’s a richer look, yet with a softer image.  If you shoot on HD, it automatically dates a movie because it’s so clean and contemporary looking. And we used Cooke S4 lenses, which are known for being even softer.

We wanted this movie to look timeless with an Anytown, Anywhere feel — so this idea drove all our design and photographic decisions. Basically, our goal was always to have a stylized- looking film but without sacrificing organic performances and potential surprises.

How has your film-making changed from your shorts Wow and Flutter and People Die to the full length Calvin Marshall?

I’m always drawn to character and tone first – that’s the easy part for me. The hardest part about film-making in general, though, is telling a compelling story that an audience will want to follow and invest in emotionally.

One thing I learned on Calvin was that the mechanics of shooting the film, even with more money and a famous cast, are exactly the same as the smaller films I’ve made over the years.  That was a big surprise to me.  I guess I thought it would be a much different experience, so you go into it expecting it to be easier or more fun or just different…but then you find yourself in the same trenches, doing essentially the exact same job.  And you still have to make the same 10,000 decisions in just a few weeks.

Music plays an important role in your films, choreographing the scenes throughout Calvin Marshall. How do you see music as part of the storytelling?

Music is critical to the entire process for me. While I’m writing a script, I gradually fill up a playlist with hundreds of songs.  And then, while rewriting I trim the playlist back down to a few hours of music.  Usually a few songs will make it into the script.

Sound and music are half of the art of filmmaking.  The project I’m writing now (BAD VINTAGE) will probably be 95% original score in the end, but I still have a mostly instrumental playlist building that’s informing the tone/mood of the story. Our goal is that it will be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the sound design ends and the score begins.  They will be developed together even as we’re preparing to shoot.

How do you see filmmaking as an art form? What is particular to the medium of film that attracts you?

And visual storytelling is my favorite.  All the tools filmmakers have at their fingertips to tell their stories [are] very attractive.  Cinematography, sound design, music, characterizations, dialogue, subtext . . . the best filmmakers use each tool effectively, and I love the challenge of trying to do this.  It’s not easy, but it’s so much fun.

I think human beings are miracles and not some sort of cosmic accident.  Every person out there is a miracle and their hopes/dreams/aspirations matter in the universe.  The fact Calvin wants to play baseball and can’t is heart-wrenching to me.  I hope that people will be emotionally moved by the characters and stories I’m involved with and that in some small way they will make people’s lives a little bit fuller.

I also hope that my films will have a long shelf life and are re-watchable.  We all know and love those films that are more consumable and we only watch once.  But I hope to make the kind of movies that are hard to turn off because the characters in them feel like old friends and we want to see, once again, how their conflicts and lives turn out.

You’ve been on a long road of hard work to promote the film and now Calvin is opening in New York. Is this a landmark for the film? What would you like to see happen during this time in NYC?

We’re very lucky for the theatrical runs we’ve had and it’s very cool to finish in New York and Portland.  Any national press we get and a NY release kind of validates the movie in people’s eyes.  Perception is still important.

I still feel like movies should be experienced in communities at the local movie theater. I hope that doesn’t go away for indies, but it might.

Calvin Marshall opens at the Quad in New York City on August 20th, and at the Living Room Theaters in Portland, Oregon on August 27th for a full week after which, you can find it on Netflix, iTunes, DVD/Blu-ray, and Video on Demand starting in September.

The Long View

Artists often shape culture years before the shape of things is apparent. Even then, only a few might create with vision enough to see generations down the road – a concept foreign to a society that hardly sees past the next news cycle or 140 characters.

The exchange of information isn’t enough for longevity. Data is not the sum total of any human experience and creativity has far more to it than words or codes. To shape culture we must ask: Are we in the business of exchanging information or the creative endeavor of connecting to know – each other, work, the world around us as much as the world within?

While mulling over these questions I stumbled upon a collection of essays by Wendell Berry titled Standing by Words. I found it in one of the few remaining old used book shops in Boulder, Colorado – the kind of place that is made of goat trails through stacks of books lit yellow and smelling of musty paper. In it, Berry wrote nearly thirty years ago (a span of time that seems ancient by today’s micro-measures of time) about this tension between true knowing and informational exchange in an essay titled “People, Land, and Community.” He writes,

People are joined to the land by work. Land, work, people, and community are all comprehended in the idea of culture. These connections cannot be understood or described by information – so many resources to be transformed by so many workers into so many products for so many consumers – because they are not quantitative. We can understand them only after we acknowledge that they should be harmonious – that a culture must be either shapely and saving or shapeless and destructive.

Though Berry’s context is agriculture, this truth speaks also to artistic creativity, to the long view of culture change in the larger arena. If anything, the long view and patience it takes to thrive in an agricultural context are just as necessary to create great art, write outstanding literature, or compose lasting music.

Between the mass information system that is the Internet and the hyper-addiction to efficiency and speed that saturates the American psyche, a long, slow view that takes time to know the people behind words or images, to listen, to breathe, and out of that let creative change flow seems a nostalgic idealism. Even so, if culture is to be shapely (giving form to otherwise chaos) and saving (rehumanizing),  it must be made so by listening to those generations that have come before us while taking the time to know – beyond the cerebral – the people, the flesh and blood heartbeats this current culture shapes or destroys.

How this plays out might be as simple as making time, if not years, to listen and hear the people in a community. This seems a concept more easily grasped in the one-stoplight towns of the rural village than the electric-hummed, manic-paced urban arena. Though, I’ve have tasted of this in both settings.

Until recently, I lived in the urban heart of Denver, Colorado – a place where foot travel made more sense than driving, and I saw the same people in my square few miles but hardly knew their names. My next-door neighbor, Pierre, was a 74 year-old retired military man with a meticulous nature. I “wasted” many hours in impromptu conversations on the porch or stopped in the yard on my way to somewhere else. I was often fed a history of the area I never would have read in any archive: stories about why the streets were so narrow, where the trolleys used to run, how there used to be Peregrine Falcons around to stave off pigeons. At one point, he was re-sodding his yard, testing the soil and mineral make-up, sending samples to labs, letting the dirt settle, researching which grass would grow best, using the least amount of water – the whole process took over a year. The long view indeed.

I learned to slow down as I talked with Pierre, learned to appreciate the history and respect the bigger picture that shaped the world I lived in. I came to understand that for all the big city rhetoric that Denver was striving to fit into, it was and is a city, if not a town, of the West – threaded with the ethic of such a culture.

A few months ago, I had a short span of work in the small, rural, truly one-light town of Buena Vista, Colorado. For the few weeks I was there, I worked part-time with a team of men that by all standards were the type of rancher/agriculture type Berry speaks of in his books. As we drove from job site to job site, spending extensive time in the truck talking and sharing stories, I heard about the different people that make up this community, how various decisions or tragedies shaped them and the land they call home. This is a town I frequented often over twenty years, but had never known what makes the community; the stories that explained so much of the atmosphere of such a peculiar town. These stories were not information and data but conversations that came about over hours and days spent together.

As a writer and photographer, I find both settings continue to do more than inform the art I create. I see and hear differently. Character development for a story becomes something grown out of these long spans of moments with people, not a thrown-together entity erected from some matrix of information. “An order of memories preserved consciously in instructions, songs, and stories, and both consciously and unconsciously in ways . . . much as fertility builds in the soil,” says Berry. The pictures I take, even within these communities, have history behind them that affect the way I see a subject, a future work of art.

We crave slower presence. Humans are far too organic to ever live long neglecting to tend the soil. Data and information race past us at ever more galactic speeds, and to shape and save what is to come, we must have cleaner lenses with which to see, quieter ears with which to hear, and a willingness to “waste” plenty of time with those around us old and young.

photo by:

Just Getting Started

Matthew Ryan is one of today’s best songwriters you probably didn’t know you were missing. In his twelfth album, Dear Lover, Ryan explores the distance in intimacies between men and women. He talked to us about his approach to the creative process, as well as art’s centrality in rehumanization.

Dear Lover and your label, the Dear Future Collective, have been in digital motion for a few months. What have you discovered or learned so far? Where do you want to see things go?

It’s a big blizzard of a world, but creativity and honesty can go far to attract new people to you. It’s beautiful, but scary, because gaining loyalty from listeners can be a challenge. And that leads me to my hope for the future of music: That we as a society slow down and absorb those things that are meaningful to us.

I often get the sense that we are not only an instant judgment society, but also a constant consumption society. I’ve always found work that slowly unfolded for me was ultimately more rewarding. And I can’t help but think there’s a consequence to the slash and burn speed of things.

With Dear Lover, how have you seen your writing and worldview evolve over 12 albums?

It has always been my goal to not only be a life-long artist, but also a constantly searching artist. I feel that I’m getting better at what I do, and I’m just getting started. Great work has a humility and easy assuredness, and that’s what I want to achieve. I’ve been trying to tell a story about the distance between who we are as men and women and who we wish to be. I believe we can close the gap if we converse with it directly and honestly.

How do you approach your songwriting as a storyteller?

 

I look for the spark of an idea, or the spark finds me. Either way, it has to be something that moves me, and then I just follow the trail to what the song wants to be. It’s almost as if the subconscious is where the really poetry is found. I follow my gut and trust that when I feel content and the song’s finished, that there’s a cumulative emotionalism or message. I try to tell as many sides of the story as I can while being honest from every angle.

 

You seem to use various genres all within one album. How does that kind of diversity come about?

 

I view each song on an album like a scene in a movie, with songs arriving within a story arc. Sometimes I feel that I’ve underplayed a song’s traditional strengths to meet my cinematic ambitions. But, I’m proud to say that any of my songs can be stripped to their roots, and you’ll find a perfectly sturdy tree.

 

What influences your creative process?

 

I find that my favorite songs are the ones that feel eternally relevant to my humanity and how I view the world. I assume that if something rings true to me, it will ring true to others, because we are more similar than we are different.

 

What do you enjoy about the creative process?

 

It’s one of a handful of life experiences that makes me feels completely connected to the moment. But any real moment possesses a thread of primal electricity – love, sex, hate, peace, hope, comfort, and so on. These are the moments we live for. Boredom is a waste of time.

 

What do you see as the role of art and artists?

 

The nature of my work causes me to often consider where I’m coming from. The arts can communicate a wisdom we’re not always born with, and an intimate relationship with the arts can help us to avoid the big mistakes.

My work is often received as depressive or dark, but I don’t see it that way at all. To be human means to be confronted by both dark and light. I believe “The Man In Black” by Johnny Cash says it as well as it can be said:

I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.

 

How much do visuals inform your music?

 

The cinema of life is so important to my work – the color and light of a room, the expressions we make, and all the details that make for emotional weather. A sense of depth, movement, and three dimensions means everything to how we experience the world, and it’s no different with a song.

 

Dear Lover is filled with the plea for a second chance. Where does this come from?

The human heart is a delicate, open and mysterious thing. Dear Lover is trying to not only close the gap between a man and a woman, but to engage people with themselves and the ideas and notions that originally ignited them. So, I wouldn’t say it’s about second chances – I would say it’s about never giving up. The pleas are directed toward recurring themes in the album, like trouble and discontent that arises while trying to re-enforce the promises you make to yourself and the ones you love.

 

 

How did you come to include Amazing Grace in those last lines of “The Wilderness?”

I was singing while writing, and that’s what came out. I’m not a particularly religious person, but the concept of grace is something I can completely stand behind: grace in traffic, grace in confrontation, grace in our politics, grace in all the parts and plots of our lives.


For more information and to hear the new album Dear Lover streamed in its entirety, visit Matthew Ryan’s website.