Monday, October 24, 2016

IYC Women Launch with Habitat Project

IYC Women with homeowners to be John and John Jr.
Isles Yacht Club Women is a new group organized to help with various community projects on a one-off basis. A group oriented towards giving back to the community is a great addition to all the fun activities the Club offers. I missed the orientation meeting, but understand there were tons of great ideas thrown out -- from making dresses to send to Haiti to volunteering at the Dragon Boat Festival to working in the community gardens.  (Count me out for anything that has sewing involved!)

Mark, our site supervisor
The group's first project was a morning working at a Habitat for Humanity home. We had been told our job would be doing the interior painting for the home. But there was one slight problem when we arrived -- there were no interior walls.  I immediately harkened back to the chaos of the Habitat homes my friend Althea and I worked on in New Orleans post-Katrina (along with her 16 year-old daughter Maddie and three of her friends). It was so disorganized that Althea and I spent much of our week sitting around chatting. Would this day end up the same? 

Happily, Mark, our site supervisor, was totally on top of things. In his introduction, Mark shared that he lives in a Habitat home himself. All H4H homeowners have to put sweat equity into their houses while they are being built. His abundant skills and easy manner obviously impressed them enough to give him a job. 

Diana paints trim
Our first assignment was to sweep out the house, which tradesman had left filled with stray bits of insulation and sawdust and other debris. While I don't think anyone looked at him askance, he quickly noted that this would be the first job if a group of men were volunteering that day. He wanted to make sure that when his boss came by, everything was in tip top shape and ready for the next step.

A few of us grabbed the incredibly worn brooms and got to work. (This again reminded me of our work in New Orleans when Althea kept saying, as we dug holes for fence posts that would soon be filled with rain, "There are tools specifically for this purpose. Can't we just go buy some?" But then you realize that any implement used by H4H quickly becomes worn out. With approximately 20 homes going up in Charlotte County each year, anything new gets a lot of use in a short period of time. 

Debbie at work
Some of us did paint get to paint, although it was beneath the siding of the house and the trim and the steps. Mary Francis ended up with the glamorous job of raking the soil up to the foundation of the house after the paint had dried. (This is just one example of the details those of us who move into a new home don't even consider.) The weather was glorious, so it turned out to be a bonus to work outdoors. 

We got some more challenging jobs as well, such as putting up siding just underneath the roof line. Admittedly, it took a few of us for this task, leading us to adapt the old joke to, "How many IYC women does it take to put up a piece of siding?"

Sheryl & Jane ensured I didn't fall
the 2' to the ground
Each piece of siding was 12' long. The first step was to measure from the end of the home to the points where the window started and ended as the siding had to be cut a different depth to accommodate the window. Recalling my success with measuring for blinds in the past, I immediately said, "I'm not doing that." "Why am I not surprised?" Mark laughingly asked. He went on to say he's done this job a while and gets a good sense of people pretty quickly. 

Once the measurements were done, we cut the siding, Mark crimped it, and we slid it into its slot. (Trust me when I say that it didn't go quite as smoothly as that sounds.)  It was quite satisfying.

Mary Francis preps the stairs
Although we were only there for an extended morning, Mark was impressed with the amount we accomplished. He said a team of women are often more productive than a group of men. "Women can work and talk at the same time," he noted. "Men seem to have to stop working when they talk." 

He added that men can get sidetracked when something is done in a different way than they would have done themselves. His description (with accompanying visual) of one worker pointing to something he didn't like and then everyone else abandoning their posts to check it out and give their own opinions was quite hilarious.  All the wives nodded knowingly.

IYC Women's motto is, "Volunteering is more fun when you do it with friends." How true. I think I can speak for everyone when I say it was a fun day and that we left with a feeling of accomplishment.  I'm looking forward to future projects with this great group of women. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Art and Politics

Jeff Abbott's "Trump/Hillary" heads
Art is personal.  So it's no surprise that artists use their work to comment on the world around them. Needless to say, this election cycle has provided a wealth of issues for artists to explore. Both the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers and Art Center Sarasota have politically-themed exhibits on display that reveal what some of our local artists are thinking.

The Alliance for the Arts has a walk and talk for each new exhibit which is often led by the judge for the show. Editorial cartoonist Doug McGregor was the juror for the "Politikos" exhibit on display through Nov. 5. And while McGregor shared what drew him to some pieces, he took advantage of having many of the artists on hand to explain their intent.

Aquillera's "Beyond the Division Wall"
Visitors to the gallery are greeted by "Beyond the Division Wall" by Cesar Aquillera. It would be easy to glance at the work, take it in as a message that America should be a nation that embraces people of all ethnicities, and keep moving. I have to admit that that's what I did. Shame on me.

Aquillera explained that the 11 slats in his work represent the 11 Confederate states.The flag-like fence isn't of the white picket variety. It's divided into red and white to show the way that walls separate people in "our neighborhoods, hearts and heads." The missing blue represents a lack of freedom. And what looks at first glance as stars--or perhaps missiles--are in fact little Ku Klux Klansmen. 

 Detail of Rose Young's work

Fiber artist Roseline Young continued the theme of divisiveness in her "Building a Democratic Bridge not a Wall of Lies and Pink Promises." (She said the initial title was longer.) This detail from her quilt shows a tiny overwhelmed Young on a bridge looking out onto a sea of multi-colored panels. The panels do not represent the Rainbow Coalition but the dissonant voices heard during the campaigns. Rose echoed the sentiment of everyone in the room when she said she's more than ready for this election to be over.

Detail from Turner's "Assault on Orlando"
Art Center Sarasota has two politically themed exhibits on now.  The first is Patricia Anderson Turner's "Viewpoints: All Sewn Up." I have long been a fan of Patricia's issue-oriented  fiber art.  Her "Assault on Orlando" includes images of the assault weapon and bullets used in the attack and pictures of each of the 49 victims. Bird-like creations hover above the work, which is installed on the floor of the gallery. Patricia told me the birds represent "the memories of their happier lives soaring in and out of her awareness" and that they are a way to remember the victims in a more positive manner. The wall card for the work reminds viewers that since the ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, there have been 14 mass shootings with assault weapons, including the killing of 20 elementary school children in Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

Anderson's "Humpty Trumpty"

I of course loved Anderson's "Humpty Trumpty."  Accompanying this piece was a work reminiscent of the samplers of yore that read "Humpty Trumpty wanted a Wall and he wanted our neighbors to pay for it all. He thinks we're dumb asses 'cause we pay our taxes. His opinion of women is Neanderthal. Will November bring his curtain call?" Turner provided a balanced view with other panels featuring parodies of Obama and Hillary and Bill, respectively. The related wall card notes that rhymes such as these that could be shared verbally were prevalent in repressive regimes in which dissent and criticism were cause for punishment.

The main gallery features an exhibit entitled "Swing State" that runs through Nov. 25. If you have any question about which way Sarasota artists are leaning in this election, look no further.

While there were a few unflattering portrayals of Hillary, there were lots of anti-Trump works to enjoy.  My favorite was Mike Hodges' "Trumpery." And while the definition of "trumpery" could hardly be more apt, what I like about the work is the way Trump's motto has been turned on its head. I'm not telling you anything new when I say that his campaign has revealed the dark side of America. The fact that there are so many people who are on board with his bigotry and misogyny and hatred and fear (and likely share these world views) alarms and saddens me. It's an America I don't recognize.

Thanks to these local art centers for providing artists the chance to show the role of art in the political process. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

TEDxSarasota Enlightens and Inspires, Part 2

One difference between going to a day of TED talks and watching a single talk from the comfort of your home is that you have an amazing assortment of ideas being thrown at you all day.  And that's what TED is really all about -- looking at the world differently through the cross-pollination of disciplines and ideas. Here are highlights from more speakers at TEDxSarasota whose messages are still bouncing around in my head.

Joseph Michelli
Joseph Michelli works with companies like Starbucks and Zappos to train their employees to deliver "extraordinary customer experiences." He does that by asking execs what makes their company unique. What makes them stand out amongst a sea of competitors? How do they want their customers to talk about them?

This was interesting, but not particularly relevant to my life. But he quickly brought his message down to a personal level.  At the end of our lives, most people can be summed up in one sentence.  What do you want your "legacy statement" to be? Write it now--define the message yourself--and "live into it."

Before anxiety broke out across the room, Joseph explained that your legacy statement doesn't have to be anything particularly grand. It can be something as simple as the message he and his wife crafted for their family, which had to do with living honestly and with commitment to each other. The point is to spend some time thinking about what you want your message to be and keep it in the forefront as you move through life.

Joseph was an incredible speaker -- funny, engaging and honest. You can get a sense of his (corporate) talks by exploring his website here.

Yael Katz
Dr. Yael Katz is the CEO of BrainCheck, an organization at the center of "the intersection of neuroscience, data and technology." If you think that doesn't sound like something typically of interest to me, you're right. But like the other TEDx speakers, Yael brought her talk down to a personal level. She became interested in brain science in part because of her grandfather's dementia, a situation many of us can relate to. 

BrainCheck's products enable you to establish a cognitive health baseline and track changes over time. Their application in the area of sports concussions is obvious. But the products can also be used by people like us to look at what's changing in our own brains. It's a tool that can help our doctors diagnose what's happening as we age.

Yael wasn't peddling their product from the stage, so I had to track her down to ask about costs. It's $40 a year to keep an ongoing record of your cognitive health. It seems like an awfully reasonable price for a product that can truly help you prepare for your future. For more info, click here for BrainCheck's website.

Denise Kowal
Then there was Denise Kowal, founder of the Sarasota Chalk Festival (which takes place in Venice). Now we were totally in my wheelhouse. The Chalk Festival is one of my favorite events all year. The creativity of these artists is amazing -- and even more incredible is the fact that the works of art are only there until the next hard rain. This year's festival (whose theme is Love & Peace) runs from Nov. 11-14 and is a must see for any art lover.

Denise grew up with a father who was a sculptor. They lived in artist colonies and on college campuses. The creative process was always a part of her life.

Dorrit, Janice & John at Chalk Festival

She founded the Chalk Festival as a way to make viewers "an essential part of fine art."  The event features traditional pavement artists and 3D pavement artists from around the world. (The megaladon shark from two years ago still graces the Venice Airport runway. Unlike the other artwork, the signature 3D art designed by Kurt Wenner is done with paint that will endure.) One of the fun things about the day is that many of the artists are there and happy to chat with you about their work. Seriously, if there's one event all year that you make an effort to attend, this should be it. Click here to get to their website.

And so I end my reveries about TEDxSarasota -- at least for purposes of this blog. It was a thought-provoking and fun event, and I'm already looking forward to next year. In the meantime, you can view videos of previous TEDxSarasota talks by going to YouTube and typing in "TEDxSarasota." This year's talks should be online by the end of the month. It's the next best thing to having been there. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

TEDxSarasota Enlightens and Inspires, Part 1

There are a lot of amazing people in the world. People who don't just sit around and lament the state of the world but go out and change it. At the recent TEDxSarasota event, ten people shared their stories and visions of a better world.  The day kicked off with a talk by singer-songwriter turned activist Sarah Symons.

Sarah is the founder of Made by Survivors, a non-profit that trains former victims of human trafficking crimes to make jewelry as a means of supporting themselves.They also house and educate survivors. Sarah began with a couple of stories horrifying beyond belief. Imagine a family so poor that they sell their daughter into sexual slavery. Then imagine the terror and pain that young girl experienced when she is raped by more than ten men on her first night away from home. But the next part is almost the most unimaginable of all. Once that young girl finds her way to Made by Survivors, she leaves that past behind and becomes a young woman who can laugh and have friends and support herself through newly-learned skills as a jewelry maker.

After setting the stage for her talk with this background, Sarah told us that 95% of the young women helped my Made by Survivors have recovered from their trauma. How, you might ask, is this possible? Sarah believes there are three behaviors that enable this to happen. 

First, once the girls have talked about their trauma and received counseling, they focus on what they want in the future. Sarah said they "live into that belief" rather than letting the past define them.

Second, the girls work to stay in the present. You can't heal the past by living in the past. (The education and training the girls receive and the subsequent work they do enables the girls to keep their minds busy on something other than revisiting the past.)

Third, the girls live in gratitude. They've already endured hell and are grateful for having a safe place to live and a way to make a living that they can be proud of. "Their modest expectations of life have become their superpower," Sarah said.

Sarah humbly said that Made by Survivors isn't saving these girls, but offering them the tools to realize their potential. She posited that the mindset she described could help virtually everyone lead happier and more productive lives.

To learn more about Made by Survivors and how you can help (including by buying their products), click here.

Throughout the day, videos of TED talks were shown to provide further inspiration.  Memory Banda's personal story about fighting child marriage laws and traditions in Malawi has a clear connection to Sarah's talk. Click here to watch that video. 

The day was off to an inspiring start. Stay tuned for more of my take-aways. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Look at Three National Book Award Nominees

Each year, the National Book Foundation selects books "celebrating the best of American literature" for consideration for its annual awards. Since the awards were instituted in 1950,the categories of prizes have varied, at times including Science, First Novel and Arts and Letters. Today the categories are just four:  Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry and Young People's Literature. Eligibility is limited to books written by an American citizen and published by an American publisher, with submissions coming from the publishers. A panel of five judges for each category reads the submissions and a long list of books is released in September. The short list of five books will be released tomorrow, with the winners announced in mid-November. To read more about the National Book Awards and to see a complete list of this year's nominees, click here.

That's a long-winded introduction into three works of fiction nominated for the National Book Award that I recently read.

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. With countless raves about Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" (including from Oprah and President Obama), I was prepared to love this book.  And while I was fascinated by Cora's journey on a physical underground railroad in her search for freedom, I kept waiting to be wowed. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the book or find some of Whitehead's writing thought-provoking.

Take, for instance, Cora's revelation about stepping onto the railroad. "On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light." The sense of hope and fear that Cora experienced on each leg of her journey was palpable. And each of her homes had its own interesting story. But still, I wasn't as taken with "The Underground Railroad" as I was with Yaa Gyasi's "Homegoing" or by Kathryn Schulz' article in The New Yorker about the underground railroad entitled "Derailed."  (Click here to read her story.)

Then there's "Imagine Me Gone" by Adam Haslett. Authors are often counseled to write about what they know. That's exactly what Haslett has done in this emotionally difficult read. In an interview with NPR, Haslett shared that both his father and his brother suffered from mental illness. He acknowledged, "I'm no stranger to those states myself."

The title comes from a game John, the father, played with his kids. While out on a rowboat, he laid down, closed his eyes, and said, "Imagine I'm gone. How would you get back to shore?" At that juncture, John is fully there if the kids flounder. But it's not long before we realize that a person can physically exist and yet be absent.

I was struck in particular by Haslett's passages in which he described the feeling of the disease. John explained, "A fog blinded me, thicker than ever before. I slept in the monster's arms." Michael, the family's oldest son, said of his struggle with anxiety, "What do you fear when you fear everything? Time passing and not passing. Death and life...This being the condition itself: the relentless need to escape a moment that never ends."

We finally come to my favorite by far: "The Association of Small Bombs" by Karan Mahajan.  From its start, I was totally into this book with its story of a "small" bomb that explodes in a Delhi market. Among the victims are the young Khurana brothers (who are killed) and their friend Monsoor Ahmed (who is injured). The book follows the story as it develops from a variety of perspectives -- the dead/injured and their families, the terrorists, and others pulled into their orbits.

"The Association of Small Bombs" is good in so many ways that it's hard to know where to start. Mahajan's use of language is compelling and at times unexpected. His description of the moments following the bombing is one example. "...people collapsed, then got up, their hands pressed to their wounds, as if they had smashed eggs against their bodies in hypnotic agreement and were unsure about what to do with the runny, bloody yolk."

Mahajan also reveals to readers some of the harsh realities of life in India. The Khuranas lie to people about what their sons were doing in the market, saying that they were picking up a watch rather than an old TV that had been repaired too many times to mention. Why would they lie in the midst of this tragedy? In a society that has a caste system to this day, " admit to their high-flying friends that their children had not only died among the poor, but had been sent on an errand that smacked of poverty...would have...undone the tightly laced nerves that held them together."

Sadly, the story also has a timeliness to it that's hard to ignore. I was in the midst of this book when the bomb went off in Chelsea, one of my favorite areas of New York. The terrorists in Mahajan's story compare the impact of small bombs to large terror attacks like 9/11, saying, "I think the small bombs that we hear about all the time...are worse. They concentrate the pain on the lives of a few."

I am rooting for "The Association of Small Bombs" to win the National Book Award this year. Admittedly, I haven't read all the nominees, but it's hard to imagine a better-crafted work. If you're in the area, Elaine Newton will be covering this book in her Critic's Choice lecture series at Artis Naples in December.  I am looking forward to hearing her insights. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Moving Ethos Dance Theater: To Have and Uphold

Pretty much everything I know about contemporary dance comes from watching "So You Think You Can Dance." The beauty and power of the dance Travis Wall choreographed to "Say Something" by A Great Big World is forever etched in my memory. And so when I read that Moving Ethos Dance Company would be performing in Urbanite Theatre's intimate space, I persuaded Janice to join me in checking it out. If a single number had even a sliver of the impact of the Travis Wall piece, it would be worth the price of admission.

When we entered the theater, we found the six dancers tucked into onesies lying on the stage. I was intrigued. How this fit with the upcoming performance was an obvious question, as was how they would leap into action after being prone for a good half hour. It all became clear (well, sort of) once the show began.

As the music began, the dancers got up, stripped off their clothes (revealing red lingerie and, in the case of the one male dancer, red briefs), made their way to the wall where multiple sets of the same attire were hanging, and got dressed. They moved first to chairs (which we later learned represented the workplace) and then to a rowdy scene culminating in an argument between two of the women and a slap. Their clothes were shed as they climbed back into the onesies and repeated the chronology five more times.

It didn't take long to figure out the "dance" was a replica of the daily rat race we have all experienced. I was struck by the ability of the dancers to duplicate their facial expressions and physical movements each time. One dancer had a unique little hop as she got her onesie back on. Another looked into the distance as she seemed to contemplate the next day before heading to sleep.

By the end of the number, clothes were strewn around the room where they stayed until the end of the performance. (The orange peels seen in this picture didn't come until later.)

Two other numbers particularly struck a chord with me.  In the first, the dancers were chaotic as they moved and spoke. The words of one woman were the loudest as she declaimed Trump and his rhetoric. She mentioned the wall he wants to build and the proposed ban on Muslims. She posited that his way to "Make America Great Again" involves rolling back the clock to the days of segregation. In the talk-back after the show, the choreographer referred to the piece as their "Trump PSA."

Victoria Mora & Jessica Pope
The second piece was a commentary on the struggle involved in maintaining a relationship. While the work began with two separate individuals, it wasn't long before Victoria and Jessica were entwined in a variety of seemingly impossible positions. This wasn't a couple coming together in harmony, but a pair fighting their way through their issues to remain together. The message was clear: relationships take work.

During the post-show talk-back, an audience member offered his one word description of the performance: "endurance." That seemed just right, on both physical and emotional levels.

Settling in for the talk-back

Among other things, the dancers talked about preparing for the show. Choreographer Leah Verier-Dunn's first assignment had them constantly in motion for a full hour. Then they had to keep moving for an hour while always touching another dancer. Finally, they had to move and continually repeat a 16 count phrase. One dancer shared her amazement at the range of feelings this training evoked. One moment she felt she could go on forever; the next she thought she couldn't make it another second but knew she had to power on.

The show pushes the dancers emotionally as well. Most, we learned, were uncomfortable at first with speaking while dancing. "We talk with our bodies," one dancer said. Verier-Dunn commented it was when she felt discomfort from the group that she knew she was on to something. "What you resist is often what you need to do," she said. So true.

Kudos to Moving Ethos for bringing such a unique and powerful performance to the stage. I am looking forward to seeing their work in the future.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

10:04 by Ben Lerner

Donald Judd box sculpture in Marfa, Texas
 It's the calm before the storm of the season in Southwest Florida, and I'm enjoying having time to read rather than run. Ben Lerner's "10:04" has been on my list for some time. Wendi, my cultural guru, and I have talked about "10:04" because of Lerner's inclusion of Marfa, Texas in the story on more than one occasion. An article in NPR said of Marfa, "This tiny town perched on the high plains of the Chihuahua desert is nothing less than an arts world station of the cross, like Art Basel in Miami, or Documenta in Germany."(To read the article, click here. Needless to say, I want to visit.) But while Marfa plays a role in Lerner's "10:04," it is not the focal point of the book as I had expected. Instead, "10:04" is a story of friendship in a book about ideas with a heavy sprinkling of art and literature and popular culture. It's unlike any book I've ever read. I loved it.

Add caption
When we first meet our protagonist, he is leaving a celebratory dinner with his agent, who has just secured a book deal for him with a "strong six-figure" advance based on a story that appeared in the New Yorker. (A story Lerner wrote for the New Yorker is later dropped into the book. While "10:04" is fiction, the narrator bears much more than a passing resemblance to Lerner himself.) The question of how the story will be expanded is a thread that weaves throughout the book. But our narrator has other issues on his mind as well. He might have Marfan syndrome, a genetic disease. His best friend Alex wants a sperm donation to get pregnant. And then there are the complications of every day life and relationships.

Lerner's writing had me constantly reaching for my post-it notes.  Sometimes I was taken with the images and feelings his descriptions evoked. In his account of Alex raising the idea of the pregnancy during an outing to the Met, I could visualize the moment while getting a glimpse into the way their relationship worked. "Maybe she broached the subject at the museum and not over coffee or the like because in the galleries as on our walks our gazes are parallel, directed in front of us at canvas and not at each other, a condition of our most intimate exchanges; we would work out our views as we conconstructed the literal view before us...Which meant we'd eat a lunch in silence or idle talk, only for me to learn on the subsequent walk home that her mother had been diagnosed in a late stage.You might have us walking on Atlantic, tears streaming down her face, my arm around her shoulders, but our gazes straight ahead."

Other times our narrator's way of looking at the world made me stop and think. He relays, for instance, comments by a parent about why she is sending to her kids to private school. "A lot of the kids were just out of control....Obviously, it's not the kids' fault. A lot them are coming from homes...well, they're drinking soda and eating junk food all the time. Of course, they can't concentrate...They can't be expected to learn or respect other kids who are trying to learn." The narrator refers to this justification as "a new bio-political vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety; instead of claiming brown and black people were biologically inferior, you claimed they were--for reasons you sympathized with, reasons that weren't really their fault--compromised by the food and drink they ingested; all those artificial dyes had darkened them on the inside." Definitely some food for thought.

A photo of Christa McAuliffe from "10:04"
I was intrigued by what I think was the narrator's concept of the simultaneity of the past and the present and the future. His memory of his seven year old self in a classroom being told about the explosion of the Challenger by President Reagan is one example. "...I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery...The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

The title of the book itself is a play on time. It's a reference to a pivotal moment in "Back to the Future." At 10:04 p.m., Marty McFly (played by the wonderful Michael J. Fox) crashed back to the future from his visit to the 1950s in the time-traveling Deloreon. It's an important idea to the narrator, but I just can't quite figure out why.

I know I haven't done the book justice in this somewhat disjointed description. But my meandering captures the way Lerner's writing made my mind dart off in a dozen different directions. Clearly I need to re-read "10:04" to better understand some of the concepts the narrator raises. It's an assignment I welcome. And I eagerly look forward to reading Lerner's "Leaving the Antioch Station," his earlier work that introduces us to the narrator. But first I'm tackling some of the books recently nominated for this year's National Book Award. So many great books, so little time.