Category Archives: Reviews and Reactions

The Colors of Memory and Wisdom

Reading Zeyn Joukhadar’s novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, has taught me once again that fiction can be more truthful than non-fiction, that even though the vast majority of fiction is to reading what junk food is to eating, there are novels that inspire even the pickiest of readers, with the highest (or most peculiar) standards for what is inspiring or even healing.

The problem with a lot of  non-fiction is that those that write it often seem not to recognize that what we know is a minuscule particle in a vast infinite universe of what could be known, that the skeptical inquirer is doomed to a rather poorly illuminated reflection of tiny bits of what is known, while those that are willing to use all the tools at the disposal of an aware, enlightened human being, can in fact embark on a voyage filled with light and a rich, ever-unfolding life.

In the fable and living experience woven together in Zeyn’s novel, the human spirit and the Infinite meet in an explosion of life and color and light and dark that moves us to a place where we can see and feel far beyond the narrow confines of overly rigorous, reductionistic thinking and experience. The deeper truths in the stories, sometimes stated very plainly, other times only seen in the wholistic experience of the story, are profound, demanding a stillness and quietness before they open to our view.

The overwhelming energy that moved through the story, illuminating my response, was one of light and color and memory and feeling, reinforced by the synesthesia of Nour, the little girl through which we see the story. While a few might consider Nour’s synesthesia to be an unnecessary device, I found it to be not only completely natural, but in fact a door that anyone can enter if they will but take the time to listen to the music and feel the color to be found in stillness and quietness, to see the light that shines through the broken places, to experience the infinity between the ticks and tocs of a clock.

When I taught 7th and 8th grade science during graduate school, I used to take my students out into nature with notebooks in hand and ask them to see and feel and hear and then write. Most had a very difficult time finding the stillness necessary to do this and probably had a hard time connecting with my descriptions of what happened on my walkabouts when I moved into that living path mode of seeing and hearing. It was also my first time trying to describe this mode and inspire others to try it for themselves. After those experiences I usually simply shared the insights I found in that state.

Nevertheless, I am no less hopeful today than I was when I tried guiding the students, that this mode of seeing and hearing and feeling is open to anyone willing to listen to stillness. Immersing myself in this story, I find again, in yet another form, that stillness containing infinity.

Lately I had started losing hope in the power of words to actually enlighten or inspire or even prompt others to begin a journey. I could find lots of examples that supported my growing doubt. But when I laid this book down, I was struck by a strong sense that I was wrong about that, that some written words were still very powerful, inspiring and healing and opening to that infinity I began to experience so many years ago in my walkabouts in the desert and later in the forests.

I was also reminded that when you have passed through extreme crisis, you learn what is important and what is not, you learn to choose the simple life and connections with those that love you and those that can benefit from your simple help. You remember that so many things in our surroundings, considered so important, cannot compare with the song of an insect, or connection with a friend, or peace of encompassing sunshine. You realize that there is nothing to prove, that the simple things contain everything you need because they are doors to infinity. You see that helping those that struggle, easing the path of those that have very little and seek simply to live in peace, is an integral part of finding and sharing the depth and beauty we are wired to seek, to explore. One cannot truly have the depth and beauty without the healing and compassion.

What remains for me, as I write these words in the afterglow of the story, is a sense of living stillness and remembering and color, and the deep peace that comes when we remember the intense richness of knowing what is important.

While it is of course up to you to read the story and see what beauty and stillness resonates with you, I believe that you too will find that this story is one of those stories that eases the pain of living and even more, that opens the heart to the hope that heals.

 

 

 

Cultures of Creativity and Innovation

Books reliably inspiring enthusiastic conversations are books worthy of close attention. When Beata read and recommended Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Culture Code”, encouraging me by reading bits and pieces of it to me, it was not long before I knew that I had been introduced to just such a book. Soon I was buying copies and giving them away. Over the course of 2-3 months I gave away a bunch of copies and organized an evening in the top floor of the Monarch Motel in Moscow, Idaho devoted to discussion of the book.

The present article is part of my evolving reaction to the stories and theories in Coyle’s book, prompted by the reading inspired barehanded combat with those ideas.


The stories of remarkable environments for creativity and productivity, as well as the stories of studies and research aimed at understanding cultures of creativity and productivity are brilliantly chosen. For this reason alone, I can and do recommend the book to everyone.

If those stories are listened to and felt and thought about and experimented with, the effect on the reader is large.

When I get a (non-mathematical) book and read it carefully, it means I have chosen to engage rather deeply. Usually I write in the margins, in a sort of hand to hand combat with the details and nuances. And there is a fair bit written in the margins of this book. But while I sometimes have issues with the theories used to explain things – mostly nitpicky like the fact that nonlinearilty does not equal non-logical, see the story of the Allen Curve – the quality of the inspiration affected by the book completely outweighs any concern about the book’s shortcomings.


The core of this book is the threefold cord of (1) safety, (2) vulnerability and (3) purpose which, expanded a bit, becomes:

  1. Safety and belonging – taxing existential questions are never the lot of individuals in highly creative, productive environments. The growing scarcity of safety and belonging in many workplaces should be a source of deep concern. The gig economy is an indication that we are eating our seed corn and have ceased to pay even lip service to wisdom and a sustainable future.
  2. An empathetically evolved environment enabled by vulnerability powered connection. A status flat environment in which creative energy flows easily is an environment in which truth and kindness (together!) are common, even foundational. Empathy, in its nuanced and expanded incarnations, is at the root of all highly effective, sustainable environments.
  3. Purpose and vision – a bold, omnipresent clarity on the deeper foundational laws of being as well as the aims, the goals and the lofty visions that drive everything. An environment filled with signals keeping these principles and visions in constant view, is an environment whose vision is sustainable. Opposing the natural trend towards higher organizational entropy, these signals are an energy that enables the culture to remain inspired and organized for innovation and collaboration.

These three threads are the pillars of environments that have no trouble keeping those that enter their influence. We visit and never want to leave – quite literally. In fact, Daniel himself admitted that when he was doing the research for the book, he found himself making excuses why he needed to stay in the environments he was investigating, even after he had the information he needed for his book.

Of course, some of the research was historical, visible only through the stories of those who were lucky enough to be part of those past places. Take for instance, Bell Labs in its heyday and Harry Nyquist.

In trying to understand the smaller group of super-innovators at Bell Labs, every possible factor was eliminated until it was discovered that all of these super-innovators ate lunch with Harry. He would draw out and listen to his lunch-mates with interest and curiosity, quietly giving them inspiring ideas and questions to go away and think about. Though Harry was also well known and influential because of his own research and innovation, neither this fact, nor his ability to spark innovation in others, seemed to effect his gentle, fatherly demeanor or tranquil reliability. In fact, these characteristics seemed to be significant part of the reason for his power. Disarmed by his demeanor, they opened up to his relentless curiosity.

At IDEO, the design company responsible for a large number of design innovations,  Roshi Givechi plays a similar role, roaming from one design group to another, helping them to overcome obstacles and find new creative grooves through a powerful ability to listen and ask questions. In fact, when Daniel Coyle told her the title of the book he was doing the research for, it was not long before he had a new subtitle after she asked a question about his choice of subtitle.


The other stories and anecdotes are very well selected and wide ranging. Some illustrate principles of collaboration. The Allen curve, showing that effectiveness of collaboration is inversely proportional to the distance between desks of those collaborating, is another striking story of discovery that is both surprising when you hear it for the first time and sensible, even intuitively reasonable, when you take it in and think about it for awhile. While it is not an illogical relationship, as Coyle asserts, it is a non-linear one that will nonetheless make sense to anyone whose intuitions include some instincts for physics and chemistry and interactions and reactions.

Other stories are rich with insight, a sort of living book waiting to be read more and more deeply. Coyle starts his book with such a story, of kindergartners outdoing, by a factor of two, groups of business students and professionals in a challenge to build the highest tower with a piece of tape, a string, a few dried spaghetti  and a single marshmallow. And for me at least, this set the tone of the book.


As noted above, I ended up with a book full of marginal notes (in pencil!) and a lot of thoughts that were discussed with others. If I had to select a phrase that captured the influence of the book on me I think it would be:

… brilliantly selected stories and simple principles that were even more compelling because they were validated by my own experiences in trying to build highly effective teams of innovators …


And the effect of the book does not end with the sharing of the book and discussions.

The histories of places like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC and Los Alamos and the Rad Labs in Boston were already part of my own context, either through direct experience or through careful histories that I had read and internalized, but something about the combination of this book and my own struggles with getting groups together that were sometimes partly or mostly successful and other times were pretty clear failures, created in me a deeper openness and readiness to put these principles into action.

While the experiment that is now underway is a topic for another article, I can say that the timing for the discovery that Beata made and passed on to me was remarkable.

I give the book my highest recommendation.

A Silence, Rich with Inspiration

Glynne Robinson Betts’ 1981 Writers in Residence is for me a lyrical invitation to quietness. The photo illuminated essays on places, in time and space, where writers lived and wrote,  invoke a strong sense of life lived with wide spaces for thought and creativity. The sections on Carl Sandburg, Anne Dillard, Robinson Jeffers and several others, recall daily rhythms friendly to depth.

These passages somehow bring back my life in the late 60’s and 70’s, when computers were rare and time to think was not hard to find. In college in the early 80’s, there was still time to think, time to read through a book on a weekend or master complex ideas in quietness, with a devotion to deep comprehension. I wonder, how many now feel that call to stillness, to a silence that is rich in inspiration?

Where do we find the wide spaces today? And who lives there? Those that tasted the thrill of illumination through immersion in quietness remember those spaces, but what of those addicted to their mobile devices, what of those who believe social media connects, wikipedia illuminates and TED talks are the pinnacle of inspiration? While wikipedia is useful, TED talks are sometimes narrowly inspiring, the intense illumination of bare-handed, personal discovery leaves you changed, forever.

Seeking the simplicity of those wide spaces, listening till we hear the quietness sing, we find the same places the writers found, the same illumination that is never forgotten … we walk through an open door to the infinity that lives between the ticks of the clock, between the words on a page, between the breaths we breath.

 

 

 

Disrupting Digital Delusions

A great deal is made now of inventions and ideas that will disrupt the usual way of doing things. “Thought Leaders”, eager technologists and the newly rich digital class are alive with a buzz that leaps from idea to idea and innovation to innovation, with scarcely a moment left for reflection or contemplation. Whatever is not the way it was yesterday, technologically speaking, is seen as the key to a glowing future.

Of course, there are naysayers, those that warn of the dangers and point out the signs that not everything is rosy, but humanity keeps accelerating, pressed on by their ubiquitous mobile devices. Email, Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Google, and thousands of other digital tools compete to capture and command our attention. Music in the form of mp3 files, books in the form of eBooks, anything (and everything) from Amazon, and a host of other digital replacements for what we used to see and feel and experience in “real life”, seduce us into thinking that  non-digital things — things that we can see and touch and hold and smell and own with no ambiguity — that those analog things are passe. Thus Vinyl Records, real books, real stores, and real jobs where things are made with our own hands are considered relics from a bygone era.

But anyone that slows down enough to think and to feel begins to question this idolization of technology and speed. Looking for books to read along these lines, they might find The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains by Carr, or You are not a Gadget: A manifesto by Lanier or Hamlet’s Blackberry by Powers, all of which are good. In Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, David Sax takes another approach, focusing on an argument for things thought obsolete, making the argument, often eloquently, that those analog things are not at all obsolete. He asks us to consider the possibility that analog things are far from dead, that in fact they might rescue us from the dangerous cliff that everything digital has lured us towards. I think he is on to something.

In the book, we find vinyl record companies like United Recording Pressing and Third Man Records, real film photography companies like FILM Ferrania, Lomography and The Impossible Project, real books made of paper and bookstores made of brick that thrive because they know their books and their customers, magazines like Stack — a meta magazine that send out a different, new independent magazine every month, and Delayed Gratification — a slow news magazine that you cannot read electronically. In a chapter in work, we discover Shinola, the luxury watch company in Detroit the is employing hundreds of formerly unemployed workers that construct watches and other distinctive products in an environment committed to making things in the USA. Another story I was intrigued and inspired by, was the story of the Newspaper Club that enables anyone with an idea to generate a small scale paper or magazine.

Even though, as Sax points out, real things are often still the way to make money, this does not explain why customers should prefer analog to digital, as is becoming clear is the case. Serendipity of finding a book you were not looking for when you go to a real bookstore stocked by real and knowledgeable staff or of meeting people in real places like cafes and brick and mortar stores, that we would not meet online, the importance of putting pen to paper for the purposes of remembering and recruiting the entire mind in the creative process, the nuances and range of response that real film offers that digital cannot match — these are a few of the reasons that digital cannot replace analog. In particular,  it seems that face to face connection, free of digital mediation is incredibly important for sustaining a network of real human connection, so important for mental and emotional health.


I finished the book before we traveled to Chicago on the Amtrak Empire Builder, in a sleeper compartment. The train seemed a fitting response to my decision to disconnect and slow down. The slow pace, the shared meals with other travelers we had never met,  conspired to engage Beata and I in conversations with several fascinating couples and individuals, some of whom may in fact become long term friends. The slow pace also, somehow, prepared me for the stay in Chicago, where, in addition to my usual impromptu maintenance and design challenges for my mother-in-law (and her mother, who turned 94 while we were there), I visited a sequence of bookstores and a Shinola Shop, all using the subway trains.

In the back of my mind (and occasionally in the front, as when recommending Revenge of Analog to bookstore owners), Revenge of Analog informed my search for books and magazines. Getting on at the Harlem stop, not far from O’Hare, it did not take long to get to Logan Square, where I visited CIty Lit Books, owned by Teresa Kirschbraun with whom I had a long discussion. After buying The Internet of Us by Lynch and another, The Book, by Houston, I moved on to  Uncharted Books, where I found Nick Disabato’s design publications, among other books. In Wicker Park, a few stops closer to downtown, I found Quimby’s, Myopic Books and Volumes. Over a few days I visited a few more including Ravenswood Used Books on Montrose and Unabridged on Broadway. I recommend both of these stores along with the previously mentioned stores, though I would have to say that the most engaging stores to shop were City Lit Books and Ravenswood Used Books. (In Wicker Park I also bought a notebook in the Shinola store.)


Somewhere in this summer and process of reorientation of focus and energy, I found myself realizing that I have to make changes in order to recapture the analog, face to face interactions that flow at their own pace. A maker space is one idea, as is a place to be, to connect, to converse, with little in the way of time constraints, perhaps some sort of updated version of the 18th and 19th century Salons. This is what I am finding the summer of avoiding email (checked only on Tuesdays and Fridays) and movies (we canceled Netflix and Youtube Red), and instead reading and thinking and walking and talking, has led me to. Yet another idea that is emerging is the recreation of a Bell Labs like environment, updated, but also very retro in its demand for time to think, with a focus on an organic interdisciplinarity that would have seemed natural to the innovators and thinkers in the 18th, 19th and very early 20th centuries.

I began the summer very burned out from interaction with the highly dysfunctional, ego-focused, post-student-focused academia (i.e. the new normal in academia), and have arrived at a point where I see what to do. Revenge of Analog was an important catalyst. In one way, it did not teach me too many new things, yet in another way, it was an absolutely critical inspiration, moving me towards understanding where I must go. But that is what good catalysts do — they take things you know or almost know and then push you to respond to the inspiration that emerges from your own unique experience and whatever new thoughts the catalyst might add to the mix.


If we are to have a healthy future, community focused activities and places to be together to talk and connect and explore and learn and create must be preserved and expanded. it seems fitting that I found David Sax’s brilliantly timed catalyst for this rethinking and renewal on the new book shelf, in the local public library.

While my interests have led me to pick a few projects in line with this vision, there are an enormous number of variations and innovations that promote and support connection and creative productivity. All of them depend on fundamentally analog, tangible, non-virtual experiences. As a part of my response to the book, I intend to encourage as many people as possible to read this book. In fact, I am considering starting a book club that would begin by reading Revenge of Analog.

Perhaps I can even convince the local library to add this book to their book club list so that they will have multiple copies on hand when we read the book together.

By the Light of the Moon in Broad Daylight

Sometimes a piece of music resonates so deeply it seems to be singing from inside you. The music is your own — you are confident it is music you would have written, had you been in the habit of writing music.


The movie starts with music — Benjamin Britten’s A Young person’s Guide to the Orchestra being played on a child’s portable record player. Delicate, yet robust — reanimating things past, painting pictures with innocence (and a little bit of sad, jaded reality), Moonrise Kingdom is a tone poem that will stay with you long after the movie is over. The story of two 12 year olds, running away together into the wilder parts of a small island on which the entire story unfolds, is captured with a simplicity and joy that defies words. But listening to The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe again, I am drawn back into the story. Clearly inspired by Britten’s piece and the story unfolded in the movie, the simplicity of Desplat’s song almost without words, captures the tale completely, vividly.

It was at the end of a day with disappointments that I went to see the movie “Moonrise Kingdom”. Letting go, I found the almost-pure innocence of a bygone era singing to me a vivid, soul-felt song, healing me with a curious kind of hope.


In the Moonrise Kingdom there reigns disarming honesty, simplicity, sweetness, and a vision of reality that clings to hope.

Brilliance and Renaissance

Today, I was moved and inspired by the documentary “The Philosopher Kings”. It reminded me of a deeper level of awareness, of life and brilliance that awaits our quietness and attention. Life as ideas, as art, as the true university — life as immersion in those bright beams of illumination awaiting the attentive.

Brilliance breaks through to the ready and attentive, here and there, now and then. Illumination floods through the embrace of even one insight. Brilliance is often described as a feeling, because it is nothing more or less than full immersion into the stream of life. At a fundamental level it has nothing to do with the recognition of others or the acclaim of an adoring audience.

Illumination waits everywhere, at all times, for anyone who will see.

Quietness opens the eyes.

Brilliance is freely available, yet many avoid the quietness that would make them aware of brilliance. In quietness, the life and depth in everything becomes visible. In the mundane, uninspired lives so many believe they have, inspired joy is close at hand, just below the surface, ever ready to illuminate. The smallest steps in the direction of life begin to transform, to open and heal.

Solitude and connection, point and counterpoint, brings a growing awareness of light and creative power. The world becomes a deeply informative study, the invitation to illumination, to brilliance that encompasses and moves to something larger.

Then we teach.

Teaching, we have come full circle, but not to the place we began. Having embraced life and illumination, this is simply the place that we consciously take on the mentoring of others. Dwelling in the place without limits, we find others attracted to the life flowing over and outward.

Others join us.

That is renaissance.