31 days of giving

At the beginning of December, my sister Heidi did something awesome. She’s generally great, but this was extra super cool. She posted this on her Facebook timeline:

After 30 Days of Thanksgiving and the positivity that it brought to my life, I was trying to think of something for December. I have come up with 31 Days of Giving!

It is the season for giving, and so every day this month I am going to tag a friend and ask them what not-for-profit organization they think is worthy of a donation this holiday season.

It’s not an invitation to debate the worthiness of the charities, merely a way for everyone to find out about organizations they didn’t know about that might align with their values to donate to this holiday season.

Remember, a $25 donation to a not-for-profit is tax deductible.

When I asked her if this was her idea or part of a larger campaign, she said, “I came up with it. I thought it would be better than a charity a day from me, that I’d get a wider view of places where people could focus their giving.”

Heidi is half way through the month, and she’s received a response from every friend she’s tagged. Below, are the suggestions she’s received to date. I’m not officially endorsing any of these organizations, except for the one I personally shared on December 4.

December 1     Heifer International
December 2     Mattea’s Joy
December 3     More Birthdays
December 4     terraNOVA Collective
December 7     Colorado Strong
December 9     Wounded Warrior Project
December 13   Stray Rescue
December 14   Human Rights Council
December 15   Autism Speaks

 

One of Heidi’s friends made the good point you should confirm causes aren’t scams before donating. She shared an article from Consumer Reports on how to vet organizations.

There are only 15 days left in 2012 to donate to a worthy cause. Do any of these strike your fancy? What charities or not-for-profit organizations do you support?

found poem from a chat with jay z, warren buffett and steve forbes

Steve Forbes sat down for a conversation with Warren Buffett and Jay Z about success, hard work and philanthropy. It’s a wonderful portrait of two men from different generations comparing and contrasting their lives. I took a few notes and created a little sound bite found poem. Some of the words are direct quotes, some are the spirit of what was said, and some won’t make sense unless you watch the video. Guess who said what, and then see how many you got correct.

Start young. Be smart enough.
Don’t lose your shit.
Truth. Authentic. Discipline. Luck.
Do what you love. Don’t give up.
Embrace change. Practice. Take time to develop. 
Know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. 

1 + 1 = 3. 
Try to create once in a lifetime experiences. 
The best boat you can have is your own talent. 
Education is important.
Emulate people you admire. 

Give back generously; you will have enough to live.

Thanks, Arian Moayed, who shared this video in the social feeds.

becoming our own heroes

Jim Morrison was one of my first literary heroes. I listened to The Doors for hours on end, and when Oliver Stone’s biopic opened, I allowed Val Kilmer’s method-soaked performance to wash over me. I longed to be like Jim. He died three years before I was born, and in my senior year of high school, I convinced myself I actually might be the reincarnation of The Lizard King.

Canton High School, Canton, IL September 1967 – source: jimparisandme.tumblr.com

My first creative writing teacher, Mrs. Roudebush, encouraged my writing style because she was more obsessed with Jim than I. The Doors have a special place in the mythology of our small town of Canton, IL, for they played the high school auditorium in September of 1967. Mrs. R. attended that concert, and it made a marked impression on her teenage, hormone gorged mind. She made me promise if I ever found a poster of Jim with a black dog, I would let her know.

I vowed I would.

Twenty years later, tooling around the Internet, I discovered an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Big Think posts interviews with some of the greatest minds the world has to offer. They share snippets of wisdom. Sometimes, it is mind-blowing, and other times, they are familiar nuggets that require repeating.

In the interview, Dr. Tyson offers this reminder: “I think the greatest of people that have ever been in society, they were never versions of someone else. They were themselves.”

It was true in Shakespeare’s day, and it’s still is today.

Mimicking great artists’ work is typical. It’s how we learn. Hunter S. Thompson retyped “The Great Gatsby” word for word to get the feel for Fitzgerald’s writing. Eventually, though, Thompson found his own, authentic voice, spawning an entire journalistic movement. Great artists follow their hearts, which is typically why they are great artists.

It randomly reminded me of another influence from my childhood. The Brady Bunch.

When it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange
Move your heart to what your gonna be

I’m thankful for my artistic heroes, but I’m my best self when I’m true to my own voice. My personal relationships and my art get better when I’m authentic and open. It’s easier said than done, but it’s sure as hell is liberating to wake up and realize you can be your own hero.

P.S. – Mrs. R., back in high school, we had no idea this thing called the Internet would exist, creating a place where we can find practically anything we want.
You can purchase your poster here.

speaking for our time

Last month, I celebrated the first year of marriage with my wife. We didn’t have a lot of money or time to plan a big getaway, so we borrowed a car and headed up to The Berkshires for an overnight stay in a Super 8 Motel. Not knowing the area, we hopped online to research what fun we might find. We discovered The Norman Rockwell Museum is in Stockbridge, MA just twenty minutes away from our motel. I was super excited at the chance to see the original paintings made famous by so many Saturday Evening Post covers.

“Coming and Going”

My wife was interested, but didn’t share my enthusiasm.

“We have to go!” I insisted.

She conceded, and we embarked upon what I can only describe as a magical afternoon.

It may seem odd that I was so insistent on visiting the museum, but Norman Rockwell is a childhood hero. My father owns Monical’s Pizza Place in Canton, IL, and when I was in junior high, my mother and he redecorated the small restaurant. They chose to cover one wall with Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post wallpaper. The pizza place was my second home, and that wall spurred me to learn about and fall in love with Norman Rockwell.

Typically, I’m not a nostalgic person. I don’t yearn for my youth. For some reason, though, Norman Rockwell turns me to a 14-year-old again. I look at his work with wonder. He had a way of capturing life that photographs don’t. Now, I was going to see his original paintings

If you look at his work, it’s not exact. Sure, the faces look almost like the photographs from which he worked, but he’s fabricated the scenarios. He was a storyteller; a curator of life, plucking people’s faces to put in his paintings and tell tales about certain times and places. Sometimes, they are iconic, like the family around the dinner table at Thanksgiving in Freedom from Want.

Other moments are highly political and charged with dissonance of the day, like The Problem We All Live With, depicting the real-life Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, walking to an all-white public school in New Orleans, LA on November 14, 1960. President Obama displayed it outside the Oval Office for the first three years of his presidency. That’s how important this painting is.

It all deeply impressed my wife. She’d always viewed Rockwell as an art director of magazine covers. A commercial artist who created hazy, iconic Americana. Certainly, at first glance, his oeuvre can feel like this, but the deeper you look, the clearer it becomes: He was a great artist who reflected the times in which he lived with immense passion.

Dario Fo, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997, said, “A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.”

Norman Rockwell spoke for generations. His images still influence artists today. Just two weeks ago, The New Yorker riffed on The Tattoo Artist, a painting of a man receiving a tattoo where he’s crossed out his previous girlfriends and adds a new one. The satirical illustration, Skin Deep, is by Barry Blitt and featured Mitt Romney having old political positions that no longer suit his platform crossed out for new ones.

He also influences painters, like comic artist Alex Ross, who has his own exhibition “Heroes and Villains” at The Norman Rockwell Museum from now until February 24, 2013. To commemorate Rockwell, Ross painted a portrait of the master specifically for this exhibition. Unsurprisingly, he chose to portray Rockwell as an American hero, draped with an American flag.

“Norman Rockwell” by Alex Ross

Norman Rockwell’s attention to detail and subtle storytelling boldly spoke for his own time. That isn’t an easy to do. Often, I see young artists bent on portraying their own lives, which often leads to self-indulgent psychological work to which others cannot relate. As artists, we must seek truth in others and do our best to curate stories that change the way humanity sees itself. Through empathy, we can see others and, hopefully, make a better world.

All photos were taken by me on my iPhone, except for the Alex Ross image, which was found on his website: www.alexrossart.com

the music of our city

Last night, I took the F train into Manhattan after being restricted to the borough of Brooklyn for almost a week in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It was a surreal experience. The city was as quiet as I’d seen it since 9/11. Practically, the only cars on the street were taxi cabs, outnumbering other cars 10 to 1. There was a tension on the trains punctuated by supportive smiles and silent nods from other passengers.

I went to Manhattan to attend a talk, The Public Forum at Joe’s Pub, featuring two of my artistic heroes, solo performer Anna Deavere Smith and David Simon, creator of “The Wire.” They talked about their work processes, the music of speech, and, of course, Sandy. It was great being in a theater for the second time in as many nights, and hearing them speak in a place I consider a home was healing.
David Simon and Anna Deavere Smith

One of the most poignant moments came when Ms. Smith spoke about how tragedies can invigorate creativity. They spur artists to vehemently return to the work because artists make art. She expressed her anticipation of rejuvenated creativity and related it to shopkeepers returning to work after Hurricane Katrina. This is who they were, and if they didn’t open their shops, their lives lost meaning.

The Forum inspired, indeed. Mr. Simon shared how he records actual background conversations for all his productions instead of the traditional “peas and carrots” walla typically taped because it works as a soundtrack – the music of conversation. Ms. Smith insists on word perfect recitation of the interviews she performs because every “like” and “um” represents the soul of that person.

I left Joe’s Pub on cloud nine. After the talk, I was supposed to connect with my wife Christy, who was teaching yoga in the neighborhood, but my phone died and I couldn’t call her. We planned to meet up and ride the subway back to Brooklyn together. Instead, I hopped on the F train at Broadway-Lafayette, resigned to ride home solo. When the train pulled into the Delancey street station, I peered out the train’s window, hoping Christy might be on the platform, since that is where she typically catches it.

Low and behold there she was.

My train car passed Christy, and she didn’t see me in the window. She boarded the train two cars behind me, so I had to walk back to surprise her. At the next stop, I was able to skip to her car and sneak up on her, smiling big, hoping for a hug.

She saw me, and with wide eyes she said, “Were you down there next to the fight?”

Fight? What’s she talking about? Where?

She pointed to the end of the car, and I saw it: Two men – one big, young guy and another, older, homeless man. They yelled at each other. The young guy was pissed because the homeless man was staring at him. The homeless man shouted that he wasn’t looking at the young guy.

They got louder and louder until I said, “Let’s get out of here. Go to the next car.”

Christy hesitated, but the fight escalated, and it seemed punches might fly at any moment. She stood, and we went to the next car, fleeing the fight.

Through the end windows of our new car, we safely watched the young guy, inches from the homeless man’s face, screaming. Finally, as the train pulled into the Jay Street-Metro Tech station, the young guy lifted his arm and slammed it against the homeless man’s face. The homeless man dropped to the ground, and the young guy grabbed his own travel bags, exiting the train onto the platform.

Dazed, the homeless man stood up, scrambling for the young man, but then he realized he was leaving his own bags. He went back for his bags, grabbed them and stumbled onto the platform where I assume they continued fighting. The F train pulled out, and we headed home, both shaken by the experience.

A woman sat across from us. She was eager to recount the altercation blow by blow. How she evacuated the fight car, too. How the young guy had also yelled at her when she sat across from him. She speculated he might be displaced by the storm. He had travel bags. Maybe he was going home. Maybe he was an evacuee, headed to a friends’ place in Brooklyn. Whatever the case, he was disproportionately angry, and the homeless man got the brunt of that rage.

Soon, she spoke about the storm. She’d been volunteering in Red Hook and Coney Island, and the stories she shared were harrowing. She and her friend purchased saris in Jackson Heights and took them to Coney Island because women who wouldn’t leave their homes uncovered for religious reasons had been wearing wet, moldy saris for days. In the Red Hook Housing Projects, there are many elderly residents who didn’t evacuate and won’t leave. There is plenty of support from Red Cross on the ground, but the residents won’t evacuate. One elderly lady’s apartment had wet, moldy carpeting and was infested with rats and raccoons. The woman begged the older lady to let her carry her down 12 flights of stairs, but the older lady wouldn’t abandon her home. The woman told us she must get a hepatitis shot because she’d been wading in waste for two days.

Christy and I arrived at our stop, leaving the woman on the train with faint smiles and weak waves.

“Good luck,” we said.

“You, too,” she replied.

We felt gut punched. It was hard to talk for a few minutes, grappling with the fight we witnessed and the woman’s tale. After a detached week watching devastation on the news, we heard first-hand accounts of what it looks like inside the madness. We saw the affects of madness on men. We tried to make sense of our fortune of living at the highest elevation in Brooklyn, a place barely touched by Sandy’s wrath.

Then, I remembered the conversation of Ms. Smith and Mr. Simon just an hour earlier. As an artist and a writer, it is my job to share these stories. It is my job to reflect the madness of victims and triumph of heroes. It’s important to get back to work. For many, this may not be possible for a while, but it is important to return as soon as we can.

I can return to work now. I can help others with not only my donations and service, but by writing and sharing stories. It doesn’t matter if you sell coffee, teach yoga, work in a skyscraper, or entertain and educate through artistic creation. As soon as you can, get back to what you do best. It adds your unique voice back to a wondrously diverse symphony – the music of our city.

OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP NYC RECOVER

The City of New York volunteer registration nyc.gov/service

Park Slope Armory 8th Avenue between 14th and 15th streets in Brooklyn
(Kids cannot volunteer and should stay at home)

Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation
402 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, NY 718-965-3100

Red Hook Initiative 767 Hicks Street Brooklyn, NY 11231
ONLY ACCEPTING PREPARED FOOD

Red Hook Recovers  (347) 770-152 https://redhook.recovers.org

Resurrection Parish (Gerritsen Beach)
2331 Gerritsen Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11229 (718) 743-7234

The Silver Gull (Breezy Point) 1 Beach 193rd Street, Breezy Point

Far Rockaway St. Francis, 219 Beach 129th Street

Coney Island  Staging area @ 2770 West 5th Street Between Neptune and West Ave.

Staten Island – Tottenville High School 
100 Luten Avenue, Staten Island, NY 10312
nysassembly60@gmail.com

Rebuild Staten Island
https://www.facebook.com/RebuildStatenIsland