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The Preferred Path

June 7th 2012

Sometimes a pattern chosen by default can become a path of preference.
-Mary Catherine Bateson, from Composing a Life

My first clay elephant made in kindergarten

I recently found an old manila envelope in which my mother had carefully saved what must have been some of her favorite things of my early childhood schoolwork. In preparation for parents back to school night my 1st grade teacher had asked us the provoking question: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” We were to write our answer down to the best of our ability, and make an accompanying drawing. On yellowed, blue lined paper was a crude drawing with my answer beneath. ”When I grow up I would like to be an elephant.” I find that a perfectly logical 6 year old response to a ridiculous question. The comedian Paula Poundstone said, “Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up ’cause they’re looking for ideas.” I continued to draw and sculpt elephant-like shapes, I suppose in an attempt to solidify the form of my future self. During this early course of self-expression, I created a pattern of personal creative exploration that continues to this day. In her book Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson describes her own quest to understand this process, viewing,”…life as an improvisatory art, about the ways we combine familiar and unfamiliar components in response to new situations…” The pervasive cross-cultural social ideal seems to dictate that the most certain way to achieve success and fulfillment in life is to choose a singular goal very early on, and follow that path to it’s conclusion. However, many of us have found that life, in its constantly changing complexity, offers richly rewarding alternatives—I did not become an elephant.

I did however, have the very rare privilege of exploring various choices, and believe that having a choice should not be a privilege but a matter of course. I realize now that growing up in California, especially in Los Angeles, the world capital of re-invention directly contributed to my feeling that change was a natural fact of life. I also had the great fortune to be in a school system that was well rounded and stressed the arts as equally as science and history. We had engaged and stimulating teachers for those of us that were eager to learn. I had a particularly passionate and magical art teacher, Lyle Suter, who in my case was directly responsible for my trajectory in life and helped put me firmly on my path. He saw my elephant. Even my friends, who were not as fortunate in many respects, were given the possibility of personal exploration, in that they were able to switch majors in college, switch schools, and basically test things out in an attempt to discern what path they might like to follow. Today, most young students are not that lucky, and so many factors go into this: social, cultural, racial and economic limitations to name a few. In the U.S. the cost of university tuition is so over-the- top prohibitive, that it basically excludes the possibility of experimentation that we were able to experience. In real-time, it prohibits young adults from taking their time to “find themselves” as they mature and try different things out, as in most cases the grace period before the loan repayments begin is much too short. When I discuss this topic with friends, many of whom have college age kids, we sit around lamenting the days when we had the freedom to be confused, uncertain and searching for the most fulfilling career/life choices. And even then, many of us with degrees in one area went on to choose something entirely different once we were in our 30’s.

I now see this troubling trend in Europe as well; whose economic instability has also dictated the tone of education. Things are slowly changing as universities have begun to resemble their American counterparts in becoming increasingly corporate driven. The way this has manifested is in the lower grades, the pre-university preparatory education. On a recent sunny Sunday I was sitting in the beautiful garden of a Dacha, or as they are called in North Germany, partzellen, small parcels of land with a little garden house, which people can rent for a very minimal fee, grow their own vegetables and garden to their hearts content. It belonged to a school administrator who explained that it was one of the only things that kept her sane, and was a necessary outlet for the intolerable workload and stress she experienced during the school week. This launched a rather passionate discussion between her and a male colleague who was a teacher at the same school. To my surprise, they were both lamenting the increasingly stressful situation in their school on both the students and teachers. She explained to me along with vigorous nods of accord from the teacher that the state schools have begun to push or aggregate students into a single school, which has had two very specific negative effects. The classrooms are becoming over-crowded and the curriculums have been condensed and distilled down to the minimums of required information in order to get through as quickly as possible. This has placed great stress on teachers and students, as they enter into a more rote-memorization process without the time or space to achieve creative learning, both of which make an outstanding education possible and memorable. When I asked why this was happening, they both replied in unison, “It’s the Corporations–– they need certain types of workers and are pushing schools and states into curriculums that directly link into the kinds of workers these corporations require to keep the intense manufacturing machine going which drives the German economy, simple.” Wow, I thought, that’s just like what happened back in California when school systems dropped art, dance and music, deeming them as inferior parts of a proper educations as compared with math and the sciences. This was all done under the aegis of empowering corporations in order to booster an economy in recession.

Then there is another equally disturbing factor, which is found exclusively in America, and not in Europe– yet; the cost of higher education. The tuition in the U.S. is so hyper-inflated that students are pressured to know and make a decision fairly early on, and move forward to achieve their career goals as soon as possible, as the debt they will drag behind them is practically impossible to overcome, especially in today’s job market. The banks are happy to keep lending at high rates, which seems to set up a form of indentured servitude. In speaking with friends in Hamburg about the cost of our son’s education at a very renowned art school in Pasadena, California we saw looks of horror cross their faces as we sat across the table and told them that after just two and one half semesters we were already in debt by over $48,000.00. He realized half way through his 3rd semester that the career he had chosen was just not for him, and wants to direct his attention elsewhere. Gasp! They almost choked on their beer, as they dared to whisper that their son was at one of the top business universities in Vienna for 18 euros a semester. Our turn to gag.

It is not all bad, there are those lucky few that know exactly what they want to do from a very young age, stick to it and achieve great personal and financial success. There are others of us that find joy and fulfillment in the process of discovery, change and creating things anew. Both paths are noble and in my mind equal and both should have the respect and support of societies that are interested in creative solutions to an increasingly shrinking and competitive world.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
– Charles Darwin

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com /
E: jeanniewn@googlemail.com

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Repetition Plus Expression Equals Satisfaction

May 10 2012

On a week bookended by a beginning guitar class at McCabe’s Guitar Shop and a painting retreat in Encino, I was buffeted by a key challenge of the reinventing Boomer. The guitar classes were held in a room that does triple duty as concert hall, classroom, and showroom. All manner of stringed instruments ranging from ukulele to classic Fender electric guitars to handmade mandolins fill the walls. The classes are also packed with instruction on technique and practice drills. In contrast, at Master Rassouli’s painting retreat in Encino, the opposite approach is taken, no technique–nada, his approach is to inspire free expression. The empty, cavernous, multi-purpose, room fits this method perfectly.

Each class was a stretch for me. The guitar class pushed me beyond my capacities to absorb the chord changes, fingering, and timing of the guitar. I ended up getting more and more frustrated by the minute.  It came to a head when I just shut down and stared at the sheet music, unable to move my hands. At the painting retreat, prepared to paint another masterpiece with new canvas, new brushes, and ample acrylics, I spent the day bobbing around like a castaway’s bottle in the sea with no direction. Between these polar opposites is the sweet spot of growth/ learning in the creative arts. 

Skill development in the arts can be highly satisfying. Whether playing a musical instrument, learning to draw or paint, writing a novel, learning to dance, later in life people are often called to the arts as a way of expressing themselves. They can be a vehicle for growth and achievement as well as simply enjoy of life.  The big elephant in the room is that learning an artistic craft is often tedious, slow, and often difficult. When you have no natural talent for the field but always thought it would be cool to play piano (or draw or tango), it takes motivation and/ or passion to continue on past the unavoidable beginners’ stage.

Artistic pursuits are often seen to be outlets for self expression. Indeed, I have experienced great liberation from simple free painting.  I have done abstract paintings for years and enjoyed it immensely. I had an exhibit of my work a couple years ago called, Expression as Liberation. It was great. The rush from expressing oneself is liberating and fun, but it is also fleeting. Like an intoxication that wears off the next day (if you don’t have a hangover). To sustain the high or the liberation, one must keep taking more of the intoxicant, but in artistic pursuits the high fades overtime without craft, without skill. What is missing is the satisfaction of achievement.

In art, the ‘high’ of flow or engagement in the moment is exciting. To keep that high one must slog through the rough terrain of building skills through drills. Spoken word artist, Adwin David Brown says it this way, “repetition, repetition, repetition, and then flow.”. The bliss of spontaneous creativity comes after many hours on the free throw line at the gym, drilling forehands with a practice partner, and swinging in the batting cage. Miles Davis, the master improviser, said he practiced the scales every day. 

When we entered our first adulthood we were fresh canvases, open to learn new stuff and the long hours of repetition are not so daunting. Brain scientists have determined that the human brain is not fully formed until around 28. After we have filled in the spaces of our brain patterns (science reports that we do use most of our brain, contrary to pop psychology) learning is a bit more daunting.  At a mature age we have to retrain part of our minds to learn new skills. That takes effort. Deep satisfaction from achievement is possible with patience and a carefully designed plan for sustaining the growth. Art done for the quick high, is as ephemeral as last night’s drunk.  My personal mantra on climbing this mountain in the second adulthood is: Show up, be mindful and do it, (over and over and over again).

Ran Klarin
A lifelong L.A. resident, he is known for his relentless creative nature. Ran advocates seeking, finding, revealing, and sharing one’s uniqueness. After a long and notorious (often accused of being ‘innovative’) career in public education where he rose to become a high school principal, he leapt into a new life dedicated to creativity. So far, his career in the creative arts has produced, an exhibition of his paintings, Expression As Liberation, a book of poetry, Expression Is Liberation, and a book of essays, Creative, Collaborative, Cagebreakers. His regular blogs can be found at www.livingthedreamdeferred.blogspot.com. His handbook for Boomer ‘refirement’ Firebird: A Guide for Conscious and Free Retirement will be published in the Fall ‘2012. He asserts that the time has come for Boomers to live their youthful ideals for community, the environment, for freedom, for justice, and for fun. Ran has Masters degrees in School Administration & Mass Communications and an BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley.


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Filed under Arts, Creativity, Education, Human Interest