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Posts Tagged ‘curiosity

Seeing may be the trickiest part of drawing

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Instinct and childhood definitions make poor interpreters of everyday life

Take this dumb sketch (Exhibit A). I made it while sitting in the lobby at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Those green trees? Utter fiction. Apart from a few pine trees, there is very little green in Minnesota right now. Green won’t even think about appearing for weeks.


Exhibit A

Yet here we have green trees. I threw a dash of green there because trees are green. Except they weren’t green. They were brown. And scratchy and barren-looking. I commented to a drawing friend that my instinct said “green” from long use of my childhood definition of “tree.” And that slap of green was on before I even thought about it.

The gap between seeing and responding is the troublesome bit. If instinct drives my seeing, I miss pylons and electrical wires and gasoline tank farms and wireless telephone towers. All that industrial accretion I’ve seen one million times—all of it invisible. Even though it is really odd-looking stuff, jutting up into the sky at bizarre angles, like nothing in nature.

I don’t see people too: the clerk behind the counter. The janitor with the broom there, off to the side. I try to become practiced at not seeing the homeless man with his cardboard blessing at the end of the ramp. But that never works.

Mrs. Kirkistan and I volunteer at the Children’s Theater Company. It is simple duty: handing out programs. I was surprised this time by how invisible I became to children. Despite being squarely in their way so they must actively move around me to get into the theater. And when I verbally offer them a program, they twitch, suddenly surprised to see a human directly in front of them.

It’s not that I’m diminutive (I’m not). It’s because the entrance to the theater is awesome, like nothing a kid sees anywhere else. Walking through those double-doors into the dark red cavern with hundreds of seats stretching down and up into space and very strange objects akimbo on the stage—it’s hard for anyone to look away. All of that is purposeful on the part of the theater and adds to the experience.

It’s odd being invisible. And that makes me wonder how many people I miss in the course of ordinary life, simply because I have acted on instinct rather than actually believing the data from my eyes.

Instinct and childhood definitions are poor interpreters of everyday life.


Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Where Can I Buy a Fine-Art Mode?

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The Beauty of Knowing Nothing

I don’t have a fine-tuning mode that tinkers with physical detail. I draw and it is mostly crude. I cut plywood and pine shelves and they are rough enough to make my craftsman-father scoff into his hand. I make dinner and it is mostly broad-stroke stuff that requires very little finessing. I will confess my popcorn is a work of art, combining yellow and white kernels, salted and buttered and mixed to a sensuous, savory smack of flavor. And I am learning how words interact on a page—though it is slow going.


How does someone get to the point of crafting from rough cuts to fine finished detail? It is possible that in this age of ordering clothes, pizza and romance from a button on our mobile devices, that some things still take time. Some things require beginning at the beginning. The question for each of us: do I have the courage to begin at the beginning? To know nothing for a time and do things badly?

The beauty about not having been taught drawing is that you are in a position of the acquirer: the process of figuring it out might take a while, and you will most likely continue to figure stuff out as you go, but that process is yours. There are no shortcuts and no tricks. Just the plain practice of drawing, screwing up, and drawing some more.

–France Belleville-Van Stone in Sketch! (NY: Watson-Guptill, 2014)

You cannot buy personal processes. Not really. You have to make them from scratch—those processes that help you make meaning in the world. And you have to begin at the beginning.

Mistake will be made.

You will make those mistakes.

And that’s OK.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

My New Mug is a Proper Communist

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Fresh from St. Petersburg



Oh—it has made a free-market friend.

Or is this some new annexation?

Or is this some new annexation?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 19, 2015 at 9:23 am

Seeing Past Childish Symbols

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Step 1: See the Template You’re Working from

I’ve been trying to learn to draw and Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has been particularly helpful. Edwards looked at why it is so many adults say they can’t draw, which is especially odd since nearly every child loves to draw. How did we move from love to incompetence? Edwards answers that by tracing our development as artists, and here is one milestone:

By around age five or six, children have developed a set of symbols to create a landscape. Again, by a process of trial and error, children usually settle on a single version of a symbolic landscape, which is endlessly repeated. (73)

As we age we become dissatisfied with those symbols but we have not worked out new ways to put on paper what we see. And so we give up, and our drawing gets stuck in that old symbolic system. Edwards provides a much richer discussion, but at least one result is that we must set aside our childish system of symbols to begin to see.

Which is not so simple.


I still start with a circle.

Not so simple because of the confusion that sets in as we try to translate real world scenes into a two-dimensional representations. To set aside the sun as a happy face in the upper right corner means I must look at how the sun reflects off, well, everything. To look at a face and see that—no, there is no outline—is off-putting. How to draw a face without starting with an oval?

This is why Edwards starts with learning to see as a precursor to learning to draw. In my 70+ days of drawing daily, learning to set aside my childish symbolic language has proved difficult. But the answer to seeing better and especially to seeing past the old symbols is to do things badly. And maybe do them badly for a long time. To do things so bad they are cringe-worthy. But that is the price one pays to learn.

I cannot help but think this life lesson and applies across the board. Learning to see and hear, and learning to form your own opinion and make your own representation applies universally. Growth from child to adult means you find new ways to interact with parents, so you set aside some (not all) the old relational cues. The ways we interact with colleagues and bosses must change as we take ownership for our work. Even the childhood symbols that directed our understanding of life purpose and how one knows God must be rejiggered. There is a template for romance we would do well to look at again. Nearly every part of life is helped by reexamination.

"Cutie Pie" + "Let's Read" seems like a good place to land.

“Cutie Pie” + “Let’s Read” seems like a good place to land.

But make a deal with yourself : be patient and give yourself time to move beyond the immediate confusion.



Image credits, including dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 16, 2015 at 9:27 am

English: I still believe in you.

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Get in that job-machine, mister.

More dire news for university English departments: from the University of Maryland, English majors are bailing like mad. And faster and faster.


The humanities have been getting a bad rap for, oh, half a dozen decades or so, because they don’t lead directly to a slot in a job machine. And, as the thinking goes, without the job machine you fail at life. Or at least paying for life’s good things (like a huge TV and plenty of Lean Cuisine) (Or rent and clothing).

We’ve certainly seen this coming. We’ve wondered: Why go into college debt just to be a philosophy-talking barista? We’ve lamented the pitiful conditions of adjuncts. Colleges in my area cut budgets and then cut more, from fat to bone. And now wholesale amputation to accommodate the demands of producing souls for job machines.

True: English departments that focus solely on esoterics need to undergo change. I’ll argue that any academic program (or any institution, frankly) that promotes the inward-gaze as the end-all, top-function of the human condition is currently being rudely awakened.

Smart English departments are tuning in to this—just like businesses have been realizing people don’t really care about their product all that much. Even churches are starting to realize there is a world of people living and working just outside their doors—people not interested in joining the club but crazy-interested in the meaning of life. Speaking of churches, we used to call it “evangelism” when we invited others in. Business evangelists understand all too well the benefit of going where people are and adapting their product to current conditions.

But reaching out to the rest of humanity—that’s where the action is.

It’s because we’ll always need to reach out, to communicate something to someone else, that I’m optimistic about English, if not exactly English departments. Rather than an either-or approach (deep-thinking/creative expression or assembly line training), we need both-and: deep-thinking and creative expression that leads to more conscious assembly line work. And perhaps that thinking will help us move beyond assembly lines entirely.

As I prepare my next set of writing classes for college English majors, I am beefing up the entrepreneurial end. Because the way out of a soulless slot in a job machine is to invent your own job machine.

That’s something we should train writers to do. And some of those writers will be English majors.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

George Saunders: How do you energize someone?

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Sometimes it will be a word.

Bright bits among the ordinary.

Bright bits among the ordinary.

George Saunders, on the odd little Zen parables he heard growing up. Told for laughs, they also carried deeper hints about how to live and what is important in life:

My whole childhood we lived next door to this family I’ll call the Smiths. We didn’t know them very well at all. At one point, Mrs. Smith’s mother, who was in her nineties, passed away. My dad went to the wake, where this exchange occurred:

Dad: “So sorry for your loss.”

Mrs. Smith: Yes, it’s very hard.”

Dad: “Well, on the bright side, I suppose you must be grateful that she had such a long and healthy life.”

Mrs. Smith (mournful, dead-serious): “Yeah. This is the sickest she’s ever been.”

My dad came home just energized from this. I loved his reaction.

–Mike Sacks, Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers (NY: Penguin Books, 2014), 241.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Don’t Bother Me. I’m on Fire.

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Too Busy: 4 Takes

  • My contact is too busy to talk about collaboration: “Too many deliverables, scheduled too tightly.”
  • Another colleague laments the lack of time to think ahead about the broader picture. She chides the constant race to get stuff done.
  • A friend observing the inner-workings of a logistics department 2000 miles from where he was trained could identify key process components missing. The very components that created the immediate chaos the team waded through each day.Gears-3-10162014

We earn our keep by being busy. None of us want the boss to wander by and say, “Fire up that keyboard/drill press/classroom/spreadsheet and get to work.”

Busy is always good.

There are no exceptions.

And yet:

  1. We lament “busy” but secretly get a buzz from opening the adrenalin spigot.
  2. Busy looks productive. But looks can deceive. We easily deceive ourselves with busyness.
  3. When taken out of action (for instance, when downsized/right-sized/laid-off/fired), we suddenly have time to ask:
    • “Where am I?” and
    • “What (the heck) am I doing?” and maybe
    • “What was I thinking?”
  4. No one likes the off-balance, adrenalin-free stance of waiting, watching, knocking and waiting. Are we genetically predisposed to seek action? After all, aren’t verbs the action-heroes in our favorite writing?

It’s hard work to look at the bigger picture and make difficult choices about direction, use of resources, usefulness. And yet those are the very questions that help us move forward. As the wheel of seasons grind toward winter in Minnesota, we might take a page from the farmer’s playbook and let snowy fields lie.

Even on purpose: the fallow field may allow us productive time to consider what it means to be productive.

Versus just busy.


Dumb sketch credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

October 16, 2014 at 10:06 am

Letters to Father Jacob

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And when your life work is revealed as futile:

Stacks of letters arrive daily at blind Father Jacob’s house. People ask for help and he prays for them. Sometimes he does more. Father Jacob’s previous reader is now in a nursing home. So he hired the convicted murderer who was recently pardoned: Leila. But these readings, followed by Father Jacob’s out loud prayers, feel particularly pointless to Leila.

And they start to feel pointless to Father Jacob as well.

And quite possibly Father Jacob is slipping into dementia.


This 2009 Finnish film, which is beautifully photographed, has the pace you might expect of a hermit or ascetic. Not exactly slow, but each frame full of meaning. The film asks about the result of our life work. Where did that passion lead and what was the result?

Our literature of success in the United States hints that passion + patience + perseverance lead directly to success. But real life is more full of falling forward and marching backward: ups and downs that depress and invigorate. Despair swings by. Elation makes an appearance.09242014-MV5BMTU0MDY1NDczMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTgwNjQ5Mg@@._V1__SX1617_SY848_

Letters to Father Jacob is more like real life than our success literature. And the conversations between Leila and Father Jacob reveal far more than mere words let on.

The storytelling in this film will stay with you long after the 74 minutes it takes to watch it. That is because after joy turns to sorrow you begin to see the real story threaded already in your brain.

It’s masterful stuff.

Letters to Father Jacob left me hopeful.


Image credit: IMDB

Written by kirkistan

September 24, 2014 at 8:25 am

Lack of Imagination and the Middle Mind

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Curmudgeon Curtis White May Be Right About ‘Merica

Two friends sat with another friend in a hospital room.

With their friend plugged into monitors and IVs, with frequent interruptions by staff and generally surrounded by unyielding clinical protocols—the best conversation these two friends could muster was…silence.

What to say with someone so needy and so plugged in? How to name the thing their friend was experiencing? Could they talk about his condition and/or prognosis, or was it better to talk about something different entirely?


One friend, the artist Nicolas Africano,

pointed to a length of clear plastic tubing suspended above us, “That amber light is beautiful.”

The other friend, Curtis White responded:

And there in fact was a tiny amber light in the middle of the tubing, a little light I hadn’t noticed at all. It was bright like an isolated star. It triangulated us. Suddenly, the situation changed for me into something completely other than it had been the moment before. We’d been translated. Reordered. Nicholas’s comment reconstellated us. I had a powerful feeling that everything has just been changed utterly and made—what other word was there for it?—beautiful. I smiled, suddenly happy. I looked at Nicholas in awe. And I thought: “You can do that?!”

This is the framing story for Curtis White’s The Middle Mind (NY: HarperCollins, 2003), which is not an easy book.

It was hard for me to stick with it right up until it became hard for me to put down. White comes across as an elitist, academic know-it-all who seems to enjoy pointing out the dark side of everything I hold dear (Terry Gross a proprietor of the middle mind? Really?). Although he insists he is not interested in “high/low culture distinction,” it wasn’t until my second time through the book that I began to understand how his framing story (the amber light in the hospital tubing) is a call to use imagination to see things differently.07142014-curtwhite

White’s “middle mind” is a form of management, a strategy used by leaders in entertainment, academic orthodoxy and political ideology that prevents people from finding their own way. The middle mind management strategy offers up a set of topics that look and smell like genuine thinking, but in fact, are designed to keep an audience from stepping outside the boundaries. Perhaps White’s notion of the middle mind is something like how we get our kids to go to sleep at night: “Would you like to brush your teeth before or after you put on your pajamas?” (See what I did there? Putting on pajamas and going to bed was not one of the choices. Sneaky.)

07142014-9780060730598_p0_v1_s260x420White indicts everyone from journalists to entertainment to business. He castigates the American public for lack of imagination to see outside the news cycles and ridiculous sound bites and a two-party political system. The book is more than ten years old, so was written back when the drums of war we being beaten with particular urgency (then again, when is that not happening?). Ten years on, there are legion more opportunities for middle mind observations. Facebook and “following” and Twitter and, our celebrity worship—there is no end of examples.

There is much to disagree with in Mr. White’s book (for instance, his sweeping dismissal of faith). But his underlying notion that we need to get back to the work of using our imagination to interact with our institutions and work and leisure is a valid call to action and worth considering.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

July 14, 2014 at 9:53 am

Is it Time You Wrote Your Autobiography?

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I’m not writing one. Then again, who isn’t adding to their autobiographical material daily, whether with words or deeds?

but surely I am king of something

I’ve been reading the autobiography of R.G Collingwood, an Oxford philosophy professor of the last century. He set out to trace the outline of how he came to think—a kind of personal intellectual history. Early on in his life (at 8 years old) he found himself sitting with a philosophy text (Kant’s Theory of Ethics). And while he did not understand it, he felt an intense excitement as he read it. “I felt that things of the highest importance were being said about matters of the utmost urgency: things which at all costs I must understand.” (3)  That reading set one course for his life.

One thing that makes this book worth reading is his notion of how questions and answers frame our production of knowledge. Collingwood said he “revolted against the current logical theories.” (30) He rebelled against the tyranny of propositions, judgments and statements as basic units of knowledge. He thought that you cannot come to understand what another person means by simply studying his or her spoken or written words. Instead, you need to know what question that person was asking. Because what that person speaks or writes will be directly related to the question she or he has in mind. This is incredibly useful when studying ancient texts—like a letter from the Apostle Paul, for instance. It’s also incredibly useful when listening to one’s wife (ahem), or a student or to anyone we come in contact with.

Another thing that recommends this book is hearing him tell about his main hobby: archaeology. Collingwood was the opposite of a couch potato. He spent a lot of times in digs around the UK, unearthing old Roman structures and then writing about them. Here too, he explained that while some archaeologists just set out to dig, he only set out to dig when he had formed a precise question to answer. His digging (tools, methods, approach) were all shaped by this question. By starting with a question, he came to very specific answers and, of course, other brand new questions.

Questions begat answers. And more questions.

What question is your life answering?


Image credit: J-J. Grandville via OBI Scrapbook Blog

Written by kirkistan

August 30, 2013 at 5:00 am

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