I Get a Kick(Start) Out of You

As a kid, I loved going to the public library.  In fact, I first fell in love with New York City at the Wasilla Public Library, devouring books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the All-of-a-Kind Family series.  The library was near my dad’s office, so I could ride with him to work, then walk to the library and spend my afternoon among the bookshelves.  Bliss!  There was just one problem: I had to cross the street at a four-way stop to get to the library.

The four-way stop was, to my 9-year-old self, a daunting intersection to navigate.  I found the traffic rules intimidating, and usually just stood nervously on the sidewalk until a kindly driver waved me across, at which point I ran for my life and exhaled with relief upon reaching the other side.

All these years later, I still love New York City and the public library.  I’m also happy to report that I no longer find four-way stops to be challenging.  The intersection of art and commerce, on the other hand, is riddled with complicated questions: how can I make a living as a musician?  How are the arts funded in the United States?  How can I support the arts?  How can I garner support for my own creative endeavors?

The answers to these questions have never been definitive, but KickStarter provides some interesting options.  KickStarter is an online platform that offers unique ways to both support and be supported by the creative community.  I’ve backed several projects on KickStarter, and I’m also smack dab in the middle of my own campaign as I prepare to make my debut solo album, The Great City.

What I like about KickStarter is that it’s a two-way street.  You make a pledge to someone’s project, and you get something in return.  The “something” that you get, as per KickStarter rules, has to be generated by the project you’re supporting.  In my case, people who pledge toward my album will receive signed advance copies of The Great City, copies of my Christmas CD (in time for the holidays, of course!), album art, liner note credits, and in-home concerts, among other rewards.

So today, on Cyber Monday, please consider joining my KickStarter campaign and becoming a part of my album.  When you visit my KickStarter page and make your pledge, you’ll be giving and receiving the gift of music; what better way to spread holiday cheer?  I’ll meet you there, on the corner of art and commerce.  Happy holidays!

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The (anti)Social Network

The Reverb 10 prompt for December 5 asks, What (or whom) did you let go of this year? Why? (Author: Alice Bradley) Since I’m skipping around and doubling up on the Reverb 10 prompts until I get caught up, I thought the December 5 question dovetailed nicely with the question posed by author Cali Harris on December 7: Where have you discovered community, online or otherwise, in 2010? What community would you like to join, create or more deeply connect with in 2011?

Well, I let go of my Facebook community this year.* (Not that I really consider Facebook a community, although as I type those words I feel fortunate that tomatoes can’t be thrown via the internet. I’m sure more than a few of you would like to lob some my direction for such heresy.) Truthfully, I had a little trepidation about leaving Facebook. After all, those were almost one thousand friends with whom I was severing all communication, right?

Um, no. Not really.

In actuality, I’d been spending an inordinate amount of time online with hundreds of virtual strangers, finding out more than I needed–or wanted–to know about toilet training, obnoxious co-workers, and imaginary farms/mafia wars/pretend cafés. Meanwhile, I craved in-person interaction with the small but much-loved cadre of bon vivants who comprise my circle of flesh-and-blood friends.

My frustrations with Facebook (and with myself on Facebook) came to a head when, fueled by giddy excitement and a few too many glasses of champagne, I changed my relationship status to “Engaged” before my fiancé had had a chance to call his friends and tell them our happy news himself. A handful of people near and dear to the person whom I hold nearest and dearest found out about our engagement via…Facebook. He was (rightfully) pissed, I was rueful, and with a steady hand and firm resolve, I pressed “delete” and haven’t looked back.

It seems I’m far from the only person dubious about the merits of social networking. I attended a cocktail party this fall, where I met someone who told me with a smile that he, too, had recently removed himself from the world of Facebook. When I recently stopped by a photographer friend’s always-thoughtful blog, I found that she, too, had recently abandoned Facebook in favor of increased productivity and more face time with friends. Perhaps the brilliant Aaron Sorkin, writer of The Social Network, said it best when he told Stephen Colbert, “Socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.”

I’m not unaware of the inherent stickiness of castigating Facebook via that other ubiquitous online medium, the blog. After giving it some thought, though, I believe that reading a blog is akin to turning on your TV for the purpose of watching a specific program. Cruising aimlessly around Facebook, on the other hand, is more analogous to having the television blaring in the background while you go about your business around the house: it’s loud, distracting, and often utterly meaningless.

Lest I come off here like a curmudgeonly Luddite, let me just say that I know there are some of you who can check your Facebook profile once or twice a day, tops, and you swear by the site’s usefulness in keeping in touch with faraway loved ones. To the three people on earth who fit that description, I say, POWER TO YOU! Happy Facebooking!

All kidding aside, I’m not really telling anyone to quit Facebook cold-turkey. I’m just saying that checking in on Foursquare when sitting down to dinner with friends isn’t as important as…checking in with our friends. An online community can be great, but as 2011 looms ever-nearer, I delight in knowing that one’s off-line community of friends, family, and even obnoxious co-workers is much, much more valuable.

*Full disclosure: I didn’t quit Facebook cold-turkey, really. I just deleted my personal Facebook profile, as well as my MySpace account. I kept my music page on Facebook, which I use exclusively for music (and blog!) related business.

Miley & Me.

Once upon a time, in a faraway era I’ll call the 1990s, you had to walk to your computer, turn it on, and search for information on the internet. Then we got laptops, so our computers could travel with us. Now we have iPhones and Blackberries so we can have instant access to information and communication in our pockets, wherever we find ourselves.

Having a personal online presence seems to be a necessity for everyone in the 21st century, from elementary schoolers to Baby Boomers. MySpace gave way to Facebook, often called “Face-Crack,” because of its addictive properties. Cyber-stalking may well be the next Olympic sport. And Twitter, that festering bastion of narcissism, is increasing in popularity.

Tween star Miley Cyrus recently created a firestorm when she deleted her Twitter account. Shortly afterward, she gave an interview to a Chicago radio station and said, “Twitter should just be banned from this universe. You don’t end up living your life and you end up saying things that really is (sic) no-one else’s business.” Preach on, Miley.

I’ve seen “tweets” and “status updates” that were clearly sent from people who were driving, as well as from hospital delivery rooms. Really? There is nothing, as in not one goddamned piece of information, that is so crucial that it must be “tweeted” while driving a vehicle. And if I were in labor and saw my husband posting information about my cervix to the online faceless masses, I’m pretty confident his electronic device would have to be surgically removed from his ass.

Now, I’m not a Luddite. While I can rail on and on about the perils of internet addiction, I consider the internet to be a hugely powerful resource. When we log on with intention and purpose, we literally have the world at our fingertips.

But how often do we really log on with intention and purpose? Online, instant gratification is the order of the day. It always starts innocently enough: you want to make cookies, but only have brown sugar in the house. Is brown sugar interchangeable with regular granulated sugar? Google will know! The next thing you know, you’re listening to D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar. “Ooh, D’Angelo. I wonder what happened to him,” you say to yourself. So then you google “D’Angelo” and wind up spending half an hour on Perez Hilton.com, awash in a sea of licentious gossip and self-loathing.

The internet has, without question, sped things up for all of us. And, for all its flaws, the internet has the power to connect us in countless ways. From online dating to social networking to blogs that inspire, infuriate, and amuse us, we can reach out and be reached more than ever before. This is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

But after evaluating my own internet habits, I am newly resolved to log on less. I’m challenging myself to make my virtual connections more meaningful and mindful. Who knew? Miley Cyrus and I have something in common.

Zero tolerance.

lumberjackStatue-of-Liberty-crownI’m from the now notorious burg of Wasilla, Alaska, home to a fair number of far-right Christians, life-on-the-fringes Libertarians, and (believe it or not) Yellow Dog Democrats. Now I live in New York, a city that is at once relentlessly progressive and, at times, shockingly provincial. All this to say that I’ve had the great good fortune in my life to meet a fascinating array of people whose political ideologies, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and aesthetic sensibilities are wildly diverse.

Through the magic of Facebook, I’ve got at least a peripheral connection to, at last count, over 600 people from my past and present. Many of these fine folks post frequent personal and political diatribes on Facebook, and as I read the Facebook “news feed” every morning, my past and present worlds converge in a virtual cacophony of dissenting opinions and (often) uncivil discourse.

facebook_logoI’ve got Facebook friends who are religious, atheistic, conservative, liberal, gay, straight, married, single…you get the idea. And I’ve noticed that one thing almost everyone seems to have in common is a firm belief in his or her “tolerance” of other people’s “lifestyles” and opinions. Yet, the language used in many Facebook posts and comments is the opposite of “tolerant.”

Conversations about hot-button topics like health care reform, same sex marriage, Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the New York Yankees often degenerate into dialogues scarcely worthy of a junior-high cafeteria squabble. People whom I know to be intelligent, thoughtful, and fully capable of nuanced discussion downshift into name-calling and sweeping generalizations.

Lumping people with whom we disagree into categories like “knee-jerk liberals” and “right-wing nut-jobs” means never having to dig deeper than our preconceived notions about who “they” are and what “they” believe. Our beliefs remain unchallenged and we can make snarky jibes to our heart’s content. Unfortunately, we also forfeit one of the greatest opportunities that the internet affords us: the ability to engage in authentic, honest, real-time discourse with people from all over the world.

I think part of the problem might be the idea of “tolerance” itself. By definition, the word implies a begrudging willingness to “put up with” something or someone outside our sphere of familiarity. What if we strove toward openness and curiosity instead?question-marks

I’m not suggesting nor advocating that we should all agree on everything; such monochromatic accord would make for boring Facebook-ing and a boring world. I am suggesting, though, that we actually take the time to ask people, “Why do you feel the way you do?” rather than categorically dismiss their opinions as irrelevant based on their zip code, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political party affiliation.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years in Wasilla and New York, it’s that people very seldom conform neatly to our pre-fabbed stereotypes; we humans are as multi-faceted and complex as the issues we face. I truly believe that if we genuinely seek to understand one another, we can be accepting–and, yes, tolerant–of others even if we passionately disagree with their point of view.

Listen up!

My high-school English teacher introduced me to the concept of Active Listening.  The basic premise of Active Listening is that “listening” means much more than just passively letting someone talk, thinking all the while about what you’ll say next.  Really listening requires participation: eye contact, asking occasional questions, and most of all–hardest of all–keeping an open mind.

argue-seussWe’re not living in a culture that promotes really listening to one another.  Tune into a political “talking heads” show if you doubt me.  Pundits, politicians, pontificators and pinheads alike gather around a table to discuss the hot-button issues of the day.  The guests constantly interrupt one another and punctuate their barbs with derisive snickers.  The fever pitch of this ideological cockfight escalates, culminating not in a resolution but in a commercial break.

From The McLaughlin Group to Jerry Springer, the message seems to be: If someone disagrees with you, just yell more!  Maybe if your eyes bug out of your head and your consonants are punctuated with a faint spray of saliva, you’ll convince your opponent of your intellectual superiority!  And if talking louder doesn’t work, just insult them!

This unwillingness to really listen to others isn’t restricted to TV, either.  From the New York Times’ online Op-Ed section to Facebook status updates, we seem unable to read or express opposing viewpoints without name-calling, finger-pointing, AND LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS AND HISTRIONIC PUNCTUATION!!!!!!!!

Now, I’m not naive: I know that a rational, nuanced discussion doesn’t garner TV ratings or sell newspapers. But, really, what’s to be gained by getting so riled up?  A popped blood vessel? Perhaps a broken CAPS LOCK key?

What if we choose to believe that someone who disagrees with us is not necessarily an idiot? How much do you suppose we can learn from people who think just as deeply as we do about provocative topics, yet arrive at an entirely different conclusion? Me, I’m with Oliver Wendell Holmes:

It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.

What’s your ritual?

z.tharp.creative.habit.50I’ve read a veritable pantsload of creativity self-help tomes. One of the best that I’ve come across is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life.

Twyla Tharp doesn’t mince words; she tells it like it is. Over the course of a storied career spanning around 4 decades, Tharp has enjoyed mainstream success the likes of which most of us can only dream about, yet she’s also borne the brunt of some scathing reviews. She’s a creative warrior who knows whereof she speaks on matters of creativity.artists-way

While looking for the magical secret that will unlock my creativity and transform me into a prolific, perpetually inspired artist, I’ve read works by Twyla Tharp, Julia Cameron, and Steven Pressfield.

the-war-of-art

Imagine my dismay when I learned that every single one of the brilliant creative souls listed above has the same thing to say: paradoxically, creative output is the product of a disciplined routine/ritual, applied with focus and faith every day toward a specific goal or set of goals. Shit.

Well, there is good news, here:
1. I was raised Catholic. I love ritual.
2. I thrive on order. I love routine.
3. Inspiration isn’t a capricious imp who visits only a select few. Inspiration can be wooed, courted, and–if need be–willed into existence.

I’ve experimented with a lot of different rituals over the years, none of which have really stuck. I used to run religiously. But then the weather turned cold, and my ritual blew away with the Autumn leaves. I love the discipline of my classical vocalises, but I can’t do those first thing in the morning, and if I should catch a cold and lose my voice–no more ritual, for at least a week, anyway. Julia Cameron is a vigorous advocate of morning journal-writing, but very often my journal entries meander and devolve into to-do lists.

So what can I do every single day, first thing, to get the creative juices flowing? What ritual will remain consistent, rain or shine, voice or no voice? Um, I’m going to go with: Writing My Blog, for $500, Alex!

So there it is: I’ve laid down the gauntlet for myself. Regardless of how few of you might be reading Ad Alta Voce on a daily basis, I will be here every morning. Not only do I get the chance to get the creative wheels turning right off the bat, I get to mull over topics like: music, New York, spirituality, food…all of which invite creativity.

So I hope you’ll join me as I integrate this new ritual into my daily life. I’m fairly certain that performing a daily creative ritual will be transformative. And I want to know what your ritual is. How do you navigate the creative process?

To close, here is a lecture given by Elizabeth Gilbert, as part of TED Talks. She speaks at length about “having” a genius, as opposed to “being” a genius. I’ve posted this on my Facebook page in the past, but her message is so powerful I’m including it here, too. Enjoy!

Home again, Home again.

“What if I stopped, just for awhile, to see where the sun goes?” -the bird and the bee, “Spark”

I just got back from a couple of weeks in Italy.  I lived there for about a year when I was 17 and hadn’t been back to visit for, well, a long time.  Happily, my ability to speak Italian came back almost immediately, which was the only thing that happened in a hurry during my vacation there.

I had left my cell phone in Brooklyn, so there were no calls to answer or return.  I didn’t check email.  After our morning swim, we’d eat al fresco at our Italian host’s picnic table, our senses awash in the simple pleasures of a summer day.  CIMG3083

Every lunch was accompanied by perfectly ripe tomatoes dressed in a grassy extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.  As a light breeze drifted through the trees and across our foreheads, the only noise was the soft hum of the bees in the wildflowers underscoring our gentle conversation.

This was quite a contrast to the culture from which I’d just taken a sabbatical.  Stateside, we’re inundated with books, websites, and workshops dedicated to helping us be more authentic, more creative, more ourselves.  Perhaps this culture of “identity acquisition” is a by-product of the great evil and obsession of the Western world: multi-tasking.  

We’re on our cellphones all day.  We send “tweets” about our groceries, spouses, and commuting woes.  We link the “tweets” to our Facebook pages and amass hundreds of “friends.”  Meanwhile, sitting down face-to-face with an actual friend has become a rarified privilege.

I have nothing against technology; I love the Internet, in fact.  But I believe that we are most authentic and creative when we put away all our goddamned digital devices for a few days and, instead of reporting the minutiae of our daily lives to faceless cyber-masses, we actually enjoy and inhabit the minutiae of our daily lives.  

Because the minutiae is pretty fucking great.