April 26, 2009


Thoughts of romance and wanderlust on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Whether it's reading writer Isak Dinesen's (Karen von Blixen-Finecke) published accounts of her time in colonial Africa or watching director Sydney Pollack's memorable 1985 film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Out of Africa always makes us want to pack up our bags and go.

YouTube video posted by kicsinyuszi

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like fullrigged ships with their sails clewed up, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn-trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bogmyrtle; in some places the scent was so strong, that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found on the plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs, - only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of might, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."

Critically Acclaimed

Crossing the Ohio River, from Louisville, Kentucky, 1966 

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.  -  Theodore Roosevelt

April 20, 2009

Coach John Wooden

Now that the NCAA's March Madness college basketball games are behind us, diehard sports fans are keeping themselves entertained with the NBA 2009 Playoffs which started this past weekend. In between all of the press, hoopla and water cooler talk, it's a good time to be reminded that life lessons can be learned even from what seems to be just a simple game. Following are Lynn Shackleford's recollections of John Wooden, the coach of 10 NCAA National Championship teams with the UCLA Bruins (from Wooden on Leadership, McGraw-Hill 2005). Coach Wooden "is the first person to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach," and in 1999 was named by ESPN as the greatest coach of the 20th Century.  


The very first team meeting I ever attended at UCLA was a shock. Sitting next to me was another freshman - the guy who had been the most coveted high school player in America, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lewis Alcindor, Jr.).

Scattered around us were our freshmen teammates - some of the best in the country - as well as the returning members of UCLA's varsity team that had won the NCAA national championship several months earlier - Edgar Lacey, Kenny Washington, Doug McIntosh, Fred Goss, Mike Lynn, and others.

There was a lot of energy and talent in that room waiting for the arrival of Coach Wooden and his words of wisdom. Pretty soon he walked in and went directly to the front of the classroom in which we had gathered. Finally, the big moment had arrived, my first experience as a member of a UCLA team - reigning national champions! - coached by the famous John Wooden.

He looked at us for a moment and began his remarks. And that's what was shocking: "Gentlemen," he said, "Welcome. Let's get down to business. I want to remind each one of you of a few important rules we have here at UCLA. Number one: Keep your fingernails trimmed. Number two: Keep your hair short. Number three: Keep your jersey tucked into your trunks at all times." He looked around the room for a moment and then added solemnly: "Am I clear?"

I wondered, "Is he making a joke?" But there was no laughter, not even smiles, from any of the varsity players. They knew better. Nevertheless, I couldn't understand why he was wasting his time on stuff like that.

As the months - eventually years (and three more national championships) - went by, I came to recognize that "stuff like that" was part of the genius in his leadership. There was logic to every move. Details of fingernails, hair, and jerseys led to details for running plays, handling the ball, and everything else - hundreds of small things done right.

Everything was related to everything else; nothing was left to chance; it all had to be done well. Sloppiness was not allowed in anything; not in passing, shooting, or trimming your fingernails and tucking in a jersey.

Coach Wooden taught that great things can only be accomplished by doing the little things right. Doing things right became a habit with us.

He kept it simple. What's more simple than short hair? What's more simple than squaring up for a shot? All these simple little things added up - one at a time - to an enormous amount of information that he presented in a plain and direct way, bit by bit. Ultimately, he and the team put it all together in practice and then in games.

To accomplish this, he thought out his lesson plan for each day's practice with great precision. He knew what he wanted to accomplish and how to do it. Part of his effectiveness may have come from the fact that he has a master's degree in English. He could say in one short sentence what it took others a long time to get out. He could communicate so much so fast - no wasted words, no beating around the bush.

Lew Alcindor, 1963 by Richard Avedon

Coach Wooden's practices were very businesslike and his presence very strong. There were times when he got to a level of sternness mixed with some anger that was nothing to fool with. There was never any screaming or yelling, but his intensity was something else. Especially when he thought we weren't giving it our best effort - watch out then.

During a game against Cal (University of California, Berkeley), we went to the locker room at halftime with a lead, but he was very unhappy. The score didn't matter. He felt we weren't playing with intensity. And he gave us a tongue lashing that I still remember well. And he did so without screaming or shouting.

The fact that we were ahead was incidental. What mattered to him was that we weren't playing to our potential. And, it worked the other way too. If the score was going against us, but we were giving it our best effort, he wouldn't get upset. Instead, Coach would very calmly instruct us on changes that should be made.

In 1968, number-one ranked UCLA played number-two ranked Houston in the Astrodome. It was called the Game of the Century. The Cougars were undefeated on the year and UCLA had a 47-game winning streak going.

It was the first regular-season game ever seen on national television, the first ever played in the Astrodome, and the first to have attendance of over 50,000. It was a big deal. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before in college basketball.

UCLA lost in the final seconds, 71-69, and our 47-game winning streak came to an end. After the game, in the locker room, all of the Bruins were very interested to see Coach Wooden's reaction. As UCLA players we had never seen him lose a single game. Suddenly, he had lost, and it was a big game. How would he react?

When Coach walked into the locker room after losing the Game of the Century, he was very even keeled. There was even a slight smile on his face. He told us, "It's not the end of the world. We'll do better next time." He was pleased with our effort. The score was secondary; having our winning streak snapped was not his concern. Our effort on the court had been total. That made him happy.

In 1967, UCLA played in the finals of the NCAA tournament in Louisville. We hadn't lost a game all season. Just before we went on the court to play Dayton for the national championship, the whole team sat in the locker room for Coach Wooden's pregame talk. Four of the starters were first year varsity players who were about to face their first national championship game in a few minutes - Kareem, Lucius Allen, Kenny Heitz, and me.

Coach Wooden walked up to the chalkboard and began to diagram something, maybe a new play or defensive tactic. But it wasn't. Coach was diagramming where we should stand during the national anthem! He then spoke about our conduct following the game. The day before, players on another team had gotten rowdy, and he cautioned us about behaving badly. He never mentioned anything about the opponent we were going to play for the national championship; no plays, no specifics of the game. None of that.

What this was about, of course was his belief that by game time his teaching was complete; if he hadn't taught us what we needed to know by then, it was too late.

Of course, he had taught us what we needed to know. And it started on the very first day when he walked to the front of the class and said to the freshmen and returning varsity players, "Gentlemen, let's get right down to business." And then he told us about fingernails, short hair, and tucking in jerseys.

It's still a little shocking when I think about it.

April 15, 2009

Agnes Martin

Those in search of peace and beauty should spend time with the inspiring art and writings of abstract painter Agnes Martin (1912-2004). 

Night Sea, 1963

- Art work is the only work in the world that is unmaterialistic. All other work contributes to human welfare and comfort. You can see from this that human welfare and comfort are not in the interests of the artist. He is irresponsible because his life goes in a different direction. His mind will be involved with beauty and happiness. It is possible to work at something other than art and maintain this state of mind and be moving ahead as an artist. The unmaterial interest is essential.

- You can see that you will have time to yourself to find out what appeals to your mind. While you go along with others you are not really living your life. To rebel against others is just as futile. You must find your way.

- Happiness is being on the beam with life - to feel the pull of life.

- The struggle of existence, non existence is not my struggle. The establishment of the perfect state not mine to do. Being outside that struggle I turn to perfection as I see it in my mind, and as I also see it with my eyes even in the dust.

- In my best moments I think "Life has passed me by" and I am content.

Falling Blue, 1963

Barbara Haskell writes:

"The miracle of existence," Martin affirms, "is that we are able to recognize perfection in beauty." Beauty and happiness, like perfection, are pervasive and immaterial. "Beauty is unattached"; when a beautiful rose dies beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind." As Martin explains elsewhere, "We may be looking at the ocean when we are aware of beauty but it is not the ocean." The ocean is the occasion, but the beauty exists in our mind as an innate idea - something akin to a Platonic idea but less definite and objectified than Plato's theory of forms. The existence of beauty and happiness is stable; only our awareness of them fluctuates. This awareness can occur with or without material stimulation - as when, Martin notes, we wake up in the morning feeling supremely happy for no reason. Moreover, once we are aware of perfection, we can experience it in everything - in the wind, the waves, the flight of birds, even in the dust. "When your eyes are open, you see beauty in anything," Martin declares. "Blake's right about there's no difference between the whole thing and the one thing."

For Martin, beauty and happiness - expressions of the sublimity and perfection of reality - are the subject matter of art. Art cannot depict perfection since perfection is immaterial; nor can art itself be perfect since it is part of the physical world. What art can express are abstract emotions of beauty and happiness. "All art work is about beauty," Martin affirms; "all positive work represents it and celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives." Artists, by illustrating their own experiences of perfection, awaken viewers' memories of past experiences of it.

Untitled #3, 1980

Barbara Haskell continues:

Martin eventually located an isolated mesa near the village of Cuba, New Mexico, which she leased and upon which she built an adobe brick and log house. Without a phone or easy vehicular access, she led a solitary and simple life. Her precipitous abandonment of a successful career and decision to live away from people had been motivated by her need to resolve the despair and confusion about life that had numbed her.

The absolute faith she ultimately developed in "the great process of life" was no doubt forged by despair and more than her share of helplessness and defeat. "The solitary life," as she later wrote, "is full of terrors." And yet it is precisely in persevering, without hope or desire, that feelings of fear and helplessness are overcome: "It is hard to realize at the time of helplessness that that is the time to be awake and aware." Just as Early Christian ascetics gave up worldly distractions and embraced hardships in order to gain intimations of the sublime, so Martin identified helplessness as "a time when our most tenacious prejudices are overcome. Our most tightly gripped resistances come under the knife and we are made more free." Suffering, despair, and defeat, she maintained, are prerequisites for welcoming the unknown - for knowing ourselves and freeing ourselves. Suffering is necessary for freedom from suffering; hopelessness is a precondition for hope. Only in despair do we relinquish ego and move closer to freedom.

April 13, 2009

The Paris Match

YouTube video posted by RedGloves

Here's to beautiful music and memories of old friends. The Paris Match by The Style Council (from the album Cafe Bleu with guest vocals by Tracey Thorn). Try and get "the match that started my fire" out of your mind. It's hauntingly impossible.

Empty hours
Spent combing the street
In daytime showers
They've become my beat;
As I walk from cafe to bar
I wish I knew where you are;
Because you've clouded my mind
And now I'm all out of time
Empty skies say try to forget
Better advice is to have no regrets;
As I tread the boulevard floor
Will I see once more;
Because you've clouded my mind
'Till then I'm biding my time

I'm only sad in a natural way
And I enjoy sometimes feeling this way
The gift you gave is desire
The match that started my fire

Empty nights with nothing to do
I sit and think, every thought is for you;
I get so restless and bored
So I go out once more;
I hate to feel so confined
I feel like I'm wasting my time

April 6, 2009

The Life Cycle Is All Backwards

"The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A Death! What's that, a bonus? I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you're too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work forty years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement. You do drugs, alcohol, you party, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating...and you finish off as an orgasm." - George Carlin (1937-2008)