Posted by Peter Himmelman
You plan and you dream and you wait. It’s as though you’re on a conveyor belt that’s slowly bringing you nearer, imperceptibly nearer, to the time you must eventually deliver. I feel like I’m in a factory with a batch of Lay’s potato chips that’s ready to roll off the belt and into the bag.
Tomorrow my Big Muse team and I leave for Breckenridge, Colorado to work with wounded veterans from some of the nastiest conflicts in Iraq, to help them heal, to help them become more expressive – I just found out this morning that some of them haven’t left their bedrooms in years. These are guys with serious emotional and physical challenges. They’re coming with their wives and kids too. Whole families who’ve found themselves adrift on a sea of challenges that are unknowable to most of us.
There’s an organization called Wounded Warriors Family Adventures that hosts different kinds of events for the vets and their families. In this case, the WWFA have planned a ski week in the mountains. After four days of winter sports and counseling sessions I’m going to come in and get the families to write songs about their experiences. Am I ready? Confident? I wish I were.
The thing about writing songs is that it acts like a duck blind, behind which you can hide and feel safer to express yourself. I was watching Mike Tyson on TV last night, he’s got a one man theatrical show about his life. When asked how he was able to talk about himself in such depth and detail without breaking down emotionally – in particular, about the incident when his four year old daughter was tragically killed in a freak accident he said, “it’s not really me up there, it’s a guy playing me.”
I can relate to that. Expressing ourselves through music or poetry is safe. Because there’s a barrier to shield us when we sing a song or recite a poem – like Mike Tyson’s cloaking-device of “playing himself,” it makes the often-unbearable task of telling our stories easier. When we have this sense of being concealed from our listeners (and we always need a listener) our feelings of vulnerability are lessened and we feel safe to reveal what needs expression. The idea that our revelations are poetic or imagistic, that they’re not necessarily journalistically accurate, makes no difference at all. It doesn’t lessen the catharsis. Some feelings are so deep that they can only be expressed through abstractions and metaphors.
I’ve wanted to do this work with returning veterans for years. Maybe it’s because my Dad was a Marine and I’ve always idealized that aspect of him. It’s taken me about eight months of phone conversations, meetings and emails to garner the trust of the WWFA. It doesn’t really matter to them that I’ve made this or that recording or received this or that award. What they want to know is whether I’ve got the ability to become empathic enough to gain the trust of the soldiers and their families.
I wish I could say that I’m leaving for Colorado with full confidence, that I knew exactly what I was going to do or say. Even though you always hear that you need it, in some situations – perhaps like this one, confidence isn’t always the most important asset. Maybe a desire to help is what’s most needed. I think I’ve got that at least.
Sure, I have a vague sense that I’ll be successful in some way, but the “way,” the manner of just how this will get done, is completely unknown to me. That’s scary as hell and I’ve been losing sleep over it. But here’s one thing I do know and I’ve learned this from experience: we humans do our best work when we come well prepared for something that’s beyond all preparation.
Letting go of overly-rehearsed ways of communicating, a willingness to improvise, and a true (to the extent that we can be true) desire to bring joy to others are the best tools we can bring to any problem.
The conveyor belt is humming, the Lay’s are salted, the bag is waiting.
4.10.13 at 10:28 am | The thing about writing songs is that it acts. . .
2.1.13 at 2:11 pm | My name is Rabbi Mordechai Grossfeller and I’ve. . .
1.31.13 at 3:09 pm | Creativity isn't a skill. It isn't a tool to be. . .
11.2.12 at 5:10 pm | You see, Marv fears for your safety. He fears for. . .
10.24.12 at 8:14 pm | The stories we tell ourselves to deflect from. . .
10.17.12 at 4:58 pm | You can't create anything new, only new. . .
10.24.12 at 8:14 pm | The stories we tell ourselves to deflect from. . . (4)
11.2.12 at 5:10 pm | You see, Marv fears for your safety. He fears for. . . (3)
9.24.12 at 3:05 pm | In 1979 there was a revolutionary new song out. . . (2)
October 17, 2012 | 4:58 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
1 - Feel, don't intellectualize
2 - Don't try to be good- just be
3 - The goal is to finish within the form
4 - It doesn't have to mean anything, it just has to make you feel everything
5 - The world seems like disconnected pieces, show its unity
6 - Find freedom in structure
7 - There is no wrong answer here
8 - There's no need to be correct
9 - If what you create baffles you, that's a good thing
10 - Don't stop to analyze
11 - If you're stuck try something new
12 - Say the first thing that pops into your mind
13 - There is nothing to fear
14 - No one fails here
15 - Be brave enough to laugh at yourself
16 - You're not a bad person or a good person, you just …are
17 - Stop judgment for now
18 - You can fly here
19 - You can breath under water here
20 - You are invisible here
21 - You are- indefatigable, invulnerable, immeasurable, invincible
22 - Laugh at yourself, cry for others
23 - We are all exiles here
24 - You can't create anything new, only new combinations of pre-existing things
25 - Don't overthink
October 12, 2012 | 4:54 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
Imagine that our boundless joy, the kind we get when we’re walking around with the sense that our lives are full of endless possibilities is a gigantic Milky Way bar. I don’t care if you don’t like candy or even if you don’t like Milky Way bars -just for the moment imagine that you do. Picture that sucker. It’s huge, maybe twelve feet long, three feet wide and two feet tall. It’s laid out on some enormous picnic table and it represents the kind of joy I just described, all chocolate, caramel and pure unfettered creativity. That’s what you get immediately after you start taking the kind of small actions towards fulfilling your dreams. Not sitting around dreaming: I want to be a baseball star, but - I’m going to the ballpark to practice my swing for forty minutes.
Imagine that beside that enormous Milky Way bar is a tiny blade of grass. It’s dried up and skinny. Now take that blade of grass, which is around an inch long and cut it into ten pieces with an exacto knife. You should have ten pieces of skinny dry grass that are about a tenth of an inch long. Take nine of them and throw them away. In the palm of your hand you’ve got one tiny bit of grass. That represents the amount of pleasure you get from keeping your dream safe inside your head. It’s not a lot. In fact it’s hardly any at all but the complicating factor is that the dream-in-hiding does provide a modicum of… well, I wouldn’t, couldn’t call it joy. That would be way overstating it. It’s more like some wan, pathetic, vaguely pleasant sensation about which Marv (the nagging internal critic) says:
“Hey why risk the benefits of this great piece of grass. I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying to yourself there must be more but in fact, for you, there really isn’t more and why risk losing this? Besides, this grass is yours, no one can criticize it or take it from you. You can accomplish anything you want but just not today ok? Oh, and here’s a good thing… there’s no way you’ll ever run the potentially tragic chance of failing. Forget about the Milky Way bar alright? It’s not for you, it’s for someone else. Someone you know… better than you. You’re a grass person right? Yeah, now you’re talking!”
And that’s where most of us stay. Safe and sound with a piece of dry grass no bigger then a tenth of an inch in the palm of our hands. No possibilities, no joy, just a vague sensation that barely passes for pleasant. Oh, and here’s another thing you can do with that blade of grass:
Take the piece you have and divide it again by ten. Throw the nine other pieces away and you can do this wonderful thing that people with a nearly microscopic piece of dry grass always do- you can sit around and criticize the people who are eating the Milky Way bars. You can comment on how, if you had a chance to write a song, or act in a movie, or start a business, or get up and dance- how much better you’d be at it then them. Now it would be a lie to say that this kind of thing yields no joy at all. The truth is that it does. It gives the person a pleasure that is perfectly commensurate with a piece of thin dry grass that is exactly one twentieth of an inch long. Not a Milky Way bar, but something right?
October 4, 2012 | 10:46 am
Posted by Peter Himmelman
Why do we humans have such a strong need to create? Might identifying that need help us when we’re having trouble making a dream manifest? Perhaps our need to innovate is tied to our need to generate money for ourselves and our families. But then what about the nine-year old kid who sits and draws for hours on end like I used to do? I can tell you for sure, I never thought about making money when I was nine; my dad was doing that. I was making what was in my head come alive through crayolas and paper. At that time it was a gang of monsters called Glirches -who of course, lived in Glirchville.
There was something so fulfilling about creating this town of Glirchville. A special place wrested from my own imagination where I could be the mayor, the policeman, the banker and the jailer all in one. Even as I was busy drawing away, there was often this thought in the back of my mind that the pictures I was making might get noticed for their brilliance by someone special, most likely my mom.
That brings us two more possible motivators for creativity: One is the joy of the actual immersion in the drawing itself. The process of getting the Glirches out of our imaginations and quickly down on paper. There are no thoughts of outcomes or judgments or expectations fulfilled. It’s a much more pure process of allowing the thoughts to be made immediately manifest on the page. This is the place where we get lost for hours, where time flows freely and imperceptibly. Being in that creative space, with its freedom and possibilities is a truly magical part of our life experience.
The other side Glirch-making is being aware of outcomes even as we create. To be drawing while being simultaneously aware that our Mothers could soon be complimenting us, scotch-taping an original Glirchville on the refrigerator, or talking about how creative her son or daughter is. It’s not to say that this kind of motivation, this praised-based impetus, is without merit. Doing something for a reward does have the ability to motivate. It’s just that it’s far inferior to creating without any expectations at all. Once there’s an external factor looming in your thoughts, like a refrigerator exhibition, there’s also a corresponding:
What if it’s not good enough to go on the refrigerator?
While it’s noble to strive for the ideal of creating Glirches with no expectations, the reality is more complex. There will always be a blend of the two motivators. In our efforts to create we will continue to find ourselves going back and forth between the two. First, we’ll be drawing a scene of a Glirch swimming in the Glirch Sea, adding some glirch-birds and maybe even coloring the water Burnt Umber –just because it looks cool. Then suddenly, without us even noticing, the idea that our mothers will come in to our bedrooms and shower us with praise will come to us -followed shortly by the frightening thought that our mothers won’t shower us with praise.
The benefit of motivation number one, the purer of the two, is that it has the potential to enrich our lives in a deeper way than praise ever can. Praise after all, is contingent on outside forces. Something that is bubbling up from the wellsprings of our own imaginations and curiosity is far likelier to make us happy.
September 24, 2012 | 3:05 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
In 1979 there was a revolutionary new song out called Funkytown by a band called, Lipps Inc.. The damn thing was everywhere; on the radio, on MTV, in elevators, at clubs, even playing overhead in the frozen foods section of the Red Owl. As fate would have it, a local Minneapolis guy named Steve Greenberg who used to play the drums in a Bar Mitzvah band wrote Funkytown and he told me he wanted to produce a record for me.
Soon, I was going to Steve’s place once or twice a week to play him demos of things I’d written. There wasn’t a lot of pleasure in taking my stuff to him for an evaluation since it’s so easy to criticize music. All you need to do is raise your eyebrow or give a little laugh -like what you’re hearing is the stupidest idea ever. Steve was a gatekeeper of sorts or so I thought, and all my energies at the time were spent trying to come up with something I thought he’d like. One afternoon I came to his house with something I was extremely pleased with. It was an emotional song that was written about a friend of my parents named Erwin Fuff.
Mr. Fuff was an odd little man. He’d been a holocaust survivor as a young child and there were stories of him running alone through the woods after the SS had killed his entire family. Two weeks before I wrote the song, my Mom called me into her room and told me that the police had found Mr. Fuff’s wife, Riva, lying dead in the kitchen with a steak knife in her sternum. They knew Mr. Fuff had killed her, he’d told them as much and since he’d had a history of mental illness, the prosecutor felt there was no need for a trial. Erwin Fuff went straight to a mental institution where they pumped him up on so much Thorazine that he was in a semi-conscious state most of the time.
The trouble was that in the early mornings, during the brief time when the last day’s dose of Thorazine wore off and the new day’s dose was given, Mr. Fuff had gotten back some degree of consciousness and was able to feel some of the horrible grief and shame over having murdering his wife. It was in that small window of lucidity that he’d taken his own life just days after arriving at the hospital.
My Mother said he’d hung himself in his jail cell with strips of a bath towel. I wrote about Mr. Fuff in a song called, Cursed With What It Means.
She will sleep forever, you’ll be high on Thorazine she will sleep forever –you are cursed with what it means.
I raced over to Steve Greenberg’s cassette in hand. This was a whole new style of music I’d just written; dark, and spare with empathic lyrics and I knew Steve Greenberg, the writer of the hit song Funkytown was going to love it.
I put the cassette in his giant Marantz stereo and let the music fill the room. I didn’t play it too loud. Not as loud as Steve might have played his own stuff. That would have been presumptuous. When he got up off his recliner he was smiling. I smiled too because of course he loved my song. He was walking over to the stereo to turn up the volume –just like he’d do with his own songs. But instead of amplifying the music, he ejected the cassette and hiked it between his legs like a football player. It flew up into the air, end over end, until it crashed into the brickwork of his fireplace.
I stared at the tape cartridge now in pieces, wondering how it was that all my passion and enthusiasm for this song had vanished in less than four seconds…
An addendum: Though Steve Greenberg could be a tough critic, he's truly a hilarious person and he was always a real mentor to me. If memory serves me, I was probably belly laughing along with him fairly soon after the cassette hit the bricks
September 11, 2012 | 11:22 am
Posted by Peter Himmelman
October 1978. Hopkins, Minnesota.
Today I’m going to do something dangerous. I’ll drive to Ridgedale. I’ll walk into Now and Then and ask to have my ear pierced. First though, I’ll drive to my father’s office to alert him of my plan. I’m sure he won’t be happy. Ex marines hate earrings.
'That’s great Pete,” he says. “Which ear are you gonna pierce?”
“Uhhh, my right ear I guess,” His expression catches me by surprise.
“Are you gonna get a hoop or a stud?”
What’s remarkable I think, is that my dad even knows the words hoop or stud.
“I’ll probably start with a stud and then get a hoop as the ear heals.”
“A hoop is nice,” my dad says. “How much is this whole deal gonna cost?”
“Twenty bucks.” I say.
My dad's smiling as he peels off three crisp ten-dollar bills and places them in my hand.
As I pull out of the parking lot I hear his big voice booming just outside the front door and I roll down my window.
“Pete, one more thing. Don’t come home.”