Category Archives: The Generalist

Calvin loves Alice

Calvin Trillin A year or so ago I read “Alice off the page” in the New Yorker, and thought it was the most moving work I’d read in a long time. I passed it on to my brother-in-law, John, who then sent it on to just about everyone else we know. Now it’s been turned into a short book (78 pages). There is a great article on Mr. Trillin, and on his book, in the Observer this week.

I’ve always been fond of Trillin’s work, and Hadley has always loved his articles in the New Yorker. She wants to move to Nova Scotia because of how his describes life on the island (I’m willing to go with her). This article is different, though I’m not quite sure why. There is an aspirational component to it, I’m sure. Calvin Trillin represents potential for the not-so-young man (and I am one of those); attentive, loyal, funny, and not so egotistical to misunderstand what matters in the world.

There are a few stories that have surprised me with my own tears in the past ten or so years; often they involve older men who can’t do what they used to do. This one is different though, as it got to me by bringing out what I should be doing. It gave me hope for my own future, but also a challenge.

The interviews I’ve read say that Mr. Trillin is surprised by the response to this work. Isn’t that just perfect. At our best we do work that resonates in ways we don’t expect. Calvin Trillin sets a top notch example, doesn’t he?

The Task of the Artist

“At this point words become inadequate and I return to the great discovery I began preparing you for, the knowledge of the one surface with which the world offered itself to this art. Offered, but not yet gave. Accepting it would (and still does) require endless work.

Consider for a moment how much work would be required for an artist who wished to master all surfaces; after all, no one thing is just like another. He wasn’t concerned with knowing the body in general, nor the face or the hand (none of which exists anyhow); but rather all bodies, all faces, all hands. This is a task! And how simple and serious it is, how completely devoid of temptation and promise; how completely unpretentious.

A craft develops that appears to be that of an immortal; it is so broad, so infinite and beyond boundaries, and so dedicated to a process of constant learning. Where to find a patience adequate to this craft?”

From “Rodin” by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Daniel Slager)

Portland’s Enchanted Gardens

There’s an article in the New York Times today on my favorite place to visit in Portland (which is one of my favorite places to visit). The Chinese gardens in the Rose District is absolutely enchanting, very meditative, and a lovely place to have a cup of tea and a red bean cake. As it says on the Portland Chinese Garden website (quoting Wen Zhengming), “Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic; truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest.”

What is Conservative, anyhow?

I’ve often wondered how long the tax-cutting as good governance faction of the Republican Party would be able to stay in control of things. My paranoid idea (shared by some) is that this group wants to build such a huge deficit that we’ll have no choice but to get rid of any safety net and drive our society back into the dark ages, thus bringing forth the inevitable beam up of all good persons into heaven. It’s the coalition of the trickle-down reaganites and the social conversatives that will lead to the end of civilization as we have come to know it.

But not all republicans are in this evil cabal; this week in the New York Times, Ben Stein put forth a call for reason – you can read it here. He used Warren (no longer the richest man in the world) Buffet as the cover fire for his attack, but what’s strange is that he even had to make the argument. All he says is that we have to pay our way as we go, and not leave a huge debt to our children. And if we have to raise taxes to do it, so be it.

I don’t believe that government is always good, and certainly it would be nice to get rid of the pork appropriations and run things more efficiently. But there are some programs that should be run by government. If we want the services (whether it medicine, roads, or defense), then we have to pay for them. I don’t agree with a lot of what we spend our money on, and we may well be leveraging our way into bankruptcy as a country, but the least we can do it agree to pay our the bills.

I’m looking forward to seeing an end of the idiotically simplistic “cut taxes and all will be well” form of governance – tax cuts should always be connected to spending cuts. But I’m not hopeful. I’m afraid we are all too tempted by this form of pablum. Ah well, so be it.

Improvement makes straight roads

I am a bit of a mongrel, though perhaps that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To quote William Blake from “Proverbs of Hell”,

“Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.”

My own background is in performance and storytelling; I started working in interactive media in the early nineties. The addition of interactivity caused me to rethink the nature of telling stories; over time I came to believe that personal stories are the most vital and compelling, but as I began to consider interactivity I was thrown into a world where there was no longer control the way the story is experienced; how do we communicate themes and messages if there is no plot, no defined beginning, middle, and end?

One way to frame this new form of storytelling is to think of it as a conversation between the author and the audience; by its nature a conversation has a spontaneous and uncontrolled feel, and yet it can also be structured and composed. Conversations wander crooked roads, but they are informed by the needs and desires of the participants.

There is a natural tendency among creative people to believe that great work leaps fully formed into the world like Athena from the head of Zeus, but when we are creating complex projects that require interaction both between various team members and audiences, this is a risky proposition to say the least. This is another reason I prefer to frame the design process as a creative dialogue.

The General

Tim Roessler used to tell a story about Norman Schwarzkopf during the first Gulf War. Somebody asked him how he managed to deal with all the complexities of running such a huge enterprise. He responded by saying that he focused on one thing he had to get done. Everything else had to be fit in around getting that one, most important thing done.

This site is not about a general, but about a generalist. I’ve made a career and a lifestyle out of creating connections between things that maybe shouldn’t be connected. In my case, the General and the Generalist have at least one thing in common; the need to stay focused on the problem. I have a feeling the General is a little better than the Generalist in this regard.