Thinking and Creating at Ground Level: learning from a 9 year old

Watch this:

It’s no surprise, this clip has gone viral on YouTube. I don’t think we should be surprised to hear evidence that a 9 year old thinks deeply about the meaning of life and the universe. I’m prepared to take it at face value and, even if he’s repeating verbatim material from overheard adult conversations. That’s not the point I want to bring out in this post.

What is the important difference between this and a TED talk?

At a TED talk, the speaker doesn’t roll around on the floor scratch the ground, swing a baseball bat, shred twigs and stare at the sky. At some point in our development, an adult tells us,

Stop fidgeting!

Stand still!

Sit up straight!

Look at me when I’m talking to you!

Right there I think we start to lose something.

Last Autumn, I spent a total of about thirty man-hours at floor level with primary school kids. No furniture, just crayons and paper and our imaginations. I was co-authoring a storybook with them. Although I used muscles I’d forgotten I had, and I ached every night, I rediscovered the joy of creating at ground level and fidgeting incessantly, and I began to experience an awakening of creativity and a shift in perspective that I suspect had something to do with going back to a 9 year old’s way of working.

I have begun to incorporate ‘floor time’ into my creative practice. The floor is bigger than a desk and offers so much more potential for spatial interaction with ideas.

When I was about 11, I was so impressed with the idea of the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’ that I sellotaped together a long line of A4 sheets and drew the story of the stuff I was into at the time: frisbee battles, water bombs, balloon helicopters, forts with heavily defended ramparts, and various inventions such as my toothpaste-powered boat and the perpetual motion machine I was certain would make me famous. I never finished the ‘tapestry’, I just kept adding to it until it went a few times around the room.

I have never been able to dismiss my curiosity about how life might be without furniture, ever since I heard that living on the floor (eating, sleeping, learning) was the norm at Gandhi’s ashrams. In fact, for most people outside of the West, it is still a way of life.

The positive implications of floor living and fidgeting, for posture, bone and muscle, economics and energetics, are probably fruit for a few more posts. But, for now, how might some floor time benefit your creative practice?

Creativity and the Edge Effect or “Yo-Yo Ma and Monkeys”

Earlier this week (8th April), Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

He called it “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”, and it is well worth reading the transcript or watching the talk. As he champions the cultivation of collaboration, flexibility, imagination, and innovation, his vision of the future workforce is neatly echoed by a new study from Wikia and Ipsos MediaCT called “GenZ: The Limitless Generation”, which suggests these are the very strengths that Generation Z will bring to the table.

However, when Yo-Yo Ma articulates how a biological phenomenon, “the edge effect”, applies to the arts, you can hear the rubber biting the tarmac. This is not new, but he puts it well:

“In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

In my final year as an undergraduate in Anthropology, an interest in the edge effect drove me to spend five weeks studying Cercopithecus aethiops (the vervet monkey) in the wild.

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey (Via Wikipedia)

This primate is virtually ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, having even adapted to urban settings in some cases. They also have one of the most complex documented “languages” or systems of calls and vocalisations of any species. I had an inkling that, in some way, the complexity of their language would be matched by a fluidity in social organisation and driven by their occupation of marginal environments (edges) and, ultimately, the physical distribution of their food.

Without boring you with the details, in grossly simplified terms, a gorilla sits around and grunts a lot because most of his food is the same and in the same place. He also has a rigid social structure that has to do with who gets to sit in the middle, eat the good stuff and who defends the territory. The vervet, on the other hand, exploits a huge variety of foods, distributed almost randomly in a marginal environment with lots of space in between. He has to have a language to talk to his tribe fifty meters away and tell them where the good stuff is (or the bad stuff, like predators or anthropologists). He also doesn’t benefit hugely from eating in the same tree as everyone else, so social structure is more “easy-come-easy-go”.

Why does this matter? I asked myself that a few hundred times as I tried to follow the critters for hours through dense bush on mosquito-bitten legs. But it seems likely that innovations, such as language and walking upright, happened under very similar circumstances in the mysterious pre-prehistory of our own species.

Back to the Kennedy centre …

Ma brings on a series of artistes to illustrate the edge effect. What does it look like, for instance, when Lil’ Buck performs his own street-forged dance moves to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens?

He then points out that the pianist on stage with him, Cristina Pato, is also Cristina Pato the bagpipe player from Galicia, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, who just released her first jazz CD.

“One might say she is an artist who creates her own edge effect!”

That fascinates me!

I don’t think we are particularly comfortable with polymaths these days. Fame, success means being the biggest fish in one pond, not the second biggest in two, or the third biggest in three ponds.

I’m not a Leonardo da Vinci and nor are you (probably), but what can I do to be less of a gorilla: to occupy and exploit the fringes where linguistic innovation flourishes and social interaction is open and uncharted?

Firstly, as someone who primarily wordsmiths, I don’t hang out much with other writers. I love you guys (and gals), hugely, but sometimes I feel mildly threatened because we are grazing the same patch. Hooking me up with a muso, thesp, calligrapher, or chef is more likely to bring out the best in me (with the exception of a mime, perhaps).

Secondly, I hate it when people wibble on about “getting out of your comfort zone”. This is probably because I’m very happy in my comfort zone, thank you, but I’m also very tired of the cliché. Is there a better way to put it?

  • Induce a creative crisis (go analogue for a week).
  • Go on an artist date (indulge in thrill-seeking).
  • Study a parallel discipline (photographers, pick up a paint brush).
  • Throw away the dummy (burn those notebooks, there are plenty of fresh ideas where those ones came from).
  • Move the furniture around (sit next to someone different at the next meeting).
  • Get into your collaboration zone (thanks to one of my favourite collaborators, noahsapprentice, for this suggestion)

Whatever it takes …

How might you create your own edge effect?

I’m just kidding about the mime, by the way.

Linguistic Peeves: “A Big Thank You”

A female African Bush Elephant raises her trun...

I like well modulated grammar. I appreciate the clarity and accuracy that comes from applying the rules. I also enjoy seeing those rules creatively and consciously broken. Language lives; usage comes and goes and I embrace innovation. But (and, yes, these days it is fine to start a sentence with “but”), there are some things up with which I will not put:

A BIG THANK YOU

A big thank you” what? It hangs there like “a wrinkly elephant”.

Okay so, “A big thank you to all our supporters …” from whom? What are people trying to do with this phrase? It is so passive that the wonderful verb of thanking someone has become a wrinkly elephant of a noun that nobody will claim to own.

Fine, then, “We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters.” Better, but that’s still a bit like saying, “we’d like to say a wrinkly elephant to all our supporters.” And why the conditional? Is there a problem?

“We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters, but it sounds silly.” I agree with that.

Maybe if the big thank you is what you want to say then it should be in quotation marks? “We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters.” That doesn’t make sense either, it just adds a dollop of sarcasm.

I’m reminded of the parson in church, “Lord, we pray for all the people in the world and we especially pray for the widows and orphans.” That’s not praying, that’s just telling God that you are praying – WHAT do you pray for the orphans?

Maybe expressing the wish to issue “a big thank you” is a way of avoiding actually thanking anyone in the same way that the parson who prays for widows and orphans never actually prays for them.

Well, I just want to say “a big wrinkly elephant” to all who read this blog.

Thank you for reading it, thank you for commenting and interacting with me. I’m grateful to you all and I just wanted to express that somehow.

Review: Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari

Then They Came for Me: A Story of Injustice and Survival in Iran's Most Notorious Prison Then They Came for Me: A Story of Injustice and Survival in Iran’s Most Notorious Prison by Maziar Bahari

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think everyone needs to read this book in order to get a better understanding of what is behind that tiny word, “Iran”, when the newsreader says it.

Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist, was arrested following the Iranian election in 2009. Beatings and solitary confinement ensued as the regime attempted to extract a confession from him that he was a spy.

In spite of the agonising circumstances, he had been expecting to return to the side of his pregnant fiancée in London in a matter of days, Maziar writes with warmth and flashes of humour that betray enormous strength of soul. He comes from a family of dissidents whose love for their nation has forced them to defy three generations of tyranny. His father and his sister and numerous friends were incarcerated and tortured under successive regimes and Maziar uniquely weaves their story into an account of the recent history of Iran since the times of the last Shah.

This is not just a book about his imprisonment and eventual release, it is an insightful and authoritative analysis of the tensions within Iran and a snapshot of a generation that is ready for a change that was quite brutally denied them in the last election.

The author is at pains to bring a journalistic fairness to bear even on his captors and tormentors and the human elements of his relationship with his interrogator are poignantly told with a sense that the man who beats him is, himself, a puppet of the regime. This objectivity gives the author the moral high ground at every turn. The paranoia and ignorance of the authorities is starkly contrasted with his attempts to speak the truth. At one point he is interrogated about his relationship with the dead playwright Anton Checkhov, who they are convinced is another zionist spy.

The Iranians have a beautiful and ancient culture and many of the kindest and most well mannered people I have ever met are from Iran. It is tragic that this is not reflected in all the “bad news” that comes from that part of the globe and it is important that we do not respond with the same blindness that grips the current regime. Please read this book.

“Then They Came for Me” is published by Oneworld.

View all my reviews

Austerity Measures and the Simplified Pantry

Before we got rid of our TV, I was becoming weary of the amount of hours dedicated to cookery programs which encourage people to “fetishize” food and slaver over exotic culinary preparations. Historically, an unhealthy fascination with gourmandise seems to have proliferated in civilisations on the cusp of decline and I think we are no exception.

It was this extraordinary photographic project from the book “Hungry Planet” that gave me the impetus to embark on my next experiment in simplicity.

Not only do I feel convicted about the excesses of our western diet but it has become a matter of financial importance to rationalise our grocery bill. I have also noticed that the only times I have been successful in losing weight and enjoying the benefits of a healthier diet where when I pursued a simple and fairly repetitive “ethnic” diet in the past.

Previously this consisted of a “raw” porridge of soaked oats for breakfast (with salt or honey), miso soup for lunch and simply prepared vegetables for tea (usually stir fried with rice or noodles). Knowing that the majority of people in the world do a full day’s work on a bowl of rice or some other staple, with some sort of garnish, convinces me that it must be possible to flourish on a much simpler diet.

Kneading

Only eating our own baked bread has helped me to cut down a bread addiction.

I think it was Mahatma Gandhi who said the table fork is the most destructive weapon wielded by humans. For ethical reasons, meat and dairy no longer make an appearance on our plates but I have noticed how I have still clung to the pursuit of a rich and exotic palate. After paying our mortgage, it is our grocery bill that consumes the next greatest segment of our household income. No small contributor to this is the tendency to need a specific, exotic ingredient for a particular dish, that usually prompts a trip to the supermarket where a number of luxury “treats” also tend to be put in the basket before the checkout is reached.

For the sake of austerity and health and in order to bring our pantry more into line with the simple food of our fellow humans in poorer parts of the world, the next step was to cut the number of ingredients available.

Initially I have opted to limit the entire grocery stock to 35 items. This is still incredibly generous in world terms and I think we will still be enjoying a richer and more varied diet than most global citizens. However, it is just an experimental step in the general direction of a simpler existence. At the same time I hope to cut the weekly grocery bill to £30 a week for the two of us. I think that is realistic.

So, for the curious, here is the new stock list:

Staples
1. Rice (at the moment this is white basmati rice)
2. Pasta (dry fusilli)
3. Rolled Oats (jumbo organic – for raw porridge and the occasional flapjack)
4. Wholemeal Flour (for bread making and other baking)
5. Maize or Plantain Meal (African staples that are filling and nutritious and hopefully making more frequent appearances as I learn how to prepare them)

Pulses (Our core source of protein – I adore all beans but had to pick my favourites)
6. Lentils (for bulking up soups and preparing dhals)
7. Butter Beans (I usually use in stews or mash)
8. Mung Beans (for sprouting and other uses)
9. Chick Peas (one of the most important items in our diet of curry, hummus and falafel; also delicious roasted as a snack)
10. Red Kidney Beans (mainly end up prepared with chilli or refried, Mexican style)

Ingredients
11. Olive Oil (only used sparingly for dipping and dressing)
12. Rapeseed Oil (absolutely my oil of choice, a great “butter” substitute in most recipes and doesn’t burn easily)
13. Salt (of course)
14. Agave Nectar (trying to switch refined sugar out for this)
15. Vinegar (prefer cider vinegar for most purposes but it will be a case of what is available)
16. Cocoa Powder (Probably one of my most useful ingredients, not just for hot chocolate and baking projects but I have it on my oats and am currently exploring other uses)

Seasoning (these tend to be ones that are easily and cheaply bought in bulk)
17. Chilli Powder
18. Paprika
19. Coriander
20. Cumin
21. Black Pepper
22. Mixed Herbs

Miscellaneous
23. Dessicated Coconut (for baking and dhals and other curries, can be soaked and blended for use as “creamed coconut”)
24. Almonds (appearing a lot these days, I’m learning to prepare my own almond milk)
25. Dried Dates (use as a sweetener and a snack)
26. Tinned Tomatoes

Beverages
27. Tea (for drinking but also makes rice more interesting, just as toasted rice makes a cup of tea more interesting …)
28. Ground Coffee
29. Rooibos (also known as Red Bush Tea, can be used as a herb in cooking)
30. Peppermint Tea

Vegetables
31. Garlic (I’m not ashamed to say we eat a lot of it and I believe in its medicinal properties)
32. Onions (everything starts with onions)
33. 3 Other Seasonal Vegetables

I don’t expect to be either bored or malnourished … but I’ll let you know how we get on.

Barefoot Colleges

In spite of the fact that we risk information fatigue as we are overloaded with data from the web and other media, I can’t help noticing that sometimes something I see among the hundreds of pages and pictures and clips that I view every week “sticks” and begins to embed itself on another level. This TED talk from Bunker Roy is one such sticky thing. It fed my soul, reawakened something, pulled some threads together. I’ll let it speak for itself for this is one of the most inspiring and heartening things I have seen for a long time:

 

Are You Creative? Send Me Your Card!

I’m a sucker for business cards. Collecting them is like playing a grown-up game of swapsies. Even though we live in a digital age of networking, there’s still nothing quite like taking home a pretty little piece of card with someone’s details on it.

So here’s a thing I’m going to do: If you are a person who works broadly in the area of creativity, art, writing, music, performing arts or that sort of thing, send me your card (either a scan or a “hard copy” – email seymour@seymourjacklin.co.uk for my snail address) and I’ll feature it on this blog and link it to your website … simples!

I have started with a few that were already in my wallet:

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