Shadowy Façade

digitally doctored photo

There are endless supplies of guides on How To do something-or-anything; I’m more concerned with How Not to Do It. Much of the how-to tutorials seem aimed more at giving us a gloss of respectability in the subject, a sort of facade of excellence, than actual, practical depth. Expertise is, obviously, a relative thing, after all. It’s not all that hard to be considered an expert in or at something that is very rare or an extremely new discovery or invention: lack of exposure guarantees that few can have mastery. A whole lot more, however, is skill or knowledge that takes a dedicated effort to master to any level of real expertise.

My greatest expertise, if I can be said to have any, is probably in the category of performing ‘filler’ duties in most of the activities I try. Work as I may, I’m not likely to become great at most, and I seldom find learning anything all that easily or swiftly done. Being naturally lazy, I’m even less often found pursuing new knowledge and skills with great rigor and vigor just for their own sakes. So at best, I tend to end somewhere in the middle of the pack. I like to think of myself as the necessary delineator between the great and the mediocre.

All silliness aside, this seems to me an age in which we, collectively, have lost our appreciation for true expertise. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I get the sense that somewhere between the assumption that a speedy dash through Wikipedia will provide all the wisdom we need on any topic and our fascination with outliers—finding the novelty of savants and overnight sensations far more exciting than hardworking earned-doctorate intelligence—and the sense of entitlement our privileged modern existence gives us, we lose touch with the value of elbow grease and passion.

I wasn’t born either brilliant or extraordinarily gifted, and I’m not ashamed of that. But it’d be a pity to go to my grave without having tried to improve on what few bits of intelligence and invention I do have. If I manage to do my best in the present and keep moving toward an elevated horizon, I may not change the world for the better by a single degree, but I will certainly have bettered myself and I might have the slightest chance of shedding a little light around me as I go.

Looks like I’d better get moving!

I Play One on Television

Digital illustration: Putting up a Serious Front

I can’t always put up a good front as a genius…

There was a long-ago commercial with an actor touting medication but beginning his spiel with the famously fatuous disclaimer, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on television.” The idea that reading scripts and declaiming lines to represent a character in the medical profession qualified him in any way to advise us on what was good medicine for anyone was laughable even to a child. But it’s amazing how often we supposed adults will readily impute to anyone the characteristics they project to us (intentionally or not) without questioning that confidence.

The obvious problem with this is in how we fall for con artists’ tricks. As entertainment in, say, a magic show or theatre performance where the act is benign, there’s no threat. Criminals of all sorts, however, are practiced at getting us to believe things that defy logic and rationality and often would shatter at the merest breath of challenge.

Digital illustration: I Play One on Television

…but I play one on television…

Less obvious is the problem of our easily made assumptions about others based on appearances alone or very little additional information. Not to mention the assumptions that others readily make about us in the same ways. Sometimes these assumptions can serve us well—they’re a little like shorthand, enabling us to navigate situations and interact and communicate with strangers and acquaintances without having to essentially study and get to know them thoroughly beforehand.

So I could say in this context that ‘I’m not an outgoing person, but I play one on television.’ Not a wealthy person, but I live like one. Not famous, but since I hang around with lots of musicians and other performers, I get plenty of access to what life might be like for famous folk, and even get recognized and treated like a better-known person because of the, well, better-known company I keep. And I’ve certainly never been a classy, high quality person, but I am spending as much time as I can in the company of far better people than me in hopes that proximity will lend itself to others seeing their glory reflected in me. Hey, if I’m really lucky, a little of that good stuff will rub off on me, too.

On the Surface

Photo: Leaded GlassAmong the many ways we find our way through the world, ways we make sense out of what we experience, and navigate through life, there’s what we can see and feel on the surface of things. It’s easy to speak disparagingly of these things that are shallow as inherently lacking in spiritual depth or value, too, but that’s an unfair assessment to attach automatically to everything.Photo: Follow the Glazed Brick Road

In practice, it takes but little tactile variation on surfaces to warn us, for example, not to grab nutmeg graters and 60-grit sandpaper hard in the soft palms of our hands, or expect to get a grip on a slippery fish without difficulty. Even the simplest human, once taught to recognize it, respects the distinctive visual patterns on a Diamondback rattlesnake from a safe distance. Conversely, we learn quickly enough the appeal of what we can recognize as soft, dense fur and sleek satin that invite our touch, and admire the enchanting graces brought to a garment by lace, to an elegant chair or door by skillful carving.Digital image from a photo: Embroidery

What we see and what we feel teach us how to interact with and respond to our environs. It’s not always a bad thing to need to rely on even snap judgements about things based on their surfaces. That, after all, is where an enormous amount of the beauty, utility and comfort that attracts us to them in the first place resides.Photo: A Bit of Paisley

And I must remind you that I like all of you, too. But don’t worry. I’ll keep my hands to myself.Photo: Dazzling Metal

You can Dress Me Up but You can’t Take Me Anywhere

I’m one of those people whose life has put me in circumstances and company well beyond my training and capabilities, let alone deserts. Meaning, I get to hang with the Cool Kids despite being a doofus, dork and/or nerd. Yes, I do know I’m out of my depth 99% of the time. I’m just incredibly lucky that others don’t seem to begrudge me the privilege. It’s amazing, really.digital illustrationI’ve gotten to taste recipes being beta-tested for an international cooking publisher’s latest cookbook, go bass fishing on a Texas ranch that predates statehood, been coached by a team from the US Secret Service, stage-managed the live broadcast of a major political figure’s keynote speech at a national convention, and had a photograph I shot featured on the cover of a multinational European magazine. I’ve spent a few days on a fully rigged tall ship, written thousands of poems, designed theatrical sets and costumes, and played on a cathedral carillon. Ice skated on a lake, dined with royalty, and sung in a quartet. Did I do all of this because I was specially qualified? Don’t be silly! What utter nonsense.

We all know that most of us Ordinary Folk find our way into any sort of distinguished company or notable situations only by stumbling into them or having them handed to (if not thrust upon) us. The truly remarkable thing is if and when we manage to rise to the occasion–or at least not fall down all over ourselves and our betters in the attempt. Me, I seem to find that quite often I’ve genuinely tried to prepare for the event so that I could almost fool some people that I look prepared, so perhaps it’s not entirely shocking that someone might tap me for the honor while under the misapprehension that I am prepared. Of course, there remains that delicately sad moment of revelation when I prove that it was in fact strictly an appearance and I am completely and absolutely not capable of anything spectacular, but fortunately for me that nearly always happens too late and I’ve already sneaked in on the honor.

I don’t know why I’m admitting all of this in front of you except that I’m not naturally a big liar, only incapable of recognizing my own limitations fully until I’m standing in that spotlight revealing them to all the world at the same second. Just consider yourselves politely forewarned that, no matter how well I might have polished up for the occasion, underneath it all still lurks the same cheerful incompetent, secretly knowing that I will be outed as such yet again but happy to be allowed into polite company in the meantime. Pipe down, Your Majesty, I’m enjoying my moment.

The Hook

What grabs me by the imagination and won’t let go? Practically anything, depending upon the time and my mood and a few other factors. Frequently, it’s simple visual attraction. Ooh, shiny! (Rusty! Unfamiliar! Pretty!) I am nothing if not shallow and superficial.photoOften, though, I will give myself credit for going beyond the surface in my examination of the objects of my attention-if-not-attraction because I become genuinely interested to know the who what when where how and why of them. In this, too, I may be simplistic and not wish to make a research project out of every thing that catches my eye or piques my interest. It’s safe to assume that not only will much of that information ultimately prove to be above my pay grade and beyond my ken, but other than generalizations and suitably dumbed down explanations I will have little use for the storehouse of data hidden behind every shiny object, the masses of wisdom contained in each moment’s distracting find.photoStill, like the musical phrase that wiggles its way into my subconscious as I pass by a practice room, leaving me wondering hours later why a passage from Lieutenant Kijé‘s signature theme popped into my head as I passed a group of three oranges at the grocery store, the associative and evocative qualities that serve as the hook to snag my mind will never cease to amaze, amuse and ensnare me with their alluring and mysterious delights.

Foodie Tuesday: Composed vs Composted

Many things that taste delicious don’t exactly look as dreamy as they are to eat. Of course, anyone who has eaten in a reasonable number of high-end dining establishments knows that what does look impressive may not live up to its pretensions sometimes, too. But it’s worth trying, at least when serving guests, to make the food look appetizing as well as tasting great, and if guests deserve the respect, why shouldn’t we give it to ourselves?photoWhen I’m cooking in my DIY (more accurately translated in food terms as ‘Dish It Yourself’) mode for varied appetites and needs, it limits what I can do in terms of presentation a little more than usual, but in some ways it can simplify it, too: as long as I’m not dealing with allergy, I can serve foods in proximity that I know not every one will want in the same mix or proportions. So ‘composed’ presentation and ‘deconstructed’ dishes can be a fine and fun way to create something that looks more attractive and inviting than if I go ahead and blend all of the meal’s parts before serving. Case in point: this quinoa concoction, which is basically a confetti-like mishmash if stirred all together before serving, whereas if I simply keep the ingredients a little more separate when plating it all up, suddenly it looks ever so much more like an artful arrangement and a come-hither dish–which is more in keeping with its being a pretty tasty collation, by my standards. So yes, I did even make the pretty composed version when I was the only person showing up at the table. I really do like me that much.photoStrawberry Quinoa Salad

The ingredients for this are quite simple and, as I prefer, completely flexible in terms of trading items in or out of the group and setting the proportions. In this instance, I used the following combination: quinoa cooked in bone broth, sliced ripe strawberries, butter toasted sliced almonds, cubed fresh mozzarella, diced yellow tomato, and minced fresh basil and mint leaves. I kept it all at room temperature and dressed it with my balsamic mint vinaigrette (balsamic vinegar, melted mint jelly, a spoonful of pureed fresh cilantro leaves, and macadamia nut oil blended to taste) and a pinch of crunchy Maldon sea salt, and all together, it was Just Right. And pretty, too. Still and all, when I ate the other half of the salad the next day after having stirred it all together, it was just as good to eat. Guess I’m not too hung up on appearances after all.

It’s Not Enough to be Beautiful

digital painting from a photoReally, the stuff that lies inside is what matters, what always mattered. Wit, integrity, talent. Compassion, charm. Power and intelligence and courage and humor. The things that last go far beyond the mere physical and visible attractions that we, individually and collectively, consider beautiful. It’s more difficult to find and gauge inner beauty, and far more so to develop it, so no wonder we hunt for it and we treasure it so highly. Still, it’s funny that we do. We love, after all, what looks beautiful to us very, very deeply as well. And beauty for its own sake is not a bad thing, either.

Is one morally or inherently better than another? Certainly not. Are they mutually exclusive? Hardly. But it’s true all the same that visible beauty has its perks. We often don’t have to know anything about each other for us to want to be associated Beautiful people, to be around them and admire them, if only for how much we like the way they look. And they in turn, both those with the inner resources that we admire and those who might be closer to pretty, empty packages with nothing fabulous inside, get attention and get things done, their way sometimes greased by the access and support that their prettiness gets them. If it’s possible to have both the outer and the inner, that could hardly be objectionable, but if I had to choose, some days I suspect I would be quite content to be the beautiful one in the room; it’d be fun just to see what it’s like, I imagine. Might not be a Greta Garbo, with both the looks and the evidently impressive inner life, but even being a cheap imitation of the exquisite woman for sheer looks wouldn’t be too awful, I’d think. All I can say is that it really isn’t enough to be beautiful–but it’s not exactly such a bad thing either, is it, now?

All right, I’m only enjoying my little fantasy. My partner, husband, best friend and spouse tells me I’m pretty, I’m beautiful, and I’m full of all those dandy aforementioned inner resources too. And whether it’s flattery or his perception of the truth, I don’t much care. It’s more than enough to feel beautiful. Glamorous I may not be, and in fact I might not even be any of those other lovely things my guy tells me I am, but he’s pretty convincing, that fella of mine, and his word–with his impressive daily love backing it all up–is plenty for me. Any day of the year.