What Does Downtown Olympia’s Future Hold?

This could make a compelling documentary film.

Saturday night I attended an interesting five-person panel discussion at downtown Olympia’s hippy theater, a 94 year old building that shows independent movies, about the importance of cultural spaces in our fair city. The panelists were artists who spoke eloquently on the importance of the arts. One lived downtown and most worked there.

As an academic, it was glorious listening to one person after another actually honor their five minute time frame. Collectively, they stimulated my thinking not just about the arts, but about economic inequality, downtown development, and the future of these (dis)United States.

Here’s the conundrum. Olympia has long had a vibrant arts scene encompassing live music, allegedly more theatre seats per capita than any other 40,000 person city, murals galore, a vibrant farmers’ market, and well attended public art events. Many downtown buildings are historic, which the panelists all described as wonderfully unique and relatively affordable for artists to live and/or work in. The unique, historic, funky buildings they argued, are the very essence of downtown.

But lots of other more politically and socially conservative people in the surrounding burbs would describe the exact same buildings as run-down, gritty, and in need of serious investment. Some think downtown is too far gone, even unsafe, and avoid it altogether.

It was refreshing that downtown’s growing homeless population wasn’t mentioned once since it tends to dominate any discussion of downtown, but it’s one of the most common reasons some have soured on it. The focus was on low-income artists and others, but at some point obviously, the discussion has to expand to include the fate of the no-income walking wounded.

Meanwhile, in keeping with free-market capitalism, deep pocket developers eye downtown as a place to make money by flipping ancient, crumbling buildings that are too expensive to maintain. In some cases, by knocking them down and starting over, which of course enrages the art community and others of modest means. Shiny modern buildings mean higher rents, meaning low-income artists are priced out.

There are no easy answers on how best to move forward. The only thing I know for sure, the more voices that are heard before buildings are razed and rebuilt, the better. Make no mistake though, those voices will be wildly divergent.

I’m conflicted. Take the hippy, Capital Theater, as a point of reference. When a panelist “preached to the choir” by saying, “I’d much rather attend a movie at this theater than a neighboring multiplex,” the crowd applauded lustily. But all I could think was “I’d much rather attend a movie at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma, than at the Capital Theater.” Why? Because at the Grand Cinema (prices $8 matinee, $10.50 general; versus $8 and $9) I’m unlikely to tear my jeans on the springs in the seats as a Swedish friend of ours once did. And damn they’re uncomfortable.

Admittedly, I have a different sense of aesthetics than the typical Capital Theater member who is much younger than me and may live in a dorm with three other people at Evergreen State College. I appreciate historic, artistic, funky elements in buildings and downtowns, but I also like sitting in comfortable seats and not having to hope my timing is right for the one toilet.

Furthermore, new buildings, like new cars these days, are far safer. The future will bring tidal flooding and a major earthquake to downtown Olympia. Also, new buildings, like new home appliances these days, are also far more energy efficient. When well built, they also require far less maintenance, but even those cost savings aren’t enough to offset the land and building costs, which developers of course pass on to renters and/or customers.

There has to be a middle ground, I’m just not sure what it is. I do not think adding taxes to existing building regulations is politically viable, but could there be economic incentives for retrofitting and markedly improving old buildings instead of knocking them down? And what about a 1% add-on to require new building projects to include public art?

Ultimately, I suppose, the fate of downtown Olympia, and others, will come down to who is most successful in persuading the City Council to adopt modern building policies that somehow incorporate genuine respect for the city’s past. Even that though, won’t adequately address the concerns of downtown’s low-income residents.

 

 

Artistic Alchemy

Many moons ago, when my Guilford College students started doing multimedia presentations, their overlapping words, sounds, and pictures made it more difficult to grasp their ideas. The sum of their disparate media rarely equaled the individual parts, let alone superseded them.

We’re still mired in multimedia messiness.

Case in point, Isaacson’s stories of Steve Jobs telling people who had worked nonstop for months on their PowerPoint pitches to him to just talk to him. “Close your laptop,” he’d say within a slide or two, “and just talk to me.”

When combining media, error on the side of fewer. Less is usually more. More spices will not necessarily make your spaghetti sauce taste better. More words, sounds, and images will not make your audience embrace your ideas, your arguments, your art.

Sometimes though, people combine media in ways that are truly synergistic. There’s no formula though, it’s art.

For example, first listen to this new song, Big God by Florence and the Machine. Then watch the video.

Maybe it’s because I dig modern dance, but the video performance is far more moving and memorable than the song by itself. One plus one equals far more than two.

The next time your combining media, consider reaching out to Florence Welch for help.t to

Wisdom From a Life of Teaching Piano

Behold my favorite teaching essay of recent vintage from the unlikeliest of publications. Thank you Byron Janis for the perfectly timed reminders about what teaching excellence entails. If you teach, coach, or parent, this is a concise treasure trove of insight. He writes:

“To me, the most important challenge a teacher must confront is keeping an open mind. One must convey knowledge and artistry without overpowering a student’s sense of self. That talented ‘self’ can develop only when he or she is not over-taught. One must know when to teach and when not to teach.”

And when to coach and when not to coach. And when to parent and when not to parent. It’s the very rare teacher, coach, or parent who avoids overpowering their students’, athletes’, or sons’ and daughters’ varied senses of self.

“During the course of my instruction Horowitz also made a very important point. ‘You want to be a first Janis—not a second Horowitz.'”

“. . . talented students must be taught that they are not only pianists but artists, and to create, not imitate. They should be shown that inspiration comes from living, experiencing and observing life, the real as well as the imagined.”

Twenty to thirty years ago, schooling in the United States shifted focus to standardization of curriculum, teaching “best practices”, of most everything. Consequently, we don’t foster creativity very well. Not only do the arts suffer, but our culture. Janis’s radical musings point a way forward.

A Life Built on Service and Saving

If my ticket gets punched sometime soon, I’ll have lived a life filled to the brim. Almost disorientingly so. I’ve crouched in the final passageway of a West African slave fort, been drenched by Victoria Fall’s mist, walked on the Great Wall of China, ran around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, hiked in Chiapas, and cross country skied in Norway. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the West, the Southeast, and as one six year old here says, “the Specific Northwest”. I’ve interacted with thousands of young people, the vast majority who appreciated my efforts on their behalf. I’ve cycled up and down mountains in the Western United States. I’ve taught guest lessons in my daughters’ elementary classrooms. I’ve been blessed to know lots of people more selfless than me, some who will read this today. I’ve been loved by caring, generous parents, and been privileged to know my wife and daughters and their friends.

My life has been so full that I tend to think about whatever my future holds as extra credit. Everything from here on out is a bonus.

Maybe I don’t look forward to too much anymore because my cup has been overflowing for some time. Apart from a story well told and nature, not a lot moves me these days.

So getting choked up in church yesterday, during the announcements of all things, was totally unexpected. A guest was invited to the front to make a surprise announcement. A tall, dapper man in his late 30’s began describing his relationship with ChuckB, a member who had passed away a few months ago. He had been Chuck’s financial planner for eight years.

I didn’t know Chuck until I attended a celebration of his life that was planned nine months ago after the church community learned of his terminal illness. He worked as a forester for the Department of Ecology for a few decades and kept a low profile at church, driving the van, tutoring after school, doing whatever was needed behind the scenes. At his celebration I was struck by how everyone described him as one of the most humble, caring, and giving people they had ever known. He lived a simple life in a modest neighborhood that revolved around participating in church activities.

The financial planner announced that Chuck and his wife, who had passed away previously, were leaving the church $925,000, divided four ways, the largest portion for international aide, another for local charities, another for Lutheran World Relief specifically, and about $220,000 in the church’s unrestricted fund to use as the Council sees fit. A Council that has been seeking about $35,000 to fund a half-time position dedicated to strengthening our ties to local people in need.

There was an audible gasp. Two people stood and began applauding and soon everyone followed. My favorite part, and probably what moved me so much, was that Chuck wasn’t there for his standing ovation. Shortly before he died, he confided to one member that he was leaving “the bulk of his estate to the church,” but that person said she had “no idea it was anywhere near that much money.” No one did.

The most beautiful and moving part to me is that Chuck intentionally passed on his standing ovation. He didn’t need it. A life filled with service and saving was more than enough. Blessed be his memory.

 

 

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.

Empathy Impaired

The New York Times’ commentators have been writing a fair amount about how to revive our moribund economy and related issues like consumer and government spending, taxes, and unemployment. Sometimes I find the readers’ “recommended comments” more interesting than the essays themselves. They’re liberal and decidely cynical about life in the U.S. today. Their most common rallying cries are corporate greed, class warfare, out-of-touch politicians, and right-wing media.

Recently, they’ve been most fired up about members of Congress being out-of-touch with ordinary citizens, many who have been laid off, and too many that appear to be entering into permanent unemployment.

The question I haven’t seen asked is how does one, whether a member of Congress, or a college professor, develop empathy for the under-employed or short, medium, or long-term unemployed? The best answer of course is direct personal experience, but giving up one’s job in the interest of greater empathy doesn’t make much sense.

There have to be better ways, whether documentaries, essays, novels, photographs, music, and plays, that can help humanize the out-of-touch among us. The arts seem especially well suited to this task. I wish The Times’ irate, cynical commentators would each choose an art form and begin telling their stories with the out-of-touch Congress as their primary audience.

Of What Value is Art?

Forget Wall Street and Detroit for a minute. Should we subsidize more artists?

Some would say “yes” because art suffers as a result of market competition. The artist says my concern is less with developing a distinctive style or voice than with earning a livable wage, less emphasis on what do I need to say or create and more on what does the audience want to hear and see. 

Some would say “no” because art benefits from market competition. The artist says my economic vitality is dependent upon me developing a distinctive voice and style, yet at the same time, I have to attend to my audience’s interests, desires, and tastes. As a result, art advances.

We have the National Endowment of the Arts that supports some artists, but those monies are miniscule relative to the national budget. In Norway, I was intrigued that new buildings have to budget something like 2% of their total building costs to public art.