An Education in the Obvious

In the midst of one of the most turbulent weeks in our recent civic life, I attended the play Lincolnesque last Saturday at Washington’s Keegan Theatre.  First released in 2009, this new production couldn’t have come at a better time.  Here’s the synopsis:

“Leo has more on his plate than he can handle. He is a speechwriter for an endangered mediocre Congressman, in the final month before a do-or-die mid-term election. His new boss Carla is a dominating message maven who has been brought in from the corporate world to try and save the campaign. And his brother Francis is a psychiatric outpatient recently released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, despite having a powerful delusion that he is Abraham Lincoln. Desperate for inspiration, Leo turns to Francis for help writing “Lincolnesque” speeches, hoping that Lincoln’s transformative oratory will revive his boss’s career.”

Playwright John Strand uses humor and plot twists to bring Leo and Carla to the point of stealing Francis’ “Lincolnesque” citations for the final campaign speech that puts the Congressman over the top.  The power of idealism (or E&I as Francis calls it, for Ethics and Integrity) is clear, even when the staff take the low road and end up, as one reviewer noted, in the “inevitable aftermath.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about our political conversation these past few weeks and how it affects my work and life.  I suspect that many of you are having the same thoughts.  Political conversation is a measure of the civic health of our country, and right now that health is fragile.  Lincoln was not a perfect human, as Strand points out time and again in Lincolnesque.  The same can be said for Thomas Jefferson, the other American president whose words have inspired across decades even as his flaws as a person have been identified and examined in detail.  However, even in today’s understanding of history, author Thomas Reston writes that Barack Obama could note that, “’Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America,’ . . . even as he (Obama) pointedly recognized that Jefferson’s household was built and maintained by slaves.”  What Lincoln and Jefferson did best was to focus on big ideas and big politics, not policies.

Studio Lincoln

Studio Lincoln by Daniel Chester French at Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site (credit Carol Highsmith)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said:  “It seems to me that at this time we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure.”  While we don’t need leaders who steal “Lincolnesque” citations, we do need the same clear thought about what it means to be an American. An education in the obvious, in other words. Historian (and National Trust Honorary Trustee) David McCullough has said, “What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition.”  Speaking to the National Trust conference in Providence after the 9/11 attacks, David reminded us that as a country:

“We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength.  And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”

That strikes me as what’s missing in today’s course discourse. Just like playwrights and other artists, historians and preservationists dedicated to telling the full American story and linking it to our present and future can help provide that “education in the obvious.”  It won’t be easy to be heard over the noise of today’s discourse, but I believe we have to try.  Our nation’s political health may depend on it.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Good Trouble

Congressman John Lewis is a hero to many.  A hero whose skull was cracked more than fifty years ago while working for justice.  So in June when he sent out the following on his twitter account, it was a message worth hearing that day and every day:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Lewis wasn’t calling for a “don’t worry, be happy” type of response to the issues of our times. Instead he knows—from more than five decades in the trenches—that despair creates apathy, and apathy destroys activism.  One activist who was in Lewis’ training camps in Mississippi in 1964 notes that “Giving in to despair is lazy surrender.”

Makers in the Mansion

The dining room table at Woodlawn as envisioned by Hadiya Williams as part of the “Makers in the Mansion” exhibit

A few years ago, when the National Trust conference was held in Nashville, John Lewis challenged us to believe in the idea that “my house is your house.  My story is your story.  The history of my people is the history of all Americans not just African Americans.”  Hearing, understanding, and honoring the full diversity of America’s story is a lifetime of work that helps provide the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care for something larger than ourselves.  As American Express Foundation President Tim McClimon recently wrote in Forbes, “Historic preservation may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of activism, but it actually is one of the longest-running and most successful activist movements in the United States.”

Whatever your life’s work, whatever activism is triggered by your passion, it is likely that Lewis’ admonition fits.  Few things worth doing take less than a lifetime, and it is easy at times to get lost in a sea of despair. But think about what “good trouble” would look like for you…and then don’t be afraid to go make some noise.

Have a good week.

DJB

Music Row’s historic character is disappearing. Here’s what we can do.

NOTE:  My op-ed for the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the future of Music Row ran in today’s Nashville Tennessean.  You can see the original here.

 

Balance.

Harmony.

Character.

These are essential elements of any great song or musical composition. They are also essential to any great neighborhood. Unfortunately for Nashville, the Music Row neighborhood is out of balance right now. In the last five years alone, 43 historic buildings that housed music related businesses – the lifeblood of Music Row – have been demolished. Only one single threatened building – the venerable RCA Studio A – has been saved from demolition. And that “save” was achieved not by public policy or by city initiative, but solely through the efforts of private citizens intent on preserving irreplaceable heritage.

Forty-three to one is not balance. High-rise residential condominiums in a neighborhood of small-scale business is not harmony. Demolishing five more historic buildings in the heart of Music Row is not the way to protect neighborhood character. It is definitely not the way to celebrate the unique and extraordinary cultural heritage that still exists on Music Row, nor how to ensure that the neighborhood remains a thriving cultural campus filled with creative people, talented artists, striving songwriters, and  myriad businesses that support, promote, and share their work with the world.

Music Row Treasures announcement

Music Row announcement as a National Treasure, with musician Ben Folds

Music Row’s past is deep, rich, and complex. It evolved into a singular ecosystem of musical production – a one-of-a-kind neighborhood that became the physical manifestation of the “business of making music.” It is the place where music emerges from the thoughts, dreams and experiences of songwriters, musicians and singers. It is the place of more than 200 recording studios, record labels, promoters, licensing agents, and a host of other small (and not so small) businesses dedicated to the singular and profound purpose of making our world a brighter, livelier, and more engaging place through music.

There is nowhere else like Music Row, period. The good news is there are solid strategies that Nashville can use to stem this current tide of demolition and keep the music on Music Row. We stand with Historic Nashville Inc., the hundreds of fans of Music Row who gathered at Bobby’s Idle Hour on July 24, and the many more who signed our petition in urging Mayor David Briley, the Metro Council and Metro Planning Commission to take immediate, specific steps to support and save Music Row:

  • Create a Music Row Cultural Industry District. This designation—the state’s first–would serve to strengthen, develop, and promote music related businesses in Music Row through the use of incentives, branding, promotion, historic preservation, infrastructure investment, and other tools.
  • End Specific Plan Exemptions. Currently Metro Planning Commission is approving Specific Plan exemptions for the Music Row geographic area. By consistently approving larger and taller buildings than allowed by current zoning, Metro is encouraging demolitions that destroy music-related buildings to make way for generic apartment buildings.
  • Develop Incentives to Support Music Row’s Music Industry. Although large companies are routinely awarded incentives to locate or operate in Nashville, no such benefits exist for the small music businesses. New incentives, including much-needed preservation tools, can help keep music businesses on Music Row and preserve the area’s historic buildings.

It is not too late. But the clock is ticking, and the song is growing ever more discordant. We call on city leaders to take immediate action before this unique cultural industry district is lost forever.

The public is encouraged to sign our petition to Nashville’s key elected officials at www.savingplaces.org/savemusicrow.

More to come…

DJB

The Power of Words

Former President Obama’s recent summer reading list reminded me of how much I pick up fresh insights from seeing what books others recommend.  When I finish several months’ worth of reading, I’ll pass along my takes on those works to anyone who cares to listen, simply because I believe in the power of the written word.  Writer Cheryl Strayed said she was seven years old when she understood that, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem Spelling,

 “a word after a word after a word is power.”

According to Strayed, the power of those words she read at age seven, “wasn’t the sort of power we associate with politics or world affairs . . . It wasn’t the kind of power we talk about when we talk about destruction or physical force. It wasn’t about defeat or domination or control. It was about a deeper, older, truer sort of power, one that calls upon the original meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin posse.  It means, quite simply, to be able. It’s a definition of power that’s about doing and creating, about writing word after word after word on the page.”

Earlier this year, the National Trust Council visited Oxford, Mississippi, where many of our members demonstrated the power of words by making a pilgrimage to Square Books—one of the country’s best-known independent bookstores.  I love the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby included on the store’s bookmarks, because it speaks to the special power of the written word:

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score.  It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

We learn a great deal by what others tell us about a book, but you have to read it to understand the power, get it in your head, and have it beat in your chest.  With our children on the west coast in August, we recently gathered on California’s Monterey Peninsula for a week’s vacation.  Given that we were less than a mile from historic Cannery Row—and having heard good things about this book from others—I dove into John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel that helped make this street of old sardine factories and marine laboratories famous.  Cannery Row was a delightful read, especially since I walked daily among the buildings and places that inspired the characters of Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora Flood, and Lee Chong. The connection between story and place took that book into my head and helped it beat in my chest. The book focuses on life as it is and celebrates community, while also acknowledging the loneliness of the individual. Steinbeck’s descriptive language and imagery—“What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”—are as sharp and inspired as one would expect from a winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.  Key to much of this book, as well as his classic The Grapes of Wrath, is this strong sense of place.

 

Steinbeck Monument

Steinbeck Monument on Cannery Row

 

Places that we save and celebrate are full of stories, both real and inspired, that tell much about us as a country and as individuals.

If you’re reading anything that has gotten into your head, is beating in your chest, or is powerful to you, please share it with someone. James Baldwin said in a 1963 interview with Life magazine, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.  It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Sharing is fundamental to connecting with others. Connecting with others is fundamental to a balanced and productive life. Share the power of words.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Pacific Grove-by-God

Lone Cypress

Lone Cypress (photo credit: Claire Brown)

For several years I’ve regularly traveled for work to Monterey, California, a small coastal city some two hours south of San Francisco. So when we went looking for a west coast destination for this year’s family vacation, I suggested we check out the Monterey Peninsula.  Now that we’ve wrapped up a week-long visit to Pacific Grove—next-door neighbor to the city of Monterey—we’re just coming to realize how much we’ve seen and explored in this new (to us) part of the world.

Let’s begin with the coastline, the attraction to visitors for thousands of years.  I awoke every day shortly after 6 a.m. and went for walks of as much as two hours along the well-used (and well-loved) Monterey Bay Coastal Trail.  Pacific Grove’s portion of this 18-mile trail, which follows the path of the old Southern Pacific Railroad train tracks, hews close to the water and rock-strewn coastline, while Monterey’s comes inland a bit to incorporate Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Fisherman’s Wharf.  My walk often began before sunrise and was shrouded in fog.  Thankfully, Carmel Coffee Roasters in downtown Pacific Grove opens at 6 a.m. seven days a week, so I was well fortified with java.

Harbor Seals at Pacific Grove

Harbor Seals at Pacific Grove

 

Pacific Grove Coastline

Coastline along Pacific Grove (photo credit: Claire Brown)

Monterey’s submarine canyon is in such close proximity to the shore that the bay has deep, cold, nutrient-rich water all year. This brings all types of marine mammals and sea birds close to the shore.  I enjoyed watching the harbor seals lounge on the rocks and along the beach at the Stanford Marine Institute, listening to the sea lions bark from their perch along the rocks in Monterey, and tracing the flight of a wide array of birds out for their morning breakfast.  I would stop and read along the way and found that Pacific Grove and Monterey have done a good job of capturing the stories and people from their diverse histories.  It was on one of these markers that I learned that Pacific Grove developed an Episcopal camp-meeting history in the 1880s and that Monterey had a very diverse workforce in the commercial fishing and canning industries. That led one wag to suggest that you could tell Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey-by-the-Smell, and Pacific Grove-by-God.

Pacific Grove Panorama

Pacific Grove Panorama (photo credit: Claire Brown)

We also took advantage of the coastline for a day trip down to Big Sur along California Highway 1.  This coastal road—famous for its stunning views—did not disappoint.  Along the way we stopped to take in the Lone Cypress (technically on the 17-mile road at Pebble Beach), the famous Bixby Bridge, and McWay Falls, a beautiful waterfall that fell into the ocean at Big Sur. We happened to go on a simply glorious day, with no clouds or fog and a California-perfect 80 degrees.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge (photo credit: Claire Brown)

 

DJB at Bixby Bridge

DJB at the famous Bixby Bridge

 

Lone Cypress

Candice and DJB at the Lone Cypress in Pebble Beach

 

McWay Falls

McWay Falls

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the major tourist attraction in the area and after a visit it is easy to see why.  They have crowd-pleasers (how can you resist the feeding of otters and penguins) mixed in with educational exhibits (don’t miss the live-narrated films) and secluded tanks where one can sit and marvel at the amazing creatures found under the surface of the Bay. We spent an entire day at the aquarium and felt we’d only seen a glimpse.

School of Fish

School of Fish at the Aquarium (photo credit: Claire Brown)

 

Jellyfish

Jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium

As we were leaving Pacific Grove on Saturday morning, Claire and I took in a Whale Watching tour on the Bay.  It was a wonderful three hours, where we saw a humpback whale breach the water in a way that takes one’s breath away, countless dolphins looking so playful as they swam by, sea lions that came up to give our boat a close look, and sea birds too numerous to capture in a blog post.  Very memorable.

Sea Lion

Sea Lion comes in to inspect the Whale Watchers

 

Dolphins in Monterey Bay

Dolphins seen on our Whale Watching tour

 

Humpback Whale Dives

A Humpback Whale Dives into the Monterey Bay

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take the family over for a behind-the-scenes tour of our National Trust site, the Cooper-Molera Adobe, which will reopen in about a month after three years’ work to reimagine this hub of Monterey history, commerce, and agriculture.  The Barns at Cooper-Molera are already busy hosting special events, and the new bakery and restaurant, along with the re-interpreted historic adobes, will soon be ready to greet the public.

Of course, this couldn’t be a Brown vacation without great food. Two Pacific Grove restaurants became favorites, as we visited both twice over the course of seven days: Passionfish and Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar.  And after taking Claire back home to Oakland on Saturday, we had a culinary feast at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, this time in the downstairs restaurant. (Our first visit a year ago had been to the upstairs cafe.)  Here’s a description of what is intended for the restaurant, from the Chez Panisse website:

“From the beginning, Alice and her partners tried to do things the way they wanted them done at a dinner party at home, with generosity and attention to detail. The Restaurant, located downstairs, is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, by reservation only. The fixed menu consists of three to four courses and changes nightly, each designed to be appropriate to the season and composed to feature the finest sustainably sourced, organic, peak-of-their-season ingredients, including meat, fish, and poultry.”

We found it to be one of the most thoughtful menus—and meals—we’d ever encountered. It was delightful, and we were pleased to share it with Claire and her friend Blair, who joined us for parts of the vacation.

Steinbeck Monument

Steinbeck Monument on Cannery Row

Finally, I went on something of a John Steinbeck kick while in Pacific Grove.  I’d begun to read The Grapes of Wrath on the plane ride out to California, as I’d decided this was a good time in our history to revisit this classic tale of the best and worst of America. But while in Pacific Grove, we stopped in a wonderful independent bookstore and I picked up a Steinbeck Centennial Edition of Cannery Row, the short novel/poem on accepting life as it is and putting the highest value on “the intangibles—human warmth, camaraderie, and love.”  Or, as Steinbeck writes early in the novel, “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”

Nature of Parties

“The Nature of Parties” by John Steinbeck from “Cannery Row”

Reading Cannery Row proved to be an unexpected joy in a vacation full of joy and thoughtfulness.  I’ll let Doc’s last words in the book close out this remembrance:

“Even now,

I know that I have savored the hot taste of life

Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.

Just for a small and a forgotten time

I have had full in my eyes from off my girl

The whitest pouring of eternal light——”

Family along Monterey Coast

The Browns along the California Coast

More to come…

DJB

Finding Perspective

I recently asked my colleague Priya Chhaya to open a retreat with a reflection on changing perspectives.  We were discussing a familiar theme, the future of the American city, in an unexpected place—in this particular case, under the night sky in the American west.  For one of the readings, she chose the Sylvia Plath poem Stars Over Dordogne, calling out the second verse in particular:

“Where I am at home, only the sparsest stars

Arrive at twilight, and then after some effort.

And they are wan, dulled by much travelling.

The smaller and more timid never arrive at all

But stay, sitting far out, in their own dust.

They are orphans. I cannot see them. They are lost.

But tonight they have discovered this river with no trouble,

They are scrubbed and self-assured as the great planets.”

Priya noted that when in a city, which is home for many of us, you often only see what is right in front of you: the buildings, the roads, the cars, the noise, the obvious density. But a change in place can clear our minds to think beyond what is immediately in our line of sight to things that exist but which can be difficult to comprehend.  Our perspective is changed.

Plath takes a similar line of thought in ending Stars Over Dordogne:

“And what if the sky here is no different.

And it is my eyes that have been sharpening themselves?”

August is a time when many of us head off for summer vacations.  If that fits with your plans, think about how a change in place can bring a change in perspective.

The Montana landscape following thunderstrom

The Montana landscape following a western thunderstorm

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Be Present When Serendipity Strikes

Harp Guitar

Harp Guitar

It was a flight like dozens of others I’ve taken in the summertime: delayed, due to thunderstorms, and the prospect of climbing into bed much later than planned with an early morning wake-up on the other end.

When I finally boarded last Monday’s flight from Nashville after a day’s work on our campaign to save Music Row, it barely registered that my two seatmates had stashed guitars in the luggage bin. This was Nashville, after all. I mumbled a couple of hellos, and promptly fell into my customary power nap around take-off. Waking up thirty minutes later, I opened my laptop and started work on a project that was overdue.

Only after returning to my seat later in the flight did I exchange real conversation with the woman seated in the middle seat, between her boyfriend and me.  As I often do, I asked what type of guitar she played.  She replied, “One’s a harp guitar and the other is a flamenco guitar.”  Bing!  My mind suddenly woke up.  Harp guitars are pretty esoteric instruments, and those who play them approach their music with religious zeal.  They also tend to be very good musicians. I mentioned to her that I enjoyed the music of Stephen Bennett, a harp guitar devotee. In fact, I was listening to some of his music at that moment on my iPad.  She replied that she knew Stephen, and then seeing that the terrific guitarist and composer Alex De Grassi was next in my musical queue, she said “I’m playing with Alex next week.” She followed that by asking if I knew Tommy Emmanuel, another stellar guitarist.  I replied that I knew his music, but didn’t know him personally, upon which she handed me her headphones and played a video from a recent concert where he joined her for an impromptu—and beautiful—duet on one of her compositions.

At this point I stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m David Brown.”  She replied, “I’m Muriel Anderson.”

Oh my goodness.  I was sitting next to the woman who I’d proclaimed my love for to God and the internet, after hearing her version of the Beatles tune Day Tripper. I had wandered all over BWI airport several years ago trying to find where she was going to play in a gig promoted as BWI Live.

Muriel Anderson

Muriel Anderson

Over the last half hour of the flight we talked guitar makers (her harp guitar was built by Mike Doolin and I showed her pictures of my two Running Dog guitars by luthier Rick Davis), harp guitar festivals, historic preservation and the importance of saving Music Row, and her newest album Nightlight Daylight, which is a two-CD set with music for the morning and music for the evening.  She was pleased that Guitar Player magazine named Nightlight Daylight among the top 10 CDs of the decade but even more pleased, I think, to show me the interactive fiber-optic lighted CD cover.  (Push on the moon and the night stars come out. Very cool!)

This is a musician who has collaborated with some of the best:  the late guitarists Chet Atkins and Les Paul, for example.  Yet she was as engaging, lively, down-to-earth, and interesting in person as she came across on stage and in her music.  When I mentioned the National Trust had a hand in saving RCA Studio A in Nashville, she immediately said, “And you saved Chet’s office!”  I told Muriel that I’d had the privilege of sitting in that very office, finger-picking on a beautiful guitar owned by the man who bought the building at the 11th hour. As we were leaving I said, “I have a Gallagher guitar at home, and I bet you can guess why.”  After thinking a bit she said, “You’re a Doc Watson fan, and that was Doc’s guitar.”  Then she added, “He was my first guitar hero.”  I knew that, having read it online at some point.  He was mine as well.

I know I can be oblivious at times, but this experience reminded me—once again—of how much we need to wake up and focus on life. Not all encounters are so serendipitous or pleasurable, and yours—when they happen—will be different.  Perhaps you’ll get to meet the writer you’ve always admired, or gain an insight for work you’ve long sought but needed a serendipitous moment to find.  When it happens it can be wonderful.  Trouble is, you won’t have the chance if you don’t take your head away from the screen or out of the conversation in your head, and talk with real people.

Have a good week, and when a bit of serendipity comes your way, may you be present to receive it.

More to come…

DJB