Tag Archive | "Michelangelo"

Ascending the Heights

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Historically, mankind has conceived of God or gods in a heavenly realm above the earth.  For this reason, in order to better communicate with God or ancient deities, men have ascended to high places.  As early as the fourth millennium B.C., the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia built temple towers called ziggurats. 


Raised temple areas were also part of Mayan, as well as Jewish and Christian cultures.  Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.  In the Gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as going up a mountain to pray.  Most churches have some form of steeple that towers above the rest of the structure.


Our fascination with ascending hills or mountains is not limited to communication with God, it is a metaphor for our attempts to advance, overcome obstacles, and improve ourselves.  In our lives, a hill or mountain can be a problem, a grievance, an illness, a fear, or a host of other things.


Oftentimes, we cannot seem to “climb this mountain” ourselves.  We need the help of another or others to provoke a realization, change our attitudes, guide our paths, cultivate our skills, or bolster our confidence.  And, absent such help, we may be doomed to failure.


Would Columbus have discovered the New World without the funding of the Spanish royal family?  Without the financial assistance of the great Italian statesman Lorenzo de’ Medici during the early career of Michelangelo, would the world have been robbed of the magnificence of his painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling?


Interestingly enough, the people who help often gain as much as the individual assisted.  For that reason, it is said that “When you help someone up a hill, you get that much closer to the top yourself.”

Tell Me That It’s Human Nature

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Deeply embedded in our DNA are certain genetic traits that propel our species forward or at least, ensure its continuation.   Every human being possesses the drive, if not the actual ability, to earn, create, or steal his or her most basic survival needs.  On some level, we all share a sense of humor and a profound desire to be respected and loved.  But beyond that, we are uniquely different individuals, as evidenced in the way that we conduct our daily lives, confront challenges, and rise above our basic — and most base — instincts.


Environment, to a certain extent, determines our perspectives upon and responses to life.  But, environment is not the sole criteria.  Some people assume that karma makes us who we are, and determines what we accomplish, in this life.  Simply put, the concept of karma holds that every human being must set to right those wrongs committed in previous lifetimes.  Thereby, we learn the lessons that advance us spiritually, cease the tedious process of reincarnation, and get on to the next stage in our evolution.


But even karma doesn’t quite explain the quintessential differences between human beings.  If we come into our lifetimes without memories of our previous lives, how are to we know — other than through extremely focused meditation/reflection — which lessons we came back to learn?   And even if we did remember, would we all do the same thing under the same circumstances?


Suppose, for example, that humanity was an experiment in some cosmic lab.  If the being conducting the test were to place two individuals into the exact same environment, under the exact same conditions in order to observe the results of a specified stimuli, five’ll get you ten that, minus the introduction of some variable impacting one of the test subjects, the results would still be vastly different.


Why is this so?  Did our Maker imbue each of us with a very specific personality gene?  Or was it a rogue gene placed there just to amuse that Maker?


Whatever it is, I still can’t answer these questions, not even after twenty-plus years of interviewing and working with individuals from all walks of life.


I still wonder, for example, how Christa McAuliffe, the first female astronaut and a teacher by trade, found the courage to enter a space capsule for the first time, a capsule that would tragically explode above the earth before even achieving orbit, due to a faulty O-ring.   I wonder what caused the strange woman on the subway to loudly and hatefully spew her opinion that Christa deserved to die because she should have stayed home to take care of her family instead of venturing into outer space, and what made those of us who admired Christa unloose tears instead of hatred.


I wonder why one child, physically and verbally abused in early childhood, grew up to make gentle, beautiful music, while another treated the same way in his tender years grew up to make violent and misogynistic rap.


I wonder why Tom Cruise, a renowned actor blessed with success and money, never learned to stop making a complete idiot of himself while John Travolta, another renowned actor blessed with success and money, quietly flew his own plane over New Orleans to airdrop critical supplies, on his own dime, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — while our government sat on its ass and twiddled its thumbs.


I wonder what gave Michelangelo the precision of hand and eye, and the inner vision, to craft something as beautiful and glorious as The David from a lifeless piece of marble. And what causes Puritans the world over to replicate that statue with one major difference: a fig leaf disguising the part of David’s anatomy that shows him to be unquestionably male.


I wonder what caused the highly placed senior executive at a firm that shall remained nameless to flip out one day.  While the man was tossing extremely sensitive documents concerning work that his firm was doing for the government off the roof of the company’s building, and while said executive was giving away bundles of money to every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street, the “lowly” secretary was not only explaining things calmly to the FBI, she was holding the entire company together until its inevitable collapse.


I wonder how much blood money was enough to assuage the consciences of those in government who took bribes from BP and looked the other way while the fuel company raped our environment and our economy in the Gulf.  And I wonder how, in response to that tragedy, unpaid volunteers give tirelessly of their time and energy to clean up the beaches and the wildlife devastated by the worst oil spill the world has ever seen.


I wonder why one contestant on a reality TV show mouths off to a judge’s criticism, another one bawls, and yet a third laughs good-naturedly in the judge’s face.


I wonder why some teens bully and debase those who don’t march to their drummer.  I wonder why those on the receiving end take to heart the cruelty of those who contribute nothing of value to society, and why the victims suffer irreparable emotional harm and some even commit suicide, while their tormenters blithely go shopping at the mall, take in a movie, and spin the latest hip-hop records without a care in the world for the damage they have inflicted.


I wonder about the mother of one the scuz buckets that blinded and killed innocent animals several years ago, under cover of darkness, in the Popcorn Park Zoo, Forked River, New Jersey.  In court, during her son’s trial, the woman had shrugged and told the judge, “They were just animals.”  I wonder what she’d have said if her son had been murdered in jail — for he was incarcerated for his crimes — if his killers had shrugged and said, “Hey, he was just an animal.”


I wonder why Mario Batali’s recipe for struffola seems to work for him, even with what read to me like an overabundance of flour.  But when I tried Mario’s recipe, it yielded something that our military could easily use as weaponry on the front lines.


I wonder why some of my beloved relatives have passed on, while their earthly possessions remain intact.


I wonder why some of us who live healthy lifestyles are felled by cancer, while some of us who smoke like chimneys and eat like gluttons live well into our 80s and 90s.


I wonder if it was that last fried banana sandwich that truly did Elvis in and if it was more romantic/mysterious to hint that he died of an overdose.  I wonder if Aretha Franklin, one of my favorite singers, who must consume a bucket of fried chicken before every concert in order to calm her nerves, wonders the same thing that I do about Elvis.


Sometimes these things, and things like them, keep me up at night.  Sometimes I think that Sting was right when he penned the line, “History will teach us nothing.” Sometimes I think that yes, God must have implanted us all with that rogue gene, just to keep things interesting — if not supremely perplexing! 

Juiced

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Muses

Had Juliet been a painter, a sculptor, or a musician, she may have cried not for Romeo from her moonlight perch but rather, “Muses, Muses, wherefore art thou, Muses?”  Such laments often rip from the souls of those of us dually cursed and blessed to have been born with genuine artistic streaks.

 

For purposes of this article, I need to clarify the term artist, which has been perverted by the money-grubbers, number crunchers, and attention seekers.   By artist, I do not mean those who churn out formula like so many cookies on an assembly line for the express purpose of fattening their bank accounts and those of their record labels or production companies.  By artist, I mean those of us who might otherwise inhabit rubber rooms if we were not able to express ourselves daily through creative outlets.  By artist, I mean people like Michelangelo, who dissected cadavers in the dead of night to understand how the human body was designed, so as to truly glorify it in works such The David.   I mean people like Bruce Springsteen, who pitched his breakout album Born to Run in the trash after more than a year’s work because he wasn’t pleased with it.  People like Meryl Streep who are equally comfortable — and compelling — portraying an uber fashionista in The Devil Wears Prada and a drab, austere nun in Doubt.

 

Let’s return now to Juliet on the balcony.  Just as Shakespeare’s heroine cried out for the lover she feared she’d lost, artistic souls are terrified when their creative juices refuse to flow.  In those dark hours, we feel abandoned, lost at sea with no lighthouse on the horizon.  Needing to find the parties responsible for our stopped-up juices, we blame the Muses, those sisters of ancient Greek mythology thought to inspire literature, music, and other art forms.

 

How interesting that we lay the blame at the Muses’ feet, for as U2’s lead singer and songsmith, Bono, wrote:

 

Every artist is a cannibal,

Every poet is a thief.

All kill their inspiration,

Then sing about their grief.

 

What Bono meant is that much art springs from within, from our own life experiences.  As B. B. King advised, “You can’t play the blues unless you’ve lived the blues.”  We create the things that we know, things that evoke profound feelings within us.  If we fall in love, suffer betrayal at the hands of lover, friend, or government, or survive intact after some cataclysmic event, we pen a song, a poem, a play about it; we paint it, we sculpt it, we dance it.  In expressing our deepest feelings and most personal experiences, our art becomes universal, echoing the sentiments of others on their own life journeys.

 

What, then, about budding artists, those who may have a very shallow well of experience upon which to draw?  Is it possible to manufacture experience?  It is, if one’s creativity is so strong it will not be denied or subverted into a non-creative channel.  Such is the case of Harlan Ellison, an award-winning author who once established a legal precedent by suing a foreign television company for the use of a title synonymous with of one of his short stories.  Crafting what he deems alternative fiction, Ellison is a prolific author of books, novellas, essays, and screenplays, including scripts for The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek series.  In order to gain some life experience and gather material for his first book and subsequent memoirs, Ellison went undercover in a New York street gang.  It was a life-altering experience in which he often did “the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons.”

 

Manufactured or au naturale, every true artist bleeds for his or her craft.  Every one of us nurtures our art like a child in the womb.  And when we unveil it to the world, we hold our breath like a parent watching a kid set off for the first time without his training wheels.  We pray fervently that it will not fall flat on its face.  We hope that because our art contains so much of ourselves, that those who view it, read it, or hear it will understand that what we have revealed are pieces of our souls.  And that is the difference between media whores and artists.

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