Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, September 29, 2013

10,000 hours

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, The Story of Success, launches the idea that 10,000 hours dedicated to an activity would bring success. He cites the Beatles, Bill Gates and J. Robert Oppenheimer to support his thesis. In his "10,000 hour rule" he posits that the key to success which is an indicator of mastery is a matter of practising for at least 10,000 hours.  And I think to myself, what have I spent 10,000 hours on, in my dilettante-ish life. Let's see, 10,000 hours, at say eight hours a working day and fifty work weeks a year comes out to five years. That's at least five years of diligent application to a craft or skill.

I can think of a few persons who have applied themselves with such dedication to a talent or gift, that I could say yes, they are masters. Many practising artists, writers, craftsmen - teachers, beekeepers, farmers -  in Trinidad and Tobago find themselves already in that category - that with success or not, they may be considered "masters."

Isabel Brash has spent the last five years making chocolate, for more than twelve hours a day on average. She has taught herself what she needs to know about processing cocoa from bean to bonbon; paid attention to the agriculture of cocoa trees; developed her own techniques while learning from observation and taste. Cocobel chocolate - in bars, or barks or bonbons - are works of art. And if they are not available anywhere else in the world but Trinidad,  they are more to be prized. Seek them out if you're a visitor. And if we live here, make sure we know the complexity of Trinidad cocoa blended with local flavours like mammy apple, Paramin basin mint, pepper pineapple and ginger.  Just because those of us who live here can, make sure there's Cocobel chocolate in our lives for anytime we feel like it. Isabel is one of those rare persons who has done 10,000 hours in her early thirties.

Isabel Brash's chocolate gems
Bunty O'Connor, the potter, started making pots as a young mother needing a creative outlet. When she moved her family to the wilds of Chickland, it was to operate a pottery built on a knoll of an old estate. For more than a decade, she worked at her craft, Trinidad clay pots and plates, bowls, art ajoupas. Her hands and the clay are dancing partners. Today she is making sculptures that celebrate our wild flora and fauna in organic forms: calabash bowls, vases and figures that are unique pieces of ceramic art. Going well beyond her 10,000 hours, she now schedules regular raku and mosaic classes to seed a new generation of potters.
One of Bunty O'Connor's organic pots
Helen Wong Chong has spent forty years in the fashion industry. As a maker of knitwear, a fabric and clothing designer, she made her mark with one of the oldest fashion houses in Italy. In retirement, she launched the secondskin label to brand personal fashion statements. Five years ago, she bought a hobby kit to experiment with glass beads. Lampwork - as the decoration of beads using lamps to melt the glass has been called - is now an ultra modern technology with high temperature torches fired with natural gas. Alone in her workshop, Helen may already have turned out 10,000 beads, and is well on her way to 10,000 hours in this craft.

Beads on a theme by Helen Wong Chong
Some people do their hours faster than others. I can think of Pat Bishop, getting to her 10,000 in the nights in panyards; and in daylight with her painting. Or her sister Gillian, who came to jewellery-making via a chemistry background, but whose fascination with stones and a flair for design developed the unique line of personal ornaments and signature gift items.

Chancy Moll - with a philosophy degree in her kit - married into a gardening life, and has co-created the most refreshing "secret garden" in Santa Cruz. Mary Hall is a master teacher, with many many more than 10,000 hours devoted to students - many productive creative students making their mark in the world - in the Michael K. Hall in Tobago. The Kariwak couple, Allan Clovis and Cynthia have certainly dedicated many more than 10,000 hours each to the small Tobago hotel that would be celebrated anywhere in the world.

Cherub in the San Antonio "secret garden"

Recognition and success have accrued to Derek Walcott and Sir Vidia Naipaul, who devoted their lives to singular craftsmanship and purposeful practice. Peter Minshall, with over 30 years of making mas art. David Rudder, lyricist, composer, performer, working at his craft for over 30 years. Behind great athletes like Brian Lara or George Bovell, you'll certainly find 10,000 and more hours. There are many who achieved success and fame. Many more who achieved mastery, but not necessarily fame or success. By considering those that are recognised, and those that aren't, we realise how civilization is built, and on whose shoulders.

I can only humbly submit two areas of endeavour in my lifetime. I think I have put in over 10,000 hours cooking, just cooking food for family and friends. It's one area in which I knew I had something to share with my children, something that they could enjoy and learn from. Hence my recipe collection, Comfort Food, with the premise that "these are the tastes of home, to be taken with you, any and everywhere you go."( The other is writing, still putting in the hours.

The essential idea of the 10,000 hours seems to be practice. And if you like what you do, it's easy to fall in love with practice.

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect that any hypothesis such as the 10,000 hour rule would remain unchallenged or untested. Studies (according to Time, May 20, 2013) are now on-going to measure the variables and extent of its validity; the particular fields or activities where it applies; and in the long run, whether there's any truth at all here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Beaming The Beginning

How many of us have stories that would go with us to the grave, were it not for the unguarded remark or the encounter with the one person whose interest allows the story to come out. Such was the serendipitous moment that got Loren McIntyre to speak about his experiences. He was travelling down the Amazon in 1987, in the company of Petru Popescu - novelist and screen writer who had fled Romania in 1975 - and Jean-Michel Cousteau, environmentalist-explorer son of Jacques. To these fellow travellers, he mentioned his experience of communicating without words.

Loren Alexander McIntyre was born in Seattle Washington in 1917. He studied Latin American culture at the University of California in Berkeley. He spent World War II in the US Navy, going around the world to China, Japan, India, Brazil. After the war, he was assigned to the Peruvian Navy as a gunnery advisor. He later graduated from university in Lima in Ethnology, and became fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. Through the US Aid program, he travelled extensively in Peru and Brazil, recording everything in photographs. His first article was published in National Geographic magazine in 1966; the feature on Bolivia included 47 of his photographs. In his lifetime, he has published hundreds of features, and many books, on Amazonia.

Petru Popescu fled Romania when he was 31. In 1987, his interest was piqued by McIntyre's revelation that members of the Mayoruna tribe had communicated with him by thoughts beamed directly to his mind. Popescu spent the next three years researching, interviewing and corresponding with Loren McIntyre to develop the story that became Amazon Beaming, which was published in 1991. Popescu was already living in Los Angeles. McIntyre was working in Brazil and finally settled in Arlington Virginia with his wife Sue.

The story begins in 1969 when McIntyre goes into the Amazonian forest on assignment for National Geographic. He's not quite sure what he will find, but his party of three goes by light aeroplane along the Javari - one of Amazon's tributaries. They are well-equipped for an expedition, with camping, film and photographic equipment, trinkets for natives, canned food. One of the three got sick, and McIntyre insisted that the pilot take him back. He would wait at the river camp where he hoped to make contact with the stealthy group of naked Indians that was watching, keeping their distance.

On his own in the forest, McIntyre follows the group until he has lost the river. Then, he has no choice but to stay with the tribe, hoping they would lead him back out. Some have tattoos as well as labrets - spines through piercings in their upper lip - that look like cats' whiskers - jaguar people. McIntyre spends two months with the tribe at a time when they are on a ritual journey "to the beginning." They have no language in common, but McIntyre is befriended by an individual he deems the headman. Barnacle seems to understand McIntyre's thoughts. McIntyre perceives messages which beam to him with the force of complete thoughts. Some of us are friends. Later when his watch is destroyed and he has spent his frustration running in circles - a spell that Barnacle undoes by running circles in the opposite direction - he receives the message, the face of time.

He travels with them, back in time it seems, through ritual fasting, body painting, hallucinogenic potions, frog licking and dreaming. His concept of time changes. He perceives that the beginning is always within memory. In the deep forest, with no horizon, time is not linear, it envelops you. Later, having lost all his photographic equipment, film, notebooks, everything that connects him to the world of civilizados, he is flushed out of the forest on monsoon flood waters. He is glad to be alive, but equally certain that his friend of the forest is not.

Two years later, he leads the National Geographic expedition to find the furthest source of the Amazon river. This journey takes a group of three explorers  - McIntyre, Richard Bradshaw and Victor Tupa - to the Continental Divide. To the west of this crest, the Pacific; far to the east, the Atlantic. This ridge in the Andes is over 18,000 feet above sea level. Here the clouds touch the mountain to make rain or snow; here they expect to find the ultimate source. Here begin the many tiny rivers, cascades, ponds or springs flowing in a continuous stream to the mighty Amazon.

Unsure of how far they would need to go, the three adventurers plan to travel for twelve miles on foot around the Choquecorao (a long crest called "golden sling.") They are subject to the cold, oxygen deprivation and risk death. For McIntyre, there is certainty in this mission. He has a vision of the tribal ancestors who crossed the landbridge from Asia, trekking the mountain ranges through generations and  eras before their descent to a home in the deep forest.

He is connected to something primordial through the experiences with Barnacle and the Mayoruna tribe. He arrives at the beginning of the world's mightiest river, in a desolate uninhabitable landscape. He reaches the end of the tribe's ritual begun in the impenetrable bush. It didn't matter that it took another 16 years or so before he was credited as the explorer to go to the furthest source of the Amazon, a tiny perpetual lake fed by snow melt that has since been named Laguna McIntyre.

Based on the measurements of their trek, it is confirmed that the Amazon is still the second longest river in the world after the Nile. It flows through Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Guyana. However, the discharge that drains from the crest of the Andes through the deep forests to the Atlantic Ocean, is greater than that of the other top ten rivers altogether. 

In crafting a book that must certainly be one of the contemporary world's great adventure stories, Petru Popescu allows McIntyre to tell the story in his own words. The narrative switches between McIntyre's recollections and the Popescu's framework of deep research which provides the context of McIntyre's story. Though it is the adventure of one person, Amazon Beaming is vast and epic; it spans a continent, and the time and thought from primitive to civilized.

In the Epilogue, McIntyre returns to the Javari. It is 1976, over 17 years after first contact, but Barnacle still lives in his thoughts.  He anticipates the possibility of re-finding his tribe of Mayoruna but they have disappeared. Instead he finds many mixed children, tribesmen becoming civilizado; he finds disease and destitution. The sense of loss is haunting: we will never be that wild again. 

Aerial photography was one of the greatest assets in the quest to find the source. The Mayoruna believed that the source was "in the sky." It was not just a metaphorical concept, as McIntyre came to realise: the river on land is constantly fed by the river in the sky.
Go directly to this link to be able to zoom in to this view over the Amazon:
 "popcorn" clouds in the afternoon are the result of forest respiration.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Writing, my concubine

Writing is often an extension of thinking. I plod from stepping stone to stone - as in a murky river - sometimes leaping wildly hoping there's indeed submerged rock where I see ripple, hoping not to have to turn back and thread another way, hoping not to sink in still water. Hoping not to have to start over.  Reviewing (writing about) films is an exercise in writing, which exercises thinking.  Was the film, the action, the denouement (how it all came out) a worthwhile commitment in time, and whether it is useful at all, or entertaining. In the case of my writing, did it make me think?

When I picked up Farewell My Concubine at the video club, I was told, "That's old, you must have seen it already." I had not. I had no clue about this 1993 China-made film that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Like so many films that come out of China from the post- Cultural Revolution era, it is layered through ancient tradition, revolutionary history and contemporary technique to present a face of multi-faceted China, to itself and to the west. Sometimes so much layering, so much texture can be confusing. In another age too, the unfamiliar cadences of Chinese language, the high sing-song would be annoying.

Prostitute turned wife, Juxian, played by Gong Li
The concubine in ancient cultures was a woman who lived with - or was dependent on -  a (usually high born) man, but was not accorded the status of a wife. He may already have had at least one wife. To the Chu king, waiting for the end of his reign (c. 200BC) - and his life - at the hands of the Han king storming the gates, the concubine is more than mistress; this is his last friend at the end of the world. Go, the king commands her. She stays.

The great irony of Farewell is that - like classic theatre, Noh or Shakespeare or Beijing opera - the concubine is played by a man. Two women - and only two - feature in this film. The first is the young prostitute who cannot continue to work at the House of Blossoms and raise a child. So we see her in 1924 following a street performance of the Beijing theatre troupe, with her five year old. She takes the child to the master who rejects him because he has a sixth finger. The desperate mother finds a sharp knife to do what is necessary to deliver a perfect child to the company. A hard life of sadistic brutality disguised as discipline and training ensues; but the young Douzi is never self-pitying. In the  environment of the opera school, the timid reserved Douzi is befriended by the boisterous Shitou. Together they have each other's backs against the world.

They grow to manhood with poetry and music in their heads, desiring fame above all, in the cloistered world of the Beijing opera.

By 1940's Shitou - now known as Xiaolou - attracts the attention of fans, among them the beautiful Juxian who is determined to escape old age at the House of Blossoms by marrying the actor. For his part he knows where the mask ends, and enjoys her attention. But Douzi - the adult Dieyi - is seldom out of his role: the concubine as best friend forever, status-less, yielding, always the supplicant.

Dieyi as the concubine Yu
We see Juxian, played by Gong Li, glad to give up her trade for the status of wife. She is a pliant but worldly woman. The loss of her unborn child in the scuffle with Japanese soldiers evokes no self pity. She is loyal to her husband, and supports his friendship with Dieyi, interceding on the latter's behalf even when he is betrayed by the foundling child who eventually replaces him to star as the Concubine. Wife, advocate, Juxian never again has the chance for the role of mother, and to love but be without love becomes her undoing.

The opera, the film, the intertwined lives of the characters are set against the turbulent fifty year span of contemporary China: from pre-World War II desperation, the occupation by the Japanese, the tug-of-war between the Nationalists and Mao's Communist forces, to the birth of new not-yet-confident China in the 1970's. The two actors meet again after eleven years. They intend to perform the classic Farewell.
Xiaolou as Chu the king; and Dieyi as Yu the concubine
Unencumbered by Western morality or ideology, Farewell My Concubine is rich in metaphor, symbolism, sexuality, and love manifested as loyalty, sacrifice, selflessness and devotion. And so, we come to the final performance of the ageless Dieyi and still vigorous Xiaolou. She sings the pain and pathos of fifty years yearning; and finally, Dieyi has the strength to take the concubine's way.

In the end, it is writing that is the concubine - often inadequate, stilted, weak, one-dimensional but as faithful as humanly possible - to the thought.

Looking back, it is remarkable the number of good films made in 1993 - among them The Remains of the Day; In the Name of the Father; The Piano; Jurassic Park; Groundhog Day; Schindler's List; What's Eating Gilbert Grape; Indecent Proposal; Philadelphia; Cool Runnings; Sommersby - each of which began as a thought in some writer's head.