Sunday Sprout Round-Up

It’s Wake-Up Time

Sprout: (muffled from upstairs) Hooray!

Dramatic, rapid thumping as she runs out of her room and down the stairs.

Me: Good morning! What’s so exciting?

Sprout: My clock is green!

Sprout proceeds to gallop around the house cheering.

Me: Can I have a hug?

Sprout: Sure!

Reaches up for me.

Sprout: (deadpan) I’m still waking up.

Science Demonstration

Ever since watching Big Hero 6, Sprout has become obsessed with being a scientist like Honey Lemon/a science teacher.

Sprout’s current role model.

This morning she decided to use some “chemicals” to show us, her class, how to make lava.

If you want to follow along at home, you just need the following supplies:

  • Com White(?)
  • Zappers
  • Cherry
  • Blueberries
  • Crime Juice

Right now, I’m just glad that she’s showing an interest in STEM careers. Although I’m also a little concerned about what Crime Juice is supposed to be.

Explanation Checks Out

Our family made a very clear deal about all Santa talk a long time ago. We won’t actively feed her information, but if she has questions, we’ll let her come up with her own answers. (Look, there were a whole lot of conversations about honest, trust, etc. involved.) Which leads us to:

Sprout: How does Santa’s sleigh fly?

Me: What do you think?

Sprout: I think it’s the reindeer.

Me: So the reindeer make it fly? Not the sleigh?

Sprout: Yeah.

Me: And how do they do that?

Sprout: Their noses.

Me: Their noses?

Sprout: Yeah! (matter-of-fact) They have motors in their noses.

Complete or Delete

It’s a new mantra I’m trying on, because I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle.

Between this year’s re-reading of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and checking out Cal Newport’s Deep Work, one of the recurring themes was the notion that putting to much front-and-center in a to-do list makes the doing part more difficult.

You set an obligation for yourself, and the longer it sits there, incomplete, the more weight it puts on your mind. Even if you don’t realize it, an incomplete obligation takes up space in your mental RAM, and can distract your focus.

So I’m telling myself to choose to take on less, and to get more comfortable with walking away from ideas.

If there’s a project I’ve started but haven’t moved forward on for a long time (say, a month), I’m going to ask myself a simple question:

Is there something you can and will do today that would move this forward?

If the answer is no, it gets deleted.

If I want to make sure I realize more of my ideas, I need to be honest with myself about the limits of my time and focus.

But I also need to hold myself accountable for making sure that I use what time I have for things that matter to me. If I’m saying no to an idea, I want it to be because I’m working on something I’ve decided is more important (and not because I’ve spent a bunch of time faffing around).

If I tell myself that something is important, I either need to work toward completing it, or be okay with deleting it.

Your vote matters. You matter.

Election Day 2016, my wife and I took our daughter to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which is easily in Sprout’s top five all-time favorite places on Earth. On our way back, while our daughter napped in her car seat, we hopped off the freeway to re-caffeinate at a McDonald’s.

As I pulled up to the window to pay, the woman behind the counter noticed our “I Voted” stickers and said, “Oh yeah. Didn’t do that today.”

We asked if she was registered and when she got off her shift, to make sure she still had time. But then she said,

“But really, it’s just a choice between death and… death.”

She didn’t see any substantive difference between the presidential candidates, and gave us a nihilistic, too-cool-for-civics soundbite to justify shrugging off voting.

And that interaction has haunted me ever since.

I know not voting by choice isn’t the whole picture. I know there are numerous laws designed to reduce the turnout for eligible voters, or actions taken to close polling places to depress turnout. I know that registering people to vote is seen in some quarters as a partisan act instead of a civic duty.

But I want to speak to one small portion of the conversation: The idea that there are people out there who are registered to vote, who are able to vote, but who haven’t definitely committed to vote.

I’ve been teaching a class that’s new to me focusing on media, journalism, and civic engagement. Being that it’s a step outside of my previous wheelhouse, I’ve been looking for how to judge whether my teaching is making an impact.

I haven’t had to look that hard because of the number of times students have done one or more of the following:

  • Told me directly that they made sure they registered to vote because of class
  • Used an exercise in class as a reason to talk to other people about current political issues and how it’s relating to their vote
  • Asked me for help finding non-partisan resources to help educate themselves on who and what is on their ballot

The thing I tell them is that so long as they’re registered, they definitely have the time to figure out how they want to vote.

Because voting isn’t like dating, where you need to find someone that matches with you personally and excites you in ways you don’t think you’ll tire of. It’s not like ordering off a menu, where you expect that what you pick will immediately satisfy you.

Voting is charting a course into the unknown. It’s thinking about where you want to go and who you think will help navigate us in that general direction.

You’re not voting for any one person. You’re voting for a destination. You’re traveling into the future, headed to the country that you want this place to become.

And if we lose sight of the destination, we can choose another navigator. But without a strong sense of where we want to go; without a clear mandate backed up by a large turnout of potential voters, the entire journey will be undermined.

When fewer people vote, more power ends up in the hands of pollsters, pundits, and bloviating partisans. Instead of a true picture of who we are, we get inference and divination. The more people who vote, the less room there is for speculation about “the actual opinion” of the nation.

But if you still want to say that your vote doesn’t matter, let me ask you this:

What do you mean by “matter?”

Do you need to be the tie-breaking vote for your vote to mean something to you?

Do you need to have everything you vote for succeed for your vote to mean something to you?

Is it enough to know that your vote matters because you’re keeping the system of elected officials accountable to one more person?

Is it enough to know that your vote signals that there’s one more person out there who cares about where we’re headed? One more person paying attention?

If that’s not enough, don’t stop at voting.

If you feel like your vote doesn’t matter then find something to do with the other days in the year to support what you voted for. Politics and civic debate doesn’t just happen one day every two years.

If you want your voice to matter, voting is just the start of the journey. So make sure you take that first step.

We Are Here

There are billions upon billions of planets in the observable universe. Most are inhospitable to life.

They’re in the wrong position relative to the nearest star, they have the wrong atmosphere, or their surface doesn’t have the right component elements. Out of all those potential sites for life to flourish, we have the only planet where all the conditions worked out favorably.

Here we are. We exist.

You’re here, reading these words, doing whatever you did just before this, and about to do whatever comes next.

And you’re as unlikely to have ever existed as life itself.

Think of the slow transfer of human genetic material through generation after generation for thousands of years (because let’s not completely blow our minds and go all the way back to add single-celled organisms to our family tree). Think of all the events, both historical and common, that lead to the exact DNA cocktail that brewed you.

A chance meeting of two people. A war forcing a family to flee their homeland. The work of a savvy matchmaker. A natural disaster. The thoughtful consideration of future parents looking for a donor.

These are just a few of the potential steps on the journey to get to you.

It’s something I think about a lot, given that my dad is the keeper of his family’s genealogical records. And if it ever stops seeming strange to me, I think about the fact that I’m a Mayflower descendent and my daughter happened to be born in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

We are all part of a larger conversation with this history of unlikely existence. We all come from somewhere, and whether or not we personally have children, we all shape the world that new people will be born into.

But it wasn’t necessarily going to be this way.

Earth could have been hit by a huge chunk of space debris at just the wrong moment and wound up with a different orbit. The boat carrying your ancestor across the ocean could have capsized. Some misaligned chromosomes could have prevented the cell division that allowed you to grow and flourish.

You are not just part of a line, but a singular point. You are a marvelous improbability.

Even if you feel like a disappointment to the people most important to you. Even if you can’t find work that feels meaningful to you. Even if your family refuses to use your proper pronouns, or people won’t take you seriously as the protagonist of your own story, or you face disrespect based on your skin, your speech, who you love, or the place you were born.

Even if you have to fight an endless battle with part of your own mind that believes you’re worthless and don’t have any right to exist.

Remember that you are a marvelous improbability.

You get to be here.

You deserve to feel awe and wonder at the very fact of your own existence.

Celebrating “The Distance I Can Be From My Son”

In 2013, Lenka Clayton had a goal for a series of works she wanted to create via An Artist Residency in Motherhood. As she put it:

Artist residencies are usually designed as a way to allow artists to escape from the routines and responsibilities of their everyday lives. An Artist Residency in Motherhood is different. Set firmly inside the traditionally “inhospitable” environment of a family home, it subverts the art-world’s romanticization of the unattached artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labour for exploration and artistic production.

As part of this residency, she created a series of videos with a seemingly simple premise. Titled The Distance I Can Be From My Son, Clayton sets up a camera in a static location, then allows her son to walk into frame. He toddles away from her until she feels a need to rush into frame herself and keep him from going any further. At that moment, an on-screen tally shows the distance he travelled away from her in that location.

It’s a truly beautiful exploration of a range of emotions involved in parenting and creating art.

But let’s start at the ending.

It’s not just the number

At the end of each video, the final distance between Clayton and her son is measured.

But it was never just about the distance, but about the myriad concerns a parent weighs while watching a child move away from them.

It’s a punchline, and an effective one.

But by reducing it to an objective measurement, we quantify all those questions inside a parents’ mind into an easy calculation.

It suggests a definitive answer to a constantly renegotiated situation.

The camera is Lenka Clayton, and also not Lenka Clayton

As you watch the video, we see Clayton’s son trot into frame and look back at the camera. In that moment, given the title of the work and the framing, it feels like we’re seeing her son walk away from her in this moment through her eyes.

But at the end, the illusion is broken and Lenka runs into the frame to chase after her son. It breaks the illusion that we’re seeing her direct point of view.

Maybe the camera is a divided part of her perspective, suggesting that there is a fracture between the artist’s perspective and the mother’s perspective.

And yet, as she moves into the frame, Clayton doesn’t eliminate the artistic perspective on the situation by acting in a maternal role. Now she is also a subject of her own artistic gaze. This combination doesn’t negate one for the other, but showcases the complicated interaction between the two from moment to moment.

Also consider the static framing of the shot. From the title of the work, we’re meant to think of the camera as a fixed point that we should measure distance from. However, the boy moves around within the frame, but the frame never tracks or pans with him, like a parent’s head might do.

The unblinking eye of the camera, and its lack of natural movement makes it separate from the experience of being a parent watching a child.

You blink. You turn your head. You’re aware of other distractions, or scanning for things that might interact with or threaten your child. You are not a passive observer.

That lack of motion acts as an invitation to the viewer.

Spectator as co-parent, or The distance we can be from Lenka’s son

With the static camera creating the field of vision for the audience, we’re free to move our own eyes and head as the boy steps into frame.

He turns toward us. He gets further away from us. We watch out for the possible dangers ahead, or the escape routes he might take to get out of our field of vision.

It’s a dramatic use of empathy. Because the camera isn’t suggesting where we should look aside from the movement of the child, we can see ourselves in the environment. In the moment. It doesn’t feel like a constructed reality as much as a slice-of-life.

Even a person who doesn’t regularly care for a small child can watch this and feel the pangs of urgency watching a small child walk away from you. We know the environment, and we know that a small child isn’t ready to explore these spaces completely independently.

We don’t want to see a child come to harm, and even though we know, rationally, that it’s unlikely for someone to deliberately put their own child in harm’s way, our fears are triggered.

You start asking the question: When is she going to run out to him? You start assessing the distance for yourself. When would you run out? What are you looking for as a signal for when this far is too far?

But there’s another layer to these videos that comes into play when you ask the question: Why is he walking away from the camera?

Motherhood as performance

If the boy doesn’t walk in front of the camera, would the premise of the video work? What about if he stops or turns back? Look at how he turns back in every single one of these videos, hesitant. Looking for permission. Testing for a reaction.

Yes, eventually he takes off and wanders away out of his own desire or momentum, but there’s no video without this child walking away from the camera in a way where he stays within the field of vision of the camera.

Every choice was made with purpose. Picking a specific supermarket aisle. Dressing the boy in a red snowsuit for his walk down the alley. Deciding when to cut the camera off, interrupting Clayton’s mad dash to catch up with her son.

The dash itself is a choice. Moving with such force and acceleration. She wants to get to her son swiftly, but there’s something else: She knows you’re watching her. Paying attention to her reaction.

It’s a reminder of the way that we watch parents with their children. Her speed is the product of both a desire to keep her child safe and a desire to demonstrate to the viewer that she wants to keep her child safe.

It’s a reminder that not only are we watching a constructed representation of an act of motherhood, but that in some ways motherhood itself is a performance. To be a mother is to be watched. Judged. Aware of being watched and judged.

Who gets to be an artist

Going back to Clayton’s original statement of intent on her residency, she talks about the change in how others perceive her and her career after the birth of her child:

I find now that many aspects of the professional art world are closed to artists with families. Most prestigious artist residencies for example specifically exclude families from attending. Despite a legacy of public artist/parents it still seems to be a commonly held belief that being an engaged mother and serious artist are mutually exclusive endeavors. I don’t believe or want to perpetrate this. I like to imagine the two roles met as competing directions but to view them, force them gently if necessary, to inform one another.

This is another aspect of the works that I greatly appreciate.

When you think about a successful artist, what do you picture their life being about? Do you see room in their life for responsibilities and goals that don’t wholly relate to their art? Do you picture them needing to completely surrender to the muse?

What informs your conception of what the life of an artist is all about?

Bricklayers and Rock Throwers

There’s two kinds of people in this world: Bricklayers and Rock Throwers.

Bricklayers look for opportunities to make something. Rock throwers look for opportunities to knock something down.

Bricklayers care deeply about every brick they place, wanting to make sure it all fits together. Rock throwers don’t care about where their stones land, so long as they hit something.

Bricklayers feel satisfaction with the progress they make based on their own effort. Rock throwers feel satisfaction when a chucked rock gets the kind of reaction they want out of others.

Rock throwers feel confident they know better than everyone else. Bricklayers know there’s always more to learn if they want to do their job well.

Rock throwers will tell you it can’t be done. Bricklayers tell you it hasn’t been done yet.

A rock thrower can feel their job is finished after throwing a single rock. A bricklayer knows they need patience and focus to follow through on what they’re building.

Bricklayers look to others to see if they can help share in the work. Rock throwers look at others with suspicion, sizing up if they’re a target.

Bricklayers want to leave something behind after they’re done. Rock throwers have nothing to show for their efforts but sore arms.

Cynicism is not a virtue.

Caring deeply about other people is not a weakness.

Get your wheelbarrow. It’s time we built something.