Tag Archives: Garrison Keillor

What David Sedaris Teaches Us About Middle Age

My husband and I went to see David Sedaris on Friday night.

He was doing a reading of his work at Cadogan Hall here in London. (The last time we went to Cadogan Hall it was to see Garrison Keillor. I think you know you’re middle-aged when you start spending your weekends attending events headlining NPR personalities. Must add it to my list…)

If you aren’t familiar with Sedaris, have a listen to Santaland Diaries – a diary of his Christmas spent working as an elf at Macy’s – which catapulted him to overnight fame. When it was first broadcast, this essay generated more requests for tapes than any story in Morning Edition’s history except the death of veteran sports caster Red Barber.

If you are familiar with Sedaris, then you’ll know why we jumped at the chance to hear him perform live.

He didn’t disappoint.

He was funny, engaging, self-effacing and gracious.

He also told a bunch of off-color jokes. Apparently, during his recent book tour in the U.S., he started asking people who came up to have their books signed to tell him a joke. He has now collected some of the best ones he’s heard and uses them as part of his routine. He even asked our audience to tell him some raunchy gay jokes. (Sedaris is gay.) He feels like people are too abashed to tell him any.

Above all, however, it was really inspiring to watch someone who is clearly having so much fun in his chosen profession. At one point – while reading a new piece he’s written about why traveling to China has made him hate Chinese food – he actually cracked himself up and had to stop for a moment to regain his composure before carrying on with the reading. I loved that.

When author Frank McCourt died, I wrote a post about the joys of old age and how McCourt’s life is a great example of how it’s never too late to follow your dreams. Sedaris achieved literary success in his early 30’s, but somehow he’s never quite lost that air of the up-and-coming-guy who’s still shuffling around cleaning other people’s apartments and working as an elf over the Christmas holidays because he needs the extra money.

In short, he acts like someone who’s still waiting to catch his big break. And therein lies his genius and his charm. You get the sense that this is a guy who still doesn’t take anything for granted. Rather, he lives life by being a careful observer of it: by drawing out the humorous and the touching in the million little particles that make up every day, and by and finding never-ending ways to make himself laugh as he does so.

What a treat. We should all be so lucky.

David Sedaris by WBUR via Flickr from a Creative Commons license.

Christmas Gift Recommendation: Tim Minchin DVD

My husband and I went to a concert Tuesday night. It was a belated celebration of his birthday, which falls in July.

The reason we waited so long to celebrate isn’t that we were too busy back in the Summer or couldn’t manage to drag ourselves out for dinner. (That does happen sometimes, but it rarely takes five months to rectify.)

No.  The reason we waited five months is that right about the time that I was going to buy him a present, I got an email announcing that our very favorite stand up comic – make that really the *only* stand up comic we’ve ever listened to properly – was coming to London for a live performance at the O2 arena.

So I immediately booked the tickets and then ran out and bought a CD of said comic for my husband as a sort of “place holder” birthday gift, in anticipation of the real thing.

The comic’s name? He’s called Tim Minchin. He’s a bare-footed, mascara-wearing, red-haired Australian. And here’s the kicker:  he’s also a singer-songwriter and piano player. So about 90% of his act are his songs, with a few jokes and stories thrown in here and there.

And he is brilliant:  funny, irreverent, profane, absurd and just a little bit mad.

We first saw Minchin on the erstwhile Jonathan Ross show, which was – until last summer – the top late night talk show here in the U.K. And we knew right away that he was the guy for us. (I mean c’mon…when you love musical theatre as much as I do, the prospect of having someone *sing* their jokes to you is just way too appealing…)

There’s something really exciting about going to hear a performer you love live, even – perhaps especially – when you don’t…um…get out all that much anymore. (BTW? I’d say the average age in the arena last night was late 20s. When a grey haired couple walked in, I practically ran over and embraced them.)

What I like most about Minchin – apart from his hysterical lyrics – is the unadulterated joy he seems to take from his work. He really looks like he’s having a ball up there on stage, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

More importantly, when you watch Minchin perform – and much like another fave of mine whom I’ve also seen live, the writer and singer/song-writer Garrison Keillor – you get the sense that this oddball decided early on in life that he wasn’t going to give a toss what other people thought about him. He was going to choose a path – in this case, playing the piano bare-footed – that worked for him. And if he looked and sounded weird, so be it. He would be true to himself.

I don’t know about you, but to me that’s what it’s all about.

So if you’re still wondering what on earth to get that special someone for Christmas this year, let me make a suggestion: a Tim Minchin DVD.

Have a listen. And enjoy!

Image: Tim Minchin Nine Lessons and Carols For Godless People by nadworks via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Generate Ideas

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

It’s been awhile since I posted on creativity. But it’s one of those things that I think about all the time. I’m fascinated by how creative people relate to their work, how they structure their days, and how they access their creative “space.”

In my own case, I’ve been trying to pay attention to how and when I come up with ideas – for blog posts, for feature articles, for possible future novels. And what I’ve noticed is that a lot of my ideas seem to come when I’m doing something *other than* sitting at the computer typing. So today, I thought that I’d share some of my own techniques for coming up with ideas, with the hope that these may prove interesting – as well as useful – to others. While I focus on writing, I imagine that some of these same strategies may be pertinent to other fields as well.

1.Exercise. When I’m confused about an idea, not sure how to spin it or just wondering if there’s even a “there there,” it’s amazing how often a simple run will solve my problem. I may not go out on the run intending to think about that issue. But if there’s something kicking around the back of my mind, I often find that the combination of forward motion, exertion and fresh air allow everything to fall in place. A friend of mine who’s a novelist does the same thing with bike rides. He has a summer house in France and he tells me that he spends the afternoons taking long bike rides and by the next morning, he’s got loads of fresh material. The trick is to rush inside right after you’re done and jot down the main ideas.

2. Take a Thinking Shower. This one comes from grad school. During my first few years in graduate school, we were required to take a series of exams in order to qualify in various fields. They were called “field exams” and in my department, at least, they consisted of a series of essays which you research and wrote over the course of a weekend. Needless to say, I don’t think any of us got much sleep during those weekends. But I did have one friend who always seemed to be in the shower when I’d phone to see how she was getting on with her exams. “The shower?” I’d ask, perplexed, wondering who could possibly bathe regularly when they had so little time to get these things done. “It’s a thinking shower,” she’d respond. She found that burst of hot water on her face actually enabled her to outline her essays. So I tried it. So should you.

3. Figure out what’s distinctive about your perspective. This is actually something I’ve used quite a bit since moving overseas because I find that so much of what I think about various issues – whether it’s health care reform, therapy or the BBC – has changed dramatically simply by virtue of living somewhere else. But it doesn’t have to be a geographic niche that motivates you. Just this morning I was mulling over a feature I’m writing on the outcome of the British elections when I realized exactly what was different about my take:  I was approaching them as a political scientist rather than a journalist. And that was both distinctive – and useful. (I was buying coffee when I had that realization, BTW. Which again underscores how often our brains are working even when we don’t think they are.)

4. Ask yourself what’s the most striking thing someone said to you in the last week. Very often for blog posts – and even for posts about politics – I find that when I want to come up with an idea, I just think about the most striking or unusual thing something’s said to me in the past week. Often that person is one of my children. (“Why is God so famous?“) But sometimes it’s someone I just happen to run into. Like the friend I saw on election day who’d just joined the Labour party after living here for 20 years – even though she knew they’d lose – because she wanted to have a say in the party’s future. Or the dad at school drop-off this morning who told me why pink was a color historically associated with boys. Or the guy I met at a dinner party who told me that he picks what movies he sees based solely on the poster. (Whaaaa???) Whenever this happens, I grab my pen and scribble it down.

5. Go outside for a walk. This suggestion comes from one of my all-time favorite creative people:  writer, singer and radio-show host Garrison Keillor. In an oped for the International Herald Tribune a few years back, Keillor gave this advice to aspiring writers: “A long walk also brings you into contact with the world, which is basic journalism, which most writing is. It isn’t about you and your feelings so much as about what people wear and how they talk. The superficial is never to be overlooked.” Simply put, when you go outside you notice things. And that’s what it’s all about.

OK, now it’s your turn. How do you generate ideas for your work?

Image: Take A Shower by .m for matthijs via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Celebrating the Sabbath: Making Saturdays *Me* Time

I have an announcement to make:  I’m going to start celebrating the Sabbath.

No, I’m not getting in touch with my inner Jew. (For the moment, I think I’ll continue to remain Jew-ish rather than Jewish.)

I’m afraid it’s a much less lofty goal than that. I’ve decided not to work on Saturdays anymore (read: no blogging, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter) so that I can focus more on myself. Or – to put it more accurately – I’d like to designate Saturdays as a day for doing things outside of work that also make me happy.

Yes, I know it’s a radical concept. But as Colleen of Communicatrix fame points out with characteristic wit and insight, it’s really hard to find time for the things we wish to prioritize in our lives unless we make room for them. She’s turning all of January into December so that she can take stock, clear the decks and plunge in with some new projects. Back in November, I took a self-imposed vacation so that I could send out my novel to agents.

The break I have in mind for Saturdays is somewhat different. The above projects are all about carving out space to move forward on the work front. What I have in mind is moving forward on the life front. For as I sat in a Viennese coffee house over the holidays and reflected on my life, I realized that in my never-ending quest to get on top of my to-do list, two things that  bring me true happiness had both fallen by the wayside:   doing yoga and reading The New Yorker.

You see, this is how my mind works. If something gets deemed a necessity in my life, it gets done. If it’s deemed a luxury, it may or may not get done. But if it does get done, that likely only happens around 11:59 p.m. on a Thursday evening with half an eyelid open and the corresponding amount of energy. And because I had begun labeling both yoga and The New Yorker “luxuries,” they just weren’t happening anymore, at least with the regularity that’d like.

So I’m making a change. For the next month – and I’m telling you this because one way you signal a commitment is to give yourself a time-line and say it out loud – I’m going to experiment with assigning myself only two jobs on Saturday – going to yoga and reading The New Yorker. My hope is that if I can do just those two things (with anything else a bonus), I’ll not only be happier, I’ll actually be more productive when I do return to the computer. If this strategy goes well and proves realistic, I’ll commit for the year.

Of course, I’m hoping that this new routine will incur other benefits as well. To wit:

*more face-to-face parenting, rather than shouting commands over my shoulder as I hurtle through my RSS feed

*making a dinner that does not involve something out of a jar from Tesco

*quality time with my husband so that we can watch more DVD commentaries and listen to Garrison Keillor together

*actually playing all those board games that I bought for Hanukkah (BTW: Settlers of Catan? Totally worth it…)

And who knows? Maybe we’ll even make it to synagogue one of these days…

*****

On a much more somber note, here’s a piece I did for PoliticsDaily.com about the ongoing drama surrounding the theft of a sign from Auschwitz.


Image: The New Yorker Fugitive by Rakka via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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DVD Commentaries: Why I Actually Loved "Love Actually"

I have a confession to make:  I love watching DVD commentaries.

I know. Sometimes they can be excruciating. But when you find a director who really knows how to articulate what he or she is up to, I enjoy these commentaries almost as much as the film itself. (Fortunately, my husband feels the same way.)

I got to thinking about this because last weekend, we rented Richard Curtis’ film Love Actually. If you don’t know who Richard Curtis is, he also wrote Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. (Yes, I realize that – given my usual penchant for films about things like abortion under authoritarian rule in Romania – you might not think that romantic comedies would be up my alley. Turns out I have a soft spot for Hugh Grant. Go figure.)

I liked the film so-so. But I loved the commentary. Why?

Part of it, I think, is that I’m fascinated by the creative process. I love it when people really understand what makes them tick professionally and can convey that process to a wider audience. (In my next life, I plan to return as a career counselor. I figure that, like a cat, I’ve still got six professional lives to go…)

So when Curtis, for example, talks about why he chose a particular piece of music or why he cast Laura Linney in a film otherwise dominated by European actors or why the lighting was particularly challenging in a given scene, I feel like I’m gaining insight into not just the movie, but into the whole world of directing itself.

The other reason I like to watch commentaries is that I love to watch people who love their work. It’s so hard to figure out what you really love to do. So when I happen upon someone like Curtis, who’s clearly found his calling, I find it not just enlightening, but joyful.

It’s the same way I felt last week when I went to see Garrison Keillor perform live in London. Keillor – best known for his quirky public radio show  A Prairie Home Companion – is also a syndicated columnist and singer/songwriter. He is funny, touching, ribald and irreverent. But most importantly – whether he’s reciting a poem or singing a song or telling a story – he’s clearly having a blast. Talk about someone who’s found his niche.

So there you have it. And having now outed myself as a serial DVD commentary viewer – not to mention an abiding Garrison Keillor fan – I feel much better. I’m glad I finally cleared the air.

*****

Check out the blog Daily Routines to find out how artists, writers and other creative folk structure their days. I also enjoy By Henry Sene Yee Design, which examines the creative impulse behind book covers.

Image: DVDs! by THEMACGIRL via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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