Monday, April 24, 2017

The Art of Fearlessness

Everyone's a critic.

This statement has never been truer than it is in today's face-paced digital age of instant outrage. We live in a time when throngs of people scream with incredulous outrage over an overpriced, colorful liquid sugar beverage while many of those same people laugh and point fingers at more than half a nation outraged at the fact that their leader is a toxic dimwit suspected of treason. But make no mistake, regardless of where their
 criticism is directed, their opinions will be plastered all over the internet a heartbeat before they even finish their thought.


And then we have the world of art.

I don't know if a work of art is "good" or not, I simply know if I like it, and I suspect this is true for most people. Where I differ from a lot of other folks, though, is that I am also a creator. The written word is my medium, and if I know one thing, it is that a piece of writing is near the top of the list of things people will criticize.

Whether I am pouring my heart and soul onto the page and exposing my flaws and vulnerabilities, or writing something that only opens tiny windows into my life that people need to squint and strain to see through, what you are getting is a part of me. My metaphorical DNA is woven into everything I write but I give it to you freely and with full knowledge that feedback may not be favorable.

However, if someone takes my words out of context, or attempts to change their meaning without my consent, then we are going to have a problem. You see this happen all the time with political attack ads, where an opposing candidate takes an out of context partial a quote from their rival and plasters it all over the television insisting "the other candidate" is a  terrible person. This type of forced context switching is commonplace with written and spoken word and it turns out that the visual artistic realm is not immune either.

Take a recent dust-up involving the famed Wall Street Charging Bull statue and its new counterpart Fearless Girl.

Wikipedia

Fearless Girl materialized on March 7, 2017, and initially had a plaque at its base which read, "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference." Why is "SHE" in all caps," you ask? Good question. 

A fellow by the name of Greg Fallis wrote a good piece breaking that down. The summary is this: SHE is the stock ticker symbol for a "Gender Diversity Index" fund held by State Street Global Investors and, working with the advertising company McCann, commissioned the artist, Kristen Visbal, to create the statue.

But here's the thing. Fearless Girl was placed in front of and facing Arturo Di Modica's statue Charging Bull and when Di Modica became aware of this he expressed displeasure. He asserts that with the presence of Fearless Girl that the meaning behind his sculpture has been lost. He created it as a symbol of a strong and powerful America and now that symbol has been distorted.

Greg Fallis's article was well researched, well written, and made solid arguments in favor of Di Modica's stance. He also got thoroughly roasted for having the nerve to share his thoughts with a public that salivates at the opportunity to dig their incredulous teeth into a good controversy.

I read one particularly good response to Fallis's article written by Caroline Criado-Perez. She highlights the existing patriarchy within the art world, particularly with regards to sculptures scattered about the UK. You should read what she has to say about it. It will be time well spent. In a nutshell, her argument is that Fearless Girl being placed in front of Charging Bull
 simply calls it out for its patriarchal representations.

Essentially, Fearless Girl exists to force you into feeling something very specific about Charging Bull - and society in general.

Criado-Perez argues that this is a good thing and in doing so she is criticizing Di Modica for creating a male-centric piece of art, she is criticizing the city of New York for allowing its continued presence on a busy cobblestone corner, and she is criticizing everyone who has ever made the decision to display a male-centric piece of art instead one depicting women.  

Her message is clear: Fuck you, Charging Bull, and the patriarchy you rode in on. 


Wikipedia

I find it difficult to disagree with her, but when I view it through the eyes of Charging Bull's creator, what I see in Fearless Girl is a highly effective piece of viral marketing attempting to alter the DNA of his work. I have no attachment to Charging Bull. I didn't know its history until Greg Fallis pointed it out. But I do know Charging Bull existed just fine on his own for three decades and Fearless Girl appears to have been put there to alter its meaning. To me, it marks a distinct difference between art and marketing. Had it been done in any other way I am sure I wouldn't even be writing this post.

It is this blurred line between art and marketing that is what's tripping me up. It seems to get into all sorts of conversations about intent and interpretation and I don't happen to think there are a lot of answerable questions in that realm.

Just to be clear, I love what Fearless Girl is and what she represents. I don't love that she was created as a marketing tool at the expense of someone else's art. I also don't love the fact that the company who brought Fearless Girl to life, with its message of greater corporate gender diversity, has a mere 5 female executives out of 28 and only 3 out of 11 board members who are women. Is, "Do as I say not as I do," really the message here or are they making a mea culpa statement and State Street is simply the best of a sad lot?


At the heart of it, I feel manipulated and I suppose some will argue that that is what art is supposed to do. I honestly don't know if it is, but it seems to happen whether or not artists intend it to. At the very least it got me thinking, and that's a good thing because where there are people thinking there are also thought experiments. I spent my formative late high school and early university years studying physics and a powerful tool used in that discipline were what Albert Einstein called "gedankenexperiments". 

Gedankenexperiments is the German word for "thought experiments" and they are essentially a way of thinking in hypotheticals to assist in organizing thoughts around a particular problem. I came up with one to help me clean up some of the jumbled thoughts I had on the topic of Fearless Girl versus Charging Bull. It goes like this: 

Someone places a statue in front of Fearless Girl. That statue depicts a mother standing on her own with a sort of perturbed stance and equally perturbed look on her face. This woman is holding out her hand toward Fearless Girl as if to say, "Give it to me" or "We're going home, now!" The new statue is given the title Frustrated Mother.

The questions this scenario raises are plentiful. How would the creators of Fearless Girl feel? How would the supporters of Fearless Girl feel? How would the creator of Charging Bull feel? Would Fearless Girl become Petulant Child, Defiant Girl, or Stubborn Youth or would Frustrated Mother be viewed as a parent trying to protect her child, one who is unaware of the dangers of the world, from Charging Bull?

Let us take the thought experiment in another direction and further say that at the same time Frustrated Mother is installed, Charging Bull is removed. What happens then? Frustrated Mother can exist on her own without Charging Bull but she can't exist, not in the same way at least, without Fearless Girl. On the other hand, Fearless Girl has always needed something else to realize its full impact. 

Unless that is, you turn her around.

Turn Fearless Girl and have her face the other direction, towards nothing in particular, and it doesn't matter what is going on behind her, whether it is Charging Bull, Frustrated Mother, Donald Trump or some other catastrophe. Fearless Girl becomes Fearless and Independent Girl and no matter what is going on around her, the look of determination and confidence on her face would scream, "I got this."

To that, all I would have to say is, "Hell yes she does!"

~ Andrew




Links:

    Monday, April 17, 2017

    Feel The Burn

    If you are one of my regular eight readers you may have noticed I have been posting more consistently lately. Rest assured that was a conscious decision. Aside from getting into a regular rhythm for writing, I find it quite enjoyable to crank out 800-1200 words every week and put them out into the world.

    If you have been paying attention you may also have noticed some themes developing. That was also a conscious decision.  I took some advice from a good friend and writer, S.J. Cairns, who scooped the tip from BadRedhead Media's Rachel Thompson (who is also a top-notch person in addition to being ├╝ber knowledgeable about all things book marketing).

    That is not to say that you will not see posts outside of those themes, but it is a safe bet that if you see a new post on the site that it will fit into one of the following:
    • Views into the world of a new-to-the-industry writer;  
    • Communities (neighbourhood, writing, social); 
    • Creativity (how people find inspiration, what forms it takes, how to recognize it, what to do when it comes to you, the importance of it); and 
    • Self-Improvement, personal growth, mental and physical health.
    This week I've decided to share a bit about some self-improvement, physical health division.

    As you read a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I started exploring our neighbourhood by walking. Getting our 10,000 steps a day has made a big difference in both our lives but my wife wanted to do more.

    So, back in October of 2016, we joined a gym. It was a new "boutique" style gym called Orange Theory Fitness. It was not opening until January 2017 but for signing up early we got special pricing as well as access to sessions before the official opening.

    Each class has up to twenty-four participants that are split up into two groups: treadmill and rower and at the halfway point in the almost hour-long class, the two groups switch. Each workout concentrates on either endurance, strength, power, or some combination of the three (or all three). The treadmill folks do interval walking, jogging, or running appropriate for the type of workout that day. The rowers obviously row but also do a selection of cross training exercises, free weights, and TRX.

    You wear a heart rate monitor while you workout and your stats are displayed on big monitors in the gym. The goal is to spend a certain amount of time in various zones:
    Grey = 60% or less of your maximum heart rate
    Blue = 61-70% of your maximum heart rate
    Green = 71-83%
    Orange = 84-91%
    Red = 92% and up
    If you can spend a minimum of twelve minutes in the workout in the orange zone the theory is that your body will continue to burn calories for up to two days after your workout.

    At the end of your workout you get an email with the number of calories you burned in that workout, the number of "splat points" you earned (1 splat point = 1 minute in the orange zone), what your average heart rate was, and how many minutes you spent in each zone.

    Orange Theory Fitness workout summary

    For the record, Orange Theory Fitness is not paying me anything to write this post. They will not even know I am writing it until I tag them in the Facebook post and mention them on Twitter when everyone else finds out about it. That said, if you are looking to getting into fitness outside of the house in a fun, respectful, and challenging environment I would recommend them. I am not a fan of fitness and even less of a fan of group fitness and I genuinely enjoy going. 

    Whether is is joining a gym, getting out of the house to walk in the fresh air, doing yoga in the basement, or walking on the spot during the ten minutes you have to make lunches when the kids are in bed for the night, I can personally speak to the mental and physical benefits of being active. 

    My wife and I have been going to Orange Theory twice a week since December 26 and the results have been noticeable. She has lost a bunch of weight and is jogging on the treadmill the entire block (as opposed to spells of walking) and even increased her speed by more than 2 mph! 

    Andrew (5th from the left at the back) and his wife (to his left) at the second
    ever Orange Theory Fitness Guelph (Ontario) location

    I was in terrible shape when I started and had to walk the entire block on the treadmill. Now, I am close to jogging the entire time. My heart rate still spends a lot of time up in the orange and red zones but it takes a lot more to keep it there and I need to get close to 100% of my max before I start to even feel uncomfortable. I am not sure if I am sleeping any better but I can tell you that I am less tired during the day and generally have more energy. 

    I have even started to see some small but significant changes in my appearance. I am still rocking the dadbod, but today I put on my pink golf shirt that I bought a couple years ago with a Golf Town gift card I got from my mom for my birthday, and for the first time since I first tried it on in the store it did not show off my man boobs. 

    April 14, 2017 and moob free!

    ~ Andrew

    Monday, April 10, 2017

    Screw You, Rules and Rules That Screw You

    Rules. From the games we play to the governments that run nations, rules are everywhere. Sometimes we refer to them as "rules" and sometimes they carry a tad more gravity and we use the word "law".

    An example of a generally good rule is the, "three strikes and you're out," one they have for baseball. You can't just have as many strikes as you want, that would be ridiculous, and limiting it to one or two seems like you're not giving the batter enough of a chance. Three seems like a good number. Three strikes and you're out is a keeper.

    Another good one is, "Thou shalt not kill". I really like this one. If more people followed it I think the state of many things would improve.

    But then, especially when it comes to less murder-related events such as sports, there are some pretty stupid rules. Just ask Lexi Thompson.

    Lexi is a professional golfer on the LPGA and was playing in that league's first major championship (there are four majors in a single golf season and are considered to be the most elite competitions). Golf has a lot of rules, but the thing is, for just about everyone who plays, the rules - and the penalties that come with breaking them - are self-imposed. Yes, even the professionals. There are rules officials on course, but they can't be everywhere at every time. Most of the time the players police themselves, but on occasion, the viewers get involved. 

    Lexi was twelve holes into the final round when a rules official notified her that a viewer had emailed the LPGA and said that a day earlier, Lexi had incorrectly placed her ball on the green before a putt. This is a rule in golf. When you're on the green you can mark your ball, pick it up, clean it, remove any debris from the area, and replace your ball. You must replace the ball in the exact same spot as it was when you marked it. In Lexi's case, she picked up her ball in order to reorient it to suit her needs and placed it back down - less than one inch away from where it was marked.

    As insignificant as the infraction was, Lexi broke the rule. The penalty for this infraction is two strokes. The thing about this particular incident, however, was the email didn't come in notifying the league about it until after the round was completed. As such, Lexi had unknowingly signed an incorrect scorecard. The penalty for that is another two strokes (previously it has been a disqualification!)

    So, more than halfway through her next round, Lexi found herself the recipient of a four-stroke penalty in a tournament that she was leading by two strokes with only five holes to play. She battled back to tie the score after eighteen holes but lost on the first playoff hole and was denied her first major championship victory - because of one stupid rule and one asshole viewer.

    I think it's fine if you want to allow viewers to police golfers. I also think it's fine that there is a penalty for such an insignificant thing as half an inch distance discrepancy. What I don't think is fine is how Lexi was penalized for signing an incorrect card, that, at the time, she had no reason to believe was incorrect. Change the rule so that incorrect card signing penalties aren't levied if the round has ended.

    If you want to see the video of Lexi's incorrect ball placement you can see it here:

    http://www.golf.com/tour-news/2017/04/02/lexi-thompson-given-four-stroke-penalty-after-viewer-notifies-lpga-rules-violation

    Let's go from a shitty rule that ended up costing one person several hundred thousand dollars to what I consider to be a great rule that could end up costing one company millions.

    The rule: the Oxford comma.

    The scenario: a contract document between a company and a union had a clause that was missing an Oxford comma.
    "...people involved in the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of..."
    It's that last bit that's of interest. "Packing for shipment or distribution" is different than, "packing for shipment, or distribution." The company argued that "packing for shipment" and "distribution" were two separate functions but the union argued that, as it was written, it was one.

    The result: the court agreed with the union. 

    You can read more about it here:


    I'm a big fan of the Oxford comma. Clearly, using it can help clarify a sentence and omitting it can cause confusion (and as we just saw, a lot if money). So my take on it is this: I think of using the Oxford comma the same as I approach fighting climate change. There are times when it doesn't seem necessary, but you're never going to make things worse by doing it.

    If you're going to have a rule, why have a complicated rule when you can have a simple one? In other words, quit your suckitupbuttercup and just use the fricking Oxford comma already, and if you want me to stop using it you are going to have to pry it from my cold, pale, and dead hands.

    ~ Andrew

    Monday, April 3, 2017

    The Importance of Others

    I have touched on the subject of online writing groups a couple of times before but this time I would like to come at it from a different angle. I thought I would share a bit about what I love about one of the writing groups I am in and then see what some other writers I know have to say about a group they are in as well.

    There are all kinds of online writing communities. Some are straight-up critique groups, others are for folks all with the same publisher, some are there for people to shameless self-promote, and still others are there to help with motivation, word counting, and goal tracking.

    I am in half a dozen online writing groups on Facebook incorporating all but the shameless self-promotion, but I have to tell you my favourite group of them all brings in all the elements and then some. As someone who is generally annoyed by people but is also fascinated by them and values friendships this group is a little slice of internet heaven for me.

    Here are just a handful of the things that make this writing group my first destination in the morning when I open up Facebook and usually the last place I visit online before I got to bed:

    • Advice in this group is never dispensed without someone having asked for it. 
    • There are no agendas.
    • It is not political (except for a unanimous distaste for the current U.S. President).
    • Occasional shameless self-promotion is welcome, but more often than not group members are promoting other group members. 
    • It is not always about writing. Friendship and emotional support are in abundance. 
    • Inappropriateness is high, but respect for everyone, their beliefs, and their experiences is paramount. 
    • It is diverse, not just in writing experience, but in age, gender, and geography. 
    • There are two different views on the Oxford comma (those who are in favour of it and those who are wrong). 
    As you can see, there is a lot there to like. But I am just one person. So that is why I reached out to a number of writers I know who are either in my favourite writing group or another one of which they are fond. Here's what they had to say:
    "I love our group. No downsides. We are shoulders, soundboards, and friends beyond multiple borders. Filled with people who changed my life in more ways than just writing."
    "This group is about respecting and caring for one another and the work we're doing, rather than using one another for our own means."
    "Respect, encouragement both in real life and fictional, friendship, love and a true safe space amidst the faceless 1's and 0's of the digital social media universe."
    "As one of the few members who hasn't had any fiction published, I like being in this group because I still receive a lot of tips and pointers, encouragement for my non-fiction writing, and encouragement to get off my ass and actually write some fiction. There's more to be had here: lots of love and respect, a lot of humor... and some of you are just darn cute."
    "I'd heard that anyone can achieve their writing goals simply by hard work and honing their craft, but I have discovered that's nonsense. Behind every Harry Potter is a Ron, a Hermione, a Mad-Eye Moody, and a Dumbledore. Everyone needs a team, a group of people you can trust, be yourself with, even if you've got a bit of the Voldemorts that day, and share in your victories. I was lucky enough to be invited into a group like that and I would urge others to find their peeps and stick with them."
    "Unfailing, unquestioning love and support, including a well-aimed kick in the ass when it's needed."
    "It's a safe, non-judgmental place for [us]. No one cares if you are a newbie, a wanabe, or a published author. People will listen to your ideas or concerns and offer advice when asked for, hugs when needed and lots and lots of talk about no pants and cookies which just makes my day "
    There you have it, folks. The votes have been tallied and the results are in. Writers, who are stereotypically known for being solitary hermits who hammer away at a keyboard in some writerly-looking cave only coming up for coffee and chocolate actually value the interaction and camaraderie that comes with being part of a community.

    I, for one, couldn't be more thrilled. It is nice to know that you are part of something bigger than yourself and even nicer to know that there are so many of us out there who value the importance of others.

    ~ Andrew