Carrie and Debbie

I did the sketch for a watercolor but something told me to stop at the sketch.

I found a picture of Carrie kissing her mom and thought it captured something special.  Sketching it was challenging as I never did exactly get Debbie perfectly right, but that’s art – at least for me.

There are three movies I think of when I think of Debbie Reynolds.

The first one has to be Singing in the Rain.  That, to me, is the best musical of all time.  The story line runs clean and clear to a hilarious and satisfying conclusion and the song and dance number for “Good Morning” is stunning – I could watch it a million times.

The second one is “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”.  I watched that at the Royal Theater in Laurel Montana not really even knowing what it was when I bought my ticket.  I loved it.  She owned that story.

The third one was “Divorce American Style” which I watched at the Sage Drive-In in Billings with my whole family.  That movie doesn’t get enough credit.  She acted opposite the great Dick Van Dyke in that one which was an acerbic and also very funny look at American divorce, alimony, and the complexities of that all mixed together.

I have observed several times now that when two people love each other very deeply and when they have spent a lifetime together, the second will often pass on in short order after the first one passes.  I can’t be sad about that.  I believe that families are forever and I think they are together now in eternity.

 

 

Princess Leia

I had just spent 3 days painting a portrait of Ernest Hemingway when the news came in about Carrie Fisher having passed.  My son messaged me and said I should paint a picture of this wonderful actress so I gave it a try.  Interestingly, whereas it took 3 days of painstaking effort to paint Hemingway, I sketched Carrie and was done painting in less than 20 minutes.  Seems to happen quite frequently – the pictures that want to get painted just come right out.

Where do you even start talking about the impact of these movies on our culture – and on us?  “Star Wars” was nothing short of a revelation when it was first released.  it changed the entire cinematic rendition of science fiction in one stroke.  Star Trek was cool, but it was more like a science fiction play – set on a stage.  By contrast, everything in Star Wars seemed totally real by comparison – the special effects were that good.  Even today, they largely hold up.  But imagine what it was like seeing them in 1977 – it was as if they came from some future generation.  It was THE evolutionary leap in the genre – after that came Alien and Blade Runner – but Star Wars was the game changer.

And the actors were born for their roles – not the least of which was Carrie Fisher – Princess Leia.  Knowing what we know about Carrie, I guess she was playing herself – fearless, smart, witty, and feisty.

Her work on behalf of addiction recovery and mental health was profound as well.  Sharing her own story so openly is what impresses me – that takes real courage.  As Yoda would say “Guts – she clearly had”.

The Internet vs. The Wizard of Oz

The End of the Era of Experts

The Internet has now fundamentally changed communication and information sharing. Ubiquitous access to information is now a given for most people in the first world and for a growing percentage of those in the remainder of the world as mobile devices spread ever more broadly across the globe. This has profound consequences for society. Importantly, Western Democracies and other traditional institutions will not be excluded from those consequences.

People have almost universally seen the advent of high speed access to the world’s storehouse of knowledge as a positive thing unless, of course, you are a tyrant. If you are a dictator, and want to keep your day job, you’ve moved very quickly in recent years to control the internet and the access to information in your country. But in a Democracy, where we believe in free speech, this will, of course, not happen.

One of the ironies is that, most Western Democracies looked at things like the Arab Spring, at least initially, as a very positive thing. Initially, we said: “lookee how the Internet and, especially, Social Media, helped these people throw off the yoke of dictatorship – Yay!”. We said that, of course, before those dictators were replaced in short order, not typically by democratic alternatives, but by even more suspect rulers- often with even more troubling agendas.

With Brexit and, now, Trump, I believe we are seeing a similar dynamic play out in Western Democracies and I believe that this pattern will continue and strengthen. That is that the Internet itself and the access to direct, instantaneous, information is starting to threaten, or at least put significant stress on, ALL the old institutions that held our cultures and countries together. As just one example, I do not believe that Donald J. Trump would be the President of the United States today without the Internet.

Let me provide a simple example of how I think the world has been changed. Last week my Doctor advised me to go on a statin. My cholesterol numbers were a little high. I decided NOT to take his advice. Why would I ignore my doctor’s advice? Do I have a death wish? Well, no. I just don’t trust my doctors like I used to. Why?

Well… as soon as a doctor tells me anything, I go read up about the topic on the internet. What I find there might or might not agree with what the doctor conveyed to me. If it doesn’t agree with their advice, my confidence in the infallibility of my doctor is shaken.

This is happening in every aspect of our lives and it’s not just happening with Doctors. It’s also happening with Lawyers, Religious Leaders, and more to the point of what happened last week it’s happening with our established Media institutions and our Political Leaders.

20 years ago, I don’t think I would have been nearly this feisty. I think I would have almost felt I had no choice but to do what my Doctor told me. I don’t feel that way anymore. The reason I’ve changed is that I have access to information and that information has caused me to question everything that those who sit in traditional Expert Roles tell me.

Despite all the social conditioning I received as a Baby Boomer growing up in an America that cherished and valued those Sage Experts in every field, I now question everything.

I’ve seen cases now where, on certain medical topics, I knew more than my doctor because I researched it on the Internet ahead of my visit. This changes everything about how we perceive “Experts” and “The System”.

When you think about it in this light, the Internet is what enabled a movement where a whole bunch of parents have decided not to immunize their children. There is information on the internet that contradicts what Doctors are telling mothers they need to do or ought to do and Mothers read it and believed it – not all, but enough that it became its own “current” in our social and cultural stream. I’m not saying I agree with the meme that says that immunizations are what cause other disorders like autism, but I’m saying this would NEVER have happened without the Internet.

I bet doctors hate the Internet, certainly ones who spent any significant period of their career prior to the Internet. All their patients have gotten “so darned uppity” – just like me.

The old model, where doctors dispensed wisdom along with medications and were just implicitly trusted is, essentially, gone. I assume doctors now get asked questions every day about what their patients read about on the Internet and it must suck after almost a decade of med school, an internship, and years of service – but there you are – welcome to the monkey house.

If you go back to the invention of the printing press, who stood the most to lose when it came along? History tells us it was the Established Religious Leadership of the time. Why? They controlled access to Bibles.

This meant that whoever had a Bible had the power and authority to tell everyone else not just what was in it, but also how to interpret it. One of the most revolutionary things that ever happened in the past three hundred years was the printing of Bibles so that they became universally available and people learned to read. And what happened when they became available? Martin Luther is what happened. And the power of Catholic Church has never been the same.

Once anyone has access to a Bible, not only do they not need to find out what’s in it from someone in authority, they can and will come to their own conclusion about what it actually says and means for them personally. And the next thing that happens is they stop trusting the person (the Pope in this case) in authority because, if they were so great, how come they used to tell me stuff that’s not true from my own reading of the Bible?

Established institutions always break down when information that is held in private becomes available to the masses.

Now that citizens have access to information ON EVERY CONCEIVEABLE TOPIC that they previously did not have, they have become empowered and emboldened in a way that no generation before them has ever been to question all authority.  This trend will continue and I believe that every single established institution of our culture will come under significant stress.

We may be at the start of something much larger than any of us realized before and for which have no way of predicting exactly how it will all work itself out. Such a situation is often referred to as a “Singularity” – a moment in time where circumstances have changed so profoundly that there is no way to predict what will happen afterwards.

My thinking here is that we are at a kind of Singularity in that we can’t predict any longer how this instantaneous-access-to-all- information-for-the-masses will play out now. One thing that we can say for sure: Any time in history where institutions that were the long-established centers of leadership for the masses came under assault, both bad things and good things happened. Bad things like revolutions and civil wars happened. And good things, like the Reformation and the rise of the Scientific Method also happened too.

In our American past, we’ve always had a system where certain Experts held the key knowledge on behalf of society. Because they had knowledge that we did not have, we looked to them almost as Gods – they told us what to do and we believed them. This election, I believe is the wake-up call that more has changed than any of us imagined up until now.

You need to look no further than Facebook to see how this has played out and continues to play out.

Messages from both sides during the most recent election (and third parties) were a key dynamic and influence in this election. Anything that one of the candidates or their surrogates put out as a new fact “This will be what brings Hillary down once ad for all!” or “What Donald Trump doesn’t want you know!” were immediately picked up and reverberated by millions of supporters in a kind of echo chamber of feedback until, just like feedback on a microphone, all you could hear after a while was the screeching.

Hillary, unfortunately for her, represented more of the established norms. In a world where the masses are beginning to distrust all the traditional institutions at unprecedented levels, this was not a good place for her to be.

[Note: I originally wrote this article right as the election results had come in – before the “Fake News” tidal meme broke out. The affect t that Fake News will have on all of this is all the more troubling – since it isn’t just access to information that is going to affect us, but access to dis-information as well.]

What came through loud and clear is that anyone with a Facebook account, and that is just about all of us now, could share their opinion, and most did so – instantaneously. Most felt compelled to. Facebook is now our National Town Square and everyone had their own personal soap box to stand up on – or you could just listen and learn about stuff that Walter Cronkite would never have said – because as we have sadly come to learn, those old institutions filtered information as well as magnified it. The Press Corps in Kennedy’s White House knew, for instance, that Kennedy was having affairs but they didn’t tell us – that was for our own good, supposedly. Those days are over.

When something like The Pentagon Papers happened 47 years ago, we (the masses) didn’t actually read the leaked Pentagon Papers. We listened to what Walter Cronkite told us about it on the 5 o’clock news. He sifted through it and told us what to think about it. The Established News Media, yet another Expert institution that has held power in the past couple of centuries, is itself under assault. Now, when WikiLeaks comes out with what Hillary Clinton or John Podesta or Donna Brazile or anyone else typed in some email months ago, we get to read it ourselves, IMMEDIATELY and UNFILTERED. This changes everything. Someone used to tell us “It’s all Ok – don’t go look behind the curtain” and we listened because we TRUSTED them – they were the EXPERTS.

But we are like Dorothy-In-Oz now – we’ve noticed that there is someone over to the left behind a curtain and it’s suspicious to us now. We aren’t afraid to go over there and look. In fact, we WANT to go over there and look – our Facebook friends make us look even if we don’t want to!. So we do and we discover that the Great and Powerful Oz is just a carnival huckster who got caught in an updraft one afternoon at the county fair and couldn’t find his way home.

How this all turns out is anybody’s guess. But the one thing for sure is that we are never going back to Kansas.

Abstract Thinking, Watercolor Painting, and using the Right Side of Your Brain

I spent several years in what I call my “Abstract Period” doing watercolors like the one above.  This one was actually the biggest sized one I ever did.  It’s painted on the largest watercolor paper you can typically buy at an art supply store – one huge piece of 300 weight watercolor paper.

Painting these abstracts was always a great release from my day job where I was working on hard technical problems and, mostly, using the left side of my brain – a little too much most of the time, as it turns out.  This a segue to a book I want to tell you about.

One of the best books I read this year is titled, “Pragmatic Thinking & Learning”, by Andy Hunt.  Andy Hunt was the co-author of another great book that a lot of software developers have read called “The Pragmatic Programmer”, which is also excellent.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning is a treasure of a book.  It is chock full of interesting insights into how our brains work.  The author discusses some of the recent learnings about how our brains work and how we now know that our brains can actually grow and increase in power – that they aren’t static as was once believed.

The book teaches about the Dreyfus Model, developed by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus in the 1970s, which lays out the key stages involved in learning any skill.  The stages are Novice, Advanced Beginner,  Competent, Proficient, and Expert.  One of the insights is that Experts, despite having mastered a skill, have their own issues.  They apparently are likely to “disagree with one another on topics within their own field”.  Yep seen that one.

Another insight is that Experts don’t necessarily make the best teachers.  Seen that one before too.  When I was going for my math degree, I was teaching entry level Algebra classes.  So were full professors.  I remember that students would often come, like refugees, to my class so I could teach them Algebra in a way they could understand.  The full professor who was trying to teach Algebra just couldn’t bring his level of knowledge down to the level of the student who was trying to learn entry level Algebra – the book says this is actually somewhat typical.

The book brings us up to date on what is currently known about how the left and right sides of the brain operate differently.  The author talks about L-mode and R-mode thinking and how each has it’s own value.

Every software developer has had the experience of working on a coding issue until way too late, going to bed to get some rest, and waking up in the morning and knowing exactly what the fix was.  Andy Hunt explains how this is the R-mode of your brain continuing to work on the puzzle while you sleep.

I ended up thinking that the book was kind of like an owners manual for the brain.

If you’ve read previous posts at http://mikeblaylock.com, then you know that I am a fan of Growth Mindset and the work of Carol Dweck.  Her book is titled: “Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success”.

I now think of Andy Hunt’s book as a tightly bound companion to Dweck’s book.  That is to say that I think they should be sold together as a package.  “Mindset” teaches us that it is not only ok to fail, it is a requirement for learning.  Andy Hunts book, teaches us how the brain actually works.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning gives us all permission to “take a walk” – maybe even “take a nap”.  That gets our Right Brain – “R-Mode” working and helps us be more creative and find connections between seemingly disconnected things in our field.

But this is just a flavor of what this book has in it.   I highly recommend it.

The only regret I have is that Andy Hunt didn’t write it 20 years ago so I could have been applying it all along.

 

The Teacher

Above is my “Homage” to Walter Hook – the greatest Teacher I ever had.

Walter Hook was a professor of Art at the University of Montana from 1959-1977.

He was who you wanted to teach you watercolor.  So I considered myself very lucky to get into his class in the spring quarter of 1975, two years before he retired.  I didn’t really know how lucky I was.

Walter was getting up in years when he taught me.  I remember him telling the class that he had mellowed as he aged. Beyond that, he said he used to be a very hard charging guy but that he had suffered a heart attack sometime before and that he became calm and easy going – that was an understatement.

Since I never knew him before I can only say that he was, indeed, the  kindest and most generous teacher I ever had.  I never heard him criticize any work of art that a student showed – and I remember there were some “not good” ones displayed to him in class, including my own.

But he always found something positive to say about every work.  I remember that one student had painted some trees too short and they looked stunted. Walter’s comment: “They look like the trees you see when you go over Pipestone Pass at Butte” – because the trees were stunted there for some reason.  What a kind and gentle soul.

Greatness is often masked inside humility in profoundly talented and wise men and women.

The real magic started when he painted a demo in class.  He would get a little smile on his face as he started to get the paint ready.  Then he would take a completely white piece of watercolor paper and WITHOUT DRAWING IN PENCIL,  and would just start painting.  At first, you weren’t sure what he was going to paint, but little by little you started to realize HE IS PAINTING EGGS!  Yes, and as he continued, you came to understand the he wasn’t just painting white eggs on a white piece of watercolor paper.  NO, he was painting white eggs, sitting on a white table cloth, on a white piece of watercolor paper!

He was a magician in watercolor and you, the student, were the lucky audience member.  The eggs would just emerge from the paper.   At one point, he actually was able to do one particular bit of expert brushwork, and the table cloth was suddenly torn and you could see the individual cotton threads!

That’s right, you could see the threads of the torn table cloth emerge in one or two expert strokes of his brush.

In other demonstrations he would paint kites in a beautiful Montana sky.  Or, almost as cool as the eggs, he would paint a pile of lumber showing the grains in the sawed off ends of the each piece of wood on the pile.

He was very playful.  He would paint a table with eggs on it and buffalo running in a field behind the table – lovely, creative, incongruous masterpieces painted before your very eyes in a matter of minutes.

You couldn’t watch him paint and not want to paint watercolors.  And that is why, to me, he was the best teacher I ever had.

His talent was deep and real, but many are profoundly talented and they don’t always make good teachers – believe me.  His greatness as a teacher had more to do with the way he treated his students combined with his talent.

His demeanor was so supportive and he was so nice that you just wanted to be able to do what he did – you wanted to be a magician like he was.

In fact, as I think about it now, all these years later, maybe it wasn’t just that you wanted to be able to paint like him, maybe you wanted to be like him.

He inspired in me a love of watercolor painting that never left me.  During all the years of my insanely busy technical career, I never stopped painting.

Thank you Walter Hook.  Thank You.

Faith

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.  Hebrews 11:1

I spent a lot of time in laundromats in my youth.   Do we all?

I’m sorry to say it, but laundromats are just a little bit sad in the best of circumstances, and in the worst of circumstances they can be downright depressing.

I found myself sitting in one, watching my clothes spin around in a dryer in 1984.  I was back at school with a very uncertain future.  I had been laid off on the railroad, where I had worked for 5 and a half years – solid blue collar work.

I had already gone to college right after high school and earned a degree in English Literature with an Art Minor from the University of Montana.  I had taught high school on the Indian Reservation for the 2nd half of a school year at the St. Labre School in Ashland, Montana.  I went to work for the Burlington Railroad that summer on a tie gang and doubled my salary.  I had a family to feed…

I got some money from the railroad in the layoff and knew that I wanted to go back to school.  About the same time, my first marriage was ending so everything that you could say defined me was changed at the same time and it was the lowest period of my life.  To the extent we define ourselves by our job or our relationship to others, all of that changed in one six month period.

What is interesting about all this to me is how little faith I had in myself or in my future at this point.  I was back in school and had found that I loved math and computer science classes, but after having worked for half a decade doing everything from scraping grease to driving locomotives in and out of the roundhouse, I had totally lost faith in my ability to succeed in a different type of world.

So there I sat in this laundromat in Billings Montana contemplating my unknown future, watching the clothes go around in the dryer.

I had this enormously thick Calculus book sitting next to me – it must have been the start of the quarter and I was just starting to study.  It was daunting and, as I said, I had very little faith.

That’s when the Adversary whispered in my ear, “YOU ARE A FOOL.  WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS WILL LEAD TO? EVEN ASSUMING YOU CAN PASS THE CLASS.  WHAT JOB DO YOU THINK YOU WILL GET WITH A MATH DEGREE?  YOU SHOULD QUIT NOW AND SAVE YOURSELF THE WASTED EFFORT”!

I remember all of this going through my head.  I remember almost despairing, almost throwing that book in the garbage.

And then I remember having another thought come into my head and it said in, “HAVE FAITH.  GO FORWARD AND ACT AS IF THIS WILL LEAD SOMEWHERE”.  It was the Act as If part that stuck.  I can go forward, and Act As If it will lead to something – I will go simply on nothing but faith that this will lead to something. It was just a kernel of faith – not even a promise, just the idea of a promise.

And so, I picked that BIG THICK Calculus book up and started studying.

Two and a half years later I was hired at this little known company called Microsoft that nobody had heard of at the time.  And I’ve just passed my 30 year anniversary working there.  I’m now employee number 28 in seniority.

It dawns on me that the same faith is required for each major transition in life.  Whenever we take on a new job or a new role, we go into it with this same “faith” – not really knowing how it will turn out, but just believing it will work out.  And so I guess the takeaway is that Faith is a component of success.

Without faith, there would be no advancement.  And so it is actually a principle of power and success to have faith, even if it is just a kernel.  Sometimes, that’s enough.

Hendrix in Watercolor

This was a breakthrough painting for me.  I didn’t use ink – which is a bit of a crutch for a Watercolorist I think.  Or maybe I’m just being an elitist?  Anyway I was proud that I painted this only with watercolor and I think it looks like Hendrix.

Are You Experienced?

I don’t even remember exactly how we obtained the album – Are You Experienced?  My brother may have brought it back from college.  Or maybe I got it on my own – the memory is gone exactly how it came to be played on our Sears stereo system around 1968.

All I know is that this was something very different than anything I had heard before.  For a generation raised on the Beatles, and a lot of classic Pop records, this was something almost alien, strange, and fascinating.  It might as well have been teleported from another galaxy to the junior high student listening to it for the first time in Laurel Montana on what was likely a cold December day.

The music connected you to some level of “hip” you didn’t even know existed until that point.

I think I saw him on the Dick Cavett show live – Wow – Cavett doesn’t get enough credit.  Here’s a link to that: Jimi Hendrix on the Dick Cavett Show

I remember watching the 5 o’clock news one night when Walter Cronkite ended the show with an outtake from Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.  Cronkite made some wise crack that clearly showed he didn’t get it.  He just didn’t get it.  But then again how could he?

Painting Steve Jobs

The last words spoken  by Steve Jobs  were “Oh Wow, Oh Wow, Oh Wow”.  That  certainly makes me wonder what he was seeing as he was heading toward eternity – it sounds pretty cool – I like that – it matches my own spiritual view.

Steve Jobs was the most amazing innovator of my lifetime.  If he had only done one of the BIG things he did, he would have been a super-star.  But the fact that he started Apple, did the Mac, then Next, then Pixar, then the iPod, then the iPhone and iPad is nothing short of incredible.

Also, since I spent many years of my life as a software test engineer, Steve Jobs is a kind  of hero to me for another reason – that is that he was such a believer in investing in innate quality.  This was his most revolutionary quality. He simply would not settle for anything being shoddy and it totally differentiated everything that was produced under his tenure.

My favorite quote of his was: “I want to put a dent in the Universe”.  I believe he did.

When I started painting faces a few months ago, Steve Jobs was one of the first ones I did and let me tell you it was challenging!  I had several real failures before I was able to get one that worked to my satisfaction.

In the spirit of “Growth Mindset” where failure is the great teacher (and we should all embrace that) I’ll share a few of my “fails” before I was able to get it right.

This one was way wrong – off to a bad start.

 

This one was better – almost there, but not quite.

This one was a step back, ugh!  Looks more like Freddy Mercury than Steve Jobs I think

.

 

Tried painting on sketch paper – interesting color effect but still not Steve.

 

This is called “overpainting”.  Watercolor is not oil painting – sometimes the more you try to fix a watercolor, the worse you make it.  Terrible, just terrible.

 

And then, it came together.

What I learned from all this:

  • You MUST sketch in pencil first
  • If the sketch doesn’t look right, the watercolor won’t be right either
  • You can still ruin it if the sketch is right but I over-paint
  • Knowing when to stop is as important as anything else you do
  • You have to have a feeling of connection to the picture you are painting – if you don’t feel it, it will show in the painting
  • You need to paint in layers – light to dark
  • You  have to believe it will turn out – at first it looks like it won’t – just go with it
  • Painting IS drawing too – allow yourself to use the brush to pull the image out

So, don’t get discouraged if you paint a face and it doesn’t look like the person.  Keep trying!  Sketch the face several times until you get a sense of the key features that convey the key elements of that person.  Then sketch on your watercolor paper until it looks like who you are painting.  Then paint the face and let it emerge from the paper – and then stop.  Knowing when to stop is key.  Again, just like everything else in life.

Donald Trump, The Election, and Watercolor Painting

 

This fall I got focused on painting more portraits as it was something that I had avoided for a long time.  I’d been reading a lot about “Growth Mindset” and the idea that we stunt our own growth due to a fear of failure really hit a chord with me.  BTW, I highly suggest that everyone read Carol Dweck’s book titled “Mindset” to get the basic ideas around Growth Mindset and how we all learn from failure.  Anyway, the book helped me get past my fear of failing in terms of painting portraits and I started sketching and painting faces.

This was probably the most contentious election of my lifetime and so one of the first ones I did was Donald Trump.  When I posted it on Facebook, I think it was the single most “liked” post I’d ever done so that was some great encouragement!  I noticed a really interesting thing in the feedback though.  Folks who saw the painting mapped their feelings about “The Donald” onto the picture – people who really detested Trump saw it as a form of artistic derision.  Others, who were Trump admirers, saw it as a picture of “the next President”.  Art is funny that way – hadn’t realized how much of one’s reaction to art is personal.

Since I painted Trump, I then, of course, had to paint Hillary.

I was pretty happy with both of these, but as you’ll see in future post, they don’t always go so smoothly.

Now we have a new President Elect and I’m not going to say anything specifically political, except to quote the words of Peggy Noonan who wrote near the end of the campaign in the Wall Street Journal that she drew comfort from the notion that “God is charge of history”.   I like that.  I really like that.

It’s been a crazy election season – and it looks like we’re in for a lot more bitter partisan wrangling as the new administration takes power.  I’m very glad I have my art to help keep me grounded.