Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Earn It

“Thanks for the A,” I said to Mr. Fujii, my high school English teacher. It was the last day of my junior year of high school. Class had been dismissed and it was just him and me in a room full of boxed books. He seemed cynical of my gratitude, barely glancing over his glasses at me. “You earned it,” he replied.

Something in his tone made me feel like I was being corrected ... again. Earlier in the semester, he wrote on one of my assignments, "You seem to think you don't have to work in order to succeed." He was right. I had gotten way too comfortable in the classroom. Fortunately, he called me out in time for me to turn around and really put some effort into my writing.

I wish I could say that since then, every life experience has fallen neatly within the boundaries of this paradigm, but sometimes you get what you sweat for and sometimes you don't.  

Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you still don't win. 

On the other hand, sometimes you'll get something great that you totally don't deserve -- a gift, a job, a second chance. You win some, you lose some. Big deal right?

More often than not, I believe our frustrations and failures are due to the fact that we spend so much energy on things that cannot be earned while failing to woodshed at things of immeasurable value, which we seem to think will simply fall into our laps. It's like that business parable where a CEO climbs to the top of the ladder of success only to find he had propped it against the wrong wall.

Perhaps one of the greatest confusions of our generation is, “What can be earned and what can't?”

There are things that are clearly not earned, like life itself.

There are things that should be earned -- like money or prominence -- that our society seems to distribute indiscriminately, earned or not.

There are things that should not be earned -- like love -- that many of us have been conditioned to believe is dispensed according to the quality of our daily performances.

This confusion seems to infiltrate our concept of the spiritual life as well. Generations of scholar-saints have conclusively determined that there are things in the spiritual realm that cannot be earned. On the other hand, there are things for which we should strive that were never promised to rain down from heaven -- like integrity, reliability (i.e., faithfulness), and a good name. The items on the latter list require heavy woodshedding.

I hope it's not too late to work on the things that count.

Monday, January 16, 2012

If an artist makes no art, is he still an artist?

I won't be able to see another San Francisco sunrise on this trip. It's about five in the morning and there's just enough light from the hotel lobby for me to see my breath vaporize, but not much else. I'm in three layers of clothes, and the icy concrete bench beneath me refuses adjust its temperature to the heat of my body.

Being born and raised on Oahu, I'm not comfortable in the cold. Yet my present discomfort is muted by hope ... hope for light and warmth. I don't recall ever yearning for the sun the way I do now. My body tenses with longing as though I await a lost lover, and my heart quickens with anticipation. Why have I never experienced a sunrise like this back home?

I guess you can never really hope to be warm if you're not out in the cold.

Years ago, I named my record label Esperanza, which means Hope. Over time I've found that I'm most creative when I'm hopeful. But what I'm only now beginning to realize -- as I look back on what I've experienced and what I've created as a result -- is that hope has been most abundant in times of discomfort.

Today it feels like my life is fragmented. I've spent the last few months studying for my contractor's license exam and, since passing, I've labored to convince myself that this is who I am now. And in the process, I fear I’ve forgotten that I’m an artist. Maybe it's because I don't feel like one ... and that's probably because it's been so long since I've made anything that I feel resembles art.

If an "artist" produces no art, can we still call him an artist?

Especially in today's hipsternate universe where anyone wearing a scarf and Toms gets to claim artist status ... shouldn't actual art be the ID card?

But what is art? What's the difference between art and say, a hobby? True art, I believe, must have a beneficiary outside its author. Specific or anonymous, it doesn't really matter, just as long as the person who created it intends for someone other than himself to enjoy it. A chef in a fine restaurant does not intend to be served his own entree. He knows the dish is not for him, although it probably says a lot about him, and it may have been a great joy for him to create. The chef understands that what he creates is for the guest.

People make model cars for themselves. That's a hobby. If you make music for yourself, it's a hobby. But if your craft is intended to contribute to the wellbeing of others, then you are truly an artist. Artists connect with people. They give.

My classical vocal coach put it to me this way, and I'll never forget: "When you sing, it's not about you. It's not for you. Get it out of your head that you are singing for you. You're singing for the listener. When the listener understands that you sing for him or her, that you understand him, or that you love her, then you have made a connection."

Here comes the sun, and I feel as though it rises for me.