Friday, November 25, 2011

They've Got the Whole World in Their Hands

The girls sat down at the bar and waited to order. When the bartender walked over, he looked at my 9- and 6-year-old daughters and asked if they were OK with blue. The girls nodded. He reached beneath the bar, then handed each of them a hunk of blue clay.

“What would you like to make?” he asked Katie.

“A bird,” she said.

“Very good choice,” he said.

“And you?” he asked Chelsea.

“A pencil,” she responded.

“Excellent,” the man said, then proceeded to show both girls the first steps to their creations.

They say you can find anything in New York, and I’m more convinced of that now than ever. I say that because my girls and I drove into the city two weeks ago and went to our first clay bar. That’s right – just beneath Houston Street, on a charming side street off the Hudson, you can take your kids to a bar where they sit and make things out of clay.

It’s part of the Children’s Museum of the Arts, which recently reopened on Charlton Street with loads of artistic opportunities for kids. Walk into this museum and you can paint to your heart’s content, create your own an advertising logo, learn stop-action animation, draw cubist art and use markers to tag your own graffiti. And, yes, you must sit down and try the clay bar. Joe, the bartender, will be happy to see you.

Joe creates the same thing you’re making, and he models each stage for you from his side of the bar. He showed Chelsea how to turn little slivers of gray clay into a facsimile of the ferrule that connects the pink eraser to the wooden pencil. He showed Katie how to make eyes and a beak, then handed her some fluffy pipe cleaners so she could add a few feathers to her bird. As the girls focused on each stage of their clay creations, Joe worked the bar, assisting other kids. A glance down the black marble bar top revealed a turtle, a mermaid, a motorcycle, and a shark complete with fish in mouth.

I’ve been reflecting on Joe and the clay bar this month and during this Thanksgiving weekend. It’s hard to know just what you can count on in this autumn of 2011. We’ve got a federal government that can’t function and a financial crisis that seems to know no end. We’ve got a college sex scandal rocking the country and college tuitions that are no longer affordable for many Americans. We’ve got wars and uprisings in Asia and Africa, and climate change-induced weather uprisings in our own backyard.

So with the world seeming to be out of our reach these days, it’s comforting to find something you can hold in your hands, and shape to your heart’s content. For some of us, it’s a dish we cooked for Thanksgiving. For others, it’s a card or e-mail we’ll be sending to a friend over the holidays. For still others, it’s the tree we’ll be trimming or the menorah we’ll be lighting during the next month.

For my girls earlier this month, it was the clay. They collaborated with Joe for a good hour, and came away with the best creations they’d ever sculpted. The bird and pencil now sit prominently in our living room – proud reminders of what can happen when we work together, experience wonder, and create beauty. Reminders of what it feels like to hold a piece of this crazy world in your hands. It’s still possible to do those things in this world today. Just hop up to the bar and find out for yourself.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thinking Different

A few weeks ago, my brother and I took my girls to see the Jim Henson exhibit now running at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The wonderful exhibit chronicles Henson’s entire career, from commercials and Jimmy Dean talk-show appearances in the 1950s and ‘60s through the mega-success of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and the Muppet movies in the final two decades of Henson’s life.

I saw this exhibit with Eric and the girls in late September – before the passing of Steve Jobs, before the release of the latest Wilco CD, and before the St. Louis Cardinals’ stunning World Series victory. But as I reflect on these very different events from Autumn, 2011, they all remind me of that very rare individual – the one who can visualize and create something that is not there. Jim Henson, Steve Jobs, Jeff Tweedy and Tony La Russa fit that bill – and for different reasons.

Henson is so well-known for his creative genius that Jobs placed him and Kermit the Frog on one of Apple’s “Think Different” ads in the 1990s. Take a single image from any Muppet – say, Kermit playing the banjo at the start of The Muppet Movie – and you find yourself shaking your head at the sheer ingenuity. Since his death last month, Jobs has been eulogized by many as his generation’s Thomas Edison for his contributions to the technological revolution in which we currently reside. As Guggenheim perfected the printing press, Jobs perfected the smartphone. Jeff Tweedy has led Wilco to a place where pop music defies categorization, and that is meant as the highest compliment. Is this band, now well into its second decade, a pop band? Rock? Alternative? Country? Roots? The more you search for a clean label, the more elusive – and hypnotic – Wilco becomes. And as for Tony La Russa, anyone who is willing to buck the status quo in baseball deserves some kind of plaque in Cooperstown. La Russa’s willingness to think different in how to use pitchers and position players alike – and his ability to win a World Series with the likes of pedestrian players such as Nick Punto and John Jay in his starting lineup – is puppetry at its finest.

Tony La Russa retired yesterday – more than 2,700 wins were apparently enough for the man, and he’s ready for something else in life. With his jet-black hair and his bowl haircut, La Russa looks a bit Muppet-like. He and Jim Henson would probably have a lot to talk about. La Russa would surely compliment Henson on his adroit use of lesser-known puppets such as Bunsen and Beaker. Henson would likely fine-tune the Cardinals’ “rally squirrel” to give it a more human dimension. Jobs would probably recruit them both for an iPhone commercial, complete with Wilco soundtrack.

Yes, the geniuses are out there, and they’re still changing the world. It may seem as if we’re living amid a whole lot of ordinary sometimes. But in spite of the reality-show nonsense and movie-sequel mania, there are still innovative entertainers creating great art for us all. And despite the copy-cat technology in your nearest Best Buy, there are still inventors changing the way we live. Somewhere beyond all those American Idol songs, there are also still musicians crafting truly new sounds. And way out beyond the SportsCenter highlights, there are women and men thinking about sport in ways that no one has dared to think before.

The exhibit in Queens is titled “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World.” As we scan the headlines and the cable channels, this world doesn’t seem all that fantastic sometimes. But if we look within, open our minds and think different, it can seem damn near amazing. Great enough to make a frog sing. Or a Cardinal cheer.