Wildcat weekend (or day)

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The trip may only have been 36 hours in Chincoteague, Va., but it was enough. An escape, a respite, a reprieve, a sanctuary from deadlines and departures and, in a way, the grid. My cell never lost connection, but I did.  I felt so comfortable putting down the phone, turning off the email and forgetting about the work week. And I didn’t even see the wild horses.

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The new face of NPR Music

On top of the launches of Jazz Night in America and Michel Martin’s Going There hub, my big project this fall has been a responsive redesign of NPR Music’s home. We’re now live, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. We had a fantastic team and — to a person — tremendous collaboration.

From our launch post on the This Is NPR blog:

We have a new home page this morning, and the experience brings you closer to the beating heart of the music than ever before. Optimized across platforms, the new page has a mission.

We want to tell you why we fell in love with certain songs, artists, shows, and stories – and give you reasons to fall for them, too. Whether you’re new to NPR Music or you’ve been with us forever, we hope you like the changes.

Read the rest and see the new homepage.

I hope the Internet never finds this valley in central Virginia

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After Dinosaur Land, I quickly lost cell signal. Lori’s phone kept mapping, and we found our way down to Sperryville, where last lunch seating was underway at our beloved Thorton River Grille, and then Standardsville for the last of the supplies. Then all we had left on either of our phones was a bit of a map, but a bit was enough. We were in the woods nowhere near the Internet or a television. The rain of prior days in the region was long past, and the pines were well-nourished. Leaves and needles everywhere.

That night and the next day, the owners’ dog played fetch on the old paths, and we wound our way down to the historic old chapel at the school next door. We discovered two good wineries nearby, both friendly and informal places, and sat conversing on the cabin porch as the sun went down.

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‘Unflinching self-analysis’ and the search for a point of view

My plane reading this fall has been Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. It’s a good book, for sure. Degree of difficulty: You must love the movie. Not like the movie, but love it. There are day-by-day accounts of the shooting, details on casting, looks into the publicity campaign, and much more. But if you love the movie, like I do (can you tell?), every page seems worth the ink.

The book primarily focuses on Paddy Chayefsky’s sometimes-desperate pursuit of writing a movie that for viewers passes from enjoyment into cultural meaning and impact. His writing moves from notes to script to casting and giving notes on shooting and grasping reactions — writing both the script and how the script becomes a real object in the world.

I don’t want to give away too much, as the anecdotes have an intensity to them that may draw in even those who don’t have the movie as a personal top five. But here’s a story from the prologue I particularly appreciate.

Take, for example, the screenplay that he had started researching a few months earlier. Having cast his gaze on the television business that had provided the springboard for his career, he had drawn up a roster of characters to populate the world of a fictional broadcasting company: producers, executives, underlings, corporate tycoons, political radicals, and a mentally unstable news anchor named Howard Beale. But Chayefsky could not determine how they fit together. Were they allegorical figures in a larger narrative about power and decadence, or were they just a bunch of grotesque caricatures? What did any of them have to do with the love story he was trying to thread through his script, and was that too conventional even to belong there?

Across the top of a piece of paper he had torn from a notebook, Chayefsky wrote in jagged capital letters nearly impaled by an aggressive underline: THE SHOW LACKS A POINT OF VIEW. Then, in a gentler, pleading cursive handwriting, he filled both sides of that page with his unflinching self-analysis of the project, which he believed was drifting into chaos.

“I guess what bothers me is that the picture seems to have no ultimate statement beyond the idea that a network would kill for ratings,” he wrote.

Most crucially, he wondered, what was he even trying to say in this screenplay? Were there identifiable sides to this argument, and whose side was he on? Because if he couldn’t answer that, what was he creating, if not more fuel for his pyre of curtailed efforts and unsatisfied aspirations?

“SHOW LACKS A POINT OF VIEW.” Kicking your own ass is underrated. As you push forward in work with an audience, how do you, one, move the engagement forward, two, without getting in your own way? In Itzkoff’s narrative, Chayefsky absolutely gets in his own way, over and over again. But he averts doing so just enough to succeed. The book offers no direct lessons on work and creativity, but the indirect ones come by the dozen.

Glad to see Hill Now arrive

I don’t live in Arlington anymore, but I still subscribe to the Arl Now blog’s RSS feed and read just about everything it publishes. The blog captures the county in a way few local blogs do anywhere, bringing neighborhoods to life and following the many threads that run in and between them.

So, I’m thrilled to see the owners of Arl Now come to my new home and start Hill Now. Frozen Tropics, Hill Is Home and Popville all do a good job with the neighborhood’s news, but more coverage is always better. The Now family puts a good amount of work into developing  a steady, rich product, and that kind of mainstream intensity is going to be a boon.

‘I can hear when a guitarist hasn’t played for dance…’

Spent an afternoon the other weekend feeding my New Yorker addiction. Three passages stayed with me, two long quotes and one book excerpt, all speakers quiet but headlong in their pursuit of emotion amid experience.

Pedro Cortes on flamenco guitar: “I can tell when a guitarist hasn’t played for singers, because there’s no sensitivity or sweetness. I can hear when a guitarist hasn’t played for dance, because there’s no rage, there’s no anger, there’s no power. It can be very musical and very lyrical, but without that rage and sweetness you aren’t complete.”

Chris Ofili on painting: “Painting is a kind of pursuit, a hunt. I think it’s more interesting when you can corral your subjects, instead of just going right to them. Enjoy and engage with the process — you want to keep going into the unknown, to the point where you don’t think about how long it’s going to take to get there. I’ve become more and more comfortable with the idea that you can construct a narrative and bring someone onstage, and you don’t have to tell them what to do. Once they arrive, they’ve activated their character.”

Marilynne Robinson in her new novel: “They were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in these things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me.”

Leadership in poetry is making the case for poetry

The Post’s On Leadership series talks to poet Billy Collins, and he quickly swings the conversation away from himself to how a medium can lead.

Certainly one thing a poem can do is give you an imaginative pleasure by taking you places very suddenly that prose can’t take you, because poetry enjoys the broadest and deepest and highest and most thrilling level of imaginative freedom of any of the written arts.

Another thing poetry can do is connect you with the history of human emotion. That’s why at critical points in our lives, at funerals or weddings or other rituals, often a poem is read. The poem shows us that these emotions, love and grief, have been going on through the centuries; and that the emotion we’re feeling today is not just our emotion, it’s the human emotion.

Poetry is the only history we have of human emotions. Most history books, what we call history books, are stories of battles and treaties, negotiations and beheadings and coronations. But poetry is the only reminder of this very essential part of being human, which is one’s emotional life and all the dimensions it entails.

Leaf fire

I’ve been listening to this song all fall.

Trouble. I hear the clock tick in the room
The walls will crumble, and you’re holding the match up to the fuse
‘cos sometimes I just got, nothing else to say
I’ve been on repeat since yesterday
There’s something to lose either way

When I’ve been listening to anything, that is. I’ve been missing the hell out of listening to music. I’ve been missing the hell out of writing. I’ve had trouble recently finding the space. Here’s hoping both things are just missing, sitting out of sight somewhere where one could eventually find them, and not gone. I’ve always worried about people who don’t listen to music. How could they? Is there no music in their heads? Moving out of the newsroom the last few years, I’ve been concerned about losing the ability to put one word in front of another, in a way that matters to anyone.

Ideas come and go about how to fix these issues. Headphones for the walk to work? I could do without another sucker-punch scar. A standing desk? My wallet asks why, and why blame my body after years of chair writing. Take fewer meetings? More vacation? Working on it. One change I’d like to try is making my days more about creativity and less about execution. The latter has been all-consuming this year. I’m good at that extreme level of getting-to-done-ness, but it’s not good for me. It’s not who I am.

The change of the seasons is supposed to kick your ass, right? Make you take account, get you knocking the acorns off the high branches of the tree and burying them in the yard. I’ve said for a long time now that people who maintained living in a perma-warm place made one miss the seasons were fools. But I’m beginning to see their point. Sameness kills the senses.

Chasing randomness and form