Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why We Need Test Kitchens in Our Lives

There is a funny thing I have noticed in the 16 or so years I have lived in Louisiana –In Louisiana people are either talking about food, eating, or eating while talking about food.  There is good reason for this—the food down here is so good!  Still in spite of this cultural bent towards conversations about food I was quite skeptical when I first came across Food Network thinking that I would never spend much time watching a network completely devoted to food.  Well… I was wrong.  It turns out that the Food Network became one of my favorite channels on the cable landscape. 

One interesting concept that you run into on Food Network is the test kitchen.  While the test kitchen is first and foremost a place of experimenting with ingredients and cooking techniques, it is also a place of connection with others.  The truth is it doesn’t matter how good a chef thinks his recipes are if they don’t connect with anyone else.  This is why one of the most crucial components of a test kitchen is not simply the oven and the utensils but rather the few trusted folks around the chef that will offer their honest and constructive feedback. 
Chef Bobby Flay

If you have ever watched the Food Network program Throwdown with Bobby Flay, you may have a bit of an understanding of how a test kitchen works.  Throwdown is a show that pits Chef Bobby Flay against award-wining cooks from around the country on their signature dishes.  Each episode begins as Flay is presented with a cooking challenge which could be anything from jambalaya to burgers or crepes.  After a little research and planning Flay ends up back in the test kitchen where he begins experimenting with the recipe, while trying to add his own unique touch to these fairly standard culinary staples.  The moment of truth, however, is when flay passes the selected dish around to his assistants and asks for their feedback.  His assistants offer him their perspectives on his cooking highlighting both the perceived strengths and weaknesses in the food.  Sometimes they give him a thumbs up on the flavor and presentation while other times they send him back in to tweek his recipe further.  Finally Flay will then take into consideration all of the feedback and rework the recipe a couple of more times until they are confident in the recipe.  What this process shows me is that even though Bobby Flay is one of the top chefs in the country he is still working to get better and he has surrounded himself with people who will help him to that end.

Over the years I have come to learn the importance of having test kitchens in my life.   My test kitchens don’t really have much to do with food but rather other aspects of creativity like songwriting, blogging, playing music and even speaking in front of people.  A few years back I really began to feeling like I needed to take writing for my blog much more serious.  The topics I had been choosing were okay but I wanted to get better at the way I communicated the ideas with others so that I could connect better with readers.  So I began taking the approach of the test kitchen.

The Test Kitchen approach meant that instead of simply writing something quickly and then publishing it immediately, I would spend a few days writing and revising and then, when I finally felt like things were in a good place, I would pass my essay around to 2-3 trusted friends who would critique everything from how it was written to punctuation and grammar errors.  Sometimes this process was a bit painful (especially realizing how bad my punctuation was initially) but it was also very helpful.  Having a test kitchen with my writing has helped me become a better writer because I am not left to my own, often skewed, perspective on things.  Not only have I taken this approach with writing but with songwriting, music performance, public speaking, and yes even cooking.  One great aspect of the test kitchen approach to creativity is that when you involve others in the process the creativity actually grows as others bring their thoughts and perspectives into the mix.  There have been several times when I have started with a simple idea that wasn’t communicated very well and by the end of the test kitchen approach, with the input of others, the end product has evolved into something much richer and textured and much more transcendent than I could have imagined at the beginning.

If you do anything that is meant to connect with other people then you really owe it to yourself and others to get a test kitchen going to help you get better at the connecting part.  This is one aspect that a lot of creative people kick against yet the reality is that it doesn’t matter how amazingly creative one is if that creativity doesn’t connect with others in a meaningful way. 

  • Do you have any trusted friends in your life that you bounce things off of?
  • Do you find it hard to invite the input of others into the creative process?
  • How have you grown from the help and input of others?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Can Creating Art Make Your Life Better?

Spring for Art, Covington LA.
photo by Crispin Schroeder

I have been pondering for some time now how the arts whether music, dance, painting, photography, poetry and writing are not only beneficial for those who enjoy them but also for their creators as well.  In recent years I have found myself so busy with different things in life that I have occasionally pushed things like music, writing, and photography to the margins of my life.  However I am learning that having a healthy dose of creativity consistently in my life whether songwriting, photography, or writing tends to benefit many other areas in my life. 

The truth is that whenever I devote more time to songwriting I find it causes me to pay more attention to what’s going on inside my own heart and to be more present to the world around me.  Photography works this way for me as well.  When I am consistently picking up the camera to take pictures I find my outlook on life to be more observant and more expectant.  Instead of merely going through the motions I find myself attentive to the beauty and even the messes around me.  There was a time when writing (particularly blogging) was viewed as a distraction from my job but I have come to find that writing has not only helped me become a better communicator (whether through writing, speaking, or performing music) but it has also helped me to become a better listener and observer.  I am starting to realize that I am a better person when I participate in the arts on a regular basis. 
Spring for Art - Covington, LA. Photo by Crispin Schroeder

There is a podcast I used to listen to quite a bit called The Accidental Creative.  One thing that they stress frequently on the podcast is how creative people need to actually set aside time in their weekly schedules for creative play—times to do something that may have no direct connection to ones job.  This may seem counterintuitive or even as a distraction but I have come to find immense wisdom from this approach.  In the last year I have tried to consistently set time aside in my weekly schedule for creativity, whether songwriting, photography or writing.  I have come to find that far from being a distraction from work, these times usually offer the breakthrough moments that give me special insight into my central vocation (which at this time in my life happens to be being a pastor).

  • What has been your experience in this area?
  • Do you find that participating in the arts on a regular basis helps you in other areas of your life?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Musings on Mumford and Sons and a Vineyard Conference

This last week I attended the regional conference for Vineyard churches in the southwest region.  While the conference itself was really good with times of worship, workshops, and some great messages by leaders in the movement, the most impacting moments for me were the late night conversations with friends, the impromptu song sharing on the back porch (thank you David Linhart for sharing your songs) and the concert with Mumford and Sons that I got to catch after the first night’s session.

above clip of David Linhart

I had never heard Mumford and Sons before but a friend of mine bought Dina and I tickets to go see them at a club called the Rhythm Room in Phoenix (what a great friend).  Seeing a band that you have never heard of can be real fun because there is no frame of reference for what you are getting into.  Before we caught the show my friend let me briefly hear 2 songs and I really liked what I heard from this English band that plays an energetic and emotionally charged folk rock with electric banjo, upright bass, keys, and acoustic guitar.  The little bit I heard before hand really got me interested in what they would be like live though I didn’t really even have a clue what I was about to experience.

We wandered into the sold out club which was packed mainly with a crowd of a couple of hundred folks mainly in their twenties.  Though we had missed the opening band because of the conference earlier that evening we arrived soon enough to stake out a bit of concrete on which to stand for the next couple of hours.  The band came out to the raucous cheers of the crowded club and then proceeded to launch into the title track from their latest offering called Sigh No More.  The song opened with four part harmony vocals over a subdued acoustic guitar with the lyrics,
“Serve God love me and mend
This is not the end
Lived unbruised we are friends
And I'm sorry
I'm sorry…”
Over the next few minutes the song began to build as front man Marcus Mumford stomped his kick drum, pulsating energy through the expectant crowd that began to move in time with the music.  Then in a moment the music almost dropped to a whisper as Marcus began singing:
Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design,
An alignment to cry,
Of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be (x4)

And once again the song began to build to a crescendo as the crowd joined in singing those words with passion and heart.
above clip of Mumford and Sons performing Sigh No More live

As the first song ended I was amazed at how connected I felt to God and to the others in the room of this club I had never been to listening to a band I had never heard.  The concert continued in this vein until the encore a little over an hour later.  This was not a typical concert by any means.  There were so many moments of transcendence where the veil of the ordinary gig in a club were shattered and we came singing together into a larger place where our hearts were opened to something greater.

Earlier that evening I had sung worship songs with a room full of Vineyard pastors but in that dive bar in south Phoenix I was again worshipping to songs I had yet to learn.  I left the concert that night feeling as if I had encountered God.  I don’t say this because the music was so good or the band-members so skilled but because the music and the lyrics pointed beyond the gig to another place not so far a way and to another person who loves us without measure. 

What was beautiful about that evening was how the people were singing like happy drunks in an Irish pub and yet there was a joy in the room that was somehow otherworldly and beyond the simple good feelings of a pint of brew with friends. 

I left the concert feeling love in my heart and perhaps a little more clarity as if things had been put back into the right perspective again.  I spent the rest of the eveining pondering the events from the conference to the concert and how I had connected with God at both but yet how much more I had seemed to connect with God and others at the show that night.  Then I thought of Jesus and how much time he spent at parties and a people’s homes around meals and even at a wedding feast where he not only was a part of the festivities but even provided the wine to keep things going.  Jesus never seemed to be uncomfortable at a party.  If anything he was uncomfortable around religious gatherings.  That evening I had a very real sense of what it might have been like to be at a party with Jesus—people were singing, and dancing, and filled with joy but more than that—a bit of heaven was in their midst.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Let’s Back Billy to Save the Wetlands

I have spent the last 5 weeks as most here in Louisiana feeling a mixture of sadness and anger over the BP oil spill.  While we are no strangers to disaster down here this disaster feels particularly overwhelming because it doesn’t seem like most of us can do much to help.  Unlike Katrina or Rita where average folks could get busy cleaning up debris and helping each other out in this situation we have to trust both BP and the government to take care of things, neither of which have shown themselves very trustworthy.  So I’ve been thinking that maybe instead of waiting for BP to get things together or for the federal bureaucracy to finally mobilize in a meaningful way to protect our wetlands and coast that maybe we should just put our money behind the one guy who seems to be doing something – Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungessor. 

Nungessor has come up with the only plan that seems to make any sense and he is ready to go with it, with or without federal backing.  His plan is to dredge sand from the sea floor and connect the barrier islands with a continuous 6-foot berm.  They would start in the areas that are facing the most direct threat and work there way out.  Why isn’t this plan being implemented by the federal government yet?  Because they want to spend time analyzing what the long term effects may be.  Well, in my opinion the long term effects can’t be anywhere near as bad as filling the wetlands of Louisiana with oil and tar. 

So if the Federal government is dragging their heals and the state government doesn’t have the money to fund this operation and BP is still proving inadequate to help then I say that you and I pitch in.  What would happen if we could get 1 million people in Louisiana to give $50-$100 each to support the efforts of Nungessor and company who are actually trying to do something?  I know 50 to 100 million dollars wouldn’t be enough to get things done but we could at least get things started.  I would gladly give 50 dollars extra a month for the foreseeable future to protect this beautiful state with it’s fragile and diverse ecosystems.  Whose with me? 

Let’s figure out a way to do this.  We need not wait for the state government to raise taxes or for BP to one day do something to protect our wetlands.  Let’s you and I put our money behind the ones really fighting this battle. 

Any ideas on how this might work?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Why Write a Book Anyway?

A couple of blog posts back I reflected on 5 years of blogging.  In that post I mentioned how I had once made the statement on this blog that I would write a book by the end of that year.  At that time I thought that putting a very public deadline of one year to write a book would put adequate creative pressure on me to get the thing done.  Well… that year passed and the one after that as well and... still no book.  Why?  Well here are a few reasons (possibly lame excuses and rationalizations) as to why the book has not materialized.

1.     The book idea really worked well for the blog.  The original idea I had was for a book based on wrestling with spirituality, culture and creativity.  I still like the idea of a book called My Life as a Wrestler but I have found that wrestling with issues on a blog actually works pretty well, maybe even better than a book because other folks are part of the conversation.  Books are real good for interaction with others unless you do a book club though I have seen a few books that have launched with accompanying blogs which seems like a good idea to me.
2.     I didn’t want to write a book that had already been written.  For the first 10 years that I was playing music publically I had a hard time finding my own voice.  I learned how to do songs like the folks that inspired me (or at least close) but it took a whole lot of playing and writing and recording to settle into my own unique expression of music.  I think if I would have written a book a few years back it would have probably been too much like other stuff out there but not as good. 
3.     A good story needs depth of character.  One reason I haven’t written a book yet is because I feel like God is still writing much of it in my life right now.  The issues which made me want to write a book initially are still have expanded and deepened.  God’s still doing a work in me that needs to be deepened and tried by fire a bit before the words really ring as true and authentic as I would like.
4.     Why write a book when I can instantly publish blog posts for free?  The last issue is of money and technology.  The last CD I self-produced was Move back in 2005 (when this blog launched).  I initially ordered one thousand units.  I realized about 2 weeks ago that I’m down to my last 10 or so units.  Should I order more?  I’m not really sure.  The truth is that since I came out with the CD I have been able to get the music digitally distributed to iTunes, Amazon, and a host of other outlets for basically nothing.  CDs, on the other hand, cost a lot more money and they take up a lot of space (I still have cases of CDs from my band Mary’s Den).  I would have to imagine that books are kind of the same.  If I actually self-published something I might very well end up with cases of books in the garage.  But at least the CD wouldn’t be lonely.  While I read a lot of stuff online I still love reading an actual book.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned but it is still hard for me to imagine enjoying an Amazon Kindle as much as an actual book.  But then again I hardly ever buy actual CDs anymore because I can just by digital downloads whenever I want them.

So, if I wrote a book would you buy it?

If I wrote a book, what would be a worthy topic (is there anything I’ve covered in this blog that you think would make a good book)?

Or should I just stick to blogging?