Thursday, June 7, 2012

On Creativity Part Three: On Luke, or "I'd rather be a rich genius...."

I voraciously finished Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works, reading the second half of the book over the course of yesterday afternoon, outside in the sunshine. My tan is admirable among the sun-shiny fans of the world, but is dangerous and potentially deadly, given I only use 30 SPF sunscreen, and that's only on my tattoo, so it won't fade. Tatus had to attend the wake of a friend from the neighborhood this week, a peer and father of his youngest daughter's best friend, who died of melanoma. Had me seriously re-thinking my summer habit of sunbathing.

Having read chapters on the design infrastructures of businesses in Silicon Valley, the geniuses who worked for Pixar, which was an offshoot of LucasFilm, the paradox of Shakespeare's education vs. his writing, and the benefits of sending our children to arts-centered, offbeat high schools, abandoning traditional rigors of modern education, I couldn't help but think of Luke, over and over again.

Having given much careful consideration in the idea of enrolling Luke in the local public junior high vs. staying at the Lutheran school, it was decided he'd stay put for at least another year. I drove up to pick him up and planted myself in the parking lot. The kids were all outside, signing yearbooks. Luke and his friends were on the same, weathered playground equipment that my friends and I signed yearbooks on when I was his age. For better or worse, I just couldn't tear him away from those ties, for that is where his heart lies. His roots. His stability. The gifted program this summer will allow him the opportunity to spend time with children who are more like him, which is a very good thing, away from the doldrums of the average joes. His classes start a week after I go back to school on Monday.

The book Imagine is laden with anecdotes about inventors and their creative processes, like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who built the first personal Apple computers from scratch and took them to a local watering hole to show to friends/colleagues, just to get feedback on their inventions, not to try and sell a billion dollar idea, which got me thinking about the trips to American Science and Surplus that Luke and I take with some degree of regularity. With no preconception of what he intends to create, he walks into the store, grabs a basket and heads over to pick out small motors, switches, wires, fans, etc. (We go through an awful lot of batteries, electric and duct tape at our house.) He comes home, sits down and tinkers, and in half an hour, creates a working machine. Most recently, he made a double-sided fan that worked with a switch, just out of his own head, which was powered by a 9-volt battery. Simple machine for a 12-year old, but took a high degree of ingenuity to create.

Craig, Luke and I had been talking with the therapist about Luke's Lego building, which she encouraged and championed. My argument, though, is that he gets bored with Legos pretty quickly. (One of the classes offered in the gifted program was Lego Robotics, which I thought he might enjoy. He said, because it was offered to kids as young as 3rd grade, that it was probably too easy for him, and he took a pass on that particular class.)

Large Lego sets, of which Luke has many, come with often a 50-page instructional, step-by-step instruction manual, and the Legos are all separated into sequentially-numbered little bags. (No, I don't play Legos with Luke. I have ZERO spatial orientation skills. I observe his play keenly, however.) There's a method to building a 1000+ piece Lego set, according to the Lego company, anyway. But what does my son do when he gets a new, large Lego set? He opens the box, looks at the finished product on the box, and feverishly opens all of the little, numbered bags at one time. Thousands of pieces are thereby scattered on the living room floor. (First, he builds all of the people. That's his schtick.) He largely disregards the manual, unless he really gets stuck, whereupon he'll refer to a diagram of something-or-other, but he builds the sets in typically about 1-1 1/2 hours, if that. Somehow, he can just take all of those random pieces, look at what it's supposed to look like, and BUILD. Which BLOWS MY MIND. (And confuses Craig.)

Once completed, Luke bores easily with the finished product, and while he might find it cool to look at, he doesn't really play with them interactively, unless he's incorporating something into one of his original stop-motion animation films, where he tirelessly takes hundreds, if not thousands, of still pictures of his Legos, moving by millimeters, and editing the results into a cohesive animated film, his longest movie stretching a little over 2-3 minutes, I believe, which took him all day to create and edit. (It's editing that takes him longer, it seems, than the picture taking or scene building. When he has friends help out, he's the director and photographer. He makes his friends do the mundane task of moving the Legos around piece by piece, so he can take more pictures.)

On the opposite end of Luke's creative spectrum and abilities, we recently bought a nightstand for his bedroom that had to be assembled. Like the Legos, he opened every bag of parts all at once, and tried to build it without the instructions, and when he couldn't make logical sense of how the table was supposed to look, he had an extreme panic attack to the point of raging tears when he couldn't build it on his own. My mom and I calmed him down, my mom taking the instructions, parts and Luke into the kitchen and once the two of them collaborated on building the table, it was completed with simple effort. What seemed simple to my mom caught Luke off-guard. (As usual, I was of no help.) It was amazing how he transitioned from cocky know-it-all into blubbering wreck in a matter of minutes over something he couldn't figure out. Lehrer cites numerous examples of the benefit of creative collaboration, especially with the Pixar team, in completing a project, which rang true with regard to Luke and my mom.

I started thinking about tonight's therapy session, which has me a little on edge, as it is just Luke, the therapist and myself. Biting my nails just thinking about being chastised for immeasurably psychologically harming my son, having been witness to addictions and insanity from a very tender, impressionable age. Kate is wont to remind me that Luke's level of maturity, his compassion, his strength of character, etc. have enriched him; his perspective and outlook on life unique, as a result of living with me and that I should refrain from blaming myself or assuming I somehow scarred him for life. I try to keep that in mind, though it's difficult. Luke certainly has a different approach to life, a forced-upon lack of innocence, and tough skin that most pre-teens don't have. It's important to remember that while he saw me suffer, and he likewise suffered as a result, I recovered. I stabilized. I pressed on. (I'm "invincible," remember?) Luke pressed forward by my side.

It's been a liberating, soul-quenching journey I've been on lately, during my sabbatical. The more Eastern philosophy I absorb, the less tied to material things and the material world I have become, a lot of which I've tried to impress upon Luke, who is steeped in American capitalism and the acquisition of "things." Having talked with Tatus about his recent trip to Costa Rica, and the liberation from the Western world, electronics and chaos of our daily lives, he found peace and tranquility in the forests, listening to unique bird calls, watching wild animals roam freely, white-water rafting, detached from his (and more importantly, from his teenage daughter's) typical, frenzied world. I told him that in all seriousness, I plan, someday, to fly off to India to spend a couple of weeks alone with the Yogis of the Himalayas. He thought that sounded like an excellent idea. I said that perhaps I'd reward myself with that upon completion of my doctorate, if I can wait that long. (I think I can. I have so much more to learn before I'd deem myself worthy of spending time with any Yogi.) Tatus came back refreshed, relaxed and happy, though we joked about how long his elevated mood would last, returning to the zoo of the medical practice.

Disgruntled, Luke said to me, "When you're a doctor, will we be wealthy?" I said, "Not 'wealthy,' but we'll have our own place and will be able to afford more but really, Luke, it's all about who you are, not what you own." I asked him honestly, "Would you rather be rich and average or stupid or poor and a genius?" Luke's reply? "I'd rather be a rich genius." I said, "Ok, then, you keep doing what you're doing with your mind, keep creating, and maybe someday you'll BE a rich genius. The possibilities are limitless," I told him. "Yeah, yeah," he said, "Adam is mean." I agreed that Adam is perhaps not mean, or didn't tout his familial wealth out of anger, but rather, out of ignorance and immaturity. I argued that his value system was, at the very least, askew.

We have a car that runs. We live in a home that's clean and good enough for the time being. Money is tight, but we're surviving. Little extras are treats, not givens, and money and spending are watched closely, not recklessly. Money will be less tight when I'm in the doctorate program and loaning myself out a living stipend, which I'll eventually have to pay back, but will be ultimately worth it. We don't worry where our next meal is coming from and we have clean clothes on our backs. We have electronics and gadgets and computers and wi-fi. In summary, we have PLENTY. We have ENOUGH. What we might lack on the surface in material gains is not equal to the value of the quality of our character, or our intellectual capacities, and, as I tried to impress upon Luke, God is right in our hearts. That's what it's all about.

(Ironic iTunes shuffle: The Beatles, "Baby, You're a Rich Man.")

The value my parents imparted on my brother and I growing up was this: "Those that got, get." Thus, they condemned our family to a life of mediocrity and ill-fortune that was a credo I actually believed in until I "grew up." (Read: a couple of years ago.) I have learned, and studied, and come to believe that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Inspired by Imagine: How Creativity Works, a simple book that was an awe-inspiring token of love and belief in me and my abilities, appreciation of me as an artist, I'm ready to tackle school in preparation for earning an advanced degree and practicing psychology. I ultimately learned to value what's in my head above the privileges awarded by the material world, as I've learned from Buddhism and Hinduism.

Sure, I'll probably still save up money for a couple of months if there's an expensive Lego set that Luke is itching to own. Sure, I want to earn enough money to not have to rely on my mother for shelter and electricity, which she so generously, graciously provided Luke and myself when we had nowhere else to go. Luke will have the opportunity to attend a top-notch public high school, recognized as one of the best in the state, by virtue of where we live, without having to fuss with placement test and entrance essays. I anticipate he'll scholarship much of his way through his higher education, whereas I'll have to rely on loans, though as Tatus said, he's not terribly worried about me failing academically. Luke and I are truly blessed, in body, mind and spirit.

"I would not want to live a life of being rich and getting anything and everything you want. The best life is a life with troubles. A life with problems. It teaches you to appreciate the good things and value them." -Luke Bechtel

There's perhaps nobody else on the planet who believes in my and Luke's potential than Kate. She constantly encourages us to pursue our art, as she does, that she has such a clear vision into the possibilities of our future that it keeps her up at night, and she recently called me to tell me as much. Just as my best male friend, when I decided to restart my blog, said, "Just fucking write," I tell my son to "Just keep on doing what you're doing with your brain." Follow your bliss. I told Tatus in an email letting him know I finished the Lehrer book, "We Miklasz/Bechtels? We're going somewhere."

Imagine our future. Oh, the places we'll go!

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