FROM A HUMANIST PERSPECTIVE

FROM A HUMANIST PERSPECTIVE
By Ron Steelman
5-20-18

Here are 10 things I thought were worth sharing this week:
(I have stolen this opening line from the blog posts of a writer/artist whose blog I follow, Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like An Artist.”)

1.  As an actor I was trained in classic repertory theaters. I acted in over a hundred professional productions including Shakespeare, many classic plays, and numerous modern American classics. However, the comedies were my first love. You can keep the tragedies and the dramas and the histories. Which leads me to this quote from a 95-year-old comedy genius:

                       “Laughter adds time to your life.”
                                      – Norman Lear

We don’t have hard proof of this, but a few years back there was an article with some anecdotal evidence about how long famous comedians lived. Their lives consisted of writing, testing and performing jokes. If they laughed, then they knew the audience would. The article is here in Psychology Today. Also, studies show people can learn to embrace the absurdity of life at any age, see Scientific American.

2.
  Having spent a good deal of my life as an actor, I wouldn’t encourage my children to go into the theater. I’d just have to tie them up and keep them in the attic until they came to their senses (you know I’m kidding, of course). But I saw this recently and it has something to do with being human.
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3.  There’s so much I didn’t know about poet Walt Whitman and his classic poem, Leaves of Grass. For example:  “(the) responses to different aspects of the poem – its understanding of nature, its celebration of sexuality, its advocacy of a radical equality and democracy.”  This is from a book review of Poet as Prophet: The Religious Whitman and His Disciples, by David E. Anderson.  He begins with a little historical perspective: “Before the twentieth century there was a long tradition of the poet as prophet and seer, and poetry as a form of religious language.” 

walt-whitman-wikipediaFrom Wikipedia:Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Although the first edition was published in 1855, Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing Leaves of Grass, revising it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first, a small book of twelve poems and the last, a compilation of over 400.”

But enough of me. Read David E. Anderson’s review here.


4.
From my “I Love Quotes” Department:

‘I get tired of God getting credit for all the things the human race achieves.’
– Lorraine Hansberry, “Raisin in the Sun” (words ascribed to Beneatha)


5.  
“The purpose of life is not to be happy – but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.”
     – Leo Rosten, “The Myths by Which We Live”

6.   Ricky Gervais – Religion Explained in Two Minutes.

We should not be pushing religion on children. That may sound shocking at first, especially if you were brought up going to religious services every week as a child. But listen to his logic. 

 

7.  The following title made no sense to me until I read this short article. Grief and mourning is something we all deal with, both the religious and the non-religious. You may have never thought about it, but we all lose family and friends and we need to find ways to deal with it.

 

8. “When I Think Of Death”– Maya Angelou

“When I think of death, and of late the idea has come with alarming frequency, I seem at peace with the idea that a day will dawn when I will no longer be among those living in this valley of strange humors. 
I can accept the idea of my own demise, but I am unable to accept the death of anyone else. 
I find it impossible to let a friend or relative go into that country of no return. 
Disbelief becomes my close companion, and anger follows in its wake.
I answer the heroic question ‘Death, where is thy sting? ‘ with ‘ it is here in my heart and mind and memories.'”


9.  On Being 72

Mark_Twain_Tonight_Album_CoverToday I’m actually 72!

I grew up in Columbus, OH, and when I was 18 or so, I transcribed a track from the 1959, 33- rpm Broadway album of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight. I had performed in ten plays while in high school, several times playing old men. I had my old geezer voice perfected. Therefore, it did not seem out of character for me to mimic Mr. Holbrook’s version of the famous Twain speech.  I made my own recording of “How to be 70” on a small reel-to-reel audio tape ( I wish I still had that recording). That was one of two audition recordings I sent to a performing arts college in San Diego, CA, hoping to get accepted. Although San Diego was way out there on the left coast, I had visited my aunt and uncle there and various relatives several times, so I was not worried about leaving Columbus at all. I loved California and surfing life. I have to admit that I never surfed myself. My cousin Mike did.  I figured I’d try it if I got back out there again (and got the nerve). My bag was packed and waiting by the front door. I received the acceptance letter and I was thrilled. Then I read a little further in the letter. They offered me a “1/2” scholarship. Trouble was, my Dad had been out of work for an extended illness and my parents couldn’t afford the other “1/2.” So long Southern California, Hollywood, and the beach. So long slick new cool surf board (not). Anyway, it was heartening to learn that somebody was willing to pay me to act. Kinda. At least “1/2” worth.

I learned so much about acting from Hal Holbrook, and so much about timing. He also taught me a lot about Mark Twain.

So even though I’m two years past 70 now, I could listen to masterful Mr. Holbrook play Mark Twain any day of any year. Enjoy.

Mark Twain Tonight – How to be 70 (couldn’t find the video, but here’s the audio)

 

10. Here are two clips. One is from a Mark Twain Tonight performance by Hal Holbrook. The other is Michael Eisner ( the Disney guy) talking to Hal Holbrook at 90.

 

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Encouragement to Keep Living

Encouragement to Keep Living
by Ron Steelman
3-23-18


In my last two posts I highlighted the Principles of Humanism. As an actor, writer, director, and producer, my entire life has been all about creativity. So, it’s probably not a surprise that I have cherry-picked these two Humanist principles out of the list to begin this post:

◊ We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.

◊ We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.



Who Is Austin Kleon?

My musician/artist brother, Scott, introduced me to Austin’s book, “Steal Like An Artist.” But today I’m dying to tell you how much I am enjoying his weekly newsletters. They are packed with many links and comments about art and creativity and books and films and music and, and, and, and. When it arrives I happily find numerous things that intrigue me. 

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Austin Kleon

Kleon is an artist/writer who lives in Austin, Texas. . .in the same neighborhood where that insane terrorist (locally bred) put a number of deadly bombs in places so that people would get killed. He did and they did. Clearly, Kleon and his family are still quite shaken.

The link that caught my eye in Kleon’s newsletter this week was simply the word, “Bach.” I was curious because his newsletters are filled with surprises, so I clicked it to see where it would take me. Taa-Dah! It was his short essay about dealing with all the violence we face in life, and about how the beauty of Bach’s music gives him hope.

Kleon closes with, “Artists like Bach do us the greatest service of any true artist: they give us encouragement to keep living, to keep going.”

I have no idea if Austin is at all religious or even a humanist. That doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that I believe human creativity is in all of us. Austin is extremely creative. Your creativity can manifest itself in many different ways. And this is very important, your creativity is not “a God-given talent.” It is simply a facet of your humanity. It is not magic, and yet it is magical.

At the end of Austin’s essay is a video with pianist James Rhodes that you must watch. I almost quit right after the music, but you mustn’t do that. Rhodes gives a little pitch saying that you too can learn to play Bach. He also describes the beauty of Bach’s music, why it is so beautiful, and why it makes him so happy. And it worked. Bach and Rhodes made me happy as well.

Austin Kleon’s “Prelude”

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Humanist Poetry?

Humanist Poetry?
By Ron Steelman
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I said, “Why are we doing this?”

Brother Scott said, “It’s just a gift, that’s all.”

I liked the simplicity of that. Even though I’m a devout skeptic, I couldn’t find any reason to object.

Scott said, “You pick some of the poems from the book, the ones that speak to you, and record them. Send the files to me and I’ll score some background music. We’ll put them
on a CD by Thanksgiving and Paul will take it to his dad, the poet, up in Woodstock, New York.”

I selected the poems I liked, rehearsed, and then recorded them — sitting in my pantry with beach towels masking the food on three sides. It makes a good sound booth with dead air, perfect for recording.

As I read the poems they made me think about how universal the human experience is. These poems were not my poems, yet they seemed to dig down and explore aspects of the human spirit to which we all can relate. These poems have nothing to do with secular humanism, but they have everything to do with being human. This isn’t a naive revelation about poetry, but rather a reminder to me that Humanism espouses the arts. The human creativity involved in this project is a demonstration of that philosophy.

The following statements are from  Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles. Whenever I read through the Affirmations I linger over these two statements, pondering my life, much of it spent in the arts:
“• We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
• We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.”

My response is always, “Yes, yes, yes, Arts change lives!” The more we experience music, dance, theater, poetry, literature, art — the more we come to realize that we are all one.  As Humanists:
“• We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.”

Paul read two of his father’s poems. Scott read one. Plus, Scott introduced the text-to-voice character, the irreverent Glot Schpeilman. Bob’s poetry will never be the same.

Scott’s skillful musical scoring frames these poems, carefully supporting every word. His music is not background music, but rather, something called “magic.”

Enjoy.

CD Label

Turn up your speakers and play here.


CD Tracks

Life’s Little Miracles

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I frequently read articles about theater and music. I can’t help it. These particular arts have been such a major part of my life that I continue to study and learn and enjoy them whenever possible. They’re in my DNA.

In a New York Times article by Patrick Healy (and I’m quoting freely here) I read about “actor George Lee Andrews, a Guinness World Record holder for the most performances in the same Broadway show: 23 years in The Phantom of the Opera (9,382 performances).” Yet he was shocked when the powers that be “at Phantom revealed that they were not extending his six-month contract, which had been renewed more than 40 times before. Even though George was still at the top of his game, the producers said they just wanted some ‘new blood to strengthen the show for an indefinite commercial run.’”

Most Broadway shows rarely make it to the 1-year mark, so his 23-year run was a phenomenal anomaly. However, the coda of the story is one of life’s little miracles. “George’s sting of leaving the show was greatly lessened when he learned the name of his replacement: Aaron Galligan-Stierle, 31, a New York stage actor who, as fate would have it, is his son-in-law.” George may have even claimed this was a miracle. Or he might have said that this was ‘meant to be.’ I hope not. I’ll have to ask him.

Actually, life simply happens. There are good things, bad things, and a whole heap of stuff in-between. We try to control it all as best we can, but life has a way of expressing itself with or without our consent. When we hit the jackpot there’s a natural tendency for us humans to want to thank someone or something for our gift. We are so superstitious that our imagination begins to work overtime, perhaps concluding that maybe this gift was a reward for something we did right. And if a bad thing happens, we want to find someone else to blame. Often it’s god. Other times we blame it on imaginary villains, or even an object. That’s humans!

I ran across another heart-warming story, this one on National Public Radio. It was an interview with Gerald Wilson, who at the age of 93 was about to release his latest album. Wilson is a giant of jazz who has written for and played with the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Carter, and many more. On this album he’s joined by his son, Anthony Wilson, and grandson, Eric Otis, who are also composers and musicians.

Otis and Gerald Wilson first began working together when the latter’s eyesight started failing and he needed help transcribing his compositions. Soon Otis starting arranging on his own and this led to Wilson and his prodigious Gerald Wilson Orchestra releasing a new album called, Legacy, including arrangements by Wilson’s son…and grandson. What a joy it must be for them to have three generations in their family collaborating to make beautiful music.

Observation, reason, and experience suggest that there is no supernatural deity to thank when good things happen to us. As Shakespeare said, it’s simply “Giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel.” Or as he said in All’s Well That Ends Well:

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven. . .”

The ‘good luck’ examples I’ve cited are light-weight, feel-good events. Not all events are good. And when bad things happen, the blame game begins. Many fix the blame based upon their understanding of their god. For example, after 9/11 Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that “god may have allowed what the nation deserved because of the moral decay caused by the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays, and the People For The American Way.” Really?

It’s hard for many people to accept that it’s simply nature, the natural world that is influencing our lives. But humans panic and fear that if there is no god pulling the strings, life will be turned into some sort of random chaos. The truth is there are seemingly random acts of nature that we can’t explain. However, they are actually triggered by some natural law. . .or by some living creature. Yes, we’re including humans here, who are a part of the natural world. As we increase our knowledge of the natural world, perhaps fewer and fewer events will be ascribed to the supernatural.

We humans want to be in control and/or believe that we have the cell phone number for whoever runs life on our little planet. I do not believe that supernatural deities exist, let alone claim control over our lives. I have come to this opinion because of the overwhelming lack of evidence to the contrary and because there are thousands of religions, each with a god their adherents claim is the one and only TRUE god. This gives one pause.

Life’s good luck and bad luck isn’t dished out by a supernatural deity. Natural phenomena are is the cause and the events that occur are not miracles, not supernatural. The hardest thing for us is to understand that it’s not PERSONAL. Nature doesn’t have our names. We are simply a part of this natural world, a fabulous ever-changing world. To me, that is miracle enough.

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