Art & Basketball

Before the Final Four, VCU was mostly known in the art, advertising and medical space. Sure, it didn’t make for much of a retort in a gathering of university students (“So what if our football team doesn’t exist?! We create art things!!!”), but it’s what I loved about it.

Group chants and rituals were foreign to me. I never understood the wonders of donning university clothes and, upon stumbling into a fellow Ram in a foreign land, taking part in acknowledgement: You, there, in that shirt that is similar to mine in color and origin that signifies our divergent yet shared experiences – you, my friend, rock.

The few times I got a taste of this elusive school spirit was with Hokie Nation, which I engaged in as a mere observer. I mimicked said chants and rituals, but they came from a detached place. Whenever I raised the ridiculousness of throwing away a perfectly good night after some sort of loss I couldn’t quite grieve, people simply said, “You just don’t understand.”

And I didn’t.

How could I? Blind sports fanaticism went against my very nature. I was always more into independent ventures than following the herds. While I loved certain things and ideas and people, I had no aversion to disagreeing when I felt it was warranted. In fact, I relished it.

Then came the Final Four. “Aren’t you excited?!” people asked. “The Rams made the Sweet 16.”

“What’s that?” I said.

More out of curiosity than school spirit, I tuned into this mysterious, saccharine-themed event. And there he was, this young super coach who oozed charisma. I, of course, was fascinated. I Wikipedia’d. And Googled. And read and read and read. It was a storyteller’s dream – the underdog who rallied a band of underdogs to conquer the mighty ones.

I was reminded of sports’ mystifying ways of bringing out the best and worst in us. And, perhaps more significantly, that nothing else is quite as unifying.

Suddenly, even in corners farther than the corner of my coast, people responded. No longer did I have to say, “Well, it’s in Richmond, which is about two hours from DC…” Instead, it was they who nodded: You there, with your affiliation to the university that spawned that wonderful run – you, my friend, rock.

They understood. And suddenly, so did I.

When I heard VCU was getting a contemporary art institute, I was pretty excited. I was even more excited that the architect was unveiling the design in an exhibit in New York. Last week, my roommate and I headed to the opening reception in Chelsea to check out the models and renderings.

I can’t quite articulate a building’s relationship with its environment like a true architecture nerd can. Nonetheless, I’m an admirer of design, shape and pretty things.

This, to me, says: Look at me, world. I am kind of rad.

It was so neat to have two of my worlds collide. In true creeper form, I eavesdropped on a conversation about Richmond and VCU between (I think) one of the architects and a woman. They talked about the city’s bars and restaurants and southerness.


This is me. Standing awkwardly after about four or five other awkward shots of me not knowing what to do with my hands, feet and, oh I don’t know, face. I am officially terrible at this.

This is Leah, officially not terrible at this. When she asked me to explain this Forking Time thing, I proceeded to read aloud the text on the page. She wasn’t impressed. (Note: This picture was taken at another exhibit.)

This is us, together. Behold our magical feet.

And away we went, gallery hopping into the night.

 Photo credit for watercolor: Steven Holl Architects
More art institute goodness here

Advertisements

The Patent & The Instagram

Credit: Geeks Are Sexy

Don’t think you are a photographer just because you use Instagram.

It’s one of those things people say to make things that aren’t quite so clear, well, clear. As if imposing boundaries on the boundless adds certainty. As if the world were black and white. As if everything needs its own place, its cubby, its designated compartment. This way, the world makes sense.

Which does help explain some of life’s great mysteries. But not completely.

Take intellectual property, for example. When I tell people I write about intellectual property law, their eyes glaze over, they politely nod and smile, and say, “Cool!” Cool. Cool said in the way I’d say cool if someone told me their hair stayed curly much longer today than yesterday, all thanks to this new hairspray they’re trying because it’s personally endorsed by The Hair Queen of Hairdonia.

Cool.

But it’s OK. I would have said something similar just a year or two ago. I mean, I never once thought, “Gosh, when I grow up I want to become a journalist and write about patents and copyrights! Yayayayaya!” After all, intellectual property on its surface is this weird, enigmatic thing. It’s intimidating and scary. It’s amorphous and complex.

We ordinary humans take intellectual property and say: I am putting you in my amorphous and complex cabinet, only to be opened on desperate occasions, like that time I ran out of sugar so I finally opened that hard-to-reach cabinet over the fridge to check if it happened to have sugar because risking food poisoning made more sense than putting on five layers to go outside.

The dictionary doesn’t help either. Merriam-Webster takes intellectual property and says: It is a “property (as an idea, invention or process) that derives from the work of the mind or intellect; also: an application, right or registration relating to this.”

So, let me get this straight. Intellectual property is property of the intellectual kind? Obviously, Merriam and Webster stayed home from school the day they went over how you’re not supposed to use the words you’re defining when you’re defining them.

But all is not lost. Let’s break it down, Will Smith styles.

This is the story all about how
My understanding of intellectual property got flip- turned upside down

OK, I can’t explain IP in rap.

Let’s break it down. Karen styles.

Let’s start with the patent, because it’s a major part of IP and it’s pretty damn old. (How old? Yo patent’s so old, it was filed before Abe Lincoln’s patent.)

I could talk at length (Actually, no I can’t. Don’t make me) about Article One, Section 8, of the US Constitution:

The Congress shall have power…To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

With this, Congress said: Let there be the patent system!

People like to create almost as much as people like to freeload. The patent protects the innovators from the moochers.

It also gives people an incentive to create stuff by granting them the exclusive use of their inventions for a limited time. In the US, it’s 20 years. So, for those 20 years, no one can use someone else’s patented invention, unauthorized, and profit from it. After the patent expires, the findings of that invention enter public domain, and anyone can use them to innovate. Basically, it’s one generation’s gift to the next.

Simple enough, right? This makes intellectual property less amorphous. There are now cubbies.

Intellectual property is the invention. The patent protects it. Anyone who profits from the invention without permission is infringing the patent. The very smartphone you’re reading this on is likely covered by thousands of them.

So, let’s say someone takes an iPhone, replicates it and passes it off as a new product. That’s infringement. But let’s say someone sells a smartphone covered by its own set of patents that cover its own set of features similar to a set of features also covered by an entirely different set of patents for the iPhone.

What is that?

Other than the subject of ongoing major litigation, it’s also the gray area. And the grays are the really interesting part. The grays defy a simple definition. Because one person’s definition of what constitutes infringement may not mesh with your definition of what constitutes infringement. These various, often conflicting definitions of infringement are what’s plaguing Googlebooks, SOPA/PIPA and, many would argue, the progress of science and the arts.

So, while definitions help us understand things better, they don’t cover everything. Some things don’t belong in neat little cubbies. Maybe they belong in more than one.

Even worse than an incomplete definition is a misguided one, like when people define an enigmatic concept by using the wrong words (at least Merriam and Webster used the right ones). This is what’s happening with the Instagram. It’s an attempt to define a photographer by the tool she uses. Which is fine, if you’re part of that “REAL photographers use silver on a copper plate with their bare hands, just like Daguerre did in 1839!” set.

But my definition of what makes a photographer is not their definition of what makes a photographer. Because in my definition, a photographer isn’t defined by the camera she uses but by how she uses it.

***

In the beginning, there was the camera. Scientists, mathematicians and astronomers used it for scientific, mathematical, astronomyish purposes.

The artists, as artists tend to do, took that contraption and made things look cool. And I’m not talking Hair Queen of Hairdonia cool; I’m talking Gladwell wrote a bunch of interesting books connecting seemingly unrelated concepts, got them illustrated and repackaged into a boxed (My birthday’s coming up!) set cool.

But these things didn’t look cool because of the camera. Had the camera not been invented, I’m sure these artists would have come up with some other cool ways to express themselves. Like, I don’t know, paint or sing or string together household objects emulating sea creatures and hang them from the ceiling. Or something.

Luckily, Ansel Adams didn’t have to resort to bioluminescent installations (Notably, he was a musician in his youth. A world sans camera might have led him to pursue music instead), because the commercially made camera made it possible for more people to do with it whatever they wanted to do. Just like smaller film cameras did, the lower priced ones did, the SLR, the DSLR, the point and shoot, and the camera phones did (and do).

What hasn’t changed is what makes a good picture.

It’s easy to say that a photographer is someone who knows how to use a DSLR or develop his own film, because they come with tangible measurements. The photographer, this suggests, knows how to let in a little more light, speed up the shutter speed and adjust this or that to produce the desired result. There’s a bit of math, craft, science, mechanics involved.

But a great part of creativity, and that’s what I’m really talking about here, is intuitive. There’s curiosity, the feeling, the story, the eye, the connection to the reader, the viewer, the listener.

And communicating that doesn’t require supercalifragilistic lenses. I’ve seen people take terrible pictures with awesome cameras.

People get enamored with the intricacies of things, as if the more buttons and complications something has, the more impressive their abilities. I liken it to a writer adding fluff to a sentence, as if the longer it is and the bigger the words, the better delivered the message.

But see, all that is nothing without the idea. Once you reach a certain level of competence, what sets you apart is the story you tell. A writer with perfect grammar, a MacBook and nothing to say will always be trumped by the slightly flawed writer with a notepad and insight. A photographer with a great camera but no perspective produces a nice picture that says nothing.

In this ever evolving world, where a picture, a song, a movie can be produced and shared in ways only previously imagined, the challenge is in producing a quality product when there are fewer places to hide.

Of increasing importance is the intangible, the thing that’s hard to define. It’s what will always set a work of art apart from a work of technical brilliance.

This is part of a series of posts about PROBAATD, an overly broad project in which the only guidelines are that it involves a book, a list, a blog. This particular entry came from spurts of random thoughts brought on by the book of the moment, “Steve Jobs.”

Writing & Drawing from Life Abroad

The months leading up to graduating from college are kind of terrifying.

I, ever the wise one, decided to do it in a different country.

In January 2007, I threw my stuff into a suitcase (in 30 minutes, I kid you not), said goodbye to my weeping parents and spent my last semester of college abroad.

I skipped the rituals that typically go along with the end of something: the final look at my surroundings right before it all gets quiet, and I leave with my husband and children only to return upon remembering to take down the family portrait above the mantle and, with a bite of my lip, turn on my heels and close the door[1].

I missed a lot of things that spring, including my graduation. But I didn’t care. For the first time, I was going to be away from home for a long time (I lived at home in college), and it didn’t involve toiling away in rural Virginia.

There’s an abundance of romanticism that goes along with living abroad. Some hope it will involve a tall, dark, dashing Spaniard (or the –ish –ench –an equivalent of whatever appropriate country) ready to whisk them away from their mundane existence. Some think it will involve lots of booze, lots of dancing the night away, lots of beaching and the incredible mastery of a language they formerly only knew in relation to where the bathroom was or how much something cost.

There can be that, yes, but – and this is the part revisionists neglect to disclose – there’s quite a bit of loneliness, too.

There’s the alienation of being somewhere that doesn’t eat, speak, celebrate or dream in the only way you know how. There’s the lack of people who get you in a way that doesn’t need explanation or polish or fakery. There’s the rude awakening of getting to know a version of yourself you never knew existed and, now that you do, don’t like.

And, if you’re me, there’s the culture shock of being around people who are used to money, spending it, and are in pursuit of travel not so they could learn the culture of the country they’re in, but to be able to say they’ve been there.

I, for the most part, didn’t fit in.

There weren’t too many people like me in that group. When I say that, I mean people who were born and spent much of their childhood in a third world country, moved to the Bronx and at some point lived in a studio with the family, and got into college probably because of the special your-siblings-go-here-so-I-guess-you-can-too loophole.

To put it simply, it was quite a leap. The disparity dawned on me pretty quickly within my first days there.

On one of our guided tours, a few of us headed over to an ATM  before eating at a restaurant somewhere. I checked my balance: $1,000.

That should last me a while, I thought, totally relieved.

“Don’t you hate that feeling…” said a guy from our group, who apparently had been hovering over me, “… when your balance is low?”

I think I uttered a sheepish response of agreement and withheld my bewilderment.

The next few months were going to be interesting.

In spite of it, or perhaps because of it, the experience really changed my life. I ended up making friends with people within the program who did get me, friends outside the program from around the world, and sometimes even scrounged up enough money to venture elsewhere. I eventually learned that that guy and the others were actually good people who just happened to exist in an entirely different world from mine.

And ultimately, wasn’t that the kind of out-of-comfort-zone experience I was looking for?

Afterward, I felt like I could do anything. It’s partly why moving to New York was never as daunting as it could have been. It’s also why I recommend that kind of discomfort-oriented introspection for anyone in search of something more.

Below, I’ve posted snippets of entries I made in my paper journal during that semester.

Inspired by this book (the source of the image above), I even drew a little. I had no sense of scale or proportion, shape, shading or realism, and I never did learn how to draw a straight line.

Don’t laugh.

***

February 11 | Barcelona
Waiters here are so rude sometimes. I’m sitting in a cafe on Las Ramblas — the hub of touristy things. The menu is only in Catalan (no Spanish), so I had no idea what’s on the menu. I went only for the pictures, and they didn’t even have that.

“Solo jamon!”
“Solo jamon!”

The tables nearby gawked at me, and I could feel them silently thinking they were glad they weren’t me.

March 13 | Villa Olimpica
I realized I was silently critical; I always find fault in others, possibly to deflect criticism from myself. So, as I sit on the beach marinating in the sun, soaking up this beautiful environment, I’m debating whether to be silently critical on paper. Or maybe I should just acknowledge my flaws and accept people for what they are. But that’s not what journals are for, are they?

March 14 | Arc de Triomf
My trip is already halfway over, and I can’t believe it. I still have so much to see of Barcelona; I want to see more of Spain. If only I had money, I would stay here the whole summer. Perhaps I’ll take a creative sabbatical and live in a foreign country for a few months. Who says I can’t, right?

March 26 | Sants (my neighborhood)
The hair salon is off Sants on a tiny street. It’s an interesting culture. My senora brought us just before it opened, and we were the first ones here. Soon enough, a legion of women came in. Old ladies kiss the hairdressers upon entering. They all seem to know each other.

April 1 | La Clandestina
Life’s nothing if you can’t share it with anyone who matters. That’s something I’ve learned while I’m here.

April 5 | Plaza de Espana, Seville
What I love about traveling is the people I meet along the way. In one night, we met someone who has hitchhiked through Spain, someone who won “Jeopardy” and someone who encountered Iraqi expatriates in Sweden and Scotland.

Boys have an easier time traveling. They can go anywhere and do anything with minimal fear of being abducted or raped. I’m sure that stuff happens to guys, but they’re not quite as vulnerable as girls. As I was sitting last night listening to everyone’s stories, I wished I had equally crazy ones of my own. Unfortunately, theirs involved traveling on foot at night in the middle of nowhere, asking strangers for rides and sleeping in random houses.

If I were to do that, well, let’s just say this would be an very short entry incomplete journal. This part would be quoted and deemed ironic: “Life imitates art!” But really, everyone thinks about it, so it’s not so ironic. It’s just that not everyone writes it down.

April 8 | On a bus from Seville to Barcelona
My trip ends with less than 10 euros in cash. I spent some last night at booths on the boardwalk and got two scarves, two necklaces, earrings, two bracelets for less than 30 euros. Not bad. They should be presents for friends, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to give them up[2]. I’m so glad I did Semana Santa my way. Just aimless routes, random encounters and many laughs. Best of all, void of guided tours and forced conversation.

April 11 | Barcelona
Last night, [my senora’s husband] said I was getting fat. His exact sentence I can’t remember, but it contained the phrases (in Spanish):

“She’s getting fat.”
“Turning into a square.”
“She should go on a diet.”

Needless to say, I was less than thrilled to sit across from him at dinner. His words turned into a Peanuts-like adult drawl. After some forced conversation and sitting through his rants about the value of the euro and the dollar, I excused myself from the table.

My roommate had to deal with him.

April 23 | Amsterdam
Amsterdam is such a neat place to live in. Bikes populate the city more than people. There’s a vibrant nightlife and a wealth of culture.

April 25 | Barcelona
The program ends in about two weeks. This experience has allowed me to grow up, think about myself and what I have to change about it. I’m a more experienced traveler now. I’ve grown increasingly independent from my parents, whom I still rely on financially (but I hope that will change soon). And I’ve learned to put it all in perspective. Everyone changes, but at a much faster rate when overseas and around 20 potential friends. High school never ends. And a little bit of positivity goes a long way.

I get home at the end of May and will have almost a month to get acclimated to the US, unpack, repack, move to Fredericksburg and get back into journalism.

I’ve missed the writing, the pace, the newsroom.

May 23 | Valencia
Locals tell me I speak Spanish well — the cab driver in Barcelona, the waiter in Valencia. Just imagine how much better I’d be in a year.

FOOTNOTES
[1] Relevant
[2] I wasn’t