20 January, 2016

One Jump: Barber Joins 6-Meter Club

What does it feel like to surpass a pole vault milestone?

In the 120-year history of the pole vault as an Olympic event, the first 6-meter (19' 8") clearance happened only 31 years ago, in 1985. Since then, a total of 18 vaulters had cleared the mark. With this jump, Canadian pole vaulter Shawnacy "Shawn" Barber became #19. And at age 21, Barber was also the youngest person ever to join the club.

First, though, let's take a step back…
The annual National Pole Vault Summit invites vaulters from around the world to unite, mingle, and compete under a single roof in Reno, Nevada. The Summit makes space for all skill levels, from brand new beginners, to elite competitors at the top of their games. The elite meets take place Friday evening, with most of the other meets following on Saturday.

At this point in the competition, Barber's last competitor, Seito Yamamoto, had exited the competition after failing to clear 5.83m. As the lone remaining vaulter, Barber could set the bar at whatever heights he wanted.

Having previously set a personal record of 5.93m, his first stop was 5.94m. After two close misses — his first misses of the competition, after clearing 5 heights on first attempts — he set a new P.R. on his third attempt at the height. So where do you go after 5.94m?
If you're Shawn Barber, you go to the back of the runway, sit down, drink some water, and look up at a 6-meter crossbar.
Then you stand up, decide which pole to grab, and get ready to go for it.
You run. Plant. Jump. Swing. Extend. Turn. Pike. Release…
One jump.
Then, after the arena has already erupted into cheers, applause, and shouts of disbelief, you celebrate. As people (this photographer included) marvel at what they've just witnessed, you spend some time with some of the people closest to you.
Barber was visibly bewildered for a moment as the flock of fans surrounded him, hoping for autographs, but came to his wits quickly. He hung around signing autographs, posing for pictures, chatting with people, and so on until the crowd had fully dispersed.
Then one of his former Akron Zips teammates sprung a surprise hug on him. What a day…

14 January, 2016

Ms. Lauryn Hill Breaks It Down in Brooklyn

"Yo, I'll be in NYC Jan 2nd through the 5th. Will you be around?"

"I should be around during then
"going to lauryn hill concert on 1/4 night tho

So it began simply enough. Just over a week later, I found myself trudging through Brooklyn in sub-freezing temperatures, with a windchill of -14°F, on my way to the concert. I made my way into Brooklyn Bowl, decided to skip the interminable-looking coat check line, and walked out into a dance floor that was already full with fans hoping to get close to the stage. After apologizing my way nearly to the front of the crowd, I finally found my friends. I dropped my giant nomadic-Omari bag on the floor, piled my heavy winter coat on top of it, and waited for the concert to start.

And waited.

And waited.

It was nearly an hour later when the opener, a DJ who was also a member of the band, came on stage. Despite the disappointing start to the evening, the DJ played all the right tunes to get the crowd hyped up and in a good mood, as we sang and chanted along to a bunch of classic songs.
A short while later, the rest of the band made an entrance, sat down, and started to play. I didn't realize it at the time, but the concert went by sections, starting with pieces off Lauryn's MTV Unplugged album, continuing into Miseducation, and concluding with songs from A Tribute to Nina Simone, all interspersed with singles from throughout her career.

For me, the "Unplugged" section came and went. The energy level started off fairly tame, and the production suffered from technical issues — instruments not in the monitors, Lauryn's acoustic guitars not getting any amplification at all, and so on. A rocky start.
At the end of the first section, most of the chairs were removed from the stage, including what I can only describe as Lauryn's throne. Fitting, of course, because Lauryn was clearly the Empress of the stage, and she ruled it with an iron fist.

This is when the magic began.

Part of the brilliance of Ms. Lauryn Hill is that she has a vision of how the performance should be, and through some combination of planning, improvisation, play-calling, and pure musical virtuosity, the concert becomes a manifestation of that vision.
The concert incorporated a lot of dancing on-stage. During instrumental interludes, Lauryn would often strut around the stage with her wireless mic, shaking her body to the beat, mopping her brow with a small towel, and quite visibly enjoying herself.

The scene reminded me of watching bands sweat in the sunshine atop speaker-laden flatbed 18-wheelers, dabbing themselves with already-dripping-wet towels while they played Carnival in Trinidad.

At one point she brought out a dancer who tore up the floor, arms akimbo, moving this way and that. When the dance slowed down, Lauryn jumped in and the two started trading dance moves. It was obvious that this concert was about culture and heritage just as much as it was about music.
She also had a plan for the support staff. She eventually worked out the issues with the sound folks on the fly, and she'd clearly had direct input on the visual theme as well. The band was constantly back-lit during the performance with strong, vibrant primary and secondary colors.

The spotlights came up for the dancer, and when they stayed on afterward, Lauryn pointed emphatically at the rear lights and admonished the person controlling the lights — "Come on. I told you. I feel like I'm on an examination table up here." I presume she wanted to feel like she was making music with Brooklyn, not just for us.
The best part, though, was her plan for the music. Or, more accurately, her plans. My most enjoyable moments throughout the concert were when she'd change up the musical arrangement for a familiar song as the band was playing.

She'd wave her hand and the horns would quiet down. "Where's my keys?", she'd ask, and there they'd be. Hearing multiple different variations, live and on the gallop, of songs that I had grown up with blew my mind. Hearing the arrangements shift effortlessly from bass-and-guitar-heavy jam, to stripped-down vocal harmony, to blaring-horns anthem was euphoric.
The waves of euphoria came more and more frequently as the concert continued. I remember moments when I realized that my voice was getting tired and raspy. That if I kept shouting my lungs out, I wouldn't have much of a voice left afterwards. And then the next song would come on, I'd think "OH NO THEY DIDN'T!", and I'd throw caution to the wind once more. Forward the light brigade.
After the band played their last song, nearly 3 continuous hours after their delayed start, we gave an already-standing ovation, and Lauryn returned to the stage to thank us for being present. Then, in an unusual twist, she mentioned that it was her little girl's birthday. After some encouragement her son Zion (subject of Lauryn's song "To Zion") brought his sister out on stage, and we all sang happy birthday.

Then she paused for a moment.

She turned to her son. "Why you still out here? You wanna do somethin'?" Turns out he did. Lauryn had the DJ cue up a phat beat, and Zion laid down an admittedly faltering and short-lived rap as an encore. Even so, it reinforced the sense of family and heritage that had permeated the evening.

And that was that. If you ever have a chance to see Ms. Lauryn Hill in concert, she's worth the wait.

28 December, 2015

Christina and Nate (People Making Cool Stuff)

"Home" is permeated by the culture and personality of the people who spend time there. My friends Christina and Nate have created a home that is unified, in part, by a shared love of food. And I'm thankful to have been fortunate enough to participate in that tradition.

This particular evening, they created a dinner based off a set of Indian food recipes. I subsequently interviewed them in an attempt to better understand their perspective on food, and how their love of food might influence other aspects of their lives.
While they continued cooking, I explored the kitchen looking for moments and for vignettes that might tell a little bit of their story. This scene seemed to fit the bill.

Nate would subsequently share that he often finds the food preparation process to be satisfying, and at times meditative, as he loses himself in what he called the "technicality of preparation." It's easy to ignore all else and focus on ingredients "until [they're] just right." "Sometimes after a stressful day at work, cooking helps me relax."
The ingredients were particularly important this time. This was Nate and Christina's third time trying to make this meal, but only the first time they were happy with the end product. "I got a feel for how to spot a bad recipe."

The key was to find recipes that called for, rather than avoided, traditional Indian ingredients that are uncommon in American cuisine. They pointed out methi leaves as one ingredient that made "all the difference" in their saag paneer.
Of course, strict adherence to recipes isn't always possible or necessarily beneficial. Christina and Nate often attempt to strike a balance between repetition and experimentation. And at times, necessity is the mother of innovation. Christina spent much of the time that I was present preparing naans, and then cooking them on a pizza stone in the oven — it's the closest thing they have to an actual tandoor.

They also experiment with flavors and ingredients. Nate emphasized the strategy of determining "what's important and what's flexible." "Which flavors can be compromised and which," like the methi leaves, "are essential."
Some of their experiments are motivated by the dietary preferences of their dinner guests. The dinner we had that particular evening was completely vegan. Some of their other dinners are gluten free. When it comes to parties, they told me "we like to challenge ourselves to new things that we don't usually eat."
As the interview continued, our discussion meandered toward experimental ingredients that they had tried, and some that they had yet to try. They had played with various different olive varieties, and were just starting to investigate mushroom varieties.

They paused to describe the candy cap mushroom. Strong hints of cinnamon and allspice, they explained, and the smell lingers in the kitchen, but changes over time. They were also considering asafoetida, a traditional Indian herb that elicited the descriptors "savory," "oniony," and "garlicky."

At this point, Christina and Nate's own experimental urges took hold of the discussion. How could you use both ingredients in a single dish? Maybe a curry? Hmm… Moroccan? Well, Moroccan does typically include a mix of savory, sweet, and spicy flavors…

Bon appetit

16 November, 2015

Poetry at Patreon

As some of you know, Patreon is a site that enables individuals to help support the content that they love. But more than a company, it's also a place and a group of people. Bay Area-based Patreon creators like myself were invited to visit the Patreon office last Tuesday for a poetry event, and I figured it would be nice to meet some of the folks who help me keep this photo blog up and running.

So that's how I found myself chatting with my benchmate Selena, who described the office "as if the word 'startup' threw up all over everything." But not in a bad way, she clarified. "I mean, it's nice, but…"

She was right, of course, but the venue seemed to fit the character of the event. While I was there to see Patreon, much of the audience had shown up for comedian/poet/performer Derrick Brown (pictured), along with his contemporaries Annelyse Gelman and Jason Bayani. Just prior to the event, I saw Brown duck away from seemingly-perpetual bouts of dancing to go do a handful of pullups on an exercise station that was tucked beneath an open air staircase.
"There are several ways to get 'got' in a city. The prime offense is to always be looking up."
Jason Bayani started off the evening with… I don't know… A poem? A feeling? A window to another world? Whatever it was, I loved it. The poem itself, "Kein / Muenchen," was the centerpiece of an experience that was some combination of visual and visceral. It didn't transport me to Munich, so much as transport the Munich experience back.

I mean, when I talked with Bayani beforehand, he avoided describing his poetry other than as "personal." I can see why. "Kein / Muenchen" was — is — a personal tale that reminds you of the ties between the physical aspects of a place and how it makes you feel to be there, looking up, because you just can't help it.

I caught up with benchmates Stephanie and Jeremy afterwards and they confirmed that the piece strongly recalled each of their own experiences visiting Munich in the past. You can find the poem online here, along with a short feature on Bayani.
Annelyse Gelman took the stage next. While also a poet — she and Bayani both have books published through Derrick Brown's poetry publication house, Write Bloody Publishing — her Tuesday evening performance was primarily a musical piece. What struck me was her ability to embrace mistakes.

Well… maybe not mistakes, really. But she took the kinds of sounds other people might make by accident, and she formed them into an intentional component of her music. And listening to it reminded me of the unconscious expectations that we form while listening to music, and that the right song can force us to recognize those biases, and to reconsider what "music" can sound like.
Derrick Brown was all over the place. In a good way. The energy that characterized his fidgeting before the show continued throughout, and he took us on a topsy-turvy journey through different kinds of feelings. Happy stories that were actually sad. Sad stories that ended up being funny. Confusing stories that somehow managed to offer deep revelations about human nature. It was all there. After the fact, Brown admitted to me that he loves playing with the audience's emotions and expectations.

For the bit in the photograph, Brown asked for volunteer couples who had been together for at least two years. He picked one and had them sit in front of the audience, facing us. He then described himself as a high-tech mind-reader, broadcasting the supposed inner thoughts of the two volunteers in an absurd, obviously-prefabricated monologue.

But in practice, he constructed a situation that allowed the couple to reveal actual aspects of their inner thoughts to each other, and to us. You could tell when the ridiculous monologue struck on an actual feeling because the couples' reactions would become momentarily sincere or vulnerable, amid all the laughter. "Uh-oh," you could see one think to themself. The situation also induced a heightened sense of empathy from the audience — I watched the couple closely, because it would be cruel to keep laughing during one of those fragile moments. The golden rule seemed to guide all of our behavior for those few minutes.
And more generally, throughout the performance, Brown displayed a masterful control of our behavior and reactions. When he wanted us to laugh, we convulsed with cackles and giggles and guffaws. The most ridiculous situation would be followed by the perfect one-liner, and we would just lose it. Then moments later, some new turn of events would demand our most grave consideration, and we would return to stoic silence, ears and eyes rapt with attention, hearts hoping.
After his final poem, Brown thanked our hosts, somehow uttered "let's all thank our DJ" with a mostly-straight face, and then cranked up the tunes again. People milled around, chatting with each other, meeting unfamiliar faces, and waiting in line for signatures.

In the somewhat raucous atmosphere, I was surprised to spot Gelman, perched atop a table that seems to embody the word "rustic," leafing through one of Brown's poetry books. Perhaps some of the best hiding spots are in plain sight.
Another unexpected contrast was between Brown himself — still, for once, despite the profusion of sound and music — and some fans who danced to the grooves as they jauntily waited for him to finish his painstakingly-careful inscription. Clearly, he was still in control.