In Part I of this post, I talked about some of the practical issues to be aware of when preparing a presentation. In Part II, I offered some ideas on structure, theme, connection, and research. Part III covered building and rehearsing your talk. So now what? Final preparations!
Being prepared lowers your stress level and centers your mind; so I recommend..
The night before: Save your talk to your computer/laptop in Keynote. Save it also as a PDF. It’s not a bad idea to save it in Powerpoint as well. Grab all three of those files and copy them to a thumb drive (along with any custom fonts you may have used in your presentation). Load up your bag with your laptop and thumb drive (don’t forget your laptop’s power supply). Put fresh batteries in your wireless presenter and place it, along with a spare battery, in your bag. It’s also a great idea to carry adapters to VGA and DVI (the most common input for projectors) as well as a 1/8″ stereo audio cable. Finally, make sure you bring a stack of business cards.
Check to make sure you have your client’s name and number in your phone, print directions to the venue (or better yet, program it into an app like Waze) and gather all your gear in one place.
Think about your wardrobe. Dressy? Casual? Consider the client, the attendees, and the venue and choose accordingly. Pay attention to the details as you select what you’ll be wearing, along with all the accessories. Now get some sleep!
The next day, leave plenty of time for traffic. Use the time in your car to review your talk, mentally; listen to music, or take the opportunity to just be silent. When you arrive at the venue, meet up with your contact and go through the technical details.
Lecterns: Many people use a lectern as a crutch; something to lean on or hide behind. The more your audience sees of you, the more they will trust you. If at all possible, don’t use a lectern. If you’re participating in a panel discussion, use directors chairs instead of sitting behind a table (obviously, this needs to be requested in advance) as a table acts as barrier between you and your audience.
Microphones: You may have a choice between a lapel mic or a wireless handheld mic. A handheld gives you something to occupy your hands, but a mic in one hand and a wireless presenter in the other can get clunky. A lapel mic leaves your hands free to gesture. This comes down to whatever you’re most comfortable using. Get wired up and talk for a bit while the audio tech sets a level. Remember that from this point on, you are wearing a microphone that is ON; even if it’s not being fed to the speakers. Be careful about what you say.
Laptop/Keynote: Once your laptop is connected (or your Keynote is loaded onto the venue’s computer), grab your wireless presenter and click through the slides. If you have audio or video built into the Keynote, make sure it works and is at a good level.
If you’re using your own laptop, turn your screensaver off, and exit your email & messaging apps. The last thing you need during your talk is for it to be interrupted by the sound of an email or text arriving.
Just before your talk: Prepare your body by stretching a little, prepare your mouth with a few vocal exercises, use the restroom, and grab a bottle of water to drink during your presentation. Turn off your phone before going onstage (unless you’re using it as your wireless presenter, then silence all apps).
Hit the stage: Once you’re on stage, all of this preparation and rehearsal should pay off in a polished performance. Pace yourself, pay attention to the audience’s responses, and R E L A X.
After the talk: Gather your stuff and thank your host and any of the folks who assisted in making your talk successful. You did it!
Today, the first day of spring, is also Arts Advocacy Day. In case you’ve missed it, the arts and humanities are on the chopping block in the proposed federal budget.
It comes as no surprise to anyone reading this that I’m a huge advocate for the arts. I found this link incredibly useful in that it offers a variety of ways to reach out, respectfully and thoughtfully, to your representatives. Your reps (remember, they work for US) need to hear from you regarding your opinion on matters that important to you.
If being in band shaped you into a better math student (and it probably did – they’re closely related); if being in theatre helped you overcome a fear of speaking in public; if sculpting helped you decide to become a mechanical engineer – then you benefited from an arts education.
If a play made you think, or a dance made you feel, or a painting made you question, or a symphony made you weep – then you have been touched by the arts.
If those things are important to you, your family, your children, your community, our culture and society, I urge you to connect with your elected representatives and explain specifically WHY it’s important that the arts remain a part of the federal budget.
There are a variety of links on the page that explain in greater detail what I’m talking about. Click on each one to gain a greater understanding of how the federal money is distributed, used, and matched.
In Part I of this post, I talked about some of the practical issues to be aware of when preparing a presentation. In Part II, I offered some ideas on structure, theme, connection, and research. Now lets talk about building and rehearsing your presentation.
Keynote/Powerpoint or no? Your first decision is whether you even need this element. Consider your audience, consider your ideas, and then remember the old chestnut that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. It’s a cliche but it’s true. Powerful images can allow audiences to connect to your idea more quickly and to recall it with greater clarity later.
However, if your primary reason for using Keynote is to “snazz things up”, please reconsider. Visual aids should be deployed to reinforce your ideas, to provide visual cues to your audience, and to illustrate key concepts. If your material allows you to accomplish those goals without visuals, then Keynote may be an unwelcome distraction.
I’ve had numerous discussions with colleagues about the “best” ways to use Keynote and virtually everyone says the same thing (keep it simple, don’t rely on animation, don’t fill the page up with text and don’t just read the slides). These are all good points so I’ll take them in order.
Keep it simple. YES. Think of the most powerful speakers you’ve ever heard. Chances are, the words they used were carefully chosen for clarity. Your images and page design should do the same. Your audience must understand your point; select images and words that communicate your idea with simplicity. If you have complicated information to convey, either simplify it in an infographic style or include it in handout materials.
Don’t rely on animation. Wise words, indeed. Every now and then, a little bit of text, picture, or slide animation is welcome. Consider how the animation is used. Does it support the ideas you’re presenting? Is it a button to your speech? Can it be used humorously? The point here is to use a light hand with animation effects. They shouldn’t distract the audience from you or the point you’re making.
Don’t fill the page up with text. This goes along with keeping it simple. Presenters who do this seem to think of Keynote as a way to display their notes. It’s not. Either memorize your text or use notecards; just don’t fill the screen with all the words that should be in your head. When people are distracted by reading every word on your slide, they’re not concentrating on you and your message.
Don’t just read the slides. This is death by a thousand paper cuts for an audience. You are there to make a point, tell a story, and engage the audience. You can’t do that by rattling off a list they can read on a handout later. Take a look at the slide below for a typical corporate presentation.
Now try this: For each point, eliminate all the unnecessary words. Arrange those words on the page in an interesting way. You’ll find that your image is more striking and your point is more clear. This would be the uncluttered version:
The main points are clear, and the design even allows the presenter to visually represent that their three goals are interconnected (ah…corporate America…).
Using a key word or image creates a visual prompt. The prompt helps you remember your story (and your point) that you’ve memorized and rehearsed. It also helps your audience recall information after the talk.
To the above points, I’ll add the following:
Cite your sources.If you cite statistics, cite the source. I typically use a smaller, italicized font to indicate my source. That allows your audience to see it’s a verified source without adding visual clutter to the slide.
Similarly, give credit for the images you use. Obtain the photographers/artists name, if possible, and credit them accordingly (by adding their name in a small, italicized font in the lower corner of the image).
Rehearse. Rehearsal will allow you to gauge the length and pacing of your talk; and is your opportunity to experiment with delivery and timing. Even if you know your core material inside-out, rehearsing your talk will put you at ease with the presentation itself. During rehearsal, you may discover that slides need to move around in order to establish your ideas more effectively; or that the order of your most important points are better delivered in a different way.
The quantity of rehearsal may vary with your talk (more rehearsal for a new talk, less for one you’ve given previously). I recommend rehearsing several times, making quick adjustments as needed, then setting the material aside for a few days. This gives you time to think (between sessions) about cadence, tone, and pace. After you’ve made adjustments (rearranged or cut slides, re-ordered talking points, etc), circle back and rehearse several more times.
You may benefit from having a quiet place to rehearse; free from distraction. It’s helpful if you can do this in front of a mirror. Set up your laptop with the first slide ready to go and begin. This may feel a little ridiculous at first. Don’t worry, it’ll pass. During your rehearsal, listen to your voice: Are you varying your tone and speed? Experimenting with emphasizing different words or phrases? Looking for ways to engage audience interaction? Watch your movement: What are your hands doing? Are you standing straight, but comfortably? Be conscious of your voice and your body; audiences pay attention to both. Practice operating the wireless presenter (that’s the device that forwards each of your slides remotely) and making the timing of your delivery to match your slides. Feel free to stop and start. When you stumble, try to figure out the root cause of your stumble. Too wordy? Weird slide transition? Fix it and move on. Your final rehearsal should be start-to-finish without stopping, as if you were actually presenting to your audience.
The key here is to rehearse enough to that you’re prepared to speak, with a solid grasp on your material, but not SO rehearsed that you come across as an automaton.
Alright, you’ve collected your images and words, you’ve built your presentation and rehearsed it. Whew. Lot of work isn’t it? Yeah it is – good presentations take time to create. But now comes the payoff. In the next post, I’ll talk you through the day of your presentation.
In Part I of this post, I covered some of the practical issues in preparing for a presentation. Now that you know when and where you’re speaking AND what you’re speaking about, it’s time to begin collecting your thoughts, words, and images.
Consider theme. Most of the talks I give are meant to be inspirational, as opposed to informational so I tend to start by thinking thematically. Recently, I was asked to speak to high school students about the importance of arts in education. I knew I wanted to include a personal story, given that I have received the benefits of arts programs; and I knew I wanted to include a few statistical examples that reinforced the overall point of arts education. After some thought, I landed on a theme of creativity since that is common to all arts classes. My story and my data both spoke to the importance of arts education to those who pursue and (perhaps more importantly) do not pursue the arts; and how it improves their overall education (and aptitude in non-arts subjects). Having an overarching theme allows you to connect seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive presentation. You don’t have to put your theme in the title; in fact, no one even has to know you have one. It’s simply a tool to help guide you in assessing whether or not all of your points fit under one “big idea”.
Along with theme, consider your point of view. Audiences respond to speakers who know their subject and, perhaps more importantly, are passionate about their subject. Infuse your presentation with words and thoughts that originate in your core. If your words are rooted in conviction and reinforce your points, you will deliver them in a more genuine, honest way. Otherwise, your audience may sense you’re being disingenuous which will cause them to disengage.
Create structure. People are story-based. We crave a beginning, middle, and end. You can insure that you deliver on this by carefully considering your presentation in the context of your theme. Typically this involves presenting a point, providing illustrative information that reinforces the point, then referencing it back to your larger theme before moving onto your next point.
There are several ways to create your structure. Analytical, logical types may want to start with an outline in a word program. Others might choose to create mind maps. I actually prefer to work in Keynote. Many presenters believe this is a bad idea, because it can place too much emphasis on “snazzy visuals” instead of content (and it can, so beware). My work, however, inherently relies on relaying concepts in a visual way so I find “thinking” in Keynote to be very helpful. I usually start with a theme/title page, then create pages for each of my points and fill in some preliminary information. This forces me to stick to my point when I’m putting info on the page. I can instantly see whether or not it fits on that page or should move to another. It’s essentially an outline built in Keynote, but it works for me. Your approach can also depend on the style of presentation. Experiment with a few different approaches and use what works best for your style.
Create connection. People also crave connection. Anyone can stand up and read stats from a slide. Make your presentation personal by sharing a story that illustrates your point (bonus points if its humorous and allows people to see themselves in a similar situation). Take a look at this video on TED. In it, Sir Ken Robinson establishes his points, but then goes further by telling several compelling stories that illustrate his ideas; some are about other people, some are about him or his family. What stories do is open a window between the audience and speaker, allowing the audience to see themselves (or someone they know) in these stories; creating a connection. This brings the audience closer to the storyteller and makes it easier for them to digest the ideas the speaker is presenting.
Collect your visuals. Eventually, you’ll need to start gathering all of your images. I’m primarily motivated and moved by visuals; so I allow a lot of time to browse for images and video that support my subject.
You’ll create a folder for your talk. In it, create a subfolder for notes, another for images, and another for video. Then search through your own files and the internet, remembering that this exercise is all about volume. It’s okay to harvest a LOT of images. You’ll edit later (more on that in part II).
Go for striking, uncluttered, high-contrast images because those tend to read best from far away AND can be seen clearly even when the projector is dim or low-quality. Steer clear of the banal and the literal. You want the visual to support your idea, not bludgeon the audience with its obviousness. To that end, don’t be afraid to be abstract or whimsical.
Collect high-resolution images (aim for 1920×1080 minimum). Crop out any extraneous or distracting details. Rename the file to something that is easy for you to remember or locate quickly; and place all of the files in your respective folders.
One last point on visuals. Someone went to the effort to create the visuals that you find so wonderful. Be an awesome human and give them credit. The easiest way to remember the creator is to put the credit info in the file name; but the best way is to right-click on the image and fill out the meta-data (using Properties on PC or Get Info on Mac). Both platforms provide editable fields, allowing you to enter the creators name and other info, along with tags to make it searchable.
So now you have your thoughts together, an outline made, and a collection of images and video. What’s next? Part III will cover creating your visual presentation and rehearsing. Part IV will cover presentation day.
I’ve been giving a lot of presentations recently. Some of these are pitches at work; others are talks at various conferences for a variety of audiences. After nearly a decade of talking to groups of people, I thought I’d revisit some of my favorite sources of inspiration to prepare for a recent round of presentations.
First stop was TED. TED is known for Ted Talks, of course. These inspiring, instructive, illuminating presentations set the bar for public speaking long ago and continue to be a major source of inspiration. What I take from these is the appearance of ease with which these presenters conduct themselves. Watching these talks is the antidote to so many of the presentations we’ve all seen: presenters getting lost in their notes, not making eye contact with their audience, and mumbling their way through a plodding slideshow of poorly-prepared content.
I also re-read “Resonate” by Nancy Duarte. She does a wonderful job of talking through each step of presenting; and her advice on “story” is peerless.
But, while crafting my two latest talks, I was asked by a colleague what MY process was. I’ve given that some thought and have decided to cover the answers to that question in a multi-part post; the first of which covers the initial stages.
Chances are, if you’ve been asked to talk, it means you have demonstrated a high level of understanding or mastery of a certain subject, a willingness to share your knowledge, and (hopefully) an engaging way of speaking. Now, you just need to prepare:
Gather logistical information. It’s tempting to want to jump right in and start preparing content. However, I like to get answers to some practical questions first. Getting those out of the way up front leaves my brain free to think more clearly about the talk. Avoiding these questions until the end can create unnecessary stress, right when you need your resources to prepare and rehearse. Answering these questions also gives you a sense of how prepared the client is (and a heads up to get cracking if they can’t answer your questions). Some points to consider:
What day and time is the talk? Where are you speaking? How long are you expected to speak? How many guests are anticipated? Are you speaking before or after others? Will Q&A be expected afterwards? Is this part of a panel? Who is your contact on the day? Where do you park (and is there validation involved)? Do they have the proper technology to support the needs of the presentation? Is there a podium? Does it have an attached microphone? Or will you be expected to use a lavalier or hand-held mic? How early should you be there to make sure the technology works correctly? Is this a paid speaking engagement? Can you do your own marketing on social media for the event?
Gather content information. The answers to these questions should assist you in tailoring your content to the specific audience you’ve been asked to address.
Who is the audience? What do they want to know? What is their age-range? Is the audience required to attend or is their presence voluntary? Is there a theme or main idea to which you’re meant to speak? Most importantly, WHY are you speaking? Are you meant to share your story? Present research? Sell an idea? Impart new information? Inspire?
Research your subject. While many people are asked to speak because of their expertise with a particular subject, it’s often necessary to bolster your points with objective or updated research (new polls, recent statistics or developments, etc). I talk a lot about entertainment technology so staying current is important. By not relying on what you think you know, you open yourself up to new learning which will grace your presentation with fresh, relevant information.
In addition to the usual resources (books, published papers, etc), I find talking with knowledgeable colleagues to be valuable. I ask them about the subject and get their perspective on it. Often, their thoughts inform or clarify my own thinking.
In Part II, I’ll discuss preparing your words and visuals, and in Part III, we’ll cover creating your visual presentation and rehearsing. Finally, in part IV, I’ll cover presentation day.
I had the opportunity to see Cirque du Soleil’s Totem recently. I have a fondness for the unique sort of entertainment for which Cirque is known. While I prefer their installation shows in Las Vegas, I still enjoy the touring shows as well.
Totem is currently on tour under the “Grand Chapiteau” after having opened in Montreal in 2010. Director Robert LePage weaves a tale that seems to have been inspired by various origin stories surrounding humanity and evolution.
As with all Cirque shows, the story is really only just suggested and provides a backdrop for spectacular acrobatic acts and incredibly good-looking, very fit humans doing incredible things.
One of the more remarkable visual effects in this show is a floor which is projected upon. The video interacts with the performers in real time. For example, there is a scene where the video is footage of the waters edge. Performers descend down a ramp and “enter” the water. As they do, the footage of the water “pools” where they walk. It’s a wonderfully executed effect that carries you into the next moment of the show.
The fixed trapeze act was especially good, with the performers exhibiting quite a bit of character in addition to their athletic prowess.
Also good was the Amerindian Dancer, who performed an energetic hoop act.
The five Asian girls on seven-foot-tall Unicycles juggling bowls was a huge crowd favorite, as was the foot-juggling act. These two performers juggled fabric squares in a variety of contorted positions (backwards, upside down, balancing on each other).
As usual, the music was a combination of unique instruments with a lot of “world” influences. One of the big differences for this show is that it features a number of vocalists and they are often integrated into some of the performances
I think it’s important to get out and see different forms of entertainment. I think a steady diet of just plays or just movies would be come quite stale after a while. I like changing it up; and seeing a Cirque show is a great way to do that. The shows are always well-presented, thoughtful, and definitely remind you what humans are capable of doing when they focus and train. They are also invariably full of beautiful technical moments that are intricately woven into the story.
If you have the opportunity to see Totem, I highly recommend it.
At the same time I was reading the HuffPost article, I clicked on the video (currently circulating) capturing U.S. Figure Skater Jason Brown’s performance. I posted a link on my Facebook page to share it because it is tremendously impressive.
What I find interesting when you compare sports to the arts is that there’s no equivalent phrase to “I could paint that.” The general public doesn’t look at Jason’s video and say, “I could skate that”. Or at a football game and say, “Yeah, I could’ve scored that goal”.
So why is that? Do we value athletes more than we value artists? It’s tempting to say “yes”. Perhaps its easier to look at what athletes do and think it’s extraordinary. But I’m coming at this from an artists perspective, so it’s difficult to be objective. Many people take at least one art class in school (still, despite the insane levels to which the arts have been decimated from public education) and few end up on the football team, so does it boil down to that? Someone took one art class so they assume that gives them license to not only be an art critic but to place themselves in the shoes of the artist?
The equivalent statement that grates on me is, “That’s a beautiful photo. What kind of camera do you use?”
Scenario – You’re in a five-star restaurant. You order a sumptuous meal; a wonderful appetizer, an exquisite entree, and a spectacular dessert. When you are satiated, you ask to see the chef. He appears and you say, “That was an unbelievable, glorious meal. What kind of stove do you use?”
Doesn’t make any sense does it? The art of great cooking is in the mind of the chef. Selecting the ingredients, blending the tastes, balancing the flavors, and serving it just right. The tools rarely enter into it.
It’s much the same with photography. It’s not about the tools – it’s what’s in the mind of the photographer. The tools are necessary of course; but entirely secondary to the work of the photographer, which is seeing. Or, more accurately, seeing that which others don’t.
“I could paint that”.
“Yeah, but you didn’t. You didn’t pay for the canvas and the brushes or the easel. You didn’t work crappy jobs putting yourself through art school. You didn’t have endless fights with your parents about not having a ‘real’ job. You didn’t stay up all night, banging your head against the wall, waiting for inspiration. You didn’t spend gazillions on books, museum trips, and traveling to absorb the experience and influences that eventually work their way into the art. You didn’t do it because you’re too busy, or don’t have the time, or are uninspired, or worried that you’re not talented enough.”
Maybe the better question is “Why aren’t you doing it?”
So, next time you’re at an art show, an open market, or a craft fair and see something an artist made with their own hands and minds; please enjoy it and appreciate it (if it’s something that resonates with you). If you must say, “I could paint (or sew, or make, or shoot) that”, then stop, leave the market, and go straight to an art supply store, get the supplies and go do it.
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” W.B. Yeats
Think for a moment about a time you were in awe of something; and think about how you felt, the emotion of that moment. It’s an addictive feeling, right? I think creatives rely on that feeling more than most. Truly experiencing something with all of my senses is enough to give me a little jolt.
One of those moments for me was standing on Oahu’s North Shore in January of 2012 as massive swells generated by storms in the north Pacific Ocean hammered the shore at Banzai Pipeline. While the image above captures the beauty of the surf itself, the image below (by Sean Davey) captures more of what I’m talking about.
A large number of people stood on the beach (some for hours) just watching the waves roll in, set after set. The conversation amongst those gathered was minimal. Everyone was just soaking in this astounding display of natural force and beauty; a collective moment of awe.
Now, I’m not saying anyone has to go to Hawai’i to experience awe (though there’s certainly a lot of it there…) but I think “going” is part of the process. Most of us are not immediately surrounded in our homes or yards by the sorts of occurrences that inspire awe. But it’s important to know that you don’t have to go far, either. I was reminded of that last week when my spouse and I embarked on a hike in the canyon behind our house. Together, we explored an area close to home but entirely new to us. The trails have been there for years and we kept saying, “one day…”. That day finally came and it has opened up new things for us to see. I’d never seen the valley below our home. I’d never seen the incredible hilltop view of downtown L.A. Those two things, as well as a few others, inspired awe in me. Okay, not the big sort of awe that massive 20′ walls of cresting ocean inspires, but smaller moments. Those smaller moments are just as important.
There is so much beauty in our world – natural and man-made. To NOT stop and take it in is to deprive yourself of something precious. It could also deprive you of creative inspiration – after all inspiration is EVERYWHERE and, like the magic referred to by to our poet Yeats, is just “waiting for our senses to grow sharper”.
Seeking awe requires two simple things, I believe. Something to experience and the ability to experience it, not just glance at it between checking messages. That day on the beach, I could see the incredible waves but I could also feel the warmth of the January sun on my skin, taste the salt of the sea air, hear the crashing of waves, and smell the plumeria blooms wafting on the breeze. That memory is forever etched into my brain. It was, truly, “awe”some.
It’s tempting to go bold. To make a list of resolutions; things I will do better in 2014. The web is filled with columns about how to stick to your resolutions. Research shows, however, that most people break their resolve (lose weight, get organized, etc) fairly quickly and return to their old habits. Gym memberships practically rely on this as their business model.
In this very brief TED Talk, Google engineer Matt Cutts plays to that idea, though, by doing something different specifically for 30 days. It’s a great simple way to kick-start your thinking. By breaking your goal down into manageable 30-day increments, things can begin to seem more achievable. After the first 30 days, it becomes easier to say “yes” to another 30 days.
I started with a list of typical resolutions. As I gave it more thought, I backed away from the concrete. I decided to embrace the idea of resolution, the idea of change; not the specific goal-based task list. While it’s true that having firmly established goals will provide direction for you (and a way to measure progress), I realized the changes that I want to make are deeper; they speak to a greater need than just exercising and spending more time with my family.
These filters are intended to provide a gauge by which I can consider my options; and determine whether my actions are appropriate within the framework I’ve created. Because I think in “visual” terms, I created the graphic above as a roadmap. If an action or idea doesn’t relate to the four goals (Seek, Practice, Pursue, Embrace) then I need to take a moment to assess it’s true value. I’m looking forward to getting started.
These new filters join my permanent top three: GO. DO. CREATE.
On a separate note, cre8tivity lab celebrates its first anniversary online this month. 2014 brings a new style to the page – clean, minimal, and light; which is appropriate for a new year.
This year, I found myself without anything to do on November 2, Day of the Dead, (or All Soul’s Day). I have been itching to go out with my camera recently and was presented with a perfect opportunity to go to the 14th annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I won’t go into the meaning or history of Dia de los Muertos. There are other sites that explain it far more eloquently than I can. I’ll just say that for a very long time, we have had an altar in our home that contains pictures of those we have lost, both friends and family. The other items we have chosen to place there (calacas, calaveras, skulls, and artwork) are specific to the Latin celebration; even though neither of us have any Latin blood. While many cultures commemorate the holiday, the Latin cultures seem to have mastered the art of making it an actual celebration; a warm, welcoming of spirits that has long resonated with me.
We live about 25 minutes away, so I gave myself some time. After taking care of a few errands, I headed to Hollywood in earnest. An hour later, I was still sitting in traffic; having exited the freeway. The parking structures are full; there is no parking available on the streets and traffic is at a standstill. I circled the area, in vain, for another 30 minutes. My patience evaporated after nearly two hours in the car and I angrily decided that it just wasn’t worth it. Trying to salvage what was left of the evening, I headed to Amoeba Music on Sunset. For those who have never been to Amoeba, it’s a gigantic record store with albums, cd’s DVD/Blu-Rays, and all sorts of other goodies; pretty much the equivalent of church for me. It attracts all walks of life, which just adds to the overall awesome-ness of it.
Their structure was also full (argh), as was the flat lot (note to self – stay the *F* away from Hollywood on Saturday nights for the rest of your life). Frustrated and feeling thwarted at every turn I park next door at the Arclight Theater and walk across the street to Amoeba. The minute I crossed the threshold, I could feel my anger slipping away. Amoeba was full of people but I didn’t mind. Everyone was there because they love music; so the fact that it was crowded didn’t matter. The Best of Talking Heads was playing loudly, and one of my favorite songs of theirs (“Found A Job”) had just started, brightening my mood considerably.
I walked up and down the aisles with no plans; killing time and cooling off before I went home. I picked up one CD, then another, then…well, I might as well get a basket. Then another and another, until an hour later I had 21 CD’s. Some from bands I like, some from artists I’ve never heard off, and a lot of clearance holiday CD’s (it’s an addiction, perhaps a story for another time…). Happy with my lot, I headed to the register. Cheerful, multiple-piercings, blond-girl rang me up, took my cash, and wished me a super evening. I thought, “well, it IS starting to turn around…”
Back in my car, heading down Cahuenga at about 9:30 to make a left onto Melrose, against my better judgement I decided to swing by one of the structures that was closed earlier. What’s this? It’s open? I pay, I park, I walk up the block to Hollywood Forever. Super-short ticket line and I’m in.
I was not fully prepared for how incredible it was. It occurred to me that I was encountering a similar situation twice in one evening. Even though the event was full of people; they were all people who were there to celebrate; not necessarily to “party”, though it certainly was that. It was the oddest mix of celebratory, live-and-let-live, and chill-out vibes I think I’ve ever seen. There were so many people dressed up in elaborate costumes with their faces painted magnificently. The creativity and ingenuity that went into the headdresses and floral accents was just breathtakingly beautiful.
Many families and friends get together and build altars. These range from simple and thoughtful to elaborate structures. There were altars that included dining room tables like the photo above. Each place setting featured a photo of the deceased, a plate of their favorite food, a calavera effigy dressed in their clothing, and on the back of each chair was a biography of the deceased. Another altar featured a long-wedded couple and their bed. Each altar was softly illuminated with the glow of candlelight (quite a lot, in fact) which, even though artificial, imparted an ethereal beauty to the grounds.
Everywhere I turned there were more creative and interesting costumes. Rows and rows of tents contained Dia de los Muertos arts and crafts (I picked up a small, black, carved skull for our altar at home), as well as delicious savory and sweet treats. I lost count of the number of face-painting booths! Numerous bands played on various stages throughout the grounds.
And many altars.
There were two altars that got to me. The first, shown below, was fabricated of multiple cards. The cards were strung on twine between posts, in multiple rows. Suspended from the posts were white Christmas lights. Each of the cards represented someone whose death was a hate-related crime; and contained a sentiment from family or friends, wishing the deceased well. There were hundreds of cards. To see so many was overwhelming and deeply affecting.
One of the last stops I made was at the altar pictured below. It was tucked into a quiet corner of a mausoleum. The woman tending to it was engaged in conversation as I approached. I knelt down, snapped the photo below and stood up. She approached me, “Are you a pro”? I told her no, that I was just there to celebrate and pay my respects. She was there for her son; a 13 year old boy, who died 13 years ago. His altar featured several photos (you can see him on his skateboard in the left of the pic), many candles, and flowers set on a plank that was stretched across two old, wooden chairs. I saw many beautiful altars that night but this one, in it’s simplicity, affected me deeply. I didn’t ask about the details and she didn’t offer. We talked for ten minutes; mostly about the holiday itself, how wonderful the crowd was, what a “Peace Full” night it was; and how it’s important to celebrate those who have passed. We wished each other a wonderful evening.
Maybe it’s because I have a nephew who just turned 14 or maybe it’s because I’ve been involved with three shows this year that all involved Matthew Shepard. Regardless, all I could think of as I was walking away were the words of Judy Shepard in The Laramie Project, “Go home, hug your kids, and don’t let a day go by without telling them how much you love them”.
A few minutes before midnight, walking toward the exit, I could hear one of the bands playing their last song. Out of the night sky, floating on a cool November breeze, were the words of John Lennon.
“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…”
I’m so incredibly thrilled that I made myself go back that evening after it had gotten off to such a crappy start. It reminded me of a very simple lesson – sometimes we need to deal with a little B.S. and unrelated garbage to get to something magical. I was heading home. I was done. And something told me to try again. I’m grateful for that voice, from wherever it came. There’s something powerful in resolving to try once more – no matter what the challenge, large or small.