Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Elemental: The Power of Illuminated Love, Luther E. Vann and Aberjhani (art and poetry)

Elemental: The Power of Illuminated Love, artwork by Luther E. Vann and poetry by Aberjhani

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Publisher: Soar Publishing, LLC, 2008
· ISBN-13: 9780972114271
· Hardcover, 144 pages
· Price: $39.99

I have long, long been an Aberjhani fan. I came across his work many years ago online, as is more often now the case for many of us—to make our literary discoveries over the Internet. Yet how soothing, reassuring, to know that with all the changes and progressions and regressions of time and technology, some things hold true: art awakens and joins. No matter what the venue. Whatever our life experience, whatever our particular and individual view on the world around us, art illuminates and connects us. Art, one might argue, really is just the expression of love. Just as limitless, just as boundless, just as astounding.

And then this gift arrives, this grand and pleasingly heavy book. Unwrapping, I knew this would not be the kind of read that one zips through on a spare weekend hour. Elemental: The Power of Illuminated Love is the kind of book one places carefully on the coffee table, inviting visit after visit after visit, over time creating a bond. In some 140 pages, I found not only the expected poetry of Aberjhani, but also more than 60 vibrant art reproductions by artist, Luther E. Vann. Now, this was new to me. I relished the additional discovery. Even as I read the lush work of the poet, the corresponding reproductions reflected the words in yet another medium. The artist Vann works in paint that resembles colored fire—the kind that one knocks one’s head back to gaze upon in the night sky on Independence Day. Fireworks, nearly liquid fire, in every blazing color and few of them muted, but pure, in shivering and shimmering lines. On closer inspection, I learned the artist sometimes uses chopsticks to paint instead of conventional brushes. Ah, I thought, that explains it. I could envision the chopsticks dancing across the black canvas—for Vann’s work is always on a black canvas—and could imagine the sparks that traced their dancing path.

Both artists, the painter and the poet, are from Savannah, Georgia. Various essays in the book describe the meeting of the two, pleasingly drawing a circle at the conclusion. In the first meeting, Aberjhani writes his poetry to correspond with Vann’s art. By conclusion, Vann’s art comes to life in illustrating Aberjhani’s poetry. Art breeds art, life gives life. Vann has also spent time in New York City, and it seems his artwork reflects this, too: the beat and pulse of the great metropolis, the life that is born of the street, the milling of color as it blends and separates and blends again. His work is at times like neon on canvas, bright lights, and has, too, a dream quality, perhaps because of the ever present black background, reminding one of those mysterious dreams that haunt throughout the day. His paintings are often crowded with figures that intermingle and overlap, seem born of one another, yet remain distinctly alone.

Aberjhani is also known as author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, The Bridge of Silver Wings, and The Wisdom of W.E.B. Dubois. He publishes often in various publications, print and online. His poetry has an intensely intimate courage, the sort we would all wish to have, but too often hold protectively back.

Muscles stretch from star to moon to heart,
shrink to a single comet; the sweet
heave-ho of flesh awakens to higher intention.
Pain like an over-efficient android
builds metallic agonies of nerve and thought.
Joy like a forty-day flood of acrylic roses.

The two artists are a perfect match, words as vibrant as image, image as emblazoned with fiery color as poetry. The occasional essay enlightens as to the inner workings of each, building anticipation for the pages ahead and beckoning return to the pages behind.

I once watched Time grow fat
then explode in my face
as if too much pain
or too much love had gathered too fast
into a single small space.

The Universe said, “Let me show
your soul something beautiful.”
And I then recalled two things:
the Disciple who loved his Teacher,
and the main reason I was born.
I watched Time disappear and tasted
upon my fingers the colors
of a vision still hot with truth.

I return to this book time after time, as one does to art—for inspiration, for a reminder of what is still hot with truth.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them by J. Edward Russo and Paul J. H. Schoemaker

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 304 pages
· Publisher: Fireside, 1990
· Price: $11.00
· ISBN-10: 0671726099
· ISBN-13: 978-0671726096

Despite this book having been published nearly two decades ago, an executive-level colleague at my office urged our team to read this book. Good advice stands the test of time. On reading the book, I agree—this has much good, common sense and sound insight to offer, although I had to wonder at much more recent studies I’ve read that advise something quite the opposite from what Russo and Schoemaker encourage. That is, take the time to consider the parameters of making good decisions.

Taking the time, however, is not what I’ve been reading in much more recently published books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which basically states that we need to tap into our inner wisdom, that storehouse of all the experience and observation we’ve accumulated over a lifetime (the longer the lifetime, presumably, the more wisdom stored), trust it, and make the “snap judgments” that actually hold up to often be our best decisions. Fascinating. Looking back on my own span of a lifetime, my best and worst decisions, I have to lean toward Blink. That inner voice of wisdom does know. It is when I have ignored its red flags waving that I have made my worst decisions. And paid heavily for it.

That said, I tend to be cynical about any idea that leans too heavily one way or the other. Fads are based on swinging pendulums. The truth tends to be a balance of varied ideas and common ground, and in this, Decision Traps appeals to me. Russo and Schoemaker do not disparage the value of making the occasional off-the-cuff decision. There are those times that over thinking something, over analyzing, too much brain over heart (i.e. inner voice of wisdom), can be a slippery path to rationalization, and rationalization almost always translates into bad decisions made on false premises.

Decision Traps is an exploration of how decisions are made, and then, the ten traps, or barriers, to making good decisions. These all require time and careful consideration to overcome. No blinking here. And although this book is geared toward making business decisions, I see no reason why one cannot consider these same traps in making personal decisions.

Barriers and means of overcoming them include what Russo and Schoemaker call “framing” a decision (dramatically different solutions arise from what perspective we take on a problem, from what direction we approach it), the gathering of relevant information and intelligence (knowing what you don’t know in some instances is even more important than knowing what you do know), the pitfalls of making group decisions (“groupthink” and expert teams vs. teams of experts), why people can’t seem to learn from their mistakes (hindsight is always biased and almost never useful), improving feedback (consider not only the results of your decision but calculate also the potential results of the choices you did not make), being overconfident (a major cause of blind spots in decision-making and a good argument against the more contemporary fad of “positive thinking”), and other valuable points to consider.

One of the more fascinating areas in this book, to me, is the discussion on groupthink. This is the process, or effect, of how people subtly change their thinking, and so their decision-making, according to group dynamics. Indeed, it appears to be nearly impossible to resist peer pressure, let alone the pressure to be agreeable with our superiors, and the result from this is narrow thinking at best, and a suppression of creativity and innovation (i.e. potential problem solving), leading to disastrously false thinking, at worst. President Kennedy’s team of experts making the disastrous decision resulting in the Bay of Pigs is a common example used to illustrate how highly intelligent and confident people make terrible decisions when they work in groups. In fact, the more mutual respect and personal bonding there is in such groups, the more powerful the effect of groupthink. We often do not realize how we slip into being agreeable with those we like (or wish to like, or be liked by), and our thinking becomes heavily biased. Many studies have shown that people will suppress all evidence to the contrary when they have a subconscious desire to fit in with others. No one (see the Bay of Pigs) is immune to this effect. Best group thinking, then, happens when a group consists of team members who are very different in their experience, perspective, even personality type. It is crucial to encourage an atmosphere of, well, disagreeability so that all possible viewpoints might be considered.

Another fascinating point to me is the ineffectiveness of hindsight. That is, why do we not learn from experience? Why has humankind learned so little from history, repeating the same mistakes again and again and again? Russo and Schoemaker basically state that hindsight is without value. The day-after discussions of sports come to mind. “In general, the clarity of hindsight is an illusion. And it often hampers learning from experience.” (pg. 183) It is impossible, the authors state, to think after the fact in the same way as we thought before the fact. Indulging in hindsight only increases the possibility of making future faulty decisions. Why then do we so waste time in this indulgence? Human nature craves control, the authors write, and so we pretend to understand what we cannot, and that something could have been averted or changed when it could not. Rather than learning from things gone wrong, we do all that we can to avoid learning, thumping our chests with empty hindsight “wisdom.”

A tangent on this effect is the individual’s difficulty to learn from experience, from past mistakes, instead repeating those very same mistakes in future scenarios. Again, the authors remind us, note the need to control what is often beyond our control. We must be ever vigilant of our weakness in trying to rationalize away our own faults and weaknesses. It is, again, human nature to take credit for our successes while blaming our failures on outside factors. Rather than facing up to our mistakes with ruthless honesty, we tend instead to minimize and avert our own honest gaze, and so doom ourselves to remain as we are, not learning from our mistakes, but rather deepening our tendency to repeat them. “Periodically list your failures; if the list is short, be suspicious.” (pg. 182) “To avoid the pain of admitting mistakes, we rationalize. We may distort our memory of what we actually did or said; unrealistically blame the failure on others or on supposedly unforeseeable circumstance; say our original prediction was misunderstood or misinterpreted; change our current preferences so the failure seems less important … But rationalizations benefit us only in the short-run. You can learn from mistakes only if you acknowledge them.” (pg. 179)

Despite its two-decade old publication, Decision Traps has much to offer. There may be merit to making quick decisions, especially if one does have broad and expansive life experience, but our internal biases are very real, and to be aware of them, and other factors in our decision-making, can be very valuable indeed, in our work as well as our personal lives.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Gently Read Literature

February 2009, Vol. 2, Issue 11
Editor: Daniel Casey

Poetry Reviews:

Poetry that Jingles, a Good Value: Zinta Aistars on Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf

The Past Still Remains: J. Michael Wahlgren on Idra Novey’s The Next Country

The Word is the Thing: Laurie Junkins on Sally Van Doren’s Sex at Noon Taxes

Tangible Poetic Gold: Suzanne Ondrus on Aracelis Girmay’s Teeth

The Adaptation/Adoption of Form: Nici Lee on Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn

Nature in its Raw: R.L. Greenfield on Charles Wright’s Littlefoot

Fiction Reviews:

More Schizophrenic than Southern: Ashly Hood on Katie Crouch’s debut novel Girls in Trucks

A Warmhearted Journey: Amy Schrader on Stefan Merrill Block’s novel The Story of Forgetting

A Quiet Ending to a Loud Story: Sam Friedman on the novel Prescription for a Superior Existence by Josh Emmons

February’s Featured Artist: Mark Shetabi

See also January 2009 issue of Gently Read Literature:

"A Much, Much Darker Palette: Zinta Aistars on Temporary People by Steve Gillis"

For more news on Zinta, see http://www.zintaaistars.com/