Denver's Newest (and Youngest) Professional Artists

 

A short time-lapse video of the beginning of the night--my camera died before things really got going.

Art With Purpose

"Danny, we only need to sell one painting each tonight and we'll be professional artists."

And at the ripe old ages of thirteen and fourteen, no less.

The drive from the West Colfax neighborhood to Denver's Art District on Santa Fe was a mix of nervous excitement, feigned calm, and dubstep-by-request. Chelby's comment spoke for her and Danny as we parked near the gallery they would soon be showing at.

Danny and Chelby are two students who led my Urban Art class for the first six months of 2013--they were instrumental throughout the ~3000 square foot mural project from concept design through completion. Both have dreams to be professional artists. Last night--February 7, 2014--was their first art show, and where better than the premier art event in the heart of Denver's art district: First Friday Art Walk on Santa Fe.

Danny and Chelby in front of their section of the gallery at First Friday on Santa Fe. Their first art show.

My first real mentor and serious inspiration gave me endless freedom to learn about and develop myself through the arts--jazz, specifically--opened up many doors for me, and gave me opportunities that are all too rare for young people. This was easy to take for granted until I became a teacher in a world of education that sees the arts as "enriching" at best, but not necessary. When we approach the arts in this way, we negate the identities and futures of countless children...but that's a conversation for another time.

I can, and have, traced all of my successes back to what I learned from the arts starting back in 7th grade. Especially the successes that are seemingly unrelated to the arts. So I feel a strong need to give this opportunity to younger people as it was given to me.

An Exciting Evening

 

The crowd at the gallery; Chelby and Danny are on the left, talking with viewers and potential buyers.

After some minimal coaching from me, Danny and Chelby got to work setting up their section of the gallery next to artists who were all three or four times their age.

After a certain number of life-changing experiences, you begin to recognize them in others as they happen; this was one of those evenings. The two young artists started the evening shy and apprehensive. But by the end of the evening they were stepping far out of their comfort zones and into new life experiences: both sold their first piece of art, they were commissioned for two unrelated mural projects, and they made some very impressive connections and deals with adult professionals.

On top of all this, the gallery owner asked them back for the next show. Speaking of which, I should mention that the gallery (858 Santa Fe) was packed with the most amazing people and vibed the hardest out of any gallery on Santa Fe--as reported by several people who walked the entire strip.

But that's not the life-changing part. Through my observations and conversations I had with the two of them, it became clear that they had learned something that only experience can teach:

"There are people who value what I'm good at and want to invest their time, energy, and money in me, as a person, and my work."

We discussed the fact that when someone commissions a piece of art, that person is investing in the artist as a person--the piece of art they are buying doesn't exist until later, when the artist makes it.

There is a pervasive belief among young street artists that if you tag your name with markers or stickers around the city, in the right places, you will "get noticed." In Colorado, sentences for graffiti range from $250-$750,000 and 3 months to 12 years in prison. But the myth of "getting noticed" persists because young street artists generally don't see a real avenue to become professional. This myth was broken for the kids last night.

There's little that is more gratifying than being validated through your own work, that most expresses who you are, and by strangers who have no obligation to do so. Having experienced this myself at a young age, I can say that watching two young people experience the same is an incredible thing to watch.

The future is very bright for Danny and Chelby, and I'm excited for them.

###

Regarding this approach to education: this art education project was the first real pilot of a model of education as experience that I and others have been developing. I am currently working on the next iteration of this approach with a computer engineering class I designed and am teaching now. Look for exciting posts about this in months to come...or let's get drinks and talk about it.

Click here and I'll let you know when I publish future posts.

 Chelby and Danny posing with artists Patrick "GIRR" McGirr and Joshua Finley. Patrick and Josh are amazing professional artists who have served as mentors for the kids for the past year and worked on the Urban Art mural project with my students.

Innovation: Problems of Science and Technology

[Total read time = 6 minutes]
[Bolded read time = 1 minute] 

"I'm interested in seeing where the curiosity will lead to, not, 'Where have we been?'"
-Clifford Stoll in the above video

I'm uncomfortable with the language of "innovation." Recently, it seems as if "innovation" has become Innovation™. The activity of creative problem-solving has been packaged and is now being distributed. It is traded on the non-fiction market: people are reworking the fundamentals, delivering happiness, and building lean startups. Don't get me wrong: I'm obsessed with all of this and I love Stanford's approach.

However, in the world of innovation, we seem not to actually understand the kind of work we're doing. We treat the innovative process as a commodity and expect to create, with it, entirely new solutions to problems. But here's the problem: a commodity is a product of technology. What we're searching for requires science. Let me explain.

The first time you do something, it's science. The second time, it's engineering. The third, it's technology (Stoll).

  • Science seeks to discover systems of principles that explain the world's happenings.
  • Engineering uses these systems to design useful tools.
  • Technology takes these useful tools, connects them with others, and packages them into distributable solutions (aka, commodities) based on the available science and engineering.

Note: the term "science" does not imply anything except for what the definition says (I'm not talking specifically about physics, chemistry, etc.), and "technology" does not imply anything specifically digital or computer related.

The problem is this: our technology and engineering can be rock-solid, but if our science is wrong, everything that follows helps on a surface level, but fundamentally makes the problem worse. In education, our science is wrong. Or to be more accurate, our science is first invisible, then wrong. I've discussed this point in more depth previously, so I won't dwell on it now.

We in the education innovation world like to hide behind Innovation™ and it lets us avoid problems of science. Again, I'm not talking about hard sciences like physics, chemistry, etc. I mean science as the process through which we seek to discover systems of principles that explain the world's happenings. If we can focus on identifying a problem, designing a solution, prototyping, iterating, testing, rinsing, and repeating, then we can ignore the uncomfortable and difficult questions like, "Am I even looking at the fundamental systems in the right way?" Most of us hardly know what it means to ask, let alone begin to answer this question.

Systems of principles (products of science) must be present before practical problems (precursors to technology) can even emerge. If we perfectly solve a practical problem (e.g., increasing test scores) but it turns out it's based on a bad system of principles (e.g., education as a system of knowledge acquisition), we will solve a very short term problem, but compound and deepen the troubles of the problem-solving space as a whole. It makes the problem worse because it falsely validates the bad science from which the technology emerges. Play this out over a century+ as we have in the United States, and bad science becomes the unquestioned foundation. Big problem.

Further, there aren't even really places where this kind of science development can take place. We have incubators and VC firms help with the engineering, entrepreneurs/foundations/funds to take care of the technology, but nowhere to do the science required to fix the education system. I once suspected that universities played this role, but turns out I couldn't have been more wrong. This work needs to be done, and we need to create a place in which to do it.

At this point, I want to pause, because I feel like I'm picking on "innovation" quite a bit, and in fact it plays a very important role.

  • Innovation means to change or renew something old into something new and different. It stems from the Latin "in" and "novus" which literally means "into new."
  • Invention means to create something original that is fundamentally different than all things before it. It stems from the Latin "inventus" which translates roughly as "to discover or devise."

Notice that innovation relies on something old as a jumping-off point: a problem. Invention, on the other hand, requires no old jumping-off point, only a set of principles. Innovation implies reasoning by analogy, while invention implies reasoning by principles.

There is an important difference between reasoning by analogy vs. reasoning by principles. We need to be able to reason by analogy because if we didn't, we couldn't get through the day. It helps us make adjustments and adapt to slightly unfamiliar situations. But when we want to do something new, we have to reason by principles, which equates to creating or using sciences (science, by our definition above). Reasoning by principles allows us to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like Einstein's special relativity. He couldn't have discovered special relativity through analogy because there were no analogies that would have led him there in the first place. Only principles. (Note: Einstein by Walter Isaacson is the most brilliant biography I have come across.)

By definition, it is impossible to create entirely new solutions to problems with technology. The technology we're talking about here goes by the name "innovation." When we think we're creating entirely new things with technology, we're confused. Instead, if we want to make something new, we need to use processes of invention (discussed briefly here) to rework the science that funds our problem-solving activities in education. Once we're moderately confident with our science--confident due to rigor, not ignorance--we should then boldly and cautiously move on to engineering and technology.

There is a reason that computers were not invented before the advent of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics (science) informed the invention of the transistor (engineering), which created the conditions through which computers (technology) could then emerge.

Similarly, in education, if we do not focus on the science, we will never invent our version of "the computer." Again, by "science," I once again mean processes that seek to discover systems of principles that explain the world's happenings. Unfortunately I have very, very rarely seen research in the field of education that attempts this, and have talked directly about why in a previous post. One notable exception to this is the method through which Maria Montessori conducted research, which is far from perfect, but fundamentally dealt with science nonetheless.

Having said all of this about reasoning by analogy, it can be and often (but not always) is part of the process of invention. Reasoning by analogy provides us with a framework from which we work backwards to discover how one system of principles maps on to another. This is actually much closer to how Einstein made his discoveries, and the real powerhouse is reasoning by principles. Reasoning by analogy must take a back seat.

That's all for now. Click here and I'll let you know when I publish future posts.

 

###

A note for my philosopher compatriots:

As I discuss notions of principles here, I do not mean principles in the formal sense. I mean instrumentalist principles, in the way that Rorty, James, or Kuhn might use the term to describe non-objective, non-universal ways of describing how things might be described as working. Kuhn puts it well:

From "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"

"...It makes little sense to suggest that verification is establishing the agreement of fact with theory. All historically significant theories have agreed with the facts, but only more or less. There is no more precise answer to the question whether or how well an individual theory fits the facts. But questions much like that can be asked when theories are taken collectively or even in pairs. It makes a great deal of sense to ask which of two actual and competing theories fits the facts better."

Click to read more ...

In the Classroom: Inspiring Anger

"Inspiring" in the title of this post is meant to be a modifier, not a predicate. </grammar geek>

I've decided I'm periodically going to post very short posts of particularly interesting or inspiring stories that happen in my Social Justice/Identity class. Here's one from today.

#

I'm continually impressed by the kinds of things that students bring up in my class. One particular student whose comments tend to be very insightful, was quite for a while, then finally raised his hand to speak. He had a lot of trouble articulating himeslf because he was so shaken up. After a minute spent trying to formulate his thoughts, he gave up.

Shortly after, I asked him a direct question about whether or not he thought schools should be allowed to have ethnic studies programs, and he said yes, but didn't want to expand on that.  He still looked distraught.

I found him during break and asked if I could talk to him for a minute. I was worried that I had pushed him too hard, or that he was too uncomfortable, or something to that effect.

I told him that I felt worried that I had made him feel bad or uncomfortable. He shook his head and looked down, up, and around the hallway.

"It's not that, I just don't understand why people don't just get along with everybody."

#

Another short story:

Today, we finished watching the the documentary, Precious Knowledge. I've now seen it seven times and still get a little choked up at parts...especially while watching it with my students.

By the end of class today, half of my 1st period class was crying, and a heated discussion ensued. We looked at data on both incarceration and school drop out/graduation rates (which, as you know, is massively skewed to the disadvantage of people of color).

At one point, I paused the movie after a scene where Arizonans were burning the Mexican flag and threatening to kill Latina/os who were supporting the Tuscon Mexican American Studies Program. I asked, "What does watching this make you feel or think?". After a few minutes, I followed up with, "How would you respond in this situation and why?"

"Jump them and beat them!" was the first response, and the class agreed.

"Ok, so we jump and beat them. So now what, what's next?"

[No answer.]

"In this situation, what's the problem here? What's the real problem that's making us mad?"

The students say that the problem is the people who are burning flags, threatening, etc., so I push them again to tell me what the real problem is: "If the real problem is the people who are doing this, we can just jump those people and the problem goes away. But if we jump them, does the problem go away?"

The student who originally suggested we jump the protesters: "No, they just get even more mad."

"So what's the real problem?"

This conversation continued for a while, and we reached the conclusion that the people who were burning flags, etc. are making us mad, but they aren't the real problem. The real problem is a belief that they hold that makes them act that way.

So, if the real problem is the belief, that's what we need to fix.

What is Philosophy, and Why Does It Matter? (Especially to Education)

 

There are few things that matter to America's future as much as philosophy. Philosophy is necessary if we're going to make any significant leaps forward as a society. But we can't fix a problem we can't see, so let's take a look.

First, forget everything you know about philosophy. I will give you new definitions, so pretty please pretend that you've never heard the word before.

In short, philosophy is the science of thinking. The better you are at philosophy, the better you are at thinking. The best analogy is language: you can get by with a little basic instruction and by listening to others, but you can't produce anything truly great without a deep understanding of how to use it.

Let me repeat: you can't produce anything truly great without a deep understanding of the root of your craft. This is obvious enough if we're talking about authors, engineers, artists, and so on. The author's craft is language and it goes without saying that great authors are exceptional with language. If your goal is to fix or advance civil-social society, your craft is thinking. Why? To create something great, you need to understand the materials you're manipulating--authors manipulate words; society-fixers manipulate ideas.

If you're any sort of society-fixer, you need philosophy. And by "need," I don't mean, "it would help." I mean that if you are without philosophy (the science of thinking), your work should not be taken seriously. That sounds a bit inflammatory, so let me explain.

Philosophy: A Brief Summary (History)

Philosophy is stereotypically seen as a heady exercise reserved for ivory tower intellectuals and deadbeat potheads. Like many stereotypes, this is based somewhat in reality.

There are really two main, ways that people approach philosophy:

  1. Philosophy as insight: the part of philosophy that is responsible for the "deep ideas" and paints us a picture of a stone man, chin-on-hand, deeply pondering "the meaning of life." Our deadbeat pothead trades exclusively in this.
  2. Philosophy as analysis: the science of thought. This includes logic, methods of justification/proof, procedural systems, and provides the rules for all meta-cognative analysis. The origin of mathematics and science. Ivory tower intellectuals love this stuff.

As illustrated by our potheads and intellectuals, if one approach to philosophy is taken without the other, it loses credibility. We need both in order to do legitimate philosophy (legitimate "science of thinking").

Very few people (especially philosophers) see this distinction, and that's a big problem...

And now, a story to illustrate why:

Back in the days of old, philosophy (or philosophia, as it was called) contained within itself all other fields: mathematics, medicine, engineering, physics, etc. All of these things were effectively just "part of philosophy." Philosophy was credited with advances in all of these now-distinct fields. But as technology advanced, distinct disciplines began to mark themselves as separate from philosophy. Complex thoughts about numbers and shapes gradually developed, and eventually mathematics was born as a field unto itself. Tools for measuring physical phenomena eventually came around, and out popped physics.

With each advance in intellectual or physical technology, philosophy birthed a new field and lost a bit of its jurisdiction. Each field separated itself from philosophy because the new technology provided a way to reach better insights than were possible through abstract reasoning alone. The creation of the telescope meant that mythology no longer provided the basis for astronomy--physical observation provided the insight. Thus, astronomy emerged as a field unto itself, and philosophy lost another bit of real estate.

Now, remember that insight is not all there is to philosophy. Each and every field is still fundamentally rooted in the methods of analysis endowed to them by philosophy. That is to say, if any field (whether physics, education, or medicine) is to function properly, its practitioners must be masterfully skilled in analysis--in philosophy. 

It's hard to overstate the serious implications of this. If you don't deeply understand the methods of thinking and analysis of your field, your work should not be taken seriously. That is even, perhaps, a wild understatement.

One of the great blunders of the education world is the idea that advancement doesn't require exceptionally masterful thinking. Educators tend to believe that if someone has a great idea, that's good enough. This is dead wrong, and this inherited "wisdom" has severely disabled our field. In chemistry, it doesn't matter how many years of experience you have working with chemical compounds; if you're not a master of scientific method and analysis, you will produce mediocre results at best. Same in education.

Of course, extensive experience is necessary, but experience without philosophy (the science of thinking) means, by definition, that we can't use our experience in any excellent way. (An understanding of this distinction between "necessary conditions" and "sufficient conditions" is a very small part of knowing how to think well.)

The Problem With Philosophy

If people don't think about potheads and professors when they hear "philosophy," they think of Plato or Nietzsche. The idea that Plato represents contemporary philosophy is just as absurd as the idea that Thales represents contemporary physics (Thales believed that everything is made of water). Likewise, there's as big a gap between Nietzsche and contemporary philosophy as there is between Newton and quantum physics.

I mention this because philosophy students and so-called philosophers, ironically, do the most to prevent the general public from realizing how important philosophy is to our progress as a society. In short, they confusing talking about philosophy with doing philosophy.

If you're discussing the importance of Locke's empiricism to modernity as a response to Descartes' rationalism, you're not doing philosophy, you're just talking about philosophy. This is worth pointing out, because the vast majority of philosophy students and philosophers think that this is what it means to do philosophy.

If that's what philosophy is, then the general public can't do philosophy without spending years slogging through old, poorly written texts. So thank God that's not philosophy. It's an exercise in intellectual history, but it's not philosophy. It would be absurd to think that discussing Newton's laws or Thales' wild theories actually counts as doing physics. Same with philosophy.

Side note for the geeks:

Philosophy as an academic discipline is organized on three axes: traditions, time periods, and branches. Philosophical traditions include Existentialism, Analytic, Pragmatist, Structuralist, Post-Structuralist, etc. Time periods include ancient, medieval, modern, etc. Branches include epistemology, ontology, metaphilosophy, aesthetics, logic, metaphysics, etc.

These three axes are ways of retrospectively categorizing certain types of thinking. These distinctions are not particularly relevant or interesting unless you're studying history. Don't confuse any of these things with what philosophy actually is: the science of thinking.

Why Philosophy Matters, and How

I am very deeply involved in many facets of the education world here in Denver, I often ask people the following question: "What do you mean by the word 'education'?" Unfortunately, I have yet to hear an answer that even approaches philosophical coherence.

In other words, I have yet to hear an answer that shows a deep understanding of the science of thinking. When I ask this question, 99% of the time, I get an operational definition when I really should be getting a conceptual definition. You can't do much with an operational definition because the terms of the definition are constrained by the context that the problem-solver is trying to escape in the first place. So, by definition, any work in education based on an operational definition cannot be especially innovative or inventive because that work is constrained by the problematic circumstances with which the definition is constructed.

To illustrate:

Heat

Operational definition: heat is when I touch my hand to a stove and I feel a burning sensation, or when I hold ice up to a fire and the ice melts.

Conceptual definition: heat is energy in transfer between a system and its surroundings other than by work or transfer of matter.

The first definition isn't going to get scientists very far--it is constrained by very limiting context. The second definition gets us quite a long ways.

These two different types of definitions are considered some of the "basic laws" of the science of thinking--but the terminology itself isn't important. The important part is the meaning behind the terms, but I've found that the education world doesn't even know where to start when asked to give such a definition for "education." This would be the equivalent of asking a chemist to conduct an experiment using the scientific method, and the chemist replying, "Sure, I'll do an experiment, but I don't know what the scientific method is."

There are people in all fields who do this well; who are masters of thinking; of philosophy as I mean it--examples include Elon Musk, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Richard Branson, Charlie Parker, Albert Einstein, and so on. Many of them wouldn't call it by the name "philosophy," but again, terms don't really matter. They understand how to use the science of thinking--this much is unmistakable if you study their work or hear them talk about how they do what they do.

An unfortunate byproduct of pointing all of this out is that it immediately implicates the vast majority of people in the education world as unqualified to do the work that they do. It's very painful, and it's very true. We have ignored this fact for far too long, and our field is not going to heal itself until we own it.

So...what does it look like to approach education with an understanding of the science of thinking? It's an unending process, and here is an example of a small piece of that process.

###

A message to philosophers and other stickler friends:

My use of language is intentionally lose throughout this post. I am not using any formal philosophical terms in this post (the only exceptions are the following: operational definition, conceptual definition, necessary condition, sufficient condition). When I compare philosophy to language, I actually mean semiotics. It's less precise, but makes the metaphor more clear.

[Click here and I'll let you know when I publish future posts.]

Surgery Update: Perspective on Perspective

Preface

I've written and read almost exclusively non-fiction for the past... eight or nine years. But as I began my post on perspective (which I mentioned in my previous surgery update post), I realized that I would have to write an academic-article length piece to really start to touch what I wanted to say.

At the end of that post, I wrote a short metaphor that expressed how my perspective changes from major surgeries and events like them. The metaphor seemed like it had a lot of potential, so after spending some time thinking about it, I wrote a fictional parable to see if I could express the nuance and complexity in shorter form.

So I've ended up with two posts on perspective, one fiction, one non-fiction, and I've decided to merge the two.

Artists, especially writers, tend to dramatically and condescendingly frown upon those who explan the intended meaning behind their creative work. But I'm not writing any sort of "high art," nor do I have any desire to be a serious fiction writer, so I'm going to mix explanation with a "creative" story.

On perspective, generally

People who experience major health-related events often say that they have a way of, "putting things in perpective." This is true in a way, but I think that others get the wrong impression when they hear someone say this.

These experiences give us clarity, but not clarity regarding anything in particular. It gives us a lense through which we can, or often must, look at the world. But this clarity doesn't make sense of anything for us, it's up to the person to make sense of things.

This clarity does the work of cutting through the residue of worry, self-consciousness, motivation, and manipulation that builds up on the masks we use to protect ourselves from the world.

The Parable

It's not important to me that my readers appreciate whatever artistry may be in this writing (mostly because there is none), but it is important to me that it gets a point across. There are a ridiculous number of points I want to get across here, so hopefully this short section will help bring some of these to light.

My writing style in academic philosophy is extremely dense but deceptively conversational. After writing this fictional piece, I realized that my default style is the same whether fiction of philosophy. I wrote this fictional piece because fiction allows authors to write a single sentence that makes a very complex point, where it would take a paragraph to make the same point in non-fiction. The context of a story provides the explanation for the point the author wants to make. So fiction can be hugely more dense than non-fiction but sound like a simple story.

I guess that's why literary analysis became a thing...

There are three main characters in this story: the old man, the performer, and the narrator. People are able to metaphorically be any one of these characters, and I am writing as the narrator. Seems like kind of a stupidly obvious thing to say as the author, but it's important to point out because authors often represent themselves as characters other than the narrator in their writing.

So, I am the narrator, and the narrator's view of the world is the one through which I try to explain my thoughts on perspective.

Perspective: A Three-Character Parable

An ornate trinket of gold and diamonds sat atop the head of the performer as she spun, deep blue silken dress and all, to the floor. The flare in her eyes seemed out of a celestial storm, and the passion in her step reminded the old man of the fiery chambers deep below the City of Steel.

His job was to maintain the flames of these subterranean caverns so that the city above could prosper. The surface environment was, of course, harsh, and the city-dwellers can make anything from fire, but nothing from ice. Though charged only with maintaining the caverns, the old man had instead worked to steadily toke the fires from a flame, to a flare, a roar, an inferno, and beyond.

But one day each week (usually), the man visited the parlor where danced the woman with the gold and diamond headpiece, the deep blue silken dress, and the fiery eyes. It wasn't just that she performed when she wanted to. She always performed, unless she was sleeping of course: she wasn't forced into it by anyone though, it was her passion.

The old man, weary from his work, began to make his way up towards the city around ten-o’clock each Saturday morning. His destination was just below the surface, so he never saw the City of Steel, but it never came to mind either. He always tried to enjoy the trek along the way. The heat from his caverns mixed with the humidity of the soil and produced the brilliant, beautiful subterranean condensation forests.

The problem wasn't that he couldn't appreciate the beauty of the hike to the parlor: he smelled the mossy earth, breathed the cool air--so fresh that it felt as if it were alive--, and his eyes could not believe the vibrant beauty that lay out before them. He could see and appreciate it all, but it was at once beautiful and distant.

As he entered the room, he sat in his usual spot, ordered his usual drink, but with a twist of lime zest, just to mix it up. It's good to change things up.

He enjoyed his time away from the caverns because it gave him respite. For decades, after awaking each day, he set to growing the fires as big as fires can grow. There's no limit to how big a fire can be.

So each Saturday (usually), the man would come to watch the performance, often stay late into the night, and walk home half-delirious and sleep deprived.

The performer thought it was odd that people, just like the old man, came from all around to visit the parlor. The performer did not, in fact, perform anything for an audience. She thought herself a performer because, she says, as everybody knows, "to perform" means "to fulfill" or "to come true" and that is what she did.

She was a brilliant writer, painter, sometimes music producer, and she did everything you might expect someone with those talents to do. When she wrote and painted, she was too far away for an audience to see, and when she produced music, she used headphones and no one could hear. Yet people from all around came to watch her from their place in the parlor. It was fine with her since she was such a "people person."

But the audience didn't just see a regular woman writing, painting, and sometimes producing music. They saw dancing, twirling of gold and diamond, and heard incredible music. They saw a world-class show of power and talent that inspired them to keep working their hardest in their own worlds. That's why they came, and that's why the old man was there tonight.

As you might imagine, it's hard work building the flame higher and higher each day, and the man needed to see himself for what he wanted himself to be, otherwise he couldn't maintain his sort of thankless work. So he came to the parlor, where he saw the woman writing, painting, and sometimes producing music.

It's not clear how it happens, but the brilliance of the woman's otherwise uneventful writing, painting, and sometimes music production somehow transforms, in sight and sound, into a spectacular show of great elegance for the parlor patrons.

It's quite a spectacular thing to witness--the magnification of the woman's normal activities into great spectacles in the eyes of onlookers--and I only know of this great, invisible transformation because I was once in both of their places. The spectacles blur and transform the sights and sounds for the audience, so they can see what they need to see.

Now, with all this talk of spectacles, you must be wondering about them. I can’t say much about how they work or where they come from, but these spectacles look ordinary enough: wire-framed, two shiny glass ellipses held together by a small wire arch. These special spectacles are worn uniformly, by everyone in the parlor but the performer.

In much the same way that no one is ever quite sure how they arrived in a dream, no one is ever quite sure when or how they began wearing these eye pieces—I only know of them because I was once in their place.

On second thought, there was one more thing to note about the spectacles: the wire frames didn’t just rest atop the ears. In fact, they spiraled around the ears and into the wearer’s skull at a singular point. But that’s only slightly odd, and the people of the City of Steel (and Below) don’t know much of their history, so things of this nature aren’t particularly extraordinary.

In any case, as the woman performs, the audience sits silently in awe. Those who take great pleasure in amusement clap and their eyes well up with emotion. The young up-and-comers mutter back and forth about how this performance reminds them of a performer of equal stature, as they send each other links to videos and articles for later. The serious business folk look up at the performer, down at their talent analyses, take notes for improvement, and repeat until they leave. It’s important to take things seriously, no matter what your place in life.

Between sets, the audience members talk with one another, milling about. The performer approached an old man at his usual table, with his usual drink, with a twist of lime zest.

So what do you do? She asked.

Some questions, we ask for ourselves, and some questions we ask for the benefit of the party asked.

His response was concise, comprehensive, and impressive, and she knows what important and thankless work the caverns are. He mentioned travel, hiking, and all sorts of interesting activities. He went on and on for quite some time. He gave an interesting account of history and how we’ve come to where we are. He discussed the importance of understanding one’s own self before shaping others.

It was, by most accounts, a very interesting conversation. But the performer was not taken by it. Though he was mid-sentence, the performer reached out and lifted the old man’s spectacles.

The man immediately stopped talking. He no longer wore the spectacles, and woman with fiery eyes stared straight at him. She seemed, to him, to be a different person. The performer no longer wore an ornate dress or headpiece, only jeans and a tee shirt. It was, though, unmistakably the same person: although everything about her and the room had changed, her eyes had not.

As the performer looked into the man’s eyes, she was surprised. She did not see eyes, a nose, and a mouth, as she had expected; after all, she had only removed his spectacles. Why should anything else change? But instead of eyes staring back at her, time stopped and she saw the man’s past.

Perhaps “his past” is not quite accurate: she saw a sphere of transparent impressions that the past had left behind. The sphere of impressions surrounded and slowly swirled around the old man. She observed, and noticed that these impressions were full of people, and the old man was at the center, in constant conversation with them all. These people were real, once, but now existed only as impressions.

The performer listened and realized that the old man and his impressions were discussing how he should act, now that he was in conversation with such a unique person as this performer. The impressions swayed the man this way and that, and it became clear that he had become a master of packaging his impressions into one eloquent, savvy package, to be delivered shortly.

Time resumed, and the two continued their conversation; the man’s glasses now off, and the impressions still in view of the performer. An impression of a former friend reminded him of the importance of displaying confidence, so the man leaned back, kicked one foot up, and spread an arm out across the top of his bench seat.

An impression of an old woman looked down at him disapprovingly, and an impression of his business partner celebrated a victory in a corner below—this prompted him to pontificate upon the finer points of his current, exciting work.

The performer looked about the parlor and stood suddenly. She walked to a woman in the corner, lifted her spectacles, and saw the same. The same, but a different set of impressions. She continued this for some time, yet no one seemed to notice. She returned to the old man, still expounding his experiences and accomplishments.

His voice faded away, as did the noise of the parlor, as she observed the spectacle in front of her. The performer saw that though she had conversed with the old man, he had not reciprocated. His conversation was one amongst his impressions; she only heard the results of their conversations.

Excuse me, she blurted—not to the old man in front of her, but the one surrounded by impressions—can you tell me your name?

The impressions disappeared leaving the old man looking into the fiery eyes of the performer. He couldn’t speak; he didn’t know how. Not even his name; he didn’t know his name.

The performer smiled, expressing her vague sympathies, returned to her table, and continued to write, paint, and sometimes produce music.