Follow-on to In Praise of Talent

Occasionally feedback on my newsletters and resulting conversations are more informative and meaningful than the original piece.  The “In Praise of Talent” newsletter seems to be one of those. Here is some of the feedback, a day or so after publication of the newsletter with its special nod to photographers. First, I got the following email from my friend, Paul R. Hagan, who spent his career as a professional writer:

Paul wrote: “Enjoyed your article. You must have a great laptop!”

I replied: “Paul, Thank you for the brilliant, succinct and hilarious feedback. You truly are a great writer. I was lucky to meet you when I was young. Learning through you some of the skills necessary for putting words together in just the right way was an inspiration. Being close enough to you to see how much work it was, the time and amount of effort required and what it took out of you to do it helped me understand what it meant to be a professional writer.”

And then I added this postscript: “As you can tell, I rarely bother with the hard work of getting 1,000 words down to 100, much less 9.”

Not all great writing is making things as short as possible, part of the art and special skill of copywriters like my friends Paul Hagen and Arthur Einstein, Arthur of “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz, Oh what a relief it is,” fame. Like me, my good friend Rich Marin puts only a minimal amount of effort into reducing his written output or length of his prose. Rich expressed his thoughts about my newsletter and added some significant perspective of his own in his blog post this morning, which you can see here.

My good friend David Barnett came over yesterday morning and we chatted in my workshop over cups of espresso. We discussed the newsletter and I found myself telling David I believed there was a certain level of achievement or mastery of something one had to attain before you truly began to appreciate the way it is practiced by those who make a profession of it. As we talked, I came up with four areas where I felt my experience and skills had been refined enough to genuinely appreciate how much better the pros are: photography, motorcycle riding, driving a car fast on a track and writing. During our discussion, a fifth came to mind.  But first, these four:

  • Photography: This will be quick as you’ve just read the newsletter before this, which outlines my observations of those who have perfected these skills. I’ve spent hours with pro photographers and talented amateurs and easily see the delta between what I do and their work. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a bad photographer, in fact, I’d rank myself as much better than most. But compared to them? Not really.
  • Motorcycle Riding: Over the years I’ve taken countless riding courses and tested my skills in amateur races on big name race tracks. My off road skills have been exercised in chasing the Dakar Rally and countless rides in and around Arizona, Utah, Mexico and Colorado. Finally, I performed and competed with a precision motorcycle riding team.  Without gloating or exaggeration, I believe my riding skills are better than 95% of the people riding motorcycles on the streets today. This is what allows me to see and appreciate the skills of those who ride for a living. I don’t care how good you think you are on a motorcycle, until you’ve ridden with those who ride many hours every single day of the year and their livelihood depends on this particular set of skills, you have no idea the width and depth of the gap between your skills and theirs.  I’ve been honored to ride with a host of professional riders over the years, including motorcycle cops, World Superbike and MotoGP competitors, flat-track racers and trials riders and many who teach motorcycle skills for a living.  And like my photography efforts, I know the difference.
  • Auto Racing: Although it’s been many years since I’ve tracked a car, I do know what is involved. I worked at it, read books, practiced and took lessons from very good instructors. However, it typically took less than half a lap for me to appreciate how much better my instructors were at driving my car than I was.  My most recent experience was riding with McLaren’s top test driver in a new McLaren 720S. Even on city streets and scratching ever so slightly the surface of the car’s full capabilities, his mastery of the vehicle was astounding.
  • Writing: Ha! Visitors to my home can’t miss stacks of magazines everywhere. I love those who practice this particular craft. For over 25 years I’ve nibbled around the edges and managed to get a fair amount of my work published. But I know that “real” writers hang out at places like the New Yorker, the WSJ, Washington Post or the Atlantic. Maggie is a skilled technical writer and I’ve learned the process required to be very good at that. Malcolm Gladwell gifted me with late night phone calls over a period of several weeks when he was working on one of his books and later he spoke at some conferences I’d organized. Again, the masters at this or any other pursuit, make it look easy. It genuinely is not.

The fifth area that occurred to me while speaking with David Barnett was the ability to successfully work on cars.  My friends Brett Engel, Wayne Viall, Jim Unsworth and of course, David Barnett come to mind.  Outside of the immensely competent and carefully vetted professionals who contributed to the rebuild of my Lotus Elan like Brian Duffy and Brian Buckland, these four men with day jobs did the greatest amount of work and impressed me so very much.  These four have core similarities:  First, absolute confidence in their ability to figure anything out, repair it or make it better. Second, they are always calm. They never panicked, threw up their hands and wailed, “Oh man, what are we going to do now?”  Lastly, they exuded pure joy as they worked. They were in the zone, doing something they were exceptionally skilled at doing, with friends who recognized and appreciated their talent.  For those of us around the edges of this process, it was a joy to bring them tools, run to the auto parts store, watch them figure things out and scream, clap and yell with them at winning battles along the way, like when the engine first fired to life after re-assembly.

Some of the best times of my life have been in the presence of these special people, those who have mastered one small corner of the world and play in it with such effortless joy.

In Praise of Talent

Odd, but I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to remarks praising equipment or someone’s “God-given talent,” particularly in areas where I have experience. Whether watching a consistent top finisher at a track day and hearing other riders speculate about engine horsepower, advanced suspension set up and tire choices or seeing a circulating Facebook video lauding the “talent” of a particular musician, dancer, or painter (often accompanied by a video), seems to me to miss the whole point.

A subscriber to this newsletter, a man I love dearly with a heart of pure gold texted me after seeing one of my articles saying: “I loved your story. I’m not a writer just a storyteller. I’m aware they are much the same, however, some are gifted with prose.” I texted back, saying: “Like a lot of things, more hard work than a gift.” Like the story of the guy leaving a bar, tipping the phenomenal piano player he and his pals have enjoyed all evening. He turns to his friends and says, “I’d do anything to be able to play the piano like that.” Then pauses and adds, “Well, except take lessons and practice.”

While this talent issue and natural gifts bugs me in the context of painters, musicians, writers, cooks, drivers, motorcycle riders, or actors, allow me to focus on just one area – photographers. It is where I most often hear allusions to someone’s photographic gifts, God-given talent or creativity, or worse, the brand and cost of the camera equipment, glossing over the heart of what distinguishes outstanding photographers and their memorable images from yours and mine.

Early in my writing career when magazine budgets were more robust, writers were occasionally assigned a photographer for a story, comprising a writer/photographer team. My role was to come up with the overall story structure, the introduction, narrative, and arc and making it a compelling read. Based on my verbal outline, the photographer and I would go through the week or so, with he or she creating the establishing shot and photographs that moved the story forward and tied into the narrative. It was very collaborative. On a week or longer assignment, there was a lot of time to talk – lunches, dinners, and riding during the day getting from place to place. I was curious not only about their equipment — the camera bodies, lenses, tripods, and lighting support – but their process and tricks for getting the job done. As I learned about their lives it was not uncommon to find they’d been working with cameras since high school. Over the years I’ve had the chance to work with some remarkable photographers but today as I write this, foremost in my mind are Mark Trembley, Kevin Buckholtz, Christen Phaneuf, “Seattle” Bob Meador, and Judy Zehentner.

Mark Trembley is a professional photographer who lived a large part of his life on the east coast but currently spends at least half the year in Phoenix. Mark photographs cars and, in particular, race cars and dragsters. Some of the most iconic drag racing photographs ever made have come from Mark and his camera. But Mark also photographs people, plants, landscapes, weddings, birthdays, and pretty much anything that pays the bills. You can see some of his work here.

above-door banner for B-J Collector Car AuctionMark and I met when he photographed the wedding of our mutual good friends, Brett Engel and Ranay Yarian. We became friends and a year or two later, we met to go through the Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale with Brett and automotive addicted friends. Mark brought a selection of cameras and lenses along. I remember looking at him loaded to the gills and thinking, why bother? I’d covered the Barrett Auction for several magazines over the years and found it impossible to photograph. When trying, I quickly tired of lugging my expensive camera gear with me and resented never getting a decent shot. There were always people in the way, the lighting was abysmal, and it was mind-numbing to later sift through hundreds of boring, boring, and more boring photos. It seems at Barrett-Jackson, every third person was carrying a huge camera and clicking away at a furious pace and the other two-thirds with their cellphones or smaller models. I stopped bringing my camera to these events and, instead, chose to bring along a skilled amateur photographer friend who appreciated the challenge and enjoyed the perks media passes provide.

On the that I was following my friends and watching Mark Trembley work, I remember thinking to myself, what a waste of effort. Here he is, thinking there is a decent subject a shot, how delusional can you get? I truly felt sorry for him as he lugged his heavy camera bodies and lenses through the show in what I knew to be a total exercise in futility. But then, several days later, Mark sent me a link to the results of his day at Barrett Jackson. How wrong was I? Totally, as it turns out. Mark Trembly wasn’t on assignment, but he couldn’t turn off his professional eye and polished skills. His photographs were not only stunning technically, but each told a part of the story. Taken together, they were brilliant. Just as Mark Knopfler in the song “Sultans of Swing,” from Dire Strait’s first album, seems to be musically answering the question, “Did you ask if I could play the guitar?” in the song’s final 40 seconds, so Mark Trembly’s images answered the question, “Did you ask if I was a photographer?”

Being good with a camera is not a “gift.” Bob Meador and Kevin Buckholtz contributed many terrific photographs to some of my best stories for RIDER Magazine. I’ve recently connected with both. They are life-long amateur photographers, continuing to regularly practice and hone their craft. Kevin pointed me to his Smugmug site, where he makes his work available for viewing and purchase. I subsequently wrote to him saying, “Kevin, I just spent 45 minutes looking at your photos on Smugmug.  Wow!  Your superb work sucked me in. I know many people think good photography is due to expensive gear (oh so very wrong), some innate God-given talent (equally ridiculous).  I watched you and other superb photographers work.  It’s a skill painstakingly acquired through a lot of hard work, study, and (sometimes) lessons.  Oh, and practice, practice, practice!!!   And once you acquire those skills you learn that getting a great photograph is rarely easy.  Oh sure, on a few infrequent occasions something weird occurs and you just happen to be prepared with the right camera and lens when it happens. Nearly all great photos come from getting to where you want/need to be, at some ungodly hour and it’s just freakin’ hard work.” You can see some of Kevin’s work here.

Judy Zehentner is a long-time friend now living on the east coast. She regularly posts her photographs of birds to Facebook. Her work, like Bob, Mark, and Kevin’s, goes far beyond technical mastery of her equipment and exposes a beautiful creative perspective. My niece, Christen Phaneuf, regularly astounds me with her ability to capture a host of human conditions and natural beauty in ways that tell compelling stories. Several of her photographs from her years of living in Palestine have inspired some of my wife Maggie’s paintings. Here is one of Christen’s photograph alongside the painting it inspired.

When the magazine I wrote for began cutting budgets, it became incumbent on me to not only write the stories but provide the photographs as well. Learning the technical aspects of the craft was fairly easy and after taking classes and reading a few books and a good deal of disciplined practice, I was able to get the images needed to support my stories and satisfy my editors. I learned that mastery of the technical aspects of photography was easy compared to finding and composing images in the field. Good photography can’t be reduced to a formula; it is just a lot of hard and often uncomfortable work. And of course, practice. Constant, unrelenting effort, pushing and trying new things, learning the critical self-editing tools so necessary to make progress. Could I be a better photographer? Maybe. Am I willing to put into it what Bob, Christen, Mark, Kevin and Judy do? Probably not.

This is why the line, “That’s a great photograph! You must have a really good camera,” bugs me so much. It is the photographer who takes the photo, not the camera. It is the photographer’s eye that sees the image before it’s captured by the camera, it is the photographer who frames the shot, adjusts the exposure to capture the perfect light, sets the stage and all the other steps before the camera becomes involved.

When presented with that wonderful, “nice camera, I bet it takes great pictures,” a photographer friend likes to relate this story. “At a gallery open house featuring a friend’s photographs, one of the patrons remarked to him “these are amazing photos, you must have a really great camera.” He cringed but said nothing. A few weeks later, he found himself at a dinner party at this woman’s home. She served a delicious meal and afterward, the guests remarked at the terrific food. As he left he told her, “The food was fantastic! You must have a really great stove.”

Of course, over-dramatic, but it makes the point that when a chef is talented, the equipment they use is of little consequence. Next time you see a photographic image that moves you, acknowledge the skill and work of the photographer in capturing that remarkable image, knowing it could have been with a phone camera or pricey professional equipment. It’s the photographer, not the tool, that makes the difference.

What we fear, and why?

On a Sunday earlier this spring, before the whole Coronavirus issue, Maggie and I were hiking in the valleys surrounding nearby North Mountain, in Phoenix, AZ. As we walked a couple engaged in a vigorous discussion passed us, going in the opposite direction. They were speaking Russian, a language I’ve learned to recognize. They spoke freely, with no shyness or hesitation. As we walked I was struck by what my brother, Leif, had told me about riding the Russian subways when he and his family lived in St. Petersburg.

Leif and his wife would not speak out loud on the subways. Communicating meant pressing their lips carefully against each other’s ears or those of their children and whispering quietly. He had a genuine fear for their safety if other riders had been able to discern they were foreigners. The children, however, were fine. Growing up in Russia, they had no discernible accent and could speak freely. This experience made me think about how fortunate we are to live where we do. It is unlikely anyone in the USA fears for their safety when speaking a foreign language or having an accent.

At the most local level, where we live, Americans rarely feel fear of “the other.” The Greek family that runs the bakery upsets no one. The Mexican family living down the block with the mother and father who aren’t so good at English, heading to work every morning, and often getting back late, leaving the kids to fend for themselves are completely fine. The neighbors all keep an eye out for them with a willingness to step in if anything looks amiss. Even the elderly Sikh man who’s never seen without his turban has been accepted, with some neighbors figuring out that not cutting his hair is part of his religious observance and they’re okay with that.

Given this is true, then why are we so easily manipulated to fear “the other,” by politicians and others wishing to use that emotion for their own ends? How sad when “the other” even becomes our own neighbors, friends and even family, when they have political positions different from our own. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to understand although difficult to do anything about, other than being aware and vigilant of what is going on.

Our attitudes of fear and even hate of “the other” is a primal survival mechanism. It is part of our instinct to avoid danger, to fear anything appearing to be different. It is what kept us alive in ancient times. As the writer Bill Bryson so eloquently states in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

But like many remnants of our reptilian brain, some of what goes on in that part of the brain has very little usefulness in modern society. When one race or group of people consciously or unconsciously fears for their safety, if their importance or control is threatened, they’ll develop defenses. This can quickly lead to exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race or group to justify their actions to secure their own safety and survival.

We’ve outlived most of the need for this deep-seated instinct, but it still exists and is often manipulated by unscrupulous individuals and advocators. It is easy to cause us to fear a horde of “XYZ militant terrorists,” or whatever “the other” group is that is being exploited, or “this party or people” who want to destroy our country.  It holds barely a thread of something that sounds like fact, and any actual risk of such an event or attack occurring is often so remote to be downright silly. Yet newscasts are frequently monopolized with these unlikely and remote eventualities having little chance of ever impacting a particular listener.

For instance, around Halloween, many people fear their children are at risk of being given poisoned candy by strangers while trick or treating, even though there has never, ever been a documented case of this happening. Ever. Yet “urban legends” are regularly brought up and repeated, often as fact and often on the news.

I get angry when the media blatantly exploits these deep instincts. My brother and his wife’s fears on the Russian subway were probably justified. It made sense to trust their experience and reports from American friends advising caution. But it does not make sense to trust politicians or media talking heads who exaggerate or make up facts to make us fear other people when that fear, in context, is not justified. Or, at the very least, they should be required to put the fear they’re pointing at in the context of other real risks the population actually faces. But that’s another whole set of examples and considerations.

Larsen’s Ultimate 100 Song Motorcycle Riding Playlist

A bit over ten years ago I began adding music to my motorcycle helmet for longer rides. While testing and reviewing various helmet music/intercom systems I found some did okay playing music, but listening to music while riding didn’t appeal to me. And then, all of a sudden it did, and now I love it. Not for shorter rides, 2-3 hours or less, but when on a trek of a week or more, loading up my phone with music to fit various riding moods is fun.

There are classic, even iconic, motorcycle tunes that are “required” for any serious motorcycle ride. I’ve been working on this “ultimate” list of 100 songs for the past few months. I’m ready to open it up for critique and suggestions and would love to get feedback. One important caveat – it’s perfectly okay to suggest a song to the list, but not without suggesting the song it should replace. That’s the tricky part, deciding what song the new one will replace. I debated adding my dozen or so “almost” made it songs, but decided against it. A song either makes the list or it does not. Get it?  While I’m not sure how this will work for you, here is a link where you should be able to hear these songs, in order.  If you have never been to Amazon before, it will do one thing, if you are an Amazon customer, it does something else, if you have Amazon Prime something else and finally, if you subscribe to Amazon Music something entirely different.

But even if you can’t hear the songs, most should be pretty recognizable. I’m now officially open to comment and debate. So, with no further delay, here is the list:

Playlist songs 1-10