Thursday, 7 October 2010

Dan Gordon-Levitt 1974-2010

Sliding along a sinuous highway through the chilly Santa Cruz Mountains, tracing the San Andreas fault seemed the right place to be at that moment. Although it had been growing colder each morning just inland of the northern California coast, the heated cabin air felt unbearably chest-heavy, unbreathable. As the windows dropped, the cold wind tore in, drawing close the swirling, pungent smell of sage and wild grasses. The gamey, powerful notes of the sax solo in Pink Floyd’s “Dogs of War” shook the rearview mirror, wiry and lanky and strong, undeniably charismatic. Like Dan.

But Dan is gone.

The thought made no sense. Victim of a soul-search gone awry, with another in the hospital perhaps not far behind, it felt achingly stupid and all kinds of wrong.

A chiseled and wilder-looking version of his younger brother, Dan embodied the “flow” he so earnestly practiced--in his movements, his worldly fearlessness, his written words, his skill in carefully drawing out and inspiring others. His ability to create profound imagery, to imbue a story with a potent sense of place, was impressive. (See "everything I do" on Dan's site for more.)

Dan was fit and active, a risk-taker, embracing the dangers inherent in deeply discovering life. Fire was more than his art form. It was his totem. He gave warmth to those who surrounded him, illuminated a path for those who followed, and was as beautiful, powerful, and mesmerizing as any spinning torch. He appeared entirely unafraid of life’s vicissitudes.

There was something innately childlike and charming about the immediacy and depth of the fraternal devotion between Dan and his younger brother, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, when I saw the two together. Having seen Joe’s unself-conscious idolization of “My Big Brother, My First Super Hero”, my heart aches.

As a sister, I remember how deep-seated was the need to protect my brother from harm, when we were kids. And although we’re now adults, the feeling stubbornly persists. With 6 years between us, I can remember a time when my brother was not yet in the world--the thought of his passing out of it again seems all too real and scary, and he’s been close more than once. Joe has not ever known a world without his older brother in it. Like losing a limb, I can only imagine the ache of neurons remembering replete what is now negative space, reaching out for the physical entity that slips like the last tendrils of smoke from a flame consummated. The only recourse for those that remain is to huddle together in that empty place. As our collective warmth grows, it does not replace Dan’s heat, but diminishes, in however small a measure, the chill felt at losing him.

When a soul leaves behind family and friends, the loss is deep--and burning. When the circle of that person’s energy and influence is as wide as Dan’s, like a low-lying grassfire it travels swiftly and leaves an extensive scar. Yet it does not kill the way we think it does. In the chaparral-covered hills of southern California, the ecosystem is fire-adapted; much of the biota actually need fire in order to complete a full life cycle and make room for the next generation. In the same way, our sorrow over the loss of Dan Gordon-Levitt will eventually give way to regrowth, new ideas born of his influence.

It feels like an eternity from fire season to winter rains. But when those clouds come, they eventually bring life-giving moisture, driving nutrients back into the soil. Memories once again become the seeds of renewal and inspiration. And the sun’s return refocuses its light on rebirth.

Dan’s circle of fire has not drawn to a close. A circle never ends. It is a symbol of the universe’s cyclical nature, a reminder that energy is never created or destroyed, merely changed in form and location. He is, perhaps, more present than he has ever been. May all who knew him, in whatever capacity, remain inspired by Dan’s spirit, his fiery ring of light, and share that inspiration as our circle grows, burning brighter with each laugh, each kind word, each cheer. WE have become the circle, now.

With joyful leap and Cheshire Cat grin, Dan would surely have appreciated that thought.

Fire photo: copyright Dan Gordon-Levitt,, 2006 (borrowed in grateful memory)

From sorrows to celebrations, Angela has written numerous posts about surviving life with a little inspiration at the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog. When she isn't practicing Wing Chun Kung Fu, she also shares her training trials at From Basic Training to Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey. This is an original post to World of Words. You can follow her on Twitter: @AngelOrr

Although Angela has been on a semi-hiatus while she builds a new web site, she's constantly creating something somewhere.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Hey! Wackos! Leave Them Stars Alone.

In a world where everyone is increasingly becoming part of the fish bowl, some fish are definitely bigger than others. More and more kids want to stare at them, point, and go "Oooo! Aaaah! Look at that one!"

Robert Downey, Jr is one of the Big Ones. Few share his acting prowess, his back-story is compelling, and his recent triumphs are inspirational. I'll admit to being a fan. But I'm certainly not the kind of crazed weirdo (or paparatzi) who stalks celebs through the power drink aisle of the grocery store, trying to get myself noticed on the Internet by capturing a few annoyed, famous glares.

So the dude hangs out at the beach just like everyone else. BFD.

I don't want an autograph. I don't need a photo. I don't have piles of Iron Man merch in a drawer awaiting signatures and a quick sale on e-bay. I like to think I'm a different kind of admirer, one who shares a passion. I am a fellow student of Wing Chun Kung Fu.

Surrounded by movie posters from from film festivals, love notes from my kids, and articles on geography is the only picture of Mr. Downey I've ever displayed in my home. The May 2010 cover of Men's Journal is on my wall solely because the man on the cover has his guard up. It's a daily reminder, the way some people scribble morning mantras on the bathroom mirror or put notes on the refrigerator to remind them to eat less. It's time to train.

We all search for inspiration. I believe it is a human psychological need, a survival mechanism. Our brains tell us, Find the most successful animal and copy it. We begin with our parents, our caregivers, and other family members. We turn to that "cool" kid in school, a favorite super hero, or an Olympian. We dive into books about historical figures who risked everything to achieve some great aim. And, sometimes, our encouragement comes from pop culture media. All I can say is, choose carefully.

A positive role model is understandable. But there is also some twisted part of us that wants to tear down those same people we put up on pedestals. Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy. President Obama. It's the part of us that wants to believe we are better than everyone else because it makes our tired, petty little hearts feel superior. "I'm better than that," you think to yourself. "I would never do what that person did!" Some of us read tabloid-style newspapers and web sites because we want to know that these rich, privileged people are no better than we are, that they suffer the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that they sometimes act like dumbasses just like we do. And we can vilify them with impunity.

The typical, sneaky candid photos these tabloids rely on really turn my stomach. I can understand why Mr. Downey trains so hard. He has to find peace for himself and his family, in a world of diminishing privacy, amongst crazies who feel they deserve to own a piece of him because his face is splashed 15 feet high on a glowing movie screen.

Some nut job once faked his way into an interview with Tom Cruise, then squirted him with a water-filled microphone. It could just as easily have been acid. It could have been any celebrity.

Most of us enjoy a measure of anonymity on the street, especially if we travel outside our home towns. Imagine being followed by people with cameras and Flip vids every time you left the house. There is no privacy for celebrities in public. For the more successful, there's no privacy anywhere.

Before you start whining that you'd happily put up with all of that if you could make the kind of money these people make, remember the old adage that money doesn't make a person any happier. Prince Siddhartha Gautama (a.k.a. Buddha) knew it, and based an entire religious practice on the notion.

A good fraction of the money celebrities earn probably pays for lawyers, some of whom are charged with watching over the money managers who are supposed to keep that money safe. (We've all heard stories about those money managers, haven't we?) It also pays for the security necessary to be sure no one kidnaps your kids or breaks into your house looking for treasures to hock. It pays for the guards to keep away the real wackos, like the woman who stalked Paula Abdul and eventually committed suicide down the block from Abdul's home.

Is all that money really worth it? Tough call--you'd have to ask the person who earns it.

The reason we love celebrities isn't because we wish we had that kind of money. It's because we want to be loved. We want to be important. We think we know these celebs because we see their interviews and watch their movies and we think they'd want to know us, too, because Gee, if only Angelina Jolie knew that we're just so alike! she'd surely call us up to hang out, shopping in Beverly Hills.

Stop kidding yourself.

Yes, you're a good person, a lovable person. You're also a person with faults and foibles and skeletons in your closet, just like the rest of us. You have the right to be known and appreciated for who you truly are, by those that you want to know you. But NOT by everyone.

Celebrities deserve the same.

So the next time you see this guy and his wife buying groceries, give them a break, will ya? Wave hello and leave it at that. Go hyperventilate on aisle 5.

And paparazzi, I'd suggest you folks rewrite your "Code" before you end up on the wrong side of a restraining order. Or a roll punch.

Neither the money nor the portfolio are worth it.

6/5/10: Errrhm.... All that stuff I said about the Downeys and their privacy? I take it all back. After listening to Robert and Susan Downey on Howard Stern (this audio is reeeeally NSFW!), it's clear they don't give a damn who knows what. Holy smokin' canole.

Angela writes about surviving life with a little inspiration from her family at the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog. When she isn't practicing Wing Chun, she shares her training trials at From Basic Training to Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey. This is an original post to World of Words.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Asif Akbar; Mark Seliger;

Friday, 16 April 2010

Peace At the Eye of the Tempest: Remembering Sgt. Maj. R.J. Cottle

"If at the eye of a tempest peace lies, shouldn't at the heart of darkness light await?"--Bradley Kayl

Every badge is covered with a black band. Every hand that touches the casket wears a white glove. Flag draped, the remains of USMC Sgt. Maj. Robert James Cottle slowly process down the streets of downtown Los Angeles, led by a pipe and drum band. He is followed by his wife and baby girl, family, police officers, Marines (“More Sergeant Majors than I’ve ever seen together in one place,” marvels my Marine Corps uncle), and firefighters. Every eye along the route stops to watch. The six pallbearers, all SWAT officers, walk purposefully alongside the rustic open wagon—the shortest of them is my father. The man in the casket is his SWAT team partner and Brother Warrior.

For several blocks around Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, the streets of Los Angeles are shut down. My mother is ready to jump out and hot foot the last few blocks, heels and all. But the off-duty SWAT officer in the front seat manages to weave his SUV through traffic in record time and flash his VIP badge at the final check point. Every major news station is covering the event—even the flags at the state capitol were set at half-mast, this week. KNX 1070 Radio News comes on with an update on the somber procession approaching the cathedral. They mention Dad by name.

Today, my father walks one of many routes he’s followed, both physical and emotional, since March 24th, when the call first came informing R.J. Cottle’s loved ones and closest companions that his recon group had been hit by an IED in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Dad has flown across the country and back, following R.J. and accompanying his wife, Emily, and baby girl. He and his SWAT brothers have shared stories and drinks, laughter and tears. And after nearly four weeks, it doesn't seem to have gotten one iota easier for any of them.

Everyone deals with grief in his or her own way. As parents, we deal with our children’s sorrows, large and small, on a daily basis. Sometimes it also falls to us as children to console our own parents when they walk through the Valley of Darkness. I knew there wasn’t much I could do. I’ve never been on a call-up or shared more than a dinner with most of my father’s buddies; he has never made good on his promise to take me to a shooting range. Although I’ve heard countless hours worth of war stories, I’ve never been more than a peripheral part of that world. But I can send flowers and leave a loving note. I can call and listen. I can show up with hugs, share a black-and-tan, take out the trash, and offer a pat on the back while he tweaks the eulogy. I can be there for my distraught mother, who has been with Dad through it all. I can slip Dad a Power Bar after the Hearst pulls away and he lowers his final salute. It isn’t much…it feels like nothing. But sometimes just being there is half the battle.

I look down, straighten the creases in my slacks, and hope that it’s enough.

As we leave the parking garage and walk out into the open courtyard of the cathedral, my mother halts mid-sentence to grab the hand of the first Marine she sees and thank him for his service. Startled, he puts his hand to his heart in grateful appreciation and smiles. “You caught me off guard, there,” he says warmly. A Vietnam vet, my father’s brother remembers a time when people spit on returning soldiers. As my mother walks back, Uncle Gerry takes her under his arm. He’s clearly proud. “If you keep that up, here,” he says wryly, “you’re going to be a very busy lady, today.”

We swim into a sea of uniforms and black coats as we enter the concrete and marble hall of a church built for giants. Someone hands me a program with R.J.’s handsomely-uniformed picture on the front. Looking at his picture, I can imagine his deep voice. He’s leaning on Dad’s bar, looking at me with unblinking eyes, probably teasing me about one of my lame college boyfriends, his adam’s apple bobbing as he laughs. We continue down the hallway. I am afraid to look at his photo again, lest I lose all decorum and begin to weep.

Dwarfed and subdued, we make our way to one of hundreds of pews. I’m overwhelmed by the brown, concrete walls, the massive emptiness, the clouds letting only vague hints of daylight through the opaque windows. I know I should feel cold. Wedged in among thousands of people, instead I feel comforted and calm. Looking around, I wonder if this cathedral can contain all of the grief that is palpably held barely in check.

The officers lining the hallway outside suddenly snap to attention, saluting. The first chilling strains of a lone piper’s dirge echo off the high, flat walls. Having lived in Scotland, I still connect strongly with that distinctive, lonely sound. It tears at my heart. This same piper, Sergeant Matt MacWillie, played “Scotland the Brave” at my wedding. In fact, he sat next to R.J. at my reception. These won’t be the only tears of the morning, but they are some of the most deeply personal, for me.

R.J. ultimately receives not one eulogy, but seven, from his father, sister, and boyhood friend, as well as LAPD’s Chaplain, the Police Chief Charlie Beck, a fellow SWAT Team Element Leader—my father, and a fellow Marine Corps Sergeant Major. Each of them carries within them a part of R.J. Together, they paint a vivid picture of the man, breathing life into their stories of the tall, lanky, “one hundred forty-eight pounds of twisted steel”, as R.J. once described himself.

When my father stands to speak about his partner, it’s clear from his very first words he is only marginally coping. Unlike the others who speak that day, Dad doesn’t need a microphone. His voice booms through the cathedral in what my mother calls his “work voice”, the one that cuts through high-stress moments and gets done what needs doing, the good, the bad, and the worst. Even laughing about R.J.’s Twinkie-driven escapades, he is torn up. We all are. The weight of every one of R.J.’s SWAT brethren is my father’s to carry, their sorrow his to express. When he promises R.J.’s widow and baby girl that he will never forsake them, the soul of the entire Department is behind his husky-throated words. Chief Beck echoes the same: “The Los Angeles Police Department will stand by you until the end of time. This organization is a family. And you are part of that family. If you didn’t understand it before, understand it now.”

R.J.’s wife, Emily, and his 9-month old baby girl have been met at every airport, cared for at every turn, and promised by both the LAPD officers and Marines who knew her husband that they will never be left behind nor forgotten. Because R.J. was not killed on SWAT duty, Emily Cottle would not, under normal circumstances, receive death benefits from the City of Los Angeles. That’s the cold nature of paperwork. But, true to his word, Chief Beck has taken the unprecidented step of listing Officer Cottle's death as "on duty". A family, indeed.

It hurts to see those we have always seen as a source of strength torn apart by heartache. But these are our parents and we continue to learn from them, even after we go on to raise our own families in our own ways. We are reminded that our mothers and fathers have deep, difficult, overwhelming challenges, just as we do ourselves. And it helps us to remember, in our own moments of darkness, that someone we know and love has been there before us, trampling the path, perhaps illuminating the obstacles ahead, showing us how to cope and accept our grief as part of the natural cycle of life. Without that darkness, we cannot know how valuable is the light.

My father has finally returned from Arlington, Virginia, having followed the Sergeant Major to his final rest. I’ll meet up with him soon for a black-and-tan and a Twinkie. That’s just how R.J. would want to be remembered.

Please remember the men and women of our police departments and armed services who protect you every day from dangers both global and local—shake a hand and thank them for their service. Some rarely hear the words and you have no idea how much it means to them. Don’t wait until they’re gone.

To join us in support of Emily and Kaila, please make checks payable to “Blue Ribbon Trust for Robert J. Cottle” and send them to: Los Angeles Police Federal Credit Union, Attn: Blue Ribbon Trust for Robert J. Cottle, P.O. Box 10188, Van Nuys, CA 91410.

Photo by Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times - April 13, 2010 - All rights reserved by owner - no copyright infringement intended.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Crowdsourcing at Sundance 2010: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the hitRECord Production

Every creative person has, at some time their lives, agonized over the conflicts between their creative impulses and the need to survive. Some go to art schools, take acting classes, or move to places far from home where a greater chance of securing an artistic livlihood exists. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer, Hesher) has presented a new business model: share your gifts (and your work), collaborate with other artists, and partake of the profits of the final product--and you never have to leave home.

So how does that work, exactly?

To put it simply, you agree to allow other artists to alter what you've created and (hopefully) make it better. Dan Gordon-Levitt, Joseph's brother and business partner, points out that some artists are good at coming up with creative ideas, but are stymied when it comes to execution; others may never come up with an original idea, but are great at powering up someone else's imaginary universe. So the two get together online and make something; then a third person adds music, someone else plays with the color, someone adds opening and closing credits. Everything is open to critique and alteration and the community decides collectively what works and what doesn't. It's the ultimate in online "crowdsourcing".

"Art snacks," Dan calls these short films, ripe and ready for consumption by the Internet public.

If you really want to chew on the bones of this new production company, visit the website and watch "The New Deal", which explains the whole concept in detail. Here at Sundance 2010, many of the hitRECorders, as they call themselves, have come together--both at Sundance and on the Internet, from parts distant--to complete a series of short films that illustrate how the whole thing works.

They are hunched over banks of wide-screened computers, sprawled on the carpet over keyboards, leaning against walls with laptops perched on their knees. This is the REC room, in the basement of the New Frontier venue on Park City's Main Street, across from the famous Egyptian Theater. Here, surrounded by other eye-catching visual art installations, finishing touches are being applied to the collaborative film screening in New Frontier's Microcinema on Saturday night. Though the conversations are hushed and they barely move, the energy in the room is so concentrated, I can smell it.

One white wall continuously replays pieces of Morgan M. Morgansen's Date With Destiny, starring Gordon-Levitt (or Regular Joe, as he calls himself) and the outgoing Lexy Hulme. But calling Joe and Lexy the "stars" of this film is misleading--the actors are actually two stars of a grand constellation. The rest are made up of countless people who have contributed to the creation of this project, some of them from places so removed from the traditional film scene, they might as well be downloading, altering, and sharing their work from the same moon that watches over Morgan and Destiny.

The script for this short, for example, was written by a woman named Sarah Daly, who uploaded the original text from her home in Ireland and has never personally met either of the actors. And, it's entirely possible, may never meet them.

One of the longest, continuously-contributing members of the group, Tori Watson lives in New Castle, England. She had only met two other hitRECorders prior to her arrival at Sundance, and then only briefly. "I don't get very many chances to collaborate with people in real life," she says. So the opportunity to work with an entire creative community was overwhelmingly attractive. And her involvement was what landed her here.

Like the other artists in this tiny room, Tori has been powering through the last week and a half, oblivious to the films and panels and parties going on all over town. Part of the crew had been running errands and grabbing food for the rest of the group, but lately the collaborators have taken to volunteering as runners just to get a break from the frantic online activity. Yet she doesn't appear as stressed as I imagined she should be, given her hectic schedule. It's obvious that she and the others in the room are just as passionate and excited as they are dedicated to their work.

When I tell her I have been watching the progress of the group for some time and am truly impressed by how far they've come in the last year, she suddenly switches gears. Had I recorded myself sleeping, yet? she asks. It's for another piece the group is working on, of course.

Jessica, known in the hitRECord community as TeaFaerie, floats to the floor like a multi-colored anemone, the fabric tendrils of her signature hat swirling around her elbows. As she opens her computer, she, too, encourages me to record something and upload it to the site. I had captured some low-quality footage of Joe speaking at last night's event, I tell her. But I was forced to sit in the back and all of the heads in the way made it difficult to get a clear view with my iPhone. Joe's face was also washed into invisibility by the spotlight. I doubted the film would be worth using.

"We want heads!" someone enthuses above me. Joseph Gordon-Levitt smiles as he swivels around in his chair. "It proves we were live," he says.

Well...maybe his whited-out features could be enhanced or drawn in... TeaFaerie agrees that would be a cool project and the ideas begin rolling out of her brain. At least until co-Producer Jared Geller steps in, his frustration palpable, and asks me to please let everyone get back to work. Kindness and apologies, layered over an all-business demeanor, he seems a man with a creative talent for making sure deadlines are met.

At the door, Dan Gordon-Levitt continues his personable, non-stop dialogue while shaking hands and taking pictures with bystanders. So intent is he on educating the curious, he has talked straight through chowing on the first half of his sandwich. An hour later, the other half still sits, untouched, atop the stool on which I have yet to see him alight. I could imagine he rarely slows down and happily burns the candle at both ends to make something he loves come to fruition. He reminds me of my own brother--loyal and dedicated, a great teammate for his brother, Joe.

The final project will be screened on Saturday the 30th at 6 p.m. at New Frontier's Microcinema venue. I plan to continue watching them, both here and from home; I see it as a rare chance to follow a creative business idea from its inception. Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn't plan to stop here. From publishing, to a music label, to a physical venue, if it can be recorded, he wants to be involved.

I'm beginning to believe Joe and company just might have their own Date with Destiny.