A Simple Mind

Earlier this week, a childhood friend encouraged me to write about the shocking events that had just transpired at our Capitol. As a proud American and current resident of Washington, DC, the events of January 6, 2021, filled my heart with anger, disappointment, disgust, and rage. As much as I wanted to share how I felt, I struggled to find words that would unite instead of divide. I concluded there were none, for we had arrived at that place because one side would not listen to the other. Then everything changed.

That evening I watched a video that overwhelmed me with love, awe, and gratitude. In an instant, the inspiring story washed away the feelings that had consumed me earlier in the day. As my eyes frequently welled with tears, I was reminded of an important lesson I hope to remember each day going forward.

In 1979, Derek Paravicini was born prematurely in England. The procedures that saved his life left him blind and severely disabled. His family was understandably shocked when they heard Derek, who was 3 years old at the time, playing a hymn on the piano which he had heard earlier that day in church. The story I watched was about Derek’s life since, and the inspiration he has spread throughout the world.

Derek isn’t just an incredible pianist. His mind connects to music in a way that virtually no other has or likely ever will. He can play any song he has heard only once, in any key, and in any style such as jazz, ragtime, or classical – on demand with no preparation. Even the most accomplished pianist needs to read music to play a piece in a different key for the first time, even one they know from memory. Derek does all of this immediately in his mind – no music at all. 

For most of us, listening to beautiful music is an emotional experience, but watching Derek, who is now in his early 40s, is so much more moving. While Derek’s fingers can play Rachmaninoff, they cannot fasten a button or work a zipper. Derek has performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in concert with a symphony orchestra, but he doesn’t know how old he is. He can perform Bach, Beethoven and any pop song he’s ever heard, but when asked to raise three fingers, pushes both hands into the air, and in the innocent British accent of a child proudly says, “I can do this.” No one understands why certain parts of his brain do not function like most of ours or how it exceeds them so incredibly in another. What is clear is that Derek communicates with other humans through music, and his primary message to them is one of love. His communication skills have developed enough over the years that even away from the piano his love for people shines through, compelling Derek to ask people he’s just met if they will come visit him or when he will get to see them again. 

Words cannot communicate the emotions I felt watching the story of this musical savant. But, perhaps I can explain the lesson it taught me on the eve of January 6th. I don’t understand how Derek’s mind works, but I am convinced he is incapable of feeling anger, hatred, or judgement. For some unknown reason, God gave him the miraculous ability to communicate with other humans only through music. When I see the joy and happiness he brings to people through the only medium of communication he has, it makes me cognizant of the incredibly heavy burden of choice. Unlike Derek, our minds have the ability to choose anger over compassion or hate over love. Proverbs tells us “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If we consume a diet of hateful, judgmental, angry news, we will eventually find it is how and what we communicate with others. Derek’s lesson to all of us is that our world is an infinitely more wonderful and livable place when we choose love, compassion, and kindness. 

True Strength

St. Francis de Sales said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” I have had the honor to work with and know some true men in the Army and FBI. Those quiet professionals and tender warriors embody St. Francis’ words. They live them each day. They stand in stark contrast to what many in the world define as “manliness.”

As we are constantly bombarded with news, tweets, and social media stories about the events in the world, I find it necessary to reflect on the “real” men I’ve had the privilege to know. One of those men, my art history professor at West Point, spoke five languages, served multiple tours in Vietnam, and had a PhD in literature. He pointed out that many of the paintings and sculptures of great warriors show them reading while their weapons are slung across their backs. They did not find joy in fighting, but did so when called upon. When given the chance, they chose art, family, music and literature over war. The warriors I know are the toughest of men by the world’s standards, but are also the most tender.

I am saddened to watch those who our media often presents as men. Too often they are the antithesis of the real men I’ve known. The warriors I know do not bully, they cherish. They are not cruel, but caring. These men inspire instead of insult. They mentor where others intimidate. They do not need to explain they are strong. They simply are. As we seek role models and leaders, we need to start looking for those who are gentle. For in them, we will undoubtedly find real strength.

Selective Hearing

I’ve spent much time recently reflecting on my last post, “Brief Rebirth,” and our collective need for more frequent spiritual renewal and emotional rebirth. In a society filled with non-stop news, tweets, and an endless supply of divisiveness, our choice of “input” matters. Thanks to technology that brought many improvements, we can also click one button and be directed to bad news, hateful speech, and a variety of information that drains our souls and inevitably turns us against one another. The bad will remain available to us, but so will art.

Several days ago I heard Mozart’s Requiem Mass in the Basilica of Saint James in Old Town Prague. Afterword, I compared what I thought of mankind and others around me with my feelings after reading the day’s news. As Mozart washed over my soul, I felt the beauty of mankind, the goodness of others, and sat in awe as a young woman in front of me signed the Requiem to the deaf girl next to her. At that moment I was incapable of feeling divisiveness, anger, or fear. The music and the art around me had overpowered those emotions and replaced them with those I aspire to experience constantly. Don’t we all long to feel that way more often?

While searching for quotes that might express my feelings more eloquently, I read inspiring words by Beethoven, Plato, Shakespeare, and many others. I settled on Bono who said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” I believe it and all art can, even if for just a moment. When we choose music and art over tweets and bad news, we fill ourselves with fuel that empowers and inspires us to make the world better. Spend a day or a week choosing art and music over tweets and links, and I assure you, the world will suddenly appear infinitely more wonderful.

Brief Rebirth

I recently heard a musician say we leave classical music concerts reborn, if only for a moment. Having experienced this many times myself, I began thinking more deeply about the idea, and believe it applies to anytime we truly experience art.

Various dictionaries define “rebirth” as: Spiritual regeneration; new or second birth; renewed existence.

Having grown up with a mother and grandmother who were both amazing professional musicians, I began attending symphony concerts and operas at a very young age. Appreciative of all arts, my mother also took me to art museums every chance we had. While I may not have appreciated these excursions as a young, rambunctious boy focused on sports, I now realize it is one of the greatest gifts my mother could have possibly left me.

As I stare at a moving photograph or painting or listen to a great orchestra or choir, I am always transported and transformed. Art makes us better humans, even if for only a brief moment. How many times are we speechless leaving a concert hall having just experienced Beethoven, Mozart, or Rachmaninoff? Where are our words while standing before a Van Gogh, Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Monet? These are moments that transcend words. These are experiences of our hearts and emotions not our brains.

This truth is almost undeniable. Mozart composed his Requiem in 1791. Leonardo da Vinci started painting the Mona Lisa in the early 1500s. Beethoven penned the Moonlight Sonata in the early 1800s. Why else would we still marvel at these and other great works of art hundreds of years later if they didn’t allow us to become better humans, even if only for that moment?

As the pace of life in the 21st century escalates seemingly on a daily basis, I often find myself missing the art around me. I live in a city filled with classical music, art, and some of the most amazing architecture ever built, but can easily pass an entire day focused only on the task at hand. If we are to be reborn, renewed, or spiritually regenerated we have to slow down and let it happen. We have to stop and allow art, whether old or new, to penetrate our souls and stir our emotions. If we are to become better members of this human experience we have to look and listen for more than a tweet or text. We must experience art.


Life’s Secrets

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about what the great photographer Elliott Erwitt once said – “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place . . . I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” My personal journey in photography is teaching me the truth of his words not only when I pick up my camera, but more importantly as I live my life.

As with so many famous quotations, it’s easy for us to read Erwitt’s words and see their value. But it’s the actual ability to see the ordinary in a special way that can challenge us for a lifetime. Even when we see it once or in a particular place, we may completely miss it the next time. I’ve learned through my own photographic experiences that my best pictures come to me in those instances when I’ve opened my eyes to see something special in what others have ignored as ordinary.

When I examine the “great” photographs that make an undeniable and often unavoidable impression on me, I find they share a common trait. They connect me to an emotion or emotions I’ve experienced in my own life. The subjects of those photographs are often “ordinary” things, but take me back to places I’ve been or make me dream of places I hope to one day visit. Many of these amazing photographs are of ordinary people who simply had the courage to share their emotions, whatever they were, with the photographer.

Thousands of tourists walk past hundreds of cafes each day in Prague, and few ever bother to notice. But the “right” photograph of a “simple” café can ignite my taste buds, allowing me to taste a hot croissant I ate decades ago. A picture of a tram on rainy day might allow me to once again enjoy that wonderful and unique smell of ancient cobblestones when they’re wet. Great photographs accomplish these amazing, nostalgic feats in ways words cannot.

If my observations are correct, my desire to capture these moments on film requires of me something greater than any technical competency I could ever achieve with a camera. I must live. How can I seek and take that photograph of a café if I have never sat for a moment and feasted on a hot croissant, fresh from the oven? If I rush to and from work each day, will I ever notice the smell of rain on old cobblestones? How can I ever photograph the majesty and grandeur of the Prague Castle in a way that will impact others if I have not stood in awe at sunset and simply watched as the sky fades and the lights illuminate her? How will I ever take a great portrait of another human if I don’t stop, talk to them, and dare to share my emotions? I think Erwitt was right – it has little to do with what I see, but how I see it.

From Within

I once attended a concert featuring classical music from popular movies. The film clips were shown on the screen without music. The members of the audience were surprised to realize a silent great white shark was not so menacing, or that they weren’t immediately moved to tears by a clip of Schindler’s List without the sad wailing of violins. When the clips were replayed with the live orchestra performing, the importance of both sight and sound to our sensory experience was quite obvious and moving. While scientists provide a complicated yet plausible explanation, I prefer to marvel at the inexplicable and beautiful relationship of the mind and heart to art and life.

My fascination with this subject was recently piqued while watching a documentary film called “Hello, I Am David,” about pianist David Helfgott, the subject of the Oscar winning film Shine. After experiencing a nervous breakdown in his 20’s, Helfgott spent 11 years in an institution where he was deprived of music. Only after he was reunited with a piano did his recovery begin. Although he still suffers behavioral effects from his past, his intense love for music and people is unavoidable and undeniable. Throughout the film he constantly wanders off to ask people their name and where they’re from in his almost unintelligible, rapid speech. Then he hugs them, often not wanting to let them go. Moments later the same man, who at times seems completely disconnected from reality, sits at a piano, playing some of the most beautiful music ever performed, leading those who listen to depart from reality as well.

I had a similar emotional experience recently as I photographed the sweet soul above on the streets of Milan. As with David Helfgott, I had no way of knowing what was going through her mind as we interacted. We had no common audible language, but her tenderness and sincerity were obvious. When I approached her, she smiled and reached out to hold my hand. I sat with her for a while as she spoke Italian and I answered in English, both somehow understanding that we were connecting in a way that transcended unneeded words.

My experience with her in Milan and the life and music of Helfgott remind me of the richness and depth that come from someone’s soul when, and possibly even more so, words cannot suffice. These two unrelated events fed my emotional appetite in ways that words cannot describe. They inspire me to find ways to keep words from getting in the way as I wander a world filled with strangers whose inner beauty is waiting to be shared.

A Simple Act

Turn on the news these days, and the story is the same. It seems the only “news” worth reporting is the latest despicable thing one of the candidates for President did or said, or a Kardashian being robbed, cheated on or divorced. Watch or read the headlines for a few days in a row, and it almost starts to feel normal.

It isn’t. Turn the TV off or put the newspaper down. Walk outside. Walk through a crowded city. Take in the surroundings and dare to interact. It will change you. It never fails to change me, if even for a moment.

Sunday afternoon I strolled through Prague with my camera as I often do. No agenda. No quota on the number of photos I would take. I just walked and looked. While passing through Wenceslas Square in Prague, thousands of tourists were taking in the last days of the season as autumn rolled in. As the shoppers and sightseers hurried past me, I looked over and saw this gentleman sitting by one of the sidewalk’s many retail stores.

I wasn’t surprised when we made eye contact. I think I was the only person among the thousands who had acknowledged his existence. Whenever I meet someone I want to photograph, I start with English and switch to Russian if that fails. Occasionally, as with him, we shared no common verbal language. I raised my camera in what I suppose to be the international language for, “Do you  mind if I take your photograph?” The man shrugged his shoulders and smiled. What happened next is why the moment, in retrospect, has moved me so.

This man, whose name I never learned, and whose only English word was “homeless,” sat patiently as I photographed him. He removed his hat and smoothed his hair for the camera. He shifted his position, obviously believing it would be better for a photograph – it was. He was not hoping to gain more followers on his Twitter account or garner a more lucrative contract. It was obvious he did these things because I’d simply shown interest in taking his photograph. People frequently walked along the sidewalk between us, forcing me to wait for the next frame. I made multiple adjustments between shots to ensure a proper exposure. And he waited. After I had the shot above, I thanked him. We shook hands. His grip and eyes communicated to me he had enjoyed our brief connection. I’m certain it meant even more to me.

The word genuine is defined as truly what something is supposed to be; authentic. His act was simple. But when compared to those who frequently appear in our news and on our debate stage, his seemed infinitely more sincere, incredibly more genuine, and absolutely a reflection of who he really is. It was refreshing to spend time with someone real.


Something to Say

It has been well over a month since I posted. While it’s true I’ve been traveling, that doesn’t explain my absence. When reading Oxford’s definition of a blog – “a regularly updated website or web page. . . that is written in an informal or conversational style,” I was surprised to learn it had nothing to do with content or what the “blogger” wants to say. Perhaps that explains why there are millions of them, and why they created a word to describe those who write them. This is not an insult of “bloggers,” but a realization that I am not one. I care about what I write, not how frequently I do it. That is why I have not written in approximately six weeks – I had nothing to say. Or more accurately, I’d not slowed down long enough for thoughts worth sharing to reach the place in my mind and heart where I can no longer keep them to myself. Luckily for my soul, which is the greatest beneficiary of these posts, I’ve had time to slow down, to think, to reflect.

Several weeks ago I had an interesting conversation about art and photography while riding the metro to work. I shared my website with my fellow commuter, and had forgotten about the encounter until I received an email from him yesterday. He wrote, “when I see something which is really true, lacking any attempts of cheap effects, then I know it. And your photos make me watch them, stand up, go and think for a while, then come back to the computer and watch them again.” It was perhaps the greatest compliment a photographer could ever receive, worth more than any commission or exhibition.

His words led me to reflect on why I choose the subjects I photograph, particularly the people. Which word best describes the feeling when I walk past someone I know I want to photograph? Again I turned to Oxford: Fascinating – “extremely interesting.” No, it’s more than interest. Intriguing – “arousing one’s curiosity or interest.” Not enough. Compelling – “Not able to be resisted.” Closer, but it still does not fully describe the feeling. Perhaps it’s indescribable. But, I know this – I feel it.

When I slow down, I seek. I search. I look for stories. Anyone who has been on this earth more than a few years knows life is filled with a wide range of emotions – good, bad, happy, sad, fulfilling, devastating, intimate, impersonal. Our experience of, not texting or blogging about, this ever changing roller coaster of emotions IS the human experience. They, not words, are what define us. They are our life.

When I walk the streets with my camera, I look for those emotions. I search for people who have removed their mask, even if just for a moment, allowing those willing to look a glimpse of the marks, blemishes and scars of their lives. In almost every instance, my interaction with them is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. Their gracious nature reminds me of the freedom in taking off the mask, of being who we are, and allowing our experiences, good or bad, to unashamedly be part of who we are in the present.

I choose the subjects I do because I believe what the late photographer Edward Steichen once said – “Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.” I photograph them because I want to understand myself.


The Oxford dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination. . .producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” If it is in fact measured by its beauty or emotional power, I had the opportunity to “live” art to its extreme earlier this week.

On Monday evening, I sat in the Church of Mother of God before Tyn in the Old Town Square of Prague and listened to a live performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Construction of the church, which is one of the most visited and photographed of Prague’s many architectural masterpieces, was begun in the 14th Century. Hundreds of years later in 1791, Mozart wrote his famous Requiem. To witness both forms of art together was a magical experience of beauty and emotional power words cannot describe. I can only share the thought which circulated in my mind and soul as I listened and looked.

As I sat allowing the music, late Gothic architecture and gilded sculptures to pierce every part of my soul, I marveled that humans created them. My mind imagined what Mozart had been thinking while composing the beautiful mass. I wondered what had inspired the architects and sculptors as they built the monument to God in the 1300s. I could not escape the thought, the undeniable reality, that something much bigger and greater than themselves had produced such artistic ability and mastery.

For those who believe man does not exist for any great reason, or who think we evolved from a single cell, I challenge you to witness art at its most intense extremes, as I did this week. If you do, I believe you’ll agree only a Divine Power can produce such music, such art, or a human, such as myself, who can be so moved by them.

Simply . . .

Frederic Chopin said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is the simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” In photography, I have been going backwards lately. Having developed my passion for photography over the past six or seven years, I “grew up” in the digital age. But, the more I move from the technical to the artistic, the more drawn I feel to things of the past.

The photograph above was taken with a $65 East German camera made in the 1950’s. I picked it up at a used camera shop in Prague last week. While the benefits of the digital age are numerous and well documented, there still exists an indescribable allure to film photographs. This pull has led me to ask many questions lately and examine much about life. What is it about the light, the grain, the simplicity of a photograph taken with a film camera that appeals to me and others? The same can be asked of music. While digitally mastered music is undeniably more “flawless” than vinyl, why are young people today discovering the simple pleasure of 33 rpm disks and turntables?

I believe it has something to do with how complicated all our lives have become with smartphones, TVs that make decisions and recommendations, and other technology that practically feels and thinks for us. It brings us back to Chopin’s observation that simplicity is the final achievement. When we look at a photograph or listen to a song, we don’t want someone or something else to feel for us. We want that simple pleasure for ourselves. The more complicated and complex life becomes, the more we humans crave and need simplicity. For me, loading a roll of film into a simple, 65 year old camera and wandering the busy city filled with the most advanced technology on earth is incredibly relaxing and fulfilling. Hearing the shutter fire on the old camera feels almost elegant in its simplicity. Leonardo da Vinci may have been onto something when he said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

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