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Minerva Week 14: Apotheosis

December 6, 2014

This week, I was jolted awake by the power of art, and reminded of the importance of passion and excellence in my life. The word apotheosis came up at the very end of the week. Apotheosis happens when something crosses the threshold from impressive to transcendent. It is about reaching and moving people with the power of art (whatever that is – art can be found everywhere – in conversation, cooking, music, and even logic). It is about attaining excellence. It is a moment of unearthly brilliance that makes the long time in the trenches worth it. Nothing, I was reminded this week, becomes extraordinary without an extraordinary amount of work.

On Monday, I saw Yuja Wang in concert. At twenty-seven, she is a virtuoso pianist. She is technically excellent (her speed and precision are impeccable) but she goes beyond mechanics and adds genuine, epic feelings to her music. I could see it from the flamboyant way she dressed (the picture below is from a different concert, but the bold colour gives you a sense of her spirit). She is an example of excellence – as this short documentary about her art shows.

Yuja Wang at a recital in Singapore courtesy of Cyopang

After that beautiful evening, it was back to the trenches (where I belong! at least for now). Assignments were flying fast and furious. We learned about persuasion, scientific models, different types of data, and metacognition (how to think about our own thinking and learning). I prepared for a debate, facilitated a student learning session and collapsed on Thursday, exhausted. A yoga session at the YMCA brought me back to life, so, spontaneously, I struck out into the city in search of adventure.

By adventure, I mean of course wonderful food. I patronized a Pittsburgh-style bar at the border of Chinatown and Little Italy. My tastebuds sung as I savoured a sandwich with a fried egg, crispy smoked meat, finely cut vinegar coleslaw, french fries (yes fries! in the burger) and cheese. It was its own kind of perfection.

Above is the view from the restaurant. Below is the view of the sandwich. Sorry it was so dark!
Still in my food high, I was walking aimlessly through the streets when a man asked me for directions. We started talking and had a wonderful conversation about languages and travel. He was French, an Air Force officer who flies around and gives presentations to different NATO committees (or something like that). He also told me about a party he had come across in a hat store a few blocks away. We went and tried on hats together, as you can see below.
I left Leon to enjoy his last night in San Francisco and met up with my friends at City Lights Bookstore for a “Write Night.” The theme this week was “my word is my commitment.” We had twenty minutes to do or write anything we wanted, and then we shared whatever we felt like. Lucy, one of my friends from China, shared a poem she had written first in Mandarin and then translated into English. “It’s so hard to write poetry in your second language!” she said. I can only imagine. All four of us who came to the session pulled apart her meanings and appreciated her math analogies. It was lovely.

The next day, I went to the San Francisco Opera house… to perform!
No, not on that stage! Most of the Founding Class gathered in a practice room in the bowels of the opera building (though I suppose I should say lungs because we were on the 5th floor!). Our task? Create a school song. We had four hours (including lunch) and the highly skilled teaching artists of the San Francisco Opera company to help us. And they were masterful. A playwright helped us create lyrics, a composer helped us add music and dynamics to these words, a vocal coach helped us discover our best voices, and a theatre director gave us ideas for how to stage the song. The afternoon helped remind me how structured creative processes can be – and how useful constraints are in the process. Having to write lyrics in 15 minutes forced us to be all right with terrible first drafts.
The picture above is from the last part of our performance. There is video footage of it, and I am sure it will make its way onto the internet soon. I will let you know when it does!

At the stroke of 4:30, we turned from creators to audience members, travelling to Minerva founder Ben Nelson’s home to be graced with a private concert from Leah Crocetto, a truly exceptional opera singer.

She sang to us three times. The first two were different renditions of the same aria from La Boheme. The first was technically flawless, but it was only an impressive wall of sound. The second took that technical perfection and added to it perfomance, emotion – exactly what you see in the video above. After she sang, Leah talked to us about what it means to push for the final extra ‘oomph’ that will take a performance from good to TRANSCENDENT. She talked about the hours of work that underpin each of her notes. She spoke so beautifully of the never-ending pursuit of excellence – something that can invigorate one’s whole life.

Ben lives on a hill with a magical overlook to the city. Before we entered his home, a few of us stood and watched the city below us. I thought of how high we were. It’s lovely to have experiences of pinnacles, because it makes climbing hills seem like the only logical thing to do. We carry back with us a memory of what it means to be excellent, a sense that will guide us ever upwards, in the joy (and frustration and pain and excitement) of pursuit.

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