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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

The Lessons Within The Lesson

Jun 15 2014

Glad Tidings.  Welcome to the Innovation Center blog.

The most helpful topic for an Innovation Center blog would seem to be examining whether innovativeness can be instilled in people the way installing computer programs enables us to do different things, and if so, how is it downloaded, or learned?  Is there a single Skill Set underpinning all the other attributes that are identifiable in the majority of innovators, short of the few savants floating around, and even there?  Do innovations like the light bulb and Internet arise out of nowhere, or evolve as species do: putting similar things together again and again, and how is that done? 

In a fascinating book by James Wood called How Fiction Works, he largely focuses on what we dub colloquially as Selective Listening, or “You see what you want to see”: how the masters select what details characters (and readers) observe, to reveal facets of their character or the world around them, so we can learn from them how to be more observant and better characters, ourselves.  My whole premise, like that of the law and all of science, which people too rarely learn how to connect with the ordinary goings-on of their everyday affairs, is that Details Matter because they hold ideas together.  Now admittedly, some of the ones I put together are a bit of a stretch for many people to see the connections, but I’m also explaining at the same time, throughout, that that is the whole purpose of the arts: to expand our mind—and ourselves.
But who has time to read Flaubert, much less Tolstoy or Henry James (ouch!) anymore?  I wanna watch the game, baby!  It’s the playoffs!
But why merely watch the game when you can up your game at the same time and learn from commentators how to communicate and learn better, yourself?  It ain’t just a game; it’s ballet with a ball! 

When commentator, Kenny Smith, aka “The Rocket” from his NBA playing days, described Oklahoma-Kansas City’s center, Serge Ibaka’s defensive influence on San Antonio’s players in terms of becoming wary of a road turn after driving into a lamppost there several times, and wrapped the thought up by calling Serge “an accident waiting to happen,” one of his fellow commentators on the broadcast, Ernie Johnson, chuckled and called him The King of Analogies.  A few days later, deferring to Kenny Smith for opening comments during halftime of another game, Ernie Johnson said, “You have a way of putting things in perspective.  

Interesting Question: does life work how fiction works?  Isn’t that the whole point of it all?  To learn how to be innovative from the way writers were?  Composers, artists, writers, dancers, and architects were innovators in many ways.  Beethoven influenced the way pianos are made from the music he made.  Glenn Gould innovated our understanding of Bach by leaning over the keyboard instead of sitting back. 

Like the athletes, sports commentators vary widely in their skillfulness with both The Sound and Sense of words, which if you watch and listen carefully, work as instructively hand in hand in this venue as composers and authors like Faulkner, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Twain, Melville, Dickens, Byron, all the way-hay-hay past Swift to Shakespeare, and Dante’s first use of vernacular language in a literary work.

When Jalen Rose, formerly of the fabled Fab Five (in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “You can look it up!”), commented about Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs that he isn’t just one of the best Point Guards in the league; he’s one of the best plaaayers! Jalen was in Chris Berman (“back back back back back” when baseball outfielders run back to catch a ball, or “and he could … go … all … the … way” when football players prance into the end zone) territory. 
The former UCLA legend center and NBA Hall of Famer, Bill Walton, commented about his alma mater team during the NCAA playoffs, “Where is the shining?” to describe their hangdog appearance, compared to the joyful swagger he remembers amongst teammates and exemplified to the x-treme.
Like magic during another NCAA playoff game, the camera crew caught him watching in the stands, and one of the commentators began literally chanting Bill’s signature plaint about Big Men shying away from contact near the basket, “Throw it DOOOWN!” meaning get in there and dunk the ball, over a dozen times, softly echoing in the background while the other commentators were going about their discussion of the game, like John Donne’s proverbial “for whom the bell tolls” for all of us.  Clearly, it isn’t just the sense of the phrase that people find captivating, but the sound of Bill’s delivery that enchants us all! 
In a Star Trek episode called "The Enemy Within," Captain Kirk's emotional and intellectual sides get separated in the transporter beam.  Tellingly, his intellectual side beams aboard only after the emotional one lunges in, and arguably the most capable person in the entire universe trips on the step off the transporter platform, incapacitated right away without his emotional side, indecisive, unable to Process Information throughout the episode.  So is everyone, who is unattuned to the musicality of speech, which evokes words’ Emotional Significance. 
That’s a skill, like back-door moves and drop-steps, which people can learn and continually improve. Words often come from as many unusual angles as balls do.  Re-cognition is a function of Sound, as well as Sense. 

Another former player, Clark Kellogg, commented during the college championship playoffs about some coaches needing to intervene less with players during games because—in his opinion—they prepared for games better.  At face value, this may seem to make sense, but we educated people know that things are not always what they seem.  Even despite the staggering salaries that coaches at perennially contending universities earn, and the ever-present opportunity to leap frog from a tiny one to a powerhouse or the professional level, it doesn’t hold water that any coach would leave any stone unturned when their team is selected amongst the few that compete for a championship.  Clearly, some kind of underlying preparation enables the similar preparation that all coaches do before games to allow their team to require less intervention from the coach during games, just as chefs acquire foods and prepare them before cooking meals with them.  Athletes and performing artists of all kinds spend as much or more time practicing underlying skills, which prepare them for their work, than rehearsing games, various pieces of music, dance, or acting.  Interrreshtingly, all of them focus on the same aptitudes in exercises and drills, to improve the speed, strength, flexibility, timing, and touch, with which they perform. 

Fittingly in a distant sense—but all kinds of depths of field and peripheral matters come into play in every endeavor, if done correctly—an athlete turned actor and filmmaker, who played Sergeant McPherson in Good Morning, Viet Nam, made a movie about a Queens high school All American teammate of mine, who was killed holding up a business before taking advantage of  300 scholarship offers, which ends with a Voice Over of me while the credits are rolling, suggesting that the real basis for our success was the coach continually explaining what we didn’t understand in terms of what we already knew in a jocular manner (to put it mildly), so we didn’t have to go over the same details again and again, and could delve into them more intricately than other teams did.  Good Moooorning, Stony Brook!

Stony Brook University Innovation Center, Stony Brook, NY 11794-3775

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