Wednesday, February 10, 2016

In Other Words: Create to Understand

Dave Killen. 
George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” And when we reflect on our creations then we gain some understanding of who we are. That became clear in a free ranging conversation with Dave Killen.

Dave is married to Jacqui, a pretty amazing person for reasons to be revealed later. He is the father of Brandon, James, and Tess. He teaches at Cincinnati State where, according to Dave, “I go by Program Chair and Academic Advisor forAudio/Video Production.  Personally, I'd prefer ‘shortstop.’” But he sells himself short. This is a hot department and he works with some the most creative minds the area.

Dave and Jacqui have a wonderful sense of humor especially when it comes to announcing a holiday gift to their children. Jacqui created a poster and had it made into a picture puzzle. The kids had to piece together 250 pieces, without a visual aid, that eventually announced that they would go whitewater rafting in the spring. How much fun is that? Dave said that he would rather give experiences than material things. And what a fun way to announce it.

Dave is also the drummer for local band Pike 27, one of the most high energy and original bands in the area. (Click here to visit their website).

Music has always been a part of Dave’s life. He grew up in a musical house and he has created a musical house of his own. Instruments are all over the house - piano, guitars, banjo, mandolin, drums, and, now, a cello. “Tess plays cello. Brandon played drums in marching band and plays guitar in places around Lexington, and James plays bass. I leave musical instruments out. I don’t keep them in cases. They are encouraged to play or experiment. We have family music time after dinner. Then we might trade instruments the next night. We put the technology away and play music.” What an inventive way to bond, to allow for creative problem solving, to explore and discover, and, yes, to have fun.

And Dave understands music. He attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston (1986 - 1990). “It was a great experience,” he says. Imagine almost 4,000 talented musicians in one place and many of them go on to achieve stardom or significant influence. He recalls recording and engineering a very shy but talented classmate and singer, Paula Cole, who went on to release the monster hit “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” That’s pretty good company.  But now he is focused on recording a new record with Pike 27 this summer.

But the music had to be put on hold because sometimes things get in the way -  like cancer.


Dave was diagnosed with Large Diffused B Cell Lymphoma.  It’s never easy hearing the diagnosis, but there is no better time to be sick than now because the science is so good. And this was his second time around dealing with it, but this time the doctors would use his own stem cells to combat the disease.

The procedure is scary stuff. The doctors have to pretty much destroy your immune system and then rebuild it to kill the cancer. A medical team harvests stem cells from the blood to use later. Then comes the large daily doses of chemo which is really a “scorched earth” approach but it destroys the cancer as well as the immune system. Then the stem cells are injected and then the magic happens.  After some days the cells know what to do. And then the recovery begins. Dave says that it’s a crazy mix “of medieval and science fiction.”  Dave says, “The whole ordeal was a 6 month journey that concluded with an 18 day hospital stay.” But he is in remission and ready for the world.

Dave credits Jacqui with keeping him focused.  She “was clear that I could complain for one day, have the woe is me kind of day, but after that it was counterproductive and waste of time.” He was grateful for that because there was no sense in complaining and it kept him focused on the task.

“The disease changes you in subtle ways” that you might miss, Dave says.  For instance, one’s sense of time. He says that “it seems like years ago” when it was only the summer of 2015 when all of this happened.  And “perhaps it is a defense mechanism” to distance ourselves from the event, but “It seems more like I was watching it rather than participating in it….My part in it was much easier than Jacqui’s part in it or anyone else’s part because I was occupied. Every hour and 45 minutes they [the nursing staff] were doing something. but once I got out then I became more of a witness to it.”

So when the band rehearsed for the first time after Dave’s illness, they “picked the most high energy of high energy songs and ran through those… figuring that I might as well jump right back on.” He made it through five songs and then realized that he was back.

Dave has a surprising take on goals. “I don’t make resolutions and I refuse to make goals.….I have a weird philosophy about goal making. And I think it stems from looking instead for opportunity and not worrying toward setting long term goals. Because if I set a long term goal then … you become so invested in the success of that goal that you might miss some things and opportunity along the way. The thing that I have learned is that since I was never a good goal setter, I was always open to opportunity, and I don’t mind a detour, even if it’s a dead end, if I have an experience. So I think the journey is better maybe than the destination. And if the goal is the destination then I might miss so many things along the way that would reveal themselves as far better.  If I publicly state the goal and then I take an opportunity [when it appears] then I failed because I never achieved the goal. I didn’t like that whole approach so I didn’t set them. I remind my students that in a creative endeavor you look for opportunity.”

No to goals. Yes to opportunity.

People want to create something meaningful - whether it is an object or a life. It  is part of our DNA. Dave says, “In some ways the creative person is chasing something. There’s always that next song to write, there’s always that next chapter of the story to tell, there’s always another picture to take.”

It is an ever evolving creative process.

 “I think every successful person is creative in what they do. I just happen to use art, music, and film and video as my methods of communicating my way of storytelling. I had amazingly creative doctors and nurses who looked after me and I am thankful for that…. Creativity means that you are paying attention to your surroundings, getting the feedback from what’s going on around you, and you are willing to adapt. Creativity can take on so may different forms."

That’s true. We create in order to understand who we are and to discover our place in the world. We create to show how we understand the world so when we step back to examine what we created then we gain some insight as to who we are. Our creative acts express our narratives and allows us to understand and mature. We communicate who we are through that. And like Shaw observed, we create ourselves and that is always worth the attention.

Chuck Keller. 

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