Monday, July 30, 2012

Hard to Love

You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
Matthew 5:46

I've always liked Jesus' admonition to the self-righteous leaders who tried to discredit him by pointing out the low moral character of the company he kept. The high contrast between neighbors and enemies and the counter-intuitive nature of praying for some who persecutes you challenges us in a clear and meaningful way. However, because the contrast is so high, the challenge so great we often miss its implications on a day-to-day basis.

It's sometimes easier to think about loving a theoretical enemy than it is to think about loving a not-so-lovable coworker or one of your kid's friends who influences her ways you'd prefer she avoid.  Oftentimes we've got the 'love your enemies' part down; we just don't do so well with the 'love your sister-in-law who never listens' part. However, Jesus' point wasn't to love the extremely unloveable; it was to love, period. 

If you're with me so far, then next question is: what does it mean to love?  Again, this may be more challenging than it appears at first blush. Let's immediately eliminate the association of love with any action simply by qualifying that action as 'tough' love. While I agree that there are plenty of times when loving someone requires action that they might not appreciate in the moment, those times are exceptional. If you find yourself frequently employing "tough love", then you're likely not loving. You might want to check in with yourself on that one.

Next, let's get rid of the "do no harm" definitions of love.  Love is an active process, not a passive one and while one can actively avoid harming someone or something, those actions represent a minuscule  portion of the 'not-harming' that each of us does. Certainly we don't love everything that we don't harm.

So love is active and love is only infrequently 'tough'. What else is it? Here's the part that I find the most challenging if I follow into Jesus' statement to a logical conclusion. If to love means to love anyone, even the most unloveable, then love is unbiased. When you combine love being unbiased with love requiring more of us than to do no harm, then you get to the challenging part: at least, that is, if you're a finite being. 

You see, we tend to spend most our love on those close to us, our children, our partners, our friends and family.  Sure, we don't actively harm others we encounter on day-to-day basis; however, it's likely that we don't actively love them either.  There can be made arguments for the perpetual supply of love to those who love actively and in big ways, that those who love big and love often tend to have more love. However, in the end each of us is still finite. Hence the challenge: if love is an directed action (not just a feeling) and love is unbiased, then at some point you must love someone less in order to love someone more.

Although it did occur to me, I'm not talking about defining fine-grained quantitative metrics for love that can be measured so as to guarantee the equitable distribution of love. I'm just talking about sharing the wealth a bit. More and more, I see people who limit their love to their own: parents who spend all they have on their own children, but do nothing for other children; friends who go out of their way to support one another, but do little for anyone else; partners who develop a symbiosis that demands more and more of each other's time and attention. It's as though there were all these coexisting but rarely interacting bubbles of love floating in a void.

You stand in near the front of the line at the coffee shop and notice a friend near the back. You invite him to join you up front. 

You notice that the folks throwing the party didn't plan for as many guests as showed up and that before long, all the barbecue chicken and corn on the cob will be gone. So you take extra for your friends who haven't arrived. 

Each of these actions may be loving, but they're loving at the expense of others rather than at your own expense. 

What might you do instead? You could join your friend at the back of the line. You could offer your late arriving friends your portion of food or tell the host that you'd be glad to run to the store and purchase more.  It may seem a subtle distinction or that I'm nitpicking; however, I think the implications are significant and the actions those who want to love actively and unbiasedly.

Today, as you perform your miraculous acts of love, think about the tradeoffs inherent in each one. How does your love for one person impact your love for others? What might you do differently to help fill the void that surrounds your bubble.

Happy Monday,

Friday, July 27, 2012

Thinking Backwards

As we talk this morning, Iris walks over to the table and picks up a book she's been reading. She explains that it combines many of the ideas of positive psychology and happiness in general with linguistic theory and the implications of language on how we think. She's gets excited as she tells me how there are some people who think backwards; they get lost when you start from the beginning and build up an explanation, but do just fine when you start with the conclusion and work your way back.

Before she even begins explaining what she means by "think backwards", I think, "Oh, yeah. Just give me the conclusion; I'll figure out how you got it."

After she explains it, I say, "Hmm... I must be one of those people."

I never put it together before this morning; I learn best when someone tells me a conclusion and then asks me to figure out how they arrived at it. Whenever someone presents information in the other direction, starting with the basics and slowly building to a conclusion, I... well, it's kind of torturous. My mind races with each point asking, "OK, so why did she include that bit of information? Where is she going with this?"

However, if someone just says, "Here's the answer. How'd I get it?", then it's all peaches and cream.

Granted many of the torturous aspects of listening to someone explain something have to do with the poor quality of the explanation, e.g., inclusion of erroneous or irrelevant facts, flaws in logic, or poor use of analogy. Still, even when the quality of the explanation is excellent, I would rarely prefer to hear a step-by-step explanation than a conclusion with the opportunity to ask a few questions.

Oftentimes, while trying to win me over to a point, someone will undermine his efforts simply by taking time to explain his conclusion. Had he simply stated his conclusion, I might have said, "Sure! I agree." However, if his explanation is overburdened with irrelevance or bereft of logic, I have a hard time agreeing with him even if what he's saying is something I already believed.

Poor quality aside, I was taken this morning by the thought that there are apparently many people like me (people who think "backwards"), and that many of them struggle with standard explanations the way I do. I got to thinking about how we teach others. A forward thinker will likely have difficulty teaching a backward thinker and vice versa. If the teacher wants to be successful, then she might reverse her approach. If the student wants to be successful, well... I haven't figured out that one yet.

A side effect of teaching backwards is that it allows you to teach people way smarter or skilled than yourself. One of the issues I have with traditional classroom models is that the capacity of the class is often limited by the capacity of the teacher. In some cases, teachers feel threatened by students who are "smarter" or know more than than they do. In others, the teacher simply slows or limits progress. However, when you teach backwards, then your job as teacher is more that of facilitator than professor. In that case, the most important thing is to adeptly pick the next conclusion to pursue and to help ask useful questions.

I found all this kind of fun and exciting.

Happy Friday,

Thursday, July 26, 2012

VIP Thursday

Please see VIP Wednesday and give it another try.

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

VIP Wednesday

How the time flies. Yes, it's true. We've arrived at another VIP (Very Important Person) Wednesday, a day on which we celebrate the most significant people in our lives.

You might say, "Wait a minute! I don't need a special day as a cause for celebration; I celebrate the most significant people in my life every day."

That may be true, but consider this for a moment. It may well be that the most important people in your life are ones whom you've come to take for granted or not notice at all. We often view taking someone for granted as a bad thing; we see it as a reflection of not valuing someone. However, there are many times when take for granted people whom we value greatly. Taking them for granted is a side-effect of deep trust and great comfort.

For example, there's a rule of thumb in IT that the best you can hope for is to go unnoticed. IT folks tend only to get noticed when things aren't working. People tend not to call the IT department when everything's flowing smoothly. On VIP Wednesday, you might decide to celebrate your IT Help Desk. You could drop-off a pizza just before lunch time or hand out iTunes gift cards.

Sometimes the people whom you take for granted are the ones with whom you're most in sync. Over time I've worked with several people where our economy of communication was so efficient and our thought processes so aligned that it was wasteful if we were ever in the same place at the same time. My buddy Jonathan and I worked together for years, but rarely attended the same meetings or reviewed what each other had done.  It was quite easy either of us to take for granted that the other was doing what needed to be done in the most effective way possible. We could go for months without talking directly and still be on exactly the same page.

Sometimes we ascribe VIP status to people, not because of their positive influence in our lives, but because we feel we should or because they demand it. It can be that the people who offer you the least demand the most. This draws away attention from those whom you've come to take for granted.

Regardless of who or why, the first step in celebrating VIP Wednesday is to crank up your awareness of the people in your life who do things that benefit you. They may do so intentionally; however, the benefit may simply be a side-effect of something they'd do anyway or a byproduct of who they are in general. The thing is to open your awareness to who they are and what they do, and then to create a sense of gratitude for it.

The second step is to act upon your gratitude. Be creative. Be funny. Be celebratory. Be happy.

That's about it. Easy-peezy.

Happy VIP Wednesday,

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Do you know what motivates you more than anything else? It's probably not what you think it is. It's not your family. It's not your job. It's not your latest cause. It's not alcohol or drugs or food.

The number one reason you do what you do is: inertia, or from a different perspective, momentum. Every other motivation pales by comparison and it's pretty much the same for everyone.

After hearing an infomercial on the benefits of collard greens, you decide to pick up something new while at the supermarket. However, the overwhelming majority of items in your cart are ones you purchased before. The market is the one you visit every week. Unaware, you use the same algorithm to discern the fastest checkout line. Pushing your cart out the door, you autopilot to the same place in the parking lot that you always park your car. Driving home, you zone out a couple of times, but still manage not to miss any turns.

With only minor variation, your shopping experience this week is the same as last week. Over long intervals, the minor changes may add up to something significant, but not from week to week.

Why? Well, over time you developed a pattern for shopping, one that works for you. The pattern makes shopping more efficient; you get done quicker. The pattern makes shopping more effective; you easily find the items offering the greatest value proposition. The pattern makes shopping less demanding: you really don't have to think much to do it. That pattern works, so you stick with it.

If the pattern is effective and productive, then you might call it momentum. However, if the pattern were holding you back in some way (e.g., keeping you from buying the best items to help your partner drop some pounds), then you might call it inertia. Regardless, the way you shop today is almost entirely defined by the way you shopped last week.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to shopping. We use momentum/inertia in pretty much everything we do. Momentum/inertia determines whom we see and whom we don't, how we conduct conversations, how we approach work, when and what we eat, whether or not we exercise and how. It's the primary influence on how we practice, how we make love, how we engage new ideas, how we think.

Momentum/inertia is such a pervasive motivator that we often fail to see it as such. It's like gravity holding us in the orbits that we call our lives. It's no wonder that it can be so difficult to make meaningful and lasting change. Each time you try something really new, you're essentially attempting to defy gravity. You may glide for a bit, but then the force of momentum/inertia pulls you back to earth. You may even fly, but rarely do you break free and escape the gravitational force altogether.

When you do, if you're not diligent, you find yourself entering the orbit of another momentum.

Don't get me wrong; momentum can be a good thing. It helps make life easier. However, you can't have momentum without inertia. They go hand in hand; making one thing easier always makes something else more difficult. The thing is to be aware of the tradeoffs and then actively decide whether or not you're getting all that you want.

Breaking Momentum
I've found the easiest way to break the chains of momentum is to practice with little things. Actively and deliberately change little things in your MO on a daily basis. If whenever you pick up your guitar, you play a certain riff to loosen up, then play another one instead. If you always purchase a certain brand of cereal, try a new brand taking time to read the labels and compare. If family members always sit at the same place at the table, have everyone switch.

Little acts of momentum-breaking have the effect of stretching your muscles before you run. You work free mental tissue that have seized up. You open channels of awareness that have been closed. You become more flexible and creative. Little acts become bigger acts.

Studies suggest that the frequency of disorders like alzheimer's corresponds directly to the degree to which one's life is guided by momentum/inertia and that by constantly breaking patterns, one can avoid the effects of the disorders.

Whether or not that's the case, I know from my own experience and watching others that people who diligently monitor and maintain the effects of momentum in their lives tend to do much more of what they say the want than people who don't.

What about you?

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, July 23, 2012


I'm good at recognizing patterns and guessing at the implications of those patterns. I've always been good at it. I think that probably everyone is. However, most never develop it.

When others recognize you as good at pattern recognition (they might call it something else like insight or intellect), they call you genius.  However, along the way they may call you "idiot savant". Starting out, they usually just call you "idiot".

Fortunately for my pattern recognition skills, I'm also a blurter. As an adult, I've learned to slow my blurting by redirecting blurts through my hands (fingers rolling) then my feet (toes tapping) then my waist (slight rocking) then my thighs (slight bouncing off my seat) and finally out my mouth.  Circumstantial change that occurs as my blurt routes through my body often alleviates the need to blurt; the blurt is thereby avoided.

As a kid I was not the fine specimen of blurt-control that you see before you today. I just blurted. I blurted all the time. 

I see a pattern. I get excited by what it might mean. I say it aloud. 

It's only after the aloud part that I notice that perhaps my blurting is inappropriate or unwelcome. It might be the "what-the-hell-was-that" look on the faces of the kids in class. It might be the late arrival of awareness that the classroom's ambient sound-level just dropped from something to nothing. It might be the teacher pointing towards the door indicating that I am to go sit in the hallway until I learn not to disrupt class. It might be Kurt Keizer saying, "What's that got to do with anything, idiot."

None of these responses was one that I welcomed. As a kid, I dreamed of fitting in. I didn't care about being cool; I just didn't want to be ostracized. If it were not for blurting, I'd have never done anything with the patterns I saw other than to keep them to myself. Blurting led me to development of my pattern recognition skills. 

For example, my brother and dad are working on the car. I wonder into the garage and listen to the engine as it struggles to start. It reminds me of the sound of Rick Montgomery's GTO when the fuel mixture was too rich (at least, that's what Rick called it). I blurt, "Sounds like the fuel mixture is too rich."

My brother and dad look at each other incredulously. My dad says, "What do you know about fuel mixture?"

I start to answer, but then see from the look on my dad's face that the question was rhetorical. I go back into the house and listen to some music.

It wasn't until I was twelve, that my pattern-recognition/blurting combo started paying some dividends. When I began playing saxophone, I found a new channel for blurting. I'd recognize a musical pattern and play it on my sax. As soon as I learned what the notes were, I started playing songs. If there was something on the radio I liked, it was easy to find the patterns in the notes and play them.

To someone watching, it might have seemed miraculous that I could hear all those notes and all the relationships among them. However, I didn't. I just heard a relatively small set of patterns put together in new ways.  It was easy.

I was still a blurter. During rehearsal, the band director works with the trombone section to learn their parts. He walks through each part one-by-one, singing it so that the trombonists can hear what's written on the pages before them. He stops and says to the section, "OK, let's try it."

The whole time, I'm sitting over in the sax section waiting to play. As the trombone players put there horns to their lips and the director lifts his baton. I quietly (so I think) fly through each of their parts on my saxophone just to see if I heard them right. The director looks at me and points his baton towards the door. I go sit in the hallway.

Over time, my pattern-recognition/blurting began to serve me well. Executives at our company started asking me my opinion on various challenges they were facing. They'd ask me to sit in on meetings and tell them what I thought. One day, the VP of research at Bell Labs came to me and said, "Hey, I've got some guys who've been working on a complex project for several years now. They want me to continue funding it. I'd like you to sit in on their next meeting, and then come tell me what you think."

I go to the meeting and listen to the researchers frame the problem and the state of their research. As I listen, a pattern forms. Seeing it, the researcher's framework seems overly complicated. I say, "Wouldn't all this be easier if we just..."

I look around and it's as though I'm back in fourth grade or in the garage with my dad and brother. The meeting continues. I see another pattern. I blurt. Pattern. Blurt. Pattern. Blurt.

At the end of the meeting I say, "I must have missed something, because, if all you want to do is get from here to there, then it would seem that you only need to do this."

I wasn't invited back to the meeting. However, the VP of research invited me to join the research division.

As I said, over time I learned to manage my pattern-blurting. However, there are times when I wish I hadn't. The one I recall most viscerally was just after my mom went into the hospital following a stroke. It was Thanksgiving, 2001, just a few weeks before my mom died from pancreatic cancer.

A day before Thanksgiving, I get a call that my mom is in the hospital. She's had a stroke. I drive from Boston to New Jersey. Pick up my dad at his place and head to the hospital. We get to my mom's room. You can see the effects of the stroke in the left side of her face and how her left arm hangs to her side. My mom speaks with some effort. Her speech is a bit off, but not bad.

We talk a bit. I leave my dad with my mom so I can find a nurse or doctor to see what's going on. They explain that my mom has had a stroke, that she's been on blood pressure medication for some time now and that the stroke and increased blood pressure are likely related. I ask what they're going to do.

The doctor says, "We'll probably put her on blood thinners to reduce the likelihood of another stroke, but we can't do that until we've run more tests. The doctor gives me a litany of reasons to run the tests and the potential risks of not doing so."

My mind races through everything I know and I'm ready to blurt, "Just put her on the blood thinners."

But I don't blurt. I just say, "OK."

That night, my mom had another stroke. They started the blood-thinners immediately. However, the second stroke left her without speech and with significantly more paralysis.

Every once in a while I think of how things might have gone differently had I just blurted. How my mom might have spent her last few weeks being able to talk and share, rather than being trapped inside a body that refused to respond, just listening, nodding and getting out a few words here and there.

I think we all have the ability to see patterns and act on them in meaningful ways. It takes practice (and perhaps blurting). If you want to get any good at it, then lots of the time you'll get it wrong. If you get it wrong in big ways, people will focus on the idiot side of idiot-savant, but you'll get better. If you get better long enough, they may even call you a genius.

Happy Monday,

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Players & Musicians

Back in music school, each student declared a primary instrument. It didn't matter how many instruments you played, you still had to designate only one as your main axe. 

The designation typically led to being type-casted. People were stereotyped by instrument. Drummers had no sense of pitch, pianists no sense of rhythm, and bassists no sense of amplitude. In the case of guitarists there were sub-groupings. You had your cerebral jazzers, your spaced-out rockers, and your self-absorbed fusion players.

The group that was most isolated was the singers. A singer was someone who declared his voice as his primary instrument. By most-isolated, I mean to say that everyone else was part of a collective called "musicians." Singers were not. Nope, you had your musicians and then you had your singers.

There were several reasons for the segregation of singers. At the time, the school's ratio of guys to girls was about 40/1. The ratio of guys to girls among singers was inverted. This made singers the most popular stereotype. However this had nothing to do with singers being designated as non-musicians. That came primarily from the belief that singers never had to learn an instrument. Singing was a gift. She might learn and practice songs, but a singer never worked very hard to develop her proficiency with her instrument. At least, that's how we thought about it back then.

For me, the greatest evidence of non-musician status lay in the fact that I never encountered singers in any of the advanced classes. There were no arrangers who were singers. There were no composers who were singers. There were no theorists who were singers. There were no synth-programmers who were singers. So, I went along with the crowd. "Yeah, you've got your singers and then you've got your musicians."

That's how I thought about it then. However, more recently I came to two conclusions. First, there is a useful distinction between musicians and others in music. Second, the distinction has nothing to do with choice of instrument. A more accurate and useful distinction is that which segments players and musicians. I'd never really drawn this distinction before, but the more people I play with the more apparent the distinction becomes and the more important it becomes.

There are lots of people who play an instrument. They took lessons as kids. They learned to play notes and chords. They learned to read music. They learned how to maintain their instruments. They learned songs. They can play what they've learned and they can learn to play new things.

Some play advanced music quite well. They know lots of songs. They get great sound from their instruments. They fly through riffs. They have the latest gear. However, despite all this, they're not musicians; they're players.

What's the difference? Here are some examples. 
  1. A player knows what notes to play, but he can't tell you why those notes work, why one note would be "on" and another would be "off." He might hear that a note is off or on, but he couldn't tell you why.
  2. A player works well with well structured arrangements and sets, but gets stuck when you change things up, e.g., play a song in a different key or change the meter from 4/4 to 5/4.
  3. A player needs to know the chords ahead of time; a musician can come up with the chords on the fly.
  4. A player thinks about pitch and rhythm in absolute terms; a musician thinks of them in relative terms.
  5. A player tries something and listens to see if he got it right; a musician hears what he plays before he plays it.
  6. Players often execute amazing lines and grooves that in no way work for the song. Musicians play what works.
Those are just a few examples. 

I used to notice situations when people whom I thought to be really strong musically would get stuck . Change a key and they fumble. Play something you've never practiced and they stop playing altogether. Ask for a song arrangement and you get something that sounds great but doesn't work with the lyrics.

I'd taken it for granted that if you weren't a singer, then you'd be able to do any of the above. However, I've found it's only by exception that a player is also a musician. 

I'm not just talking about people who recently started or who've only played casually. I'm talking about great players who've performed professionally. Even among great players, there appear to be few musicians, at least in the ways that I've defined "musician."

You might be thinking, "Okay, so there's a difference in people who play an instrument and people who know other stuff about music. So what?"

Good question. If you're not someone who performs music, the distinction may not matter at all. However, if you are, then knowing whether or not someone is a player or a musician who plays helps you to calibrate your expectations about a performance. How much time do we need to rehearse? How much can we vary from the set list? Can we change keys or add another solo? Am I going to throw off everyone if I take my solo out-of-time? What can I reasonably expect her to do?

All this matters if you're heading out to a gig. It matters a lot.

Now here's the interesting part. The type of distinction I've drawn between players and musicians can be drawn within any profession. In any profession, there are people who've learned the subject, received accreditation and work professionally, but have no passion for what they do. They don't continually dig deeper into the subject matter. They don't expand their scope of understanding. They follow the script and put in their time.

There are teachers who put in the time and follow the script and there are educators who do whatever it takes for students to learn. The latter welcomes the challenge of someone who doesn't fit the educational mold; the former sees that student as a problem. Not all teachers are educators. 

There are doctors who know a lot about symptoms and what to prescribe, but their knowledge is capped. There are doctors who read all the time seeking to stay abreast of what's going on in their areas of expertise and also looking into other areas of healing.

No matter who you deal with, you've got players and you've got musicians. If the results of the interaction are important to you, then it probably matters to you which is which. However, you may never have thought much about it.

Happy Sunday,

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Odds & Ends

Stuff I observed this week...

If you ever find yourself defending the fact that you possess self-confidence, guess what?

If you ever find yourself defending the fact that someone else possesses self-confidence, it's a) a side-effect of my first statement, b) doubtful that you believe it yourself, or c) both.

No one can give you self-confidence (hence the word self); self-confidence that relies on something external (e.g. circumstance, environment, someone) isn't.

People who don't understand something often know all the vocabulary used to describe it; people who deeply understand something often don't know that there is a vocabulary used to describe it.

The path to the future is always most brightly illuminated by the bridges burning behind you.

Note the word "behind"; it's usually a good idea to cross your bridges before you burn them.

Sometimes you can't see the path until after you've burned the bridges.

Henry Ford was dead on when he said, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right."

99% of the time, when someone says, "Oh, yeah, I tried that", he's lying. The percentage increases when he includes phrases like "basically", "for a while", "something like", "a form of", or "but".

If you've never played with a band, then no matter how much you've learned, you probably don't know how to play.

Not everyone with a PhD is stupid.

Everything is easy if you break it down into steps, pay attention and practice consistently over an extended interval.

Each time you transform anything from difficult to easy, you make everything difficult a bit easier.

The worst time to prepare for a gig is just before the gig.

People who run on external sources of inspiration rarely expend perspiration. When they do, it's only for short periods of time.

Generally speaking, people let how they're feeling influence their level of energy (as if the two were related).

Sometimes, you're just dehydrated.

Most people don't want to believe that it's just dehydration.

You can reinvent yourself instantly at any time, specially those times where you're ready to toss in the towel. 

Instantly reinventing yourself can have a dramatic impact on the situation.

Alcoholic fathers tend to lie, specially when asked if they've been drinking.

There's nothing better than reminding yourself how thankful you are for someone you love.

There's nothing sweeter than sharing your gratitude with them.

Happy Saturday,

Friday, July 20, 2012

There and Gone

We stand on the corner of Railroad Street and the alley that leads to the movie theater. My impromptu bandmates are a couple of first-year students from Berklee, home for the summer. Nick plays guitar. Ariel plays trumpet. I'm blowing on my Cannonball Raven tenor sax. 

Nick and Ariel are both good players. The small crowd of would-have-been passers-by seems to like what we're doing. I've never liked crowds much, that is, unless they've been organized into an audience. I like this one.

I put down my sax and sit down behind my electric piano. We dive into a spanish-sounding groove built on an F-lydian scale. My portable power-supply kit that I cobbled together using a marine batter, an oversized paint bucket, a trickle charger and an DC-AC inverter is performing even better than I'd hoped, supplying both my Fender bass amp and my Yamaha piano with plenty of zoots.

As the groove builds, a young guy steps up from our expanding audience and asks if he can play my bass.

I say, "I guess so. Are you any good?"

He looks at me blankly, as if stumped by the question. After a moment he says, "I've been playing bass for eight years."

Ariel launches into a trumpet solo. As I comp chords with my right hand and a play bass line with my left, I look up and say, "That's great, but you didn't answer my question. For example, I've been playing bass for eight weeks, but that doesn't tell you much about whether or not I'm any good. So, are you any good?"

Seeing that my question was nothing more than what I'd asked, he responds, "Yeah, I'm pretty good. I play a lot of latin music and I've got some nice lines that would work great with what you're playing now."

I say, "Cool. Grab my bass. Top knob is the volume; everything else is set."

Our new bassist lays down a solid foundation that frees up my left hand to comp chords. This frees up my right hand to solo. Pushing my chops to the limit, I attempt some outrageous riffs just at the edge of my ability. The first couple don't quite fall into the pocket, but no one seems to notice.

I take a breath and close my eyes. I take in the undercurrent of the groove as though I were listening to a stream racing past my bedroom in early spring, rolling along effortlessly with the seemingly endless supply of snowmelt that flows down the mountain. I visualize the keyboard. I hear what I want to play. I play it.

This time I land it like a Romanian gymnast dismounting the uneven parallel bars. Every note falls right into the pocket. Not being one to leave well-enough alone, I go for another more challenging riff, and then another. I exhale and fall back into the flow.

This time, the crowd seems to have noticed. They actually cheer. Nick smiles at Ariel and then nods gesturing at me.

I get up to retrive my sax. Another young man walks up and asks if he can jam on my keyboard. I ask, "Are you any good?"

He says, "Well, I've been playing since I was four?"

What is it with these guys? I say, "I've been playing since I was twenty. What does that have to do with anything?"

Choosing to answer my rhetorical question rather than my original question, he starts explaining the correlation between years of playing and ability to play.

I hold up my hand and say, "Never mind. Go ahead. Jump in. We're playing a blues in A."

I don't know exactly what it is, but people dig live sax. I could have my best night ever on the piano, and my worst ever on the sax, and at the end of the evening all anyone would talk about was how much they liked my sax playing. Tonight though, the residual heat of the July afternoon rising from the cobbles, my Raven is warm and ready to go. With a deep, throaty sound that rivals any Harley and a sweetness reminiscent of barbecue sauce on babyback ribs, it was born to play the blues. Tonight I love live sax.

We cap the blues with a retard over the final three chords that lets us wring them free of every last drop of sound and then take a break. One of our audience members asks me what the name of our band is. I explain that we've just met, that we never played together before now. She seems incredulous and looks  around at the other players each of whom is shaking his head.

During the break, the kid on piano starts into a couple of tunes, but then stops. I ask him, "So, what do you want to play?"

He says, "How about a blues in Eb minor?"

I say, "OK, play it through a couple of times so we can all hear it."

As he plays, the effect of twenty years of piano lessons becomes apparent. He knows all the notes. He's knows all the chords. However his playing is mechanical. He seems to have no sense of time. Ariel joins him on trumpet, but can't find the pocket. It's not there. The bassist tries to help him by laying down a beat with a walking line but he ignores it.

As our audience begins dissipating into a crowd, I place my hand on his shoulder and say, "Hold up a minute. Let me play."

He gets up. I sit down and play the opening chords to Spooky by the Atlanta Rhythm Section. I say, "Look man, you know a lot about piano, but if you want to play with other people there are some things you need to know. You've got to work on your time. Play with a metronome or with a click track. Play along with recordings of bands. Also, you've got to learn to listen to what everyone else is playing and make what you're playing fit."

He looks at me and then across the way to a friend who came with him. He says to her, "Come on, we're leaving."

I think, "Oh, well."

We play on. The crowd reorganizes to audience.

Happy Friday,

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I mention to Jonathan that our friend Clay has decided to strike out on his own, to abandon the security of a corporate gig and work for himself.

Jonathan responds, "And what do you suppose the half-life of that decision is?"

Clay has "decided" to pursue self-employment on several occasions, but has never quite achieved the velocity required to escape corporate orbit. An olympic-caliber swimmer and former college football player, he has energy, drive and tremendous physical power. When he decides to pursue something new, Clay's enthusiasm and chutzpa are inspiring. He tackles pretty much any challenge that comes his way. He encourages others to do the same. 

He's a strong, independent guy who doesn't fit corporate mold. He certainly doesn't thrive incorporate environments. Yet the prospect of unpredictable income is like kryptonite to his super-man psyche. What begins as an overwhelming display of confidence dissipates like a cloud of smoke in high wind.  Poof! Next thing I know, I'm getting calls from a corporate recruiters who tell me that Clay has listed me as a reference.

Jonathan and I have seen it all before, many times. So when Jonathan asks me about the half-life (technically, the time required for half the atoms of a radioactive substance to disintegrate and un-technically, the brief period during which something flourishes before dying out) of Clay's decision, I find myself in a quandary.  On one hand, I believe that this time can be different, that, with the right changes to environmental factors, Clay could do what he's always said he wanted to do. On the other hand, I'm not sure any of those environmental factors will ever change.

I respond, "I don't know, man. A week?"

Jonathan says, "I'll give him three days before he starts looking for interviews."

The other day, my friend Micky spent about an hour explaining to me that despite how emphatically they state them, people generally have no intention of pursuing their desires, certainly not if that pursuit involves persistent effort or change.  It took an hour for me to get it, not because I failed to understand his words, but simply because of the cognitive dissonance they caused me.

I say, "But if they don't really want it, why do they talk about it as though it were the only thing that mattered to them?"

Micky looks at me, his face a mask of contemplation. How do you explain the obvious to someone who's clearly not getting it.

Driving in the car yesterday with my friend Kat who's originally from Edinburgh, I thought aloud about the half-life of commitment. I mentioned my experiences working with an engineering team in Edinburgh. I quipped that there was something about some of engineers' attitudes that seemed distinctly Scottish. It was as though they'd rather die trying than win.

Then I thought about all the musicians I've known who longed to make more money, who consistently lamented being poor, and yet, who seemed to have a strong commitment to poverty. After all, who wants to hear lyrics about how wealthy your are?

I certainly know people who have a strong commitment to unhappiness despite emphatic claims to the contrary.

Maybe it's just the power of status quo. It may be the most irresistible force in the universe.

The thing I struggle with is: how do you know? How do you know when someone's emphatically stating whimsy? How do you know when they have true desire? Specially when either whimsy or desire can be stated with such exuberance and energy. It's easy to see after the fact, you can tell by they half-life of their follow-through. But what about in the moment?

Happy Wednesday,

Monday, July 16, 2012

Your Best

There are some phrases to which I have what might be best described as an allergic reaction. One such phrase is: you did your best.

No matter how calm I am, no matter how recently I've taken my adderall, whenever I hear it (or its close cousin, "you did everything you could"), I feel this sense of agitation that results in body-wide hyperactivity.


Um... well I was thinking about that as I stood in the shower this morning. Hmm...

Just Not True
Okay, first of all, neither statement is ever true. "Best" and "everything" are superlatives. Outside of a context, they only exist theoretically. In this case, there's a bit of context, i.e., you. YOU did the best YOU could. YOU did everything YOU could.  Still, you never do your absolute best; you can always do better. You never do everything; you can always do more.

Okay, "never" is an overstatement as "never" also only exists theoretically. Let's put it this way. Take the largest number you can say. Multiply it by itself. Now divide that into one. It's possible that you did your best or that you did everything. However the odds of that are equal to the number you just computed.

Fact is, no matter how hard you try, no matter how well you do, no matter how many resources you bring to bear, you can always do more and you can always do better. The two statements are nonsensical at best.

Second is the problem of consolation. You usually tell someone he did his best as a form of consolation. It's offered in the wake of failure and often preceded by phrases like "but" or "at least".  It goes something like, "I know that you'd really hoped this would turn out better and that you feel like you really screwed up, but, hey, at least you gave it your best shot, right?"

To me, it's not very consoling to know that I did as well as someone like me could hope to do. It's like hearing, "Wow, you play really well for someone who's not a musician", or, "For someone who'se not very smart, you did great on that test."

It's OK to Quit
Third is the might-as-well-quit factor. It's bad enough that the phrases are fallacy and that they do little by way of consolation. However the thing that gets my fingers drumming most rigorously is the natural response to one's best not being good enough.

She quits.

If you believe the assumptions, then it's the only logical conclusion. You failed after having done everything possible. You gave it your all. It only makes sense to give up. Who could blame you for quitting? Shit, they should laud you for you effort.

It's logical, just wrong.

For some, this provides blessed relief. Knowing that you've done all you could allows you to guiltlessly let go of obligations you have no desire to pursue.

For some, the conclusion is a slap in the face, a denial of what they truly desire.

You see both all the time.

People use it to maintain self-image while doing something they find distasteful. A parent might use it to avoid the guilt of having given up on a challenging child. An adult child might use it to assuage the discomfort of abdicating management of an adolescent parent.

People hear it when others give up on them. Since it usually comes from someone you respect (a teacher, a parent, an "expert"), you buy it. "Yeah, I really thought I could be a great musician, but people who know about these things told me that it'd never happen."

It's all such bullshit.

Much Obliged
There never comes a time when you've exhausted all the possibilities, never a time when you couldn't do better. Sure, there may be specific instances where you did everything possible, but were limited by circumstances. Even then, you'd do better the next time based upon what you'd learn from your failure, that is, if you were open to learning versus open to quitting.

Does this mean that you SHOULD continue no matter what?

Hell, no. Obligation is a terrible reason to do something. People who do things out of obligation often get in the way of people who would do the same things out of love. Whether relating to some one, or some activity, or some occupation, relationships built on obligation are rarely satisfying.

Nope. If you wanna quit, then quit. Do it as soon as possible. Pursue something you love.

However, don't kid yourself into believing that you quit because you exhausted the possibilities. You may feel better in the moment, but deep inside you'll always know that wasn't not true. Further, if you're quitting a person, the side-effects of the lie to that person may be significant.

If you're wanna quit, do it cleanly and clearly. Don't fall into rationalization and justification.

If you're not ready to quit, then decide to love what you're doing. Go out there and do your best. Give it all you've got. Know that the next time, your best will be better and what you've got will be in greater abundance.

Happy Monday,

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What's Your Superpower?

The other day, I saw a t-shirt sporting text that read:

I'm raising a child with autism.
What's your superpower?

I thought about the parents I know who are raising kids with autism. Indeed, some seem to be endowed with superpowers. Standing in the shower this morning I thought about the question: what's your superpower?

I quickly came to the conclusion that, among them, one of my superpowers lies in my gut response to the question. Whereas many would respond with something like, "Hmm... I'm not sure I even have a super power", my first thought was, "Hmm... which one shall I describe first?"

Of course everyone has superpowers (yes, plural). Not everyone sees or acknowledges them. You might have latent superpowers just waiting to manifest. For sundry reasons, you may deny your superpowers. You may fear the side-effects of using your superpowers. You may view your superpowers as detriments. You may not fully understand your superpowers.

Nonetheless, YOU have superpowers.

A Superpower Denied
One of my superpowers is tenacity; I never give up.

I used to not fully understand or accept this superpower because I was unable to reconcile it with situations in which I felt I had given up. Then one day I realized that not giving up on what you consider to be most important often requires you to quit things that are of lesser importance. The thing of lesser importance may still be quite important in the grand scheme of things. However, if you want superpower-level tenacity, then you sometimes have to make what they call "the tough decisions."

So quitting something, even something important, may in fact be a side-effect of tenacity operating a superpower levels.

Another situational side-effect of tenacity that I had misinterpreted as a lack of tenacity was quitting something that was indeed aligned with what I considered to be important, or at least, appeared to be so.

For example, you decide that it's really important to have at least one oak tree on every corner in town. You join a movement to oakify Great Barrington. Standing on the corner wearing a sandwich sign, you hand out flyers designed to increase oak-awareness. You take a stand for oaks at town council meetings. You donate money to the cause. You raise money for the cause. 

One day you find that many in the movement are not particularly concerned about oakification. Some would be just fine with pine trees. Some have come only for the complimentary coffee and organic donuts.

You realize that the movement is unlikely to ever achieve its goal. You realize that most members would be perfectly happy with that. After all, what would they do on Thursdays if the movement were over because it had succeeded?

So, you quit. 

Quitting the movement doesn't mean that you've given up on oakification. Quitting the movement is a side-effect of your tenacity superpower. Your commitment to oakification is stronger than your commitment to the oakification movement. Since you're the one taking action, it appears as though you've changed when in fact it's the movement that has changed.

Anyway, once I realized that quitting is often a requirement of tenacity, I came to embrace yet another of my many superpowers.

A Full Bouquet
But enough about me. What about you? What are your superpowers? You certainly have at least some. There may be one or two that immediately come to mind when you hear the question, but you don't want to say them aloud. What are they? Why don't you want to say them?

Perhaps it's easier to start with someone else. What are your partner's super powers? What are your kids' superpowers? Who do you know with superpowers? What are they?

Perhaps it's easier to start with aspiration. What superpowers do you wish you had? How are you gonna develop them?

Happy Saturday,

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Escaping Special

As a kid I was what would now be called "special". To say I struggled in school would be inaccurate. "Struggle" is what you do before you give up. By the time I'd got to third grade, I knew I was never going to get it. So I quit trying.

Every once in a while there'd be a subject or topic that made sense to me. I had a terrible time with math, struggling with arithmetic, algebra and trigonometry. Yet for some reason, geometry was easy. I was never good at reading music, but I could write whatever I heard. At five I  learned phonetics and could read pretty much anything. Yet by my senior year in high school, I was still taking remedial reading classes because I had so much difficulty understanding what I'd read.

It was confusing for me and pretty much anyone who had an interest in my education. Every so often I'd demonstrate an academic capability inconsistent with my general ineptitude and people would react. Some would think that I'd cheated. Some would assume that I'd been lazy all along and could do well if I just applied a little effort. Some would see a glimmer of hope. Some would see an idiot-savant. Almost no one would see my isolated success as a clue. Well, pretty much no one but me.

I started to wonder why I could do some things that people considered hard and I couldn't do other most things that people considered easy. I came to realize that I could do anything that I could visualize or auralize. If I could picture a math problem in my mind, I could tell you the answer. I might not derive it the way you wanted me to, but I could get it. If I could hear something in my head, I could play or write it.

Knowing this was helpful. I started drawing pictures of math problems that I didn't understand. I slowly began figuring out how to do them. I started reading aloud passages that were incomprehensible. I slowly began to comprehend them.

As I did this, I found another clue. The problems with which I struggled most were often ambiguously, erroneously or incompletely stated. F

For example a teacher says, "Everyone can't be a winner."

I think, "Do you mean that no one can win or do you mean that not everyone can win?" 

I get caught up my uncertainty trying to ascertain what she'd meant as she and the class move on without me.   

I read a selection of text designed to test comprehension. Question by question, I look at a set of answers from which I must select one. However, I can see how any one of the answers could be correct. I can also see how any one of them could be incorrect, or at least inaccurate.

I slowly came to realize that my problem had not been thinking too little. It had been thinking too much. 

Problem with thinking too much is that I had a really hard time thinking less. I still do. So in addition to writing answers, I began writing explanations for them. My exams would be covered with notes that said things like, "Based upon what you said in class, the answer would be this. Based upon what the book said, it would be that. However, when I calculated all these other factors, I came up with this."

Some teachers appreciated my efforts. Some thought I was being flippant. I had to take the SAT over because you're not allowed to write text on the forms. 

Nonetheless, I felt like I was getting somewhere.

Over time I developed a way of learning that was unconventional, but worked. I was gonna say, "worked for me", but I've seen it work well for others too. It's worked so well for that I've become someone who not only does well in academic settings, but is considered to be "scary smart".  

The crazy part is, after all this work to not be, I'm still special. It's been turned around on me. I listen to someone lament his inability to do math or her unfulfilled desire to play music or his longing to be more athletic and I think, "I know how you could do that!"

I enthusiastically explain how he might accomplish what he says he wants. I walk him through the process step-by-step. It may take time and effort, but it's simple and straight-forward. 

He asks, "How do you know that it will work?"

I say, "I know it will work because it's worked for me. I was never able to do thus and such and I believed I never would. However, by doing this and that, I learned how to do it."

Nine times out of ten, the he'll say something like, "Sure it worked for you, but you have to understand; you're different than other people. You're special."

I'll say, "No I'm not. Anyone can do it. Just try it, you'll see."

Rarely if ever does he try. 

However, every once in a while someone does try. They abandon disbelief, stick with the program and voila. 

Trying to encourage would-be doers, I share stories of people who were able to do what they'd believed impossible simply by approaching the challenge from a different perspective, breaking it down into smaller steps, and working it consistently.

You know what they say, "Oh, well they're special too."

It seems that there's no escaping the label.

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nice-Me Wednesday

Today is Nice-Me Wednesday, a day observed by being nice to others. Before you run out the door with a smile pasted on your face and a cheery hello wound up and ready to spring out your mouth at random passersby, let's discuss "nice".

The word "nice" is used most frequently when you have nothing nice to say about someone or something, but also have nothing particularly bad to say. So when asked what you think of the guy you just met, you say, "Oh, um, he's nice."

When used in this manner, "nice" is a close cousin of the word "interesting".

For many, being nice means being cordial, or more accurately behaving cordially. To be nice is to affect warmth and geniality. Typically, the affect masks sentiment that is neither warm or genial.
Someone says, "Now you be nice to her."

So, you slow your breathing. You smile genially. You soften your voice. You relax your grip. You become "nice", perhaps scathingly so.

Neither of these types of "nice" have anything to do with Nice-Me Wednesday. As Zen-Master Quinn would say, "NOT AT ALL!" 

Nope, Nice-Me starts with Aware-Me. In this case, your awareness is centered on the person with whom you're currently engaged. So, how does one go about being nice in the full spirit of Nice-Me Wednesday?

Step One
Step one is set an intention to love and then to act upon it. Relax your shoulders, take a deep breath and look at the person with whom you're about to engage. Decide that he's a really good guy doing the best he can to get on in this world. Take all her quirks that you used to deem cute, but now find annoying and make them cute again. Decide that you want the best for him and that whatever's best for him is best for you. Know that your time together is going to be delicious.

Step Two
Step two is to refuse distraction. Look at her as she speaks or thinks about what you just asked. Don't crane your neck to see what else is going on while you "wait" for her to respond. Don't glance down at your watch or up to the clock. Vigilantly decide to not accept any forms of distraction.

Step Three
Step three is to take in all that you see and hear, and then translate it into physical sensations.  Remember you're looking only that the person to whom you're being nice. What do his eyes tell you? What does her posture tell you? What is he doing with his hands or feet? Is her jaw tight or relaxed? Is there tension in his shoulders?

I've found that you can translate what you see in others into physical sensations that tell you a lot about how they're feeling and what's going on for them. It's not unlike playing music by ear, specially when playing the same instrument as the one you're hearing.

Hearing the notes is as much about tone color as it is about pitch. On saxophone, a C# is played with all the keys open. This gives it a very distinct and recognizable tonal color. Not only can you tell pitch from color, but you can tell a lot about the player from what you hear. Just by listening, you can tell wether or not his reed is wet or dry, how he's breathing, how he's shaped the inside of his mouth to form the sound, or whether or not he's standing.

On guitar, there are many seemingly complex patterns of notes that are easily played in keys where you can employ open strings and difficultly played in other keys. Simply by hearing the open sound and the rate at which the notes are played, you can tell in which key the song is being played and you can visualize the player's fingers moving across the neck.

Listening to a conga, bongo or djembe, you can hear wether the player is using her palm or her fingers to strike the head. You can tell whether she's hit the center of the drum or the rim.

When you become aware of what you do physically to produce a certain sound on an instrument, then you can translate what you hear to that physicality. You can feel it.

The same goes for pretty much anything you see or hear someone do. If you're aware of your sensations when doing the same thing, then you can get a good sense of her sensations. People who produce television shows and movies know this and take advantage of it by filming things where you don't get to see the actual event that makes you cringe. 

So, step three is to fully engage in the translation of observation to sensation.

Step Four
Step four is to apply your full awareness to the exchange in a focused and loving way. Hint: Ask about what you observe and sense.

That's it! One, two, three, four and voila, it's Nice-Me.

You can apply Nice-Me to anyone in any situation. You don't need to know anything about the other person. If you don't know what to say, no worries, just ask a question. If you don't know what to ask, then you've probably skipped one or more of the aforementioned steps.

Happy Nice-Me Wednesday,

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


My friend Jonathan used to call me "the patron saint of lost causes".

I knew that this was a completely ridiculous statement. After all, a prerequisite to being "the patron saint of lost causes" would be the existence of "lost causes". Duh!

Whenever I would point out to Jonathan this quite obvious flaw in his assumption-set, he would sigh and say something like, "See, you've made my point."

We would then proceed to discuss lost causes, Jonathan seeking not only prove their existence, but also, the relatively high rate at which they're encountered. For someone who believed in not spending time on lost causes, Jonathan spent an awful lot of time trying to win me over to his perspective.

Our debates always ended up with analysis of specific examples. Jonathan didn't fair well on a theoretical level because lost-cause would imply zero-percent probability, and zero-percent probability doesn't exist. So he would quickly switch to hypothetical examples.

Jonathan says something like, "Let's say you're a quadriplegic midget who wants to play basketball in the NBA. You've got to admit that you'd be a lost cause, right?"

I say, "What if we developed a neurological bypass that reanimated my arms and legs? Or what if we came up with a hormone therapy that not only regrew damaged neurological tissue, but as a byproduct caused overall growth?"

Jonathan rolls his eyes and begins to say something sardonic. Then he stops, takes a breath and says something like, "OK, we might be able to do that."

The theoretical and hypothetical off the table, we switch to examples involving people we both know. Jonathan makes his case citing example after example of the person's ineptitude, lack of followthrough or plain old laziness. I listen agreeing with each observation. Jonathan finishes and looks at me expectantly. I say, "It's not that I disagree with your observations, it's just that I don't believe they add up to lost-cause."

Jonathan says, "So then, you really believe he's going to turn around and become successful?"

I say, "No. I just don't believe he's a lost cause."

Jonathan says, "So, what's the difference?"

I say, "If nothing changes, then he'll never succeed. Since he's been doing this for thirty years, the likelihood of him spontaneously changing seems low. However, he might simply have never had the right motivation to change. Give him the right motivation and miracles could occur."

Jonathan says, "And I suppose you know what that is?"

I say, "I don't know. I've got some ideas."

And so it would go.

All said and done, Jonathan's motivation for identifying lost causes was simply time-management. You don't want to pour a lot of time and effort into something that has no chance of succeeding. I agree with his rationale; I just don't like the side-effects of deciding that someone is a lost cause or using lost-cause as a reason to give up on someone.

First, I find that I'm happier believing in people than not. The absence of "lost-cause" in my psychological vocabulary feels good.

Second, if there were such a thing as lost-cause, then anyone could be a lost cause, including you and me. I prefer not to believe that about myself and find it really useful not to.

Third, it would be impossible to tell who was and who wasn't a lost cause. Sure, you'd have your "obvious" lost causes, e.g., the unrepentant thief or the alcoholic who left to himself heads immediately to the bar. However, there would also be the promising causes who out-of-the-blue fall victim to accidents or illness. You just never know if the person you see today will be the same person tomorrow or if she'll be there at all.

Fourth, using lost-cause as a motivation or justification for action has such negative side-effects. You see it all the time when people end relationships.  Feeling that he must first do everything possible to "make it work", he makes the situation impossible by transforming his partner into a lost cause.

Parents of challenging kids often do the same thing when they feel they just can't take it anymore. Their self-images can't tolerate having "quit" on their children, so they make the children lost causes.

In either case (partner or child), the need to make someone a lost cause in order to move on blinds you to the possibilities. Sure, you may not want to continue as you've been and you may feel really uncomfortable with that desire. However, there are many better ways to deal with your discomfort than lost-causing someone.

All that said, Jonathan had a good point. Not lost-causing can lead to your spending a lot of time actively believing in people who have no intention of changing despite their own claims to the contrary.

Being finite, you it makes sense to focus on some rather than others. Question is: how do you decide in whom to invest?

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, July 9, 2012

Miyagi Them

I keep running into people who were victims of what I've started to call "child-directed curricula": adults who as children attended alternative- or home-schools where each kid decided what she would study. Fortunately most survivors seem also to be the beneficiaries of large trusts. I say 'fortunately' because none of them seem capable of actually doing anything. I don't know what educators call this type of curricula. Perhaps it's "nice try"?

Now, I'm no fan of your standard, bureaucracy-directed curricula or your traditional, age-appropriate curricula where students have little latitude if any in topic selection or where curricula are defined by performance on standardized tests. Tapping into a child's interests in order to teach him is great. I just don't believe that a six-year-old is always the best judge of what she'll want to have learned when she's twenty-eight or forty-five or seventy. You gotta do more than follow your child's interests lest he end up knowing a little bit about everything, but not much of anything.

If Not the Child?
I grew up on the receiving-end of a parent-directed curriculum. It also didn't work out so well. I never faired well in bureaucracy-directed curricula which nowadays seems to be primarily run by companies that produce standardized tests.

So if it's not the child, then who decides?

Ultimately it's a partnership among parents, children and interested third-parties (friends, teachers, family members).

You want to know where a child's true interests lie, but it's the rare six-year-old who's so well versed and clear that she can tell you exactly what she wants from life. To get to her "true" interests, you'll likely need to weed through many a passing fancy, or perhaps more accurately, you'll have to find the underlying pattern in the parade of fancies.

The process is progressive. Your choices become more specific you gain clarity. The tricky part is that the more specific the choices, the more likely it is that you won't be the best person to help facilitate them. If you're math geek and your kid wants to be an olympic runner, you may have to defer to or seek guidance from others.

The trickiest part is that your child won't like to learn plenty of things that she'll later wish she'd been taught. I think this where the child-interest jujitsu comes into play. You relate the undesirable task-at-hand to the child's desired goal. The more directly you relate it, the more effective you will be. Saying that he'll thank you twenty-years from now probably won't be as effective as simply performing the undesired task and then seeing immediate improvement in the desired task. For example, you might run a mile, take a break, and then try singing those notes that were previously out of range.

Miyagi Them
Alternatively, you might pull a little Miyagi. You tell the kid who wants to learn karate, "Wax on; wax off." I've gotta say that Mr. Miyagi's method worked with me when I got to Berklee College of Music. 

My first week at Berklee was spent taking tests, some written, some oral and some performance-based. The tests were designed by faculty to assess aptitude in areas such as ear-training and sight-singing, arranging and composing, music theory, aural comprehension and playing. During freshmen year, every student took a core set of classes that included ear-training, theory, arranging, composition and analysis. Each class was divided into thirteen sections (A-M). Your placement in a section was determined by your performance on the tests.

As a freshmen you had already made your curriculum choice. You chose to come to Berklee. Instead of karate, you wanted music. At that point, it was up to the faculty at Berklee to decide the best way to get you there. For me it was often a wax-on/wax-off experience.

Although I'd never performed well on standardized test, I did really well on the Berklee tests ending up in sections L or M for all my classes. The "M" section was kind of like the heavyweight class in boxing; there was no upper limit. So in addition to being surrounded by classmates with similar aptitude, there were ones who were completely off the charts.

One class I wasn't too sure about was ear-training. I'd heard students talk about it. You had to learn and endlessly practice Solf├Ęge (do-re-mi). You had to learn to transcribe anything you heard. I'd been writing down anything I'd heard since I was fourteen and I couldn't see myself traipsing after Julie Andrews in the sound of music, so I thought, "Why do I have to do this?"

First day of class, the teacher walks in, scans the room briefly catching the eyes of each student, drops his backpack on his desk and pulls out a Coltrane album. He places the record on the turntable at the front of the room, drops the needle in the middle of a solo and says, "Write this down."

Several students (including me) laugh thinking he's kidding. Then I notice the guy to my left writing. He's transcribing Trane in realtime. I found that a bit intimidating, but also highly motivating.

Thankful Later
The other day at rehearsal, I remembered that moment and began cataloging things I did during rehearsal that had resulted from learning something at Berklee which at the time I'd thought, "What's the point?"

For example, A C6 chord and an A minor-7 chord have exactly the same notes (A, C, E and G). Yet, you play them completely differently; it all depends on context. Most musicians don't understand this, nor do they care to because it doesn't make sense to them. "They're the same notes. What's the big difference?" As they play, they'll notice that something doesn't sound quite right, but they can't put their fingers on it. 

I'd be in the same place except for things that they "made" me learn at Berklee.

The second-inversion of a root-chord is often used as a substitute for the dominant-chord. The root-chord in the key of C is C (C-E-G).  The second-inversion has the G in the bass (G-C-E). The dominant-chord in C is G. When most musicians see a chord chart that has a C/G (C over G), they wonder, "Why bother? Why not just write C?", and they run into the same subtle problems. Something is off, but they can't nail it down.

Thank you Berklee.

I'm not sure where the exact answer lies to the curriculum-selection challenge. Perhaps it's because there is no exact answer, or at least, no exact general-answer. However, I'm pretty sure it's not up to the kid to figure it out.

Happy Monday,

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sometimes, I Miss

When I was four, she broke her elbow against the doorknob taking a swat at me as I ran away and skidded out the backdoor of our apartment building in Madison, NJ.

Mamma Thelma would say to her, "Poor Mark, ain't he pitiful. You be nice to him, Betty!"

One morning when I was five, after spending half an hour banging on her bedroom door chanting with my brother, "We want breakfast!", she finally replied, "Go fix it yourself!"

I looked at Dave (who was four at the time). We turned and marched down the hall to the kitchen. I'd seen it done before. How hard could it be.

Standing at the refrigerator on a stool I'd dragged over from the kitchen counter, I pulled out a stick of butter and a carton of eggs. I pulled the stool back to the counter, plugged in the electric frying pan and tossed in a chunk of butter. As the butter began to sizzle, I reached for an egg and instructed Dave to put a couple of slices of Pepperidge Farm unbleached white bread into the toaster. Twenty minutes later were back at her door chanting, "We made breakfast!"

I didn't know that we'd pretty much be making breakfast from then on, but I wouldn't have minded.

When we moved to from Colts Neck, NJ to Wheaton, IL, I went from being one of the kids in a neighborhood full of friends to being an alien living among aliens. When I told her about getting beat up after school every day, the worry on her face was more disconcerting than getting beat up. I stopped telling her.

I learned the meaning of the word random as I waited for her to pick me up after school on band day,  my book bag heavy with homework I'd never look at and my tenor sax almost as tall as I was.

By high school, I'd learned not to share too much and not to count on much.  When I told her about the score I'd written for the orchestra and choir, she said, "That's nice, honey."

In my junior year of high school, she went into the hospital for surgery. I could say the words "radical hysterectomy",  but I had no idea what they meant. When she came home, she was different.  I'd sit crossed legged at the coffee table, transcribing the orchestrations that danced in my head. Mom would lie down on couch behind me, watching as she fell to sleep. 

It seemed that she only ever slept on the couch.

She started asking me about what I was doing. She even came to one of the choir performances complaining afterwards that Mr. Ganzman had taken all the credit for the work I'd done, "as if he'd taught you how to do it." It was the nicest things she'd ever said to me.

Mom mellowed. She became downright sweet. She'd hug me and kiss me on the cheek. She'd reach up and pat me on the head telling me what a good boy I was. I was a senior in high school, but it felt good.

When I left for college, she cried. I'd never seen her cry except for the time when Daddy John died. It felt… weird.

At the end of first semester, mom wrote me a letter asking if I'd compose something for the Christmas Eve services at the Methodist church. She'd convinced the pastor to conduct a service with contemporary music and she was directing the choir. I wrote several pieces with orchestrations and mom arranged to have an orchestra to accompany the choir.

By the time my girls were four and five, Granny Betty's house was the place to be. They were waited on hand and foot. She'd cook for them. She'd make them snacks. She'd secret them back into her walk-in closet to play dress up. She'd take them shopping and to tea.

By the time she passed away at seventy, she'd become an angel, inviting folks to Sunday dinner because they looked lonely in church, or telling them to bring everyone else when she found out they weren't.  Every day, she'd make a meal for someone, anyone who'd come to mind, anyone she thought could use a meal. She'd wrap it up and send my dad out the door to deliver it.

I'm not someone who misses people. Yet every once in a while I see her. It might be in a dream, like last night. It might be in the voices of my daughters Joy and Eila. It might be in a song she'd taught me to sing when I was just barely talking.

I see her, I remember her, and I miss her. It's nice.

Happy Sunday,

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Neuro-typical You

Over the years, millions of dollars have poured into research projects designed to isolate the cause or causes of autism. Statistics show an alarming increase in the number of autism diagnoses. Autism awareness has improved tenfold.

The problem I have with all this is that no one can actually tell you what autism is.

Sure, psychologists have identified collections behavioral patterns that they use to classify someone as having autism or not. Some studies have identified physiological traits common to people who the psychologists would classify as having autism. Methods have been developed to help change the behavioral patterns. Still, no one can actually define autism.

The collections of behavioral patterns vary so broadly that autism has been expanded from a specific "disorder" to a spectrum of disorders.  The physiological traits are coincidental, but not definitive. Even if you get past the question of "causes what?", any time someone claims to have identified a cause, at best he's identified a coincidence, not a causality. In the absence a fundamental theory of autism, although many methods seem to effect change, treatment methods have been developed haphazardly; try this and see if it works.

As I've come to learn about autism, working both with therapists and researchers, and through first-hand experience, I've come to several actionable conclusions. First, since no one really knows what's going on, I might as well take a crack at it myself. Second, if you step back far enough and look at autism from several perspectives (e.g., physiology, neurology, environment, behavior), you can see patterns that may not be obvious to someone who's too close or only looking through a single lens. Third, to varying degrees, every one is at least a bit autistic.

Situational Autism
Autism is caused by the environment.

Let's start with the more common usage of the word "cause" (as used in, "what causes autism?"). Although one might identify genetic patterns and triggers coincident with autism, the increase in frequency of autism diagnoses has occurred at too high a rate for it to have been caused by genetic change. So, if indeed the frequency of occurrence matches the frequency of diagnosis, then the increased rate must have been caused by the environment.

That said, I've found that a more useful use of the word "cause" focuses on environmental factors that are transitory and immediate. Autism's not a thing, it's a collection of symptomatic behaviors. People who exhibit these behaviors (even the highly repetitive ones), don't do them all the time. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't. It depends on the situation or environment.

Rather than looking at autism as a disorder, I've found it more useful to look at as ways of coping with environmental factors that are overwhelming. Although one can point to genetic factors coincident with autism, autism is not something you're born with. It's something that develops. It's something that you learn.

Each of us responds differently to environmental factors. There are some for whom the quiet of a library is calming and others for whom it feels as though they've been placed in a coffin. There are some for whom the roar of the subway is grating and others for who whom it is relaxing. There are some for whom a full-body message is heavenly and others for whom being touched is hellashish.

Our responses to various environmental factors is determined by how our sensory systems (e.g., sight, sound, smell, balance, touch) respond and how well they work together. The more sensitive the system, the greater the response to sensory stimuli.

For example, if your tactile system is not very sensitive, you might not even notice when someone tickles you. You may have a high threshold of pain. However, if your tactile system is highly sensitive, then a tickle might cause you to jump out of your chair or to swing your arms wildly to stop the tickler.

Each of us has sensory systems that we favor, systems where stimuli have a calming effect. If your visual system is highly sensitized, the visual activity of a busy airport can make it difficult to concentrate. However, if you favor your auditory system, then throwing on a pair of headphones with some cranking music may help you relax and focus. By stimulating a favored system, you distract yourself from the overstimulation of an unfavored system.  

We all do this in one way or another. You stimulate one sensory system to compensate for the overstimulation of another. Not only that, but you may also stimulate one sensory system to compensate for under-stimulation of another. Have you ever drummed your fingers on a table during a meeting or paced a room while waiting?

When you stimulate one system to compensate for the under- or over-stimulation of another, you're doing something called sensory-regulation. If your method of auto-stimulation is pronounced and atypical, then you may be diagnosed with autism. If it's not too loud and/or not too "weird", then you probably won't be diagnosed with autism. However, from what I can see, it's all pretty much the same thing; it just varies in degree, latitude and frequency.

Actionable Information
If you're hanging in there with me, you might be thinking, "So what?"

The so-what is this.
  1. If you think about autism as something that everyone experiences to varying degrees, then you'll be better enabled to get a handle on what's going on for someone who's been formally diagnosed with autism.
  2. Since the atypical behaviors of someone with autism are simply responses to sensory overstimulation, you can help them change those behaviors by teaching them new ways compensate for the overstimulation.
  3. However, before you can teach someone how to respond differently to her feeling as though her hand were on fire, you might first want to eliminate the immediate environmental factors that are leading to that response and help her regulate her sensory systems. No one's going to listen to you when they feel as though they're on fire.
  4. To eliminate the environmental factors, you have to know what they are. Since they're different for each person, you have to pay attention and look for patterns. Learn which sensory systems are most prone to overstimulation and what specific environmental factors seem to contribute to it.
  5. To help someone regulate his sensory systems, you have to know which ones he favors. Again, this involves paying attention and looking for patterns. If he hugs himself and rubs his arms, he may favor his tactile system. If he runs in circles, he may favor his vestibular system (inner ear).
  6. After you've created an environment that is sensory-friendly and taught someone effective ways to regulate, you can slowly reintroduce the unfriendly sensory stimuli to help desensitize the offended sensory system.
  7. If you do all this well and consistently, you'll see change. The person will become less sensitive to environmental factors and she'll be able to manage overstimulation more easily and perhaps in ways that are less pronounced and more typical.
  8. Going back to item one, all this starts with you practicing on you. 
That's it for today.

Happy Saturday,