Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Power of Purple

Dear America,

As we’ve jerked and swerved through the drama of this election season, a map of the United States chopped into red and blue bits has come to define our national state of being. It would appear that this house is impossibly divided. 

Our social media feeds only further corroborate this idea. The echo chamber created by Facebook’s algorithms help create a feeling of us versus them. Inflammatory articles populate our walls, angry posts rile us up, our preferred news sites spin us around and around.

I read an article on CNN today examining results of a recent poll. 85% of Americans feel the nation is sharply divided. I agree with the feeling. However, I disagree with the severity or with the apocalyptic gravitas applied to the divide. Here’s why. 

Recently, a map floated across my Facebook that floored me. It was not a patchwork of antagonizing red and blue counties set starkly against each other in perpetual battle. Are you a red state or a blue state? Are you Democrat or Republican? Are you Conservative or Liberal? It is none of these because it is mostly purple. (The creator of this map has a great blog article on it).

I live in a purple house. My wife Samantha and I stand on opposite ends of some issues. Most of the time our votes cancel each other out. But, we, like most of America, live in harmony. Unlike our Facebook feeds, where one group just lambasts the other, we have dialogue. Sure, there are issues we don’t agree on, but we seek to understand each other and understand the why behind our positions. 

Our Purple Thanksgiving.
We engage, which is the most important part of this process. Facebook allows us to disengage, or semi-anonymously attack. We unfriend or unfollow people with different positions than ours. Instead, we should seek to get out there, find people who stand on the opposite side of the aisle, and make some purple. 

Game theory defines the outcome of any competition as being either Zero-Sum (one winner and one loser, or a 1 or a 0) or Non-Zero-Sum (aggregate gains across all parties can be positive or minus). Our current feelings on this election can be summed up in the Zero-Sum category. Red won, blue lost. 

I think this simplification is as far from the truth as we can get. In fact, that kind of thinking is dangerous and goes precisely to the heart of the concept that a house divided can not stand. If we continue to see ourselves as Zero-Sum, only winners or losers, than we risk destroying this American experiment.

A better solution is to abandon the strictly partisan rhetoric we’ve been forced to swallow through news media and social media. Do not look at your friends, family, and work associates as only Red or Blue. In conglomerate, they are purple. Most likely, if you delved into the issues with them, you would find most people are purple

Proceed with the idea that our population is Non-Zero-Sum. We have common ground: find it. Our differences are opportunities to learn about each other. Try to understand how someone came to the decisions they’ve made. They are more than their ideas, they are the experiences that led to them. Android's "Be Together. Not the Same" ad campaign captures this idea perfectly. Personally, I've always had a soft spot for this commercial because it sums up my thoughts.

This country is a spectrum, a sliding scale, it is not binary. Of course we feel like everything is us versus them when that is how we perceive the world. Shift your thinking. Shift your perspective. Only then will you discover the power of purple.



p.s. As always, if you like my blog, I invite you to share it. Thanks!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

It Takes a Village

Dear America,

As many of you have probably noticed this week, social media has become a wasteland of emotional discord. I think we all assumed the conclusion of the election would bring about an age of polite happiness and proliferated cat memes. While my feed continues to be rife with felines, very few people have been holding hands and singing Kumbaya. One of the most disturbing elements we’ve seen this week are the news stories on the increase in hate speech. The most heartbreaking are when it is perpetuated by children. 

Now, before you stop reading, deciding that this is one of THOSE blogs, I implore you to continue. This blog is not about Hillary or Trump. It is not about politics. It is about our future.

Children are sponges. They absorb what they see and hear and then they repeat it. When young, they are immensely trusting and so assume what they hear from people in their community must be okay. They have not yet developed the means to filter, sort, and evaluate. It is ultimately our responsibility to expose them to the right elements (and again I am not talking politics).

The aphorism “It Takes a Village” is a true one. Parents are not the only people influencing their children. Extended family plays a part. Church, school, athletic organizations, Boy and Girl scouts, etc. all fill a role. So to does exposure to television, books, radio, and media in any form. All of these elements combine to form their belief structure, and much of it happens unintentionally. The news is on in the background while a child is playing in their room but loud enough for them to hear. Adult discussion conducted when children are nearby contribute (think about this as Thanksgiving approaches). They hear and absorb all of it.

Wrong Bastard. He knows nothing.
I remember the first time I used the word “bastard.” I was nine or ten and some older kids down the street wouldn’t let me play basketball with them. I was not happy. I went in the house and complained to my mom, who was making dinner in the kitchen. My summation of the entire experience: “They are bastards.”

You can imagine my mom's shock. She quickly explained why it was inappropriate for me to use a word like that. I remember not using it again until I was out of earshot of an adult. 

A more poignant example might be the time I asked my mom about oral sex. I was about the same age and heard a news report regarding sexual assault. I didn’t understand why kissing was a bad thing so I asked. She quickly put me straight on all elements of the story and I learned both that kissing and oral sex did not equate, and what sexual assault was.

On a side note--it was always my poor mom when it came to this stuff, although I have a zinger of a story when at four years old I announced to a dinner party in clinical detail how my mom and dad had come to make me; it's a miracle I made it out alive.

So, all of this to say, we don’t know what the children around us pick up. We don’t know what they hear on the TV playing in the restaurant when we are out to lunch. We don’t know what they overhear the neighbors say when playing in the yard. We don’t know what some other kid tells them during the endless hours they are away from home and involved in their own life.

But, we are responsible for it all the same, and I am not just speaking to parents. Yes, parents have the greatest influence over their children’s lives, but we are the village. We have a responsibility to shape these children in a way that brings a positive impact into the lives of others. We have a responsibility to alter their course when they begin to drift. If we don’t, we are just as responsible for the village idiot as we are for the village angel.

It’s like the song 'Carefully Taught' from South Pacific says (click here for a great article on the song):

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

First, we have to accept responsibility. We should step into the void when we see a lack of direction in a kid’s moral compass. Nudge them in the right direction. Show them why chanting “Build a Wall” at every brown person is not right. Show them why the n-word has no place in their mouth or their thoughts. Show them that tearing down a member of the LGBT community only demeans themselves as a person. 

A great example.
If they are only shown at home that someone who looks different than they do is less than they are, then show them different. Be the model for empathy and teach them to see people as people. Teach them that differences between people and cultures are beautiful. And be willing to stand up and fight for it.

Our village can be a place where everyone is welcomed and celebrated for who they are and what they look like. Or it can be a place of distrust and hate. Our actions and words around those who are the most susceptible are the brick and mortar that build our village. Ultimately, it falls on our shoulders to decide where we want to live. 



Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Dear America,

On this first day of Transition, please remember a few things. The sun comes up. The wind still blows. Our world spins and revolves and we ride with it. 

While to many it feels as if everything has changed for the worse, and to others for the better, change in America has always come slow. This is the beauty of our Constitution. The Framers constructed the document in such a way that wild swings of emotional discord would not tear the country apart in a day. The march toward the Civil War began the moment the Constitution was ratified and took seven long decades of fermentation before exploding. We will not explode tomorrow unless we allow it.

To those struggling to understand why people chose to vote for the candidate with whom you disagree, my suggestion is to look at it from their perspective. If you’ve only ever chosen to believe the smear pieces rooted in false propaganda and perpetuated on social media, then you are the root of our divisiveness. People who outright supported either candidate without any qualms are few. This nation will only move forward if we are able to see the ‘why’ of someone’s vote. Then, together, we can find a middle ground on which to rebuild the crumbling facade of our Republic’s social construct. 

To those wondering how someone who looks like they do can fit into this kind of America, I say this: be strong, stand proud. Move the nation with your words and with your peaceful actions. There are those who would argue with this sentiment, and all I have to say to them is that violence begets violence. That cycle never ends. There is power in looking your antagonizer in the face and knowing your presence in numbers and in faith and in courage are enough to overcome him. Jesus knew this as he was scourged. Ghandi knew this as he was beaten and jailed. Congressman John Lewis knew this as he was nearly killed in Selma. Stand strong enough and like minded individuals will join and stand with you. Be the example that stands against everything they falsely believe about you.

To those still yearning for change, it begins at the local level. Do not be passive and expect others to do the work for you, otherwise you will long be disappointed. Reach out within your community: volunteer, connect, and teach others your beliefs through your actions. Read and discover the mechanism for change. Find your voice. Use it to positively motivate others. Change is good, but do not resort to the biting rhetoric of our current political climate to achieve it. Do not lose the heart of your movement, for even if you succeed, the body will soon wither and die.

Our nation will survive the turmoil of the 2016 election. Since our founding, we always have. There have been dark times, but we always climb from the muck stronger, more inclusive, and renewed in our faith in this American Experiment. 

Do not give up. Be refreshed and reinvigorated. We are now a nation in Transition. What transition will you make in order to serve the better Good?



Sunday, April 13, 2014

Put in my Place

I have never suffered from a deficiency in ego. Ever. As far back as I can remember, if I tried my hand at something, I was the best at it. In fact, this blog is the best blog anyone has ever written (at least, in my mind). I have been called pretentious before, and it’s probably not that far off the mark, but my response is simple: someone has to think we are good at what we do - why not think that about ourselves? Anyway, today’s post isn’t about how good I am. It is about how good someone else is. 

As a bassoonist in middle and high school, I always believed I was the best. People beat me in competitions from time to time, but I had a rule: they could only beat me once. If someone beat me, I would beat them every time afterwards. Only a few people managed to break this rule, and I always carried a grudging respect for their talents (one who didn’t break the rule is now the Principal bassoonist in the Houston Symphony, so I think we know which of us ultimately won the war, even if I did win a few battles).

I carried the same intensity into college and worked to place myself at the top of the bassoon hierarchy on campus. I felt comfortable being the best. Unfortunately, I lacked the vision to see the bigger picture. My short-sightedness refused to recognize talent beyond my own borders and it held me back. I lost some local orchestra auditions and didn’t understand how the audition committees failed to recognize my skills. At the end of my undergrad, I auditioned for grad school and wasn’t offered the fellowship I wanted - again, I blamed it on the lack of vision in other people. I refused to see the problem was me.

Fast forward to now. I am playing a Palm Sunday gig on contrabassoon this weekend with two other bassoonists. In the past, I have always compared myself to the others with whom I’m playing. Of course, I always feel my skills match or better those around me, whether true or not. Until this week. 

Amanda Swain - the first bassoonist - plays amazing. This is the first time I can remember not even trying to compare myself - because I can’t. Her total mastery of the instrument is remarkable. She sings through the horn, and though the contrabassoon part is 95% rests, I sit and listen happily in the best seat the house offers.

I haven’t felt put in my place in a long time and I am glad it happened. It needs to happen more.

So far, I have gleaned two lessons from my experience this week.  The first I wish I had learned at an earlier age (though it is never too late to learn a lesson like this). Surround yourself with people better than you and learn from them. They provide a fire to your passion, they offer vast learning experiences, and, as long as you keep the right frame of reference (not the one I had in college), they will lift you higher than you can lift yourself.

Trying to always feel like the best is exhausting. The second lesson: recognize your skills and be honest about them. Feel good about what you do well, but don’t let yourself become blind to areas needing improvement. Only play the comparison game as a means to better yourself. Don’t manufacture a fake throne on which to place your misguided behind.

I feel relieved at my discovery. I’m now allowed to put down the burden I unknowingly carried all these years and enjoy myself. I have freed myself to improve if I choose to do so. Finding the path has become so much clearer.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Knowing Yourself

Given a mirror, most of us could do a fantastic job describing ourselves to someone else. We could sit down at a sketch pad and ink out a fair approximation of our physical likeness. Our faces have floated across the sink day in and day out for years, and though our features wear more wrinkles than in our youth, we always know our face.

I am not so sure we could describe our personalities as well.

Years ago, Samantha introduced me to the DISC personality model. DISC uses four distinct personality aspects driven by different motivations, and helps leaders identify how to communicate with and motivate their people. 

  • D stands for Decisive. D personalities focus on quick problem solving with the highest payoff. Assertive and direct, they accept risks.
  • I stands for Interactive. I personalities focus on people to people skills. An I personality has never met a stranger commands a room with their outgoing presence. They are impulsive and open with anyone.
  • S stands for Stabilizing. This personality type places importance on environmental pacing. The S prefers a controlled, deliberate, and predictable work/social environment. Security and and disciplined behavior motivate them. They demonstrate loyalty and patience and dislike change.
  • C stands for Cautious. C personalities appreciate protocol, standards, and rules. They are perfectionists, neat, balanced, and analytical. They respond well to respected authority and adhered to the adage “rules are made to be followed.”

For the longest time, I thought our personalities had an all or none approach. Based on quick testing, I connected more with the S personality. I appreciate stability in my life, abhor extreme change (unless instituted with extended deliberation), and want success to provide a safe and steady environment for my family.

Recently, I took a more comprehensive personality test on Tony Robbin’s website (it's free, click here to try for yourself). I discovered we are all combinations of each one, sometimes balanced, often dominated by one or two with the others operating in the periphery. We reflect facets of each one and demonstrate different elements depending on our circumstance.

Discovering personality is a spectrum, rather than a pigeonhole, has become remarkably freeing. My results gave me the opportunity to see myself differently, appreciate elements of my personality I had ignored. It felt like discovering the mirror I used every morning to see my face had been warped all this time. Now, I am able to truly see, and appreciate, my full personality.

My test results confirmed my S personality - 99%. I had guessed I would also be a high D based on my drive to succeed, but I wasn’t - 14%. My drive comes from different motivations. My I personality score registered where I expected - 53%. The big surprise, and the most liberating result, came from the C quadrant - 99%.

For some reason, I had long viewed the C personality as bad, though I had no reason to. I viewed C as controlling and too interested in perfection. Rules seemed boring. After reading the results and the analysis, I can see where this aspect of my personality has struggled to assert itself - and where I have always squashed it. Knowing I am a C personality has given me permission to accept and create order in my life.

I trimmed my crepe myrtles yesterday and understood why I like it so much - I create order from chaos. I know why I hate looking in my pantry - it is a mess and I don’t have time to fix it. I frown on people who whistle and catcall at orchestra concerts. I respect symmetry and balance in art. I like doing my taxes.

I feel like I can now explore aspects of my personality I have previously eschewed simply because I didn’t know about them. Looking back, I see where they have struggled to emerge and I have ignored them.  Now, I can recognize my own personality and create an environment around myself aimed at success and happiness.

It is nice to know who I am. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

We make the world possible through dreaming.  Without persistent dreamers, the kind who fall down and get back up, the kind who others kick to the curb with doubtful feet only to emerge stronger than before, this world would have long ago become stagnant.  Some dreamers revolutionize the entire world, some only small clusters, but regardless of their impact, they share one quality I constantly respect and envy - the ability to push through the inevitable challenges the universe offers, resilient and strong.

I haven’t logged a blog entry in quite a while.  I have dedicated my fingers towards a different goal the last two months - that of working towards my own dreams.  November is National Novel Writing Month - or NaNoWriMo for short - and for years, as the writer bug tickled my insides, I have wanted to tackle the elephant sized goal of writing 50,000 words during the month.  Despite my best intentions, I had allowed those curious and unfortunate scourges every dreamer recognizes - doubt, procrastination, poor planning - to derail my plans.  Without ever beginning the challenge, November became a month wrought with personal frustration. 

This year, however, I approached the challenge with a renewed spirit.  In March, I finished the first draft on my first novel The Selection, and though it needs more work than I care to imagine, the act of accomplishment launched my brain into overdrive.  Story ideas pummeled my insides.  I saw new characters at every turn.  The world opened up before me as I found the first glimmers of belief in myself.
I have no formal creative writing education, and while many authors over the years have made a go of publishing without a shred of instruction, my own psyche has always defaulted to the classroom when considering the unfamiliar.  I couldn’t feel comfortable without one attempt at finding a teacher who could tell me everything I do well and poorly.  So, I signed up for a writing workshop.  I learned a lot.  But what I learned most of all didn’t originate from the class itself.  I learned that the best way to learn how to do something is to do it.  Many times.  Many, many times.

Thinking back, I had heard that same exact lesson from my college bassoon instructor - Jeff Robinson.  He taught me two important lessons that strangely have more to do with life than bassoon performance.  The first regarded reed making - you haven’t made one reed until you have made one thousand.  The second - if you want to make it as a professional musician, you need to spend two straight years practicing four hours a day. first lesson was my least favorite, and not just because I loathe making reeds.  Knowing one thousand mistakes lie ahead  absolutely bruises the ego.  Once the one thousand and first reed sits on the vocal making brilliantly sounds, the previous one thousand become worth it.  Those mistakes allow you to fail forwards.

I have recently encountered the second lesson in one of Macklemore’s raps, Ten Thousand Hours.  The lyrics are ripe with inspiration, but my favorite lyrics speak to the meaning of the title:

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paintThe greats were great cause they paint a lot  

Spending 10,000 hours working through the process, through the craft, eventually leads to the right kind of product.  

So, with these thoughts it mind, and with the specter of November failures hanging over my shoulder, I dove in.  I had to fight the internal editor who wanted to go back and fix.  I had to fight the persistent desire to check facebook, to see what drivel the TV had to offer, to read the news.  I occasionally succumbed to creative avoidance, but twenty eight days in, on Thanksgiving day, I had more than 50,000 words down and a nearly completed novel.

I sit here, eager to return to work and finish the first draft.  I write my blog today not for a pat on the back, but to remind you to never abandon your dreams.  No matter how old you are, how long you have put them off or hidden from them, your dreams are alive.  Embrace them.  Let them live.  You will never feel so alive as when you let them free.  I know.  50,000 words taught me.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Just Breathe
Many of my students come to me with breathing problems.  Not asthma, or allergies, or anything like that, but with an inability to take a breath the correct way while holding an instrument.  I watch them ratchet their shoulders to their ears, expand their chest upwards as high as it can go,  constrict their throat muscles until their tendons stand out against their skin.  I would be in pain if I took a breath like that.  They are trying to hard.  They are forcing it.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, their band directors deliver the correct information.  I just seem to be a magnet for students who ignore it or don’t understand how to put the information into practice.  Even after one on one instruction, students still have trouble doing it correctly.  They can recite the breathing process, can explain to me how their body works when they breathe, but then when they try, they still force the air into their lungs the wrong way.
Do that with your muscles flexed!
When forcing something, tension arises.  Our bodies work better when relaxed.  Ever stretched before?  Do tense muscles make stretching easier or harder?  Do you run with all your muscles flexed, or do you relax and let only the muscles work when they need to?

Ever tried to make someone else do something they didn’t want to do?  Teachers know about this.  Parents know about this.  I am sure everyone has experienced the same thing in their life.  The other person pushes back.  Our bodies do the same thing, resisting as we try to force them to do something.

To circumvent the problem of forcing, I will change the subject.  I ask them about their classes, or vacation, or their weekend, or whatever.  I get them talking and they take a break from thinking.  Then, after a minute or two, I ask them to pay attention to how the air moves into their body while they sit there.  I don’t ask them to breathe, I just ask them to notice.
It always works.  They discover that their body knows how to breathe on its own.  The air flows into our body, through our trachea and into our lungs.  The stomach moves as our diaphragm displaces our internal organs.  The chest only moves at the end of a full breath as a result of the lungs lifting against the rib cage.  Our shoulders never move because they are not attached to our lungs in any way.  

Now that they see how it works, they just have to allow their body to breathe the same way with an instrument in their hands.  They have to take advantage of what the body already knows and not force it to do something different.

I have seen this same lesson work in my own life.  Whether interacting with other people or trying to change habits in myself, forcing is never the answer.  Letting go, releasing the tension, and allowing change to happen has always worked better for me.  Think about Star Wars.  How does Luke Skywalker finally use the force (an ironic name for something that requires the absence of force)?  He stops trying.  He lets it work.
I know.  That is Darth Vader.  He is relaxed, too.
My kids always become better players when they learn this important lesson.  They learn that it applies to their fingers and technique - tense muscles don’t move as quickly or smoothly as relaxed ones; their tongues - a thick tongue resists nimble motion; and embouchure - we can never force the reed to vibrate, but we can support it while it does.  

Learning to allow things to happen instead of forcing them develops them as musicians.  The same lesson lesson can help us to be better people.