Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Remembering Reason

I think I've paraphrased the title of an old post by either Dr. Don or maybe My Boring Best, so I apologize if that's the case. But I'm hoping that they'll forgive me when they read that finally, finally, I picked up Sam Harris' End of Faith in earnest and finally am getting at Harris' side of the case against religion.

Fresh off the popular Eckart Tolle title, "A New Earth," I wanted something to continue my questing mood. I've had The End of Faith for a while and even started it once or twice but for whatever reason yesterday was the day that picking it up would stick.

The night before, Sunday, I caught -- well, couldn't turn my eyes away from -- the tail end of some terrible, possibly Australian (not that the two are related) movie which I interpreted to be about some act of nuclear warfare resulting essentially in the bitter and painful slow end of the cast of characters I encountered, which included a young couple and their toddler, a Navy captain and his crew, and, as the sister of the young father, that chick who played in the Thornbirds. There was lots of vomiting shown dramatically as the dreaded onset of the radiation sickness that ultimately would kill everybody. (There was also a dramatic high-speed racing-car suicide by another actor that I believe had been in every Australian and most English-made films I've ever seen.) Despite this drama, I was, I'm embarrassed to admit, riveted. The reason is that in the back of my mind, I knew that this was plausible -- except that those lucky folks all had these little blue pills that would put them to sleep permanently so that they didn't have to suffer the inevitable microwaved-from-the-inside-out process of dying from just enough radiation not to kill them instantly. (The couple, cradling their now also has-been vomiting daughter, gave her an injection before they took their pills with a good Cabernet.) I'm not sure how I managed to get to sleep that night, but I did, and the next evening when it was time to go pay homage to my still-working, non-irradiated musculature I grabbed Harris and

headed for the exercise bike.

What I learned was so simple, in just the first few pages.

Nuclear annihilation is possible, even inevitable, because most people believe in God and Heaven and all those nice things that make it appear that the afterlife is even better than this one. By devaluing the present and putting all our eggs in St. Peter's basket, we disengage ourselves from moral responsibility and genuine respect for "life", and proceed to treat each other like crap, from every day bullying right down to strapping ourselves with bombs and getting on crowded buses just to get to heaven.

Ok, I haven't personally done that -- I mean, blown anyone up; I have regrettably treated many people like crap over my lifetime -- but, people, some people with really strong religious convictions, do it every day in other parts of the world. No telling what's stopping them from doing it here more often. It sure isn't the great access to behavioral health services.

I've written a lot about how much I do like a lot of Gospel music even though I have a hard time anymore identifying with most of it. The thing is, I do think a lot of the old time and bluegrass gospel tunes really are lovely, and to a lot of folks they're really meaningful. And at the beginning of my bluegrass journey which overlapped with the end of another era of my life, they were meaningful to me, very comforting. But I never once decided that it was all about getting to Heaven. It was about understanding that everything is temporal and that, one way or another, there would be an end to my pain. I never confused my grinding daily uphill journey with some time in the future when I'd see my mother and father again along with all the relatives I never met and a bunch of dead presidents -- though the idea is tempting. While, unlike Doc and Boring, I have zero interest in spending eternity under the spell of a bunch of virgins, I wouldn't mind a few hours with some notable Virginians.

I finished Tolle right on top of finishing The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman's last in the series about a contemporary young Eve named Lyra who led the effort to kabosh doctrine and restore intuition. It was a frank and intoxicating illustration of the battle against religious authority in an effort to protect our rich, delicious human nature, complete with its beautiful, complex, powerful hidden side, Psyche. Even Sam Harris writes, "There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life." But we're not going to come to terms with anything by delegating our capacity for reason to large, organized institutions, dogma, folklore, the Monroe Doctrine, tarot cards, Emily Post, sudoku, Rachel Ray, the iPhone, Barack Obama, John McCain, seven more highly effective habits of allegedly effective people, or anything or anyone else that has attracted a "following." The only path forward, the only way out of this downward spiral, is to retire some of these illusions and resort to thoughtful action -- or as may be required, inaction.

I'm trying to think of a good bluegrass or Gospel tune that speaks to this. I've just posted this one recently, but I do think that Wondrous Love comes close. (So beautifully performed in this vid by Blue Highway.) It's so basic, bare, but still uplifting, and comes from a very basic time and very bare place in American hymnody. I frankly can't help but sing along (as I had posted earlier, this shape-note tune is a part of my childhood). If people got their act together and started treating each other with humanity, there might come a time where there was sort of a universal "wondrous love" rather than this insufferable divisiveness that abounds in personal, professional, political, and global relationships.

There is something to be said for turning the other cheek, in a way. When we stop defending our beliefs with such ferocity, maybe their importance will diminish to a level more conducive to peace, within families, between foes, among nations.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

More than Black and White

Sometime over the last few days, something shifted, and almost overnight my view has changed again, reverted to the positive. There isn't anything to which I can attribute this, really. Nothing externally has changed -- still have kids, still have same job, still alone, still in the same goofball Stepford town. I am coming on the second day of a real break from parenting, so maybe my brain is just untangling a bit. I feel I've come 'round and am in the middle of a sort of movement, a shift, an opening. It's a good feeling, although I haven't any idea what it portends, and I'm not going to guess.

Over the last week we've been kind of struggling at work to put ourselves forward and sink our teeth into some new business that we feel has been eluding us. We work and work and put out one proposal after another and have meeting after meeting. Suddenly when my new colleague and I got to thinking about the nonprofit community, I felt my energy shift and commitment return. I even overstayed a bit on Friday though I was looking forward to dinner with my sweet ex SIL and her dad and beau (I made it and we had a great time). I have a real passion for certain kinds of work, and I think, I feel, that it's going to be brought to bear again soon and that some of these conflicts at the office -- me wearing too many official hats -- will iron themselves out.

If you step back and let answers come to you, life can really be boiled down to some pretty simple truths. One of them is that I have this obstinately positive perspective about 90 percent of the time, and that when I forget about the other 10 percent, I am able to really give 100% of myself to whatever it is I'm doing, whatever conversation I'm having, whatever it is I'm engaged in, even if it's just feeling myself breathe and my heart thump as I exercise. I have worries like everyone does, and sometimes I worry over things I can do nothing about. But when I'm able to turn my focus outward again the worries and the burdens start to dissipate.

About a month ago, I answered another colleague's cell phone while she was away from her desk. It was a client of hers for whom she is conducting one very special assignment -- he is quite ill, battling a very rare and ferocious form of cancer, and his successor must be found soon. Some how, in our brief conversation, I evoked from him a deep, hearty laugh, a happy laugh. There is probably nothing I did the rest of that week that held more meaning, at least to me.

When we let go and let life work through us, when we begin to see ourselves not as attached to this job or that promotion or that car or house or this future or that project or that client or that or partner or not having a partner, we can just be. Be everything we are, be completely ourselves. That's what we can do for each other, just be ourselves. When I'm myself, when I follow my instincts and meet people where they are, it's a joyous thing. I restrain myself constantly trying to fit in the mold my Managing Director has set forth, but he knows I'm working against my nature. We are all schooled in this, himself included. When we are working on a problem at the office we are at our best when we quit fighting it and allow the answer come to us.

Yeah, I know, in reality it is much harder than all that, it's true. It's really hard to just be right there in the moment. But I'm trying.

My table is piled high with information from IBMA. This has been a meaningful experience for me, and there is more I could give. Every year I say, "I need to organize a beginning picker's jam" and every year suddenly I'm on the plane to Nashville for the same three days and I haven't done it. It's probably already too late for this year, but, maybe not. Going and connecting with a few friends once a year and seeing my sis and her family for a bit is terrific, but going and really engaging people and creating a music-making and life-growing experience is what I should be doing. I should treat it no differently, no less seriously than my passion for connecting people. It is about connecting people and connecting with people. Otherwise I should just write IBMA a check in the amount of my plane and hotel fare and stay home.

That just ain't right, now, is it?

Maybe another reason I need to do this immersion process is that when I received my final IBMA Ballot, there were all of two bands and one or two instrumentalists from my first two ballots who made the cut. So either, I'm not listening to what everyone else is listening to, or, it's time to really figure out how the same five bands, although tremendously accomplished, keep getting nominated. This tune was from my original slate of nominees for Song of the Year. Such a tune need only "be release or show significant chart action" for the period of eligibility. Well, screw chart action, people. This song is just one great piece of work. I believe it was written by Sonya Isaacs (congrats to Sonya for her nomination in the category, Female Vocalist of the Year) and is performed here beautifully by Cia Cherryholmes and the rest of her Cherryholmes clan. It's sort of a lament, but in some ways though the point of view is represented from the chain gang, the more we look ahead and look to better ourselves through acquiring something down the road or over the fence, the more we are sealing our own chain-gang fate, destined to never experience what is right in front of us, destined to overlook our nature, to take a breath and let our being have a chance to contribute to the richness of our own lives.

I'm going to try not to be my own downfall. I recommend the same to all y'all. My few loyal readers are good human beings, gentle at heart if more than a little frustrated on the surface. How I wish there was a place we could all meet in dreams to commiserate, and wake up better for it. Until then, I'll send this out and remind you that you're all on my heart.

Black and White
Written by Sonya Isaacs, performed by Cherryholmes featuring Ricky Skaggs and Sonya Isaacs

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Long and Crooked Road

I'm fit for a trip, but I'm not going anywhere much. The kids and I have a fun weekend getaway planned in a few weeks, and that will pretty much spell the end of travel for summer. I think part of what has me feeling used up and burned out is that I haven't had much time this summer to get away on my own. Nashville and IBMA loom ahead like an oasis, but deep, deep down I am ready to get away, for good.

I'm not saying I want to be on some permanent, wandering vacation through the hinterlands. That ain't really me -- I love to work although if conditions were right, I bet I could take a year off. But when I get some time and enough of it in a row to slip away, there's a place I want to go to see if I can hear it calling.

The Crooked Road is a 250-mile and counting stretch of Virginia country driving in the state's southwesternmost corner. It leads you into the cradle of bluegrass, old time, and country music, the place where it is not most celebrated, but most begun. All the music I love really leads back to that place.

Earlier in the summer as Son of Mando and I started to dig a little into family history, I learned that ancestors on both my mother's and father's side came up out of Virginia. It is a place I've always loved, and could certainly someday call home. For now it would just be nice to spend a little time wandering this wonderful pathway of American musical history.

And since I can't be there now, until I can I'll wander it vicariously through this sweet and singable tune by The Dixie Bee-Liners honoring The Crooked Road. Jump to the link and scroll up to the top of their MySpace offerings to hear what Brandi Hart described as a "love song" to one of their favorite places, a little bit of backcountry sacred to us trad fans.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

I Made A Mistake!!

Well, now. I've had a conversation with my son. Evidently, he clearly remembers a conversation over dinner in which he asked about the alternative transportation. Curiously, he also remembers getting what he describes as a fairly emphatic "NO" for an answer. In tracing back over the time frame, it is a conversation that very likely took place at a point when I was dealing with that client I wrote about and strongly considering quitting my job. So it is entirely possible that we did have that conversation, and that I forgot all about it, almost immediately. I probably considered it handled.

I apologized to my son, and left an apology on his father's mobile phone. But what I don't understand is this: I had already given the answer. Why it was asked again as if it had not ever been asked? What was the objective? In the follow up conversations he had with the other adults, did this aspect ever come up?

Mistakes are the way we learn. What I'm learning is that evidently, I need eyes in the back of my head. I am capable of being manipulated, and that people will co-opt that quality in a heartbeat before they'll be honest.


Friday, August 15, 2008


In reading Shameless’ recent gift to me, Tolle’s “A New Earth”, I came across a beautiful story this week. It was about a Zen master who lived in a tiny village. A young girl becomes pregnant and tells her parents that the Zen master is the father. When the baby is born, the parents, believing the daughter, take the baby to the Zen master and angrily tell him that his daughter says he is the father. The Zen master replies, “Is that so?” The parents leave the baby with him. He lovingly looks after the baby for a year, and the parents meanwhile learn from the daughter that it was not in fact the Zen master but the son of the butcher who is the father. The parents go back to the Zen master, all reticent, and tell him he is not the father. Again he says, “Is that so?” and gives the baby back to the girl’s parents.

Sometimes there’s not much else to do but just step back and say, “Is that so?” and let things unfold.

There was a highly visible, highly transparent example of this at the high school orientation we attended with my son last night. X was there with his brand new bride, a good initial effort at solidarity except for the not-speaking-to-me part. (This is a regular thing at public gatherings, private parties, basically anywhere we’re all together at the same time and in front of one or both children and other people.) After sitting through a routine orientation presentation, I figured we would take a walk to the lockers and classrooms. I stood up all excited to explore this new world but my son was suddenly engaged in a private conversation with X, then turns to me and says, “So, can I ride to school with Step?” He asked this as if he had asked it weeks ago and I’ve been pondering nothing else ever since. What ensued was a very uncomfortable debate in which he genuinely believed he had asked me previously. He had not. Meanwhile the other two adults begin to advocate on his behalf. Having been in this position on a few occasions now, it was clear to me that I was dealing with a group of people who already had made their decision and that my acknowledgement or agreement was just short of perfunctory. I asked for a little time to think about it and that simply drove things even further in the wrong direction. So finally, I looked at my son, and said, “Do what you want.” And then, I left.

I needed a time out from this untenable and dead-end conversation with my son and two adults who, perhaps quite unconsciously, were co-opting his weaker qualities in order to get at something that appeared desireable for the three of them, without regard for the potential consequences for my daughter and I should something go awry. Luckily the problem was solved by the folks at the transportation department, who probably spend most of their days this time of year saying, “Is that so?”

People will do what they will do, say and believe whatever suits them at the time before they think and act responsibly or respectfully. Ego always gets the better of most of us, myself included. Children will grow up and imitate the behaviors they most frequently encounter. My son’s display of disrespect was vibrant and very painful. I understand he really believes he told me something he did not and that is probably equally painful for him. He is a beautiful, very special person going through a new and difficult learning process. I am also certain that he felt an uncommon and very uncomfortable division of loyalties. As much as I love him, walking away was in fact the right thing. I wonder whether I even should have attended the event at all, but not being there for him didn’t seem quite right, either. It might have been good to fade into the background instead, a compromise of sorts, rather than be drawn into what was a lifeless and pointless debate.

The thing about being the natural parent is that children don’t require proof of your love. As my pediatrician pointed out, step parents often feel they have to compensate lost time with their own children to cultivate the affection and trust of the nonbiological children. This is a concept that even I can grasp without a lot of thought. Some of the behavior that others have observed and that leaves me feeling what I’d describe as sidelined is really nothing more than that. In the end my job is to choose a path that has the least impact on and fullest support for my son and gives him the broadest range of experiencing the full impact of his own decisions. In other words, he has to own the choices he makes, and I have to let him own them.

The impermanency of life, relationships, things, being -- all these are really at the fore in these situations. As humans we are imperfect and to feel better about ourselves we try to manipulate, control, cajole each other into action or nonaction, come out "the winner" and show how much we know, how we are "the better parent" but with the next breeze it's all meaningless. It's hard to watch people struggle with this and harder yet to refuse to play along. But some folks build their whole lives around it. That's a choice they make and have to live with, but not one I have to make.

I've been enjoying this Blue Highway tune all week, ironically enough. It was a subtle validation that maybe it's time to move on from some parts of my life and let other fully expand. It's also just a beautiful song with an open-ended cadence that adds to the theme of transience. Thank you, Shawn Lane, for your incredible playing and for the spot-on vocal delivery. And Wayne, this song makes me want to learn to play the bass.

Message from the Wind
(Written by Shawn Lane, from the release, Marbletown;)

I got a message from the wind today
When it blew a tear across my face
Said it's time to turn and go its way
I guess it's time I'm movin' on

Saw a bird sail a breeze that blows
Across the ridge the way I need to go
It took this much of my life to know
I'll probably never find a home

Wandr'ing life is what I have
Comin' in and headin' out
The urge to go is in my blood to stay
The wind is startin' to pick up today

Might’ve had what I left to find
in the place that I left behind
but a different breeze was blowin’ in my mind
and it just would not let me see

Now I’m standin’ here but it’s just not the same
I guess the only thing I know is change
The winds a-startin’ to blow again
Guess it’s time for me to leave

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Trouble with Twitter

I first heard about Twitter a couple of weeks ago at a meeting I was attending for a client. The presenter described this latest craze in the context of online community building and social networking. According to an article in the latest issue of Fortune magazine, Twitter has roots in some pretty large-scale initiatives, helping to keep the public and firefighters current with developments in the battle against the 2007 California wildfires. That makes sense; it’s like emergency broadcast texting, kind of, I guess…but, chances are there aren’t 3 million “twitterers” tuned in just for that. But that’s about how many users there are of this “micro-blogging” service—whatever the hell that is. For as little as I contribute to this blog on a regular basis, this could be considered microblogging.

What’s fascinating is that as I write this, these terms aren’t even yet recognized by Microsoft Word. I have to add them to the dictionary. I refuse.

I can’t decide whether is the latest symptom or just another cause of our nation’s growing collective attention deficit disorder coupled with our unmitigated fear of being alone. How people can tolerate, and in fact perpetuate, this maddening continuous stimulation is a mystery to me. How they can function under its spell is frightening, because to function, you have to be conscious. I’m sorry, but, you can’t be doing anything with intention if you’re sending a Tweet and texting your roommate or your business partner while ordering your Orange Mango Banana Vivanno at the Starbucks drive thru. The more I witness of this perpetual explosion of nanotechnology, the more I believe it’s a miracle we’re not already extinct given our attention span.

Fortunately it hasn’t affected everyone. I also just read a neat article about a group of scientists at CWRU who are working on a tiny new cancer drug delivery device that looks basically like a nano-hairball. It’s genius, really. Where would that idea be if those docs stopped to Twitter all the time? Maybe they do, to update each other, but my guess is that their “tweets” would be along those lines and not on who they just saw with who else sipping a Banana Vivanno at Starbucks.

It’s no surprise that some of the world’s best doctors and scientists also played a musical instrument as a child. Their parents had the vision to make sure they had other means of developing dexterity, hand-eye coordination, concentration, imagination, and in the best cases, an artistic instinct to go along with the technical execution. There are I’m sure some kids who aren’t swept up in this insanity, but I don’t think I’ve seen a teenager all summer who didn’t have at least one electronic device glued to some part of his or her body.

I’m not sure where all these new developments spring from, or why. They just appear, get suddenly terribly popular, and then there is some new thing right behind it to displace it from its Throne of Cool.

The more I witness this, the sillier it seems. What could all these devices possibly contribute to my enjoyment of walk in the woods, a cup of coffee at my table in the morning, a conversation with my son or daughter, the thrill of watching an athlete’s defining moment on the Olympics, an understanding of myself, learning a new tune or playing an old one, or just living and breathing? Not a single thing.

As much great music as there is in the world, I think the longer I live and listen the richer and more beautiful traditional music becomes to me. That’s not to say I wasn’t sorry not to take my kids to hear Dvorak last Friday night at Blossom. And it’s not to say I don’t love a barn-burning bluegrass tune about 80 percent of the time. But nothing to me cuts through the din of techno-insanity like the sound of a single line drawn by a human voice or some other instrument.

I’m destined to be ever behind the times. I can rarely keep up with the WordTwist demands of my FaceBook pals, I haven’t updated my MySpace in weeks, and you know the ups and downs of this blog. I still can’t stand texting but tolerate it as a form of communication acceptable to my teenage son. To Twitter is not to be for me. But to you true Twitterers I wish you sweet tweets and hope that you’ll make the most of it rather than make it the next thing that takes over your life.

I keep pimping this new album by those Infamous Stringdusters but the whole thing is just flat-out superb so I can’t help myself. Here’s a young bunch of guys doing a good old-fashioned steamy little tune about the very simplest pleasures in life. From what I can tell by listening, none of them involve an iPhone, Nintendo game, BlueTooth, or even a Frappucino. I love the downright Delta bluesy flavor updated with the Dusters’ contemporary idiom. I hope you enjoy one called “Get It While You Can” – and whatever that means for you, I hope you do.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Out of Time

The kids and I spent the last few days time traveling. Thursday we went to see an exhibit of art objects and artifacts from the Vatican -- right down to St. Peter's bones and a few other relics, not including myself. From there we wandered over to see the renovated galleries at the Cleveland Museum of Art and also took in a little of the future as we were led through galleries that will open again next year. On Saturday we hung out in Avaloch, the imaginary village of the Great Lakes Medieval Faire. My daughter absolutely adores Johnny Phoenix -- I don't know if that guy can play the banjo and walk on fire at the same time, but he was genuinely funny and if I may say not too hard on the eyes for a man in tights in the woods. Today we wandered into a Civil War encampment circa 1863 at Hale Farm and Village. I have to say, it seemed to me the Union soldiers must have known how it all turned out because there didn't seem to be much of a sense of urgency in the way they sauntered across the field in their lineup. But the music and the conversation was good fun, although my daughter was not convinced that the man in the tall hat and dark coat really was Abe Lincoln.

It has been really fun exploring all these different things to do and especially just relishing the time together. Summer is still not over, even though the kids start school again a week from Tuesday. I can't get over how fast time flies, even though I try to slow it down by focusing on what is right in front of me.

The one thing that bothers me is that I haven't picked up an instrument in weeks. There just is preciously little time left after everything else to really sink my teeth into playing. I'm pretty sure I'd do it or be more motivated if I had a group of musicians I could work with on a regular basis, and I've been thinking that the way that will happen will be for me to hold it at my home. I think it could work. There are some picking/bluegrass jams around the region too, and I should probably start there. Sad to say, I need the pressure of playing with folks to get me to give up time on the other things that in the end are just not that important.

I have been enjoying this tune by one of my fave bands, The Infamous Stringdusters. Like the narrator in this song, I can feel the clouds beginning to break up a little. I do feel like I'm on to something, although I can't say for sure what it is. But every now and then when I've stepped off the hamster wheel I get a sense of my capacity to just go off and do what I need to do.

"Well, Well" reminds me of my pal Blueberry, who really doesn't ever get a break, either. I'm pretty sure she's crazy about these guys too. This one's for Blueberry -- better days are coming, I'm sure, just not sure when!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Eight Fast Years

Today as I rolled through town pre-dawn on my way to work out, I thought back to where I was eight years ago at that time. Eight years and one hour ago from that moment I was holding my perfect newborn daughter. It was the best morning ever. Her coming into the world was as easy as pie, and the kind of experience that all mothers should have. I had never felt stronger or happier, and at the same time, never felt more humble and unimportant.

We were also surrounded by people who would always love her and be part of her life. Her big brother was on hand for the whole thing, her father, her aunt, and two of our best friends. Everyone who was there laughs at the way just before the last push, I asked my doctor if she’d had a chance to meet everyone. But I was that comfortable. To me, it was a party, a joyous collective moment in which we all welcomed her into our world. Eight years ago tonight, her uncle drove in to spend some time with her. It was special; everyone else had gone home and it was just she and I in the hospital. Now the father of his own beautiful baby girl, he remembered A's birthday and called her tonight so they could "catch up."

That first night we spent together, I was holding her and I sang a little something, and as tiny and new as she was, she held up her tiny head and looked at me with those amazed baby eyes. We have our moments, but we are connected in ways deeper than we may never understand.

I threw together a party cd for her birthday fete, and she asked if I had included this song. I felt bad that I hadn't but it didn't seem to be a fit for musical chairs. It's her favorite Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver tune, Four Walls, and really shows off their signature harmony singing. She's a little sad that her cute friend Jamie Daley isn't around to sing it anymore, but she still loves it nonetheless and we can't help but sing it, too. Hope you enjoy.

Four Walls

Monday, August 04, 2008

Eight Months....Two Days

I had a stunning realization today.

In the last eight months, excluding Memorial Day and the Fourth of July (we didn't do bank holidays), I've had two -- 2 -- days off.


Suppose I'd do well to Go With The Flow*.

What a great song...it's perfect going along with the reading from Shameless on ego...we're all guilty of trying to "...stand like a rock on the sands of time."

Live, love and let live.

(by Sam Bush, from *Howlin' At The Moon)