Thursday, December 8, 2011

New paths, new ideas, new connections.

"People don't know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values."  --M. Taibbi

Something has to give.  We can't continue on this path and give our grandchildren and great-grandchildren the life we want them to have.  Populations are exploding, and our oceans, rain-forests, and middle-class are dying.  We can pretend that those 3 things don't factor into our future, but you have to shut off any sense of reason to do so.  People who consistently look for new paths, new ideas, new connections are able to experience moments of clarity when things suddenly make sense, where several pieces of the puzzle suddenly  snap into place, creating a new picture that was not expected.   Two weeks ago I stumbled across an amazing video that articulated the visceral drive of the people protesting the current dirty affair between money and politics in this country.  But first, a few thoughts.   

The coverage of the Occupy Movement has been run into the ground by the 24-hour news cycle media; as one of my friends put it, "If I hear the word 'occupy' one more time, I'm going to lose it."  The protests started in the most beautiful sense that I've ever witnessed.  "We are the 99%" was a beautiful slogan that rightfully stated the true division of power, but through the combination of the Fox News Agenda and also of the Left Wing extremists taking over the discourse, the movement has been mostly divided back into the 49% vs 49% that so easily fits the standard media narrative.   If we keep it framed within this comfortable narrative then nobody has to stretch their ego-centric world-view to see a possible new path. If the story is 49% vs 49% then everything stays the same.  But if the story is 99% vs 1% then there is a chance for fundamental change in how Americans not only view our place in the global economic village but also how we focus our daily energy and how we define our "success."

But if you look close enough, and if you forget about arbitrary labels, then there is a tiny sliver of light breaking through the cracks.  A light that asks the questions, "Are you ok? Are we ok? Does the current zeitgeist feel right to you?"  The reason the protests took off with such speed and force throughout the world is that the answer is a general, "No.  We don't feel ok," and "No.  The current state of our society doesn't feel ok either."  Something isn't right and we can feel it, but we aren't sure what it is, and the easiest and quickest answer is to just blame the other side.  Blame the liberals, blame the conservatives.   Blame al Qaeda, blame the Chinese.   Blame the poor, blame the rich.  And on and on.  We have to blame somebody right? 

 Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame
U2 - One

If we can just get those people out of our way then everything will be fine again; and just like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, all will be fixed by supper time.  The first step to expanding our consciousness out of this endless blame cycle is to stop thinking in terms of labels.   There is only one label that will produce positive results: the human label.  It is important to realize that there are no such things as liberals or conservatives, republicans or democrats.  These are completely arbitrary terms that have no meaning other than to allow us to not only be divided and controlled, but also give us permission to turn off our brains and our sense of reason.   "I'm a conservative so therefore I believe this."   Or, "I'm a liberal so therefore I believe this."  Without any recognition that the given list of beliefs contains absurd contradictions and unyielding stances that by their very nature stop viable, workable solutions in their tracks.  It is almost as if the powers that be stood beside each other and picked hot-button social issues like an 8th grade gym class: "I'll take abortion rights.  Ok, I'll take gun rights.  I'll be against the death penalty.  Ok, well it is weird that I will be both pro-life and pro-death penalty, but what the hell,  they won't notice!"  And on and on...

I wish my writing could begin to match the beauty, elegance, and wisdom of Charles Eisenstein, but I am smart enough to know when to let someone's words shine.   Every line has a vast depth and meaning that is rare in today's pop-culture world, and it is important to recognize when someone so beautifully articulates the feeling in our collective hearts.  

What we are missing in today's money-based economy is our sense of meaning and purpose, and I believe that the majority of stress and unhappiness comes from the lack of these vital ingredients of a balanced life.   Eisenstein does a beautiful job of explaining that the top 1% are also missing these things, and their sense of unfulfillment is even stronger since, in the view of our money-based society, they theoretically have everything. "It's lonely at the top."    We've all seen the bitter Mr Burns character that sits alone in his mega-mansion suffering suffering from loneliness and isolation, and it is a near universal reaction that none of us would desire this.  Given the choice we will always claim  to pick love and community over wealth, but a strange disconnect happens when we spend our lives obsessing over the very thing we claim to not desire.    

“Someone asked us if we make money doing this... the answer is no... we make art, friends, emotions, adventures, songs, ideas, changes, noise, we make ourselves happy, and hopefully a few other folks happy along the way. Those are the things that we make. Who needs money?!”

In many ways the ongoing global depression has forced us to reconnect with both our community and our extended family.  Many are forced into roles of needing the people closest to them.  We are now depending on one and another in ways reminiscent of the last economic depression, and it is important to recognize that this is a positive transition for us.  When the federal government proves inept, we will find local solutions that not only solve direct problems but also strengthen the sense of community around us.  Sometimes 1 +1 can = 3, or 4.   If we are able, or even forced, to change the current paradigm from unbridled consumerism to service and support for those around us we will have the chance to re-develop the connective tissue that provides us with purpose and meaning, thereby filling the gaps in life with what is actually important.   The modern day financial philosophy that every person should have enough money that they can become an independent island and not need anybody for anything is an unsustainable idea and is fortunately dying a slow death.  The very act of having an important role in your community, of being needed, creates vitality, energy and love that symbiotically builds on itself.  

Hope everyone is having a great week.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Creativity is the opposite of routine.

I believe that we need more moments of communal creativity.   We are coming up on one of the very few times when communal adult creativity is both expected and celebrated: Halloween.   This is a day that we can let our creative lights shine bright by putting on a different "skin," and thereby allow ourselves to momentarily break free from our rigid box of temporal safety that we create and lock ourselves into.   It is a beautiful moment in time for many who rarely take the opportunity to put their energy into creating something from nothing, and I wish we had more times like this.

When I first moved to Boone I read an article about the local band Snake Oil Medicine Show, who exemplified how to lead a creative life, even taking it to the edge of spasticity.   They described how they would require all the guests of their house parties to "create something" during the party, and I was immediately turned on to this thought.   I read that article over 12 years ago, yet I can remember the feeling that I had as if it was this morning.  It was genius.   Take people out of their boxes and allow them the freedom to create anything.   Create a poem, drawing, melody, craft, idea, dance, feeling, philosophy...anything, and then celebrate it.  And as much as I love and believe in this idea, the stark reality is that I don't create enough either.   There is not a day that goes by that I don't go to sleep telling myself that I should have created more.

It seems as though a lot of people view creativity as either something you have or you don't, and I think that is just a cheap way out.  Watch children play for 20 seconds and you will realize that humans are inherently creative from birth; but you will also notice the sheer joy children find in their creations.   Are kids ever more engaged than when they are creating their own little world?  They become 100% absorbed with this new construction of roles, without any slight feeling of self-consciousness.   Can we tap into that joy by allowing ourselves the same freedoms?  Removing the ego and self-consciousness is the first and most difficult step, but like everything, once you learn to do it it becomes easier. 

I was thinking about what it takes to have this creative confidence as an adult, and there are several routes that come to mind that are congruent with different personality types.  Some people are just born with natural confidence, and throwing their creative visions into this big world is easy for them;  at least on the outside, they appear to do everything with ease.  They are like the business people who just can't seem to make a bad choice or settle for anything less than success.   The second type, and most of us seem to be here, work their butts off for years and the genius is in the fact that they keep trying no matter how many times things don't work.  They build the confidence it takes to consistently put creative visions into the world (read the great quote by Ira Glass below).  And the third type that came to mind - and this is my favorite type of person - are the ones that don't have the capacity to see things as "good" or "bad,"  instead they see creativity, much like a child does, as something that just is.   Like the musician that goes from note to note, and the next one will not be a good note or a bad note, instead it is just the next note.   And that particular note will exist for its brief moment in time and when it is gone it is gone, and there is no reason to dwell on it.   People like this are a treat to be around because you never know what you will get from one moment to the next.   A fully realized person of this nature will live their life as an art-form and the books, poems, paintings, and songs that come from these people are not the product, but just an extension of their everyday being, and the world is a better place because of it.  

I hope everyone enjoys creating their Halloween costumes this year. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Expanding the Universe with Bluegrass Music

     Bluegrass music has a way of finding the deepest pockets of your heart and soul, and then fill them up with a certain sense of lightness that can only come from the bounce of the banjo, the high-lonesome fiddle, and 4-part family harmonies so powerful they seem to expand the universe by themselves.   Diving head-first into this music is one of the most life-changing endeavors a person can experience.  And to do it properly you must follow the timeless Yoda Wisdom:

Of the first generation Bluegrassers, there are only two still alive, and they are both banjo players: Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs.   I believe we are a special hard-headed breed, so leave it to a banjo player to start one of the hottest debates that bluegrass music has seen in years.   Chris Pandolfi, the banjo player for the top-notch band "The Infamous Stringdusters," started the discussion/debate by posting his Bluegrass Manifesto on his blog.   It's a beautifully written piece that describes the marketing conundrum that the "Dusters" found themselves in after several years of hard work and well-deserved growth.   The gist of it revolves around the question, "Do we continue to call ourselves bluegrass?" He then describes the thought process that forced them to decide that to continue and reach the growth they desire, they had to stop labeling themselves "bluegrass" to take part in the acoustic music revolution that is seeing acts such as The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, and Yonder Mountain String Band reach new heights for string-band based music.
Yonder Mtn String Band playing to a sold out crowd at Red Rocks. 

The Avett Brothers

As his post took off through the bluegrass community with the same intensity as Chubby Wise's fiddle on Orange Blossom Special, it naturally forced the question of "What is bluegrass music?"  More importantly the post also raised the tangible question, "Should the bluegrass community open itself to these acoustic bands that have obvious bluegrass roots, but yet aren't 100% Bluegrass?"  And here is where the division starts.  You have the big-tent progressives that want to include these bands, recognizing the windfall of new fans that could possibly push the genre out of its current stagflation; and the conservative side that thinks these bands don't deserve the recognition because they are not 100% Bluegrass, and that fans who aren't "true fans of bluegrass" will only water-down one of the most beautiful American legacies that is still alive and well (nevermind the current stagflation in the industry that counts things such as tickets sold and $ earned).  See, you have to understand that bluegrass hit its peak in what we call the "O Brother Where Art Thou" period,  where both semi-professional and professional bands were raking in the money, and has since fallen back to its natural state of a tightly controlled niche market where even the most talented players struggle to make a living.  So the big green and purple elephant in the room of this discussion, that happens to be playing the wash-tub bass,  is that it's really about money.  Of course, that fact is a little too blunt for the keepers of such a beautiful art-form that has remained impressively true to its 1946 roots of the Monroe/Scruggs/Flatt/Wise/Watts super-group that started the genre.  The performers who want to make a living know that we need the influx of these big-tent fans that are both passionate and willing to buy CDs and tickets, while the flame-keepers who typically work other careers and participate in Bluegrass for the sheer love and passion of it do not want to see the music morphed into something unrecognizable.  You can see why it is a hot topic, as both sides have very valid arguments. 
Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs
What sets this music apart from everything else is the sense of ownership that the fans claim - rightfully, I might add - over it.   Most types of music have a distinct line between the fans and the musicians, but not bluegrass.   For a lot of fans the next logical step is to become a participant, and as this art is passed through the generations aurally, the only boundary for admission is desire, some practice, and a hint of musical ability which is desired but not always required.  It is interesting that the same can be said for free-style rap.  I've always believed that bluegrass and rap are congruent since they were both born out of an artistic expression of a specific cultural experience.   In fact if you're ever at a boring dinner party just make the statement, "Bluegrass and Rap are the same thing." And things will either get more interesting, or you will be ignored for the rest of the night; you win either way, as I see it.

The last, and most important, piece of this puzzle is the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association).   This body is the only association dedicated to the Bluegrass Industry (although others seem to be trying to get going) and unabashedly takes the role of Godfather for the music. The fans are going to enjoy the bands that they love no matter what happens, and the players are going to play their music and try to grow their bands each year, and also look up with respect and awe to Yonder Mountain and The Avetts for the huge audiences they play to all over the country.   The question is will the IBMA accept these bands openly and invite their fans in to discover the genius of Blue Highway, Vincent and Daily, Michael Cleveland, etc.   In my opinion, it should, as bluegrass has managed to survive the jazz of Tony Rice and David Grisman, it survived the mad genius of John Hartford, it survived the absurdity of Nickel Creek, and I'm sure it will also survive The Punch Brothers.

But survival for legacy's sake misses the point.  Bluegrass is an art-form--one of the most beautiful in the world--and as a salubrious art-form, it should always move and grow and evolve.  If it doesn't then it isn't art, because, like the human race, growing is the main purpose.    I believe the reason that this debate hits on such a visceral nerve is because we are dealing with one of the most beautiful, truly American, art-forms that has ever been created.   And it all started, as John Hartford sang, in the heart of the cross-eyed child.  

Monday evening jam at the Crouse House in Sparta NC
The very fact that people are currently discussing this is all the testament you need to understand how special Bluegrass music is.   It lives not in albums, or memories, or the fingers of our elders, but in people's hearts.   It has roots all over the world and through different cultures, but yet it remains quintessentially American.   There's no difference between the 12-year-old who can burn up a flat-top Martin D-28 or the old farmers who come to the weekly "Crouse House jam-session" every Monday night in Sparta, NC.  This music is stronger than most, and will continue to endure because of its earnest roots and the quality of people that keep the flame burning bright.   I'm honored to be a part of it.

 I believe the one point that is most easily overlooked is that musicians will consistently look for different ways to express themselves and these different combinations will always produce different sounds that will not fit in any conventional labeling.  The only reason Bluegrass is called Bluegrass is because that was the band name back in 1946.  It was a brand new voice expressing itself individually and no one knew what else to call it.   Individual skills and personalities that work together can create a brand new combination.   Technically an Earl Scruggs banjo timing should not match up well with a Duane Allman blues timing, yet in our band it somehow does.   We are always asked how we describe our music and we have yet to come up with a perfect answer.  Appalachian Rock is a beautiful term but it does not help someone gain a better understanding of who we are.

As we debate what is and isn't Bluegrass in 2011 we must also remember that one of Bill Monroe's greatest pieces of advice to up-and-coming musicians was, "Learn to play it right, but then go find your own voice."  Jerry Garcia used to always point out that both he and Grisman were Bluegrass/Monroe disciples, and then they created the "Dead" style and "Dawg" style.  While some work furiously to preserve Monroe's voice of 1946, other voices will sprout up and take off.   Bill Monroe would have been 100 years old this year, and there's probably some kid practicing in his bedroom right now that will create a style that will survive the generations, and people will be trying to preserve that voice in 2111.  It is exciting to think about isn't it?

(I've had this piece written for well over a week now and for some reason I just could not post it, and then I found out how sick my good friend Billy Constable is and it all became clear.  This post wasn't complete without the following paragraph - about one of the main people that taught all of us young Boonies what Bluegrass music really is.  Thanks Billy!)

Billy Constable.  More than likely playing a jaw-dropping solo.
Next week on Wednesday, October 26th we'll be playing a fundraiser in Boone, NC for Billy Constable, who played a huge role in helping all the young Boone NC bluegrass pickers play the music the right way!  Billy has a large tumor on his brain and will be going into surgery soon (with no health insurance).  To know Billy is to love him, and to look up to him as the archetypical Bluegrass picker.  You see, a lot of us didn't catch the bluegrass bug until we got to college.  And as we were all meeting each other and learning how to play this beautiful music, Billy Constable was there showing us the right way to play it.  He would say things like, "Leftover Salmon and String Cheese are good bands but the heart of the music is in people like The Stanley Brothers, Don Reno, The Kentucky Colonels, and Jim and Jesse."   He was always helping us learn new songs, but he also taught us how to really hear the music - like the old-timers.   He taught us where to find the spirit of the music.   And for that we will forever be indebted to him.  You can find updates and donate money at

The next generation of Bluegrassers proving that the music is in good hands!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Think Different. We are the 99%

        “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” - Steve Jobs

As I sit here this morning finishing up this piece, I have a weary heart for the passing of Steve Jobs at such a young age, 56 yrs old.  A true innovator and artist, in every sense of the word, who changed the world.  If the meaning of life is to make the world a better place then Mr. Jobs did his part.  I want to do my part, and I want everyone else to make an effort to do their part.  We are all in this together.    Here's our chance. 

"We are the 99%"

That is the key to it all.   That statement will either make or break this beautiful American uprising that is now in its 20th day, and has just started to receive mainstream reporting.

Look, I know a lot of you don't like politics and don't like to hear or read about what is going on.  It seems like it's a broken system and there's nothing we can do about it.  If this is the case then I ask you to stay with me, for one simple reason: we are the 99%.    If we put our energies into the right places, and most importantly not let them divide us back to 49% vs 49%, then we could actually see a fundamental change in the political landscape.   Forget conservative/liberal, forget republican/democrat, forget all of it.  Let's put aside, even for a brief moment in time, the circular arguments that never get us anywhere.   If we all can assume the mindset that we are the 99%, then beautiful things can happen, and it should, I believe, produce a constitutional amendment that removes all political donations, and ends the wild-west auction house that American democracy has become. 

This is from a statement from the protesters in NY. 
"The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%."

I was first introduced to this idea by the excellent book "Griftopia" by Matt Taibbi.   I wish I had the exact statement (I've loaned the book out and have no idea who has it now), but it was along the lines of "If the two parties were properly aligned then it would be the 99% of the populist against the 1% of the ruling elite, and the 99% would storm the gates of both Wall St and Washington for the blatant crimes they've committed in destroying the world economy."  Taibbi was pivotal in investigating the cause of the financial meltdown that has brought the entire world to its knees.   It all started with this piece explaining how investment banks, and especially Goldman Sachs, are able to engineer and make huge profits off of the bubbles that nearly kill the economy.  It opened with the iconic line  "The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."  This is the ruling elite.  The small handful of investment banks that dictate American political policy in their favor while the rest of the country and world suffers.   And this is why people are camping out in front of Wall St.

I believe the most important point that we have to be cognizant of is the ruling 1% will produce a backlash soon. They will use their money and influence to paint this uprising as a liberal hippie-infested nuisance that any respectable conservative will openly mock and condemn, or as I said earlier, divide us back into 49% vs 49%.   If this happens, and it is already starting, then it will be business as usual for the robber barons of the 21st century.   This is what we cannot let happen, until their is a constitutional amendment that stops the corporate money from buying politicians. 

The best option we have as the 99 percenters is the "Get the Money Out" campaign by Dylan Ratigan, who I've became a big fan of lately.  Ratigan has started the campaign to force politicians to create a constitutional amendment that will take money out of politics and will not allow corporations to own politicians.  90% of political problems can be solved by this amendment.    It does not matter what label you attach to yourself, who you vote for, or what you believe, every single one of us can agree that this would be a positive step forward for this country.   Click on the link and sign the petition.

Question: What percentage of politicians who raised more money than their opponent won their respective elections?   60%? 75%?    No, in the 2008 elections, 94% of politicians who raised more money won their elections.   It is estimated that every politician spends half his day, every day, solely raising money for upcoming elections.  Imagine if we can put a stop to that?  We all know that Obama raised a lot more money than McCain, and we also know that he broke the record for small donations from ordinary people like us.   But did you know that the majority of the money he raised came from the financial institutions (the ruling elite), and that the majority of that money was from Goldman Sachs?  Of course there hasn't been any meaningful Wall St regulations put back into place since his election.  They own him, just like every other politician out there.

I know these details can seem boring to some but hang with me here.  Financial de-regulation started in 1999 with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act of 1933, which was put into place after the Great Depression to stop the boom/bust cycles of the economy--and it worked!  In fact it worked fantastically, until it was repealed under Bill Clinton.   Now the Wall St banks can over-leverage to the brink of destruction and they all know that the U.S. Government will bail them out with tax-payer money.   These bail-outs will no longer be guaranteed if the banks are not allowed to buy the politicians that will ultimately provide these bail-outs.   The last thing worth pointing out is that a few years ago, in a huge "WTF moment," the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can now spend unlimited amounts on campaigns.   The flood gates have opened. 

What can we do?  It is simple.  1. Do not let anyone convince you that you are not in the 99%.  2. Sign the petition.    3. Work to make the world a better place.   And most importantly 4. Think Different

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. - Steve Jobs

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What's in a (facebook) name?

    A few weeks ago I had an idea to change my facebook name to Chester Copperpot.  There wasn't a very specific reason, other than the idea just popped into my head, and it just seemed like a fun thing to do.    I didn't think much about it until people started asking me why I would do such a thing.  I realized there were several reasons.    Why?  Mostly because, well, why not?  Life is a playground, and it's OK to play around with things, change things, see what happens.   If you feel like wearing a crazy shirt or hat then wear it.   Who Cares?  If a beautiful phrase pops into your head that breaks any of the loose rules of poetry then put it out there, see where it goes, find out what will come back to you.  Be the butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a typhoon on the other side of the world, or just make yourself chuckle, either way.    My hero Hunter S Thompson never held back from any thought he had.  He acted on every impulse with both disastrous and beautiful results and I admire him for that.   I think we need more of that in today's world, and stop taking everything so fucking serious all the time.  
      But there was something else, a little voice in the back of my head wanting to say that online identities have gone too far.   We are way too wrapped up into these identities that are at best a shallow representation of who we are, and at worst completely fictitious.   FB and social media are ubiquitous and here to stay.   There are really good things about it and really not-so-good things about it; like many things in life, it is what you make it.   But one thing is certain, these online identities that we project are about as real as the character who is Chester Copperpot.    And there was one specific reaction from several people that really hit it home for me.   "He's having an identity crisis"    What?? Really??     Are we so wrapped up in our online identites that the only explanation for me changing my name is that it is an identity crisis?   My first reaction was confusion as to why anyone would assume that, after all I do have my dream job, but after hearing it from several people I became both intrigued and even amused.   But this is where we are at in today's society.   You are your online identity, and if you play with this identity then it is seen as a crisis.   It is quite fascinating isn't it?

     "Who am I?" Is one of the great philosophical questions of all time. Hell, it probably started the entire philosophy discipline to begin with.   We are different people at different times in different situations; we grow and mature, but yet we strive to keep a twinkle of immaturity in our eyes.   The person that meets someone's parents for the first time is not the person that is at the bar at 2am with their best friends from college.   The person that is represented on a Facebook profile is not the person that we sit down and have dinner with.   Who is the real you?   If you truly want to understand a person, then talk to their exes.  Your ex boy/girlfriends have seen the best (they entered into a relationship with you)  and they've seen the worst (run for the hills!). 

     My FB profile is not who I am.  It does not show that I tend to get cranky late at night, it does not show the multitude of insecurities that run my life.  It does not show my worry, and my doubt, and the stress that I sometimes feel.  All of that is a huge part of who I am and is never expressed online, nor should it be.   No, online I might appear confident, smart, creative, and thoughtful.   But offline I am also stupid, insecure, myopic, and selfish.   That is the real me, the person that few people know, but for some reason still love me anyways.

“Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘Holy shit…what a ride!’” -Hunter S. Thompson

Sunday, September 11, 2011

More Love on 9/11 Anniversary

As I sit here this morning I'm very aware of the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy.  We all remember it very clearly, don't we?  I'll add a clip of Tim O'Brien singing his very moving song "More Love."  Let us increase our love, understanding, wisdom, and raise our consciousness, and let's decrease ignorance, racism, hate, religious extremism, and the idea that it's "us against them."  There is no "them,"  there is only "us," because we all live on this planet together and we need to stop killing each other for stupid reasons.  

"Just look out around you, people fightin' their wars
They think they'll be happy, when they settle their scores
Let's lay down the weapons
That hold us a part
Be still for just a minute
Try to open our heart

More love, I can hear our hearts cryin'
More love, I know that's all we need
More love to flow in between us
To take us and hold us and lift us above
If there's ever an answer, it's more love "    --Tim O'Brien

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Happiness is a Greasy Fire Hose in a Purple Pudding Pit

What is happiness?  I might have an answer.   Happiness is what everyone else has and you/me/us/we are trying so hard to get.    We live in a culture that has decided that happiness is the final answer and measuring stick to every single endeavor.   No matter that it is harder to hold onto than a greasy fire hose in a purple pudding pit.

It's not that everyone is miserable, but I think the important thing to understand is that happiness is fleeting, it comes and it goes--it's there when you don't expect it and it won't stay as long as you want.   But when we allow our snowflake storm pseudo-sitcom society to convince us that we should be happy all the time -every second of every day- then we can actually create stress in our daily lives because we "don't feel continuously happy" which snowballs into this country leading the world in anti-depressants but scoring low in overall happiness. What a cycle. 

We need to shift the focus of our daily actions from the search of happiness and pleasure to intention.  Instead of waking up each day and wondering how we can make ourselves happy, we can wake up and decide on our intention for the day.  Let happiness be the bloom of a flower that comes and goes on its own schedule.

Sometimes I wonder if happiness is even real or if it's just an elusive concept.  Or maybe it's just a combination of actually feeling relaxed, or engaged, or challenged, or accomplished, or amused or content.   Maybe happiness doesn't even exist and we are stressing ourselves to death (literally) for an imagined concept.  Wouldn't that be a great irony of life?

Ricky Gervais wrote a really great blog/article about a new project he's working on, and the first half really caught me.  He describes how he was the ultimate slacker throughout the first part of his life until he tried something new when he created the English version of "The Office."   For the first time in his life he tried his hardest.   And he became addicted.   Not to success, or work, or money or fame, but to giving it his all.  It's interesting that he never claims that he's happier, but you can feel it in his writing - it's palpable.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman wrote in his 2002 book Authentic Happiness that happiness involves three components; pleasure (the great googly feeling), engagement (the depth of involvement with one's family, work, romance and hobbies), and meaning (using personal strengths to serve some larger end).  And his research shows that one of these components factors much less in overall contentment.   And ironically it's the one component that our culture seems to pursue the most: pleasure.   Engagement and meaning are much more important to overall satisfaction and, I believe, come from daily intention as well as hard work.

The question of "what makes us happy?" is very interesting because in some ways we don't really know.   Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "cheeks sent me high") who is known for his research on happiness and creativity, as well as the introducing the concept of "Flow" (think Michael Jordan in game 7 of NBA finals) came up with a brilliant experiment on how to find out what really makes us happy.   Nearly everyone will always answer "my family, or my children."   But when people are asked to rate their moods at different parts of the day (whenever a beeper goes off) we find that children and family are typically the main cause of frustration and stress.   There is a disconnect between what people believe makes them happy and what actually makes them happy.   Perceived happiness has differentiating factors, such as our memories of experiences can be jaded by the final moments of the experience, and also the very human tendency to romanticize the know, "the good 'ol days"

After family, people will list their work as another main source of happiness, contentment, frustration, or stress.    Are we successful? Are we moving forward?  Are we financially secure?  If not, now do we get there?

Several years ago I got a taste of the corporate world.  Now keep in mind that this was in Asheville NC, so it was a very laid back version of the corporate world, complete with shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops (Asheville was ranked as the happiest place in the world!); but for a banjo picker from Sparta NC it was a didactic experience.   At one point we all were caught up in "The Secret" where you make vision boards and all the great things in life will come to you because you imagine them coming to you.   The Law of Attraction.

This is a a very sexy concept, and was featured multiple times on Oprah (so it MUST be legit!),  but there was something that just didn't feel right about it, and it took reading Rick Pitino's fantastic book Success is a Choice for me to be able to vocalize what.   Pitino lays out 10 steps in his book, but you can reduce the book to two words: Hard Work.   And say what you will about his personal life lately, but when someone coaches a kid who supposedly has no chance to play in the NBA, and works hard enough to become the league's MVP, then I respect that process! Pitino also took a team that was ranked at the bottom of their conference to the final game of the Final Four tournament.   He's a master at setting high goals and achieving them and he didn't do it by sitting at his desk staring at a "vision board."  He pushed pushed pushed and taught his players that they had the ability to rise to a level they never expected.  (the vision board link is to a clip of the great show Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

Getting there early, staying late, pushing yourself past your (imagined) limits, concentrating on weaknesses.   These are the things that separate people who have greater amounts of engagement and meaning from people who only search out pleasure, and therefore have more satisfaction and contentment with their lives. 

But today's culture preaches the opposite.  Is it no fun?  Then don't do it!   Is it not pleasurable? Then stay away from it!  Does it not provide immediate satisfaction?   No wonder we are falling behind the rest of the world in everything!

In some ways I consider myself lucky.   I get paid to do something that I would gladly do for free.  And I can see where people would look at us and think that we "have it made."  But what people don't see are the hours, days, months, years, of working our asses off for nothing.   It probably adds up to about 30 cents an hour...maybe.    People will follow the phrase, "Be Happy"  with, "Do What You Love."  And I have a  problem with that since nobody can just quit their job and "do what they love."  It's deceiving.   But everyone can work to create a life situation that has more engagement and meaning, and that takes waking up every day with a set intention and path.  What is your intention for today?

Notice that Winston Churchill did not say, "Do what you love and you'll never work again."  Instead he said, "Find a job that you love and you'll never work again."   It's more than a subtle difference.

If you want to attempt to make a living doing something that you enjoy then you have to be prepared to give up a large part of your life to do so.   You have to WORK YOUR ASS OFF!   It's not always fun,  it's not always pleasurable, and the phrase "delayed gratification" becomes an understatement.   But it's worth it! Oh man, is it ever worth it!   I don't regret a single party that I missed because I was practicing, in fact if I could do it over again, I would go to a lot less parties in college and practice more.

“No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.” – Old Chinese proverb

Search for engagement and meaning in each day.  Don't worry about pleasure or happiness, and stop putting things off because they're "hard."  Anytime something appears to be too hard imagine what the Navy SEALs go through on a daily basis and proper perspective comes popping past you with perfect precision.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

UFO's, Monks, and Pedophile Priests.

Cognitive Dissonance -- The term that has been pulsing through my head lately with the same lumbering intensity as that damn flashing yellow traffic light that you would sit and watch for 10 minutes with your best friend, stoned, thinking that eventually it would turn green.  And much like that light, you can sit there all night, but staring at it will not make it turn green. 

It's a term that can be used for many facets of our emotional identities, but it was created within a religious framework and interestingly seems to be the most comfortable staying there.   The simple definition is the discomfort a person experiences when holding conflicting ideas simultaneously, or when the reality of an experience doesn't match our pre-conceived expectations of the experience.   The question is not, "Do you experience cognitive dissonance?" but "How do you react to it when you do?"   It's a fascinating concept and one that has been on my mind for several days now.

In  the early 1950's the term and theory were coined when the social psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated a cult that believed a UFO  was going to rescue them at a specific time and date before the earth was destroyed by God.   (How many psychology theories have kick-ass beginnings like this?)  The theory of cognitive dissonance attempts to predict how people will behave after these fervent beliefs clash with reality.  Festinger properly predicted that the group would re-group and actively start proselytizing and recruiting new members which would reduce the dissonance they experienced when the UFO forgot to pick them up.  What? Did you expect them to actually realize that the entire thing was a sham and go back to their normal lives?  Yeah...not so much.

How does this theory of cognitive dissonance work in our everyday lives?  And is it inherently bad or is there a healthy level that can be maintained?  (Questions upon Questions...oh how you torment me)

I tried to come up with a spectrum that could give us an idea of what extreme cases of cognitive dissonance look like, and surprisingly (but not really) both examples stayed within the religious paradigm.   Without being an expert, I imagine that someone who has achieved (or is working towards) eradicating all vestiges of dissonance would look like a Buddhist monk; sitting in a plain robe meditating on the "power of now" without being disturbed by thoughts of the past or future.   Cognitive dissonance is bound to the idea of self, and by giving up your self you are able to release this resistance of what we all know as the ups and downs of daily life (or as the first of four Noble Truths of Buddhism, "Life means suffering).   Most of us choose to not go this route as we accept the idea of self, and with it, the peaks and valleys, the loves and losses, the fears and joys of daily life.  This causes me to wonder if there's a healthy level of CogDis that can steer us towards achieving either our desired lifelong fulfillment, or at the very least, our daily goals.  A level that pushes us to achieve more than we expected.  A level that compels us to work hard each day and search for resolution to this dissonance and in doing so become a better person.  The resolution of a musical phrase can have much more impact because of the dissonance that precedes it.  It is the ebb and flow of life, always searching for resolution.    

Deciding on a specific example at the other end of the spectrum isn't as easy, since high-levels of CogDis can take many different forms; but I've found that the choices tend to stay within the religious paradigm, since religion is the one place that extreme beliefs can hold strong roots against all rational thought and scientific evidence to the contrary. Was there any evidence that the UFO was coming?  No.  Is there any evidence that the earth is only 6000 years old, was created in 6 days, and dinosaurs lived alongside the first descendants of Adam and Eve? No. Yet people will defend these beliefs until the bitter end, even giving up their lives for them. 

(A quick note: Although this theory works well within the religious paradigm, it is not specifically relegated to it.   Smokers are a good example of people who deal with high levels of CogDis.   Most all smokers will claim the desire to live a long and healthy life, but their daily addiction to the poison of nicotine directly clashes with that desire of being healthy. Smokers will attempt to reduce their level of CogDis by saying things like, "Well, we all die from something! (wink wink nudge nudge);"  which is an absurd rationalization for poisoning yourself, but they just don't have many other options.)

So what is a good example of extreme levels CogDis for our spectrum?  Obviously the people that sat in the dark waiting for the UFO to pick them up.  But what about someone like Ted Haggart, the Evangelical pastor who repeatedly preached about the evils of homosexuality while paying a gay prostitute for sex and drugs for up to 3 years? Haggert had to experience very extreme levels of CogDis, as did the multitudes of Catholic priests that repeatedly molested children for decades. I can't think of a more extreme example than this; someone dedicates their entire life to what is supposed to be the purest path and yet still commit what is easily the worst crime against fellow humans. 

OK, so you and I fall somewhere in-between Buddhist Monks and pedophile priests.  I've had worse realizations!

It's a funny thought, but it doesn't matter at all.   What matters is how we deal with our CogDis in accordance with our own daily lives.   Are we honest with ourselves and, just as importantly, with others around us?  Do we know deep down of a weakness that we can work to address?  Do we need to adjust our daily habits to more closely resemble our ideas of ourselves and what we want to achieve before it is too late?  Or are we just telling ourselves these things and allowing unhealthy levels of CogDis disrupt the balance of our emotional lives?

Like I said, it's a very interesting concept, and one that can benefit us if used to broaden our self-awareness.   Obviously we (as in the non-Buddhist monks) are not able to live without some level of CogDis in our lives, but I wonder how we can channel it properly to be advantageous? That's the American way, right? Use everything we can to move on up! Is it what we feel when we try our best to live up to our self-expectations, so the reality of the experience is in accordance with what we expected out of ourselves? Is this why I would sit and practice for 8 hours a day? So the actual experience of playing music would be as joyful as I expected it to be? Possibly, or maybe I just didn't want to allow the banjo to win.   

I've challenged myself to be more aware of the reasons for CogDis in my life and either resolve the issue or channel it to my favor.   If I can reduce daily stress by even 1% then it is worth it.   Who knows, maybe I'll even start enjoying people's company...that would be a miracle.  Just kidding, I love all of y'all...mostly. 

Update: Aug 27th

Reading through some really great terms from the mesmerizing book "1984" I came across this.  Very fitting for this discussion.  And once again this book proves to be one of the most prophetic books the English language has ever known. 
Here is how Winston Smith described doublethink in the novel:
"To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.'

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Has anyone seen beauty around here? I think we lost it....

      What is the state of classical music today?   Well Joshua Bell is arguably the greatest violin player alive today, but if you’ve heard of him it’s probably either through the work he did in the amazingly beautiful movie “The Red Violin,” or for the experiment that he was a part of in Washington DC as he went undercover as a busking street musician in the Metro Line.   This was a rather genius experiment that came from (no ordinary) staff writer Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post, and had a pretty simple premise; will anyone notice a virtuoso musician playing some of the most beautiful music ever written on one of the greatest instruments ever made (1713 Stradivarius worth over $3 Million)?  Or as Weingarten elegantly states it, “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”  

          I’m not sure if this YouTube video is considered “viral,” but millions of people have seen it.   I watched it and immediately made fleeting and superficial judgments of all the people that walked by and ignored Bell.  Obviously, doing what I do, I  have a vested interest in the outcome and harsh visceral criticism of all the people too busy to notice something so beautiful.  My artistic high-horse is groomed and saddled, and we can do impressive tricks as we ride around this land together.   But what I didn’t expect was to find beauty somewhere completely different; Weingarten’s original piece that was published in the Post that went along with the video.  It didn’t so much shed “new light” on the experience but completely turn it on its head, shake the change out of its pockets, and walk to the push-button enlightenment vending machine (right next to the Coke one) and purchase a tiny slice. 

     If a picture is worth a thousand words then what’s a video worth? A thousand and one?  But Weingarten’s piece clobbers both of them!  Instead of taking the easy way out and keeping the attention on all the people who didn't stop and hear the music Weingarten focused on the question of “What is beauty?” and it’s fraternal twin, “How do we recognize it?”   Any great philosopher has considered it, and most have opinions on it, but Weingarten settles with Kant because he’s “obviously right.”  Weingarten writes:

    "In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.
"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."
So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?
'He would have inferred about them,' Guyer said, 'absolutely nothing.'"

     Wow, that sound you just heard was me, hitting the ground after I fell off that high-horse.  

     Well, the true beauty of the experiment is Weingarten, and his passion for writing, thinking, and searching for the truth.   His article, which won a Pulitzer, is extraordinary and shows the need for great journalism to survive this perfect storm of free content, tweeters, and the reign of Rupurt Murdoch and Faux News. 

   Writing is a beautiful art and I think Weingarten matched Bell word-for-note.  

    One of the aspects of the article that caught me by surprised was Bell stating that when he began playing he was a little nervous.   Here is one of the most accomplished musicians alive today (and we’ll set aside the fact that the average person on the street has never heard of him, that’s our loss, not his).  He has soloed with the greatest orchestras all over the world and composers even claim, “He plays like a god!”   But as he was setting up in the DC metro station he experienced a feeling that doesn’t happen often; he was nervous! “It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies.  I was stressing a little,” he says.   A man who is paid as much as $1000 a minute started to appreciate people even looking up to acknowledge him, and specifically remembers when someone threw in a whole dollar and not just change.  I believe every musician in the world understands this feeling. (he made $32.17 in 45 mins)  Is the human need for recognition and appreciation so permanent, as if it’s coded into our genes, that one of the greatest musicians alive today will be genuinely thankful for a glance up, or a dollar in the case, or for someone who actually stops to listen?  I find some comfort in knowing that Joshua Bell and I occasionally feel the same thing as we play music, and I would never have known this if Gene Weingarten didn’t also ask the question, “What is beauty?”

Here is one of my favorite songs and this is how I personally discovered Joshua Bell, by the record he made with Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, and Edgar Meyer called "Short Trip Home."  One of my favorite stories about how music ultimately transcends classification comes from this album.  Bell told all of his friends that he was "making a bluegrass album with Sam Bush," and Bush told all of his friends he was "making a classical album with Joshua Bell."  What I love about that story is that they were both right.   

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How can I hate the war but love the warrior??

       A good friend of mine posted one of the most detailed descriptions of the Navy Seals raid on Osama bin Laden’s property the very day before a helicopter with 22 of those SEALs was shot down, and all were killed.    I know these details because I am utterly fascinated by these guys, the ultimate warriors.   And while I am completely enthralled with the military Special Forces I am completely against the very idea of war.  How can I hate the war but I love the warrior?   This past year I’ve had to confront this dichotomy of feelings, and ask myself how can a person be so against something yet still be so amazed by the instruments of it.   Could I celebrate banjos but dislike the music they make?  Could I love strawberries but hate their taste?  Could I exalt a writer but express abhorrence at all their work?    I think not.   Yet, I know I’m not alone in these feelings of both war and the warrior.     I had these discordant points of view pointed out to me early this year by an ex-girlfriend who was adamantly opposed to the death penalty, as am I.  It is one of the few hot-button social issues that my mind is made up on.  But when these SEALs charged into the compound and ultimately killed the big scary terrorist number one, I gave a “way to go SEALs” shout-out in a public forum.  It was quickly pointed out that I cannot be against the death penalty but yet cheer for the providers of that ultimate sentence.   I did agree, but it forced me think about how I reached this place, and what path brought me to those feelings.   Some introspection was obviously in order!  Why am I fascinated by the Navy SEALs?   I traced it back.  Most of us guys who grew up in the ‘80’s watched Chuck Norris in “Delta Force” 


or Sylvester Stallone as “Rambo” 

or my father who watched Bruce Lee and John Wayne.  And before that we played with our GI Joes, or we were outside “playing” war with our friends in the woods.   I, along with about every other guy I grew up with, have been idolizing warriors since we could hold a toy gun.   In fact, an amusing thing to watch is well meaning, but slightly over-protective (or in my case hippie) parents try to keep their boys from playing with toy guns, or playing “war.”  It’s damn near impossible!  It’s ingrained in us, and the more I thought about it the more I realized it’s just a pure biological evolutionary trait that has been passed down through the generations reaching back thousands of years.   We have a massive yearning to be the toughest and baddest guy around from a young age so we can protect our “clan” and give our genes the best opportunity to be passed to the next generation.    Males have a desire to emulate the alpha-male of the “clan,” but in today’s world, with today’s media, our “clan” is much bigger so we look to the Rambo’s of Hollywood or the Navy Seal’s of real life.   And this is only speaking of the most primal of urges, survival.  Obviously there are many other traits everyone looks up to as a child, but there is no stronger urge in the human body and mind than survival.   One has to look no further than the fantastic and moving story of Aron Ralston.    But thousands of years of evolutionary traits be damned, I am absolutely fascinated by these guys.   They are the elite male archetype.   One of the best books I’ve read in a long time was the story of Marcus Luttrell, “Lone Survivor,” who was one of four SEAL’s to take on over 100 Taliban fighters and was the only one to make it out alive.  This bears repeating; four SEAL’s fought over 100 heavily armed Taliban fighters for HOURS over open ground before taking casualties.   Here is the team.

This isn’t about war, it’s about the human will to survive.   The story would be amazing even if it were pure fiction, the fact that it is true leaves any reader with a sense of awe at what a human is capable of surviving when pushed to the ultimate limits of life.  6 months later I still get chills just thinking about it…but war still sucks. 

Friday, August 5, 2011


Recording is a very interesting process for a musician, and after several albums I've begun to have some interesting insights into the evolution of recording "your sound" or “your voice”.  We all remember being 8 years old, or so, and hearing your voice recorded for the first time and thinking, "I don’t sound like that!”   Well the process of recording music is very similar.  Most musicians, regardless of natural talent, usually hear themselves recorded for the first time and think, "Wow, I don't sound as good as I thought".  Mostly because it's hard to hear the weaknesses while we are playing.  When I sit and play an Earl Scruggs song, I really HEAR Earl playing it.   But when I hear it played back to me I hear only me, and I'm not even close to Earl, and it can be quite deflating.   I've realized that a large part of being successful at recording is learning what you sound like, and start embracing it.    And this takes some time.    Recording can be one of the most mentally exhausting experiences you've ever been through.   The first Wiseapple album was recorded live with no opportunities for overdubs or "punches" (where you fix certain notes or phrases).  So the 4 of us had to play the song PERFECTLY, at the same time.   Getting 4 people to do anything perfectly at the same time is harder than herding hummingbirds.   
 I remember thinking to myself several times, "Is this even possible?”  The level of focus it takes to record an album in two days is unlike anything I had ever been through.  Not only do you have to play the song perfectly (or as close as possible to perfect)  but you have to keep the energy up on the 5th take so that it sounds like it is the 1st take.  It's amazing where your mind wants to wander to during the process.    But several albums later I've learned to embrace the things that I'm good at, stay away from the things I'm not so good at, and most importantly know when to take chances and when to play it safe.   I know when I can do better and also when I'm not going to do any better, and express that to the producer with a very polite, "Screw you buddy, you come play it better” But said with a flowing voice and a slight hint of British accent, like a butterfly getting ready to land on a big pile of poop.  (Fact: butterflies LOVE poop. go to a dairy farm one summer and see)
As we were recording the last album I was sitting in the studio waiting for another take to start and I remember having somewhat of a realization that my playing is going to sound like me no matter how hard I try to sound like Earl or Bela, and the best thing for me to do is not only embrace it but to actually enjoy it.   It’s me and I can’t change that fact.  What a huge relief!