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!