Monday, December 16, 2013

How one short story led to a new friend, inspiration, and 3 new books, in one night.

A special experience that is worth sharing...

As we walked up to the entrance of Cafe Nola in Frederick, MD I noticed the sound coming from the open front door was different.  This wasn't the sound of small groups of people sitting at tables and enjoying dinner; no, this was louder, more energetic, like near the end of a wedding reception with an open bar.  We walked in and saw a table set up by the door with two girls attending it, obviously checking people in with name tags.  We graciously smiled as we walked by them, not feeling a need to explain why we were just walking into their private party.  The place was at capacity with everyone standing and talking with drinks in their hand.  Whatever function was happening was in full swing.  We were two hours away from needing to set up our gear so we found an empty tall table with stools in the corner and put our food order in. 

I knew the bathroom was on the complete other side of the building and I would have to squeeze through about 10 separate groups of people in tight circles chatting, so I decided to make a proactive move for once and do this before the food came.  As I was walking back, alternating between trying to make myself small to squeeze through, but also actively pushing my way through the small gaps of light between people with the perfunctory, " sorry...sorry..excuse me," I noticed a small rack of local rags and papers near the door.  I'm not sure why I grabbed the most simple looking one there, just a folded piece of white paper with a black and white drawing up top and words upon words below.  Maybe it was because there were no advertisements anywhere to be seen on it, and the possibility of finding something without a commercial interest is always welcome.  Or maybe the title "The Stone Bird" was just interesting enough that it was worth the chance of finding out more.  Either way, that's the one I took back to the table to break me out of the habit of just scrolling through mindless posts as we wait on our food.  If you ever see a table of five guys paying attention to anything but each other, and most likely their smartphones, then there's a good chance they're a band that has just ridden 7 hours in a tiny van with each other and feel no need to make small talk to pass the time.  Tired of small talk and tired of the phone, I wanted something else engaging.

The writing started off...not weird, but just peculiar -- birds who want to fly into space and then quickly got into some scientific history of the albatross.   Were these just ramblings?  A study of schizophrenic albatross birds? I didn't know, and I could feel my attention starting to wander away.  I looked up and scanned the room for any other alternatives but quickly remembered why I picked up this paper in the first place, so I kept reading.  Then something happened, a little nugget of wisdom was dropped into the story from nowhere.  A little phrase or idea that caught me by surprise and made me think, "Wait, could this be good?"  Little did I know that I would be leaving there with a new friend, inspiration, and three free books.

The story of the Stone Bird follows two albatross who are life partners but are not able to conceive during the annual mating, a reproduction ritual that takes place on a special island every year.  The female makes a rash decision to use a small round rock and tell her partner that this year she has finally laid an egg just like all the other couples.  Through sheer volition of true love, this rock hatches into a stone bird and now they have a family.  I couldn't stop reading this story.  Every paragraph had a tiny little nugget of wisdom, much like my favorite author Tom Robbins.  Writing like this is special, and the chances of my discovering something like this in a quaint little town in Maryland were quite surprising.

I finished the story, and little did I know that my story with this experience was just beginning.  At the end of the story there was a simple little postscript of "My name is Goodloe Byron.  If you like the story email me....."   It hit me then that whoever wrote this story published this little paper by themselves and left them in places like this, cafes and restaurants, for people to discover.  No advertisements, no sales offers, no asking of money, just a small request for acknowledgment.  That's it.  The simplicity and beauty of this deal was too much to ignore, and I pulled out my phone and shot him a quick email just saying, "Hey, I loved your story.  Thank you."  I know from traveling around playing music that the smallest things like that can make a huge difference in the day for someone baring their soul through their art. 

This small little sample of independent writing had me fired up, to be completely honest, so that when I found some friends that we met our first time here, I quickly described how I came to the story and how much I liked it.  They both laughed and said, "That's Goodloe.  Everyone in town knows him.  He'll be here tonight."  They told me that he's also a musician and visual artist, and you know you're a Frederick local when he draws a picture of you.  So not only have I discovered a beautiful story but I'm going to meet the author soon.  A mental image appeared of what this guy might look like and if I could recognize him.  I'm sure he'll be the most outlandishly dressed person here...obviously.  Bright colored pants, some type of fedora-esque hat with feathers around it, or maybe even a Native American vibe with amulets and pieces of bone hanging from all points.   A few minutes later an average looking guy with moderately short hair and a cropped beard stood in front of me in jeans and a brown jacket.  Just a normal looking dude.  My friends said, "Hey, this is Goodloe."

Goodloe with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy
"I just sent you an email about 20 mins ago," I said.    He laughed and said, "That was you?"  I was reading it on my way here and it really made my night, thank you."   We didn't talk long since he had to get to an open-mic night to perform, but he said he would be back for the end of our show.  We finished playing and he came up and handed me three of his self-published books, "Here you go, I hope you like them. You guys sounded awesome."

Not a lot else was said.  We'd both experienced each other's art, and it felt like a mutual respect had settled in that didn't need to be strengthened through banal small talk.  With tools like Facebook in today's world, you don't need to make as much initial effort to stay in touch.  If there's someone you want to keep in touch with then you will: it's simple.  

It is amazing what can happen when you follow your gut and just reach out to a stranger and say, "I appreciate your work."  Every now and then a whole new world might be opened up to you.  Not always, but when it does it is pretty special and worth the effort.  I'm several chapters into one of his books and love it so far.

This was a really special experience that I felt honored to be a part of.    

Goodloe is sending me some copies of his Stone Bird story.  So, if you're interested in reading it, find me and ask.  
Here's a link to the visual arts of Goodloe

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The amazing physiological effects of being in nature

Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that translates to "forest bathing."  It's the process of immersing yourself into nature for massive and very measurable stress-relieving effects.  These effects have been confirmed by researchers throughout the world on a consistent basis, and include stress and anxiety reductions as well as boosts in creativity.  Since the Japanese are some of the most stressed and over-worked people in the world, it makes sense that they are avidly studying ways to combat this silent killer before it overtakes their society.

Everyone has an idea that taking a long hike, or even a short walk, in the woods is relaxing, but the new science behind what actually happens to us is quite amazing.  I first heard a story on NPR about this a few years ago -- a neuroscientist was explaining how new parts of the brain light up when someone is interacting with nature.  My first thought when listening to this was, "Of course it does." We have thousands of years of physiological evolution completely immersed and connected with nature, so our brains reacting in powerful ways when we reconnect really shouldn't surprise anyone. 

One of the leading researchers on the positive physiological impacts of nature, Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist and vice director of Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences, has found when his test participants spend time walking and relaxing in the woods without being tethered to any electronics, they yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate.  Reductions in the negatives aren't the only findings; on the positive side, they've also found significant gains in both attention span and creativity. They've also found the effects to have a lasting impact as people go back to their daily lives. 

Researchers in the U.S. are finding the same results, and I've started wondering if our two cultures will treat this new scientific knowledge in the same way.  As Americans, we manipulate data for maximum results, so we'll tweak our city's green-spaces for maximum nature benefits to keep our workers healthy and alive.  But the Japanese culture comes from a deeper sense of interconnectedness that we Americans just don't have -- hence the idea of shinrin-yoku.  So instead of just having lunch in a city park, the Japanese are spending days forest bathing.  We should follow their lead here.

From a conservationist standpoint, our countries having stressed out workers can be a blessing in disguise.  As the money is trickling in for further research, we might get a foothold on a tangible reason to start protecting our wild and natural areas -- you know, other than the fact that we just should!   There is nothing more urgent than the current state of our oceans right now.  What most people do not realize is if our oceans die, then we die.  Human life is not sustainable on this planet with dead oceans, and we already have massive dead-zone areas, one of the largest being in the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans.   
Dead Zone in the Gulf
Wallace J. Nichols, who volunteers for the National Academy of Science in San Francisco, is working tirelessly to find grant money to study the same calming affects of our oceans.  Again, this seems like a no-brainer as most of us choose an ocean setting for a relaxing vacation, or simply enjoy a small aquarium;  but having the actual science behind it is what moves the money to clean and protect it.  It is not enough to just know that we love the ocean, but knowing why and how we love the ocean can give us more leverage in funding protection.  This actually falls in line with the current advancements into moral psychology that show us moral intuition and emotions come before strategic reasoning.   It turns out that the Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), was correct when he said we are ruled by our emotions and not our rationalization, as Plato (427 BC-347 BC) posited.  Knowing this, we can approach conservatism through our emotional connections, as opposed to just hitting people with facts and reason.  Think of a coach's pre-game speech to his team: successful speeches come from a basic emotional level of pride, camaraderie, trust, and desire, not a rational breakdown of winning percentages.  If we start connecting nature to our intuitive morals and emotions then we will be more successful at conserving her. 

I was thinking about the activities that mean the most to me and I realized that one of the things that most of them have in common is they are immune from the invasion of advertisements.  This could even be a good rule of thumb--spend more time doing things that are immune to advertisements.  Maybe advertisements are like weird chemical names in food labels--the more there are, the worse it is.  But on the other hand, there are a lot of really great writers out there doing great work who make a living because ads surround their work, so it isn't that simple.

Either way, we are learning how we need nature, forests, and the oceans, not to just stay alive, but to also stay healthy and happy.  Exploring the scientific basis of how they affect our emotions will hopefully steer us in the right direction of conservation, and not just speedy corporate manipulation with an industrial psychology slant.  I'm cheering this research on, as all the people working their asses off on the front lines trying to reverse the dead zones in the oceans and reverse the steep animal extinction rate and deforestation rate need all the support they can get.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Losing people close to us.

We pulled up to the marina and started carrying all our gear down the plank onto a large taxi boat for the short jaunt to an island that inexplicably bore the name "Goat Island," even though there wasn't a single goat in sight.  We didn't really know what to expect; but we rarely do, as we've learned through the years that spending time and energy on anything other than a few particular logistics details is a waste. The philosophy of "we'll figure it out when we get there" is the only thing that constantly works for us anyway.  But we did know that this was a party for our friend, Keith Routh, who passed away suddenly on a scuba diving trip this winter, and that is all that really mattered.

We started setting up on a small Tiki stage, while the organizers of the party, Keith's close friends, kept busy setting up food, drink, and shade stations, in the sandy area that served as a yard to the small monolithic 3 story, 3 room house the landowners stayed in.  No pavement, no cars: just a canopy of trees, running water, power, and lots of sun on this warm Sunday. 

As the boat taxi made runs, people started walking down the long single walkway pier that connected the land to the water over the marshy mud that was ruled by the tides.  I noticed that everyone seemed to be a lot younger than Keith, which didn't surprise me at all.  Keith was full of life and an existential energy that was unusual for someone of his age, so him running with a younger crowd just made sense. 

It has been several months since we lost Keith, so the shock and sense of sudden loss had passed, and today was all about celebrating the fact that we were lucky to have known him.  Many "Keith stories" were shared, but a constant theme of the day was "He would have loved this."  A small sunny island filled with all his favorite things: friends, beers, and music from one of his favorite bands.  I'm sure at some point we all had the exact same vision, of him actually being here with us and enjoying it, raising his beer and giving that huge smile he was known for.  I couldn't help but wish there was a way we could have these types of parties before we lose our friends and loved ones.  A way to actually show them how much they mean to us before we/they check out.  Maybe the lesson is to make that message more of a daily action than a one time shot. 

There is a song that Flatt and Scruggs used to play called "Give me my flowers while I'm living."

Won't you give me my flowers while I'm living
Let me enjoy them while I can
Please don't wait till I'm ready to be buried
And then slip some lilies in my hand

In this world is where we need our flowers
A kind word to help us get along
If you can't give me flowers while I'm living
Then please don't throw them when I'm gone

I have experienced the opportunity to do just that for my Grandma Swenk after she had a heart attack and a stroke.  The Swenk side of the family has always been very close, with lots of cousins, so we all dropped what we were doing and came from all points on the east coast, and spent a weekend in Sparta celebrating someone who was still with us.  It was one of the most beautiful weekends our family has ever had and nobody will ever forget it.  Nobody had any idea that she would hang tough for several more years.  Swenks are a stubborn bunch.  

But life is temporal and tender, and we just don't get that opportunity every time.  When the time comes we do the best that we can, but I do think that we are in a position to rethink end of life ceremonies and allow them to evolve out of the Middle Ages superstition-based rituals that are still so prominent.  Why would we want to do that? Because these ceremonies are for the living, not the dead.  Personally, I've seen both ends of the spectrum--from ones so beautiful and heart-felt to one so impersonal that I wanted to just walk out. 

Through the eons of humans trying to understand the idea of life and death, most rituals were created to help the spirit or soul a passageway to some particular place --  the ceremony was for the dead, not the living.  But we've evolved past that and now most of us can agree these ceremonies are for the ones left behind. 

Several years ago I had two different experiences that affected me profoundly and have always stuck with me.  My Grandma Swenk moved to Sparta when I was young and lived within a short bike ride, so she was a daily influence on my life.  I've never lost someone who I've been so close to.  As we made our way down to Florida for her funeral, I knew it would be a pretty strict Catholic funeral with mass, which I've been through before.  But I wasn't ready for the reality of the experience.  The best way I can describe it that it was like sitting through a 60 minute infomercial for Catholicism, getting pounded with all the reasons why Catholicism is the only true way, and all the reasons why anyone with any sense should be a part of it.  The few brief personal moments came and went so fast you almost missed them: she loved UNC basketball, North Carolina mountains, and her grandkids.  Here was woman who was the pillar of a very large, tight, and loving family and yet the personal details acknowledged didn't even set her apart from any other loving Grandma.  There was one brief moment where I was able to feel a connection to the process of losing someone you love so much, and that was when the grandkids served as pall-bearers and walked the casket out.  I left thinking to myself, "we--the living and the dead--deserve better than this."

On the complete other end of the spectrum, I was able to attend an end-of-life ceremony for my girlfriend's step-dad around that same time.  Avi was a large man in every way, both physically and mentally.  He looked like Jerry Garcia with his white hair and beard and easy smile, and his temperament and doctorate in psychiatry gave him a serene, calming presence that listened more than spoke.  I don't know where Avi fell on the religious spectrum but I always had the feeling that he studied Buddhism in his younger searching years, and it affected him greatly.  His ceremony did not have many religious undertones, but instead focused on his presence on this earth and everyone he affected.  There were readings from family members, as you would expect, but the last half of the ceremony opened the floor for anyone who wanted to get up and talk about Avi.  We heard story after story of how he helped people through their darkest times.  Even though I had only been around Avi a few times through the years, I left that ceremony with one of the strongest senses of peace and comfort and love that I have ever known. It was everything that an end-of-life ceremony could and should be. It not only acknowledged our sense of loss, but more importantly it focused on how Avi made our lives better by knowing him.  Is there any better way to honor someone who has passed than that?

We don't know what happens when we die.  If you say you know, then you're confusing the words "know" and "believe."  (How many world problems could be solved if we just stopped confusing those two words!)  But people die, and the living are left to deal with a great sense of loss and confusion, as well as many great memories.  Some of us choose to anesthetize our grief with believing that we will all be connected somewhere else in a big huge party.  Who knows?  Maybe we will or maybe we won't.  But what I do know is that these people made our lives a little bit better; and even though their memory won't live forever as we like to think, it will live with us, in our hearts, for all of our lives--and I think I can get along just fine knowing that.  

Here's to ya Keith, and Grandma Swenk, and Avi.  Thanks for making our lives a little bit better. 

A picture collage of Keith 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Confused about the NSA collecting our phone records? This might help...

The NSA phone records whistle-blower issue is an intellectual buffet of ideas that we haven't seen in a long time.  The reason this one issue is so different than everything else we get bombarded with is it doesn't allow us to follow our normal pattern of opinion forming, which is to land on the side of people that we've already decided we trust.  For example, if you trust Obama then you are for healthcare reform; if you don't trust him, then you're against it--pretty simple.  We all function this way, no matter how actively engaged in current debate issues we are.  I trust the journalists Matt Taibbi and Chris Hayes, and when they present an opinion on an issue that I don't know anything about, it is easy for me to adopt their views on the issue.  I don't blindly go about this, and I'm not afraid to disagree with them, but they are two people with whom I have developed a deep sense of trust in how they approach complicated issues.

So here we have this issue that nobody really knows how to feel about.  I've seen very few opinions from my conservative friends and relatively few from my liberal friends--most of which are just along the lines of "Snowden did a good thing." This says nothing about the deeper issue at hand, but even more fascinating is where the political superstars are falling on this issue.

Snowden is a criminal and should be punished, and this spying program is what we need.
President Obama
Lindsey Graham
Al Franken
Peter King

Snowden is a hero and should be celebrated, and this spying program goes against who we are
Al Gore
Rand Paul
Glen Beck
Michael Moore

When will we ever see these guys agree on anything again? There is no other issue that will divide these players into these group, and that is just one of the things that makes this so fascinating.   On social and environmental issues I'm very liberal, so I do have varying degrees of trust in both Obama and Al Gore.  But I can easily place Lindsey Graham and Glen Beck in the "I do not trust at all" category.  So I, and most all of us, are in brand new, uncharted territory of having no guiding lights with this issue, and we haven't even gotten into the particulars of the main issue at hand.  I love this!  This is the intellectual equivalent of our own version of "Survivorman:" being thrust into the wilderness and having to make every decision with only a modicum of information.  If you like intellectual adventure, this is it.

Edward Snowden
One thing I do know is that this is not about Edward Snowden, in the same way that the WikiLeaks case is not--and should never be--about Bradley Manning.  Fox news and other so called news outlets go straight for the dirt and try to drudge up these guys' personal lives and cast them as fractured and deceptive beasts.  If you see this in the news don't fall for it.  It is the laziest and ugliest form of journalism and embarrasses the entire industry. Manning and Snowden knowingly and willingly broke their employer agreements, believing the consequences were worth the risk, and they will face those consequences.  But demonizing whistle-blowers and allowing the bigger issues to take a back-page into the nebulous unresolved ether is not how we should deal with these situations. 

The lens that this issue should be viewed through is how we want our government to function in today's information age, and there is no easy black and white answers here.  Most Americans don't want the NSA compiling all of their personal information in a huge database, but then most Americans are ok with the NSA using phone records to track terrorists.  So it isn't an easy issue, and I have a hunch that this is only the beginning of revalations about secret NSA tactics.

The NSA headquaters even looks ominous.
But I think I can give you a few specks of light for your lens.  It may seem like this is a brand new information age issue, but it really isn't, and we do have some historical perspective to help us.  Our massive intelligence-gathering industry was developed during the Cold War, for good reasons.  We were in a nuclear standoff with Russia, and there was really other no option to protect ourselves.  But after the Cold War wound down, we were stuck with this massive bored but aggressive gorilla in the room, and this is what we have to be cautious of.  What started as a positive thing for our country quickly turned onto our own citizens--most importantly the leaders of the civil rights movement.  This is the most perfect example of how something that can be seen as useful and positive one second can be turned against us the next.  As the civil rights movement heated up, our government and CIA turned the huge angry gorilla of intelligence industry onto the leaders of this movement, and we saw how quickly things can turn sour when the powers that be are challenged.  So we don't have to look far to find our government and intelligence industry being on the wrong side of history.
King leaving the FBI after questioning.
Partisan rhetoric and Tea Party notwithstanding, you might be surprised that most everyone in the upper levels of politics does trust Obama on this matter.  Remember that Lindsey Graham and Peter King are on his side.  This is not about our current administration abusing these powers; what we are all afraid of is if we somehow get stuck with a truly bad administration that will use these powers for nefarious purposes.  We have to decide these issues not just on what is best for us now, but what is best for us in the future under less than ideal leaders.
Joseph McCarthy
The other side of this issue that I believe has created a numb confusion on this issue is the knowledge that all of our information is always being collected by the Googles and Facebooks of the world.  We are aware of this and are mostly comfortable with it, since we still use Gmail and Facebook; so hearing that our phone records were collected by the government didn't create the immediate visceral outrage that it would have a decade ago.  We've already given up so much of our sense of privacy, so why should we care if the NSA is using our phone records to track the evil people that want to kill innocents?  The simple answer is that Google and Facebook don't have the power to arrest you, ruin your life, and break families apart on erroneous and scattered information.   None of this matters when you are Lindsey Graham, a rich white southern man, who will never be profiled.   But we aren't all rich white southern men, are we?  In fact, I met an Iranian man the other night at Foothills Brewery who was amazingly fascinating and intelligent and is someone that I want to stay in touch with.  He lives in England and comes to NC often for his work.  If he and I stay in touch will that put me on a watch list?  Other than the red-neck banjo player watch list, of course.  You can see how easy these issues that at first seem non-tangible to us can digress into something very real.

These are the real issues here.  It is not about the whistle-blowers: it is about the type of society we want to live in, and the powers we want to grant our government to keep us safe.  So for once we can't just fall in line with whatever side the conservatives and democrats decide to fall on.  We have to think about this for ourselves, and I am glad that we have this opportunity.  If we had more of these opportunities maybe we wouldn't blindly side with whatever talking points are rammed down our throats by the powers that be, which have been rammed down their throats by the real powers that be: the corporations.  Americans having to think for ourselves--I'm all for it. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

If I gave a commencement speech, I might say this...

Have you ever wondered what you would say if you were invited to give a graduation commencement speech?  I've been wondering about it lately.  Could I look back on everything I've learned and all my experiences and come up with something both unique and personal, yet universal enough to connect deeply with so many different types of people?  As I was thinking about that question, it hit me - isn't that what art is? Finding something that is unique and personal, but also universal?  So a great commencement speech is very much a high form of beautiful art.   

There are three speeches that have stuck with me through the years, and they are all completely different.  The first is about seeing past the social construct of reality, the second is about mortality, and the third is unlike any other speech ever given, as the writer wants us to not only see the everyday reality that nobody wants to talk about, but embrace it and make it your own instead of being trapped by it.  

The first was by the genius author Tom Robbins (read everything by him, trust me).  This speech did two things for me: it showed me the possibility of the experience, if it is approached from the passionate place of the heart;  it also ruined 99% of all commencement speeches for that very reason.  I printed this speech out and passed it around to my friends I was sitting near when we graduated from Appalachian State.  I will bet a bottom dollar that nobody remembers what our actual speaker said, but everyone who read Robbin's speech remembers that.  

Here's the link to that speech.  (Notice this site says "This may have been Tom Robbins commencement speech."  There has always been some confusion on this speech, but I've read enough of Robbins to be pretty sure that these are his words.) 

The second is the famous speech given by Steve Jobs as he was facing his own mortality in his fight with cancer.

The third is by David Foster Wallace.  The genius in this speech is that it is so original and brave that I can't imagine anyone else even attempting it, much less succeeding on such a beautiful level.
So what would I say?  After thinking about it for a while, I think the best advice I could give anyone, regardless of age, is to break out of the passive consumer habits and lifestyle that our society works so hard to keep us in--and the earlier you do it, the better. Our society is based around the few producing for the masses.  Hollywood makes movies and the masses watch them, famous authors write stories and the masses read them, colossal agricultural corporations produce food and the masses buy it, world famous pop superstars recreate songs written by hit-making producers and the masses listen to it, tech giants produce electronics and the masses buy them.  The few produce, and the masses consume.   Imagine the breakthroughs we would have if the masses started producing. 

The earlier you can break that habit and start producing/creating/building the thing you love the most, the better chance you will have at being paid for doing what you love. Read the bios of people you admire, and the one thing they have in common is when they found something they loved, they didn't settle for just passive entertainment: instead they started making their own, whatever it may be.  It's never too late to change that habit either.  It will take you out of your comfort zone like a rocket through the sky, but you know what - fuck your comfort zone.  That comfort zone is like a prison cell.  Trust me when I say this - the very worst thing that can happen is that you develop a much deeper appreciation of what you love.  Write five songs and you will go back and hear Bob Dylan with completely different ears.  And yes, you'll feel a little dumb and small when comparing your songs to Dylan, but remember what we said about your comfort zone?

The best case scenario in this endeavor is that you will open up an entire new chapter in your life.  You will create what you love and I can't even begin to tell you how amazingly fun that is.  It may take many years before you feel like you're making something good, but who cares?  You love whatever you're doing, so what does time have to do with anything?

Maybe that isn't the most exciting speech ever given, but I think it is the best advice I could give at this point in my life, as well as the best advice that I should continuously take throughout life. 

There's another quote, by my hero Ira Glass, that I always think of when people are starting new endeavors.  He really nails it with this one.

If you only remember one thing from this: Fuck your comfort zone!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Navy SEALs - The ultimate warrior code of sacrifice so others may live.

The first story on 60 Minutes last night was about the elite Seal Team Six unit rescuing American foreign aid worker Jessica Buchanan in the desert of Somalia on a moonless night in January of 2012.   Any time 60 Minutes does a story on the Navy SEALs, I become as attentive as a kid watching a monster truck jam, as I am completely fascinated and obsessed with these guys.  My disgust with the idea of war but fascination with the ultimate warrior was one of the very first things I wrote about in this experiment of the Lonesome Banjo Chronicles.  

A few members of the elite STS
As the story unfolded last night and Buchanan described her experience of captivity and rescue, I had a small moment of visceral clarity on the initial question of war vs warrior that seems so elementary and basic I am almost hesitant to admit it.  While the idea of war in the crudest form -- think of two sociopath kings sending young boys to slaughter each other for nothing more than the accumulation of power, land, and wealth -- is the worst side of human nature, the path of the ultimate warrior, even going back to samurai times, is for the strongest to protect the weakest from evil.  With that sense we are captivated by the idea that these SEALs, with so much ability of death and destruction, go to such great lengths to save people who deserve to live. 

A scene from a ransom video.
Let me pause for a quick moment to give the back story leading up to the rescue.  Jessica was an American foreign aid worker in Africa to help children learn to stay away from landmines - one of the great unsung heroes of this world.  She was abducted by Somali bandits with her Danish colleague Poul Hagen Thisted and was held in the desert with no shelter for 4 months while they tried to collect a ransom of millions of dollars.  Jessica became very sick with a possible kidney infection, which she alerted the hostage negotiator about in one of the ransom videos.  U.S. officials consulted with doctors and quickly realized two things: she might only have two weeks to live and a moonless night was a couple of days away.  Obama and Leon Panetta made the call to send in the elite of the elite, Seal Team Six--the same unit tasked with the Osama bin Laden mission.

Twenty-four members of STS parachuted down on a moonless night, surrounded the camp and in a brief and intense firefight took out all the bandits.  Our government invests literally millions of dollars in training on each and every Seal, and with no exaggeration do I say that these guys, with their combined intelligence, knowledge, and almost freakish strength, are some of the strongest human beings to ever live.  They found Jessica and told her they were American and they were taking her home, then one of them picked her up and ran for several minutes until they were away from the camp.  Just a quick little fact here; SEALs can wear over 80-100 pounds of gear, and adding 110 pounds of Jessica, one of these guys sprinted for several minutes carrying 200 pounds.  There is no professional athlete that can come close to what these guys are capable of.

Seals training in freezing water.
The story up to this point is captivating and exciting, but it was these final minutes of the rescue that really drove me to understand the dichotomy of abhorring the war, but praising the warrior.  They sat her down and explained they knew she was sick and had food, water, and medicine for her.  A few minutes later they became alarmed that someone might be out there, so they laid her down and a couple of the men laid on top of her while the rest formed a circle around her.  The most elite fighters in the world worth millions of dollars willingly became her bulletproof armor, so this little aid worker who is only known by her friends, family, and colleagues can have a chance to live.   Twenty four men, many of whom surely have wives and children, do not hesitate to take bullets to save Jessica's life.  The strongest of the strong are willing to die to protect the weak against evil.  That is why I am completely captivated by both the idea and the reality of the Navy SEALs.  I would most certainly bet that these guys find most of their fulfillment not in going after the bad guys, but in coming home with people who deserve to live.  At this part of the interview Scott Pelley commented, "So in that moment you were the most important thing in the world to them."  Jessica choked up for a brief moment and responds, " is really hard to comprehend."

In a small but poignant moment, Pelley follows up the story explaining that her co-captive, Poul Hagen Thisted, was also rescued by the SEALs and later claimed that his lucky break was "being captured with an American."

Jessica Buchanan in Africa.
With all the bad news and bloody conflicts going on around us, some of which we are responsible for, it is great to know that we still have what it takes to send the strongest to rescue the weakest.  As I have recently been actively trying to make my own connections of all the internal desires and interests that drive and motivate me, it is stories like these that connect my fascination with the SEALs to my political leanings; and I realize that I find the most honor in the strongest helping the weakest, not because they have to, but because they are driven to and know it is the right thing to do.  At the twilight of our lives we will look back and remember those particular moments as some of the most important.  But this story also reminds us that strength is not always about running, swimming, and firing a weapon; as Jessica and Poul left a life of comfort to help small African children to have a chance to live their own lives, not because they had to, but because they were driven to help those that needed it.  There are some kids in Africa that are alive because of them, just as they are alive because of those anonymous Navy SEALs. Two completely different types of strength working for our fellow humans -- both equally amazing. 

One of the training exercises is to have your hands tied behind your back and survive in water.
Many applicants never make it out of the first few weeks of training.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Choosing the right connections and letting our minds wander.

How do we sort through the constant bombardment of information and find what is most useful to us?

Our minds are hardwired, through eons of evolution, to make connections.  The benefits of this ability for survival (pre-agricultural age) are unmistakably obvious.  When success was only a term associated with living another day and spreading your genes through offspring, the ability to connect danger or safety with the abundance of plants, animals, other tribes, and terrain came in handy.  But in the comfort of today's world, where our safety doesn't change with each hour, we see ourselves making connections with everything.  You are facing a tough decision and a certain song comes on the radio; at that moment, your brain lights up and tells you "It's a sign!" Or you stumble across the perfect Facebook meme out of the gazillions that are constantly posted and re-posted, and again, your brain starts firing, "It's a sign!"  Is it really a sign, or is our subconscious just trying to justify what we already want to see?

A deep religious connection can create a deeper feeling of communication from supernatural sources, which increases the likelihood that the person will act upon these signs (with random rates of success).  I remember hearing a story from a lady about the time she was walking into a courtroom with nervous apprehension about the outcome, and she saw a dogwood tree in full bloom. She felt that it was way to early for the blooms to appear, so to her the only answer was God made the tree bloom early to tell her it would "be okay."  The judge ruled in her favor, and therefore her sign became completely validated. The fact that dogwoods are typically early bloomers apparently didn't factor in at all. 

As I grow and try my best to explore how we interact with this vast world, I have come to believe that our brains and subconscious work hard to connect random events together. While it is easy, and even satisfying, to allow ourselves to see random events as signs from another source, I find more satisfaction in attempting to view the world with a pragmatic sense of realism  (attempt being the key word here).

With all that being said, I have discovered that by consciously choosing what we connect together, we can make some really cool discoveries about who we are and how we operate and how we can continuously grow and become better in our daily activities.  For example, I've recently became fascinated with Stephen King's discussions on creativity. I have, in a very conscious manner, connected it with the new research that NPR has been reporting about the neural implications of constantly being "wired in" to our computers and smart phones with all the emails, texts, and Facebook updates that bombard our brains with never-ending information.  So I have taken these two different pieces of knowledge and connected them--with a little tongue-and-cheek sense of a sign--and hopefully will use them to my advantage to write both music and words more often and to a higher degree.  Now, am I trying to say that my discovered connection and sign is of a higher degree than seeing a blooming dogwood as a supernatural communication?  Yes, I am.  For my reality I see more purpose in connecting pieces of information that allow us to further our goals and dreams than attempting to decipher blooming flowers as vague communiqué. Call me crazy.  

Stephen King is one of those artists that has complete awareness of his creative processes, both internal and external.  His basic philosophy of creativity is to just be open to the process, and that is something that I can relate to on a deep level.  King does not write with a plot and ending in mind, instead he writes with a question: What if vampires invaded a small northern town?  What if a woman and child were trapped in a car by a huge killer dog? What if a town was cut off by civilization by an invisible barrier? He then lets the story develop itself and is often surprised by the direction of it.  When I read his description of this process I immediately recognized the same process, as I too am often surprised by outcomes of both songs and writing.  With music I start with small phrase of a few notes and ask myself, "What if I write a melody based on this phrase?" I play it over and over until I find the notes that are supposed to come next, and sometimes, with a little luck, they appear.  

King's book "Under The Dome," which I highly recommend!
King also believes that creativity comes from letting the mind wander and daydream, which was in the back of my mind as I was listening to a story on NPR called Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets.   The story provided a look at how our brains are reacting to being constantly "jacked in" to our phones and computers with non-stop information and communications.  As I am listening to them describe how our brains react to the next email, text, or Facebook reply in the same way as an addicted gambler or drug addict and how we have become so addicted to this that we rarely just relax and daydream anymore, I realized that we don't let our attention and minds wander and stumble on new thoughts.   Standing in line at a grocery store we are checking email or sending texts, and the same goes for any idle moments of the day.   Even as I sit here and write this I keep having a strong inclination to check my email, and it takes effort not to.  To give you an idea of how addicted we are to this constant flow of communication and information, the people on the forefront of the research readily admit that they too have a tough time slowing their constant checking of emails, texts, and Twitter/Facebook updates.  It's as if the top fitness experts in the country were all 30 pounds overweight and pre-diabetic.

There was one metaphor in the story that made a lot of sense though.  Matt Richtel compared information to food, in that we do need information to move around in today's world; but just like food, there is the vital and health-giving kind, and there is the trash and the disease-causing kind.   To be healthy you have to actively sort through it and decide what is the best for you and what isn't.  For me, learning how one of the most accomplished and productive writers of our time approaches creativity is the vital healthy kind. 

I love mountain biking for many reasons, but I have realized that one of the top reasons is that it allows my mind to just wonder about things for a few hours.  To start with a question or idea and then just ponder it and see where it takes me.  The same goes for hiking, motorcycles, playing old-time fiddle tunes, and all the different things we really love doing.  It allows us to just disconnect from the over-connected world and to just be, to explore places both internally and externally that are much more interesting than most twitter updates.  

Old Time Jam at the Cary St Cafe in Richmond VA.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How the creative process affects us.

Learning some type of art and diving into the process of creating something new is one of the most self-realizing dichotomies I've discovered.   You feel the creative work coming from inside of you, but also from the multitudes of outside influences you've garnered through the years.   It gives both a sense of greatness and a newly transformed sense of accomplishment; while also body-checking your ego as you compare your work to the great masters of the particular craft and seeing how short you come up on the yardstick of mastery.  You learn things about yourself as you dig in to find the next phrase or stroke, yet feel somehow disconnected from your mind as you draw from the universal sense of art and creativity.   It is no wonder creative people have such a different mojo about them.  Does the continuous process of these emotional extremes change someone, or do certain people just have the right combination of raging insecurity and hyper-active ego to continuously dig deeper into a craft and put it all out there for the world to see?

Stephen King tacked a nail into his bedroom wall and stuck his first rejection letter onto it.  A few years later there was no more room on the nail, and he had to start another.   That's just amazing to me.  It was never about just fame or fortune, it was always about doing the thing that he loved the most - telling stories. 

I always loved Bob Dylan, but then I tried writing lyrical songs, and I heard Dylan with completely different ears.  Just the process of trying changed how I hear music.  I hope everyone finds a point where they can just try the thing(s) that they love, and see these things on a deeper level.   Maybe that's why I've given up the idea of spending part of my life watching spectator sports.  I realized that if you spend your time and energy on something then you should be able to both participate and grow within it.  You should be able to reach the internal extremes of the experience, to feel the feeling that you can't describe, but that you can recognize in the eyes of your fellow craftsmen.  To know that the years of participating, or creating, of doing, will have the power to grow you into something fuller.

I really believe that engagement with the things you care about is the key to happiness.  Engagement with work, family, art, nature, physical activities. 

Or as my dad liked to say, "Right or wrong, good or bad, just do SOMETHING"    No shit. 

“As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says, ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.”  Hunter S Thompson.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Do we have free will?

There is a current debate going on that challenges our idea of "free will" as we know it.   It has been revitalized with the advancement of neuroscience that reaches into the core of our being, of who we are and how we interact with everything around us.  It's one that reaches down into the entire meaning of being human.
This debate centers around how we make daily choices, as well as what drives us to become who we are.  It is not a question of political or social freedoms, like whether or not you can choose between tea, water, or Coke, or going to work versus staying in bed on a Monday morning, but instead how you choose these things.  What drives you to pick one over the other each and every day, through a lifetime.  What is the difference between the person who's pursues the path of a pediatrician over a pedophile?  What is the difference between someone who is healthy versus someone who is consistently self-destructive?  As an empathetic society, this question could be one of the most important questions we ever face.  The more we unlock this mystery, the stronger our society and communities can become. 

The author Sam Harris has written a book called Free Will and makes a very strong argument that we are not in control of our selves as much as we think.  The thing you have to understand about this author is that you can disagree with him, but no intelligent person discounts him.  He has a master's degree in philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA.  He has also traveled the world studying both organized and tribal religions.  His opinions on how consciousness intertwines with our biological brain are based on so much real-world and scientific knowledge that he has become one of the most respected experts on the subject. 

When you hear or read the statement, "We do not possess free will," it probably creates a strong feeling of disagreement.  (It was my reaction too.)  So this argument centers around what created that feeling.  Did you consciously choose between two or more feelings/reactions when you read the statement, and consciously choose between one, or did the feeling just come up from inside you before you realized it?  I think most all of us would agree that the sense of disagreement or slight revulsion to the statement just appeared inside us, and that is the gist of this debate.  You didn't actively choose that feeling to come up inside you, anymore than you choose to jerk your hand away from a hot stove.  We assume that we are in full control of our thoughts and desires, but do you really have full control of the next thought that comes into your head?  Or does it just appear?

So this is a fascinating debate, and it is the type of thing that really gets me excited, because it challenges much of our worldview (I do love underdog, game-changing, revolutionary ideas!). It can also have huge implications on our society, from how we understand and raise children to how we deal with criminals and drug addicts, as well as how we react to interpersonal relations and our ultimate sense of forgiveness.

The idea that we don't actually possess free will--as we understand it--is not new, but what is new is the advancements in neurology that have allowed us to understand what drives each of us biologically.  Advanced brain mapping technology now has the ability to recognize a thought or feeling before the person is conscious of it, which really changes how we view ourselves.   This is a fact that everyone involved easily recognizes.  For example, if I am sitting here writing and suddenly think that I would like to have some tea, an EEG would have picked up on that thought 300 milliseconds before I was aware of it.  Or a better example, if I was to suddenly decide that want to take a break from the computer and take a walk, it would be registered before I was conscious of that as well.  Our thoughts, feelings, actions, desires, wants, motivation, and emotions are actually created by unconscious neural events inside our brain, and much like jerking your hand from a hot stove, have very little to do with what we choose to do. Harris argues that if we are products of unconscious neural impulses then how can we claim to be in full control of our will?

Daniel Dennett
Everyone who understands the debate (you can find many rebuttals from people who don't) recognize that the biological neural impulses that create our motivating desires take hold of us without us consciously "choosing." The debate actually centers around whether or not we can still claim free will after understanding all of this.  One of today's more interesting philosophers, Daniel Dennet, says that we absolutely can retain free will with this knowledge, that even though we are not the autonomous agent of our thoughts, we still can claim these processes as our "selves," and therefore retain all responsibility both positive and negative (the Dalai Lama agrees).  The biological and chemical reactions in our brains that are responsible for love, fear, work ethic, morals, desires, proclivity towards violence or peace, etc. are the very foundation of who we are and how we associate with the huge world around us. 

The big picture meaning from this argument is where it becomes interesting.  Can we claim full responsibility of our successes and failures?  Can we claim responsibility for either our nature (genes) or nurture?  Those who argue that free will is an illusion say "no." As I think back to my process of becoming a musician/banjo player, I really don't remember making the actual choice so much as having an unmistakable and massive desire to do so, and most artists will agree completely.   Where did this desire come from?  I don't think I chose it, but I can claim that it is probably in my genes, as both my parents are musicians, as well as molded into my experience growing up and always being around music.  So, I can't honestly claim responsibility for either the nature or nurture,  and yet here I am, doing what I do, wondering how much of it I can "claim."

The potential to understand human behavior in a more enlightened model could revolutionize how we deal with certain criminals and drug addicts.  We've already started to understand that treating drug addicts as if they have a choice between the right and wrong doesn't work, but treating the issue from a mental health standpoint does get much better results.  Could understanding violent criminals in the same way create actual rehabilitation for them, instead of the endless cycle of prison?  Would we be willing to give up our sense of retribution and righteous indignation for the chance to actually rehabilitate someone?  Would you be willing to give up some credit for your success to help people around you get past their failures? Because one doesn't happen without the other here. 

Here is another interesting way to think about it.  We all assume that we have free will and have the choice to do whatever we like with our daily lives, but think about all the things you want to do that you just don't.  Eat better, exercise more, read more, be more productive, spend more time at a hobby and less with TV.  This list can go on forever.  If we are autonomous agents of our lives, if we are actively choosing, then why do we have such a hard time changing habits?  To expand upon that idea, take the person who has tried quitting cigarettes dozens of times with no luck, but one day wakes up with a completely different type of desire and is able to finally quit.  Understanding what changed on that very day can go hand in hand with this type of debate and neurological research, and you can also see the real-world applications for understanding how neurological impulses interact with our individual consciousness.

That being said, it is also in that crux that I find a weakness in the argument.  The person that wakes up one day and suddenly and successfully changes decades old habits seems to be acting from more than just biological neural firings of the brain.  Harris tries to tackle that specific experience with describing how he decided one day to re-engage in extensive martial arts training after a 10 year break.  He claims that one day the desire just reappeared and he takes no credit for it, which is understandable and works in his hypothesis, but I wonder about the people who deal with a certain desire for years, and finally work their way into successful action.  Are not those people choosing this path more consciously and able to take credit?  Either way, understanding the change that occurred is the end-goal. 

You don't have to go far into neurology to find plenty of evidence that a child who was raised in a violent household has a completely different brain chemistry than a child raised in a loving and calm household - and the same goes for drug addicts.  Different brain chemistry means different impulse control, which means a new paradigm of understanding and treatment.    Why can't the same approach be taken for violent criminals?  Luckily for us scientists are much more willing to fly in the face of eons of assumption of human understanding.  For me, I just love explosive groundbreaking ideas.  It is the alpine-mountaineering of the mind.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

High Expectations are OK.

We all want to be effective.  A lot of our happiness comes from our ability to be effective in our daily lives both professionally and personally.   Someone who does not feel any control in any aspect of their lives will probably not rate their happiness level as very high.  So as we all look for ways to achieve our goals and have a positive effect on the people around us that we care about, we can find lessons in the oddest of places.

The great NPR show "This American Life" had a story about the University of Montevallo in Alabama that plays a game called "The last seat in the life raft." Different professors get up and make the case that if there were only one seat left in the life raft then they, along with their chosen academic field, should be allowed in.  For example, if you were trying to survive on an island would you rather have a chemist or communications major? The goal is a philosophical debate about what academic fields benefit our society the most.   It is a popular event at the school, but through the years it has turned into more of a silly spectacle, with professors riding a Harley into the gym, and others showing up in superhero costumes.

This is one of those stories that starts out lighthearted and silly, but then turns into something beautiful - and boy do I love those.  The last speaker of this event is always the "Devil's Advocate," who argues to not pick any of the academic choices.  This one particular year a non-tenured, young English professor, Jon Smith, was getting ready to give his prepared speech, and in one of those classic pivotal story points he just snaps from the side show carnival that the event has digressed into, and throws away his speech and spoke from the heart. 

He started by apologizing to his freshman classes that he required to come to this event in hopes they would be exposed to well-crafted intellectual arguments from distinguished senior faculty members, but instead had to sit through overly dramatic gimmicks and attempts at humor, much like an over-planned high-school pep rally.

Then, with the balls of a titanium baboon, he begins to chastise these senior faculty members in front of half the student body.  Jon Smith is very intelligent, well spoken, and deprecatingly funny, so he gets away with it.  But his message was clear, we...deserve...better...than...this!  And he was absolutely right--which also served his case--everyone in the gym deserved better.

One can easily take this lesson and inject it straight into the three-ring circus of current American politics, as even the most serious members get dragged down into the theater of the absurd; but there was more, something a little deeper.   In an interview for the NPR show, Smith said something that really caught my attention: "Simon Cowell has actually done wonders for teachers these days!"  I thought to myself, "Wait...what?"  Cowell--the guy that has cut open the pop music industry machine and displayed its guts on national TV as millions of us watch rather talented young dreamers get injected into the dog-eat-dog world of mechanical soulless hit-making machinery that somehow passes as art?  That guy has helped teachers?  How?

Jon Smith explained that Cowell actually helped us get out of the 80's and 90's idea that everyone gets a medal, and everyone is equal and to never criticize or judge.  Instead, it is not only okay, but even productive, to say, "That was not good enough," or "You can do better than that," or even, "You should find a different direction!"  I started thinking about that, and it reminded me of my dad telling me when I was younger, "Don't get on-stage and make people clap for you if you aren't any good."  That always stuck with me and it is probably one of the reasons I practiced so hard when I was younger.  It probably had more influence on me than being told, "You can do anything you want."

But keeping with the American Idol analogy, I started thinking about the positive that Jon Smith sees out of that show, and there is an interesting lesson buried in it.   If Paula says someone does well, it doesn't really matter that much, because she says that for everyone.  Randy is a solid musician, so his opinion carries a lot more weight,  but ultimately what is everyone looking for?  The one guy who has gotten famous for being overly critical, but more importantly, he is just plain honest.   If something isn't good enough, then you will know where you stand with him, and this honesty is very common in many successful people.  Steve Jobs was the same way, as he could be downright brutal, but the people that made it with him all say the same thing, "He got more out of us than we ever expected, and we wouldn't change it for the world."  

There is something to be said for having a touch of Simon Cowell's honesty and confidence in you.  There's also something to be said for being empathetic to people's feelings too.  But I think most of us could benefit in our daily lives by setting high expectations and giving honest feedback.   If you have lofty dreams, then you don't have much of any other choice in the matter.

Two of the best books I've ever read about this are on completely different ends of the empathy spectrum, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and Rick Pitino's book Success is a ChoiceAnyone who is trying to make something happen owes it to themselves to check these out.  It will fire you up and give you the confidence to expect the best out of everyone around you.   

Oh, and for the first time ever the students voted for "The Devil's Advocate," meaning nobody got on the life raft; and the following years the debate became much more serious and intellectually challenging.   You can listen to the full story here

The Life Raft Debate at the University of Montevallo.