Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Tao of Shutting Up

Master Po, from the TV show, Kung Fu.
I read from the Tao Te Ching quite often. One thing that fascinates me in Taoism is the idea of working to escape one's ego-centrism. Tao, for those who don't dabble, is a state of transcendence...the escaping of that which is worldly -- the whole, "in" but not "of" the world thing, to put it simply and to keep this post under four-million words.

I have always had distaste for those who walk around saying: "I have to say what's on my mind. I have to 'get it off my chest'." These statements always seemed, to me, to carry such an inflated sense of self-importance; such a placement of one's own needs before those of everyone else. 

To be clear, though, I am not a believer in total selflessness (after all, even saints are rewarded, in the end). I have said before that one needs to be somewhat egocentric in developing one's own skills and identity if one is to ever really be useful to others...but, I am also not a fan of blustering and blatant self-prioritizing.

Because of this, and because of my dabblings with Taoism -- I see it as a philosophy, not a religion -- I have been working to at least reduce my ego-centrism. As a result, people tend to see me as a bit daft, in certain situations. (This is hopefully because they are more "of" the world than I am, and not because I am just an idiot...)

Just recently, I had a conversation with a superior. I disagreed with numerous things this person said and I think most of his perceptions (regarding what we discussed) are incorrect, especially in his assessment particular professional issues, some of them regarding me, personally.

I listened; said that I understood his perspective, and I said limited things in response. I could have argued all day. I could have passionately "gotten things off my chest." But my logic (my compass through he emotional storms of life) asked: "What purpose will it serve to argue? Who will reap the benefits of an argument here? Will you change this person's mind about anything in the time you have?" By the time I was done thinking this, my emotions had subsided and the meeting was over.

It feels good to let go of such weight, but some are stunned: "Well! What did you say to that?" When one responds with, "Nothing," one can be seen as either crazy or weak. But, to seek not to contend can be a logical choice, can it not?

Walking away from a "fight" is not necessarily cowardice; staying out of an argument can sometimes make one the winner, after all.

Fire rages, but, rage as it may, it cannot burn a pond.

It's just a TV show, I know, but, as a boy and, now, as a man, I took (and take) great pleasure in the wisdom it drew (sometimes loosely, sometimes directly) from Taoism.  Master Po, from Kung Fu, once told "Grasshopper:" "The supple willow does not contend against the storm, yet it survives."


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Joy of "Becoming'

I really am not trying to be dramatic when I say that this is, possibly, the most important post I have ever written. Fact is, if I am right about what I think on this one, and if I express it clearly enough, it really is. If I am wrong, or weak with my presentation, down the digital drain this one goes along with most of the others.

The inspiration is in an incident, last summer. My wife and I were on the train in Chicago, and I looked across at a young man who was reading More's Utopia, pen in hand, his book bag next to him, his dark, unkempt brown hair looking compellingly like my own at his age. He was undoubtedly on his way to class; probably an English major -- as I was -- or maybe a philosophy major.

I turned to my wife and I said: "I miss being that guy."

Because that used to be me, riding the train to school, with a copy of Utopia or Lyrical Ballads or Leibnitz's Monadology close to my face, in serious danger of missing my stop, having been so immersed in exploration of the thoughts greater minds.

My wife, Karen, said, "You still are that guy, right? You are always reading, thinking, composing, writing... What do you mean?"

For a while, I didn't know how to answer. For months, even...

At the end of last school year, I was talking to a class of departing seniors. In conversation, I wound up advising them about something I had been pondering for a long time. I told them that I think happiness comes from living in a state of "becoming." "Becoming" is a state that they have lived in since birth. As such, they are generally unaware of that state's magic; the magic of having real purpose.

Why are kids usually happy and energetic? Because they are becoming people; they are becoming themselves. This is the most meaningful work they will ever undertake. Somewhere, in their hearts, if not conceptually, they feel that it is. Everyone wants his or her existence to have a purpose. Becoming might be the biggest purpose we are ever blessed with.

Young people are also becoming athletes; they are becoming lawyers or carpenters or teachers or beauticians. After becoming a person of their own, they set about carving out a spot for themselves in "the world." Still, meaningful work, but less profound: "Now that I have a sense of who I am, where's my seat at the table?"It's a second stage.

Then, we get older. Out of school; out of training, we get a job and we are still, to a small extent, becoming, but what we are becoming gets narrower, less of a Herculean and Romantic achievement: from worker to manager; teacher to principal; a craftsman to foreman; supervisor to CEO. (That is, if we don't give up on growing, altogether, as the hopeless do...)  But this is nowhere near the glorious pursuit of "self" from our days of youth. At this point, life feels like too much of an arrival and an arrival means the long trip is over...which, in this case (you, is decidedly not cool.
This climbing of the professional ladder is not the same as lying in bed at night, imagining ourselves winning the World Series with a walk-off homer or conducting the Philadelphia orchestra [guilty on both counts]. The self, in adulthood, is already there; the house is built; the rest is just a rearranging of the furniture -- which can be fulfilling, but not as fulfilling as planing the boards and driving the nails and watching the whole thing take shape against a cobalt sky.

And that was the difference I wasn't able to articulate that day on the train. I hadn't lost my ideals or my enthusiasm, but that young man was the ghost of my twenty-year-old self. He was on the great adventure I once undertook; he was becoming himself...finding his way through the forests of intellectuality and marveling at every new path his sneakered steps revealed.

My "house," as of that Chicago day, was built; the grand work was done, and I was just adding to the library; adding yet another book to the shelves, another picture to the wall...but his readings were shaping him in significant ways, as mine once did and there was a glorious, compelling, motivating question mark in front of him.

In short -- no I am not kidding -- I think being in a state of "becoming" is nothing less than the secret to lifelong happiness, if we grasp what it really means. I think we can go back to "becoming," even in the third act of existence.

Not all of us. For those of us who lave let our hearts die, there is no hope. But for those of us who have held on to wonder and who are not embarrassed to do a little middle-aged navel-gazing, it's completely doable.

For me, it was a question of rearranging of my responsibilities to allow for more time for my creativity and for getting closer to that guy I used to be, again. But this means I need a new question mark; not just a goal of status, but one of real growth.

For me, it is now nothing less than trying to establish myself in a "third act" career: professional composer. Now, with an agent putting my work into the hands of music supervisors and music libraries around the world, I am learning a new business, yes; but I am also learning more about composition than I knew before; I am facing challenge after challenge with the constraints of my composition assignments. I am exploring a new world of musical technology that allows me to write full orchestral scores in my little studio. I am looking at artistic growth, but my sight is also set on something completely new: becoming a full time composer. I'm still hoping for something. (The ghost of the young aspiring composer I once was is, at this moment, in his bedroom, bent over a Ravel score, with headphones on...wondering where his musical life will take him.)

Every time I get a note from my agency that another piece has been forwarded to a music supervisor, it is like a mini college acceptance letter, if you will -- a sign that another door has opened. Each time I get a rejection critique from an industry pro, I learn more about what it takes for me to grow as a composer. In short, I am "in school" again. If you want, you can say it is some variant of "feeling like a kid again." I really don't mind.

So, for my young readers, I guess this is a plea to keep looking for ways to "become" even after it feels you have arrived. For my fellow middle-agers: if you feel like you're just waiting for that great gettin' up morning, facing a string of sprawling, similar days with no sense of excitement, find a way to become something new, but pick something deeper than just taking a pottery class or doing Tai Chi at the local gym. Think big. Become another you. Get back on that "train to school," not just to take classes but to pursue a new question mark. There is plenty of time to build a whole new house. And, if there's not -- no controlling fate -- at least you'll "go down standing up."

I hope I did the idea justice. If this came off as me saying "keep learning new things" or "stay active," one or both of us failed... It's, as I said, way bigger than that.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Star Trek is Not Fifty Years of Progressive Lip-Service

The original series pilot, when
Majel Barret outranked Leonard Nimoy on the ship. 
There are times when I need to calm down before writing a piece. Usually, as on this occasion, it is when I am annoyed by pseudo-analytical thinkers who write pieces that "reveal"the truth behind what all we ignorant ciphers thought was the case.

These pieces are usually written in a matter-of-fact-tone of someone who has assigned him or herself (just by virtue of accidental superiority -- hey, it is what it is...) to be the mentor of everyone else. It sounds a lot like someone saying, "I'm sorry you were too dim to see this, but, take your medicine now, little fella." The pieces these people write are always focused on how "thing X" looks like this, but it is really this (if you are sharp enough to see it).

It takes a shape like this: "Oh, sure, I know this TV show is called 'Ladies of Power and Dignity,' and I know thew whole cast is women who play CEOs of big companies, including 50% women of color, but that is all a front. The show is produced by 88% white males... This is unacceptable and it points out the hypocrisy of..."

In other words, one group of the world's demographics -- granted, in this case, the one that has done the most damage -- cannot, with any validity or efficacy, do something good for another. This presents something of a conundrum for positive change and harmony, don't you think?

It's no secret I am a lifelong Star Trek fan. Recently, Patrick Stewart announced that he will be playing Jean-Luc Picard once again. This is a delight to fans of the show -- but perhaps a nefarious  delight, according to blogger Ani Bundel.

See, Bundel, with the superior lenses of the social Virgil to our wandering Dantes, sees this as a troubling "retreat from the progressivism of [the current show] Star Trek: Discovery." And why is this all being done? Why is the beloved character being brought back? For Bundel, it is "to placate the white male demographic that felt alienated by [CBS's] first Trekkie reboot...a show which was legitimately diverse and, therefore, immediately controversial.

...because, the Star Trek franchise has not done well enough, apparently. It has "payed lip-service" to progressivism and liberalism for fifty years, according to Bundel. And now, oafish white men -- who apparently have seen no shade of this progressive thinking up to last year...Star Trek, the original series, having done things like using a multi-ethnic cast; having shown the first interracial kiss on television [no, that one with Nancy Sinatra kissing Sammy Davis Junior didn't count -- she was just saying hi]; having gone out of its way to cast minority actors in positions of power and genius; having created, in Uhura, the first African American woman of real position in a network TV show [Dr. Martin Luther King even recognized this, encouraging Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show when she wanted to leave] -- now, I say, we lumpen of scrape-knuckled white guys can't handle that there is a gay couple or an African American female lead on Star Trek: Discovery. This, according to Bundel, is why we need Captain Picard back...

We just need to see "and aging white male known for his equilibrium and widsom" or we won't be able to stick with Star Trek. Somehow, miraculously, we have been fooled into sticking with the other five series -- somehow smoke-screened to the things we would not otherwise have been able to handle, like, oh...Captain Janeway. [How did the white males miss that she is a woman? Surely they would have tuned out...] What about Avery Brooks? He was just actually a dark-skinned white guy, right? And thank God we fragile, mouth-breathing, establishment drones completely missed that Star Trek TNG episode, in 1992, called "The Outcast" that dealt with gender identity issues... twenty-six years ago (obviously during the "lip-service" period). Surely we would have jumped ship if we had seen that. I once heard a rumor, too, that the brilliant engineer, Geordie LaForge [LaVar Burton], on the Enterprise in TNG, had once played Kunta Kinte in Roots. Nonsense...that would have required a black man. And who was that dude who played the doctor on TNG? He sure was lovely.

TNG, 1992
Should I go on? Because I really can, in deeply nerdly proportions. Gene Roddenberry founded Star Trek as a progressive, positive view of the future. Yes, he was ham-stringed by lots of network limitations that he had to cave-in to if he wanted to see the show produced. (Ever see how different the pilot episode was to the series that followed? The women wore pants just like the men and Majel Barret -- who was to become Nurse Chapel -- was originally the Enterprise's first officer.) His vision was way beyond that of the network, but it was either compromise or never bring his show to the light.

But Bundel peels back the curtain! Even though, for example, Star Trek TNG was a liberally-themed show, the cast, she says, was 75% white and male. And the production team was 100% white male. And male. Here I agree with her. If those white guys had known what was good for the world, they ought to have have fired themselves and hired other people -- of the right gender and colors -- to do their well-intentioned work! Because, after all, progressive views spoken from the mouth of a white man in defense of his minority brother and sisters are just not good enough; in fact, they might even be insidious. And we all know that percentages tell all tales. If 100% of the people who stand between a racist, white cop with a gun and a black man in danger are white just ain't the same. (I know, I'm being silly. I...)

I don't know. Maybe the position should be: We need more women and minorities in production, but let's give credit to some good-hearted white guys for making statements of equality; to Roddenberry for starting TV in the right direction. That's not good enough, though. It's more click-baity to say: "HOLD EVERYTHING. WHAT YOU BELIEVED IS WRONG! IN THE NAME OF MONEY, CBS IS DOING A U-TURN INTO SAFETY!"

I am watching Star Trek: Discovery, now. I'm about halfway through it. I like it. I'm not sure how, with my limited and privileged perception of the world, I pulled it off...but I like it. I know, as a fifty-year-old, straight white guy, I should not be capable of this, but God help me, I like it.

Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999
I didn't like the first few episodes because of the Shenzhou captain. Not because she was a woman, but because I think she is a God-awful actress who was a black hole that swallowed even Martin-Green's impressive charisma. When Jason Isaacs made his appearance, the show was transformed for me. Not because he is a white guy and I was comforted by this, but because he is a great actor. I have really liked Sonequa Martin-Green since The Walking Dead (before it turned into a sadism fest and I stopped watching) and I think she is doing a great job on Star Trek: Discovery...because she is a great screen presence and a very good actor.  

Bringing back Jean Luc Picard is not a "u-turn" from the progressive casting of ...Discovery. It's giving the gift of a great artist (in Stewart) and a beloved character back to Star Trek fans. It's disturbing to me when a writer implies that casting a white man as captain is a step back. Why must we always think in pendulum-swings? Is it not okay to simultaneously run a show like ...Discovery along-side one with a beloved character, even if he is a white male? Calling it a "u-turn" is saying that white men are no longer viable subjects for fiction or that they cannot contribute to a progressive view of the future. (In fairness, Bundel does express her hopes that Stewart, whom she admires, will make the right choices in that regard.) 

I will admit that when I watched Star Trek: Enterprise, I was a bit relieved to see that the casting people seemed not to be trying as hard to cast for diversity. Not because I don't want to see diversity on Star Trek, but because it felt like Star Trek had blazed the trail well enough that the pressure was off; that maybe they felt it was okay to just pick the best actors for the roles they had at that time; that maybe we could all start to accept each other without it being a chess game of social strategy every time we create a new show. (Though, the cast still showed diversity, it also may have been in the producers' minds that it was earlier along the path of Starfleet, and maybe the diversity hadn't happened to the same extent as on later ships...which would have been, God forbid, a creative decision made outside the bounds of social pressure.) 
Captains Sisko and Janeway 
Either way, I would like to proudly announce that I've stuck with Star Trek: Discovery, even after the horrors of witnessing [gasp!] displays of affection between two gay men. I must be some kind of anomaly in the white, straight, male world. Nay! A Christ-figure! You know what? I even managed (it has to be a scheme of some kind on my part that someone needs to make me aware of) to get emotional when one of those guys met his demise. Somehow...I had come to really like him...even though was gay. OH, CAPTAIN PICARD. PLEASE SAVE ME WITH YOUR COMFORTING WHITE, STRAIGHTNESS!!! (Sorry...I lost control.)

Let's not ruin Gene Roddenberry's legacy. Star Trek has been and remains a bastion of progressive thinking in popular culture. I welcome back Jean-Luc Picard even as I root for Michael Burnham, because I grew up watching a projected future in which everyone on Earth is at peace. Yeah, the fiction was limited at times by narrow-mindedness of contemporary reality (which can be explained so much better than Bundel's narrow piece does it), but the heart was always there. And it always was (and is) way more than "lip-service." If I wrote for page-views over saying what I really believe, I might change my tune. But as it stands...

So, "nice try" to Ms. Bundel. Just because some racist and sexist jerks reacted negatively to ...Discovery, it does not mean that white, male fans need a pacifier -- the ones who ran away never understood what Star Trek was about from the beginning. But, neither does she. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Great Dictator?

If a man is successful in what he sets out to do, there is a very strong possibility that he is good at that particular thing. Is this so, even if that man is Hitler?

My sixteen-year-old son was walking home with friends, and their conversation turned to history. My son pointed out that Hitler was, although thoroughly evil, a powerful public speaker and an effective political tactician. He was met with dropped jaws. "No he wasn't," an outraged friend of his said. "How could you say something good about Hitler?"

This is what we have done to our kids. The public-shaming culture we have created has sent kids the message that certain things are not okay to say. Everything, outside of threats or evil puropse statements, should be okay to say, right?

My son told me the story above because he walked into the room while my younger son and I were watching an old Star Trek episode. He was stopped dead in his tracks by Captain Kirk in a Gestapo uniform. (He was in disguise, of course.)

Kirk had discovered that his old Academy history professor had gone to a planet and had set up a Nazi-based government. The man had not been evil; he simply thought the chaotic, war-entrenched planet needed the efficiency of the Nazi state, minus the evil, to pull it together. This, of course, was an acknowledgement of the producers and writers that Hitler's government was, if nothing else, organized an efficient. As it must be, however, the show concludes that this was a bad idea: the government turns evil when foul operators use drugs on the history professor and use him as a Hitleresque figurehead in order to achive their own racist and power-hungry goals. Kirk wins, though, and the good guys get control again.

But what occurred to me is that this episode never would have gotten made today. Why not? Because everyone is "watching" everyone else. Because you can't "say something good about Hitler" no matter what the final message is; even if you are simply setting him up higher to knock him down for a longer, more splat-worthy fall.

Ideas don't get time or space to develop, anymore -- they are presented as tweets and sound bytes on the spot and judged and click-condenmed before the coffee cup leaves the lips; before the brows have a chance to lower to their default positions.

If you read this and think I am in any way depending Adolf Hitler, you are part of the problem. For more perspective: Charles Manson may have been the most evil person to have ever lived, but, if he was good at checkers, he was good at checkers, for cryin' out loud.

God pity the fool -- my son, in this case -- who says that Hitler, if nothing else, was a crafty political maneuverer. He will be silenced within a second by the myriad mouse clicks of the world; thereby, any chance of using the recognition of the evil Nazi's strengths to prevent other people from using the same strengths in the future is negated.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Tribalism: It's Not Just for Fun Anymore

I have a Phillies cap and a Cubs cap and a Red Sox cap. I have a sweatshirt that says "Virginia Tech" on it and one that says "Oxford." I have a t-shirts with the names of about five different colleges on them, including Harvard, Loyola, Penn State and...I think...some other ones.

I went to Rutgers and to Penn State. I am a lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan. Yet...

I was in Boston on rainy afternoon and a very affable-looking fellow saw my Virginia Tech sweatshirt (which once just kind of fell into my hands after having been left behind at a party) and he sort of timidly said to me: "Go Hokies!" I smiled and said, "...uh...yeah!" (It took me an hour culminating in a Google search to figure out what the hell a Hokie was and why that guy wanted them to "go").

Every time I am wearing a shirt from a college I never attended, someone asks me if I went there and I am forced to admit that I the bookstore. My wife is finishing her masters at Loyola; hence the shirt. I traveled to Oxford last year; hence, the sweatshirt. I think college shirts are cool. I think colleges are cool. Do I have to have studied there to wear the shirt? Am I committing a sin by having done so?

Every time I wear a Red Sox cap, I get the third degree from Phillies fans in the area: "You're a Boston fan?" I get the same thing with the Cubs hat. I got both hats in their respective historic parks. Why? Because I love baseball and I love the history of the teams and stadiums of each of those teams. Ted Williams is my favorite player in history; my dad used to tell stories of having seen him play. (I also have a T-shirt I got at Fenway with a picture of the "red seat.")

This could just be an amusing gripe story, but I see it as one symptom of how unbelievably tribal we are as well as how competition is such a naked and revealing drive for us.

I mean, okay, sports are about competition. But does that competition have to be dark and angry? ("You're a Boston fan?" -- it's like I sacrificed a suckling pig Christmas Mass, for Pete's sake.) And why in the name of Socrates do our schools have to be about competition? -- rivalries and loyalties and nasty pre-game-day pranks...

I guess I know the answer: We humans are so base that we can best be unified by conflict. At least, the architects of our respective societies have always though so: Oxford vs. Cambridge to Penn State vs. Pitt to Gryffindor vs. Slytherin. Because out of that grows the militaristic unity against other countries...other tribes.

I mean, people of rival teams literally beat the crap out of each other at games. They do it in Manchester; they do it in Philly and they do it in Barcelona.  It's what we do when we can't find our way into a nice juicy war, right? We have to rally our team and fight. It feels good.

Imagine if competition was kept in a spirit of brotherhood. Imagine if it went back to the Greek ideal, seeing it as a means to becoming stronger individuals; or, if we see it the way Lao Tzu did, believing the Sage "competes, but not for results."

Argument can be about winning or it can be about finding truth. Teaming up can be about bonding or it can be about humiliating and destroying others. I know which I prefer.