Wednesday, August 31, 2016

words from different people mean different things

A very good friend of mine sent me this cartoon as a thought provoking item and asked me what I thought of it.  While it is thought provoking, my response to this is a little too complex for a quick Facebook answer, so I thought I'd write it here instead.

At first blush, this is something of a "societal statement", but it underpins a dangerous thing I see in how people perceive news and the occasional "microwave moment".  You see, there's a penchant today for trying to find the optimal trump card for an argument (pun somewhat intended) that really serves no purpose other than to shut down any kind of dialog.  This cartoon is totally in keeping with that sentiment.  I'm not trying to cast my friend in the light of being someone shallow enough to just stop a dialog from continuing, but there are a lot of people who do that sort of thing, and it really bothers me- because these types of memes are extremely superficial and do absolutely nothing in helping people change their thought processes.  No matter what anyone may say about this, all additional dialog is met with nothing more than the content of this meme, and a wry statement like, "made ya think, didn't it?".  Yeah, it did, but there's a whole lot more to this dialog that this meme doesn't cover and no one is going to be better about processing what could be construed as "cognitive dissonance" with this in their face.

There is a tremendous difference between the two statements and an even bigger difference between the reaction to them.  Before you start arguing the meme's superficial argument, permit me to tell you why that is a fact.

First off, Mr. Trump is on his way to attempting to be President of the United States.  (Let's call that POTUS for brevity) and Colin Kaepernick is not.  What that means is that he really should have a plan for changing what he calls "not great", and even though I agree with about 10-12% of what Mr. Trump says, he does have a "plan".  Is it a great plan?  No.  Is it an attainable plan?  No.  Will he make it happen- most likely not- and that's not because he's an idiot (he is that) but, rather it's because he lacks both the political clout and the mental ability to make it happen.  What Kaepernick is saying is without a plan to go forward- that is, he wants everyone else to do the work.  He isn't in any position - nor will he ever be - to make a bit of difference other than to try to illuminate a "problem" that he sees as there.  In the end, Kaepernick's protest is doomed, (so is Trump's for that matter) but the thrust of their statements actually has a completely different weight.

The reaction, though- that's what's really different.  What the issuer of the above meme is actually saying is that there is something wrong with society because they react differently to the speaker.  This is really the crux of the matter for me, because what society thinks is that unless we all agree on everything, there's something wrong with us.  What society would call the correct response is that everyone agrees with everyone else on all topics- but it's more than that- they want agreement on the issues to come from the same thought process.  What's super-dangerous about that is this:

Who dictates what thought process is right?  This is where our freedoms really come into play.

Let's call it like it is.  Mr. Trump wants to work and continually does work (despite what you may think) and has spent his career amassing his wealth by years and years of business acumen.  (You can say whatever you like about it, but the man is a smart business man.  Do I agree with everything he does?  Hardly.) Mr. Kaepernick has his $11.9 million dollar salary guaranteed because he plays with a ball.

Do Mr. Kaepernick and Mr. Trump have the right to say what they say?  You bet your bippy they do.  They both have an equal right to their opinions under the law.  But, as a society do we have the right to say "yeah" to one and "boo" the other?  Again- your bippy is in danger here because we absolutely do, and there is nothing wrong with a difference in the reaction.

Why is their nothing wrong with that difference?

Because one of them has more value than the other.  Yes, it's that simple.

Or, think of it another way- Mr. Trump's opinion could have MUCH longer living ramifications if left to it's own devices.  Mr. Kaepernick's opinions effects will only last as long as he is in the limelight, and only if he actually does something about it, and I guarantee that won't happen.  Even if Mr. Trump does not win the election (Dear God, hear our prayer.....) his opponent is going to have to address the statements he has made in the form of stated policy and a path forward.  (That has already happened.)  If Trump's opponents were to base their policy reform on what Mr. Kaepernick says, most of the conscious US populace would roll their eyes and call them on the carpet for it, and the rest would go back to watching "Keeping Up With The Kardashians".

But, make no mistake- both of the people above are complete and total idiots.  They aren't worthy of being paid attention to, but Mr. Trump has a slight advantage in validity because he is running for POTUS.  Both of them have a right to say what they say, however misguided they might be, and both of them can get different reactions and that is not wrong, and there is much more to the dialog than a stupid meme can possibly offer.

So- what does one do when they run across a cartoon like the above?  I say, post it and ask the thought provoking questions, but be ready to be corrected and don't use something like this as an argument-ender.  The really cool thing about these kinds of memes is that they do start conversations.  The bad part is when they are used to just stop that dialog before it starts.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

ability != talent

For the uninitiated, the symbols “ != “ in the title, when used together, are a programming operator that means “Not Equal To”.  The title tells you kind of where I intend to go, but I should forewarn you, gentle reader- this entry is probably one of my most opinionated offerings, and you should take it worth a grain of salt.

Years ago, the late, great jazz bassist Charlie Haden made some statements regarding artistic integrity.  (I tried to find the quote on the internet, but failed to do so.)  Basically, Mr. Haden did not cotton to artists taking money for art, because it cheapened the whole experience and corrupted the noble expression made by an artist.

While I find that the ultimate end of that statement to be a little naive – we all need to make money to live – there is some truth in it.  In fact, there’s a lot of truth in it.

In days gone by, for an artist to be successful meant a lot of work on their part.  Practice, practice and more practice and then the application of that practice were commonplace.  No artist would ever have thought to watch a 5 minute video on something and claim to be an expert- not just from the standpoint of there were no 5 minute videos to watch, but because just doing something by wrote and imitating others is not a personal statement.  Audiences of the day were keen to pick up the lack of depth that comes from efforts like this, because they didn’t have a constant barrage of “new and improved” whatever to try and take in.  People like John Coltrane and Miles Davis would push the edges of what they did by trial and error.  This didn’t just happen in jazz circles, either- the whole Rock And Roll world did it, too, and McCartney, Lennon, Jagger, Plant, Page, Beck and more would reinvent themselves by listening to others and then applying it to what they did, rather than to become the others.  Record companies rewarded this kind of forward thinking by putting money behind the projects and inventing marketing campaigns to move these folks into the spotlight.

No, it wasn’t perfect.  Lots of artists ended up losing their shirts in the deal through corruption and bad contracts – some died penniless, too.  I had an occasion many years ago in Nashville to engineer on a session with the great Dee Murray, the bassist for Elton John.  Murray had played on all John’s early hits like “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – and at that time, he was living under a freeway bridge along I-65 near Berry Hill.  He didn’t even own a bass anymore, and I had to lend him mine for the session.  He was brilliant during that session, but he was also very sick and had absolutely no money or a way to get the care he needed.  I bought him lunch and dinner that day (the first “meals” he had had in almost a week, he said) and gave him a couch in the apartment I was renting at the time to sleep on for 2 nights.  Dee suffered a massive stroke about 3 months after that session and died without so much as two dimes to rub together.  While it would be easy to blame John for Murray’s plight, it wasn’t all his fault- the label insisted that John make changes in his band several times over his career, and John wasn’t in a position to refuse.

But, I digress from the point I’m trying to make.

Today, the “machines” that propel an artist forward are in place way before the artist is found.  If you remember the Brady Bunch episode where Greg becomes “Johnny Bravo”, you remember that the only reason he made it was because he “fit the suit” and the producers really didn’t care if Greg could sing or not.  In the movie “Rock Star”, Mark Wahlberg becomes “Izzy” of the band Steel Dragon largely because of the same reason.  Yes, those are fictional accounts, but nowadays it is common practice and quite real.

Technology has had a hand in this paradigm shift, too.  Anyone with a computer and Garage Band is now a “producer”, and fairly decent sounding tunes can be made with absolutely no one playing any instruments at all.  Singers who can’t sing are autotuned to get them into pitch – something that wasn’t possible 20 years ago.   It’s very common for players who do actually play on tracks to have played together with other players they’ve never actually met.  (That has happened to me so many times, I’ve stopped counting the occasions.)

So what the heck does all this have to do with ability not equaling talent?

I wanted to try and give context before going into what I’m getting at.

Let’s take the strange case of Justin Bieber.  Bieber was “discovered” by Ray Braun, a “producer” who was looking through videos on YouTube for new talent, and stumbled across him accidentally.  He was impressed enough to sign Bieber to a record contract based on those videos.


Ray Braun signs someone because he accidentally stumbles across a video of some kid?  Oh, sure- I’ll bet there was at least one meeting between the two of them to find out if the kid could do what was on the videos- maybe.  Let’s say that did happen.  What are Braun’s qualifications for knowing what constitutes talent?  Who else has he worked with?  What else has he done?

(In the not-to-distant past, to get signed to a record label took a lot of work- showcases, gigs, try-outs, refusals, schmoozing- and many, many talented bands never got them at all.)

Turns out that Braun founded his “record label” to promote his son.   Did his son have any talent?  Probably not- can you name his son?  I bet you can’t.  Braun saw dollar signs, and Bieber bit.

Bieber can play drums (fairly well, actually) and guitar (if you like nothing but barre chords) and he can dance (quite well) and his singing voice is so-so.  His real appeal to Braun was no doubt his looks.  Braun’s marketing department pushed only a few of those things and hired “songwriters” (people with GarageBand that know how to drag and drop) to “write” (read: program) songs for him, but Bieber didn’t actually write them.  (How do I know this?  If you look at the song credits, they are listed as “Words and Music by xxxx, yyyy and Justin Bieber” – whenever the artist is listed last, it means they didn’t write it- they bought it.)

What this means is that it was never about Bieber’s talent- it was about his ability and availability.  The talent is in the marketing team that saturates the marketplace.  If you want “talent” in this equation, it starts and stops with Braun, but I wouldn’t really call it that.  I’d call it "a seized opportunity". (There probably is talent in being able to recognize when to do that.)

And, since the market is saturated, the audience just assumes that there is something to this equation.  People who don’t know better automatically assume that since this kid is everywhere, that he is “talented” and lack the critical thinking to think otherwise.  (yeah.  Lack of critical thinking ability is something of a trigger for me.)  It doesn’t even matter if it’s good press or bad press- it’s just press, and you eat it up.

In recent days, I’ve gotten into several “debates” with people online about what constitutes talent, and more than a few of them have confused “ability” with “talent”, and they aren’t the same thing at all.  When I offer them my side of it, they rail against it, because they think I’m calling them stupid because they can’t tell the difference.

Let me be clear: I am calling them stupid.  Because they are.

The very second that Mr. Bieber becomes not-popular, he will be jettisoned regardless of his so-called talent.  And, when he’s jettisoned, the press will have a field day and everyone who was a Belieber will say things like, “Yeah.  I knew it.  He was a flash in the pan.”  But they didn’t know it, and they didn’t admit it, and they are about as talented at discerning these things as Mr. Bieber is without his autotune and without his marketing machine.

Don’t confuse “ability” with “talent”.   This is actually a little more important than you might think- it doesn’t extend just to art.  It extends to many more important things.  Take the POTUS race we’re in right now- Mr. Trump has ability in the form of a marketing machine that pushes him forward, but no talent where it’s gonna count in being a statesman.  Mrs. Clinton has ability in the form of being able to say the right thing at the right time, no talent where it’s gonna count in having integrity with the US citizenry.  This confusion has brought us nothing but problems in the recent past, and if we can’t identify this when it comes to something like art, music and dance, then we’re gonna have real problems discerning this difference on anything important.  If you are one of these people that watches “The Voice”, “America’s Got Talent” or “American Idol” and truly believes that you are seeing talented people, then you are part of the problem.  If you are one of the people who actually cares about what Kim Kardashian, Caitlin Jenner or any other reality show celebrity has to say about things that matter, you are part of the problem.  (Personally, I think that if you watch reality TV, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.)  The people you are watching on these shows have the ability to get on a show, but no talent to make the world a better place.

Monday, August 8, 2016

my dad

This past weekend, we had my father's memorial service at Anaheim United Methodist Church in Anaheim, California.  I had prepared a eulogy for him, but since I'm such an absolute cry-baby, I asked my good friend, Kieran Scott, to read what I had written, since I knew I wouldn't get through it without completely losing it.  It took me quite awhile to figure out what to write- what does one write about someone you've known your entire life to sum them up?  In the end, I just decided to start writing and see where it took me, and just held my breath and hoped for the best.  Kieran read this masterfully - as I knew he would - and it seemed to go over quite well.

But I really wasn't prepared for the reviews I did get.  I was truly astounded - one of my cousins, a woman who has known my dad FAR longer than I have said that I wrote the things she thought of - a compliment of the highest order for any writer. Several people wanted copies.  Instead of sending them out, I thought I would just use my blog and share it with everyone.  I hope you all enjoy it.

When eulogizing one’s father, there is a temptation for one to go through the person’s life and give a recounting of everything that this person meant to you.  It’s a tried and true technique, although it can be a somewhat tiresome practice.

Let me assure you that I will not be bucking this tradition.

As all of you know, my dad was a very intelligent man.  He grasped some very heady concepts, and could make salient and cohesive arguments on a great many topics.  Broad topics like history, politics and the US Constitution were his playground, and more specific topics such as the reasons for the beginnings of World War II, the lives of the actors in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s were his swing set and monkey bars on that playground.  He could internalize these periods of historic movement and could add color and richness to them in a way that most can never do.  He read voraciously about these and many, many other topics- not only to be informed, but to challenge himself and his beliefs.  He would even occasionally change his mind and stance on these items.

But, what separated my father from a host of other pseudo-intellectuals was his ability to relate to people and find those things that would resonate in their hearts; to appeal to that without making them feel uncomfortable.  He could find that area – no matter how small – and place those topics inside others as to be able to give them a desire to find out more.

You see, Dad wasn’t just intelligent - he was smart.  Intelligence is the measure of being able to retain and recall facts and data, but smart is the ability to know when, where and to whom to do that with.  This not only made him a fantastic conversationalist, but it propelled him to the very top of his chosen profession, that of a teacher of children.

As his child, I can tell you that to be in his house and have those conversations was a sometimes daunting task.  My father was not just talkative and inquisitive – a sometimes defeating personal trait when you’re 16 and trying to pull the wool over his eyes – but also he also had the innate ability to tell when you didn’t know your stuff.  And, he would mercilessly call you on it, as some of his students who are here today can readily attest to.  If you hadn’t studied the topic you were talking about, he would know immediately, and then propel the discussion headlong in to the very thing you knew the least about.  God help you.

But, here’s the thing- right behind his having caught you would come the forgiveness.  If you didn’t see it, he would offer it first, and then show you the error you had made in a way that made you want to do better.

My father taught me many, many things.  Oh, sure- he taught me things like how to ride a bike, how to build a model airplane, how to train our dog- all the “Dad Things” – and he would make those terrible “Dad Jokes” we all know about.  He taught me scholastic things like history and helped me with US Government classes in high school – how could he not? – and even went as far as to enlist help from his teacher friends on topics that I didn’t understand well like math and science.  He did all that, as any good father would do.  In my early life, my mother and father divorced, and he taught me how to move on from something traumatic, merely by his being “present” and engaged.  When I rebelled (which I did a lot) he taught me that he wasn’t interested in being my friend; rather, he taught me the value of being my father, something I did with my own children.  All of these things are the stuff of a “good father”, but there was one thing my father taught me that supersedes all others, and unfortunately it is something that I don’t see much of these days.

My father taught me that the true measure of a man is doing the right thing even when no one is looking.

This means that it really doesn’t matter what visual trappings your life may have.  Having the appearance of being protective and nurturing means absolutely nothing if you can’t do it when there is no one around to see it.  This means that, to be a man, you have to not only provide, but to do so authentically and without reservation.  You always put others first, and you never ask for consideration above anyone else.  Failures will happen, and when they do, it is your election, and your election alone to either dwell on them or to see them as lessons to learn from, for life is a series of lessons that no one truly ever arrives at a final destination.  Material possession, money, fame and power are fleeting things, and at the end of the day, all one really has is their own personal integrity.

This lesson is one that I learned over time.  To be honest, I did not embrace it right away.  And, even though it was paramount to my father, he never berated me for it.  He was patient with me - yes, I did frustrate him many, many times – and sometimes that frustration came out at higher volume – but there is no doubt in my mind that my dad ever did anything other than to love and accept me – even though and especially when I did not deserve it- because, you see that is part of the “do the right thing even though no one is looking” process.  Now that I am much older, I do understand this and I attempt to do this very thing each and every day.

My dad taught me that people matter.  Their well-being is something that we each should be constantly aware of.  This isn’t to garner favor with them , but rather it is just the right thing to do all the time.  Consistently.  Without fail.  Without a personal safety net, but with complete and total abandon.  Do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may.

And, through all of this his cornball sense of wit would never diminish. Everyone here remembers his Nebraska Cornhusker and Northwestern hats, and his shirts emblazoned with “Bald Guys Rule” or “Ugly, Mean and Nasty”.  And he always had metaphors for whatever was happening that would defy description – and there was no end to them, either. He had a quip for all occasions.  My father had a truly unique sense of humor, even in the oddest of times.  I’ll finish with a personal story to illustrate:

One night, when I was about 17, I did the typical rebellious youth thing of going out and partying with friends.  I returned home at about 2AM, and let’s just say that I wasn’t shy about consuming some “adult beverages” at that party.  I stood on the front stoop of my house, popping breath mints at an alarming rate so as to cover my “Eau de Pabst Blue Ribbon” cologne.  I thought I was completely cool and in control, when in fact I was wavering around like I had been spun in a centrifuge, and my voice, while normally coherent, now sounded like Floyd the Barber from the Andy Griffith Show.  I unlocked the door and stepped in the house, intending to just go to my room and go to bed.

Instead, I’m met just inside the door by my father.  He’s in his bathrobe, leaning in the kitchen doorway.

“You mind telling me where you’ve been?” he asked, flatly.

“Oh.  I was out with friends and lost track of time.” I thought I said.  What I really said was unintelligible.

“Fine.  Go to bed.”, he answered.

That was it!  I had escaped.  Except…….

The next morning at about 6:30AM,  I awoke to the sensation that someone was in my room.  My head felt like I had been hit by a Louisville slugger, and my stomach was deciding which direction to push everything to- it felt like all directions.  As I opened my eyes, I saw my dad standing in my doorway, and he’s holding a small saucepan and a wooden spoon in his hand.  Before I can say anything, he literally leaps on to my bed, pinning my arms at my side.  With a quick hand motion, he runs my window shade up with a “WHACK!”, and sunlight immediately fills my room and my stomach begins to take flight.  He then takes the saucepan and holds it right in front of my eyes, and starts hitting it with the wooden spoon – it’s like a jackhammer in my head.  He then drops the pan and spoon, and covers my rapidly filling mouth with his hand.

“GOOD MORNING!” he yells in my face.  He’s got the most evil grin you’ve ever seen.

“Don’t you barf on me.  And don’t you believe for one second that I’m dumb enough to believe that you ‘lost track of time’ last night.”, he says.   And then he sits there, smiling at me, for almost a full minute.  He finally let me up, and I raced to the bathroom.  When I came back to my room, he was just sitting on the edge of my bed.  I could tell that he had been laughing, but when he sees me he gets a stern look on his face.

“If you want to go drinking with your buddies, I can’t really stop you.  But I can tell you that you had better not lie to me about it again.”, was all he said, and he stood up and walked out of the room.

Years later, he and I recalled that morning.  At first, he didn’t remember it, but as he did he told me that his first thought when I returned home was, “Oh, thank God he’s ok”.  His second thought was that this was a “teachable moment” (he actually used that term before Mr. Obama did) but he knew that he’d have to pick his time to teach it, and judging from the shape I was in that wasn’t it.  He went to bed not really knowing what he was going to do, and only formulated his response when he woke up that morning.  I asked him why he did that, and his response was priceless:

“Because I wanted to make sure that you understand that I loved you, and that wasn’t something I really approved of.  Acting like a kid is one thing, but lying about it isn’t something that a real man would do.”

And, right there, is why I love my Dad and will always aspire to be like him.