25 years of learning

Next week I turn twenty-five. Having 1/4 of a century behind me is significant, so I take a brief moment to reflect on what I have learned up to this point.

1. Think before you speak

2. Practice active listening

3. Don’t expect to master something overnight

4. Sleeping is essential, eating even more so

5. Fear of failure causes paralysis of the mind

6. There is no social unit like the family

7. Respect different cultures and strive to understand them

8. Inspiring people are outward-focused, not inward-focused

9. College degrees are worthless beyond what you make of them

10. The man who learns to hate his physical wealth will be loved by many

11. An artist is someone who finds a gift and uses it to connect with people

12. Sadly, wars still solve problems

13. Strong character should trump a phat resumé

14. Silence and reflection are close cousins to contentment and peace

15. Believing in your own dreams is completely different than having dreams

16. A smile can change everything

17. A thoughtful apology can mend many wrongs

18. Asking for directions is overrated as opposed to planning where you’re going ahead of time

19. You are the problem and you are the solution

20. If you can learn to love yourself, it will be much easier for others to love you

21. Old people almost always know more than you do, being old is a gift worth celebrating

22. Time moves much faster now

23. True love is supporting others, not leaning on others

24. The little things are more important than the big things

25. There’s no place like home

Kenny Garrett and Christian Lauba

Last week I had the immense pleasure of meeting two of the most influential musicians of our generation, Kenny Garrett and Christian Lauba. Kenny Garrett was here in town playing at Teatro Fernan Goméz in la Plaza de Colón for the Madrid Jazz Festival. Through a mutual friend, I got to meet and speak with him backstage. Christian Lauba hunted me down on facebook after hearing one of my recordings of his work on the internet. Thanks to skype, we had a lovely conversation about the current state of classical saxophone music. These two distinguished men come from contrasting backgrounds: Kenny is a Grammy-award winning American saxophonist born in Detroit. Today he travels the world playing critically-acclaimed feature concerts. Christian Lauba is director of the Bordeaux Orchestra in France and a successful composer in his own right. His compositions for saxophone are reshaping the window of possibilities for the instrument and creating a kind of repertory that is immensely challenging yet also satisfying for a critical audience.

Talking with the two of them has reinforced a number of conclusions I would like to share with you.

—Music is a product. There is a sophistication to it that takes years of training and preparation to express/market effectively. When someone is young, all they can see are the exercises and lessons that come along the way to the point where these two great musicians are. When I see Kenny Garrett play, it is obvious he is not worried about hitting the right notes as much as he is interested about connecting with a group of people and getting a sound in their ears. It’s apparent when he is concerned enough to ask me down to the minute details of how his mouthpiece sounds. It’s apparent when he demands that the sound engineers turn on the lights so he can see the people/audience he is playing for. This process of making music and connecting with people is special because it is there for a single moment and then it is gone. The product is touching the lives of people in a creative way impossible through other more conventional means.

—All of us stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. There are three types of musicians in this world: refiners, those who take the music of others and turbocharge it to its most polished level (think Paul Desmond playing with Dave Brubeck); re-creators, those who take someone else’s product and turn it into something distinct and unusual (think Igor Stravinsky morphing Russian peasant folk music into the Rite of Spring); and popularizers, those who take a genre of music and supercharge it through their charisma to the masses (obviously, Elvis Presley and rock’n roll). The musicians we remember the most have some element of all three of these characteristics. All of them require an understanding and perspective of what came before. When Christian Lauba tells me that he is inspired to write saxophone music through listening to Michael Jackson, I am reminded that we must look to what came before us if we desire any chance to succeed in what is yet to come.

—No Plan B allowed. When I read the biographies of these men, the shared thread is contained in a singular pursuit towards a specific goal. There is no hint of second-guessing at this point of course, at some level they have already arrived. More importantly, they have a clear concept of exactly what they are trying to do with their gifts. They are living life at a level where they found something they are good at and are now pursuing it with an attitude not of dogmatic perfectionism but of whole-hearted excellence.

Furthermore, I would argue that all three of these points extend beyond the world of music. What would you do differently if you woke up saying to yourself, “I’m going to make myself the best version of me I can be today,”?

How would you live your life if you decided you wanted to refine the world of nursing to the highest possible quality by your example? How about if you came up with a plan for inventing a new way for people to share resumés and business information on the internet? Or what if you decided you wanted to make math cool again for your high school students?

What if you decided there was no Plan B?

Marruecos, first-hand account

Tangier, Morocco catches me off guard because it is merely an hours flight away from Madrid. If I get on a plane in Kansas City and fly for an hour, I’m going to see something pretty similar to what’s in Kansas City. Similar people, same language, same food (but inferior barbecue), slightly different terrain. Madrid and Tangier are a world apart. Best for visiting in the summer, Morocco is to Spain what Mexico is to the US: a hot, slightly exotic getaway to a land where you can barter with merchants, the currency exchange is around 10:1, and you stick out (badly) like a foreigner if you have blonde hair.

A dynasty of thousands of years, Morocco is the worlds largest exporter of phosphorus and is known around the world for its excellent cuisine. Phosphorus is a homeopathic mineral used to treat circulation problems, hypertension, insomnia, and exhaustion. The herb stores in the Medina marketplace are high in variety and quality, certainly an exciting moment for anyone who pays careful attention to an organic lifestyle or enjoys cooking in general. The Taijín plate is a meat dish cooked in a clay pot. You have the option of chicken, meatballs with cheese, beef, or lamb. The pot is the key because it cooks very hot without allowing the juices from the meat to escape. The result is a rich, highly flavorful package that will burn your tongue quickly if you aren’t patient. The green tea they serve is the best I have ever had, bar none. They put mint leaves about 1/3 full in a teapot and heat. And serve. And delicious. And I should mention you can eat like a king in Tangier for 8 or 9 dollars.

The highlights of Tangier are the beach next to the port, the countryside along the coast, and the Medina. On the north coast, there is a hole where the surf has cut a massive opening which you can check out thanks to YouTube: http://wn.com/Tanger_Gruta_de_Hércules. Legend has it that Hercules slept there before completing his twelve legendary feats, and now the Moroccan coastline will never be the same. This area of the African coast is especially noteworthy because lies in the area where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet. The highway along the coast reminds me of the NW coastline at Washington Slagbai National Park in Bonaire for its height above the coastline (120 feet on average), it’s busy hills, and sheer beauty. Obviously, the Moroccan coastline is a significant area of the world to control for its gateway to the rest of the Mediterranean. The Medina is an open air market filled with all sorts of living room antiquities, shoes, purses, jackets, pirated pop music and Hollywood movies, and pesky wanna-be tour guides. The market is an oddity because it doesn’t distinguish in the street style (most only large enough for pedestrians and the occasional motorbike) between the market area and the residential area. You quickly get the feeling that you are in an ancient urban labyrinth.

Many of the restaurants along the main drives have a single row of tables facing the street filled with men drinking tea and watching all the people who walk by. No women do this at all. In fact, there weren’t very many women in the streets in general. I realized I was definitely not in Kansas anymore when I slightly interrupted a Muslim convenience store clerk who was praying to Allah between sales. This is a socially conservative culture like many Middle Eastern countries. Unlike Spain and other Latin American countries, public displays of affection are frowned on too. Often I found myself approached by people wanting me to buy their package of chewing gum or anything else they thought I needed (apparently chocolate means drugs too).

What can I say about Morocco? I never felt like I was in danger as much as I felt like I was checking out a world completely alien to anywhere else I have been, much less the US. I barely got a glimpse of a millennial country in a few days but I will say they are people who deeply value their faith, want to have a place in the world market, have a thinly developed middle class, and know how to cook like nobody’s business.