Category Archives: Essays About Life

Rings and Pigs

For the most part, they [executives] are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.[1]

­—Hunter S. Thompson

Once the “go” game is going and the clock has started ticking in the real world, time becomes not just a slot to fill but a precious commodity.  Without the padded rooms of degree programs and pedagogues, learning and advancements must find autodidactic sources of inspiration.  Acquaintances and friends revolve around set pursuits and there is no time to be wasted.  One must know immediately what can work and what will be best set aside.  It is within this decision-making conundrum that we explore the decisive and often inflammatory actions taken up by great prophets in their search for meaning.

Often within the bastions of Christian fervor, there is a perception among the religiously inclined that Jesus Christ was, as a man, meek, mild, and full of compassion with forgiveness for even the lowliest of sinners.  He loved children.  He laughed a lot. He probably petted all the animals.  Some of the most fundamental stories in the gospels, however, show a very different side of this Jewish prophet.  One of his most remarkable characteristics lay in his penchant for bending events to his expectations, impervious to traditional standards set around him.  He had his worldview set and shaped the circumstances around him to fit position.  There was a striking lack of passivity—JC was a heretic.

Towards the end of his life when he was about to be crucified Jesus was travelling into Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover festivities.  His arrival was anticipated as he had spent the past years healing people and antagonizing elitist Jewish authorities.  He planned to visit the Jewish temple, and he preferred to enter the city on an animal.  Horses were an attractive travel method of choice, and in spite of their low stamina over long distance, the animals represented power for their speed and stature, especially in the Roman culture.  Among his disciples, the connection to a noble steed must have been obvious; after all, to them he was their great teacher and “the son of the living God.”[2]  Deities should at the very least ride horses when limousines are not available.  Jesus was, however, looking for something a bit more simple and instructed his followers: “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her.  Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”[3]   The reaction upon his arrival was ferocious—people responded with great enthusiasm.  The gospel of Matthew reports that denizens of Jerusalem cut down branches from the trees and took off their jackets in an effort to line the pathway for the arrival of this prophet.  Those surrounding him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  The reaction shook the city to its core, and word spread quickly that this “Son of [King] David” had arrived.[4]  Musicians and athletes often dream of such a generous welcoming by supporters.  Naturally enough, I imagine Jesus took it all in stride.

What does this recollection teach us about the pursuits of an artist?  After all, Jesus was not a rock star and there were no paparazzi.  The lesson here lies in the conjectured affairs of a career: learn to evaluate cultural and musical expectations as a point of departure rather than a model for growth.  JC could have made a show of power in this horse vs. ass situation; some of his politically minded followers might have even encouraged him to play a diplomatic hand against the Roman establishment.  Instead, Jesus was moved to make an entrance in his own way and on his own terms, social obligations be damned.  Often musicians are presented by their peers to paths of conventions and models for growth.  Going to college and getting a degree may strike high on the list.  Studying with famous musicians in in Europe and the United States could carry attractive appeal.  Jesus did not shun the mighty horse because he wanted to shock people.  He chose the donkey because he understood who he wanted to be.

Later on after Christ arrived in the city, a bigger shock developed in the center of the public eye.  There at that great temple rebuilt by King Herod and which by all accounts Jesus (like most Jews) considered his Father’s house, there were salesmen selling doves, cattle, and other livestock for sacrifice as well as money changers set up for business.  Jerusalem, after all, was and still is an international city teeming with foreigners.  Where buying and selling occurred, proper currency was essential.  Coins must have been rolling on the floor and even animal feces were perhaps present.  Jesus wasted no time in adding to the hubbub of this holy place.  He made a whip and drove the merchants out of the temple, snapping and slashing away at the offenders.  He turned over the tables and further scattered the money everywhere, accusing those working of making the place “a den of robbers.”[5]  A matter of religious practicality had been turned into a portal for the marketplace, and Jesus’s reaction was nothing short of violent.  He outright rejected this imposition of the free market into a sacred space.  In doing so, Jesus provided a clear anti-pacifist portrait of his character.  The next day as he was leaving a city not far from Jerusalem he began to search for something to eat.  After spotting a fig tree in the distance, Jesus approached it expecting to find a quick snack.  When all he found were leaves being that it was out of the season for eating figs, he swore, “may no one ever eat fruit from you again.”[6]  Perhaps Jesus had missed his morning coffee.

When we examine such expressions of outburst from a neutral range, we see a man who got quite upset when he found situations that did not fit his paradigm of expectations.  Some would say he lost his temper.  Others would suggest he was righteously indignant. A young college student might simply point out the prophet needed some food!  Once again, there is a lesson here for the artist.  In the story of the temple, the man who hesitates to act in the face of confrontation and refuses to respond to his surroundings realizes nothing.  Nothing risked requisites nothing rewarded.  Christ’s reward was the satisfaction of knowing the temple was fit for worshipping.  Jesus extended a visceral response in the face of a parasitic process that was compromising the sacred nature of the temple.  He felt compelled to do something.  This sense of necessity remains one of the most important aspects of the artistic personality.  Urgency itself is what drives us to clearly seek out situations that correspond with our pursuits and values.  Without a sense of urgency, the artist remains lukewarm, apathetic, and probably not filling out the fullest of their potential.  Each and every day builds on the next, building momentum to act on musical convictions.

It is important to recognize that urgency does not equate a high-stress lifestyle; it means acting with a sense of focus and determination.  For example, Jesus rose early in the morning to pray and build a spiritual relationship with his father because this was the key contact point for focusing on priorities—his ministry.[7]  Christians might point out that it was this relationship that left Jesus in a position where he could powerfully operate—even if it meant throwing tables around to make a point.  Successful people (not just artists) arrive because, over time, they build strong relationships and healthy habits that free them to operate by their convictions.  This is the lesson of the thrown table: people who aggressively act upon deep-seated emotional convictions get noticed. I am not condoning violence here; I am condoning aggressive authenticity. People can spot a fake from miles away.

Finally, Jesus sent his disciples out from his company on a mission to spread his teachings. Instructing them, “freely you have received; freely give,”[8] he told them not to accept any money or other form of compensation for their preaching and miracles.  The objective was to help others and spread the news of hope to those that had none, especially those native to Israel.  Before departing, he left them with some final instructions,

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. . . .  I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.  Be on your guard.[9]

The cultural context here remains essential for full appreciation of this dust-shaking action.  Today, when people are upset in passing or driving on the highway nearly anywhere in the world, a forceful symbol of disdain is the middle finger. It is the ultimate trump card to any grievance; walk away in contempt and flip them the bird.  In the Roman and Middle Eastern culture of this time, the feet were the dirtiest parts of the body.  In a world without organized transportation, people walked everywhere in order to travel somewhere.  In fact, Jewish law happens to be very specific about avoiding animals that have split hooves, so it must be understood in this context that feet were a sensitive issue if not generally distasteful part of the body.  To wash someone’s feet was the ultimate act of humiliation, at best a servant’s job.  When the disciples inevitably walked out of a town shaking the dust off their feet, they were in no uncertain terms insulting those individuals behind them.  In spite of the negativity surrounding such an action, perhaps a more optimistic solution could be searching for positive interactions with others.

In a somewhat jaded fashion, Hunter S. Thompson earned fame by documenting the world around him. The journalist made a career out of following groups of people like the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang for months at a time and then writing news stories based out of his own experiences. After a particularly underwhelming stint in the television industry, Thompson expressively describes the profession as only he could from his “Gonzo” perspective:

The TV business is uglier than most things.  It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

Which is more or less true. For the most part, they [executives] are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.[10]

Scores of artists have taken solace in these black words, misquoting Thompson to fit the reality of their own situation and lamenting seemingly unsurpassable misfortunes.  Thompson recognized things were often nasty when success was the objective, but he was not the first to see this correlation (although he may have been one of the more colorful personalities to point it out).  Even when Jesus warned “be on your guard,” there was an overtone of negative expectation.  Problems would come.  Complications and even rejection would arise on the path.  Good men could die.  If and when those barriers arose in the face of set goals, the solution was clear if not blatantly offensive: flip the bird and move along.

In each of these stories, Jesus takes a position that poignantly applies to our world today. As artists of all kinds, it is our responsibility to find venues and opportunities where our work will be valued.  When Jesus was confronted with issues that did not match his worldview, he signaled blatant intolerance for the status quo and immediately addressed the situation or moved to a place where his ministry would be accepted.

A different type of voice in the wilderness, Ornette Coleman made a similar choice after leaving his native state of Texas for Los Angeles and New York City.  Experiences in the south had not been pleasant; Coleman was beaten up and lost his horn in Baton Rouge on account of what he viewed as having a beard and hair grown out too long and, in a musical parallel, Coleman found it difficult to meet musicians who shared his ideas.[11]  Even when he finally began to share his musical voice with the world, critic Peter Welding responded with an attitude much of the general public must have felt at the time, “No one can deny the emotional intensity of Ornette Coleman’s music, but that is all there seems to be here—no logic, nor order, no coherence, no discipline, no imagination, no taste.  Why go on?”[12]  Such a vicious rebuttal would have taken the air out of a common man’s sails, but Coleman’s resolve to continue came from a deeper voice within.

Coleman has never seemed to be concerned by such notions or chasms between the general proletariat and his hipster audience.  Cheered along by John Lewis and Leonard Bernstein, Coleman’s musical voice was based in the Texas blues and often exposed in angular bebop and naked melodies that seemed to tear at the soul.  The rhapsodic nature of his playing consistently baffled and captivated his audiences, a quality that led to a perception of his music simultaneously as that of a revolutionary and that of a kook.  In spite of the erratic motions, Schuller contends, “it is the strength of conviction of his playing that produces a sense of the inevitable in Coleman’s art.”[13]  This unconventional saxophonist cemented a provocative career culminating in a 2007 Grammy award for lifetime achievement.  No doubt Coleman will remain remembered for the standard “Lonely Woman” from his third album The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). The album stands as his magnum opus and laid the foundation for a burgeoning movement in free jazz during the second portion of the 20th century.

The truth is that all of us must forge forward wholeheartedly if we are to go into the arts.  In some individual way, we are called to press limits, think outside of the box, and challenge established norms within our fields.  Following the example of Christ usually seems to be about humility, but the outlying stories of his ways also paint a portrait of another path. Always remember that most people are not musicians, painters, composers, or sculptors.  They are cashiers, attorneys, doctors, and salesmen; seek to understand them before trying to be understood.  It will be the rare occurrence that reality matches up to the preconceived mirages of our artistic expectations.  In spite of difficulties, our work is unique and valuable in a quickly evolving world. Keep searching, never stop adapting.  Stay positive and look for opportunities to help others.  Shake the dust of your feet.  Don’t stop.  Belief and failure are prerequisites of reward.  You can do this.

[1]Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 43.

[2]Matthew 16:16, New International Version.

[3]Matthew 21:2-3, New International Version.

[4]Matthew 21:7, New International Version.  King David was the most powerful ruler of Israeli kings in the Old Testament and is often referred to as a man after God’s own heart.

[5]Matthew 21:13, John 2:13-16, New International Version.

[6]Mark 11:13-14, New International Version.

[7]Mark 1:35, New International Version.

[8]Matthew 10:8, New International Version.

[9]Matthew 10:14; 10: 16-17, New International Version.

[10]Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s, 43.

[11]Ornette Coleman, interview (1987) with Michael Jarrett, Cadence.

[12]Peter Welding, quoted in Iain Anderson, This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 68.

[13]Gunther Schuller, “Ornette Coleman 2. Musical Style,” Oxford Music Online.

Location, Location, Location

Since most foreigners immediately notice an American accent, it is rare that I have the luxury of blending into the crowd and, after living abroad for years, I have noticed a cookie cutter conversation regarding geography that continues to underwhelm me. It goes something like this—New Friend: So, where are you from?  Me: The United States.  NF: Wow!  That must be nice living around New York City.  Me: Actually, I am from Kansas City in the center of the country.  It is the city where Charlie Parker was born.  NF: So how far away is that from California?  Me: Well it’s about a twenty-four hour drive east of Los Angeles.  NF: Cool.  I always wanted to live in Texas.

People seem to characterize the center of the United States as a vast tornado-bitten plain of cowboys and rattlesnakes where everyone loves Tim McGraw and the public schools are filled with Beliebers.  Cultural athletes play jazz and snobbish old people stand alone promoting classical music.  There is no inbred culture. It is a rare find to come across publically supported local art shows and concerts from upcoming talents and when it does come, it often carries the form of garage band imitations and Thomas Kinkade reprints.  Midwesterners do, however, have deer posts and ATVs with conveniently located strip clubs just off the interstate.  Many of the people there come from a generation of nineteenth-century settlers that had to fight to survive. Carrying guns was a question of finding the next meal and defending oneself against unknown elements.  Harsh winters required a reliance on friends and family in an open plain where death was never far away.  How is someone supposed to build a career on the arts based on such forlorn values?

There is a useful element to this distinctly American worldview, and, for all of its stigmas, growing up in the Midwest is not as impossible an experience as people from the East and West coast might imagine.  It is easy to criticize such antiquated traditions as gun socials and country music as old-fashioned,[1] but it does nothing to contribute towards building on already proven building blocks of moderation, creativity, and pragmatism. Americans from Oklahoma to California carry an attitude of independence and entrepreneurship.  They realize that the onus of success rests squarely on their shoulders if they are to achieve their goals.  Instead of blaming others, they look inward for finding solutions.  Sitting thousands of miles away from most continents bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Americans have also embraced isolationism starting as far back as President George Washington: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is . . . to have with them as little political connection as possible.  So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith.  Here let us stop.”[2]  Our history (all kinds) makes us who we are.  Being from the “other” is distinct and deserves to be recognized. It is not a pejorative of individual abilities, it’s a facet of our national personality.

After living abroad for three years, I meet many people that seem impressed when I talk about how and where I have lived.  People seem to be enamored with a perception that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence; their particular location is somehow less valid than what lies just out of reach.  At the beginning perhaps this is convincing; people in Europe suggest that Milan could never be as captivating as Chicago and citizens of the Midwest openly suspect that Columbia, Missouri holds no comparison to Bordeaux, France.  Fear of failure is one reason that people make up fantasies that tell them they truly could achieve their dreams if only they were over there.  For most, that reality never arrives and they have their excuse.

In sorting out this location conundrum, I propose a basic view of American expatriate Paul Bowles, a writer and composer who spent the majority of his adult life in Morocco.  There exist two kinds of movers throughout the world: tourists and travelers.[3]  The tourist moves from here to there and everywhere with a willing suspension of reality.  They recognize, whether unconscious or not, that this current living situation is foreign to their sensibilities.  It is exotic, exciting, and fleeting.  It is also likely to be quite meaningful.  The traveler on the other hand views foreign worlds as a catalyst for calibrating sensibilities, reconsidering worldviews and perhaps even learning new languages.  The traveler carries a more lonely road of discovering for themself the intricacies of what makes the foreign unusual and what makes them who they are as citizens, friends, and artists.  If they return, they remain changed forever.

In spite of such pithy comparisons between colors of grass, traveling abroad essentially teaches the individual that most people live like everyone else.  People wake up, eat, work or go to school, have a lover or two, enjoy their friends, take a shower, and go to bed at night. Some of us do this process in English.  Some of us live this in Swahili.  The caveat to self-understanding lies in finding the 1% difference between our culture and the other.  Finding and embracing those distinct differences is part of the challenge of artistry.

Today, we live in a time where location is becoming less important. The world is becoming smaller, and people are more connected than ever before in the history of the world with programs like Skype. With a bank card (or a smartphone), you can pay for anything just about anywhere in the world and have it sent to you.  Ideas and innovations are being flung around at a velocity that is truly mind-boggling.  Location, at its essence, has been and will continue to be a question of finding people that share common values to network and build connections with.  New York City has traditionally been viewed as a place for assertive musicians to launch their careers.  Today, there are so many voices in the same place with the same mediums to communicate, it is easy to get drowned and burnt out of the system to say nothing of cost of daily expenses.  The economic principle of diminishing return remains in force especially here.[4]  The question is now more than ever about being clever enough to build your own way from where you are with what you have on hand.  Find something compelling to do at a level that reflects everything else you have been paying attention to, and you will become a wild card, a pioneer who had the courage to try.

Choosing a place to live is all about making the choice. Once that is complete, move on with the plan and build on what has been started.  It becomes quite simply a question of jumping in with an educated guess, odds be damned, and going for it.  Significantly, moving around a lot does not necessarily equate progress. However, it almost certainly will involve closing and opening a lot of boxes, paying tolls, purchasing gasoline, or passing airport security.  Have the wisdom and the creativity to take your own gun and stake a claim.  Whether it is on a “sexy” tractor or a profound truth, if it is well located, it may succeed.


[1]Just consider the 1998 hit “Kenny Chesney–She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” YouTube (23 November 2009), posted by KennyChesneyVEVO.

[2]George Washington, quoted in “George Washington on Foreign Affairs * September 19, 1796,” Library of Virginia,

[3]Paul Bowles, “The Sheltering Sky,” (New York: Ecco Press, 2005), chapter 2 .

[4]The law of diminishing return states that if all factors of production stay the same, output will decrease over time if another factor (such as population in a concentrated area) is increased.  For example, the Harlem Renaissance was spearheaded by people like Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday, but the movement eventually lost its revolutionary nature over time for multiple reasons, not least of these being oversaturation.


Pandora’s Box—Why Nuclear Energy is Here to Stay

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the demand for electric power has never been greater. With developing countries like China and India far outpacing most Western populations, there is no simple path to energy independence for all. Some countries like Venezuela and Qatar benefit from vast mineral resources and an energy glut while others like Japan and India depend on the political benevolence of neighboring countries. Meanwhile, scientists continue to pursue the mastery of fusion technology without industrial-grade success. As energy industries in solar and wind power gain public support and government subsidies, real-world needs for nuclear power remain unchanged. Less than two weeks ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that “global energy demand will increase by one-third by 2035, driven nearly completely by emerging and developing economies. . . . As the energy sector is responsible for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, much of the burden of mitigating climate change will fall on this sector and these countries.”c In this brief article, we will examine some of the common diversions to avoiding the advantages provided by nuclear power. The demand for energy however, cannot be ignored; in the United States one average nuclear power plant generates 12.2 million megawatt-hours per year with minimal greenhouse gas emissions outpacing the entire American solar power industry currently generating 6.9 million megawatt-hours anually.

Environmental advocates correctly point out the dangers of nuclear energy use. Each plant generates waste that requires careful disposal every eighteen to twenty-four months. What politician wants to publically accept the stigma of nuclear waste in their state? In addition, the IEA rightly pointed out that developing countries will inherit the responsibility of combatting escalating global greenhouse gas emissions. In a world of pirates and conflicting worldviews, who can seriously envision successful nuclear plants with uncompromised security in places like Mogadishu or even Tehran?

The Beyond Nuclear organization, based out of Takoma Park, MD, highlights the ongoing issue of disposal: “no country has an operating repository for radioactive waste.”b Indeed, the proposed use of Yucca Mountain as a national repository has been shelved by the Obama administration leaving nuclear waste sites scattered across the country. Although nuclear waste poses a threat to human health and safety, its daily danger often gets exaggerated for effect—Barbara Rose Johnston and Holly M. Barker wrote that some scientists believe people receive five times the radiation from sitting in front of television screens and computer monitors over their entire lives than they do living next to a nuclear power plant.a Regarding security, nuclear power plants will not solve every country’s energy needs. Playing favorites with the technology, however, will only lead to resentment among countries, further heightening political tensions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) exists to enforce and maintain the high standards required for the utilization of this dangerous technology. Countries unwilling to cooperate with IAEA guidelines should not and will not benefit from the energy advantages acquired with nuclear power.

In the heat of World War II, nuclear science was born from violence and the threat of obliteration. Today, this power of fission, whether promoted for peaceful energy or for the death of enemies will never simply disappear. Rather, we must act to peacefully regulate it for the betterment of mankind. This Pandora’s box will not close any time soon.

Works Cited
a-Johnston, Barbara Rose., and Holly M. Barker. Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: The Rongelap Report. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008. Print.
b-Ten Reasons to Say No to Nuclear Power. Takoma Park: Beyond Nuclear, n.d. Beyond Nuclear. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.
c-World Energy Outlook. Issue brief. Climate-I, 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.

the nerve

i believe.

i believe in the power of hope to change lives and create something better than once existed.  i believe in my friends.  i believe.
i believe that even accidents have meaning.
i believe.
i believe giving up is a mistake and
i believe failure is choosing not to try.
i believe.
i believe there exists an objective and a purpose for living life.
i believe.
i believe that anything is possible if we choose to accept it.
i believe that many things never last.
i believe those that do age strong with time.
i believe that the improbable can be obtained
and that the will of men can overcome hate.
i believe.
i believe impossible is nothing.

With Love, from Agrabah!

Even today, I remember when Aladdin debuted in theaters in 1992. A fictional Agrabah portrayed through the eyes of Walt Disney captured an entire generation with its quick wit and classic rags-to-riches story. I was fascinated with the entire notion. Magic carpets who played chess, lots of jewels and treasure in caves , and a genie who made good jokes! My 7-year-old imagination ran wild at the idea of having 3 wishes. Of course, the most important part of the plot centered around capturing the heart of Princess Jasmine, something the genie was not allowed to directly manipulate according to the international governing code of genies.

Genie: So what’ll it be, master?

Aladdin: You’re gonna grant me any 3 wishes I want, right?

Genie: [imitating William F. Buckley] Uh, ah, almost. There are a few, uh, provisos. Ah, a couple of quid pro quo.

Aladdin: Like?

Genie: [normally] Uh, rule #1, I can’t kill anybody.

[cuts his head off]

Genie: So don’t ask. A-rule #2!

[fixes his head]

Genie: I can’t make anybody fall in love with anybody else.

[smooches Aladdin]

Genie: You little punim there. RULE #3!

[turns into a slimy Genie, and imitating Peter Lorre]

Genie: I can’t bring people back from the dead. It’s not a pretty picture. I DON’T LIKE DOING IT!

[he returns to normal]

Genie: Other than that, you got it!

Falling in love is quite certainly one of the most bewildering things a human being can subject themself to. There’s a moment where you notice and then a decision to move. Just as in chess, the protagonist makes a gambit of submitting their wit (or lack thereof) for the acceptance of a stranger’s uncontrollable response. It involves a tug-of-war between pretending you don’t care in an effort not to be overbearing (you don’t want to smother the person) and showing just enough that you do care to let matters develop. It’s a dance of euphoria and the script of nightmares. What if things don’t work out? Worse yet, what if they do?

I used to think that love was a task of finding commonalities and shared life goals. It was set-up, won, earned, planned out. Many cultures, even today, observe the tradition of arranged marriages. Even my own Kansan sister has happily married a guy whose meeting was arranged between some intuitive friends. Getting a calculated relationship can be interesting and still holds weight, but it’s a light weight compared to the reality of chemistry. In spite of everything, this is something not even Aladdin’s genie can force. There are simply certain people in life that I am immediately and strongly attracted to. I know when I see them because the hair jumps on the back of my neck. My I.Q. immediately regresses 30 points, and my vocabulary morphs into a series of monkey grunts and awkward smiles. Sometimes I see them on the subway or on the bus, in the supermarket, or even saxophone competitions.

Why is it that some people seem to have magnets inside them? Why do people think about love so much? Aren’t we brought up in Western culture to believe in “the one” and matters of the heart? Why is there just one if there are over 7 billion people in the world? What about the idea of being content with who you are and fulfilled as a single person? After having gone through a forced engagement (totally my bad, see preceding paragraph), I’m quasi-sure that a successful couple is set up by two people who are comfortable in their own skin long before they ever meet each other. If you consider their sense of self-esteem, they are 51% content with themselves yet 49% in need of affirmation. I know it sounds clinical and formulaic, but it’s a solid point of departure. For me, life is full of women I could fall in love with. It’s just a matter of finding one I don’t get bored spending time with. Another way to consider dating could consist of simply saying hello and goodbye to lots of different people until you find someone you can no longer say goodbye to.

So Aladdin, of course, had to turn himself into a prince for Jasmine to even notice him, all the while competing with the evil sorcerer Jafar who was certain Jasmine would fit perfectly in his diabolical plan to steal the kingdom from the sultan:

Princess Jasmine: [to Jafar] At least some good will come of my being forced to marry. When I am Queen, I will have the power to get rid of *you*.

Sultan: Well, now. That’s nice. All settled then. Now, Jasmine, getting back to this suitor business… Jasmine? Jasmine!

[the Sultan notices that Jasmine is running out of the room, and runs after]

Jafar: If only I had gotten that lamp.

Iago: [mocking Jasmine] “I will have the power to get rid of you.” Grrrr. To think we gotta keep kissin’ up to that chump, and his chump daughter, for the rest of our lives…

Jafar: No, Iago. Only until she finds a chump husband. Then she’ll have us banished. Or… beheaded.

Jafar, Iago: Ewwww.

Iago: Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute! Jafar, what if *you* were the chump husband?

Jafar: What?

Iago: Okay, okay. *You* marry the princess, all right? And-and, uh, you- Then *you* become the sultan!

Jafar: Ah. Marry the shrew. I become sultan. The idea has merit.

Iago: Yes, merit. Yes! And then, we drop papa-in-law and the little woman off a cliff… “Yaaaah! Kersplat!”

Jafar: [laughs] I love the way your foul little mind works.

In the end, guy gets the girl and good triumphs over talking parrots and their crazy masters. I think real life should be the same as Aladdin lived. Find what you want, truly desire. Pay attention to your street smarts, sometimes that’s all you have. Get a genie, or at least a good friend (preferably a funny one). Always keep a magic carpet close at hand. Never, ever, ever, give up.

Łódź: Saxophone Face-Off!

Performing music in the 2nd International Saxophone Competition in Lodz was a learning and listening experience. I was the 7th player of 39 in my age group of performers who had come from as far away as Los Angeles and Tokyo. We arrived with hopes to win concerts and prizes. In the end of course, most people won nothing except a lot of fantastic memories and pianist fees.

Musically, I learned the value of playing with excellence, and how playing perfectly can be more important than playing with heart in a competition. I’m not convinced this is a good lesson, but it is the reality of the system. Also, obligatory repertoire is often poor music designed to see if contestants have the stamina to keep up with the rest in a manner as clear as possible. On the other hand, pieces can be chosen to revive lost repertoire or premiere new music. This is reality. After this competition, I’m convinced there are some pieces which may be better lost to history.

Politically, I learned that staff pianists will almost automatically play better for native contestants than foreigners, American or otherwise. It’s unprofessional, but they have the power simply by the fact that we’re on their territory. Also, the most complete player doesn’t always win, especially when saxophone teachers feud—students can get backhanded by matters out of their control. With that in mind, I still happily leave my congratulations to the final winner Xavier Larsson, the kid really played fantastic! The rest of us will get another chance.

Some people say there are competition musicians and concert musicians. You’re amazed by the competitor, but can never get comfortable and enjoy their musical offering. Leonard Bernstein always said he would rather hear an imperfect performance played with heart than a flawless mechanical interpretation. For my part, I want the best of both worlds: a musician who can play clean and also with fullness of depth. For me, this is the most elusive and rare of musicians and my own personal aim.

In spite of having planned the last six months of my life for this saxophone olympics only to have made a quick exit in the first round, I’m reflecting on the best. I met fantastic people, lived like a crazy man, made my personality loud, enjoyed every moment, and left no stone unturned. Travelling to such a contest always leaves room for risk. No matter the result, you must choose to be content with yourself as a musician and person. The very act of trying is a musical upgrade on your abilities. When it’s time, people will start to notice.

Tonight, I close with the words of American comedian and actor Kyle Cease speaking in regards to risk and reward in life. His words, of course, extend way beyond a saxophone competition to life in the normal world. I humbly offer them with the wish that you find the ideas as meaningful as I have.

Seriously, if you want anything, all you have to do is show up. Do what you do, and it will happen. Stop trying to get it. That is cutting corners. That gets in the way. Just do your thing. You keep doing what you do, and you can have anything. Only work on what you can do, and let go. Enjoy doing it in that moment. Stop monitoring while you are doing. Results will show up when its time. Also, the results will be bigger than you can imagine, which is why you should stop deciding how it will go. Want the ultimate career? Become the best in that field. People will notice. Want the ultimate life? Allow. Stop thinking you are in lack without that thing or person. Just create. Don’t know how? Good. Just start. It will answer itself. Just start. That’s it.

16 Philosophers-A Synopsis

The following list is written in no particular order. Consider it a discussion piece for your next coffee break.

Immanuel Kant ~ Focus: Achieving the “Kingdom of Ends” through individuality autonomy and morality. The “Kingdom of Ends” is achieved rationally and voluntarily. This process is inevitable and universal. The “K o E” makes a distinction between sin and crime, and is a republic based on a social contract. The “K o E” must be internationalized.

Jeremy Bentham ~ Focus: Forming a government which maximizes the greatest good of the number of people (UTILITARISM). Utilitarian government is formed rationally and voluntarily, and it is not coercive.

James Mill ~ Focus: Improving Bentham’s ideal government through separation of powers, and greater responsiveness to the people. Power should not be absorbed by any one entity. Calls for greater accountability of elected officials, and more involvement of middle class.

Karl Marx ~ Focus: Achieving the fulfillment of man by meeting his economic needs, which in turn meets all other needs of man. Society must remove the exploitation that the “have-nots” experience.

Friedrich Nietzche ~ Focus: The realization of the “Superman”, who made his own laws, and the abandonment of prevailing political structures, which, thanks to Christianity, protected the weak. Equality, democracy, and socialism should be banned, because it protects the weak. The survival principal is nevertheless supreme; Christianity, and the society it has formed will soon die, and the Superman will emerge. Nihilism and political introversion must be embraced until society falls.

Plato ~ Serving the state obtains the proper means of achieving justice both on a personal level and on the level of society.

Aristotle ~ Believing in what worked best in reality, not ideal circumstances, Aristotle asserts that an aristocracy would be the best regime.

Cicero ~ Believes Mixed government is best, taking from all three types – aristocracy, monarchy, polity (people-led), however, mostly aristocracy. And religion is just a tool of the state.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau ~ Says we need to achieve a civil society based upon the general will. There can be no separation of powers for general will to succeed. The government should have the power to enforce general will.

Niccoló Machiavelli ~ Rule by might to achieve positive results. The state must control the church. (precursor of “Superman” ideal)

Francis Bacon ~ Use of science to achieve the ideal society (as in Utopia). This will create peace at home. However, war abroad also is advocated because it furthers science. Religion is a function of the utopian state.

Thomas Hobbes ~ Use of science to achieve the best commonwealth. Believes that need for survival vs. needs of evil passions is what needs to be determined. The answer is to create a social contract by willful consent of the people, or by force if necessary. Church is controlled by state.

René Descartes ~ One can achieve the “good life” by being generous through controlling their passions. Society should be set up so nations can communicate scientific information for the advancement of all – no matter what form of government it might take. Had a distaste for the church.

Baruch Spinoza ~ The sovereign determines what is in the general interest of society, making the sovereign the absolute. However, democracy must be permitted to allow for diversity. He never explains how the sovereign and democracy are reconciled to each other. Religion is a tool of the state.

David Hume ~ People have the right to overthrow an evil government. He argues against pure monarchies, argues for free government which is mixed. (Much like England today!!) Church and State must be fused together.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel ~ All members of the community are linked together through the state. This is called “Universality”. (Sounds something like socialism or communism.) The State is the source of art, religion, and philosophy. Yet, society must come to a point where it recognizes the freedom of each individual… only to draw them closer to the state.

Statement of Faith

The room was dimly lit with an orange-carpet-candle ambiance. We were all sitting together mostly cross-legged on the floor, 30 strangers in silence meditating on the moment around us. It was a cool Parisian evening so there was that beauty to consider—the shadows cast by the setting sun on the twisted branches discreetly were overtaking the evening along with a wispy incoming fog. There was the upcoming dinner, which, although I could not readily smell it, the mere thought of a freshly cooked meal was enough to make any 20-something bachelor salivate. Finally, and most importantly, there was the focus of our meeting in the front of the room.  A photographic life-size cutout of Sri Ramakrishna dominated our immediate view. He was covered in an orange veiling and bathed in warm flourescent light. Roses and flowers of many kinds filled the front area, and to his left and right were photographs of the two great prophets of Sri Ramakrishna, lastly, covered by a permeating incense that filled the room. We were in a sacred place.

It’s amazing the things your mind considers when confronted by such an experience because the eventual result seems to lead to thinking about nothing. But after a while, I understood that was the objective, relaxing, but in a concious way. In that process, I realized how quickly my mind was wired. Move, move, move, and stop moving so I can rest to move some more. In my estimation, most people in the Western world could benefit greatly from this fundamental tenet of Hinduism: plan time to stop. Sometimes Christians do this too; the Gospels teach Jesus would often climb the surrounding hills early in the morning to pray.

These days, it is easier then ever to be skeptical and even cynical towards religion. Magic brooms, blood and body, sacred fires, and holy stones all lend an aura of mystique and concealed explanation to the mysterious and unexplainable. Some of the elaborate things I saw done in that beautiful sacred orange room had absolutely no meaning to me. Special bells were rang without apparent reason midsong, food was offered to jaya Sri Ramakrishna as blessing to his name, holy water was sprinkled on the faces of fervent believers. I think of growing up in the Christian church with all of our traditions, often equally ritualistic. We ceremonially dunk people in pools of water, offer candles to patron saints, passionately raise our hands, and sometimes speak in invented languages if we’re of a particular standpoint. All of this to an invented god extrapolated from a favored culture and passed down from one generation to the next hermetically sealed inside of a holy book, ultimately set aside from the forum of question and debate. I find it all quite ridiculous.

Playing a devil’s advocate here is too easy, however. What doctrine of the atheistic worldview guides me to live with a bent towards loving my neighbor, much less just living in peace with him/her? We can talk about the selfish gene and egotistic altruism, but at the end of the day I feel as if I’m left scheming and calculating on those around me to get the next leg up. Or imagine how it must sound to console a loved one saying, “Don’t worry, your mother isn’t in a better place, she just doesn’t exist anymore?” Atheism may provide a real solution to the relentless dogma of religion, but it does not provide a poignant framework for living through the messy elements of life, the poverty, the abuse, the depression, the sickness, all the unwanted negatives that humanity never seems to escape. In liberating us from god, atheism leaves us with his opposite—nothing.

At any rate, after 45 minutes of unmoving silence I simply got bored of observing everyone in that incredibly royal orange room and started looking inside myself. Nothing else was going on anyway. I found my hopes, a few of my dreams, my disappointments and mistakes, all the same stuff everyone else has more or less. There was anger and laughter living side by side, memories and ideas, projects and passions. There was life. That Parisian weekend I learned that faith is fluid. It’s always developing, wrapped up in the people around us and packaged in places we usually aren’t looking. Faith and blessings are not in a building or a priest or sacred flowers or a cross. They are in the actions you take when you turn to a brother and say, “I believe in you,” or when you face an enemy and respond with forgiveness. Those kinds of actions take more faith than believing in a cultural deity ever will.

—Many thanks to Salvator Jean Erb for providing me with my peculiarly touching orange room experience at the Hindu ashram in Paris last month.

Fallacy Assumed

The French philosopher Levinas stated that an epiphany brings a disclosure from a deity to the common man. Others may say that it provides a grand revelation giving the individual an additional outlook on life. Whatever the case may be, it never leaves the individual static. Epiphanies do not seem to come expectedly, they are difficult to plan, and they usually leave individuals feeling somewhat humbled. The particular experience I have in mind caught me in a rude sort of way—quite recently, actually. I was going through my daily routine, and I had just finished an hour or two of practicing saxophone in Timko-Barton. As I rushed through the main hall of the building to catch my next class, I saw a couple. They were standing there holding each other and the guy had a very serious look on his face, as if his whole future as a man was teetering on the forefront of his mind, about to spill out of all over the floor in one giant sentimental puddle. Now, many couples attend ORU. Many couples meet at ORU. Most significantly, many couples marry after meeting at ORU. I find nothing inherently wrong with this fact. I am sure marriage is a wonderful thing and I myself would like to be married someday. However, I have heard too many times about the success rates of students who blissfully meet at Oral Roberts Univ., haphazardly fall in love, and impetuously support the careers of aspiring divorce lawyers around the world. So when I saw this impervious island couple standing there, (it was obvious at the time that they were dealing with something) my thoughts ran something in the line of “go away PDA” and “get real.” Their sentimental soppiness was thoroughly irritating. Nevertheless, I continued on my way, trying not to smirk as best as I could. As soon as I got out the door, the epiphany hit me like a jolt of morphine flowing to my mind. Thoughts like, “why do you think that you know so much more about love than them,” and “do you even have a clue what they are going through,” recall especially strongly from that cold Tulsa morning. The more I thought about the couple, the more certain I became, one could feel it radiating it from them like some sort of proud and private aura they held up together: trust—ever elusive, yet priceless in light of so many distractions in this busy world. Earn it, embody it, esteem it.

Why School is Bad for You

There we were sitting in the conference room. My ivy league director sat at the right, tall and thin, dressed in pressed khakis with a Tar Heel blue dress shirt. No tie. With a white mustache, untucked collared shirt and khaki shorts along with his trademark pulled-up-to-the-knees black baseball socks sat a tenured and scholarly professor at the left, among other educators. We were the search committee in charge of a large, hulking mass in the middle of the table, a box full of 35 resumés sent from people all over the country with a singular objective: to win the University of Missouri Director of Jazz Studies position.

Of course, we started by discussing. What is our ideal candidate? Will they have academic teaching experience? Will they have a real-world background? Will they compose for the big band?

Finally, we decided we were open to many options save one strong preference: they needed to have a doctorate in music. So we started sorting resumés. Who had sent us all the requested materials, the video, the press kit, the cover letter? Did someone send us an album as well? We sorted and prodded, picked and chose, and hummed and hawed. It was a long process with multiple levels of analysis and lots of red tape, naturally. I learned that people often look completely different on paper than they do in action. However, the thing that will stay with me the rest of my life happened at the very first meeting.

The initial sort was underway and we had the doctoral and non-doctoral candidates organized. There were still many eligible applicants, so we got picky. Anyone that was young and had a doctorate straight from their master’s straight from their bachelor’s was immediately billed as “too green.” They got the ax, and that day I realized that even in academia people must have some credentials, some street smarts, some sort of recognition that exists outside of the university setting.

Going to college is a privilege, there are billions of people who will never have the opportunity. It is a place where you can have the freedom to make mistakes and learn without grave repercussions. You will find insulation and support from a community of people that want you to succeed. The beauty of it all lies in the fact that going to school is never enough. It is simply the beginning.

There is one big problem with educational culture today: it breeds academicians who do not assume responsibility for their own learning.

I argue that the moment someone begins to get old is the moment they stop learning. You may have wrinkles and big ears, but if you maintain curiosity in life, you will not fade. The university educational system castrates this learning process by spoon-feeding students data and information, facts to memorize, tests to pass. The end result? We have a sterile regurgitation of compelling facts disconnected from useful application. Students need more projects, hands-on work, and presentations if they are truly going to learn. Make them teach the classes. This is why school is bad for you, yes you. It perpetuates learning for the sake of a bastion of intellect rather than the purpose of applicable intelligence. It manufactures students hypnotized by their teachers, taking their position as gospel when in fact many solutions may exist! Most dangerously, it puts your mind on auto-pilot to expect others to teach you how to think.

In 2007, my humanities professor at Oral Roberts University, Jayson Larremore, gave us an assignment to watch the Al Gore documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” We watched the ice core samples from Antarctica and the immaculate computer-generated graphs. I was convinced global warming was a big problem. Even so, we still had to write a paper on what we thought of the movie. Did we agree or disagree? Did we find fallacies? What did we think and why? This was the first time in my life that someone concretely demonstrated to me the excercise of critical thinking. Once I began examining the presentation and the evidence, the answer I was so convinced of became less clear. I owe Prof. Larremore a great debt, not because he taught me about global warming, but because he helped to me think for myself. It was by far the most valuable lesson I got out of ORU in my four years there.

A good way to learn is to ask questions. At the moment, the question is, “why are you going to school?” If it is because everyone else is, or you want a good degree, or your parents insist, consider the impact your position may have down the road. Is it worth the debt? Is it worth the tradeoff of leaving the real-world experience? How will you use this education to get ahead?

When I was working on my master’s degree, I relied heavily on my music teachers to tell me if I was playing out of tune, if my style was bad, and if my technique was sloppy. I listened to them because they were my teachers. It was my job to gain from their insights so I listened to them intently. In fact, I listened so intently that I forgot to take ownership of my own two musical ears. I just figured if I tried to do what they said, things would work out. These days, I learn by watching talented musicians on YouTube in half the time. I must listen. Then I experiment. Of course I question. But in the end I apply. I still have teachers and mentors. But they are guides, not gospels. If you still haven’t decided what you’re going to do with that phat education you’re chasing, don’t waste the time sitting in a classroom. Hit the streets. Take on the real world. Read your own books. You really will learn more, faster, about what you want out of life.