Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Life shapers

We often think of those who have shaped our lives in important ways only after they are gone. It’s not intentional – we just take for granted that those who influenced us will always be there. As I age, more and more of the significant people with whom I’ve crossed paths in personal and professional ventures are dying. I recently discovered one of my life shapers through an encounter sharing musical interests with a new acquaintance.

I met Eileen Cline when I was a sophomore in high school. I had studied with one piano teacher for several years who determined that she had taken me as far as she could. She referred me to a young faculty member at the University of Colorado – Ms. Cline. I’ve always remembered Ms. Cline and her husband (a German language teacher at Boulder High School) but had never attempted to get back in touch. The honest truth was that I hadn’t been a very conscientious piano student so I hadn’t been sure she would even remember me. My hormones raging and the social environment of Boulder in the 1960s swirling around me, I just couldn’t focus. Ms. Cline urged me to work more on piano technique – scales, arpeggios, and theory. Because I had done well enough from my previous instruction to be able to perform in public, I didn’t have the patience and couldn’t muster the discipline to really get serious with Ms. Cline.

I was reintroduced to Ms. Cline when my musical acquaintance handed me an article as I was leaving his home after a two-hour conversation. The article was ”Anyone can win” (American Music Teacher, Vol. 40, No. 1, August/September, 1990). In complete astonishment, I looked at Eileen Cline’s name and said to my colleague, “This may seem crazy but Ms. Cline was my piano teacher when I was in high school.” The article is about the piano competitions that are held around the world that are responsible for identifying the most gifted young pianists. The essence she discovered through her research is that, although the competitions can be very subjective and political, they are helpful in honing young artists’ performance capability. She advised that one’s teacher, the institution where you study, technique, repertoire, and public performance experience are all important. But one of the things that distinguishes an artist who really connects with her/his listeners is a sense of personal vision, and that “a successful career cannot likely be built without it.” One of the most profound questions she raised was how many great piano students are actually destroyed by the competitions rather than built up and encouraged by them. She said, “Some of the most promising artists drop out of the field – because their most important gifts also make them have a distaste for the personal warfare involved in commercial success.”

Ms. Cline’s research and teaching influenced me in profound ways, as I’m sure it has for many others. Maybe had I been a bit more focused… I don’t know. Ultimately, she wrote, that an artist is one who expresses an insightful individuality “combined with a compelling conviction that can move the listener where he or she could not otherwise go.” I intend to reconnect with Ms. Cline in the near future (she is now 80 and lives near Boulder, Colorado). My intent is just to say that, regardless of my lack of seriousness, I’ve maintained my interest in music. In fact, I’ve come back to my musical roots in retirement and have been deeply fulfilled by the rediscovery of music as a sustaining element of daily life. I've also returned to limited piano performance, having played plenary session opening music for the November 2016 conference of the International Leadership Association and in May 2017 I will be an "atelier" performer/presenter for the 4th Transatlantic Dialogue in Luxembourg in May 2017. Ms. Cline was, and is, a delightful, intelligent, and affirming human being. She made a very real difference in my life at a time filled with turmoil.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Wear - Reclaiming Hope

Shadi Hamad, a colleague I met in Qatar and follow on Twitter (@shadihamid), highly recommended Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope (2017). Shadi offers insights that many other authors miss so I thought Reclaiming Hope could be a good read. I was not disappointed and other reviewers have already endorsed it as well. Although Wear’s overall assessment of the Obama years, seen through the eyes of a deeply committed Christian working in the White House’s faith-based initiatives, was peppered with disappointment, it nevertheless credited Obama with a number of important stands that served to embrace and draw Christian leaders and believers closer to the Democratic party than they had been for many years.

On the day the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was launched by President Obama he said, “Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times.” (9% into digital text) Wear worked for this office for 40 months following a stint as a volunteer campaigning for Obama during his run for his first term. Wear characterized his coming of age “during a time when the Religious Right had great influence and many Christians were coming to accept that some of the tactics of that movement actually caused damage to the witness of the American church.” (14% into digital text) The hope was that the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office would create constructive ways for the Democratic Party to embrace this influential segment of the electorate by linking evangelicals to a commitment to social justice and the common good of all citizens. This would be a reawakening of the ideal that “I am my brother’s/sister’s keeper” that is so central to most religious traditions.

Zealousness can sometimes be expressed by those who have deep convictions. Wear acknowledged the need to learn how to not “kill the rabbit,” an image borrowed from Of Mice and Men used by one of Wear’s mentors to help him learn to keep his passions in check. The point being that when we love something, we should not hold it so tightly that we risk killing it. Although Wear does not portray Obama’s advocacy for faith-based work as tightly held, some of the ambivalence he describes may have indicated this to be the case. Regardless of the ambivalence, Obama’s resolve to engage faith-based groups was unshakeable and focused on four priorities; strengthening the role of community organizations, reducing unintended pregnancies and supporting maternal and child health, promoting responsible fatherhood, and promoting interfaith dialogue and cooperation. In this reviewer’s opinion, it was perhaps Obama’s clear, balanced, and unifying message and its potential to engage those of strong faith that posed the greatest threat for the Republican right, a threat that may have driven some of them to create the preposterous claims of Obama being a Muslim and not a real American-born citizen.

Learning how to disagree without being disagreeable is a phrase that Obama used many times and it was certainly a mantra to the faith-based initiatives. Only a year into Obama’s Presidency, two evangelical leaders, Os Guinness and Mark DeMoss, sought the commitment of every member of Congress to greater civility, only to fail due to the perception of some that civility was no more than unilateral disarmament. Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act, the resulting conservative uprising against it, and the loss of the majority in the House of Representatives would put an end to any and all willingness to engage in civil discourse on shared concerns. Even President Obama’s vast capacity for gracious humor, even temper, and unapologetic proclamation of his Christian faith could not bridge the widening gap between the Democratic Party and evangelical Christians. Indeed, Wear spent five chapters explaining how pivotal conflicts and “the structural realities of our media and political institutions, and the strategies of politicians and strategist conspired to drive polarization to the truly corrosive levels we see today.” (39% into digital text) The conflicts include; abortion, the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s shifting views on LGBTQ rights/protections, and ultimately the lack of White House staff understanding the Christian right.

Wear closed by exploring whether or not there was any justification for hope in U.S.A. politics or, more importantly, in human progress. Wear cited Coates (author of Between the World and Me, 2015) and the struggle for hope he addressed. Coates’ critics focused on the lack of hope in his book yet he himself responded that, “a writer wedded to ‘hope’ is ultimately divorced from ‘truth.’” The hard truth is that the U.S.A. is in a very difficult time, one characterized by extreme isolation and antagonism among many of its politicians and citizens. However, Wear proposed that faithful hope is still possible, primarily because realistic faith accepts the reality of man’s sinful nature and God’s constant work to reunite with us in a reconciling life. Quoting Dr. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King was pastor, Wear proposed, “’It takes a tough mind and a tender heart to hold on to hope.’ But hold on we must. Hope is our tether to reality, and our bulwark against despair.” (66% into digital text) Advocating for readers to be active, volunteer, invest their talent and resources, and remain humble in all that they do, Wear closed by identifying the two biggest issues he believes people of faith must address in the coming years – racial justice/reconciliation and religious freedom. Now it is up to people of faith to find a way to bridge the faith chasm that most likely gave the White House to an individual who least represents conservative Christian values in the modern day, Donald J. Trump.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Coates - Between the World and Me

Seeking to understand the political and social dynamics we are experiencing in the U.S.A., U.K. and elsewhere in the world led me to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me (2015). This is an elegantly written book by an African American author who has gained wide recognition for his deep descriptions of the influence of race in America. I needed the personal approach Coates took, written in the form of a letter to his son, primarily because the white privilege that I enjoy makes it nearly impossible to have a deep and full understanding of what Coates describes.

Coates started by saying that race is the child of racism instead of the other way around. In essence, the need to name others as different and thereby characterize or discriminate was the starting place for what American society has come to understand as race. This compulsion to define created ‘a Dream’ that orders the way we interact across groups, creating expectations both within and between groups. “The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” (33% through digital text)

Raised in Baltimore, discovering the rich diversity within African and African American culture at Howard University (The Mecca), and exploring the metropolises of Chicago and New York, Coates concluded that he was part of a society “that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you (his son) with the club of criminal justice.” In his view, this reflected either a failure to deliver on good intentions or was evidence of the sinister intent that allowed violence in schools, in communities, and in gangs (11% through digital text).

Ultimately, Prince Jones, the privileged son of a female physician and admired by Coates during his years at Howard University, brought Coates to understand the deep vulnerability of his own son. Followed by a police officer across several jurisdictions with no justifiable provocation, Prince was shot to death when he stepped out of his car at a friend’s home; the investigation of the shooting cast more questions on Prince’s character than on the police officer’s judgment. The necessity for a Black father’s discipline of his son was thus underscored in devastating ways - either discipline into submission or sacrifice to the streets and law enforcement officials. The Dream could seemingly only be achieved by telling “black boys and girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’” (59% through digital text)

A question Coates repeatedly raised was “How can we escape the Dream that confines, limits, and imposes a certain lifestyle seemingly without option to fashion a life that is unique to ourselves?” Eventually Coates began to see argument and disagreement, and the ultimate discomfort they bring, as providing light to the shadowed path of personal fulfillment. Only by questioning could he pursue a unique and freeing way of being in the world. This questioning included rejecting a Dream of needing to be, talk and think as if he was white.

Coates’ book is not easy reading. Some of the images and dynamics he describes are unfamiliar or disturbing. More importantly, embracing the impact of what racism has caused hurts, it hurts because we are all complicit in what people of color experience in America. With imperfect understanding, my empathy has improved, a path toward the changes that must eventually come if we are to live in a more just and compassionate world.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hochschild - Strangers in their own land

One of the greatest paradoxes of the 2016 U.S.A. Presidential election was why so many people seemingly voted against their apparent self-interest. This is the subject of Arlie R. Hochshild’s book, Strangers in their own land (2016). The book is based on a sociological study of the Bayous of Louisiana, an area that is at the bottom of all the measures of a good life – educational attainment, environmental degradation, and life expectancy – yet the vast majority of the people in this area actively identify with the Tea Party.

Hochschild describes her journey as an attempt to scale the empathy wall, “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” (2% through digital text) Many of those Hochschild met in the Bayou Courne region of Louisiana were poor, although most expressed that they didn’t see themselves that way. They were of various cultural backgrounds including Cajun, Black, White and other.

Bayou Courne residents used to embrace the platform of the Democratic Party but now they are decidedly more Republican or, at minimum, independent and leaning to the right. The cause for the party affiliation shift – a sense of losing opportunity, being left out of prosperity, and having others less deserving than them cut in line ahead of them to receive benefits from the government. In addition, the Great Recession of 2008, the presidency of Barack Obama, and Fox News fanned the exodus with a healthy tailwind from those who advocate the philosophy of “you’re the only one who can save yourself” based on Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy.

Hochschild reported that Bayou Courne and other areas such as Lake Charles and Baton Rouge are blighted by years of neglect and exploitation at the hands of corporations. She documented Pittsburgh Plate Glass dumping raw chemicals and oil companies releasing sludge into natural waterways. More recently, sinkholes have swallowed up entire neighborhoods after underground aquifers and caves were pierced by fracking. The residents of these blighted areas resist governmental controls and inspections although many grieve the loss of former pleasures of restive vistas and leisure fishing. Those who live in the most devastated areas have no option to leave polluted rivers and lakes because home value losses have prohibited sale. With all this evidence of abuse by corporations, the Louisiana state government continues to give away tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks to draw corporations back to drill for more oil or frack for natural gas and citizens welcome the job opportunities the corporations will restore.

What the citizens of Bayou Courne grieve is not the sacrifice of clean air/water but the unfairness of government taking tax revenues away from deserving citizens and redistributing them to what they perceive to be underserving leeches on the public dole. This view was widely evident even in the face of evidence that “Voters in the twenty-two states that voted Republican in the five presidential elections between 1992 and 2008 – and who generally call for less government regulation of business – lived in more polluted environments.” (19% through digital text) Regardless of the economic, social, and political devastation Bayou Courne endures, its residents are resilient – pursuing their way of life and often drawing strength from religious beliefs that caused them to thank God for the strength to persist rather than pray for the fortitude to stand up against those who abuse them.

Hochschild offered a ‘deep story’ to capture the sentiment of those she interviewed which was readily accepted when she shared it with them. The story, similar in many ways to narratives proposed by Haidt in The Righteous Mind, started with the idea that the American Dream is one that is in progress for all, requiring each individual/family to wait in line, work hard, and be patient. The violation of this story is what those in Bayou Courne resented most – line cutters who gained unfair advantage in striving for the American Dream, a dream ever-more crowded and competitive due to a globalizing world that is leaving so many behind. The citizens of Bayou Courne had lost the ability to see themselves in the American Dream and they had lost purpose and honor in their striving.

Why would citizens of this ‘deep story’ reject a political agenda calling for governmental assistance? Why would they place their hope in the Tea Party and political figures of vastly different socio-economic means? Because to identify ‘up’ grants pride within oneself for being optimistic, hopeful, and not giving up on the dream that had been part of your upbringing, your church, and the very identity from which you derived worth.

And along came an unorthodox personality (part entertainer, part businessman, part politician) who redefined the run for the presidency as no longer Democrat versus Republican but instead anti-establishment versus establishment. And Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the U.S.A. on January 20, 2017.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Haidt - The Righteous Mind

I’ve continued to search for books that contribute to understanding the contemporary social and political dynamics that have emerged in the politics of the U.S., U.K., and other countries. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) offered particularly helpful insight for those who espouse a more liberal worldview. In fact, one of major points Haidt made was that conservatives are generally more aware of liberal’s views than liberal of conservatives, resulting in blindness that is debilitating in the current climate.

The U.S. Presidential election of 2016 was shocking to many who believed that, regardless of one’s political perspective, the candidate with the greatest experience (Hillary Clinton) would win in a landslide. At the core of this was that the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) portion of U.S. citizens were talking to themselves and were woefully unaware of how many others were being mobilized by Donald Trump’s candidacy.

One of the most important practical questions to resolve in any social system is the balance between the individual and the group. Most societies tip the priority to the group, resulting in a sociocentric perspective, while a few select societies place the individual at the center, resulting in an individualistic culture. An individualistic focus became more prominent during the Enlightenment period of Western societies. This focus on individualism was accompanied by a rationalistic (reasoning) bias rather than relying on intuitional (emotional/judgment) insight. Haidt characterized this rationalistic bias as delusional and asserted that intuitions come first and strategic reasoning afterward. With intuition as the driver, Haidt described a framework of five initial foundations of morality (p. 125); 1) care/harm, 2) fairness/cheating, 3) loyalty/betrayal, 4) authority/subversion, and 5) sanctity/degradation to which he eventually added another 6) liberty/oppression. His view is that most humans act on their intuition about what is “right” related to these six principles.

Haidt cited a number of research studies and anecdotal evidence that the six foundations of morality are at the core of human inclinations but he also offered evidence that liberal and conservative priorities are somewhat different. For example, liberals tend to place greater value on concerns related to care/harm. In addition, while both liberal and conservatives are concerned about liberty/oppression, liberals express greater concern about harm to vulnerable groups while conservatives are more concerned about the infringement of liberties resulting from government that intervenes too much in their lives. Liberals tend to construct most of their political arguments around the first three foundations while conservatives embrace these three plus add the others (authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression) with relative equal weight across all the foundational moral principles. This is what he asserts as the fatal flaw in the thinking of liberals – they do not recognize, much less affirm, the full range of moral inclinations that are seen as essential to forming and sustaining a righteous society.

Haidt’s perspectives were well documented and his book was organized to continually remind the reader where his argument was headed. While I would not entirely agree with the assertion that conservatives are better informed about liberal causes than vice versa, it is important for both conservatives and liberals to find ways to talk – to seek each other’s perspective, to suspend judgment, and to be open to new understandings. Ultimately, all of us could benefit from striving to create a society where the intuition behind our perspectives is exposed and where this intuitional inclination more explicitly recognizes the moral and ethical practices we observe. Especially at a point in human evolution where we have grown to recognize the need for a common understanding about how we should live in community, it is important to encompass the full range and not just a select number of moral foundations.

Perhaps our evolving communities will have their most powerful influence when “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (p. 270) Religion and politics are important ways to create and regulate a righteous society but in order to be successful in the current divisive stand-off, religion, politics, technology and other connective systems need to open rather than close us to each other as we seek to identify solutions that can satisfy all. Ultimately, we need to become bound together across the full range of principles of an ethical society where “… everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” (p. 74) Likewise, where good behavior, broadly recognized and enacted, is rewarded.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Palmer - Healing the Heart of Democracy

Parker Palmer closes his book Healing the heart of democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit (2011) with a quote from Reinhold Neibuhr that captures the essence of his message:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

Palmer wrote Healing… before the U.S.A. election of 2016; however, the concerns he raised have become even more evident this last year. Palmer’s view is that in order to make the Constitutional assurance of “We the People…” work, we need to speak to those beyond “our own” and we must cease to demonize those who have ideas different than ours. Examples of the struggles Abraham Lincoln faced leading up to and during the Civil War are offered throughout the book, providing contextualization that puts our own times in perspective. The rights of diverse others was a central disagreement of the Civil War and it appears that diversity has again driven a wedge between us.

Hope in our future can be recaptured by recognizing the mutual heartbreak of a government that doesn’t work and of communities divided by class and culture. “When we hold suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them.” (p. 22) The relative stagnation of the U.S. economy is clearly a source of much of the heartbreak that many citizens share. “When material progress falters… people become more jealous of their status relative to others” (p. 64); the jealousy then results in scapegoating others instead of working to problem solving our way to a more prosperous community.

There is no question that we experience tension, discomfort, and distrust with people who are different from us; however, there are benefits to diversity if we are able to hold it in a way that results in creativity, openness to each other, new ideas, and new courses of action. Unfortunately, one of the most significant barriers to our being able to open to each other’s ideas is the individualistic pursuit of wealth and power. Although individualism was one of the things that helped immigrants as they came to North America, it now pushes us away from each other and weakens our sense of shared community. This erosion of community through individualistic pursuit also has the more negative potential of making us vulnerable to despots who exploit our differences. The antidote is that our government was designed to help us embrace differences of opinion and to use the resulting tension to generate an active body politic.

Palmer proposes five habits of the heart that he believes can restore our sense of community and protect our democracy. The first thing is that we should recognize that we’re in this together. The second habit is that we must develop an appreciation for the value of others. The third is that we must cultivate the ability to hold tension in creative ways. Fourth, we must generate personal voice and agency. Finally, we should strengthen our capacity to create community. All five of these habits must be cultivated with chutzpah (knowing we have a voice and using it) and humility (accepting that truth is always partial and we should listen to others). These habits can be expressed in many places but educational institutions and religious organizations are two places where they are most effectively nurtured. In order for education and religious organizations to be useful, they cannot hold our society’s problems at arm’s length but must engage fully and personally to develop the empathy and willingness to act in ways that protect the present and future of our democracy.

Palmer’s optimist views have contributed much food for thought for those of us committed to a creating a better and more equitable world. His views are also realistic and have been documented in communities of hope where healing is underway. His historical and contemporary analyses of these places led him to discern four stages that are key in the process – “deciding to live ‘divided no more,’ forming communities of congruence, going public with a vision, and transforming the system of punishment and reward.” (p. 189)

Monday, November 14, 2016

Goss - Bolero: The Life of Maurice Ravel

My love of Ravels’ compositions goes all the way back to age 10 when I broke my arm and my mother bought a “stereo” (equivalent to what would be today’s boom box or ipod) to entertain me until I could go back to practicing piano. Along with the stereo, one of my first purchases was a recording of Ravel’s famous Bolero; I listened to it until the grooves wore out. Now I play two of Ravel’s most beloved compositions on piano, Pavane pour une Infante defunte and the Adagio Assai from his Piano Concerto in G.

Reading Bolero: The life of Maurice Ravel  (M. Goss, 1940) introduced new insights that now bring deeper meaning and enhanced interpretation to his compositions. Ravel is fascinating as a study in leadership as well, particularly because his kind of leadership was one that often goes unrecognized – simple, convicted, and pursued with little regard for influence. He made music because he had to (“comme unpommier fait ses pommes”) instead of for the purpose of advancing himself or making money.

Ravel’s father was Swiss and his mother from the Basque region of Spain. His unique love of Basque culture led to a career-long fascination with rhythm and dance. This, combined with a tendency to obscure emotion behind a film of artistic restraint, came to be recognized as quintessentially French.

Numerous other composers influenced Ravel yet he remained unique. Chabrier provided inspiration for the Pavane pour une Infante defunte, the first of Ravel’s compositions to be widely embraced. Its delicate and unwavering rhythm depicts a princess dancing the Pavane at court and becoming so obsessed with its beauty that she loses all interest in anything else. His most influential teacher was Faure and contemporaries included the likes of Debussy, Satie, Massenet, Saint-Saens, de Falla, and Stravinsky (one of Ravel’s closest life-long friends). He also interacted with many of the impressionist painters (Verlaine, Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas) of the early 20th century.

Many of Ravel’s compositions drew sharp disapproval from critics and the public but made him a celebrity among his young artist comrades. He composed in many different styles with one period focusing exclusively on ballet and a later period incorporating elements of jazz. After visiting America he reported that “American people have developed a distinct national personality by combining different races into a united whole” which resulted in “two distinct characteristics: underlying pathos… plus a hidden yearning for an ideal which Americans hardly understand.” (62% through digital text)

Ravel composed Bolero only a short time after returning from his concert tour to America. Its pulsating beat never varied when Ravel conducted it in concert and it is this constant forward movement, drawing the listener to an eventual dramatic key modulation and explosive conclusion, that made the piece so intoxicating. Another of Ravel’s last compositions, the Piano Concerto in G, incorporates a similar rhythmic pulse in the middle movement (Adagio Assai) that supports a tender and elegant melody. The pace and persistence of each of these compositions creates a captivating quality much like the short life of this eccentric composer with the Basque heart and restrained French sensibility.