Thursday, January 27, 2011


In some spiritual traditions that evolved in a time when technology had not yet overcome nature to the extent it has today, winter is considered a time of hibernation, of rest.  Not literally sleeping for months, but allowing oneself a time of rest spiritually, emotionally, psychologically.  Although I understand the value in that, I don't like the concept personally.  I don't like stopping and resting.  I have it in my head that I must always be accomplishing something, moving forward, having some result to point to at the end of each day.  What this translates to, really, is that I believe I have to justify my existence by external results, I have to prove my worth as a human being each day anew.  Those words even look exhausting when I look at them, and on top of that, they don't mesh with my worldview.

Why would a person who believes that human beings have innate value simply because they are human beings demand of himself a constant stream of evidence that he is valuable?  I'm sure somewhere back in my childhood there was some lesson learned that led to that conclusion, but the point now is that I realize how ludicrous and unachievable that demand is.  Yet on the other side of that demand, I am still resistant to the idea of hibernation.  What if I get into rest mode and never get back into growth mode?  I don't want to be lazy.  I don't want to be worthless... a ha... so we're not really on the other side of that demand.  It can be a challenge to change what one thinks about oneself.

Which is why I am grateful for the move and the transition away from the built-in demands I had established in my previous routine.  For one thing, living just a few hours north of where I was, it feels more like winter.  For another thing, I was emotionally and psychologically worn out by the preparation for and execution of the move.  I find it easier to rest when I am actually tired.  So, this idea of hibernation is starting to make sense to me.  I don't need to prove anything or accomplish anything right now.  I'm not going to lose my place, and I'm not going to stop being creative and intelligent just because I take a little time off from my demands.  Although I don't really know this to be true, I have a suspicion that I will jump back into creating something meaningful when "winter" cycles into spring.

I'm still fulfilling a couple of accompanying contracts.  I'm still getting the new home in order.  I'm still interacting with people.  But for now, I am letting the winter coax me into some emotional and psychological down time, free of my typical demands.  The interesting thing is that resting from my demands about what I do external to myself opens space for a different kind of growth.  Creating evidence that is visible to me and other people about my value is a bit of a drain.  During a time of rest, there is still activity inside of my own psyche, connections being drawn, ideas being incubated... the kind of inner work that may actually lead to an easier manifestation of creativity and forward motion when the time is right.   

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Adventures in Beaurocracy

There isn't much need to carry cash anymore.  Or checks for that matter.  Everything is payable by plastic, or else it's gone completely electronic.  All of the vendors that are providing some utility or service for our home encourage automatic payments, taken right from a bank account without me even lifting a finger.  Of course, I still have to remember that money is being virtually vacuumed out of my account, but I certainly don't have to write a check or hand over any paper bills to anyone.  In fact, the only legitimate business I have seen in recent history that required payment by cash was a parking garage during a special event when the fees were different than usual.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that renewing a driver's license in the state of Texas required payment by cash or check.  The last time I renewed my license, I did so online.  It was quick and convenient, and I used a debit card.  Imaginary money was magically transferred from my electronic account to the Department of Public Safety's account without anyone needing to write a check or count any dead presidents.  This time around, however, they required that I appear in person to fill out a little form, have my vision tested, and get an updated photo.  I walked in to the driver's license facility to see the expected throng of waiting people, sitting in chairs or slowly queuing through lines.  I assumed they were queuing, at least.  They weren't actually moving, but the impression was that infinitesimal forward motion was indeed taking place.

I went first to the information desk, since a large sign on the door instructed me to do so.  It was right next to a large sign that admonished against bringing food or drink into the building.  Nearby were several signs advertising the convenience of renewing one's license online and some other signs that got lost in the overwhelming visual chaos of messages.  The kind lady at the information desk told me I needed to fill out a short form and wait in one of the lines.  Easy enough. 

"Do I need anything else?" I inquired.

"Just your old license," she replied.


So, I filled out the form and stood in the line.  It moved.  Slowly.  I watched people, generally calm, perhaps a bit bored, waiting in their respective places in their respective lines, and before long I was next.  I had my form, I had my license, I was ready.  A surly older woman who was pushing retirement called me up to her window and asked for the form and my license and $25. 

"Is a debit card OK?" I queried innocently, expecting that any form of payment that would work for the Department of Public Safety website would surely work in person.  Not so. 

"Cash or check," she snarled, adding a snippy, "The sign on the front desk says so."

I took my form and license and left, rather disappointed, frustrated, a bit angry, and perhaps a smidge indignant.  I did glance at the front desk on the way out to observe a small square sign that read: Cash or Check Only.  It was posted at waist-height, amid all of the other informative signs about how easy it is to navigate the DPS website.  Part of me wanted to make a scene, to play the victim, to demand to know why a form of payment accepted across many parts of the civilized world for almost any service or product imaginable was not good enough for the Department of Public Safety.  Instead, I decided that there are simply some times when you have to play by someone else's rules.

Determined to renew my license on the day I intended, after lunch I stopped by the bank and made my way back to the DPS office, expecting that the lunch break crowd would have cleared out and that I would quickly slip back it and take care of everything.  Incredibly, the information desk line was nearly out the door and the throng seemed even denser than before.  I slipped past the information desk and to the end of the renewal line, feeling a little conspicuous.  I already had my form and knew where I was supposed to be, but I felt sure I would be "caught" disobeying instructions. 

It wasn't quite this bad.
No one said a word, and I settled into the line behind a trio of older women complaining about how long they had been waiting.  Their complaints became a bit louder until a deputy eventually came over to check on them.  Had these women been thuggish young men, the scene would have seemed even more tense.  The ringleader, a woman in her 70s, explained that she had been waiting for two hours and was too old to be standing around.  She had other things to do, after all.  The young, authoritative deputy sternly explained that this office had to handle licenses and identifications for all of the millions of people in the city, and she would have to be patient.  Wrong answer.  Her quick retort was that they should have a proportionate number of workers for all those millions of people they had to serve, which elicited some agreement from the officer as he departed around a corner.

A second gentleman came by a few minutes later, and he kept the ladies entertained for a while longer.  He explained about the new system that was being installed, and that change takes time.  It would have been nice to get the new system up and running without interrupting the normal business of the office, but sometimes the most ideal solution isn't possible.  They were calling more workers in to assist with things in the meantime, and the line should get moving along more quickly very soon.  Improvements for the long term are worth a little inconvenience in the short term, but he understood her frustration.

He was smooth.  And he was right.  Not long after he promised it, more workers appeared and the line began moving more swiftly.  Before I knew it, I was handing my form and my old license to a calm, polite gentleman, although a part of me had secretly wished for the surly woman who had sent me away earlier in the day.  My vision was tested, picture was taken, I provided my signature and my thumbprints, and while his computer was busy doing something, I said, "I hope the improvements will make your job a little easier."

"Nope," he replied.  "We've gone from three screens to 50" (referring, I assume, to the number of click-through screens on the computer to complete the process).

It seems that change can be a challenge for everyone, and it's not always easy (or preferable) to contain one's frustration.  Improvements can be double-edged.  Improving one part of a process may make other aspects more cumbersome.  And all of the challenges may not even be foreseeable.  I started the afternoon angry at the surly woman, the Department of Public Safety, myself, and the whole situation in general.  By the end of it, I was seeing the tenderness of humanity.  In the surly woman and the polite gentleman who were both facing an exponential complication to their jobs.  In the complaining women who basically wanted to be shown a little respect.  In the deputy who tried to use his authority to maintain peace.  In the gentle bureaucrat who successfully conveyed information with compassion.  In myself for missing a vital piece of information and doing what was necessary to accomplish what I set out to do.

I almost felt ashamed paying for my new license in one-dollar bills, but I was thankful that I had talked myself down from the stiff-jawed desire to pay in pennies.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dancing with Reality

I was encouraged to share this recent article I wrote in the newsletter for Envision Coaching Solutions, LLC.  With all of the hectic activity around the move this week, it seems like great timing for it.
Sometimes I have been frustrated when plans go awry, especially when I have spent a great deal of time and energy formulating how things can ideally play out. Unexpected elements can emerge and change things suddenly and radically. There are times when it is tempting to delay action until all the unknown factors come to light. But even though chances for success may be greater with increased information, you might never have all of the information pertinent to a decision.

I wrote a few issues back about "paralysis by analysis". Now I am experiencing the other side of that conundrum, dancing with reality. Without knowing what the future would hold (and without expecting to be able to have such knowledge!), I created a plan for the next several months, and now I am faced with making some pretty big changes to that plan. The reasons for those changes is on the whole very positive: My wife is taking a job doing something at which she excels in a field she absolutely loves. There is some payoff for me in that as well. But it still means making changes to some pretty exciting plans.

Rather than see the situation as a loss, though, I am able to see how I can still be creatively engaging my passions for one simple reason. I knew from the start that there was more than one way to get the outcome I most want in my life. Had I believed that the first possibility I determined was the only way, this would be a very frustrating time indeed. Some people call that single-mindedness attachment to a particular result.

Attachment is not your friend. Determination is valuable to a point, and commitment and resolve and all of those admirable qualities that keep us focused on a goal. But danger arises when we focus on that goal to the exclusion of all other possibilities or when we ignore reality. Every plan of action is really just a proposal, a hypothesis to be tested. You test it by taking action, with full commitment and resolve and determination toward your goal. Then you get feedback, from other people, from circumstances, from your own gut.

The key is to take that feedback and adjust your plan accordingly. You can still focus on the same goal, but you may have to take a different route than you were expecting. It may even be a better route than you had considered. If you are unwilling to alter your plan, you are essentially saying that you know everything that you could possibly need to know to get where you want to go. No one can honestly say that. That is at the very heart of attachment. You must be willing to be wrong in order to create anything of value. That doesn't mean that you will be wrong, but a person who is willing to consider the possibility that he doesn't have every possible piece of useful information will be much more receptive to feedback than someone who can't bear to be wrong.

So, determine your goal, make your plan, take full throttle action on your plan, and then pay attention to what happens next. Whatever feedback you receive is incredibly valuable, and what you do with it is the key to having a plan that will truly carry you where you want to go.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Sacredness of It All

I had the opportunity to view the movie Howl, referring to Allen Ginsberg's poem of the same name.  The film is really three themes woven into one tapestry: the story of the obscenity trial focused on the publication of the poem, biographical information about Ginsberg (taken mostly from an interview with the poet) which serves to elucidate much of the personal references in the poem, and the poem itself, set to animation inspired by Illuminated Poems, a collaboration between Ginsberg and Eric Drooker.  It had been some time since I had read or heard the poem Howl, but what struck me once again was the final section of the poem, which the author actually called Footnote to Howl. 

One word dominates Footnote, and that word is 'Holy'.  Perhaps Ginsberg was being a bit absurd or provocative in the specific things he dubbed 'holy', but the overall theme that comes across to me is that everything is sacred and nothing is excluded from having innate worth.  It is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.  Certainly, different things have different value, and different people will value some things more than other things.  Beyond personal preference, though, beyond opinions and market analysis, I feel a sense of grounded calmness when it sinks in that everything in nature, and every person, and everything that every person creates, has an intrinsic quality of holiness.

My bachelor's degree was specifically focused on "sacred music".  As a pianist, I spent a great deal of time practicing, just like any other classically trained musician, but I also spent concentrated time studying "the use of music in sacred settings" and "music intended for worship, specifically in a Christian tradition."  It is remarkable that it was never driven home to me how sacred all music is.  That it is music is enough.  I suppose more accurately, that it is is enough for it to be sacred on some level.

On my senior piano recital, I programmed a piece by John Cage called Water Music.  There was some piano playing involved, but it also included the sounds of water being poured into containers of varying sizes, and a radio -- sometimes on an actual station, sometimes sitting on the static between stations.  At one moment, the only sound was that of the radio, which was playing some kind of instrumental electronic dance tune as we all sat and listened within the context of this unique performance of Cage's piece.  Then, a voice in the midst of the electronic sounds came across the radio and into our focused listening in that recital hall.  It said, "Do it ... Do it doggie style."

And then the piece continued with me dealing cards into the piano or whatever part of the piece came next, but that moment was profound.  There was laughter and perhaps embarrassment, our high brow artistic expectations challenged by something that bordered on vulgar, which was perhaps perfectly in line with what Cage would have relished.  Yet holy.  On some level, sacred.  I didn't necessarily think so at the time.  Nor did one of my professors, who thought that it made something of a mockery of the college recital environment.  My perspective has evolved since that time.

Over the past year, I have spent innumerable hours pondering what music I should be writing.  What will get played?  What will excite a performer?  What will fit what a film producer or advertiser is looking for?  What will compel people to listen?  As if the approval of a certain number of listeners was actually the goal.  One of the most inspiring aspects of our upcoming relocation is that it gives my mind a bit of a reset.  I really want to write music that is inspiring to me, music that expresses something compelling to me, music that is personally satisfying.  In the act of creating, I am engaging in divine work in a very human way.  And whatever I create will be worth my creating.  On some level, sacred.  Intrinsically holy.  Like you and me.