Sunday, May 29, 2011

Poem for Memorial Day

[Initially, I had a rather complex indention scheme for this poem, which does not work well in this particular electronic interface.  I learned a bit about indenting lines in html, still was not pleased with the rendering on the screen, and so made some adjustments and adapted.  In any case, it was a short lesson in recognizing when an ideal may be a bit precious when creativity meets practical reality.]
Memorial (for soldiers known and unknown)
I honor you, O soldier,
who has fought and died with impassioned conviction.
I honor your commitment to a purpose, to an unassailable belief,
whether that belief welled up from within your soul
or manifested through intense indoctrination;
I honor the hard and fast lines of your truth,
even as I vehemently disagree with them.

In honoring you, I do not endorse the military industrial complex,
that hydra god
which can never be memorialized in its undying profits.
I honor your humanity,
your finite strength and infinite fallibility,
I honor your humanity,
your reckless courage and poorly hidden fear,
I honor your humanity,
O soldier who has fought and died.

You fought and died
for that elusive ideal labeled Freedom.
You fought and died
for inalienable rights
which can neither be conferred nor revoked by any human endeavor,
you fought and died
that power should remain in the hands of those
with the loudest voices and the deepest pockets,
you fought and died
that people who are as safe as anyone can possibly be
might believe that they are more secure than anyone can possibly be;
you fought and died
that the unborn might have the right to choose oblivion
over childhoods of poverty and neglect;
you fought and died
that consenting adults
might follow their sexual proclivities with impunity;
you fought and died
that any who prefer to do so
may wish a person Happy Holidays without fear of reprisal;
you fought and died
that the wealthy might entice the desperate
to orgiastic acts of depravity,
filmed and broadcast for the working class on pay-per-view;
you fought and died
with a steadfast devotion to people who never cared to know you,
clutching your military rosary beads, the chain of command.

You fought and died,
and the time of accountability for your actions has ended.
You are exonerated, if such a need exists.
You have served well and fully,
and though deserving of rest, you shall instead be immortalized
in the spittle of screed-spewing politicians,
and on the forked tongues
of those power hungry paragons of talk-radio buffoonery,
who confuse hatred for patriotism
and rhetoric for wisdom.
They offer fruit from a tree of jingoism
cloaked in the black-and-white moral absolutism of religion,
fruit to cure the unashamed nakedness of those who believe
that they are free indeed.
You are the branch from which that fruit is so often plucked.
In becoming a shibboleth for national pride,
however warranted or undeserving,
you have become sterile,
automaton, holy, stylized,

I honor you in your frailty,
for in that human susceptibility we are united.

I honor you in your frailty, O grandfather,
who called himself a soldier of the cross.
You fought in no national war, but your battles were manifold.
You were the serenity of Christ,
You were the joy of Christ,
You sang mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy
in the voice of Christ.
In honoring you,
I do not endorse the conservative evangelical Christian institution,
for which hatred and bigotry are justified
toward infidels and nonbelievers,
which cries out for justice for others and grace for itself.
You were the mind of Buddha and the love of Buddha
and the passivity of Buddha,
You were the delight of Krishna and the passion of Krishna
and the wisdom of Krishna.

Buddha Krishna Christ,
whose lap I sat upon to read;
Buddha Krishna Christ,
who spoke love
when others spoke admonishment;
Buddha Krishna Christ,
who cut down trees with a chainsaw
for his wife to have a better view of the mountains;
Buddha Krishna Christ,
who was walked upon
by those whom he loved;
Buddha Krishna Christ,
who knew that people never listen
and who spoke anyway.

When you were old, you stretched out your hands
and someone else dressed you
and led you where you did not want to go.
Instead of security,
those whom you held dear placed stones about you
and cast you into a river whose surface you had never breached,
a river with many names,
the foremost among them Ignorance and Greed.
You were the sacrificial lamb for the sake of a few.
You did not rise again after three days,
yet your absolution was immutable love.

I honor you, O soldier,
who fought and died in another’s war,
your true dignity arising not from uniform or adornment,
but from human perseverance and conviction.
I honor you, O soldier,
who has fought and died.
We are not united by cause or belief,
but by something much deeper.

--Randolph Partain
May 29, 2011

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Longing to Do Something... Anything

Just this week, we signed the papers to lease our house in Houston.  It's an immense load off of my mind, since it had become frustrating to pay a mortgage on a house we weren't living in.  The place had been on the lease market for just a few weeks, but it was on the sale market since January.  So for the past few months, we have just been waiting, and even though we had a real estate agent, she really didn't give us many suggestions to get the house to sell. Sometimes, I wished for some assignment or recommendation for action, even if it ultimately only served to keep me busy doing something.  Sitting around and waiting with nothing to do felt a bit helpless.

I'm sure there are a lot of people in the same position right now, the housing market being what it is.  Since I'm the kind of person who likes to stay busy, I wanted to know what I could do to improve the chances of the house selling.  What color should I paint the walls?  Should we replace the windows?  What kind of flowers should we plant out front?  Do we need to pressure wash the brick?  Will replacing the carpet make a difference?  Should we stage the house in a particular way?  It ultimately wouldn't have mattered what I was doing exactly, I just wanted to feel like I was doing something to contribute to the house selling.  Maybe one new task every month or something.  Enough for me to have a clear sense of action, plus a little breathing room in between to evaluate if it made a difference.

If it doesn't already exist, it seems to me that there is a great career opportunity for a specialist who crunches the numbers and determines what malleable features are consistent among a high percentage of homes that are bought in a particular geographic area.  The color of the walls, the texture of the carpet, the size of the oven, the type of flowers by the front door.  Sure, a lot of those things can be changed by a new owner, but I know from personal experience that if I decide I can live with something until I have a little extra time and money to fix it, it could be a long time before I have a little extra money and time.  There's a big advantage to having something meet my specifications right out of the gate.

Now, I'm not suggesting that any of the little cosmetic changes I could have made would really have had any impact on whether the house sold or not.  I'm simply saying that a big part of me wanted to have something to do.  I wanted to feel like I was moving toward the goal of selling the house, and sitting back and doing nothing didn't feel like movement at all.  Our real estate agent was trying to save us unnecessary hassle and expense, weighing how much of an impact various factors would have based on a wealth of experience.  I'm grateful for the honest and conscientious feedback about how little control I had in the situation, even though I didn't like it.

Even though I don't consider myself to be a control freak, it still bugs me when I am in a position of just waiting with nothing to do.  Sometimes, though, there really isn't anything meaningful to be done.  Our busyness simply serves the same purpose as blowing on a hot spoonful of food: It doesn't really change the temperature of the food, but it gives us something to do for a moment or two while the food cools off naturally.  If we didn't take that moment of ineffectual activity, we might burn our tongues a lot more often.  I think the trick for me is to honestly recognize the actual value (or lack of value) of my activity and weigh whether that time and effort could be more enjoyably spent doing something else.  I suppose there really is no harm in spending my waiting time in fruitless activity, provided I'm clear that I'm really just keeping myself entertained.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Judgment Is Belief Used as a Weapon

Driving down the freeway, I saw an old van spewing exhaust fumes in a cloud behind it.  My immediate thought was, What a jerk!  (Actually, it was something a bit harsher than "jerk," but that will do.)  Then, I responded back to myself, Why is the driver a jerk exactly?  I drive a hybrid that leaves a much lighter carbon footprint than many vehicles, and although I am pleased by the sense of environmental responsibility, my primary motivation is that I get incredible gas mileage and spend less money on fuel.  I use canvas bags when I go grocery shopping, essentially because it is a very easy habit that I perceive as having a significant effect on the amount of non-biodegradable waste I create without inconveniencing me in the least.  We recycle, which doesn't cost us any more than having our garbage collected and is as easy as throwing something in a different receptacle.  Very low impact on our habits, for a perceived higher impact on the environment, whether or not it actually makes a significant difference in the grand scheme of things.

A depiction of beliefs turned into judgments?
So, when I see this van fogging up the road with exhaust, I label the driver a jerk because he seems unwilling to do his part.  I'm doing my part, so he should at the very least be courteous and conscientious enough not to smog up the road in his wake.  This unknown person became, in my mind, ungrateful, irresponsible, insensitive, unintelligent, and oblivious.  But wait.  What if the driver really is oblivious?  How much of a jerk can a truly oblivious person be?  And while I don't necessarily enjoy the smell, how much confidence do I really have about the actual impact of this vehicle's exhaust?  Aside from my indignation, I don't have a wealth of empirical facts to go on.

On that same trip, I was flipping through radio stations, and I happened to land for a moment on an individual making an outlandish claim based more on a personal victimization theory than on factual evidence.  At the time I didn't associate my own judgment against the van driver with the radio personality's tirade.  Rather, I thought, Why don't people use their brains?  And the dialogue in my own head continued, Maybe they do.

Everyone doesn't see the same things I do, and when they do, they don't always draw the same conclusions I do.  It doesn't have anything to do with right or wrong.  We all come from different circumstances and experiences with different sets of information and beliefs, and so we can't all look through identical lenses.  Although I can't be certain (since I'm not in other people's heads), it's as likely as not that other people do indeed use their brains to their fullest capacity, draw the best conclusions that they can, and choose the courses of action they deem best.  Or some people may simply be oblivious.  How would they even know if they are?  How harshly do I really want to judge someone who literally doesn't know any better?

At the end of the day, I am responsible for my decisions, and I want those decisions to make sense with my knowledge and beliefs.  I can't know what's going on in other people's minds, so it ultimately doesn't make sense for me to assume malice where there may be ignorance or even a thoughtful approach that simply differs from mine.  My conflict with thinking that each person is only responsible for his own life is that I believe that we are interconnected, that we have an impact on and are impacted by other people.  I don't believe that anyone exists in a vacuum.  Our actions (and inaction) have an effect in the world.  That belief provides a framework for my own choices, and it's easy to form an expectation of how that belief can play out with other people who have the same sense of connection.  But how does that work in a messy world of people who are unaware or who have deep conviction about an entirely different interpretation?

The best conclusion I can draw is that my sense of connection with other people does not rely upon their sense of connection to me or anything else.  To judge other people based on my impression of how they should act assumes that everyone should see what I see, know what I know, and draw the same conclusions I draw.  I don't actually think anyone can know how things ought to be, so I don't really want to put myself in that place of perceived omniscience.  All I can do is live out my beliefs to the best of my ability, and accept that there is a world of people who see things from different perspectives.  None of us are completely right, but none of us are completely wrong either.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Price of Cognitive Dissonance

I am reading Robert Burton's On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, and like many authors who write on similar topics, he discusses cognitive dissonance: the unsettling phenomenon of adhering to two conflicting beliefs at the same time.  In a strange bit of synchronicity, I received some practical advice from another composer this week about pricing music composed for advertising.  He has done quite a bit more negotiating than I in this arena, and he has worked out a system which makes a great deal of sense.  There was one bit that he said that completely floored me, however: "Basically, just figure out the rock-bottom dollar amount you need from the project and start the negotiations at ten times that."

Cognitive dissonance sets in for me because I am confident that he knows what he's talking about, and yet I have concerns about pricing myself out of a project.  The underlying belief is that my time or my abilities aren't worth that much to other people.  It isn't that I think my time or talent isn't valuable -- although I'll freely admit that my mind can slip back to that paraphrasing rather easily.  When I dig down into it, it's the belief that other people don't see the value of what I have to offer, and therefore I can't possibly start off negotiations by asking for ten times what I absolutely need to make.  Three times that figure, maybe.  Any more than that just flies in the face of what I think about other people's ability or willingness to value... well, me.

I know that negotiations for a commercial project are different from collaboration with a music non-profit or a specific chamber ensemble, but in the more "artistic" arenas, I am even more likely to sell myself short because of my beliefs about non-profits and musicians and money.  The key part of my fellow composer's advice, though, is to start negotiations at ten times what I absolutely must make to undertake the project.  That also implies a willingness to come down as far as what I determine to be rock-bottom.  If I start at rock-bottom, I have no room to negotiate, and I won't be giving anyone a chance to see greater value in what I have to offer.

If I never challenge my beliefs about what value other people are capable or willing to see, they are not likely to change. But having a concrete dollar figure as a starting point for negotiation gives me a framework to experiment with my beliefs, which is in my opinion, a healthy way to confront cognitive dissonance.  If I believe two conflicting ideas, I could just choose one arbitrarily.  I could just live with the mental discomfort.  I could develop other beliefs to make sense out of the dissonance.  Confronting the competing beliefs head-on has the potential to lead to a stronger conviction in one direction or the other, and the best way I know to confront the beliefs is to test them where it's possible to do so.  Spiritual beliefs are somewhat immune to testing, but beliefs about negotiating a price for a project (and many other beliefs about myself and other people) are quite easily tested.

So, basing my numbers on a formula that has been tried and tested by a reliable source, I can determine the absolute minimum amount of money I need to receive in order to make a project worthwhile, and I can resolve not to allow negotiations to dip below that absolute minimum amount.  Multiplying that figure by ten gives me the starting point for my end of the negotiations, combined with the time-frame I believe I'll need to complete the work.  From there, the experiment will play out, hopefully over a series of projects, and I'll have a set of clear empirical data against which I can measure my beliefs about what my work is worth.  I can formulate hypotheses ahead of time, but the strong beliefs I have are hypotheses in and of themselves.  Ten times what I absolutely must make still seems exorbitant, and yet a part of me knows that it's an appropriate place to start.  The most challenging part may be to set aside the cognitive dissonance for awhile and allow my beliefs to be effectively tested.  The reward is a sense of personal value based on actual experience rather than whatever I invent inside my own head.  In other words, the high stakes are worth the challenge. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

When the Glass Is Only Half Full

When people talk about the power of positive thinking, sometimes they slip over the rails into "blind optimism with no regard for reality."  While I do think it's important to see the possibilities in a situation, I also think it's important to line up one's expectations and actions with practical reality.  Glass-half-empty thinking is problematic because it always reveals the shortcomings of a situation, but glass-half-full thinking runs the risk of ignoring pitfalls, or at least pretending that they don't exist in the hopes that luck will claim victory over logic.  Someone who sees the glass half empty is more likely to see that there is an issue crying out for a solution, but if you believe in the detrimental impact of negative thinking, accomplishing that solution can be a struggle for the pessimist who sees every glass as somewhere between half-empty and bone dry.

Which is why I have endeavored to formulate a new take on the glass: it's only half full.  It is on the road to being full, but it isn't there yet.  It isn't half empty, but it's only half full.  There is still work to be done, and that work can have a positive impact.  There's no reason to lament that the glass isn't full, but if a full glass is what you want, you can't ignore the fact that the glass simply isn't full yet.  It's half full, though, which is better than being less than half full.  To me, it amounts to recognizing whatever goal the full glass represents and acknowledging that I have covered some ground and still have a bit more to do.  When there is room for improvement, I can take action.  That's what the glass being only half full symbolizes to me.

All of this has come into play this week because of a job opening accompanying a program that involves playing the same music twice a day, five days a week.  If I go for the position, I could be working with some great people, and I would be facing the challenge of mental and artistic tedium.  The scarcity-theorist within me urges me to jump at it because it's the only accompanying offer on the table at the moment, but strategically, the timing of this position would eliminate any possibility of teaching a university course in the next year or accompanying college recitals or high-school solo and ensemble events.  As I spoke with a couple of people in the know about the opportunity, it dawned on me that I was selling myself a bit short.

It's true that I don't have a ton of opportunities for musical collaboration on the table at this moment, but that doesn't mean that I have to accept a position that is (by all reports) less than what I want.  Just because I want a full glass doesn't mean that I have to throw in anything that will raise the water line.  It matters what I want the glass to be full of.  (Horrible grammar, but still...)  My first step is to define what would equate to a full glass.  Then I can recognize that, at this moment, my glass is only half full.  That leads to identifying what I can do to get the glass a little closer to full.

When I start thinking that the glass is half empty, it can spark a bit of panic.  I have to do something about filling up the glass.  Anything.  That's often not a terribly helpful line of thinking.  I prefer what happens when I think that the glass is only half full right now.  Sometimes, when I take a step back, I realize that it's actually a little more than half full.  Sometimes I think that the glass will never be completely full.  And that's OK.