Monday, September 29, 2014

News From the Brain Stem

Has anyone noticed how National Enquirer has become the norm? Journalists draw daily from the Bible of over-inflated adjectives in an effort to keep the population trapped in the lowest part of our brain. That’s the brain stem, that old reptilian part incapable of nuanced emotion or articulate thought. All it knows is the 4 F’s of Fear— fight, flight, feed or freeze. (Or instead of freeze there’s another F politely known as “fathering.”) Check out these adjectives (and adverbs) from the first 14 of AOL’s headlines today:

·      Explosive new details
·      Stunning twist
·      Major change
·      Powerful knee joint
·      Massive Hail
·      Shocking Revelation
·      Crippling Protest
·      Stunning words
·      Scary scene
·      Incredible ruins
·      Intimate secret
·      Extreme energy
·      Record shattered
·      Mind-Blowing pace

Didn’t they read “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?” How are we supposed to know when something actually is serious enough to warrant a powerful adjective? Like this news that I discovered:

SHOCKING REVELATION!! Powerful news pundits reveal their stunning insensitivity and mind-blowing evil intentions to cripple the psyche of the public with their massive assault on our intelligence and incredible ignorance as to what real news should be. A major change should take place before I protest and cripple and twist the knee joints of their shattered brains with my explosive anger at the extreme energy they’re expending to create the scary scenes that blast culture to ruins. (Shh! Don’t tell anyone. That’s my intimate secret.)

AOL news, get the F (pick one of the four) out of my face!

How Does It Know?

So there was a convention of scientists trying to decide what the most remarkable invention of the 20th century was. They argued for hours about space travel, computers, cell phones and the like and couldn’t agree on any one thing. So when one of the scientist’s husband came by with their six-year old daughter, they decided to ask her what she thought was the most important invention.

She thought for a moment and replied, “The thermos.”

Her Mom said, “Come dear, think about all the things a computer can do or how amazing it is to fly to the moon. What’s so great about a thermos?”

“Well, when you put something hot in a thermos, it stays hot. And when you put something cold in a thermos it stays cold.”

“Yeah, what’s so special about that?”

The daughter whispered, “How does it know?!

I thought of that joke today when I read out loud a little talk I’ll be giving this Thursday. It seemed fine on the page, but when I read it out loud, it felt less than inspired. The content was okay, but it just didn’t swing.  It didn’t sing.  So I re-wrote it and I re-read it out loud and thought, “Yeah!”

So how do we know when something feels right and when something isn’t quite right? Not just in the things we write or the music we play, but in all the aspects of our life. We’re trying to figure out whether we want to keep dating this guy or gal or go to a meeting where a dubious decision is announced and we can’t yet find the words to articulate what feels wrong, but we feel it. Is it important to try to find the language, to analyze, to speak clearly what needs to change and why, be it a word on a page, a note in the phrase, a color in a painting, a vibe in a room or the future of a personal relationship? Well, yes, I think it is. But the beginning of the matter is that intuitive sense that something is off, an intuition we need to learn to trust. And at the end of the matter, after all the reason, the logic, the excuses, is simply the bare fact: something didn’t feel right.

How do we know? Like the thermos. We just do. 


I have had several proud moments winning various competitions in my life. Amongst them:

• Pie-eating contest in 4th grade. Harrison School summer camp.

• Twist contest (as in Chubby Checker) in 6th grade. My father’s company picnic.

• Cookie Jar (as in rhythm game) contest in my college Orff class.

• Railroad walk contest (as in balancing while walking on a raised railway) at a men’s group retreat in 1996. (1st place, me—one mile. 2nd place— 200 yards).

And now I have a new one. 0.0 silentwalker.

Yesterday was touring through the city with our five Music Interns and stumbled into a free day at the Exploratorium Science Museum. Amongst dozens of fascinating hands-on (and feet-on) exhibit was a 15-foot gravel path on which you had to walk making the least amount of noise possible (as in stalking prey out in the wild). There was a digital scoreboard showing the amount of noise you were making— most folks between 1.0 and 3.0. the guy who gave up and just walked registered 45.8. There were 12 people ahead of us and for a while the record was .5. Then one woman did a remarkable .1.

I went first in my group and by now the line had expanded to 20. When I came out the other side, I was greeted with enthusiastic applause. My score? 0.0!!!! How proud was I of that? Let’s just say I’m putting it at the top of my Curriculum Vitae.

So my next challenge is to walk silently on a railway while eating pie, dancing the twist and playing the Cookie Jar. Wish me luck. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why I Don't Shop Online

The first time I saw the movie Adventures in Babysitting, I knew I wanted to show the Blues Club scene to my 8th graders. I bought the video and did that archaic thing of fast-forwarding and rewinding until I found the exact spot to cue it up. Then after showing it to one class, had to quickly rewind it to get ready for the next.  The dinosaur years of media! But then came Youtube galloping in on its rescue horse— no more clunky videos! A few button pushes and there’s the scene! Yeah!!

But Youtube let me down the other day— with fifteen patient 8th graders waiting for my promise to deliver the goods on the screen. All there was was a bootleg version, a camera filming the scene on a screen— terrible resolution, horrible sound. Where was the one I’ve used the past few years? The computer teacher surmised that the movie’s producers pulled it off. Hmm. I wondered if I still had my old video kicking around?

He suggested I just buy the movie online. But I’m not an online shopper guy. I like to hold physical objects in my hand, to walk into stores and feel the energy, to talk to clerks, to browse through stacks. And to keep the lines open to possibility. And this time it paid off.

I biked over to Amoeba Records and looked through the A’s of Comedy. No luck! Went to the counter and asked if they had it. The clerk scanned his computer, nothing showing up in new DVD’s, he suggested that I browse through the un-alphabetized used ones. I was halfway through when a woman customer walked up and handed me a used version for $4.95. “Is this the movie you wanted?” Apparently, she had overheard me talking to the clerk and somehow found it where I had overlooked it. How sweet was that?

We started talking about the Adventures in Babysitting movie and I couldn’t help but notice a little spark between us. Then out of the blue, she looked at me coyly and said, “You know, I could use a little babysitting myself tonight. You up for an adventure?”

So I quickly paid the $4.95 used-DVD price and followed her out the door. Her apartment was just down the street. We went up the stairs and she gave me a quick tour around and then beckoned me toward the bedroom. As we reached the……


…And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don’t shop online.

Major to Minor

The Autumnal Equinox came and went without comment. Summer is officially over and the calendar now reads Fall. This morning my neighbor’s redwood deck is shining from last night’s rain. The bright orange of the wood pleases the eye and signals some hope for rains to come in drought-stricken California. Last night, we ate dinner in the dark and it was only 7:15 pm. The few deciduous trees in San Francisco all seem to be on our driving route to school and the first splashes of color have emerged. Though the days are shorts-worthy, the feeling of Fall is in the air and it’s a welcome one.

Of course, I love Summer, with its long days of freedom, its sunny exterior and bright optimism. It’s the time to run and jump into the arms of the natural world, dive into the waters of the lake or ocean, tramp up a mountainside with you backpack on your back, picnic in the park, swing in a hammock and look up at the clouds. Its music is the major scale all the way— happy, bouncy, open.

But Fall holds a special place in my heart, even if the San Francisco variety is so far away from my East Coast childhood. The days grow shorter, the air has a smell to it, nights begin to beckon you to curl up on the couch with your Dickens novel and maybe it’s time to light a fire. The dinner table is heaped with the harvest of squash in its many glories, crisp apples and pears, sweet potato soups, fresh bread from the oven, a thicker, heartier fare to fortify you for the winter days to come. The music of Fall is minor all the way— not sad, but with a hint of sweet melancholy, intimate, inward-turning, poignant. Nature is glorious in its color, but it is the human community that rises to the forefront, the sense of huddling together with steaming cups of hot cider.

Equating Fall with the musical minor scale got me thinking—why is the minor scale so evocative? One theory has to do with the harmonic series. This is the law of physics that explains that when a string is struck or a column of air blown through a tube, there is a fundamental vibration that creates a note, say C. But there are also sub-vibrations— the string vibrating at half its length that creates an overtone, a much softer tone that blends with the fundamental. The first overtone is C an octave higher. Then comes G, then another C. This is why the oldest elemental form of music— be it bagpipe, didgeridoo, Indian tambura or Orff bass xylophone— plays a drone to create the solid ground from which the melody flies— C and G, Do and Sol, 1 and 5. The next overtone is E and lo and behold, there’s the major triad that we’re so familiar with—C-E-G (though in a different order: C-G-E).  From here the overtones pile up in smaller and fainter intervals.

The minor triad—in this case, C Eb G— is minor because of that Eb. And it turns out that this note is the 19th overtone! Way up there, far away from the natural elemental sounding of the first overtones. Some have theorized that this is the attraction of the minor sound and its association with human emotion over the natural world. We are 19 tones removed from our home ground, feeling a little alienated, exiled, wistful and yes, sad, and turning to each other for company and solace. Not a proven scientific theory, but interesting, yes?

How does this actually play out in the world of music? Well, Autumn in New York and Autumn Leave are both in minor keys, but then again, so is Gershwin’s Summertime. Vivaldi’s three movements in the Autumn part of The Four Seasons are in major, minor and major respectively. Robin Williamson’s October Song is in major, the Mama and Papa’s California Dreamin’ in minor. So much for my theory. But that’s the way of art— no simplistic formulas, many faces to any theme and yes, major music can be wistful and poignant (I once made a 5-year old cry singing Go Tell Aunt Rhody) and minor songs upbeat and energetic (the version I do of a ring play called Soup, Soup).

Whether major or minor or in-between, Happy Fall to all!