Think Slow

Our 15-year-old nephew—a budding musician—was in town this past weekend, so I took him to the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park. There he could see every type of musical instrument known to humankind (plus some) and, frankly, it gave me an excuse to play a few good guitars.  Not that I don’t have good guitars at home.  Later in the day my nephew had a chance to see and play my two prized Running Dog guitars made by luthier Rick Davis.

Playing my Running Dog

Playing one of my Running Dog guitars (photo by Claire Brown)

Davis was profiled in Tim Brookes’ 2005 book Guitar:  An American Life, where the author seeks to replace a badly damaged first guitar with a hand-crafted one “for the second half of my life.”  He writes that as he nears 50 years of age, he finds an itch that can only be scratched with a new guitar.  And as Brookes notes, “Guitar makers even have a word for these baby-boomers-who-always-wanted-to-be-great-guitarists-and-now-have-the-money-to-indulge-those-dreams:  dentists.”

“Much later, after the guitar is finished, Rick will refer to ‘the eternal and infinite capacity of the consumer to confuse making a purchase with falling in love.’ I should have known better, I suppose—but then again maybe not. First guitars tend to be like first loves:  ill-chosen, unsuitable, short-lived, and unforgettable. I’m not sure I ever want to get to the point of making a rational decision about a guitar.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about decision making at key junctions of life.  Like Tim Brookes, there are some things—guitars among them—where I don’t want a rationale decision model to get in the way of my emotion. But we face many decisions that require serious thought and calculation. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, would suggest that we let our emotions make all types of decisions where a slower, rational model should come into play.  There is a recurring theme in Kahneman’s book that “many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.”

We put too much stock in the fact that we’re confident we’re making the right choice.  We put too much stock in our emotions.

“Subjective confidence in a judgement is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgement is correct.  Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.  It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you than an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”

When important decisions have to be made, I’m trying to take the time to step back, work through the crux of the matter, set aside emotions, and push back against a quick confidence that I’ve reached the right answer.  Thinking and decision-making—deep thinking around critical moments in your work, career, or life—requires time.

Think slow when you should, and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Lenten Litany

Central Tower of the Washington National Cathedral

At yesterday’s service on the First Sunday in Lent at the Washington National Cathedral, Andrew — a tenor in the men’s choir — was the soloist for the Lenten Litany.  This particular version of the litany was arranged by Canon Michael McCarthy, the Director of Music at the National Cathedral.

It is a moving seven minutes of music, to help bring the faithful into an observance of the holy season of Lent.  The solo begins around the 13 minute mark.

With blessings for whatever practice you bring to the season.

More to come…

DJB

Practicing

Practicing by Glenn Kurtz

“Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music” by Glenn Kurtz

Over the holidays I returned to a book I first read some ten years ago.  Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music is, in its simplest form, a memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia.  Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds, in the process, a richer love for music.

But like all good memoirs, Practicing is so much more than a simple life’s story.

Kurtz has been practicing since he was eight years old, but it isn’t until he returns after his hiatus that he begins to understand all the richness of the various aspects of preparing for performance, or life.

“Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on….From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.”

When we hear of practice, we tend to think of artists, but Kurtz makes the point that practice is universal.  “Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.”  Because we will never reach our mind’s ideal, we take a risk when we stretch.

“Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.”

“Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.”

However, Kurtz continues.

“When you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue….Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.”

Running Dog Guitar Ought-3

My Running Dog Guitar Ought-3…the guitar where I don’t spend enough time practicing (photo credit: Running Dog Guitars)

In his return to music, Kurtz found his limitations but then began again to push.  To continue.  We all have routines that make up our work, but if we approach them with the story of who we are and what we wish to be, they can be turned into a route for our lives.

Here’s to focusing beyond the inevitable disappointments and looking to the route that gives meaning to our work and our lives.  Here’s to practicing.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Here Comes That Rainbow Again

There are weeks when the news contains stories that force you to shake your head in disbelief.  However, this isn’t all there is.  Newscasts don’t lead with “Another plane took off from National Airport this morning.”  Bad news sells, and the loss of civility and the misbehavior of powerful individuals are serious issues today.

But there are kindnesses and civility all around us as well, if we’ll look for them.

As I’ve been thinking of how I can move more intentionally to respond to our times, a song has been stuck in my head.  Kris Kristofferson wrote the song, which was inspired by the lunch counter scene in Chapter 15 of John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel Grapes of Wrath.  Kristofferson was born in Texas during the 1930s, and mentioned that he read Steinbeck’s book in high school or college (probably the latter, since he was a Pomona College graduate, just like our Claire!) Years later, he was reminded of the scene and wrote this work which Johnny Cash, who also made a recording of it, said might be his favorite song by any writer of our time.

In the intro to this video, Kristofferson says, “I kind of wrote it with John Steinbeck…only he was dead at the time.”

It is a simple song, with the following lyrics:

The scene was a small roadside café
The waitress was sweeping the floor
Two truck drivers drinking their coffee
And two Okie kids by the door

“How much are them candies?” They asked her
“How much have you got?” She replied
“We’ve only a penny between us”
“Them’s two for a penny,” She lied.

Chorus
And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
With the smell of rain on the wind
Ain’t it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again

One truck driver called to the waitress
After the kids went outside
“Them candies ain’t two for a penny”
“So what’s it to you,” she replied

In silence they finished their coffee
And got up and nodded goodbye
She called, “Hey, you left too much money”
“So what’s it to you,” they replied

And the daylight…(Chorus)

Let’s do our best, in these times, to be good to one another.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Observations from Home: The Silver Spring Day Off Edition

Bikes in Silver Spring

The flowering of bicycles in downtown Silver Spring

If you don’t read anything else in this post, go to the bottom and watch the last video.  Morgan James is beautiful and has a wonderful voice, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off the Tambourine Man.  He’ll bring you up, no matter how down you are.  And you’ll thank me for it.

Now, on to the rest of the post.

I seldom take a weekday off where I’m at home in Silver Spring.  Yet after working about 20 weekends in a row (perhaps I exaggerate), I decided to take today off and make it  a three-day weekend.  It was interesting to be around downtown Silver Spring and see the following:

Bikes are sprouting up everywhere one looks. First it was the Capital Bikeshare stations that arrived in downtown.  But in the last month, we’ve been inundated with the new dockless bikes, and today was the first time I walked around town and had the sense that they are EVERYWHERE!  (At least if you walk around the condo/apartment heavy downtown.)  They look beautiful (especially the LimeBike), but it will be interesting to see how they stand up to the winter in the capital region.  Nonetheless, I was standing next to the NOAA building and was able to capture in one glance a transportation planner or urbanist’s dream scene:  shiny new Metro trains rolling into the Silver Spring station, bus after bus pulling out of the transportation center, pedestrians, bicyclists, and—of course—cars (and more cars).

Coffee shops are everywhere. Where there are bicycles and canyons of condos and apartments (say, along East West Highway downtown), there will be coffee shops.  When you have the largest concentration of Ethiopian residents in the metro region, you can also be pretty certain that it will be good coffee. While we have the standard chains, Silver Spring has some terrific independent shops.  Today, while out walking, I went to Kefa Cafe (one of the city’s institutions) for a morning coffee and chat with Abebe. Always a pleasure.  In the afternoon, I strolled up to the Bump ‘n Grind, along the aforementioned East West Highway condo canyon.  There was a class underway in one portion of this hip shop, which is also a vinyl record store.  Ah…the Revenge of Analog!

The Fillmore

The Fillmore, Silver Spring

Finally!  The Fillmore has an act I recognize!  Ever since The Fillmore opened in downtown Silver Spring, I’ve been waiting for an act that I recognize.  I get that this isn’t a venue for folks my age (yes, I was hoping for the Birchmere North), but it would be nice to see a name on the marquee every now and then that I recognize.  I’m just not that into “Death from Above” or “Elevation Worship.”

Well, it finally happened.

Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox is coming to the Fillmore on November 26th!  Not familiar with Postmodern Jukebox? Well, neither was I until a few months ago when I stumbled across their fantastic video of All About That Bass.  At 31 million (and counting) views, they have a ways to go to get to Meghan Trainor’s 2 billion views (can that be right?!)  But I prefer the Postmodern Jukebox version.

The home page for Postmodern Jukebox describes their work as “Gramophone Music in a Smartphone World” and that’s a perfect description.  If you’re like me, you’ll get sucked into their wonderful videos (and then the spinoffs of their wonderful musicians, like singer Morgan James, who does a terrific version of the Beatles Come Together with a great trash can drummer.  You have to watch it to believe it.)

So last night, I found Morgan James singing I Really Don’t Care with Postmodern Jukebox.  As wonderful as she is, you won’t be able to take your eyes of The Tambourine Guy.  Trust me…you want to watch this one!

If I knew that Morgan James AND The Tambourine would be part of the show in Silver Spring, I would be there!

Nice day in downtown.

More to come…

DJB

Two Unexpected Books for These Times

The Immortal Irishman

The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan

It wasn’t until I was well into the second of two books I’ve devoured in the past few weeks that the timeliness of these very different works dawned on me.  Nothing in either the biography or novel – both released in 2016 – would have suggested that they were important books for our time, much less that there would be common threads.

And as a bonus, both are terrific reads.

Timothy Egan has produced a page-turning biography that captures the incredible saga of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced Mar), one of the most famous Irish Americans of all time.  Egan – one of my favorite writers (see the “Writers I Enjoy” list on the side of my blog page) – has previously written highly readable and well-researched histories on the Dust Bowl (The Worst Hard Time) and the founding of the U.S. Forest Service (The Big Burn).  In The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, Egan bring Francis Meagher’s time and story to life.

Meagher was born to comfort in Ireland, but left that life to lead a failed uprising against the British during the Great Hunger of the 1840s.  In this part of the book, Egan’s description of the horrors of the potato famine and the English starvation of the Irish is visceral and hard-to-forget. For his part in the Young Ireland uprising, Meagher is “transported” to a Tasmanian exile on the other side of the world, yet escapes and comes to America where he is instantly hailed as the most famous Irish American in the land.

The 1850s in America have eerie parallels to today, with sectional divisions, strong partisan divides, and politicians who ignore the fundamental issues facing the country.  In the decades before the Civil War, the Know-Nothing Party – one of the predecessors to Trump’s Republican Party today – brought a nasty, nativist strain to politics that blamed immigrants – and especially Irish immigrants – for all the nation’s ills.  Irish-Americans were attacked in their homes, legislation blocked their arrival, and bigotry was both accepted and prevalent throughout the land.

Francis Meagher strode onto the stage and – through the power of his story and oratory – because a leader of Irish Americans in New York.  When the South (including a large number of Irish immigrants) fired on Ft. Sumter, Meagher helped recruit Irish Americans to join the Union cause.  In short order General Meagher was the head of the Irish Brigade, which was asked again and again to go into the worst situations in battles and save the day after the blunders of the Union’s incompetent generals.  The worst example was the charge they were forced to endure up Mayre’s Heights into the teeth of the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg.  The great Irish musician John Doyle captured that story in his terrific tune Clear the Way (with the music beginning after a short history lesson at about 2:48 in this video).

 

Disillusioned with the war, Meagher moves to Montana to become the territorial governor.  Hoping to finally make his fortune and create a New Ireland in the frontier, Meagher instead finds himself fighting injustice in this lawless territory.  The story ends with a mysterious death at age forty-three.  Egan provides compelling new information to perhaps help put a coda on this amazing life.

The Immortal Irishman is a first-rate work.  The relevance is that he reminds us that the nativist strain we face today has a long and sad history in the U.S.

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I expected to enjoy Timothy Egan’s work.  I had no idea what to expect when I bought a young writer’s first novel on a whim – literally because a woman was standing at the book table at the Politics and Prose members sale and said, “This is a great read.”  We talked about other things she liked and her tastes seem to align with mine…so I took a flyer.

Am I glad I did.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a very impressive debut novel.  The story of two half sisters born in eighteenth century Ghana, and the families their different paths produced, is epic and emotional.  Gyasi skips back and forth between the family that stays in Ghana and the other one – unbeknownst to the first – who is sold off into slavery in the U.S.  She follows each, generation after generation, through wars in Africa and slavery and the Great Migration in the U.S.

The pace is brisk and there are multiple story lines to maintain.  The reader is helped along by the family tree in the front of the book, and somewhere along the way I found myself drawn into the rhythm of the story being told on both sides of the Atlantic.  Some reviewers have suggested that the African chapters are the stronger of the two strains of storytelling, but I found that to be a minor quibble.  Certainly the chapters about the family members sold into slavery are more familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less compelling.

Homegoing is yet another epic reminder of how a country that proclaims freedom was built on conquest and slavery.  So many times I came up from an extended period of reading this fascinating work, only to be faced with what seems like never-ending examples of bigotry and conquest coming from the evening news.

Two very different books.  Two excellent writers.  Two works that help us see that the national story is truly much more complex, layered, and difficult than we often realize.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

The Preferred Pre-Inaugural Concert

Lovett Hiatt Tickets

My ticket in the nose bleed section at Strathmore

Earlier this evening, I joined a full house at Strathmore Music Hall as we made our choice for a different  pre-inaugural concert from that on the national mall.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt are two of the best songwriters and (especially in Lovett’s case) song interpreters in the Americana field.  The beautiful sound and setting at Strathmore was perfect for their two-and-one-half hour acoustic set on Thursday evening.

They played their hits.  They played unrecorded new songs.  They bantered.  They played songs by other songwriters. And they did it with such ease and obvious affection for each other that the time flew by.

Hiatt’s voice is getting older and doesn’t hit the notes like he once did.  But that really didn’t matter in this setting.

Here’s a video of a tune they played tonight, Lovett’s “She’s Not Lady.”  Enjoy!

More to come…

DJB