Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanks to Nordstrom....

One of the laugh lines in my show makes fun of how unrewarding it is to play piano at Nordstrom. That's not entirely true, and I want to explain why, because I'm indebted to many people I will probably never meet again for the true gifts they gave me while I sat at the piano and they...were my customers.

Back in the early late 80s and early 90s, I was invited to join the piano staff at Nordstrom Main Place Mall in Santa Ana. I did so as a part-time pianist for a year or so before moving to Pennsylvania to take a promotion at the company for which I worked full time. A few years later, back in Southern California, separated, trying to keep my business afloat, keep from being homeless and see my kids as often as possible, playing the piano at Nordstrom was literally my only steady -- if meager -- income. I took every opportunity to play because I needed the money and, for a time, the Steinway grands in the Nordstrom Main Place and South Coast Plaza stores were the only pianos available to me to play semi-regularly.

I've observed lots of audiences, both as an audience member myself and as an onstage performer, but it was the Nordstrom "audience" that gave me my real education on the ways that music actually works on listeners, whether they are consciously paying attention or not.

I made some close friends while playing for Nordstrom, and I'm honored to know from their stories how deeply music moved them. Most of them are now passed away, a few remain with whom I'm no longer close. I'm humbled to have had their friendship, wisdom and insight, as well as their candor about the music I played while they were listening. Each one has had an impact on my life. But this story is about the others who heard my play and what I learned from them -- the hundreds, maybe thousands of people who floated through Nordstrom back in the glory days of the Internet.

Most of the time, sitting there at the piano pretty much on autopilot with the latest Disney movie themes or pop tunes, I could look around at what was happening in the store. After a few months I could recognize most of the employees who worked in departments close by the piano, as well as the roaming personal shoppers and plainclothes security. Eventually, I could recognize most of the employees throughout the store, if only from the frequency that they appeared floating by me through endless streams of people. Both the Nordstrom stores at which I played positioned their pianos close to the incoming entrance to an escalator, so there was always a constant surge of people coming from behind me towards the escalator and moving past me either on their way up or down a level or just alongside the piano to some other part of the store.

Once in a while, someone would stop somewhere near a railing or counter, not to look at the displays or purchase something, but to...what? Rest? Wait? Listen? In a constantly-churning river of shoppers and employees, one person stopped still stands out sharply. Most of the time, in that fixed place, the man or woman would look sort of aimlessly around (this was before everyone had smart phones for distraction at those resting moments), sometimes scanning for someone else, or admiring the decorations at holiday times, or semi-focusing on where that piano music was coming from.

Part of the job of a piano player at Nordstrom was to be a kind of greeter. We were encouraged to make eye contact, smile, speak to people if we could while playing or during breaks between sets, give directions if asked. If you think about it, seeing someone in a tuxedo or evening gown making amazing music at a very large grand piano in the middle of a department store is a bit of a novelty -- and Nordstrom was quite effective at exploiting it for many years -- and the novelty is enhanced when the pianist actually takes time to smile and say hello while playing. It's a unique personal touch, and Nordstrom was "high touch" with its customers in those days. I really enjoyed this part of my job which, in a formal concert setting, would have been mostly Vorboten, so when I offered a smile or "hello" to someone stopped in the store observing me, I can imagine it being surprising to a customer at first, and then somehow welcoming.

Meeting the eyes and smile of some random person stopped in the store and just gazing around to find the piano happened often. What happened next was always amazing and unpredictable. Some folks would collect themselves and whatever bags they had momentarily set down and scurry away on some quickly-remembered errand, almost as if they had been caught napping at work. Some folks would pretend not to have shared my greeting and keep scanning the store. Some folks would stay focused on listening and watching, even from far across the atrium, until the end of the song or sometimes until the end of the set, intent on the music. Some folks took the time to approach the piano and stand closer until I finished whatever I happened to be playing. The people who showed interest, it seemed, always were the most interested when I played music one wouldn't expect to hear playing in a large, elegant department store: ragtime, dramatic Rachmaninoff, Chopin or Beethoven, odd arrangements of TV theme music. Their interest wasn't derisive, it was mostly curious and (I'm glad to say) appreciative. Random people told me how pleasant it was to hear music other than the top-40 sound tracks most retail stores use, but I began to understand something else was going on. The only way I can describe it is that the folks who listened somehow had a need for the music.

A Nordstrom piano player was not supposed to be an entertainer, in the sense that many street musicians actually have a carefully-constructed performance that produces donations in the guitar case (for example), so I wasn't thinking or attempting to put on a show, but it started to be clear to me that people wanted some sort of presentation in the music, especially when they stopped to listen. Their generous offer of musical time with me needed to be met with a satisfying musical experience that sent them along to the next purchase or errand. People expected more, and Nordstrom was about exceeding customers' expectations, even when that included making live music for them.

This challenged me to not only play the very best I could but also to assemble the music I used in a way that listeners felt was satisfying and somehow complete, all spontaneously and without much (if any) direct input from the listeners. Sure, I was often asked for the same song multiple times each shift, but if that happened I had to figure out how to turn out a fresh "product" each time, or weave together a medley with a clear musical direction -- beginning, middle, end -- and a satisfying arc of emotion. I'm sure I kludged a few loser playlists back in the day, but over time, people taught me what worked, and I started to get better at it.

There were a few setbacks, but I'm still grateful. One crowded holiday some college frat brat came up behind me while I was playing and lifted my arms and hands off the keys. He's lucky he didn't get clocked on both sides of his head -- pianists have fairly well-developed arm and back muscles -- and instead received only a smile and a nod and very little interruption in the music. There was always the superior person who scoffed: "I can play that piece much better than you!" (yup: really happened...a lot) or who observed loudly to companions: "He must really be desperate to waste such talent on Nordstrom." They all got a smile, sometimes a grin. They all helped teach me about live performance and what it takes to produce one in a very un-concert-like environment. Every one of them gave me a gift I could take back to the recital hall and use in some way. Often, in addition to giving a smile to these difficult customers, I'd intentionally play a wrong note in an obvious way just to further their superior self impression, often to the delight of other folks standing by who had observed and heard the interchange. In this way, even the hard stuff became pleasant -- almost a game -- and my fear of going into the crucible of a concert hall lessened.

Like the trapeze artists who intentionally fail a stunt twice to build their engagement with the audience, playing at Nordstrom taught me the value of vulnerability and the joy of sharing a listening experience with an audience. So much of what appears as live music in a concert hall situation is about an audience's expectation of virtuosity from the performer -- of how he or she will "interpret" some classic, difficult work. Will he be able to play the really hard part? Will the interpretation be "correct?" If it is a premiere, will the piece of music and the performance pass critical muster in the highbrow word of musical sophistication? The opposite of that was happening to me at Nordstrom, even if I played the same music I took into a formal concert: all those formal expectations, while still there, took the form of a delightful shared journey with the audience.

So I'm writing today with thanks for Nordstrom. Playing piano at Nordstrom literally kept me fed and housed when I had no other income. Nordstrom taught me the importance of being able to perform under any circumstances, and to make every rendition of the latest Disney tune fresh, even if playing it for the tenth time in four hours. But my biggest gratitude for Nordstrom goes to the people who came there: employees, shoppers, folks just passing through from one part of the mall to another. Without Nordstrom and its commitment to having a grand piano and pianist in every store, the people who listened there would never have inspired me and taught me to do what I do today, and I'd be just another guy in a tux on a stage with a big piano.

Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you Nordstrom!



Friday, November 15, 2013

On My Second Wedding Anniversary – 11/11/2013

Maybe (I would explain later) the middle-aged woman in the silver Audi sedan just happened to have her arm out the window, and maybe (I would have to say) she was randomly giving the bird to those autumn-yellow leaves hovering there against Cathedral Rock and to the rest of the south-facing world in general for a present in which having red dust removed from the Audi by that twenty-something tan Island boy who might have been a champion surfer and works now for the detail service was no longer economically feasible given that your ex left you here in Sedona with the house you can no longer afford…

…or maybe that bird was really meant for me, here in your city with my wife the artist on our second anniversary – you know, the celebration you don’t have any more? – stopped politely in the through lane of your roundabout waiting for traffic to merge and looking so happy together...

…or maybe it was our California plates or the CalVet magnet on our tailgate (I hope that the need for Veterans doesn’t make you angry) or maybe the Pepperdine Law window sticker enraged you because your ex’s attorney is an alum…

…but (as I must eventually admit) I think the Audi’s busted-up windshield and multiply-dented driver-side door really need explaining since you were clearly not pleased to have blown your horn so forcefully at me driving like a tourist lost in a roundabout, and it was that sound that got me into gear to persevere so enthusiastically with that escape hammer/tool/thing I keep in the door pocket just in case – which in this case meant relieving myself of a momentary rage and leaving your Audi’s ingress, egress and view ahead somewhat marred…

…Yes, that is how I would tell them it happened, if any of it ever had….

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Ghost in the Machine

Working with music as a transformative modality brings me up smack against the research by neuroscientists. There seems to be a consensus that sound can cause release of, say, serotonin, and that varying amounts of serotonin have varying effects on the human system, ranging from very good to very bad. Anyone who's working through the issue of getting their psych meds "right" can confirm that.

Notable physicians, neuroscientists and surgeons playing around with the effects of music today include Dr Oliver Sacks ("Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain"), Dr Daniel J Levitin ("This is Your Brain on Music") and Dr Claudius Conrad ("A Musician Who Performs With A Scalpel"). Also, if you haven't heard this remarkable segment from on "blame" it is VERY worth an hour of your time, especially because it got me thinking about how little we really know about the human brain.

Like music therapy, neuroscience is still in relative infancy. Both music therapy and neuroscience are making incredible strides forward in research and treatment, but based on the actual science we have for both disciplines, we're a long way from consistent results. That is, the skill of the music therapist or neuroscientist is still the biggest factor in applying research to successful treatment. One neuroscientist, interviewed on the radiolab "blame" segment, compared what we know about the human brain to viewing the Earth from space: we can see a lot of stuff happening, but we are a long way from understanding what's really going on. The analogue to this, from a musical point of view, are last Century's musical over-simplifications: "listening to Mozart makes you smarter" or "listening to rap makes you angry." Hogwash. Sort of.

The real issue is that, thanks in part to the profit-based medical industry, medical research is overly fascinated with quantifiable results. The search for quantifiable results -- the scientific method, if you will -- only leads us down a rabbit hole that keeps getting narrower and narrower until we can reliably make a conclusion that something -- albeit a very small thing -- changed as a result of our intervention (drugs, surgery, music). For music, this is exactly the wrong measurement. Music is too broad to be pigeon-holed so neatly.

I agree that a singular effect of a specific sound can be quantified, but that's not the same thing as understanding how even the simplest melody can create such a huge range of emotion, varying from individual to individual, and it's certainly a long way from being a determining factor in treatment of a particular symptom. Serotonin's effects can range from more peaceful sleep to schizophrenia, depending on the quantity present in the human system, and music-induced riots -- the premiere of Stravisky's "Rite of Spring" is one well-known example -- probably trace their impetus to a measurable overdose of serotonin. I'm not encouraging neuroscientific research in a mosh pit, but it could be instructive....

The big point here is that too narrow a focus on a particular result and connecting it too specifically to music, in my opinion, misses the powerful and holistic nature of "music therapy." What little scientific knowledge we have about the effects of music -- by the very nature of the way in which that knowledge was obtained -- does not give a very big picture of the potential music has for results. Our medical need to quantify a particular effect obscures our view of the hundreds of other effects happening simultaneously.

Music therapy, for example, has been found to be quite beneficial in "treating" autism. That's wonderful, to be sure. But not everyone in the world has autism. On the other hand, a huge majority of people in the world have stress-related issues -- too many of them to quantify, certainly -- and it's well known that music can "help" with distress. Unfortunately for the measurement-based treatment community, nothing is going to be done to advance music as a "cure" for distress, specifically because "stress" is too general and the effects of music are too broad. That's a shame, because nothing works better for self medication in distress than music. Sadly, both the medical and music therapy communities consider themselves successful for alleviating the symptoms of many stress-related illnesses while forgetting that they haven't done a thing about the actual stress-producing causes....

Until we have a better understanding of neuroscience, and of music's ability to trigger predictable responses in the human system, a more holistic approach is needed. The medical research and treatment community is going to have to accept a more qualitative perspective. Patients' response to intervention must be allowed to go outside a multi-point checklist and numerical scale if we are to have any chance at understanding the more complex results of that music-based intervention. This isn't a new idea, but it's use is overdue. How many patients are killed by well-meaning physicians who administer the wrong drug? Our reliance on smaller and smaller slices of understanding is useful, but the interaction of the entire human system with any given intervention is critical. We delve farther and farther into isolated effects at our own peril, and folks who deserve better care ought not pay for it with poorer health.

On the other hand, music is safe, effective and freely available. In addition to mental, emotion and physical benefits, it also has positive social implications. Most importantly, one doesn't need a credentialed therapist to experience and enjoy the effects of music -- even the therapeutic ones! Anyone experiencing distress who is within range of a computer or a smart phone is also within range of treatment for that distress. 

How does this work? You can either wait around for an expert to answer that question with "science" your health insurance might just pay for, or you can begin NOW to use music for your own relief. Ask yourself: would I stop eating because I don't understand the science underlying my digestive system and biology of nutrition? Music and sound have been available for millennia. What are we waiting for? Some doctor to tell us to fire up Spotify or Pandora or Songza? The ghost in your machine is hungry for music! Time to start listening!

Time to start giving ourselves better care. It's not hard -- and it might even "treat" issues we didn't even consider transforming in ways we hadn't thought possible.

Get your music on!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

How to Fill the Biggest Gap in Veterans Services

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with a professor from San Diego State University School of Public Affairs. This distinguished gentleman has spent a good deal of effort in the area of re-integration of justice-involved individuals to "normal" society. He made the observation that re-integration works best when the receiving social structure is properly prepared.

This means that we have a much better shot at keeping recidivism rates low when "the public" has the skills and knowledge to help provide a smooth ride from prison to life free society.

Do you have those kinds of skills and that knowledge? I'm not sure that I do...but I'm motivated to learn.

This got me thinking about what folks in "Veterans Services" social enterprises like to call "transition" -- the period of time and the associated activities that members of the United States Armed Forces undergo prior to and immediately after "separation" from active duty and integration into life as civilians.

Here in San Diego, Veterans Services organizations of all sizes and kinds have begun to work closely with both government and military command to re-define the process of transition and the continuum of services necessary to help folks in that process be more successful at it. Many other communities around the United States are actively thinking about the same things, developing best practices and dramatically improving their local transition processes to be better than they may ever have been.

I honor that hard work and commitment and want very much to see it succeed. I have no doubt that it can, but the professor's comments about re-integration made me wonder: is the public ready for this? As a civilian in San Diego, am I prepared for this?

Why me? Because after a Service member separates, I'm part of the community he or she lives in. I'm part of the workforce Service members expect to contribute to. I'm part of the social fabric a transitioning Service member hopes to weave their skills and capabilities into. What do I need to do, learn, understand and appreciate to be ready to help transitioning Service members become successful in civilian life?

We have a very progressive Chaplaincy at our local Veterans Administration Healthcare Center. One of the interesting programs these Chaplains launched is a couples retreat called "From Warrior to Soulmate" that seeks to help military members and their significant others become a strong family unit. Warrior to Soulmate was so successful, both with Veterans and with Active Duty Service members, that the program went nationwide less than a year after it was launched.

The VA Chaplains also began a program of education for church leaders and congregations throughout San Diego County. This program helped clergy and regular citizens gain an appreciation for the needs of transitioning Service members beyond housing, employment and physical care. It was useful to the clergy as counselors and mentors, and I hope it was also useful to the members of their churches -- the people in a transitioning Service member's faith-based community.

The gap, however, between what we have today in San Diego County -- as good as we think it is -- and an informed compassionate and effective citizenry able to properly support and mentor Service members in transition is a big one.

Employers need to have understanding and compassion as well as skills and tools to mentor Service-to-Civilian Veterans. School teachers and administrators need the same skills and more to provide compassionate care for the children of ex-military families. Government and civic organizations have awareness but they also need to strengthen their skills.

And regular folks like me, my wife, our kids and our friends need to know what to expect when we encounter a Service member in transition.

So do you, in your community, when newly-minted Veterans transition out of Service to be your community members, friends, co-workers, parishioners, parents of your kids' school get the picture.

And, by the way, Veterans are just one of the very important groups of transitioning folks you might find in your community. Others include formerly-justice-involved individuals, folks moving from homeless to domiciled and large populations of recent immigrants or refugees -- there are most likely others.

To close this gap in services we need a new kind of agency or non-government organization: one that teaches regular folks how to mentor folks in transition.

Mentor? Yes: mentor. We don't need more clinicians, therapists and professionals to fill this gap -- there are plenty of opportunities for those specialties, too, in their own domains. What we need are regular everyday folks who are spooled up on what it takes to be both useful and compassionate resources for transitioning folks. 

Not everyone is going to want to be a mentor of course, but everyone -- yes everyone in a high-transition community -- must be aware of what's happening around them and, most importantly, at the very least must be able to offer someone in transition a word of support. It is critical to transitioning folks that the communities around them don't express ignorance nor ignore their specific needs -- this harms the entire community, not just those in transition.

Will you step up to help? Here's an action plan:
  1. Learn about the transitioning folks in your community and what their specific needs might be.
  2. Teach people close to you what you've learned. 
  3. Volunteer your skills in a way that seems meaningful to you to assist with transitioning folks' integration to your community -- if that's mentoring, that's best!
  4. Interact in some natural way with folks in transition -- just showing up reliably shows your compassion and empathy and this means so much to someone in transition.
If you are a community leader, you can also encourage agencies and organizations around you to bring their energy and resources to this effort. You may find that, even though a specific agency may not be chartered to fill this gap, they will be able to offer some kind of assistance to do so, such as the San Diego VA Chaplains' initiative to educate ministers, preachers, pastors and priests about the needs of Service members returning from deployment or becoming Veterans.

Remember that old World War II poster of Uncle Sam with the tag line "I want you?" It's no longer about a war, it's about an opportunity to change communities at the grass roots. Uncle Sam still wants you, but now it's about what you can do to create a stronger more resilient sustainable community that does more than just assimilate folks in transition. We have a unique opportunity today to create stronger communities, filled with extraordinary potential, provided we are ready and willing to engage those who want very much to belong.

We can do this. We must do this. Every one of us deserves it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Conflict Encourages Non-Profit Sustainability

"Reboot!" or "R.E.B.O.O.T.?"

The first, "Reboot," is trademarked by National Veterans Transition Services Inc. It's a workshop that supercharges the process of moving from active duty military service to civilian life as a Veteran.

The second, "R.E.B.O.O.T.," is an acronym for Reflection, Empowerment, Brain/Body Awareness. Openness, Optimism and Transformation, the name of a program offered by Harvesting Happiness for Heroes, and its goal is to transform post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth for Veterans of our most recent wars.

Both programs are sponsored by Federally-registered tax advantaged non-profit corporations. Both programs work.

So why are there attorneys fighting over the use of the word "reboot?" Yes, toes were trod upon and branding was upsot. Let's get over it, find a resolution, and get back to work. We have better things to do. In this case, those things would be delivering the amazing services each program offers.

If I were a donor to either program, I'd feel poorly about my contribution being used to fund a legal fistfight. Money is tight in the non-profit world. Participants of these two programs don't deserve to have their program resources diluted. In my opinion, donated funds that don't actually reach a program had better damn well be spent for a really excellent non-program purpose or the administrators of those funds need to be held accountable.

There are thousands of non-profit corporations "doing something for the troops." Even if only a few hundred of them can afford to hire employees to do the same desk jobs every business must do, and even if those employees work part time for minimum wage, that's still a huge chunk of change that never makes it into a real program. Sure, one could argue that the "cost of doing business" is a part of this or that program, but that's not a good argument these days. Why? Money is tight. Donors who give money to "do something for the troops" expect to know that a huge percentage of that money actually does do something for the troops, not just for the office staff who administer the troop-doing program.

Soldiers Scams

We've all heard the stories about a non-profit that raked in donations for a cause that sounded righteous only to benefit some nameless faceless con artist who vanished with the funds once questions started to be asked. No one wants to fall victim to such a con, but when money is plentiful it's easy and simple to give to what sounds best without doing our homework first. The smooth-talking guy with the British accent interviewed on your local TV news looks credible and sounds sincere, so why not send him a few bucks, even though he's supposed to have served Her Majesty in uniform?

Please: I am definitely NOT implying that either of the "reboots" above are a scam -- far from it. You can confirm that for yourself using the excellent tools available on the 'Net, such as Guidestar.

You can also use Guidestar or your Secretary of State's website to check any corporation for scam status: if you can't find it, or if it seems to be buried beneath a pile of alias companies, beware!

Sadly, some folks don't take the time to authenticate organizations before giving to them -- sometimes generously, and sometimes to the detriment of the giver. Please don't fall for this. You deserve better.


I've had the honor of serving as a volunteer in the San Diego County community for a few years now. I've seen non-profits come and go, and I've seen some non-profits engage successfully with the community and some non-profits alienate the community. When funding gets tight, it puts pressure on every kind of organization that depends on giving -- public or private -- to become more accountable for its results. This pressure can make organizations do some very self-interested things, like hiring attorneys to protect their turf, or making funds so difficult to obtain that worthy organizations who could use the funds can't afford the paperwork to claim them and/or substantiate their use.

I'd like to suggest that the smart money isn't on the bureaucrats nor the organizations that lawyer up when conflict comes to call.

My colleague, Col David Sutherland of The Dixon Center, has suggested that it may be time for organizations with similar goals to join forces. I agree. 

San Diego County has several hundred powerful organizations serving the nation's largest population of Veterans, and, at last count, the vast majority of the Veterans' Service Organizations were non-profit or publicly funded. That's a lot of replication when it comes to finding, writing and administering grants, managing programs, keeping the lights on and competing with similar teams of folks doing similar things. It takes money to sustain that replication of effort. Why not combine the adminstrivial teams, maximize their effectiveness by using the best practices from all of them, reassigned folks no longer needed in the front office to work the programs themselves and thus make the very best possible use of whatever limited funds are available?

Doing this will be tough. As the San Diego Veterans Coalition and other similar "social change" organizations throughout the United States have demonstrated, giving up on "what's in it for me" can be scary. But, unless and until we do so, competition and conflict -- even in trivial areas -- will escalate. In self-interested organizations, the next tendency is to further dilute their funds that could be better invested in programs (eg "reboot" above) by hiring someone to defend "what's in it for me."

Conflict has benefits. We need to sometimes grind the gears to learn to shift them better. Friction can produce both heat and light, and some of both necessary to identify and burn away dead wood. But there's no reason that, working together, we can't find a better more effective and efficient way.

Conflict Resolution Exhibit A: REBOOT

How about this? Harvesting Happiness and National Veterans Transition Services combine their programs. The organizations have synergy, value and plenty of "customers" so why dilute the programs they offer by fighting about what they're named? Yes, that would take some up-front effort. Yes, there might be some egos bruised. Yes, giving up some of the "what's in it for me" might be required. But would a net better offering for Veterans result? Would it be more cost-effective? Will lawyers still have customers if these two organizations stop squabbling? (Being rhetorical to make the point.)

So here's an action item: give it a try! Reach out to people you respect who work for non-profit organizations caught in a cash crunch. Ask them if they would like to talk about working more closely...together. It's called "collaboration," not "merger," and most leaders today will be willing to talk about the idea (at least) and actually work with you (at most) which could result in a more efficient machine that delivers the goods you both want to deliver (at best).

Let me know how it goes. I'm curious, interested and willing to help. Really.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Tall Ships

Tall Ships

It’s odd, this flotilla of Tall Ships

gathered in the Bay each Labor Day weekend.

They cannonade each other

dogs and car alarms howl

And we sit poolside jabbering about

whether Congress has learned

That bombing yet another civil war that isn’t ours

is as futile as a two-gun black powder broadside fusillade

With neither shot nor sangrenel

aimed at tourists who paid sixty-five dollars to line the rails

And celebrate a day off work

pirate style.

At least the mess

left by our lecherous mayor –

Who, though he “did nothing wrong,”

offended at least eighteen middle-aged women

Only a few of whom were groped or drooled upon –

can be cleaned up at citizens’ expense

While other truly civic issues

remain unattended and underfunded.

(The News likes to call them “middle-aged women”

presuming that longer journeying around the Sun

Makes one a more credible accuser

than some sexting youngish vixen.)

The Facebook rant on such things

favors puppies and prurience

Over politics and policy

and tweets from legacy-makers

Only fill up The News

while Real People Who Care

Wink along with Stewart and Colbert

posting wisdom-embedded photos

That bow a reassuring heartstring or two…

Intentions leaning backwards into better times

Before the ‘Net

of instant opinion.

Let us hope

the ones who care and know so much

Get off their butts

and vote.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Harm No One

Harm no one. A secure life can be lived in service to these three words.

Using no more than needed does no harm to the needs of my neighbor.

Never wounding my neighbor by word or deed provides for our mutual safety.


We choose to harm no one and still we are wounded. We choose to harm no one and still we are hungry. 

We who harm none are secure even with wounds and hunger because wounding and greed are not our path. Ours is a hard path, and unsafe, but it is secure. Martyrs feel this.

Protecting those who harm none is hard, sometimes impossible. One watches for danger, asks for help. Two watch for danger until they tire, and one watches while one sleeps. Danger approaches, slips by, has its way. More watchers are called. They organize; some lead, some follow. Leaders skirt the traps of power and know too late that danger grips them even as they lead. A hard choice is made to bless many; a few are harmed. A compromise breaches security for the trusting few. Wounded and hungry, unsafe and harmed by those they trusted…still they are secure...

...and why? To serve harm to no one is secure.

To harm no one and pledge our trust to a government is impossible, but necessary for now, for as long as we choose to live defenseless against danger, wounding and starvation endure. Only the corruption of powerful leadership can lay waste to the corrupt greed and terrorism of those who harm, and such things must be until all harm is done.

The hurt of a protective government harming enemies by proxy wounds us, too. We hurt, secure in this harm by proxy, but safer while still unsafe, and so we pledge the impossible trust with hope that governments, too, can and will evolve away from harm.

So it is, so it has been, so must it be.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What I Do When I'm Triggered

It takes at least as much effort to relieve the stress 
as it did to get stressed out in the first place.

Relaxation-based techniques for stress relief get at the symptoms of the stress but not the root cause. I've spent a whole lot of time trying to relax without actually changing my stress and yes, sometimes I fall asleep or get some respite but the stress is right back in my face the next time I'm triggered.

Nothing wrong with yoga or deep breathing or "healing music" (just three examples of many), but we need to go deeper. Not to twist the blade against a raw nerve, but to learn what's at the root of the stressor and really do something about it.

Stuff that stresses me out

I'm stressed by incompetence. It blows my mind when a customer care representative can't get away from the 'in the box' script and actually listen to my question. You've been there: "Mister Bee-o," (for some reason, my last name always disappears at this point in the call, and nine times out of ten I'm talking to someone who's learned English just to get a job talking with me), "I understand you are dissatisfied/concerned/whatever with this situation, and I want you to know I will do my best to help you. Would you mind if I placed you on a brief hold while I research the best answer for you?"

I know they're following their rules. Why don't those rules include "Mister Protzmann" instead of "Mister Bill?" Why do they even need to say that? And why do they think I'm calling in the first place? Do they think I didn't try to find the answer online, just like they are about to try to do? If I could have found the answer, I wouldn't be calling!!!!

This sort of thing triggers me. Severely.

I'm also triggered when a loved one goes momentarily missing. If my wife and I are out shopping and she goes off to look at makeup while I go to look at shoes, I'll get anxious if I can't locate her even a few minutes later. The longer it takes to find her, the more worried I become.

Neither of these examples are logical, but isn't that the nature of stress? We get triggered by stuff because something benign causes us to re-associate with the trauma and BAM! -- all the bad stuff comes rushing back in from the dark inner corners where we pushed it last time.

I'm a civilian. I volunteer with military folks and Veterans, some of whom have triggers that make my trauma seem stupid-silly by comparison. I thank God every day I haven't had to do some of the stuff my colleagues have done in combat, and I honor the sacrifices they will make for the rest of their lives as a result.

In this blog, I want to hit some common ground about options we all have when triggered -- from the hardened combat Veteran to the humble piano player -- that can actually help get to the root of the stress and begin to transform it.

How I respond to stressors

To calm me down, I use relaxation techniques. Yoga, deep breathing and listening to some kinds of music have this effect on me. Once I'm somewhat back in control (eg no one else is going to get hurt) I start to focus on the root cause. If I can't get to the root cause, I get help. But if I can get to the root cause, which is most of the time these days, I will take action to transform the stress into some productive purpose.

For example, I write this blog to suggest thoughtful and novel ways we can deal with stressful world events. If you're a regular reader, you'll know I'm just as tweaked as you are by government incompetence, corrupt political leaders, post-traumatic stress' impact on the military and Veteran community, military suicide, child and substance abuse, poverty and homelessness, the economy...all the stuff that ought to get our attention. Rather than adding to the general noisy rant about such things, I choose to suggest alternatives. This helps me to stay focused on the possibility for a positive change, even though one blog may not make much of a difference in the giant world wide web of Internet blather.

As you know, I also use music to get at the hard-to-reach internal places where my stress hides.

How I responded to feeling suicidal

I've felt suicidal many times in my life, but the worst of all was when, alone and almost broke from the combination of my second divorce, defending my daughter in court from sexual abuse by her stepfather, and paying a mortgage on my home plus rent on another home I literally found myself without any hope. Since there's a history in my family of depression and suicide, I realized I'd better be careful to not let my demons take over my asylum, but it was a losing battle.

One evening as I was sitting in my favorite chair just overwhelmed with depressing thoughts of ending my life and the hopelessness of what it could be if I didn't, I remembered a piece of music that meant a lot to me about a dozen years before. 

At that time I was living at a friend's home (couldn't afford rent) and trying to get back on my feet after divorce #1 and its associated bankruptcy. The place had a clock radio in the bedroom and my favorite wake-up was a local public radio station that played Classical music. This particular morning, the piano music that was playing sounded very New Age to me (think George Winston before he started recording Gulf Coast Blues). I was captivated -- the music was actually much better than George Winston -- and curious what New Age piano music was doing on a Classical radio station, but more than that, I was completely taken in to the music itself. The experience was so powerful that I knew it would be important for me to find out what the music was and learn to play it. Several years later, I did both. You can hear the same music I heard that morning here.

Flash forward back to me, suicidal in the chair.

I vowed to myself to stay in the chair and not take any action until whatever I was experiencing had had its way with me. I decided it was time to listen again to "my" music and I got my iPod and headphones and started listening. After a few times through the piece, I took off the headphones and just sat there with the music in my head -- in my whole body, really. Something was happening to connect me with a very deep unresolved trauma that I couldn't identify specifically, but I was completely aware of the feelings the trauma had caused in a way far beyond normal sensation.

(I could explain the "how" and "why" (physiology) of that inner listening to you, but it would be boring and isn't relevant right now. It's enough for you to know that the music got into me more deeply than anything I'd ever experienced.) 

I felt like, for the entire time I had been listening to and staying "in" the music without it playing, something very basic to my being was waking up inside me and wanting to be noticed. The "noticing" began to well up inside me, leaving me in tears I couldn't control. I stayed put and let it happen. When I couldn't cry any longer, I was so emotionally and mentally exhausted...but instead of getting up and finding something to do to distract me (one of my avoidance habits) I continued to stay put to see what else would happen.

What did happen was that I began to realize quite clearly -- and maybe for the first time that really mattered -- that I had a choice. I could choose to let this trauma -- whatever it was -- keep getting the best of me, or I could man up and deal with the issues in my life, hopefully making better choices than I'd made in the past. I know that sounds trite, but when you're suicidal, it's actually huge. It was pivotal for me. I chose to man up.

I didn't really know what the underlying traumatic experience was -- I'm still wrestling with that -- but choosing to accept it as a part of me, maybe a fundamentally unavoidable part of who I really am, was huge. At that moment, my serious consideration of killing myself changed, too. I had a feeling of relief. There was no clear direction of what to do, but it was enough to have really won the battle with depression and suicide.

By accepting the unknown trauma on such a deep level, I'd finally begun the heavy lifting of unwinding from a lifetime of pushing it aside. Realizations began to come faster: I'd work to avoid feeling anything. I'd choose to work on tasks that I could complete quicker instead of long-term efforts just to have a feeling of immediate gratification in my work. If I was feeling triggered, I'd call Customer Service to complain about something just to have a good argument. 

These kinds of realizations continue today, almost ten years after the night I sat in that chair and stuck with it until I found a way to accept the traumatized part of my self.

So all that happened...How am I today?

I'm still getting at the core of the trauma and I still get triggered. I still get help when I need it. The difference now is that, since I've found some compassion for the traumatized part of myself, I practice using that compassion. I don't yell at customer service folks who call me "Mister Bee-o." I don't react an passionately towards incompetence. I get my news from Comedy Central instead of talk radio. I live a more joy-filled life.

I volunteer in causes about which I'm passionate and in which my skills can make a positive difference. I advocate strongly for what I believe, and listen more strongly when others express different beliefs. I'm in the game and watching the game at the same time.

C'mon Bill -- your stuff is nothing compared to mine!

Yes, my friend, that's true. Whatever my trauma might be, it's not yours. I know about the trauma many of my friends and colleagues face and how it has changed their lives in awful ways, but I also know that real work on the acceptance of that trauma -- not just painting over the symptoms but getting back to the basic traumatic moment itself with huge self-compassion and complete awareness -- is possible. It's also transformative. Deep authentic acceptance and self-compassion also transforms trauma triggers into calls to action.

When I'm triggered these days, I give back. I perform, or speak or teach or just listen with authentic empathy. I write. I look for ways to resolve conflict that make the one blocking my path into a hero for opening to a solution that serves both of us.

I'm convinced that, the deeper your trauma goes, the bigger the opportunity for you that lies within it. That opportunity could lead you to be a heroic inspiration to your brothers and sisters be they military, homeless or addicted. It could lead you to teach others how to transform themselves, whether as a minister, social worker, therapist, shaman or professor. You could become a leader in government, business, research or parenting.

I believe you can do this, and I hope you will choose to do so: when the trigger hits you, hold on to it until the trauma changes you. More than even before, the world needs you as a victor in that inner battle. Your friends, family, brothers, sisters, colleagues and fellow human beings want you transformed, too, and we will love you unconditionally while you traverse that dark inner place where everyone must go to find their power and their peace. 

Joseph Campbell, who studied the mythology of humankind from pre-history through Star Wars, calls this process "the hero's journey." Trauma calls us to this noble and necessary part of our lives, this "crossing a chasm walking barefoot on the edge of a sword." Our trials are lonely, but transformation only happens during that crossing.

You can do this. We can do this. We must do this. Our triggers remind us that we have a choice: we can die here on this cliff, or die trying to cross the chasm.

Take off your shoes and bring it on.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fixing Victim Mentality for Good

Who is profiting from the George Zimmerman verdict?

Who is inciting the riots over the Zimmerman verdict? For Christ's sake (and I mean that most sincerely) Reverends Jackson and Sharpton: if you don't believe justice was served, move to a country without Habeas Corpus, and please take all the people who agree with you when you go. There are some countries left in the world where you can take justice into your own hands and do as you see fit. Please remember as you immigrate that you, too, might someday be on the wrong side of your new fellow citizens' opinion of what's just, and that you won't have your day in court in that new perfect world without the rule of law so dear to most civilizations. You might also consider the teachings of the religion you espouse as you, er, encourage your followers in the "justice for Trayvon Martin" movement.

If you are one of the folks who admires the above-mentioned Reverends-in-Name-Only, you have my compassion and understanding. I wish I could offer you an alternative to the anguish you feel, but I can't. You must find that on your own, and I know you will be more satisfied and peaceful when you realize you're only being held back by your own choices, and that you have the right to choose something else.

Let's look at a different issue.

Who is profiting from sexual abuse?

Why is it that some survivors of abuse must publicly tell the world about it, over and over and over? No doubt this must be cathartic for some, and I have no issues with abusers getting their just desserts, but I question the many many conferences and symposiums and blogs and preachers and psychologists who profit from public victim venting. I'm just as concerned about the voyeurs who get off on hearing the details over and over, and in many cases pay for the experience.

This is not to say that perpetrators of sexual abuse ought not face their accusers, but, in my opinion, it would be best if that happened in a court of law rather than on national television. Lecherous San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, as smarmy as he is, deserves his day in court. So does New York City Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. As offensive as they are, these despicable pawns of a corrupt political system are still Americans and subject to the same rule of law that released Zimmerman.

One of Music Care's community partners in the San Diego Veterans Coalition is attempting to draw attention to military sexual abuse. I suspect they'll bring plenty of heat and light to that topic, but how much attention will be paid to serious discussion of how to correct it? Sensationalism and sex sell. It's a lot harder to sell the fix.

A few years back, I attended the first-of-its-kind survivors' conference for men who, as kids, had been subjected to abuse. This annual conference is called "It Happens to Boys." Many stories were told involving abuse by priests, parents and inmates, but the most riveting speaker at the event was Robert J Ackerman, PhD. Among other things, Dr Ackerman is known for his book on the surviving children of alcoholics, and his presentation focussed attention on the tools one needs to survive abuse. It wasn't until the end of his talk that he mentioned, almost as an afterthought, his own experience of being abused. We need more public discourse of Dr Ackerman's style, rather than more stories of abuse by priests.

This male sex abuse conference has drawn plenty of attention to the issue. This kind of stuff sells. Why doesn't the fix sell better?

Last item: fundamentalism.

If you're part of a charismatic religion, you've probably felt the collective power of a fired-up group of folks who believes what you believe. It's an awesome power. Preachers and spiritual teachers use it, as do musicians, motivational speakers, military leaders and even CEOs of large companies (have you ever watched an Apple product announcement?). Collective group energy can become visceral, and highly-charged groups can become mobs and mosh pits almost on command. It feels good!

In some cases, fundamentalism has been used to terrorize others. The Westboro Baptist Church is a great example of American domestic terrorism, and radical Islam is well known on the world stage. Non-religious fundamentalism can also be destructive. Nationalism, political bigotry, racism and sexism are all examples of how national pride, political ideology, genuine racial or sex-based pride can turn harmful at the fundamentalist extremes. Belittling anyone for their nationality, political views, race, sex or sexual orientation is petty; wanting to simply wipe whole categories of brothers and sisters in the human race right off the map because of those things is criminal.

So what's to be done?

First: we all need to stop advocating at the extremes. 

It seems obvious that Zimmerman walked because of the rule of law, but too many good folks are convinced that the Florida jury who acquitted him was racist. These well-meaning folks who disagree with the Zimmerman verdict are, in a way, attracting issues to themselves that they really deserve not to have -- issues that are obscuring the alternative choices of a different way of understanding the Zimmerman verdict. Why? Because of those who profit from the angry mobs that believe Zimmerman is racist -- those who profit from having control over the angry mobs and feed them with lies that keep them subservient rather than permitting them personal responsibility.

Politics? Religion? Nationalism? Take a moment to just breathe...and think about the fact that you, too, are a human being, just like the human beings who have different political, religious or nationalistic views than you. Try to walk in their shoes and look at yourself from their point of view. It's possible you might see yourself differently. Allow for just a moment that other living, breathing people -- who might or might not be like you -- live on this planet too.

Second: we all need to stop living in the past. Learn from it, yes; live in it, no.

Sure: abuse is wrong. Perpetrators of abuse ought to be brought to retribution. So let's do that and move along already! Once the crime has been punished and the perp's behind bars, let go of the part of your life that was messed up and move forward to a new chapter. It's OK to say "I survived" but the rest of us are getting tired of hearing the story over and over. Figure out how to turn your experience into something worthy of the TED stage. If you can't do that, shut up. Folks Liek Dr Ackerman prove that continuing to re-hash your victimization is just as damaging to your prospects of a new life as the abuse itself -- it's self abuse in a way to not put the trauma behind you and grab the transformational lesson out of what happened. The world needs you as you have been changed by the abuse, not you the abused victim.

We must do a better job at learning from our history to be able to face the future more intelligently.

Third: listen like you mean it.

If you can't have a discussion with anyone without becoming enraged by opinions different than yours, get help. Check yourself in to a place where you can't hurt anyone. It's wrong to kill people who don't think, look or act like you. If we can learn to really listen to people who don't think, look or act like us, we might begin to understand that they are human beings, too.

Is any of this easy? No. Why do you think there are lechers, abusers and victimizers? Because none of this is easy. Profiteering from victims is easy because victims want to be led, coddled, sympathized with. They'll pay good money to be told they're OK, that God loves them, that their story of abuse is more shocking than the last one. They don't want to change because change can be difficult. If you follow the money you can find out who's enabling victims to avoid facing their music.

(Did you think I could write a whole blog without mentioning music?)

A lot of popular music is for victims. A powerful, musical victim-based message really helps enable a victim, and can obscure a victim's right to walk away from victimhood and toward personal responsibility. How? 

Music works physiologically, releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that change our emotional, mental and physical states. (Mosh pit, anyone? Ecstatic worship, anyone? Bliss out, anyone?) Add some powerful lyrics to a powerful piece of music and you really have control over your listeners, especially the ones unaware of their powerful right to choose. Why do you think codependent love songs sell so well as compared to other love songs? Why do you think the music of anger and rage sells so well as compared to other pop music?

Some say that expressing anger and rage, victimhood and violence in music is better than expressing it through violence. But let's have an antidote to all that destructive energy, shall we? If your music mirrors your rage and anger -- and perhaps the rage and anger of your audience -- you've got a responsibility to the rest of us! Make a difference in the world by transforming some of that angst energy to more socially-acceptable purposes. Some pop artists get this, and they're to be applauded. Let's do this more.

Do you think gangs could profit more from society as a whole than the small part of society that they control through fear?

Do you think religious fanatics could reach more people with love than with hatred and suicide bombs?

Do you think entire victimized nations could find a new way to integrate into the world if they shed the "everyone hates us" mentality that's held them back for hundreds of years?

I do.

Maybe through popular music we can reach across the victimization that separates us and create some new choices. I'd like to see what happens if we try.