Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Untying the Knots

Why Should Rich People Have To Pay More Tax?

In light of the recent debate regarding the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, I thought I would air my thoughts on this subject. With due deference to Karl Marx, I seek not revolution, nor the eradication of class structure, as I feel that heavy handed social engineering comes loaded with it's own control issues– be it from the left or the right. Neither do I want my thesis to be doctrinaire, or to divide people by defining them as either "bourgeoisie" or "proletariat" – class divisions in America in 2010, I believe, are infinitely more complicated than they were in Royalist Europe in the mid nineteenth century. But also I want to write this in the language that we all speak, day to day, because despite our inherent individualities (which my gypsy nature is predisposed to advocate) the way we express our feelings, and the kind of world in which we want to live are probably not so dissimilar from our neighbors, rich or poor. I think simple fairness is what we are all looking for, nothing more complicated than that. It is how we define fairness that gets us into trouble. And so in the spirit of coming to an equitable definition of the word, I offer this:


So why should rich people have to pay more taxes?

On the face of it it doesn't seem such an unreasonable question, People work harder to make more money– why should they be punished for doing more, when less productive people receive all the benefits? If everybody paid the same percentage, then wouldn't rich people be paying more anyway? Seems fair... no?

Okay, let's leave aside the idea of tax loopholes for the wealthy, and assume that we could come up with a simple flat tax for everybody that had no loopholes. I know that I am fantasizing here, but for the purposes of this discussion it doesn't really matter how the very wealthy can manipulate the tax code. That topic can be saved for another day. The issue here is, simply, "should they keep the same percentage of the money that they have earned as those less wealthy?" Or, "should they have, in fact, earned so much in the first place?"

So now we've hit another obvious question: what do we consider wealthy? Obama has set the dividing point at families who make over $250,000 a year. To my mind, putting $251,000 a year into the same category as someone who earns $80 billion a year is a little arbitrary. It may be an attempt to diminish the egregious feeling most of us get when we think of somebody actually getting paid that much. But there really is a big difference. Look at it this way... 1 billion is 4 thousand times 250 thousand. The year that Bill Gates made $80 billion, he made 320 thousand times as much as a family that makes $250,000 per year. And that's what we define as a very wealthy family (remember, if you get minimum wage you earn about $15,000 a year– many families still earn less than $30,000 a year combined). To put it another way, they would have to keep working until the year 322010 in order to earn the same amount. I doubt if our species will be around until, then but hey!

Does this seem fair to you? Probably not... but wait, we don't want to be running a country based on what seems fair to some people. Is there some rational reason why this may or may not actually be fair? Let's take a closer look at this situation... but first lets see what we used to think was fair:

In 1965 the average CEO in the U.S. earned about 24 times as much as the average worker in his company. By 1978 that ratio had grown to about 35 times as much. By the 1990s that ratio had surged to 300 times as much, but then dipped in 2000 when the stock market took a fall. In 2005 it had resurged slightly to where the average CEO was now making ($10,982,000) 262 times that of the average worker ($41,000), but 821 times as much as a minimum wage earner (who at the time was only making $5.15 per hour).

Now this is of course only the average and doesn't fully describe the wealth of the very richest people who make thousands of times as much as that proverbial CEO. The aforementioned Mr. Gates, along with Warren Buffet, Paul Allen, and the entire Walton family whose combined earnings blow everyone else out of the water– so to speak, do make it hard for us mere mortals to understand how they could possibly have worked so hard to have made so much money... legally.

Americans tend to have an extremely strong work ethic; perhaps the legacy of the Puritans who founded this rock. In the early 20th Century, many Christian religious leaders condemned the stock market as being ungodly... a form of gambling. They believed it was not right to take money for which you had not worked. I believe that many of us still have that ethic, somewhere deep down. I think many of the "Tea Party" people feel this way, but have naively succumbed to the manipulations of the very same wealthy class whom they aspire to denounce. They are cajoled into condemning those in poverty, whom they see as being lazy and looking for a handout, and revering those who are successful and affluent, because they "worked hard to get where they are and deserve to keep their success." It is a convoluted nightmare of sloppy thinking, and yet it pervades a good portion of the country. But before we try to untie the knots of all these unreliable categorizations, let's first ask ourselves this question: is a strong work ethic necessarily a good thing?

Let's consider the alternative– even from a strictly capitalist perspective. People who earn money without producing anything, are not actually contributing anything to the system which supports them. They are in essence a parasite upon their community. Now I make no judgment about parasites, in nature, a parasite is not always a bad thing. Many parasitic creatures supply a service to the host. They clean or remove other, less useful parasites. In business, you may not create the product, but you sell it. That is a useful role. You may do the paperwork, you may hire the staff, you may fetch the coffee... all these roles are necessary, and require a certain amount of work. But what role does a stockholder play? And what work do they perform? Are they somebody who was just lucky enough to have the cash to invest in something that has a good payout? And what rights does that bring with it, as compared with someone who actually does the work.

If we had no system of stocks and bonds, we could still have a functioning society. Trade existed for millennia before the stock market came into existence. But if we only had a stock market, and no production, well...

So perhaps this is one way in which we can compare the respective value of elements of our economic system. Another way would be to examine what it is that Americans value on an emotional level. Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Davy Crocket, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Bill Gates... these were and are people– whatever you might think of their morality– who did a lot of stuff. That good old American get-up-and-go, and that good old American ingenuity. Yes it involved the genocide of the native peoples, the extinction of the bison, the wholesale destruction of nature, the pillaging of other countries, and the pollution of our own air and water... but we are mostly willing to overlook those little details because that kind of attitude accomplished the creation of this great big thing we love to call America.

Well then, which is more important– ingenuity... or get-up-and-go? Is it the idea, or the execution which has the most value. My father always used to say, "genius is ten percent inspiration, and ninety percent perspiration." So by his reckoning the act of building the damn thing was nine times as valuable as thinking up the stupid idea in the first place. "Any idiot," he would say, "can have an idea," (I'm sure we can all remember a few doozies that we've come up with) "...it's the guy who goes out and builds it that is doing something worthwhile."

I'm sure if you or I came up with that perfect mousetrap, but never did anything about it, and then later discovered that someone else had also thought of it... but built it– we would not begrudge them the profit. After all, we could only blame our own laziness for not having achieved anything. But what if we had an idea that we couldn't build, and we met someone who could? How would we share the profits from such a collaboration? According to my father's calculations, that would have to be split 90/10 in favor of the other guy. (I'm not sure my father himself would go along with such a deal– unless of course he was the other guy.) This doesn't take into account that some ideas may be very simple, and the construction process might be hellishly arduous, whereas other ideas may have taken years of hard work to come to, and the construction process is fairly easy. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that both contributions are equally important, and we split the dividend 50/50.

Okay now we run into a problem with the construction. We need a part that the builder, José, does not have the strength or know-how to build... or the right equipment... or whatever. We need a third person, a specialist without whom we cannot continue. We get a guy whose name is Vishnu, but he wants a third of the profit. We tell Vishnu that he's out of his brain... we'll give him 20%. This leaves us 80% to split. José thinks he's getting half of that, but I tell him that it should come out of his share because he was supposed to be able to build the damn thing by himself. Anyway, after a bit of back and forth he agrees to 35% leaving me with lion share at 45% – which makes me feel good. It was my idea in the first place, and I should make the most. (Right now my father is rolling over in his grave.)

Now we all realize that we're none of us making a hell of a lot out of this if we just make one item. We need to produce a lot of these things in order to make any money. José tells me he's got a bunch of family members who are just sitting around the house who can help out. But I don't want to cut anybody else in on our profits– which is fair enough, he tells me, his family just wants to be payed for their time... decent pay... and, oh yes, benefits. Man... they need health care, and a living wage. Well, we don't have any money to pay them with, so we go to a rich dude, Wolfgang, and ask him for some investment. He thinks we got a good idea here, so he says he'll buy in and fund the factory if we sell him 60% of the company. We think Wolfgang is a nut-job so we go somewhere else. After endless meetings with other investors, we realize that Wolfgang was offering the best deal we could get, so we break down and sell it to him. We can't figure out why he deserves to have such a large share, but he's got the power, and we've got no choice.

Capitalist doctrine might tell us that if our product has enough value, then we will get the right price for it if we shop around. But this is not true when dealing with the very wealthy. They didn't get wealthy by paying a fair price for a fair deal. They got wealthy by paying less than it was worth, and selling it for more than it was worth.

The first thing Wolfgang does, is to tell José that we can't use his family. He just made a deal with a factory in the Philippines who can make the same item at half the cost. The workers in the Philippines don't have the same rights as they do over here. José is a bit peeved at first, until Wolfgang explains to him that his percentage is worth more when costs are lower. His obvious happiness regarding this issue creates problems at home.

So now we've gone from something that was a fairly negotiated settlement between comparative equals, to a situation where one person has a completely unbalanced amount of power, and a group of people (the workers in the Philippines) who have almost none. How then is there going to be any fair negotiation made now regarding how the profits are dispersed? Clearly, neither the person who had the idea, nor the people who built it are going to be the main beneficiaries of this deal. Ingenuity and work ethic are both losers here. The winner is just some guy who was lucky enough to have a bunch of moolah to invest. And his luck now also endows him with some pretty amazing rights, the least of which is that if his company does anything illegal, he can't be prosecuted.

The Libertarians will tell you that it doesn't matter. We live by the law of the jungle, and that the lion will rip off the biggest chunk of meat and then the hyenas will share whatever is left. But even a lion doesn't eat four thousand times as much meat as the smaller animals, and when a lion does get too greedy, twenty or thirty hyenas will take him down... and that will be the end of that lion. Now I'm not suggesting that we kill and eat very rich people, but the Libertarian idea that we all deserve whatever we can grab does seem rather easy to refute. By that definition if somebody beats you up and takes your wallet, they deserve the money they get. Essentially, they are saying that we should abandon all the laws that prevented the robber barons of ancient times (and also of American times) from continuing their greedy ways. I don't know about you, but I don't see that it's in my interest that Andrew Carnegie built himself a golden palace on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

On the other hand, the Libertarians should acknowledge that if a group of us hyenas do want to take down the rich and mighty, well maybe that's also the law of the jungle at work. Surely we have the freedom (and in fact the duty) to gang up on those who are messing with our lifestyle, who are wielding inordinate amounts of power over us and others, and taking a bigger piece of the communal pie than we all think they deserve. Let's face it, you just can't come up with a rationale for any one person at a corporation making even a hundred times as much as the average worker... let alone a thousand! Do you really think that's fair? The way we little hyenas gang up in our culture is to put laws on the books that control that kind of wayward behavior.

There are many supposed Libertarian Tea Party members who have no objection to laws that take away freedom from other people. They don't mind telling people they can't marry, or serve in the military if they are gay, they don't mind laws telling people that they can't smoke marijuana, but they don't want to be told they can't carry their handguns when they are getting drunk in a bar. They don't mind huge government spending for the military when it deprives people in other countries of their lives, their freedoms and their civil rights, but they don't want to be deprived of their own freedom to discriminate against blacks or Mexicans. They don't mind their tax dollars supporting the industry of corrupt mercenary corporations, and corrupt construction corporations who steal from them, but they don't want that money being spent to feed homeless kids in the ghetto. They don't want to bail out banks or auto companies, but they don't want any regulations upon those companies either, and they can't stand the idea of taxing people who are insanely wealthy, because then they might be considered "socialist."

It's not socialism people. it's not communism either... it's just self interest.

None of those issues are right wing or left wing. Freedom should mean freedom for all. Fairness should mean fairness for all. Why are we regulating people who don't do us any harm as a society, and deregulating those that do? Everything is topsy turvy because America has a mental problem with a word. But the mental problems that America has are exactly what the unfairly wealthy will exploit in order to remain just that. And that will never change as long as money... huge unchecked amounts of it, are funneled to small groups of extremely powerful people.

Firstly, before anything else, we need campaign finance reform with teeth.

Again, it is not a socialist idea, it is in some ways quite capitalistic, and definitely very patriotic to regulate how money flows in order to benefit your country the most. So once again I ask:

Why Should Rich People Have To Pay More Tax?

And the answer is this:

Because they make too much stinking money in the first place.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Untying the Knots

Critism and Debate: Yes or NO?

In response to the June 4th broadcast of On the Media on PBS

where these questions are asked:

Does criticsm endanger Israel's security?

Does honest debate ever pose a danger to democracy?

I must start with this question:

Can a religious state be a democracy?

Without in any way questioning Israel's right to exist- I wonder, how is it that in America, a country based upon the principles of separation of church and state, nobody questions the fact that Israel is a religious state in which political preference is given to one group over another.

I remember once, in the good old days of Ronald Reagan when, if you can believe it, the American people actually debated whether it was right to support an apartheid South Africa… Jeane Kirkpatrick, our ambassador to the U.N., made this comment: South Africa is a democracy– but only for some of the people.

My dictionary definition for "democracy" reads, "a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state."

I'm sure Ms. Kirkpatrick would have argued that some people are just not eligible, but we all know what democracy means. It means equal rights for all.

Here we are in America trying to get equal rights for women, for gays, for religious and ethnic groups of all kinds– not always successfully… but it just seems that flaunting a religious ideology as a basis for democratic government is– if not totally antiquated thinking– then at least heading in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, maybe I am wrong about America. When I see large groups of people seriously debating a ban on a Muslim mosque close to the site of the World trade Center, I am forced to wonder whether they would feel the same way about a ban on a Catholic church close to the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Timothy McVeigh was a Catholic.

Of course Christians, Jews, and Muslims cannot be regarded equivalently. There used to be many Christian countries, although most are now shedding that classification... and there still are many Muslin countries, some who pose a threat– real or imagined– to Israel. Judaism is not just a religion, it has become a racial and cultural entity, which has been artificially crystalized into one single state. But if you think it is true that all Jews are culturally the same people, then you don't know the difference between Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Hassid, Jews for Jesus, etc. Consider the fracas which arose in Israel shortly after the huge influx of uncircumcised Soviet Jewry in the late eighties and early nineties. How could such a little thing cause such a big problem.

In light of the Nazi holocaust Helen Thomas may not have been particularly sensitive or diplomatic in her recent comments, telling Jews to go back to Germany or Poland– but in all fairness the holocaust happened sixty five years ago, and if we can give her any credit for her normal good sense, then we might assume that what she meant was that most Jews are not racially or culturally from Israel– they are of European or some other descent. They are culturally German, or Polish, or Russian, or American… or even Indian… or Chinese.

So why are we creating this confluence of religion, race, and culture, and landing it all on this one tiny part of the world? No wonder there is so much hostility there, we are all putting a huge amount of pressure upon the people who have to share that small location.

Catholics in the U.S.A. or in South America, or in Africa, or in the Far East don't consider themselves all one people. Neither, I should suppose do Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists or Rastafarians… well maybe Rastafarians do.

I suppose what I am saying is that the Government of Israel is not a homogenized thinking machine, neither are the people of Israel. Just like America… and every other country on Earth, it is a complex and messy web of contradictions. So when we threaten its existence… who are we threatening? When we criticize it… who are we criticizing?

Personally, I believe this is a free universe and do not support anybody's right to authority or dominion over any part of it. Having said that, I do respect the power of each of those self proclaimed authorities and so I always carry my passport with me when I travel. Sorry, but I just don't understand what the word patriotism means, and I defy anyone to define it to my satisfaction… or their own, for that matter.

Israeli zealots are not the only ones who don't like to hear criticism, we have the Glen Becks and Bill O'Reillys, England has its Nick Griffins. These people are not serious thinkers, they are like children having temper tantrums when they are disagreed with.

Of course we must have debate and criticism, these are essential ingredients of anything approaching true democracy. Any adult knows that. And as much as we must encourage the children to take part in these debates, they also need to know when to sit quietly and listen, so that they can have something of value to inject into the conversation. Yes their ideas must be treated with respect, but they must also learn to respect the ideas of others.


Additional Note:

Hanin Zuabi is a female Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset who was onboard the boat Mavi Mamara of the Gaza aid flotilla, where nine activists were killed by Israeli commandos recently. When she was released from custody she returned to the Knesset to speak about her experiences aboard the boat. The reaction with which she was greeted within that supposedly political organization boggles the mind. She was physically set upon by fellow members of the Israeli parliament, and had to be protected by bodyguards within the chamber of the Knesset. She was also shouted at, called by abusive names and threatened with death. She has since been told that she might face criminal prosecution for having been on the boat, and that many of her privileges as a member of parliament, including her diplomatic passport are to be rescinded. Perhaps an even more surrealistic development is that there have been over five hundred calls for her execution on Facebook.

To call this kind of behavior democracy would be the greatest use of 'doublespeak' since George Orwell.

Watch Democrarcy Now broadcast on this subject

Monday, May 31, 2010

True North: Finding Your Center and Staying on Your Path


Recently, I've been reminded of the grace that surrounds us all. The grace I speak of is that idea that all is in its place within the universe - that we all need not try so hard, push so hard, worry so much. It's the reassurance that we are where we need to be right now. And, right now is all that matters.

Many of us yearn for things, for situations - a new car or a better job, for example. They need not be greedy desires, but rather like everyday wishes for what we see as an improvement in our circumstances. We sometimes push ourselves into situations that we think would make our lives easier and better. [Though we know that "things" don't make life better, don't we? But, that's another topic for another post.] At times it's good to wander out of our comfort zones, to achieve new things and experience new things. But there is a balance. And we need to be reminded, every so often, that we should be gentle and patient with ourselves and with others. This is that reminder.

We are all, even the strongest and most accomplished of us, human beings. Human beings with moments of fear and doubt. Let's pledge to ourselves to try our best not to reside in fear, and to be more accepting of our own shortcomings and those of our fellow men and women, and to remember that with perseverance and love, anything is possible. I am reminded of the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Sufi leader and classical Indian musician, who said, "I have seen all souls as my soul, and realized my soul as the soul of all."

This grace that I speak of is difficult to define... for me, it is the absence of pushing. It's active participation in the moments of life. It's the reinforcement, joy and connectivity that come from allowing yourself to simply "be"; by relaxing, being present, and experiencing life to the fullest with those closest. It feels a bit like magic. I think that maybe it comes from living as honestly as one can. This encompasses many things, such as not hiding from difficult situations, self-reflections, or confrontations, but rather dealing with them head on. And, it also comes from taking risks, experiencing new situations (even scary ones), not shying away from the spotlight, and reaching for your future. All of this is done very organically, meeting opportunities as they arise (again, not pushing). I have a few friends who have taken on big endeavors recently, but who, when met with large goals simply relaxed, were themselves, persevered and didn't let fear get in their way (you know who you are). I am amazed often at the courage and strength I see in the people around me. It's a lovely thing to witness people who allow their light to shine.

By way of my own example of these ideas I've been pondering... well - those of you who have followed this blog know that I have been looking for a new professional career path since leaving my corporate fashion apparel job over a year ago. During that time, I have traveled through Europe and also taken a trip through the Southern US. I have turned down opportunities that felt suppressive and those where I thought I wouldn't be treated the way I know I must be - with dignity and respect. A few colleagues told me I was crazy to spend time and money traveling when I had no real job. And, they thought I should take the first thing that came along and be glad for it; conform myself to fit the needs of any organization that would have me. I wondered if that wasn't the ole "misery loves company" adage rearing its ugly head.

Well, I couldn't go down what I knew to be the wrong path for myself, it just wasn't in me. I had learned too much, come too far, and worked too hard. Oh, I had my moments of doubt as to what the "right" path for me was, but I was accepting of the fact that that no role need be forever and adamant that my next role would be one that was fun, interesting, rooted in trust and respect, and allowed me to contribute my talents while growing professionally. I'm very lucky to have a husband who supports me 100%.

I'm happy to share with you, that I have found a great position within a very good company with talented, professional people. I have the opportunity to use the skills and knowledge I've acquired over the years in a more creative capacity (yay!). The career path adventure I've been on for the last 14 months is working out just fine. Not only that, it's working out much better than it would if I had succumbed to fear and doubt or tried to make something happen before its time. And this development all came about simply by my "showing up" - what I mean by this is by doing the honest work of knowing what type of projects/positions I did and didn't want, pursuing the things that felt right for me, doing research, reaching out to colleagues, and - most importantly - being myself. I didn't push, I went down paths that opened up to me.

I shall close with a prayer that I think has bearing on the ideas in this post. You've all heard it. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and (perhaps most importantly) the wisdom to know the difference."

Religious aspects aside, we could all - each and every one of us - benefit from remembering that life is short, and though it's sometimes very difficult, it's also filled with the sweetest joy. Much of what we experience in life is up to us. There are no wrong choices, only opportunities to learn.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

True North: Finding Your Center and Staying on Your Path

"Advice to Myself"

What follows is a beautiful poem I heard yesterday, that I wanted to share with you all….

"Advice to Myself"

by Louise Erdrich

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

For those of you interested in learning more, Louise appears this week on the Bill Moyers show on PBS.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

True North: Finding Your Center and Staying on Your Path

Ruminations on 40

So, I'm turning 40 this week.

I've never subscribed to the idea that I should live my life in a specific way, or that being a certain age necessarily predicts or prescribes any notable things, but I thought it would be fun to mark the occasion with some type of ritual. After some consideration, I decided a virtual time capsule would be interesting: a glimpse back into what life was like in March of 1970.

So, I went digging. Close your eyes, and let's travel back...

Musically, The Beatles were still together (well, for a few more weeks, at least). Floating through the air, you might hear “Let It Be,” John's “Instant Karma,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” by Sly & the Family Stone. Jimi Hendrix released a live Band of Gypsys album. Miles Davis released “Bitches Brew”. Jerry Lewis, Don Ho, Roger Miller, Flip Wilson and Wayne Newton were playing Vegas. Woo hoo, what a time!

The cover of
GQ magazine noted the trends in men's fashion with a "garden of sartorial delights in psychedelic hues". If only the trend had continued, my friends!

The movie documentary "Woodstock" was released. See if you remember any of these other popular films from 1970: Airport, M*A*S*H, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Love Story, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Five Easy Pieces, and the Owl and the Pussycat.

How about cable TV? Hee Haw, the Beverly Hillbillies, Hawaii Five-O, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the Courtship of Eddie’s Father were all big hits.

In the news… well, the Vietnam War was still waging strong. The US lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The US postal service was on strike and President Nixon ordered the National Guard & Reserves to start delivering the mail, which didn’t go so well. San Fran mayor Alioto proclaimed March 21 (the Spring Equinox) the very first Earth Day. Four days later, on March 25, the Concorde made its first Supersonic flight. And it was on this day that I arrived as well.

(As an interesting side note, the 25th of March is also the traditional Feast of the Annunciation, and when the calendar system of Anno Domini was first introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in AD 525, he assigned the beginning of the new year to March 25, since according to Christian theology, the era of grace began with the Incarnation of Christ. It was that way until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. But I digress...)

I've taken a moment this week to write down a few things (in no particular order) that I've managed to learn along my journey (of 40 trips around the sun) so far. Take what you will…

1. Age is only a number.
2. Don't trust your government. Or corporations. Trust yourself.
3. No one cares about your health as much as you do. Read and educate yourself, and get second opinions.
4. Exercise!
5. Don't eat junk food or fast food.
6. A good album, or a great book, will be a friend for life.
7. Be kind to the planet. Be kind in general.
8. Be nice to animals.
9. Don't sweat the small stuff. You'll drive yourself bazonkers.
10. Fall in love! Love and be loveable.
11. Be present. Be here now.
12. Be silly.
13. Stay in touch with your friends. Phone them every so often just to say "hi".
14. Don't be afraid of change or conflict. With both comes learning and growth.
15. Don't worry what others think. You don't have to prove anything to anyone else.
16. Age doesn't guarantee wisdom.
17. Never stop challenging yourself and trying new things.
18. Laugh every day.
19. Eat the batter left in the bowl when baking cookies.
20. Walk barefoot in the Summertime.
21. Run through rain showers even though you will get soaked.
22. Marvel at fireflies, seahorses, dragonflies, grasshoppers and cocoons. See the world with eyes of wonder.
23. Lie on the ground and stare up a clouds and stars. What do you see?
24. Do kartwheels in the backyard.
25. Watch Bugs Bunny.
26. Color and paint and make collages. See possibilities.
27. Handwrite letters to faraway friends.
28. Remember, this too shall pass.
29. Change your world by changing your thoughts.
30. Write poetry.
31. Sing songs! Sing loud! Sing strong!
32. Dance.
33. Cook! Invent new dishes, and name them after yourself. Use wine.
34. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s not necessary, and not worth it.
35. Have no regrets. Know that you are who you are meant to be, where you are meant to be, and everything (yes, everything) in your life has led you to this moment.
36. Breathe.
37. Meditate.
38. Encourage children.
39. Follow your dreams. No matter what.
40. Be yourself. Always.



Thursday, March 11, 2010

True North: Finding Your Center and Staying on Your Path

My 3Ps: Positive thinking, Perseverance, and being Present

One of the things I keep being reminded of in life is that no matter what the situation, whether a job search, raising a child, a disagreement with another, an overwhelming project, a difficult goal or anything else you experience, you will benefit from these three things which I have termed the 3Ps: the power of your Positive thoughts, Persevering and being in the Present moment.

Those who know me and/or follow this blog might know that I'm in the midst of a career transition & job search; that I've been promoting our band, Inner Gypsy for several years; and that I'm a runner, training for a 15K race this Summer. In each of these endeavors, several times I have hit the proverbial "wall" - that place where you get so frustrated at your results that you slow down, check out, and/or feel like giving up. Life's tough, no doubt about it. But in each of these endeavors, the 3Ps have made a big difference for me on how I perceive and move forward with my challenges.

I'll illustrate these points using my career search. In the last six months, I have given serious consideration to my experience and talent in discerning the capacity of work I'd be best suited for at this stage of my life. I have applied to dozens of positions. I have been on several interviews; I have networked with my phone and rolodex and with my social media tools; I have reformatted and jazzed up my resume; and I have written countless cover letters and done research on myriad companies. In fact, as I write this, I am waiting to hear back from a company I really connected with and would like the opportunity to work for, to call me back with their choice (I am one of three finalists).

One might say that I am no closer to my goal than I was when I began, because I haven't been hired yet. There are folks out there on job boards and radio shows saying things like, "The economy is so bad, do whatever you can to get hired, it's every man (or woman) for himself", "Take whatever job you can get, be willing to compromise your standards and take less money", and even "You must be ready for any question they may ask you, no matter how odd."

This type of thinking promotes anxiety, and if you embrace it there is no amount of preparation or work you do which you will consider "enough". It's also not a healthy way to live.

Now, I'm not afraid of work, and believe me when I tell you, I put a lot of time and sincere effort into my job search. I have job-bots set up to email me whenever key words are posted in my geographic area; I research, write, apply, converse, convince, rehearse, network, call, practice, and keep a log of my activities. And sometimes when I speak with colleagues who are also in this transition, or who are fearful that the jobs they currently hold will soon end, they ask me how I can be so positive. The answer is twofold.

First, know that I'm not a Pollyanna who walks around with a smile on her face all the time, and I sure have my moments of doubt and fear, just like anyone. But, secondly and most importantly, I don't dwell there. I feel the feeling and move on, and so I perform each of the tasks I describe above simply to that task's end, as honestly and completely as I can. Then, I feel good about my efforts, continue to push forward and do the best I can.

Much of this attitude is the result of some recent personal work I have done in the area of being present in the moment. In this practice, we do not bring our past into the current moment, and we do not project the future into the present moment. We are simply present. This concept, while simple, has taken me a long time to assimilate into my reality. I have spent most of my life asking "What if", unable to stop myself from imagining what might be or dwelling on what might have been. But recently I have discovered that when I notice myself doing either of those things, I can simply refocus my attention on the present and all the anxiety slips away and I am able to just be. The more I practice it, the easier and more natural it becomes. And, I'm sure the people I spend time with appreciate the fact that I am present in the moment with them, and not off in another place in my head.

I also have lived long enough to know that often, when something occurs that seems like a real setback (for instance, getting turned down for a job), that it can actually turn out to be a positive occurrence (the company goes out of business, or you land a better offer elsewhere - both of these things have happened to me). Also, there is power in 'failure': we learn to ask for help, to consider alternatives, to adapt our thinking, to stop doing things that don't work!

If we don't push forward, we don't learn and grow. If I didn't continue running when I was tired, my legs ached and I was gasping for air, I wouldn't be able to now run as far and as fast as I can. This makes me healthier. If I didn't continue promoting my band, I wouldn't have the experience of all the people who approach me and say they enjoy our show and our songs, and that feels great! With perseverance comes achievement. With achieving difficult things comes confidence. With confidence comes a positive attitude. It's all connected.

Therefore, my advice is don't fret, my friends. Yes, the world is screwy and the economy isn't great and there are bad people out there doing bad things. So what? Worry doesn't get you anywhere. Positive thinking, on the other hand, does. It promotes self-confidence, it makes for a better experience, and it helps you connect and communicate with other like-minded individuals.

So, the next time you feel like giving up or giving in, take heart in the knowledge that the struggle you're going through has been experienced in some form or another by everyone. You're not alone, and if you keep moving, even slowly, in the direction of your dreams, you're making progress.

I leave you with a Norman Vincent Peale quote, "Lots of people limit their possibilities by giving up easily. Never tell yourself 'this is too much for me. It's no use. I can't go on.' If you do, you're licked, and by your own thinking too. Keep believing and keep on keeping on. "

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Untying the Knots

Singing, Running, and Aging

The few short years which arrived so rapidly after reaching fifty, had me believing that I was finally catching up to that thing which, all of my life, I had been told to act– my age. And when you do start to be "your age," then each year you begin to notice that you are slightly older still. But despite the fact that "aging" is only the third mentioned aspect in the title of this essay, it is rapidly becoming the one which guides the progress of the other two.

Aging tends to diminish the flexibility in the cartilage of the voice box and in all the bones of the body. But some people can maintain youthful sounding voices into their eighties or nineties, while others start to sound older by forty or fifty. Equally, I have known people who remained athletic until far older than I am now, whereas others became stiff and tired and unable to jump and run whilst still relatively young.

So there I was, past my half century mark, and it looked like I was on my way down. I was starting to lose much of my athletic ability, I was running less and less, my workout schedules had become farther and farther apart, and to crown it all I couldn't sing my old songs anymore because they were too high. Worse than that, my attempts to continue singing those high notes led to a painful sensation in my throat, not only when I was singing, but also when I was speaking under normal conditions. It was making it impossible to perform my music, and uncomfortable to simply communicate verbally. Fortunately for me, I married a younger woman who, through her faith in me and through the example of her own strength of will, convinced me that I shouldn't allow this belief in my own old age to sabotage these years which could, if I so desired, become my strongest ones yet.

It occurred to me, that perhaps, somewhere along the line, I had had a hand in my own deterioration, and that possibly this loss that I was experiencing was not at all inevitable. Maybe I was getting weaker because I simply wasn't working out as much, or in the right way. Perhaps my voice troubles were a result of some bad practice that I had picked up, and that in both cases there was some technique that I had understood when I was younger, but had now forgotten.

But how could it be, I wondered, that there was something that I had understood before, but couldn't now. Yes, as we get older we tend to get lazier... we have less to prove, we are less and less locked within the "drama of the gifted child"– but I could not accept that we become less intelligent. The one thing that age has going for it, surely, is wisdom, isn't it? Well, I decided to use that hard earned wisdom to remind myself that now might be a good time to seek help for what I could not figure out on my own.

About a year ago I found a voice coach and, at the same time, started running and working out on a more regular basis. This process has not yet gotten me back to the point that I am seeking, but I can say, in all honesty, that today I am a younger man than I was a year ago, and my goal within the next year is to continue to travel a significant distance in the direction of my youth. As I have been diligently following these two simultaneous paths of voice and movement, I have reminded myself of something that I knew years ago but had, for a while, forgotten: that singing and running are like two sides of the same coin. They are metaphors for each other in a myriad of ways, and the similarities which they possess are the clues to their function and usage.

The first and most obvious similarity, of course, is breathing. Both activities require the correct use of diaphragmatic breathing.

The term diaphragmatic breathing comes, obviously, from the diaphragm, which is a membrane located above the stomach and below the lungs. It pops upward when you breathe out, and downward when you breathe in to allow the bottom of the lungs to fill with air. In order for it to do that, we must get the belly out of the way by distending it. I have had several Yoga instructors tell me to breathe into the stomach. And though it may feel like you are doing that, actually you are simply allowing the diaphragm to move out of the way of the bottom of the lungs so that they can fill completely. The lungs do not go down any lower than the rib cage does– but go ahead, breathe into the "stomach" for that is indeed what it feels like; the old military style breathing up into the chest, which we were all taught in phys ed as children, doesn't really achieve much in the way of getting more air into the lungs, but if you can learn to expand the ribcage outward and toward the back, that will help.

We don't want to constrict the belly by making the upper stomach muscles too rigid. Don't worry about that perfect flat belly, efficient breathing requires a little roundness to the belly, and therefore so does running… and singing. But we do need to support our posture by using the lower stomach muscles. Now, It can be difficult to isolate the lower muscles of the stomach from the uppers, but by tilting the pelvis forward we can start to feel where the lowers are working. Most people know how to do this when dancing or having sex. Some American males are not used to this movement…they see it as effeminate. In other parts of the world, Brazil for example, it is considered very macho. I say, it's just a body movement, get over it!

Another way to get familiar with these muscles is to clench the sphincter or the glutes (the ass muscles). But having said all of this, I'd suggest you do not concentrate too hard on the details of which muscles you are using, it is more about "feeling" like you are breathing fully and comfortably in a way that is supported by your center.

I often find myself getting too caught up in the technical details of what I'm doing, and when that happens I lose my spontaneity. For both singing and running it is important to feel strength and support coming from that pelvic/lower stomach area, from the glutes and even the upper thighs. I have heard voice teachers tell students to sing "from the balls." I can only assume that what they meant was the same thing that I am talking about. So with the hope that women reading this will not take my masculine metaphor too literally I shall advise runners to also "run from the balls."

Now again, these are not fixed positions we are talking about– in fact the complete opposite is true. In both singing and running we need strength and flexibility. We don't want to be locked into either state, but maintain the ability to move from one position to the other easily and naturally. Both disciplines benefit from our ability to suspend judgment of the outcome and instead concentrate more on our process. If we do it right, the speed will come, the high notes will come… do not push.

But what does "push" mean?

When we are "pushing" we are not doing too much of the right thing, we are actually doing the wrong thing. We are using muscles that don't really do anything, and sometimes actually block the movement of the muscles we need for the activity in which we are involved. This is why relaxation is so important. To quote the Hippocratic oath, "first do no harm." The relaxed body is more likely to be able to isolate the muscles it needs for a specific purpose and not get them all tangled up with other muscles which just get in the way.

When singing or when running in a healthy way, we will not feel harshness associated with the process. We will feel buoyant and pain free, controlled but flexible. My present voice teacher, W. Stephen Smith, describes correct voice control as feeling like a ping-pong ball spinning in place on a current of air at the back of the throat. It is that effortless, it feels like… nothing. Well, maybe not completely nothing, there is a sensation, but a very pleasant one. Smooth and slippery. More like a sophisticated Mercedes hydraulic suspension than the leaf springs on a Jeep.

Which, again, is the perfect metaphor for running– shock absorbers. If you can hear your feet slamming into the sidewalk with every step, then you are hurting yourself. But if you feel like you are in the center of a wheel which is just rolling down the street, you can hardly hear your own footsteps and running becomes a pleasure.

By using the heel and toe method this pleasurable process can be achieved. First learn to walk by placing your heel on the ground and rolling the foot toward the front, as if it were a small arc of a large circle, and then push off with the toe. Now, once you are walking this way simply speed up maintaining the same process, and as you get faster you will find that you are running. Remember to be centered in that pelvic area. Remember to allow the pelvis to "rotate" in a fluid way. Use the thigh muscles to control your movements and place the feet where you want them. Allow the body to dip just slightly by bending the knee as each leg takes up the weight of the body– just like the suspension on your car. Do not fling your body through the air, your weight should be balanced and capable of changing direction easily if necessary. With each step there is a tightening and relaxation of the muscles in opposition to each other. Nothing is only relaxed. Nothing is only tensed.

Do not change this technique as you speed up, let your breathing take you to the next level– not your body posture. And just as importantly, do not change your technique as you slow down. When we get tired we need to slow down, and because running slowly is easier than running fast we tend to let our technique get sloppy as we decelerate.

Similarly in singing, find the lightest and least pressured way to sing low, and then move up the scale using the same technique. It should feel just as easy to sing high as it does to sing low if you allow the breathing to get you up there and not the contortion of the lower tongue muscles. And again, when coming down don't get sloppy just because it's easier down there. If you get stuck in a bad technique down low you won't be able to get high again.

Of course, with both singing and running, ultimately you are not thinking technique whilst you are involved in the process. Although at first we do need to learn these things slowly because they do seem incredibly unnatural at first. It is simply not the way we have been used to doing them. When I do my vocal exercises each day I often feel like Helen Keller learning how to talk. I don't want anyone to hear me or see me in my agonizing frustratedly over correct process. But somehow in the previous five years or so I have "trained" myself to force certain tongue muscles to do the most painful things when I sing and talk, and like some victim of childhood abuse, my primal mind seeks that self abuse because it cannot imagine a pain free existence.

What we need then, is to find that comfortable feeling, which is the correct posture for our activity, to which we can go immediately without thinking about it, which will be our voice… our stride.

As far as aging goes: ditto all of the above. Let's face it, these metaphors don't just apply to singing and running, but to every aspect of life. We need to know the correct techniques for doing things, but then we need to get out of our heads and just do them– we need to be in the moment. All the old clichés are true… life is what you make of it no matter how long you keep on living, be here now. Youth and age are not separated by a line but are connected by merging into one another. We are neither old nor young, we are neither strong nor weak, we are neither good nor bad, but all those things rolled into one. Try to see yourself as you really are, and without judgment. Just keep on living no matter what, and keep on receiving the fruits that life has to offer because there is no time– future or past– like the present.