A Lesson That Won’t Be Learned

David Mamet, in his book On Directing Film, describes modern architecture that was in vogue in the 60’s, with its flat roofs, being put all over New England. After a few years, these houses began to have major problems because they were not designed to handle the weight of the snow. Most of those houses are gone now because the designs didn’t take into consideration how nature worked.

Why is Mamet, the great director, playwright, screenwriter, and artist talking about houses? His point was about structure. He went on to say how the old New England builders understood weather, and structured their houses with the right pitch of the roofs so that snow will fall off them. He then went on to make the same point about the structure of film, and how it must understand the forces in play to make it workable.

Here in Vermont, where we live, there are people who know how water flows, and just where to build a house and just where to put ditches to route the flows of water from storms away from the house. Without this knowledge, you will end up with water in your cellar or worse.

So now we come to the tragedy in Houston. Without a sense of how land and weather work, entire towns and cities, factories and refineries, were build in places that were below the flood levels. Of course, our hearts go out to the millions of people who will suffer, some of whom have lost their lives, because of a terrible hurricane. You may think that this was something that couldn’t have been anticipated, but in the 1930’s, a similar hurricane hit that area with similar devastation. Then, however, the land was not built up. There was some damage but not the type we see today.

It can sound almost childish to ask why build buildings in places where they are subject to danger? In New Orleans, there had been wetlands to accommodate for the amount of water they would get from a hurricane, but someone had the idea of paving over the wetlands. A similar mentality drove Texas to rid the state of regulations designed to protect the population from exactly this type of event.

Those who want to rid the world of government, are against regulations as if they were somehow the enemies of freedom. These people put their societies in danger. Of course, we can talk about over regulation, etc. But that misses the point. To generalize about all regulations is ridiculous. A society has a right to protect itself. And without some guidelines and controls, short-term exploitive gain will lead to long-term harm. The folks that build the houses that flooded are long gone, but they made their money. They will not be held responsible for the outcome. Nor will the state of Texas when they changed the laws to permit such development.

The promise to restore the towns and cities that have been destroyed seems impractical at best, and inane at worst. Why restore something that was built in the wrong place to begin with? This is a lesson that will not be learned.

In our work is structural dynamics; we understand that the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior. In our work, we have seen that self-organizing systems, much glorified a few years ago in some management circles, always lead to structural conflicts in which elements are pitted against other elements. This leads to an oscillating pattern of short-term Vs long term, a competition for the same resource base, and a drift to low performance. The glorification of the “free market” is such a self-organizing system. The market will not take care of itself when left to its own devices. In the case of Texas, many of the policy makers thought that great good would come from freeing up regulations and letting the marketplace do its thing. Well, it did its thing.

This is not a slam against free enterprise, which is a great system when proper and sensible controls assure its overall positive benefits and avoid its potentially destructive dangers.

As David Mamet teaches in On Directing Film, there are some structures that are better than others, and it is with folly that nature is not taken into consideration.

Charlottesville

It is the essence of irony that white supremacists are not the most gifted among us. I suppose that is why they hang onto identity to make up for their actual inadequacies. For them, there is great synthetic comfort in holding on to a straw of false pride, and, hating other groups they see as less than them. That’s all their lives have become. And, when hate migrates into terrorism, as it did in Charlottesville, the pretense of anything good or noble that they would like to claim dissolves into the reality it is: a cult of evil.

What happened yesterday was just one event that dramatized a sickness in America. Actually it is a sickness that is finding pockets of malignant cells throughout the West these days. It is easier to seethe with hate than develop, work hard, build, create, and join together with others to build a better world.

To think that in 2017, after the history of the Twentieth Century, with millions upon millions dying because of National Socialism, that Nazi flags could fly in America is surreal. But there it is. History can seem lost to a world that, in its past, had sacrificed so much to overcome evil, only to see it reappear.

What can we learn? That nothing is ever fixed. That social order to guarantee such values as freedom and justice can be so easily undermined, and that progress is not assured in a steady state simply because at one point it had its victories. The human condition is the same as it was over 2000 years ago, and while there has been dramatic progress in technology and science, the structural makeup of humanity remains unchanged. That means that society has a choice it may not know it has. For it to make that choice, it has to always move ahead in the direction of freedom and justice for all. If it becomes complacent, it will lose ground, and the cancer of that which is lowest and most base in the human condition will have its day.
RF

The Passing of Sam Shepard

It hurts to think of Sam Shepard, gone.

The cause of his death was complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

One of the greatest artists of his generation, Shepard was a true original. His plays have become classics of the theater, and, along with Bob Dylan, he was worthy of winning a Nobel Prize in Literature (even though he didn’t.)

He changed theater, experimented with form and structure, went way beyond the theater of the absurd which was in fashion in the late 50s and early 60s, and created powerful, unforgettable characters. Bruce Willis said that it took him years of acting experience to finally be prepared to play a Sam Shepard role because of the emotional complexity and dramatic depth it demands.

Shepard was also powerful actor. Memorable are his roles as Chuck Yeager in the Right Stuff and as Eddie in Fool For Love based on his play and directed for film by Robert Altman. His performances were always alive with a natural feeling, emotional truth, both down to earth and charismatic. When he was on the screen, you couldn’t take your eyes off of him. He could be doing nothing it seemed, and yet, the screen was filled with drama. Of course, he wasn’t doing “nothing.“ He was filling the space with his presence and imagination.

A true great has passed. Always a sad event that seems to change the world.

From his website:

Sam Shepard’s plays are performed on and off Broadway and in all the major regional American theatres. They are also widely performed and studied in Europe, particularly in Britain, Germany and France, finding both a popular and scholarly audience. A leader of the avant-garde in contemporary American theatre since his earliest work. Sam’s plays are not easy to categorize. They combine wild humor, grotesque satire, myth and a sparse, haunting language to present a subversive view of American life.

His settings are often a kind of nowhere, notionally grounded in the dusty heart of the vast American Plains; his characters are typically loners, drifters caught between a mythical past and the mechanized present; his work often concerns deeply troubled families.

Before he was thirty, Shepard had over thirty plays produced in New York. In his works Shepard has repeatedly examined the moral anomie and spiritual starvation that characterize the world of his drama.”

Sam began his career as a playwright in New York in 1964 with the Theatre Genesis production of two one-act plays, COWBOYS and THE ROCK GARDEN at St. Mark’s Church-in-the Bowery. Their lack of conventional structure and the manic language of their long monologues offend critics from uptown papers. Some find the plays derivative of Samuel Beckett and other European dramatists. But Michael Smith of THE VILLAGE VOICE hails them as “distinctly American” and “genuinely original,” and declares their author full of promise.”

By 1980, he was the most produced playwright in America after Tennessee Williams.

Over the past forty years, Sam has written over 45 plays, eleven of which have won Obie Awards. In 1979 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for BURIED CHILD. In 1986 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1992 he received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy. He was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994.

“No one knows better than Sam Shepard that the true American West is gone forever, but there may be no writer alive more gifted at reinventing it out of pure literary air.”
…Frank Rich, The New York Times
“Mr. Shepard is the most deeply serious humorist of the American theatre, and a poet with no use whatsoever for the ‘poetic.’ He brings fresh news of love, here and now, in all its potency and deviousness and foolishness, and of many other matters as well.” …Edith Oliver, The New Yorker
“If plays were put in time capsules, future generations would get a sharp-toothed profile of life in the U.S. in the past decade and a half from the works of Sam Shepard.” …Time Magazine
“Sam Shepard is one of the most gifted writers ever to work on the American stage.” …Marsha Norman, Pulitzer-Award-winning author
“One of our best and most challenging playwrights… His plays are a form of exorcism: magical, sometimes surreal rituals that grapple with the demonic forces in the American landscape.” …Newsweek
“His plays are stunning in their originality, defiant and inscrutable.” ..Esquire
“Sam Shepard is phenomenal…. The best practicing American playwright.” …The New Republic

Sam Shepard was 73 years old.

What we can learn from music

Back in 2007, the writer/neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book describing a disease he terms musicophillia. It is when the brain cannot process music. Most people do not suffer from musicophillia. In fact, music is one of the most universally loved art forms throughout the world.

What is it about music to which human beings so relate and respond? Is it about sound, rhythm, form, melody, texture, sonic relationships, the combinations of all of those things, or perhaps something else?

To Sacks, it was a matter of how the brain functions. In a PBS special, they hooked him up to a MRI brain scan and played him a piece by Bach and one by Beethoven. As it happened, Sacks liked Bach better than Beethoven, and his explanation was that his brain activity during the Bach was more stimulated than it was during the Beethoven. He suggested a few questionable conclusions from this. One was that somehow Bach was a better composer than Beethoven, and his brain waves were simply proving his point.

To think that one can claim that Bach was a greater composer than Beethoven, or the reverse of that seems the height of folly, and Sacks was too smart a guy to put his name on that declaration. But, after all his qualifiers, that’s exactly what he thought.

Taste is a personal matter. Some of us like sweet flavors, some of us prefer sour. Some of us like the combo of sweet and sour together, and some of us don’t. There is no right or wrong when it comes to taste. But, and here is the more interesting question, are those neurologists working on brain research today really understanding what came first, the preference or the brain activity?

In Sacks’ case of liking Bach over Beethoven, I would guess, and it’s only a guess, that his taste in music came first, his brain waves followed suit. Because he preferred Bach, his brain sort of said, “Mmm, Bach! How nice!” And then, his brain lit up like a young girl at a Justin Bieber concert. For me, while I love the Bach, the piece he was listening to by Beethoven was more interesting, more expressively powerful, and, if I had to chose between to two masterpieces, it would be the Beethoven hands down. I’m sure my brain would become more active with the Beethoven than the Bach, the opposite of Dr. Sacks.

I think that the late Oliver Sacks’ research over the years was brilliant. And he had a masterful ability to write about his findings. I’m a fan. But, music, that’s a realm that many neurologists have tried to explain without much success. The book This Is Your Brain On Music by McGill University neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, while popular, was a very silly book. His understanding of music is limited to that of an uneducated fan, and he had little knowledge of how music works structurally, something that all composers learn in music school their first year. McGill has a world class music school, and I’m sure he could have gotten a little help from his friends there, or maybe, better yet, taken a few classes in harmony, counterpoint, and form and analysis. If he had, he wouldn’t have ended up saying some of the childish things he said. Again, like Sacks, he tried to link his personal tastes to brain activity and neuroscience, and that weakness discredited his claims and demonstrated his lack of understanding.

Musical tastes develop over time. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused near-riots in the audience. Now it seems tame and mainstream. This tends to be the way new trends in music develop. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was a breakthrough that took getting used to by the audience of that day. Elvis’s first appearances were met with controversy and a storm of protest. The history of music shows that taste in music is often acquired. But, if, as some neuroscientists claim, that somehow the brain will gravitate toward structures that are predetermined by the neurological disposition, how can they explain the ongoing invention of new styles of music, and the fact that the pattern of audience response is often rejection followed by appreciation. Think of the development of reggae, techno rock, rap, minimalism, atonality and electronic music now heard in most Hollywood suspense films?

In 1863, German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz published his groundbreaking book On The Sensations of Tone in which he explains how the overtone series creates its own built-in tension-resolution systems, the underlying structure of tonal harmony. From what we’ve seen from neuroscience, it is hard to imagine those who work in that field know much about Helmholtz’s work. If they did, they would begin to study why the overtone series generates the harmonic structures it does, and why throughout the 20th Century, music has moved from lower to higher aspects of the series, in other words, became more complex and dissonant. The inventions of Debussy and Ravel, followed by the discoveries of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Stockhausen created new systems of harmony and counterpoint. These new methods were directly consistent with Helmholtz’s descriptions of the physics of music.

The brain learns. The brain changes with new experiences over time. That observation leads to this question: is it the brain that dictates what you want, or does what you want dictate to the brain, instructing it to develop whatever connections it needs to accommodate your wishes?

There is a lot of interesting research going on in neuroscience right now. There are a lot of claims being made, often by people who sell programs that assert validity through neuroscience. I have yet to see anything compelling that explains how structure works within people’s lives. Music, one of the most structural of art forms, has yet to be explained by the wonders of neuroscience. Your brain may be waiting for your direction, and after a while, will do what it needs to do to comply to your wishes as much as it can. Perhaps this is art over science.

The Passing of Fidel

Before Fidel there was Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt dictator who used his military to control the country. He had overthrown Gerado Machado, another dictator. I was a kid when Castro took over Cuba. At first, most Americans were for him. They thought he was a democrat fighting for freedom and justice and they hated Batista who was close to the American Mafia. Soon, though, the truth became known. Even before he announced he was a Marxist-Leninist, he was killing his enemies in grotesque public firing squads. Then things got worse.

There is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions here, for Fidel had special qualities that could have served something positive and creative. Seems that in our world, you can only have one of two opinions of him: he was a despot; he was a revolutionary hero. The facts support the first opinion more than the second. I had known his chief architect who had built many of the modern public buildings in the early 60’s before escaping to America for his life. Fidel liked to kill people, put them in prison and lose the keys, control the press, intimidate the population, give the longest winded speeches in history, and he almost guided the world into a nuclear war. He tried to export his type of revolution to the third world, mostly in Africa.

Yet he created a fairly good medical system, produced the highest literacy rate in the world, and created other social benefits. Of course, the Cuba’s with their high literacy rate could only read what Fidel approved. I think he had a brilliant mind. But that only made matters worse given he was a total ideologue.

My co-author for our book IDENTITY, Dr. Wayne Andersen, had been on a fact-finding trip to Cuba, and had met with Castro. Dr. A said, “My experience with him confirms he was long winded, prone to talking in the abstract, and although he used physicians as ambassadors of health to different countries, the medical delivery system in Havana was quite dated and not close to our standards. He was brilliant but also twisted! A presence yet a threat to mankind. Suppression is what I felt while I was in Cuba.”

Castro’s worldview was so abstract, theoretical, dogged, and entrenched, with all his intelligence; he was self-defeating in his claim for a better world. This is the problem with true believers. They must make the world in their own image, ignoring reality whenever it contradicted the party line.

In little Havana, the Cuban part of Florida, the news was greeted with celebrations on the streets, Champaign bottles popping, and wild dancing, hugging, and breathing a sigh of relief. In the real Havana, things are quite different. Some people are saying it feels like they’ve lost their father.

Here was a man who could have been great. Was it his megalomania that turned him into a ruthless despot who trampled rights and freedoms? Reminds me of what Robert Frost taught us in his poem: A Semi-Revolution…

A Semi-Revolution
Robert Frost
I advocate a semi-revolution
The trouble with a total revolution
(Ask any reputable Rosicrucian)
Is that it brings the same class up on top.
Executives of skillful execution
Will therefore plan to go half-way and stop.
Yes, revolutions are the only salves,
But they’re one thing that should be done by halves

Dylan and the Prize

dylanWhen journalists write about music or pop culture, they are generally so unbelievably shallow it is more than annoying. And nothing proved that more than the announcement this week that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. They have no idea why he has won. They talk about things that don’t matter, missing everything that does matter.

Even some “serious” writers were critical. Once, reading something by a mystery writer talking shop, he said: “about ‘serious writers,’ “do they think the rest of us are just kidding?” Personally, I am both thrilled that he won, and thrilled for the recognition of the Nobel committee that literature has more avenues of expression than prose and poetry. And while many will see the prize to Dylan as if he is a poet, he works in a different medium, the song form.

Of course, winning the prize in literature is about words. But in the song form, the words are married to music. There is a vastly different way words work with music than alone. That is why it is hard to set the best poetry to music. A great poem defies the limitation of music because it takes something that can be understood a hundred ways and confines it into one single modality. It is what Stravinsky said about music, that music is too specific, that it is exactly what it is, and, because of that it is hard to write about. He said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. Take a great poem and put music to it is like being able to see 3 dimensional sculpture from only one angle.

So, here is the song form, its own art form that is also a form of literature. And why is Dylan so great that he deserves the highest prize in the world for it? Because, through this form, through his words and music, he was able to reach something truly original.

Now, detractors will point to how Woody Guthrie influenced him. And that is true. But Dylan did something beyond Guthrie, which doesn’t take anything away from Guthrie. Everyone is influenced by those who come before. Sometimes the influence is to further develop what they had done the way that Beethoven further developed the classic style of Mozart. Sometimes it is to go in the opposite direction of what has preceded the trends the way Pop Art went in the opposite direction of Abstract Expressionism.

Dylan’s originality is not only in the way he moved the song from a strict form to something that could go anywhere, but how he captured irony and truth in such few words. Before Dylan, most Rock songs were about going out with your boy/girl friend, or the latest dance craze, or breaking up.

Dylan’s ability to see through pretense was disarming and raw. It had something the arts always strive for: emotional truth. It seemed as if he was creating little dramas, poetic moments, seeing everything there was to see, without filters, without an editorial position. This is something the greatest art can do better than any philosophy there ever was. And when the journalists tried to make him a political leader, or the leader of a generation, he said, “I like to think of myself as a song and dance man.”

Of course, he was the most influential songwriter in his generation. Artists from the Beatles to Joni Mitchell to Paul Simon to… well all of them… took their lessons at Dylan’s feet. For many of them, he opened up a new world they didn’t know was available to them. For them, the world moved from black and white to color.

For me, I often find the type of truth in rock songs more authentic and real than in any other form of expression. And Dylan was everyone’s father of that.

His body of work is too enormous to say anything useful about in this little blog. But it is there to listen to forever. Bravo, Bob! Bravo!

Rejuvenation

rejuvenationRejuvenation is the reversal of aging and thus requires a different strategy, namely repair of the damage that is associated with aging or replacement of damaged tissue with new tissue. Rejuvenation can be a means of life extension, but most life extension strategies do not involve rejuvenation.

Now the traditional meaning of the word is the reversal of aging.
As far as it goes, I have experienced a series of, what could be called, rejuvenating cycles. They have to do directly with the creative process. And, they have to do with learning new things. Creating and learning are inextricably tied. If you are creating you must learn. It comes with the territory. I know young people who, to me, seem like old fogies. They are already, even in their 20s, set in their ways. They are bored out of their minds. And the reason is, they are boring. What I mean by that is they have ground down to an attitude in which they know it all, have nothing to learn, are not interested in opening new possibilities, and are not in the business of creating anything, especially their own lives. I feel sorry for these kids.

Maybe later in life they will become young again. And that is the principle of rejuvenation, becoming young in spirit. What does that mean, young in spirit? First let’s say what it is NOT. It is not having a mid-life crisis, buying a sports car, and trying to act like a teenager. It is not entering a childlike dotage, either. Rather it is rediscovering that youthful spark you had in the best parts of your life.

It is opening a level of involvement with life that is fresh, new, interesting, dynamic, where something new can be born, something so new, that, maybe you’ve never thought about before.

It is overcoming the predictable, routine, day-in, day-out grind. But how is that actually done? That is the central question.

Let’s focus on cause rather than effect. The effect is rejuvenation, but the cause, what you can do to create that effect, is by delving deeply into your own creative process. This is about orientation and activity. Creating is generative. The more you create, the more energy you have to create.

And there are a few more things that those who know my work will find familiar. One is to eliminate concepts from your life-building process. Exactly what I mean by that are the various worldviews, personal ideals, social ideals, notions about how the world works. As I have said many times, get out of the belief business and into the creating business.

What is the opposite of rejuvenation? I suppose degeneration, or maybe decline. It certainly is going in the wrong direction. Well, your concepts are the ticket to that destination. The more you fill your life with your beliefs, worldviews, philosophic constructs, theories, speculations, and dogma, the less you will be able to engage with life. Here’s why…

If you think you have the answers, you don’t look at reality to see what’s there. Your concepts hypnotize you. This is what every art student has to learn: how to see reality without the filter of their concepts. Don’t look for answer’s to life, instead, look at life itself. Observe, look, without assuming you will know what you will find. If you do this, suddenly you begin to see some things that you had never seen before. Suddenly, life because more interesting. Suddenly you have new ideas, new interests, new aspirations.

And this is the key to rejuvenation. Originality. This doesn’t mean simply coming up with crazy ideas no one has ever thought of before. In this sense, originality means you are in touch with the origins of a new idea, the source of it. And that source is your own imagination, your own observations, and your dynamic urge to create something new.

Don’t use the creative process as yet another process to react or respond to circumstances. Use it to create. And when you do, and when it becomes your orientation, your way of life, that youthful spirit will emerge as a by-product.

And there is the old pursuit of The fountain of Youth. Many have gone on a quest to find it. They thought something outside of themselves would bestow that on them. Ponce de Leon, for example, was in search of the actual physical fountain of youth when he discovered Florida. He never did find the fountain of youth because it doesn’t exist. And while, it this day and age, explorers are not seeking the actual physical fountain of youth, many still have the same form of exploration. What is that thing I can find that will do it for me? For some, they think it is the right doctrine, or others, it is the right meditative technique, or some it is the right amount of money, for some it is the right relationship, for some it is the right spiritual, economic, or political beliefs. Something outside them can be found, and adopted.

The creative process is no such a thing. It is not something that happens to you, it is something in which you engage. It is not what it does for you, it is what you are doing to bring into existence those things that matter to you.

Identity and Prejudice

identityandprejudice

Thinking in Categories
One-way language works is by sorting words into class types. A word, such as “chair” is an object that has a basic commonality with all chairs. When we say “chair,” the mind goes to the “Chair” category, a grouping that all chairs share in common. To understand the actual chair under consideration, we would begin to sort out the similarities and differences between this particular chair and all chairs. That’s the way the mind works to create and use language. We have general categories of nouns (things) and verbs (actions.) We place what we see into these categories, and, once they are placed, we then consider the unique differences a particular item has with the traits of the general category.

This way of thinking makes the world simple to negotiate. We don’t have to rediscover the sink, the door, the TV, the car, the building, and so on. Our minds can quickly know what these objects are and have a sense of what is going on.

However, too often, thinking in categories obscure accurate perception. Too often, we think we know something before we actually know it. We adopt a “this looks like that” mentality, rather than observe what is before us. And because of that, we distort reality.

In 1954, psychologist Gordon Allport related prejudice to categorical thinking. Because we think in terms of generalized categories, Allport suggested that prejudice is a natural and normal process for humans. He wrote: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibility avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”

While the mind will run on automatic, we have the added control of observation and reason. Here is the mix: three forces in play: automatic categorization, observation, and reason. In a way, sometimes they are in competition, especially when observation and reason contradict the attributes of some category the mind has generated.

It is easier to give in to the assumptions of the category than to observe more closely, and from that, use reason to come to a conclusion. It is easier to be prejudice than not. Prejudice means you have come to conclusions BEFORE you observe, which is completely different from true judgment, in which you reach a conclusion AFTER you have looked at facts and evidence.

You see a white person, and you think white race and whatever attributes that your mind has in that category. You see a black person, and you think black race and whatever attributes that your mind has in that category. Your mind instantly puts people into an assortment of categories. We need to understand that the mind is just doing one of its jobs. Its other jobs include observation and reason.

If you are an inner-city young black man, you may have a category we could call hostile police. Whenever you see a policeman, or a police car, your mind may make an automatic association of unfair treatment, danger, and antagonism. If you are a policeman working in the inner city, you may have a category we could call gang member. When you see a young black man, your mind may make an automatic association of life-threatening danger, violence, crime, guns, and antagonism. These conclusions are not a product of considered thought, but what seems like an instinctive survival mechanism.

Each side can blame the other without considering the dynamic in play. Each side is tied to their concept of the other. From this, a pattern of behavior develops that reinforces each group’s impression of the other. The more the police act antagonistically, the more the young black man sees the police as his enemy. The more the young black man acts antagonistically, the more the police see the young back man as their enemies. Each side will have real examples to prove their point, which entrenches their fixed concepts.

This structure leads to a destructive cycle: a policeman shoots an unarmed young black man. He seems to get away with it. The black community protests. The protests begin peacefully, but soon, some who are more hostile, become violent. This leads the police to feel more defensive. Some individuals assassinate some members of the police, which reinforces to the police that they are in danger. And on it goes. Calls to reason seem weak in light of the mind’s automatic reactionary impulse. What makes it hard to resolve the situation is that people, unbeknownst to themselves, are players in a system, a vicious cycle fueled by how the mind categorizes.

Each side has legitimate complaints. It is true that gangs exist in the inner city. These gangs are dangerous. It is true that some police members are prejudice against black people, especially young black men. It is true that black people have a higher rate of being stopped by the police than white people. In some locations, it is five times higher. It is true that some black men are members of gangs. Most are not. The mind says guilty before proven innocent. The problem cannot be solved by its own terms.

What needs to happen is observation and reason over habitual categorization. Prejudice comes from mindless automatic categorizing based on conceptual generalizations. Another way to describe this is prejudice is an example of not being in touch with reality. Rather than see reality as it is, including actual risk assessment, a worst-case scenario generates an emotional reaction. People feel they are in danger, and act defensively with increased hostility as the cycle escalates. Each side claims that the other side is at war with them.

It is one thing to have a concept that your mind assumes is true. It is another to have a concept that is tied to your identity. Observation and reason can overturn an inaccurate concept. But it takes more than that when identity is tied to the concept. Sometimes, no amount of objective facts and evidence can change the concept. The reason is that anything that contradicts the concept seems like a personal attack or a threat to one’s existence. That is because some concepts and beliefs are tied to a person’s identity. Of course, as we have said before, you are not your beliefs or concepts. This understanding may help to overcome the feeling of threat when a deeply held belief or concept is challenged.

Beliefs about others, especially groups (or tribes,) can also become fixed as if those ideas are inextricably tied to your own identity. The older you get, the tendency is to get fixed in your ways. Once you settle into a worldview, it because harder and harder to change your mind. Your mind can become entrenched into rigid, inflexible, and unyielding concepts that are resistant to change, defying logic and good sense. This is not a good pattern.

Age, alone, doesn’t cause this, for many of the world’s most creative people have become more and more flexible and open as they have gotten older.

Knowing how the mind works, that it is more apt to automatically jump to conclusion based on prejudice, put special focus on observation and reason. This is a good discipline one can develop over time and practice.

Butterfly

butterflyLast week at The Art of the Creative Process, our workshop for artists, one of the pieces we analyzed was Mariah Carey’s song Butterfly. It is a masterpiece of song writing and performance. The song has the general theme: If you love something, let it go, if it comes back to you, it’s yours, if it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with. Of course, the way the idea is developed in Mariah’s song is more beautifully expressed.

Once we had worked with the song, I became curious about how she had written it. I went on line, and I was stunned with some of the history, especially the many critics who panned it and her other work throughout the years. None of the criticism makes sense to me, and I was wondering if they had heard the same song I had heard. That led me to think about the life of a critic Vs. the life of a creator. It is easy to be a critic. You don’t have to do much but give your opinion. And the term itself – critic – too often tells the story: look for something to criticize rather than appreciate.

Mariah Carey is not just a rock star. She has been one of the most influential singers in modern times. Some of the artists who have cited Carey as an influence are Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Christian Aguilera, Rihanna, Leona Lewis, Justin Bieber, Pink, and there are so many others.

She has had good times and hard times in her career. In other words, she is a human being. And, she is a true artist, always bringing something new into existence no matter how it’s going. She is rich enough to never have to work another day in her life. But, now, at 46, she is working on a new album, acting in an episode of Empire, and doing an ongoing Las Vegas show. What in the artistic spirit motivates this? The desire to create, to make music, to perform, to record. Art for art’s sake.

When I was finishing my book Creating, I first heard Mariah sing Vision of Love. Right after seeing her music video, I had an appointment with my editor at Ballantine Books. I told her that I thought Mariah was the modern day Judy Garland. I couldn’t believe her virtuosity, musicality, and artistic power. Breathtaking, really.

One of her worst career moves was staring in the film Glitter. The film wasn’t as bad as the critics said, but it didn’t make use of her talent, and the story was pretty flimsy. But what followed was an onslaught of the cruelest denunciations from critics yet. (Praise for Mariah’s acting in the Lee Daniels brilliant film production of Precious was universal, proving she is a wonderful actress as well as singer.)

I think there is a dynamic going on here. Too often, society wants to topple those on top. Maybe it is a type of jealousy. If someone is talented, beautiful or handsome, is a big success, then many people want to see him or her fall off the pedestal. Maybe it is hard to admit there are special people among us. The press likes to cut them down to size, ignore their gifts, make them seem flawed, just so we can feel better about ourselves. If you look at the pattern, it runs like this: talent is discovered and celebrated, followed by pot shots, followed by ridicule, followed by marginalization. Look how the press has gone after Taylor Swift about her love life, ignoring the fact that she is one of the greatest songwriting talents of her generation.

Personally, I’d rather go through life as a fan than a critic. There is so much to love and appreciate. The greats are the greats, make no mistake.

Vision of Love:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tov22NtCMC4

Butterfly
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stcdNj0SANw

Conflict Manipulation

conflict manipulation blogHere is a principle I wrote about in The Path of Least Resistance.  It is called conflict manipulation. I began to notice how often certain people were trying to manipulate others through heightened conflict designed to created emotional distress that would cause a reaction. I was one of the speakers on a platform with various other speakers talking about the future. One of the other speakers was against nuclear proliferation, (as we all were.)  She began to describe the impact of a nuclear bomb in the most graphic detail. She was very effective at creating a sense of impending doom, many in the audience breaking into tears, moans, and depression. They were ready to sign any petition against nuclear war.  The cause was right, but the approach was ineffective. Yes, people signed a petition. But once the emotion was over, they just got on with their lives as if it never happened.

The structure of conflict manipulation is simple. It begins with an image of something terrible, which is designed to generate a negative emotional reaction. That emotional conflict leads to action. However, the motivation for the action is to resolve the bad feelings, not create a desired outcome. More conflict leads to more action, which, ironically, works. In other words, the action itself reduces the emotional conflict, even if the situation doesn’t change or gets worse. Conflict manipulation can work short-term to get taxes paid, cars inspected, or partitions signed. But it is not sustainable and cannot work for creating long-term goals.  That’s the structural dynamics.

As Robert Frost said, “I never tried to worry anybody into intelligence.”

When I was on the faculty of the Leadership Academy for Harvard Vanguard, the largest medical provider in Massachusetts, one of the major principles we worked on was the difference between conflict manipulation and the creative process. I would always ask every cohort how many of them worked with life-style conditions. As it turned out, at least half of the doctors and nurses treated conditions that required life-style changes: diabetes, obesity, smoking, asthma. Most of them had found that the usual approaches they used didn’t work long-term. First the patient would change their destructive habit: they stopped smoking, changed their diet, lost weight, and so on.  But then they fell back into their old ways, returning to smoking, reverting back to unhealthy eating habits, and gaining their weight back. Most doctors and the medical profession generally have concluded that people cannot change their bad habits. Therefore, they have come to rely on drugs to treat medical conditions, given people can’t change.

We introduced these medical professionals to the principles of structural dynamics so they could see just WHY, with all their warnings and pictures of gloom and doom, the patient seemed not to stay on a healthy program for very long. We taught them the technique of structural tension, in which desired outcomes became the central organizing principle. The motivation to bring a healthy condition into being is in direct contrast to trying to rid the patient of an unhealthy condition. Creating health is not the same as healing disease. Most of these doctors reported dramatic changes in their patients’ ability to change their lifestyle habits once they had a true goal in mind they were working towards.

I remember once listening to a radio interview with a person who ran a worthy charity in which he said, “The public has the attention span of a gnat.”  From his fund raising point of view, he couldn’t seem to keep people in the world of the problem he was trying to solve. He didn’t know he was up against the structure he was in. At first, conflict manipulation seems to work because you get some quick action: people donate money, letters are written, people charge into action. But very soon, the heat is off, and what seemed to work no longer works. You will notice that people who use conflict manipulation over time become more and more hysterical. The same amount of threat that once worked, no longer does the job. So they increase the level of threat.  And then more, and then more. But the impact on the subject of the conflict has become more and more immune to the commotion. Have you ever seen a frustrated mother in a super market screaming at her child? “Johnny, if you don’t put that down, something bad will happen!” Of course, while everyone else in the store hears her, little Johnny has learned to ignore his mother’s hysteria. The same thing happens with managers who try to motivate their workers by threat, warnings, and conflict. At first, the claim that if they don’t do this or that, the company will go out of business gets people going. But over time, the same threat loses its punch. And like little Johnny, they begin to ignore the manager; while at the same time, he or she becomes more and more hysterical.

In reality, sometimes there are real dangers that we need to address. Put in the context of the creative process, we would position them in our overall current reality. In relationship to our vision, we would find more than just the dangers though. We would see an objective viewpoint of reality, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The idea is to see things as they actually are.  Conflict manipulation appeals to subjectivity. The creative process, using structural tension, appeals to fact-based objectivity.

In our work, one of the concepts many people have is imagined danger. Without actually evaluating reality objectively, they imagine a worse case scenario of what could go wrong. That concept leads them to a few telltale signs. The first is that they don’t trust others because most other people do not see the dangers they see. They also limit input that might show that things aren’t as bad as they imagine. They set up rules and regulations.  And they feel terribly powerless. All of these behaviors together are seen as a control strategy. The person tries to control others, but not as a power hungry dictator, but simply trying to protect everyone from the dangers they don’t seem to see.

As Paul McCartney wrote: “When you find yourself in the thick of it, help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.” See reality for what it actually is, warts and all.

Over the years, we have helped people avoid the bad habit of falling for conflict manipulation in its various forms. Long-term, no good will come of it. It is better to see reality for what it is, but not only that, have a vision for what you want to create.