Just Get Going

On Monday, my friend asked me to teach him how to sing. I’m grateful he did. 

Tom’s request led me to a podcast, Sing Better Fast. It was a slow week at work; I listened to it in the quiet times in my office. The show is hosted by two men: one of them is a dedicated athlete; the other can shatter crystal with his voice. This grows important – this podcast is not just for singers. 

The very first episode is a twenty-five-minute philosophical inquiry into the disposition of humanity – if you listen to it at 1.5x speed, as I do, it’s even shorter. In it, they classify the world into two populations: those who believe the can’t, so they don’t; and those who believe they can, so they do. It was a healthy kick in the butt – a pep talk worth repeating. I found myself almost insulted, but fully engaged. I tend to surrender to the winter doldrums – I have fallen into the I can’t, so I won’t camp. I’m emerging from them now. I listened to six episodes in succession on my first day. 

If you do nothing more, I recommend you pull up this podcast and listen to episodes 1, 2, 6, 9, and 10. You can even listen to them slowly, one by one. They are general enough to apply to any endeavor, and they are compellingly done. I found myself taking notes. I found myself altering my attitudes and behaviors because of them. I even found myself in a bit of a quandary, trying to pursue multiple unfinished objectives at the same time; these podcasts agitated me, unsettled my psyche. I’m learning to further focus and layer my time. I will give these episodes another listen, maybe even a third. 

The truth is, it’s too easy to be lulled into an easy complacency in this fast-paced and wireless world. It’s too simple to Netflix and chill at the end of a long workday, frittering the evening hours away, day after day. We’ve done enough, we say; I’m out of juice, okay? But to settle so easily is to accept that we’ll never account to anything more. We are watching Huxley’s feelies, consuming his soma. It’s a soullessly productive existence. This should be discomfiting: life’s not meant to be lived without soul. That’s not life; that’s shallow survival. We’re all better than that. 

I find myself renewed in several pursuits. I find my yoga practice deepening. I find my writing improving. I find myself reading more than I have in years. I’m re-training my voice to sing too. Try sustaining lip bubbles – purse your lips together and blow a raspberry. It’s hard, right? Now try to reduce your airflow as you do it. Give it pitch. Change the pitch. Keep trying. This is a basic singer’s drill – not easy, right? I now have greater justification to sing in the shower!

This is what they call an attitude of incremental refinement. The pursuit of mastery demands an attitude of incremental refinement. A master never rests content in his achievement; he presses on in the pursuit of greater knowledge and comprehension. Mastery requires neither conceit or arrogance, but rather a humility and a willingness to ask questions, to learn from others. Humility is fundamental to lasting success. 

What I think I admire most about these guys is that they stress accepting yourself where you are, then working from that baseline. You can’t deliberately grow if you don’t deliberately and honestly assess where you are. Many of us have delayed starting projects that matter to us because we lack the self confidence to do so; there’s no time; or we lack the support to start. Self-doubt squashes big dreams. I’m no saint here – I have a laundry list of projects I’d like to work through but haven’t, though the means are at my disposal. I’ve owned a guitar for four years. I’ve never really played it. I’ve fallen into the ‘others can’t, so I can’t’ mentality more than I care to admit. 

I’m not advocating that we cut our pleasures to pursue our dreams. I’m suggesting that maybe we use Netflix as a reward rather than a medication. Maybe that means that we read for half an hour before we tune in to our favorite show. Maybe that means we go for a walk to unwind. Maybe that means that we set specific hours for sleep and stick to them. 

I bought Raise your Voice, Jaime Vendera’s book. I found it on Half-Priced Books for half of what it costs on Amazon. I’m excited to work through it. I’m excited to grow a life-sustaining passion into something profitable. I will teach Tom how to sing, and in the process, I’ll deepen my own understanding of an art that has long buoyed my spirits.  

Growing up, I watched a lot of Malcolm in the Middle – as a family of four boys, we could relate to Francis, Reese, Malcolm, and Dewie. Malcolm once quipped ‘You want to know the best part about childhood? At some point, it stops.’ It was the line of an exasperated kid, and it was funny. Many people feel the same way about school. I think the best part about school, though, is that it can teach you how to learn on your own. Learning for your own sake is a joy. Joy is a deeper emotion than happiness; it is a state of being that transcends the ups and downs of daily life.

Practice what you love. Practice it again and again and again. Every master was once a beginner, and every master has wrestled with his own demons. We are all mere mortals. With discipline, mere mortals can achieve greatness.

Listen to this podcast.

James 

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Water

Have you ever been so thirsty that desperation set in? That your next drink became your only thought?

I was a migrant moving north on my own search for a better life, and the earth I walked on was baked, bone dry and barren. I was an Appalachian Trail hiker, and all my earthly possessions fit in a 60-liter pack on my back. Though I had the capacity to carry four liters of water at a time, I’d been heavily influenced by the ultralight mentality in my research, and I routinely only carried two; I was in Pennsylvania, after all, and water is everywhere up there! But that year, water was dangerously scarce, even there.

We hikers had our coping mechanisms, of course. Using our trail guides, we’d meticulously plan, only taking shelter near a reliable water source – and only close to the trail; we were too lazy to do more. We’d top off on water each evening, drink a liter the following morning, and carry two full liters every time we stepped off. Planning for a liter of water every hour, this would generally allow us to travel three hours before we needed to repeat our water ritual: draw three, drink one, carry two. With a bit of foresight, we could plan our trail breaks near a brook, spring, or stream – stop less, travel farther. This generally worked to our benefit.

But sometimes, it didn’t.

One particular day stands out. It was a hot sunny day in central Pennsylvania, and the earth was parched: it hadn’t rained in weeks. I remember the grass, brown and brittle in the summer sun, the trail, a mix of sand and dust. I must’ve walked twelve midday miles without passing a single water source. Maybe I’d gotten cocky. I think that, more likely, I’d just run through it all; I routinely drank seven liters those days and still pissed yellow. Hydration is no joke.

When you’re walking like that, water is your everything. I remember the sinking feeling as I pulled up to a guide-designated source and found it dry; it would be four remote miles before I got another shot, and I was parched. Those were a painful four miles: my mouth became chalky; my skin, caked with salt; my body, heavy and slow. Most significantly, my mind, in a twisted meditation, fixed solely on the prospect of my next drink.  I could think of nothing else for miles.

The Appalachian Trail was an iterative exercise in gratitude, but never was I more grateful than I was then to reach water at my effort’s end. Looking back, I’m sure I could have pressed on, but I was certainly in no state to try: the mind does get its say. When you’re walking like that, even food is secondary; water is your only link to this mortal coil.

Latin American migrants are dying for want of water. We generally decent people are letting it happen.

Were I to write a Trail memoir, my focal point would be the people. The people who sat at the side of the road with a cooler of drinks and a bag of snacks, baking on the pavement, just waiting for a chance to give a guy a Gatorade. The people who left two chilled water bottles at the trail’s edge with a note: ‘We know you were low on water last night. Here are a few to get you through. Good luck! Be Safe!’ I never met those people, but they meant the world to me. I bet they knew it, too.

Better yet though, the day hikers who packed in way too much food, then ceded fresh fruit and veg to us stinky types at the end of their leisurely day – fresh is not a common hiker adjective, at least not as it pertains to food. I still smile at the memory of a bag of sweet peas kindly given; they were heavenly. But best, oh, the best: those who’d dedicated their lives to making the Trail what it is today.

Connecticut looms large in my mind: Greg of the Toymaker Cafe, who left corporate life to let hikers camp on his lawn and squat in his kitchen; Pat at the package store, who took the time to personally know me, then connected me with her friend in Salisbury, who was no longer listed in the trail guides; Maria, that friend, who’d been hosting hikers for thirty years in her home, who was 87 and going strong in her community, who met me at the door, insisted that I leave my wet clothes outside, and gave me a towel and a shirt to make it happen. Maria, who fed me physically, spiritually, intellectually. Maria, with whom I was vulnerable, honest, loved. Maria, who left an indelible impression on my soul.

I lingered there; I made the upstairs beds for her, broke my fast with her, sat on the porch and communed with nature with her. Not so many people can coax a chipmunk to eat out of their hand. Before I left, Maria had a chipmunk eating of my hand. I was most reluctant to leave her; I knew she was not long for this world, and I wanted more, more of her. My path, however, beckoned; I heeded its call.

Time and again, I have been blessed by angelic acts of altruism. Maybe the practitioners found moral fulfillment. Maybe those giving had also known need and were simply paying it forward. Maybe they were just Boy Scouts doing what they were told. Whatever their reason, they all thought beyond themselves, and I was the grateful other. To love one’s kin is human. To love mankind is divine.

You might imagine my dismay, then, to read that four humanitarian aid workers had been convicted for leaving water on federal land for people walking in the desert sun. In shadeless, draining, ruthless three-digit heat. For people who were dying.

Every media outlet has its angle, but this does not change the basic facts: every year, people walking north are dying of dehydration in Texas and Arizona, and every year, more come. To evade detection, they walk through remote, waterless venues. Cabeza Prieta is a remote and water-scarce national wildlife refuge through which migrants pass, and these aid workers entered it – without a permit – to leave them water. Customs and Border Protection officers, upholding the law, found the cache first and destroyed it. The four were found and held to account. They now face jail time.

Every year, all across the southern deserts and plains, men, women, and children are dying for want of water and a better life, and our national policy is simply to let it happen. That’s the humanitarian crisis.

Now, I understand that the magistrate who sentenced them was also upholding the law. Clearly, these aid workers did perform the acts of which they were convicted. Per the law, one of them drove onto a restricted area; four of them entered a refuge without a permit; and they all abandoned personal property: water – yes, water. For human beings. To quote the judge, they defied the ‘national decision to maintain the Reserve in its pristine nature.’ A nature out of which 127 sets of sun-baked bones were recovered last year.

These four criminal aid workers understand something that the law does not allow. Martin Luther King understood this thing. Gandhi understood this thing. Revolutionaries and gentle souls the world over understand this thing: that legality and morality sit on two unequal planes, and sometimes, the only way to act morally is to break the law. We have learned this time and time again across the course of history: our founding fathers, who tossed imperial tea into the harbor; our female suffragists, who spent months in dingy jail cells to secure the right to vote for every woman; our Civil Rights protestors, who suffered to make painfully plain the injustices of separate but equal. They all broke the law for the betterment of mankind.

Moral law is our birthright. Moral law knows that man is fallible, but that each and every human being has inherent and irrevocable dignity and worth. Moral law knows that the long arc of history bends towards justice, but there can be no justice without brave people pressing the outer bounds of man’s law. Moral law knows that to rise above the narrow confines of our inherently tribal minds is a transformational act of courage. Moral law knows that peace requires action. Moral law tends to the underserved. Moral law loves every other.

I don’t know how to resolve the problem of illegal immigration. I do know that it wasn’t such a big issue until we made it one – check out Radio Lab’s Border Trilogy for that story. I do know that prevention through deterrence does not work. I do know that, until we address the underlying issues that drive people to leave their homes, we will not stem the tide of migrants moving north. That means, among other things, checking our drug habits and giving a damn about our Latin American foreign policy. I certainly know that I can no longer sit on the sidelines of this issue. And while I don’t live close enough to the border to act myself, I can give my voice to raise awareness and my money to a cause I believe in. That cause happens to be diametrically opposed to the law as it now stands, and that’s fine by me; I know my own moral line. I will stand and be counted.

I turn 30 this month. This year, I’m dedicating my birthday to No More Deaths. I’ve already signed their petition to drop the charges levied against them. I may even elect to give monthly charitable donations to them – let the government see that on my tax returns. I, for one, am done.

Nobody deserves to die for want of water.

James

 

 

 

Heroes

I’ve spent this whole week thinking, writing.

I’ve spent so much time thinking and writing, in fact, that the piece I’ve produced rises above the level of a simple blog post, at least in my esteem. So, I’ll post a link to it when it’s published. Suffice it to say, I feel rather passionately about my topic, and I think that I have the rhetorical tools to address it effectively. I’ll tip my hat to Toastmasters for that one. Toastmasters, and lots of reading. For a writer, for a thinker, there is no substitute for quality time spent immersed in the works of literary masters; I know my own pantheon of heroes. 

Speaking of pantheons, perhaps you’ve heard of Le Panthéon in Paris, France, or Walhalla near Regensburg, Germany. Both are monumental buildings filled with busts of the greats of these societies, from science to art, literature to government. Both are worth visiting. I wish America had such a consolidated and accessible place of its own. Who would fill it? Who would decide? I could think of quite a list myself. I’m also strongly opinionated and not exactly mainstream in my opinions. 

But I digress. Heroes. 

In Walhalla, at the entrance to the grand hall, there is a prominent bust commemorating a young woman, Sophie Scholl. Sophie grew up in Nazi Germany and was, at one time, active in the Hitler Youth – it had its allure. Her boyfriend deployed to the Eastern Front 1942, and in May of that year, he wrote to Sophie of German war crimes, namely the mass execution of Russian prisoners of war and the mass murder of Jews – I’m not sure how this made it past military censors, but it did. The news effected a dramatic change in Sophie, and she began practicing a passive resistance with conviction.

Nazi power was approaching an inflection point in the summer and fall of 1942. The party controlled every facet of the German nation, from early education to religion, top to bottom, cradle to grave – no one was beyond its power. The German army, flush with victories to that point, began to realize that it could not crush the Soviet army; an important battle ceded to stalemate, then defeat. Concurrently, German citizens were beginning to understand the full toll of their war, and this threatened the effectiveness of the weakened Nazi propaganda machine, and thus, the state. Any further threat to it, then, was seen as an existential threat. Germany was a very, very dangerous place to be a dissident.

Sophie did not waver. That fall, she discovered that her brother was writing and distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets with a group of his friends. She joined the effort and together, they churned out tens of thousands of copies, manually reproduced, of two more pamphlets for distribution across a number of major German cities; they were blatantly appealing to all Germans in a bid to end the war from within. One went out in January of 1943, as the largest, longest, and bloodiest war to date raged on. By the end of that month, the German Sixth Army suffered a devastating defeat. In February, Hitler acknowledged the defeat, shifting favor against him. Sophie and crew released their final pamphlet. They were the White Rose.

The Nazis must have been desperate; Hitler’s propaganda minister declared a total war, citizens and soldiers alike, on 18 February 1943. That day, while distributing that pamphlet at the University of Munich, she and her team were apprehended and arrested by the Gestapo. The Gestapo pieced together the story, identified her brother’s handwriting, and took him in. To quell further inquiry into her ring, Sophie took full responsibility.  She knew that she would certainly die.

Four days later, Sophie appeared before a magistrate to account for her crimes. She was allowed no opportunity to give a defense, but reportedly said, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.” She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. 

The Nazis wasted no time. Sophie was guillotined within hours of her trial. Party officials watched over the execution, intent on seeing it through. They could not endure this threat from within.

Dissidence is anathema to a dictatorship. Sophie knew this from the beginning, yet she acted out her convictions despite terrible risk; she knew that she’d eventually be caught and killed. Dissidence is anathema to any organization that is not open to the light.

Sophie Scholl did not mourn her own passing. With a frankness that is very, very German, she told her cell mate following her sentence, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

That, my friends, is the power of one.

I’ll admit, I did not know all the specifics before I sat down to write and research her story. For me, it was enough to know that student who had fought and died for the better angels of our nature was respected enough to garner a prominent spot, on a pedestal all by herself, in Germany’s national hall of heroes. Nobody else holds that honor. Not Johann Sebastian Bach, who is unequalled in the entire musical canon; not Martin Luther, who ignited the Reformation and shook the world;  not Johannes Gutenberg, who irrevocably democratized knowledge with his printing press. Sophie Scholl. A student dissident. A peace activist. A girl. 

My intent here is not to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and Trump’s America. Donald Trump is no Adolf Hitler, though he has his fancies and inclinations. My intent is to share the story of one of my role models, who just so happened to live, fight, and die in Hitler’s time.  How much freer we are as a population today!

Our time needs heroes too. 

There is great strength in the power of one. Little people can make a big difference, and every voice has merit. Individual acts of courage have ripples; they radiate, illuminate, and root in hearts and minds. Sixty years after her death, Sophie Scholl was formally honored with a bust in that big German hall. Nearly eighty years later, we’re still talking about her.  

May we all, too, find a cause above and beyond ourselves to believe in, to act on, to live for. May we live so that we not fear death, boldly, out loud. May we find purpose in so doing. We, too, can be heroes.

James