Archive for May, 2010

Top Posts: May 2010

I’m very grateful to report MeBuilding has exceeded the previous visit record set in April. The five most popular posts for May are:

5. Looking at Life from the Threshold of Death

4. Running into God

3. 1 Difference Between “Trying” and “Doing”

2. Staring Death in the Face

1. Dress Like George Washington

The Forgetful Soldier

Flag-draped coffins are the currency of a heroic payment.

An email circulates from time to time honoring the armed forces for having written a “blank check…to the United States of America for an amount up to, and including, their life.”

Most who serve return home alive, though.

Regardless of whether they are bandaged or not, men and women who have seen combat are wounded.

Brains have been rattled in the pressure cooker of battle, shaken by horror and crushed under sadness.

War continues to withdraw from them throughout life.

They are asked to be husbands and fathers, wives and mothers. They become businessmen and policemen, preachers and teachers. In the years beyond their call to duty, their contribution is woven into that of the country as a whole.

Their passing occurs quietly as a largely oblivious world is unmoved by the death of the assimilated, forgetting the sacrifices they made and the valor of survival.

Those who’ve died in foreign lands under heavy fire deserve their place in the pantheon of American grit and glory. Let us not forget those robbed of their innocence and forced to fit into a world unable to comprehend their experience.

My grandfather’s “blank check” taxed him for sixty-plus years.

He witnessed disturbing deaths.

He had a woman kiss his muddy boots for simply letting her have some food.

He spent years required to fire a rifle into his infinite respect for the dignity of every human life.

The memories brought nightmares and tears each time.

But you hardly would have known.

He helped raise four children and owned an electronics shop, all the while demonstrating tireless commitment to integrity and service. As his family grew to include grandchildren, he became a whole new person.

He began sharing wisdom like “eating green beans will put hair on your chest.”

He pioneered the simple fun of laying on the floor and throwing a Nerf ball between rotating fan blades.

He made sure to show each child how to do a headstand in the corner of the living room.

He boosted multiple youngsters onto the bathroom counter and ensured all faces were covered with some fresh lather, then made sure everyone–not just he–left with a “clean shave.”

Then, we lost the soldier we hardly knew.

The things he wished so long to forget–the violence, the suffering–disappeared into a thickening fog of dementia. The bloodshed and terror faded away, taking with them his sense of humor and vitality.

The effervescent man became a shuffling shadow.

I write this to remind everyone of the heroism of survival, the value in returning from an unspeakable time in a fearful place and creating a legacy grander than what you left with.

Honor these men and women for the entirety of their work, as their days in uniform are usually short and their civilian lives–where they make the largest difference–relatively long.

We must never forget because they might not remember.

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This post first appeared as a guest blog on the website of Lissa Rankin, MD, who graciously allowed me to share my story on Owning Pink.

You Must Sing the Song in Your Heart

The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. The motions of his spirit are dull as night…Let no such man be trusted.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene i

Music–like all forms of art–is a gateway into the mind.

Through it, the soul calls forth the imagery of deep truth, recognizing itself in the mirror of common experience.

Melody elicits emotions far more ably than its cousins in creativity, so governed by images or words. Lacking the rigidity of prose or two-dimensional confinement of pictures, notes are able to float through the air, free to land in the brain with the force of a feather or cannonball.

My writings are compositions, symphonies of syllables in the manner of Bach or Mozart.

As I touch my fingers to the keys, I concern myself with arrangement, tone and rhythm. I command my instruments to give strength to my highest voice, that it might serenade you and stir your spirit to raise a hymn in reply.

Without a song in your heart, you’re unable to carry a tune to the world.

Made an instrument of another’s work, you’re a part of the orchestra instead of the conductor.

By playing under the direction of someone else, you’ve given away your greatest gift–you.

And thus, you cannot be trusted.

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Succeed Like John Mayer

I enjoy windows into another’s creative process.

There is an unspoken kinship amongst humanity, a deep and constant knowledge begging to be expressed–and therefore recalled–in the outside world. Ultimately, each of us must find our own way to share the message with others and the opportunity to see how someone else bridges the gap between “ethereal” and “tangible” fascinates me.

Over the last decade, John Mayer has risen to fame on the wings of his lyrical agility.

Though checkered by an uneven relationship with his own celebrity I(and the press it attracts), his talent for producing tracks which give voice to the “quarter-life crisis” and its anxieties is unmatched.

Recently, America was given the opportunity to peer into his brain a little.

He took the stage in New York for VH1’s Storytellers and described his songwriting brainstorms during breaks from playing various parts of his catalog.

He alluded to a few bars that traipsed through his head for months. He would sit with his guitar and “play it for hours” without any real idea what it was for or how it could be used. It was just there, persistent and unyielding, for him to toy with and shape to his satisfaction.

Tinkering with a simple trill led to his second major hit, “Your Body is A Wonderland.”

Being a writer, I instantly identified with the uneasy feeling of groping in the dark corners of the brain armed only with the certainty something meaningful is there. For days afterward, Mayer’s revealing soliloquies wandered through my mind as I pondered his undemanding and unhurried playfulness while pursuing progress.

Then, I asked the right question.

“Why do you have to be any different?”

I felt a sense of relief.  In an instant, “stop forcing it” calmed my jangling nerves. I thought, “You’re an arrogant ass, believing you have to write something perfect from the start.”

The moment was pure clarity—the lunacy of attempting to muscle an unprepared idea into something larger became unmistakable. It makes as much sense as polishing a diamond before you’re done digging it up.

How can you expect an exquisite outcome ahead of schedule?

Advancement is a series of short spurts.

Your ability to shine light on truth grows with time, as you grasp the magnitude of it.

It’s the way life has always worked.

When you strike out on the path focused on your own beliefs, faithful to the result, you are headed in the right direction.

Pace is irrelevant.

What matters is holding firm to your core values and being honest as you evaluate your performance, then correcting you course using subtle shifts.

This is how you attain the heights of your dreams.

Achievement is rooted in proceeding as yourself, guided by your principles to your ends. Patient adherence to the intuitive action plan oozing through your essence will always get you where you’re going.

And that’s how you succeed like John Mayer.

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Surround Yourself with Genius

John Coltrane (foreground) and Miles Davis record together.

There can be little doubt our environments affect our performance.

Whether leading or being led, a situation’s confines guide results. Sometimes these boundaries foster imagination or, at others, conformity.

Success is driven by innovation.

In the history of music, there are a handful of albums which can be said to have redirected a genre. Kind of Blue by the Miles Davis Sextet is one of them. Considering his tendency towards minimal direction, the man at the helm in Columbia 30th Street studio must have known a simple fact:

Creativity is the byproduct of free thought.

Each performer was invited because he brought the requisite skill to the converted church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane both had skyrocketing reputations on the saxophone. Davis held Bill Evans’ work on the piano in high regard, often calling just to have the phone’s receiver laid beside his playing friend.

In order to squeeze the best from yourself, be surrounded by genius.

The brilliance produced throughout by every artist–each a virtuoso in his own right–makes it one of the finest musical achievements ever. Melody, tone and rhythm emanate from the instruments in exquisite harmony. The ensemble is at a peak, moving from note to note deftly before giving way to a counterpart.

Witnessing another reach heights of inventive ecstasy can only inspire you to do the same.

All this sprung from disjointed sketches and sparing guidance given to men of tremendous ability. Consciously or otherwise, Davis managed to change jazz by heeding the words of General George S. Patton:

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

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Miles Davis “So What”

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Miles Davis

I could listen to Miles Davis all day.

Passing my waking hours with my iPod looping the three-plus hours of his music through my ears would be a quiet pleasure.

Jazz is an art form capable of spanning the emotional spectrum quickly and the trumpeter from Illinois was adept at eliciting them all.

Davis’ popularity blossomed in 1957 after the release of critically-acclaimed Miles Ahead, the bebop-influenced Birth of the Cool (recorded in 1949-50) and his work on Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, setting the French film’s mood with sultry compositions like “Generique” .

The following year, he began experimenting with modal composition and worked it into his take on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, as well as the studio-made Milestones.

Then, in 1959, Kind of Blue arrived.

Turning aside the complex chords of his past alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker completely in favor of simpler scales, he produced a landmark in the history of recorded music. By unleashing the artist, he turned the genre on its ear.

The sextet on hand at Columbia 30th Street Studio included Davis and other luminaries of the time–Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane–roaming free across countless notes in unbridled improvisation.

With its smooth transition from indignant apathy to wistful romance, this is my favorite album of all time.

What makes it even more remarkable is the fact each of the five original tracks were produced with little in the way of direction or rehearsal. Davis was known to encourage expression and creativity by leaving his fellow musicians practically in the dark about the intended result of a session together.

The melodies are produced mostly by feel.

And that’s why I love it.

It’s all ingenuity, all the time.

Enjoy the opening song, “So What,” below.

Grabbing the Symphony by the Horns

The Project H can be heard at clubs in the Kansas City area and on MySpace Music.

There’s a certain level of deafness required for great achievement.

When it comes time to make the leap from old habits to new ideas, voices must be silenced–your own or another or both.

An old friend reminded me of this a few days ago.

I smiled wide when this came across my Facebook news feed:

You can call it balls or you can call it stupidity. Today, I’m auditioning for the Omaha symphony, not because I think I can win, but because it’s a challenge I have not faced. Regardless of the result, this will be a positive in all aspects of my playing and in my career.

Success is a combination of having the guts to put yourself out there and the ability to “unknow” what might lead you to think you’re incapable.

Notice the boldness and resolve.

No matter your viewpoint, he grabbed the bull by the horns and went along for the ride. Mind you, he’s the most talented musician I’ve ever personally known and I’m certain getting a seat in any orchestra is within the range of his skills.

What is important to recognize here is the outcome taking a back seat to the effort.

The audacity of the risk succumbed to the necessity of pushing the limits.

Reasons the task was “too hard” evaporated.

“Why go?” became “Why not?”

Focus cleared the air of doubt and nothing remained but carrying out a dare made within.

The artist tuned his hearing only to the song of his heart and let the rest be damned.

And, by that, he succeeded.

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