Humility: The Song and the Notes

Nietzsche_tastevanitySo, you know this concept of humility? Yeah, that one is rough sometimes. It seems like some people hear it’s tones as a discordant miasma of chaos, while others hear a well-trained symphony playing something seemingly divine. The truth is that it’s neither of those things, but the nuances of music are such that there is room for argument and taste.

There is the kind of humility which is supposed to be the theme song which follows you around. It’s like a master beat-box artist, or possibly an angel with a harp or even just some dude just wailin’ on that bass (tastes do differ, after all), but not matter what that arrangement is, it’s one of the presences in your life, ideally keeping arrogance, bias, and simple error at bay.

Listen, confidence is great. I’m all for confidence.  And I’m definitely not for deference or prostration to either gods, absolutist ideals (or Platonism in general), or traditions. But there are other sources of servitude than religions and traditions. Our emotions, desires, and cognitive biases will perpetually get in the way of our ability to navigate between the Scylla/Carybdis of our hubris/timidity. Humility, if played to an Aristotelian key, is a song of temperance, and not docility.

for my own reference as much as anyone else's
for my own reference as much as anyone else’s

So, given the tempo of this Aristotelian ballad, floating between Prestissimo and the Grave (perhaps an adagio today and an allegro tomorrow), I think that some sense of perspective of who, where, and how we are requires the ability to be self corrective more or less based upon the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That is, we need to listen to the other players if we want to make music well. Life is not all solos.

But also because sometimes it’s time for quiet reflection, and sometimes it’s time to dance! Sometimes we need to assert ourselves, and sometimes we need to step back and listen. And sometimes we might hear something new in our favorite songs or discover that upon further reflection, we hate this song (Hell, Nietzsche could tell you all about that, amirite?). Sometimes we can find new ways to interact with the world, as our desires and tastes change.

The path behind and the path forward

Our preferences are linked to things like memory, experience, and emotional associations.  These preferences are also intimately related to the ideals and goals which we revere. These ideals are immensely powerful motivators, but they can also be anchors and delusions.

Sometimes these ideals come from an ancient religion, steeped in history and buried into the very language, culture, and psychology of a community. That is where this blog started, as a log of ideas about how religion wove its way into the fabric of love, sex, and commitment in our culture. It was an exploration of the problematic concepts which underlie all of our ability to conceive of who and what we are as people living in a universe without gods, but within a culture drowning in the psychopathic, unconcerned, or impotent ideas of gods.

Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference. Get used to it.
Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference.
Get used to it.

This was a blog about exploring what was possible, if we stop adhering to the sexual, romantic, and relationship norms our society defers to. It was, in a sense, one more hammer to the old gods, ideals, and philosophies to which so many are still adhered.

And over time it changed. I started thinking about polyamory more.  I started having more experiences within polyamory. I had many wonderful and fulfilling experiences, I’ve had experiences which were fun but often challenging, and I’ve experienced the worst interpersonal trauma from people I lent some trust to.

And I’ve changed. Who I am today is not who I was 6 years ago, when this blog started.  And in the last several months, I came to a realization that has had a profound effect on my outlook for the future.  I realized that I was wrong about something very fundamental about myself; something that has been the cause of a very significant problems in my life. And I owe that knowledge to someone who I love dearly and who had to allow me to sink or swim on my own.

I swam.

What is it? Well, that’s not really important, is it? The specific lesson is not the point, at all. Besides, that revelation is personal, and while I would be more than willing to share that understanding (assuming I could properly articulate it) with the people I’m close to in my life (and I’m happy that I have people in my life who honor me with their friendship and love), it’s not necessary here.

Also, there are people who still read this blog (hi there! You can one star my post if you like, but that’s sort of childish, isn’t it?) who would attempt to bend and stretch such information against me if they could (narrative spinning is their specialty, after all). Also, because it can’t really be that interesting to most of the rest of you anyway. You don’t come here to be my proxy therapist. I tend to pay people to do that for me.

The last reason I’ll not explore this personal revelation here leads to another kind of humility which I’d like to talk about. This is the kind that comes out of nowhere and knocks you on your ass. These are the striking and emotionally intense notes in the song of your life, ones which have consequences for how you hear the rest of the song.

It’s the kind of humility (humiliation, perhaps) where you have found that you (perhaps) fucked up, big time, and now it’s time to shut up and start listening. Of course, one does not always shut up and listen, so one might talk themselves into a corner. And then, well, you’re in a corner having to decide what to do next.

And then you have to learn some things. Then you have to reflect one how you fucked up, what you are going to do about it, and even though you might hate doing it….

Now it’s time to walk the hard path.

And then, sometimes, while walking that path, you find that you didn’t know as much as you thought, especially about yourself.

I think there might be a metaphor in there....
I think there might be a metaphor in there….

My lovely girlfriend and I, with whom I’ve just celebrated a year together just this week (but who must remain anonymous, for unfortunate reasons related to social expectations and cultural taboos), went to see the movie Wild, which I liked quite a lot. Obviously, it’s a movie about self-discovery and traveling a difficult road (both literally and metaphorically) towards a goal which may be arbitrary, but which takes on new meaning as you approach it.

The problem is that by focusing on that destination, that ideal, you miss all the details all around you. It’s also not unlike hearing that note or phrasing in a piece of music which keeps dancing around a melody, harmonic, or note. If you do nothing but anticipate that note, that goal, or even that (perhaps) perfection then you are not paying full attention to the path itself. You start to miss the trees because you are looking for the whole forest.

If we, as listeners and as path-travelers, learn to pay more attention to the moment then we will notice that it changes our journey from progress to process. In other words, we become less-ends-oriented and we become more aware of the experience of journeying. Knowing precisely where you are is a humbling experience, sometimes. Whether we think of this humility in the cosmic sense of size or in the existential sense identity, it amounts to a humility which should offer us some pause.

And we should accept that offer, from time to time.

Eventually that destination, which was so dramatic and distracting to start, dissolves either into the horizon and becomes your theme song or it starts to fade into background noise, ultimately to be unnoticed or forgotten. And then all there is the path. And when you are bored on this path you start to see things differently. When it’s quiet, when you are alone without distraction, you have the opportunity to listen to yourself a little closer, and you will almost certainly learn something.

Since we're on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.
Since we’re on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.

Well, I’ve learned some things recently. And I think that I am feeling better than I have in a long time, at least in terms of being optimistic about my personal future. The dawn has broken, the storm clouds are retreating, and what I thought was going to be my end may end up being my greatest beginning.

I’m not saying that it will be easy, because it will not be.  I will not say that I do not fear it, because I do. But where it will be hard I will work harder, and where it will be terrifying I will allow myself to slow down, look at the path, consider the destination I may create for myself at that moment. As a practical result, I will no longer retreat from the world as I have been in recent months.

Now, the biggest challenge I have is to have the patience to wait for Spring, because this cold weather is not pleasant for me, at all. Is it May yet?

Bottom line? Well, I was wrong about some things concerning myself. But as a result I was able to discover that maybe I have an opportunity for something better, now. My advice is to be willing to listen, be wrong, and to imagine that perhaps the reason you find yourself where you are has more to do about what you are wrong about than anything else. Or, alternatively, you may find that you were more right than you knew, only you didn’t believe in yourself enough.

Not arrogance and not servility, but instead a humble sense of perspective towards finding a way to balance your individual strengths with an ability to weave those strengths into a larger whole. There will be times for solos, soap-boxes, and individual efforts, but working harmoniously and in symphony is often much harder and more rewarding.

I wish for beautiful music along all of your paths.

Pain, loss, and music

Before reading this, give this movement a listen.  This is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement, as conducted by Herbert von Karajan (my favorite version):

This, in my opinion, is one of the saddest, most haunting, and most powerful pieces of music I have ever heard. Listening to it, I mean really listening to it, never failed to bring tears and deep feeling.

This morning, after I showered, I decided I really needed to hear Phish’s Wading in the Velvet Sea, which I did while I started to dress. IIt had been in my head ever since I woke up this morning, and when that happens, only a listen will help, I’ve found. You can skip this one, if you like, but here’s the song in case you are curious and/or unfamiliar:

I had left Rhythmbox (my audio player on my computer in my office) on random, and my computer decided that the next song it would play would be Beethoven. You know, the piece I embedded at the top of this post. And I heard the first note. And I froze.

That very first note has a way of transporting me to a place deep within me, and I was helpless to do anything except listen. I was helpless to the power of this piece of music to evoke, within me, all of the beautiful, terrible, and heart-wrenching pain of which I am capable, and transforming this pain into a transcendent experience.

If you don’t know the story of this symphony in context of Beethoven’s life, then let is suffice that when he finished this symphony, Ludwig van Beethoven was nearly completely deaf. I cannot imagine the internal struggle and pain that a person, especially a musical genius, must have gone through upon losing the ability to hear. The effects were pronounced, and Beethoven was forced to take a back-seat to playing and conducting, as a result, and yet he wrote two more symphonies after this one! Including the famous 9th Symphony, of course.

Nonetheless, we can all, perhaps, sympathize with that pain while listening to that piece of music. For me, at least, there is a sense of profound sadness and loss within those notes, but also there is a sense of hope, I think. That hope, buried within sadness, peeks through like a shy puppy during a thunderstorm, afraid and trembling, but capable of forcing a smile onto our lips as well.

And as the piece ended, the emotional resolution left a ghost of those feelings on me for my ride to work, and even resonated into the rest of my busy morning. And here I am, sharing with you.

That’s all I can express, right now. Writing, for me, is an expression of hope and a desire for understanding and intimacy, but recently my life has been an orchestra of painful notes, with a phrasing of hope, now and then. This is a note of hope, but one surrounded by pain, anger, and loss. I hope to return to writing more consistently, soon.

I urge you to listen to the 7th symphony, in whole. This time, start with the first movement, which is wonderful on its own, and listen to at least the first two movements (I think the second two are not as good, but still worth the listen).


The Musicality of Love

4e6c6fb2Several weeks ago I acquired Daft Punk’s new Album, Random Access Memories.  I had heard a review, and part of a couple of songs, on NPR (because that’s what I listen to if I’m not listening to Daft Punk).  One of the songs (Doin’ it Right) got into my head (the NPR piece had used it as a bump after the review–good choice, NPR production!) and so I had to get the album to satiate the insanity of this song playing in my head.  So, upon acquiring it and adding it to my playlist on my player (I use Foobar), I started playing it and listened to I while I played some Starcraft 2 (yes, I’m that kind of nerd).  Let’s just say that I loved it.  I mean, the kind of love where after the album was done, I re-started it, and listened to it again (I had finished my Starcraft playing at that point).  And then, after that second listening, I listened to it again.

Soon enough, I burned a disc so that I could play it in the car (not having a fancy mp3 compatible player in the car).  And so for the next couple of weeks or so, whether I was in the car, had my iPod on, or at my computer I was likely listening to that album.  The more I listened, the more I liked it.  I would have different songs running through my head while not listening to it, and just had to hear them when I was able to do so.  The album took over my life for about 2 weeks.  It was love at first hearing.

I have a number of favorite albums and songs from various genres and time-periods, including Collective Soul’s Dosage, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, Beethoven’s 5th and 7th Symphonies (well, the first 2 movements of the latter), Pink Floyd’s Meddle (among others), T Rex’s Electric Warrior, Green Day’s Dookie, R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Nas’ Illmatic, Miles’ Davis’ Kind of Blue, quite a few Phish albums (to name a favorite would be too hard), The Beatles (mostly their later work), The Clash’s London Calling, much of The Talking Heads (and David Byrne’s later solo work too),  Ween’s White Pepper, ….

I could go on, but I won’t.

There is some music which simply found its way into my brain and I love listening to them, especially in certain moods.  And as I reflected on this, I started to think about how, at least for me, certain songs, albums, or even musicians have a relationship with me in much the same way as people have.  That is, there are analogous relationships between my history with music and with people.  And in many cases, certain music will always remind me of certain people, and sometimes whole albums are associated with specific people.  Sort of the way that the line “with fingernails that shine like justice” will always remind me of Ginny (as she intended).

The last few weeks, in other words, have been akin to a torrid love affair where I could not get enough of, well, an album.  It’s worn off, mostly, now.  Now I can hear or think about a song from that album without having to listen to the entire thing, but I still love the album and will continue to listen to it in the future.  This experience is not unlike some relationships I’ve had in the past.  You know, with people.  And while the analogy can only go so far, I started to realize, as I thought about it, that I feel the same way about a lot of those people as I do about some music.

counting-crows-august-and-everything-after-delanteraLet’s start with one of my longest-loved albums, for example.  Counting Crows released August and Everything After in 1993, when I was in high school (the beginning of my sophomore year, in fact).  I have a vague but emotionally powerful memory of driving away from a vacation, with my parents, the following summer listening to that album.  I had met a girl, Nikki, who I liked considerably.  I was 17, hormonal, and the mere few days I spent with her was one of the earlier experiences I had of really getting to know and like somebody in a sexual and romantic way.  Having to say good-bye to her, get in the car, and drive away knowing that I would likely not see her again (we were in Hot Springs Arkansas–my parents choice of location of course–and I was going back to Philadelphia, Nikki back to Ohio) was emotionally devastating for me.  And listening to Round Here on my discman (you remember those?), a song which is emotionally crippling in many ways already, just made the feeling surge in ways I could hardly contain (if I had only known then what Borderline Personality Disorder was, the heart-wrenching pain would have made more sense to me then).  There is a piece of that still every time I gear the first few notes of that song.  I never did see her again, and sometimes I wonder what she’s up to now,  19 years after those few days spent with her.

Ever since then, I associate that song, and much of that album, with that summer and that vacation.   I love that albums still, and I think I always will.  Listening to it now, remembering that summer, thinking about how Nikki made me feel with her skin against mine all bring me the same cocktail of emotions.  Later associations of that album, as well as their second album (Recovering the Satellites, which was not nearly as good) with a relationship of 2 years while in college with a woman named Erin, many of the same feelings arise within me .  That album feels like young and naive love, the kind that incited deep feeling, stinging pain, and nostalgia for being young and being able to give of myself freely, without fear.  It feels beautiful and alien to the man who still is capable of love, but perhaps who will always be tainted by cynicism and fear when it comes to allowing that level of openness. I feel almost the same way about that album as I do about those 2 early relationships in my life, and I still have wonderful feelings about both of those women, even knowing that many years have gone by and neither of them is likely anything like who they were then.

And I could, if I chose, recount the many associations I have with specific music, friends, and lovers from my past.  I won’t do that because it is not all of the specific events of my personal life that I want to emphasize today (plus you probably don’t want to read that).  What I want to emphasize today is that, for some of us anyway, our relationships with music is, in many ways, akin to our relationships with people.  Music is, of course, an object so the analogy falls apart because people are, well, people and thus subjects of their own.  But in my experience, how I feel about things like music is similar enough to how I feel about people to make the analogy useful.

We change how we feel about music over the years the same way we change how we feel about music.   There is music I used to like, for example, but do not like as much anymore.  There is music I didn’t like at first, but now love.  And there is music that I always loved and always will love, but perhaps in different ways than I did before.  Our apprehension of music is not static, after all.  Our experiences of life change us, so how we will feel about other people (who will also change) and how we feel about music is dependent upon the function of that change.

GinnyGinaMeI genuinely miss, and often still have good (if not complicated) feelings about, some ex girlfriends.  There are some I don’t talk to anymore, whether because I don’t want to or they don’t want me to, and there are some I do still talk to (too varying degrees).  And of course, there are Ginny and Gina, who I am still with (and hope to always be with), as well as others who I have other kinds of relationships with.  When I met Ginny, I was into her immediately and immensely, much like my relationship with that Daft Punk Album.  I just wanted to be around her all the time and could not get enough of being with her.  Granted, I was in a bad place in my life and did need emotional support (which she gave), but when I was able to be calm, sane, and forget about that I realize I just wanted her around most of the time, and hopefully she will be around for many years to come, with her fingernails shining like justice.

When I first met Gina, on the other hand, I was not sure how much I would like her at first.  Granted, I first met her when she was in a crappy mood, and we didn’t have much time to actually interact directly for some time, but she was around enough that I got a chance to get to know her a little.  I knew I was attracted to her, but I didn’t know whether we would click together well and so I never took the opportunity to pursue conversation or flirtation of any kind.  But like many of my favorite albums, I didn’t really start to love her until I stopped what I was doing and just listened to her.  It was not until I stopped just having her around, as part of the background of my activities, and started giving her some attention that I realized that she is complex, hilarious, talented, and awesome.  In fact, now that I think about it, it’s not unlike how I see David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (an album which Gina loves).  It’s an album I had heard, at least in part, before but I had not really listened to as an album.  But once I took the time to really listen to it, I picked out qualities that a casual or background listen would miss.  Just like with Gina.  I had to have other people apparently leave us alone while at some Steam Punk event about 2 years ago to really talk with her and discover that we had very compatible senses of humor and knew that I wanted to be with her.  I went from liking her, to really liking her, to loving her in a short time because I paid some attention to her.  It makes me wonder how much great music, and people, in the world I’m missing by not paying more attention to them.  I know, first world problems.

And now I’m listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as I write this.  Thanks Gina….

Then there are the non-favorite songs, but the ones you really just have to hear occasionally.  I mean, I cannot prevent myself from singing along to Ice, Ice Baby or Baby Got Back, but under no circumstances would I label either song as good, or songs I must have on my iPod nano (neither is, BTW).  Also, there are songs I like, but not in context of their albums.  The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony is a song I really like to hear occasionally, for example (that song is on my iPod, but not the rest of the album), but it’s not from a great album or a favorite band of mine.  I just really want to hear it occasionally.

And so this is the point where I, unsurprisingly, make the transition to argue that polyamory is superior to monogamy.

I’m sure that many of you saw it coming.  If you didn’t, you have not been reading this blog long enough.  I could do the surface-level argument and say that just like we all love many albums, genres, etc of music, and are not expected to (and should not have to) choose between them in some exclusive way, neither should we be expected to choose who we love, or at least what kind of love we should have with whom.  And while that is true, and ultimately that is what my argument is,  I think that there is some deeper utility to the analogy than that surface point.

PFJust like one might love albums from high school or college years after those times are over, people can still have fond feelings for exes or for people who are not your current partner.  I mean, not always; sometimes there is no good feelings left after a relationship ends or with people you just don’t like.  Personally, I still have good feelings and memories about ex partners who hurt me and who I generally would generally prefer to never see again.  I mean, the relationship existed for reasons, and those reasons do not always evaporate when the relationship ends.  Just like my love of Pink Floyd did not affect my love of Daft Punk or Collective Soul’s Dosage when I discovered them, neither does any residual feelings I have for someone I am not dating anymore, or even someone else I’d like to date in the future, have to affect how I feel about a current partner.  There is a trope in our culture that talking about, liking, or thinking about exes or other potential partners is doing it wrong.  Somehow, if we chose someone, we cannot continue to, effectively, choose someone else.

And then there is that fact that we might not love certain music, but really like it, like it occasionally, or only at certain times.  Similarly, there are people we know who we don’t feel the need to interact with day to day, or to dedicate our lives to, but with whom we share similar interests, desires, etc and can establish a less committed relationship.  I am not sure how often this happens, but imagine two people who spend time together a couple time a month or so, perhaps even a sexual relationship, but who recognize that they are not good partners for one-another.  They enjoy their time together, but they have other things going on in their lives.  So, in our monogamy-oriented culture, if either, or both of them find a better partner match, this relationship may be expected to end (especially if it’s sexual in nature).  But why?

It’s obvious that the relationship is not a threat to some other more committed relationship (remember, commitment does not imply exclusivity), so why should it have to end? Wouldn’t it be better to allow such relationships to continue or end on their own terms, and not the terms of another relationship? I mean, I don’t want to listen to The Verve all the time, but my life would be (slightly, but noticeably) diminished if I could never hear Bittersweet Symphony again.  For rational reasons or not, that song contributes to my feeling happy (but in a bittersweet way…sorry…), so why, just because I like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories a lot more, should I not continue to enjoy another song or album?

I’m not trying to be flippant here.  The social and cultural rules about monogamy really do seem as absurd as having to choose one album, or favorite food for that matter, over all others.  Why would we deny the variety of potential valuable relationships there is in the world for the sake of your (perhaps) favorite partner? I mean yes, if I had never met Gina and was married to Ginny and was only with her for the rest of my life, she would be a great partner for me and I would be very lucky to have her.  And if Gina and I had met under different circumstances and were exclusive, we could be happy as well.  So yes, I could be content (in the way that many monogamous people are “content”) with one partner, but the simple fact is that I have existing, and potential, relationships with other people who have things to offer that neither of them can offer on their own (and there are other people they could have relationships with–and do– whom offer things I cannot).  So why would any of us choose sexual and romantic exclusivity?  It’s simply as absurd, from my perspective, as having to choose one song, one album, one artist, or even one genre of music to listen to.

I love many kinds of music.  I don’t often go out of my way to discover new music, or new people for that matter, but I love that both music and people exist in my life.  I love different kinds of music for different reasons, appreciate them for different moods, and listen to music in different contexts and with different frequency.  I approach music on its own terms, like it for its own terms, and enjoy it irregardless of what I think about other music.  It would be silly to say that I can only like this or that genre, artist, or album.  Let me re-phrase that in case you missed the important part of that statement; it would be silly to create a rule which stated that I had to only like one kind of music, and not enjoy other music.  It would be silly because we cannot choose what music we like, just like we cannot really choose what people we like.  Insofar as we can make choices, we can only choose what we do, not what we like.  And just like we choose to listen to a variety of music because we like a variety of music, we should allow ourselves to have the relationships that we want, as we want them.

Some people, and some music, will be pleasant to have around, in the background of our lives.  Our passing acquaintances with people and music can give depth to our lives.  And while we only have so much time and space to truly and intimately appreciate music and people, that limitation should not be defined by the monogamous expectations of our culture.  I can appreciate Beethoven and Green Day, in different moods, times, and spaces.  In that case, I am willing to say I appreciate Beethoven more than Green Day, but if you were to ask me if I preferred the 5th symphony to the 7th…I don’t know.  I don’t know if it matters.  And so with people.  It is clear that I care more for Ginny than an acquaintance who I see from time to time, but beyond that we should not have to sort and rank people into hierarchies and choose one to be our romantic and sexual partner for life, or even just one at a time for weeks or months.

No, we should allow the beautiful musicality of love to add value to our lives as it does naturally, unconstrained by silly social conventions.

That said, anyone have any music that you really love and you think I should listen to?

Also, any awesome people I should meet?