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MY REFLECTIONS ON MUSIC, LIFE, FOOD AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE . . .

Top 10 Favorite Joan Armatrading Tracks

As Joan Armatrading embarks on the USA portion of her last extended tour, I’ve been thinking a lot about her legacy (and listening to a lot of her music). At least in this country she is vastly underappreciated, at least for an artist of her magnitude. She is a great singer, songwriter and instrumentalist (especially on guitar) and the excellence of her songs is matched by her longevity.

I can’t think of a pop/rock artist of whom I can say I enjoy their output comparably at any point along a 40 year career as a recording artist. Sorry Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney et al, but Joan’s got it. Maybe Bonnie Raitt, but because Joan writes all her own material one could make the case that the feat is all the more remarkable. In any case, I’ve been a fan for roughly 25 years, beginning in high school with growing attached to “Drop the Pilot,” doing further research after hearing Bobby McFerrin’s version of “Opportunity” and then seeing an hour-long live performance on the A&E Network that included numerous great Joan-penned songs plus a performance of “Moondance” that I don’t think she ever recorded in the studio and that is also the only time I think I’ve heard her do a cover song (after all, when you wrote “Love and Affection” and “Show Some Emotion,” who needs to do others’ tunes?). Over that time, I just keep finding one expertly-crafted song after another.

In service of this prolific excellence, I made sure that the Top 10 covered 10 different albums, and even that still neglects some excellent records entirely.

1 ) “Down to Zero” from Joan Armatrading

If I could really sing, this is the kind of song I would want to sing, at times gentle and at times anthemic, with soul and irresistible melody throughout.

2 ) “Drop the Pilot” from The Key

Joan’s biggest hit in the U.S. and the first one I heard. I probably heard it 30 times before I even tried to figure out the clever lyrics, as the infectious melody and propulsive groove were enough for me.

3 ) “Willow” from Show Some Emotion

Joan has always had a way with emotionally compelling slow numbers, and this one is possibly her best-loved song in that vein. This is perhaps the most memorable song on an album full of truly wonderful songwriting.

4 ) “Tall in the Saddle” from Live at the Royal Albert Hall

This fairly recent live recording turns the already sweeping song from over 30 years prior into a bona fide whisper-to-a-scream epic.

5 ) “Something’s Gotta Blow” from Into the Blues

This song closes out Joan’s award-winning blues album and her funky piano work is second in prominence only to her stinging lead guitar.

6 ) “In These Times” from Lovers Speak

For any number of reasons, this inspiring ballad hasn’t taken its place in the pantheon alongside “Lean On Me” and “Let It Be” and so on, but it melts my heart whenever I hear it.

7 ) “Me Myself I” from Me Myself I

Early-80s funky rock at its best here, buoyed by Marcus Miller’s bass work and Joan’s delightful singing.

8 ) “Kissing and A Huggin’” from Steppin’ Out (Live)

Okay, maybe I’m cheating a little on the self-imposed “10 different albums” rule, as this live track is a performance of a song from Show Some Emotion, one of the most hard-swaggering love lust songs in 1970s rock. And, not surprisingly, the live version swaggers plenty hard too.

9 ) “Stronger Love” from The Shouting Stage

Late-1980s production with lyrics of mature love. That doesn’t sound very good on paper, but my goodness is this a great album. This particular song revolves around synthed-up piano and soprano saxophone – props as well to the gnarly “Words” and the title track, featuring Mark Knopfler’s guitar.

10 ) “Back On Track” from Starlight

As of this writing, Starlight is Joan’s most recent record, and it’s the first where she is the sole musical contributor – on Into the Blues she plays everything but the drums, and here she goes one further by doing drum programming. The whole album is terrific, but this slyly funky song has stuck with me the most.

Honorable Mention: “Never Is Too Late” from Show Some Emotion

Okay, I’m totally cheating here, but this song is one of my favorite examples of reggae-infused rock and quite high on my “why doesn’t anyone know this great song?!” list.

Every Day I Push: Sisyphus as Role Model

What if the notion of failure lost its context? What if the seemingly paradoxical pursuit of the unattainable became, in and of itself, the ultimate goal? Welcome to my life.

I’m very excited to be premiering my extended new composition The Rock and the Redemption on April 25 at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts with the Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble. Other excited folks have asked for an explanation of what it’s about. Another time I’ll talk about the personal elements therein, (in fact, those who like the in-person variety can come on down the previous Wednesday to hear my talk about all of it), but in the meantime, here is the philosophical crux behind this new music (and/or you can watch the video above for a more poetic and verbally sparse explanation, with utterly stunning visuals by the lovely and talented Kate Ten Eyck).

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man who tried to one-up the gods. They punished him with an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill; just before he reached the top, the boulder would tumble back to the bottom and he would have to start all over. People now use the term “Sisyphean” to describe repetitive, hopeless situations and endlessly futile tasks. All of us inevitably feel stuck in this way sometimes.

But is Sisyphus really a tragic figure? Historically we have assumed so, but there are other interpretations, one of which is foundational to the core philosophy by which I live.

Maybe through all the days of pushing the boulder, Sisyphus found a sense of inner peace and calm. Maybe his body became strong from the daily workout. Maybe he evolved past the narrow belief that the only reward is to get the boulder all the way to the top of the mountain and have it stay there.

Think about the most meaningful pursuits: growing as a person, nurturing others, changing the world. The top of the mountain is a mirage – the best you might ever hope for in that regard is to get close enough to the top to see the next, higher peak over the horizon. And yet, there’s such value in pushing – indeed, pushing with all our might.

As contemporary humans we, of course, have more free will – the gods aren’t forcing us to push. We can just lean on the rock and lament our circumstances. Or we can just walk away and avoid the risk of failure.

After all, Martin Luther King didn’t reach the mountaintop in his lifetime. Susan B Anthony didn’t live to see all women able to vote. Every time John Coltrane played his saxophone, he strove for something and fell short. So if these giants failed, then why should we bother, right?

But of course that logic is suspect from a human standpoint, even if the case can be made in purely rational terms. Seriously, can we imagine a world in which these people watered down their ideals and their transcendent intentions, governed by a sense that goals statistically likely to reach tangible objectives are the only ones worth pursuing? Can we imagine a world in which we dismiss the lessons and inspiration they gave us? Can we imagine a world in which Van Gogh gives away his brushes, Kafka starts writing limericks instead, Galileo says “never mind” and every athlete on a team unlikely to win the big prize just stays home? Or, maybe even more insidiously, where all people faced with disability, trauma, prejudice or any other adversity  they can’t 100% obliterate just stay in bed?

Maybe Sisyphus is actually a role model for perseverance and ambition. What if we look at our own challenges that way? The very act of pushing has its own value – really, it’s central to the human condition and tragic only if we choose to assign that meaning to it. And when we inevitably fall short of the mountaintop, we still achieve things that would be impossible if we opted out. In that paradigm, so-called failure loses its meaning, even in the bleakest situations. We keep striving and every action becomes a celebration of humanity itself. And even if the philosophical end of this is too touchy-feely for you, it also works as pure mathematics. If you get a rock halfway up a 1000 foot mountain before it starts rolling down, you still achieved higher elevation than by reaching the peak of a 300 foot one.

We can’t really know whether Sisyphus felt like a cursed failure or whether he found strength and tranquility and maybe even gratitude. What we do know is that whether we curse the gods or embrace the challenge, we have the choice in our own lives every day.

What if the notion of failure lost its context? What if the seemingly paradoxical pursuit of the unattainable became, in and of itself, the ultimate goal? Welcome to my life.

I’m very excited to be premiering my extended new composition The Rock and the Redemption on April 25 at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts with the Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble. Other excited folks have asked for an explanation of what it’s about. Another time I’ll talk about the personal elements therein, (in fact, those who like the in-person variety can come on down the previous Wednesday to hear my talk about all of it), but in the meantime, here is the philosophical crux behind this new music (and/or you can watch the video above for a more poetic and verbally sparse explanation, with utterly stunning visuals by the lovely and talented Kate Ten Eyck).

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man who tried to one-up the gods. They punished him with an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill; just before he reached the top, the boulder would tumble back to the bottom and he would have to start all over. People now use the term “Sisyphean” to describe repetitive, hopeless situations and endlessly futile tasks. All of us inevitably feel stuck in this way sometimes.

But is Sisyphus really a tragic figure? Historically we have assumed so, but there are other interpretations, one of which is foundational to the core philosophy by which I live.

Maybe through all the days of pushing the boulder, Sisyphus found a sense of inner peace and calm. Maybe his body became strong from the daily workout. Maybe he evolved past the narrow belief that the only reward is to get the boulder all the way to the top of the mountain and have it stay there.

Think about the most meaningful pursuits: growing as a person, nurturing others, changing the world. The top of the mountain is a mirage – the best you might ever hope for in that regard is to get close enough to the top to see the next, higher peak over the horizon. And yet, there’s such value in pushing – indeed, pushing with all our might.

As contemporary humans we, of course, have more free will – the gods aren’t forcing us to push. We can just lean on the rock and lament our circumstances. Or we can just walk away and avoid the risk of failure.

After all, Martin Luther King didn’t reach the mountaintop in his lifetime. Susan B Anthony didn’t live to see all women able to vote. Every time John Coltrane played his saxophone, he strove for something and fell short. So if these giants failed, then why should we bother, right?

But of course that logic is suspect from a human standpoint, even if the case can be made in purely rational terms. Seriously, can we imagine a world in which these people watered down their ideals and their transcendent intentions, governed by a sense that goals statistically likely to reach tangible objectives are the only ones worth pursuing? Can we imagine a world in which we dismiss the lessons and inspiration they gave us? Can we imagine a world in which Van Gogh gives away his brushes, Kafka starts writing limericks instead, Galileo says “never mind” and every athlete on a team unlikely to win the big prize just stays home? Or, maybe even more insidiously, where all people faced with disability, trauma, prejudice or any other adversity they can’t 100% obliterate just stay in bed?

Maybe Sisyphus is actually a role model for perseverance and ambition. What if we look at our own challenges that way? The very act of pushing has its own value – really, it’s central to the human condition and tragic only if we choose to assign that meaning to it. And when we inevitably fall short of the mountaintop, we still achieve things that would be impossible if we opted out. In that paradigm, so-called failure loses its meaning, even in the bleakest situations. We keep striving and every action becomes a celebration of humanity itself. And even if the philosophical end of this is too touchy-feely for you, it also works as pure mathematics. If you get a rock halfway up a 1000 foot mountain before it starts rolling down, you still achieved higher elevation than by reaching the peak of a 300 foot one.

We can’t really know whether Sisyphus felt like a cursed failure or whether he found strength and tranquility and maybe even gratitude. What we do know is that whether we curse the gods or embrace the challenge, we have the choice in our own lives every day.

Whiplash and Ted Dunbar: Tough Love in Education

One of the most important things I offer as an educator is honesty. While I like to think I am a kind person, I feel I am doing no favors if I allow a musician, especially a young musician, to delude him or herself. It was in that spirit that I went into watching the film Whiplash, and it is why I found the movie upsetting and possibly even irresponsible. I am no film critic (I found the plot and characters thin, but what do I know?) and I also do not need to rehash the many musical details that were portrayed inaccurately (others have already done this). However, if anyone mistakes the dynamic depicted in the film as having merit on pedagogical or moral levels, then that is a big problem.

I needn’t go into great depth about my philosophy of the morality behind this sort of tough love . . . because I already have in past entries on this blog. I wrote extensively about the balance between nurturing and administering “butt-whoopings” in a post a couple years ago (click here to read) and a little more recently about the importance of teaching young people to be consistent with word and deed, particularly as relating to setting goals one legitimately intends to do the work to pursue (click here to read).

When I look at my own years of study, I got lots of tough love. I still remember the time that Ted Dunbar, when giving me the final exam in my first of six semesters of classes with him, asked me “Do you study classical music?” I beamed and said yes, thinking he was praising my technical abilities. He then said “I thought so. You see, you have to understand that jazz has a different feeling rhythmically.” Imagine the sound of one’s ego going into the toilet, and that was the sound amplified throughout my being at that moment. And so I worked harder.

Ted taught me more than anyone I’ve ever met about pedagogical tough love. I’ll write another post sometime about his music (which I have always found extraordinary), and I found his pedagogy extremely effective (as have so many others, hence his guru-like status) but it was his high standards that really changed me more than anything.

Ted believed that he was simply expressing the standards inherent to the music itself. If you did all the assignments for a class on time and at high quality . . . then you got a grade of B. Because just doing your job equals a B, and jazz demands far more than that. In six semesters I got an A once, and it was literally the most profound growth I ever experienced in music. The A itself meant very little by the time I checked my transcript, it was the work that got me there that changed me. He was never unkind, but he also didn’t seem to see himself as a motivator – indeed, the music should provide ample motivation if you love it enough to make this sort of pursuit at all sane (a phenomenon conspicuously absent in Whiplash, sadly).

I am tempted to say he was a gatekeeper, but he wasn’t keeping any gates, he was simply stating what he had observed for decades about how good you need to be to thrive and how much work you need to do to get there. Did I feel like Ted liked me, that he cared or thought about me beyond doing his job to teach me music? Strangely that was never that important. At a certain point I realized that his opinion was valuable as a yardstick for measuring how close I was getting to my goals, not as something of great interpersonal importance. Once I saw that, I was liberated from caring what he thought of me . . . while at the same time being bound (until I die or quit) to the objective truth of how well I’m pursuing my goals. That truth is unyielding, which is frustrating at times but is a lot more straightforward than trying to curry someone’s favor and confusing oneself about what that person’s approval does or doesn’t provide.

On the other hand, I experienced numerous educators who were just jerks, or who at least engaged in unkind behavior with no real intention. I saw teachers insult people for their music . . . and for things other than music. Maybe it’s clever to say “you think that’s worthy of a Master’s degree? Maybe a master of baiting” or to let out a big fart and say “I guess that’s what I think of your assignment.” But any valid substance there could be communicated with dignity. Ultimately I never saw an instance in which cruel words or actions had any positive effect on the delivery of a pedagogically valid message.

I had one teacher, who subsequently went on to become the head a reputable jazz conservatory program, publicly mock a lump on my elbow that had plagued me for years. As he, I and a number of other students stood in a courtyard, he declared “it looks like there’s a f***ing PRUNE on your arm! Hahahaha!” I look back now and, as the public shame has dissipated over the years, what strikes me most is that I was a lot more self-possessed at that time than I gave myself credit for. I say that because I didn’t think “that’s it, I quit,” nor did I think “I’ll show him.” I thought that was a mean thing to say, something that was utterly independent of music aside from the fact that I’d have to suck that up if I wanted continued access to the knowledge that instructor possessed, which I did.

Which begs the question: are these two things mutually exclusive? That is, does cruel behavior negate pedagogical legitimacy or even genuine desire to see a student thrive? Can valid information only come from those who deliver it with dignity? Not necessarily, which is why this subject is complicated. It would be easier if it were a duality, but it’s important to see that these issues of pushing someone to excel and being a jerk are not interconnected in terms of cause-and-effect or even springing from the same well, but they can coexist.

There are essentially three elements that are conflated here:

1) To survive as a jazz musician, you have to be really good.

Jazz music is really hard to play at a high level, requiring a degree of devotion (as crazy as this may sound to non-musicians) not out of proportion to attorneys, doctors and other highly skilled professionals . . . except that in those other fields, employment and healthy compensation are comparatively likely. Because the jazz business is extraordinarily competitive and the finances are scarce, the degree of commitment and dues-paying required just to playing at a reliably employable professional level (i.e. to get enough gigs to eat food and sleep in a dwelling) is tremendous.

2) Young musicians need mentors both to become that good and to know if/when they’ve gotten there.

Most really accomplished jazz musicians had, during their developmental years, the mentorship of at least one key figure, whatever the setting or the degree of formality to the relationship.  A central facet of that mentorship is honest, sober assessment of the “disciple” in terms of potential, growth, work ethic and other pertinent facets of the disciple’s growth. Given all this, there inevitably has to be some “tough love” along the way in communicating ways in which the student must step up his or her work to achieve ambitious goals. Likewise, there is inevitably a degree of faith on the part of the disciple that the mentor possesses a greater degree of wisdom and objectivity about where the disciple’s skill set places him or her on the food chain; pleasing that mentor can become the mechanism by which to evaluate whether the skills are adequate.

3) Some of us are vulnerable to abusive yet charismatic authority figures.

Some people are abusive, angry and cruel. Some of those people are in positions of power. Some people “underneath” them in the hierarchy have a desire to please them. This isn’t a blog post about deep patterns of abusive relationships, but there is much documentation in the literature of psychology about the ways in which some vulnerable people long to have the approval of those who are inaccessible or (downright nasty) and the dynamics that result.

This is in a sense what was so amazing about Ted Dunbar’s relatively detached objectivity. I say “detached” not because he lacked passion or didn’t care about his students, but because it was inherently not about him. By all means it’s great when you can find a teacher who is nurturing, inspiring and deeply caring, because we all need people like that for the good of our souls. But in a perverse way the pedagogical danger there can be comparable to that of encountering the type of miscreant who is so exaggeratedly portrayed in Whiplash. That is, pleasing ANYBODY else (whether they deserve it or not) is not the point.

Trying to please a cuddly teddy bear feels a hell of a lot better than trying to please a rabid grizzly bear, but then maybe the latter feels like more of an accomplishment. All of this just diverts attention in the wrong direction, because both put the focus elsewhere. The music itself is where the truth lies. The joyless, status-obsessed student character in Whiplash was so vulnerable to that abuse in large part because he forgot (or perhaps never perceived) that. Pursuit of joy and truth through the study itself is what has driven every accomplished musician I’ve known, and with that on one’s side, even the most exaggeratedly despotic authority figure is utterly powerless.

Top 10 Favorite Orrin Keepnews Prodctions

History-altering record producer and label head honcho Orrin Keepnews passed away on Sunday, 1 day short of his 92nd birthday. We as a society talk little enough about the great jazz musicians of the 20th century, and we certainly don’t talk much about the other contributing figures. But Keepnews, particularly as the visionary head of Riverside Records, left such a mark on modern jazz that I really can’t imagine the history of the music without him. Fortunately he was appreciated in his lifetime (winning a NARAS lifetime achievement award and the NEA Jazz Master fellowship).

Lately my Top 10 lists have been song/track based, but the continuity and conceptual brilliance behind the great records Keepnews oversaw lend themselves better to full albums. And while there are some historically monumental records here, this isn’t an attempt to necessarily measure his “most important” records, though I did try to think in terms of his impact on the process. The number of records I had to omit from the list is pretty staggering, including some of my favorite work by Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Drew, Jimmy Heath, Barry Harris, Wynton Kelly, Abbey Lincoln, Yusef Lateef, Elmo Hope, Red Garland (gasp), not to mention later, post-Riverside classics by Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner and others. So with no further ado:

1 ) Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk, 1956

Monk obviously wrote the music and led the band here, but to me the MVP goes to Keepnews the strategist, in that he a) lured Monk away from Prestige records, b) started off with an Ellington record and a standards record and c) dropped this classic once the audience had been given a point of entry. And so began a relationship that produced easily enough classic music that it could’ve populated this whole list.

2 ) Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans, 1961

There is limited documentation of Evans’ classic 1959-61 trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, and save for some bootlegs, it’s all on Riverside. Keepnews couldn’t have known the importance of recording this live date (given that less than two weeks later LaFaro would be dead in a car accident), but the music herein profoundly impacted the course of many musicians to follow.

3 ) Incredible Jazz Guitar by Wes Montgomery, 1960

Another major coup for Keepnews was his trip to Indianapolis to sign Montgomery to a contract. This was not the first Riverside session for the great guitarist, but it’s arguably the first classic, and this is another record that changed the course of things for many musicians to follow.

4 ) Power to the People by Joe Henderson, 1969

Recorded for Milestone after the demise of Riverside, this amazingly powerful album shows that Keepnews’ ear for modernism was not left behind at Riverside. The rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette plays with an unusual degree of vitality even by their lofty standards, coaxing some of JoeHen’s best playing on wax.

5 ) Caravan by Art Blakey, 1962

Blakey and the Jazz Messengers are rightly known best in this era (the Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton sextet with either Reggie Workman or Jymie Merritt) for their work on the Blue Note label, but mixed in there are several classic albums for Riverside. This one features the gorgeous “Skylark” and the moody Shorter tune “This Is For Albert” alongside two utterly burnin’ rave-ups in “Caravan” and Hubbard’s “Thermo.”

6 ) In San Francisco by Cannonball Adderley, 1959

It’s hard to pick one Cannonball record here, as his groups were so synonymous with the Riverside sound in a lot of ways and, arguably, his most influential years as a recording artist came for the label, not to mention some classic work as a bandleader by his brother Nat. I picked this great, ebullient live record in part to represent the great pianist Bobby Timmons, himself an important Riverside artist.

7 ) Freedom Suite by Sonny Rollins, 1958

Rollins had already recorded important work for multiple labels (including Blue Note and Prestige) by this point and had already done work in a piano-less trio. Nonetheless, this amazing album and especially its epic title track.

8 ) Duke with a Difference by Clark Terry, 1957

While Riverside became known for both the hard-swinging and progressive sides of hard bop, he also got started with more traditional forms of jazz. This delightful swing-era throwback features a band of Ellingtonians playing buoyant, joyful interpretations of the maestro’s music.

9 ) Cole Porter – In A Modern Mood by Randy Weston, 1954

Even before Monk’s signing to Riverside, the progressive elements were evident. This record represents the beginning of that for Keepnews and the beginning of a then-young Randy Weston’s long career as a bandleader. These angular interpretations in the form uets with bassist Sam Gill (later packaged with other sessions of this era and reissued as Solo, Duo and Trio in A Modern Mood)

10 ) Ezz-Thetics by George Russell, 1961

There are few albums like this – we get to hear Russell’s piano playing (of which there is too little documentation) alongside great solo work from trombonist David Baker (yet another major composer/educator inadequately documented as a player – but check out his solo on Ezz-Thetic), trumpeter Don Ellis and reedman Eric Dolphy, on a program of extremely progressive yet equally soulful music.

Top 10 Most Personally Mind-Blowing SNL Musical Appearances

Through my formative years, I watched a lot of Saturday Night Live, and the musical guests (not surprisingly) always fascinated me, in some cases blowing my mind. As a teenager especially I would videotape the show and if the performance was good (or, often, even decent) watch the musical bits over and over, studying the performances. I would also watch reruns on cable and was interested in the differences in musical style and allowable levels of eclecticism.

The Top 10 list below thus leans heavily on those years and also plays up performances that stood out relative to that artist (Bonnie Raitt, for example, had multiple appearances and sounded pretty much as good as she always did, which was amazing; on the other hand, I never heard the Neville Brothers sound better than in the performance cited below). Notable omissions include Betty Carter, Phoebe Snow, Joan Armatrading, Leon Redbone, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, Stevie Wonder, Santana, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Living Colour, Tom Petty, Wynton Marsalis’ Quintet, Sting and (PLEASE pay attention to this caveat) EVERY artist who has appeared in the last 20 years, during which time I have seldom had a television. I’m sure there are many great performances that I have not included here, and I refer you back to the post’s title – these are performances that really impacted me, so if I didn’t see them they are inherently not relevant to this list, great though there may be. There are also lots of hidden gems that I did catch (the Power Station in 1985 – no one will likely claim that “Some Like It Hot” was a landmark, but with Tony Thompson’s drums and Lenny Pickett and the rest of the SNL horn section, it was SO funky) for which there’s not nearly enough space.

Without further ado . . .

1 ) “Diamonds On the Soles Of Her Shoes” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon (1986)

Mind. Completely. Blown. To Bits. The song, the band, the grooves, yes, yes, yes. But the singing and dancing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo left a deep mark on me. This gets the nod over numerous other noteworthy Paul Simon moments, including his great “Rhythm of the Saints” band and his 1989 (15th anniversary special) reprise of “Still Crazy After All These Years” with the immortal Richard Tee on electric piano and Lenny Pickett taking a soulful and Brecker-worthy saxophone solo.

2 ) “Brother Jake” by the Neville Brothers (1990)

This tale of an ill-fated New Orleans man encapsulates the Neville’s sound, and when I saw this performance it was everything I wanted a soul/R&B/rock/swamp jam to be. Great song, great vocal harmonies, great lead vocal turns from Aaron and Cyril, great organ from Art, great saxophone from Charles. The performance trumps any live or studio version of the song I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a bunch.

3 ) “Sunless Saturday” by Fishbone (1991)

There had been numerous hard rock performances on SNL that I had seen and wanted to get into (Faith No More’s “Epic” did cross the I-dig-it threshold), but in hindsight I always longed for a little more soul. Enter Fishbone, whose thrashing guitars and drums provided a perfect backdrop for the socially conscious lyrics of this song (which they followed up with a super-soulful “Everyday Sunshine”).

4 ) “Radio Radio” by Elvis Costello (1977)

In this famous performance, Elvis changes course seconds into another song and lashes into a high-energy romp on this one.

5 ) “Drive” by Bobby McFerrin (1988)

Bobby McFerrin’s solo a cappella work also left a huge mark on my musical conception as a teenager. This is perhaps his best known song in that vein and shows his voice range and rhythmic command in full bloom. By 1988 the musical acts were getting more mainstream, so kudos to them for taking a chance here, prior to his commercial breakthrough.

6 ) “I’m the Slime” by Frank Zappa (1976)

Zappa’s snarl and burning lead guitar are supported on this classic tune by the voice of SNL’s Don Pardo representing the “slime” from the TV set.

7 ) “Big Bottom” by Spinal Tap (1984)

The greatest rock band that never was gives a signature performance of their signature song. It is worth noting that the doppelgangers of David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls (Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer) were all at one time SNL cast members.

8 ) “Truganini” by Midnight Oil (1993)

Australian band Midnight Oil was a bit past their commercial peak in the U.S. by this point, but had lost none of their musical crunch or political swagger. This searing indictment of environmental irresponsibility and aboriginal exploitation manages to make you think and rock out, and this is the best live performance of the song I ever saw.

9 ) “Johannesburg” by Gil Scott-Heron (1976)

This important political yet super-funky song about the situation in South Africa is given a percussion-heavy reading and Gil is in fine voice.

10 ) “Give It To Me” by Rick James (1982)

That funk. That sweet, that funky stuff. What more can I say? All the evidence you need of what a dynamic performer Rick James was (and with noted irony of his appearance on a sketch comedy show, given that to younger generations he is better known as a character on Dave Chappelle’s show).

Love: Savor Every Moment

We all know that life and just about everything else we see are impermanent. We all know that we need to savor what we have because it may not last. This is especially true of love, that most precious of elements in our universe. We all know this, and yet it is so easy to forget. As the dust settles a bit (hopefully) after a few years marked by loss, I have become more determined to incorporate this awareness into my own life and consciousness.

This will likely sound a bit morbid at first, but lately I have had a little perspective-checking exercise I undertake whenever my wife or I is about to leave for work or otherwise. I think “if this is the last time I ever see her, will I regret the last interaction?”

Allow me to explain a little bit. This semi-philosophical question could lead down any number of rabbit holes, such as panic, sadness or even simply never getting to work because I’m clinging to her ankles too hard. On a good day, though, none of these pitfalls are relevant.

Ultimately the sense that all we have is this moment and anything can happen is simply the literal truth. Thinking ahead to consequences is a straightforward, rational thing. There is so much we can’t predict, but I can say with great certainty that whenever that inevitable last moment comes (hopefully a long time from now) I want the last interaction to be one of loving and full engagement.

But here’s the thing to latch onto, even if that line of thought is just too depressing for you: any actions governed by that principle are likely to be healthy and uplifting. Even though Kate did, in fact, return home from work the other day, I’m still glad I got up from the email I was writing to say a meaningful goodbye. Even though we both woke up this morning, I’m still glad I put my phone down and paid attention to her.

I have a hard time withholding judgment of people who squander riches that others do not have in comparable abundance, and I am determined as hell not to be one of those people. There are lots of poems and songs about how love is a gift that money can’t buy . . . and you know what, it’s true. It’s easy for other things to feel urgent (indeed, sometimes they are), and yet if we’re not careful we can get so caught up that we forget what’s really important. And this principle applies, of course, to all forms of love for others, not just romantic partners (“Cat’s in the Cradle,” anyone?).

I’m going to make this one uncharacteristically short so that more of Valentine’s Day can be free for attentiveness. In the meantime, you can entertain yourself with my Valentine’s gift from last year, a song/video that addresses, a bit more cheekily, the idea of savoring every moment.

Lemon-Almond Pancakes

Normally I go simpler than this for pancakes, but for a special occasion this weekend I wanted to go for something a little more exotically flavored. It was a bit more labor intensive, but was not super-difficult and didn’t require anything not already in our fridge or pantry. Served up with some maple syrup and/or fruit, this was/is mighty tasty stuff!

If you like it REALLY lemony, you could add another lemon’s worth of juice/zest and reduce the milk by ¼ cup.

Serves 5-6

- ½ cup rolled oats
- ½ cup almonds
- 1 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
- ½ cup corn flour (another ½ cup pastry flour can be used here)
- 1 Tbsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 2 cups (dairy or non-dairy) milk
- ¾ cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons) plus zest
- 4 eggs
- ¼ cup honey
- ¼ cup melted butter or neutrally-flavored oil
- 1 tsp almond extract

1) Put almonds and oats in a skillet (ideally cast iron) over low heat, stirring frequently until starting to brown and smell toasty.
2) Put toasted almonds and oats in food processor and chop finely. Add to other dry ingredients (flours in a large bowl and mix.
3) Add milk to dry ingredients and mix until combined.
4) Squeeze the lemon juice, zest the lemon rinds and add the juice, zest and other remaining ingredients (honey, eggs, butter/oil, almond extract) to food processor. Blend for about 2 minutes.
5) Gently fold the egg/lemon mixture into the mixture in the large bowl.
6) Heat and oil/butter a skillet on medium-low heat. Once hot, add the batter in small amounts.
7) Cook until the top side is bubbly and starting to solidify (mostly cooked-through), and then flip. Put cooked pancakes in a warmed oven until ready to serve.

Are You Sure? MLK, Thich Nhat Hanh and Self-Reflection

This winter marks ten years since I released Soul Force, a full-album tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. In the ensuing decade, it’s interesting to note the shift in my worldview. Of course, along the way there has been a decade of parenthood, physical struggles and triumphs, profound world events, and so on. The takeaway is that I now have stronger convictions to which I’m less attached. Huh?

It’s not easy to explain, but I’ll try. There has been a deepening of my sense of commitment to goodness, to love, to peace, to justice and so on. I have stronger opinions of what all of that means . . . and a greater detachment from those opinions. I mean, really, what the @#$! does any of us actually know so definitively that it’s accurate 100% of the time? So more and more often I ask myself “are you sure?”

When the time came to go out on a limb and release my singer-songwriter EP last fall, I wanted a name for the “band” (in quotes since on these recordings I played and sang everything). Anyone who’s spent time with me is probably eye-rolling at the thought of how often I respond to a funny turn of phrase with “that’d be a good name for a (band, song, album).” Yet in this instance I wanted something with a little more dignity and relevance. I kept coming back to “Are You Sure?”

The reference is to something life-affecting I read in a book by Thich Nhat Hanh back in my 20s. He suggests writing those three words (“Are You Sure?”) on a piece of paper and placing it somewhere obvious so you will look at it every day. Getting unstuck from rigid perceptions, he explains, is fundamental to our achieving “right thought” and liberating our minds.

For those unaware of him and his work, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk from Vietnam who has authored something like 75 books (not a typo) and has been a world leader in applying those principles both for helping Westerners understand the principles of mindfulness and in addressing inequality, war, violence and other difficult real-world issues. Now in his late 80s, he is currently defying the odds by regaining at least some of his capacities after a massive brain hemorrhage in the fall.

If I wanted to tie this into the holiday celebrating the birth and life of Martin Luther King, Jr., it would probably be enough to simply point out that Dr. King was an admirer, who actually nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 for his courageous peace activism amidst the Vietnam War (breaking protocol by speaking publicly about the nomination and the need for people to pay attention to his work). On a much deeper level, though, this “are you sure?” principle relates directly to our personal and societal need to re-examine and scrutinize embedded perceptions that may not all be completely valid.

As I’ve contemplated writing this, I’ve thought of all the exceptions I can list (things we should not subject to the heresy of “are you sure?”), but on closer examination I’m not sure that I have found any exceptions. That is because on closer examination, it seems that any kind of scrutiny of our perceptions will lead to one of two conclusions: either the perception in question could use some refining (which, insofar as that makes it more consistent with reality is a good thing – the reality is there whether you face or avoid it), or the perception remains intact with no harm done from the examining.

So am I saying that we should reconsider our most basic beliefs? Question that our God is real, question that we are attached to our parents, question that love is better than hate? Well, yes and no. I am not calling these principles into question, but I’m confident that contemplating these things doesn’t threaten their strength and validity . . . and it’s a slippery slope from refusing to scrutinize basic tenets of reality to refusing to scrutinize outdated and unhealthy perceptions. 2 plus 2 has equaled 4 every time I’ve checked, but that doesn’t mean . A case could be made that it’s simply impractical to question everything all the time, and on some level that’s true – if we literally did that with every perception all the time, it would be overwhelming. I am not, for example, stopping as I type this to consider whether English is the proper language for the essay or whether I’m using the correct fingers or whether I should instead be getting up to pee (. . . well actually, hold on a second . . .). However, we can tell when something is stirred up enough to warrant that examination, and in those cases the extra time and effort it would take to ask ourselves “are you sure?” is no greater than the time and effort it takes to dig in our heels to maintain that our perception is the correct one.

This is true regardless of your politics or faith or any other identifying traits informing your belief system. It’s pretty obvious that my own politics are to the left and that my own faith is pretty open-ended. But I never stop questioning whether my perceptions are right.

Part of why I’m presenting this idea in the context of MLK is that I’ve recently found myself debating the state of race relations in the USA with greater frequency. I stop to contemplate every argument I hear from the other side, even if I’m offended. Those who feel otherwise (spoiler alert: I personally keep concluding that people of color have not gotten a fair shake) have accused me of being closed-minded and I’ve considered that too – IS my approach closed-minded? It may be that in the context of debate the proper protocol is to stand my ground and not show “weakness” of convictions to someone who appears unwilling to consider other ideas. Am I sure that this is the correct protocol? Well, no, and I’m even less sure that closing off my own mind to these other ideas, as much as they may offend me, helps anybody – if I’m frustrated by others’ closed-mindedness, I have a responsibility to do better.

As such, it’s worth making the distinction here between rigidity of beliefs and confidence of energy and actions. I am aware that on an in-the-moment basis, there are any number of scenarios in which it is useful or even necessary to act from a place of assuredness. I’ve spent my adult life aware of this in the context of playing music – it’s important to scrutinize things when practicing, but it’s important to let that go and just play when on the bandstand. Heck, even in my limited success on the tennis court, it was always pretty clear that the tinkering I did while honing my game had no place in the stay-focused world of actual competition. When your child asks “do you love me?” that is not the time to stop and question the metaphysics of the question. When somebody is drowning and you have the chance to pull him out of the river, that is not the time to contemplate what mortality really means. From doctors to teachers to soldiers, there are many people who need to be decisive in the moment. I would say, though, that people in ALL of these positions DO benefit from introspection and examination of principles, best practices and so on. Certainly as a physically disabled person, I have learned to run, not walk (unless, of course, my body hurts too much to run – it’s a figure of speech, work with me here) away from any doctor whose approach is closed off to new information, instead relying on “I’ve seen x number of patients in my day and I know what’s right.” True wisdom does not preclude continued learning and self-examination.

So the $64,000 question is WHY we resist this. I’ve narrowed it down to three things.

1 ) It’s easier to hang on to our existing set of beliefs and perceptions than to re-route. Likewise it’s easier to file away the logical conclusion we’ve made in the moment as being correct than to consider the less-likely alternatives.

2 ) It feels better to appear (and feel) authoritative about things. Confidently stating the expert opinion at the party (or in the classroom or on social media or whatever) makes you “bigger” than

3 ) It can be scary to imagine the chain reaction if one of the chips should fall from our belief system. What else may crumble as a result?

So, in summary, convenience, ego, fear. I can relate to all of them. I like to make my judgment and get it over with, I like to sound smart and I like to feel like I understand (and thus can work within) the ways of the world. I like to think that I’m a good person and it’s thus completely tempting to simply craft a worldview that logically brings a rational person to that conclusion. I have yet to meet a person sufficiently enlightened for these motivations to be completely inert.

I recently thought of an interaction from a few years back with my SFAM (sister-from-another-mother) Rachel Green. She’s now a wonderful mental health professional (click here to check out her current work) but one among her diverse earlier-in-life resume points is a lengthy stint as a touring singer-songwriter (fans of my work may recognize the name as the composer of “The Dance,” which I recorded on Turtle Steps). I was reminiscing about my first time hearing her perform – it was at the WNPR studios in the late 1980s when I was a freshman in high school. I remembered the original songs she performed, plus a couple cover songs including Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Rachel gently pointed out that she never performed that song . . . and I clung to it – “No, you definitely did.” And so it went for a little while until she graciously conceded that maybe she was remembering wrong. With some further reflection I realized that, of course, she was right – she did Chris Smither and Tom Waits covers that night and the Joni Mitchell moment I remembered was something and someone entirely different that I had managed to conflate with her concert. What is interesting to me is how determined I was to be right, on a level that superseded my determination to be thoughtful, accurate and so on.

But here’s the thing – in that setting it’s kind of stupid but ultimately pretty harmless, as are many trivial arguments that people have, clinging to strong opinions about the relative merits of this movie or that sports team or who is the greatest-ever guitar player or what have you. It’s not always that harmless. When we stay stuck in perceptions that lead us to judge others or evaluate the world around us, that can lead to delusion, intolerance and just plain old grumpy isolation. Looking back at my childhood (and based on “information” coming from a whole host of different sources), here are some perceptions I had:

- Black people are “other”
- Polish people are stupid
- Being nice to others is a good thing
- Gay people are weird
- Ugly people are to be mocked (and hopefully I’m not ugly)
- Girls are nicer than boys
- Stupid people are to be looked down on
- Violence is wrong
- Eating vegetables is healthy
- Eating meat (including fast food) is healthy
- Getting drunk is bad, but kind of funny
- Physical exertion is dangerous

I could go on, but you get the idea. I look at this list now and see a jumbled mess of things that are true, things that are false, things that are gross oversimplifications or misrepresentations of phenomena that have some germ of truth to them, things that are true under very specific circumstances, things that are offensive, things that are untrue but kind of humorous and so on. I haven’t the vaguest idea who I would be if I had taken these things for granted on an ongoing basis. And I also see how some of these perceptions (particularly the more prejudicial ones) were products of a world that was still limping along the path to greater enlightenment. We still are of course, though we’re getting farther. If I had been born a few generations earlier, my perceptions of minority groups would have probably been a lot worse, while most young people I meet today are brought up with a more progressive view than I had.

BUT that is possible because of the courage of so many people along the way who were and are willing to question the status quo of their perceptions. I’ve written plenty on this blog about the need to fight for love and justice and equality, but it’s important (as both Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King did so much to teach us) to remember that this springs forth from our own personal journeys to living in an inner world of just, compassionate thought.

As an adult I think my perceptions are more accurate, wiser and more humane. But if I came to that place of greater clarity through ruthless examination of my perceptions, what would make me think that I can STOP doing that now? Quite the contrary, my integrity and sanity depend on perpetual questioning. AM I a good person? DO I treat my kids as lovingly as I should? IS my commitment to my work what it could be? ARE my actions sufficiently in tune with my stated desires to see a just, equitable world for all? DOES my day-to-day life mirror my public persona? ARE my conclusions coming from the message and not from my feelings about the messenger? DO I have the talents (and limitations) that I and others think I do? DO I know what I’m talking about? IS this entire essay actually worth a reader’s time?

It’s a lot easier to indignantly say OF COURSE and scoff a little and get on with my day, maybe even conflate rigidity of thought with self-esteem (whereby the questioning can be dismissed as unhealthy self-doubt). And I won’t lie, sometimes I do. And then I hear Thich Nhat Hanh’s voice asking “are you sure?” and I think of Dr. King and all those who refused to accept the inner or outer status quo so that my children could live in a better world. And I dig in and reconsider – it is the least I can do.

Top 10 Favorite Joe Locke Tracks

I am a sucker for musicians who play overtly soulful music and then turn around and play the hippest modern jazz, especially when they find organic ways to integrate the two. That’s the mechanism by which James Williams drew me into this music, and from Mingus to Bird to Eddie Harris to Rahsaan Roland Kirk and on down the list that has always gassed me. On the younger end of that tip is vibraphonist Joe Locke who is one of the hippest and most technically facile vibraphonists active today, but can always be counted on for achingly soulful music as a player, composer and arranger of others’ material. Here are some of the tracks that most embody that to me. There are numerous omissions from this list from his own records and tracks by such diverse artists as Hiram Bullock, Eddie Daniels, Russell Malone, Grover Washington, Jr. and the Beastie Boys. But that’s a good problem to have, as evidence by the quality of the music below.

1 ) “Van Gogh By Numbers” from Live in Seattle by Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group

I still remember approaching the George Washington Bridge when I heard this super-intense track for the first time on WBGO. I knew immediately that a) it was heavy, b) it was Joe’s music and c) that I should seek it out on a time when I was not operating a motor vehicle. Which I did, and it’s easily one of my favorite albums of the last 20 years.  Geoffrey Keezer is another great integrator of modernity and soulfulness and it’s unsurprising that his many collaborations with Joe are all worth a listen.

2 ) “I Can’t Make You Love Me” from Lay Down My Heart: Blues and Ballads

I find that it is comparatively rare to hear great jazz “covers” of contemporary (i.e. rock era) pop tunes – usually they’re either corny or they’re so hipped-up that they lose the character of the song. Joe has a great track record of finding the sweet spot with his versions of songs of that ilk, from Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” to “I Say A Little Prayer” (though I never asked whether it was Dionne Warwick or Aretha providing his template) and this song, popularized by Bonnie Raitt, is pitch-perfect.

3 ) “On A Misty Night” from But Beautiful by Joe Locke and Kenny Barron

Amidst all the other grooves that Joe explores so well, he also swings like crazy. No better way to demonstrate that than in a medium-tempo duet with the master Kenny Barron on an album full of soulful and lyrical moments. Having played duets with Kenny for 6 years as his student maybe I’m biased, but I don’t know if there’s any lovelier setting in which to get in the pocket and play.

4 ) “Twilight” from Beauty Burning

Joe has had a long association with pianist Darrell Grant, and this track (from a record that’s sadly out of print) is a profoundly soulful reading of one of Grant’s most beautiful tunes. Jeff “Tain” Watts’ backbeat keeps things at a slow burn and guest guitarist Paul Bollenback digs in hard.

5 ) “Verrazano Moon” from For the Love of You

Joe has composed some lovely ballads, and this one highlights the work of his frequent collaborator, vocalist Kenny Washington (not to be confused with the drummer by the same name). Though Joe certainly “sings” through his vibes, he also works great with those who do the real thing.

6 ) “Miramar” from Via by Storms/Nocturnes

This is another Keezer collaboration, this time in an unusually-orchestrated vibes-piano-winds trio with saxophonist Tim Garland. The music they create is gorgeous, and this ethereal version of a tune of Joe’s that also appears on Live In Seattle is a highlight.

7 ) “Blue November” from Force of Four

I’ll admit that my first impetus for checking out this album was the guest appearance on this slow, funky tune and one other track by my old buddy Wayne Escoffery, who has recorded two great records of his own in the piano-less group Veneration, with Joe laying down the chords. But while I came for Wayne, I stayed for all the deep, soulful music provided by Joe and the rest of the band.

8 ) “Nearly” from Stardust by Ron Carter

My first live exposure to Joe Locke was at the Blue Note in the fall of 2002. It was a double bill and Wayne got me in, as he was playing in Lonnie Plaxico’s band (along with keyboardist Helen Sung, who I also heard for the first time, mind-blowingly). It was a double bill, though, with Ron Carter’s sextet, and this was just a few weeks before I went into the studio with Ron and Ben Riley to record my “Patch Kit” album. So I was there mainly to hear him, but what stood out most was the work of the guests, Joe and elder statesman Benny Golson (who Ron referred to as “our hero”) on tenor. Both of them appear on this album and are featured on this slow, bluesy Carter original, as is pianist Sir Roland Hanna.

9 ) “Naima” from Phantoms by Eddie Henderson

Meanwhile, my first exposure to Joe’s playing of any kind was also through a Kenny Barron connection, in this case through an album containing 3/5 of Kenny’s classic quintet – Kenny, drummer Victor Lewis and master trumpeter Eddie Henderson, who would go on to employ Joe for several more records. On this slow Latin version of the classic Coltrane ballad, Joe gets a turn at the melody, adds great chordal textures and takes a gorgeous solo.

10 ) “Sword of Whispers” from Live at JazzBaltica by Trio da Paz with Joe Locke

Carrying on in the tradition of Gary Burton’s early days with Stan Getz, Joe can play the heck out of Brazilian music, and these days there is no better setting in which one could do so than with Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca, better known as Trio da Paz. This is a tune of Joe’s that fits right in with the rest of their program on this uplifting record.

Non-Linear Healing

Humans have an amazing capacity to heal, whether physically or emotionally, from profound trauma. Maybe we never get back to 100%, but even when our bodies and hearts seem irreparably broken, there is great potential for recovery. We can tap into that even more potently if we acknowledge that this healing may not take the predictable, sequential route that we might expect or hope for.

So let’s start by keeping it real here: I am not looking forward to December 14. Last year I spent the anniversary of the Sandy Hook murders (which, by twisted coincidence, was my 40th birthday) barely able to get up from the couch. Even after spending a year processing, contemplating, grieving and, yes, healing, when the day came I was pretty much incapacitated by pain, sorrow and inability to comprehend. I cringed* every time someone said “happy birthday,” though I was intellectually able to parse out the intended substance of those wishes and to construct socially appropriate responses (e.g. “thanks”).

* Not that this is of great importance in the larger scheme, and I’d be perfectly content just to let the day pass with my birthday unacknowledged, but for those who want to say something, props to anybody who phrases such wishes in terms of gratitude that I exist/was born and skips the “happy” part.

The year since then has been one of further healing. I still think about Ana and our friends who must go on without her every day, but I have reclaimed some wounded and shriveled parts of my heart and been able to move forward energetically in ways that seemed inconceivable even this winter. And yet my heart clenches tighter with each day closer to 12/14 we get.

My rational mind is tempted to say “it’s just a day on the calendar, it’s a symbol, why would that day be any harder than any other?” My rational mind, however, also knows enough about trauma and healing to acknowledge the inevitability of bumps in the road, some more predictable than others. Heck, maybe after all the looking-into-the-grief I’m doing now, the day of will be pleasantly anti-climactic. Or maybe there’ll be moments of levity amidst moments of gut-wrenching sadness. The one thing I do know for certain is that I don’t know. Huh? That is, I am confident that the healing process has a path of its own and will run its course in ways I can’t predict. From everything I’ve seen, the larger patterns are more predictable. That is, I have faith that I and my suffering loved ones will feel better in 10 years than now and that there will be, when viewed from a distance, an upward arc. Get closer, though, and the lines have a lot more twists and turns.

This is not to say that anyone dealing with the aftermath of trauma is entirely at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. There most certainly are tangible steps we can take to promote healing of whatever sort. Indeed, a disproportionate percentage of my life choices have revolved around this. I don’t have total control over healing from any among the spate of injuries that are inevitable due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, but there are lots of choices I can (and, indeed, must) make to foster healing in that way. My process of healing from childhood sexual trauma (already addressed on this blog) has been long, convoluted and ongoing, with the one common thread being my stubborn determination to confront the demons and come out on top.

It’s important to make a distinction between healing and coping. Coping is surviving, getting through something in the moment. Coping is important on one level, but it is a comparatively finite and superficial thing. Some coping mechanisms include avoidance, distraction, intoxication-induced numbing (drugs, alcohol, etc.) and all sorts of other things that we wouldn’t deem particularly helpful. Even healthy coping mechanisms (of which there are many) exist to get through the present moment, not to address the core issue causing the suffering. If that core issue is trivial, then that’s enough (coping with sitting through a boring lecture, for example). If it’s a bigger or deeper challenge, then coping alone is at best a stall tactic. Coping is necessary, of course, as we can’t be knee-deep in our pain 24/7. The point, then, is not to denigrate coping but simply to acknowledge that it isn’t the deep or transformative part of the process. For example, many people are currently coping with the recent spate of high-profile racial injustices by moving their attention elsewhere (“I’m tired of hearing about this”), but no rational person would claim that this approach is healing anything or anybody, personally or societally.

Healing is seldom easy, but it’s a lot easier when we acknowledge and accept the convolution of the process both for ourselves and for others. It would be so much easier and more clear-cut if things WERE predictably linear. Today I feel better than I did yesterday, tomorrow I’ll feel better than I do today, and so on, and at this pace I’ll feel like a million bucks a week from Thursday. Maybe with the common cold or disappointment over last night’s Lakers game this can happen. But deep wounds and the deep healing that they necessitate don’t work that way, and the more complicated the trauma, the more layers of healing there are to intersect in ways that may or may not seem coherent. Not only are some days better than others, but there may be good parts and bad parts and confusing parts all happening concurrently and on different schedules.

This is particularly challenging when surrounded by those expecting linearity. I began contemplating this (albeit in a comparatively trivial context) a few years ago when I resumed playing tennis after years away from the game due to issues with joint health. I can admit now that my biggest fear wasn’t that I’d get hurt. My biggest fear wasn’t that I’d get into it and then be emotionally crushed when I had to stop again (which, ironically enough, may be where I find myself now – we’ll see . . .). My biggest fear was that I would undo the years of work I’d done in training people around me to understand that I had a physical disability. Most people perceive that you’re either sick or well. So for me to go on a tennis court would mean that I was better now and all the other accommodations I had needed would no longer be relevant. It is not that simple, and yet I was conscious that for some people I was pushing them beyond their comfort zone for embracing divergent realities.

And that was a physical issue. Even harder is navigating the same phenomenon while also dealing with the emotional strain of trauma. People want you to get better because it’s tiring to be around people who are in pain, because it makes them uncomfortable and forces them to confront their own demons. People see you functioning well and assuming you’re on the up-and-up and that this means you’ve crossed some kind of threshold that won’t be crossed again in the opposite direction. These are understandable expectations in the sense that it’s easier for most people to think concretely and sequentially. But it just isn’t the way these things really go. It just isn’t. We should expect, both of ourselves and others, that these things will take circuitous paths and that there is no “all better” end point like we might expect from a virus or broken bone. Failure to do this has a whole wave of consequences, none of them good (unless you believe that “suck it up” is a clinically effective means by which to heal from trauma – if so, I’ve got some books to loan you).

Is it hard to reconcile this unpredictable non-linearity? Heck yes it is. But not half as hard as it is to do the actual work of soldiering forward through loss, pain and other fallout from trauma. Those who have experienced trauma need to accept this reality so as not compound the inevitable challenges with the further struggle of unrealistic expectations and disheartening failure to meet them. Those who are not in the throes of that struggle also can work on making sense of this seemingly irrational reality. Ultimately, that’s self-serving as much as anything. How? Well, nobody is immune to trauma, so everything we do to create a world that envelops those who are suffering with, at minimum, patience and understanding (love and nurturing being bonuses on top of that) is like creating an insurance policy against being isolated, pressured and misunderstood when that moment comes. And unlike most of this stuff, that is as straightforward as it gets.