Four Goats

One of my students is a talented, accomplished, and generous man who takes singing lessons with me over in cyberspace. The simple fact of interacting with him makes me more alert and intelligent. He brings new vocal and musical materials into my life, he asks pertinent and not-always-easy-to-answer questions, and he gets me thinking about the meaning of life.  

The human voice is quite complex in its working, much like the owner of the voice. No two people speak and sing exactly alike. Thoughts and emotions are boiling up inside your head and your soul, and at some point “you give voice to them.” The voice has a bestial component. Listen to little kids shouting at one another in the playground, and you’ll hear wolves, goats, eagles, all fighting for territory and supremacy. The voice has its anatomy. Can you shout without lungs, without vocal folds, without a larynx and a pharynx? “The Goat and the Pharynx.” Someone ought to write the book.

My student and I get pretty creative in our weekly dialogue. His goat bleats and my goat laughs. And the thing is, he and I keep improving our speaking and singing voices. Fun is work and work is fun, and life’s good and the goats sing happy and proud.

The other day he asked me about my concepts and exercises. Where do they come from? Did my teachers teach me the things that I do with him? How, how, how? It was one of those useful questions, and I have one of my quaternity answers for it. Trinity: three things; quaternity: four things.

I think that, for everyone and in everything that they do, four factors are in permanent interplay. The first factor is what you’re born with. Some people call it genetics, but I prefer calling it embodied family history. The baby kind of looks like his father and his mother, and that’s, wow, your first problem in life. (Joke, maybe.) Innate strengths and weaknesses, innate brain, innate body, innate asymmetries, crossed eyes, flexible fingers, platypus feet, hairy back. I sit at the cello, and my crossed eyes and flexible fingers are part of my posture and my technique. Did you know that intonation problems in cello playing are caused by a hairy back? I blame my father.

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The second factor is what we’ll call education, all the experiences you have in the environment in which you dwell, including school but also family, playground, lessons, books, teachers, colleagues, excursions, movies, books (did I say books already?), travels, meetings, encounters, trainings, seminars. Let’s stop the list now, before we bust our data plan. I had a whole bunch of cello teachers, for instance. You can meet them here. Their ideas cross-fertilized over the months, years, and decades, and here I am: a unique cellistic hybrid, because no one else in the world met the same set of teachers I’ve met and no one else in the world has my same hairy back and platypus feet. Similarly with my voice teachers: they were seven brothers for seven brides, and they had forty-nine children all counted, and each and every child is called Pedro.

The third factor is what we’ll call personal initiative, the stuff you originate yourself, the bursts from within, the thoughts and feelings of which you’re the reluctant owner, the experiments you undertake alone or in the company of siblings, friends, colleagues, and students. Personal initiative starts very early in life. Babies and puppies, you know? They never stop exploring and experimenting. Then they become adolescents. Nothing has more personal initiative than an adolescent puppy. I once married a fire hydrant in Las Vegas.

The fourth factor is the hardest to name, but we’ll call it mystery. I mean, something that we don’t understand and can’t explain. Inspiration, intuition, insight, in-something. Brainwaves undetectable by science. Channeling information from sources unknown. Receiving gifts from the ether. Opening your seventh chakra, come what may. Connecting with Nature, or the Universe, or the Supreme Being Whose Back May or May not Be Hairy. For rationalists, this whole thing doesn’t exist. But when did a rationalist ever “get the goat”?

From  etymonline.com , my favorite website.

From etymonline.com, my favorite website.

 ©2019, Pedro de Alcantara

Ascend, descend, transcend

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The Thousand Buddhas

The other day, my wife Alexis and I visited the Musée Guimet in Paris. It was a special outing, as we were celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of our first meeting. The Musée Guimet is a world-class collection of Asian art. It’s spectacular, gorgeous, fantastic, and marvelous, to pluck a quaternity from the Thesaurus (with a capital “T,” of course).

The Musée is off the average tourist’s radar, and at the height of the season you can find yourself alone in there. Just you, the thousand Buddhas, and no one else.

Yes. The thousand Buddhas, also known as the 144,000 Buddhas, the 432,000 Buddhas, the Seven Buddhas, the 12 Buddhas, and the Many-who-are-One. I’m making all of this up, but this proves the very point I’m trying to share with you: We each have our own subjective reality, composed of our perceptions, our filters and blockages, our family histories, our DNA, our Zodiac signs, and our diet among other variables. Alexis and I, together for 25 years and generally attuned to each other, undoubtedly saw two completely different Musées Guimet, two completely different sets of a thousand Buddhas. And my very informal and ignorant Buddhism—the one I’m making up right now—is totally unlike the Dalai Lama’s, for example. Which is totally unlike the Buddhism of any other བླ་མ་. (That’s Tibetan for Lama, but you knew that already, didn’t you?) (You didn’t?)

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Indeed, no two people have ever seen the same Buddha. And if a hundred readers read this blog post, there’ll be a hundred head trips with a hundred minds and hearts making up their own stuff. If you doubt me, share the post with a friend and then get together for drinks, and pick a fight over what the hell this post means.

Acceptance of the subjective dimension—yours and everyone else’s—is a healing process, a coming-to-terms, a letting-go. Since the subjective dimension is the stuff of your daily life, to accept it allows you to inhabit your life more comfortably. Believe it or not, other people are different from you, and they don’t see the world the way you see it, even when they’re standing on the same spot as you, and looking in the same direction. Accept the subjective dimension, and you’ll understand people more easily.

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Also, much as there are a thousand Buddhas, there are a thousand Pedros, a thousand Alexis or Alexises or Alexii, and a thousand of every person. Do your mother and your banker really see the same “you”? Does your mother see the same “you” before and after she takes her meds? As a matter of fact, do you see your own self the same way on Monday morning and on Friday evening?

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At the Musée Guimet, there was a temporary show on the life of the Buddha. Imagine a vast Wikipedia page illustrated with sculptures, freezes, lithographs, parchments, maps, all of it beautifully lit and displayed. You’ll travel in space and time, to north India 2500 years ago. You’ll visit Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Japan, Cambodia, Myanmar, and all points in between. You’ll dwell in princely realms, and you’ll also meet beggars, devils, and The Temptations. Also elephants, and whenever you see elephants they inevitably go pink and on parade. You’ll learn that the Buddha lived 527 lives before he achieved ultimate enlightenment, the containment-that-is-a-propagation, the delightful death.

Here’s a theory: Enlightenment is the recognition that the subjective reality you swear by isn’t Reality. In enlightenment, filters and assumptions and judgments dissipate, and then “you see.” 527 lives at an average of 40 years per life, give or take a month or two? It’s roughly 20,000 years. Start immediately, and you might reduce your sentence by several weeks!

Below is a police lineup of Buddha suspects. Which of these is the actual Buddha, good ol’ Siddhārta Gautama, the flesh-and-bones human being who “committed” Buddhism 2500 years ago?

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 ©2019, Pedro de Alcantara. 

The Dialogue of Differences

An osteopath and a psychoanalyst met in a bar. They shook hands, punched each other in the nose, and rushed out of the bar, swearing and spitting blood, never to see each other again. Afterward, the osteopath needed psychotherapy to deal with the episode, and the psychoanalyst went to see a chiropractor because his neck got out of whack during the fight.

Via The Daily Mail.

Via The Daily Mail.

Well, it probably didn’t happen exactly like that. Maybe they had a few drinks before the punch-out. It’s also possible that after the fight the psychoanalyst went to an osteopath rather than a chiropractor.

But that’s immaterial. The main thing is that people are very, very different one from the other. Different perspectives on life, different theories as to how things work, different priorities. Sometimes the differences mean war, sometimes fruitful dialogue. The one thing that never changes is the fact that people are different.

For the caricatural osteopath of our imagination, your health problems and your blockages in life come from your having fallen awkwardly on your ass when you were twelve years old. The coccyx, the third cervical vertebra, the mandible, the patella—you know. For the psychoanalyst, it’s perfectly obvious that, between your toilet training and your Oedipus Complex, you need seventeen years of psychoanalysis four times a week, cash only, and don’t you dare cancel an appointment, you sonofabitch. I’ll charge you double.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

We all have our priorities and perspectives. It’s like having an operating system for the brain, body, heart, and soul. Windows is different from Mac, and Windows 7 Starter Edition is different from Windows 10. Not only are psychoanalysis and osteopathy wildly divergent in theory and practice; no two psychoanalysts are exactly alike. In fact, two psychoanalysts met in a bar . . . and even before shaking hands, they already started killing each other. They couldn’t agree on the definition of “ego.”

It’s only logical, because one of the psychoanalysts was the Virgo son of a former spy from East Germany, and the other was the Sagittarius daughter of a one-legged tango-dancing dandy from Tennessee. There’s no way they could think alike.

Our operating systems are a mixture of intellectual and emotional bits, some conscious, some unconscious, some wholly individual to us, and some typical of our families or communities. Operating systems tend to be messy and incoherent. And they’re a mystery—to ourselves, and to the people who meet us.

I think it’s useful (1) to grasp that you have an operating system, (2) to grasp that you’re not totally aware of your own operating system, (3) to grasp that other people’s operating systems are different from yours, and (4) to grasp that you can’t make any assumptions about how other people think and feel. I mean, can you really put yourself in the shoes of a half-Serbian, half-Chinese Scorpio maverick psychoanalyst who fell awkwardly on his ass when he was twelve years old?

Lay ass-umptions aside, clear your mind and heart, and try to find out, little by little and by whatever creative means at your disposal, how the guy functions. Talk to him. Meet him in a bar. Google “half-Serbian half-Chinese” and see what comes up. War or dialogue? It’s your call. 

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Attention Must Be Paid

What do Medea, medicine, modesty, and meditation have in common? They come from the same linguistic root.

If you like stretching words beyond their intended limits, then you say that meditation is medicine. Taking appropriate measures (meditation) makes you feel good (medicine). Interestingly, “appropriate measures” means at least two different things: necessary steps, correct measurements.

I’ve just finished a week-long meditation that I found quite medicinal. From 12:01 AM on Sunday, May 26 to 11:59 PM on Saturday June 1 I decided not to jaywalk. For seven days, for 168 hours, for 10.080 minutes, for 604.800 seconds I’d cross the streets in Paris according to a strict interpretation of the anti-jaywalking ordnances. I’d only cross where a crossing was indicated; I’d only cross when the light was green for me; I’d only cross by walking inside the grid of zebra stripes.

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Let’s start with an informal definition of jaywalking: crossing the street in a way you shouldn’t. Should and shouldn’t vary from culture to culture, and from person to person within a culture. Believe it or not, there’s a Vienna Convention on Road Traffic containing Rules applicable to pedestrians. Believe it or not, Great Britain doesn’t have jaywalking laws; pedestrians are trusted to make their own judgments regarding the safety of crossing. Believe it or not, France has extremely complicated jaywalking laws, which—this we can all believe—nobody follows. Here’s the voice of Wikipedia:

Pedestrians [in France] are required to use sidewalks (if any), and zebra crossings for crossing street if there is one within 50 m; they also must cross perpendicularly to the road axis, only cross a place or intersection if some zebra allows, cross only at the green walker light if one exist, and obey a policeman if one is there regulating crossing. More rules apply at night, alongside countryside roads, to groups of marching people, etc. Disregarding those rules may be punished by a fine of the lowest grade ("contravention de la première classe,” 11 to 17€, or 33€ if paid late), but few people were ever fined for such behavior, usually because they showed contempt instead of apologizing or providing some legit safety reason. On the other hand, car drivers must always let pedestrians cross if they have already started, even when the pedestrians disregarded the rules, and drivers will bear full responsibility if an accident occurs. These rules are often not respected; most pedestrians would cross anywhere (including at red walker light) when no car can be seen nearby on the road, but would not take the chance to cross even on zebra when a car is coming, until it stops.

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The purpose of my non-jaywalking week, though, wasn’t legal or sociocultural. I wanted to decide to pay attention to something, and to become able to follow through on my own decision. In other words, I wanted to become mindful, alert, in control of my reactions to the environment, focused, centered, good-looking, and rich.

I failed, of course.

The very first morning of my meditation, I went to the street market down the block from home and shopped in my usual manner. After 45 minutes of visiting stands, chatting with the friendly sellers, and packing two heavy bags full of delicious fresh foods, I started home. And it was only when I was half-way across the street that I realized I was jaywalking. I mean, the zebra crossing was half a block away! Did you really expect me to carry TWO HEAVY BAGS for HALF A BLOCK MORE than STRICTLY NECESSARY? Huh, did you, did you?

Yes, I expected that of myself, since I had decided to pay attention to it.

Another time, I found myself standing at the corner, no traffic coming from anywhere. And I just . . . waited. I waited for the light to change from red to green, for the little stick figure to go from standing impatiently to walking joyfully. It took forever. Later I went back to that same corner and recorded the wait. If you’d like to meditate for 51 seconds, watch the little stick figure change from green to red to green (and turn the sound on, okay?). Look at it; keep looking at it; you just need to look at it, that’s all. What’s the big deal?

It is a big deal. It takes discipline! presence of mind! forbearance! dignity! wisdom! Out of the seven and a half billion people on this planet, only the Dalai Lama could stand there for all eternity and not wish to check his emails, not wish for things to be other than they are, not wish harm upon other human beings JUST BECAUSE THE LIGHT IS RED.

At another occasion, I was out strolling with my wife when she started telling me about a colleague of hers with some group-dynamics difficulties. So-and-so #1 was fighting So-and-so #2. I became absorbed and invested. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll! I took the side of #2 against #1! It was my fight, I can tell you that!

And I jaywalked. When I caught myself in the act of jaywalking because my head was in a fight where it didn’t belong, I threw a little tantrum. I had forgotten my meditation, my commitment, my Dalai-lama-o-rama. And I was unhappy about it.

The only thing worse than forgetting your commitment is to throw a tantrum because you forgot your commitment. It may take longer to heal from the tantrum than to heal from the forgetfulness.

Shall we simplify things until they’re as digestible as a spoonful of boiled white rice? In this life, you can either pay attention or not pay attention. And that’s it. What you pay attention to, how you do it, why you do it: this is who you are. Nobody else plays attention to the same things that you do, in the same way and for the same reasons. Any one change in your life, for better or for worse, is a change in your attention, in its what-how-why. And when; let’s not forget the when, which is preferably right now. And the where, which is preferably right here.

Paying attention to the crosswalk brought untold delights into my existence. Perhaps next week I’ll pay attention to my breathing. Or how I sit at the computer. Or how I swallow each sip of coffee. Or how I . . . never mind; the subject of the meditation isn’t the most important thing; what counts is your putting your mind to it, willingly and with a glad heart.

©2019, Pedro de Alcantara 

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Horn Calls from Outer Space

About six years ago, I started taking piano lessons. For reasons too involved to explain right now, it’s been a transformative experience. These piano lessons inevitably interacted with the rest of my creative and musical life, and as a result I’ve been writing a piano method for the past couple of years. The method is full of concepts, exercises, compositions, and improvisational prompts. I’m intoxicated with its possibilities, and every day I spend hours practicing the piano and learning my own method.

One of its chapters centers on the Horn Call. Here’s a little graphic representation of the Call, scored for two horns. It doesn’t matter if you don’t read music; you can enjoy its visual prettiness and let your imagination do the rest.

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At first this appears to be a banal musical figure of a few notes, but behind its simplicity lies the power of an archetype. For the sake of brevity, we’ll call this archetype Hunting. Like all archetypes, it manifests itself in a thousand ways, in your life and in everyone else’s. There’s the actual hunting, which you may or may not have done: killing a deer, for instance, or hunting down the mosquito keeping you awake on a summer night. You hunt for a solution to a problem, you hunt for clients when you’re self-employed, you hunt for meaning in a seemingly incoherent blog post you read every month. These are all manifestations of the Hunting archetype.

Forests, castles, kings and queens, princes and princesses, lakes, brooks, caves and grottos, wind and snow. The Hunt is a whole world, with its own objects, actions, and rituals. You’ll need a horse and a dog. And you won’t go on the Hunt wearing your pajamas; no. It’s going to be tweeds and boots, unless you’re hunting with a blowgun in the rain forest, where tradition and convention (plus high heat and humidity) require that you be naked.

By JialiangGao www.peace-on-earth.org - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3781580

By JialiangGao www.peace-on-earth.org - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3781580

The Hunt also comes with its own sounds. Horses galloping through the forest, dogs barking, birds screeching, wolves howling, firearms blasting, hunters shouting, hunters swearing. In the midst of it all, horns blaring an ancestral tune: the call to action, and above all the call to the attitude required to undertake the action. This is the Horn Call, a hypnotic and transporting soundplay.

Like Hunting itself, the Call exists in a thousand variations. For the sake of argument, we’ll say that the Call started its life as a blast of primeval sound, not different from the cry of a goat celebrating its territory, its mate, its hunger, its vital energy. According to this theory that I’ve just made up, the Horn Call is bestial by birth, and it unites hunter and hunted.

Over time, the primeval Horn Call becomes transformed, refined, cultured. But even at its most distilled, the Call has the power to transport a listener to an elevated domain, paradoxically divine and animal at the same time. In Greek mythology, Pan is the god of the wild and shepherds and flocks; and he has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. Pan is a god and a goat; the Horn Call unites the hunter and the hunted. Therefore, a few notes played at the piano and manifesting the archetype of the Call will make you travel far, far away in space and time, connecting you with eternal Nature and reminding you that you, too, are half-god and half-beast, half-hunter and half-prey.

In the realm of the Horn Call, there’s a land encompassing the mountains of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. It’s home to a multitude of archetypal sounds and traditions. While researching my piano book’s Horn Call chapter, I listened to an alpenhorn ensemble, playing a chorale in the mountains above Berne in Switzerland.

Then I listened to an excerpt from Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. Josef Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was an Austrian composer of extremely elaborate orchestral and choral works. Inside the elaboration, however, lives the primeval forest and its hunting grounds. Listen and travel, to the Austrian Alps and beyond!

I hesitate to tell you what happened after I visited Bruckner, as it might reflect poorly on my research techniques and, by extension, my piano method; and, by further extension, my very person. But YouTube, seeing that I was exploring the Alps, suggested that I listen to some yodeling, the vocal tradition where the singer passes quickly back and forth from chest voice to head voice. And I went where YouTube wanted to take me.

I heard a marvelous trio of women yodelers, one each from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany.

I listened to a German guy yodeler. By the way, you don’t yodel naked; no. The voice requires an outfit.

There are kid yodelers visiting the Ellen DeGeneres show, yodelers in country music, yodelers of every age and background. You could spend the rest of your life just watching yodeling clips on YouTube. But allow me to speed up your quest and take you directly to the ultimate Horn Call from the ultimate Hunter: the Japanese chicken yodeler. I think you should try to do this at home, naked or otherwise.

©2019, Pedro de Alcantara 

Zen Gardens of Albuquerque

I recently attended a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was my first visit to the city, which sits high in the mountain desert out in the American Southwest. I was busy teaching, and I didn’t see that much of the city. But on my first day, walking from my Airbnb in a residential neighborhood to a supermarket a few blocks away, I noticed how some of the gardens in front of the houses faintly resembled the famous Zen gardens of Japan. You know what I mean—rocks of varying sizes, arranged in attractive patterns that seem both formal and informal at the same time.

It’s easy to talk confidently about stuff you barely know. I do it every day. I like going on and on about Proto-Indo-European word roots, although I’ve never studied the subject in depth. I like saying I’m a Platonist (after the Greek philosopher of twenty-five centuries ago). I’ve only read one of Plato’s books, and I don’t remember a thing about it. But, hey, I’ve read Plato’s Wikipedia page! I like having opinions and letting them come out of my mind and mouth, and if my opinions bite me in the ass—well, my opinions are toothless. Their bite is more like a kiss. That’s right, my opinions can kiss my ass.

But I digress. I’m trying to say that I don’t know much about Zen. I’ve read books, I’ve sat on the floor, I’ve seen art exhibits of Zen calligraphy, I’ve actually visited the famous Zen gardens of Japan. But I’m not qualified to tell you “what Zen is.”

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An ancient law says that, once you acknowledge your own ignorance, you can speak freely. You’ve stated that you’re going to speak subjectively, approximatively, maybe incoherently. It gives you a certain distance from the subject matter and from your own ignorance. You claim no authority, and strangely this gives you a little authority. Yay, Zen!

One morning in Albuquerque I decided to go out and look at the same neighborhood again, iPhone in hand. The skies were clear, the streets quiet. For those of us fond of pithy poetic symbolism, we’ll tell a sweet lie and say that Zen is “clear skies, quiet streets.”

Albuquerque being a mountain-and-desert city, it’s dry by birth. Trees and flowers and shrubbery are totally unlike what you see in wet-by-birth Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Gnarly white-barked trees that receive gusts of wind and blasts of sand from the desert. And rocks. Lots of rocks. In Albuquerque, a rock is considered a plant. (That’s a joke, of course. We know that, properly speaking, a rock is an animal.) If you’re in sync with the environment, with the nature of the place, with the way the place was born be it wet or dry, then you’re Zen.

If Nature is the mother of Zen, then Craft is its father. (As you know, I’m making it all up.) Homes, sidewalks, walls, street signs, patio furniture: I saw signs everywhere of human attentiveness and care, human skill, human love. The thing is, too much care kills Zen. It’s the paradox at the core of healthy life: think and don’t think, watch and don’t watch, nourish and let go. Up and down those city blocks I saw evidence of this balanced approach.

What happens when Nature and Craft intertwine? Nature shines herself on a canvas that Craft built, and on that canvas Nature projects forms, shapes, shadows that move and breathe. Trick question: How hard is Nature trying to create exquisite beauty? Let’s say that Zen is an intelligent answer to a dumb question.

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There’s the thing, and there’s your perception of the thing. They may or may not be related. As we say in Amharic, ውበት በተመልካቹ ዓይን ውስጥ ነው (wibeti betemelikachu ‘ayini wisit’i newi). Google Translate helpfully tells us that this means “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Is Zen a thing, or a perception of a thing? Before answering, we’d need to find out whether this is an actual question. Let’s give a non-answer to this maybe-question. On Saturday, March 9 2019, starting at 8 AM and for about one hour, I went up and down seven city blocks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, taking snapshots quickly and without too much calculation. It felt good.

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©2019, Pedro de Alcantara

The Other Family

The word “family” comes from a Latin root meaning “servant, slave.”

You never know if the guy you’re talking to is telling you the absolute truth or an abject lie. For once, though, I’m telling you the absolute truth—which I found on my favorite website, www.etymonline.com.

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Words are like people: they change and grow, and sometimes you can’t recognize them anymore (particularly after you haven’t seen them for five centuries). Although we might claim, half-jokingly, that some family bonds recreate master-slave relationships, we can safely say that “slave” as the original meaning of the word “famulus / family” has long disappeared from our awareness. And if we aren’t aware of something, it doesn’t exist for us.

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These days, when we think “family” we tend to think first and foremost of our immediate blood relations: parents and grandparents, siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins. Starting from these immediate relations, we build a net that includes spouses, in-laws, the husband of the sister of your father’s brother’s wife, and a thousand other characters.

Like with so many symbolically powerful words, we also use “family” in a variety of meaningful ways. For instance, the violin family of bowed instruments, which includes the violin itself, the viola, the cello, the bass, the gamba, the rebec, the baryton, the nyckelharpa, the dīyīngéhú, and—well, a bunch of others. But not the guitar; no, not the guitar. It’s not from our family. “Plucked,” not “bowed.” Let them pluckers stay with them pluckers.

Believe it or not, this post isn’t about slaves or pluckers. It’s about your other family. I don’t mean your wife number 2, about which number 1 knows nothing. I mean the men and women in your life to whom you feel very close, so close that you consider them like a brother, like a sister, like a father, like a mother; like an uncle, like an aunt, like a cousin . . . My mother’s best friend was like a sister to her; we children called her Auntie, and we made no distinction between her and the aunties with whom we shared biological ancestors.

This non-blood, non-biological, non-inheritance, non-tax, non- non-family is as real as the blood one. And, like the blood one, it comes with responsibilities and obligations. To begin with, we’re obliged to “be aware of this family, so that it exists.”

As an adult, I met a woman of wisdom and wit who’s been helpful to me over more than two decades. She’s a bit older than me, and she’s my favorite aunt.

In the past, I’ve blogged about my piano teacher Alexandre, who besides being a student of mine is also a friend and a beloved brother.

In the American hinterland there lives a cellist I’ve known forever. She gets me; with her, I can open up and babble on incoherently, and she’ll misunderstand me ever so tenderly. She’s a very special sister to me. And her husband too is my dear brother. Ops! Does that mean that my brother and my sister are in an incestuous marriage? Nah. It means I love the two of them, that’s all.

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My second family has about ten siblings and aunts and uncles, and maybe twenty cousins. They include an older brother in New York City, a younger brother in London, a brother in the Lake District, a sister in Paris, another sister in Paris; a brother in Massachusetts whom I haven’t seen in several years but with whom I feel permanently intimate and comfortable, a fellow in Glasgow, a fellow in Chicago, a brother in São Paulo—I mean, besides my four awesome flesh-and-bones blood brothers and sisters in São Paulo.

Guitars don’t belong in the bowed-instrument family, but guitars and violins do belong together in the larger musical-instrument family. Start thinking this way, and you’ll soon see that everything belongs in the everything family. Counting all souls past, present, and future, your family is pretty big. It’s a bit impractical to invite them all to the party, so we limit the invitations to what the party bus can hold.

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©2019, Pedro de Alcantara

Nobody understands me

Does every last person you’ve met in your life understand you perfectly?

I didn’t think so.

It’s a verified, clinical fact that to be alive is to be misunderstood. Come to think of it, to be dead is also to be misunderstood.

Needless to say, if people—many people, most people, almost all people!—misunderstand you, it’s likely that you, too, misunderstand other people, at least some of the time. Misunderstanding is give-and-take, his-and-hers, eat-all-you-can.

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Your take on life is subjective. What you think and feel comes from, let’s say, your heart—that thing that beats faster or slower depending on the weather, caffeine, childhood memories, the Zodiac, a pretty girl winking at you, and a thousand other psycho-chemicals. You look at me with your heart, and this means you don’t see me as I am . . . because your heartbeat distracts you. Ka-da-boing, ka-da-boing, ka-da-boing. Sometimes kadakada-boing. If it’s KAKAKAKA-boing, you need to see a doctor ASAP.

I wish I knew what I was talking about, but misunderstanding is oh-so-difficult to explain!

Life being complicated, we try to simplify it by creating categories and compartments. Here’s a category: “Brazilian.” “You’re Brazilian! You just love Carnival, the samba, hot weather! You’re a soccer fanatic!” No, no, no, no. I can’t stand hot weather. I’m a hypersensitive intellectual introvert snob. I hate Carnival and noise and crowds. “But you’re Brazilian! You party night and day!” Nonononono. “But you’re Braz-IL-ian!”

Facts don’t solve misunderstandings. Poor little facts. They don’t stand a chance against the kakakaka-boing.

Misunderstandings come as compliments and as insults. A musician I know is forever telling me marvelous things about myself. “You’re such a successful performer!” (I only perform three or four times a year.) “You must have a great manager!” (Whaaat?) “You should invest in real estate, with all the money you must make performing!” (Whaaaaaaat?) “I searched for you online and I saw a performance of yours in front of an adoring all-female crowd!” (Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?) This fellow likes thinking these thoughts about me, and he’s gracious and tender whenever he tells me about who I am and what I do. We get along fine, despite the misunderstandings.

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Years ago, a different fellow told me one day that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. The evidence? I was wearing an old hand-me-down cashmere sweater. It didn’t matter to him that it was an old hand-me-down, it mattered that it was cashmere. As we all know, only the rich can afford cashmere. Ergo! Bingo! Voilà! Ultimately, his thoughts weren’t really about me at all, but about something in himself. And this is how it works among human beings. Among dogs, too. Cats, not so much.

Misunderstandings come from taking things for granted. I have some dear friends who never ask me anything about my teaching or my writings or my travels. One of these friends assumes that I teach “posture,” and— “That’s what you do. Posture. You show people how to sit straight.” No, no, no! Kakakaka-boing! He’s a generous friend, and I love him to bits. I probably misunderstand his every breath, but that’s the give-and-take of friendship.

God whispers in your ears, and Ze says, “Hey, I’m sending you a gift, but you have to choose from these two fine options: Either everyone will understand you perfectly, or you’ll have creative tools to handle being misunderstood by everyone.” God has a sense of humor, doesn’t Ze? The choice is obvious! Who on Earth would ever choose to be perfectly understood? (Incidentally, “ze” means “soul” or “voice” in Albanian.)

Next time you see me dancing the Carnival in the height of summer, be a good Samaritan and shoot me dead. You’ll save me from being a stereotype. Then I can ascend to Heaven and meet God in person.

“Hi, God.”

“Pedro! What you’re doing here, right in the middle of Carnival???? Go back down to where you belong!”

And that’s why I keep getting reincarnated as a samba dancer: a simple but woeful misunderstanding.

©2019, Pedro de Alcantara

Inseparable

The Buddha and the Shadow met in a bar. One of them was resplendent, the other stank of sulfur. Jack, the bartender, knew them well. “The usual?” he asked.

“Yes,” they answered in unison. A Bloody Mary for the hairy one. And a shot of nothing, with a prāna chase, for the other fellow. Plenty of peanuts. The Buddha had a thing for crunchy-salty-nutty.

“What’s that smile about?” the Shadow asked.

“Unconditional love,” the Buddha answered. “I feel good.”

“Oh yeah? Have a look at yourself in that mirror behind the bar. You’re as fat as a Buddha, and you’re 2500 years old.”

The Buddha chuckled. “You’re right, I should lose some weight. But these peanuts . . .”

“It’s not the peanuts, Fatso. That smile of yours is just phony.”

The Buddha chucked again. It’s what he did—smile, chuckle, laugh, smile, chuckle, laugh. It drove the Shadow insane.

“Dimples are for little kids,” the Shadow said. “On you they look like leprosy.”

“Marvelous,” the Buddha chanted, beaming. “Did you know that the word ‘leprosy’ comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘lep’? Back then it meant ‘to peel.’”

The Shadow finished his Bloody Mary in one gulp. He banged his glass on the counter, and Jack heard it loud and clear. “You and your stupid Proto roots,” the Shadow said. “I have a PhD in linguistics. I happen to know that ‘lep’ also evolved towards the Lithuanian ‘lepus,’ which means ‘soft, weak, effeminate.’ Google it if you don’t believe me.”

“Here it is, buddy.” Jack served the Shadow his second Bloody Mary. It wasn’t going to be his last.

The Buddha smiled again. “Jack, let me have another shot of nothing.”

Nothing!” the Shadow shouted. “That’s what’s wrong with you! You believe in nothing, you feel nothing, you do nothing! You’re dead inside!”

The Lord Buddha laughed silently, and his rolls of fat wiggled and jiggled. “Shady, I love you just so.”

The Shadow couldn’t take it any longer. “You—you—you—” He lunged at the Buddha and grabbed his throat, having temporarily forgotten that Fatso had learned karate when he dwelled in Japan.

The Buddha shoved a knee into the Shadow’s groin. He collapsed on the floor, writhing in pain. Fatso stomped on his head and—well, he killed the guy.

The bar fell into a deep silence. In the distance, the church bells sounded midnight.

Jack knew the drill. He put another Bloody Mary on the counter, plus a big bowl of peanuts. In walked the resplendent Lord Buddha, smelling of sandalwood and patchouli. “Shady!” he said. “You started drinking without me. What’s bothering you?”

“Don’t even ask,” the Shadow replied, sipping his Bloody Mary. “Tonight I could murder somebody.”

©2019, Pedro de Alcantara

Look, see, love

A couple of years ago, a long-term student of mine entered my living room (which is also my teaching room) and exclaimed, “Oh, you have a mirror now!” He had noticed a body-length mirror hanging between two windows on one of the room’s walls.

I’ve lived in this apartment for about 16 years. The mirror has been on that wall since shortly after my wife and I moved in. My student took about 14 years of intermittent lessons before “he saw the mirror,” or before he was ready to see the mirror.

I tell this anecdote only to illustrate a universal truth: Our perceptions of the world are subjective and ever-changing, capable of expansion and contraction. In that moment, my student’s field of perception expanded somewhat and captured something that had been there all along.

Perception determines action. You perceive someone as a threat, and you act accordingly. But what if what you see isn’t really there, or what if what you don’t see is actually there? The threat might dissipate, and you react to the other person not as a foe but as a friend. Lives will be saved if you expand your field of perception. Your own life depends on it!

There are a million ways to enhance your perception, to see and hear more, to open up to the world all around you. This post is about one of those ways: Using a camera or your smartphone, choose an environment or person to document, and regularly take photos and video clips of the environment or person over two decades. Or, better still, over a lifetime.

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I’ve lived in Paris for 28 years. One of my constants has been visiting the Place des Vosges. For three years I actually lived on the Place, though not with a view of it. For the past 16 years I’ve lived two blocks away from it. How many times have I walked it? I don’t know. Twice a week, on average, is plausible: there are days I go more than once, and weeks when I go most days, and weeks when I’m not in Paris. I’ll say I have walked it a thousand times, and I’ll mean it literally.

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Every season; every day of the week; every hour of the day; every weather, rain and shine and snow; every mood of mine, sadness and joy, worry and gratitude. I’ve walked alone, and in company. I’ve taught there: cello lessons to a student who liked morning lessons when my downstairs neighbor wanted quiet; a breath-and-speech lesson to an Argentinian actor when roadworks made my apartment too noisy for dialogue; a couple of silent walk-lessons with a student who I felt needed to experience non-verbal communication. I’ve walked it wearing dress shoes, in sandals, barefoot.

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I’ve walked it with nothing in my hands, and I’ve walked with a camera. How many shots? I really can’t know for sure. But I’ll say fifteen thousand photos, and I’ll mean it literally. Since I’ve walked the Place a thousand times, this works out to about 15 shots per walk. Not an unreasonable estimate.

The walks are . . . well, walks. Also meditations. And explorations, voyages into outer and inner space. They’re cleansing, therapeutic, inspiring. Sometimes I call the Place des Vosges my “garden of emotions.” Ask me a silly question: “Pedro, do you love the Place des Vosges?” I can’t answer right now, because I’m too busy having emotions while writing about my garden.

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The Place des Vosges is, of course, a wonderful square in a wonderful city. But I believe that the meditations and explorations that it affords me could happen anywhere else: in public transportation, in other parks, in my own home, in an airplane, in any city, in any environment. If you walk around a shopping mall every day, and if you show an interest, and if you enter into the spirit of the meditation, you’ll see (and photograph, if you wish) endless marvels: windows, displays, corridors, elevators, escalators, lights, corners; plus people, people, and also a lot of people. There will be no two visits in which you’ll see the exact same shopping mall.

One day I’ll write a book about the Place des Vosges and all it has taught me over the decades. For the moment, what I want to say is that every time I walk it, I see things that I’ve never seen before—I mean, every time, every one of the thousand times I’ve walked it. This is partly because the canvas is extremely rich and detailed; partly because the Place is always changing under the changing skies; and partly because my field of perception keeps expanding. There are things I saw today, this very morning, that I was seeing for the first time, although they’ve been there—and in plain sight—forever and ever. Tomorrow I’ll go back to the Place, and walk it again, and see it anew.

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We tend to conflate two events: (1) I saw something beautiful; (2) I saw something to which I was previously blind; my field of perception expanded; I found freedom and release. The conflation makes us want to exclaim, “Look! It’s so beautiful! Can’t you see? Wow!” This is an expression of the freedom and release, as much as a response to something we actually consider beautiful. Ultimately, we don’t need beautiful things to look at; we only need the passage from not-seeing to seeing. This passage, which happens totally inside our own brains (by which I mean eyes, brains, hearts, and souls), is the most beautiful of all things. The mystically minded will understand that this is a conversion or epiphany.

UFO LANDS IN PARIS SQUARE, ABDUCTS FOREIGNER. WIFE HAPPY.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

Unbutton, Ye!

I often feel like a 300-pound man, ready to burst into tears of joy.

Let me explain.

About five years ago I started taking piano lessons. I’m a highly trained and experienced classical musician, but most of my training was directed toward the cello (plus music history, theory and analysis, ear training, and all the rest). Piano, not so much. Decades ago I had to take “secondary piano” in college, meaning basic training for non-piano majors. Much to my regret, the “secondary” part of it dominated my mind back then, and I paid the price. Until recently, my piano playing was awkward, insufficient, upside-down, banana-peel, and I-want-my-mommy.

I have a wonderful piano teacher, my friend and brother Alexandre Mion. Besides the helpful lessons Alexandre has given me these past five years, I’ve also embarked on a project of my own: the development of a new piano method, designed to help a pianist—any pianist—connect with the Creative Source and become happy and healthy.

A concert pianist listening to my piano playing might think that I’m a hopeless banana-peel case. “You ain’t no Horowitz,” he or she’ll think. But I’m playing so much better than five years ago that I can barely explain how I feel about it. The 300-pound man used to weight 600 pounds. He’s still overweight and handicapped, but, wow! He’s made so much progress! He feels so much better! He’s, like, 50% unburdened! That’s a lot! Let’s shed tears of joy!

Believe it or not, this post isn’t about my piano playing, or my piano method in development. It’s about the archetypal voyage from hurting to healing.

Let’s quote, or misquote, or paraphrase, or invent a saying, and let’s attribute it to Gustave Flaubert. “If you have survived your adolescence, you have a story to tell.” Now let’s imagine a silly-ass Zen teacher re-thinking our dear Flaubert. “If you were born, you’re hurting. Life is the hurt, and life is the healing.”

We’re all trying to figure it out, to feel good or to feel better, to shed if not pounds then resentments. Life is challenging but wonderful, wonderful but challenging. If life weren’t challenging, the following people would be out of their jobs: doctors, osteopaths, priests, psychoanalysts, nurses, preachers, surgeons, firemen, cops, lawyers, judges, prison wardens, and bakers.

The bakers: that was a joke, by the way.

The life voyage from hurting to healing is universal in its need and importance and urgency, but no two people travel in the same way. Do your brother and your sister mirror your journey? Nah. You’ve been diverging for half a century. Your stuff is unique to you, and that’s cause for celebration! Call the bakers and order a cake, gluten-free and sugar-free if you know what’s good for you.

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In healing, the symbolic dimension is often stronger than the material dimension. Many years ago, I took some ballroom dance classes. A Canadian woman showed up and participated from time to time. She was a pursed-lips blonde in a man’s button-down white shirt. To my eyes, she seemed to be trying to hold it all in, afraid of looking good, afraid of the swing of life. One day in the middle of class, she unbuttoned her collar. To my eyes, it was a really big deal, as close to a striptease as she could get at that point—or ever. Healing is the healing that’s going to happen, to jerry-rig an expression. “Less fear and more love, to the extent that you can.

It’s not possible to know what the other person is thinking and feeling, where she comes from, how she got to be the way she is. “I know exactly what you’re going through.” No, you don’t! “What you’re going through resonates with me.” Okay, that’s plausible. I may be totally wrong about that Canadian woman, but the unbuttoning—this was more than 25 years ago—has stayed in my psyche as a meaningful moment, on account of its symbolic power.

Each hurt is individual. And each healing is individual, too. For some people, piano lessons heal. For others, piano lessons hurt. For some, healing comes from doing something; for others, from stopping something. A dear person in my inner circle closed a business he had spent 20 years building up, and struggling with. Difficult as it was, the closing—which was both a letting go and an abandoning—was part of a healing processes.

When you engage in the healing process, you don’t know what the results will be. Closing a business, opening a business? Unbuttoned shirt collar? Sex-change operation? Learning to smile? It isn’t possible to know in advance. This is one of the reasons we often hesitate to get started on the healing journey: fear of the unknown. It takes courage.

The journey is akin to martial-arts training: a battle of wills between the old and the new, the bruise and the Band-Aid, the fear and the hope. As Gustave Flaubert famously didn’t say, “We’re all in it. We might as well go all in.”

 ©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

The Wizard of Chicago

During a recent visit to Chicago, I witnessed a high-caliber theatrical performance that was as troubling as it was thrilling. It took place in the subway, or the “L” as it’s called in Chicago—logically enough, since most tracks for most trains are “eLevated.” Subway is the wrong name.

But don’t let me confuse you with terminology. I was riding public transportation late in the evening, when a large, a very large black man entered my car, settled down cater-corner from me, and started his performance. He had a big voice and a big personality to go with his big body, and he wore a bright, a very bright Marlins shirt and matching baseball cap. The thing is, the Marlins aren’t a Chicago team—they’re based in Miami. And somehow the bright shirt from the wrong team contributed to the performance’s hypnotic power.

Let’s call the big Marlins guy "Merlin," since he was quite the wizard. Speaking loudly enough for the entire car to hear him, Merlin invited everyone to take a chance on the guessing game: “Here are three little red cups upside down, here’s me putting a little white cube under one of the cups, here’s me shifting the cups around. Take a guess, my friends! Where’s the little white cube now?”

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His performance is a con, variously called three-card monte and find-the-lady and the shell game. Merlin knows how to move the cups faster than your eyes can track them, and he knows how to cheat, and he knows how to get you to part with your money, and he knows how to get you to love him although he’s ripping you off. Needless to say, the con is illegal. It's impossible for you (aka "the mark") to win the game.

“It’s free to guess, and if you guess right I’ll give you twenty bucks! No, fifty! No, a hundred bucks, a crisp C-note! Guess it right, and it’s yours!”

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A fellow sitting right next to me points at one of the cups, guesses right, and wins a hundred dollars, completely risk-free, easy easy easy! Merlin hands the fellow the money, and everyone riding that L train laughs and claps and loves every second of it. Why, how, why is Merlin just giving money to a complete stranger? Anyone can guess where the little white cube is, easy easy easy! Plus, Merlin isn’t even asking you to wager anything. Guessing is free!

The fellow who won a C-note is Merlin’s confederate. There’s another fellow who plays the game, guesses right, and wins easy easy easy—and he, too, is a confederate. The trio is extremely well rehearsed, extremely efficient, and extremely fun to watch. They are life-loving, people-loving, and Chicago-loving, and Chicago loves them back unconditionally.

After everyone is hypnotized, the real game starts, because the free rounds are over and now you have to wager to play—twenty bucks, for instance. “Bet $20 and guess right, and I pay you $20. Guess it wrong, and I keep your money.” And Merlin will keep your money, because you can’t possibly win the game.

The whole thing got me thinking about performance, persuasion, and connection. It’s tempting to consider performance the domain of the stage or screen: a theater company gives a performance, or a professional pianist gives a performance, in a specialized territory like a concert hall. In truth, we’re all performers, and we perform more or less nonstop, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly, sometimes knowingly, sometimes blindly. Waiting in line at the airport security check, you perform your take on the harried traveler, or the victim, or the stoic hero, or the rebel, or the cynic, or the . . . well, you get it. To live is to perform.

Merlin and his co-conspirators are trained professionals: they make their living performing. And to perform is to persuade, which involves the suspension of disbelief. Merlin made all of us, or many of us, or some of us, forget that he was a con and a thief and a cheat and a liar. We believed he was a wonderful human being, heaven-sent to elevate our moods with his booming voice, his bright shirt, and his generosity: “Take my money!”

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You watch a movie, and if the movie is any good you forget it’s a movie (pixels on a screen, “people who don’t exist doing things that never happened”) and you get carried away, identifying with the actors who play fictional characters and their struggles. Then it’s your turn: you perform for your wife, persuading her that you never, ever said that needling little remark that so irked her. She’ll believe you, or not. Good luck with the performance!

Why are we willing to be persuaded by performances, authentic or misleading? We want to believe in something, and we want to be part of something—that is, we want to connect. Merlin brought us together, gave us the feeling that we were privileged and special because he loved us and he was big and wore a bright shirt and embodied the spirit of storytelling and of play and of generosity. These are good things to believe in when they are true. But we’re willing to believe them also when they aren’t true, too, because . . . because without belief there isn’t life. The word “belief” comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to care, love, desire.”

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The L reached my destination before anyone lost money to Merlin’s big lying heart, but it was such a clever performance that I, too, would have lost twenty bucks willingly. As for losing a hundred bucks willingly, or a thousand, or five thousand . . . suspension of disbelief can be expensive. I’m glad I got off the train.

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©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

To own or not to own, that's the question

Foolishly or wisely, I often play a sort of game which consists in looking up the etymology of a word—that is, a word’s origin and the history of its meaning.

We use some ordinary word without giving it much thought, and yet that word had to be “invented,” so to speak, in order to express some aspect of reality. Who invented it, and why? When? And what is the word's deep meaning? These questions can be difficult to answer but useful to ask!

A word’s origin hints at its symbolic power, its importance, its reach. Find out what aspect of reality a word was born to express, and you’ll find out something about reality itself—and, by extension, about how you think and feel.

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You own a house, perhaps. Or a car. Or a book. Or a fork. It doesn’t matter; you own something, and your relationship to the thing is partly determined by your feeling of ownership.

“To own” and “to owe” share the same root, the presumed Proto-Indo-European *aik-, meaning “be master of, possess.” If you own a house, you possess it and you’re its master. It’s an amazing thing once it enters your awareness: Ownership! Possession! Mastery! You own your identity, you own your words and ideas, you own your mistakes: you’re the master of your mistakes.

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And you own a house, perhaps. Possession plays a role in your relationship with the house. Some of your feelings, positive and negative, about “your own house” come from the responsibility of owning, as well as the pleasures of owning—the headaches and heartaches, and also the joys of it all.

Ownership is a form of power, and even a baby knows that: she must, she must own that scrap of paper she picked up at random from your wastebasket, because she feels strangely powerful in ownership, regardless of what she owns.

Possession is mastery. The “power of possession” is life-affirming and identity-determining.

The problem is that it can make you crazy. You can “become possessed,” and feel that unless you own that scrap of paper, or that car, or that handbag, you’re worthless. You measure your worth through the things that you own, and . . . you start wanting to own ever more. There’s nothing wrong with owning a house, of course; it’s only the evil twin of ownership that’s problematic, the twin that says “more, more, more, MORE!!”

Fortunately, there’s a cure for Crazy Ownership Syndrome. It’s called access.

Access also comes from a Proto-Indo-European root. (I get all these word roots from the best website ever: etymonline.)

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In our game, the Proto-Indo-European root reveals a word’s symbolic power—or, if you prefer, its reason to exist, since the word was created to express an important aspect of reality. In this case, “to go, to yield,” and further “to move, to approach, to withdraw.” As you can see, it’s very different from the idea of ownership, possession, and mastery.

You can access a database and “move through it” without having to own it. You have access to the services of a professional. You see the professional very occasionally, but your access to him or her is permanent. It only takes a phone call for you to activate your access. Come and go.

You have access to friends’ homes. They invite you to dinner and take good care of you for an hour or three. You play with their cats, and access to the cats is very dear to you. Access to a guest room in Chicago and another in Brooklyn and another in São Paulo is all you need to feel good about “having a home” without owning one.

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Go to the supermarket and buy an avocado, and a little bit of Peru or Mexico or Israel enters your orbit. It’s a miracle of sorts. You don’t need to own Peru at all, because you have easy access to it! It’s right down the block and around the corner, and it only costs two dollars!

In our simplified metaphysics, ownership is a form of holding, and access is a form of letting go. They are both necessary in our lives, but it seems useful—and perhaps even urgent—to understand the distinction between the two. The sun shines above. We don't own it, but we have access to its heat and warmth during the day. Night for us is day for our neighbors a few time zones away. Let's let them have access to the sun, too!

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©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

May I . . . ?

At a street fair, you bump into an acquaintance and you say, “Hello, my dear!” Whether you do it consciously or intuitively, even before you open your mouth you’re already paying attention to what you say, how you say it, and to whom you say it.

The what, the how, and the to-whom of communication is worth studying, since it’ll help you become a better listener and speaker. Here are some tools I’ve used over the years. They’re based on two simple principles and one simple procedure. The principles are the awareness that there exist multiple modes of communication, and the awareness that there exist multiple frames of mind among your listeners. The procedure is to ask your listener permission to use one of several special communication styles.

"May I give you a compliment?"

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Many people are uncomfortable receiving compliments. Some grow up with a culture of self-effacement, where sidetracking compliments is a way of life for everyone in the family or the community. Others have low self-esteem and find that a compliment, however sincere and well-meant, doesn’t match the way they feel about themselves. The compliment might strike the listener as wrong or even dirty, and you’ll be rebuked for having proffered it. Asking for permission to issue a compliment has a possibly hypnotic result: your listener probably has never, ever had the experience of being asked to give permission, much less the permission to receive a compliment.

"May I give you a compliment that risks sounding like an insult to begin with?"

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Recently, an Englishwoman who took one of my workshops gave the group a short presentation on the English tradition of politeness, deference, and indirectness. She told us almost nothing about the tradition, instead deflecting attention and asking us what we thought this tradition entailed. My compliment? “You succeeded by failing, and you failed by succeeding—because you told us nothing, thereby perfectly illustrating the indirect approach.” She saw the joke and took the compliment.

"May I speak my heart?"

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If you say “yes,” I might reveal some deeply held emotions, or speak harshly of someone, or pass judgment, or swear, or be politically incorrect. Anything goes, because it’s the heart talking, not the mind! And we all know that the heart beats, and blood rushes through it and makes it pump. Or something like that. After I receive the go-ahead to speak my heart, I lift my self-censure temporarily and just bleed left and right. The thing is, I’m so polite about getting permission that my bleeding is sort of organized, directed, and purposeful. Which is the point of the whole exercise.

"May I babble incoherently for a while?"

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I like asking this question with a sweet, reassuring smile, indicating that I’m in control of my lack of control. I might indeed babble incoherently, but I have things to say even if they aren’t fully articulated. The babble is a sort of performance or musical style, with the potential to caress the listener’s mind and rearrange its furniture. I exaggerate the babbling on occasion, making fun of myself and earning the goodwill of my listener, who relaxes and more or less understands what I’m trying to say.

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"May I answer your question indirectly?"

Some questions are impossible to answer. They carry too much information, too many assumptions, too many needs and wants on the part of the person asking them. By requesting permission seemingly to go off subject or seemingly to avoid the question altogether, I acknowledge the question’s complexity and my inability to answer it in a concise manner. Then I can choose one or two aspects from the complex question to weave a path forward.

"May I tell you a joke?"

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Someone talks to you with deep feelings about an important subject. If you happen to know of an anecdote that addresses the talker’s needs, or takes his or her mind off the urgent feelings for a little while, or gives the listener a chance to breathe and relax, telling a joke is can be very helpful. Ask for permission with a friendly tone of voice, indicating that you heard the other person’s feelings and you aren’t planning to trample on him or her with your joke.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

Walk the Paradox

I turned 60 the other day. My younger brother, sending me his wishes, pointed out that 60 divides by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60, making it a very useful number. Back in the 3rd millennium BC, the Sumerians created a base-60 numeral system, called of course Sexagesimal (of course! you knew that already!) (enough with the you-knew-that-already!). Today we still employ it, in modified form, to count seconds and minutes and months and years, and to calculate angles and geographical coordinates.

In other words, space and time.

To celebrate my birthday, I spent a day and a night in Chartres with my wife Alexis. We did the same thing four years ago: Walk here and there, watch the magnificent illuminations projected upon the Cathedral and many other buildings, eat and drink, sleep and dream, space and time. Yes, space and time are verbs, actions, processes with hearts and minds of their own.

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Every place in the world is a good place for you to space and time. Chartres, however, is extra-good, in particular because of its Cathedral and what it represents, which we could call Eternity.

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Eternity—I mean, the Cathedral in Chartres—occupies a privileged position in space: high and visible from afar. Its location and height multiply its importance, its power to impress and elevate. Today, you can see its spires from the train station. Eight hundred years ago, when people had the habit of looking into the distance, you could see the spires from the “outer space in your brain,” to coin an expression. Looking into the distance and looking at your smartphone are both manifestations of the space-and-time continuum, but, man, looking into the distance is kinda awesome.

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Plato, Socrates, and Onassis met in a taverna and said, “Hey, let’s confuse people for the next two thousand years. One of us will say, ‘All I know is that I don’t know,’ another will pretend to have heard it, and the third will spread the rumor.” Ever since, Wikipedia has been trying to sort out the so-called “Socratic Paradox,” with limited success since NO ONE CAN SORT OUT A PARADOX.

But you can live it. Or, at least, you can walk it.

Visiting Chartres, you'll embody the I-don't-know principle. You won’t be able to understand how people built it without computers or power tools. You’ll look at the iconography, the stained-glass windows and the statuary, and you won’t know what each face and each beard and each fold of each garment is trying to tell you.

You’ll see hundreds of people from dozens of countries, walking here and there, taking photos, and—and singing, for Pete’s sake. And you won’t know if they’re “tourists” or “pilgrims.” Best of all, you won’t know if you yourself, in your flesh-and-bones here-and-nowness, are a tourist or a pilgrim.

The Cathedral has a labyrinth of stone and love, right in the middle of the nave. No one knows exactly when it was built, or by whom, or what for. For our purposes, we'll say it was built in 1200, a nice Sexagesimal number. A walk from the entry point to the center, and back out again, lasts anywhere from seven minutes to seven centuries, depending on your speed and state of mind. What will you find at the center of the labyrinth? This, too, depends on your state of mind. And it’s possible that the very walk might change what you're feeling, thinking, and doing. You won't know what you'll find until you find it.

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Do you need the labyrinth to Walk the Paradox? No. You can walk anywhere, within and without the Cathedral.

You might not have to walk at all. You can simply watch a video clip that a guy made, very indirectly inspired by Chartres and its labyrinthine paradoxes.

And for those of you who aren't cathedralicals, to coin a word, here's the profane version of the space-and-time walk. It's the ABSOLUTE SAME THING! Thus shouted Zarathustra from his mountain top!

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

In praise of not understanding

I recently attended a conference in Malta, a marvelous island country smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, not far from Sicily and not far from the coast of North Africa. Because of its strategic importance, over the millennia Malta has known war, strife, occupation, depredations and glories galore.

Malta is very beautiful, thought-provoking and sensation-inducing.

Heading out one night to a concert by one of the conference’s participants, I had a little spare time and decided to enter the Church of St. Publius, the patron saint of Floriana, a town adjacent to the capital Valletta. Publius is a big deal; according to tradition, he received Paul (the apostle) when the latter survived a shipwreck in Malta roughly two thousand years ago.

The Church of St. Publius was built in stages over several centuries. What, exactly, is its style? I think that’s the wrong question. A better one is, “How do you feel when you enter the church? Where are you? What’s going on? What are they saying? What’s it all about?”

The church was nearly full, most people in the congregation dressed for a sober occasion. A priest said Mass. Maltese is a strange and fascinating language. Derived from Siculo-Arabic, a now-dead form of Arabic spoken in Sicily a thousand years ago, Maltese is unique among languages; simplifying it, we'll call it a Latinized Semitic language. If you speak Italian, you’ll recognize words in Maltese; if you speak Arabic, you’ll also recognize words in Maltese; if you speak English, you’ll have a head trip and enjoy the swing of an incomprehensible language. Listening to Maltese is like having a dream where someone is telling you something important concerning your future. You’re desperately trying to understand it all, and at the same time you feel as if you’re unworthy of being told the secret of life.

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I recorded a little snippet from the Mass. I added a few photos from the church interiors. For good measure, I added background bells that I recorded at a different church (there are many churches in Malta!).

Listening to Mass in Maltese, in a church built over several centuries and bedecked in extravagant finery, I was transported to the “Land of Non-understanding,” or as we say in Maltese, “Art ta ‘nuqqas ta’ fehim.” I mean, I didn’t have any idea what the priest was talking about; and I also didn’t have a good idea as to what all the art works and decorations in the church represented; and I also didn’t know what was happening, socially and culturally and historically, within the congregation.

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I grew up with Catholicism in Brazil, though it didn’t really “take.” My catechism teacher once told my mother, with a heavy heart, “Pedro could become a Protestant pastor one day.” (I was ten years old.) But that’s a whole other story; this one is about understanding and not understanding, and let’s say that my background in Brazil half a century ago may have helped or hindered my understanding of what was happening at the Church of St. Publius in Floriana, Malta, in April, 2018.

My theory is that most of the time and in most places, most of us don’t truly understand what’s going on. Or, rather, we have our own subjective understanding of what we see, read, and hear; and by “subjective” I mean “filtered, biased, wobbly, unreliable, incoherent, potentially destructive, potentially constructive.” And I think this is inevitable, for the simple reason that we’re human. My suggestion is that we accept and embrace the reality of not understanding reality.

This is as true of a Brazilian attending Mass in Maltese as it is of the same Brazilian listening to his wife, whom he’s known for more than twenty years and whom he loves dearly. Yes, my wife speaks Maltese to me! And I to her, though we speak mutually incomprehensible versions of Maltese, and both versions are called “English.” How confusing is that?

Thinking processes, deeply infused with sensations and emotions, are authentically subjective. Understanding is necessarily subjective, emotive, and “sensational,” to mis-employ a word. How much of Malta did I really understand? Its streets are crowded with icons, statues big and small, banners, and all sorts of religiabilia. (Made-up vocabulary enhances mis-understandability, although common words are just as easy to mis-use and mis-understand.) Do I really understand how the Maltese celebrate the Divine? Are they even celebrating the Divine? What, exactly, is the Divine?

It’s foolish to make assumptions about anything, and it’s very foolish to make assumptions about how much you understand the Other, and how much the Other understands you. Understanding is a dog with three heads and five tails. Don't let it bite you!

I had a wonderful time in Malta, a wonderful time interacting with my colleagues at the conference, and a wonderful time expressing myself verbally and otherwise in front of a hundred puzzled listeners. We mis-understood one another perfectly.

Google Translate has a sense of humor.

Google Translate has a sense of humor.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

What suits you better?

To simplify is to lie. And yet, understanding a lie is better than misunderstanding the truth. Simplifying it, we’ll say that several thousand years ago, a people living in what we now call Ukraine spoke a beautiful and complex language. The people domesticated horses, rode wheel wagons, traveled and migrated, thereby spreading its culture and language. But in the spreading, the language became transformed into a hundred other languages, as varied as Sanskrit and Greek, Latin and Russian, Portuguese and German. The original language itself disappeared, and all we have left are the transformations.

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We can’t prove this, but we can argue for it using indirect evidence, mostly by comparing different languages, and also by using some genetics and some archaeology.

For instance, the words for numbers one to ten are very similar in disparate languages. Is this a crazy, crazy coincidence, or do the disparate languages come from a shared root?

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This hypothetical language for which we don’t have hard evidence is called Proto-Indo-European—that is, a language that was the “prototype” for many languages spoken in Europe and in India. Some of these languages are now dead, and others are alive and well, thank you very much . . . like, you know, English, for chrissakes.

Misleading as it may seem, this post isn’t about the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis. It’s about the things we believe in, and the reasons why we believe them.

“Do you believe in a Supreme Being?” It’s perhaps more constructive to ask the question like this: “What suits you better, to believe in a Supreme Being or not to believe in a Supreme Being?” What suits you better, to believe in a hopeful future or to believe in doom? What suits you better, to believe that animals have self-awareness or that they're a bundle of reflexes? What suits you better, to believe that mathematics is exciting or boring? If you adamantly affirm that mathematics is boring, you’re saying that at least for now it suits you better to believe that mathematics is boring. You're making a statement about yourself, not the thing or person or idea in question. And this is inevitable: any one thing is what you make of it, and the "you" in it is primary, the "thing" is secondary.

It suits me to believe in the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis. It stimulates my imagination, it leads me to seek connections among words and among languages, it invites me to study history and geography and linguistics. In my head trip (my subjective response, informed by my subjective filters), this ancestral language was deeply rooted in nature and full of symbolic dimensions born of the mysteries of existence. No, I can’t prove any of it; no, I don’t know what I'm talking about; yes, I like believing in it because it gives me—here, now!—a feeling of rootedness and integration.

Suppose the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis will be debunked one of these days: a geologist or a psychiatrist or an albino raccoon from outer space will demonstrate that the hypothesis is a fabrication, a delusion, a HOAX! It’s not going to change anything for me. I’ll carry on believing in it, because I like it; it’s meaningful to me, it’s beautiful, just beautiful.

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As you can see, the speculative and hypothetical Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root for the word "beauty" is related to the idea of reverence. It proves!—beyond a shade of doubt!—how poetic and integrative our ancestral language was! (It proves no such thing, of course; I'm having a head trip and enjoying myself, and teasing myself about how silly I am at the same time that I state an actual belief of mine. Exclamation marks are obligatory when you're incoherent and drunk-happy.) 

Your beliefs may be completely different from mine, but you and I are alike in that we believe what suits us, temperamentally and culturally. From hard facts, from soft facts, from un-facts and anti-facts we build our personal narratives through filters of which we aren't always aware. Let's respect the facts, acknowledge the filters, and assume full ownership of our beliefs.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

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Separation anxiety

Some years ago, I attended a big conference in Lugano, a beautiful lakeside town in Switzerland. Summer, breeze, pleasure, heaven. Waiting for a cable car to go up a hill, I watched my fellow human beings loitering in the plaza next to the cable-car stop. A boy, aged five or six, played a game on a smartphone. He looked up from his game, and to his horror his mother wasn’t in his line of sight. He let out a terrified and terrifying sound, animal, bestial, feral; an amazing sound for a child to make, not pretty at all but amazing all the same.

His mother quickly re-entered his line of sight, and the boy went back to playing his game as if nothing had happened.

I’ve witnessed other episodes of this sort, all terrifying, all amazing: a child’s fear of finding himself or herself alone in the world, separated from parents, and at imminent risk of death. This is separation anxiety in its most primeval form.

For a few months before our births, we’re completely amalgamated with the mother; we’re one with her, and symbolically one with the Universe. We’re cocooned, protected, loved, housed, fed, clothed though naked, our every need taken care of even before the need expresses itself to us; we're in heaven, like Lugano in summer.

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Then we’re born, and things aren’t the same anymore: Separation starts, and with it its primeval anxieties. It’s a long process, unfolding itself over years and decades, over a lifetime—I mean, not a lifetime dealing with our separation from our mothers, but a lifetime dealing with separation itself, or the disruption of one-ness and the start of two-ness, duality, and conflict.

The word “doubt” is rooted in “two,” or more specifically “to have to choose between two things.” One: no conflict; two: conflict.

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Separation anxiety manifests itself in a thousand ways. You can feel anxious about separating from an old, frayed, stained shirt; separating from a friend at the end of a shared meal, even though you’ll see the friend again two days later; separating from an environment, as when you move house or as when you don’t want to leave the beach at sunset. You can feel anxious about separating from daytime and entering the night.

You can feel anxious about separating from your words and sounds; hence your hesitation to speak in public. You can feel anxious about separating from a habit, a thought, an idea, a feeling. Indeed, you can feel anxious—very anxious!—about separating from anything you identify with; that is, anxious about separating from your identity.

And yet, separate you must. The friend will go home, the moment will dissipate, the sun will go down; the sun will leave you; you won’t be one with the sun, but two: you here, the sun there, gone.

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Paradoxically, the way forward is to embrace separation rather than trying to eliminate it. And, paradoxically, once you really embrace separation you’ll find yourself in heaven again, united with the Universe. You’ll separate from your ego and rejoin the self (also known as the Self). It’s simple, really: you’ll “separate from the separation.”

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Simple, but not easy; it takes a tremendous amount of work, a whole lifetime; according to some authorities, several lifetimes; you’ll be reborn again and again until you succeed in separating yourself from the anxiety and ascending, as it were, to a higher sphere. But you don’t have to enter into metaphysical speculations to appreciate the importance of separation anxiety and the urgency of dealing with it.

And . . . how? Over the thousand years, a thousand schools have arisen, proposing meditations, prayers, methods, postures, sayings, disciplines; breathing exercises; psychotropic drugs. Despite the variety of methods, the message is always the same: Let go. Let go of the monkey mind, of the suppositions, of the judgments; let go of the resentments and worries, let go of fixed ideas and prejudices; let go, let go, let go. The letting go has been called Zen and it’s been called Tao; it’s been called distance, restraint, devotion, submission, non-doing, the Void, think before you act, don’t think so much, listen more and talk less, God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. But it all goes back to this one principle: Let go. Let go of the thing, the idea, the place, the person, the emotion.

Here’s what I propose: a little drawing, a scheme, a formula! Yay, finally a formula for letting go! (It’s a joke, of course; the formula is secret, and I’m not allowed to divulge it.) (Meta-joke.)

You know how complicated those metaphysical speculations can become. I’m going to bypass the complication and embrace the simplification. I’m just going to show you the little drawing, okay? I’m not going to explain it, okay? I’m having separation anxiety, okay? This little drawing means a lot to me, okay? Bye bye, little drawing! Come back soon, little drawing!

with thanks to Alexis Niki.

with thanks to Alexis Niki.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara