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Six Impossible Missions Before Breakfast June 21, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

“Everything has to be possible.” – Johann Sebastian Bach

About a month ago, I was chatting with a friend at church, who I’ll call Ken (not his real name.) We were discussing environmental activism: in particular, the Alberta tar sands and the devastating effect that they would have on our climate if fully developed. Ken has been a long-standing activist working to help provide clean water, medical care and education to children in less affluent countries, so he’s certainly no naysaying cynic. But even he felt that some missions were impossible. “They’re going to be developed,” he flatly stated. “It’s just going to happen.”

My immediate reaction was quite a visceral one; I wanted to shout back, “Whose side are you on anyway?” Instead I talked a bit about how the Keystone XL project had been delayed due to immense public pressure. (In the meantime Enbridge, facing opposition from environmental and Native groups to their planned Northern Gateway pipeline, has launched a massive on- and off-line ad blitz to convince Canadians that this is a Good Idea. If Enbridge is spending vast amounts of money to promote their project, apparently they – at any rate – don’t think it’s inevitable!) But he wasn’t convinced, and reiterated his statement: Alberta’s bitumen deposits were going to be developed.

“I refuse to believe that,” I returned heatedly.

“Why?” he asked.

“I can’t afford to incapacitate myself as an activist. If I think the goal is impossible, then why would I work to try to achieve it? I’d totally lose hope, just give up.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that the campaigns against them are pointless,” he hastened to explain. “They may accomplish quite a bit – for example, raising public awareness of the larger issues. Even having a small impact can be worthwhile.”

This reminded me of the oft-quoted starfish parable, though the metaphor wasn’t really applicable here. In Ken’s own work, helping even one child get food or education was a worthwhile goal. But what good was simply “raising public awareness” if it didn’t translate into higher-level political action towards saving our climate from a global meltdown?

In the days that followed, I kept thinking about my reaction: “Whose side are you on anyway?” Why had I immediately seen Ken’s statement as dangerous, emotionally toxic – even, on some level, a betrayal?

The answer, I think, has to do with belief and the central role it plays in activism – a role which needs to be more widely recognized and utilized by activists themselves. Susan Griffin tells a compelling story about belief and hope in her article “Can the Imagination Save Us?“:

I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man’s palm.
Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.
As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination…And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.

In our modern, scientific worldview, we tend to think of belief as being flimsy, dispensable, even worthless. The real world is “out there”, after all: objectively observable and utterly independent of our personal beliefs. Right?

Well, that may be the default, “common sense” way we perceive the world. But most evidence indicates, on the contrary, that belief is a powerful force. In medicine, the placebo effect can often have a powerful effect on our body’s internal systems, mimicking the effects of potent drugs. Mysticism and quantum mechanics suggest our beliefs may even affect the “external”, physical world. But it is certainly the case for human systems – governments, corporations, and countries – since it is only we who give them existence. We are not passive observers, helplessly shunted around by vast mechanistic systems over which we have no influence. Rather, we collectively create the systems which drive our daily lives by individually participating in, supporting, or modifying them – ultimately, by our affirmation or denial of their validity.

A good example is money:

Money is nothing more than a piece of paper stamped with a particular number showing the amount it represents – or, today, a few electronic pulses stored in a computer server. Surely neither of these has any intrinsic value. When we say we have strong confidence in a particular currency, we mean not the physical pieces of paper or electronic signals we exchange, but rather in the institutions – the governments and banks – that issue and store it for us.

If I am a money trader, every time I invest in a currency – say, the Canadian dollar – I am implying that I BELIEVE in the value of that currency. In other words, I have faith in the strength of the Canadian economy and in its government. By selling my investment, I am implying I no longer have the same belief that the Canadian dollar is a strong currency. If enough of my fellow investors notice my actions and follow suit, my belief will spread; it may even trigger a mass sell-off of the currency, which will plummet in value and hurt the country’s economy! This is known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”; the very fact of my belief has helped to make my belief a true one. The same thing happens when the people of a country (as in the revolutions of last year’s Arab Spring) collectively lose belief in the capability or right of a regime to govern. The regime, which seemed so vast and monolithic, fragments and collapses…because the belief which had sustained it is now gone.

The oil-centered system currently threatening our planet, and all its manifestations – including the oil-friendly Harper administration running Canada – are not immutable or invincible, any more than the regimes overthrown by the Arab Spring. Human beings created them, and human beings can change them. If all Canadians believed that the tar sands should not be further developed, and descended en masse upon the oil fields of Alberta to physically block TransCanada and Enbridge from reaching them, then I can guarantee you the tar sands would remain untouched. :D On the other hand, if all Canadians agreed that the tar sands should be developed, then the pipelines would probably already have been built. (The actual outcome will probably fall somewhere between those two extremes; but where is entirely up to us.)

“The tar sands will be developed” is an extremely destructive statement. Just by uttering and believing it, one is abdicating one’s own power to actively create our world’s future –  and willingly handing over that power to Enbridge and TransCanada. A corporation is not some all-powerful god; it doesn’t even have a physical form. Like money, it exists as signatures on paper, shareholders in board meetings and bits in computer servers.

And what about our government – the Harper government, so intent on destroying our country’s environment and the world’s climate? It is our government. We elected it, and we can unelect it in three years’ time, and in the meantime we, Canadians, can make it clear to Harper that he needs to represent our views on this issue, not our own. Any government, corporation, or other legal entity exists and continues to function only by the collective will and belief of its people. For this reason it is essential that we do not give the enemy (and by this I don’t mean individuals, but the collective forces trying to destroy our environment) our implicit assent by believing their victory is “inevitable.” Such a self-fulfilling prophecy plays right into their hands; we’ve given away the game before it even began, conceded the war before a single shot was fired.

There was a time, after all, when an end to slavery seemed “impossible.”

Later, there was a time when an end to segregation and apartheid seemed “impossible.”

There was a time when it seemed “impossible” that women would ever get the vote.

Or gay couples get the right to marry.

Or that laws would be passed protecting children from hard labor in factories, or ensuring they could go to school – for free.

And I could go on, and on, and on. None of these gains just fell into the human race’s lap. They were all hard-fought victories – fought, and eventually won, by people who believed the “impossible” was possible. And because they believed it…it became reality.

Please do me a personal favor today…humor me. ;) Go and believe six impossible things before breakfast. (Or dinner, or whenever you happen to be reading this blog.) Six things you wish were different about your own life, or society, or the world – I don’t care which. Six missions you think are totally, absolutely, fundamentally IMPOSSIBLE.

Then believe them. Consciously and deliberately. And help to make the impossible, possible.

…You’ll be happy you did. :)

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

I think we’ve all been hypnotized… June 18, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Nature, Saving the World, Social Media, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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hypnotized

I think we’ve all been hypnotized…

…why keep polluters subsidized?

(To the tune of $1 trillion a year, no less?!?)

That’s the subject of today’s Twitter storm to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies. The Rio +20 summit begins in two days in Rio de Janiero, and one of the questions that will be addressed is an agreement to end enormous subsidies – estimated at 750 billion to 1 trillion annually – to fossil fuel companies.

Now, 1 trillion dollars is a LOT of money. It’s so enormous that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around at all, frankly. But here are some stats for comparison which might help you to make some sense of it:

* For $10 billion a year (1% of 1 trillion) we could ensure every child in the world has the chance to go to school.

* For $30 billion (3% of 1 trillion) we could provide clean water to everyone on the planet, saving the lives of the 2.2 million people, most of them children, who die each year from waterbourne disease.

* For $30 billion a year (3% of 1 trillion) we could end world hunger in 10 years, saving the life of one child every six seconds.

* For a mere $3 billion a year (0.3% of 1 trillion!!) we could end malaria deaths worldwide, saving the life of one child every 45 seconds and the lives of 1 million people every year.

Heck, we could achieve ALL of the above, and still have over $900 billion left over.

With 1 trillion a year we could create the world we all dream of. A world where no child goes hungry or without an education or dies from an easily preventable illness. We could subsidize renewable, clean energy that will last us for centuries to come. We could ensure workers worldwide are paid fair wages and work in safe, clean conditions instead of toiling in unsafe factories for pennies per hour. There’s no end of the list of what we could do, really.

So, with that in mind, WHY on earth are we wasting this golden opportunity, paying fossil fuel companies – who make mega-profits in any case and definitely do NOT need handouts – to pollute our earth, raise CO2 emissions and warm our planet?!?

This is, frankly, obscene. It’s the kind of thing you couldn’t believe if you didn’t actually live on our planet. It’s like something you’d read in a Kafka novel or see in a crazy sci-fi dystopian movie. It’s like deliberately slamming our collective head into a brick wall over and over and over (once for every year we go on doing this). It’s such insane, self-destructive behaviour that, really, I think the only reason it continues is that it’s so unbelievable that we can’t really wrap our minds around it. So we don’t think about it, and they’re able to go on pulling the wool over our eyes.

Like I said…I think we’ve all been hypnotized.

No longer. It’s time to think about it and then to stop it. Please join me.

It's time to end fossil fuel subsidies!

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

Of Mice and Men: My Conservative Epiphany June 16, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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My last picture was of a mousetrap…so here’s the mouse to go with it.

It happened on Wednesday night and began, appropriately enough, with a Skype chat with my sister. She had just made a reference to the Tommy Douglas “Mouseland” political fable. “Was it white cats and black mice?” she mused. “Or vice versa?” Just then, I heard a scrabbling noise and saw a small furry shape dart across the room, Rumi barreling after it in hot pursuit.

The Universe, quite evidently, has a sense of humour.

I wish I could say I handled the situation with great presence of mind. That I (a lifelong vegetarian) empathized with this poor, terrified, furry creature running for its life. That I handily devised an on-the-spot plan to catch the mouse, gracefully transporting it downstairs and back outside into its natural environment. But, sadly, that wouldn’t just be stretching the truth; it would be lying through my teeth. The truth is, I stood frozen in near-immobile panic, mute except for the occasional strangled scream (intermingled with a few words that I won’t repeat here).

Now, allow me to point out that I’m not normally a squeamish person. I pick up garter snakes. I’ve played with pet mice before. I trap and release bugs, even spiders and wasps, that get trapped in my apartment. But then, I’ve been rescuing insects for years and know how to do it without getting bitten or stung. This mouse was an unknown quantity. Could it have hantavirus? Could it have rabies? Was it scattering germs over my floor as it ran? Would it bite me if I got too close and it felt cornered? If it got away, would it hunker down somewhere and have babies? All these questions spun through my mind as I stood paralyzed, unsure of how to act.

And in that shocked and frozen moment, my thoughts narrowed down to two words only:

KILL IT!

Rumi had caught the mouse, and for a while it seemed that (good kitty!) he was doing his utmost to comply. But when he dropped the limp body, it soon was up and running again. It seemed – and who could blame him? – that Rumi had decided this was a new toy, in fact the best toy ever, and he didn’t want to administer the death blow until he’d gotten a good evening’s entertainment first. Or perhaps, soft, spoiled and sheltered like his city-bred owner, he simply didn’t have the slightest inkling how to kill anything larger than a bug.

My roommate, dragged out of a sound sleep, suggested temporarily trapping the rodent under a bucket. This, weighted down with my largest dictionary, did the trick and I went to go get the superintendent, who wasn’t too keen on the whole thing either. I won’t delve into what happened next. Suffice it to say that there was, to quote my father, much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. At last the apartment manager heroically caught the mouse by the tail and transported it out of my room to meet, I assume, an untimely demise shortly thereafter. I didn’t ask.

But, you may ask, what does all this about mice have to do with conservatism?

There’ve been several rather fascinating studies released lately, each claiming to pinpoint the differences between liberal and conservative mindsets (or the causes thereof), and two of these have to do with fear. A study released last year found that the amygdala (a section of the brain connected to fear and anxiety) was larger in people who self-identified as conservatives, than liberals. And a second study found that conservatives exhibit a greater reaction to visual stimuli that caused “fear and disgust” (pictures of a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in a wound, etc) than to “pleasant” stimuli (a bunny rabbit, a child.) (Liberals exhibited exactly the opposite result.) The researchers concluded – in commentator Chris Mooney’s words – that “conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments.”

If you’ve ever read my blog in the past, you probably know that I tend to identify as liberal. In fact I’m about as left-wing as one can get without running off and joining the Marxist-Leninist Party. ;) I think that it’s a good idea to take care of the weak, poor and elderly. That excessive military spending is generally not a positive thing. That it’s our job to protect our environment rather than pumping it full of toxins and greenhouse gases. My reaction in the past to reading these studies has been something like: “Who could possibly see the world that way?” followed shortly by “How terrifying and depressing it must be, to have that kind of worldview.”

But when I saw that mouse, my worldview suddenly did a U-turn. That mouse was no cute, cuddly pet. That mouse, if it was diseased, was a threat to my life and the life of my cat. Threats have to be eliminated. End of story. To quote Holland, “when your amygdala is activated, it takes over and utterly dominates the brain structures dedicated to reason. Then the “fight-or-flight” response takes precedence over critical thinking.” I was so unable to think objectively that it didn’t even occur to me to trap the mouse under a plastic container, as my roommate proposed, or then slip a sheet of cardboard underneath to transport it outside (which my mom suggested when she heard about the incident later). Somehow it didn’t occur to me that one could use the same procedure to trap and release mice as for insects – and I am not normally an uncreative person. Such is the power of the amygdala.

For those twenty minutes, I understood what it was like to be conservative. To have one’s sheer terror of the Other – not only because it’s objectively threatening, but just because you don’t know what it could do - strip away any ability one has to empathize with it. Of course the consequences are limited, though still unpleasant, when it’s a mouse. When the Other is human (people of a different ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or political affiliation) to think this way becomes very, very dangerous. “They’ll take all our jobs. They’ll threaten our religion. They’ll lure our children away to a gay lifestyle. Maybe they’ll have babies and then there’ll be even more of them!” It is all too easy for one’s thoughts to move to: “KILL IT!

…And then wars and apartheid and hate crimes begin, and any sort of rational dialogue becomes impossible. Because rationality is swept away like a twig in a flood when the almighty amygdala is activated.

Several weeks ago I was at my local church potluck and a visitor from another church was also there. He and I happened to strike up a conversation and I quickly discovered he was a right-wing conspiracy theorist (he wouldn’t dispute this label; he spent nearly the whole time discussing conspiracies!) of the sort I’d only ever met online before now. In his worldview, climate change was an insidious lie designed to allow a one-world government to enslave us, and the scientific community was involved in a massive cover-up. The UN and most elected officials were tools of Satan. Satan, in fact, was trying to control us and he’d corrupted all human institutions, which he was using to lure us away from God. We argued for a while but rational argument, as one might expect, went nowhere; he trusted his own worldview and distrusted science.

I was listening to him rant and opened my mouth to reply, then something made me close it again and I went on listening. He talked for about five minutes and I just let him talk. And when he finished I opened my mouth and, rather to my surprise, something totally different from all my rational argument drifted out. “You know,” I said, “I understand where you’re coming from. I get it. If I believed all of that…I would be terrified too.”

We went on talking for a while, probably 30 minutes. But our conversation had become less like a debate and more like – well, a calm, reasonable discussion, in which we tried to find points of common ground more than attack one another’s positions. Because in my own way I has been just as dogmatic, and just as motivated by terror (a future Earth destroyed by the forces of greed and overconsumption) as he had been. And he had been the Other, which I viewed with anger and loathing: the crazy, extremist nutcase bent on seeing our Earth destroyed so that Jesus would come back.

I’m not saying both positions are equal. I still believe that my worldview is well supported by empirical, scientific evidence, and his is not (actually even he pretty well admitted this, saying he didn’t put his trust in science). But allowing ourselves to be driven into mindless conflict by anger and fear accomplishes nothing. What is the solution for “winning over” people driven by an extreme right-wing mindset? I’m not sure. But maybe the best way to begin is just to say, “Yes, I get it. I understand where you’re coming from. We both know what it’s like to be motivated by fear, after all.”

“…We’re both human.”

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

The Oops Trap May 22, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Philosophy, Teaching.
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Part 1

Pretty much every kid has heard a teacher say that the word “can’t” (as in, “I can’t”) is one they should remove from their vocabulary. It’s self-limiting, pointlessly negative talk and is often just laziness in disguise. But actually, as a piano teacher I find there’s a word that’s even more dangerous and misused than “can’t”, and that is:

OOPS.

No, I’m not trying to say that making mistakes is bad, or that we should all be perfect musicians who never miss a note, or anything along those lines. I’ll illustrate what I mean with a story from a lesson last week.

A ten-year old student of mine who I’ll call Nina had been working on “Carefree Waltz” from Faber Piano Adventures 2b for several weeks. This is one of the first pieces I tend to use as a study for continuous flow – the ability to play without pausing to find notes on the page or the keyboard (after all, people can’t possibly waltz to your playing if you’re always stopping!) Nina is a strong reader and her rendition of the piece was almost good enough to pass…except for the predictable “oopses.”

Dum-dee-dee, dum-dee-dee, end of first line, a pause as her eyes drift over to the second page. “Oops.”

Dum-dee-dee, dum-dee-dee. Another pause. “Oops.”

Right hand fails to move down, playing a D that clashes with the left hand C. Crunch. “Oops.”

These mistakes, and their accompanying “oopses”, were repeated both times she played the piece (it had a built-in repeat, so really I ended up hearing each “oops” four times.) It was obvious that each of the three mistakes was a hard-wired habit that she would need to deliberately eliminate in order to perfect the piece.

When Nina finished playing, she turned to me expectantly. “Well,” I said, “there’s a few spots we’re going to need to fix before you pass this. There’s something even more important I want to change first, though – your “oopses.”” She looked surprised. “Every time you make a mistake you say “oops” – the problem is that none of these are real oopses. They happen every time!

“You see,” I explained, “when you make a mistake and say “Oops” you’re telling yourself something that isn’t true. You’re saying that you never made that mistake before – and if you go on playing in the same way, it won’t happen again. But your oopses aren’t random mistakes, like when a finger slips. They’re habits. They’ve happened before, and they’ll keep on happening unless you deliberately fix them. Does that make sense?”

Nina nodded, and I pointed to the first “Oops” on the score – the first-to-second page transition. “Play from here -” I pointed two measures before the transition – “to here.” Two measures after.

She played. At the page gap came the pause and – before Nina could stop herself – an “Oops!” burst out. Then she smiled sheepishly. “Just try it again,” I prompted her. “Make sure you’re thinking about what notes are coming up, so you can get ready for them.”

There was no “Oops” this time – and no pause. She played on until the next transition, at which point another “Oops” slipped out and she stopped in surprise. (She obviously hadn’t even been conscious of the “Oopses” until I brought them to her attention.)

The longer we worked on the piece, the fewer “Oopses” were heard – and as the “Oopses” vanished, so did the gaps. Finally I asked Nina to play the entire song, from beginning to end. It flowed without a single break, and nary an “Oops” escaped her lips. (Even I, no stranger to dramatic results, was dumbfounded.) A checkmark went on the page and the piece was officially declared “passed.”

How long had the entire process taken? No more than ten minutes.

So, want to improve your child’s playing (or your own playing)? Ditch the Oops Trap. My piano teacher’s own teacher was fond of telling her students, “Never have an alibi.” A well-practiced Oops is the worst sort of alibi. “Oops. That was just a finger slip. It won’t happen next time, I swear. Just don’t make me buckle down and really fix this passage, okay? Please?”

Part of the really insidious nature of the Oops Trap is that, on one level, we’re right when we say “Oops” – and we know it! I did know that that note was supposed to be a C, instead of a D, and that I need to move my hand down to reach it. It was just a lapse of concentration. I could hit it, if I really put my mind to it. The problem with just saying “Oops” and moving on, of course, is that there’s no guarantee I’m not going to do exactly the same thing next time – as soon as I let my mind drift and my fingers go their habitual way. And just acknowledging that something is possible, in theory, doesn’t provide even the slightest step towards  actually, physically making it happen.

Inherent in the discipline of being a concert performer is the fact that one is forced to confront the Oopses. One finally learns, after years of hard (sometimes painful) experience, that they are not going to go away unless you really tackle them. Once learned, an Oops hunkers down, sinks in its teeth and stays firmly put, despite one’s best efforts to gloss over it and pretend it’s magically gone away this time. (It hasn’t – and more often than not it’ll rear its ugly head at your next lesson, or worse, on stage.) There is only one way to exorcise the Oopses, and that is through very careful, thoughtful, creative practice.

The sad part is that most students waste far more time and energy ignoring the Oopses than it would take to just sit down and tackle them. In his article “What it Takes to Be Great,” Geoff Calvin discusses the ten thousand hour theory – how researchers have found that it isn’t innate “talent” or “aptitude” that leads to success, but rather hour after hour, year after year, of persistent practice. But not just any kind of practice is required – rather, one needs to engage in deliberate practice, to calmly and objectively recognize mistakes, learn from them and then eliminate them. This goes for any field of endeavor, from piano to golf to computer programming.

The Oops Trap short-circuits this process. It keeps us indefinitely at square one. If we cover each of our mistakes with an hasty “Oops” and just blunder on ahead rather than learning from them, how can we possibly engage in deliberate practice? If it weren’t for the Oops Trap, I fully believe each of us could be a master of our chosen field, whatever that might be.

Of course – and let’s all be honest here – it isn’t just music students that do this, or even golfers or computer programmers. It’s all of us.

Part 2

I’m as bad as anyone in my own way. I’ll admit it. A big one for me is my cell phone bill – it’s always due just slightly after mid-month, at a time that’s eminently forgettable. I put it on my desk, I make a mental note, I say to myself, “I really need to be sure to pay my cell phone bill on time THIS month.” And somehow…I’m not quite sure how…it always ends up getting paid a day or two late.

Oops.

And then there’s my seiza practice (sitting in a kneeling position) for aikido. I know I need to practice this – it doesn’t come easily to me. I know that I won’t get better at it, long-term, if I don’t put in the effort. Same goes for getting to bed before midnight. I know I should be doing it. I know it’s only hurting me not to. But somehow, the day goes by and suddenly it’s 11:59 at night and, well…oops.

It’s frequently said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing and expecting different results.” It’s easy to identify the Oops Trap when we see a kid who repeatedly refuses to tackle the hard part in their piano piece, or somehow always stays up late scrambling to finish school projects the night before. Harder to recognize it and admit that it’s there in our own lives.

The Oops Trap affects our finances. From the little to the massive. “Oops, I forgot to pay my Mastercard bill.” “Oops, those library books were due back two weeks ago. Why can I never remember?”  “Oops, I overspent my budget again this month. Why do I always do that?”

The Oops Trap affects our health. “Oops, I didn’t make it to the gym. I forgot last week too.” “Oops, guess I should’ve gone for my yearly checkup.” “Oops, I was going to quit smoking. Well, I can always do that tomorrow.”

The Oops Trap affects our relationships. “Oops, I got angry and screamed at my kid again.” “Oops, I forgot to call my sister on her birthday.” “Oops, I fell for another abusive guy. Why is it always me?” And for those who are actively trying to be religious or “spiritual”, it affects that too. “Oops, I really want to love my neighbors and even my enemies as myself, like Jesus said to. So why do I always end up getting furious at that infuriating coworker of mine?”

…Oops, I did it again. Britney Spears pretty well sums it up. :D

Some Oopses – a very few – are genuine. We’re only human, and even the most conscientious of us can have things slip our mind, like a finger slip in an otherwise flawless performance by a concert pianist. We can have a bad day and snap at a friend, or get sick and decide to stay home from the gym, or forget to pay a bill…once. But when we find ourselves doing the same self-destructive thing, day after day, week after week, year after year, this isn’t a passing mistake; it’s a habit. And like all habits, it won’t go away unless we make a very planned, deliberate and intelligently designed effort in the opposite direction.

A famous saying is that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This often gets interpreted (rather cynically) as saying that if we go into a situation meaning well but not knowing what we’re doing, we can really mess things up. Which may be true, but it overshadows another important interpretation: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Just intentions. With nothing to back them up, no plan to put them into action, intentions alone are going to get us nowhere – or worse. (Just ask any unprepared concert pianist who suddenly finds himself or herself on stage not fully knowing the music…a pretty good definition of Hell as far as I’m concerned!) Intentions lull us into a dangerous slumber. They make us think that we’ve done something, that the danger is gone. (It isn’t.) Intentions are no substitute for action, and action is the only way out of the Oops Trap.

The other really sneaky aspect of the Oops Trap is that it’s so ubiquitous, hiding in one aspect of our lives after another, yet appearing entirely different each time. We find it in piece after musical piece, project after project, job after job (believers in reincarnation would even say “life after life”) and every exercise regimen or relationship or self improvement goal we attempt. Until finally we bite the bullet, look reality in the eye, and acknowledge all our Oops-ing itself as one big meta-Oops Trap, a destructive habit, a strategy doomed to fail from the start – and finally remove it from our lives.

…Well, that’s what I’m hoping, anyway. ;)  I’m still trying to pay my cell phone bill on time.

P.S. And as I wrote that last sentence, my mind went to a piano lesson last year, in which a student protested that he was “trying” to get the rhythm right in a particular passage. As he’s a Star Wars fan, I asked him what Yoda’s favorite expression was. “Do, or do not. There is no try,” he quoted.

“Exactly,” I said, and smiled. (He got the point.) :)

“Trying” can be an incarnation of the Oops Trap, as much as anything else. So can “resolutions” (especially, New Year’s resolutions…seriously, who here has actually kept one of those??) So, I’m not going to “try” to pay my cell phone bill on time. Iam going to pay it on time. And I just took steps to make that happen.

Another small victory over the Oops Trap.

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

P.P.S. As I was searching for images to illustrate this post, I came across this Rube Goldberg-like device. I’ve never played the Mouse Trap game, but it looks like fun…it certainly brings back memories of my childhood days in Sci-Fi, aka Geek Summer Camp, in Saskatoon :D

New riddle poems! May 2, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Poetry, Riddles!, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Well, summer is on its way and the bulk of my teaching year is over – leaving more time for blogging! So here’s a first installment: three new riddle poems for your guessing pleasure :) Enjoy!

1) A suit of circling rings I wear;
Beneath my skin my armour’s deep;
So come and strike me – if you dare!
For if you wound me, you will weep.

Answer: Onion

2) Against ten thousand flying foes I shield,
Unyielding, strong, yet light to bear and wield.
I spring to life at one wave of your hand,
Then humbly shrink away at your command.

Answer: Umbrella

3) For all who’d come and watch in awe
I give to you, my friends,
The best striptease you ever saw!
And one that never ends.

I’ll show you all my curvy bends
As round I turn and glide.
See through my act? Well, that depends –
There’s nothing I can hide.

Don’t try to find my better side,
For if you do, you’ll fail,
Tricked by, like all the rest who’ve tried,
The twist in my strange tale.

Answer: Moebius strip

How to Find a Good Teacher? (A Lesson from Aikido…) September 25, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Music, Teaching.
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About a month ago, my Twitter friend @mwforhr and I were talking about piano teaching. Since I’m a piano teacher and she has a  daughter in music lessons, she asked me what questions she should ask a new piano teacher to find out if they were ideal.

I’m rather embarrassed to realize I never answered…mainly because any question I could think of didn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. And people lacking competency in a given field nonetheless often have an amazing ability to BS their way through such questions (as pretty well any university student knows! :D) Level of education, performing experience, “method”, number of years teaching…none of it seemed to pin down what makes a “good teacher”.

But yesterday ago I had an interesting experience along these lines. Not as a teacher, but as a student – of Aikido. I’m a total beginner, never having studied any martial art or even gymnastics. I’m not even naturally “good” at tasks involving kinesthetic awareness and coordination…which is precisely why I’m taking Aikido. (Well, that, and it’s a great workout – and very satisfying when I “get it”!)

Yesterday was my first class. The local aikido club works on more or less a drop-in basis, and that day I was the only beginner. The others were running through a rather complex series of techniques they needed for a test of some sort. I could see, as I watched the sensei, that each move consisted of a number of steps, and I was sure if I could rehearse each step in isolation I could learn the entire technique. But even at “slow motion” speed the demonstration blurred together too quickly for me to grasp any part of it securely. Should I step forward with my left foot first, or my right, grasp or deflect the attacker’s arm, push or pull them to the mat…it was all very confusing.* The sensei was very patient – but, obviously, he couldn’t be everywhere at once and he had other students to correct.

For one exercise I found myself paired off with another woman – I’ll call her Alex. Alex had been there for several months, and obviously had a rather intuitive grasp of aikido. As I tried both the attacking and defending roles, she delivered various corrections in an increasingly exasperated tone. Finally, she burst out with: “Stop thinking about it! Just let your body feel it and do what’s natural!”

I stopped and looked at Alex. “I’m an analytical person,” I told her, trying not to lose my own cool. This is how I learn. If I can break it down, I can get it. I’m trying to break it down.”

Alex seemed taken aback. “Oh,” she said and blinked. Her expression implied she had not even considered this as a means of learning, that what she was doing had come to her naturally – so intuitively she’d never had to analyze it, even to herself. Over the next few minutes, she tried for my sake…but obviously it was a foreign way of thinking to her.

For a later exercise, I was paired with a different student who we’ll call Terri – friendly, warm and above all, patient. As soon as she saw I was having trouble grasping the technique in question, she started reducing it to individual motions (I didn’t even need to ask). After a few minutes of drill I managed to run the basic version successfully – and it felt wonderful. :)

As I walked home I realized: this is what makes a good teacher. The ability to break something complex down into steps that anyone – even a rather klutzy beginner like me – can grasp.

Want to find a good music teacher? First of all, ask for a sample lesson (most teachers will do this at no charge – if they charge, it’s probably a bad sign already.) Don’t take them your most polished piece. Instead, bring in a piece that you have trouble with.

Better yet, make it a piece that reflects your weakest point. Have trouble grasping syncopated rhythms? Bring in a ragtime arrangement. Fast scales? Take a Mozart sonatina marked Presto. If this makes you feel embarrassed, remember, you’re not auditioning for them – you’re auditioning them as a teacher.

Then go to them and ask one very simple question:

“Tell me why this isn’t working.”

They’ll have you play the piece in question and, if they’re a good teacher, right away they’ll start getting you to play some simpler form of it. If it’s fast scales, they might make you play it at half the speed, focusing on your hand position. If rhythms, they’ll make you slowly analyze how a single measure works, then expand that to a line, then (maybe) a page…and when the lesson is over, the problem may not be “solved” in its entirety, but you’ll have made significant progress.

Now, if they’re a bad teacher, one of two things will happen:

(1) They’ll offer some vague, handwaving answer. (My own favourite was a teacher who told me, “You just have to move your hands faster!”) Whatever it is, it’ll make you frustrated and confused without helping you get any better. Bad sign – get out while you can!

or:

(2) They’ll go, “Well, just play it like this…” and sit down and demonstrate. This means they teach mainly by demonstration, and either they don’t really understand what they’re doing, or they understand but can’t transmit that knowledge to you in any other way than by doing it. Which isn’t very helpful either.

The thing is, a good teacher will stand back and let you pick up things intuitively when that works for you. If, say, you find arpeggio technique easy, they won’t give you months of arpeggio etudes. But when the day comes that you run into a brick wall – and even the most “gifted” students WILL have these moments – they’ll be there to patiently help you through it. One brick at a time. :D

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

* It didn’t help that the sensei insisted that we continually switch sides when running each drill — apparently this is standard aikido practice. It’s meant to ensure that you learn how to do both mirror-image versions of the technique, but it had only the effect of scrambling my brain just when I’d _almost_ gotten it…

Riddle poem of the day… September 23, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Poetry, Riddles!.
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Time for a new riddle poem – it’s been a while. Question mark

“I’m faithful and steadfast through twist and through turn -
Your friend in the dark without star or sun.
The Earth is my mother; for her I still yearn,
And point to the place where all times are one.”

Answer: A compass needle

Lux Aeterna… September 21, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Human Rights, Music, Saving the World.
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Troy Davis was executed tonight. He was pronounced dead 10 minutes ago, at 11:08.

His last words, to those who killed him: “May God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls. Look deeper into this case so you can find the truth….. I am innocent.”

There is nothing more I could possibly say tonight except, in the words of a friend from Twitter: “Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”

On Trial in a Parallel Universe September 15, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Human Rights, Saving the World, Social Media, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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I imagine it just like a scene out of a movie – a courtroom movie.

Set in a parallel universe.

You’re sitting in the defendant’s box, your lawyer beside you. Gazing out at the room, the judge’s stern face, the weary expressions of the jury members, you try to look relaxed. Confident. Innocent.

After all, you know you’re not guilty. You left the scene long before any shots were fired. There’s nothing to connect you to the crime – no murder weapon, no fingerprints, no motive, nothing. In a few hours you’ll be free, and hopefully they’ll get back to tracking down the guy who really did it. Beside you, your defence lawyer is confident and smiling. This should be an easy case.

The prosecution calls their first witness in, and you blink, surprised. It’s a close friend of yours, a guy you’ve known for years. Why would the prosecution ask him to testify? That’s right, he was there the night the cop was shot – you vaguely remember seeing him before you took off. They must be desperate. Well, he’ll straighten them out soon enough.

Your friend’s being sworn in, and now the lawyer’s ready to ask the first question. He doesn’t waste time. Did he see the shooting?

Yes, your friend answers. He’s oddly nervous, casting twitchy glances around the room. He doesn’t meet your eyes.

And can he identify the murderer?

A pause. Then – “Yes,” your friend answers. Then he points right at you. “It was him. I saw him shoot the officer. He’s guilty.”

For a long moment, you can’t seem to make sense of his words. You must have misunderstood, he must have pointed somewhere else – maybe there’s another suspect on trial that day?

You stare at your friend pleadingly. He doesn’t look back.

The ground seems to lurch and spin beneath you.

And that’s just the start.

The next two hours seem to go by in slow motion as witness after witness comes to the stand. Some are your friends, some you just ran into on the street once or twice, one of them you got in a fight with a few years back. A couple of them you’ve never seen in your life. One of them – a guy who was always looking for trouble – had been there that night, and you’d actually wondered a couple times if he had shot the cop.

But they all agree on one thing as they point to you. “He did it. He shot the officer. Guilty.”

Guilty.

You stare at the judge’s severe, implacable face. You hardly dare to glance at the jury, but when you do you find them watching you coldly. You can tell what they’re thinking – you see it in their eyes. Murderer.

Even your defence lawyer is watching you, brow furrowed. You can practically see the thought written on his face – maybe he did it after all?

You’ve got to be dreaming. Please, let me wake up now. This is insane. This is madness. This can’t be happening. This is a court of justice, for God’s sake.

But as the parade of witnesses continues, and the mountain of evidence continues to grow, even you can’t help but start to wonder if you really are innocent.

*******

I don’t know exactly what it was like to be Troy Davis at his 1991 murder trial. But that’s how I imagine it when I read the evidence now available, from Amnesty International. Of the witnesses that testified against him, all but two later recanted their testimony, citing police coercion as their reason for testifying.

Their affidavits – recanting their testimony – are here, and they make heartbreaking reading. Most said the police wouldn’t stop asking questions, wouldn’t let them go, until they gave the answers they knew the police wanted to hear: that Troy Davis was guilty. Several were given pre-written statements to sign. One of these witnesses, totally illiterate, could not read the witness statement he put his name to.

This is the sort of story I’ve gotten used to hearing about from Iran. A country where torture and arbitrary imprisonment are the norm. A country where your guilt is all too often pre-determined and the security forces won’t stop until they get the answers they want. A country where the innocent are punished and it is the guilty who determine their sentence.

Not the United States of America. I’m not an American citizen but for me, as for so many across the world, the United States has always represented freedom, justice, hope. The world’s first modern democracy, where all are equal before the law. A place where people are always presumed innocent until proven guilty – “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

What has gone wrong? How has the system failed so badly as to let something like this occur?

I’ve contacted both Gov. Nathan Deal (phone (404) 651-1776, fax (404) 657-7332, email here, web contact form here) and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles (phone (404) 656-5651, fax (404) 651-8502) asking them to grant clemency on Monday – Troy Davis’ last hope. I urge every reader of this blog entry to do the same. Yes, every phone call, every fax, every e-mail matters.

IMPORTANT: JUST IN (yes, literally as I write this blog entry!) - Please contact Chatham County (Savannah) District Attorney Larry Chisolm as well. He can support Troy Davis’ request for clemency for seeking to have the current death warrant withdrawn. You can contact DA Chisolm here.

If you’re like me, and making phone calls to people in government totally freaks you out, THAT’S OKAY! YOU CAN STILL HELP! Fax (especially) and e-mail are also effective.

The very real truth is that this is Troy’s last chance. If the Board rules against him on Monday, then – barring a miracle – he’ll be executed the following week. Put to death for a crime that, in all likelihood, he did not commit.

Please, let’s do everything we can to stop this atrocity from occurring.

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

The Miniatures Project (#1: Grieg!) July 4, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Recordings, Teaching, The Miniatures Project.
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Short version: Some Grieg for you to enjoy, recorded by Yours Truly aka The Contrapuntal Platypus! :D

Dedicated to my wonderful friends Ana and Keith, and Joanne and Josh, recently engaged/married…

…And to my high-school best friend Yun-Yun, as she prepares for her wedding this August…

(…And to all the happy couples in New York state who, as of July 24, 2011 will legally be able to marry!)

I wish you all many happy years of joy, companionship and love together. :)

*******

Long version:

I had my year-end private studio recital last week (just in time for the holiday long weekend, which added to the excitement and the celebratory atmosphere!) I am amazed, proud, and utterly blown away by my students’ playing. They were all superbly prepared and played very well (no devastating memory slips, tears, breakdowns or other disasters… :S) On a big Steinway piano, in a large hall, some of their performances sounded downright magical. Seriously, I was repeatedly on the verge of tears (good ones!) :)

At the end, I played (and recorded) a bit of Grieg I’d wanted an excuse to learn for years: Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.

Some friends of mine had been clamoring for me to post recordings here, so I thought I’d oblige. For a while I’d been thinking about a new project. See, in my B. Mus and M. Mus years, I was all into BIG stuff. Beethoven sonatas, Bach fugues, and my senior recital pièce de résistance, the Liszt Dante sonata. :-D Nary a Grieg or Chopin or Mendelssohn piece to lighten the mood. No, I scorned miniatures – “salon” music, I thought, light, trite and not worth my time.

Problem is, after you graduate and are asked to play for weddings, churches and so on, people want to hear Chopin and Debussy and so on. (They certainly don’t want the Liszt Dante Sonata or the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, I can tell you.) And – with the reduction in practice time that comes with 40 students – even I began thinking it might be time to tackle something less…enormous.

So, here is my challenge to myself: over the next 6 weeks, I aim to learn, polish and record at least 10 miniatures – pieces under 5 minutes in length. (The Grieg is an exception as it’s mainly repeats. :D) Hopefully I’ll end up with a solid repertoire of wedding-ready music…and a variety of short recordings for my blog as well!

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

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