Thursday, November 30, 2017

 

Seeing Light in the Darkest Times

November 9 was the 79th anniversary of the beginning of Kristallnacht (German for "Night of Crystal" but usually translated in this context as "Night of the Broken Glass"), a two day state-sanctioned pogrom in Nazi Germany, German-occupied Austria and German-occupied Sudetenland during which over 260 synagogues were burned to the ground, nearly 100 Jews were killed and as many as 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. Nazi Germany then imposed a one billion Reichsmark fine (equivalent to $400 million in U.S. dollars at the time) on the Jewish community to make sure that the Jewish people--not German-owned insurance companies--paid the economic price for all of the destroyed Jewish properties/businesses.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras' family experienced the horrors of Kristallnacht firsthand; his grandfather--who was 14 years old at the time--saw Jewish stores being looted, Jewish books being burned in bonfires in the street and signs declaring "Kill the Jews." Stras' great-grandfather was sent to Dachau, the Nazis' first concentration camp. Stras recently wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal about his family's experiences during Kristallnacht specifically and the Holocaust in general. Stras noted that four years ago, for the first time, he spoke publicly about what happened to his family during the Holocaust and how his grandfather narrowly survived Auschwitz. Stras explained that his grandfather never lost his faith in humanity:

My grandfather had the uncommon gift of being able to see the light of human generosity in the midst of near-total darkness...
Only after years researching their stories and reflecting on their lives do I understand the message my grandparents had tried to impart--one of hope and gratitude, not bitterness or pity. As my grandfather said in a memorial service speech in 1979, we remember those who "lost their freedom, the freedom of us and the freedom of mankind." He emphasized that "we, the survivors, have to let the world know that we will never again allow another Holocaust" and told the audience that "you, and you alone, have the responsibility to speak up for our fallen relatives and friends."
My grandparents always said they were the lucky ones, and that they were left on earth to speak for those who had perished. Their guidepost was humanity, not indulgence in their own sorrow and suffering.
The human capacity to do evil and inflict suffering is terrifying and tragic but the human capacity to endure, survive and retain compassion/hope despite suffering is inspirational.

Here is a link to the entire article (subscription required): My Grandparents Saw Light, Even After the Dark of Kristallnacht

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

 

Perfectionism, Despair and Meaning

The October 16, 2017 edition of The Wall Street Journal contains a book review by Emily Esfahani Smith entitled "Redefining a Well-Lived Life." Smith offers her take on Iddo Landau's Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Landau, a philosophy professor at Haifa University in Israel, seeks to understand why the rates for suicide, depression and alienation have been rising for quite some time. Smith notes that much research on this subject has concluded that despair is the primary reason that so many people decide that their lives are meaningless and she adds that Landau concludes that the issue is not so much that people's lives lack meaning but rather--in Smith's words--that people "have distorted ideas about what a meaningful life actually is."

Landau ticks off several arguments that are commonly made to prove that life is meaningless: (1) Nothing that we do individually matters because we are tiny specks in a vast universe; (2) We will be forgotten soon after we die; (3) Everything that we do and everything that we value will ultimately decay or be destroyed.

Landau asserts that the crucial flaw in each of these arguments is the idea that the only valuable life is a perfect one: "According to this presupposition, meaningful lives must include some perfection or excellence or some rare and difficult achievements." Smith powerfully amplifies this point: "Does the life of a child with Down syndrome have less value than the life of a healthy child? Is a retail clerk leading a less meaningful life than, say, Elon Musk? A perfectionist would have to say yes and yes. But Mr. Landau wisely points out that it's cruel to hold ourselves or others to this standard for meaning, because it neglects life's inherent worth."

In The Good Inclination and the Bad Inclination, I quoted David Holzel's take on perfectionism/trying to always do the right thing: "If one is overly righteous, one is likely to become suicidal." Perfectionism sounds noble but it can have pernicious effects on the mind and soul, because perfection is not attainable--and the fact that perfection is unttainable can easily transform a noble pursuit into a race toward oblivion.

I have always admired perfectionists and I have always strived for perfection but perfectionism seems to be a trap that leads not to excellence but to suffering. How does one ramp down the pursuit of perfection without sacrificing the competitive edge/edginess that seems to be necessary to achieve greatness? One point of view is that the world is not bifurcated into successes/failures but rather learners/nonlearners and that the value of new experiences is not defined by always winning but rather by always learning. For several years I have tried to embrace and embody this approach but it is not easy to tame the fires of perfectionism after they have been lit and after they have swelled to massive proportions. Kobe Bryant once declared that he was "not with" the idea of it is OK to fall short of your goals as long as you tried your best. I admire and identify with Bryant's determination and relentlessness but I wonder if this way of thinking is healthy.

My Mom has always emphasized to me that success is not defined by material goods or accomplishments but rather by service to others. During times when the vicissitudes of life have buffeted my mind and soul, she consistently told me that the path to healing involved focusing less on myself/my goals and more on helping others.

I see the wisdom in this way of reframing one's thinking but it is not so easy to rewire one's brain.

Smith's book review offers a simple conclusion that could have been written by my Mom: "Holding your child's hand, volunteering in your community, doing your job, appreciating the beauty around you--these are the wellsprings of meaning all of us can tap."

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

 

Prince's Versatility and Influence

Prince's untimely death is still difficult to accept for those who appreciate his rare genius and who mourn for the loss of the great music he never had the opportunity to create because his life was cut short. Prince's combination of productivity, creativity, ingenuity and high-level multi-instrument proficiency may never be seen again.

Rob Sheffield recently wrote an insightful tribute to Prince and the enduring influence of his 1999 album. Sheffield notes that many artists from diverse genres influenced Prince but he took music to another level:
But as any of these artists probably would have conceded, Prince topped them all, creating his own kind of nonstop erotic cabaret. Instead of just overdubbing instruments to replicate a live band, he built the tracks around a colossal synth pulse, which made 1999 one of the decade's most influential productions. "Little Red Corvette" became such a massive pop hit, it's easy to overlook how radical it sounded at the time. All through the song, you can hear the machines puff and hiss, as if Prince's engines are overheating, with his studio as a Frankenstein lab full of sparks flying everywhere. It's sleek on the surface, but the rhythm track keeps sputtering and threatening to blow up. It's the sonic equivalent of George Lucas' breakthrough in the original Star Wars movie--he figured out that the way to make droids look real was to make them dusty and dented, as if they'd gotten banged around on the job.
Joe Levy's May 4, 2016 remembrance of Prince takes an even broader view: "As with so many visionary artists, there was a period in Prince's career--almost all of the 1980s--when he seemed able to look around corners, when his music seemed to live in the future, and then assemble that future around us."

Levy observes that the divorce of Prince's parents when Prince was around eight years old had a lasting influence on the budding music superstar: "...his domestic exiles created longing and anger that played out in his career: He would build a community in his music and his band, but then cut off band members whenever he felt it necessary; he would most often record albums by himself. He was the only one he could count on. 'What if everybody around me split?' he said to Rolling Stone in 1990. 'Then I'd be left with only me, and I'd have to fend for me. That's why I have to protect me.'"

Prince's ability to play multiple instruments was largely the result of intensive self-education. After Warner Brothers signed him to his first recording deal in 1977 when Prince was 19 years old, the label intended for Earth, Wind and Fire's Maurice White to produce Prince's first album but Prince immediately shut down that plan: "Nobody is producing my album," Prince declared, and then he proceeded to prove that he was more than capable of handling those duties. Levy reports that Lenny Waronker, Warners' A&R chief at the time, was suitably impressed. Waronker recalled, "He put down a guitar track and got it right. Then he put down the drums--wow. You could just tell--the guitar was locked in, the timing was good, you could tell it was easy for him."

Prince then embarked on a staggering outburst of musical creativity, as recounted by Levy:
Prince began work on his fifth album, 1999, in early 1982. He was 23 years old and entering a golden period: For the next three years, it seemed like every waking moment yielded a song, and every song was a hit. He now had three groups: his own band, the Revolution; the Time; and a trio of women in lingerie he called Vanity 6. Before long, he would also be creating music for percussionist Sheila E. He was ceaseless, sometimes working for three days straight without sleep. "Do I have to eat?" he mused in Rolling Stone in 1985. "I wish I didn't have to eat."

By the end of 1985, he had made 15 albums in seven years--seven under his own name; three by the Time; two from Sheila E., and one each from Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and the Family. Those albums generated 13 Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The Minneapolis sound--that synth-driven blend of funk, pop and rock which Prince pioneered--was everywhere, especially after Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, whom Prince had fired from the Time, began producing a string of hits for artists like the S.O.S. Band, Klymaxx and Janet Jackson. Then there were the Prince songs that became huge hits for Chaka Khan ("I Feel for You," 1984), Sheena Easton ("Sugar Walls," 1984), and the Bangles ("Manic Monday," 1986).
Prince had gone after all this, but on his own terms. No one would have predicted that he'd break through with singles about the End Times or a sexually voracious woman, or that he could increase the power of his burgeoning fame by refusing to do interviews. Yet that's exactly what happened with 1999.
Prince's career peaked in 1984, when he became the only artist other than the Beatles to simultaneously have the number one album, number one single and number one movie in the United States. That feat is obviously a tall order to match commercially or artistically but Prince remained relevant as a song writer, musician and live performer until the day he died, inspiring a wide array of artists to push the boundaries of their creativity.

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