That Sinking Feeling

I have been waking up pretty early these days. One morning I even slept in all the way to 7.

It's like the saying: We're neither here nor there. Actually, we are here, but it just doesn't quite feel like it yet. My kids have started school, we have done plenty of shopping, we are trying to get cellphones (ugh! It's all so darn confusing!!!). And we really look the part, I mean, we fit in here much more than there.

But the problem comes with the inevitable question: “So, where are you from?”

While on vacation we just answered “Brasil!” and waited for the next round of questions, if they came. I had the best time giving that answer while we were at DisneyWorld–there people would often look with surprise and then say something like “Wow! You speak English so well!”

The food here sure is good!

But it's good to be home, even if it doesn't feel so much home-y yet. (Full disclosure: I was on vacation for the better part of a month…so, no, you shouldn't feel too sorry for me. I did yell and scream a lot on this vacation–roller coasters are the best for that.) And I'm looking forward to discovering America again, this time from a small town perspective. Who knows? Maybe all those years of Brasil telling me to slow down, slow down, will finally sink in.

I really am trying to slow down. Really.

 

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Sometimes I Put the Wrong Date on the Check

Ahh, the New Year has arrived. Time to wax poetic on the past and publish new hopes for the year to come. And how lucky I am to be changing countries and jobs and as many things as I possibly can at the same time. Lucky? Yes! Lucky! Because I have always found that internal transitions are made more powerful and affective if our external conditions are similar.

Rio NYE 2013. I was not there.

And so this New Year I find myself in Puerto Rico…not just a beautiful island, but also a land of in-betweens: one foot in Latin America, and the other in the United States. How fortunate for me, because that's how I feel too. One foot firmly and happily moving back towards my country of origin, and the other lingering in Brasil, anticipating the samba schools of Carneval, and yelling at the poor drivers as I cross the street. It will be like this for a while, I am sure, and those I am with will have to hear a lot of “In Brasil, we did it like this…” and “I'm thinking of the word in Portuguese…” If that's you, sorry! I can't help it! That's what happens to all of us on some level as we move from year to year, decade to decade. Things change, and sometimes we don't move as fast as the time requires.

So from this land of in-betweens, I wish you all a wonderful year of full of the wisdom from years past, and hope from the changes and challenges that are to come. Happy 2014!

 

Will the Real Piano Guys Please Stand Up?

The other day I was on Facebook looking through my newsfeed, and I came across a link to a video that said something like “If you don't think this is the most amazing thing you have ever seen, then you should check your pulse, because you might be dead!”

I took the bait (needless to say) and in a few seconds found myself watching the latest Christmas video from The Piano Guys. I am positive many of you have seen these videos too: there are usually a couple (or more) smiling middle-aged nerdy white guys playing a piano (and sometimes, cello?) arrangement of anything from Coldplay to Pachelbel to Christmas favorites ('tis the season!). And did I mention, they are always smiling? They are GREAT! I LOOOOOOVE THEM! Especially when someone in my Facebook community POSTS THEM ON MY WALL! These videos are the syrup and coolwhip for my pancakes, the five lumps of sugar for my tea, the three generous pumps of chocolate for my venti-nonfat-nolac-caramel latte, the butter for my oreos…Oh! I could go on and on!

I hate them.

But I must say, I am thankful for that fantastically false claim that was made on the link to the video, for otherwise I may never have truly come to terms with my strong feelings (update: someone has just now–Thurs. Dec 5–tagged me on facebook in this video. I love it. It really doesn't get any better than this).

Now, let me be clear, if you like these videos, I understand, and I don't want to pour cold coffee over your warm breakfast. Not at all. Enjoy your breakfast. But I don't want to eat it–instead, I will share a few words here about why these same videos that bring you joy, are for me like a lyme-disease-infested-tick under my skin.

They are NOT musically interesting, amazing, complex, edifying, artistic… No. No. No. They are not. I realize it “looks” like they are, and I will say that the men playing in the video have been trained, some probably very well. But they are not selling that training, and they have watered it down for the masses as much as they can. Take for example the Kung-Fu Panda video (DID THEY REALLY DO THAT? ARE THEY REALLY WEARING WHAT APPEARS TO BE TRADITIONAL CHINESE CLOTHING? yes, and yes): the music here is simpler than most pop-songs–lots of repetition, pentatonic scales (more on this later), and yes, lots of smiling. The ONE INTERESTING MOMENT (at 1:20 if you want to find it) is borrowed from none other than…Chopin! (Op. 28, no. 20, if you care to check) I have no problem with musical borrowing, especially when it enhances the greatness of what is already present in the music. But when it is the ONLY great thing in the music?

And what about these “pentatonic scales” you mentioned, Matt? Oh ho! I'm glad you asked. They are fantastic five-note scales that are frequently used (in all types of music) because they are beautiful and basically without dissonance. But when they are used ALL THE TIME? well, yes, you are correct, they can become a bit monotonous. And, on the piano, they are SIMPLE. Go ahead, try it for yourself. Sit at the piano, even if you know nothing, and play something using only the black keys. Isn't it beautiful? and easy? Yes it is! In fact, anyone can do it. Now, these Piano Guys are adding some complex rhythms at times, and overdubbing all sorts of harmonies, and even standing around an open piano and plucking strings, playing them with hair, beating on the sides with paper to make rhythms…there was some thought put into it. But not too much, because the core of the music is VERY simple, so much so that almost ANY tune can be adapted to function within pentatonicism.

“But, Matt,” you say, “What is wrong with simplicity in music? Can't I like it? Isn't most pop-music pretty simple?” There is nothing wrong with simplicity. Many times it can be beautiful. And I love me a good pop-song that is well-sung and produced. But I feel like this is different: this is simplicity in complexity's clothing. This is slight of hand, tricks of the eye, the stuff of side shows. I say call a spade, a spade, and PLEASE don't call this the most amazing heart-stopping thing you have ever seen. Because, when it comes to greatness, complexity, artistry, jaw-dropping amazing-ness, this does not even come close.

But here's a catch: The Piano Guys are extremely popular. Millions of views on YouTube. They tour, and they sell CDs on iTunes. Are all of those fans wrong? Doesn't popularity count for something? Well, I think the video content is possibly the best thing they do: they are well produced (from my non-professional vantage point), and they keep you interested and close to the action, all of which is important for them because the video is the first place we encounter their music. But the video experience is far more interesting than the music, and since we are always looking for that next cool video to share with our friends, we click and share and feel somewhat happy and maybe even “creative” as we post it on our wall.

And that is what concerns me: everywhere I look, I see the depth of our culture lessening, the experience we have with art waining, and our ability to create thinning. I understand that it may be different for me–music is my profession and my passion, and as such I am always looking to discover new things, improve my technique, and deepen my experiences. But aren't we all looking for that too? Are we settling for too little? I suppose it's possible that these videos are inspiring folks to seek out more music in their lives, but for the majority I don't think so. Like I said above, it's a side show, it's one minute of fireworks, a three minute YouTube high, and then we go on our way. It's not enough. No, it's not.

We all need to seek out more excellence in our lives, and we need not be afraid of it: excellence is not the same as elitism, and just because you enjoy listening to classical music doesn't make you better (or worse) than anyone else. So PLEASE, don't stop with The Piano Guys–seek something deeper because it's out there. You may just start on YouTube, but don't stop there! Go to a concert! Start to paint! Learn to play an instrument, or pick up that one you used to play! Sing in a choir! Start a blog! Learn a new dance! And do all of this with other people too!!!! Why? Why should you do this? Because participating in the arts teaches us something that nothing else can, something that we need to keep learning every day, something that we were made to do but isn't so easy to do when we are out of practice, something that can feed the world and fill it with immeasurable happiness and joy…

The arts teach us how to create–how to be creative.

You should need no better reason than that. Need a place to start? I can't speak for all the arts, but I can give you some new musical ideas, and for me, if you want pyrotechnics, complexity, people working together to make something beautiful and amazing, it just doesn't get any better than the Symphony Orchestra. There's 80 or more people on the same stage, playing all sorts of different instruments, and somehow it all fits together so beautifully!! If that doesn't knock your socks off… well, you get the picture. And how about this for a suggestion: Try listening to some of Gustav Mahler's symphonies–they are truly amazing, and for those of you in the US, they are all on spotify, and many video performances are on YouTube as well. The beginning of Mahler's first symphony is otherworldly, and after some poking and prodding from the clarinets, it evolves into one of the most beautiful and festive melodies that you can imagine. Heck, you probably have already heard it before, and maybe when you listen, you will rediscover something that you already knew! And Mahler always reminds me of Christmas–it's so festive and warm and sentimental. But a whole symphony is too much for you? Not enough time for Mahler? Okay, then why not start with those Chopin Preludes that you already heard part of in the Kung Fu Panda video? They are short! Listen to one a day! But don't stop there! Go to a concert! Get in close! Experience it, let it change you, teach you, inspire you to create something of your own.

Maybe that's why those Piano Guys are so happy–there's a lot of simplicity and immitation, but in the end they did create something together. And that's a good feeling–at least for them.

 

I’m back.

Yep. Scream it from the rooftops folks, cuz I am back on that blog-wagon.

Why?

Well, I suppose it could be for a number of reasons, and for the sake of fun (because, IM4FUN), I'll give you a number of options, and you can choose whichever you like best.

I googled IM4FUN. Yep.

–I have been mulling over a number of critically important insights over the past year, and I cannot hold myself back from sharing them any longer.

–I found out that a number of folks (read: one person) have been sincerely and deeply inspired by my words and musings, and so I am returning out of a sense of service and heart felt gratitude.

–It is really loud outside because of some stupid opiateforthemasses soccer game, which makes it impossible to sleep and so I might as well blog because I've already played all my scrabble games for the night.

–I'm at the cusp of a huge life transition, the edge of something really new, so I've got some serious shit to discuss here.

–The quiet undulations of the keyboard are sweet therapy to me, a soul soother for this sooth-sayer, and I could stray no longer. It's an unavoidable vocation, a call I must answer obediently.

Yeah, it could be any of them really (probably not the last one though…I am dramatic at times, but that's a little overboard). You pick–the result is the same: more sometimes yellatious and mildly yellatinous blogposts coming your way. Let's have some fun!

I am not pictured here.

 

Look the Other way

So the other day I was enjoying another wonderful walk to work, watching the buildings I always pass slowly get taller, and enjoying the fresh clean air. Oh, and yes, of course, yelling at the cars that almost hit me as I cross the road. This time, right after I screamed a quick “OI!!!!” at the passing car full of women who were on their way to some important salon appointment, I looked behind to find a young woman in trendy sunglasses (read: Ray Ban's from the 1980s which are for some reason enjoying a renaissance of sorts with the younger generation here in Brasil), and I smiled at her as if to say “Yeah, I got your back, don't worry.”

She responded differently than I would have assumed: “You scared me…,” she said, in a low sultry, insistantly laid-back voice. “Oh,” I said, “I'm sorry, but I think it's important for them to understand that the law says they need to stop for pedestrians who are crossing the street in a cross-walk.”

“You're not from here, are you?” she said, in her best yousillytouristyouobviouslydon'tunderstandbrasil voice. And then she continued to explain to me why here in Brasil, it's just best to let that kind of stuff go, because it will never change, and your life will be so much better if you just forget about it. And I responded with my best American politeness that I completely understood what she was talking about, and that while I value the same kind of serenity in my life, I could not disagree more with her statement and found that she was completely wrong. Was she aware of the laws? Weren't they written there for some good reason? To which she languidly responded that she was in fact aware of the laws, and also was studying to be a lawyer, but still, she argued that my attempts to raise others awareness were going to do nothing but make me more and more angry.

Studying to be a lawyer, eh? She obviously had no idea who she was talking to. I was born a lawyer. It's in my blood. Bring it on.

You see, don't all people deserve respect, whether they are in a car or not? And if we cannot respect these laws, how can we be expected to follow any of the laws? And without laws, how can we call ourselves a society? or part of the civilized world? And was she also not aware that there are also plenty of places WITHIN BRASIL that people are already obeying laws, respecting each other, slowing down to let others cross the street? In the end, she saw my position, and then quickly ran into a bank before she lost too much ground in her argument. A good lawyer in the making.

That is the problem with living the good life–you have to give up a lot of things that would make your life easier; things like ignorance, self-indulgence, and laziness. And then you have to continuously ask your self (and your friends if you're brave) the hard questions: How can I give more respect to my neighbors? How can I care for the widow, the neglected, the overlooked? Who is my neighbor?

Not an easy way to live (I don't do it very well), but the alternative is just empty “beleza.”

 

Wearing Gloves is Advisable.

One helpful thing for you all who read this blog (a number which I hope is growing, if for nothing else than my terribly hungry ego) to understand is that I am…well…not always such a nice person. I think a good word to describe me could be “prickly,” but others may choose asshole, or blunt, or truthful to a fault, or something else worse that I choose not to publish here. For elaboration, I think a picture/video essay would be apropos.

I think cacti are a good “plant comparison” for me (as I'm sure you all were wondering, “Hmm, I wonder what a good “plant comparison” for Matt would be?). I have an appreciation for them having lived in the Southwest of the United States for ten years, and I do think they are beautiful. But getting close enough to touch them is not advisable! I mean, we cacti produce fruit and flowers and such, but we're also going to prick you if you touch us, because, hey, we're prickly and that's what prickly things do.

I think “dog analogies” can also be helpful, don't you? I love dogs. And of all the breeds of dogs, German Shepherds are not my favorite. Just being honest. They are a crunchy breed, often “one-family” dogs, and if you mess with them, they will bite. Also, without all that thick lustrous hair, they would not be so attractive or youthful looking.

Yes, Jerry is one of my favorites, but not only for his brilliance, but also because his character on “Seinfeld” was, well, not quite the vision of perfection himself, and yet he always seems to be looking for perfection in others. But he makes people laugh, and so they let him get away with it. This clip of different phone calls is classic Jerry: there is never a bad time for a joke. Never.

Yeah, I read the book. But more importantly, I am just the kind of person who is ALWAYS trying to improve what's inside and outside of me. Some people don't like the constant critique, but hey, I'm used to it.

I don't hide my emotions/thoughts.
This does not always mix well with the cultural syrupy sweetness that surrounds me.
Bon Apetit!