I saw a Facebook bumper-sticker today, with the following quote, allegedly from Dr. Thomas Sowell, a Libertarian economist. (They like to call themselves “Austrian School economists.”)

Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?

This is one of those carefully framed rhetorical questions that admits to only one answer. In thinking about it, I decided to ask a different question:

What part of what I work for actually belongs to me?

The answer I come up with is, “Damned little.”

I don’t raise my own food, for my own consumption. I don’t shear my own sheep, to spin my own thread, to weave my own clothing. I don’t dig my own outhouses, set my own bones, or write my own books to read.

The work I do is of no direct benefit to me at all. I write software that I can’t even use.

I work exclusively for the benefit of other people, who offer me a “market value” in return for my work.

Of course, this “market value” is less than the actual value of my work, because my work must result in profits which accrue to the ownership class — my pay comes out of the “operating expenses” left over after profits are taken out. Economists always turn this around: they say profit is what is left over after operating expenses have been met, but that isn’t true. Businesses that don’t show acceptable profit are shut down; businesses that achieve profits by underpaying their employees are considered wise. Profits come first.

This is how the ownership class becomes and remains wealthy. This is why they start businesses and offer jobs. If my work doesn’t result in more value than what I am paid, then I get fired, or the division is shut down, or the company fails. I work on what the owners direct me to work on, under conditions they dictate, and their direction is for their profit, not mine. It isn’t “my” work at all. It is “their” work; I am simply doing it for them.

I work first and primarily to support the wealth of the Owners.

But even what I eventually receive as my “market value” — my income — is not what I’m working for.

I contribute a large chunk of that income back as taxes, to pay for all the infrastructure of civilization that allows me to have a “market value” for what I do. Indeed, much of the work that most of us do is in direct or indirect support of the trappings of civilization. The number of people in this country who live entirely “off-grid,” who need none of the trappings of civilization, is tiny: and if they don’t own the land they live on, they are considered vagrants and squatters with no right to be there — they are tolerated precisely to the extent that they remain invisible.

What is my alternative? Try to find an empty place, go off-grid, and hope no one ever sees me? End taxation, and with it, civilization? I think not.

I work to support civilization.

Most of my remaining income has gone to raising kids in a family: food, shelter, clothing, education. Now that my children are grown, support goes to my grandchildren.

What is my alternative? To let my children starve? I think not.

I work to support my children and grandchildren.

My father had a pension — Social Security, part of that civilization I support with taxes — else I’d have needed to support him in his old age. And he lived a very long time, longer than most parents. My wife’s father lived in a country with no national pension for old people, so we had to support him in his old age. And he lived a very long time, longer than most parents.

What is my alternative? Throw parents and grandparents out on the street to beg for crusts until they starve? Pray they die young, before they become too old to pay their own way? Shoot them? I think not.

I work to support the needs of my parents and grandparents through their old age.

We live in communities. I support law enforcement, and hospitals, and community colleges, and festivals, and dances, and symphony orchestras, and artists. I support trash pickup, and sewage treatment, and stoplights, and paved city streets.

What is the alternative? To live in the decaying squalor of a failing community? I think not.

I work to support a living community.

I hedge against the ups and downs of life: we call it “insurance.” There’s auto insurance, and homeowners’ insurance, and renter’s insurance, and unemployment insurance, and health insurance, and life insurance. If I’m extraordinarily lucky, I will never have a car accident, never have my property stolen or destroyed, never get laid off, never get sick, and live long enough to see all my obligations fulfilled. If I’m that lucky, then every dime I spend on insurance pays, not for me or my needs, but for the needs of others less fortunate. That’s how insurance works.

What is the alternative? To try to save up enough money myself to cover any possible hardship, and if it isn’t enough, to go bankrupt or die? I think not.

I work to support the needs of total strangers facing misfortune, expecting that if I face misfortune, strangers will support my needs.

None of these things that I work for are about me at all, and they certainly don’t belong to me — not civilization, not children, not parents, not community, not communal disaster relief funds.

They are not mine. What I work for is not mine.

I’m perfectly fine with this — working my entire life away for things that I never get to call “mine.” Most people are. We have just been distracted and deceived into answering the wrong, cleverly-worded question.

What angers me is not that people take “my stuff” away from me — they don’t — but rather the stamp of private ownership and profit laid on things that cannot, and should not, be owned. Which happen to be the very things I work for.

Skimming from the community disaster relief fund is as immoral as it gets, and there is no worse modern example than health insurance in the United States. Illness and medical disaster can strike anyone, and by definition, illness takes the ill out of the productive workforce — meaning they can no longer effectively pay their own way. This is why we share the cost of medical care, through a hedge fund, a disaster relief fund, an insurance pool, or whatever else you want to call it. Private insurance is owned — that’s the meaning of “private.” And the owners skim profits from the fund. This is simply theft from those struck by disaster, no different from finding someone struck by a car and going through his pockets for loose cash.

Skimming from pensions for the old is no different. The attempts to “privatize” Social Security are really just an attempt to allow the care of the old to be owned, and to allow the owners to skim from their care. It is theft from the old.

Putting oil pipelines through watersheds, poisoning entire cities with industrial waste, and in general destroying living communities for the purpose of private profit, is also deeply immoral. It is theft, but on a much larger scale, and occasionally strays across the line into mass-murder.

Threatening the viability of the very world our children and grandchildren will inherit is perhaps the deepest immorality of all. This goes far beyond theft — it is ecocide, the mass-murder of the future.

Threatening civilization is perhaps the least of my concerns, mostly because of my historical awareness that civilizations grow old and die, just like people. I do not know if Western Civilization has reached its senescence: many have said it has, for centuries now, and perhaps it is true. If not — if ownership and profit and theft is the only thing that threatens a great civilization in its prime — I don’t even know if there is a word for the crime. Perhaps kleptocracy. Perhaps a form of genocide.

Mr. Sowell’s understanding of what we work for, and what we expect in return, appears to be very shallow.


Trump’s Nuclear Option

Some years ago, I was at the annual Dragonfest gathering, hanging with witches and druids and pagans of eclectic persuasions, and chanced to hear a fellow — a regular there I recognized, but whose name I did not know — carrying on a long, instructive monologue on fairies, specifically how to catch them.

He was saying that the way you catch a fairy is to drill a hole through a rock, then hang it up by a thread where it can sway in the breeze. Fairies are attracted to holes drilled in rocks. They want to see what’s on the other side of the hole, and they will stick their head through to look. But the other thing about fairies is that they can’t back up. So if they can get their head into the hole, but can’t fit their wings, they’ll just stay there, stuck. Then all you have to do is go out, collect all the stones you have hanging in your yard, and you’ve caught yourself a mess of fairies.

This fellow was perspiring heavily as he spoke. At 8000 feet elevation, it can get blisteringly hot on a sunny day. But it was late afternoon, when even a blistering day is mellowing into merely warm, headed toward downright chilly by sunset. It occurred to me he might be tripping on magic mushrooms, which could possibly have contributed to his earnestness, as well as much of his narrative.

The odd thing about entheogens — mind-expanding compounds like psilocybin — is that they often unlock uncanny insights into the hidden workings of things. You just have to understand how to think metaphorically.

Because, of course, fairies don’t really exist. It’s ridiculous to think there’s a class of beings, anywhere, who would thoughtlessly dive headfirst into a hole in a rock, and upon learning that there’s no way through, would nevertheless refuse to back up, or back out, or back down, instead just pressing ahead into a stone noose until they either strangle themselves, or get snatched up and mounted on someone’s wall as a trophy. Ridiculous.

Except that I know far too many people who are exactly like that. They stick their head in a no-win situation, and when they realize there’s no way forward, they “double down,” which, as far as I can tell, means that they shove their head even deeper. I know far too many people who have wedged themselves into no-win situations so deeply that even their feet are no longer visible. That’s a metaphor, of course.

I keep reading about one fellow, in particular, who lives in a big white house in Washington, D.C., at least on weekdays. He calls himself a “puncher.” Meaning, I gather, that he doesn’t just stick his head in the hole, he rams his head into it as hard as he can, and when it doesn’t get him through, he rams it again even harder. He calls it decisive masculinity.

Methinks somewhere along the line, he got manliness and fairies mixed up.

This afternoon I read about the nerve gas attack in Syria, and this fellow’s manly response of lobbing fifty or sixty missiles at an airport in Syria.

I was also reading about the previous resident of that big white house after an almost identical nerve gas attack in Syria, and he spent quite a bit of time planning to stick his head in the hole, angling to get backing from England and the US Congress to hit ALL the airports — all the important ones, anyway — and completely knock out the nerve gasser’s air force, hopefully toppling his regime. England didn’t like the look of the hole, and said No, thank you. Congress had its collective head stuck in the Hole of No, and so immediately doubled down on No. So this previous fellow did the unthinkable — he actually backed out of the hole, to the catcalls of all the fairies who weren’t at the moment engaged into trying to shove their heads through a rock.

That’s a whole bunch of metaphors.

As far as I’ve heard, the current “puncher” doesn’t have a plan at all. It was just: nerve gas, punch. A manly reflex. Oooh. Ahhh. There was no attempt to take out the nerve gasser’s entire air force. From what I read, it’s not clear the airport had any strategic importance at all, but then, maybe that just got left out of the news. I’m sure this was a very important airport, the most important of all the important airports. Even so, the outcome is going to be about like hunting bear with a dessert-fork: if you’re really, really lucky, the bear will die laughing. Yes, that’s another metaphor.

But the real issue is, now that the current fairy-fellow’s head is stuck in this particular rock, he can’t back down. Manly fairies don’t do that, and he’s not just any manly fairy, he’s a “puncher.” He’s the most bigly “puncher.” He will escalate.

And escalate.

And escalate.

As a fairy, he has no other choice. He can’t back up. So unless he is gathered up and mounted on a wall somewhere, he will eventually double-down to the nuclear option.

And let me be perfectly clear. That is not a metaphor.

Pale White Men

Here’s a recent quote from Steve King, the sitting Republican Senator from Iowa:

I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people [other than white males] that you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?

I have just two words to say to Mr. King: Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood starlet through the 1940’s and 1950’s. She also happened to be an inventor who worked out (and patented) a method of frequency-hopping intended to be used by the military to avoid frequency-jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes during WWII, and which is a core component to modern WiFi and Bluetooth interfaces.

Did Lamarr contribute to civilization? Do Hollywood sex-kittens contribute to civilization? Do women contribute to civilization?

No. They don’t. Not nearly as much as they could, or should.

The implication — the innuendo — that King lays down is that these others are incapable of contributing to civilization. The reality is that they are prevented from contributing to civilization, and when they fight through the hurdles and contribute anyway, their contribution is plagiarized, minimized, or covered up entirely. History is written in such a way as to make their contribution completely invisible. As though it never happened.

Our nation is much poorer because of this.

So yes, Mr. King, if you search through a biased history of a nation founded on sexism and racism, you will find damn little evidence that anyone other than white men ever contributed anything to civilization.

Mr. King, there may come a day when white men like yourself — ignorant, arrogant, sanctimonious, hypocritical white men like yourself — will be painted out of history in the same way you have painted out women, and darker-skinned people. Because I am also a white male, that brush will paint over me, as well. We will become the Fomorians, the Pharisees, the ghost-people of myth: a symbol of evil, and decay. People will ask, “When did a white man ever do anything good?” and they will shake their heads and pity us. They will hold up their own biased histories, in which no white male ever did anything but rape, pillage, cannibalize, and betray. And if any white men are left in that world, they will be wretched creatures barred from any opportunity that might allow them to contribute anything of value to civilization.

Or perhaps… perhaps it will play out differently. Perhaps the women, and the darker-skinned, will not be so arrogant, hypocritical, and thin-skinned. Perhaps they will find a way to make a place for white males, in a way that white males could never make for them.

Maybe the women and the colored peoples are better than white men.

You are certainly not setting a very high bar for them to surpass.

The Joys of Scoring

The title is sarcasm. Yes, it is.

The Ukiah Symphony is planning to perform my piano concerto next season, and before that can happen, I have to get them a full score with parts. This has been a bundle of joy.

Here are a few examples of the kind of things I’ve had to figure out how to do in Finale (the software I’m using to score the music):

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.05.58 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.04.39 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.06.30 PM.png

Bleaugh! Of course, it looks gorgeous NOW.

So what does this process of scoring music look like?

The process starts with the Cuebase sequencer file I used to produce the CD. The first task is to quantize the sequence. You see, when I want a staccatto note in Cuebase, it looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 6.35.10 PM.png

If this came from a live performance on a keyboard, it isn’t nearly so regular. If I try to turn this into a score, I end up with a lot of very short notes, and lots of strange rests in between them. Editing those in Finale is actually worse than a root canal. On a plane. To Australia. So to make it easy, I want to convert it to something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 6.40.29 PM.png

Lining everything up with the grid lines is called “quantizing.” There’s some other prep I can do, like separating out the different piano lines. That takes a little creativity, because it’s usually not as simple as left-hand/right-hand, or even bass-clef/treble-clef. But after going through all the tracks and quantizing everything, separating everything, and testing it to make sure I didn’t move notes around to strange places, I can export the Cuebase data as a MIDI file — which is kind of like the basic CSV common file format for musical notes.

Then I need to import the MIDI file into Finale, and it converts all those dashes into notes.

I have a lot of complaints about Finale, but I have to step back and take my hat off to them on this: they do an impressive job of converting those dashes into notes. But now the real work starts, because impressive is still a long way from adequate.

The first pass through the score involves putting in the key signatures. It helps if I put that into the Cuebase file, but the key signature doesn’t make any difference to the sequencer, and I always forget. Finale has some algorithms for guessing, but they are … well, a little bizarre. Which I suppose is understandable.

The whole point of key signatures is that the Western chromatic scale over an octave has 11 distinct notes in it, but the musical staff notation used since A. Nony Mous scribbled out the first madrigal has room for only seven notes over an octave. They make up the difference using “accidentals” — flats and sharps — that push you up or down from one of the seven notes. Of course seven goes into eleven roughly 1.57142857142857 times, so there’s some black magic involving something called “modes” — there are seven traditional modes — two of which are “major” and “minor.” And that’s the easy part.

The thing is, musicians spend about twenty years learning to read music well, and so they get understandably irritated when you break the rules they’ve learned and hand them something that they can’t read and perform easily. So you pick a key signature, and the basic idea is to try to minimize the number of flats and sharps you have to throw around in the music. If you’ve written something in C# minor, and then rewrite it in C minor, the only place sharps or flats show up is right at the beginning of the piece, where you specify the key signature. All the rest is accident-free, and the notes will be otherwise identical.

It’s equally easy to add the key signature to Cuebase or Finale, which is why I generally don’t go back to Cuebase and just start over — which would also be easy, since all I’ve done with Finale up to this point is push a few buttons.

The next step is going through the score, staff by staff, fixing the accidentals that remain. As it turns out, that 11 versus 7 black magic ends up with as many as four different ways to represent the same note — as a sharp, a flat, a double-sharp, or a double-flat. This does turn out to be useful, and it’s way easier to show why than to describe:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 7.06.49 PM Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 7.06.09 PMThese are both identical passages, but the one on the right shows the flow of the music a lot better than the one on the left. You want to follow the natural flow, because it will make it much easier for the musicians to play while they’re reading it. And that’s something you want to do — make it easy for them to read. After all, if you piss them off, they don’t have to play your music well.

Unfortunately, Finale doesn’t always do a good job of deciding which way to write the notes — it chose the one on the left. So I have to go through and correct all of these so that they make sense.

As I’m going through this, note-by-note, I’m also correcting all the errors that arise from Finale trying to guess note durations. Finale does a pretty good job with triplets. That 21-note run up at the top? Not a whisper of a prayer. And, at the same time, I can correct the clef notation, to try to keep the notes more-or-less grouped in the middle of the five-line staff.

All of these edits are judgment calls. The music is already correct, if unreadable. I’m trying to improve the readability, and that’s ultimately a matter of opinion.

Once I’ve gotten through that pass, comes the sniff test — that’s the test you give a jug of milk in the refrigerator that has been in there since you aren’t-quite-sure-when. Fortunately, Finale comes with its own MIDI performance software, so I can tell it to play the music for me. I can listen for errors.

It sounds terrible, by the way. Standard notation is intended to facilitate the performance of a human being who spent twenty years learning how to read music and play it well. The truth is, there simply isn’t enough information in the score for a computer to figure out how to play it. But — and this is the important part — listening will at least tell you if you have the right notes, with the right rhythms.

Now the tedium begins. Every note has potentially a dozen or so “articulations.” Staccatto. Marcato. Tenuto. Tremolo. Pizzicato. Palmetto. Con Gigolo. Mio Spaghettio. Yes, I’ve started making these up-o. Made-you-look-o.

Remember all those short notes I “quantized” way up at the top? Now I have to recover that lost information by putting a little dot over each note that should be played short. More decisions: staccatto, spiccato, or marcato? They’re all kind of the same — but they’re all different, with different markings. Each instrument will perform them differently, and each musician will interpret them differently. Get a little alcohol in them, and they’ll fight about it.

Then there’s phrasing — slur marks to indicate phrases. This is a tough call, because a lot of phrasing is just part of that twenty-year learning curve. Throw a bunch of dots out there, and musicians will make phrases out of them, and usually the right ones. All you’re doing is giving them hints, and there’s no point in insulting them with the obvious.

Even worse, slurs are also used to indicate bowing in the strings, and breathing for the wind instruments. You don’t want your oboist to pass out because you created a single long phrase of twenty-five measures. Of course, they won’t do that, but then you might as well not waste the ink on a phrase mark that is going to be ignored anyway. I always find myself swinging between minimalism — hey, they’re musicians, let them figure it out — and the kind of obsessive notation that I have to put into the Cuebase sequence to get it to sound right.

Dynamics. Forte. Mezzo-forte. Sforzando. Subito piano. Crescendo. Diminuendo. I absolutely hate this part, because it’s like trying to pick your nose with a hammer. Dynamic markings are a very blunt instrument. There are only eight gradations from inaudible to deafening. Fine, ten if you want to include pppp and ffff, neither of which is playable. In fact, it’s arguable whether ppp and fff make a lot of sense — really, there are only six. Again, these are hints, but they can be extremely important hints — like when you want a horn swell that sends all the squirrels in the rafters running for cover, versus the sound of a dream falling into a feather bed.

Then there is the expressive text, like molto agitato. Or perhaps like butterflies hovering over a glass of pinot. I’ve seen very silly notations, like a passage in Wagner for the strings marked interminably, oh dear God will this ever end?

I usually end up putting in the tempo markings last, for some reason. That one is pretty easy: the Cuebase file has utterly precise tempos — it needs to. So I could add notation that says, slow from 111 bpm to 93 bpm. I don’t, of course. It would instead be Allegro (quarter = 110) followed by rit. The conductor is only going to take it as a suggestion, anyway.

Sprinkle in fermatas, indicating that a note should be held until the winds are blue in the face. Add a break, or even a Grand Pause, where there is pregnant (or perhaps blessed) silence for a moment.

Finally, there’s all the print niceties: measure numbers, page numbers, rehearsal marks, title, composer, copyright, etc., etc., etc.

Still not done, however. Now the parts have to be broken out. Musicians don’t read scores. They read parts. A flute part. A violin part. A piano part.

Here, Finale is truly your friend. It’s pretty much few button presses, and you have all the parts broken out for you. They still have to be individually edited, because sometimes Finale makes some rather silly decisions. In particular, it always seems to put the last measure of the piece on a page by itself, a single measure across the whole page with one stupid note in it.

And then — finally — let it sit for a week, and then edit it again with fresh eyes.

I’ve just gotten to the tedium on the second movement of the concerto. First movement is done and mellowing for that final edit. Third movement should be quick and relatively easy.

Almost there….


I’ve recently had occasion to talk with several different people about “mid-life” and the dreaded “mid-life crisis,” because they’re about twenty years younger than me and happen to be going through it at the moment. I’d like to pass on a few nuggets of wisdom that I’ve picked up in my travels that they seemed to find helpful.

I was talking with my niece on the phone the other day — she’s nowhere near mid-life, but she’s currently taking a psychology class in college — and she brought up something called Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, which I thought were interesting from the standpoint that they seemed to have been developed by a bright but very young man. They are heavy on childhood developmental stages, but once they get to “well-adjusted adulthood,” they trail off into a vague mumble, as though adulthood is a featureless landscape that ends suddenly in the Cliffs of Senility and Death.1

Nothing could be further from the truth. Adults continue to develop, and some of the changes are as dramatic as puberty.

Mid-life is a particularly interesting developmental stage.

One way of talking about this is to use Carl Jung’s concepts of individuation and integration. In very general terms, a person spends the first half of life individuating, and the second half of life integrating, and this is useful language because the changeover corresponds to the mid-life developmental changes. It gives a lot of insight into the “crisis” that often ensues. So let’s talk about these words.

In a sense, the words are inverted. Individuation is actually a process of learning to conform to the herd, while integration is a process of becoming a true individual. But the words work well enough when framed properly.

To reliably conform to the herd, you have to internalize the expectations of the herd. All infants are, as someone once quipped, a system of unregulated orifices. One of the first thing we train infants to do is to control their bladder and bowels. We then train them to speak and be silent according to a rather complex set of social rules. We teach them to use magic phrases of power, like “Please” and “Thank You” and “In Jesus’ Name” and “When Allah Wills.” Further expectations are impressed on children as they grow, until they become “productive, well-adjusted adults,” which means that all of the expectations have become fully internalized, and the new adult can be trusted to function on his or her own as an independent member of the herd, rather than as a dependent under constant supervision. They have become an individual, an autonomous unit of society, a legal adult: they have “individuated.”

Jung’s insight was that all of the impulses they have learned to control, such as screaming when they are hungry, or simply letting the bladder go when the urge strikes, never actually go away: they just “go dark.” They retreat into an unconscious place in the mind that Jung called, appropriately enough, the Shadow.

The Shadow isn’t merely a collection of unregulated impulses. It’s also an entire collection of suppressed and unexplored potentials. Boys don’t play with dolls. Girls don’t fight back. Boys can’t care for sick people. Girls can’t do math. Black people must never show defiance to a white person. The list is huge, and it is augmented by all of the specific family expectations laid down, such as carrying on the proud military tradition, or becoming “successful” as a doctor or lawyer.

If all this stuff is merely suppressed and not obliterated, then it can come back out of hiding. The trigger that seems to open the floodgates most reliably is awareness of one’s own mortality.

Young people know, intellectually, that someday they’ll die, but they don’t feel it: it isn’t real to them. It is right at about mid-life — for the privileged classes within society, at any rate — when marriages are settled, job tasks are mastered, finances are as secure as they’re going to get, careers start to top out, children (if any) are able to feed and dress and care for themselves, parents are aging and ailing and dying, that a person starts to viscerally understand that what they envisioned as their “life” has peaked, and they’re on the downslope toward death. Two thoughts start to run around in their heads: first, Is that all there is? and second, If I’m dying, what do I really have to lose?

These two thoughts, together, tend to unlock the bars placed over the cave entrance into the Shadow. Unlocking those bars is what starts the process of integration.

It’s called “integration” because all of those suppressed and forgotten hopes, dreams, desires, and even impulses get re-integrated into a more balanced and complete person, who is now capable of choosing to break from the herd — even to lead it, if necessary. While this can trigger a psychological crisis for the person who starts integrating, and certainly causes a lot of uncomfortable feelings, it’s generally a very joyous time — for that person. The reason it’s called a crisis is not because the person going through it is in distress, but because it is a crisis for everyone around them.

The person going through mid-life change says, “I am trying to find myself.” They have a strong sense of purpose, and while they may be uncertain about where they are going, they feel in control, perhaps for the first time in their life.

The people around that person say, “I don’t know him (her) any more.” They feel betrayed, distressed, and — most importantly — helpless. They are the ones experiencing a crisis.

Every mid-life change is different, because it depends so much on what got stuffed into the Shadow. A person with a strong sex-drive that got suppressed is not unlikely to have one, or perhaps seventeen, sexual affairs. If it was emotional connection that got suppressed, they may have torrid emotional affairs without the bedroom athletics. If it was artistic sensibilities, they may quit their job and start doing music gigs in bars. If it was spiritual proclivities, they may travel to India with no notice and sit in an ashram for a year.

Some people don’t have a whole lot of Shadow to integrate, and they don’t have much of a visible mid-life change at all. Some people never integrate at all: they remain obedient, individuated, unintegrated members of the herd, and their Shadow remains dark right up until death takes them.

Others of us have a whole travel-trunk full of Shadows to unpack.

Because sex is wrapped with such restrictive taboos in US American culture, sex is one of the powerful things commonly stuffed into the Shadow, and consequently, a lot of mid-life crises lead directly into other people’s beds. Hence: the stereotype of the middle-aged executive running off with his barely-legal-age secretary to Bermuda. Because of the social taboos, this tends to cause a lot of collateral damage to families and friendships. By contrast, someone who stuffed a literary bent into the Shadow to make room for a legal career, and decides at mid-life to take up reading the complete works of Proust, will probably face no worse consequences than a little ribbing from his beer-buddies.

So with that framework in mind, here are a few personal insights about the process, based mostly on my experience of my own mid-life transition, and augmented by some of the experiences I’ve seen others go through.

First, don’t panic. This is a normal process, a lot like puberty. It’s often even called a second adolescence. It has a natural progression, and it ends.

For the person watching (say) a partner go through a mid-life change, understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about your partner, who is working through an internal issue. Don’t try to take the burden of telling yourself that you “failed” in some way. It simply isn’t about you. Your partner is looking for something lost long before you came into the picture.

For the person going through a mid-life change, understand that it is about you. If you’re having an affair, emotional or physical, it isn’t about that wonderful, charming new person you’ve fallen so madly in love with. It isn’t about your unsuitable marriage partner, or your dead-end job, or your worthless kids. No one has failed you. It’s about you. You are searching for something lost long before any of those other things came along.

Like puberty, once a mid-life change starts, you can’t turn back — you have to move through it. Gracefully, awkwardly, or dragged backward by your feet screaming, you are going to go through it.

Don’t cling to any particular outcome. Believe me, I understand how hard this is, especially for the people not going through the change. But the people who come out the other side of a mid-life change are never exactly the same people who went into it. It’s not at all uncommon for a mid-life change to renew and deepen existing relationships, but in many ways, the relationship has to be started over — which is a delightful rediscovery, if it works out that way. It’s also not uncommon for a mid-life change to completely end relationships, and mark the beginning of a new stage of life for everyone. There is no single right outcome.

Don’t cling to a timetable. Some mid-life transitions are quick and slick: a brief fling with a college student, or a crazy weekend in Vegas, and then it’s done. Some mid-life transitions drag on and on, or get stuck in a repeat cycle. Some introduce major life changes that are permanent. It’s worth giving a mid-lifer some clear space and looser boundaries to “find themselves,” but it’s perfectly okay to decide that it isn’t working for you, and move on with your life. No one needs to be a victim in this.

Try to not judge a person going through a mid-life change, if possible. It’s difficult, because the essence of the process is re-integrating things that were suppressed because they didn’t conform to herd expectations, and one of the tools the herd uses to enforce conformity is judgement, and shaming. People always try to shame the mid-lifer back into conformity with expectations, in an attempt to “re-parent” this wayward mid-life adolescent. It simply won’t work: at best, it will merely encourage secrecy and deceit.

Don’t go it alone. Get psychological counseling, if you can. If not, enlist the aid of an older person you consider “wise” in a non-judgmental way.

Don’t approach counseling as fixing a marriage problem. Remember that what probably started the whole thing was the recognition that you are actually going to die, and you’re asking Is that all there is? and What have I got to lose? These are not marriage issues, they are existential, or meaning issues.

Finally, don’t panic. It’s going to be okay.

In fact, it’s going to be wonderful.

[1] A dear friend and long-time counselor notes that Erikson’s “Childhood and Society” was, in fact, one of his early works, and that Erikson went on to develop a lot of the theory and science behind some of the very mid-life things I’m talking about above, as well as going further into old age and dying.


firsts-front-3000My first commercial album is now out and available for purchase! Seriously!

Very cool stuff.

You can get MP3 downloads of the album or the shorter movements (under 10 min) from Amazon or iTunes (search for ‘joseph nemeth firsts’), and you can download a higher-quality version, or purchase the CD, from CDBaby.

This features the Piano Concerto and the Summer Symphony.

And in an act of naked commercial self-promotion, I’d like to ask that if you’ve heard these, and you liked them, hop over to CDBaby or Amazon and drop a review.

Gifted is Boring

I’ve been reading a lot of comments and posts lately by “gifted” individuals — people who score high on IQ tests — involving the Imposter Syndrome, and its closely related cousin, the Failure Syndrome. The former is when you succeed, but don’t think you should have, and the latter is when you think you should succeed, but don’t. Both of them are errors in self-assessment, yes, but to a greater extent they seem to be a misunderstanding of what success actually looks like.

I turned 60 last year, and I’ve been out somewhere beyond the 3rd or 4th standard deviation of “giftedness” all my life. I’ve suffered from both Imposter and Failure syndromes at various points, and I think I finally have enough perspective to make at least a few comments.

I have to deviate from conventions of modesty for just a moment, so that you know who is speaking. I have an advanced degree in physics from a premier research university. I  moved into software development, where I’ve remained for nearly thirty years. I’ve started four companies (three failed). I have my name on several patents. I have a blog, one published short story, and a bunch of (as-yet) unpublished writing. I play the violin well, and once toured Europe with it. I worked up enough performance skill on the piano to play Chopin’s Aeolian Harp Etude, then never performed it. I recently sang the Bach b-minor mass as a member of an 80-voice choir at a well-known music festival. I have composed a piano concerto, a symphony, a mass, and numerous other works, and have even had a handful of live performances. I have a home, children, grandchildren, a wife, and good friends.

You would think with all that success, I’d be a fascinating person to talk with.

I’m not. I’m moderately boring, sometimes irritating (sometimes very irritating), and my life is quite pedestrian.

On a typical day, I get up, make breakfast, pour a cup of coffee, then “go to work,” which consists of unblocking the screen saver on my computer and logging in to a remote site. I sit and stare at the computer screen most of the morning, interrupted by occasional phone conference meetings. I make lunch, and spend the afternoon doing what I did all morning. I pour a glass of wine after work, help my wife make dinner, we eat and chat, then I wash the dishes. I read, watch TV, or “kill orcs” (play video games) until it’s time for bed. Next day, reset and repeat.

It’s pretty boring.

So how on earth did such a boring person write a symphony? One note at a time, just like symphonies have always been written.

The thing that most anguished, syndrome-suffering gifted folks misunderstand is Time: the slow accumulation of minutes, days, and years. Sixty years is a lot of minutes, so many that the number is meaningless to the human mind, yet a single minute is enough to compose and orchestrate a musical phrase. Yes, you have to learn how — that’s another accumulation of minutes. You have to spend still more minutes getting past your Failure Syndrome, and your Impostor Syndrome, and your stage fright, and your childhood traumas, and your adult traumas, and your phobias, and the trials of marriage, and raising kids, and enduring in-laws, and working for a demanding boss, and dealing with an unjust society that keeps you down, and watching over friends having emotional melt-downs, and paying bills you can’t afford, and filing tax returns, and all the rest of the things that make up the boring details of a life.

After all that, there are still plenty of minutes left to sleep, make love, go out to dinner, watch football with friends, play video games, and write a symphony.

Yet there are never enough minutes. They run out. You cannot get it all done.

In my late forties, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, which could have been terminal. Had I died, nearly all of my music, and all of my stories would have died before even being born.

In other words, I did not really bloom into all this success until I turned fifty — an unthinkable number of minutes into my life.

I have, perhaps, another twenty or thirty productive years’ worth of minutes. At some point, I will become unproductive or die, with things left undone. Even the most successful die too soon. Beethoven never wrote a tenth symphony. Mozart never finished his Requiem. Steve Jobs never got to collaborate on the iCar.

You cannot get it all done.

You see, you actually cannot succeed, because “success” is an ever-moving target. A child who dies at the age of nine months has perhaps never succeeded at the simple task of standing on his own two feet — all he has done is to try, and fail, and try, and fail. He did not stand, or walk, or run, or write a symphony. He did not get it all done.

Yet, that same child learned to suckle, and to roll over, and to crawl: all that could be expected in his short allotment of minutes.

As a gifted person, you were likely sold a bill of goods regarding how your future was going to play out. You were sold fantasies of success and recognition at an early age: of winning the National Spelling Bee, or the State Science Fair, or the Intel Prize, or an advanced degree followed by a Nobel Prize. You were sold an exciting life, filled to the brim with nothing but success.

What has actually played out is a boring life, even a hard life, full of too many minutes.

What I want to say here is that this is exactly as it should be. Gifted is boring. As is every life.

And yet… the minutes continue to accumulate. One day, you’ll get a bug in your head that tells you to take up snorkeling, or playing the fiddle, or walking the Camino from St. Jean to Finisterra, and you’ll say, “What the hell. Why not? I have lots of boring minutes in front of me.”

Maybe the impulse will come to nothing at all. Then again, maybe it won’t come to nothing, and you will accomplish something extraordinary. And then the minutes will roll onward, giving you an opportunity to do something extraordinary again. After a week of binge-watching Netflix.

Take heart, be patient, be curious, be unafraid. All you have are minutes, and they are precious, even when you choose to “waste” them.