Transitions and “Closing Time”

To say I’m going through a period of transition would be an understatement. After a series of crises, two moves in as many months (plus preparing for a third, cross-country move), and launching an overhaul of my professional life I’m shocked and overwhelmed, but also delighted and excited.

In the last few weeks, I was under a lot of stress and turned to William Bridges’ fantastic book, Transitions. I stumbled upon the book – for reasons I don’t remember – several years ago while I was finishing my dissertation. Even just reading the Google Book preview gave me enough wisdom to navigate that period of transition. Bridges talks about three stages to transition:

All transitions are composed of (1) an ending, (2) a neutral zone, and (3) a new beginning.

Having been raised Catholic, I understand how Easter celebrations represent this cycle in terms of death, stasis, and rebirth. But being the pop music aficionado that I am, I also thought of Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” with the line I found so profound at age 13, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

My understanding is the song is about preparing for the birth of a child. In Transitions, Bridges talks about how a lot of new parents have to mourn the loss of their old, independent life. When “Closing Time” was released, my parents were getting ready to close on their house in St. Louis (where I’d lived my entire childhood) and getting ready to move to Chicago. The move ultimately launched my musical career and other facets of adulthood, but at the time, I really mourned the loss of “some other beginning’s end.” Having had a pretty happy childhood, especially while being unschooled, I expected and hoped that my adolescence and adult life would be pretty similar. For better or worse, that was not the case.

Right now, I’m staying with amazing friends in their new house that is luxurious, private, and surrounded by nature – the perfect retreat for a career reset! But it’s also been important for me to help them get their old house on the market and ready for “closing time” – just like I helped my parents do the same thing 20 years ago (and trust me, hard labor was a lot easier at 13 than it is now at 33…) When I ran to a hardware store a day before Easter to pick up an outlet cover, I was amused to walk in and hear “Closing Time” playing over the store radio. While I was in there for less than 2 minutes, I was curious to hear the next song up. It turned out to be David Bowie’s “Changes,” prompting me to think, “Huh, this must be the ‘Death and Rebirth’ Pandora station…”

Authenticity, Fear, and Love

I spent years writing a dissertation on authenticity in jazz, then promptly discarded the concept of “authenticity” because it seemed impossible to define. Recent personal crises and professional transitions have provided the definition: authenticity is the practice of balancing fear and love.

The past few months have been a crash-course in fear. I finally understand the continual feeling of “I’m going to die!” that characterizes extreme trauma (something that, for better or worse, my sheltered, White-girl existence has mostly protected me from). The only way to truly move past it is to at least partially accept that, yes, you and everyone you love are going to die (and that when and how remains an unknown).

As overwhelming as fear can be, it is crucial for survival and success. It’s an ancient mechanism that guides you to safety. The trick is to avoid staying stuck in overdrive (anger, trauma, aggression, etc.) or attempting to suppress it (numbness, addiction, passive-aggression, etc.)

If fear is the desire to escape death, love is the desire to transcend it. These are the relationships, passions, and dreams that contribute to something bigger than our own mortal lives. But to pursue love without confronting and accepting fear inevitably leads to heartbreak.

Musical practice (like yoga and other forms of meditation) works best when it allows your fear and love sides to communicate with each other. As you learn to understand your own languages of fear and love, you start to better understand other people’s languages in rehearsal and performance (inability to understand these languages in yourself and others is the root of most conflicts and failures).

This is how I went from writing a 200-page academic dissertation on musical authenticity to creating a 52-card set (Practice Deck I for Jazz Bass) to teach people how to practice musical authenticity step-by-step. In many ways, the latter was much, much harder (and just as time-consuming) because it required me to step outside of academia and experience the best and worst of an authentic life.

Becoming Hot-sponsible

A few months ago, my friend and I coined the term “hot-sponsible” to describe the sweet spot between “hot mess” and “responsible adult.” Since then, I’ve found some unlikely sources of “hot-sponsibility studies.”

Source #1: “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

Shortly before I came up with the term, another friend told me to check out this book to inform my musicianship and teaching. While my reading of the book got interrupted by what I call my “practicum in trauma,” here are my three main takeaways or connections:

  • Trauma is less about the severity of stressful event(s) (although that certainly factors in) and more about whether you receive healthy support from loved ones (this is especially critical for young children)
  • People who go through highly competitive programs (such as in music) tend to emerge with some form of PTSD because competition discourages consistent, supportive relationships (and places you under constant threat of social rejection, which we’ve evolved to view as a death sentence)
  • Trauma disrupts your brain and body in ways that make it impossible to know yourself and your desires (the hot of hot mess) or to self-regulate (responsibility)

Source #2: “Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad – and Surprising Good – About Feeling Special” by Dr. Craig Malkin

After I started reading “The Body Keeps the Score,” yet another friend told invited me to see Van Der Kolk at a 2-day workshop in Portland. The workshop was life-changing itself, but one unlikely benefit was tangentially learning about “covert narcissism” – which lead me to this book. My takeaways/connections:

  • Narcissism exists on a spectrum of deficient (low self-esteem and sense of self) to healthy (high self-esteem and self-discipline) to extreme (prone to entitlement and exploitation)
  • People in competitive fields tend to develop covert narcissism (ricocheting between narcissism deficit and extremity) because we’re told to pursue our passions at all costs (extreme) and constantly given the message that we’re not good enough (deficient)
  • The key to parenting children with healthy narcissism is to balance warmth (the fun and openness of hot mess) with discipline (the consistency and respect of responsibility)

Source #3: “Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships” by John Amodeo, PhD

“Rethinking Narcissism” led me to this book. While I’ve just started reading this book, it’s already had huge effects. The author opens by telling a story about him and a friend sneaking out for pizza at a meditation retreat – which is an uncannily apt metaphor for most of my life. My takeaways/conections:

  • People suffer because they feel like they must choose between spiritual practice (self-discipline) and loving relationships (pursuing longings for intimacy) – when in fact the two complement each other
  • People in competitive fields suffer because they’re told to forsake relationships for self-discipline and to stoke their “fires” (passions and longings) through substance abuse and other high-risk activities
  • “Dancing with fire” (the process of developing self-intimacy and disciplined pursuit of longings) is basically the same thing as becoming hot-sponsible

Video: Instrumental Ladies of Jazz Concert

Recently, I created a page to showcase videos of performance and teaching, which I’ll be adding to regularly. My first videos are from last Friday’s performance with Ann Reynolds as part of her monthly Instrumental Ladies of Jazz series at Caffè Musica in Seattle, Washington. Ann and I started playing together a decade ago. For several years, we did regular duo gigs at Serafina restaurant and developed a deep musical connection. We lost our regular gig about a year ago, so it was great to work in a duo setting again. Many thanks to bassist Jeff Baran, who recorded and edited video of the concert.

Photo credit: Queenie Sunshine.

My Escalating Obsession with “Tribal Leadership”

For better or worse, I tend to jump between obsessions – certain books/ideas that I cram into just about every conversation. My current obsession is the book Tribal Leadership. I’ve summarized the ideas in the infographic above – individuals and groups go through five stages from least to most productive:

  1. “Life sucks”: Alienated and nihilistic, individuals are focused on survival (examples of groups include gangs and prisons).
  2. “My life sucks (and it’s your fault)”: Separate and resentful, individuals feel powerless to advance in life (examples of groups include many office environments – represented in the comic “Dilbert,” the movie “Office Space,” etc.)
  3. “I’m great (but you’re not)”: Personal and self-centered, individuals are focused on gaining competitive advantage over others (examples of groups include most corporate cultures – personified by our current commander in chief (who is mentioned repeatedly in the book (which was written back in 2008) as the patron saint of Stage 3)
  4. “We’re great (but they’re not)”: Partnership-based and productive, individuals set aside their egos to work together (examples of groups include high-functioning companies such as Apple)
  5. “Life is great”: Team-based and transformative, this is Stage 4 teams working at their very best – with the only competition being what’s possible

The problem with music – along with many other competitive fields – is that most people get stuck in Stage 3.  I haven’t been immune to this – I’ve gotten snagged on personal development and self-promotion. To get from Stage 3 to Stage 4, individuals must go through an epiphany and realize that true happiness and impact comes from working with and to help others – not from being the best at your own thing. Most musicians recognize that Stage 4 groups vastly outperform Stage 3 groups, but few are willing to let go of their ego enough to make the shift themselves.

Right now, I’m figuring out how to help people progress through these stages through my performances, teaching, and publications. The main challenge is that people can only move up one stage at a time (or from the lower part of a stage to the middle-upper part). Thus, I’ll encounter groups where everyone is at roughly the same level musically, but at very different stages of Tribal Leadership. It’s challenging, but it’s no longer “me” against the world – it’s “us” plugging into the full potential of the tribe.