Other Rantings

The Religion of Listening 

When people ask me what my religion is I usually say Taoist, although Taoism is more of a philosophy than a religion since there is essentially no god involved and no real dogma associated with it. I do not believe in any specific god or set of gods and I consider myself a skeptic in terms of all things supernatural or magical. That said, there is now only one form of magic that I know of, only one religion that I believe in, and that is the magic/religion of group musical performance. 

I had studied eastern philosophy through most of my youth and I had an inherent belief in the concept that everything was connected by a certain energy. I had read things like "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" and "The Tao of Physics" and they had reinforced the idea that a belief that everything was connected did not necessarily involve magical or supernatural thinking. It was somehow backed up by science (science that was way over my head... but apparently real). I had also studied and practiced some Taoist meditation techniques hoping that they would help clarify and amplify my feeling of connection to the universe.  

But it was one very specific experience that truly broke down my skepticism and exposed me to the one thing I now consider to be the only real magic. It is a difficult experience to explain, but I will try. 

I was playing in the high school marching band drum line and I had just been moved from playing bass drum to playing snare drum. There were five other guys playing in the snare line and I was certainly not the best dummer of the group. I was adequate at best. I had had a year of lessons and learned the rudiments and techniques and I could play all of the required parts. But the real goal of playing in a snare line was to play "clean". That is to play the exact same part as the five other guys and make them sound as if it is only one person playing them. To do that, every hit of stick on drumhead had to occur at precisely the same time. You can listen to any decent drum corp snare line and clearly hear it happening but if you stop and think of the logistics involved, it simply should not be possible. The parts are complex and there are hundreds, if not thousands of stick to drum head hits that must happen precisely together. If you are a drummer and try to do this with other drummers without having the experience of playing in this kind of drumline, you will fail.  

On one cold Pennsylvania night, very early in the marching band season, before a competition the drumline was warming up in a parking lot. Most of us were new to the snare line so, as we worked through the warm up exercise of paradiddles and fives, it sounded like a literal  train wreck. The assistant drum instructor stood in front of the snare line with his head down in disgust as we played. He stopped us and told us that we had to stop "trying to play clean" and just listen. Do nothing at all except listen. We started again and as we played it got a little better. I was still not quite getting it though and the instructor began yelling over the drum noise "LISTEN! LISTEN!" over and over. Then it happened. I stoped trying to do anything other than listen. And the magic occurred. With all five of us locked into listening mode the playing magically became clean. A smile came over the face of the instructor and the newbies like myself went into a kind of mild shock. What the fuck had just happened? What had we just experienced? We did it again with a different warm up exercise and then with one of the two drum solos in the show. They were by no means perfect, but there were sections that were actually "clean". And it happened by simply listening. It was truly magic and it would, over the years, become the basis of my religion. 

A few years later I was playing rhythm guitar in a seven piece folk rock band. Once again, I was, at best, an ok rhythm guitarist and certainly the least proficient musician in this band. But having experienced the magic of letting go and listening before, and focusing on it in this situation, a new type of magic emerged. Now listening didn't result in playing "clean" (though it did facilitate a certain tightness in the rhythm section), now it resulted in expressive tempo and dynamic changes occurring naturally amongst all of the band members. Now, as a soloist soared the band would compliment his playing and if the band naturally began a dynamic build the soloist would ride on top of that wave. Changes were communicated through the listening process and everyone experiencing that connection. 

This type of listening/connection was even more powerfully addictive than the drumline listening and the experience quickly became both the core of my religion and the my drug of choice. Over the years I would play with different people and bands all in search of that specific religious euphoria. Sometimes it would happen often, sometimes it would happen sparsely but whenever it happened it brought the high with it. It was the high of rebirth, returning to a place where you were fully connected to everything. Returning to a place before you began to create illusions of a separate self. It was magic that was provable through experience. It was a religion that did not require any faith after that first experience. You knew it was real and repeatable because you did it... as much and as often as you could.  

In Taoist philosophy you try to attain a kind of enlightenment through some meditative practice that allows you to break down the illusion of a separate self. That meditative practice can involve sitting or kneeling or standing or moving. It can involve counting breaths, or accepting and throwing away thoughts, or focusing on body movements, or visualizations. It can be achieved through breathing or playing an instrument or performing an athletic activity or reading a book or even watching TV. Anything that allows you to "lose your self" can be a step towards breaking down the illusion of separation and aid in the feeling of unification with the infinite. But, for me, nothing makes clear ones complete connection to everything, nothing breaks down the illusion of a separate self more than performing music with a group people and allowing yourself to let go and really listen.  

It is a beautiful and pure experience and it is my one and only religious belief. 

So, now if/when people ask me what religion I practice, I will say, "I practice the religion of Listening."

The Woody Allen Problem 


In 1989 Woody Allen made the film Crimes and Misdemeanors. I was, at the time, a Woody Allen fan and I saw this movie in the theater. I saw the movie during it’s theatrical run and I have watched it probably several dozen time since. I believe it is his best film (better than Annie Hall) and a masterpiece of both script writing and directing.  

Let me also say that I have, through my entire life, been a staunch proponent of separating the artist from the art. There have been a vast number of truly despicable people that created great art and that does not even include the ones that may not be despicable but, are still complete assholes. From Caravaggio to Picasso history is littered with great works of art that were created by terrible people, people that held and espoused vile opinions and even committed heinous criminal acts. I have always been able to appreciate those works of art separately from my judgement of the life and views of their creator. 

The work and story of Woody Allen is challenging that position for several reasons and the film Crimes and Misdemeanors is a big part of that challenge. When people look at Woody Allen films and tie them to the judgement of his life the typically talk about Manhattan, a film in which a middle-aged Allen dates and has sex with a high school girl played by Mariel Hemmingway who was 16 years old at the time of the filming. In the light of the circumstances and revelations of Allen’s subsequent vile actions Manhattan is certainly impossible to watch without throwing up in your own mouth.  

However, it is Crimes and Misdemeanors that really fucks my head up because the core of that movie is Allen’s realization that powerful men are basically immune from consequences for horrible actions. The main character of that film (played by Martin Landau) orders the murder of his mistress (Angelica Houston). Not only does he get away with the crime, he also comes to the realization that whatever personal guilt he had felt had dissipated over time. There were no criminal consequences and no moral consequences to his actions. Watching that movie now, it is nearly impossible for me to not think of Woody Allen writing that script as he was concluding that he is free to engage in any horrible action going forward in his life because he can get away with it and he can live with any guilt until it fades out of his conscience. And that guilt fade happens very quickly when you have the money to live a life luxury and privilege. The fact that Mia Farrow plays his love interest in this film makes the horror of watching it now even more intense. 

After four years of Trump and his ilk, there is no doubt in my mind that vast majority problems in this country and around the world are a direct result of powerful people (mostly white men) that have awoken to the realization that they are free to act without consequences. For every one Harvey Weinstein in jail there are hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Woody Allens. Men who committed heinous acts and will feel no real consequences. Matt Lauer lost his job and maybe that was traumatic for him. But if you take a second and think about it, Matt Lauer is still very wealthy and, based on everything I’ve seen, unrepentant. Matt Lauer should be in prison.  

There are a lot of core issues that must be addressed to fix and improve the way humans’ function as a society. Core problems of greed and racism and poverty and misogyny that have been with us for centuries that we need to keep addressing and working to change. But perhaps we need to start by demanding that wealthy powerful people are subject to real consequences for their actions. It might actually be possible for me to watch a film like Crimes and Misdemeanors if I knew Woody Allen wasn’t enjoying his morning coffee in his Manhattan Mansion with his wife/stepdaughter. Nah, probably not.

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