Not So Special

It’s now approaching the halfway mark of the fall semester at the university, and certain all too predictable things are happening. A significant percentage of students, especially first year students, are getting sick. More of them are zoning out or only half- awake in class because of lack of sleep. A great many of them are also realizing that they’re way behind where they should be in terms of learning, reading, and getting assignments done, and the undone assignments are beginning to pile up, especially when they spend too much time on social media.

Then there are those upon whom it has dawned that they’re not special. In my wife’s field – singing and opera – this is particularly noticeable, because probably half of the incoming voice students were the top performers in their high school. Then they discover that they’re in college, amid other first year students who were used to being the center of attention, and all of them also discover, mournfully, that the singers in the upper classes are generally much better. Most of them learn that they have flaws in their technique, and that they need to learn their music far more quickly than ever before – while taking music theory, which is a far tougher course than most would-be music majors have ever seen before in their life, and also taking diction and literature, which requires scores of hours listening – on their own – to music the majority of which most of them have never heard, by composers whom they largely know only by name, if that, and not by their music, while learning things like the international phonetic alphabet (IPA)[so they can learn songs in foreign languages correctly].

And no, they won’t get a lead role. In fact, many will only get minor roles in the operas, or chorus roles. They also discover that they have to practice, and develop, if they haven’t already, basic piano skills and improve their skills enough to pass a proficiency test by the end of their second year…or be washed out of the program.

In short, many of them discover… they are not special in the slightest. They also discover that a great voice, a beautiful natural voice, is only the beginning. One of the problems is that too many of those with great natural talent have been praised every day of their high school life and have never really worked at music. Now they have to work, after discovering they’re no longer special, and every year at least one, if not more, student with great natural ability bails out or flunks out because they actually have to work, because they can’t accept that they just can’t get up there and sing, that they’re expected to develop a good technique, and learn not just arias, but art song, and things like secco recitative. These are just a few of the skills and knowledge that a good program will teach a student, the ones whose mastery will make a student special, rather than providing largely empty praise.

That’s because, in the real world, what makes one special is that you sing not only “beautifully,” but precisely and with emotion and expression, day after day, often under conditions that are anything but ideal. Only the results count, and that’s a hard lesson for students to learn, especially today. Some will… and that’s where their education for life truly begins.

American ISIS

Over the past several months, ISIS elements have either been in the headlines and news shows, particularly for their use of force, violence, and media savvy in getting across the point that nothing is sacred, except their own narrow beliefs, in their attempts to establish an Islamic religiously-based nation state. To this end, ISIS operatives have beheaded journalists, tortured and killed anyone who does not believe as they do, destroyed ancient cultural artifacts, sold whatever they could to raise funds for their holy crusade, and made it crystal-clear that women are not the equal of men and should be their slaves.

Much of the world, including the United States, has been appalled, disgusted, often horrified, and made the point that ISIS is not what a civilized nation should be, particularly because ISIS denies any freedom to anyone that is in the slightest against what they regard as Islamic Sharia law.

Yet…everyone tends to forget that we have an analogue to ISIS right here in the United States. And no, they’re not Muslim. They regard themselves as God-fearing, good religious Christians who often cite the U. S. Constitution – or at least their version of it – in much the same way that ISIS cites the Koran to support its horrific actions. If you haven’t guessed, yet, I’m speaking of the extreme right-wing, fanatical Republicans.

These people aren’t terribly interested in anyone’s freedom except their own, no matter how much they declare they are, except perhaps for the freedom to carry deadly weapons [another similarity to ISIS]. Their idea of freedom is exemplified most recently by Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because the idea of gay marriage is against her faith. Let’s get this straight. No one is forcing Ms. Davis personally to marry someone of the same sex. The law and the Supreme Court have stated that any two single individuals, regardless of gender, have the right to get married. No one is forcing anyone into a single-sex marriage. But her freedoms are infringed because she can’t impose her views of marriage on others?

These right-wing groups also oppose environmental regulations in almost any form, claiming that such regulations are everything from excessive to unwarranted because the costs infringe on their rights to make money. In effect, they’re claiming that their right to make money trumps the right of the public to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and not to inflict huge ocean level rises and higher global temperatures and more massive storms upon our children and grandchildren.

Despite the fact that the minimum wage is well below a living wage, the right-wingers insist that they should be able to make a living by paying other people less than is adequate for those people to make a living… and then they complain that government should cut back on programs for the poorest Americans because taxes, especially on right-wing capitalists, are too high.

Likewise, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court declared that, under certain reasonable conditions, women had the right to have abortions. The most violent members of the Republican right wing are insisting, literally, that a woman who will die if she brings a child to term has no right to save herself by having an abortion. This is anything but the defense of freedom; it is the use of religion to dominate someone else.

And let’s not get into the “life is sacred” or “right to life” simplistic mantras. Both are largely right-wing hypocritical propaganda. The same people who spew this crap are the very ones who oppose all the programs for the poorest and most disadvantaged. If there is such a thing as a right to life, then it should be manifested by support of all lives throughout their lives, not just until they’re born… and then left on their own. As for the sacredness of life, where did that come from? From religion, of course, and that means that using religion to restrict a woman’s freedom to control her own body — and to survive – is effectively using the law to arrogate one particular set of beliefs over every other… and that is, at least in spirit, the use of law to push a particular religion, and not all that different from using the law to create a nationally required church [which, by the way, is in fact forbidden by the Constitution]. Also, as for life being sacred, these are the same people who want, under the right to bear arms, the right to defend themselves by killing other people, waging war on other nations, and using and shooting every form of life that can be hunted, while supporting actions that have effectively resulted in the latest great extinction of planetary life-forms, suggesting that what life they regard as sacred is a tiny fraction of planetary life, and essentially white-skinned.

Admittedly, the Republican right wingers are making this assault on the personal freedoms of those who do not share their values largely through two essentially American tools – money and law – although in some cases, a few more fanatical right-wingers have actually used weapons to gun down doctors who performed abortions. Not only that, but each year the extremists push for more and more measures to restrict the freedoms of others, continually threatening to shut down government if they don’t get their way.

And, frankly, like all too many moderate and good Muslims, who are loath to strongly and publicly criticize Islamic extremists, all too many of the more decent elements in the Republican party have also been loath to speak out, largely because, I suspect, they immediately tend to be attacked, ignored, or ostracized.

As a life-long Republican, who retains his registration in spite of seldom being able to find a Republican candidate I can support, and who served in positions from precinct committeeman, state delegate, Congressional Staff director, and the politically appointed director of the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the U.S. EPA during the Reagan Administration, I am absolutely disgusted and appalled that the most conservative elements of the Republican Party have more in common with ISIS than with the Constitution drafted and envisioned in their writings by the Founding Fathers… and that they fail to realize that fact.

Understanding and UNDERSTANDING

Over past years, I tried to explain what my wife the voice and opera professor does, day in and day out, and why what she does is so brutally exhausting. I’ve largely given that up, because no amount of explanation seems able to convey the totality of what she does to people who don’t already understand the profession and little explanation is needed for those who do. I also tend not to talk about certain aspects of writing for similar reasons.

Since I am most obviously not a racial minority, gay, or a person of color, I hesitate to make comparisons, but I do think the same mental mechanism is at work in the majority of people of any culture or society. There’s an old saying about not judging until you’ve walked and worked in another person’s shoes, but in today’s digital and data-driven world, all too many people make judgments based on their own experience… and data. The problem with data is that it reveals demographics, distribution, and results… and, for the most part, not much beyond that. Sociological data can be so badly skewed by a multiplicity of factors that it’s difficult to determine which studies are truly valid for what purposes. Add to that the fact that today’s American society is perhaps the most segregated it has ever been in terms of income, occupation, and education. On top of that, pervasive but subtle racial and cultural segregation also still exists, and sometimes and in some places, that segregation is still anything but subtle. Not only are there glass ceilings for women, but those ceilings exist for others as well.

Yes, there are those who have lived with or in sub-cultures or groups outside those into which they were born, raised, or educated, but they often remain a minority, often untrusted by those in the group from which they came and often by those in the minority group.

Data, statistics, policies, and bureaucratic programs don’t solve the problems of feelings, especially the feeling of not being understood, especially in a society that has become more and more centered on the “me culture.” People, especially those with light-colored skin, tend not to look outside their own self-selected groups. And the less they do, the less they can even come close to understanding.

All one has to do is to look at some of the numbers. Despite all the rhetoric about police killings of blacks, for example, in New York those deaths are a fraction of what they were forty years ago. What hasn’t changed significantly is the ratio of black men killing black men, compared to whites killing whites. Death is far more omnipresent in black minority communities than in even the poorest of white communities. Yet while police killings of minorities have dropped, the other homicide levels have not fallen to the same degree, and the discrepancy between black and white homicide rates remains.

Under these conditions, it shouldn’t be that difficult to see why minorities, especially black minorities, are protesting and essentially saying, “You don’t understand!” And they have reasons for making that claim, because they believe if the rest of us really understood, we’d make a more meaningful effort to address the problems that lie at the root of all those black-on-black homicides, and not just to address police behavior alone.

Original Sins?

There are two basic aspects to any problem that an intelligent person should consider: (1) the cause of the problem and (2) the most practical solution. The first aspect is a good idea so that you either don’t repeat the problem [if you’re the cause] or that you can hopefully do something about a similar problem if you see it happening again [or at least get out of harm’s way]. The second aspect is the starting point for doing something to remedy the problem.

But what if the problem was caused generations ago, and since then all sorts of other problems have been created as a result of the original problem? And what if your forebears weren’t the cause of the original problem, but either weren’t in a position to do something about it or chose not to? Maybe I’m just being simplistically pragmatic, but it seems to me that the pressing question isn’t who was to blame back then, but what’s to be done right now… and what CAN be done right now.

I’m making this generic, because there are a great number of difficult situations across the globe where various countries, people, cultures, and sub-cultures are fixated on WHO caused the problem, rather than on what needs to be done. Not only that, but in a number of those cases, it’s not all that clear who was originally to blame. Blacks in the United States tend to blame the United States and white slaveholders for the institution of slavery, but virtually all of the original black slaves shipped to what became the United States were enslaved and initially sold by other blacks. It was wrong to buy and have slaves, but there wouldn’t have been any slaves if the institution hadn’t already been established in Africa, where, by the way, it seems to be undergoing a resurgence.

We now have refugees flooding out of Africa, out of parts of Asia, even out of certain parts of southern Europe. There are millions of refugees crowded into small areas on the edge of Israel. The United States has millions of illegal immigrants who fled terrorism and poverty in Latin American countries. In all of these instances, dealing with WHO created the problem has very little to do with how the world or various countries need to deal with resolving how to make these people safe and productive. And frankly, even when the problem has a current cause, the costs of dealing with those who caused it may not be practical. The United States, and even the world, doesn’t have enough troops and equipment to mount a military takeover of much of the Middle East and Africa to get rid of all the rebels and regimes that have created the massive flow of refugees.

Original sin is great for theologians, but it’s a lousy excuse for solving problems, and it also gets in the way of solutions, because people hate being blamed for what their ancestors did, and that just makes fixing things even harder politically and practically. But then, blame is far easier and cheaper than implementing solutions, especially when it’s far from clear how much blame belongs to whom and when.

Averages and Numbers

Mark Twain is reputed to have said that, on average, a man with his head in the oven and his feet in a bucket of ice water is comfortable. Today, that aphorism is more worth heeding than ever. Everyone seems to be obsessed with numbers, but most people really fail to understand all the numbers they so blithely cite or follow.

For example, in Cedar City, in January the relative humidity is often over 70%. Sounds really humid, doesn’t it? It’s not. Not in the slightest. The average high temperature is 42 degrees Fahrenheit, the average low 17F, and the altitude is close to 6,000 feet. At those temperatures, the maximum amount of water the air can hold [at 100% relative humidity] is between 2 and 4 grams per kilogram of air, and with the higher altitude, that kilogram of air is larger than at sea level, which means the water vapor is even more diffuse. By comparison, on a mild spring day, at sea level, with the temperature at 70F, and a relative humidity of 50%, each kilogram of air would hold 8 grams. So 50% percent relative humidity at 70F means twice as much water vapor as 100% relative humidity at 42F. Of course, that’s why it’s called relative humidity, and why it doesn’t mean near as much in the winter as in the summer.

In terms of income, averages can be extremely deceptive. In 2014, the mean [or average] U.S. family income was $72,641. That doesn’t sound so bad, but the median [the midpoint income, with half the incomes above and half below] family income was $59,939. And neither the median nor the mean indicates that 15% of American families, or roughly forty-five million people, have incomes below the poverty level of $23,500 for a family of four or $11,770 for a single individual [before federal and state benefits], that 66% of all Americans earn less than $41,000, or that half of all income was earned by the 20% of families earning over $100,000.

EPA estimated mileage numbers are another case where it helps to know what’s behind the numbers. The EPA test protocol is based on the car model in question being driven at legal highway speeds 45% of the time and in city traffic 55% of the time. Virtually all cars get better mileage at highway speeds than in local traffic; so if you drive exclusively in the city and suburbs, your vehicle is almost never likely to reach the EPA estimated mileage figures. Nor will it reach those figures if you’re one of those drivers who drive at speeds in excess of 80 mph.

Another problem with numbers is that far too many organizations are so obsessed with quantifying performance that they insist on quantifying the unquantifiable. My wife the voice and opera professor faces this every year, and each year the quantification demands get stronger and the insistence on a wider range of objective performance data gets louder… and the accompanying paperwork gets more involved and more time-consuming. One of the basic problems with rating voice performance is that, to begin with, unless a singer can match pitch, sing on key, and in the proper tempo and rhythm, they fail. Above that basic level of performance, objective quantification becomes close to impossible. Beyond that level there are no objective standards that apply across the board. Some professional singers are limited to two octaves or so; some few can sing a range of four. How does one quantify the richness or timbre of a voice, or the phrasing, or the breathing? What about the occasional voices that are unique, that go beyond mere technique? But the educational mavens want numbers! The same is true of writing. I’ve seen a great deal of writing over the years that is grammatically correct… and terrible. I’ve seen great storytellers with terrible grammar. Objectively weighing writing through a set of rubrics or “objective” parameters is close to useless – except for weeding out those who can’t write at all.

So why are we so obsessed with numbers when it’s very clear, at least to me, that there are places for numbers and places where relying on numbers makes no sense?

One reason is because, as a society, we fear what we think is the “tyranny of subjectivity,” of relying on personal and professional judgment that can be warped by factors unrelated to the quality [or lack thereof] of what is being measured or judged. Numbers seem so much more “impartial.” The problem is that they can be just as biased in their own way… and very few people seem to realize that. Except Mark Twain, who also said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Yet we are swamped in a sea of statistics demanded by more and more institutions and organizations, and government bureaucracies who all seem to think that the numbers, and only the numbers, hold all the answers.