Wednesday, January 8, 2020


I once wrote about an encounter I'd had, as a student, with a massively famous trombonist, Bill Watrous, who bashed straight through the disdainful rejection I'd received from a merely famous trombonist - the illustrious trombone professor at the illustrious conservatory who had refused to teach me.
'[Watrous said] I know the guy. You go straight to him and tell him Watrous says to get off his lazy ass and teach you, and that it’s important.'

That fall, I returned to school, delivered the message, and the haughty top-string trombone professor was dumbstruck. He knew me, slightly, as the liberal arts guy who sloppily dabbled a bit in music. I was a dilettante, unworthy of his time or attention, yet here I was, bearing a directive from Jesus Christ himself. The poor fellow just couldn’t reconcile it.
The haughty local capo was interested in turning out clones (and correctly sensed that I’d never submit), even though Bill Watrous, the capo di tutti capi, saw more deeply.
In the same posting, I related this to a similar experience years later:
I’ve seen this pattern repeat constantly; the pack is inevitably smaller-minded than the top dog. I hung around a lot in Jamaica Queens in the late 80s with the guys who were developing hiphop by day and playing jazz by night. The scene included a contingent of very “militant” black Muslims who didn’t like white guys much, and they gave me the serious cold shoulder. Their spiritual mentor was an elderly trombonist who I heard a lot about, and who I expected to be as harsh as the surface of Venus, one Hassan Hakim (father of famed drummer Omar Hakim). But when I finally met Hassan, he was the sweetest guy ever and we became instant best friends, going out all the time to sit in with local rhythm sections. Hassan, who was in his 80s at the time, had little technique, but I hung on every swinging, uplifting note like a gift from Heaven. His followers, who hadn't suffered a fraction of the persecution, poverty and Jim Crow that he had, had sadly misinterpreted his perfectly admirable urgings to cultivate backbone, dignity and self-respect.

When you finally meet the top dog, it's always different.
I hope, by the way, that you experienced some small whiff of Hassan, who I miss a lot, from that short tribute.

This sort of thing repeated a number of times, which was necessary for me to really register the lesson because I'm very slow in some ways. Here's a final example.

For years I'd been posting anonymously to some online yoga forums.
Note: When I use the term "yoga", I don't mean the bendy/stretchy stuff. Yoga has eight parts, and the physical postures are just one part. I've practiced the full package for many, many years, starting as (unbeknownst to me at the time) a child prodigy.
On those forums, I'm respected by a few, but I completely piss off most of the rest, who cannot for the life of them figure out what I'm talking about...but know they don't like it. If you pride yourself on being a yoga expert, and some dude shows up spewing nonsense that seems to make a mockery of your vaunted expertise, every instinct tells you: **ANNIHILATE**.

No biggie. I've been gaslit all my life by people with a stake in realms where my thoughts, actions, and very existence undermine. I can't help it. Creativity inherently undermines status quo, and human beings defend status quo tenaciously. In the most common framing, creative people are - not to be melodramatic - the destroyers of worlds.
It's incredibly wise and beautiful that the Hindu goddess of Creativity is also the feared and despised Destroyer of Worlds. As noted in "Surprising Behavior Breaks Things: an exploration of Groucho Marx, computer hackers, beta testers, Banksy, and Kali the Goddess of Death" I wrote:
The resistance to surprise is what gave rise to the Hindu goddess Kali being known as the goddess of destruction (remember those depraved cultists in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"?). She gets a bad rap. What she actually is is the goddess of creativity. But to those who tenaciously cling to status quo, her bottomless thirst for change and the immense energy she wields in empowering the world's ceaseless churning represent all that is destructive, dangerous, and deathly. She's the very root of all our fears because, being infinitely surprising, over time she breaks absolutely everything.
Anyhoo...A number of the haughty yoga experts I'd run into online learned from a guy who'd learned from a guy who idolized a illustrious kriya yoga master who was said to occasionally answer emailed inquiries (obsequiously phrased entreaties to cure a sick kid or to shed light on some deep mystery). The guy wasn't any sort of cult leader/showbiz figure. He just quietly practiced, and had written an exquisite and highly influential book. And, like Steve Jobs back in the day, he would, once in a blue moon, respond to emails, thrilling the lucky supplicants.

So I shot him a note to the effect of, "Hey, dude, what's up, just a couple quick things if you have a sec, to verify that I'm not as kooky as some of your peeps suspect." I sketched out the gist of where I was coming from with yoga in a brashly concise few sentences without a tad of detail or explanation (I was reasonably certain it was stuff he'd been through, himself, so we could talk in shorthand). He wrote back something like "Yup, totally. Nicely stated, by the way....are you a writer?"

We may get together for jello shots next time he's in town. Super nice dude.

What I did not do is screenshot it and shove it in the faces of his students' students' students. I just ignored them with slightly greater confidence as they thunderously corrected my many misapprehensions. I'd finally learned.

The Moral of the Story: If you're creative; if you have any sort of gift (or have worked tirelessly to carve out a deeper perspective) in some realm, and the gatekeepers, henchmen, and middle managers spurn you or contrive to make you seem like a lunatic, do not feel refuted [but see footer, below]. Such people are devoted not to truth but to their political positions; their sense of self worth; their status quo. They're a separate breed, and their focus is always on their position within The Structure Devoted to The Thing rather than The Thing. You can count on it, every damned time.

Never approach the food editor; angle toward the publisher. Don't talk to the priest or even the cardinal; find a way to talk to the pope. Hierarchies are assembly lines; sausage-making machines. If your dream is to serve as sausage, go ahead and knock on the front door like everyone else. But if you have a better idea, take it to the top (where, I hardly need to tell you, you'll still most likely be bum-rushed...though at least you'll have had a sliver of a glimmering of a chance).

Like many insights gathered from multiple reinforcements via tough and protracted life experiences, I eventually remembered I'd previously realized the same thing years earlier, as a kid, and had even tried to warn myself. In the "Postcards From My Childhood" series (here they are in reverse chronological order), I wrote (in Part 8: The Director):
I saw a famous director (I wish I could remember who) on a late night talk show, complaining about how he can't find any great screenplays. The host smiled and replied, "You shouldn't have said that. Now everyone is going to try to get their scripts to you!" The director chuckled and said, "Good luck! I'm not very accessible, and scripts that come in just sit forever in a stack". The host, confused by the seeming contradiction, asked him how he expects to see the good scripts.

With a gleam in his eye, the director replied, "Anyone with the phenomenal talent, resourcefulness, and creativity to come up with a world class screenplay also has the talent, resourcefulness, and creativity to get it to me."

I understood immediately, and sent forward a postcard reminding myself to never, ever enter through front doors.

At the risk of stating the very obvious, don't even imagine that rejection makes you right. Just because they laughed at the Wright Brothers and they're laughing at you does NOT make you a Wright Brother. Oceans of grimy bathwater drain along with the occasional babies.

Ask yourself:
  • Have you invested vast effort in merciless self-critique, trying to poke every possible hole in your assumptions and conclusions?
  • Have you eagerly sought out and carefully entertained counter-argument, not taking it personally, but considering it a service?
  • Have you kept listening to counter-argument even when people say lots of otherwise dimwitted things? (If they find problems, you must ignore their dumb suggested solutions, focusing entirely on the problems they've kindly unearthed.)
  • Have you set it all aside, even for years, and come back later with fresh eyes to see whether it still holds up?
And here's the hardest part: once it's passed your intense self-vetting, can you still keep ears open, at least a crack, amid the nastiest, most ad-hominem responses - even while you confidently disdain them - in the hope that some nugget might serendipitously turn out to be non-stupid, and thus useful in your gleeful effort to recognize your wrongness

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