What Made Me Smile This Week (April 1 – April 7): Further Steps toward Mastery

Learning something new isn’t always easy. I suspect that’s why many people don’t like it, because in the long run you’ll have to deal with plenty of days where you will wonder why you started in the first place. This week’s “weekly smile” goes out to everyone struggling with learning a new task. Just remember that even the days that aren’t stellar usually have some kind of a silver lining to them.

You can read about how I came to this revelation below.

Monday, April 1, 2019

  • The pillow on my bed has had an exceptionally long service record. It was finally put to rest once and for all today when I reccieved a new one. As a bonus mom washed my sheets and remade my bed today as part of the occasion! Both things made me smile, since remaking my own bed can take me several hours. I now no longer have to sleep on a pillow that feels like toilet paper either. Yay!
  • I found a reasonable facsimile of Disney’s primary typace distilled into a computer font today, which made me nostalgic and smiley. It is open source so you can download a copy here. WARNING: Neither I, nor the font’s creator is responsible for the legal SNAFU that will ensue if you use this to attempt to recreate the Disney logo, or any associated Disney trademarks with it!!!! Please also note that typefaces are not copyrightable in the United States, so this font is technically legal to use here for your own projects. If you are not from the United States I highly recommend checking your local laws to make sure the same rules apply to you.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

  • I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about food much anymore, but I’m going to have to make an exception for this one. I was invited to a volunteer appreciation dinner today. The food was excellent and was certainly worthy of a smile unto itself. But to make matters even better, I got a chance to show off Sunday’s video to a new group of people, firmly cementing my reputation as a video editing ninja.
  • I also arrived to the dinner an hour early. Rather than looking at it as wasted time, I’m smiling about it because it means that I am turning over a new leaf in terms of my time management skills.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

  • I went out to shoot some footage today and get some practice with my camera. It didn’t go as well as I had planned, but I decided to buy myself a miniature New York style pizza slice for dinner. It at least had the effect of cheering me up slightly. I don’t know what it is about pizza grease, but it can get a smile out of me any day.
  • The Sidewalk construction on my street is finally done! Woohoo!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

  • I was supposed to go to work today, but I was feeling physically exhausted for reasons I couldn’t quite explain. Sleeping for 12 hours certainly helped though, and by the time I woke up much later in the day I was feeling a bit better. Looking back on it, I have been in situations where I could not afford to miss events that were happening in the real world. Historically, this has led me toward making some questionable health decisions. I can smile about how I handled it this time though, because unlike what usually happens, I actually listened to my body for once and slept when I needed it.
  • Learning new tricks on Kdenlive is continuing apace, and making me smile. I also briefly branched into watching tutorials on how to use the open source CGI rendering engine called Blender, but I’m not getting serious about that one yet. Baby steps, baby steps.

Friday, April 5, 2019

  • I went out filming today with slightly less ambitious goals than last time. I discovered that, as I had suspected, I was angling my camera too high. Fixing that produced some very nice footage. Progress makes me smile!
  • We saw “Mortal Engines” tonight. The animation was award-worthy. The steampunk vibe was appreciated too.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

  • I went to a Jazz Concert at L.A.’s Union Station today. I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, but the parts I saw tickled my inner jazz connoisseur into smiling.
  • As a bonus, I was recognized from a crowd twice by the concert organizers because I have been to so many of their previous events. Shout out to Metro Art Presents!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

  • Sunday was quiet. After the noise and activity that characterized Saturday, resting was a pleasant change that made me smile.

What Made Me Smile This Week (March 25 – 31): Going With the Flow

There is rumored to be a mythic state that meditating Buddhist monks can achieve, known as Satori, or flow. The outside world falls away, and time flows together as though it is a mere illusion, and a state of near perfect concentration occurs. I can’t know for sure, but I think I found it this week… or maybe that was just all of the sugar and caffeine I had. Anyway, it produced some pretty awesome results if you don’t mind me saying so. Whatever it was, it made my weekend a high point in more ways than one! You can read about it below.

Monday, March 25, 2019

  • I managed to Bork my home network temporarily whilst making some adjustments to discover why my mom’s phone wasn’t connecting to my Wi-Fi. After several headache inducing hours, I can finally safely say that I have it fixed. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but this is a big reason why last week’s “weekly smile” was late. I’m not going to lie, that’s a little bit disappointing, but at least everything is back to normal! To celebrate the occasion I think I am going to do a war whoop.
  • I discovered (quite by accident) that today, March 25, is national cerebral palsy day in the United States of America. I had no idea that my condition has a national day of recognition. File this one under interesting facts that make me smile.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

  • I found out today that my fax from last week has safely reached its destination! What a relief.
  • It was movie Tuesday again today. We saw “Gloria Bell” this week. The soundtrack was smile worthy for its especially soothing quality.
  • There has been ongoing parking lot construction at work for almost a month now, and I am happy to report that it is almost done now. The part that really makes me smile about this is that they are putting a new handicap ramp into the parking lot to make crossing safer. I love living in a neighborhood where keeping up with ADA regulations is taken seriously!
  • This next one requires a bit of explanation. The operating system on my computer is called Linux. In order to dictate lengthy essays (such as this one) I use a program called Dragon naturally speaking. Unfortunately, Dragon isn’t able to run on Linux. To get around this, I use a piece of software called Virtualbox, which allows me to run programs written for Windows on my Linux machine. Unfortunately, the virtual machine sometimes has difficulty recognizing nonstandard hardware such as USB microphones. This has meant that until recently, I have been relegated to using a subpar quality analog microphone to dictate into. I say “until recently”, because I discovered that my virtual machine has received a few updates since I last experimented with trying to use USB microphones on it. Suffice it to say that this means that I can now upgrade to using my extremely good quality Snowball microphone for dictation purposes! I have never had a cleaner audio sample before. Forgive me for geeking out, but I just had to include this!

Wednesday March 27, 2019

  • I met a lost husky canine on the way to work today. His personality was that of a typical Husky, which is enough reason for me to smile. I hope he was reunited with his owner. Good luck, boy.
  • I got a sugar high at work on coffee and doughnuts today. It felt like someone was flooding my brain with static. Moral of the story: DON’T EAT THAT STUFF ON AN EMPTY STOMACH! It was hilarious afterwards though.
  • I spent the workday doing IT work on my supervisor/friend’s Mac. I don’t own one, so This was my first time using OSX Sierra. I love exploring how software works!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

  • I made it to work 15 minutes early today. No further explanation required
  • I discovered that after 28 years, I still can’t laugh and walk at the same time. The result of my trying was… a face plant into a hard wood floor. Don’t worry, it was funnier than it sounds and I’m totally fine. I’ve known how to fall since I was in kindergarten, so that let me skip straight to the slapstick highlight of it all.

Friday, March 29, 2019

  • We saw “Elvis & Nixon” today. Who would have thought that (semi) real life could be so funny!

Saturday March 30/Sunday March 31, 2019

  • I’m going to need to cheat this time around because I’ve spent the last two days of my week doing the same thing. I took another deep dive into learning Kdenlive this weekend. The result is another Youtube video that you can watch here. It doesn’t look like much, but learning to do those timed scene transitions to a musical beat was an incredibly time intensive work. I worked on it for so long that I lost all sense of time for nearly two days straight. It turns out that I can get manically focused when I have a worthy challenge. Completing it sent me to new heights of euphoria! If anyone wants to know the secret to Satori, its simple. Force yourself to do a cognitively intensive task for a few hours that simultaneously involves loads of repetition. Be warned however that it can take several hours to “resurface” properly. The result will definitely make you smile though.

What Made Me Smile This Week (March 18 – 24): Surfing the YouTube Train

Not all weeks can be as fun or exciting as last week, so unsurprisingly, things slowed down a bit. I will say however that I’ve been poking at an interesting new skill set lately. I am The Lone Ponder after all, so knowledge is the elixir that makes my existence worth living. This is very much a “normal week” in case you were wondering. But who knows, even normal weeks are sometimes worth reading about. Enjoy!

Monday, March 18, 2019

  • In a continuing theme, I woke up to Birdsong this morning. Normally I’d be annoyed, but I’m smiling now because it’s another marker of spring!
  • I arrived at work 15 minutes early today, despite ongoing sidewalk construction issues. I love it when I succeeded managing time well!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

  • I spent a fair portion of today reacquainting myself with the process of nonlinear video editing. Kdenlive is a huge step up from when I used Windows movie maker back in 2009. The process strangely makes me smile.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

  • My work with Kdenlive paid off! I uploaded my very first Youtube video tonight! This smile marks a first-time experience! I hope it bears fruit.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

  • My bureaucratic nightmare surrounding getting a new wheelchair is still evolving. The next place I need to submit a prescription form to only accepts fax or hand delivery. The problem is that they are in Rancho Cucamonga, which is easily a two hour trip each way for me. Keep in mind that this is just to drop off paperwork. Sadly I don’t have a fax machine either. It turns out that my friend/supervisor does. When she heard about my predicament, she offered to allow me to use her fax machine. Not only that, she drove me home during her lunch break to get said paperwork, and then faxed it to them the very same day! I cannot express how unbelievably grateful I am for this. It has saved me weeks worth of work, left me humbled, and put a smile on my face that will likely last at least until Monday

Friday, March 22, 2019

  • We watched “What We Did on Our Holiday” this evening. It is an utterly adorable movie that caused me to double over laughing several times. My family are a bunch of hardened movie veterans, but the fact that there wasn’t that much argument about giving this film Netflix’s five out of five rating should give you some clue as to how good it was. Of course, anything with David Tennant, Rosamund Pike, and Billy Connolly is bound to be good. In a way, I guess there were no surprises there.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

  • Yes! For the second day running I got on the treadmill! I definitely wasn’t smiling at the time, but I am now. Sort of. Maybe. Hey look, its exhausting, okay! Give a guy some credit…aha, there’s the smile! #goals

Sunday, March 24, 2019

  • Here we go again! This is my third day on a treadmill streak! I’m exhausted again, but not quite as much as yesterday. Being slightly less exhausted is actually making me smile.

What Made Me Smile This Week (March 11 – 17): Can You Hear Me Now?

At the rate that I am appearing in the Library of Congress, I’m going to be a celebrity! This week was uncharacteristically busy by normal standards, but as long as it’s productive work, I say bring it on! It occurred to me that I didn’t really explain very well how the Hear Me Now Project works. I will attempt to remedy that now. My work has partnered with storyCorps to record interviews people from all walks of life. If the participants are willing, these interviews are sent off to the Library of Congress to be archived for future reference. This is a big deal, because the Library of Congress has existed for almost as long as the United States itself. The interview process consists of three people: the interviewer, the interviewee, and a facilitator. The facilitator sets up the equipment, manages the paperwork, and explains the entire process to participants. Can you guess who got to learn all the tricks of the trade this week? Read on and find out!

Monday, March 11, 2019

  • Well, my involvement with StoryCorps/Hear Me Now is a gift that keeps on giving! I was invited to attend a 2-day seminar on how to administer Hear Me Now interviews (ie. become a facilitator), in lieu of my usual work. I don’t know when/if I will be overseeing interviews, but going to the experience was awesome! Many, many thanks to the co-workers who drove me to and from the event.
  • I was invited to a post-seminar Happy Hour at the bar across from the conference building we used. Normally bars are a bit noisy for my taste, but I was smiling too much to care today!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

  • I had to be ready an hour earlier than usual today, because the conference started sooner, but I managed time “like a Boss” this morning. Not only was I on time for my pickup, I had enough time leftover to do some room cleanup. Yeah Baby! I got an adrenaline spike in addition to my smile this morning!
  • Today we studied the practical aspects of setting up the recording equipment we would be using to facilitate recordings. This is the first time I’ve ever used (or heard of) a Marantz 661k MKII. What a lovely, lovely, piece of kit! Another all-day smile for me!
  • Who knew you could strike up such cool friendships over just 2 days! I hope we meet again guys (and gals)! Y’all made me smile big-time!
  • My day wasn’t over yet either! I got home in time to go with my family to movie Tuesday! We saw “Fighting with My Family” this time. I have trouble relating to the wrestling culture, but a true story about a down-and-out rebel without a cause who works hard, grows up and “makes it” is so timeless it can make anyone smile, not to mention that the movie had some truly hilarious moments.
  • Whew! Being tired for all the right reasons makes me smile!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

  • I had to deal with a tricky bit of sidewalk construction on the way to work today. I arrived in one piece though, which is always cause for celebration (and a smile)
  • Our office hosted the practice sessions for the Hear Me Now/Storycorps Project, so I did get to see the people I had met from the previous couple of days again. Some of them wanted to go sightseeing for the last couple of days in California, and since they were from out of town, my information on the best bus routes actually came in handy for someone else besides me! Being useful makes me smile!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

  • It was my turn to do a practice session today for the StoryCorps stuff. I ended up playing the role of interviewer twice and facilitator a third time (see my explanation above). It turns out I may have a knack for interviewing people! Discovering new potential avenues for skills is always a treat capable of making me smile!
  • I often have difficulty handling heated lunches at work, so it was with great jubilation and plenty of smiles that I finally figured out how to transfer my heated lunch from the microwave to a nearby table in the lounge without asking for anyone’s help! Figuring out new solutions to motor planning problems is always a treat!

Friday, March 15, 2019

  • I already mentioned daylight savings time setting in last week. Now the temperature rose above 70°F for the first time in several weeks. Spring is in the air! From now until June, I will be able to enjoy the best part of the sun without being too hot. This is the kind of whether California is known for, and being lucky enough to live here makes me smile.
  • I got a haircut today. Not having to worry about my bangs being in my eyes for a little while is a wonderful feeling.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

  • It’s been a few months, but I decided to celebrate another nice day by walking around my block on crutches. Usually I’m too exhausted after said ordeal to feel much of anything, but the memory of the gentle breeze made me smile once I regained my breath
  • We finished “The Umbrella Academy” tonight. GIVE ME MORE, NETFLIX, ’cause a well done show makes me smile!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

  • I was on the rails again for the first time in over a month today! Specifically I took the Metro gold line to Old town Pasadena and spent the day in the company of a very good friend (whom I will henceforth refer to as AC when he comes up again). Great companionship is a huge part of what any good life, and being part of such great friendships makes me feel like the luckiest man in the world sometimes. These moments of existence are the stuff of sepia toned memories that leave people smiling for years to come.
  • I had a comic moment of embarrassment today when I realized that I had completely forgotten that it was St. Patrick’s Day.

What brightened your week?

What Made Me Smile This Week (March 4 – March 10): All Roads Lead to Washington, and a Temporal Shift

I’m making an executive decision with these posts. From now on, I’m planning to release them every following Monday. That’s not as hard as it sounds, because I usually work on these throughout the week as the events in question take place. Of course, that means this one is late.

Something big, or at least very interesting, happened this week. I don’t know if anything will come of it but for those of you reading, it will most likely unfold in real time here, on my weekly smiles posts. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 4, 2019

  • I cleared the first hurdle to get a new wheelchair today! I managed the doctors visit myself this time! #adulting makes me smile.
  • I was outside for a good chunk of the day, working on the project I mentioned on Sunday. The weather was brisk (by California standards), but still very pleasant. Productivity and the outdoors don’t usually mix for me, but they combined to give me a warm smile today, despite the chill
  • My older Brother called from Boston today during dinner. His adventures are always worth hearing.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

  • If I did a bullet point for everything extra I got for lunch today, probably fill up half the page (and make this exercise way too easy!). One of my coworkers gave me a Binget, my supervisor gave me a shortbread cookie with dark chocolate on it, and my desk partner gave me two pieces of butter cake. I know I will probably start gaining weight if I am not careful, but people are seriously generous with deserts where I work. I may regret it one day, but for now it’s making smile.
  • My grandmother treated me to the movies again for ticket Tuesday! This time we saw Greta. The plot was extraordinarily well constructed, and played out to maximum effect. Though the movie was dark, it was executed sufficiently well enough to make me smile (and shiver simultaneously).
  • I stayed awake tonight to see a storm pass through. This is one of the very few times I have actually seen a true bolt of lightning (normally I just see a flash). Nature is beautiful, even when it is at its most deadly. Not to mention the light show was definitely worth the smile.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

  • I had to spend a significant chunk of my day on the phone dealing with a huge bureaucratic mess, which is a complete bore. Fortunately my employer gave me the day off (for an unrelated reason), so at least I didn’t have to deal with two things at once. Happy coincidences like that make me smile.
  • While we’re on the subject of staying home today, I managed to avoid the rain again! I’m still smiling about it.
  • Okay, I should probably stop talking about food. But I can’t help putting in this one last little tidbit. I got to finish some leftover sirloin steak today for dinner. Even in a leftover state, good sirloin steak sends me into a state of bliss.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

  • There is an organization at my work partnered with a government program called StoryCorps. My employer decided that I had a sufficiently interesting life story to warrant being interviewed! My mom stopped by work today to conduct the interview. It went beautifully. As a bonus, because it is an official StoryCorps interview, it will be catalogued in the US Library of Congress! You’d better believe I’m smiling!
  • Today I discovered, quite by accident, that I work in the same office as the doctor who delivered me the day I was born! Weird coincidence, eh? Finding that out blew my mind.

Friday, March 8, 2019

  • I found out that SpaceX’s latest Falcon Rocket docked with the International Space Station today! The US is officially putting rockets back in space!! Hearing that makes me smile.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

  • I started prepping one of my computers for my project today, which involved wiping the old OS and putting a new one on. The advanced partitioning is still giving me problems, but messing with Linux makes me smile, even when it gives me a headache.
  • I got to bed early tonight. A good night’s rest gives me a content smile every time.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

  • OH MY GOD, Daylight Savings time starts today (in the USA)!!!!!! I’ll be able to stay out longer when I travel! Smiling doesn’t go far enough, this calls for raucous noises of joy!
  • Speaking of travel, I often watch Tina Malave’s “Eye on L.A.” on Sundays. This was the first new one I’ve seen in a couple of weeks. Her upbeat attitude and constant stream of travel Ideas make my Sundays that much brighter.

What brightened your week? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Weekly Smiles: Wonderful Food! February 25 — March 3

This week seems to feature food very prominently. I assure you, dear reader, that this type of eating is highly anomalous for me. A series of circumstances occurred over the past few days, which – well, lets just say my appetite was fully satisfied. With what you ask? Read on and smile!

Monday, February 25, 2019

  • My family and I watched the series premiere of “Whiskey Cavalier” tonight. It was an absolutely hilarious start to a promising series. Bottom line: it made all of us smile.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

  • The lunch room at work has two microwaves in it. Typically they are on a shelf above the sink. They are difficult (but not impossible) to reach from the standard position in my chair. Today I discovered that somebody in charge had one of them moved to a much more accessible counter top at my eye level. Little accommodations like this make a world of difference to me and are super helpful. The thoughtfulness of that decision also made me smile, especially because they took it upon themselves to make this change.
  • A co-worker gave me a home-made chocolate and peanut-butter brownie during lunch today! It was lovely. Of course it made me smile!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

  • I got a whole 1.5 hours of extra sleep last night! It was way easier to get up this morning! That makes me smile, even in the early hours.
  • I heard from an old friend this morning via Facebook chat. I haven’t seen him in a while, but he seems to be doing well despite being insanely busy. Random life updates make me smile
  • The accessible microwave from yesterday turned out to be broken. But never fear, it was replaced with a shiny new one by the time I rolled into work this morning! Woohoo!
  • I got to pet a gorgeous therapy Labrador named Cutter at work today! His cheery, unhurried disposition and silky soft fur made me smile.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

  • I was listening to Ludovico Einaudi on my alarm clock/cd player last night. I must have forgotten to change it back to my usual John Coltrain album, because I woke up to Ludovico Einaudi this morning when my alarm went off. The change of pace made me smile.
  • I called someone special to sing the last measure of “Happy Birthday” to them. Another year in the books is worth a smile!
  • My desk partner made two cups of coffee for me during lunch this afternoon. Thank you, they were wonderful!
  • Mom and I saw last week’s “Speechless” episode tonight. I smiled, as always.

Friday, March 1, 2019

  • Mom, Grandmother, and I went to a complimentary Sirloin Steak brunch at Red Lobster this morning. If that wasn’t enough to make me smile, then I should mention I had their Cheddar Bay Biscuits for the first time. I’m not a foodie, but oh my GOD, those biscuits must be what pure happiness tastes like!
  • I made significant progress in cleaning my desk today. Its not done, but what I accomplished still made me smile

Saturday, March 2, 2019

  • It rained today, but I didn’t have to go out while the weather was bad. The ground is mostly dry now. That smile is one of relief!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

  • We celebrated the aforementioned birthday tonight (see February 28) . With prime rib! Mmm! In case it isn’t obvious, I was smiling all evening.
  • I received a shipment of parts tonight for a project I am working on. Getting shipping boxes is like having Christmas come early. I sang a measure of the hallelujah chorus when I saw my package; with a smile of course.

What Made Me Smile This Week, Premiere Edition

What follows will hopefully be a weekly thing for me from now on. You could look at this as a diary, but with a focus on happy stuff. I think we all need to remind ourselves to smile as often as we can. While not a Panacea in itself, positivity leads to new ways of looking at hard problems. But positivity is something you practice, not something you just decide. These weekly posts will be my practice. There are certain things that lead me to this revelation that I hope to write about eventually, but that is a story for another day.

I wish I could say I came up with the idea for this post format myself, but alas, I did not. Credit should go where it is due. I shamelessly stole it from writer and blogger extraordinaire, Shane Burcaw. So without further ado, here is the very first week of things that made me smile.

Monday, February 18, 2019

  • Holiday today, which means I didn’t have to get up for work. Normally, I try to get up anyway, but I needed the rest. I felt guilty about it afterwards, but sleeping in still made me smile.
  • Mom and I watched two episodes of ABC’s “Speechless” today. I love Micah Fowler (as an artist of course!). That show can pretty reliably make me smile.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

  • I got some much-needed input on my upcoming blog post today. I am exceedingly grateful that people are willing to put in the time to give me edits.
  • My family treated me to our local discount movie day today! We saw “Alita: Battle Angel” this time around. The plot was pretty straightforward, but watching the main character kick butt throughout most of the movie made me smile.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

  • There was a board meeting at work today. The after-meeting refreshments were laid out all over my desk, but I was basically told I could have a free lunch after the exiting board members had had their fill. Free lunches are awesome!
  • I finished my first real blog post today! By the time this is out, it will already be up. You can read it here. I am all smiles right now!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

  • I visited Loyola Marymount University today for a lecture about public Service and the Law. Being back at my old Alma Mater and listening to an intellectually stimulating lecture made me smile.
  • On the way home from Loyola, a stranger helped me cross the street safely. This is one of those totally unexpected moments in life that warms my heart.

Friday, February 22, 2019

  • I slept in again. I always guilt myself over it, but being well rested makes me smile.
  • The Blacklist” was awesome tonight.
  • My Grandmother shared a stash of previously unknown Sees candy with me tonight for dessert. I love chocolate!

Saturday, February 23, 2019

  • My Mom and I went to the Los Angeles Abilities Expo today! We got the ball rolling to get me a new wheelchair (my current one is 9 years old)! Getting the much-needed needed help made me smile!
  • Holy Moley! I met Micah Fowler in person today!!!!!!! The fact that I was smiling should be obvious.
  • Toward the end of the day, I got to try out the Ogo power chair! The handling was unorthodox, but totally cool. I got to speak to the company founder too. Great guy.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

  • Somebody I met at the expo got in touch with me! I hope we stay in contact! The possibility is thrilling!
  • I’m closing out the day (and the week) by going out for dessert with an old friend. We’ve kept in touch consistently ever since graduating LMU, and catching up with him is always wonderful. Addendum: The waffle ice cream sandwich was pretty good too!

Evolution Through the Eyes of Jazz

The phrase “adapt or die” is probably most familiar to evolutionary biologists. But the phrase is true in other areas of life because it expresses a very fundamental truth: nothing in the universe is static. Nothing can possibly stand still forever. Even in the abstract realm of human creativity, no writer can be satisfied writing endless sequels to his first great novel, no painter will stick to the same scenes for more than a few tries. In music, this tends to express itself in one of two ways. Either, they invent an entirely new category of music, or the artist attempts to push an existing genre in new and unexpected ways. Unfortunately, those who innovate within a given genre are often seen as clinging to a dying breed. With a few exceptions, I suspect this happens because music which confined itself to a particular genre tends to get more complex over time.

My mind has been wandering over this topic for several days, in part because of an extraordinarily interesting conversation with a friend. I had recently attended a jazz concert, and I was struggling to explain to my coworker exactly what it was like. When I finally settled on the term “progressive jazz”, he shocked me by remarking that jazz had not changed in almost 50 years. Had I been the same age that I was when I actually started liking jazz music, this would have made my blood boil as surely as if he had insulted my mother. But the intervening decade must have softened my younger angst considerably, because what followed was not a shouting match, but a long discussion of what makes a musical genre. I had my computer handy at the time so we began working our way up my MP3 collection from the mid-1920s until the bebop era. Though I had a few post bebop recordings, the only one he would concede constituted anything new was an album called “Breathless” by Kenny G. I was momentarily stumped until I had an inspiration, went to YouTube, and showed him “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Brian Setzer. Score one for jazz lovers everywhere, the day was saved without even a rattled windowpane.

But my friend’s criticism continued to bother me. I had clearly demonstrated that jazz was neither dead nor stagnant, but the notion that it could be to the untrained eye seemed strangely plausible. The question was why.

Mainstream popularity of jazz reached its zenith in the mid-1940s, specifically in the form of big band and swing music. Though it was eventually dethroned by rock ‘n roll and later psychedelia, some attribute modern-day hip-hop as one of its descendants. I believe the first piece of this puzzle is to look at how the fortunes of jazz itself has fared. As popular music, swing began its life in clubs, and later moved its way into dance halls. Then, as now, complaints about “the kids these days” ran rampant among parents whose children were attracted to this new, fast moving music. It is difficult for a modern audience to understand what would’ve been so controversial about big band music. The lyrics are relatively tame. The dancing, when practiced a-tempo was fast, but not particularly evocative of any lewd sexual acts. But it’s also nearly forgotten nowadays that the big band lifestyle was closely associated with drugs and organized crime. Frank Sinatra began his career with very close ties to the organized mafia . Louis Armstrong depended on a very well-connected mafia man to get him gigs in the early years. References to drugs occasionally found their way into music long before the 60s made them famous. Ella Fitzgerald’s “Wacky Dust” was rumored to be a song about getting high on cocaine. Cole Porter went so far as to speak of cocaine directly in his hit song “I Get a Kick Out Of You”. Swing started out as the music that was bankrolled by criminal activities, with mafia associations going as far back as the 1920s temperance movement. Though swing music appears to have been principally opposed by religious conservatives of the day, it was seen more generally as an act of rebellion. But as the 40s turned into the 50s, and the 50s turned into the 60s, the World War II generation grew up and began establishing their foothold as wage earners. As time marched on, and swing and big band were no longer considered the music the kids listen to, jazz began slowly shedding its associations with its humble beginnings. Duke Ellington played at the White House, Louis Armstrong became one of the State Department’s goodwill ambassadors, and even rough, tough, Frank Sinatra struck up a friendship with John F. Kennedy (though it should be noted that Kennedy’s administration eventually cut ties with Sinatra due to his prior mafia associations). The hallmark musicians of jazz were moving up in the world, and with them the respectability of their music. Nowadays, jazz music is associated with suit and tie events. New research suggests that people are most likely to prefer the music they first started hearing at age 14. Big band era music is no exception to that rule. Safely ensconced in the wealth their generation has built, my grandparents are finally free to listen to the music of their choice without needing to bear the castigating remarks from their parents. Only jazz hasn’t stood still in the meantime.

Jazz has always been known for its expressive solo improvisations, but as it became less popular, the solo improvisational moments of jazz transformed from a quirky oddity into a center stage attraction. So naturally, musicians began experimenting with deemphasizing the melody of the song and having what amounted to a five-minute jam session. Duke Ellington is a good example of someone who can be observed at the forefront of this transition. Previously, he had been known for songs like “Take the a Train”, which came out in 1941, and proved so popular that it became Duke Ellington’s unofficial theme song. “Money Jungle” which came out slightly over 2 decades later, in 1962, could not be more different. “Take the a Train” is hummable, singable even – whereas the first time I heard the baseline from “Money Jungle”, I thought a bee had escaped into my bedroom. The melody lines of big band era music tended to be fairly straightforward, but this new form of jazz (now called bebop) barely has two bars of melody before launching into long complicated improvisational riffs. And if our great grandparents thought the melody lines from the big band era were too fast, they would have gone into cardiac arrest listening to bebop. In bebop, speed and complex dissonant harmony lines rule the day. John Coltrain elevated this into peak form. The speed and complexity of dissonant harmonies in songs like “Giant Steps” are so fast and complicated that it would not surprise me if that particular song was responsible for birthing the complaint that “jazz is just random noise”. But a key point here is that the improvisations one hears in music like bebop are decidedly not random. All music must follow harmonic and rhythmic rules. In the case of an improvisational session, the musician must know the rules as they apply to the given melody and be able to act on them instantaneously, generating something completely new. This is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. The aforementioned “giant steps” is so difficult to perform that it is “considered a right of passage amongst serious jazz musicians”. Unfortunately, music that is about skill will leave most people attempting to sing it choking on their own tongues. This is as true of improvisational jazz as it is of classical music. As an experiment, try humming Chopin’s minute waltz. Unfortunately, most people who can’t hum it won’t remember it. This, I suspect, is the real reason why jazz “died”. One can still learn to appreciate it, but in order to do so properly one must be familiar with the amount of skill it takes to produce such a work. It took me many years to appreciate most jazz music that came after the big band era as a result. Unfortunately, many of the people who do understand it aren’t particularly good at explaining why it “works”. Between the inaccessibility of the music itself, and the fact that many of the people listening to it have accumulated comfortable assets, jazz has acquired a reputation for elitism. There is a certain paradox to becoming acceptable in high-minded musical circles. In order to be noticed by such people at all, music must be popular. But in order to become a serious subject of study by them, it must alter in ways that make it no longer popular.

The process of popular music morphing into something more experimental can be observed across the musical world. Around the same time that the aforementioned argument with my friend was taking place, I was watching the final installment in a YouTube series called “The Story of Psychedelia”. The series is a captivating look at the social and political reasons why psychedelia became popular and then eventually succumbed to the same “death” that jazz had before it. The documentarian, who goes under the handle of Zarathustra’s Serpent, details the rise of psychedelia as a movement to free one’s mind. As best as I can understand the argument, they hoped that by attempting to re-create the experience of a psychedelic trip through music that they would achieve a new, more blissful state of being. The early part of the documentary series in particular focuses on music which is an uninhibited expression of joy and love of the world. As the psychedelic era progressed, Zarathustra’s serpent seemed to suggest that the views of the artists became more nuanced and jaded. Simple expressions of joy were not enough anymore, and the free uninhibited spirit of the earlier years of psychedelia wouldn’t do for more inward looking artists. At the same time, these artists began learning of other musical traditions. As this process accelerated, they began moving away from easily understandable music.

Thus far, I have focused on the technical side of how music is written to explain the changes that it undergoes. But as the above example with psychedelia demonstrates, there is another factor at play in why music changes: the musicians themselves change with it. Ultimately, Elton John said it best in a 60 minutes interview when he stated that “you have to deviate from the course a bit, or else you will go stark raving mad”. Artists and creative types are inherently restless people. To the extent that any creative person is plying their craft for anything other than money, they will eventually get bored with doing the same thing over and over again. The paradox of this process is that in order to get good at any one form of art, one has practice at it for a very, very long time. The more time a given set of artists spend with a particular set of musical constraints, the more they will push the boundaries of those constraints. And yet, because they have invested so much time in learning the particular rule set on which their music is based, many artists have a difficult time anticipating the next big wave of innovations. It is difficult to imagine for example that someone from the jazz era, like Frank Sinatra, could have felt entirely at home keeping up with what the kids were doing in psychedelia a couple of decades later. Mathematically, this would have been a possible maneuver, considering that Frank Sinatra gave his last musical performance in 1995, but practically speaking performers like Sinatra would have had to ingest a completely new musical culture and learn an entirely new set of rules to stay relevant with younger audiences. Psychedelia would have simply been too far beyond the musical tradition that Sinatra and the artists of his era had been steadily building on.

One caveat to this theory I should point out is that jazz music and rock have started to fuse together in a few places (such as the aforementioned work of Brian Setzer). But these fusions would have been totally alien to anyone responsible for either music tradition. It took a new generation, steeped in both musical traditions to make that leap. And while these hybrids are important, they don’t appear, broadly speaking, to have captured the popular imagination.

Maybe the final lesson in all of this is that art changes, but people don’t change fast enough individually to stay on top of the trends. Whatever the reason is for this process, we can be assured that popular music will always be vulnerable from below, as new people with different experiences enter the fray and can provide audiences with something new and fresh. That is not to say the older forms are any less beautiful or valid, just to suggest that in the end nothing can stay in the popular consciousness forever.

Works Cited