Music, Nostalgia, and the Power of Being Present

May 29, 2023

I have a very specific memory from the summer of 1980. I was 16 years old, driving west on North Decatur Road in my 1973 Gran Torino to do some record shopping at the Wuxtry. Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” was blasting on 96 Rock. I had the windows down and the volume all the way up. I stopped at the red light at Church Street. The car to the right of me and the car in the turn lane to the left of me were both playing 96 Rock at full volume. We all looked at each other and screamed, “Check it and see!” – united by technology, generation, and a great chorus.

I can’t imagine anything like that happening today, with everyone locked in their algorithmic streams.

Nostalgia is a dirty drug. There are countless memes that will tell you that music, cars, TV shows, and culture were better “back then.” It’s a lie. There was crappy music that you conveniently forget, death trap cars that were unsafe at any speed, stupid TV shows, and a culture that rewarded the bullies and marginalized everyone else. Donald Trump’s “great” America was 1950 (as he told CNN in 2015), the peak of Jim Crow, before civil rights movements for women, gay and trans people, and Americans with disabilities. And the top song was “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” by Red Foley. No thanks.

The truth is the past was great and super shitty. Just like now.

I love it when Boomers yearn for the days when you could ride in the back of a pick up or ride your bike without a helmet. That’s because they are alive to yearn. A bunch of kids got bounced out of the bed of the pick up and are not yearning because they are in yearn-free graves.

So what is it about music that locks us into these powerful memories of yesteryear? Incredible research with Alzheimer’s Disease patients has demonstrated that music can activate incredibly specific memories in people who can’t even remember their spouses and family members, because music exists in a part of the brain the progressive disease can’t reach. I’m guessing 90-year old me, in 2054, might not remember you, but play “Hot Blooded” and I’ll tell you all about that day on North Decatur Road in the summer of 1980 with great clarity.

The reason for my curiosity is the mindfulness practice of being present. Buddhism warns of being lost in the past (and worrying about the future). We spend scant time being in the present. Being present allows us to see our internal state and manage our emotions. Like Ringo said, sometimes you gotta stop and take time to smell the roses. As I’ve written about in this blog, there is great value in stopping.

So, to all the people of my generation, think about how we would listen to music. I have such clear memories of going over to Doug Warringer’s house to listen to a Kiss album or going over to Ed Overstreet’s house to listen to a Clash album. And we would JUST listen. We were present in the moment of listening to the songs. There was no, “This track reminds me of when,” or “This track makes me think about what I need to do.” There was just that moment. Then, when the album was over, we would do something else. But listening was the activity.

Our songs take us to those moments when we were fully present. It’s a weird nostalgia trick about memories of the present. I write this on Memorial Day, thinking about veterans whose brains are often frozen in those traumatic battlefield experiences. I know the songs that were blasting as we raced through the Ukrainian war zone last year are still in my ears. There is a direct link that connects what was playing during our first dance and our first war, present moments sealed in amber for all time. When I was 16, I didn’t have much of a past to ruminate over and my future was wide open so it was easy to absorb the moment. All these years later, being present is handicapped by memories of what was and what could have been and concerns about the future for me and my child. 

Here’s where music can help.

I’ve been kicked off of numerous “Classic Rock” Facebook pages for arguing with old timers who all think music today sucks. I remind them of what their parents had to say about AC/DC and they sound just like old people. “These kids today!” They point of youth music is that is separates young people from their parent’s generation. Then they’ll go on and on about autotuning and profanity and the “that’s not music” about the Cardi B’s of the world in rants that seem more racist than music purist. And I’ll say, there are countless new rock bands putting albums out and if you love 70s pop, have you tried Harry Styles? And bam, I’m banned again by classic rock old farts who are prisoners of their nostalgia, forever blocked out of being present with a great song.

I have the best moments with my daughter and her friends driving around with the Top 40 station (Z100 in Portland) turned all the way up, listening them sing along. I know the hits of 2023 will resonate with them the way the wonderful/horrible songs of 1973 do for me.

So here’s the assignment. If you were born in the twentieth century, I want you to go straight to the pop charts. Find a hit that speaks to you. My third grade daughter’s favorite song of the moment is “Flowers,” by Miley Cyrus (currently #3 on the charts). Listen to that song while doing nothing but listening to that song. How does that tune make you feel? Try not to get nostalgic or concerned about what’s to come. Just be in the moment. Then put it on a playlist. Make it your song for late spring 2023. Every time you hear it take a deep breath and think, I am here now.

There’s so much amazing music happening right now and so many opportunities to just stop and take in the moment. Be here now.

Curiosity Saved the Cat, or How I Stopped Fighting and Started Asking Questions

May 21, 2023

I spent most of my life in a narcissistic head cloud. I put it off to being a Pisces, but the fact of the matter is that I was habitually more interested in myself than other people. After all, both Mr. Rogers and my mother had told me, “You are special.” When my first wife was on her way out the door, I remember her saying, “You suck all the air out of a room, Randy.” I thought that was meant as a compliment. I would think that. Turns out Mr. Rogers (and Mom) were wrong. I wasn’t special. I was an asshole.

This “COVID-era” life change I’ve been going through has forced me to stop. Stop my awesome rocket ride through “Randyland.” I’d had plenty of clues along the way. As an ethnographer, my job was to skillfully interview subjects without them knowing it. I’d come out of the field after months of hanging out with white supremacists realizing I was missing data because I’d spent more time talking than listening. I realized my biggest grammar mistake was forgetting to end queries with question marks. One student’s review of a sociology class at Portland State was one sentence long: “Nobody loves Randy Blazak more than Randy Blazak.”

This lack of curiosity became an issue between Andi and I. She didn’t need another story. She need someone who was interested in her thoughts and observations. Someone who talked with her not at her. I needed to figure this curiosity thing out.

Even though it might be too late for Andi, I finally cracked this curious nut. I’ve mentioned in this blog how lucky I’ve been to find a somatic therapist who could help be corral my unwieldy lizard brain and help find methods to get my parasympathetic nervous system to help my behavior be in line with my “I’m a feminist!” values. She recently suggested a book by Buddhist Oren Jay Sofer called Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication and it’s been a game changer. I’ve really relied a lot on mindfulness practices to get away from to my bad habits. Ruth King’s Mindful of Race and her emphasis on “Impact not intent” has been vital in deflating some of my patterns of harm. These books are sacred.

I’m currently working on a federally-funded project to interrupt violent extremism so I figured out I could read Sofer’s book for work. Turns it’s more about people like me than the Proud Boys. (Does that sound narcissistic?) While I was focused on the eminent fist fight between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Joe Biden, the conflict here was less domestic terrorism and more just domestic. Our interpersonal conflicts certainly can escalate into some ugly areas, of which, violence is only one stupid scenario, but fighting over someone not doing the kid’s laundry is enough.

The book follows three main strategies to get us out of the combative way we communicate; 1) Being present in the moment, 2) Bringing in curiosity and care, and 3) Focusing on what matters. Sounds simple but there’s a lot of detail in the process. The bottom line is we are really good at reacting and getting pulled into a fight to prove the validity of our position. But more often than not, that just ends in a pointless stalemate. My Facebook page is an endless battle between my blue state Portland friends and my red state Georgia homies and the line of scrimmage hasn’t moved an inch.

A key part of the middle of Say What You Mean is developing empathetic listening skills by practicing curiosity. Let’s be honest – for most of us – when other people are speaking, we’re just listening for a gap to say whatever we were going to say anyway. That’s what we’re listening for, not what that person is saying, but for a chance to hear our own voice. That’s why modern speech is full of  linguistic space holders, like “like,” “um,” “you know,” “well,” “literally,” and my least favorite word on Earth, “actually.” All those linguistic cock blockers serve to keep the stream of sound coming out of our gobs and preventing anyone else from actually getting a word in edgewise. Literally.

I started trying empathetic listening out on my students. I broke my diversity class up into random pairs and gave them five minutes. Student A had to ask Student B, “What’s the most challenging thing about being your primary identity?” (For example, their race or their gender identity.) Then Student A had to SHUT UP AND JUST LISTEN FOR FOUR MINUTES. On the fourth minute Student A was to say, “It sounds like the hardest thing is…. Did I get that right?” At the end of the five minutes they’d switch roles and Student B would ask same question. Afterwards, the students reflected how validating it felt to be actually listened to and how they created a new bond with someone who seemed, at first, very different from them.

Was there something to his power of asking questions? I was soon to put it to the test myself.

My last blog post was about transphobia and the hellnado that was unleashed by Kid Rock going Columbine on a case of Bud Light. Being the king mixer that I am I posted it on the Boycott Bud Light Facebook page. Very quickly I got a DM from some dude named Jamie that read, “Fuck trannies faggit You look like a fucking freak from Portland.” I went into my standard battle mode, trying to convince Jamie that he was in the closet. And the fight was on. Then I stopped and thought, WWOJSD? What would Oren Jay Sofer do?

So I switched gears and started asking Jamie questions. Were transgender people an actual problem in his life? (No.) Did he know any transgender people? (No.) What did he think WAS the biggest problem in America? He went off on a vector about the war on drugs and pharmaceutical companies and I said, “Hey, man, I agree 100%!” All of a sudden we were on the same page and talking about a bunch of stuff we agreed on. Jamie texted, “Sorry for calling you names, that’s pretty immature of me. I shouldn’t be like that. You take care. I’ll be more open minded.” Wow. It was all I could do to not ask Jamie if we could be Facebook friends and maybe go grab a Bud Light. Just being curious changed everything. I talked to him like human being and not a sparing partner and we both benefited from it.

So if this approach worked with transphobe like Jamie could it work with my estranged wife? I started trying the technique out with Andi. “How did that make you feel?” “Can you tell me more about that?” “It sounds like that was really hard. Am I hearing you correctly?” And it wasn’t an act. The more I asked the more I wanted to know. She asked me to stick around so we could continue the conversation. I didn’t tell a single anecdote. Each one of her sentences left me wanting more and we talked for hours.

Curiosity won’t solve all our problems. I still have a lot of work to do to de-program my asshole tendencies. But it’s a start. And what if there’s something bigger at stake here. What if Congressman Jamie Raskin got curious about Lauren Boebert? What if Antifa Annie asked Proud Boy Billy about his childhood? Or what if Road Rage Rob asked Road Rage Roy, “Do you need a hug?” So whether it’s political incivility or fractured marriages there is great value in the advice of Vanilla Ice; stop, collaborate and listen. Let’s get curious. Stop talking and start asking questions. People just want to be heard. And then they’ll listen.

Calm the F Down: Mindfulness as a Survival Strategy

March 20, 2023

When I was a young punk, I had this dumb mantra, “Impulse to action!” I believed that any thought that came into my head should be acted on. It seemed “mod” and “vibrant” and “rebellious.” In reality, it was the reflection of how unformed my young brain was. How my prefrontal cortex was not yet able to reign in my limbic system. I was all unchecked impulse and unmoderated action.

What I did that look like when I was 16? Talking my dad’s Monte Carlo and, channelling the Dukes of Hazzard, doing donuts in the fields of rural Georgia and then telling him it got hit in a parking lot (again). By 20, it was less bad behavior and more the belief that I could say whatever thought came into my head without first saying, “Should I say this?” Brain scientists believe the pre-frontal cortex is finally fully developed around age 25, but by that point my “impulse to action” synapses were well worn grooves in my head. My cake was baked.

We live in a culture that over-values the individual (“Me!!!”) and celebrates impulse to action behavior. Carpe diem gets rewritten as permission for road rage and buying stupid crap on credit cards. We can escalate from zero to a hundred in a heartbeat. My own centering of my impulses was a severe case of my white male entitlement. “I’m entitled to everything I want!” When women, BIPOC and queer folks are impulsive, they’re often raked over the coals for being “overly emotional” or “uncivilized.” We all need to calm the fuck down.

So much of this impulsive behavior is linked to our experience of trauma. I know my sexual abuse at age four is wired right into my limbic brain, what we lovingly refer to as our “lizard brain.” Like lizards, our limbic brain works on the fight/flight/freeze option to keep us safe. Lizards don’t ponder their options when an eagle is overhead. They skedaddle. Those of us with trauma histories are often locked into the fight/flight/freeze mode. Much of my life has been some version of looking for a fight, from battles with my little brother to running off to a Ukrainian war zone. I am the master of the knee-jerk reaction and it’s a 4-year-old boy who is doing the kicking.

One of the most important books I’ve ever read on this topic is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (2017) by Resmaa Menakem. Menakem points out that white bodies carry the historical trauma of the centuries of brutality of medieval Europe and when white people had the opportunity to unleash their unresolved trauma on black bodies, in the form of slavery, they went hog wild. The trauma levied on black people didn’t magically disappear in 1865 and is manifest in black bodies today. The need for African-Americans to make sure white people are OK is one manifestation of that trauma, which ads “fawn” to fight/flight/freeze. Additionally, police carry the unresolved trauma of dealing with traumatized people everyday and act out their trauma on the (mostly black) bodies they are charged to protect. Hurt people hurt people.

Manakem suggests a mindfulness approach to all this drama caused by people acting on their lizard brain impulses. In a fast-paced world, what if we all just slowed down and learn how to soothe ourselves? What if cops, before hitting the streets, practiced meditation and thought about their own thoughts? Maybe instead of cop lizard brains seeing black bodies as a threat and squeezing off a few rounds, they’d calmly assess what was actually needed in that situation. Calming the brain can interrupt micro-aggressions and explosive anger. Think of all those times you fucked up and wished your thinking brain had been in charge instead of your “impulse to action” brain.

This has been a huge issue for me. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Cher singing, “If I could turn back time” after I did or said something stupid. I apologize and swear I’ll never do it again. Then I do it again. The lizard brain doesn’t think. It just reacts. That baked cake has been my trauma response for over 50 years and has not made my life any better. Worse, it’s driven away the people I claim to love.

So finding a space between impulse and action is now my mandate. Daily meditation has become a requirement. Exercise and yoga, too. Breathing exercises, also. Anything to slow myself down and give myself the space to think before I act. I knew this past Saturday was going to be particularly challenging given the sad turns this marital separation has taken and I meditated six times throughout the day, which kept me from sending angry texts or stewing in my juices on a rare sunny Saturday in Portland. I’m having an ongoing conversation with the 4-year-old me. He can’t drive the car anymore, but he’ll be protected and safe.

There’s a quote attributed to David Bowie that says, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” If I could speak to that younger version of myself, I’d tell him to ditch that “impulse to action” bullshit as soon as possible. Slow your role and calm your soul. Give yourself permission to first see your thoughts and then, the ones that don’t actually serve you, let them go like big red balloons.

And to all the people that are screaming at each other, shooting each other, storming capitols, and hurting each other, please learn soothe yourselves. The lizard brain trauma response that tells you to pop a cap in his ass or street race down Broadway is the same impulse that tells you to text someone that they are a piece of shit or blow off someone’s sincere need to communicate. We can all be better at managing our tendency to cause harm. We have a buffer between our impulsive lizard brain and the mistakes we will later regret. That buffer is our ability to calm ourselves before we choose to act.