Dylan, TED and the New Renaissance

Dylan Painting Lately I have been listening to webcasts in the background as I work, particularly if I am correcting scores and parts (which as any composer will attest, is personally fulfilling but mind-numbingly tedious). Damon Lee, a composer friend of mine who lives and teaches in Germany, recently turned me on to TED, an amazing site that contains talks by some of the world's greatest inventors and thinkers, including Dean Kamen, Ray Kurzweil, Al Gore and others. One brilliant, very funny lecture that caught my attention is by Sir Ken Robinson, entitled Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Something Robinson points out and that I have noticed with children—mostly with my  2 1/2 year old son Dylan who is the child I spend most of my time with—is that if they are not hindered by adult preconceptions, they will interactively express themselves in truly unique and organic ways. Dylan synthesizes all sorts of influences and stimuli into his own form of creativity. He sings and dances while he paints, holds two paint brushes like drumsticks, painting and drumming on the paper all at once, and even depicts stories in his paintings that combine all of his diverse stimuli—everything from Itsy Bitsy Spider to the moon and the stars. Interestingly, everything makes perfect sense to him because no one has told him otherwise. Nothing is a mistake. The whole time, he is developing motor skills, exploring and stretching boundaries. His personal expression, without adult-imposed limits or categorization, is a highly entertaining and profoundly beautiful experience to watch.

Back to TED, the summary on the Do Schools Kill Creativity? page states that Robinson makes a "profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity." Robinson calls the meeting of passion and skill "The Element" and perfectly summarizes all that is wrong with most modern educational systems. Even some of the most radical schools still treat the arts, sports and "the other intelligences" (anything other than the humanities and languages) as second class citizens. Arts courses are allotted fewer credits, and most schools still structure their degrees and curriculums using outmoded models meant to prepare people for a society centered around industrialization.

I think we are entering—or already experiencing—a New Renaissance. Our life spans are now long enough that we need not have one career, one passion or even one intelligence. We can have multiple facets, either at the same time or one after the other. They can be related or not, and we do not have to choose one over the other. You can be a musician and a corporate CEO, a dentist and a pianist, a photographer and a professional chef. Technology is helping us express ourselves and save time enough to distill the essence of what we desire. Our only limits—other than a lawful society and survival—should be what we place on ourselves.

As I have always said, genius is mostly about connecting disparate elements where there were no connections before, and having the skill and passion to carry out your ideas. I only hope that as parents, we can allow Dylan to be as unique, creative and skilled as possible.

Why I Became Vegan

Many people ask me why I am vegan (pronounced `vee-gun'). Up until my last two years as an undergrad student at the Eastman School of Music, I would never have thought I would become vegetarian, and certainly not vegan; I ate meat, dairy and eggs like almost everyone else. I never entertained the thought of becoming vegetarian because I could not see the reasons behind doing something so “unnatural” or “extreme.”

I had two jobs while a senior in undergraduate school. The first was working at the front desk in the dorm during the summer. One of my tasks was sorting and alphabetizing incoming mail. I noticed that a few students were receiving a magazine called Peta, and I was curious, so I asked one of the students it if it would be OK for me to look at it before I put it in the pile of mail to be put in boxes.

Looking through those issues of Peta that summer exposed me to some of the most shocking, horrific pictures I have ever seen to this day or probably ever will see. Many of the images were of animals being used for experiments and “product testing,” crippled animals left to die on the side of road who were unfit for human consumption, baby calves taken from their mothers, multiple chickens in crates the size of record album covers, etc. These magazines disturbed me so much that I sent away for a pile of books that discussed vegetarianism. I am usually only convinced of something by researching it thoroughly.

One of the most important books was a one by John Robbins entitled Diet for a New America. I can gratefully say that that book changed my life, for the better. I almost failed all of my classes at Eastman the following semester because I spent so much time reading about vegetarianism.

My second job during my senior year also had a major influence on me: I was working as a server for Eastman dining services. Obviously, after reading all of these books, serving ribs, chicken, hamburgers and other dead animals became less and less bearable. People would ask me “what's good today?" My usual reply was “nothing,” or “the salad bar.” What I should have said with was, “Your friend...—he would probably taste just about the same as this pork chop if you cooked him the right way and used a little hot sauce.” I guess I was not cut out for a lifetime of work in dining services.

That summer, I was living very frugally. I still remember the exact moment when I made the transition to becoming vegetarian. I was going to the grocery store in MidTown Plaza in downtown Rochester, NY to do my weekly shopping. I had approximately $20 in my pocket. I was standing in between the meat isle and the vegetable section. I remember thinking I could buy two boneless chicken breasts and perhaps a steak or two, or I could use the money for a whole basket of vegetables and fruits. That day, I decided to try becoming vegetarian for a week. One week grew into two, two weeks into two months.

Within the next few months, I gradually became vegan. I lost about twenty pounds, and believe me, I was not even trying. I love to eat. I not only lost a little weight, I also felt better.

Ironically, the more I learned about vegetarianism and the more I cooked vegetarian food, the more I really fell in love with cooking. If you have never had a gourmet vegetarian dinner, you have no idea how amazing it can taste. One of my favorite pastimes is to cook vegetarian food for guests. I consider the meal a success if guests say that they do not miss animal products, or sometimes can not even tell if the food I prepared was even made with animal products! If you don't believe how good vegetarian food can be, try one the recipes in cookbooks like Friendly Foods or The Millennium Cookbook. I am certain you will not be disappointed.

The Millennium Cookbook

The Millennium Cookbook

There are three main reasons someone usually becomes vegetarian: the first and probably most talked about is animal cruelty. You would have to be very ignorant to not realize how much pain and suffering animals go though in order to reach your dinner table. I always find it interesting that humans process animal flesh in ways that are completely different than how animals kill and eat their prey; a wolf can not use a gas grill, and a mountain lion has no idea what barbecue sauce is.

The second main reason someone becomes vegetarian is to improve their health. Again, you would have to be living in a vacuum to not be aware of all of the positive aspects of eating a plant-based diet. The information is all around you. Almost without exception, there are only two times when you will read literature that supports an animal foods-centered diet: when the literature is from the meat, egg or dairy industries or when the information is coming from an ill-informed, poorly-trained, not-so-up-to-date nutritionist.

The third reason someone might become vegetarian is because they have figured out how much damage the large-scale consumption of animal products does to this planet. This reason was the single largest reason, at least initially, that I became vegetarian. I was appalled—and still am—at how much wasted energy and resources go into producing animal products. The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is a prime example.

You might think that it could not possibly be that bad, but stop and think for a moment: where does a large portion of water pollution usually come from? Animal waste run-off is one of the largest pollutants of our drinking water. Most farmland is used for growing animal feed. A large percentage of our fresh water supply is used for animals. Many poor people in the world are starving and dying not just because of poor farmland and financial misfortune, but because of our enormous greed. Deforestation (primarily for farming and overpopulated areas) is also contributing to global warming.

If everyone in the United States would stop eating animal products, and we used the feed given to farm animals to feed people, there would be much less starvation in poorer countries. In fact, there would probably be no starvation in poorer countries. America is essentially hemorrhaging precious resources in order to fuel a careless, national desire for cooked dead animals.

A simple way to make a difference is to eat one vegetarian meal, or vegan meal if possible, in place of a meat-based meal you might normally eat. For example, eat a vegetarian burger for lunch instead of a hamburger. Or, eat a good bowl of cereal with soy or rice milk for breakfast instead of bacon and eggs. If everyone in America who is not vegetarian does this, millions of dollars in resources every year can be diverted to people who are trying to survive, and our water bills, energy bills and taxes can be lowered. Taxes, you wonder? The government generally subsidizes animal producers, but not vegetable farmers (at least as far as I know).

It always fascinates me that our society uses a label for what seems to be an abnormal eating choice: eating a vegetarian diet. It always seems to me that it should be the other way around: vegetarians should be considered normal and meat eaters should be labeled as "abnormal."

Although I am obviously passionate about being vegan, many excellent books cover much more information that I mention here. One of these books is the previously mentioned, Pulitzer Prize nominated book Diet for a New America by John Robbins. Another more recent book is Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, by Erik Marcus.

In the end, a vegan diet is not the cure-all for all of the world's problems. We still need to curb overpopulation and emissions, and you still need to exercise. Obviously, you need to be mentally healthy as well. Eating a vegan diet will not do you much good if your life is full of pain and stress. If you do choose to become vegan or vegetarian, you still need to eat a healthy diet. Just as there are healthy people who eat meat, there are unhealthy vegetarians. In the end, becoming vegan or vegetarian is only one step, but for me, becoming vegan has definitely been a step in the right direction.

Thoughts on Noise Pollution

Perhaps it is because I am a composer and have sensitive ears, or maybe it is because I live in noise-filled Manhattan, but I think there is way too much noise pollution. There is probably not a spot in the entire world—except maybe a tiny island in the Pacific—where you can go and have true peace and quiet, or at the very least get away from man-made sounds. Vehicles are the main culprits. Hundreds of years ago, there were no cars, planes, trains or ships. You could be virtually anywhere in the world and find a spot away from the din of humanity, a place where you could feel truly alone and forget that there are millions of people just like you walking the earth. Even when you think you are really in the middle of nowhere, off in the distance, you will probably hear the low hum of cars speeding down a highway, an airplane overheard or the lonely sound of a train whistle.

Of course, there is a difference between really loud sounds that damage our hearing and the soft sounds that are just slightly annoying. It is fascinating that we have become so accustomed to man-made noise pollution that we almost forget that it is there, or shockingly, are even comforted by it. As I write this, I hear traffic in the background, the hum of our refrigerator, the whirring sound of the fan in this laptop, the ticking of a clock and a train way off in the distance. I have become used to these sounds, and they are fairly soft depending on proximity, but there are others that are so ear shatteringly loud that they can damage our hearing or at the very least, cause us to have psychological problems. Jackhammers, those insanity provoking Mr. Softee songs, and those extremely irritating car alarms top my personal list, but there are many other sounds that just drive me nuts.

Shockingly, some people are so used to background sound that even when presented with a golden opportunity to cut noise levels, they are not interested. Auto companies that make electric cars have recently begun installing devices on cars that actually add artificial noise to offset the relative quietness of the cars. I guess one argument against silent cars is that the blind will have a difficult time hearing them when they cross the street, but surely we can figure out a solution. Maybe electric cars can have an internal "noise" device and those who are blind can also carry a device so that when they go out, their device will make a sound that let's them know that a car is approaching or in the area. Or, maybe electric cars can be programmed to make sound in cities and towns with crosswalks, but not on highways. Nevertheless, I am sure we will eventually get used to quiet cars and wonder how we lived without them. But for now, noise is still a huge problem.

Can anything be done about this?

I think we all have to make it a priority to put an end to noise pollution. There are so many ways we can cut down or even eliminate man-made noise, and as usual, it starts with putting communities' interest above that of corporations and making governments around the world really listen (no pun intended). Our health should matter much more than Mr. Softee’s bottom line. I should not have to hear a car alarm in a sleepy town in the Midwest. In fact, car alarms should be banned. It has been proven that they have little effect on crime anyway. As for more innocuous forms of noise pollution like clocks and refrigerators, all modern inventions should be cleverly designed so that noise levels are as low as possible, or even non-existent.

Maybe it is because we live in such a visual society, or perhaps it is because we have just become so used to it, but noise is everywhere. I would sure love to live in a world where I could have an afternoon of true peace and quiet.

If They Can Be Friends, Why Can't We?

This summer Victoria, Dylan and I stayed at Victoria's parent's place and took walks on the beautiful country roads in rural Vermont. One day, we were surprised to see the following: Friendly Birds

If you look closely, you'll see two ducks (a male and female), a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. They all seem to get along just fine. Interestingly, the rooster leads the pack and all of them generally stand behind him.

This reminds me of a recent story about a baby hippo forming a strong bond with a giant male tortoise:

Turtle and Hippo Getting Along

You would think that if these birds can cohabitate, and this baby hippo and turtle can get along, that people could stop killing each other. I know, it's obviously not that simple, but it sure is fascinating how we think of ourselves as an enlightened species.

What Really Causes Obesity

Obviously, I am not a nutritionist or food scientist, but there seem to be some obvious reasons why the majority of Americans are overweight or obese that few scientists are addressing, First, let’s get this out on the table: most Americans are overweight. According to a USA Today article (I know, not the most scientific of journals, but what I could find in a pinch), 62% of adults and 34% of children are overweight or obese. Adults are considered overweight if they are one or more pounds over a healthy weight. They are obese if they are thirty or more pounds overweight.

What causes this? We all love the easy scapegoat: it’s my genes; there’s something wrong with my body, i.e. physical damage with my pituitary or thyroid glands, etc. But what really causes overeating most of the time? What’s really the underlying problem?

Personally, I think the industrial age is the culprit. Crazy? Hear me out.

With modern machinery, mechanical farming and pesticides came fast food. With processed food came additives, preservatives and flavoring agents. I think the true culprits in our obesity epidemic are high-fructose corn syrup, white flour, white sugar, salt and trans fats. It’s that simple. If we stayed away from these foods entirely and even banned them, we would be a much healthier society. The problem is that these ingredients are in most foods the public-at-large eats, especially at easily accessible fast food restaurants.

Another issue is that since we no longer eat primarily—or entirely—locally grown, seasonal produce. Produce is now genetically modified and engineered to withstand traveling great distances so it won’t bruise or decay. This is why no one likes veggies and even fruits. They often taste horrible.

If you talk to older folks, they will tell you that tomatoes used to taste better. Strawberries never had that awful-tasting white center. Peaches were sweet and juicy. Sure, you can still get great produce if you know where to find it, or if you are a farmer, or if you purchase locally-grown, organic produce at the local co-op, but the majority of Americans are unaware and are eating bland, tasteless, cardboard-like veggies, especially at fast food restaurants. Therefore, the food industry compensates by adding high fructose corn syrup, oil and salt to enhance food that should taste good to begin with. It is no wonder why so many Americans hate veggies.

One move that would help cure all of this is to ban high fructose corn syrup altogether and put a limit as to how much salt should be in a given serving of food. We should also standardize what a serving size is. How many times have you held a plastic Coke bottle that says serving size: 2? A small soda bottle sold in a vending machine should never have two servings. Of course, you know that the person purchasing it will often drink the whole thing.

Furthermore, the government should not be allowed to subsidize any industry that contributes to the obesity problem. America’s poor cannot afford fresh produce, so they fill up their grocery carts with highly processed garbage. There should be hefty taxes on junk food and large subsidies for fresh fruit and vegetable growers.

We also need to ban factory farming and subsidize small, local farms. A farmer who sells produce to his own community should be able to make a comfortable middle-class living—period.

We should also ban pesticides. Millions of people know this, yet the government lacks the courage to actually put this in motion. If pesticides were banned, crops would have to be rotated more often and grown on smaller plots, and grown together. This is why Native Americans grew the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash:

“The corn provides a climbing stalk for the beans; the beans provide nitrogen to the soil to nourish the corn; and the squash leaves spread out, preventing competition from unwanted vegetation and shade for corn’s shallow roots. This kind of intelligent farming is more difficult to do on a factory farm, but maybe this kind of farming would do away with factory farming all together.”

Heirloom Tomatoes

Another problem is that we grow too few varieties of veggies and fruits. If people had more variety, they might enjoy eating produce. Anyone who has tried heirloom tomatoes can tell you this. They taste fantastic, but since they don’t look or even taste like the cardboard tomato wedges plopped into that McDonald’s salad, people are not interested. The public is afraid of the unfamiliar. Yet, eating the same thing day after day, your whole life can be incredibly boring, and so you hate those yucky veggies even more.

There no easy solution to the obesity epidemic, but we can start by electing officials that are accountable and not subservient to industry lobbyists. We need a government that acts on the will of the people, not corporations. We need a government that looks out for our best interests.

What is the immediate solution? Purchase as much locally grown, in season, organic vegetables and fruits as possible. Not only will they taste better, but you’ll be supporting your local, community farmers and helping to put an end to these horrible factory-farming practices as well. Avoid trans fats and highly processed foods. If we all pitch in, we can get our collective health back more quickly.

The Future of Personal Renewable Energy

There is a special section in the recent Wired magazine that highlights their annual Wired World’s Fair, aptly titled NextFest. There is one invention in particular that caught my eye—and my breath: the 6.5 foot tall AVX400 turbine made by AeroVironment, Inc.. It is not yet advertised on their site, but this Treehugger article explains it well. Here is a photo from Treehugger:

The AVX400 turbine has amazing potential: co-op communities in NYC could install these on the tops of apartment buildings, and it’s not like they would be an eyesore, as most NYC apartment buildings are ugly to begin with. If the company manufactures and sells millions, it will only be a matter of time until custom-designed turbines are made that match the building's décor and the surrounding environment.

What it’s really about is scale: chipping away at this problem little by little, one person or business at a time.

The possibilities are endless. What about solar power? One company, Solardyne, makes solar panels and other renewable energy equipment and high efficiency appliances, but cells are currently too expensive and the initial cost is off-putting for most middle class folks.

Personal waterpower could also prove valuable. There are hundreds of millions of homes around the world that could easily install personal hydropower (waterpower) turbines in small rivers. They could be designed in such a way as to not affect wildlife, and perhaps to be virtually invisible. For many folks, it’s about whether these devices are eyesores or not. Although personally, I think transmission lines, power plants and smog are bigger eyesores, but hey—everyone has a different opinion.

Renewable energy devices could be attached to every single machine we own. In fact, many devices we use day-to-day already use this technology: solar-powered calculators, watches and clocks, laptop batteries, etc. Now we need to apply these ideas to everything else. What about solar cells that can be easily attached to your water heater? What if you live in an area where the wind and the sun are strong, so both types of power could offset each other?

I often wonder why scientists have not figured out a way of harnessing the lost energy of vehicular travel. With millions of cars traveling the highways, the least we could do is figure out a way of capturing every last bit of energy they release. Perhaps highways could be designed so that the constant pressure of cars and trucks could power stop lights. I am not an environmental scientist, and this seems tricky, but there has to be a way.

And what about health clubs? Every exercise machine should be rigged wth a Pedal-A-Watt Stationary Bike Power Generator. Perhaps large health clubs could pay their electricity bill by retrofitting each machine with this device or something similar.

To some, these renewable energy devices might seem highly inconsequential, but we need to look at the big picture. It’s about whole buildings and communities embracing this technology and chipping away at the problem little by little. If our government and others around the world will not tackle the global warming problem and our dependence on oil head-on, then it is time for all of us to take personal responsibility and fix this problem ourselves.

Unfortunately, most people don’t even know that these devices exist. The public is not really educated about the potential of these inventions. Sure, we see an occasional article in the news, but usually there is some sort of negative tone attached to it that dissuades everyone from giving this a chance. Many of the papers, magazines and TV programs are in some way run by businesses that are somehow attached to the oil industry, so many amazing inventions never see the light of day. This is common: throughout history, great ideas have been bought and shelved or considered too strange to manufacture on a grand scale. Think Nikola Tesla.

It seems to me that if you put the power of the people behind renewable energy sources, they could really take off. In the end, it is all about cost, availability and personal responsibility. So far, only products like electric cars and solar-powered laptop batteries and calculators are mainstream. If families, individuals and small businesses could easily purchase affordable devices that would either offset or replace their reliance on the power grid, we might be on our way to a much less oil-based economy.

Where The Sidewalks Begin

During the past few years, I have done a LOT of driving all across the country. Something that you'll notice, if you have a moment to actually get out of your car, is that there are virtually no sidewalks in most American towns, particularly in suburbs. Unless you've had your head in the sand—or in a tub of ice cream—you know that America has an obesity problem. This all centers on cars (and high-fructose corn syrup, but that's another story), which inevitably, currently centers on the oil industry. One of the surest ways to fight big oil and obesity is to build more sidewalks. Think about it: this will create more jobs, everyone can walk more and ride bikes, get fresh air and drive LESS.

In addition to sidewalks, every town in America should have excellent walking trails. I just spent a part of my summer at the Copland House in Cortrandt, NY, where I had a residency. There was a local trail called the Briarcliff Peekskill Trailway that I hiked almost every day. It was so wonderful to have that nearby, but guess how many people I ran into on the trail? Just four: a woman walking her dog and a family of three riding their ATV recreational vehicle—that's it. Perhaps it's that all of the locals go to Bear Mountain, but I think it's that:

A. Many of them don't even know it exists. B. They're all working so they have no time for trails. C. There are NO SIDEWALKS!

It's extremely difficult to get to this trail unless you drive. There are no sidewalks leading to the entrances, and only one entrance has a patch of dirt for parking. There were may days when Victoria and I took Dylan, walking along the road, worried that we would be hit by a car since there were not only no sidewalks, but few or no shoulders either. We were usually the only people walking anywhere in this area, so we felt out of place, like the locals were looking at us strangely, thinking "what's wrong with them? Why aren't they driving? Mybe their car died." This is one trail in one small town, but you get the point.

One reason New Yorkers (city, not state) are generally in better physical shape than many other folks is that they walk everywhere. This is a very broad generalization, but arriving back in the city, it just seemed like people are a little more in shape. Obviously, NYC has problems, such as too much car exhaust (note to self: post another entry on why all NYC busses and taxi's should be electric and general traffic should be banned), but at least most people walk.

If there's an organization out there that promotes the building of sidewalks in America's cities and towns, let me know, because I would love to join.

My First Entry

Wow—I never thought I would create a blog. For those of you who actually read this (all two of you), don't worry: future postings will most likely not be this long, but hopefully you'll cut me some slack as this is my very first entry. I finally relented and decided to create a blog because I've had a lot of ideas going through my head lately that are somewhat brief, but hopefully interesting, and/or are not appropriate for formal essays on my website. Also, I occasionally feel like writing a diary-like entry, but the thought of pulling a Rorem and writing daily entries, whether it's interesting or not, is just not me. I think it needs to be somewhat spontaneous.

This also took me a while to figure out because I was confused about which software to use. I did a lot of research and finally ended up using WordPress, but I still need to figure out how to integrate this with my site, which I desperately need to update, but I'll get to get to that this fall. I chose this black "skin" for now (it looks so "cool" and composer-like, don't you think?) but I'll change it later on to look integrated with my site.

Currently, my blog is divided into a few different categories:

• Music • Environment • Family • Misc. Ideas

I might add more later, or even remove a couple (or create separate blogs?) but for now, this seems pretty reasonable.

So, why did I choose these topics? Music is obvious: I'm a musician, so of course, I want to write about it, especially since I love what I do. What might not make sense to some is why I have an environment category. For those who don't know me well, I have always been passionate about environmental issues and am vegan, so I want to start jotting down some ideas that have been floating around in my head and see what comments I get back. As for my family, my beautiful wife Victoria just gave birth to Dylan, our wonderful, amazing baby boy, and I have so many comments about him, his toys (what's with that Baby Einstein crap? More on that later...), his children's books, etc. that I just can't hold back anymore—I just have to say something! Check back in a few days for writings on this topic. As for misc. ideas, I have way too many for one lifetime, and hopefully someone out there will see something interesting and take it to the next level.

On a related note, a film I often mention when talking about not having enough time is Multiplicity with Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell. Not the greatest film of all time, but don't you sometimes wish you were multiple people? One to do the work, another to go to that recital you're dreading, etc.? I know: just like in the film, it would ultimately be more trouble than it's worth, but it's a fascinating thought.

I guess I'm done for now—back to composing. If you've made it this far, thanks! Please feel free to make comments...