Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Day of the Autodidact

Oh what did you see, my blue-eyed son

and what did you see, my darling young one?

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Bob Dylan

“Therefore watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise; redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:15

This post continues the theme I have been considering in my posts, The Liars' Channel, Hunting Fox (And Other Varmints), and to a lesser extent, in Crime, The Informal Economy, And Dark-Skinned People.

I still remember the day, over thirteen years ago, when I bought my first guitar. That decision was made under strange circumstances, as I was in a strange state of mind – you see, I was tired of the music I had listened to for years, I no longer believed that most bands and singers on the radio had anything new or insightful to say, I more than half didn't want to buy a guitar at all, and I thought I was making a dumb decision that I would soon abandon. Anyway, I bought the cheapest guitar I could find, an entry-level Samick, along with a Hal Leonard book of chord shapes and a copy of You Can Play Guitar by a guy named Peter Pickow.

The Samick mostly sat in my bedroom closet for a few weeks while I tried to figure out what an acoustic guitar was good for. At times I would pick it up and try to play some of the chords I saw in the chord book. I also listened to some pop songs on the radio and tried to copy them. However, listening to that sort of thing convinced me even more that my guitar was useless and that most musicians had run out of things to say.

Then an acquaintance of mine started loaning me CD's by bands labeled “acoustic alternative”. Intrigued, I started listening, and was turned on to some intricate, acoustic guitar-driven, complex music with complex lyrics. I was hooked.

Trying to play the stuff was a challenge, though. For one, I didn't know what I was doing. The Peter Pickow book wasn't much help either, as its primary goal seemed to be teaching people to play yesterday's pop hits. It wasn't a very useful guide to navigating the fretboard and the large world of music theory. The things I heard on CD's continued to be a mystery to me, a mystery I could not reproduce. Lastly, playing up the neck (especially barre chords) was very hard with the Samick.

One day I decided to replace the Samick, and bought a Mitchell guitar from Guitar Center (hey, I was still a cheapskate), along with an beginner's book on fingerstyle playing. The fingerstyle book was a good introduction to right-hand technique and altered tunings, but it wasn't the fretboard/music theory roadmap that I had hoped for. Also, the Mitchell was even harder to play up the neck than the Samick had been. I also started taking lessons from a teacher at a local music store. His form of “teaching” consisted of looking at the book I was trying to study, then telling me, “Yep. Go ahead, keep practicing that.” I stopped seeing him after only a few weeks.

I might have given up guitar altogether, except that someone loaned me a CD of a totally unplugged Dave Matthews concert. It was just him and another guitarist, and the things they did with their guitars were amazing. That, and someone suggested to me that if I really wanted to advance in my playing, I needed a better ax. Soon afterward, I picked up a Larrivee, and haven't looked back since.

Hearing Dave Matthews (and later, other players like Paul Simon (on an unplugged Simon and Garfunkel live album), John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Pierre Bensusan, and others) inspired and pushed me to really learn my instrument. I soon found that the weakness of the Peter Pickow book was shared by many books targeted for people just starting to play: that their aim was simply to teach people whatever pop songs were popular at the time the book was written. I had to spend many hours in music stores to find books that promised something more.

In all that research, I began to put together a road map of what I wanted in learning the guitar: first, an understanding of music theory in general; second, a thorough knowledge of the fretboard; and third an application of theory to the fretboard, such that I could compose (on the fly, if necessary), while working within the unique strengths and limitations of the guitar. After the disappointing experience I had with my “teacher,” I decided I'd have to figure out all these things on my own. So I bought the books I believed to be helpful, and got to work. It's been a long journey thus far, and I still feel as if I'm just beginning (although I did teach myself to play John Renbourn's version of The English Dance).

In teaching myself the guitar, I was functioning as an autodidact. What I learned, I had to figure out for myself, due to the lack of an adequate teacher. I had to construct a knowledge system for myself, and I had to learn to find the missing pieces of that knowledge system for myself, by myself. That experience is something of a parable for the kind of thinking that's needed by those who would understand and navigate our present times.

The trouble with trying to understand and navigate these times is that there are rich and powerful men and women who don't want most of us to succeed in this task. They want to navigate us into enslavement to them, while we remain deluded about our present situation. Their ultimate goal is to consume us until there's nothing left of us. This is easier to do to willing, duped victims than it is with victims who understand their situation and who are trying to fight back.

The task of these rich people is aided by the fact that they own most of the media in Western (European and American) society, and that most of us eat up their stories like cereal. We've been trained to do so by memories of our parents who sat at the breakfast table and read their newspapers and watched TV news at night and believed every word. And who knows, maybe many of those writers and talking heads weren't lying then, but many of them are now. How can a person find out the truth for themselves?

Well, let's take the climate change controversy for starters. Many conservative commentators, along with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp are foaming at the mouth with allegations that scientific warnings about global warming are simply part of some liberal conspiracy to keep Americans from getting rich. They point to hacked e-mails and they scream “Climategate!” and allege that climate change scientists have made such serious mistakes that their case holds no water.

These climate change deniers have their disciples and true believers, including one gentleman I know, an engineer with over thirty years experience and some post-graduate coursework, yet who reads Fox News at lunch and believes every word. How he can live with such a cognitive disconnect I have no idea, as he took chemistry and physics just like I did, and he ought to know how carbon dioxide absorbs longwave infrared radiation. If I were in his shoes, I'd at least want to hear both sides of the story. So, having heard the Fox News side of the story, where would I look to hear the other side?

I might start by looking on the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and downloading some of their publications, like their “Fourth Assessment Report,” as well as some of their supporting material. If I really wanted to be intellectually honest, I'd read such publications completely. If there was something I didn't understand (like some of the math or statistical analysis, for instance), I'd figure out what knowledge I needed to gain in order to understand. In short, I'd become literate enough regarding the science to make a judgment for myself – and I'd do it by going directly to the source. And if I wasn't satisfied with the IPCC alone, I'd consult other climate change scientists such as NASA's climatologist Dr. James Hansen. I might also check old newspaper records of average annual temperatures in various locales over the last fifty years. I might even visit some towns on the Oregon and California coasts and talk to residents who have seen the sea bury their properties in recent years. Then I'd make my judgment. At least that's how I'd do things if I wanted to be intellectually honest.

How many people know how to sort fact from fiction regarding Iran? Or health care reform? Or our economy and the causes of its present weakness? Or environmental damage? How many Americans are content merely to say, “Well, I heard on the news...” Are there any Americans are willing to do the hard work of furnishing themselves with an accurate picture of the world? How many are willing to consult multiple sources, to do the work of verifying the accuracy of sources, to do research, to do the math? “It's hard!” some will say, but then again, so is learning to play the guitar.