Monday, March 29, 2010


"There were times where I sort of looked at my life thinking, well I can't do this and I can't do that. And you keep on concentrating on the things that you wish you had or the things that you wish you didn't have. And you sort of forget what you do have."
—Nick Vujicic

"For it is my contention that the valorization of musical composition so typically associated with a figure like Beethoven has a way of drawing attention away from the processes that produce music—not the creative processes of the individual composer ... but the deeper, less obvious contributions of more ambiguous and complex actors like society and technology."

There's a video that's been making its way around Facebook. It features Nick Vujicic, a man with no arms, no legs, and the sunniest disposition you've ever seen. Interspersed with his motivational speeches about a "life without limits" we see shots of him doing things you wouldn't have imagined he could do.

There he is diving into a swimming pool.

... moving a soccer ball across the field.

... fishing.

... steering a motorboat.

... holding a golf club between his neck and shoulder, swinging the club, and sinking the ball.

Called No Arms, No Legs, No Worries, the four-minute video is meant to sell his DVD of the same name, but various viewers have found it inspirational in its own right. So do I. Sort of.

The truth is that, for me, the clips stir up decidedly mixed emotions. Part of this is my churlish tendency to become resentful when anyone attempts to cram a positive attitude down my throat. So, because this guy has no arms and no legs and he's found happiness, I am never allowed to feel sad again?

Better yet, should I fail to feel compassion for those who occasionally get frustrated with their disabilities or chronic illnesses? Vujicic has managed to overcome his, after all. Why should I be burdened with the sadness of people who face much greater obstacles than I do? They should just get over it!

Another thing I found offputting had to do with the editing of the short film. After marveling at Vujicic's ability to do things like dive into the swimming pool (which is really quite impressive), I'd think, Hey, wait a minute. How'd he get up there in the first place?

Because that's what we never see. The person lifting him onto the diving board. The person handing him the fishing pole or the golf club. The person driving him to all the locales where he can show off his amazing abilities.

They are amazing, mind you. The fact that he needs others to assist him doesn't take away from that at all. And I'm sure that in real life, Vujicic is intensely grateful for those helpers. But their total absence in the video implied that they didn't matter.

For all intents and purposes, they didn't exist.

* * *

I'm singling out this video because it's garnered a lot of attention, but it's just one example of a larger phenomenon. We applaud individual achievements. We ignore all those people in the background who helped make the achievements possible.

Being a musician, I especially notice this in music. Most of us profess admiration for our favorite artists, lauding their genius. We don't spare a lot of thought for the people and things that elevate them. Accompanying performers, sound engineers, producers, technology ... all conspire to make the artists in the spotlight sound more brilliant they ever would have on their own.

Sometimes we take those helpers for granted even when we're the ones they're helping.

So, I'm taking this opportunity to encourage all of us to think about them. I'm not going to use the word gratitude. It's a wonderful thing to possess, but like a positive outlook, not so much fun when anyone tries to shame you into feeling it. Instead I speak simply of acknowledgment—giving a nod to everyone who makes us better than we are.

I'll start. In no particular order, and with deep apologies to everyone I've inevitably missed, here's a list of people who have positioned me on my own personal diving board.


My parents, for subsidizing all those piano lessons. My mother, in particular, sat with me and kept me on track for the first few years as I practiced. I never gave it a moment's thought at the time, but in retrospect that had to have been incredibly boring for her.

My grandmother, for donating her Kimball upright piano to the piano-lessons cause and footing the bill for moving it from her house (in Ohio) to ours (in Illinois).

My first piano teacher, Allan Stahl. He had the patience of a saint, and his lessons went beyond how to play the instrument. He taught me how to write musical notation when I was ten. He also taught ear training from almost day one. I had no idea how unusual the latter was until I went to music camp as a teenager and discovered that no one else could tell a fourth from a fifth.

My other piano teachers, Eric Olsen and Lira Makarova . Eric got me to take technique more seriously. Lira explained it to me in a way that finally clicked.

My friend MJ, for songwriting advice, encouragement, and collaboration. If not for him, I might have stopped writing after my first song.

My friend Scot, aka DeppityBob, the first person to suggest that I should take voice lessons. He said my singing wasn't as bad as I thought I was ... that it had potential. I didn't quite believe him at the time, but he planted the seed.

My vocal coaches, Wendy Adams, Eric Hansen, and Joy Willow. Wendy gave me power. Eric gave me subtlety. Joy gave me control.

Ron the Drummer. The first time we got together to jam—back when I was still working out major kinks in the whole singing thing—he heard what my voice could sound like instead of what it did sound like. Lucky for me. Not only is he an amazing drummer, but he understands what serves the songs he's helping arrange. His drumming makes the stuff I write sound like it's supposed to sound, and he does it with very little direction from me.

Mick O'Brien, who dropped a bunch of money on us so we could make our first album.

My aunt Jane, whose donation subsidized the making of the little plastic discs. People say CDs are dead, but it's hard to sell downloads at a live gig.

Our producer, Drew Raison of Big Sky Audio, for going above and beyond the call of duty. Our album was so much better than it would have been if we'd been left to our own devices. Many of the songs I write today are better because of the feedback he gave me then.

Studio musicians Mike Witmer and Matt Hepler. They also made our album better through their talent and creative input.

The boyfriend, for talking me off the ledge when I've felt like no one else would care about our music.

Everyone who's listened to us and liked what they heard.

* * *

Your turn! Which people have helped you get to where you are now? Who makes it possible for you to be your best self? Post answers in the comments, or put them on your own blog and link to them here.


Fireblossom said...

I have a lifelong habit of finding out, if I can, who wrote the songs I like, not just who sings them. It's led me to much music I might otherwise have missed. Including Leonard Cohen and Laura Nyro, my co-idols.

I know just what you mean about inspirational stuff. I hate that stuff! Here is little Jeff Bumble, who suffers from/doesn't have/was born in poverty-stricken fillintheblank, and yet, by age 12, has invented air and made 150 platinum recordings while curing cancer as a hobby. Wtf? I can't even say good morning until I've had coffee and checked my email.

Jannie Funster said...

I can so relate to the boring sitting beside Kelly as she practices her piano. :) But I know it's one of the most important things I can do!!

WONDERFUL post!! I too stand on the shoulders of many many giants.


DeppityBob said...

I have mixed feelings about your post. Pardon me while I ramble. I'm usually ambivalent about inspirational stories. Some of them are exaggerated, and all of them suggest that with a little pluck and the right attitude, the able-bodied can do anything they set their minds on. Except that's not true. Not everyone has the mental fortitude to accomplish big goals. Some peoples' lives just haven't taken them down the path they need to prepare themselves for disaster. These videos can actually discourage disabled people who don't have the mental equipment to meet challenges such as this guy.

People experience things differently. This seems so true as to be obvious, but there are hordes of people on this planet who think anyone can pull themselves out of anything with the right application of bootstraps, pluck, vision, and determination. But the combined experiences that make one person resilient to life's challenges can leave another crippled. What videos like this do, for some, is create a negative view of the disabled who don't drag themselves out of their conditions...and that is not only the view of outsiders, but of some afflicted people themselves.

On the other hand, I like videos like this, even though I have a great many challenges myself and I am not nearly as plucky as this guy. I like seeing the one guy who can overcome his challenges. I can feel good *for him* without turning on myself or others. I can be glad that *that one person* has overcome much of his disabilities without blaming others who don't. My compassion for others isn't daunted by one person's achievement, and my respect for that achievement isn't repressed because of those who don't. I'm just cheered by the one guy who "got out," the way prisoners still in prison might cheer on the one who escaped. We can live vicariously through him, a little.

But the one thing you say that's most potent is about the helpers. Yeah, that's really true, and I guess I hadn't really thought of it before. Yes, somebody had to hand him to golf club. Presumably, someone drove him to the golf course. You know what would be nice? A documentary, or just a short YouTube video, about the helpers. The ones who help make people like this guy so sunny and positive. Me, I think he'd do well no matter his circumstances, but it would be good to see credit go to those who support.

cinderkeys said...

Because I am evil, I'm heartened to know that I'm not the only person who feels a twinge of resentment when presented with those inspirational Jeff Bumble stories. On the other hand, Dep's not wrong either. I do get that the inspirationarazzi aren't *trying* to make us feel bad. Mostly. :)

My post would have been tighter if I'd left that bit out and skipped right to my objection concerning the helpers. I ultimately decided to keep it in because of a post about ableism I read a while back.

As for the helpers, they don't just make him more sunny and positive. They keep him from dying of starvation. He needs somebody to get his groceries, help him deal with toileting, etc.

cinderkeys said...

Oh, and Jannie: your daughter doesn't appreciate the time investment you're making re piano lessons yet, but she will someday. :)