Two Mules and Practicing

Everything is political these days.  The other day my dad (that’d be John Amos) wrote about the struggle to keep the smallest parts of his life free of politics and to be a compassionate friend to people he can’t always understand.  I can relate to that, but I frequently run into people who cannot.  I sometimes get questions from people who wonder why the struggle to understand or be compassionate toward people is worth undertaking at all.  I guess I get that too.

When I was in school studying music I became obsessed with how people “practice.”  I would spend hours and hours every day, not studying or reading, but playing a handful of notes over and over again.  Transposing them.  Transforming them.  Inverting them.  Improvising with them.  Playing them in a practice room, in the hallway, in the atrium out front with the high ceilings.

One thing that I was always absorbed by was the idea that I should always know exactly what I’m practicing.  It’s easy to practice a scale and say “I’m practicing scales,” but in reality I’m also practicing the way that I hold the pick, the way that I strike the string my right hand, the way that I fret the string with my left, the steadiness of my time, my ability to negotiate different subdivisions of time, the speed at which I’m able to play.  Practicing one particular passage of a song is great unless I’m practicing it too slow or too fast or only ever starting it from the beginning or being sloppy at a slow tempo with my right hand or repeatedly drifting too far and stumbling into parts of the music I don’t yet know.

Most important was the idea that you can practice all sorts of things without ever practicing making music.  Actually sitting down with nothing to play and just making something up is a skill in and of itself and is easy to neglect amongst the more regimented parts of a practice routine.

I’ve started thinking about a lot of things this way.  Maybe most things.  Reading doesn’t prepare me to argue or to think or to be original.  It gives me tools that make me better at arguing or more logical in my thinking or more creative at times.  But thinking is its own skill, honed by repetition.  Practicing working through thoughts is the only way to be better at working through thoughts.  Arguing is its own skill, honed by repetition.  Crossing swords with others – peers, friends, or New York Times op-ed columnists – over and over again is the only way to get better.

It’s interesting to take that idea into everything that I find myself doing on a regular basis.  When I argue with people about politics, what am I really practicing?  To ask that question is not to question the value of the skill or minimize the importance of the argument, but really just to remember that I am (or was once) something resembling a complete person.  To recognize that maybe there are other parts of myself that I should be sharpening and shaping as well.

That everything today is extraordinarily political isn’t something I can wish away, and I, like my father, have no interest in burying my head in the sand.  I’m also quite sure that the thorough politicization of my entire world is only striking now because, only a couple years ago, I had the luxury of it not being so.  Others have never had that simple pleasure and have struggled for decades to separate their lives – the validity of their marriage, their access to health care, the reproductive choices, or their full citizenship – from partisan politics.

I think what we can occasionally overlook is that the sort of understanding and compassion and friendship that my father is struggling to preserve is not incidental.  To keep the small parts of one’s life free of politics is a comfort, but to live a life that transcends partisan divisions is sort of the purpose of the whole thing.  On some level I think the act of being kind or compassionate is a sort of practice.  The ritual of expanding that part of myself or preserving it for a time that might still come when I find I’m able to use it more.