In Defense Of Decency
The month of August started with me attending a wedding. The most noteworthy point about this isn’t that it was the first wedding I had been to in over a decade, nor was it that it was my first socially distanced and masked wedding. The most interesting thing about it was that I heard the adjective ‘amazing’ used to describe the bride and the groom.
At the wedding while we were waiting for the bride to show up, I got to talking to her best friend. She gushed that she is really happy for her friend as she is marrying an amazing man. She was echoing how the bride had referred to him a couple of days earlier. In the bride’s case I put this down to temporary insanity, otherwise known as falling in love, combined with the excitement of their upcoming nuptials. That time I held my tongue, but I couldn’t help but wonder how can someone who voted for Boris Johnson be ammeezzzin? This time at the wedding, however, I couldn’t help but respond “let’s hope so.” She was insistent that “he is really an amazing guy”. I replied: “we shall see”. She looked horrified that I should express my opinion and doubt her judgment of the groom. I wasn’t doubting her, I was simply baffled by how she could be so sure that someone she had met a handful of times and known for less than a year would be amazing. I went on to say that the groom was fortunate to be marrying the bride as she is a decent human being. She seemed offended that I would refer to her friend as just decent, showing the same ‘how dare you’ expression on her face as she had earlier in our conversation. I’ve known the bride her entire life (she is my niece) so I believe my assessment of her is more accurate. I was reminded of a while back when I was talking with a friend of mine and I referred to her husband, also a friend, as a decent guy. She responded, annoyed: “is that all you have to say about my husband?” When did decent become an offensive word?
I grew up hearing my mother say: “A decent child works hard to get good grades at school”, “You can’t eat your food and not offer to share it with others in the room without food. That’s not decent behaviour!”, “The decent thing to do is to do your chores without me having to ask you over and over again”, “It is common decency to help others in need”, and “Is that the decent thing to do?” For me the word decent was the moral compass my mother had planted in my head. I had to look up the word again in the dictionary to make sure I wasn’t missing something. It still means what I thought it did–thoughtful, kind, honorable, reliable, etc.
What about amazing? Again, it’s as I remember–astonishing, remarkable, fabulous, marvelous, etc. I wondered how any human being can warrant such superlative praise? I figured they could if you’ve only known them for a short while, not long enough for their human flaws to show. Or you know them in only one aspect of their lives—someone could be an incredible pianist and be a poor partner. Fabulously beautiful people are usually putting on a show, like an Instagram influencer or Beyoncé. I’m sure that in over four decades alive I have never met an amazing person, at least not one I have known well and for a long time.
I have, however, known many decent human beings, people who I have watched struggle over years with the challenges of life and their own flaws to make sound moral judgments. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, but they mostly do. These are the people you can depend on. It dawned on me that these days when I hear decent used as an adjective to describe a person it is used to express their mediocrity, which is a shame. For me, to be decent is realistically the best a person can be. Perhaps Joe Biden, the US presidential candidate will make decent fashionable again.
Oh wait, there is a being I know that perhaps deserves the adjective amazing. Who is this? El Algo! Wellll, technically el Algo is more of a thing, but I feel since it has been my loyal companion every day for years while I work on my computer, I ought to consider it as a being (of some sort) hence the capitalized name. El Algo, a.k.a. Amazon Music’s algorithm, and I met because I wanted to get my Prime membership’s worth so I thought I’d check out what else was included other than free 2 day shipping. At first, I just wanted some non-distracting background music. I liked Miles Davis so I settled for a couple of the jazz playlists el Algo offered. To my surprise I really got into them. I discovered the music of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Chick Corea and Horace Silver. For the first year or so of our ‘relationship’ I pretty much just listened to these jazz playlists and occasionally the Classical Piano For Work playlist. To be honest, to start with el Algo’s offerings were a bit limited, mostly modern pop music which I found rather dull. But over the years its library has expanded. It has curated for me (I like to think I have a special place in its database) playlists for reading, dinner parties, cardio work out and for annoying my neighbors (the latter I curated myself). It has even offered me music for enhancing creativity, learning and success. Has it worked? No idea, but they sound good and help me focus!
Nevertheless, it was only in the last couple of weeks that I could say that el Algo has been truly amazing. Recently (not sure when exactly) I noticed that el Algo decided after years of paying attention to my taste that every week it would put together a discovery playlist “exclusively” for me, “updated every Monday”, to introduce me to new music I might like. Initially the tracks were hit or miss but the last two weekly updates have been fantastic. I had to stop myself from adding every single track on the list to my library. If I do that then it would know EVEN more about my taste. I like to keep it guessing and to leave room for surprises.
I got a lovely surprise last week from the albums of the Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Omar Sosa. I had to complete an administrative task I had been putting off for months. It was late at night and I needed some motivation and companionship so I turned to el Algo. I searched my library and picked the album Ile by Omar Sosa. My plan was to do just half an hour of work daily (it’s a really boring task) until the task was completed. A couple of hours later I was still at it as the sublimely mellow melodies and vocals had hypnotized me. I had it on playback until I was too tired to continue working. The next evening I was strangely eager to continue the task. I felt like I had been on one of those dates you went on because your friends had pushed you to and you promised yourself that you would only stay for one drink, but you end up staying till the bar closed because you were enjoying yourself so much. You finish the date by making plans to go on a second date the very next day.
Of course I know that the likelihood of el Algo continuing to perform at this amazing level is low. Contrary to what tech companies would like us to believe, algorithms are created by humans thus they are not immune to the flaws of their creators. I’m sure it will have its off periods again soon enough and offer me some pretty mediocre music, but in the meantime let me play some of its fabulous offerings forward:
Steven Halpen is so prolific a musician that he has music for any occasion from massage to enhancing self esteem. His whole ethos on music is that it should be healing. Amen to that! I regularly turn on the albums Enhancing Creativity, Enhancing Success and Enhancing Learning.
SEED Ensemble, Wake (For Grenfell)
Mor Karbasi, Fuerame a Bañar a Orillas Del Rio
Shakaba and the Ancestors, The Observer
Another recent gem I came across is the documentary series Black In Latin America by the historian Louis Henry Gates Jr. I first saw it in 2011 when it came out on PBS and I never forgot it. So I was really happy to see it is now available with my Prime membership (Yep! Getting my money’s worth), I had to watch it again. Prof. Gates did an excellent job showcasing the little known history of black people in Latin America.