On ukuleles and politics…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

(Warning: Really bad metaphor ahead! Don’t read if you are sensitive to overwrought literary conceits.)

For my fortieth birthday I bought myself a ukulele.  Except for a few dutiful piano lessons in Jr. High, I had never played an instrument.  I thought it might be interesting to celebrate middle age by stretching my brain in a new direction.  I picked ukulele because…4-strings… how hard could it be?

I was partly right. Playing the ukulele wasn’t all that hard.  In fact, with a little practice, I had a great time playing it!  I fell in with a few goofy friends from Baylor and we formed a little ukulele band. (The “Free to Be Uke” Players — get it?)  We had a blast!  We even did a little Christmas sing-a-long in the Student Union Building much to the – delight? bemusement? annoyance?  – of the students passing by on their way to take their final exams.

The hard part about the ukulele wasn’t learning how to play it, it was learning how to tune the darn thing.   This was so frustrating to me that sometimes I tried to skip the tuning and just play…but, it sounded terrible, and that wasn’t any fun.  Usually (probably out of a desire to preserve his own sanity)  my much-more-musical-than-me husband would end up volunteering to tune it for me.  I would hand it over, and he would patiently pluck each string, listening carefully while he tightened and loosened first one then another until finally – magically, it seemed to me — he would strum a few chords, and it would all sound good together.

I haven’t played my ukulele in a few years now, but I still think pretty often about the notion of “tuning.”  Tuning is hard to do, but it’s a simple idea really. A string is stretched between two end points. The quality of the music depends on finding and maintaining the right tension between those end points.

It’s interesting (at least to me) to note that no one would ever say that one or the other end point between which the ukulele string is stretched is “right” or “wrong.” That doesn’t even make any sense.  Both end points are necessary.  The tension between them is what makes the music possible, and adjusting that tension is what makes the music sound good or bad.

It’s a simple idea, but I had never thought about it before, and it struck me as pretty profound.  It helps me understand what is necessary when two true and good things seem to be opposed to each other – a condition that comes up constantly.

Think of all the pairs of “end points” you tune between on a regular basis in your personal life: striving and resting, independence and interdependence, confidence and humility… One end point isn’t “right” and the other “wrong.”  They are both important.  We have no choice but to take on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes rewarding task of loosening, tightening and listening to get the tension right between them so that the music of our lives sounds good.

I’m thinking about all this today because I just got home from a weekend trip to Austin to attend a thing called “Tribfest.”  It’s basically an annual 3-day political “wonk-fest” put on by The Texas Tribune, my favorite news source for all things having to do with Texas politics.  Tribfest is billed as “your chance to engage with politicians, industry leaders and journalists as they explore issues critical to Texas.” While there I got to hear, among other things, interviews with  John Kasich and Ted Cruz, and bi-partisan panel discussions on all kinds of topics from the STAAR test to the appropriate relationship between faith and government.   The conversations were by turns fascinating, frustrating, terrifying and hopeful.

Throughout the weekend, the idea of “tuning” has been playing in the back of my mind.  The whole Tribfest was full to the brim with examples of the exact kinds of things I’m talking about above — true and good ideas that seem opposed to each other:

  • Personal freedom/public good…
  • Regulations to protect our environment/flexibility to do business in a profitable way…
  • Giving our teachers the freedom to teach/holding our school systems accountable for learning…
  • Wise frugality/ wise investment…
  • Protecting second amendment rights/Protecting ourselves against gun violence…

The most hopeful conversations I heard were the ones where our leaders (elected and otherwise) seemed to understand the notion of tuning –  where they understood that both end points are necessary to make the music and we have to tighten and loosen and listen until we find the right pitch.

The most discouraging and even scary conversations were the ones where the  players didn’t seem to understand how the instrument worked at all, much less how to tune it.  In these conversations the misguided leaders seemed bent on convincing us that the tension between the two end points was bad, and that whichever end point they stood on, the other end point had no value at all.

My weekend at Tribfest has left me wondering if “we the people” are taking enough responsibility for keeping our “ukulele of democracy” in tune. (Did I warn you there was a terrible metaphor coming?  Why, yes, I did…)

What is our part? We can reject the nonsensical and dangerously simplistic notion that our most complex political challenges are simple binary choices – that one end point is good and the other is bad.  We can stop talking that way among ourselves, and we can stop cheering for that kind of talk from our leaders.

We can develop habits of thought more appropriate for the complex nature of the challenges we face.  We can learn to tighten and loosen and listen in our own conversations, and we can support leaders who do the same.  The political discourse in Texas, and in the country sounds terrible right now…and that’s no fun.  Tuning is hard work, but it’s necessary to turn this noise into something that we can stand to listen to, much less sing along.

me and omarThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.








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