Handling negativity: my secret weapon

I have always been very sensitive to negativity.

As a child, I tried to avoid all of its forms – criticism, taunting, words of dissatisfaction, or even any red marks on my homework assignments – by channeling all of my efforts into pleasing everyone around me. And whenever I couldn’t manage that, I kept my distance by hiding.

In between, I buried myself in novels written for children. Within the stories I read, I could count on conflicts to be resolved in satisfying way, on life make in sense.

Today, I still read plenty of fiction to help me cope with the negativity I encounter in my daily life.

However, I now have an even more powerful weapon to draw upon:

I simply attend a rehearsal with the LMU Choruses.

Last month, we plunged into two particularly difficult works, from composers Morten Lauridsen and Maurice Durufle, respectively. Both were full of intricate melodic lines, with constantly shifting rhythmic meters combined with unfamiliar Latin text. Numerous portions of their musical phrasing needed to be delicately handled. The Lauridsen work, in particular, contained many leaping intervals among all voice parts that made little sense when we first learned the parts.

The first few rehearsals of the semester, in which we initially read through these entire works were nothing short of overwhelming. I constantly lost my place, confused the current rhythmic meters, had trouble pinpointing the correct pitches at the end of leaping intervals, and generally had trouble keeping up.

Most of our January rehearsals were focused solely on taking individual vocal lines apart, apart, drilling their complex notes and rhythms. Without putting in any actual words yet, we plodded through a new section within each movement at every rehearsal. They all made little sense to me, and I had driven home afterward feeling as if no progress was made, and that we had simply wasted our time.

Finally, in early February, we began reassembling all of our voice parts and fitting them with piano accompaniment and singing through entire movements. Now that our individual vocal lines and rhythms were more familiar, fitting these lines together with those from other voices, hearing how we fitted into the context of the overall works – the effect was nothing short of magical.

While we still a good portion of the music yet to learn, could now start refining our vocal tones, coordinating them with musical phrasing and dynamics, shaping the pronunciations of vowels and consonants, and working on the balance between the lower and higher voices. Many dissonant chord clusters, particularly in the Lauridsen work – a trademark technique of its composer, are emphasized, even caressed, before they are resolved.

Taking a physical part in this transformation – from chaos to sense and order – wielded its usual powerful effect on me. At the end of these recent February rehearsals, I drove home with a buoyancy in my spirits – for they served as a forceful reminder:  My daily experiences in life may also seem full of difficulty, not making any sense. But, as in what I’d experienced while singing through our individual voice parts during rehearsal, I could now see that I had not yet achieved the larger picture surrounding them.

I was also reminded not to shy away from conflicts – whether they came in the form of impossible situations or difficult people.  Instead, just as we brought dissonances within our choral works out into the open, shaped them, and dropped them back into the context of the whole, I also needed to take apart individual pieces of each situation, focus on the aspects that I have some control over, and continue experimenting with adjustments that work for me.

When I then combine my situation with my surrounding circumstances, which are also changing, I need to then trust that my own understanding will deepen. And circumstances will also work themselves out, one way or another – the way our music always does through our many choir rehearsals.

For more details on the activities of the LMU Choruses, please take a look at the latest issue of my Quarter Notes newsletter. If you would like to be added to my mailing list, please let me know how to reach you through the “Contact Me” link at the top of this page.

Memory Problems and Negativity

When people ask, and I try to explain the permanent injuries that my short-term memory had sustained, I receive a variety of reactions.

Most chuckle, associating my problems with absent-mindedness (in other words, a bad habit that only requires attention to overcome.)  Those a generation or two older than I often ask, “Is that like Alzheimer’s?”  Still others simply draw a blank and change the topic.

If you’re curious, some formal explanations can be found here:

Short-term memory

Long-term memory

For me, overcoming my memory problems involves constantly assigning some sort of meaning to everything that I encounter, finding ways to immediately link all that I experience with something that’s already familiar to me, and already firmly lodged  in my long-term memory.

It is a process that I work on every waking moment of every day – and often even in my sleep.  It involves finding words to describe everything I encounter, identifying causes and effects, then organizing and shaping those words into sentences and paragraphs.  And, finally, to see these words on paper, or on the computer screen.


I need to get these experiences to mirror, as closely as possible, the format of the novel, with which my long-term memory is familiar. This is how I am able to record new experiences securely.  And this is how I can remember the positive aspects of each experience, without the imperfect bits overtaking them.

Through diligent practice over the years, I have made much improvement in handling this process.  However, much of daily life holds little or no meaning.  And I have trouble unearthing any significance to help me link them to my long-term memory. Examples include objects that I physically handle, names and faces of strangers I encounter for the first time, and new walking and driving directions I navigate, to name just a few.

As soon as things disappear from my immediate field of vision, keeping them intact within my mind becomes difficult.  And there are repercussions to deal with.

Case in point:

My mother sent me on a routine errand to pick up a few things for her at a local Costco over the holiday season.  The store being crowded with customers, I made little progress trying to push my shopping cart through its jam-packed aisles.  At various points, I simply left my cart behind, with my tote bag inside to distinguish it from all others, while I grabbed a few items from nearby shelves before returning.

Then I stepped away for a minute or two to grab two large bundles of toilet paper.  When I turned back this time, my cart had disappeared!  I spent the next two hours walking up and down aisles throughout the entire store, searching for that shopping cart and its contents.

I finally gave up, picked up what items I could recall from my shopping list (which was in my tote bag), and headed home.  The incident bothered me all evening.   Close to bedtime, when mom asked me about an item that on her shopping list that I’d forgotten to pick up, I finally told her what had happened.

Her reaction was even worse than what I’d geared myself up to face.   She pelted me with a stream of accusations, all in Chinese:

 I was forever losing things – what if I’d lost something important, and a hassle to replace?

 True, I had no valuables in my tote bag, but my name had to be on some objects inside.  People could use it to commit identity fraud, or, if they got a hold of my address,                                  too, they could harass us at home, or use that information against our family, for their own benefit.

 How could she ever feel safe, with me around to make our family vulnerable?

 This errand was just a simple task, and I made a mess of it. How could she, or anyone else, rely on me in the future?   

Needless to say, Mom’s words just made me feel even worse.  Later, her negativity disrupted my sleep, keeping me tossing and turning half the night.

The next morning, I made phone call to Costco, to be told that no one has located a tote bag that fit the description I gave.  My dejection lingered throughout all the hours at my office job.

On my way home that evening, I stopped by Costco in person to inquire again – with not much hope of a different result.  To my surprise, I discovered that my tote bag had indeed been located, with all of my belongings intact!

When I told mom the news, however, she refused to rejoice with me.  Instead, she heaped further blame for on me for losing that tote bag in the first place – making me irresponsible, and my judgment unsound.

You see?  This is exactly why everything I do wrong lingers in my mind much more strongly than what I manage to do right – not just with this incident, but throughout my life, past and present.

Fortunately, I have gathered enough experience by now on how to deal with negativity.

During my free time the following day, I went out for a drive, worked out at gym, and went to library to do some light reading.  These tasks, which don’t involve much mental exertion, allowed my emotions to settle, and my subconscious mind to work its magic – putting my emotions back into balance.

In the meantime, my conscious mind worked on identifying the CAUSE behind my mistake – a reliable technique for making memories stick while keeping frustration at bay.

When I stepped away from my shopping cart inside Costco, I had left my tote bag on my cart to help me distinguish it from the multitudes of other identical carts upon my return.   The crowded conditions during my last trip was even more reason to do so, to avoid losing track of my cart and the items inside, altogether.  I had done the same numerous times while running errands, both at Costco and elsewhere.

My mom is well aware of my memory problems.  But rather than accepting my accommodations, she focuses on what goes wrong, and on casting blame.  Her way involves doling out guilt and menace to ensure that mistakes don’t recur. To her, performing tasks smoothly is the norm, and making mistakes not only caused trouble; doing so reduced one’s overall competence.  So mistakes were unacceptable.

Contrast that with my understanding: making mistakes is a natural part of life.  In fact, undergoing the process of trial and error is how I learn and gain competence.  When I make mistakes, I maintain my sanity by focusing on how to resolve them, taking into account my personal strengths and weaknesses.  Then, to better store the entire situation into my long-term memory, where I can easily find it to apply to future situations, I find words to describe those mistakes, putting them into the context of circumstances surrounding them.

This is what I have trained my mind automatically work on, every spare waking moment of my current life.

In an upcoming post, I hope to delve more deeply into the opposing mind-sets I’d illustrated between my parents and myself, along with their impact on me, past and present.