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Good Letters

Sometimes my worlds collide.

I attended a concert this past weekend…a suburban orchestra conducted by a friend of mine. We hadn’t gotten together in a while and it was decided that we’d meet up after the concert for some drinks to catch up. I hadn’t realized that it was a pops concert (not my thing generally) but the first half was a movie music quiz, where more-or-less obscure film music was performed and the audience invited to guess the film and the composer. (You can only get away with these things out in the suburbs).

My conductor friend is something of an expert on film music, so his selections were most intriguing. In setting aside art music prejudices sometimes held against film music, I am reminded again that some really good stuff has been written in this genre.

After the intermission, a jazz combo was slotted to play with the orchestra. When five ladies walked out on stage to assume their places in front of the orchestra, I immediately thought, “you’ve got to be kidding…these aren’t jazz musicians!” They appeared nothing like what one would expect. Once again I caught myself, and any misgivings were quickly dispelled once the first number was underway. And by the end, I was completely won over by their amazing technique, abundant imagination and exquisite taste.

My hasty rush to judgment reminded me of a story I’d heard earlier in the week. For those of you who don’t generally read the latest business books, one of the current favorites is called Moneyball. The author, Michael Lewis, was invited to speak to a gathering of executives that I attended. It’s a story about baseball and the Oakland A’s. Lewis’s basic question was: “How can one of the lowest paid teams amass such a high percentage of wins?”

Turns out that the Oakland A’s believe that baseball has been measuring the wrong things. The traditional metrics and conventional wisdom of what makes a baseball player great (RBIs, batting averages, errors, etc.) are outdated and shed little light on team performance. Using computer models to understand and measure performance, Oakland’s management determined that many excellent players who appear to have significant flaws in truth compare quite well against high-paid superstars when the right metrics are used.

Indeed, Lewis humorously recounts that while watching the A’s coming out of the showers after practice, he noticed that they didn’t look anything at all like professional athletes. But it wasn’t their appearance that mattered. An observation immediately recalled during the aforementioned concert.

We are so often taken in by appearances, seeing what we’re supposed to see. I wonder how many experiences of profound beauty or singular intensity I have missed as a result my filters or lack of patience. A good artist or writer cultivates the eyes and ears to find this hidden value. Such art has a way of speaking for itself, and working its way through the filters to offer some insight or alternative way of seeing. In this way, it also aids the cause of justice. As Saint Augustine put it, “He lives in justice and sanctity who is an unprejudiced assessor of the intrinsic value of things.”

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