Friday, July 6, 2012

Put down the duckie!


Oh yes! Another one of those Sesame Street classics. " You got to put down the 'duckie' if you want to play the saxophone!"

The lyrics and melody are as fresh today as they were when I first heard this one back in the 80s. This song was a definite influence in encouraging me to take up the saxophone myself. But like so much of the old Sesame Street, I look back at it today and see meaning on a whole different level. I had a similar feeling when I wrote about how I rediscovered 'Ernie and the Invisible Ice Cream' a couple of years ago. Now Ernie is at the centre of attention again, as Hoots supported by a  myriad of celebrities, explains to him that he can't play the sax if he insists on keeping his favourite toy in his hand. It's a lesson that Ernie takes a while to get, even as Hoots tells him,

 "Don't be a stubborn Cluck!"

I died  laughing when I heard this line today. Sesame Street keeping it 'G' rated, even if just barely.

Anyway, once Ernie realises the wisdom of the advice he tosses the 'duck' away in liberation and goes on to break away into some attractive improvisations. Whether you are a jazz lover or not and even if you've never picked up a wind instrument in your life, you've just got to love it.

The only sad thing is that of course as simple as the lesson is here, millions of people of faith in the world have failed to embrace it. We've begged, pleaded and cajoled just like the artistes in this video, from every corner of the world. But no, believers still haven't got this one into their heads. For reasons which are baffling to us on the atheist side, they simply refuse to put their 'duckies' down.

For years they have been telling us that faith and reason can live together in perfect harmony. That there is no reason to believe that embracing scientific method, logic and critical thinking means we have to toss aside faith. In fact more than telling us that faith and reason can go together, they claim that we actually need to have both in order to have a balanced life. Truth is, that trying to put reason and faith together is just the same as attempting what Ernie is trying to do here. Sax in one hand, 'duckie' in the other and hoping the music will come out just right. Nine times out of ten, it won't. Stories of six day creations, global floods, ladders to heaven, talking snakes, virgin births, resurrections and the like just don't stand to reason. If you include these in any manuscript of science you will have problems.

Putting faith and reason on the same level is like trying to compare the skill needed to squeeze a bathtub toy with that needed to master fingering, breathing, reed control that comes with learning to play a wood wind instrument. It is not discrimination to say that the 'duckie' can't be a part of any self respecting band. 'Duckie' at playtime in the nursery and in the bathtub can be fun, and the squeaks it emits can make you laugh and giggle in delight. But there is no room for this if you are talking about playing serious music.

I suppose some Christians would say that strictly speaking Hoots is not correct. It's not impossible to play the sax while holding a 'duck'.Obviously it can be done, and the music might sound alright some of the time. In this video, the music Ernie plays with 'duckie' in hand is not terrible, some of it is actually quite nice. Especially when he is just holding the duck without squeezing it. But once he tries to interject the duck sound into the music, that's when you get the dissonance. This happens with many  liberal Christians. They keep the 'duckie' in their hand because they feel it is necessary that people see them with it. It's basically aesthetics, to show that they still have a connection to that special gift they were given in their childhood. They want it to be known that they haven't forgotten where they came from. Indeed, they don't really intend to squeeze the 'duckie' while they are playing, and with practice they come quite adept at keeping the 'duck' silent during the music or at least from interrupting the flow of the piece.

But even as they show off their skills you can see they have to try twice as hard to keep the 'duckie' out of the way while they play. Even as you stand to applaud them, you still have to wonder why they don't make life easier for themselves and everybody else and just leave the 'duck' alone. What is the most awe dropping thing is what happens after the music ends, when they declare that there is no way they could even play a single note without their duckie.  All the duckless people like me can say to that is, "What? The duck?"

It's not only the duckless that are a bit mystified though. Even as the 'duck and sax' people accept their praise they upset the true 'duckie' aficionados, those that believe in the true beauty of pure 'duck' music. How can he say he needs his 'duckie' when he never even uses it? They will say. Oh, how I wish these 'duck and sax' players would answer that 'ducking' question.

However, in reality very few 'duck and sax' players are actually skilled enough to always avoid their fingers slipping on to the 'duckie' during performance. When that happens, you hear that 'silly squeak' that Ernie talks about. This  'duckie' sound may be unintentional, but it doesn't matter. It still plays havoc with the music and usually you get a massive discord. It's embarrassing when this happens because the player then has to pretend that the 'duck' squeak is not a mistake but a vital part of the composition. He will say that if anything sounded off in the music, it was in fact the sax that was the problem, because it gives trouble sometimes. In contrast, the squeaky 'duck' always come in at the right time and in the right key.

Of course what happens every now and again is that the 'duckie' squeaks by chance and it actually sounds good. It fits the music perfectly, resulting in an enticing chord or exciting syncopation. Here is when the 'duck and sax' players do their most talking. They will make sure to show the video of that performance over and over again to prove that the 'duckie' makes the music better. If we tell them that it was just a fluke note, they will laugh at us and try to ignore us when we list the millions of times the 'duckie' has ruined performances. They will say we are taking those performances out of context and deliberately choosing only bad examples to make our case. They will add that in any case, we are not skilled enough to understand what is good 'duck and sax' music because we can't play it. We can't judge what we don't understand.

Unsinkable Rubber Ducks

James Randi- Speaks of Unsinkable Rubber Ducks
Yes, if only it was as easy as in this video to convince the Christians and other religious people to put down their 'duckies.' In fact 'rubber duckies' are so much tied to religious thinking that the faithful themselves are  often indistinguishable from the artifacts of make belief  they carry around in their hands. James Randi the famous skeptic and debunker of supernatural claims has often noted this in his talks. He refers to many of the frauds and scammers especially in the evangelical churches as 'unsinkable rubber ducks.'

He explains that these guys are able to float back up to the surface no matter how much force you use to push them down. You can have evidence to catch them red handed in some act, they always find a way to come back. Most notable among these 'ducks' is Peter Popov who Randi showed was using an earpiece that picked up his wife's voice reading out the names of the people he was 'healing' during services. Popov was clearly pretending that some divine voice was revealing names and addresses to people in his audience. It is hard to imagine how a person could be more 'caught in the act.' However, it was only a blip for Popov, he was soon back on the air and continues to this day raking in even more millions than he was at the time he was exposed. Yes, you just can't keep these guys down.

Ducking experts

The phenomenon doesn't end with people like Popov either. I know many Christians personally and online who are true duck experts. Yes, no one can duck the difficult questions like these believers. Here are some examples of questions I haven't got a straight answer to yet.
  • Does everything happen according to God's will
  • If God told you to murder your daughter would you do it?
  • Why has God not exterminated the devil yet?
  • Why does God need to have a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? 
  • Do you consider it moral for a God to send someone to hell just for not believing
You won't believe the amount of ducks I have heard in response to questions like these. When they can, Christians make use of their elasticity too. In their world, whatever the brain can conceive, faith can achieve. You have to try to catch them out with logical contradictions. But even that can't keep them down, because they will argue that God himself can transcend logic. It takes ages to try to convince them that if God and us operate by different rules of logic, we can't communicate with him or begin to understand anything about him. By the time you do that, you are sure to have forgotten what the logical contradiction you were trying to call them out on was in the first place.

In the cases where both their ducking and elasticity fails them and they end up in hot water, they will fish desperately for a response and eventually distract us by throwing out a red herring. Those Christian rubber ducks, you just can't ever win.

How can we overcome the ducks?   

Well, at least so it seems. We have to take heart from this video. We have to take this Sesame Street lesson. The first thing is repetition. We have to keep telling them to 'put down the duckie' even when it seems the message isn't getting through. We also need  a variety of people bringing the message. People of different ages, genders, races, cultural and ethnic backgrounds,  just like the celebrities in this video. We even need different languages, as Celia Cruz says " Suelta el Patito."

One person, however persuasive they may be, is seldom enough to turn the tide. We also need different ways of packaging the message, just like the different styles and genres of music we see in the video.It doesn't always have to be loud and strident. Sometimes soft dulcet tones whispered in a friendly way can be just as effective. We see that here. Arguably the best part of this video is 'Put Down the Duckie' rendered softly by the group 'Ladysmith Black Mambazo

The other key to learn from here is that as strongly as we bring our message, we must never coerce. We have to understand when they tell us like Ernie, that they can't bear to be parted from their 'duckie'. It is important to note that Hoots never tried to yank the 'rubber duckie' out of Ernie's hands. Ernie tossed the thing away himself in his own time, when he reached the point that HE was convinced. The only thing we have to remind people like Ernie is that it's OK to take the duck up after sax but only if its for playing PRETEND.Yes, we must not be afraid to tell people that their 'duckie' is an imaginary friend. Sure they can talk to him but they are not going to get an answer back. As tempted as they may be, they must  never take out their 'duckie' at school during classes especially if its a science subject like Biology, unless  they want to become  'quacks' when they grow up.

All jokes aside though, the last thing we can do to help our cause, is to take things beyond this Sesame Street clip. We have to let believers know that when we implore them to put down the 'duckie' we are not putting THEM down. We have to hold up high others among us who have successfully, 'put down the duckie' and produced great music.

Andre Woodvine- Barbadian jazz saxophonist.
Put down the 'duckie' and is one of the Caribbean's finest

One such person in Barbados is leading jazz saxophonist and composer Andre Woodvine, who has made a name for himself throughout the region. You can find out more about him and his music here. He my friends, has emphatically put down the 'duckie'!

Andre contacted me through this blog last year as he was becoming public about his atheism. I was touched by the positive things he said about my writings. I was extremely excited to make the link with him and we have interacted quite a bit since then. I have always admired Andre as both sax player and composer. I will never forget his composition 'Hold You in a Song' performed by John King and Alison Hinds, that went on to win the Caribbean Song Contest back in 1992. It  remains a favourite of mine to this day. Andre  himself  had a memorable sax solo in that one, you can listen to the entire performance below. It was great to find that music and saxophone playing was not all we had in common. Andre is now open about being an atheist, as he continues to fly the national flag high, representing Barbados as a jazz musician all over the world.

Thank you Andre, for giving the message so loud and clear to the rest of us.

"You've got to put down that 'duckie' if you want to play the saxophone."