If you could choose one superpower…
In case you were wondering, “There is no rigid definition of ‘a superpower.’” At least that’s what Wikipedia says.
That’s good for me because I’m always the outlier in those icebreakers or conversation starters that require everyone to name the superpower they would choose if they could choose just one. A year and a half ago, our Center for Urban Engagement hosted a journalist and author for dinner with students, and she opened the conversation by asking the rest of us this question: “If you could have only one superpower, what would it be?” My students and our guest speaker favored powers like teleportation, flying, invisibility, and regeneration, but when it came time for me to share, I said what I always do: jazz piano. And it drew the usual looks that mean, “What part of superpower don’t you understand?”
I’m not trying to stand out in those conversations – I honestly can’t think of a power I’d rather have. Call me weird, but I’d rather be a virtuosic jazz pianist than a teleporter.
Still, giving this answer in the icebreaker can be a bit embarrassing. After all, a superpower is supposed to be a superhuman ability, Wikipedia notwithstanding. And even the best jazz pianists aren’t technically superhuman. But that’s not the embarrassing part, exactly.
The embarrassing part is sharing that I’d like to have a superpower that is, to some significant extent, within my grasp if I would only work hard at it. That is, unlike teleportation, if I really wanted to play jazz piano, I could find an instructor, spend time learning it, devote myself to practice, and come out on the other side with the ability to play. Of course, no amount of practice would ever make me Hank Jones or Bill Evans or Thelonious Monk, but, objectively speaking, even a little bit of learning would get me closer to that than I could ever get to teleportation.
So giving that answer makes me feel momentarily lazy: “You’re saying you want a superpower that you could have if only you were willing to work hard enough for it!” It’s like I just want all the shortcuts to excellence. Now that’s momentary, mind you – I get over it really quickly – but it’s also wrong. Wishing I could play jazz piano now, without the practice, doesn’t necessarily mean I’m lazy. I may be willing to put in the work, in the abstract, but lacking unlimited time or the ability to master unlimited areas of expertise. So saying that I would choose jazz piano is actually wishing I could have all the time in the world and/or be some prodigious, polymathic, super-learner. Next time around, I could give that answer – “super-learning!” – but I can see the eye-rolls already, so I think I’ll stick with jazz piano.
Recommended (Superpower Edition)
Recommendations this week have to do with musical and culinary superpowers I wish I had.
When I think of the having the “superpower” of jazz piano, I almost always have in mind the ability to play like Brad Mehldau – not just to play like him, but to be able to imagine what he imagines when he hears the possibilities in some other piece that he ultimately reinvents. So my recommended listen this week is this 48-track playlist. These are all pieces that Mehldau reimagines, and I’ve included the original, or an iconic version, along with Mehldau’s version (sometimes more than one). You’ll find here Nick Drake, Radiohead, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Nirvana, Oasis, Soundgarden, Bob Dylan, and others, each followed by Mehldau. (In one case – “My Favorite Things” – there are a few bonus tracks, as I’ve included Julie Andrews, John Coltrane, and Outkast before Mehldau.) It’s a long playlist – 5 hours and 38 minutes – but if you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, you may find a few favorites that are worth 30 minutes or so.
At the risk of sounding lazy again – like I’m the guy who wants all the shortcuts to excellence – if I had to add to “playing jazz piano like Brad Mehldau,” I might choose “cooking like Rick Bayless.” If you don’t know Bayless, check out episodes of his Mexico: One Plate at a Time or visit one of his restaurants in Chicago. My cooking recommendation this week is to pick up any of Bayless’ cookbooks, find an intriguing recipe, and prepare that dish.
My favorite Bayless cookbook is Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen, but I’ll share a recipe from his Authentic Mexican: sangria. While it isn’t exactly “cooking,” a number of people have asked me to share the sangria recipe I use. I’ve included it below. (The page is wrinkled from the number of times I’ve spilled something on it while making the recipe. That was before I had it memorized.) I’ve had sangria everywhere, and I’ve rarely tried one I didn’t like, but this one’s tastier. And I’ve collected and tried recipes from all over the place, but this one’s more straightforward. This sangria is almost certainly better than anything else you’ll find and far simpler than any other recipe I’ve tried. It’s so easy that it feels like cheating – like I want all the shortcuts – but I get over it real quick.