A Letter to Donald Rumsfeld

The strangest thing happened to me the other day. I spent an unexpected hour with Donald and Joyce Rumsfeld, and got into a discussion of Power after giving them a copy of my CD.

I was at the Los Angeles airport, waiting for my flight to Salt Lake City. That night I had a concert and co-presentation with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at Westminster College. Our flight was delayed for an hour, and so I naturally took a seat in the terminal.

I was pleased to be sitting in one of the more isolated areas of the terminal, near the boarding gate entrance. I’m not one to socialize at airports or in airplanes, I usually want to be left to my own devices and headphones. But I didn’t have my headphones on at this time.

And not long after I took my seat, a silver-haired elderly couple came over. The woman was quite stunning, with kind blue eyes and hearty laughter. Her husband was in a blue suit, and looked strangely familiar. Is he famous? I wondered to myself… he exuded indefinite charisma, and was making jokes that had me smiling.

And then I looked down at his shoes. They were those of a common man, they didn’t match up to his level of charisma. They were the kind of shoes that older men in Ohio (where I’m from) wear when they need comfort. Black leather, minimal shine, simple. His watch was also not terribly fancy, the design very simple. And for whatever reason at that moment, I stopped wondering if this man was famous.

Well, he is quite famous, because he is Donald Rumsfeld, the 13th Secretary of Defense from 1975 to 1977, under President Gerald Ford, and as the 21st Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006, under President George W. Bush. But I did not realize this for another 20 or so minutes, so I did not have all of those thoughts, emotions and internal (or external?) reactions that just came to you at this moment.

Rumsfeld sworn in as Secretary of Defense

This man is one of the most controversial makers of history. He is undoubtedly one of the most hated men in the world today, and potentially one of the most skilled wordsmiths in the world. Is any of this too bold to say? I don’t think so. Just check out this photo gallery of images and quotes from Life Magazine, called “In The Words of Donald Rumsfeld.”

But I was not sitting with this man (yet), I was not projecting any assumptions, knowledge or judgments on this couple. I was sitting with warm and funny people who continually made me laugh.

And because there were no immediate judgments, this allowed an opening in our dialogue that led to a conversation about Power. What it is, where it comes from, who has access to it… and instead of writing to you about this experience, I’ve decided to write a letter to Mr. Rumsfeld himself. It is not only the best way to share all that this encounter was, but I need to do this because I am a bit haunted by our conversation, and would like to finish this discussion with Mr. Rumsfeld.

He was the one, after all, who changed the subject when we were discussing our understandings of the word Power.

Perhaps with your help and with a bit of diligence, this letter will get to him and we can finish this conversation. Stranger things have happened, so if you’d like me to pursue this, please help get the word out.

Why the Viola?

Sometimes musical instruments choose you. For an unexplainable reason, a particular sound draws you in. At some young age, you hear a certain instrument or see a musician play and it hits you with total clarity — that is my instrument.

I knew it was the viola, and I was 6 years-old when it happened.

Here’s me at six:

It was a crisp fall evening in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio and my older brother — who also plays the viola — was practicing a song from Book 1 of the Suzuki Method with repetition, as we do when we practice and learn songs. I was sitting in the living room nearby, listening closely to what I have already heard a hundred times. And every time I heard him play this one particular part of the song, I had very strong opinions on how I wanted to hear the music. I wanted it to be a little slower, a little more drawn out. I craved more drama and expression, more tension and longing… in fact I didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe wanted, but I knew the  feeling.

This desire to hear my brother play the note differently is not a critique of his skills. The boy was nine and had just started playing the viola, how much can one expect? What I was feeling and thinking didn’t have to do with him in fact; what I felt was discovery of the longing and curiosity inside of me to create and mold music. Suddenly I felt that I discovered a superpower or magic skill inside of me. There was music inside of me, and I could hear the notes clearly. And all I had to do to bring this sound inside of me to life was learn the viola. In that moment, the whole world changed.

And that’s when the obsession began. At six I knew with complete confidence that I could make the viola sound beautiful with enough practice. I was fascinated by the endless mystery and possibilities with music and started to listen to it with different ears. I understood that a single note can be manipulated with endless nuance, and as I listened to music I would ask myself, “How would I have played that part?”

I told my parents I wanted to play the viola, but they told me I had to wait a few years until I was in 4th grade so that there would be an orchestra program for me. Waiting years for this! At first it seemed impossible. But then I decided I would just keep listening to music and listen to my brother practice, until it was my turn.

Here’s a photo of me during those eager, waiting years:

It was a year later, and my brother was not practicing his viola in his bedroom per usual, but instead in the living room. At one point he took a break and put the viola down on the couch and left the room. No one was in sight. Not him, not my parents… I quietly walked over to the viola and stared at it. Then I touched a string. Oh how I wanted to try to play it! I looked around again for my parents or brother and still saw no one, so I picked up the viola and put it into the position I had watched my brother put it in. I put the bow on the strings. For a few moments I fished around on notes, and eventually I found the notes from a portion of the song he was working on, and played the notes. After going though the notes a few times and losing track of time, suddenly my brother was standing behind me.

“Hey! What are you doing?”

My heart jumped and I immediately thought I would get in trouble. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I really wanted to try it. Don’t be mad.”

He stared at me for a moment and then said, “It’s not that I’m mad, it’s just… how did you know how to play that part?”

“Because I’ve been listening to you this whole time.” I answered. And he smiled.

The best thing about my brother is that he isn’t competitive, and never has been. He and I were both confused about how I could play the part, but he didn’t get mad at me. We just thought it was cool. Then he said, “Listen, don’t play my viola. Wait until you have your own.” And I listened to him.

And when 4th grade started, I was so excited. This was the year! This was my moment! And I’ll always vividly remember when they wheeled in the violin, viola and cello into the room on gray carts and told the class about the school orchestra. I was practically falling out of my seat. And when they asked who was interested, my hand shot up as fast as I could send it into the air. “What instrument are you interested in Christen?”


The teachers asked me to come to the front of the room to be measured for the instrument. You see, not everyone can play the viola. Though one plays it on the left shoulder like a violin, violas are larger than a violins and one must have long fingers or big hands to make this happen. Perhaps this is why there are so many male violists. And when I tried it on for size, the teachers said, “Oh sweetie your hands are almost big enough, but not quite. How about you play the violin?”

“No. Viola.”

“But Christen, if you play the viola a lot and you have to stretch your hands so much, you might get tendonitis. Are you sure you won’t consider the violin?”

“No way. It goes too high.” I pointed to the instrument. “Viola. I want to play the viola.”

“OK, you’re the boss.” And it was on!

That excitement, that curiosity and fascination with music, that confidence that I understood how I would make each note sound beautiful… it was there immediately and unexplainably at 6-years-old, it was there in 4th grade when I officially became a violist. It’s something that I treasure and will respect forever with total humility. But it’s something that to this day, I don’t fully understand.

This unexplainable love for certain instruments that some children have — how can this be explained? This experience is not unique to me by any means. I know dozens of musicians who play the instruments they desperately wanted to play as children.

But I also know even more adults who did not play the instrument that they wanted to play as a child, and many of them have expressed sadness and regret about this with me in private. Why they didn’t play the instruments that calls to them is different: parents’ opinions and desires, financial restraints, a lack of self-confidence or good old fear… whatever the reason, they did not play the instrument they wanted. And for most, it is something that haunts them and never goes away.

How does an instrument call to a person? Especially to children? Where did my certainty come from?

It’s a fascinating mystery that I think we may never understand, yet should always trust and pursue. If you have a child who wants to play a certain instrument, no matter how bizarre the instrument, I deeply encourage you to let them chase this desire and see what happens. Just imagine if the parents of this little conductor-to-be creates the conditions to let his little soul fly with the music. Who will he become?

I now play other instruments beyond the viola in my compositions and performances, and my upcoming new LP will showcase these other instruments… but the viola will always be my musical main squeeze. Because after all, it chose me.


Viva Mexico!

Oh my oh my oh my… I’ve been in Oaxaca City, Mexico for 10 days and it’s been incredible. A maelstrom of activity. I’ve already had two concerts at Cafe Central that were both incredible times.

The first show was to celebrate their 10th anniversary, then I performed last Wednesday to celebrate Day of the Dead with the people of Oaxaca. That last performance ended up lasting for two hours, due to all of the encore requests.

Oaxaca and I are definitely having a cultural love affair. Here’s me backstage at Cafe Central, just before I went on stage on Wednesday.

I have a few more concerts, too. Tomorrow is TEDxOaxaca City, and I’m the resident musician for the event, which means that in between all of the talks I’ll play songs. Then on Sunday, I’m performing at a beautiful art gallery that has an open ceiling, so we’ll be able to catch the night sky as I serenade the city. Bliss.

Here are a few photos from my journey, but if you want to see more, find me on Facebook. I’ve created an album on my personal page.

I have so many stories I want to share with you about what it’s like to be here for Day of the Dead, about what I’ve learned about the indigenous culture and the revolution that took place here in 2006… about the Oaxaca Forum for Social Innovation and all of my new friends that I’ve made here. Oh, and I have to tell you about the evening that I came across a bunch of M-16 assault rifles (!!!! — but we are safe). You may think it’s risky to be here, but honestly I feel more safe in Mexico than I do on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles.

I can’t share it all now because I’m about to go to dinner, but I have a lot that I want to tell you about — because there is a lot we can learn from this culture and country.

But speaking of dinner! The food here is more than divine, and Oaxaca is known as the culinary capital of Mexico. But I have to tell you about the grasshoppers…

Grasshoppers are part of the cuisine here, and they are everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean EVERYWHERE. In the markets, in different dishes… and I confess, I tried some. In a taco! The really don’t have much of a taste. It was intense to eat some, but I had to try because they are so loved and adored here in Mexico. When in Rome, when in Mexico… right?

Viva Mexico!

Here are some photos, and you’ll hear more from me soon. Besos!!!


Oaxaca pedestrian street

Santo Domingo Cathedral

Day of the Dead decor

Road in repair

The Summer of My Life

Summer isn’t over, but I already need to recap the adventure I’ve had since the beginning of June. After two months of nonstop travel, I am finally home in Los Angeles, scheduled to be here for a month. Time to take a breath and reflect…

But only for a brief moment because behind the scenes we’re gearing up for a big fall release of my new album ELPIS!

Here’s the list of where I performed in June and July:

Curiosity Camp by Innovation Endeavors

The United State of Women Summit by The White House

Asia DC

Women in Compassionate Leadership with the Dalai Lama

I Am An Immigrant

Summit Series W+ weekend

Project Literacy Lab

Nexus Global Youth Summit

After returning from tour, I immediately went to the VRLA Expo to learn about the edge of possibility in virtual reality, augmented reality, 360-degree video and audio, as well as immersive art. I have so much to share! So I’m going to write a longer blog right away to tell you about these amazing memories and unforgettable performances. Life is so juicy this year! More soon friends…

We’re Alive: Remembering on Memorial Day

Here are my parents during wartime and some artifacts from the Vietnam War. My daddy served in the Army, and his life was blessed because he came home and was able to safely bring my mom to the United States amidst the war.

Like most people, I don’t like war. The physical and spiritual havoc, the pain and generational trauma it causes is hard for most of us to understand. Those who do have shed many tears. The ripples of war and battle can seem endless. And yet, if the Vietnam War did not happen, I would not be alive.

So strangely, I have some sort of gratitude, patience and compassion on the reality of war. It is the hard aspect and riddle to my existence that I have wrestled with my entire life.

I am alive, my parents are alive, you are alive. Let us take a moment of stillness and a few deep breaths today to honor those who are no longer alive due to war. The soldiers who voluntarily and involuntarily serve, the civilians and the children who voluntarily and involuntarily gave their lives in the name of freedom, in the pursuit of a better society, in a search for well resourced, sacred or sovereign land, for ideals we hold in our hearts, and for the sacrifices made in the name of power… We remember you on this Memorial Day.


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