Surrender

I recently gave my first sermon in the United Methodist Church. This is the full text of my message.

It was about ten minutes to midnight, and I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life. Oh, to be sure, I was surrounded by people — hundreds of people, in fact. But I was utterly alone, and so scared I was crying like a child.

You see, I was lost. More lost than I’d ever thought possible. I was lost and I had no idea how to change my situation. I was standing in the middle of Milan station, in the heart of downtown Milan, Italy. And I’d missed the last train home.

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Ars Poetica

When I first started writing, it was for the sheer joy and mystery of it all. It was just downright amazing to me that I could think up anything I wanted and then make it, well, make it real just by writing it down. I got hooked.

I think always knew I wanted to write and play music. I was trying to make music when I was in diapers; I’d bang on pots, pans, my momma’s lampshades — anything that made sound was fair game.

I used to not pay attention to my school work so I could write songs. Even before I played an instrument I was writing down lyrics and singing melodies as they popped into my head. Somewhere in the stacks of my childhood is my first album, sung a cappella and recorded in glorious one track mono on my Radio Shack cassette player.

Those were the days.

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The Year in Music: 2008

I think it’s safe to say 2008 is the year Rock came back.

On November 23, Axl Rose finally put a period at the end of what was arguably the biggest story in music. Guns N’ Roses “new” album (does it qualify as a “new release” if it takes the better part of two decades to produce?) hit the streets.

Chinese Democracy was so anticipated that Dr. Pepper gave everyone in America (except Slash) a free drink to celebrate the album’s release. Of course, because Dr. Pepper chose to get involved with Axl Rose, they’re now on the receiving end of the opening salvo of a legal battle.

It doesn’t get much more Rock and Roll than that.

But what’s more interesting to me is the incredible string of albums that led up to the release of Democracy. It seems as if the entire pantheon of rock legends decided to drop a record in ’08. And every one of those albums amounted to little more than an opening act for Rose’s record.

We had new albums from White LionWhitesnakeJudas PriestAlice Cooper (ALICE COOPER!) and Motley CrueRush put out a live record and Faith No More gave us a greatest hits compilation. AC/DC got in bed with Wal-Mart and released Black Ice in an exclusive arrangement with the worlds largest retailer — save yourself twelve bucks and dig through your closet for your original vinyl copy of Back in Black.

And non-rock acts got in on the action too. New Kids on the Block got back together for The Block. I wonder how many 35 year old women ran out to buy this the day it was released. They were probably all screaming “Donnie!” too. An even more surprising re-appearance was Vanilla Ice, turning in the aptly titled “Vanilla Ice is Back,” which I didn’t bother to listen to.

A quartet of albums brought us all back to the Reagan years. The CureThe Breeders and Bauhaus all put out new collections, while Morrisey dropped a greatest hits retrospective. Not a bad year for ’80s Death Rock fans.

This year gave us more than just new releases by old faces though. A lot of albums by younger artists were released in 2008 as well.

It seems Panic At the Disco spent every waking moment since the release of their first album listening to Sgt. Peppers Lonley Hearts Club Band and renaissance music. Then they somehow digested that into the really-quite-wonderful Pretty. Odd. which was released early in 2008. Fall Out Boy bracketed the year with its own new release: Folie à Deux. These records are a little softer edged than either band’s earlier releases; but both are infinitely listenable — and some tracks are, honestly, just about perfect (like this one).

On the Pop/Rock front, December was very good to us. In addition to the Fall Out Boy release, we got a new album from the All-American Rejects. And nobody does this genre like the Rejects. Nobody. When the World Comes Down is a solid record from start to finish.

Actress Scarlett Johansson released a truly weird record. Anywhere I Lay My Head is an album of (mostly) Tom Waits cover songs sung by Johansson as a sub-alto, bizarro-universe Annie Lennox. Her voice is actually more grating than Waits’, if you can imagine that. But fans of Waits may enjoy these interpretations. And there’s a chance that Johansson’s stylings may be an acquired taste, though I very much doubt this is true.

Both Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw put out new pop music buffets. You can say what you want about the ability or sentiment of artists like Mraz and Degraw, but you can’t deny that, sometimes, a little sugar coated pop nugget is just what the doctor ordered. I defy you to listen to I Have You to Thank(from DeGraw’s self-titled sophomore outing) and not bop your head and smile for a minute or two.

Britney Spears put out a record. It was called Circus. You make your own joke here.

In the world of Rap, there were several new releases that I paid absolutely no attention to. Snoop Dogg dropped Ego Trippin’ (ya think?) and was completely upstaged by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. Lil Wayne is currently the best rapper out there, period.

“But wait!” I hear you saying. “What about Kanye West? He put out a new record this year too.”

I know. And I listened to it. And it’s a wonderful record. 808s & Heartbreak is one of the best records of the year. But it’s not a Rap album. 808s is a gorgeous piece of Pop Art that refutes genre definitions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an artist do as a good a job of setting a mood from track one and keeping it consistent for every track on the disc. By the end of the record, you kinda feel like you got punched in the gut.

And, while we’re on the subject of Rap albums that defy genre, I have to mention M.I.A. Kala was re-released this year. And this record is the finest blend of Hip Hop, Techno and World Music that I’ve heard.

Girl Talk put out Feed The Animals as a follow-up to The Night Ripper and It Feels Like This. It’s worth a listen for the novelty if nothing else. The record features songs you know and love cut up and mashed up with original music and Hip Hop cuts from various artists.  The New York Times Magazine got it right when they called Girl Talk’s music “a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Red of Tooth and Claw was released this year by Bloomington, Indiana Indie/Post-punk quartet Murder By Death. This collection of songs is spookier than a zombie movie. Lead singer/guitarist Adam Turla sounds like the ghost of Johnny Cash in a street fight with Roy Orbison.

Ryan Adams and his new band The Cardinals gave us Cardinology in 2008. This record is every bit as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from Adams and company. Cardinology seems to be a delivery on Adam’s claim that he is primarily influenced by classic rock. This disc shows that influence and is an instant classic in it’s own right.

If quirky pop is your thing, a trio of releases this year should make you pretty happy. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled outing and Skeletal Lamping by of Montreal are both excellent releases with interesting melodic twists and subject matter that hops between the ethereal and mundane. There are moments when both bands seem to be weird for its own sake, but these moments are well-balanced with great tunes that give the listener a quick pop pick-me-up while retaining a quirky and charming self-consciousness.

Rounding out our quirk-pop trio is the latest offering from Death Cab for Cutie. Narrow Stairs is a wonderful collection of easy-to-listen-to tracks that offer new bits of ear candy on repeated listens. There’s no shortage of gems, but Your New Twin Sized Bed is one of the best songs of this year, bar none.

Finally, here are my top five album picks for 2008.

5.) A Tie! Panic at the Disco — Pretty. Odd. AND Fall Out Boy — Folie à Deux
4.) Kanye West — 808s & Heartbreak
3.) Murder by Death — Red of Tooth and Claw
2.) Death Cab for Cutie — Narrow Stairs
1.) Ryan Adams and the Cardinals — Cardinology

Open wounds

For Margaret Lemanski, Christmas has been marred by a theft that picks the open sore of her grief. During a memorial event at Grandview Cemetery in Maryville, Tennessee, she placed two battery-operated, lighted Christmas trees at the grave of her grandson, Leviticus Crabtree, who died in October 2007 shortly after his birth.

The trees were stolen less than 24 hours later.
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Pop Joyride

So, I guess the cliche is that reviewers pigeonhole artists – slicing and dicing music into genres, taxonomically separating organic parts into the flora and fauna of an aural biosphere. If that’s true, and I imagine there is some truth to it after all, bands like the Tenderhooks exist to make a reviewer’s job as difficult as possible.

“New Ways to Butcher English” is more than just a genre-bending exploration of various musical styles by a band that can seemingly do it all. The record is actually an emotional journey through a world where feelings can’t be expressed one way or the other. There’s a mish-mash of expression that winds its way through the tunes and transforms bits and pieces of each track into something that is more than the sum of its parts.

The vocals and arrangements are reminiscent of Blind Melon’s slacker blues sound that emerged from the grunge-crusted ’90’s.  Shannon Hoon’s sickly sweet vocal style and haunting sense of melody are channeled into this record with an eerie accuracy. There’s also a certain wholesome, rootsy quality to these songs that brings to mind hometown rock from the likes of Melloncamp, or even Springsteen.

This album is hard to classify, but, at it’s heart, it’s pure pop. It’s intelligent – maybe even smart-britches – and just a little jaded. But the attitude always feels a little tongue and cheek. There’s a deep breath of optimism that floats through this collection of songs. It’s this breath that rescues the record from bitterness; it exchanges bitterness for bittersweet.

And I’m left with just the slightest whisper of melancholy; the faintest hint of hope.

My favorite track on this disc is “Heaven and Hell.” Conveniently, this song also proves my point; this song really sums up the character of the entire album.

It opens with raucous guitars and gritty, growling vocals. The lyrics smell of despair: “There is no umbilical cord to pull you through all the sadness and the pain. I think I see heaven and hell.” And the band seems to protest this state of affairs – frenetic rhythms, whiny guitars and a dirty bass line complain loudly between vocal lines. Until the last line: “Just close my eyes as I kiss you on the roof.”

Then the song opens up, like pulling the curtains on a dark room. As light pours in, everything changes. Guitars trade grit for tinkle; kick drum gives way to high-hat and splash; the bass lightens its step. And then the keyboard takes up its song, standing in for the vocals. A beautiful, light melody fills the newly-brightened space. For a moment, I’m the one kissing on a moonlit rooftop.

That’s how this album works. By setting and undercutting a mood over and over again, by refusing to let the listener settle into a genre and get comfortable in a category, this record at first jars you, then entrances you. From gritty to atmospheric and back again, these songs ultimately wrap you up and tell you a story. And, like any good story, this one hangs out on the back porch of your memory and hums you to sleep.

A Chocolate Bar Can Change Your Life

Yeah, you read right: a chocolate bar. And I don’t mean the way it changed MacGyver’s life when he was trapped in that room with the leaky vat of acid. That’s when he had nothing but his Swiss Army knife and a Hershey bar. Remember that one? The episode where he used chocolate to seal the leak because the chemical reaction with the metal sealed it tighter than any commercial polymer.

I really miss that show. But that’s not my point.

A chocolate bar can change your life because it equips you with a simple set of rules:

  1. Chocolate Tastes Good
  2. Sharing Makes it Taste Better

I know there isn’t much to it; but it sure makes life easier. Regardless of the fads of pop philosophy, the older I get the more I truly begin to believe that I learned everything I need to know in kindergarten.
It really hit home for me when I was having a stressful day at the office. I plopped down in my boss’s office to discuss some software glitch or layout detail, I don’t remember, to be honest. He was just opening a Hershey’s Special Dark bar.

“You like chocolate, right?” He said. And he handed me half the bar. We sat there and talked about the problem as we enjoyed our chocolate. Like I said, I don’t remember the conversation now, but I sure do remember the chocolate.

It’s the simple pleasures in life that really make the difference. I can live without prime rib, but I’d miss cheeseburgers hot off the grill. Truffles and petit-fors are okay, but I have trouble sleeping without my Fig Newtons before bed.

The list could go on. I’d rather wear my old Doc Martens than break in a new pair of shoes. T-shirts feel better than the starched formality of collar and tie. And who doesn’t have an old pair of jeans they’d wear every day if they could? And there are some who do.

It doesn’t take heroic effort to make a difference in the world around us. Sharing really does make chocolate taste better; the simplest kindnesses make life worth living. “Random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” is more than a catch phrase. Kindness is truth in it’s truest form; and, as the great poet John Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

I don’t want to live in an ugly world; and though sometimes we humans revel and wallow in the ugliness we bring upon ourselves, we are capable of creating a great deal of beauty too. In the end, cynicism and bitterness must surrender to the kindness of a stranger’s smile, an unexpected helping hand at the grocery or a surprise offer to share a chocolate bar.

Ratpacking

I recently had lunch with some friends, and they were talking about the eight or so hours they had just spent making their basement usable again. They had stored so much stuff away – and forgotten about it – that they couldn’t even walk in the basement anymore. They decided enough was enough and got busy getting rid of all the things clogging up their lives.

I am a recovering pack rat. And let me tell you, it ain’t easy. Deciding to let go of your treasures (actual or imagined) is a hard choice to make. But what freedom it brings! You know that old adage about your stuff owning you? It’s totally true. And when you finally take back your life, it feels good.

The turning point for me was a move across the ocean. When you have to make your life fit in two suitcases and a carry-on – well, lets just say it sharpens the decision making process to a razor’s edge. I really found out what was important to me as I packed my bags for my great big European adventure. Most of what didn’t make that journey with me went into the trash.

As I sorted through the trappings of my life, I found that I had been holding onto things that had no meaning in and of themselves. I was only keeping them because I was afraid of forgetting the time or the event they represented. I had to learn to trust myself; I had to learn that letting go of a thing doesn’t erase a memory. Most importantly I had to learn that you don’t betray the past by choosing to live in the present.

In the end, the things we collect on our journey through life are nothing; and they can never replace the treasure we build as we let memories stack up in our minds.

Make Friends, Not Money

It’s funny how we use words without really thinking about it. We all pretty much know what we’re trying to say to each other, so we rarely notice when we stop making sense.

I got to thinking about this the other day when I saw an advertisement inviting me to purchase information on how I could “make money from home.” Every now and then I get real muleheaded about taking things literally; and I was in that kind of mood as I deleted this particular spam offender.

“Make money,” I said to myself. “Make money. Hmm. Is this a course in counterfeiting?”

I know that’s how we always say it. “I need to make some money” was a mantra for me during my college years. And everyone always wants to “make a little more money” doing something, right?

But what does that really mean?

If I have my economic facts straight, only governments can “make” money. And even that sometimes isn’t the best idea. As a matter of fact the current disparity between the dollar and some other well known currencies is all because there are just two many (American) dollars out there. Money only works when there is a finite supply.

So, I know I can never really “make” any money, as much as I wish I could. All I can do is keep selling my knowledge and talent for a share of the money that already exists. Hopefully my employers keep buying.

There was another phrase that I used constantly in college, especially early on, when I was just getting used to being on my own. “I need to make some friends,” I’d used to say.

Now friends, unlike money, can be made, as long as you have the patience, good will and selflessness to take a mere human and make that person a part of who you are. Humans are plentiful; friends are in short supply, but infinite in possibility. A friend is someone who has truly accepted you, taking all your best into them and offering you their best in return.

In the end, I’d rather make friends than money any day.

Busy Doesn’t Equal Productive

What does it mean to be productive? How do you measure the success of each day? Do you go home feeling like nothing was accomplished? It’s easy to spend all day looking busy. Hell, it’s easy to spend all day actually being busy. It’s hard to have all that busy-ness translate into actual progress towards your goals.

In any given day at the office, you’re going to have a few things that have to be done for the man, a few things that are going to come up and have to be dealt with and a lot of things that are going to be complete wastes of your time. Your challenge is to manage all these task lists in a way that leaves you plenty of time to reach your actual goals.

There are any number of ways to attempt to manage all your conflicting priorities. Most of them are pointless. All of them are ineffective at helping you work toward getting the things done that you actually care about, unless you first examine why the tasks you’re trying to manage are actually worth managing.

We could spend a long time talking about methodology for tracking tasks, projects, goals and priorities. Personally, I’m a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. I’d recommend that you grab a copy of the book and put the principles into practice. But, here’s the rub: you have to actually get things done.

Fiddling about with systems, software and new and improved methods of tracking your tasks is not the same as completing them.

Now, the biggest problem you’re going to encounter as you try to work toward your personal goals in the context of your 9 to 5 is balancing your work priorities with your actual priorities. You have to get a certain amount accomplished for the man in order to keep up your end of the unspoken agreement that you will trade some of your time to help the company’s bottom line. So the real trick is figuring out how to manage your day so that your work life and your life goals can peacefully coexist.

Avoid the myth that priorities are important. Just because Task A is “work” and Task B is “personal” doesn’t mean that Task A should be done first. Pound this truth into your head: work doesn’t trump life. If you prioritize based on you’re company’s goals, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

By the same token, don’t ignore your agreed-to responsibilities in order to accomplish personal priorities. Like just about everything else in life, balance is the key to success.

In David Allen’s GTD system, he suggests a “weekly review” to keep yourself on track with your projects and tasks. It’s a good idea. But I think too many people maintain segregated thinking when they work on prioritizing their goals. It’s easy to separate everything into “piles.” Work goes in this pile; oh, wait, that’s an idea for my side business, that goes in the personal pile. This kind of thinking leads to stressful thinking and is counterproductive. You’ll find you spend more time managing your piles than you do getting things done.

Try setting aside some time each week to review ALL your piles. As a matter of fact, it’s time to take those piles and shove them together. Now spend 30 minutes or so picking out the tasks that need to, and can, be accomplished this week. No you have a unified list that includes all the things that are important to you this week.

The reason this works is you already know what’s important to you and you already know what needs to happen to move closer toward your goals. The only thing that changed is you removed a huge mental obstacle to productivity. You gave yourself permission to act.

Now you can begin DOING your tasks, rather than spending all your time shuffling them around.

It’s not there anymore

Today I was thinking about a place that I barely remember. It’s not that the memories themselves are hazy; there are just so few of them. I grew up in a very small town in the middle of Indiana farm land. You might say it’s a town that time forgot, but these days time has a better memory than it used to.

It’s the same town where my father spent his boyhood. Dad grew up in the 60s; and by the time I was in grade school, the town he knew had become a shadow of itself. But even in shadow, some silhouettes are more clearly defined than others; and in our small town, there were edges that had not yet completely blurred into the dark mass we call what used to be.

Ruch’s Confectionary was one of those edges – a long, tall building with heavy, creaking doors and display windows stuffed with toys, games and advertising displays that had gone out of date ten years ago. The “Open” sign was only turned occasionally, whenever Mrs. Ruch felt like being there.

Dad used to talk about taking a break from his paper route to sit in Ruch’s and drink an ice cold Coca Cola and eat a bag of barbecue chips. It sounded like heaven. So, one summer day, I decided to take a break from my own paper route and enjoy a Coke and a snack. The open sign was turned – Mrs. Ruch was in and I was in luck.

I pushed the door open with both hands and sauntered to the soda counter. Sitting on an old high stool I gazed around and took in the shelves that ran floor to ceiling. They were packed solid with merchandise I barely recognized. Trinkets, games and toys lined the walls and even fell onto the floor; the smell of mildew stung the air and I felt as if I were trespassing time itself.

I sat and waited for Mrs. Ruch to make her way to the counter and wondered if I was allowed to be here. I felt as if I had stepped into a scene never written for me; I was a stranger in time. I had no business here. Almost as a protest, I ordered a Coca Cola and a bag of chips when Mrs. Ruch shuffled in from the back room. I sat in silence and tried to imagine what it must have been like before the air went stale – before the life began to slowly fade into the shadows.