As Real As He Can Get

“Clip-on Nose Ring,” the new album from former Judybats frontman Jeff Heiskell, may not be for everyone. If you’re uncomfortable spying on your neighbors or reading over the shoulder of that creepy guy sipping coffee at the table next to yours at the McDonalds, you might not like this record.

But whether you’ll admit it or not, it’s kinda fun to peek in on people from time to time. And, luckily for the nosiest among us, Jeff Heiskell has flung open the door to his personal life and invited all his listeners in to sit for a spell. Heiskell’s latest offering risks oversharing, but never actually crosses that line.

The songs on this collection reveal a man who has come to terms with his sexuality, his choices and his place in the world, both professional and personally. And the record is done artfully enough that, even though the songs are intensely personal, there is something there for the listener to grab onto.

“The Chubby Guy Song” finds Heiskell reveling in his love for a man who is, to put it gently, a bit out of shape. “You have a six pack, but it’s hiding underneath a case of Budweiser and cheeseburgers,” Heiskell sings. The song frolics through several similar, humorous descriptions before settling into the closing chorus that sums up Heiskell’s feelings in a way that anyone who loves someone for who they are can relate to. “I do chubby, that’s my hubby … he’s just that much more beautiful to me.”

This record is very personal, like a diary entry or a letter to a friend. We’re invited to steam that letter open – Heiskell will even pretend not to notice we snooped.

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.

50 Acres of Pain

“Sometimes I need a woman, right now I’ll settle for a drink.” The chorus from track five (“Sometimes I Need a Woman”) of Christopher Scum’s new solo acoustic project sums up the overall sentiment of the record. Not quite halfway into the album, Scum lets loose the secret that informs the album as a whole: He could use a lot of things, but he’s ultimately going to settle.

The next song in the track listing drives the point home. “This is not the first time that I’ve let you down” is Scum’s unrepentant admission that he just can’t keep it together. The song isn’t an apology, it’s an explanation. In some ways it’s a manifesto for despair.

This album has the flair, sensibility and style of a gospel record. Of course, the ironic twist is that the “gospel” of these songs is turned on its head. It could be a cry for help, but it’s mostly a sob of surrender. Even the rollicking blaspheme of “Drinkin’ Beer with Jesus” has an undertone of self-loathing that betrays the swaggering rhythm and lyrics. “Jesus is my kind of guy,” Scum sings; and I think he really wishes that were true.

“Hate Me Kill You” is absolutely beautiful from a musical perspective. The lyrics undercut the music with Scum’s bitterly ironic cynicism. “I hate myself, I wanna kill you,” he sings. I wonder if this song is written to a lover or friend, or if the case shifts with the comma and Scum is actually talking to himself. These kind of questions pervade the record, and one listen won’t be enough to get any answers.

The whole recording feels about a sixteenth of a beat of kilter, and I imagine that is a creative choice. Listening to this disc leaves you feeling out of balance. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m making a trip through Christopher Scum’s psyche as I listen to these songs.

This album proves that an acoustic record can leave you reeling just as much as any full-on rock and roll onslaught.

Major League Vision

“If everybody’s focus was everybody else, how would that change the world?”

Doug Bochtler smiles as he poses this question. He is engaging and passionate and clearly talking about something he believes deeply.

We’re sitting in the upstairs conference room at Cherokee Athletic Facility; and through the large picture windows that I’m facing, I can see a busload of baseball players unload and make their way toward the center. Doug has opened up the Baseball Academy to Maryville College, which is hosting this year’s GSAC baseball tournament. “They don’t have batting cages, so we offered ours,” he tells me when I ask about all the uniforms converging on the facility. “That’s what we do; that’s who we are.”

The former major league pitcher has found a new passion after the end of his MLB career. “We exist to help others.” he says, “Everyone involved in the ownership of Cherokee is committed to this idea. A self-focussed mentality is a downward spiral; it leads to fleeting, surface level relationships.” And Doug has learned to long for more from life.

*

From the time he was five years old, Doug has known the answer to the perennial grownup question – what do you want to be when you grow up?

“I remember I was watching This Week in Baseball; Don Mattingly was teaching some kids how to put on a hat.” Doug demonstrates: pull your hair back in the front, slide the cap on and tug the back into place. “I still put my hat on like this every time,” he says. “Watching that show was the first time I said I wanted to be a major league baseball player.”

It might have seemed like a pipe dream or toddler chatter at the time; but Doug was already learning to love baseball.

By the time he was a freshman in high school, he had given up all other sporting interests to focus solely on baseball. “I knew it was a sport I could excel at; and I dedicated myself to it.” He quickly discovered his niche within the game, trying his hand at a few positions. He found he wasn’t a very good hitter, but had a strong throwing arm; he begin learning to pitch.

“Pitching really kind of found me,” he says.

But he wasn’t a star; nor did his talent shine through at first. Growing up, he often found himself languishing in the shadow of his older brother. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t make the freshman baseball team, my brother did. When I checked the roster after tryouts, it had my brother’s name listed. He was an incredible athlete; and he had made such an impression on everyone that the coaches put me on the team because of their memories of him. I don’t think they even saw me on the field. I was always fighting; I had to work hard because my brother was so great.”

*

On December 10, 1987, Doug’s good friend, Greg, was killed by a drunk driver.

Greg had been drafted by the Montreal Expos, but chose to stay in school rather than accept that initial offer. His mom and dad had planned a special Christmas present that year – a baseball glove embossed with Greg’s name. After the accident, Greg’s father approached Doug and presented him with the glove and this mandate: “Take this with you to the major leagues.”

“I don’t know why Greg’s dad gave me the glove.” Doug says. “There was no evidence of potential in me then; you could have asked any scout and he’d have told you I had no chance of getting into the majors.” But he accepted the glove and the responsibility. Playing in the major leagues “was a task I needed to accomplish to honor this request. Looking back, it’s awfully strange that he chose me.”

He carried the glove with him through every step of his journey to the major leagues. A few years after Greg’s death, Doug was himself drafted by the Montreal Expos. He signed with the team and began his climb to baseball’s top level.

Eight years later, May 5, 1995, Doug Bochtler made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres. He wore Greg’s glove as he relieved Fernando Venezuela in the fifth inning.

*

“It’s a weird place when you sit back and analyze your life; but it’s a good place to be.” Doug leans back in his chair. As I glance up from my notebook, I notice his eyes are far away. He’s reflecting on his words even as he tells his story. “You see that it’s not about money; it’s about the relationships you established. Our lives are intertwined.”

Doug learned this lesson on a lonely night during his last spring training as a major leaguer.

He and his family had just been put through the ringer. Doug had gone through a season-ending surgery; and the day after he returned home his wife went into labor twelve weeks early. They spent the next few months of sleepless nights listening to a breathing monitor and jumping out of bed in a panic at the slightest variation in their newborn’s rhythms.

When Doug returned to training camp, he was told he was being transferred to a AA team – two levels down from Major League Baseball.

That night he sat alone in his apartment and reflected on his life. “It was like in a movie, when the main character is questioning God. What is this about? What am I here for? I really thought about what baseball meant in my life; about how focussed I had become on my career. I realized that my ultimate goal had been myself. That was the moment that changed everything.”

Doug was able to find peace with the move down to AA ball. “I was put there for a reason,” he says. “There were people there that needed me.”

And he found a developing new passion during this time of transition. His role on the team had changed with his move back to the minor leagues; now he was a hybrid between a player and a coach. Doug discovered that he had been given the opportunity to help young, up and coming players reach their potential.

That included the chance to teach future Cy Young Award winners, like Johan Santana. Doug taught Johan to throw a change up and then sat back and watched him succeed with it. “I drew greater satisfaction watching him do well that if I’d done it myself.” Doug found that there was no greater satisfaction than watching those he’d mentored achieve their potential.

And with that, the future began to unfold.

*

When I ask Doug about his decision to move to Maryville and about starting the Cherokee Athletic Facility, he laughs out loud. “You wouldn’t believe me if I were to explain how this business happened.”

He begins to recount the most amazing part of his story.

It starts with his family’s decision to move to Maryville. He has no relatives here, had never been to Maryville before deciding to relocate here. Yet he uprooted his entire life to settle down in Blount County.

It was a Monday morning in February, 2004. Doug woke up and told his wife he’d had the strangest dream the night before. He’d dreamed that they moved to Tennessee to help start a church. They didn’t think much of it until forty five minutes later, when the phone rang. It was a friend, calling to tell Doug about a crazy dream he’d had. He dreamed he had moved to Tennessee to help start a church. “I held the phone away from my head and said, ‘Tell that to my wife,'” Doug recalls.

They chalked it up to bad pizza.

But then, on Thursday of the same week, Doug and his wife were having dinner with another couple. They were chatting, catching up, when Doug’s friend said, “Something strange happened Sunday night.”

Doug’s response was simply: “Holy cow.”

*

“We sold everything we owned, left our friends and family, and out of all that, came all this.” Doug gestures around him.

And I know he isn’t just talking about the physical building. Doug has a palpable love for what he is doing and for the people he is doing it with. You can sense his passion for creating relationships, his love of baseball and his drive to teach others the skills he’s learned.

The Cherokee Facility has become more than just a fitness center or sporting goods store. It’s a safe place for kids to come and hang out; kids that don’t have cable come in to watch games on the Cherokee TV. Often they’ll have questions for Doug. Which is fine with him.

“If a kid is that into the sport and he’s asking me questions, I’m not going to charge him for a lesson. I’ll sit down and pour my life into that kid,” Doug says.

*

Things have fallen into place since Doug and his family made the move to Maryville. He and his partners were able to get the historic Cherokee Lumber site at half its appraised value. “The owners really liked what we were planning to do here. That was the driving force behind the sale; they liked the concept and saw the need for this facility,” Doug says.

And that church Doug dreamed about? He’s found a group of Christians looking for a home and has purchased the land to create one. He’s not sure of his future role in the group, but knows it’s where he’s supposed to be.

“I allow God to arrange these circumstances and I just try to react to them in a Godly way. Faith was never faith to me until I recognized that God is bigger than I am and can arrange things better than I can.”

Doug is man that lives by faith, though he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. He has never been what you could call “religious.” “From what I’ve read of the Bible, Jesus didn’t hang out with a lot of religious people,” he says, smiling.

His faith has been formative in his life, helping him be patient and allowing him to see beyond the moment into a greater plan that he believes God has for his life. He sees his current situation as a natural outgrowth of where he’s been throughout his life. As he looks back he sees that there are people woven into his life that have impacted him at times when he needed it the most. And he sees that he is woven into the lives of others.

“All the people I’ve come into contact with, my time in the major leagues, it has all brought me to this point. In the major leagues you’re almost untouchable, I needed to get to this place so I could impact more people. I’m not into taking shortcuts, though. I don’t really make a lot of these plans; I just try not to screw up what’s been planned for me.”

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.

Teacher’s Pet

You might say Buc is the teacher’s pet. The four year old Black Lab is definitely at the head of the class. Buc is volunteer dog with the HABIT (Humans and Animals Bonding in Tennessee) program. He and his human, Janet Hathaway visit Mrs. Friant’s Eagleton Elementary every Friday morning so that the children can read to Buc. “The children are able to feel comfortable around Buc,” says Janet. It’s easy for them to read to him, because he doesn’t care if they mispronounce a word or if they stutter. It helps build their confidence.”

It’s part of the mission of HABIT. Founded in 1986, the program sponsors animal assisted therapy programs for people of all ages. The programs are held at assisted living centers, hospitals, schools and other venues. HABIT is a non-profit, community based group of volunteers which operates under the auspices of UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The group works to promote what it sees as an invaluable bond between people and animals. There are currently 400 members with 250 actively volunteering in 70 different programs.

Each Friday morning, Buc jumps impatiently into Janet’s car for his weekly trip to school. When they stop to drop off Janet’s daughter at her school, Janet has to keep Buc in the car. He gets excited as they approach the drop off; his head goes out the window an so would Buc if Janet didn’t hold him back. He thinks he’s where he’s supposed to be and can’t wait to get to work. He loves his students, and the attachment is mutual. Janet says the children will often write letters to Buc, or draw him pictures. When Janet and Buc leave for the day, the kids all wave and say goodbye as Buc makes his way out of the classroom.

He doesn’t really want to leave, though. “He’d come everyday if I let him,” says Janet. “When we leave home in the morning, he jumps in the car without a problem, he’s ready to go; but when it’s time to go back I’ll have to give him a treat to get him in the car.”

Janet began volunteering with HABIT about six years ago. She began working with HABIT on her husband’s suggestion. He had seen volunteers and their animals in his work at UT Medical Center and he thought his wife would be perfect for the program. She had a different dog then. A 9 year old Yellow Lab named Sam. He and Janet volunteered for three years before Sam had to retire. They worked at a nursing home together, helping lift the spirits of senior citizens.

Now Buc has carried on the volunteering spirit of his predecessor. He’s been doing work for HABIT for about three years now, and loves every minute of it. “We love the school, and we love interacting with the kids,” Janet says. “It’s amazing to see the difference in them from the beginning to the end of the school year. At the first of the year they can’t read, but by the end of the school year want to read Buc three or four books at a time.”

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.

The Cats Totally Run the Show Around Here

There’s no arguing with a cat.

Hand to heaven, I can’t say no to a furry face. That’s how my wife and I ended up with four cats. Four of the most spoiled cats you’ll ever meet, too. Every time I open the fridge Elvira (our all-too-aptly-named black cat) comes running into the kitchen, meowing at the top of her lungs. She’s begging – no, scratch that – demanding that I give her some milk. Now.

And I have to, or else she will literally crawl into the refrigerator looking for it herself.

Now she has our youngest cat, Phantom, in on the act too. At first they’d fight over the bowl, so I had to give them each their own. Now they’ve started collaborating. Elvira meows/yells at me while Phantom rubs against my leg and purrs. It’s a good cat/bad cat routine that works every time. Since they’ve teamed up, they also share the spoils. Both heads plunge into the bowl simultaneously to enjoy the not-so-hard-won booty. And occasionally Phantom lifts his face from the milk and gives me this look that’s all like “I totally own you, man.”

Phantom is one of those cats that gets this look on his face like he knows something you don’t and there’s no way he’s ever going to tell you, because honestly, it’s just better that you live on in your blissful ignorance. It’s like a combination of wisdom and pity. It’s really disconcerting.

But he’s the sweetest cat in the world. He’s so adoring, in fact, that he often wakes me in the middle of the night to express his love in the form of head butting me in the face.