Filtering by Category: The Arts

The Market

Art. Everyone wants it, good or bad. Very few would like to pay for it, even if it alters their perspective, or even the course of their life. The Market is fickle. It rewards those who appeal of the impulsive wants of children and grown children around Christmas or whenever the latest video game console comes out. So for a month or so Furbies, beanie babies, PS450's, or a tickle me Elmo, might cost as much as the last car I bought. On the other hand, Vincent Van Gogh only sold two paintings in his lifetime, while Henry David Thoreau had to pay for some of his own publishing at a loss and died unknown to the broader culture. Edgar Allen Poe, John Keats, and Bach were ignored by the Market of their time though rewarded greatly (after their death) by later markets.

This isn't to say that The Market doesn't at times reward great art in the lifetime of the creator. That obviously happens, Banksy for one. But that doesn't mean that The Market is a good indicator of art with longevity and impact.

So if you'd like to try to catch the Market, find out what it wants and make more of that. But if you'd like to make something that has a chance of lasting and impacting and altering beyond your grave, I'd say make a living off of something other than your most important work.

50 Shows: Making Moments

I have played many shows for reasons both selfish and noble—usually a mix. But increasingly I see my work as a creator as about crafting a moment. A few years ago I sat at a coffee shop and listened to a fantastic singer/songwriter fill the room with a presence—little did I know he would later become a musical mentor. But I was so inspired at the time that I stole an empty coffee bag from the shop to jot down some thoughts. With his careful words, his adept guitar playing, and his experienced voice he had given me a surprise.

I keep an eye out for moments like that so I can slow down and take them in as well as pay attention to what makes them so special. I have become a student of creating moments and these are a few things I have learned.

1) It takes considerable skill. Crafting special moments for others is about paying attention to what is happening and either reacting to or joining in with it. The better you are, the more quickly and flawlessly you can change course.

2) It takes awareness not only of what is going on, but why it is happening. The best moments come when people see through me and let me know it. Be a student of people and what makes them tick. Our culture is quick to assume motivation and slow to listen.  At first ssume you are bad at it by nature—even if you think you are pretty great at it.

3) It takes courage. I once heard Jerry Seinfeld comment that something like 10% of his shows are a flop. Even the best can let you down, if you are depending on them to create a perfect moment every time. The goal is not to get it right always but to always try so that you can sometimes nail it. High chance of failure means you need to not get hung up on the flops.

4) It has nothing to do with any specific artistic medium. A party for a friend, giving a guitar lesson, an office meeting, a concert—they are all opportunities to create something special if you are willing to take the risk.

5) You won't get much glory. You might get a thank you, or even paid, but in the audience's memory you will be a part of the moment but likely not central to it. Even if the moment you crafted becomes a huge prt of their life from that moment on, they probably won't even remember your name or even that you were responsible for creating the moment. Actually you might not ever even know.

6) Lightning rarely strikes twice. Every situation is unique and much of the magic flows from the particular quirks and flaws of a given situation. So stop looking for formulas. 

The Myth of Options

Brian Eno has produced and composed music ranging from U2 and Coldplay to the opening tunes for the London Olympic games. The man works with huge budgets, top grade studios, outstanding talent, and access to any type of instrument you might desire. And yet.....

Fence_a3The first thing he asks of those who step into the studio with him is, "What are our limitations?"

This isn't an existential question, or even a question of abilities, but rather, What limitations are we going to impose on ourselves?

Have you seen an episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares recently? The second most repeated action he takes (trailing close behind his affinity for the F-bomb)  is carving down a monstrosity of a menu to a handful of items. Every. Single. Time.

Or another example. The first time I went to Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, world leaders in high end specialty coffee, you'd think they'd offer varieties and preparation methods coating an entire wall. Nope. Three choices done well, all via pour over. Both of my visits have been very rewarding.

And not to suggest my abilities are even close to any of those mentioned above, but this site has it's own boundaries. If you'd take the time to check you would find find that practically all (with rare exception) of these posts are less than 500 words. Since I imposed that limit on myself several months ago, I would argue that both my thoughtfulness and aesthetic improved significantly.

It's easy to assume that more options means better outcome, and yet so many artisans at the top of their game offer clear limits from the beginning.

 

When You Live Life For the Second Time

As I previously mentioned, I'm buckling down and getting productive simply by rearranging my schedule based on one rule, do the most important thing first. It continues to be a satisfying success.

What I didn't mention was a question that goes along with my schedule shakeup. It's a question that notable psychologist Viktor Frankl asked every one of his patients over and over (in all his years he didn't lose even one person out of 30,000 suicide watches):

If you were living today over again, how would you do it differently?

Or in a more direct line from his book Man's Search For Meaning.

“So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

It's a powerful trick that I intended to use as a means to focus in my art, but the mindset is leaking into every corner of my life. Last night it incited an impromptu kitchen dance session with my wife as Etta James crooned through my iPhone speaker.

It's not magic, and no it doesn't solve all of my ridiculous issues, but it does put my decisions in a different and, I'd argue, brighter light. I spend less time traipsing around the internet looking for cat and penguin gifs and more time picking up a pen, plucking guitar strings, reading good books, cooking food and stopping to laugh with friends. And as I expand the question to reliving a month, year, or my entire life, it's making a lot of immediate choices easier.

And on the days I sit down to think about it, having lived the day for the second time, I feel much more like the person I'd like to be

 

What You Do First

I've been working through a daily exercise put together by Donald Miller called The Storyline Productivity Schedule. It's less involved than you'd think–about five minutes each morning–but it's altering my priorities and consequently how I spend my time. It's simple really. Figure out the most important project you're working on and do that first. No matter whether you are a morning person or a night owl, what you do first is what will get your best and most productive attention. Otherwise, as I've found on days I don't do this, the day will find ways to sap your time and energy, sucking up desire to get to work and create. Lately, on an average week (not counting the time I spend giving lessons), I have a guitar in my hands for three hours, which is paltry considering my goals and profession. Since starting the productivity schedule (geez I sound like an infomercial) I've tripled that, even though the past few weeks have been loaded with other unexpected items.

 

So two questions:

What is most important to you?

Why isn't it the first thing you do?

 

 

 

Disinterested Like Dylan: Where the Art Comes From

believe all change is slow. Though it often has an immediate and unexpected feel to it, the further you pan out the clearer it becomes that these things are a thousand brush strokes unveiled rather than a burst of fireworks. This is preferable as paintings last much longer than a burst of ignited magnesium. Today is one of those realizations.

Allow me to unpack.

As a sub-creator, that is, a created being that takes up the act of creation, I've found myself floundering–maybe call it flailing. Either way, while I've managed to create things I consider both excellent and edifying to the soul, it has been like squeezing a glass of orange juice from a hundred already pressed oranges. For every word presented, every note recorded, there have been 15-20 hidden away, never to see the light of day.

This is not an exaggeration; 20:1 is an honest ratio.

Partially this is just the process of art; as one of my favorite storytellers likes to say, it's about producing a mass volume while maintaining excellent taste and only presenting the best. This part of the process I can handle, but there is something more than that. There has been internal conflict I couldn't get past, a resentment I didn't know how to deal with.

I'm bitter about religion.

I think it's poison, I really do. The manipulation, the dishonesty, the fear, the drama–it's astounding. What's worse is that it's about as easy to lay a finger on as one of Flannery O'Connor's subtly racist characters. Both are slimy frogs fresh out of a stagnant pond.

So much of my life has been religiosity alongside and within people who genuinely want to follow Jesus, not to mention the disease that has and still runs in my own veins. For every honest word of affection for my creator, there are at least twenty that came from fear or a desire to impress or coerce.

This is not an exaggeration; 20:1 is an honest ratio.

If art is an expression of the eternal internal, fruit from the vine as it were, from the abundance of the heart, much of my own art has been puss draining from infected wound, which is necessary, but not great for public consumption. Thankfully I've filtered most. Mournfully I haven't caught it all.

If you've been slapped around by my bitterness. This is my apology, and please let me know if there is some way I can help you work through it.

As far as I can tell, the way forward is not to forget about the past, but rather bid it farewell with the aloofness and dis-affection of Bob Dylan.

So long honey babe. Where I'm bound I can't tell.

Goodbye is too good a word babe, So I'll just say Fare thee well.

It ain't that you treated me unkind. You coulda done better but I don't mind. You just kinda wasted my precious time. Don't think twice it's alright.

I don't need to reconcile the past or let it control the present (or let others sit in it). Rather I can let God grow something better out of it. If there is shit in this garden then I've got some good fertilizer. Religion is and will continue to be at play in my life, like an obsessive ex girlfriend who won't let it go, driven mad by my disinterest, but I've devoted enough energy to the bitterness and it's time to say goodbye.

Though that too is a process that might take a while.

 

A Poem: As Much As I Have Done

That manWho shot up the shipyard, When He put four rounds Into my neighbor's car tire, Why did I not go to Him? In friendship visit Him in prison? For Christ's sake Get Him some meds?

But as usual, Jesus was little more than Dinner time conversation that night. Just as He would be again, When He shot up the navy shipyard.

My Biggest Musical Influence Is Tone Deaf

I grew up singing–at church, at school, for people who couldn't feed themselves–and I didn't really have much of a choice in the matter. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for it; it was good practice. But I still loathed it. I would do my duty then exit stage as quickly as possible. Fast forward a few years and the anonymity of a college choir made public performance a bit more palatable. It's much more difficult to be ashamed of ones voice when you know it is hidden behind thirty others much more pleasant than yours.

Yes, you heard me right, Mr "I'm going to ask people to buy a recording of me singing" doesn't actually like his own voice."

It's not exactly what one would call "robust," which makes crooning a bit difficult. But I'm learning to block that out. Being self conscious about it only adds bad notes to bad tone. When people say they like it, I just say thank you and change the subject. I have worked hard to find niches to fit it into, taking cues from odd singers doing well (Jack White, Bob Dylan, etc). But I'd have to say, the biggest contribution anyone has made to my music is a friend from Oregon.

And I'm pretty sure he's tone deaf.

I say this because he loved to pop off whatever lyrics were running through his mind at the time, which around Jr High was The Barenaked Ladies. Out of nowhere, even in the middle of a crowd, he would rattle off lyrics, apparently unaware of a minor detail called the major scale. Thankfully he had good rhythm, so the more monotone rap-like sections of BNL lent themselves well to his particular gifting.

I always enjoyed his singing, but it took me a long time to figure out why. To this day, I still hear his voice from time to time, mimicking whatever is coming out of the speakers, passionate and unaware.

And I smile.

I smile because he always had what I've been looking for; he really doesn't care whether people like how he sounds or not, he just loves singing long and loud. And I carry that with me. I don't fear mistakes (as much) when I play live, in fact some mistakes have become memorable opportunities. I fight to be a better musician, a better guitarist, a better singer, but at the end of the day I just get up there and enjoy it. Otherwise, as I so often tell my guitar students, what's the point?

I Have No Clue What I'm Doing

At least when I start. What confidence I may appear to have is probably just good acting. Most people I've met, worth their salt in whatever category of this or that, started out this way: unsure, insecure, incompetent, paranoid, bumbling, terrified. But they picked up a pen, or a hammer, or a spatula, and kept whacking things till something worked, then worked more often, then consistently worked.

Following Jesus is has been the same way. As I grow, I care less about having it down before setting out, even before arriving. And when I do look back, my regrets are only that I wouldn't have started fumbling through failure much sooner.

But I understand why I didn't. I used to fear my daily and severe failure, my incompetence, my bouts of apathy. As a friend once put it, "if I know I'm going to screw it up, why bother beginning?" God was the angry grandpa, ever disappointed. I didn't feel like giving him any more ammunition.

I am gratefully beyond (for the most part) the God-I-Made-In-My-Image, which deserves the best southern sweat-rag radio preacher I can muster, "Prayeeessah the Lawd!" I once was blind but now see the face of the one who can sympathize with my weakness, who invites me to bumble into glory. In a line that Rich Mullins may or may not have coined (which inspired a piece of music), "If I make my way swaying drunk from side to side, is it any less the way home?"

After all, the man walking home sobers up faster than the one who never leaves the bar.

The Next Album...

...is beginning to percolate. At this point the concept is still vague–only two songs that may or may not make the cut, but the lyrical tone and the musical aesthetic seems to be gravitating toward rock organ and electric guitar, something with more of a live feel, something a bit raw.

As a guitarist, its going to be an album I cannot yet play. As a singer, it's going to require a confidence I'm only beginning to hit on any sort of a regular basis when playing live. As a writer it's going to take a comfort with an honesty tied to an empathy that seeks to build rather than tear down–slowly getting there.

"Passion, honesty, and competence–it was musical heaven." -Jimmy Page

Album CoverI learned a lot about myself on the first go around, or maybe I finally just admitted a few things to myself. I ditched some delusions of grandeur and picked up a few notes of confidence and experienced the joy of something built by a community of people as well as the painful-but-so-necessary reality that without community I'm not going to get much done, especially when it comes to handling details

For those of you still waiting on your 30 second song, I have not forgot about you.

But the second will be better than the first, both in content and execution. As always, my vision outpaces my current skill, simultaneously pulling me to a better place and making me paranoid. I am far from the stereotypical tortured artist, but there is a healthy level of discontentment that helps me move, without drowning out the joy of music.

Whether or not all the sentiment ever becomes recorded sound, time will tell. Either way, vision is a joyful thing.

A Week of Christianese: Why I Think It Matters

 

In trying to figure out how to cap off the week of Christianese I went through five drafts that amounted to this, Christianese has absolutely nothing to offer followers of Jesus. Out of a desire to inspire rather than destroy, I won't elaborate. Instead, I'll offer an invitation, some might call it an alter call: If you care about cutting out the excess we so easily pile on top of following Jesus, fighting to change the words that you use and the way you use them is a pretty fantastic place to start. 

If I can be arrogant enough to say I'm at least a couple of miles down the path I'm suggesting you take, if you would like any advice on where to start, feel free to drop me a line at jasonropp@jasonropp.com.

 

 

 

Outside My Circle

I am several things.

...Follower of Jesus

...sub-culturally Mennonite

...Theologically Anabaptist

...American

...White

...Farm Raised

...Town Dweller

...Musician

...Writer

...Millennial

I am not necessarily ashamed of any of those items. But I am aware that each brings its own blessings and subversive temptations.

I don't try to flee what I am, but I do try to get outside of myself, my perceptions, my assumptions about the world.

Which is why I hunt for people like Propaganda, the spoken word poet and rapper; they help me understand which aspects of what I believe are universal and which ones only work in the white-middle-class-evangelical-world in which I largely work, play, and worship.

So props to Propaganda.

Keep looking for people who stretch your imagination.

You can get the full Excellent album free on noisetrade.

Playing to the Hype...

...is enticing. With six billion people occupying the planet alongside all sorts of deadly animals, tornados, and poisonous foods, there will always be some sort of crisis to address. If you are looking for ways to find or create fear, you won't have to look too hard. As much as we all say that we wish the world were a better place, palpable fear is sexy like adrenaline, and as a result, short lived.

You realize there are still flattened houses in Oklahoma City right? Of course you do, it was all we could talk about for a week. It's also in the front of your mind that there are still tent towns in Port A Prince (that's that city in Haiti that everyone texted $10 to) only a few miles away from the place where bodies were carried by the dump truck load and covered in dirt by bulldozers. And of course we daily think of the many people in Louisiana still grieving in the wake of the most tragic, and still very recent, event of their life.

Of course we do, because we care.

While I've addressed current events before, most of the time I intentionally avoid them. I don't get my jollies by giving a drunk a drink. In fact, there have been several times I've covered a subject that coincidentally hit headlines just before I clicked the publish button.

While there may be a time for breaking news, my goal isn't to throw more sugar into the crisis cool-aide. But it's tempting. Crisis is sexy and sex sells.

If you will allow me to make a left turn...

The_ScreamAs it turns out, our propensity toward national crisis fever is actually about individual crisis and our desire to dramatize, our need to have something tragic happen to us in order to feel like our life is important enough to have actual conflict.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, look for it as you go through the checkout line, or ask your friends about how their week is going.

We understand that a meaningful life has conflict, it's inherent in our entertainment. Bruce Willis has to jump through at least eight panes of glass before he can throw Hans Gruber from the skyscraper. But when an East German terrorist fails to show up in our particular skyscraper, we settle for embellishment of relational conflict. We get the benefit of feeling important without actually having to do anything difficult meaningful.

Yippee kay yay.

But characters in great stories don't go hunting for crisis; they're trying to reach a goal (personal growth, liberation of the oppressed, spiritual enlightenment). When you pursue something worthwhile, there will be obstacles to overcome and probably some embarrassing failure.

Meaningful life will result in conflict and even crisis, but crisis doesn't mean you're getting anything done. So stop looking for hyped up drama.

If you are doing something worthwhile you'll have as much of the real thing as you'll ever want.

Running For Others

I.   When left to my own devices I'm rather sedentary –sleep till 10, sit all day, surf the web, trudge through moderate depression. In short, while I posthumously enjoy invigorating exercise, or a solid day's work, I'm much more of a slug than anything. And when I do muster the motivation to take on a massive project, getting off the couch takes more emotional jet fuel than the first fifty feet of a shuttle launch. And yet I find myself getting up earlier and getting more done than ever before.

Not that productivity is everything, or even a good reason.

II.   Courtney and I went for a jog the other day, which probably looked something like this. Neither of us have done much running lately (Courtney told me afterward that she hadn't run a complete mile in over 4 years). We both felt like quitting after the first block and a half.

Though my wife is a much healthier eater, and gets out more often than I do, I have a genetic advantage by way of long legs. As a result, I felt a responsibility to pace myself according to her needs.

Knowing that I had an extra breath or two on her, a quarter mile or so into the run I began popping off cheesy motivational lines like, "one foot in front of the other" and an underwhelming, "you can do it" or two. Funny thing was, whenever I did, the searing pain in my lungs subsided.

III.  I love molding ideas into something intriguing, rephrasing the unimaginative. I used to think it was for the thing itself, that I simply loved word-smithing (which I do); but when I write items I know won't see the light of day, I just don't seem to care as much. If I sit down to write a song for the heck of it, I don't pour in the same love for the craft and hope for the result.

IV. I feel best about what I'm doing when I think to myself, this might actually help someone. Not that I naturally crave that. On any given day, I make more me based than other based decisions. But the days I push past what comes naturally and get outside myself I end the day much happier, more productive, and far more grateful for the life I have.

Trading Hammers

I was doing some book editing yesterday, on a project that I will probably scrap if I continue to dislike it as much as I do now.

Partly I've become more comfortable with my own writing in the past months and there are sections I can most definitely tell were written a year or more ago that feel chunky and awkward. But also, the ideas I've been writing about are beginning to fit like a favorite jacket getting short in the sleeves. I am simply not the same person –thank God, I was a year ago, which is why (If you've noticed) my contributions to this blog have decreased drastically in number in the past month or so.

Post_maul_-_20040819What I mean is, writing has forced me to evaluate the way I see the world, how I create art, what a meaningful life means, and what it means to follow Jesus. In the process, I've tackled subjects I once embraced wholeheartedly, or rather  subjects that once embraced me. And It would be fair to say that my approach to such evaluation has been to smash everything with a maul in order to see what survives.

Demolition is neither the kindest or gentlest methodology. I've had to make some mistakes and apologies along the way. But I was once slave to certain self-imposed ideologies (or maybe idolatries), forcing the same rigid expectations on others that I had on myself, thinking the whole time of God as The-Great-Disappointed-In-All-of-Us. There was a day when I left that house and resolved never to go back, and for good measure I've been tearing down the silly place altogether.

Today, as my pug was re-marking his spot on the pole in front of our apartment, I realized that the demolition was finished. Now this is a metaphor, and there are still demons from my past worldview that need undoing and revising, and I think there will still be times ahead when life needs a sledge hammer, but if I can't learn to put down the ideological tools of destruction, I'll never have a roof over my head.

 

Maybe it's time to start building fresh on the foundation that proved impervious to my ideological sledge-swinging. Maybe it's time to learn to use a different sort of hammer.

 

640px-Klopfholz_mit_Beiteln

 

 

Once You've Won The Gold...

...there isn't really anywhere else to go. Unless of course we someday find lifeforms on Mars that enjoy running 100 meters for the heck of it. We all peak, most long before we die. Michael Jordan's jump shot won't be winning any more rings. Bill Gates continues to make billions but it's not as if he's offered the world something revolutionary in the past 10 years.

For me, when I do well, raising the bar can create paranoia. "What if such and such was the single greatest accomplishment in my life?" Monday's post, which I'm proud of, struck a nerve with people and became an acute virus, just under 900 hits in 3 days. I barely get 900 hits most months. Minuscule yes. But in terms of my own writing, it is my greatest accomplishment to date. And it has readjusted my notions of what it means to succeed. A level I won't likely reach in the coming months. It might be years before that sort of lightening strikes again. And if I'm not careful it will taint my writing method: slow and steady–singles not home runs.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 9.31.47 AM

I used to feel sorry for has-been rock stars. As if they were somehow now pathetic for still existing. When Steppenwolf come to the Linn County fair when I was a kid, I saw them as desperate old men trying to relive glory days. Maybe they were, or maybe they hadn't wrapped their identity around being a rock star. Maybe they didn't do it for the success. Maybe they just loved it whether they played for ten or ten thousand. I felt sorry for them because I was the one tying up my own identity in aspirations.

Weeks like this remind me of the pitfalls of success, that accolade is short lived and long forgotten, that even the most severely talented will someday go the way of the Buffalo, that identity wrapped around something so paltry as our accomplishments is a setup for disappointment.

 

The Myth of Urgency

Kulturgeschichte / Religionsgeschichte / Juden / 19. Jh.Urgency seems to be the the tool of choice these days. If only I had a dollar for every time I heard something akin to, "This is the critical moment." If I'm going to make up a number, I'd say 85% of urgent situations are a marketing tool. Manipulation. Whether it's about making money or hustling an idea.

It's not that there aren't actually urgent needs, but we've blurred the line between crisis and simply less than ideal. Never mind that how I try to sell an idea today dilutes the notion of urgency for a later and more important cause; I want results. Over and over again, the ends justify the means.

It isn't that urgency is necessarily peddled with malicious or greedy motives, though I am skeptical of anyone under a $60 million contract regularly and vehemently telling wolf stories. Most people simply care, and relative to the carefree life they've experienced, everything appears as crisis.

I used to help at a soup kitchen in Columbus, Ohio called Manna Cafe. The woman who ran the place, lets call her Fran (I don't remember what her name was) was lively to say the least, "Praise the Lord and pass the Mennonites" she would exclaim whenever we rolled in with our 15 passenger Ford. A group would pile out, quickly dissipating into pecking order based on how often they had visited. Newbies hung back, held tight to their wallets, practically covering ears with their shoulders. Those who had already been there a few times headed straight for the entrance, offering a "hi" or two to whoever was slouched against the stone wall in the alley. The church was after all in a 'rough' section of the city, especially from the perspective of mainly rural dwellers. It took some getting used to.

The thing that struck me about Fran, was that no matter what was happening, she never seemed too worried about it. Even when fights broke out, she stepped in, asked someone to leave, then called the police if needed. For all her refusal to panic (at least the times I was present) she had the respect and attention of the community. Her years helping people  on the streets had left her resilient and difficult to suprise

And there are others like Fran, people like pastor Gary, who continue to explore, learn, then thoughtfully express what they've found, convincing me with their wisdom rather than their sense of panic. Their composure didn't communicate apathy, and it certainly didn't keep them from acting in moments of actual crisis. Rather, it showed that they understood something deeper about the way things work.

It was as though they understood that somehow and eventually, things would end up as they should be.

 

 

The Fruits of Failure.

Failure. Not my favorite thing. But we had an altercation this past week. 250 miles of walking to Columbus, Ohio turned into 38 or so miles and an emotional breakdown. Funny, I thought it would be my knee that did me in.

I won't go into details as to exactly what happened, but long story short, I failed –miserably.

The uptick is, in the past year I've been learning to accept failure with a lot more grace than I used to. Because in most things, failure is not a light switch, it's a dimmer.

A breakdown of the breakdown.

  •  I'm in better shape than I've been in a while. Preparation for the trip got me off my duff and walking 100+ miles in the couple months prior to leaving, not to mention the 38 or so miles I covered in three days with a 35lb pack.
  • I still have five or so shows to play next week.
  • Driving home, Courtney suggested that we do the trip together this fall. Someone else suggested we take on a good section of the Appalachian trail. We'll see what develops, but it seems like failure is planting some new dreams in the both of us.