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Only 30 Minutes

I get clogged if I only have 30 minutes before the next thing. I cant seem to get anything worthwhile done, because I feel too crammed. So what's my solution? Have a go to 15 minute activity list. Respond to Emails Make one connection with another musician or venue Write a lyric line Meditate 15 miutes Take a 15 minute nap Run a mile Practice 3 songs in my set Free write 15 minutes

I usually just flitter it away while I wait for the next thing, here's to changing that.

Three Things

Jack White (if I went to one of his concerts I'd scream like a 13 year old girl) has this theory that anything needs at least three parts to hold up, like a stool. Like If you have a fantastic burger, amazing fries, but your soda is flat. Or maybe your car interior has two colors–that third color would really make it pop. It's a low enough number of things that you can think a lot about each of them–but without getting bored.

So how does that plug in to whatever you're doing?

New Normal

Courtney and I have a loose boundary—or perhaps more of a gravitational center— that keeps us circling the several blocks around our home at 117 1/2 South 6th. There is not some invisible fence or moral code that keeps us from leaving. We often take a day trip here or there. And I give a few guitar lessons 10-20 minutes away each week. But whenever I get in the car and drive it feels like I'm expelling something extra in order to break orbit. This afternoon I had the thought smash against my forehead that our little 3 block experiment—still strange to many—was now everyday to me. 

I was sitting at the coffee shop (2 blocks from our house) talking to a friend who happened to be there as well. We ended up chatting for nearly an hour. This was after Courtney and I had been at church that morning (2 blocks away) and had last second lunch with some friends (4 blocks away). Had this sort of closeness and impromptu happened 4 years ago it would have been a day for the books. Not that it's like that all day every day, but enough that it no longer shocks me.

So I took a moment to remember. No one can live on always new, always different. But the danger of the new normal is that you can lose an appreciation for what was at one time revolutionary and liberating and only see what is wrong instead of being grateful.

Stories. Fear. Guitar Practice.

Fear and anger shut down your ability to think logically. The emotional reactions to crisis physically happen in a different part of the brain as logical thought, judgement, and self-control.Guitar practice has always been difficult for me. I am bi-polar when it comes to self discipline. 

A lot of it has to do with fear: that I'm not good enough, that I am late to the game, that this is a frivolous waste of time. My blue collar instincts—which have served me well in many ways—are more interested in difficult and practical gainful employment. And so often, halfway through a practice session the demons start whispering. 

But I heard recently that while the anger and fear centers of the brain don't respond well to logical thoughts, they do respond to stories. So instead of white knuckling, I daydream for a couple of minutes about where I'd like to end up in vivid detail—as a person, as a musician, as a writer—and it puts a little more fuel back in the tank.

2 Eggs w/Siracha + Toast

Every morning I start the burner beneath the cast iron pan on medium low. I drink a glass of water then crack the eggs into melted butter and wait. If I feel like spicing things up I'll get some hot water going for a pour over coffee. A minute before the eggs are ready to be flipped (I like mine over-easy), I drop a piece of bread in the toaster. While the toast is finishing I grab the siracha and drip it on the eggs. Toast pops up, I butter it, and we're off to the races. By now it's about as predictable and comfortable as Mass to a 60 year old Catholic. I first started the ritual after reading a surprising interview with Ira Glass, one of my favorite storytellers. Instead of giving an inspirational speech about chasing dreams, he talked about breakfast, lunch, and what he wore (pretty much the same thing most days). He had long ago realized that your brain is a muscle. When you use it to make a decision (like what you are going to have for breakfast), you are using that muscle. And you can only do so much lifting in a day. But the brain can also do an enormous amount of familiar things efficiently and automatically. Most of us for example don't have to think all that hard to put our shirt on or tie our shoes. So if you turn something into a habit or ritual it reduces the load on your brain, whose energy can be used to make more important creative decisions. So now Ira, who daily does an immense amount of creative work, eats the same breakfast and lunch every single day.

I can attest to the power of a small change made into habit. Getting out of bed in the morning is difficult for me. I have chronic neck problems which means I often wake with a headache. On top of that I'm fairly ambitious in my business and creative efforts. So any given day I might have several guitar lessons to give, a spate of catering request emails to respond to, as well as my own piano and guitar practice and songwriting. And since I'm a zoomed out thinker, I tend to wake up thinking that all those things must be finished in the next hour. Once I'm out of bed and put pen to paper to plan my day I'm typically fine. But until then it can be a coin toss as to whether or not I'll snooze a few times in avoidance of reality. So I often just avoided eating breakfast altogether because I didn't want to think about what I would have to prepare or if we'd have enough of this or that. And the mornings I didn't muster the courage to make breakfast, I'd suffer for it by mid morning.

But now, I can get up and let my body go through the motions while I mentally try to prepare for the day. It seems like a small thing, but the way I begin affects every moment after. Plus, I can now make a pretty darn good cast iron fried egg.

So I'll stick with my 2 eggs w/siracha + toast.

 

 

50 Shows: Show #40 — Prison and Pioneers

I've been thinking a lot about a metaphor for faith from Brennan Manning. The church is a band of pioneers. Their trail boss is swarthy, strong, often silent. The trail boss's aims are best manifested through the scout who goes ahead of the group in a direction and tests out the way so he can lead the pioneers through whatever he has already endured.

And then there is the Buffalo hunter, dressed in furs, speaking some Eastern European language that no one can get their heads around, and he has a big gun that sounds like a cannon. He wanders into the wilderness and returns with meat for the cook to prepare for the people.

The wagon is the home of the settlers. It is mobile, though not comfortable, often clumsy and regularly in need of repair.

And as for the pioneers, in some sense they are along for the ride, in another sense survival is dependent on all hands on deck. I'll let you pick apart the analogy, and the metaphor has it's weaknesses. But the fresh and vivid imagery has been helpful for me as I've hit the asphalt trail myself recently.

Saturday night I played at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Going into prison as a guest can be quite unpredictable. So I was driving 5 hours for a show that paid nothing, and might not have happened at all, but I went. Perhaps out of nothing more than a divine curiosity, I went.

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I've been thinking a lot lately about some ideas from a good friend Ben Metz' who believes that descending into obscurity, that rejecting the market, the successful, and the strategic, can ultimately produce art with a higher level of impact. I'm still parsing it out, and this last week I did play a 2 hour blue collar show at a local pub for damn good pay—and I enjoy that kind of work. But driving 10 hours to play 4 songs for people who probably couldn't be much of a supportive fan base? That was something altogether different.

In the process of descent, certain things didn't matter any more. When they took my guitar at the entrance and before I knew there would be another for me to use at the chapel, I was already figuring how to turn the inmates into an instrument. I ended up having a guitar, but because I had already written off the expedition as a failure, further failure no longer concerned me.

There is much to be said for strategy and foresight that I so readily lack. I myself have benefitted greatly from the strategy and foresight of others. I'm not sure if I have a gift for responding to crisis or if I've just created so much crisis in my life that I've had plenty of practice. But I suppose foolishness and trust is in itself a strategy, the strategy of pioneers, and one option I hope I always keep on the table.

-Jason

The Turtle

I am the rabbit—chasing down new ideas, kicking up dust, then burning out or even just forgetting for a few days or months. I'm spring loaded, so once I start caring again it is difficult to pace myself.  But my wife, who took her sweet time deciding on what she'd like to spend much of the rest of her life doing, is the turtle. For the past year and a half she has hunkered down and finished more 5-8 homework sessions than I could count. She merges focus and discipline, even when the passion is wanting. And it's paying off. She barely missed the 4.0 this semester. And more important, she was the sole recommendation for a social work fellowship by the head of the social work department—a woman who does not hand out recommendations lightly. 

It's not a competition. And I'm not going to be able to entirely alter my personality. But now that my turtle has a slow and steady direction—I'm guessing that she's going to make a bigger difference than most. And her focus is teaching me.

The Thing About Racists

I am currently reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. It's a memoir about his travels around America—a genre that seems overdone if it weren't for the fact that there are at any time 300 million people to talk to with each person an ever shifting landscape. Currently (in the book) he's in the South and encountering all sorts of racist people. But also, some of them still have something compelling or kind about them—even if they have buried it beneath a pile of ignorance.

It's easier to reduce people to their worst qualities than pry the good out of them. So when you meet an ugly person. Keep digging.

Testing

We are terrified of playing with our pet convictions—perhaps we think questioning our belief will break it, or at least lead us to misplace it somewhere.   But if a thing is true enough, then stomping on the floorboards a few times will only further convince us of its sturdiness. 

And if it is going to fall through anyway, wouldn't you rather it happen when you are expecting the possibility?

Perspective

C.S. Lewis said it is important to read old books because people during different times had different blind spots than we do.  Sure we see their foibles clearly, but so can they see ours. That's why it's also important to listen to people who are very different than us. They may have blind spots too, but theirs are not ours, otherwise we'd agree with them. Between the two of us, we'll probably have fuller vision.

Same Field—Every Day

The muddle of things is where the work gets done. The excitement of dreaming is important, but at some point you have to show up and do the important work every single day until it is finished. Plow the same field every day until it is finished. Don't wait till you know what you're doing.

Don't wait till inspiration strikes. 

Don't wait till you feel like doing it.

Just show up each day and do the thing you've already decided is most important—even if some days all you can find is 10 minutes. It doesn't matter how small the time or effort—if spent on the most important thing then that 10 minutes is the most important 10 minutes of your day.

Stephen King wrote "Carrie" while on lunch break at a commercial laundromat—a job where he had to take salt pills because he was sweating so much.

And if you haven't figured out your most important thing yet then just do AN important thing. Once you've finished that, find a new field to plow.

In A Movie

I'm going to be in a movie—or at least a recording of my 25 year old voice is. 4 years ago I wrote a song for a writer out of appreciation for the way he steered the course of my faith. When I wrote it, I only expected a few people would ever hear it. Now that number will at least hit a few thousand. I can't predict the impact of today's work. I can only do today's work whether I think it will accomplish anything or not.

Becoming White Noise (Hallelujah)

Outrage—your response to every offense—is becoming white noise. The stakes are always the highest possible so you shoot from the hip at everything that moves. The endless stream of vitriol causes it all to fade into the sonic background. When outrage is the status quo, it is far easier to ignore. Thank you for that. Every time you start frothing at the mouth you articulate a little less until one day all I will hear is a babbling and always the victim child that I can pat on the head. "There, there."

I might listen more if you would back your outrage with actual love manifested in patience, kindness, empathy and self sacrifice—or perhaps even a hint of calm? People like MLK showed us that if you want to convince people and change cultures, then suffer blows without fighting back. Be adamant with your ideas, sometimes even angry but refuse to reduce yourself to childish name calling. And for your own sake, be filled and motivated by love—the fear and anger will crush you into a bitter old person who fought to save a life that in the end wasn't by any onlooker's estimation worth living.

This outrage of course can come from all ideological corners, but to my corner—the one where people think following Jesus is the highest calling, I find it most disturbing—that the angry among you predictably take your cues from talking heads who make money by scaring you with apocalyptic hypotheticals 24/7. If we will know you by your fruit then your faith in the 24 hour news cycle reaps fear, anger, and anxiety. You, upon the advice of a man who believes that Jesus and Satan are siblings, chase out someone who preaches that Jesus is God—because they voted for the wrong party, or because they offered a Muslim a job.

Besides, I've been tracking your Nostradamus level compendium of doom. And the only way to bury the bad information is to heap new hypotheticals on the old until it is both indecipherable and able to confirm anything you'd choose. In the absence of facts—mountains of information will have to do. 

But it's going away now, though slowly , fading into obscurity—dying off so a new thing can be born—a new thing that I think is still 50 years away, but that I might get to see with my own eyes. 

I'd try to describe it for you, but I think you are scared enough already.

Good Episode

I recently heard comedian Pete Holmes talking about how he deals with setbacks and bad days. "Good Episode," he says to himself. Pie in the sky? Is Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi pie in the sky? Is Shawshank Redemption pie in the sky? Were those worlds and moments biography rather than fiction, we would find them even more compelling. The one that overcomes receives a bigger crown than the one who never met an obstacle. Shawshank without life in prison and crawling through sewage lines to his escape is a story about a man who lives alone and works in accounting for 40 years before retiring in Baja. Accounting.

Yesterday was a good episode. After I finally overcame my typical fears about all the work I needed to do that day, I spent the next two hours burning copies of CDs in a way that means they are now useless to me. I followed up that debacle later in the afternoon with one of my poorest performances as a teacher to date. At which point—and at several more discouraging points throughout the afternoon—I muttered to myself, "Good Episode."

This was not a positive thinking mantra—Sienfeld's "SERENITY NOW!" bottling of the pain. But a challenge—to myself, to the universe, to God, to make this a part of a compelling story.

At 10:30pm I was rinsing campfire smoke out of my hair, reflecting on the last second appearance that evening of several friends swapping stories and ideas and laughter around the cracking logs. I was thinking about the meteor I saw streaking across the sky, about the tour I'm planning for September that started coming together in big ways earlier that day, about the White Oaks practice I had poorly prepared for in a way that actually resulted some delightful new arrangements due to our limitations.

And so the morning after, a hint of camp smoke still with me, I accept the whole thing and not a commercial break less as a good episode.

Present

Some people say that I'm a dreamer.  It's true. I am always looking at possibilities. That being said, I spend very little time in the present enjoying or dealing with what is in front of me. And whenever I am in the peaceful present it feels fragile—the slightest hint that at some point in the day I will have to do something else in the next 24 hours jerks me into a zoomed out view in which every step and task I have in front of me is compounded into a single moment. For all intents and purposes it feels like they all have to be done immediately. 

But I've gathered some tools to deal with it. Updating a to do list keeps me from wondering what I might be forgetting. Making a productivity schedule each morning helps me get down to what is most important and what I can let drift away. Prayer and meditation gives me the proper perspective that most the things that stress me out are not all that important a week from now let alone 50 years.

I will always be looking to the horizon—and that is something I never want to lose. That part of my personality always keeps me open to hope that can transform the present. But always planning and never living your life is a terrible thing—instead of hope it fuels discontentment. 

So I fight to enjoy the moment and be present and practical to the world around me, to make all those visions and ideas realities.

50 shows: Show #12 - Ready

A lot of terrible and exciting things happened yesterday—some of which I am eager but not yet at liberty to talk about. Let's just say that by the time I get through with fifty shows, there are bound to be some interesting developments. But I topped off the roller coaster day with a last second second show at Goshen Brewing Company. 

My first two hour set.

A friend contacted me yesterday to see if I could fill the spot. I hesitated. I have played for two hours before, but that was playing the same set twice in a row while busking. 

I sat down and wrote down every song I know (or had known at some point)—including three songs I hadn't yet played live. With about 30 or so songs and a bit of creative stretching I figured I could do it. So I said yes. I'll be honest—in terms of the quality I want to be putting in front of people, I wasn't ready for a two hour set. But it was a challenge I needed to take on—especially since I have a goal of having a pretty good three hour set in my back pocket. 

But I was ready enough in a pinch, which is a great change. Old me waited around for opportunities to rise to. Current me tries to be ready for the opportunities that might come—because they never come conveniently.

It's the difference I've seen in people who do great things and people who end up doing the same thing—even though they'd like something different. If you want to move into something comparatively significant, you can't wait for a guarantee that it's going to happen in order to prepare for it. 

By the time that guarantee comes—it's too late.

50 Shows: Show #10 - Special Occasions

My friend Kellie married a couple of months ago out of state. So they had a reception in town for friends this weekend. She messaged me a couple months ago to see if I could play some guitar. She wanted to surprise her husband Tommy with a rendition of "Baby I'm Yours."

This was a no brainer for me. Not only are our musical duets epic (think the Pixies "Where Is My Mind" with a section of "Stairway to Heaven" mashed into it) but two years ago when I was recording Knowing and playing some of my first shows, Kellie's ceaseless encouragements and positivity in the face of my musical insecurities was the precise note needed during a fragile time.

Had she not been around at that point in my growth as an artist, I would not be playing at the level I am. I wouldn't be playing 50 shows in 50 weeks. And The White Oaks likely wouldn't exist.

There are people who hang around for years and walk with you, humming encouragements  in your ear day after day. Then there are people who show up for the special occasion and sing a single and essential song that helps usher you into a new phase of life. I am grateful for them both.

The Flight

There are a hundred moments a day we'd like to get through as quickly as possible—the commute, a job, painting a room, perhaps a conversation. Today's 'get through' moment is a flight from Columbus, Ohio to Dallas and then on to Portland. Once I arrive I'll enjoy being with family but probably I'll also want the hour plus drive to Albany to be over.  I try to reclaim these moments—sometimes in order to be productive, sometimes to reflect on the way things are and how I might like them to be—sometimes it's good just to breath, to be bored and okay with it.

So instead of trying to distract my way out of  this particular journey with a game on my phone, I wrote a song, read a bit of a great book, and typed out this blog post.

Don't skip the journey.

Don't Say Everything 

A speaker I enjoy begins most of his talks by offering a disclaimer saying something like, "You cannot say everything every time. And so I'm not going to bother trying. So don't read into what I do or don't believe just because I didn't talk about it." I too have felt the tug. As it pertains to any writing I might do about faith—"Christian" internet has a bullet list of items that are expected to have a balancing statement accompanying them. 

For example if I go on for a while to talk about how much God loves people (end of sentence) someone might start another discussion about how I forgot to mention the part where God killed people for this or that reason and often makes us uncomfortable with what He might ask of us. A little talk about how I read the Bible aside (even now I'm tempted to offer my own list of explanations so you won't read something into or out of that example), people rarely feel good about just sitting in a thing for a while and saying "well that is pretty great. Let's expound on the ways that it is true." (Again I'm tempted to start on about how point and counterpoint has its place—but I only mildly digress.)

I've been working on sticking to a single thing in both writing and conversation, even when I find an interesting thought elsewhere, even when I am afraid of what people will assume, even when I really want to paint a fuller picture right now. Because first of all it is impossible to hedge all my bets and second the act of communication guarantees some level of miscommunication. So I'd like to stick to saying one thing well and letting it sit, unclouded by everything else that I could try to pile on top of it.

Rest

I'm on vacation—why are you bothering me? I can't speak for you, but I've noticed that I have two vacation modes: distraction and rest.

Distraction is a mindless numbing that leaves me groggy by the end of the day and comes as a result of watching tv (because I'm bored), eating too much (because I'm bored), and scrolling through Facebook (because I'm bored). It seems like the sort of stuff that would be restful, but it is soul sucking and leaves me blank.

Rest on the other hand takes a little bit of work: a walk around a field of hazelnut trees, playing the piano, writing, reading a book, visiting old friends, and of course taking a nap. There has been food, and some Facebook, and last night we did watch a documentary on the connection between the Los Angeles Raiders and the rise of hip hop. But we decided before we even left home that we'd do the things that are restful rather than just distract ourselves.

And the effects are worth the tiny bit of effort. When I rest my imagination opens up, my senses are heightened—I take in what is special about the place I'm in. My soul is filled and I end the day tired enough to sleep and proud of the experiences I've had.