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.

IMG_2533.JPG

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 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.

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.

Stack of Bills

I want you to picture a stack of $100 bills, 4 inches tall. How does it change your life? Does it make you happy thinking about it? Let's bypass the stack of bills.

I want you to picture a room of your favorite people, doubled over in laughter, patting you on the back, offering hugs as they leave.

Which makes you happier? One is probably more likely to happen if you'd just make a few phone calls.

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. 

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. 

Nutrition

I have a problem on my hands. My garden is growing successfully. This is unfamiliar territory—never mind that this is only the second year that I've had one. But last year it was paltry, only eking out a small vegetable here and there. My goal this year was to suck less at gardening—mission accomplished.

So what's the problem?

I tried out a couple new greens this year, a red mustard that has a horseradish edge to it as well as a variety of kale that tastes like cabbage but comes out in leaves instead of a single head so you can keep harvesting though the season. They've both grown and re-grown wonderfully. The problem is I'm not sure what to use them in. I tried making a horseradish style mayo that worked alright, and we put the kale in a soup that came out pretty good but only because of all the other things we added to it. We just didn't have a particular meal that it really added something to. Then today as I reheated some leftover soup and thought about the vegetables in the garden that I wanted so desperately to find a use for, it hit me—nutrition.

Cultural food did not happen simply because a group of people preferred corn meal over potatoes, but rather because they first had a thing available from which devised a dish that was relatively pleasing and practical for the environment. They started with what they had and needed—the nutrition—and then made it work. Thus the Irish are obsessed with potatoes.

In USA 2015, I do the opposite. I immediately concern myself with what will taste good. Yes I am reminded at least a couple times a day that I need food, but I mostly think of it as a form of pleasure and entertainment. I have bypassed the thought that this thing brings certain minerals and proteins into my body to make it run—that no matter how it tastes, the nutrition is the point. In actuality, the flavor is the window dressing.

So I went to my garden and broke off a leaf of the kale, a leaf of the mustard, and chopped them up tossed them right into the soup I was reheating. Flavor profiles be damned, I was putting more gas in the tank for what will be a long afternoon.

Our problem goes beyond food—we are obsessed with the flavor and appearance of things rather than the substance, what about the thing gives life. So it's no surprise when our sex, religion, employment, possessions, and relationships reflect that culture we swim in. Not that the dressing is pointless—beauty is never pointless—but to forget the substance of things in favor of the surface is to eventually throw away the substance of that made the things so valuable in the first place simply because it no longer suits our taste.

Rain

My wife and I catered a wedding this weekend. We have an Espresso Cart that we use to spread the gospel of caffeine to the masses.  From a work perspective it was a disaster. It was a new venue that we were in hindsight unprepared for. We were rushed to get set up, we had to pull the gear through mud, because of my mistake on distance to the venue we had to set up outside during the ceremony to be ready on time, it was hot so almost everyone got iced drinks (which meant more work and more supplies used per drink).

To top it all off, an hour and a half in we got dumped on by a thunderstorm.

But from a customer service perspective it was gold. When people see you sopping wet and marching on with laughter, they are rooting for you. The couple and all the guests were by their own account pretty dang impressed. 

But more important to the story is whathappened  afterward. As we drove back, soaked to the bone and smiling—maybe because we were smiling, my brain was working overtime figuring out how to make things better. "What things that I thought were important were a hindrance? If I had a zero risk redo what sort of outside the box approach would I take?" As a result I came up with at least two ideas that will transform the catering we do in some fantastic ways. I will get more done with much less work.

But this isn't only about business ideas. The cliché approach is a cutesy line about making lemonade, which is only slightly less annoying than "cheer up, it all happens for a reason." What these overused and undereffective mantras are getting at is when you put the shit in the right place and it gets rained on things will grow.