Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On "Professionalism"

Perhaps it’s a function of my personality, but sometimes I find myself making large, sweeping generalizations about the world and my place in it, and then spending weeks or months (and sometimes years) working to connect the dots, to see if I actually believe what I’ve said. I tend to act on impulse philosophically, but those impulses are often well informed, and I later find how true they were to my developing character.

Several years ago, I made one such statement to myself: I am philosophically opposed to professional sports. The statement came out of the realization that the “professionalizing” of sports has removed the activity of those sports in large part from the general population. For instance, a century ago people played baseball. Grown people, kids, it was a part of the experience of American life. It wasn’t the “national pastime” because everyone watched it on television, but because people actually played baseball. But how often does that happen now? Not much. The game has become so specialized that there’s no way the average Joe can play, or so he thinks.

Maybe it’s not “professionalism” as such, maybe it’s television, but the specialized skills involved in hitting a ninety-five mile-per-hour fastball, or in turning a double play, are skills that are only developed when you have nothing else to do. The professional athlete spends his time, all of it, honing his skills. He or she often achieves the height of human potential in that sphere. And it is moving, inspiring. I think that’s why it bothers me so much.

One of the few things that can make me well up with emotion is highlight reels. My wife knows that almost my favorite time of the year is right before New-Years when they start showing the year-end recap shows for sports and news and so forth. The “Play-Of-The-Day” on ESPN’s SportsCenter was one of my favorite things for a long time. I love to see people reaching new heights. It’s the whole ABC Sports mantra, “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” (And doesn’t your mind run the clip of Vinko Bogata, the Slovenian ski jumper, crashing at the World Ski Flying Championships in 1970, whenever you hear that line? I can hear the music.) Sports are iconic in that way. They show us what’s possible in ourselves. They used to show us what was available to all, if we only tried hard enough, if we only worked for it.

But the professional athlete changed that. There’s no way I’m going to be Michael Jordan, no matter how hard I try. It’s a combination of his natural ability plus time and money involved. Jordan practiced every day, for hours a day. Early in his career, when he was criticized as prolific scorer who couldn’t play defense, he changed his game. He practiced, and worked on his defensive skills, and only a season or two later was named the NBA defensive player of the year (in addition to leading the league in scoring that season). It’s still inspiring, his story is still a great one, but it’s inspiring from afar now. “That’s great what Michael Jordan can do, with all that talent, and time, and money. But I could never do that.”

Contrast this with the sports figures earlier in the professional era, people like Jim Thorpe, or Wilma Rudolph. People who achieved great things in an era when those achievements were accessible, they could be comprehended by the public. Now, you look at Tiger Woods’, or Barry Bonds’ records (never mind the question of steroids in Bonds’ case) and they’re just incomprehensible.

Brian Eno is apocryphally reported to have said about the Velvet Underground that not many people bought their records when they were first released, but that everyone who did started a band. I’ve seen this same quote applied to other albums, like the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” or The Mission of Burma, or “Bleach,” Nirvana’s first record. The point is that this music was not widely popular but it was immediately, accessibly inspiring in a way that the over-produced hit machine music wasn’t. Britiney Spears may have inspired a million teenage girls to sing in the bathroom mirror with a hairbrush, but the people who first heard “The Velvet Underground & Nico” actually bought a guitar, plugged it in and blew out the windows in their parents' garage. There’s a qualitative difference to the level of “inspiration,” that decreases the further you get from its source.

I realized, almost as soon as I was conscious of my feelings about pro sports that I was on thin ice. I am a musician, a songwriter and performer, and it did not escape my notice that the same forces at work in sports were at work in the culture at large, not least the arts. If I was opposed to the separation that professionalism created between the athlete and culture, didn’t I also have be opposed to the separation that professionalism created between the musician, or the artist, or the writer and culture? Here’s where it gets messy, because people have been practicing these arts for thousands of years. There has been something that could be called “professionalism” attached to many of them for nearly that long (professionalism loosely being defined as the ability to make one’s living from their pursuit). If attaching monetary gain was the harbinger of doom for these pursuits, I was wasting my time trying to “make it” as a songwriter.

I shelved these thoughts for several years. They were a little too close to home. I continued my work in radio, and continued writing and performing my songs in obscurity, which mercifully spared me the ennui of philosophical compromise. However, as time progressed I wound up working in larger arenas, both in radio and the music industry. After a couple years spent on the road tour managing a fairly well-known band, and seeing the effects of the “business” on their life, philosophy and psyche, I could no longer ignore the fact that the same forces I spotted at work years earlier in sports were just as prevalent and just as damaging in the music industry. The fans of these bands were just as removed from the actual practice of making music as the sports fan is from hitting a home run.

Professionalism, or commercialism, or whatever you want to call it, the process of an art form or any practice becoming widely successful in the public arena, reduces it to a spectator sport. In the mind of the average “fan,” why would they participate if they can’t do it at that level? Why play basketball if you can’t dunk or shoot like Jordan or Iverson? Why play music if you can’t play like Prince, or sing like Christina, or move like Beyonce? It’s poison to the arts in culture. The arts (and here I’m including the “art” of athletic performance) were made to inspire not just appreciation, but participation. They lose their power when they are only practiced by a few.

Music through the ages was not just high-art form, it was oral history, it was storytelling and community. It was worship and participation in the spiritual and philosophical life of the community. Nights spent around the piano singing the old songs were ways that families remembered where they came from, and where they dreamed of what could be. The arts are not just means of communication, of pontification; they are ways of seeing. And when we stop practicing them, we stop seeing in that way. The poet is not greater than us in his skill with words so much as in his powers of observation. He does not stand above us and point the way from afar. He stands beside us and says “See? Do you really see?” And he invites us to see with him, and experience more fully. It’s not taking the time to write, or paint or play that creates great art; it’s taking the time to see, to hear, to experience. And from that the art flows.

And we lose this when we give it over to the pros, when the only experience we get of living is vicarious. I don’t want anyone seeing for me, or hearing for me. I want to see and hear and sing and play and run and throw and experience it all myself. Then maybe I will have actually lived, otherwise I can’t be sure.

So what about the question of money? Am I prostituting my art if I take money for it? A lot of people think so. And I’m not one to easily disagree with them. But isn’t my art or my labor or my practice worth something? It certainly is. And I’m not the one to determine the value of that. But I know that there’s art that builds, that inspires and creates more, and there’s art that separates and dulls and elevates itself above the populace. And I don’t think the difference is as simple as some “high-art versus low-art” dualism. I think it lies in the heart of the artist, and in what they intend. If I practice my art with the intention of making money foremost in my mind, then I am not likely to bring life through it. But if I practice my art for its own sake, for the enjoyment of it and for the experience it gives me of seeing the world and myself in new ways, then I am on to something. And whether or not I make money from it, I will be a richer person.

That’s where I am with my writing now. I make a little money off it, now and then, but not enough to support a life or a family. I still hope that one day I might be able to do it “full-time” in the sense that I create a life where I’m fully invested in the pursuits that my art involves. And I am cognizant that writing full-time means not less actual living, but more. You can’t write if you’re not experiencing things, if you’re not involved in and participating with the lives of those around you. That’s one of the great tragedies we inflict upon our stars. We make them rich and rob them of the reality that made their art great in the first place. As someone said in another context, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” I suspect that the life I dream of would look something like a playground, where we would all be doing the things we love, and out of that love would come concern and care for others that would not allow us to neglect the larger concerns.

There are many things I do now for money that are not as “creative” but that I still enjoy like carpentry, or design, or the management of artists (all of which are creative in their own ways). I like to think that if I were practicing my art full time I would continue to do those things, only I would enjoy them more because my income was not dependent upon them. Yesterday I was a little depressed about my songwriting. I wrote this in my journal:

My son never waits for a better time to create something he cares about. When he gets the idea, he does it. His ideas are always fresh and exciting to him. He doesn't second guess himself, or edit or get neurotic about what people will think of him for saying something or writing something or drawing something. He lives in the moment.”

I want to learn to play again. I want to write music that no one will ever hear, and make it beautiful and full of wonder because that’s what I see in the world. I want to run and jump and throw and catch not because I have to keep my heart rate up for twenty minutes, but because it’s exhilarating! Because when I run I feel like a deer, and I’m amazed at how fast I can go. Because when I throw a ball and someone catches it I marvel at the coordination of body and mind to send something up through the atmosphere, into the unknown, and have it come down precisely where I hoped it would. I want to sing not for who might be listening or what it might get me, but because it sounds like the wind in the trees... simply for the sake of the song.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Annotation - Clear Mind Wild Heart

David Whyte is an English poet who currently resides in British Columbia. In addition to writing poetry, he works as a corporate consultant and uses his poetic insight in the field of organizational development. This six-disc audio series uses poetry, and the unfolding power of the imagination, to illustrate the larger principles of life, and lead into a discussion about the possibilities that exist when we get outside of our closed and limited experience.

The first thing I noticed and enjoyed about this series is simply the way Whyte reads poetry. He inhabits it, and makes it his own. Whether reading from Rilke or Yeats, Butler or Shelly, he’s not afraid to play with a poem, to repeat lines and whole stanzas as many times as necessary to wring the truth from them. I particularly enjoyed his reading of Rilke’s “The Man Watching.” He took the last stanza:
“Winning does not tempt that man
this is how he grows: By being defeated,
by constantly greater beings.”

It’s an amazing poem, and the way he reads it, repeating the whole stanza twice, then repeating each line, “Winning does not tempt that man. Winning. Does not tempt that man. This is how he grows, this, this is how he grows…”

Whyte covers topics like silence, grief, nature, vocation… the whole of human experience. He uses poetry to pull back the veil from a lot of what we experience, and invite us into a fuller engagement with the world in which we live. As a naturalist he spends a lot of time on the idea of “presence” and connection to the “numinous” through nature. He reads some of his own poetry, but mostly uses the words of others to demonstrate the deeper level of experience we can aspire to.

Honestly there’s so much in this series that I enjoy… I don’t quite know how to write about it. The best I can say is that it’s inspiring… to dream, to take life seriously, to write better, to read more… I used to write a lot of poetry, years ago and before I started writing songs. I think somewhere along the way the form and constraint of songwriting choked some of the poetry out of me. But this series has made me want to start again. I have a couple of Whyte’s other works – another CD series, a book of poems titled The House of Belonging, and a non-fiction book I’m excited to read titled The Heart Aroused: Poetry and The Preservation of the Soul In Corporate America. It’s good stuff, and it’s already informing my own creativity.

Whyte, David. Clear Mind Wild Heart: Finding Courage and Clarity Through Poetry. Louisville, Sounds True Inc. 2002.

The Man Watching

by Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Be Here Now

My son never waits for a better time to create something he cares about. When he gets the idea, he does it. His ideas are always fresh and exciting to him. He doesn't second guess himself, or edit or get neurotic about what people will think of him for saying something or writing something or drawing something. He lives in the moment.

Last night I lay in bed for an hour with a lyric and a melody going through my head. This morning I woke up and the magic is gone. the genesis is gone. I remember some of the words, but the creative spark has left me and I’m depressed. What I if I lived in the moment like my son? Dinner might be late occasionally. I might live a slightly MORE fractured existence than I currently do. But I’d be PRESENT. I would get my ideas out and the life that is in me would be allowed to show. And I wouldn’t feel this way. Bottled up and corked and like my mind is constipated.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Annotation - DAVID COPPERFIELD by Charles Dickens

“Whether I shall be the hero of my tale, or whether that office shall be left to another, these pages shall describe.” - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

What a book. Again and again I’m reminded why they’re called “Classic Literature.” The breath and scope of this book is just wonderful and compelling. Sure, it’s long as all get-out, but it’s worth every second and every page.

I had actually started reading David Copperfield prior to coming to Vermont for ADP. I took the Greyhound to Montpelier and back from Cincinnati, and I knew I’d need something long for the twenty-six hours each way, so I grabbed it fairly at random off the shelf. It was between David Copperfield and The Canterbury Tales. I’m glad I chose as I did.

Mid-way through the book I started to think, “Why am I reading this?” It was so dark, so bleak
and despairing. And with what my family and I are currently in the midst of, we need things to inspire, to uplift and bring hope. Dickens wasn’t giving much hope.

But over the course of the story you learn that hope comes not in individual actions or events, but in a life well-lived; in family and friends, in shared victory and defeat, in close companionship, love and loss. Copperfield starts out well with a loving mother, but things quickly go bad, and from bad to worse for quite some time. But his good-will, his bonhomie and general resourcefulness are a source of hope and inspiration. He determines to do what he can. He is clear eyed and unflinching in his estimations of Mr. and Ms. Murdstone (David’s Stepfather and his sister) as well as his ongoing relationship with Uriah Heep, scoundrel of scoundrels and prototype of malevolence.

I felt strong identification in David’s relationships with women, first with “Young Em’ly” and later with Agnes. He pursues Dora, who by her own admission is a child, a silly thing, while all the time he has near him two of the most beautiful, kind, gentle and loving creatures ever to grace the page. Emily turns from his affection first to Ham Peggoty, and eventually runs away in shame with Steerforth. Agnes, however, waits for him, the very picture of fidelity and truth. I feel like I myself wandered through a good portion of my life completely unaware of the jewels that lay around me in relationships, opportunities and experiences that I took for granted. Maybe that’s an inherent trait to young boys. But we would hope that it’s a trait passing with age. In Copperfield’s case it’s not age that brings the change, but tragedy. Dora’s death frees him to realize that he had married poorly, and that his true love had been there all along, and remained there.

There is great hope in the story. As a moral tale it reminds me of a story by C.S. Lewis. Some perceived Lewis’s icon and mentor, George MacDonald, as a heretic because he believed that God always offers a chance for redemption, even after death. MacDonald could not believe that God would ever turn his back on the soul truly penitent. In MacDonald’s defense Lewis wrote The Great Divorce, a story about souls on a bus ride through the afterlife, essentially from Hell to Heaven. When they reach Heaven, the grass is so sharp it cuts the feet. The light so blinding it hurts the eye. And many turn back from such a painful glory and choose the comforts of their familiar Hell. Lewis’s point is that the choices we make in life are the same choices we are likely to make in death. Second chances (or third, or fourth) are often pointless because we choose poorly no matter how many times we’re allowed. And so with Steerforth, and with Em’ly’s maid, whom she takes to Australia.

There is not much change of character or of heart in David Copperfield. The truly good remain good at heart. Some triumph and some perish. The truly bad remain bad, no matter their temporary appearances. In the end, the lives of the wicked are wasted, no matter the gain, and the lives (and even deaths) of the “righteous” (here I’m betraying my fundamentalist upbringing) are triumphant and glorious, even in death. Where the change comes is when someone’s true character has been hidden or subverted. Then there is the epiphany of finding who that person really was. There is great hope in that, as there always is in something that takes us out of ourselves and reminds us of our place in the larger story.

Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, describes taking some of her stories to an old neighbor in rural Georgia. When she returns to ask what she thought, the woman says, “Well those stories just gone and showed you what some folks would do.” That’s right. Dickens’ stories are grand and involved. But in the end, the reason they’re so wonderful and touching is because they just show you what some folks (like ourselves) would do. And it’s good to have company.

Memoir - "Iyeska"

Recently a friend introduced me to the word “Iyeska.” It’s a Native American word, I believe Lakota Sioux originally, with at least three different meanings: If one is talking about ancestry or culture, it means, “mixed-blood.” If talking about language it means “translator;” and in reference to the sacred, Iyeska means “Shaman.”

I love this one word with three such distinct and separate meanings, and that they all connect. The “mixed-blood” would have often been the translator, the one with the knowledge of two cultures, with two parents, who was raised speaking both languages. And the Shaman is often a translator of sorts, whether translating spiritual ideas to the community or tribe, or translating the spiritual and cultural significance of events that might seem insignificant at first glance. It has been said, “Iyeska is the spirit who stands at the crossroads between the visible and the invisible worlds.” Somewhere in this idea is a central theme to who I am.

When the male human fetus is in the womb, near the end of the first trimester a process takes place called the “androgen wash.” Chemicals produced due to the male’s Y chromosome wash over the brain, with the primary androgen being testosterone. The result is that synapse connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain are “burned” away by this reaction. On average, about twenty percent of the connections between the hemispheres are destroyed. This process seems to account for some of the “masculinisation” of the child’s brain, and mirrors a similar process that takes place when the second androgen wash takes place at the onset of puberty .

There has been quite a bit of medical speculation that concentrations of testosterone and other hormones in the androgen wash, as well as the duration of the process in individual males, might be somewhat linked to left handedness, to more creative (right brain) thinking, and possibly even to homosexuality. The thinking being: males with more dilute androgen wash retain more of those brain connections, and are less extreme in their gender traits. They might retain some more “feminine” cognitive traits (access to more emotionally based or “intuitive” forms of cognition), and may result in more access to creative parts of the brain than most males typically have.

Since I first heard this information in my early twenties, I have always been fascinated by the concept, and have wished there was a way you could easily test the brain to see how much of those connections remain. I have always felt like “iyeska,” between two worlds, possibly even between the two hemispheres of the "collective brain." I could be the poster child for the “androgen deficient wash” I’ve read about: I am somewhat ambidextrous. I write left-handed and naturally play guitar left-handed. However I throw and catch right handed. I am right hand and left foot dominant in almost all physical ways. I eat either way, and sometimes get confused which one feels more comfortable. I walk the line between a creative (right brain) person and a logical, linear (left brain person). I can get easily caught up in logical, linear tasks and goal orientation, but I also love to work in free-form problem solving and brainstorming areas.

I am constantly finding myself in the role of interpreter, or liaison, between the artistic world and the commercial world. Artists often lack the ability to explain or interpret their work to the general public. They need someone to explain what they’re doing and why it’s important to the world. Throughout my life I have found myself in those situations. I have worked for and alongside artists for my entire adult life, practicing my own art along the way and wishing that I had someone to interpret or “push” my work the way I was capable of doing for others. I created curricula in churches I worked with on the topics of Arts, Culture, and Worldview; teaching the “non-artistic” public why art is so crucial to culture, and why the support and development of the arts throughout the spheres of society is key to the progression and development of our culture.

It seems I am always at this crossroads, between the two worlds. Just last night, leaving my office, I ran into a girl from the neighborhood that wants to be a photographer. She is struggling to learn the art, to get her ability to rise to her desire, and to find fulfillment in this form she cares about so deeply. But she’s getting discouraged, and when I asked why she wasn’t out shooting photos of the blanket of new-fallen snow all around, she responded, “I think I’m retiring from photography.” We started talking about the creative process, how she felt dry and uninspired and was about to give up. I walked with her and explained how that’s simply part of the process, you give out, you create, and then you retreat a little, take some time, and fill yourself up again. The lack of inspiration doesn’t mean you’re not an artists, it just means you’re not taking photos that instant. But the inspiration will return; and when it does, if you’ve sold your camera, you’re one sad sack. She went away laughing, enjoying the snow, and from a block away called back to me, “So much for retirement!”

I have these conversations constantly. I understand the artist. I speak their language, and I intuitively understand the process and the difficulties associated with it. I know what the artist needs to hear in order to maintain belief in their art at difficult times, and I seem to know intuitively as well when the best and kindest thing to say is, “Stop. You’re doing it wrong, and you need to re-examine your path.”

Last night I was talking with my wife about some of this, about the conversation I’d had with our photographer friend on the street and the progressing realization that this is who I am. I brought up my last real job, working as Tour Manager for a major-label band touring through the US and internationally. I said, “You know, I think that’s why I was valuable to them for a while, was because I knew how to encourage them. More than my skill as a tour manager, more than my organizational abilities or my ability to get the show on or make the stage look right or make sure we got paid what we were supposed to every night… I think the thing that was indispensable for those two and a half years was that I knew how to inspire and motivate them. And in the end, it wasn’t lack of communication, or travel or any of the other contributing factors that ended my time with them, it was simply that I couldn’t be that person for them anymore. I didn’t believe in them in the same way. And they knew it.”

I think it was a significant realization for me at the time that the break came, not because of any of the external factors, but because what I was really there to do was to be their “Iyeska.” And the season for that ended. And when it did, it took the magic right out of everything else. Realizing that has given me more closure about that time than any other single revelation.

In 1996, my wife (fiancĂ© at the time) and I were in Switzerland working with a missions organization. I was teaching Critical Thinking and Worldview with a university outside of Lausanne. Our work was done and I was preparing to come back to The States. A Maori woman named Alana took the two of us aside, and basically gave us what amounted to a “prophecy” for our lives. She said that she saw us as “consultants,” or liaisons. She didn’t quite know what that meant to us or how we should take it, but she felt the sense very strongly that this identity was to mark our lives together. I treasured those words because I felt they hit at the heart of who I need to be.

But if artists have a difficult time making a living through their art, what living is to be made from talking about it? I’ve never been able to connect the dots between my passion, my ability, and my checkbook. That’s a fairly mercenary way to put it, but as I’ve said to my wife before, “I can do anything except make a living.”

More than anything I’ve written here so far, this is the reason for this memoir. I’m trying to make sense of it all, to gain some perspective on my life and find the central questions. I believe that somehow in this process I’ll uncover the code, or unlock the door. I’ll find the arrow that points in the direction I need to go, and in doing it this way I’ll have a road map that I can return to for reference and guidance when I get lost again.

Anyway, that’s the plan.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Memoir - Mom, etc.

My parents divorced when I was three years old. My older sister Britiney was six. My dad had been having an affair for a while apparently, and my mother ended the marriage.

Growing up, I always just thought that was normal. That was the way we were. And when the teachers in class would ask, “How many of your parents are married?” and “How many of your parents are divorced?” it was always about 50/50 anyway, so it never seemed odd to me. It wasn’t until my twenties that I started to think about the effects their divorce might have had on me, positive or negative.

My mom is a pretty smart woman. She is one of seven kids, and as I mentioned before, she is really the only one to break out and make a life and a career for herself. I have often thought how difficult it must have been for her when, in 1975, she found herself supporting two young children; re-entering the job market at 32 without a degree. My memories of those years are mainly of her being gone. I know she was depressed and drank a lot.

I used to have a recurring nightmare. It was always set in our house on 21st Street in Idaho Falls. In the dream, my mom would be going out for the night, leaving my sister and me alone, as was often the case. I would be in my room on the second floor and would hear noises in the back yard. I ran to the window in my mom’s bedroom, and looked out to see men in gold space suits landing and running through the back yard. As I ran downstairs through the kitchen I could see them coming toward the sliding glass doors in the dining room, and when I burst into the garage to yell to my mom for help before she left, I would get out there just in time to see her brown Camaro drive off as the garage door closed. I don’t know how many times I had that dream, but it always terrified me. There was something coming for me. There was something to fear. And just as it was getting near, she was leaving.

When my folks split up, my dad bought my mom a house in a Mormon suburb of Idaho Falls called Ammon. I dimly remember the small, brown, ranch-style house. Mostly I remember the undeveloped fields around the neighborhood, and that our large back yard had no grass. My dad came out one weekend and built a fort out near the back of the property. It would have been a tree house, but there were no trees. I remember being too afraid of the black widow spiders to ever really play out there. My only other real memories of that place are of my Star Wars sheets on the bunk beds my dad’s friend Smitty built for me, and lots of nightmares; lots of nights spent yelling out for my mom, too scared to get out of bed and run into her room.

My mom found some good work, started going to night school, and eventually got a job as an executive assistant at the same company where my Dad was an engineer. E.G.& G. was at that time the company contracted to manage and run the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL), the nuclear power facility located in the Idaho desert about an hour from Idaho Falls, just outside of Arco. The families in Idaho Falls associated with either INEL or the Argon National Laboratory, the other large facility out there, just referred to both locations as “The Site.” Anyone from Idaho Falls can describe the ubiquitous yellow “Site Busses” that leave early in the morning and ferry people to and from The Site every day. My dad was lucky in that he worked for the engineering offices of E.G.&G., which meant that he didn’t have to go to The Site every day. His office was in Idaho Falls.

I don’t know the extent to which my Dad was keeping us afloat when they first split up. I assume it was almost entirely. When my mom got a job working for the same company it meant that she wasn’t completely dependent on my Dad for child support or living expenses. The man she worked for, Larry Ybarrando, was a brilliant engineer who truly valued her as an asset. As such he encouraged her to develop, to finish her education, to study and take the job beyond the boundaries of a normal secretary. Before long, when Japanese businessmen and engineers would come to Idaho Falls to tour the facilities and learn about the processes, she would be their guide and liaison. She built a life and a career for herself out of nothing, and at the time there’s no way my sister and I could have comprehended how difficult it was for her. We just knew she was gone a lot.

We soon moved closer to town, to the green and white split-level house on 21st Street in which we would live until we moved away from Idaho Falls ten years later. We were just two blocks from the apartment on St. Clair where my parents were living when I was born. The apartment of my first memory.

My dad was doing well professionally, my mom was getting on her feet, and my parents wanted us to have a good education. They decided to send us to a private Baptist school on the other side of town. The school must have had some kind of reputation at the time for them to choose one so far away. We were bussed to a school thirty minutes away, in a town where it didn’t take thirty minutes to get anywhere. Gethsemane Christian School was an extremely conservative private school. The girls were not allowed to wear pants. The boys were sent home if their hair touched their collars or covered their ears. Skirts could not be anywhere near the knee, much less over it. My parents were not the least bit Christian. They had no religious inclination one way or another at the time; it just offered a better education than the public school.

For my sister and me, going to private school meant that we never really got to know the kids in our neighborhood because we never interacted with them. And we never spent time with the kids we went to school with, because they were all bussed there as well, from different neighborhoods all over town. If we wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house, or go to a birthday party, it involved a huge trip out in the car, and either someone waiting for us, or someone picking us up. The upshot is that we grew up playing alone a lot. Later on we would hear the term “latch-key kids,” kids who went to school alone, came home to an empty house, and basically looked after themselves large parts of the day while their parents worked. For us this was just how it was.

I remember one night when the bus dropped us off and the house was locked. I think we usually had a key stashed somewhere but this time it was gone. We were the only kids in the neighborhood from that school, so the bus actually dropped us off at our house, instead just on the corner of the block. The driver couldn’t leave until we were safely inside the house, and we had no way of getting in. We didn’t really know any of the neighbors, and they were all at work, so there was no-where to go. In the end the bus driver took us home with her at the end of the route, and called my mom at work to let her know where we were. I remember spending that afternoon watching TV with her kids in a house that reeked of urine and old food, while she trimmed her kids’ toenails by biting them off. We were merely perplexed, but when my mom picked us up and we told her about the scene, she was mortified. As a parent now myself, the thought of some stranger taking my kids (we were probably 7 and 10 at the time) home with them to some squalid apartment… maybe I’m overly sensitive, but it horrifies me.

But, as it always is… it was just life as we knew it. My mom worked a lot, drank a lot and dated a succession of men. When she wasn’t out with some guy on a date or at a social function, she was drinking with my aunts and playing cards. We watched a lot of TV, ate a lot of frozen TV dinners, and spent a lot of time on our own.

My mom during these years was so much at sea with her own life that she never really interfered into ours. When she told me to clean my room, I locked myself inside and didn’t come out for a day. When she told me to rake the leaves, I stood in the yard and defied her to explain why they should be raked since more would fall the next day. When she tells these stories now, she laughs and describes how “Smart” I was at the time. Not smart as in “smart assed,” but smart as in quick, bright, able to see through her questions to the pointlessness of them. She didn’t have answers for me. She would just marvel at her “bright” son who questioned the system, and would always relent.

As I tell these stories I see myself as someone looking for a reason to do something, anything. There are good reasons to rake the leaves. If you don’t, they cover the grass and rot and the grass dies. There are good reasons to clean a room: if you don’t, food molds and rots inside and you get sick. Not to mention that as an adult, if you don’t have the ability to look after and clean after yourself, you live in squalor. But my mom had her hands full just keeping food on the table. These days I can see that. Growing up I resented her terribly for not being there, for not answering my questions, for not challenging me. But now I look back and see that she was scared, terrified, by the prospect of raising two kids alone. She was depressed. And she did what she could.

These days I see that. But at the time, and all through school, the only thing I saw was a mother that deferred any and every decision to me. In sixth grade I told my mom I was done with private school, and she transferred me to the public school down the street. I started racing dirt bikes and hanging out with the kids from the neighborhood, spending less and less time at home. By the time I was twelve, and in seventh grade, I was drinking regularly (usually from her liquor cabinet), spending nights on the street until the early morning hours, generally on my way to trouble.

All through this time, my mother cultivated a relationship with a guy we called “Mr. R.” We didn’t like him very much, but he had some money and he took us places. He owned part of a hot springs near Challis, Idaho, about two hours from where we lived, and on holiday weekends we would often drive up there with him and his kids (who were exactly our ages) and spend the weekends swimming and running in the hills. Those drives are memorable mostly because we listened to Willie Nelson and Alabama, and because I remember the two of them, my mother and him, with a bottle of vodka, a cooler of ice and orange juice, and two large cups between them. He drove, she mixed, and by the end of the drive the bottle was empty.

They dated from about seven years, but resisted getting married. One weekend we got a call that he’d been in an accident. He was living in Boise, managing a construction firm, and somewhere between Boise and Idaho Falls, on a mountain road, he’d fallen asleep (or passed out) with the cruise control set at eighty. His Chrysler New Yorker, with the power seats and the voice that told you “the door is ajar, the door is ajar” had gone off the road between mile marker 217 and 218 on Highway 20 outside of Fairfield, had gone over an embankment, down a gully, up the other side and plowed headlong into a ditch at full speed. He was badly broken and they weren’t sure he would live.

My mom spent long hours with him in the hospital while he convalesced, and it was there, beside his hospital bed, that she finally agreed to marry him.

And so we were moving to Boise. Five hours from Idaho Falls, the Capitol City. I was just about to start eighth grade, and my sister was entering her junior year in at I.F. High School. She was in the choir, and the glee club and had made good friends that she didn’t want to leave. So she decided to stay and live with my Dad and his wife. My mom quit the job she’d held for a decade, left the comfortable living she’d made for herself and her kids, and she and I packed up and moved West.

Within a year they were divorced. She had good reasons for never marrying him, and those were confirmed by the way he treated her when then finally did. One day after school I walked into the kitchen and my mom was sitting at the table going over papers and folders and looking through files. She looked serious. I said, “What’s up?”

She said, “We’re leaving. I’m divorcing him.”

I said, “Great. When do we move?”

School was letting out for the summer shortly, and I had been planning to go back to Idaho Falls to spend a few weeks at my Dad’s house. By the time I returned, mid summer, my mom had moved into a condo about a mile away, and there was no sign that we’d ever been anywhere else. She had already found a job working as an assistant for some lawyer downtown, and we fell right into a rhythm of it being just the two of us. She worked a lot, and now I was the one who was never there.

From this time on I was basically on my own in my mother’s home. There was no curfew, no restrictions. I did what I wanted, and was only kept from getting into real trouble by the fact that I was new in town and didn’t really know where the party was. I was my mom’s rock. I was the smart one, the solidity. If I had an opinion on anything she would put it above her own. But I needed a parent. A guide. I needed someone to be a safety net so that I could go out and fail and learn to get up again.

Looking back I am surprised how little I remember from these times. I catch glimpses, highlights of whole years of my childhood and adolescent years, but mostly it seems like I just drifted. I never engaged. I was never fully present in my life. I went to school dimly lit. I had been a good student as a kid. I was smart and liked to learn. But in the public schools, and with no motivation, I just attended. I passed. “C” average. I played sports if anyone suggested I go out for something. I played football for two years. I played basketball for two more. I ran track. But there was no real interest. I didn’t really care how I did in those efforts and neither did anyone else. I got by. No one asked anything more.

My wife and I have recently attended some marital counseling sessions to address some of the difficulties in our relationship. One of the persistent themes that arises in my life is the lack of patience I have for anyone who can’t learn on their own, who can’t figure it out. During one of our sessions I discovered that this is deep in me as a result of never having any adequate guidance. I remember vividly when I was at school in Hawaii. I was twenty years old, rooming with a guy from Cleveland in his mid-thirties. One morning I was in the little kitchenette/bathroom shaving when he walked by. “What the hell are you doing?” He laughed.

“What? I’m shaving.”

“Didn’t anyone ever show you how to do that? You’re carving your face off!” and he walked away. But no one ever did show me how to do it. No one ever taught me how to shave, or balance a checkbook, or study, or be honest. Because my mom relied on me so entirely for some solidity, especially in my teenage years, I always felt like I had to know these things intuitively. I always had to figure them out on my own. And I got good at it. People complemented my independence and my ability to pick up new skills and knowledge. I figured people out. I figured systems out. I never studied in high school, but I passed all the tests because I figured out how the teachers thought. I figured out what the tests were looking for, and I gave it to them. And somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to say, “I don’t know.” I found that I had to know.

And so, today when I’m in a group setting or a work environment and someone can’t figure it out, I get angry, and I resent them. When my son needs me to show him something over and over because he’s six years old for god’s sake… I resent it. When my wife needs help figuring out something on the computer, or when a co-worker needs help understanding a piece of software or a system or policy that’s been implemented… I get angry. Deep inside me on a subconscious level something screams out, “Why should you have it easy? I had to figure this shit out myself, and I did! Why should you get help?”

In the session where we pinpointed this, the therapist had my wife repeating things to me over and over again that would communicate safety, security, that it was okay to fail, and that vulnerability and willingness to not know the answers is what creates intimacy. But that doesn’t change my programming.

In my professional life this is evidenced in my job history. In almost every field I’ve been in, at some point there’s a conversation along the lines of, “Have you ever done _______?”

“No, but it doesn’t look that hard.”

“Okay, well, now that’s your job. Let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and can you train these other three people to do it as well?”

“Um… sure.”

I’ve never given myself the latitude to now know. And because I am a pretty quick study, and I do pick things up quickly, I’ve advanced and done pretty well in fields I knew nothing about, and in which I often had no real interest. The interest was always in the learning, and in the figuring out. But when I have learned that skill and gained that knowledge, and figured out that system or cracked that code; then I’m done. I’m bored. And I never really wanted to be that person anyway, so the job or the task holds no further fulfillment for me.

I’ve always suspected that I’m going about it backwards; that most people start out wanting to be in a certain field, and so they start at the bottom and maybe get some education or foundational training, and then the work their way up. Along the way they acquire the skills and the knowledge necessary to succeed in that field. And by the time they’re the manager or the supervisor or whatever, they should know what everyone else under them knows (for the most part). But it never seems to work that way. And what ends up happening is that I end up spinning plates… acting the part of someone who does job “X.” Whether that’s radio, or tour management, or welding or carpentry or teaching. In every field I’ve been playing the part of someone who does that job. Putting on the suit. Acting in a role. And I do it well. But eventually I get tired of play-acting. And then it comes to the question, “Do I really want to do this? Is this satisfying?” And because I was only in it really for the learning experience… once the learning is done the answer is, “No.”

(to be continued...)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Memoir - The Radio Years

When I was sixteen, and a junior in high school, I was working a job bussing tables at a restaurant close to where my mother and I lived. A friend made a comment one day about someone he knew who worked at a small local Christian radio station, and I thought, “Now that would be the best high school job ever!”

So I dropped off an application. No experience. No skills to speak of, save a knowledge of some of the popular Christian music at the time (I was a youth group kid), and an ability to talk a lot without much point. I never heard back. So I called again; and again. Finally the general manager told me they didn’t really have any openings and that I didn’t have any experience anyway. Essentially, “Stop calling me.” But for some reason I decided to be persistent, when this trait could not be said to have characterized my life in any other way at the time. Eventually, he relented. One of their best people was leaving to move on to bigger and better things, and he decided to give me a chance.

I started out working the morning shift on weekends. Being the only AM Christian station in town at the time meant they played all the “big names” in Christian radio. All the syndicated teachers and preachers that were known nationwide in those circles; some of whom would eventually become more widely known for their influence on the culture as a whole. These were teachers like Charles Stanley (“In Touch”) and Dr. J. Vernon McGee (“Through the Bible”) and of course “Focus on the Family” with Dr. James Dobson.

This 1989, and although syndicated satellite radio networks were becoming more common, they weren’t as ubiquitous as they now are. Smaller, low budget stations like KSPD-AM in Boise, Idaho were still using reel-to-reel players and getting their shows delivered by mail every week. Which meant every week someone had to load those reels up on the machine at five or six in the morning and sit there to make sure they didn’t spool off into oblivion. So that was my job. At 5:00 every Saturday and Sunday morning for about a year, I drove my little 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit into the KSPD Studios at the corner of Orchard Road and Curtis Boulevard.

My first job each morning was to get the programs lined up for the daily scheduled; stacking the reel-to-reel boxes in the order they would play. Then I cleaned the heads on the tape machines, spooled everything up and got it ready for air. I checked the commercial logs for the first hour, and made sure everything that was supposed to run had actually been produced. More than once I spent the first hour of the day producing advertising spots that were already supposed to be airing.

This was not a 24-hour operation, and each day before the start of programming, we actually had to sign the station on the air. This meant flipping a switch to turn on the power… waiting a few minutes while the tubes warmed up and the ancient gear came to life… and then flipping some more switches to power up the transmitter and the equipment that sent the signal to the tower, located forty-five miles away at the top of Bogus Basin, the area ski resort.

Precisely at 6:00am, I’d hit the “sign-on” cart (carts are basically looped 8-track tapes, and they’re what the whole industry used before computers), and the station would come to life.
We also had an FM Signal down the hall that broadcast “Beautiful Music” (that was the actual format name). It was entirely automated, and ran off six giant reel-to-reel and cart machines. When the commercial breaks would come, about every 12 minutes, the carts would cycle through and the machines would make loud clicking and banging noise. So I would start the first show on the AM station, a one-hour teaching program, and lay down on the floor of the FM room and go to sleep. The automation would wake me up every 12 minutes. ...Most of the time.

After about a year at this station, I felt like I was getting pretty good at what I did. I had moved from weekend mornings to weeknights. This was where the action was. The only music played on this station at the time was played between 7:00pm and 9:00pm on the weeknights, which was the only time I got to be a real disc jockey. Among the youth group crowd in Boise, Idaho, it was quite a coup to be 17 years old and one of two voices of Christian music in town. Within six months a 24-hour Christian FM station signed on the air and effectively killed any hold we had on that community, but for a while the other night jock, Scott, and I were the very arbiters of cool for Christian music in Boise.

And of course, I was a high-school student. One day I was hanging out at the home of a girl I knew a little bit, because she was best friends with a girl I wanted to know a lot better – an exchange student from Australia. This friend of mine baby-sat for the best-known DJ in town, “Big Jack” Armstrong. Jack was a holdover from the old days of radio, cut from the “Wolf Man” Jack cloth, with the gravelly voice and abrupt delivery. He was six foot, nine inches tall and always wore billowy flowered pants. A few years later, upon moving to a position at a “Classic Oldies” station, he would begin driving around town in a converted yellow hearse with a loud-speaker on top.

One day when Jack came over to pick up his kids, I jokingly said, “Hey Jack, you got any jobs over at Rock 97 for me?” He stopped and said, “Actually, yeah. We’re looking for someone to change tapes for the automation on weekends. Call me on Monday.” So I did; I started the following Saturday. It wasn’t glamorous. Again, all I was doing was changing tapes for an almost entirely automated station, but it was a real FM rock station.

And so it went. I worked both jobs for about three months, until Rock 97 offered me a full time slot. They fired Jack one day, moved the production director to morning show host and made me (who had never been on the air at that station before then) Production Director. I dropped out of college mid-way through my first semester, and, at 18 years old, was in charge of all commercial production, including writing, voicing and producing all client advertising, scheduling all production to run during the day, and basically making sure the station’s main source of revenue was kept on track. My boss was an old crook who had hired some other old crooks to work with him, and they were basically siphoning money off the rich old fool who owned the station. He lived out of town and (so they thought) didn’t know better. The receptionist was a cute little redhead who was sleeping with the sales manager and who, when she “wasn’t feeling well” would take a few muscle-relaxants and come back and sit half-stoned in the production studio with me while I worked.

From there I started moonlighting weekends at the top pop radio station in town, "KF-95." This was a big deal. KF-95 was the station everyone my age listened to. I knew their Music Director from my days at the Christian station. His departure back then had opened up a slot for me. I did the 10am to 2pm on-air slot Saturday and Sunday for about 6 months, still working weekdays at Rock 97. Looking back, they were all paying me pennies; but for a single teenage kid who’d just moved out of his mother’s house for the first time, I was rolling in it.
One day on the air at KF-95 I got a phone call from a jock at another station. He told me he’d just been hired as the Program Director for a new station with a big corporate owner, and they had a lot of money behind them. He said I could either stay where I was and be out of a job in six months when the station went off the air, or I could come and do overnights for him. And so I followed the open door. I moved to the weekday overnight shift at Magic 93.1. I was nineteen years old.

I was on the air every day from 11pm until 5am. The jock before me was a career radio guy they had brought in from Pittsburgh. What they never told me was he left Pittsburgh in a hurry due to some angry parents and possible Statutory Rape charges. He was a character. I had to change out the microphones every night when I came in because he smoked so much they stank like stale ashtrays. But he was an artist. He taught me everything I ever learned about timing; about working the callers on the air; about talking up the ramp of a song, nailing every hit; mixing and producing on-air just like you were on stage. Everything I ever really loved about radio, he opened up to me. It was high-energy - never open the mic unless you’re at top form - never come at them with anything less than a hundred miles an hour - and never let up until you’re off the air. And he was encouraging. He told me one night, “Man, if I had your talent at nineteen… I’d be in New York by now!” He was my first glimpse of what a life lived in Radio might look like; and as exciting and creative as it was, I could see even then it wasn’t pretty.

I’d been in radio about three years. I was nearly twenty years old; making a full-time living, at least for my needs then, and with good benefits. But I started to get itchy. I was dating a girl I’d met through a bikini-contest at the Rock station a year or so previous. It sounds worse than it is… we started dating because she was the only one there with a soul. Her ex-boyfriend had dared her to do it. She called his bluff, and they broke up soon after. I was starting to be recognized in public. When we went out to dinner somewhere I would notice people’s heads turn just a little, and they’d whisper to each other. At my boss’s insistence, upon taking the job I’d adopted a new persona. I was “Hollywood Scott” on-air.

Being the overnight jock meant that one of my responsibilities, one almost more important than my actual on-air shift, was to cruise around town in the evenings in the station vehicle while The Smoker was on the air, and hand out prizes like CD’s, stickers, gift certificates, etc. I did a lot of remote broadcasts, where I’d set up in some high-profile location and pump the station out of giant speakers, doing call-in’s every fifteen or twenty minutes, and generally advertising the station in the places that made the most sense (and paid the most). So, even though The Smoker was a much better jock than me, and was the one with the best ratings, I was the face everyone knew. He was locked in the studio. I was on the street. I was effectively the face of the station. And it was the most listened to station in the state for people twelve to twenty-four years old.

But I was not “Hollywood Scott.” I was never in love with that part of it. Looking back, I could have had a lot more fun than I did. But I was still a youth group kid. I was a conservative Christian fundamentalist who was motivated more by guilt and fear of hell than anything else. So while my mother worried about the people I was hanging around with, doing back-stage “meet-n-greets” with KISS and Metallica and Bryan Adams and whomever else, and while the girls were throwing themselves at me at the remotes, not because of anything in me but because I represented something “famous;” I was running away from it. I was trying to hide, and resisting the attempts my bosses made to make me more visible and more accessible. I was torn.

And so I quit.

In January, 1993, really with the world as my oyster in the radio business, I decided to get out. I wasn’t that wise at the time, but I was wise enough to realize this was headed somewhere I didn’t want to go. I packed up my things, I left my car with my mom, and I moved to Hawaii to become a missionary, of all things. Relative obscurity, freedom from Karmic repercussions, and the chance to start again. And what did I end up doing? Running a missionary radio station in Hawaii. It’s like the scene from “The Godfather.” “Every time I try to get away, they keep sucking me back in!”

After a year and a half in Hawaii, I did actually manage to break away for a while. I moved back to Boise and spent two years working at a bakery/café. I sold my car while I was in Hawaii, and rode my bike for those two years. I saved up some money, and raised some support, and at the end of that time I moved to Switzerland for a year to teach. But when I got back to the states a year later, and got married. I had to make a living. And so I returned to my fallback skill. Radio.

In the four years I’d been out of the business, radio had changed pretty dramatically. During that time the telecommunications act was passed, and radio was deregulated. This meant the doors were opened wide for corporate ownership of radio stations, and where there used to be tight restrictions on how many stations in a market could be owned by one company, now companies could own as many as five or six stations in one city, and sometimes even own direct format competitors.

I went to work for Citadel Broadcasting. Not the worst of the giant radio companies, but not for lack of effort. They owned five stations, including two for which I had previously worked (Magic 93.1 and Rock 97), but almost none of the same people remained at either station. Over the course of the next three years, I worked for every one of the six stations in the group. I did part-time work. I filled-in on the morning show for the huge country music station. I did afternoons on the pop station for two weeks while someone was on vacation. I did mornings on the second country station for a month while they tried to hire a new morning show team. I did the local afternoon call-in show on the AM-talk station when the older host got sick for a month. I was their favorite switch-hitter, capable of doing anything at a moment’s notice. But they never gave me a full-time gig. I was too valuable as a utility man.

At one point they hired a new PD (Program Director) for their under-performing, second, country station. He came from Vegas and was brought in directly by the corporate chiefs to fix the station. When he arrived, and needed some air personalities fast to replace the ones he fired, I got the call to do afternoons for him for month. At the end of that time he offered me a full-time position, saying only that it was contingent upon him approving the offer with local and corporate bosses. I, however had committed to go to South Africa to teach for six weeks, and couldn’t (wouldn’t) change my plans. People were counting on me. So, I left on my trip and told him if the offer was there when I returned, I’d take it. When I returned, he’d been shipped back to Vegas, and my job offer disappeared.

I toiled on there, and eventually was picked up full-time by the same rock station I’d worked at before. But now it had been “re-branded” with a new name and new call letters and they brought in a new PD from Tucson to run the show. And so I was introduced to possibly the foulest person I have ever known. “Bob” was my boss for about 9 months. During that time he took every opportunity to belittle, to degrade, to embarrass or deflate, every person he came in contact with, especially those who worked for him. He systematically set out to ruin the relationships of married people he worked with, succeeding in more than one instance. He purposefully scheduled people at times most detrimental to their families and lives, to show he had control. And most of all he was just offensive.

I remember sitting in his office one day for an “air-check” meeting (going over tapes of my show for critique). When he said to me, “Jack,” (my on-air name at that station – at his behest – was Jack Dawson), “Jack, you know, you only have to suck one cock and then you’re a cock sucker. Have you ever sucked a cock Jack?” Apropos of nothing. It’s difficult to convey the line where something ceases being harmlessly offensive and becomes menacing, but he was beyond that line. I spoke often to my superiors about his behavior, but since he was brought in by corporate, they couldn’t (wouldn’t) do anything. (Eventually he would be fired and leave town quickly to avoid criminal charges, but that wouldn’t come while I was there).

I prayed for release. And it came. The same sales manager from Rock 97 who was sleeping with the receptionist, was now the General Manager (married to the receptionist) of a newly-signed on Adult Alternative station . The one station in town I actually listened to. He called one day while I was on the air, asking if I’d be interested in interviewing for a position there. I had lunch a couple days later with the new PD, and accepted the job without even asking about salary.

When changing jobs in radio, whether voluntarily or otherwise, there is no “two-week’s notice.” In most cases, when you’re hired away from one station to another, the last thing you want to do is go back on-air and wait out your time until the shift. Not to mention that radio often attracts volatile personalities, and no station manager is going to let someone whom they’ve fired, or who has “given notice” get back on the air and possibly bad-mouth their operation. So changes in radio happen quickly. And if you don’t have something lined up when one job ends, you spend some time “On the Beach” as it’s known in the business. Killing time. Some guys wind up spending months “On the Beach.” Other spend years there, actually working other jobs and other careers, just waiting for the break to come that will get them back in the business. Whenever I found myself out of a job in radio, it always felt like release. But some people need it; the appreciation, the microphone, the stage. To me it always felt like shackles.

And so I moved on. This time to the last independently owned FM station in the market. An octogenarian billionaire from California, who had once owned a few stations around the country, now had this one left. Everyone knew he’d be getting rid of it soon, and so it was like the “Blow-out sale” every day of the week. There were no staff meetings. There was a three-person sales staff. We all sat around in the offices, smoking and talking and hanging out. It was like summer camp for wayward DJ’s. I did the morning show with a manic depressive alcoholic who would nearly punch your lights out one morning, and give you his electric guitar as a birthday present the next. My boss was a wanna-be hippie from Montana who had had some success and national recognition programming a similar station in Bozeman. He was riding his success into a larger market, but I think he knew it was a fluke.

There was no real effort made to do anything right. We had fun. Most pop stations have a song library of 200-300 songs in rotation at one time. Most rock stations are more like 500-600. The most eclectic “album rock” stations might have 800 songs. We had a 1,200 song library, and we added stuff every day. Deep cuts. Early Bruce Cockburn, Joan Armatrading, The Samples, Tommy Bolin, Rockpile, NRBQ, The Band (and not just “Cripple Creek”); it was a music lover’s wet dream. We had artists in the studio because we were the only ones in town playing them. Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, David Wicox, Toad the Wet Sprocket. And for a few months while I was there, it was a beautiful, dysfunctional family.

For the first time in my radio career I had found somewhere where people didn’t want me to be a celebrity. Our biggest “fan” was a surgically “bosom enhanced” mid-thirties housewife, who brought us cookies and cakes and baked treats for us on our birthdays. She could have been dangerous (she once emailed me asking spiritual questions and mentioning some “desires” she felt guilty about… it was a hook I’m glad I didn’t bite), but mostly she was innocent and a little lonely. And she was part of the family there. We all just liked the big, tight hugs she gave.
But it didn’t last. Once again, corporate ownership came knocking. And the billionaire didn’t get that way by being stupid. So he sold to Journal Broadcast Group. One day the new bosses came in. They interviewed us one by one. We all knew what was coming. No-one really said anything, none of us were told what was going to happen, we just saw Carl, my co-host quickly throw his headphones and a few books in a box, and walk out the door, tears welling in his eyes. “I’ll pack up my shit over the weekend when no one’s here,” he called to Tony, the receptionist on the way out. And it was over.

They brought in a consultant from Portland; a guru of the format who came in and whittled the playlist down to 800 songs… the same 800 songs being played on his station in Portland. They changed the name of the station, and although they didn’t technically change the format, they took away its soul. They had to, it wasn’t making money. But it was still a tragedy. And a lot of people in Boise stopped listening to the radio that day.

Maybe the most unfortunate thing about radio in the United States is not corporate ownership. That’s an albatross for sure. But maybe the worst thing is ratings. Money follows ratings. And business follows money. All the corporate owners and shareholders and programmers and buyers and bosses are interested in, is money; and the only way to determine where to put it, is ratings. In the US, radio ratings are determined by Arbitron Inc. The way this is done has not changed in decades. Arbitron sends out a booklet in the mail. They call it a “listening diary,” and ask people to voluntarily keep track of all their radio listening in a seven-day period. Then those people drop the postage paid diary in the mail, and as a “thank you” for filling it out, Arbitron sends them a dollar(1).

Arbitron sends these diaries out to a ridiculously small sampling of the population. In the fall of 2002, in the entire state of California, only 26,382 diaries were sent out. Of those, only 7,266 were returned(2). That’s in a state with a population of 35 million people. There are whole segments of society that are never represented in these surveys. Among them, kids under 18 who couldn’t care less about diaries or sampling, and to whom the diaries are never sent in the first place. Diaries are only sent out one-per-household. So if a family is to keep track of all their listening, they have to keep separate notes and at some point come together and compile them. Also under-represented are middle-to-high income people who are typically well off and college educated. These people are too busy to fill out a stupid survey, cannot be induced by the prospect of a dollar’s reward, and in most cases would never believe the millions of advertising dollars spent on radio each moth, each day, in the United States are based more on the results of these diaries than on any other factor. So they don’t fill them out. The people who do fill them out are often lower income people, often out of work and in need of every dime they can scrape. As a result, talk radio (unless it’s conservative talk radio) never rates well. Public radio never rates well. “Triple A” (also called A3 or Adult Alternative) radio rates poorly almost everywhere. The formats that do rate well? Classic Rock, Country and Pop. Everywhere.

The result of this is good radio disappears; because you can program a standard Classic Rock or Country station from anywhere in the country. You don’t need to know anything about the town it’s in, you just pick the top songs from Billboard, or Radio & Records magazine and stick ‘em on the air. It’s that simple. But you can’t meet the needs of an individual community, or a specific listening audience by doing this.

The airwaves are “owned” by the public. The government regulates the use of them for the public good. It used to be that every year, every station had to prove they were using the public airwaves for purposes beneficial to society; that they were doing at least a minimum amount of public service broadcasting, or public affairs programming. That’s why even up to five or six years ago on the pop stations you could still hear a local public affairs show run at 5am on Sunday morning; because the station would pre-tape this (or better yet, buy pre-recorded public affairs programming) and run it to satisfy their requirements. That’s also why stations run a lot of Public Service Announcements in off-peak broadcasting hours. But these requirements have been all but completely done away with.

And so, what happened to KFXJ in Boise, Idaho is what has happened at one time or another to almost every station in the United States. A corporation with stock-holders and share-holders and vice presidents bought the station, and looked at the Arbitron ratings for that town and did a market analysis based on the those ratings, and determined what that town really needed was another Pop station. And classical music, and jazz, and diverse talk radio all went down the drain.

In my case, we all went to work for Journal Broadcast Group. They determined a Triple-A station could succeed in a market like Boise, but it would need to be severely tightened up. We got new jingle packages, and new station imaging and liners and a new name “The River” and logos and whatnot. We got a new Operations Manager who had never programmed this format before, and so he basically let the consultant take over. Which meant the consultant programmed the station exactly like he did his own station in Portland.

Eventually, the Program Director was fired, when he refused to cooperate with the management decision to remove him from the programming process. I was promoted to Program Director, as well as morning show host and Music Director (under the close supervision of my Operations Manager and Consultant) and was informed my boss’s wife would be my new morning show Co-host. When they told me about this move, I agreed to it on one condition: that there be a six-month performance review to determine whether it was working. (I knew this woman, she’d been shoehorning her way into the station from even before it was purchased, and I’d heard horror stories from past colleagues).

When, after a year on the air together, it became apparent nothing would change; I scheduled a meeting with my General Manager. I had been agonizing for months over the station, over my job… over the realization that I had the best job I was ever likely to get in this industry, and it was driving me crazy. The day before that meeting, I actually prayed about it. I told God I didn’t care what happened. I was ready and willing to stay there, to take a pay cut, to be demoted or transferred. I was willing to quit or be fired and move on. But whatever happened, I prayed for it to be decisive.

The next morning, I walked into his office. I shut the door, and when I turned around I saw he had tears in his eyes. I knew then I was being fired. Before he even said the words, “This is going to be really hard for me…” I knew it. And I was overjoyed. Instantly I felt released. Like a kid who wakes up and finds it’s summer break and there’s no school, not only today, but for months!

We had a great meeting. I basically consoled him. He told me he wanted to keep me, but it was basically a choice of firing me, or firing two other people (my boss & his wife). I told him straight out how I felt betrayed and let down by the arrangement they had made, and how I thought the influence of my co-host and the consultant on the station were damaging it. He actually seemed to agree. In the end he asked if I wanted to resign or be fired. I told him to fire my ass so I could collect unemployment until I figured out what was next. He agreed to let me announce my departure to my staff, and to wait until the weekend to clean out my office.
I returned to my office and typed an email to the company locally stating that I was leaving, I didn’t say at who’s impetus, and in retrospect I should have been more clear, because as I later found out, a lot of people simply thought I’d given up and left. But I sent that email, and within a minute there was a knock on my door. Rena, my morning news reporter and afternoon/weekend DJ came into my office in tears, and sat on her knees beside me asking “Why? Why are you going? Who are they going to replace you with…” I was touched. And I found it ironic that I felt so free, while all around me it was the people who were staying, the ones who still had jobs, that needed to be consoled.

And that was it. I was out. I resolved then to make it my final departure from radio. My son was born about a month before I was fired. Which meant I got to be home with him for those precious months, and while I looked for work, and wrote songs, and collected unemployment, I got to spend more time with him than almost any new father I know gets with his kids.

There is more to write about this… there are years of insights and musings about the state of our culture and what this systematic removal of creativity and life has done to so many of our cultural institutions. I feel like I’m leaving something out by not talking about the transition this provided into the music industry, and the further disillusionment that came from years spent there…. about the cult of celebrity, and how my own reaction to it at the age of nineteen presaged what I was eventually learn as a more mature person. I feel like so much of my life now is finally geared toward looking back at those lessons, and figuring out how to act in a positive way out of what I’ve learned and experienced. I’ve spent a long time reacting negatively to stimuli. But that creates a negative person.

Yesterday I was talking to a new friend about our lives, and about experiences we’ve had that have shaped us. He said to me, “You’ve told me a lot about who you are, and about what you’re saying no to, and I respect that immensely. But in all of that, with all of the insight you’ve gained, what are you saying Yes to these days?”

And that’s the question I’m spending these days working on. That’s what this writing is about.

Oh, and one more thing. No. You can’t call me “Hollywood Scott.”

(1) Apparently they’ve upped that to $2 in recent years, and there is outrage that in populations with high minority concentrations they’ve been giving $10 per diary to black and Latino respondents, thus creating dramatic “over-sampling” in those demographics.
(2) “Radio ratings service again under fire for methodology - Media & Technology - Arbitron Inc” Los Angeles Business Journal, Feb 24, 2003 by Darrell Satzman

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Sneak Preview?

I sent this link to Zara the other day and was emboldened enough to think maybe I should post it here. After all, it'll go on the record, so it's part of my coursework.

Here's an mp3
of the song "An Apology." It's an early mix, but I don't think I'm going to add anything else in the way of instrumentation.

Let me know what you think. I'm not gong to post the lyrics, because I think they're plain enough as it is. But if you're confused, let me know.

"An Apology" - words and music by Brandon Dawson
©2008 B. Dawson

I'm getting a little behind...

At least in the writing department, that is.

In the reading department I'm doing fine. So maybe I'll just post a quick note with some thoughts on the books I've read recently...

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens -

Wow. Seriously. This is why I love to read the classics. The scope of this book... the range... the characters... the depth of insight and emotion. It was really wonderful. Throughout the book I kept asking myself "Why am I reading this again?" It was so dark, so depressing. But so human, which is why I kept at it. Flannery O'Connor, in Mystery and Manners, describes giving some of her stories to an old woman in Georgia to read. When she asked what the woman thought of them, her response was, "Well them stories just gone and showed you how some folks would do."

And that's the point - that great fiction, great writing does get to the heart of what people (like us) would do. Not what we ought to do, or might do, or wish we would do... but what we would do. And that's often heartbreaking and sometimes inspiring, but always rings true in great writing.

So I was inspired by David Copperfield. As it relates to my study - to the questions of Authenticity, Voice, and Vocation, I was moved to deeper thinking on subjects about which I often resist thinking, like Mortality, Family, Suffering, Poverty, Redemption. And I was inspired to think that life matters... ultimately it matters. As it begins, as it is lived and tried and suffered and failed and succeeded at; and as it ends, sometimes in glory and sometimes in defeat. It always matters and it is always wondrous.

I could write for days about that book.


Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O'Connor

I've read some of O'Connor's writing. Not much, but some. I think I read "Everything That Rises Must Converge" a few years back, and it seems like I may have read "A Good Man is Hard to Find" at some point. I remember being most affected by a short story of hers about a boy and his mother (or grandmother) on the bus. But I can't remember the title now.

Anyway, this book is sort of a memoir... it's a compilation of her writing about writing. Essays she wrote, speeches and talks she gave to college classes and small groups of aspiring writers. It's often filled with her saying, in essence, that you can't describe good writing, you just do it or you don't. But she spends a lot of time describing what she can't describe.

There is some great wisdom in here. Some quotes:

P. 33 - "The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw larger and startling figures."

I think this is true of the writer of spiritual or greater human concerns in general. Not just the Christian writer. Any writer with a vision of society that does not represent its current state, is doomed to be translating his concepts to what she calls a "hostile audience." This is true for the environmental writer; for the Buddhist or Sufi writer; for the vegetarian or alternative health writer... for any writer who's concerns are not represented as a general concern in the society at large this would be true.

P. 34 - "Unless we are willing to accept our artists as they are, the answer to the question, "Who speaks for America today?" will have to be: the advertising agencies.

P. 35 - "To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks."

P. 59 - "The writer operates at a particular crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location."

She's speaking here about the necessity of being specific. Of creating characters and settings and stories that are specific - that are about real people and real events. In other words, "...how some folks would do."

I'm a fan of her writing, but I must confess that her non-fiction is a bit tedious. The rambling style of her prose is wonderful for stories of people and places and things, especially in her native south where the loquacious drawl seems to reflect truth like the sun off a car's back window. But in writing about the craft of writing, and her understanding of it, this style just wears the reader out. You get caught up in the language and forget about the meaning. In fiction, that's fine, because in writing like hers, the language is the meaning. It's just another part of the setting. Here, it's often just a hindrance. I'd like to leave off reading about her writing, and read some more of her writing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

2/12/08 - Formless... Void.

As I walked over to the office early this morning, the new-fallen snow lay like a wet blanket on the ground. The slow freezing rain fell like a trowel on the heavy snow; smoothing out the contours of the earth and removing all form from the landscape. Above there was nothing but formless gray. The same below. What a day here in Cincinnati.

In The Beginning, God hovered over the waters, and they were formless and void until he spoke and separated the light from the darkness. That’s how I feel now: formless and void. In those ancient stories, the waters always represent chaos, and the taming of them is always the superior act of power and omnipotence. God speaking out into the darkness and calling it “day” and “night” was, to the ancient peoples of Syria and Palestine, the act of a supreme being, triumphing over their most ancient fears, and bringing order to chaos.

Maybe that’s the point of the story really… not whether the earth was created in seven days, or whether God literally spoke out of the darkness and formed matter from nothing… but that God, the creator, the Spirit behind and within all things, is actually a calming, uniting force in the universe, and not a perpetuator of chaos. The principal power reflected in the Syrian and Persian myths prior to these stories was Leviathan, the sea serpent. He was the very embodiment of dark, roiling chaos. The unknown. The darkness. And a God who, not through great displays of might and strength, but in his very words, triumphs over all the forces of the unknown, might just be one that, by extension, does the same thing for individual people.

This morning I need some of that. My home is in chaos. My family… my life… chaos. Formless. Void. And needing someone, or something, to step in and divide the darkness from the light. To say, “This is good (worth pursuing, beneficial, life giving); and this is not.” I need to see creation, Genesis, in my life today. I need to believe that the forces of order and peace are more powerful than the forces of destruction and torment. The outward signs don’t indicate that. Around me I see decay and destruction. I see and feel and hear and smell death and darkness and despair, especially on a morning like this, in a city like this. But I know that above the clouds the sun still shines.

I’ve driven up in to the Idaho mountains on days like this, when the city was socked in by smog and too much wood-smoke, and it seemed like it had been that way forever. But driving up Shaw Mountain Road on a quiet morning outside of Boise, you rise in the grey foothills through the fog. You drive on though the only change is the increasing desolation of the landscape. The high desert hills seem to grow even sparser. But as you round the corner through the fog… not thinking about anything except making sure you and your truck don’t end up a snowball of twisted, tangled, broken metal at the bottom of the canyon; you break through. And it is Glory. A new sunrise, just for you. Epiphany. The air is clear. The sun is bright and warm. There are birds up here and squirrels and life that you hadn’t realized was missing in the depression down below. The air is cleaner. And the sun, as it warms your body and brings color into your skin, and brightens your spirits… reminds you that there is life behind it all. That behind the clouds, and above the gloom, and possibly, hopefully behind Everything, there is this light, and this warmth. And you say, “Yes.” And it is good.

Somewhere above all this is a light, and warmth, and goodness. And I hope within my heart that it is not unaware or unconcerned with what goes on down here, no matter how it may seem. It may not be personal, or imminent, but I do believe it is Good, and that it is in and through and under and above all things. And if I pray these days, it is simply an attempt to align myself with that force, that feeling, that vibration. To be mindful of the sun, that goes on shining and warming and filling the universe. Even in the darkest night. Even when it’s hidden by clouds. It is there, and it is here.

This morning, I try to hold on to that.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Stephen King’s American Apocalypse

A few days ago, I was searching online for a Stephen King quote for this post, and came across this article on FirstThings.com. I've read a lot of writing on Stephen King's supposed theology, most of it garbage, trying to shoehorn King into some easily defined doctrinal mold. And all operating under the assumption that King has some theological axe to grind, and that he does so consciously and intentionally.

I disagree. I think he is well informed theologically; and as a thinking man, is probably quite conscious of his own perceptions of God and how they affect his life and writing. But I don’t think you can automatically or directly infer from his writings what those perceptions are.

Why am I writing in my journal/blog about Stephen King’s theology? Well, I’ve read a lot of his work. I’m of the opinion that, after he’s gone, he will be justifiably recognized as one of the Great Writers In American History. I know he’s already one of the best selling, and even in this article a distinction is made between taking King seriously as an economic force, doing “little more for humanity than keep the publishing industry afloat,” and taking him seriously as a literary force in our culture.

But the real reason for this post is because, in Douthat’s article, I begin to see a little of myself in his supposed Kingian Theology. (How long before that becomes a course title at Harvard? – or more likely the University of Maine). I wrote in this post about death and resurrection. The impetus for that writing is my own struggle with questions of mortality, legacy and purpose. For the last two years I have had some nagging health concerns that have at times (subconsciously at all times) scared me pretty badly. It causes me to think about things like my own mortality, what will I leave behind for my son when I’m gone (whether that’s sooner or later) and what do I really believe God thinks about this stuff? Is he/she concerned at all with my wellbeing? With my son’s future? There is a lot of suffering in this world, and it’s nigh on impossible to look at the suffering, even from afar, and see any justice or compassion in it. From up close it’s just paralyzing.

I was raised in and out of fundamentalist churches and schools. I attended a conservative Baptist school through most of my primary years, and at the same time went to Pentecostal churches with speaking in tongues and Holy Spirit Baptism… and I grew up with the notion that God Cares. That he is concerned with my well-being. That he is intimately connected with my affairs, and that I can, in times of doubt or uncertainty, lean into His Faithfulness as a strength and a guide.

But these last few years have been difficult. In the space of five years, my wife, my son and I have experienced financial ruin, severe health problems for all of us, and not just job changes, but career crises. The last two years have been sort of the cherry on the top; causing me (in light of everything else) to really question whether I believe God’s on my side here (anyone’s for that matter) or, as CS Lewis said, “a cosmic bogey,” above these concerns and untouchable.

So when I read Douthat’s article on King, and specifically his delineation of the theology that emerges as a thread through his work, it looked familiar to me. What kind of God would let me get sick and possibly leave my family, my young son and sweet wife behind? The same one of whom King’s character says in Desperation:
“You said ’God is cruel’ the way a person who’s lived his whole life in Tahiti might say ’Snow is cold.’ You knew, but you didn’t understand. . . . Do you know how cruel your God can be, David? How fantastically cruel? . . . Sometimes he makes us live.”

And when I want to pray for the safety of my family, for healing that the Pentecostal churches told me was mine if I only had enough faith… another God presents himself in my mind. One who distinctly resembles a passage in The Green Mile:
“I think back to the sermons of my childhood, booming affirmations in the church of Praise Jesus, The Lord Is Mighty, and I recall how the preachers used to say that God’s eye is on the sparrow, that He sees and marks even the least of His creations. Yet this same God sacrificed John Coffey, who tried only to do good in his blind way, as savagely as any Old Testament prophet ever sacrificed a defenseless lamb, as Abraham would have sacrificed his own son if actually called upon to do so. . . . If it happens, God lets it happen, and when we say “I don’t understand,” God replies, “I don’t care.”

I can’t worship this God. I can’t spend any more energy trying to appease him, or examining my faithless heart for a shred of authenticity that would justify me in his eyes. I’m not talking about the Church here… I’m talking about what my heart believes is real. No systematic theology, but a personal theology… because what good is a systematic theology in the end if it’s not personal?

But I do believe in a God of some sort. And I do believe that there is compassion out there. That in life, and even in death there is balance, and that it can make sense. In the Sufi traditions, and the Native American stories, and in almost all the writing of real faith that I read, I feel it. But it is not in me. It does not give me hope from inside. And that’s what I have to find. A place of belief that fuels Hope in me. Hope for my son, for my wife, for my self, and for the world. Because the rest is just despair.

I don’t know what King believes about God. In the end I don’t care, really. I know that the God he writes about sounds a lot like the one I have believed in. And I’m trying not to believe in that God anymore.

Maybe that’s why his writing scares the shit out of us… because we’re afraid that God is really like that, and that we’re stuck with him. But just because it’s written doesn’t make it so. And just because he writes that way doesn’t even mean he believes it. Maybe he’s grappling with the same question, trying to make sense of it himself… writing from the place of his own deepest fear, and trying to find his own hope in the world.

For me, it’s a mirror. And it’s a good thing. I can look at that picture of myself and say, “No. I will not be that person anymore. I will not remain in this state, poisoning myself and my family… bringing about my own ruin as self-fulfilled prophecy. I will change. I will hope, and I will move on.”

A guy I know, in a recent article that basically ended his public speaking career on the evangelical circuit, wrote this:
“Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff [like God's sovereignty, wrath, hell, etc.], remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, then God might as well send me to Hell. For better or worse, I simply am not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking such a God, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility because, quite frankly, anything less is not worthy of my worship.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am.”

The king is dead. Long live the king.