Monday, March 24, 2008

Annotation - A Life At Work: The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born To Do

During the January Residency in Vermont, someone passed me a note about half way through the week. It was just a folded piece of paper with a printed page on it: the pre-order page for this book. A short note at the bottom from Sarah Bowen said, “Thought this might be useful for your study.” I tried to research the book but at that point it wasn’t even in print at that time, and wouldn’t be released until mid-February. But based on the title alone, I was excited to read it.

I haven’t been disappointed. Thomas Moore comes at the question of vocation, not just in terms of a job, or even a career, but in terms of a “Life Work,” in other words: the work of one’s life. He talks broadly about the concept of the “opus,” the larger work that our vocation and calling comprise, and encourages the reader to think of that life work not solely in terms of employment, but in terms of the “opus of the soul” from which he says our work is inseparable. (20)

I found this book very freeing in terms of echoing the sense I have that my “vocation” is not tied to one particular calling or job. Moore says, “It seems important to nurture a strong sense of calling while not fixing on any particular form of work… Life is not usually monolithic, narrowly focused, or unchanging” (21). This is how I have felt, and even though I’ve grown accustomed to feeling that way in the face of a culture that often presses for consistency and specialization, it’s welcome encouragement.

The book is told primarily through two vehicles: stories from his life, many of which are borne of his experience as a psychotherapist, and using Alchemy as a metaphor for getting at the core of our own makeup. Going from the theoretical to the practical and back, he describes well the need we have to untie our activity - our work, with our soul – our purpose. It’s both comforting and challenging, especially to someone already consciously on that journey. Moore writes:
“A calling is a deep sense that your very being is implicated in what you do. You feel that you fit into the scheme of things when you do this particular work. You have a sense of purpose and completion in the work. It defines you and gives you an essential tranquility” (24).

It has been my frustration with the “unrelated-ness” of much of my work that led me to this search, and to the ADP, in the first place; a need to make things fit in the grand scheme, and for my “life work” to dovetail with the work of my soul.

Some of the most immediately helpful information came from the chapter “Life in a Tower,” where Moore discusses anger and resentment, and the role they play in the working life. Emotions borne out of past experiences can color and limit our current experience, bringing anger and frustration to situations that don’t really warrant it, and hindering our development in that task, our completion of our work, and harming relationships at the same time. This has certainly been true for me. One strategy he presents is to simply tell our stories. Not to analyze them or pick them apart, but to go back into the past and tell, as fully and completely as possible, the stories that make us who we are. In doing so, we get a sense of our grounded-ness, our history, and we also gain understanding of the forces that have shaped us. On my part this study was a conscious desire to do just that; but I think I’ve been encouraged even more by this chapter as to the potential effectiveness, not just consciously, but at a deeper level, that this work may have.

Moore writes extensively about the need for that “interior work,” and that often our career, vocation, and life frustrations result from patterns of which we are not conscious, like anger and resentment. However, when recognized for what they are, even these negative impulses can be trained to our good.
“If you are looking for your life work and carry deep, hidden anger within you, it will only work against you unless you submit it to an alchemy by which its constructive powers are released. Anger can become determination, personal power, a sharp mind, effective personal presence, clear decisions, and grounded creativity” (90).

In reading this, I made a list of my past jobs and employers, and tried to name the factors that were at work in every one of those situations. I later realized I was focusing more on the negative experiences, and could use some time spent on the positive ones, but the list I came up with had repeated experiences of frustration, feeling ill-suited to the work, being taken advantage of, underpaid, lied to, etc. etc. One of the main threads that came from the list as a whole is my tendency to unnecessarily submit myself to a situation or a supervisor in order to secure or keep a job. Then, once the job is mine, there’s no way to regain that lost self-respect. In fact, I often realize that it was never beneficial to have surrendered it in the first place. From that comes a feeling of victimization, as if that surrender of self was mandated by the job or employer, when in reality it simply came from my own insecurity. But at the time, it’s very easy to blame them for taking something from me. I see that as a pattern that remains at work in me, although I have become more conscious of it in the last five years and have taken some steps to correct it.

I might initially have liked this book to be a little more “practical,” by which I would have meant that I would have liked to gain more concrete answers from it. But it’s not that kind of book, and upon completing it, my strong urge is to pick it up and read it through again. It’s a book that at first can seem like it skims the surface of these issues, with broad theorizing on what might sum up one’s search without tools given to help one find it. But the truth is it’s a process and a search that can only be done on one’s own, and as I read more deeply I came to appreciate the value of Moore’s writing, of taking seriously the issues of work and the soul. I do feel like I take some good things away from this book, most notably a solid feeling like I am, and have been, on the right track in my journey, and that by continuing on, I might just come to that place of joy and synthesis he writes about. In the mean time, reading this once every few months certainly couldn’t hurt.

"A life work is not the same as a good job or a long career. It may not arise out of outward success. A life work is the emergence of your unique self, worked through and manifested in the things that you do. If you don’t dig deep enough into yourself and see the world around you perceptively, your life work may always appear elusive. But if you live from a deep place, your life work will blossom like a flower” (95).

Moore, Thomas. A Life at Work: The Joy of Discovering what You were Born to do. Ashland; Boulder: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Blackstone Audio, Incorporated; NetLibrary, Incorporated [Distributor] Publisher Record .

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Annotation - Do What You Are

A friend gave this book to me one day after I told him the nature of my study: Authenticity, Voice and Vocation. He said it was similar to the book What Color Is Your Parachute1 and in fact the jacket quote is from Richard Bolles, who wrote that book.

The two books are similar in that they are both career books, how to get the job you want in the career of your choice. The difference between them is that “Parachute” relies on stories you tell about your life to point out to you the patterns in your most fulfilling experiences in order to help you choose a job that will likely replicate those experiences, whereas Do What You Are relies on “personality type” which is an adaptation of the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test developed in the 1940’s.

The MBTI is a personality test that uses a long list of multiple choice questions to determine where you fit with regard to four categories. The “Personality Type” adaptation in this book essentially does the same thing, but it uses a much shorter, anecdotal process to classify the reader using four areas of personality. Those classifications are:
- Introverts vs. Extroverts (“I” or “E”)
- Intuitive vs. Sensing (“N” or “S”)
- Thinking vs. Feeling (“T” or “F”)
- Perceiving vs. Judging (“P” or “J”)

Based on how you fit into these four classifications, you end up with a personality type identifier. Mine is “INTP” or: Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving. (As a side note, I took the MBTI about fourteen years ago with the same results.)

Acccording to Tieger & Barron, here are some of the characteristics of an “INTP”:
“INTP’s are conceptual probem solvers. They are intensely intellectual and logial, with flashes of creative brilliance. Outwardly quiet, reserved,and detached, INTPS are inwardly absorbed in analyzing problems. They are critical, precise and skeptical.”

INTP’s: “… are ingenious and original thinkers… prize intelligence… have a strong drive for competence and are interested in challenging other people to become competent as well. … are highly independent, enjoy speculative and imaginative activities, are flexible and open-minded, and are more interested in finding creative yet sound solutions than that are in seeing those solutions made into reality.”(Tieger 43)

I found this book very helpful as I examine the “Vocation” aspect of my study. There was great information on what types of environments to search for, including possible career fields that would be particularly well-suited to my personality type. They also presented excellent information on “blind spots” for a person of my personality type to avoid, such as dismissing the input of others who might not function in the same way, and getting frustrated with those who don’t “figure it out” as quickly.

Although it’s more of a resource book than the others in my study so far, it gave me good insight into myself, how I work, and ways I can use that information to build a more satisfying future, both in terms of employment and personal relationships.

Bolles, Richard Nelson. What Color is Your Parachute?: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers. Berkeley: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Ten Speed Press Publisher Record, Oct. 2007.

Tieger, Paul D., and Barbara Brown. Dow What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007

Memoir - Health

At some point in this process I’m going to have to write about my health, and since it’s heavily on my mind this morning, this might be the time.

Almost exactly two years ago I woke up with the feeling like I had a mild ear-ache. It was a light pressure in my head behind and inside of my right ear. If I put my hand right behind my ear, in the little space between the corner of my jaw and the little rounded part of my skull, I could almost point in to where the pressure sat. I was not really painful, just a pressure. Almost an intuitive sense that something wasn’t quite right in there.

I didn’t mention it to my wife for a couple of reasons. First, that I was scared. I can’t really even explain why, but I was scared. I go back and forth as to whether that fear was intuitive, alerting me to something that I needed to pay attention to and get examined, or whether it was a fear based more in my perception of the universe and the way things are. I’ll explain that later, but at the time I kept it to myself.

It was January 2006, and I was preparing for a trip to New Zealand. The band I was Tour Managing had a tour planned that would take us to New Zealand for ten days, performing at the New Zealand International Arts Festival. It was a big trip for everyone, and we’d been planning and preparing for it for nearly a year. I didn’t even want to think about the possibility that I might be sick, and maybe shouldn’t go, so I just ignored it.

At some point, after a few days of this feeling in my ear, I started to get mildly dizzy. At first it was sporadic. It might just come on for a few moments and then go away. It was better in the morning, and then would worsen during the day. It’s hard to even call it “dizziness” because, although that’s the best word for it, it wasn’t like what you’d think normal dizziness would be. It was more like champagne on the brain, like being ever-so-slightly drunk and out of balance, where you turn your head, and things take just a half-second too long to catch up with that motion. I didn’t say anything. I left for New Zealand.

All through that trip I kept it to myself, and never told the band. I was to busy and too frightened to deal with what was happening, and to figure out how to explain it to anyone else. Fear was growing inside me of the possibilities. For the band and crew that trip is remembered as one big happy party, with the wine and song flowing freely; of sold out audiences in a country we’d never visited before, of hearing the new album over the speakers in the Auckland airport when we arrived, and of drinking and dancing into the night after the shows. For me that trip is remembered as separation, of not drinking or partying because I knew that whatever was going on in my head, alcohol wasn’t likely to improve it.

When I returned from New Zealand, I had a resolved to tell my wife, and to face whatever that meant. It was now about a month since I’d first experienced the pressure in my ear, and the dizziness had grown to be nearly constant. I was convinced there was something seriously wrong, and I was terrified.

When I told my wife, lying in bed one night, I shared with her the whole story: when it had started, how it felt, why I had kept it quiet… We lay in bed and talked about the possibilities. She asked what I thought was wrong, I told her my fears were of a tumor. She asked what I planned to do, the next morning I called our doctor and scheduled an appointment. The doctor wasn’t sure, couldn’t say what he thought it might be, and didn’t appear terribly concerned. He referred me to a neurologist just to make sure.

I should mention at this point that my fear was not completely without context. For the year prior to this I had had some lymphatic problems, due mainly to a series of jobs I’d worked, and the things to which I’d been exposed. About three years prior to this I’d started working as a carpenter, and spent most of a year working on the restoration of a hundred-year-old church building, removing floor tiles that we were told weren’t Asbestos, only to find later that they were, knocking out walls and unleashing century old dust and God-knows-what into the air. I spent a good portion of that year underneath the church, in the dank, moldy twelve-inch crawl space, pushing two foot square concrete blocks into place to shore up the floor for the industrial restaurant equipment that was to come.

I went straight from this job to one as a production welder, building locomotives in a manufacturing plant. Working ten-hour shifts (and sometimes twelve), breathing the fumes and smoking too much because there didn’t seem to be any difference between the air on the production floor and the smoke from a cigarette.

I moved my family to Cincinnati when I realized this cycle of manual labor jobs was going nowhere, and took my first job in Ohio, as an estimator at a friend’s body shop. I managed the office and wrote estimates for the cars that came in. It was a cushy job, in a great environment, and was perfect for us at the time, but there was no ventilation in the small shop. The bondo dust from the sanding, the fumes from the paint booth, all the smells and chemicals and toxins went straight into the little six foot by ten foot office because there was nowhere else for them to go. I would vacuum the office once a week, and no matter how many times I ran over the carpet in that office, I would collect two inches of bondo dust in the bottom of the canister. It made me wonder what my lungs were full of.

After four months at the body shop, I began to notice that the glands on my neck were slightly swollen. Between the welding job and moving to Cincinnati, I had come down with a bad bout of bronchitis, and my glands had been swollen then. I assumed it was just some of the same illness that hadn’t yet worked its way out. I saw my doctor and he informed me that the body shop environment was poisoning me. I asked him for any input or advice and the only thing my Indian doctor said, in his clipped Hindi accent was “Get a new job.”

I delayed, because this was a good job, and for a friend. I didn’t want to switch, I didn’t have anything else lined up… and in the time I waited, the swollen gland on the right side of my neck grew to the size of a marble. When I took some extra days off around one weekend, I noticed that the longer I was away from the shop, the more the swelling subsided. When I went back to work, it came right back.

I was rescued by music. I had been doing side work as a carpenter for a couple with a band I was aware of. We often talked about my radio experience, and their touring life… After pouring concrete at their farm, or framing windows we would eat together and discuss their career. I was an outsider, not threatening, and was able to give some perspective that they needed. When their tour manager left to play bass in his own band, I offered my services, and so was able to leave the body shop, and hopefully get healthier.

It was approximately six months after this that I began to get dizzy. As I said, my fear had some context.

I went to see the neurologist. He asked a bunch of questions, I answered them and told him how afraid I was. He asked what I was afraid of, and I told him. He scheduled an MRI of my brain, and a bunch of blood work. I got the tests done, and while we waited for the results, my wife and I spent the next two nights lying in bed talking about what she and my son (then four years old) would do if I was gone. We cried together, and said the things that we should have been saying to each other ever day. We talked about the future, and hoped for the best, and all the while I was consumed with fear for the worst.

During the time I’d spent in New Zealand we had received emails that a friend of ours back in Cincinnati had been quite ill. He caught a cold that rapidly turned into pneumonia, and after just a couple of days he had been hospitalized. I only got snatches of information through the emails I received, but we caught the puzzled and frantic tone in the emails. One day he was sick, the next he was in the hospital and they thought it was going to be okay. The next it seemed they had misdiagnosed him and couldn’t figure what was wrong, and then next day he was dead. He was thirty-three years old, with two sons, ages five and three. He and his wife had only moved to Cincinnati a year ago, and now she was a widow with a big new house and two boys who couldn’t possibly understand what was going on.

It was only two weeks after his death that I went in for my MRI.

It can’t have been more than two or three days before we got the MRI results, but I does seem like at least a week. The Neurologist’s office called and scheduled an appointment to go over the results. I went in with my wife, trying to be prepared for the worst. The doctor stood in front of me as I sat on the examination table and said, “So, what were you afraid these tests would show?”

I laughed a bit in my nervousness and said, “I’m afraid I have a brain tumor.”

He laughed back and said, “Well, you don’t. So don’t be afraid.”

He went through the results with me, through every slide and every blood test, and showed how my levels looked good, how my brain was clear, except for two tiny spots that he couldn’t identify, and which he suspected were from some childhood trauma (I fell off a wall when I was two and cracked my head open). He said there was no “recent activity” that would cause him to believe there was a tumor, and the spots he saw weren’t even in the part of the brain that would relate to what I was experiencing. He didn’t know what was causing my dizziness, but he said as far as he was concerned it was not a tumor and there was no further need for me to see him.
I was relieved, to put it mildly. I felt pardoned. But I was still dizzy, and I still didn’t know why.
Over the next year, I saw different doctors. No-one seemed to know what was causing the dizziness, nor did they seem very concerned about it. I went back and forth between paralyzing fear and apathy. The dizziness reached a low-grade, constant plateau that never went away, and I got used to it.

I eventually stopped trying to figure it out. My fear was so great, and the buildup around any and every appointment caused so much turmoil that it just didn’t make any sense to come away with no answers. I began to just internalize it, and try not to talk about it. I didn’t tell people, I stopped talking with my wife about it. I tried to ignore it. But every day, all day, it was in my mind. It was the thing I thought about the most. And the fear was constantly there.

Fear is insidious. It steals the energy and life from inside you, and from those around you. It clouds every emotion, every experience, and dulls any sensation. For every hope, every vision, it has an answer and an antidote.

Throughout this time, I was on the road. I toured most of the time with the band. We would be gone for two weeks, then back for a week or so, then gone for three weeks and back for a month. We might have two months off, but then we’d be gone for three months, at three-week stretches with a week between each one. When we were working, I could avoid thinking about illness. I didn’t have to think about the future. But when I came home, it was there. I wasn’t making great money. We were on Medicaid, and renting a small one-bedroom apartment over a café. On the road we spent each night in a different city. We stayed in hotels and had people greeting us at each stop with welcome and appreciation. We didn’t live the high life, but we had fun and enjoyed our work. When I went home, there was poverty and illness. And they were both mine. Being home was hard.

I tried at one point to talk through some of my feelings with a friend. I’ve made reference in this story already to my fundamentalist upbringing and the effects it has on my though patterns. Possibly the greatest effect is that I look for the activity of God in everything. I look for life, and the hope that a personal, loving God would bring to the situation. If I believe (as I professed I did for so long) in a God who’s plan is for the redemption of his creation, then I should be able to see that at work, right? And if I have some kind of “relationship,” some kind of “communion” with that God, then that hope, and that redemption should be at work in me. Right?

And so I looked for that in myself. But I found something else. I found fear, and disappointment. I found a profound lack of faith in that God. And I discovered that I couldn’t see the future. I couldn’t look into the mist and envision a time when my son and I would walk together as adults, where the lessons I would teach him would become fully realized and where he would turn from being my son into being my friend. I couldn’t see him older, in college or even as a teenager. And all this because I didn’t actually believe I would be there to see it.

Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that God teaches mainly through discipline and disappointment. In the stories of Job and through the Old Testament, God’s basically saying, “It’s my way or the highway.” There are the stories of God punishing people who disobey… even though sometimes it appeared they didn’t know the rules. There’s the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son… Sure you can take it as a precursor to God’s own sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the whole “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” theme. But even there, the idea that in order for creation to be restored, for God’s redemptive purposes to be fulfilled for creation, that someone has to die? It may be the foundational belief of all western religion, but it doesn’t make any sense! In my years of Christian Education and Bible teaching, I may not have picked up a strong sense of the mercy or grace of God, or of his love or compassion, but I sure did pick up the idea of sacrifice. And so it was that when I got sick, I believed that this was part of The Plan. That God teaches primarily through disappointment and sacrifice, and what bigger disappointment and sacrifice than taking me away from my wife and my son?

This realization was shocking to me. I’ve always considered myself an optimist, a believer in people and things and the future and hope. It was crushing to realize that because I could not believe in a future, there might not be one. I was writing my own prophecy, telling my own story, and it was a depressing one with a quick and ignominious end. The only way I could see around this was a complete rejection, a repudiation of that way of thinking. By focusing on my fear I was giving it power, and the only way to end that cycle was to decide to live, again and again, over and over; to make the decision to believe in life and to pursue it.

I still don’t have a diagnosis. When I first went to my doctor in 2005, what I asked him for was a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist, an E.N.T. Although I feared I had a brain tumor, what I actually wanted it to be was just an inner-ear infection that was upsetting my balance. My doctor went straight to the neurologist, and somewhere along the way we forgot about the E.N.T. option. But I’m thinking that might be the next step. While I was in Vermont for my first ADP cycle in January of 2008, I met a woman who mentioned that she had hearing loss and dizziness in one ear due to Meniere’s disease. She said it’s a chronic infection of the inner-ear which affects balance and hearing. I’ve since looked it up online and found that many of the symptoms coincide with mine. Another interesting discovery is that people have said that while it’s apparently incurable, they notice a drastic decline in the severity of symptoms if they avoid sugar of all types.

For the last six months, in an attempt to take control of my health, whatever the cause of the symptoms, I’ve been on a fairly strict diet, and have been exercising regularly. Over that time I estimate (because I didn’t weigh myself at the start) that I’ve lost about thirty-five pounds (I was around 225lb, I’m now 192), and have definitely increased my fitness. I stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine entirely, and have drastically reduced my sugar intake. I’m becoming more and more convinced that for many reasons I need to eliminate sugar entirely.

But I’m still a little dizzy. I’ve got used to it. It never goes away, but as long as I avoid sugar and other harmful things, it never gets really bad either. The swelling in my lymph glands has almost entirely disappeared, and in general I feel better than I have for quite some time. I’m running about 5 miles, three times a week, and considering entering some runs around Cincinnati this year. But somehow, as a part of this whole process, I’ve become incredibly chemically sensitized. Early on, I thought maybe the dizziness was related to mold in the building I was working out of. But when I moved out, it didn’t go away. Then I thought it was the building we were living in, but when we moved from there, it didn’t go away. What I have learned is that I am incredibly sensitive to any environmental irritant or toxin. If there is mold in the building, I’ll feel it. If there are solvents, or VOC’s or any kind of toxic compound, I’ll feel it.

Last week my friend Kevin offered me a job back at the body shop where I worked two years ago. The shop has moved to a new location, with more space, a different layout, and better ventilation. We both thought it might be different. The job he offered was absolutely perfect for my life right now. Apparently he called a temp agency and asked to hire someone to answer phones and help manage his office. The temp agency wanted eighteen dollars an hour. He offered me just less than that to answer phones, do a little estimating when it gets busy, keep the records up to date, pay the bills and manage a little bit of the accounting. Ten to forty hours a week, as much or as little as I want, with total flexibility, the ability to take time off for school or other reasons when I need, and no expectation for how long I’d be there. Oh, and as long as the shop is running well and everything’s in order, he welcomed me doing other work while I was there, whether school work or other side jobs I’m doing, like writing articles or doing band management work. Perfect.

I spent three hours there yesterday morning, and could already feel the dizziness and the swelling in my neck returning. I was sick at heart. This morning I called and let him know that I just can’t do it. I’m still too sensitive to the chemicals. I told my wife that I’m the canary in the coalmine. I don’t want to be, but I am. So, I turned down the only offer of steady work that I have. I had no choice. And it’s for that reason that I’m sitting here this morning, ruminating over the past two years, and the ongoing state of my health.

I still don’t know what’s going on in there. I have no diagnosis. Most days it’s healthier for me mentally to ignore it and just get on with living, than it is to focus on the uncertainty and feed my fear. I do need to get in to an E.N.T. and get some answers. It might not hurt as well to get another MRI done. Things can change over two years. But the most important thing right now is to be present with my son and with my wife. That’s true regardless of any prognosis. If I am sick, even if I’m dangerously ill, I want every moment to be spent in the present, not worrying about a future I can’t see, or living wrapped in my fear of the unknown. The future will work itself out. The present is what matters. At this moment, my son is six years old. He learns more every day than I could have imagined. He lost his first tooth last month. He read his first sentence last week, “Dots, dots, and more dots,” sounding it out letter by letter until he got the whole meaning. It was beautiful. He is beautiful.

My wife and I are learning more about ourselves and our spiritual journey than ever before. Through the writings of Rumi, Deepak Chopra, Robert Pirsig, Eckhart Tolle, Annie Dillard, David Whyte, David Chilton Pearce, Paramhansa Yoganada, Joseph Campbell and many others we’re freeing ourselves from the constraints of religion and beginning for the first time to become people of spirit and life. It’s exciting and it’s freeing. And there is no time or place in this journey for fear. I have no regular job. I spend my time studying, writing articles and ghostwriting for friends and colleagues, managing, consulting and booking bands, and producing records for musicians I know and respect. And that’s just what I did yesterday. Who knows what today will bring.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Memoir - The Arts, The Music Industry, The Future

My friends have always been artists. I have always had a special relationship to the arts, and the ability to somehow communicate with and understand the artist in a way that the rest of society cannot. Perhaps it’s the Androgen wash. Maybe it’s just sensitivity to the same concerns, but throughout my life I have found myself as an advocate and encourager for the artist in society.

I “managed” my first band when I was eighteen. At the time all this really meant was scheduling a show for them at a nearby coffeehouse and coming up with the sound equipment for the show. They were a punk band called “Jeremiah & the Cuties,” and they were all friends of mine. We all volunteered time at a coffeehouse ministry run by a local church. The place catered to the youth of the city, and at the time (in the early 90’s) was the only all-ages place that stayed open late in downtown Boise. We opened at 7pm and stayed open until 4am, or whenever people finally cleared out. All the kids who couldn’t get into the bars would hang out there and drink bad coffee, and the bar-goers all came by when they closed up at 2am. That hour between two and three in the morning was always sketchy, when the two crowds would meet and have to make room for each other.

Although it was run by a church, there wasn’t a great deal of proselytizing taking place there, it was really just a hangout. The coffee was bad, the service was too, but no one cared because it was the only place of its kind. It lasted for a couple years, and in that time was a real landmark for the youth culture, and especially the street culture of the city.

Jeremiah and I came up with the idea of putting on a show there. He was new to Boise, a Native American from Alaska who’d just moved to town with his mother. He played punk and metal guitar, and he couldn’t sing well, but he could scream for days. The band had just formed as a trio, Jeremiah on guitar and vocals, and two brothers, Matt and Jack, on bass and drums. Somewhere I still have cassette tapes of their early rehearsals.

I’m not sure how we did it, but somehow we got permission from the city to block off a portion of the street in front of the café. It sat right in the heart of Downtown Boise, but at the end of a cul-de-sac where the city had closed off Eighth Street when they put in a five-lane interstate connector. We put up barricades, and erected a small stage out of plywood and two-by-fours. Someone borrowed a small sound system, and I managed to set it up without breaking it or blowing the speakers.

We cranked it up as loud as we could, and put on what was likely Boise’s only free, outdoor, punk show before then. We probably had about thirty or forty kids, all in combat boots and duct tape, pierced and stapled, moshing and abusing each other in the street for an hour. And everyone had a blast. We caught someone selling LSD in the bathroom and kicked him out. I don’t think the café made a dime during that time because everyone was pretty much giving stuff away, but it made an impression, and beyond the quaint notions of getting people into church or getting someone “saved,” I know that there were friendships made that day that actually provided at least a couple of people with paths to get off the street.

When the curfew came and we had to shut down, no one wanted to quit so we packed the gear up, loaded everyone in the back of a few pickups, and drove up the hill to the giant empty warehouse the church owned. It was a converted supermarket, and was basically just a giant box of a building. We set up inside there and continued the show until the wee hours. As far as I know nothing was stolen.

From that time, and actually starting before then, I consistently cultivated close relationships with musicians and artists. I wasn’t a musician myself, and although I sang in the school plays as a kid, I had not actively participated in the arts for years. But there was something there, some connection that allowed me to not only understand what they were saying, but to communicate it to others in a way that facilitated understanding and cooperation. It was innate. Part of it was my understanding of the business. During this time I was already working in Radio and had some knowledge about the “industry.” Mainly I’d just read a trade publication or two, or I happened to have actually seen a copy of “R&R” (Radio & Records magazine), but that was more than anyone else, so it qualified as industry knowledge.

I worked with musicians, put on a few shows and eventually decided there was nothing going on there I couldn’t do as well. I bought an old “Carlos” guitar from a room-mate for forty bucks and had my friend Joe show me some chords. The first song I learned was “Shooting Star” by Bad Company. It was just C, D, G, with an F thrown in that I skipped for the first few months. I took that guitar with me to Hawaii in 1993, and when I moved back to Boise a year and a half later, I knew how to play it.

During the time I was gone, the church I’d been a part of had grown considerably, bought a new building and was now one of the largest churches in the area. My good friend Casey, who had been the underling to the Worship Pastor, was promoted when the other guy started a recording studio, and the fringe musicians I’d been hanging out with when I left were now established and doing their own work. There were performance venues in town that hadn’t existed a year before, and a thriving coffee-house music scene had sprung up that would eventually spawn a number of artists now touring nationally. It was a different place, and I related to it differently. I joined Casey’s band as backup singer and acoustic guitarist, and within six months started my own band, playing in front of fifteen hundred to two thousand people every Sunday morning.

It was a baptism of the kind unavailable to musicians outside the church. Anyone else at my age, with my experience, would have been playing to tiny crowds, and with sub-standard gear, slogging away in obscurity. We had a built-in fan base (small and insular though it was), and played every week on state-of-the-art gear for a listening crowd. Of course there was very little “artistic freedom,” we had to play the songs the church wanted to hear. But there was great creativity, it was a progressive church, and the music we played on Sunday morning wasn’t too different from what we were playing in the coffee-houses on Friday and Saturday night. We had no idea how good we had it.

And so it went for a few years. I went away to Switzerland for most of 1996, where I continued to perform and lead songs in a church setting, but where I also began to write some of my own music. I returned to Boise late that year with a couple new songs in my pocket, and a serious desire to get out and start playing around town. I convinced a coffee-house owner to let me play on Friday nights, and for a while I had the house gig there all to myself. I formed a succession of bands and performed regularly in the summer festivals and fairs in the area. We even recorded a CD in 1999, a four song EP recorded in one day, and produced for about $500. I made two hundred copies myself, burning each disc on my computer; designing, printing, cutting and assembling each cover and jewel-case. Each one was signed and numbered, and all two hundred sold within a few months. It got some local airplay (on the station I worked for), and one of the songs charted on “,” a site that’s now gone, but was the first of its kind for digital music at the time. They were small victories, but it was heady stuff at the time.

For the next few years, and through many changes, I continued to write and perform my own songs. In addition to my own performing, I continued to act as a liaison between the artist and the culture. Upon returning from Switzerland, I developed a curriculum for the church, teaching adult education classes on the Arts, Worldview, and Critical Thinking. I was specifically working to educate the general population about the value of the arts to their everyday lives, as well as teaching artists how to relate to the world and their culture in ways that could be understood and appreciated.

Over time my wife and I transitioned away from the traditional church. I have many friends who remain disappointed with our decisions. Had I gone the standard “Christian Music” route, I would almost certainly have got some big “deal” along the way, and would probably be touring and supporting my own music, playing in churches for people who all believe the same thing, reinforcing that isolation. It wasn’t for me, from the start I knew that. One of my friends let me know how disappointed he was with me because, had I stayed at that church, I’d now be the “Worship Pastor,” making a very comfortable salary, with benefits and a 401K. I’d have “security.” As it is, I’ve gone from job to job, from career to career, and always tried to write my songs along the way. I won’t say that kind of security isn’t appealing, but I won’t do it differently.

I spent the last two and a half years as Tour Manager and Personal Assistant to the band Over the Rhine. I worked closely with the two founding members of the band, a husband and wife who have been writing their songs and performing them for over fifteen years. In the junkyard that is the Music Industry, they are one of the few minor level success stories. Which simply means they have been able to fashion a life for themselves, and to actually make a living at their music without either going broke or breaking up. That’s saying something.

Over the time I spent with them, I did a lot of jobs. Tour managing is an all-consuming pursuit. Basically the job description is: “Everything.” Everyone works for you. Your band, your crew, the musicians, the local crew, the venue personnel, even if they don’t work for you, you have to treat them like they do to get the job done. I was told that I did this job very well, in fact more than a couple of touring veterans said they’d never seen it done better.

I realized recently that my greatest value to Over the Rhine was not as a Tour Manager, or running their local office. It was not in securing distribution deals or in making sure they got paid. I think my greatest contribution to them was in the form of encouragement. I saw what they were doing, and I was able to encourage them in ways that actually inspired them to continue. I never related to them as a fan, but as someone who “got it,” who understood what they were driving at, and could help them refine, clarify, and better state their goals in order to more fully achieve them. I see now why I was constantly troubled with regard to my “job description” with them: they thought they needed a Tour Manager. And they did. And in me, they saw someone capable, someone bright and quick to adapt, who was able not only to do that job, but do it well. They had someone who not only could manage their touring machine, and get their business affairs largely in order, but who could do so while at the same time providing great encouragement and inspiration. I think it was a win/win for a while.
But I began to sense that we were at cross-purposes. As things got better, as the songs got played on the radio, and the guarantees got bigger, and musicians left and were replaced… as things grew, we got further from where we started. I could see clearly that “success” for the band, in terms of money and exposure, meant that I would be less involved in doing what I truly loved, and more involved in the daily drudgery, the business of it all. What I loved was talking with them about their art, helping them see the need and application for it, and reflecting back to them what they were giving off in such a way that they could do it better, with more focus and greater purpose. I think I loved this not so much because I loved them and their art in particular (although I did), but because that’s who I am. I love doing that for anyone.

I work now with several different bands and artists on several different levels. I have turned down invitations from internationally touring acts to manage and book them because I just can’t stomach the thought of diving headlong into that world again. I work closely with several friends, advising them on aspects of their careers and giving them help where they need it. In some cases they pay me for this work, but for the most part it’s just relational. And I enjoy that
immensely. Unfortunately it doesn’t pay the bills.

Yesterday I stumbled upon an idea that might make some sense: I’m thinking of starting a consulting business for musicians and artists. Something along the lines of “Music Industry Consultant and Artist Coach.” I’m not interested in managing artists or bands, taking a percentage of their earnings (which are usually scant) in exchange for some nebulous agreement to make them bigger and more famous. That almost always plays out as some Svengali relationship where the manager seeks his own interest, and the band is lucky if that translates into theirs as well.

The music industry is a mess. The labels are disappearing, either due to consolidation or atrophy. Digital music is going nuts, but the industry seems dumbfounded as to how to make any money off it. They lament the death of the industry, but ignore the fact that more new music is hitting the marketplace than ever before. And in that picture is arising a whole new landscape of independent artists, who understand how to market themselves, to get their music on the internet and into the hands of fans through iTunes and other digital delivery portals. There are sites like DiscRevolt, where fans can buy download cards at the show, and that night they can download the show they just heard off the Web. There is so much creativity going into the marketing and promotion of music right now, and every day less and less has anything to do with the traditional structures of labels, and managers and agents and publicists.

I think there’s a role I could play here, helping those artists to focus their energy in ways that are meaningful and productive. Many of these people are completely willing to do the work themselves; they just don’t know where to begin. My friend Pete hires me occasionally to do publicity work for his band, not because he’s not capable of doing it, but because, when he picks up the phone or creates a new email, his mind goes blank before the vast expanse of numbers and people and places he could be calling and emailing and sending things. Which is most important? What is crucial today?

Working with artists in this way, I think I could provide a valuable service, and maybe even make a living, while not leeching off their creativity and tying my financial health to their artistic output. Why has no one ever realized what an unrealistic and unhealthy proposition that is? I can offer my services as a consultant, for an hourly fee with no strings attached, give them the clarity they lack, and a push in the right direction, and then they’re on their way. If they need follow-up help, either by phone or in person, that can be part of the agreement. But they’re not signing over fifteen percent of their gross earnings to me for some service I may or may not ever be able to perform.

It’s crucial to me that any services I provide for artists (for anyone for that matter) not tie them down. I’m tired of the compromises where we do what we “have to” do, recognizing that it’s killing us, but chalking it up to the “greater good” or at least the need to put food on the table. Artists enter into usurious deals with shady managers and agents and outright crooks in the hopes that this well-connected sleazebag will at least grow their enterprise while he rips them off. It’s a given in the industry. And the few artists that know their way around, who can read a contract and not get dizzy, are forced by the nature of the business to become assholes themselves just to deal with the people that are supposed to be working on their behalf!

I can’t function like this, and I won’t. I would sooner give up on the industry and go flip burgers than to spend my time and my energy arguing with people, and working to make sure my ass is covered. I’m not interested in working with people I can’t trust, and I’m not interested in cultivating anything untrustworthy about myself. I believe that I can function in this world in a way that is mutually beneficial to all involved. I believe that there is no-such thing as scarcity, that there is enough to go around for everyone, enough money, enough power and influence, enough resources, enough food, enough space, and air, and hope for all of us. And I believe that the way toward finding and promoting this great wealth of resources is through generosity and honesty.

I’m still far from working out all the kinks in this plan, but I’m considering the creation of a new pricing structure for my services from now on. Not just for my consulting or coaching services, but for everything I do from the cost of the CD’s I sell to the amount I charge for a performance, to my hourly fee for carpentry or writing services. Recently I came across the concept of “Not-Just-For-Profit.” There’s a website:, that lays out this idea; business as means of building social capital and creating other kinds of wealth. It’s based on the idea that profit, in and of itself, is not bad, but there’s a balance to be struck between greed and the fear of money. As it says on the website, “money is like fire, it can warm you, or it can burn you.”

For a long time I’ve been thinking about this idea of fair commerce, of an economy that is not based on scarcity but on the belief that there is enough to go around, and that my success is not contingent upon someone else’s failure, my “wealth” (in whatever form) is not dependent upon another’s poverty. To that end, I’m working on a new system of fair transaction built around several factors, including: The value of my services to another, the actual cost of living for my family, and the state of that person and their ability to pay. For instance, this might mean a scenario where I actually post online my budget and my projected living costs, in much the same way that a non-profit or a corporation would make their financial dealings public to shareholders, I would simply disclose what it actually costs me to live, and why. I would price my services fairly to start, but then would include some provision for those who could not afford them.

For instance, if my monthly budget were $3,000: I would state where that money is going, $300 a month for food, $600 a month for rent, and so on. And then would state that once my monthly expenses are covered, I really don’t need anything more. I would factor wisdom into the budgeting, so saving for the future, for my son’s education, for retirement would all be in there. Insurance costs would be included, including life insurance to cover my family if something should happen to me. I’m not talking about just giving my money away, but about acknowledging that while I have certain legitimate needs, to become obscenely wealthy is not one of them, but the care of the less fortunate around me is.

So, within that system, once my monthly expenses are covered, there would be a plan for the use of any income beyond that. For instance, you might say that for every dollar above my expenses (profit), twenty-five percent would go to charitable contributions, twenty-five percent would go toward subsidizing the cost of my services for musicians or artists who could use them but cannot afford them, twenty five percent would go toward a “rainy-day” fund for when the industry changes, or the business collapses or other “unknowns;” and the final twenty-five percent might be returned to my clients in some form of credit or rebate, in other words, the more people are supporting the business, the less it costs everyone. This is just a hypothetical, and of course it would require a lot of fleshing out to ensure that it’s fair and takes as many variables into account as possible. But the idea is there. An economy of generosity, of concern, of humanity.

I think this is a way to make a difference, to structure my life and my future so that I am leaving behind something more than I brought with me.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Middle of the Street

Most mornings I walk to my office about 5am to start this work of writing. I am not a morning person (far from it) but once up, I love being up and outside at that hour. In this grey city it seems it’s the only time it’s ever truly beautiful, or at peace. This morning a fingernail of a waning crescent moon hovered over the houses to the southeast and cast a dark and surreal glow on the neighborhood. The sounds from the freeway and the factories along it never really stop, but at that hour they are at least at ebb tide.

When I walk the streets in the early morning hours I walk right down the middle of the street, almost never on the sidewalk. Occasionally I have to move for a passing car, some other early rising soul headed to work, and I think about where they’re going at this hour, what job they do that inspires or requires such early devotion as to rise before the sun and leave family, home, to set out before the rush hour. I walk down the middle of the street, down Courtland Avenue in the stillness walking West, and at the end of Courtland six blocks ahead of me is Allison Elementary school with its giant lighted cross on top. It shines there like some celestial presence over this backwater Appalachian neighborhood. It lights the street in the pre-dawn like a moon, like a star, and on mornings like this, where the real moon is just peeking through and about to become new, it is nearly the only light in the dark morning sky.

I started walking in the street on winter’s day when the snow made the sidewalks impassible. The largest snowfall of the winter dropped only about four inches this year, but it was enough to make these old city sidewalks a maze of ice and snow. I walked that snowy morning in the tracks of the only car that had yet traveled that road, and I marveled at how walking in the street changes your view of a neighborhood. Walk the sidewalks and you walk with your head down, watching for the cracks. You walk with a closed mind, pointed inward, and you don’t see. But walk in the street and there are no cracks to avoid. You walk with your head up because you can see. No branches block your view, no fences hide what’s around the corner. You are impartial between the houses on either side, in no-man’s land, an observer. And you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see. On snowy days you could almost believe the white expanse covered something other than concrete, and that you were somewhere other than in a city of two million people that will soon come to life in all its noise and pollution and tension and strife. On a spring day walking in the street allows you to actually see the trees and the flowers in the few yards that have them. You’re out of the forest and can have some perspective, and just that small change removes the stifling claustrophobia a nature lover feels when trapped in the city. There is sky overhead and the buildings, while still surrounding you, are held just a little at bay. It was necessity that first drove me into the street by now I walk it by choice, whenever I get the chance.

I am amazed how dark it is this morning. Only two weeks ago the moon shone full on a new snowfall and it felt like mid-day before sunrise. I could imagine at the poles, where the sun never sets in summer, how light it must be all the time with that midnight sun shining on the ice fields. But today, it is early March. Spring hovers like the wafting aroma of a good meal and all of Cincinnati licks its chops at the prospect. Yesterday it was sixty-two degrees, and despite a brief cold afternoon rain it was a glorious sunny day. We will almost certainly get one more cold snap before the warmer weather truly settles on the Queen City, but at least today we have hope. Cincinnati can be dreary. When we moved here a friend told me what to expect: “About two weeks of a beautiful spring, followed by three months of hot, oppressive heat and humidity, then another two weeks of gorgeous Autumn followed by seven months of grey, dreary cold.” He wasn’t far off. Cincinnati is made for the transitional seasons. Before coming here, I heard Cincinnati was in the Midwest and though of the great Midwestern winters with snow and ice storms and power outages and shoulder high snowdrifts. Turns out Cincinnati, in the furthest southwestern corner of Ohio, shares its weather more with Kentucky and Tennessee than it does even with the rest of the state. A large cold front will come in and dump five or six inches of snow on Cleveland and Columbus, it may even hit Dayton just forty-five minutes to the north, but it will leave Cincinnati untouched. Here we sit in the Ohio River valley, a weather no-man’s-land, either the southernmost Northern city or the northernmost Southern city in the United States, but mostly in twilight.

Today will be rain. Right now it’s warm outside, warm enough at six am for the trees to be fooled into budding and the tulip bulbs to foolishly poke their heads out in search of the sun. By tonight two inches of rain will have fallen as a cold front moves in, and by tomorrow we’ll be lamenting the return of the cold. But before then, the sun is about to rise on a beautiful false spring day. Out my window to the East I see the sky lighten and grow orange. The birds are singing outside and the snow is gone everywhere except in the woods by the tracks, where the sun can’t yet peek through to root it out. A beautiful morning is a thing of wonder; blessed, and nearly enough to make a person forget what a place is like the rest of the time. All the metaphors, hope, the dawning of a new day, are apt. This morning all those old clichés are new again and their truth seems fresh and unspoiled.

Out the window the houses are the same, their paint still chipping off and rotting, their porches and foundations still sagging and cracking. The giant old cathedral next door is still slowly falling down, its slate tiles occasionally crashing to the ground, and the rain carving and smoothing and shaping its once sharp lines into softer curves and wrinkles. But any minute now the first rays of the morning sun will shine brightly on its copper dome, and the green will reflect through the neighborhood like the leaves that will soon spring from the trees toward the light. Right now everything is potential. That’s the best time, better even than when it comes, when you know the life and change and the renewal are all there, just bundled tightly inside, and needing only the light of the sun to set them free.

Spring is on its way. It’s not here yet, but neither is it far off. It’s been a long winter, and we’re all ready for it, the trees, the birds, and the earth, all of us. In my own heart I cultivate this renewal, and am thankful for my awareness of it this year. It’s more than just metaphor; it is life. I have been dormant for too long, and I am ready for new life. No, it’s not here yet, but it’s coming. I can taste it.