DOMINOS FALLING …

To this very day, it still ranks as my favorite job: delivering Dominos pizzas, in west Texas, in the late 1980s.

I got to drive around for a few hours a night, listen to music, nobody bothered me and I went home with cash in my pocket. 30 years later …I would happily take a night like that. Anyway …

My manager was a man who wallowed in vices. He lived hard and drank hard and partied hard and did everything hard. And he was the patron saint of most of the strippers in town. He would make sure they had pizza when they needed it. I can’t tell you how many free pizzas I delivered  to some single mom in a trailer park, who smelled like french perfume. He was the pagan with the heart of gold.

I was a 20-year-old, rosy cheeked, fresh faced kid who had never tasted alcohol or been to a topless bar or woken up in Vegas, wondering what day it was and where all my money went (I have since done all of those things …but I digress). He liked to pick on me. A lot. Once he found out my dad was a preacher, he pretty much tried to embarrass me from the time I clocked in till the time I clocked out. He didn’t succeed. I wasn’t the innocent little snowflake he thought I was. So he kept upping his game.

One night, I was closing with another guy, when we got a call for twelve pizzas. It was the manager, himself. He requested that I (me) specifically deliver them and that I was to clock out before I left. So, I made the pizzas, clocked out, and drove to the address. I could hear the music from the street. Clearly, this was a serious party. Pizza delivery guys are used to that.

I ran up the steps to the apartment, with all twelve pizzas in my arms, and rang the bell. Everyone inside got really quiet. And I felt a little surge of adrenaline. What was going on in there? Suddenly, the door opened and I stepped through. Some unknown person started taking pizza boxes off my hands, and my vision cleared. My eyes adjusted to something I couldn’t believe. And I heard the words ring out, in unison, “pizza boy!”

There, standing before me, were no less than twenty women, ALL nude (or half nude), with their arms in the air, as if in some celebration. The room was awash in bare breasts and bikini bottoms. My twenty-year-old eyes were struggling to make sense of it all. My manager (clearly drunk at this point) yelled, “I’m making a man outa you tonight, Hamm!” He didn’t know …I already was one.

Suddenly, the rowdy ladies started chanting, “Hickey! Hickey! Hickey!” I wasn’t sure what that meant. But suddenly they surrounded me and moved me to the center of the room. I couldn’t move, unless I wanted to start slugging people (and I did NOT want to start slugging people. This was just getting good). Then, all the ladies started groping and grabbing me all over and pressing their nakedness into me. Just as I was certain this was the greatest single night of my life, I felt something sting on the back of my neck. “Ouch!” I said, instinctively.

“Shut up, pizza boy!” came a short, angry reply.

Then I felt another one on the side of my neck. I started wincing and trying to get free. These seductresses weren’t just groping me, they were all trying to give me a hickey. They were aggressively biting my ear lobes and neck and it was starting to hurt. This party suddenly went from fun …to NOT fun. I was pulling away and trying to maneuver out of their grasp. But they pushed in and got a little violent. And I realized they were actually laughing and taking pleasure in making me wince. I started feeling a little like meat being nibbled on. And as weird as it sounds, coming from a man, I didn’t like this anymore.

I was always taught to never man handle a woman. I didn’t want to be the aggressor, but I forced them off me. And made it clear that I wasn’t enjoying this particular part of the evening. But instead of letting me go, they all pushed me backward through the living room, into the bedroom, and tossed me on the bed. Before I knew what was going on, one of them had straddled my neck where I couldn’t breathe or see. And then I felt someone undoing my belt and pants. As exciting as the evening had started, it had taken a decidedly “Clockwork Orange” kind of turn. My manager was yelling that I couldn’t leave until I had sex with one of the women. There were crazy strobe lights flashing and the music was so loud I could barely hear them laughing and deciding which one of them was going to have me first.

I knew all these people were drunk and/or high and they weren’t thinking straight. As much fun as the prospect of having sex with a room full of strippers SEEMS, when it is actually presented to you, you might find that the ladies in question present a situation you don’t really want to “insert” yourself into. I was as biologically stimulated as any 20-year-old would be. But I was able to think clearly enough to keep two things in mind: first, if I went through with this, the manager would have something on me forever. He would always be able to say, “remember that night with those strippers?” And I don’t like being owned. Second: sure, he could order me to do anything he wanted, but I’m not getting Chlamydia for any pizza manager on earth. So with those two things in mind, I pushed the women off me, apologized for not obliging and headed for the front door. They all boo’d and laughed as I left.

I’ve remembered this night in many different ways throughout the thirty years since it happened. I used to look at it as some sort of opportunity lost. Then I’ve seen it as a bullet dodged. Now that I’m older, I see it in much clearer terms. These were broken women, probably taking out a lot of abuse done to them …on me. I probably represented some innocence lost; some damage not yet done. Now, when I look back on that event, I actually feel sorry for them and I’m glad I didn’t participate in any further damage to them.

But there’s another issue that looms from that night. In the absence of context or human dynamic, what happened to me (in the strictest sense) was sexual assault. Yes, I was attracted to the naked women. Yes, I was excited at the prospect of what the night might’ve held. But when you strip it down (no pun intended) I was technically, physically assaulted.

Has it harmed me emotionally in the long run? Other than occasionally being skittish in a room full of west Texas strippers, not even a little bit. It was drunk humans being drunk humans. And we didn’t have names or titles or grievances for such behavior back then. We just laughed and moved on. Did my manager have the power over me? Only to the extent that I wanted to deliver pizzas for Dominos. Did I have a lawsuit against Dominos? I fear that these days …I would. And in some ways, that is disturbing.

Rape and sexual assault are serious issues. But I wonder how much of what we’re deciding is “assault” is really assault? The rough and tumble of human sexuality trying to find its way is a complicated thing. Men and women are created in direct opposition: women are designed to protect an egg and to discriminate in the extreme when it comes to who gets to fertilize that egg. Men, on the other hand, are designed to fertilize eggs at all costs. Those two primal drives are in constant conflict …and they always will be. They bring men and women together …and they break them up. And when sex is also a national pass time, weirdness is bound to ensue.

Is someone walking through a room naked, assault? What if a film maker puts an unexpected nude scene in a film? Is THAT assault? If you see something you didn’t want to see, have you been assaulted?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing sex offenders. But the new, national conversation is deciding what constitutes a sexual offense. And those definitions are largely being framed by women. And I, for one, wonder if some of this couldn’t just be solved with a slap or a good old fashioned drink in the face.

I can tell you from first hand experience, that on a hot, west Texas night, men can be held against their will just as easily as women. And THEN what? Do we make drunken pizza managers resign? How about inappropriate congressmen? How about foul-mouthed comedians who told us who they were from the beginning? How about presidents?

I don’t know how we reconcile all this. But maybe we should start by being honest about our humanity and our sexual nature. And that one man’s inappropriate comment about a waitress is another woman’s reading 50 Shades of Gray in public …in front of children. And that being raped isn’t the same thing as being made to feel uncomfortable about a comment or a joke. And that it’s okay to tell your boss to put on some damn clothes …or tell a rock star comedian, you’re leaving the hotel room because you’re not into it …or that you’re not screwing a stripper just because you’ve been ordered to.

Sometimes, in such a complicated world, it might just be as simple as that.

 

R

ALL THE KING’S HORSES …

The part where they let the horses try to figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, always bothered me.

They honestly should’ve left the horses out of it. It was clearly a waste of time. Unless there’s something we were never told in the narrative, about those horses, they should’ve let the the PEOPLE have the first crack at it. It might’ve saved Humpty’s life. Honestly, letting the horses be the first to try and put the man back together, might’ve actually been the fatal mistake. And still, after all these years, we just say it like it’s nothing. But I’m over here like, “move those stupid horses out of the way and call a doctor! OF COURSE all the kings HORSES couldn’t put him back together! THEY’RE HORSES!”

Anyway …

These are the things that bug me at 2 in the morning. How we allowed a nursery rhyme to never be challenged, when it clearly contains information IN IT that might lead to a solution, is what I’m thinking about in the wee hours. Sometimes, when you’ve just had enough of reality that doesn’t make sense, you start obsessing over fantasies. Maybe we can fix those. Maybe they are fixable. Because the cold, hard truth doesn’t seem to be, anymore.

How many more times am I going to turn on a TV or open a social media platform and see that someone has gunned down a crowd of people, or run over unsuspecting pedestrians? I’m afraid to take my family anywhere, anymore.

I love my country. I love the idea of America. I love the idea of self-governance, self-reliance, self-determination, expanding economies, all- volunteer armies, free trade, free minds, private sector solutions …and hope. Hope is the thing I like the most about the idea of America. The belief that free people, not controlled by a king or a tyrant, can achieve things that were once thought to be impossible, is one of my favorite things out of all the things I like. I am an optimist when it comes to America and AmericANS.

But there is a dark cloud hanging over this country right now. And it has been for some time. Over the last couple of years, I’ve toured extensively from coast to coast. And even though the spirit of this country is strong and the people here are basically good, we seem to be in the throes of a collective depression.

It’s hard to explain, but our core is somehow rotting. I can’t put my finger on why or how this happened, but something is driving us mad.

When I was a kid, and my family was evangelizing the country, it felt like most people out there were unchurched. To me, WE felt like the odd ones. Now, it feels like pretty much everyone in this country is churched in some way. You can’t drive through a major, American city without seeing some mega-church interactive billboard, lit up on the side of the interstate; lights dancing, high-rez video clip of hip, young pastor gleaming, then morphing into the ad for the upcoming “worship event,” complete with flavor-of-the-month “faith-based” music star prepped to “share.”

Jesus and God and worship are everywhere. And yet we are still coming apart. I thought replacing night clubs with alters and pews would fix things. Clearly, I was wrong.

Then, of course, there is the ever-present gun control argument, that pounds our national psyche like that alarm clock we keep hitting the snooze button on and falling back asleep. As soon as there’s another shooting incident, it roars back to life with seemingly more volume than before.

Is it as simple as not letting people have access to guns? I sure wish it was. That would be such an easy fix. Then again, no one in this country is supposed to have access to heroin, either. And yet we have a heroin overdose epidemic. To my mind, something bigger than a referendum on the 2nd amendment is happening to this country.

It feels like we, as a nation, are trying to destroy ourselves. All of our “rushes” seem to have played out. Our collective brain is numb; numb from screens and TV dramas that wrap up in 30 minutes or an hour (or never wrap up at all), and pretty faith that doesn’t feel like anything, and casual sex that has no consequence, and words that never inspire or elevate, and leaders that blame and posture, and music that pounds but never soars, and education that teaches hows, who’s, and whats …but never the whys, and malls that all sell the same trinkets, clothes and chicken tenders, and cars that are safer, and flights that are quicker, and shaves that are closer, and computers that are faster. And in this constant, comfortable noise, the very essence of our collective soul is disappearing.

We are like babies that have been showered with the best toys, cribs, blankets and bottles …but are not being held and loved.

I don’t know what is happening in America right now. Maybe it’s as simple as the gun control people say it is. Maybe just putting your hand on a certain kind of weapon makes you suddenly want to go kill a lot of people. I don’t know. But the mass shootings and the overdoses and the protests every other day and the way it all plays out on social media, makes me feel more like this is a national problem of identity or a loss of faith …or a loss of hope.

In some weird way, I think a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump were clinging to that slogan, “Make America Great Again,” because they miss the country they grew up in and they were reaching for the last thing they could see that might somehow, bring it back. I understand that feeling. I want to believe that the future is better for my kids than it was for me. I want to believe that having opportunity and a shot at success and the freedom to rise and a frontier to chase and a faith in something higher, will be enough to keep my son from taking his own life one day, or deciding to end the lives of a room full of innocents. I hope it’s enough to keep someone else from ending his or his sister’s life, while they’re at a concert, or walking down the street, or sitting in a church.

I want to believe we can trust love and faith again.

But right now, it feels to me like we’ve fallen off our wall. And no matter what we do, no one seems to be able to put us back together again …especially the horses.

R

TRUE BELIEVERS …

Einstein once suggested that we really only have one thing to determine in our lives: do we live in a hostile or friendly universe?

The answer to that question will determine your whole outlook on everything; God, science, faith, love, race, commerce …everything. If you believe the universe is love-based, it will cause you to want more of it. It will drive you toward good. It will, at the very least, force you to seek light; redemption; love. On the other hand, if you believe the universe is cold, random and pointless, then why would any of that matter? We’re just carbon-based life forms with pesky brain-stems, trying to make sense of the randomness and pointlessness of it all.

In other words, you can either see the world like Tyler Durden (Fight Club) or Forrest Gump (Forest Gump).

I encourage artists (and people in general, really) to ask and answer this question for themselves, often. The answer to “am I a nihilist or do I have faith?” will affect and direct what you say to the world.

As for me? I was sent a teacher – an Asian shaman – to teach me about the meaning of life and unconditional love. And even though I’ve heard scripture preached as well as it can be preached by a human being, for my entire life, I eventually had to come to the realization of love and God and truth (and how it’s all tied together) on my own. I had to answer the question for myself: Is the universe good? I believe it is and I believe we can move toward love …if we will.

Once you believe something deep down, you act on it. You live by it. You don’t have to be told to do so. The rules, teaching you how to do it, don’t matter all that much anymore. It just emanates out of you. This is where we get the phrase “true believers.”

One of the things I’ve always admired about the United States founders was their Declaration Of Independence. They basically picked a fight with the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen. They STATED their grievances. Then they put their money where their mouth was …and fought to the death. In other words ….they believed.

When you see a news report about a radical Islamist killing innocent people in a western city, always remember one thing: that guy is putting his money where his mouth is. He’s evil and disturbed and I believe he’s on the wrong side of the argument. But he’s not just flipping off a country he hates and then asking it to validate his parking. He’s committing the murder of innocents out of his unwavering belief that they are NOT innocent. And he’s willing to die or go to prison because of that unwavering belief.

Much like the universe decision, Americans all eventually have to make a national decision as well: is my country basically good …or basically bad? Americans of all colors, races, genders, ages and religions have to come to terms with their country and what that country means to them. A lot of people are grappling with that very thing right now.

You eventually have to decide: is this MY home? Or is it not MY home? You have to decide if you’re going to be a part of what this country stands for or if you’re going to stand in opposition to it. The problem we are facing today is that a lot people have decided they don’t really like America …but they’re only willing to go so far in destroying it …because deep down, they actually DO like it. They just don’t want to admit it. Because it’s not cool these days to be patriotic. It’s sort of like the 25-year-old who acts like he hates his parents but still lives with them because he likes the free rent and food. And truth be told …he probably actually likes his parents.

That evil man who ran over those people in New York has no sympathy from me. I’ve made no bones about how I feel about ISIS. But at least ISIS tells you who they are …then acts accordingly. They believe something. And they live it without question.

The flag and the national anthem are sort of like a national prayer. This is the one moment in time when every person in our country – right or left, black or white, woman or man (or other), young or old, heavy or thin, rich or poor, gay or straight (or other) – stand, take off our hats, put our hands over our hearts, and show respect for our nation and the soldiers who have borne its battles.

In that moment we are all collectively saying, “I respect what the flag represents. I respect the ideals of our nation. I respect and agree with the idea of liberty and justice for all. I honor the fact that I did not achieve the gifts and freedoms I have, on my own. I understand that people have died for me and I acknowledge my responsibility to be an agent of the ideals and ideas they died for. I love my home. I honor it. I will teach my children to do the same. And I will teach them WHY they should do the same.”

When you stand for the anthem or say the pledge, THAT is basically what you’re saying: “I am an American. And I’ve decided my country is basically good.”

When you refuse to stand for the national anthem or the pledge, you are saying, “This country is basically bad.”

That’s actually fine. Nobody should force anyone (not wearing a Boy Scout uniform) to stand for pledges or anthems. But I hope people will think twice about what they are saying to the world when they “take a knee” for a nationally recognized moment. And think about what they are actually willing to give up or sacrifice for that belief.

Because true belief makes you act accordingly.

What do you believe?

What does that belief compel you to do?

What are you willing to sacrifice for that belief?

Einstein was right. And the question still stands …

R

MY RULES OF THE ROAD …

“You should blog about this,” is a phrase I read literally every week of my life. I get sent tons of news stories with attached pleas for me to put someone’s political agenda into the words they want to hear. Over my blogging career, I promise you this has happened at least a hundred times. But I have a few rules when I blog:

First, I have a (virtual) sign on my desk that reads, “no pejoratives.” In other words, I never call anyone a name in my writing. I don’t believe in name calling. I haven’t believed in it since I left the elementary school playground. It’s not because I’m some great, saintly person. It’s just because it doesn’t further a narrative. It doesn’t help an argument. It doesn’t convince anyone of anything. All it shows is that you can’t think of anything substantive to say. You can’t make your case. You’re having trouble with facts and figures. So you resort to what I call “the Alamo” of arguing: calling someone an “asshat” (or whatever the flavor-of-the-month name is at the time).

Also, name calling seems to take place in the most punitive and extreme ways, when people dismiss other people as human beings. “This bunch of idiots decided to …” is something you might see on your Face Book feed. A lot. Phrases like that cheapen the conversation and allow one group to so marginalize another group that they don’t have to deal with them as humans anymore. It’s how we widen the gaps between ourselves.

So, for me …NO name calling.

The other rule I have as a blogger is this: If I’ve seen or heard this point of view already, I don’t touch it. I’m not interested in reiterating something you or I have already read. It’s a waste of my time and YOURS. If it has already been said by MSNBC or FOX I won’t be saying it …at least not that way. If there’s a take from a slightly different angle, that’s what I’m looking for. If there are certain words or ideas that haven’t yet been applied to a certain subject, that’s what I’m chasing.

So, if you’ve sent me something to blog about, chances are I probably won’t do it for that reason alone. You’ve already seen it, read it or thought it. There’s nothing original there for me to say. And my whole reason for doing this is to say something original.

The final piece of my approach to blogging is this: I don’t get involved in political or religious sports. Right now, as I type this, some people on our current president’s election team have been indicted for something. The people who hate the president are frothing at the mouth and doing victory laps around the proverbial social network stadium. If, however, indictments get handed out to some on the other side of this equation, next week, the same thing will happen from the opposite side. And on and on it goes.

The “See?!?!?! I was right about you and your side!!!” back and forth is not only rancorous …it’s boring. The truth is we don’t know how this particular series of events is going to play out. But I’ll guarantee you it ends with both sides a little bloodied and embarrassed. Or maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe an event happens that tips the scales in favor of one side or another. Or maybe what one side thought was true is ALL completely false. Or maybe the other side was right. Or maybe no one was right.

Commenting on things in the news you don’t really know about, but support your political point of view, is dicey. You’re counting on PEOPLE to be what you think they are. This is why I’m more interested in ideas than people. It’s why I don’t publicly endorse political candidates I don’t personally know. It’s the same reason I don’t bet on horses. Horses break their legs when you least expect it. The “sure bet” gets distracted at the finish line. The “can’t lose” thoroughbred eats too many oats the night before and stumbles in last. If I don’t bet on noble animals, who are LITERALLY born to run fast, there is NO WAY I’m betting fragile humans, who are born to make mistakes.

You’re going to find out one day that people you thought were noble and well intentioned, did something selfish and crass and downright mean. That’s what humans do. You’re going to be sorely disappointed in someone you put a lot of faith in. You’re going to find out your minister made a pass at your sister or best friend …or both at the same time. You’re going to discover your congressman (or woman) didn’t support a bill you thought was a moral imperative. You’re going to find out your favorite president did something underhanded and mean for no reason. You’re going to find out your mom didn’t really make those cookies from scratch after all …they were from a can.

Yes, my friends, you’re eventually going to find out I, your humble correspondent, am not a saint. And then you’ll one day have to come to the horrible realization that …neither are you. And when you get to the bottom of that well, you find it easier to forgive human weakness. You find it less important to call people names. And you find yourself more interested in ideas and concepts than cults of personality. Because ideas keep us on the road, in between the lines. Ideas keep us focussed past our own humanity into something aspirational. Ideas drive us forward. People let us down.

I’m currently compiling my blog book, for the One Silent Night Kick Starter backers. When I read back over some of these posts, I’m happy to see that I was right about some things. But they were universal truths that were divorced from the personality du jour of the time. That’s where I want to stay. I certainly don’t ever want someone to see a post of mine come up in their feed and say to themselves, in an eye roll, “Okay, here we go. I know what THIS is going to be.”

The day that happens will be the day I stop doing this. I respect your time too much for that.

R

CHAPTER 1 …

Ben Chastain and the Lobby

The hotel lobby smelled like a memory …

The collision of perfumes, soaps and colognes traveling in on white skin and black skin and brown skin, mixed with the continually wafting exhaust ghosting in from the portico, created an ocean of residue; the remnants of places been and miles traveled. Even though smoking isn’t allowed in public buildings anymore, somehow cigarette smoke still found its way into the aromatic amalgam. And that was the ingredient; the trigger; that bite of a freshly smoked cigarette that brought on those strange sensations that whisper, “I’ve been here before.”

Settling like a cloud over the entire scent-scape, was always the faint suggestion of chicken ala something, emanating from one of the ball rooms. Food was the ever present reminder of the now and immediate.

The pungent whiskey and vodka drinks migrating from the bar, brought with them a sharpness that cut through the olfactory cornucopia, creating a strange brew of fragrances that could make you feel surrounded and alone all at the same time. It was that flash of memory so intense you can almost feel a different time and place, and yet the details escape you. It’s the dream you can’t remember …but wakes you up crying.

Ben Chastain played this odorous room five nights a week. He was familiar with every stick of furniture, every crease in every dark velvet curtain cascading from the ornate, arched vaults, every design pattern on every square inch of imported, designer print carpet. Ben had studied the marbling in the columns and stairs leading up to his perch, just inside the veranda. There was nothing about any seven to eleven set he didn’t know like the back of his piano hardened hands. But the smells …the smells sometimes took him somewhere; somewhere mournful and longingly melancholy, making his heart ache and his mind wander. And now, December twenty-third, they were pulling him back again to someplace he couldn’t quite remember …but couldn’t quite forget.

The memories of his mother coming in from Christmas shopping, with that sly smile on her face, washed over him. The warm remembrances of aunts and uncles and grandparents and fireplaces and sweet potato pie floated through his mind like the fog on the distant Tennessee mountains, rising across the river from his piano seat view. The smells of Christmas transported him to happier times …and sadder times. The bright, decorative, plastic representations of holiday cheer were easy enough to dismiss. But the smells …the smells affected him in ways he couldn’t explain.

Ben was hired to be musically ubiquitous at Christmas time. He was to be classic yet forgettable. Brilliant yet corporate. He was there to make the guests feel at ease and vaguely happy, but not quite compelled enough to linger. All his years of practice and perfectionism were now focussed on the singular goal of not allowing uncomfortable silences in a hotel lobby. He was to be interesting enough to make them want to listen, but not so interesting that they would stop talking or laughing …or drinking. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Ben, he was particularly adept at just this sort of thing. This time of year was festive. The music would have to reflect it. Ben could do it.

All of the usual Christmas standards were always on the playlist. But every so often Ben would sneak in a Chastain original, especially if the other two in his three-piece combo, were available. His self-penned, should’ve-been classic, “When I See A Christmas Tree” was reminiscent enough of other true classics, that it could sort of fit in between Baby It’s Cold Outside and Sleigh Ride without sounding too awkward. He had recorded it once, in hopes that it would catch on. But after enough time, it was clear that it would remain relegated to his playlist only.

When his drummer, Shawn Filmer, and upright bassist Matt Williams were playing along, the song sounded downright magical. But tonight it was just Ben. The management didn’t care as long as the room sounded like Christmas …whatever that sounded like. As much as Ben preferred having the band around him, he knew enough about major sevenths and augmented fifths to make almost anything “sound” like Christmas.

So, Ben Chastain’s fingers and voice kept the spirit of the season in the air, in the lobby of the Jacksonian Hotel, in Nashville, Tennessee. His 9 foot, black baby grand set against the reds and greens and holly arrangements and the oversized Christmas tree in the center of the grand entrance, made the place feel like a Christmas wonderland to all weary travelers, visiting grandmas and grandpas and sisters and cousins. The music would make them (and him) feel happy for a moment. But the song would end and his happiness would fade. Sometimes, the reality a musician faces in the silences between songs is what makes them get to the next one quickly. Ben Chastain was no exception and he was colliding with those realities more and more as every day passed.

Ben had turned 49 in October and was starting to feel the years in his hands. The constant beating of the ivories was taking its toll on a couple of arthritic fingers. Ben had never been a virtuoso in the truest sense, but he was always referred to as “soulful” or “interesting.” These days, he wasn’t as nimble on the keyboard as he’d been in younger days; the days when he was being touted as the next big thing. His effortless dexterity from a different decade was giving way to more settled and deliberate plodding. He took no chances. He broke no new ground. He played the chords and sang the melodies, collected his tips …and went home.

Christmas season gigs hadn’t always put food on the table for Ben Chastain. His mind would occasionally drift, on his breaks, to the good times. Nights filled with arenas and green rooms and catered meals were once on the horizon for him. He was close to touching it once in his twenties. But the birth of his daughter brought him back to reality and he took a job teaching middle school band students while he watched his friends move on to limos and luxury.

He could still vaguely remember what his tight, fresh face felt like when it smiled at audiences from the main stage. He could still hear the roar of the crowds. But now, the head full of thick, jet black hair, waving and bouncing and slightly caressing his collar, was almost all grey and thinning. The dashing gait of a young rock star was now a slower, more delicate saunter. But he remembered.

After this gig, Ben wasn’t sure what would pay the bills next. He had nothing lined up. No prospects. The phone wasn’t ringing. There were no bright horizons for almost 50-year-olds in the music business.

Ben stood in front of the men’s room mirror, preparing to go back out to cover tunes and disinterest, straightening his bow tie and tux jacket and tending to his out of place locks. His eyes were still the same …but almost nothing else was. Years take a toll. His once prominent cheek bones were now slightly plump. The square jaw that had once cut a striking silhouette was now the mere frame work for a softly sagging chin. The tight belly of his glory days was fuller and rounder and heavier.

Ben wasn’t a man who’d let himself go. His newfound physical traits didn’t belong to a man who had given up, they belonged to a man who was simply aging. And that bothered him the most. He was running out of time and it showed in his body. But he stared and remembered …and wondered where all the time had gone.

Most of all Ben thought about Christmas and where the magic of it had gone. At one time, it had been his favorite time of year. Now it was just another gig; just a different playlist. He pined for the days when it meant something special to him. But those days were long gone. Ben stared into the mirror and wished for them.

Tonight, his stare into the past was interrupted by the incessant nose blowing from the stall next to him. It had to be Jimmy Hackmon, the shift supervisor. Jimmy was a type A personality and a generally good natured jerk. He laughed too loud at his own jokes and lingered too long in your face to make sure you were laughing too. He was 30-something, physically fit yet mentally awash in managed chaos. His high-strung personality was enhanced only by his constant barrage of bad ideas. Everyone tolerated it but no one talked about it, hoping it would just go away. Ben looked down in disappointment as Jimmy emerged from the stall, wiping his nose.

“Can you believe allergies are killing me AT CHRISTMAS TIME, Bennie Chastain?! Thanks a lot Nashvegas. Bennie, Bennie, Bennie Chastain!!!” Jimmy shouted, a little too loudly, while shaking Ben’s shoulders as if to say, “way to go, man!”

Jimmy stood next to Ben and checked himself in the mirror. He was fidgety and restless and it made Ben a little uncomfortable standing next to a man who had so much pent up energy. So, he stepped slightly further to the right as if to avoid any bodily contact. Just then, Jimmy started in rapid-fire fashion …

“Bennie …we gotta get you doing shows for the conferences, man! You’re killer, dude! Seriously, can you do like Sinatra, Tony Bennet kinda stuff? I saw Michael Buble with mom last month …he was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G! Do you know Buble? Ever met him? You should try out for his band. You ever play in Denver? I saw Metallica there once. Totally different thing …but …DUDE! What if you did a whole show of Metallica songs Buble style?!?! DUDE! That would be saweeet! You could tour it WITH Buble himself!” Jimmy grabbed Ben’s shoulders again and shook them, then as he exited, he yelled back …”You gotta believe in miracles, man! Now Go do YO thang Bennie Chastain! Bennie and the Jetsssss!”

Ben stood for a moment and collected himself from the onslaught of ignorant incoherence. First of all, he hated being called “Bennie.” Ever since that infernal song had become a hit in 1974, he couldn’t remember a day when his name wasn’t followed by “the Jetssssss” by someone, somewhere. Ben had originally loved the song. After all, it was the reason he got interested in the piano in the first place. But now it was just a pavlovian nightmare hardwired into the brain of anyone who heard the name “Bennie.”

It might not have been so annoying if literally every single person who did it didn’t think they were the very first person to think of it. That, coupled with the abject lack of respect for what it would take to actually achieve anything that had just passed over Jimmy’s lips, was so off putting to Ben that he was stunned silent for a few seconds.

He splashed a bit of water on his face, re-adjusted his suit and hair and said to the mirror, “miracles don’t exist.” The obligatory politician smile he’d donned for Jimmy returned to his default expression of total indifference. Ben was now ready to go play his last 45-minute set of the night before Christmas Eve.

 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/562389442/one-silent-night?ref=user_menu

 

 

ONE SILENT NIGHT …

“Do great work and people will find you,” is what I used to tell myself. It was actually a lie. And I believed it for so long it created a weird muscle memory that has left me with a professional limp. Earning money in the arts has never been about doing “great work.” It has always been about something else. I constantly forget that.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of great work gets done by the popular kids. And some things are truly undeniable. Adele is popular AND great. There’s a list of great/populars too long to mention. This isn’t sour grapes. But I guess what I’m saying is you can be great without being popular and you can be popular without being great. The two don’t always go hand-in-hand. Whenever I see Mac McAnally playing guitar as a side man behind Jimmy Buffett, I always think to myself, “one of these guys is a genuine, American poet …and the other one is Jimmy Buffett.”

Again, I love Jimmy. But he makes millions of dollars a year for essentially one reason: he became the guy we drink margaritas to. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not about “the work” per se. It’s about something else.

We all want to believe our work is like Girl Scout Cookies …it’ll just sell itself. But that’s not always true. In fact, it’s mostly not true. And that’s the toughest part of making a living in the arts.

I’ve never made any bones about my mixed emotions when it comes to the entertainment industry. Being in the music business is like being married to a bi-polar, nymphomaniac, massage therapist, super model, who is a world-class chef, compulsive liar, who cheats on you while you’re at work, then cuddles with you naked …while pointing a loaded gun at your head. So many reasons to stay …so many reasons to leave …so many reasons for therapy.

One of the main things I’ve always hated about the music profession is “settle up” time. That’s the time when I have to charge someone for what I do. And I’ve never been great at it. I’ve never really known how to value any of it. And I’ve overcharged as much as I’ve undercharged. If you’re a recording artist, the hope is you’ll become so popular and have so many hits you won’t ever have to deal with that part of it. Springsteen never has to talk money with anyone. He pays people to do that for him. That way he gets to just be “The Boss” and act like it’s all for the love and the passion and the blue collar folk. The seven-figure-a-night price tag will be left to the suits to discuss. But rest assured, he won’t be on a last chance power drive at the end of the night. He’ll be quietly resting in a G-6, flying him back to his New Jersey mansion.

For those of us who didn’t strike enough three-chord truths in the hearts of the masses, the work entails wearing a lot of different hats. That means whenever I have an idea for something; a new record, a new book, a new whatever, I have to go out and find the funding for it. The good news is there are some really cool mechanisms out there to raise money for things. And I’ve taken advantage of them a few times. Now is no different. It’s that time again.

I’ve had a Christmas book written for a couple of years, now. I’ve also been chipping away at a Christmas CD for many years as well. I record a little bit here and a little bit there, whenever I have a few extra bucks to throw at a hobby. But as both unfolded, I started to realize they were both pieces of the same project. And so a Christmas experience was born: One Silent Night.

One Silent Night follows a washed up piano player, Ben Chastain, through a Christmas Eve odyssey that will change his whole perspective on his life, his music, his losses, his memories, and most of all …Christmas itself. Throughout the story, Ben plays and sings ten Christmas songs. I am essentially Ben’s fingers and his voice, throughout the story. So whenever the text calls for him to play a song …it’s me playing and singing.

I’ve had several TV networks express interest in this piece. I’ve had a lot of people hear certain parts of the record or read the book and cheer me on and say, “Awesome, man! Yes! Love it!” But I have yet to find anyone, anywhere who has offered to fund the project. So …here I go again into the world of “crowd funding.”

There’s a video attached to this piece that tells what I’m doing, why I need your help to get it done, and how you can easily be a part of it. And trust me …I wish I didn’t need your help. I prefer our relationship to be free of financial entanglements. But, alas …we can’t all be Jimmy Buffett or Bruce Springsteen.

So, if you feel so inclined, throw some support toward this story and record. I think you’ll be glad you helped it get out of my head and into the world. At least I hope you will. And if you decide not to help, that’s okay too. I get it.

Either way, thank you all in advance, and an early …Merry Christmas!

R

HOW TO BUILD A HARVEY …

“How did we get a Trump?” is the breathless question still being asked by tons of people too smart for their own good. If you really don’t know how we “got a Trump” you aren’t as “woke” as you might think you are. It’s all very simple, really. When people literally vote for DECADES, in hopes of having their elected officials (on BOTH sides) fix certain things; healthcare, immigration, North Korea, tax reform, radical Islamic terrorism, etc, and NONE of it gets fixed …ever …OR, it gets made worse, eventually the voters throw up their hands and say, “Fine! Let’s see if this asshole can get any of it done. We’ve tried everybody else. And all we got were transgender integrated toilets. What have we got to lose? Let the foul-mouthed, crazy Twitter guy take a shot.”

It is no more complicated than that. Every elected official who ever said to him or herself, “I’m not dealing with that right now. It’s too much of a hot button,” or “North Korea can be the next guy’s problem,” or “I tried all I could to get healthcare fixed …oh well, sometimes you just have to admit you can’t really do anything,” created the dirt from which a “Trump” grows. See, when all the sane, well-spoken, polished autocrats shirk their responsibility and play it safe, the PEOPLE will go looking for someone who won’t.

Again …for me, this always goes back to individualism: the minute you decide you’re not as important as the next person, you allow yourself the luxury of constant compromise. And when you do that, you abdicate your spot in the world. That always leaves room for an uncompromising person to take your rightful place. And they might not be as righteous as you. That’s why YOU are important.

The same mindset, fear and frustration that created a “Trump” also created a Harvey Weinstein. Let me explain …

I don’t get indignant over a lot. I offer a lot of grace to the human condition. I need that grace most of the time. But one thing I DO get downright fighting mad over is people who say they want to be in the arts, but who aren’t willing to bleed for it. The art life is not supposed to be comfortable and buttoned down. It isn’t supposed to be a retirement plan. Art isn’t an annuity. It’s supposed to be unpredictable and wild and tumultuous and uncertain.

If you aren’t willing to lose your house or pawn your wedding ring, please leave the arts now. You have no guts. You might have talent, but that’s just the beginning of a true artistic journey. Talent is merely the raw material needed to communicate your truth. TELLING your truth is a much bigger deal. And a much harder deal. Making something that is relevant and substantial and that reverberates, requires RISK …sometimes EXTREME risk. And the garden variety record executive or movie producer isn’t going to invest in or green light something risky.

In that aversion to risk …is where a Harvey Weinstein is built.

Harvey Weinstein was a Hollywood wild man (in more ways than one) and took risks for his projects. He produced everything from Doctor Doolittle to Kill Bill; Shakespeare in Love to Pulp Fiction. That is a lot of width and breadth and depth. He was a man who said “yes” to things and then put his money where his mouth was. People who say “yes” to art are harder to find than Faberge eggs resting on unicorn wings. Most people who are behind the business of artistic endeavors say “no” …a lot. And that leaves a void for people who say “yes” to come in and and own the moment.

The fear that built Harvey Weinstein and allowed him to flourish was extremely sinister yet extremely simple: “I want to be famous. I want to get my project funded and produced. HE will do that. All I have to do is look the other way or not say anything about this or act like it didn’t happen. The upside is worth it.” And it is no more complicated than that. If Harvey Weinstein had been a janitor from Queens, he would’ve been in prison years ago. But he had audacity and he would do what other people WOULDN’T do. And he would Get. Your. Movie. Made.

When you read about the super star who wanted to do a certain project for years, but they couldn’t “get it funded,” THEN you read (in the very next paragraph) that they have a $200 million dollar net worth, and you wonder to yourself, “why don’t they just put up the money themselves?” you’re getting closer to the answer. The answer to THAT question is the reason a Harvey Weinstein exists. No one will risk their own money when there’s a guy out there who will risk his. And hey …he might be a sexual predator, but apparently that’s the cost of doing business.

I haven’t worked with a record label in literally years. I don’t even walk inside them if I can keep from it. NO record label has ever funded a Regie Hamm project. My big artist record deal was actually a licensing deal. And I paid for the initial production myself (I still haven’t recouped my initial investment …but I digress). This isn’t me patting myself on the back. I just came to the realization, one day, that I was responsible for my art …not someone else.

The truth is I have a hard time being around “investors.” Most of the time they want to own as much as possible while risking as little as possible. That is good investment strategy. But it sucks when it comes to making art. Because you can’t look at art as JUST investment. You have to be willing to go out on the limb and roll the dice. You have to believe in the vision and then put yourself out there for it. If it goes over budget …it just does. If it takes twice as long …it just does. But it could be the difference in The Godfather and a made-for-TV movie of the week about a comical Italian family of olive oil dealers. Their catch phrase could be, “leave the oil …take the cannoli.” Not to worry. The laugh track will pull it all together.

And the world doesn’t have the Godfather.

When we as artists compromise to conform to “budgetary concerns of the label or studio,” we create a Harvey. When we refuse to take our own risks for our own work, we create a Harvey. When we refuse to stand up for what’s right because we are afraid it will torpedo the project – and there’s no place to go if THIS studio turns off the money faucet – we create a Harvey. When we are willing to sell our souls for a dream …we create a Harvey.

And when those behind the scenes treat the business of artistic endeavor like nothing more than a banking ledger …THEY create a Harvey. When they say, “this is a great project. But it’s just a little too risky for us,” THEY create a Harvey. When they operate out of fear instead of passion …THEY create a Harvey.

Because for every frightened executive out there who is actually a good person, with an opportunity to change the world, but is afraid to go out on the limb and risk something, there is also a broken, damaged, Harvey Weinstein who ISN’T afraid to go out on the limb, spend the money and get behind the project.

The difference is he might hurt a whole lot of people in the process.

R

HOMEWORK …

Homework …

I simply don’t believe in it. Never did.

I prefer organic learning. I like for kids to be kids. And I think eight hours of institutional learning is enough for anyone. When kids get home from school they should go outside and play. They should have free time to be themselves. And a day full of answers should be balanced with enough time to create some new questions.

But my son attends a school that doesn’t believe the way I believe. So he has homework …every night. I’ve told him many times that he doesn’t have to attend that particular school. He’s free to explore any school out there. But he has decided to stay where he is. And where he is requires homework. So he is required to do it.

Last year, we hit a wall with his homework situation. He wanted to attend the school but he didn’t want to do the homework. I tried every parental tactic known to man to get him to do it. I threatened. I punished. I rewarded. I timed. I scheduled. I even DID it for him a few times just to keep him caught up. But finally, I had a talk with him and informed him that I wasn’t in fourth grade. HE was. And if he wanted to flunk out and go through it all again, that was completely up to him. But I would no longer be responsible for his homework …even though I didn’t believe he should have to do it in the first place.

So, I took my hands off the wheel and let him fall or fly on his own. And something miraculous happened: he started doing it without prompting. He started getting better marks and he started taking ownership of it. This year, he does most of his homework on the bus home, and is usually done by the time he walks in the door. I’m always there to help him if he needs it. But I’m done controlling his scholastic trajectory. It’s been my experience that if you have to force someone to learn something, they’re not really learning anything at all. One of the four or five things I remember from my one year of junior college was this quote: “truth is caught …not taught.” I think that’s just about right.

Humans have a great need to control one another. Control of the masses is one of the driving forces behind most all religions. It’s the same with most all politics. It’s a deciding factor in how we set up our societies, create our laws and operate our commerce. We need to control other humans.

I left organized religion because of this very thing. I don’t much like being told what to do. It’s an issue I’ve spent my entire life working through. It also bleeds into my politics. I’m a proponent of fewer laws …not more. If I were in charge, we might unravel more stuff than we’d ravel. But that’s just me.

I’ve found that the same personality type that wants to check the bible every ten minutes to make sure you’re measuring up spiritually, usually wants to create laws that make sure you’re measuring up legally …or socially. The hip, uber-informed politico, who scoffs at the church-lady-type mentality of religion (mainly Christianity) controlling people’s morality, will often try to achieve the same kind of control over human behavior through legislation or the courts. They’re really just two sides of the same coin.

We witness atrocities like the Vegas massacre and we think to ourselves, “if we only had this or that law, none of this would’ve happened. We can control this!” OR we say, “if people would just pray, follow Christ and adhere to his teachings, none of this would’ve happened. We can control this!” I fear neither is true.

Some believe if we could just get the right laws in place, we could affect the climate. No more hurricanes or tornadoes. Maybe the right healthcare plan could keep people from dying. Maybe the right president could keep us from having to experience war or atrocity. Maybe …

Some, on the other hand, think that maybe if we pray hard enough we can keep that twister from wrecking our home. Maybe thoughts and prayers will slow the spread of that cancer. Maybe if America just turns to God again, girls won’t get raped and boys won’t kill each other anymore. Maybe …

But neither of these things has seemed to work in all of human history. And it’s a horrifying day when you finally come to grips with how much control you DON’T have.

Despite my ardent Libertarianism I DO believe in smart laws and well placed regulations. And I’m always willing to listen to anyone who has a specific idea on how to better our existence or make us safer. But more often than not, in the wake of horrible tragedies and unthinkable disasters, people simply lash out at their own lack of control rather than finding real solutions to real problems. And that is completely understandable.

The irony about an event like Las Vegas is that someone who shoots into an innocent crowd, is probably doing so as an attempt to gain some kind of control they’ve never had. Most violence is an attempt to control. Most wars are as well. And when this is all said and done, we’re most likely going to find that the person responsible simply – underneath it all – wanted control of something.

We have been arguing about people standing for the National Anthem on football fields. But do we really want them to do something THAT sacred, against their will? Do we want them to find their own love of country voluntarily? Or do we just want to control them?

You can force your kids to do their homework. But you cannot control whether or not they learn. You can make a marriage vow. But you cannot control your spouse …and sometimes, not even yourself. You can say a pledge to a flag. But you cannot make someone else do it or want to do it. You can lower your carbon footprint. But you cannot control the wind and the rain. You can make heroin illegal. But you cannot control the addiction that it brings. And no matter how righteous your war on drugs may be, people still get them, use them and overdose on them. How has our attempt to control it worked out? And yes, you can make it next to impossible for someone to legally obtain a military style weapon. But you cannot control the heart and resolve of a madman.

There’s a certain freedom that comes with not trying to control the world. Once you embrace your own lack of control and resign yourself to being at the mercy of forces beyond you, there’s a kind of peace that follows. It’s hard to explain. But it’s true.

Still, every time I step on a stage, I know that I have no real control over what someone might decide to do from the crowd. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a church or a club or an arena, someone out in that audience could be gunning for me …for absolutely NO reason. It used to be terrifying. But now I am at peace with it. I still scan faces and smiles and body movements. But I know that we are all ultimately counting on the good will of the stranger next to us to get home safe on any given night. Some nights …like an unspeakable night in Las Vegas …that doesn’t happen.

And that is the hardest of all things to reconcile.

R

THE LAST THING YOU EVER SAY …

“Bout to fly …I love you” is always the text I send my wife before I put my phone in airplane mode. Even if we’ve been fighting, I send that text. Because if something bad happens to my plane I want that to be the last thing she ever reads from me.

I stood at the makeshift memorial, on the strip in Las Vegas, Friday afternoon before my show. I stood quietly and watched people of all races, nationalities and ages shed tears and offer prayers for the victims of the mass shooting that took place there. I too wiped tears and wrote messages on the poster boards and signed my name, to show I was there to be part of the healing. I’ve never thought of the strip as anything sacred before. But on this day …it was.

On the walk back to the hotel, I thought about life and legacies and what you leave behind. Forever, the man (I don’t use his name) who perpetrated that horrible act will be known as someone who brought horror and death to innocent people. No matter what good he might’ve done in his life prior to that act, none of it matters. His last act was his defining one. And it puts him squarely on the “part of the problem” side of the human ledger.

“Your last act” is something I think a lot about these days. When I post something publicly, I think about it possibly being the last thing anyone ever sees from me. Life is so fragile and I’m all too aware of how quickly it can end. I was made even more aware of it this past Friday night, at Mandalay Bay. And so, when I tweet or post or write or sing, I think to myself, “is THIS the lasting image of me I want people to have?” If you ever start asking that question, it changes your entire perspective.

I don’t want my last uttered phrase to be something about a president or politician. They don’t get to have that. That one is for me. I don’t want my last publicized thought to be one of anger or hatred. I don’t want my lasting verbal impression to be a condescending or indignant one. I’m trying to be a better man. And if I die suddenly, I want my son and daughter to see that reflected in the words that I wrote and the songs that I sang …and yes …the things that I posted.

I participated in an online songwriting course this past week. One of the songwriting principles we discussed was returning to the hook; the theme; the main idea. Great songwriting requires this. But I think great living requires it as well. Once you find out who you are and what you’re about, you should return to that theme often and continue to define it. Obviously, we all have opinions and points of view. And fighting for what you believe (provided it doesn’t involve randomly killing people) is a good thing. But if your last tweet or text or post was the last thing you left for the world to read from you, would you be proud of it? Would you want it framed and handed to your children at your graveside? I dare say not many of us would. But I’m trying more and more to think about “the last thing I ever say” whenever I say anything.

Sometimes I’m so angry I could spit nails, Sometimes I’m so deeply hurt I can’t catch my breath. Sometimes I have several axes to grind …simultaneously. Those are the times I need to stop and think about what I’m about. I don’t always get it right. Anyone can read my posts and see that. But I’m trying to keep a few things in mind:

My wife lit up my dark world and probably saved me from succumbing to debilitating depression. She has the loveliest heart I’ve ever known. She feels like home to me …she always has.

My daughter is a miracle and she dramatically changed my life for the better. If I have any good in me, SHE is the one who brought it out. God sent her to me. And I am continually thankful for it. Go find someone with a disability and spend some time with them. They’ll bring out the good in you, too.

My son is my absolute joy. He is brilliant and beautiful and has all the makings of a world changer. I feel honored to be around him pretty much all the time. And I cannot wait to see what he becomes. In the meantime we spend a lot of time competing to see who loves who the most. I tell him I love him to the moon. Then, of course, he has to love me to Mars. This is a vicious cycle that no one ever wins …and I hope no one ever does.

Those people caring for someone with a special need are doing God’s work. They are fatigued in inexplicable ways most of the time. I try to help them as much as I can. You should too.

American service men and women and retired veterans are the backbone of our very society. We only get to do all the stuff we do because they VOLUNTEER to stand guard over us and watch our backs. We cannot do enough for them. And they’ve earned any good thing that comes their way. Disagree with your country or your president or your congressman or your school board. But NONE of that is a veteran’s fault. Always remember that.

The country in which I was fortunate enough to have been born, is a grand experiment in self reliance, self determination, diversity of thought, diversity of personhood, self governance and human freedom. I love that it was formed and I love that I get to be a part of it. I don’t take it lightly and I don’t take lightly my responsibility to contribute to it in a responsible way.

Music heals. And if it isn’t making someone dance or laugh or cry or smile or love or pray or work out or throw their fists in the air or drive fast or chase the girl (or the boy) or get over the girl (or the boy) or MAKE the girl (or the boy) …it isn’t worth writing. In short, if it doesn’t move you, it’s just an exercise in notes and letters.

God is a mystery. And that’s actually okay. The bible says God is a spirit. It also says God is love. Therefore, God must be the spirit of love. Everything else about religion is just a lot of bowing and kneeling and standing and singing and swaying and reciting and reading and memorizing and more bowing and more kneeling and preaching and speaking and more singing and more reciting. Without the spirit of love in the mix, it’s a very silly game of Simon Says.

I reserve the right to laugh at everything laughable …including (and especially) myself.

Race is a really weird way to divide people up. I actually can’t believe we even still talk about it.

Ironically, every person I’ve ever met was human. That is both comforting and terrifying. And I am surprised by nothing.

I would rather talk about ideas than people or events.

Those are the things my life is about. So, when I write or perform or blog or speak or text or tweet or post, I try to keep all that stuff as close to me as possible. And if what I say or sing or write is the last thing I say or sing or write, I want it to have something to do with one of those things. That helps me get clarity in world where clarity is often hard to come by.

And if you’re reading this, just know that I love you. I believe you’re here for a reason. Go find that reason. We need you doing your thing. We won’t be the same without you.

And if this is the last thing I ever say …I’m totally okay with that.

R

UNTIL YOU LOSE IT ALL …

I ran thirteen miles on my daughter’s first birthday. I was training for the Chicago marathon and felt extra good that day. I had a great endorphin high during her birthday party. I was relaxed and calm and thin and healthy. And though I had suffered a few minor career set-backs since bringing her home, I was certain everything was going to be fine. I had a lot of options. I had a lot of friends. I had a lot of money.

But soon, because of that very same precious little one-year-old, I had to stop training for the marathon. She had not slept more than two hours at a time, for four months. And I was getting so little sleep, I would actually throw up if I tried to run. Very soon after that first birthday, most of my money was wiped out as well. It only took a few months. Multiple ambulance rides (at around ten grand a pop) and several emergency procedures at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital can clean you out pretty quickly.

All those options I thought I had? They dried up as well. Three or four serious missteps by my label and my management and ME, was all it took. And the friends? Well, let’s just put it this way: friends are plentiful when the money and wine is flowing and there’s laughter and success all around. Those are the times I love, too. I don’t blame people for not wanting to be around serious trouble. I wouldn’t want to be either.

And so, my entire life’s foundation came apart, piece by piece, year by year, dollar by dollar …day by day. When you go from driving a Mercedes, having meetings about where to invest your money and how to “expand your brand” to pawning instruments and rolling quarters to feed your family, and you’ve lost your swagger, and you’ve lost your ability to earn a living, and you’ve lost your looks, and you’ve lost your health, and you’ve pretty nearly lost your mind …only THEN can you finally start becoming who you are actually supposed to be.

I’ve often said losing everything doesn’t only reveal WHO you really are …it reveals WHY you really are. At least it did for me.

In every person’s novel, if there isn’t a chapter called, “I lost Everything I had and Questioned Everything I’d Ever Believed,” then they’re not close to being finished with it. Because if you haven’t yet lost everything in your life, you may not be risking enough. If the answers to your questions are simple and the fixes to your problems are easy, you may not be doing it right.

My favorite Jesus story is the one about the rich young ruler. I love it because I think it’s the most misrepresented and misunderstood Jesus story of all. It also may be the most important. For those who aren’t preacher’s kids and who haven’t heard bible lessons since they were old enough to gum baby food, it goes like this:

A rich young ruler came to Jesus for some advice. “Rich young ruler” in today’s terms would be “trust fund baby” or “one per-center.” This kid was a good kid. He’d kept all the commandments all his life. He did all the good stuff. He hadn’t missed a beat when it came to “doing the right thing.” So, just to keep it real and keep himself “woke” (as the kids say), he went to this Jesus dude and asked what MORE he could do to keep his game tight. Jesus didn’t miss a beat. He just said, “sell all your stuff and give it to the poor …bye.”

The kid couldn’t do it. It was just too much. He wasn’t ready.

A lot of people make this story about “the poor” and how the rich have a responsibility to give all their stuff away and social justice and all of that. And I’m sure those temporal things certainly play a part in Jesus answer. But being rich and being poor are surface, physical things. They’re not “soul” things. I think Jesus was a little deeper than that. I think Jesus was saying to this kid, “you can’t buy your way out of getting your hands dirty, bro. YOU have to do it. Not someone else.” He was giving him a chance to find his real, true self. He was opening a corridor that would’ve been life changing. This (to me) was about saying, “until YOU LOSE IT ALL, you can’t find out who you really are. And until THEN, you can’t really make a difference in the world.”

And that translates further of me. I have to love and forgive and give back …not comment on ethers who don’t. Rather than trying to make everybody else conform to something …it’s on ME to constantly check my own self.

I lost everything, not by choice but by circumstance. So believe me, I’m not telling everyone to try and become poor. I’m not making a value judgement on how much money or stuff you have. I don’t think any of those things are, in and of themselves, evil. I’m also not telling you to give everything away. But I am advocating risking a lot for love’s sake. I am encouraging you to give more than you think you can.

I had lunch with a friend some time ago. They talked about how unhappy they were, even though they had plenty of money and security and success. I asked a simple question: “where are you giving back?” And that one question seemed to halt them. To me …THAT’S the point of it all.

And that leads me back to my daughter’s first birthday …

That little one-year-old mystery just turned fifteen this past week. She didn’t get better. Chances are, she never will. And that’s okay. In the fourteen years since that first birthday, I’ve learned a lot about Angelman Syndrome and special needs care giving. I’ve learned a lot about PTSD in parents of special needs children. And THAT has led me into PTSD work with veterans and others. I’ve learned what music is REALLY about. I’ve learned a whole lot about not judging people at first glance. And listening for some deeper issue in their lives, rather than making snap judgements on their choices. And I’ve learned to try and help instead of just being a spectator.

ALL of that was born of loss …not gain. I didn’t learn to love by winning. I learned by losing. Not that we shouldn’t try to win – of course we should. I’m cheering you on. And I’m always striving to win, myself. But there is a door you can walk through that will change you forever. And it involves finding yourself without all the things you thought were stable …to hold onto.

What I learned from losing it all is that terrible things are going to happen …and it’s okay. We will all come face-to-face with our greatest fears …and it’s okay. Everyone we love is going to die …and it’s okay. The world is not going to turn the way we want it to …and it’s okay. People will fail us and disappoint us and surprise us with their weakness …and it’s okay. We’re going to grieve great losses …and it’s okay.

My baby still has Angelman Syndrome …and it’s okay. I lost everything and then re-gained it all and then some. But even if I hadn’t, it would still be okay.

You see, once you lose everything you think you want …you can finally find what you actually need. And THEN, even when everything is not going to be okay …it’s okay.

R