WRESTLING WITH YOUR “IT” …

It will not be easy. It never is.

If it were easy it wouldn’t be worth anything. If it were easy, you wouldn’t learn valuable lessons along the way. You wouldn’t have personal breakthroughs and you wouldn’t appreciate the other side …if it were easy.

The “it” to which I’m referring is …well …anything. The “it” is essentially up to you. It could be that novel you’ve been vowing to finish. It could be that extra fifteen pounds you’ve been promising yourself you’re gonna lose. It might be that project you’ve been knocking around in your head for a decade. It could be that girl or boy you’ve been wanting to ask out. Maybe it is that business you say you’re going to start. Whatever it is …it won’t be easy.

The most fun and easiest part of a journey or endeavor is the beginning. The best laid plans always come with that intoxicating sense of inevitability. THIS is going to happen! I’m at the starting gate. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. This is the first day of the rest of my …blah, blah, blah.

Yes, the beginning is fun …

It’s fun because you haven’t made the critical mistakes yet. You haven’t seen how impossible it’s going to be yet. It’s fun because you haven’t reached the end of your rope yet. You haven’t been beaten up by the critics or been left in the dust on your own. You haven’t been forced to choose between “it” and a vacation or “it” and a new outfit or “it” and time with your family or “it” and your relationship with your spouse. You haven’t been to the dark side of “it” yet. And to finish “it,” the dark side is where must go.

All of us artists always have something unfinished we’ve been “working on” in the back of our minds. The idea of it is like a security blanket. As long as it’s out there in the distance, not yet born, we can imagine it any way we want.

In our fantasy, it is wildly successful and affects the world. It makes people laugh and cry and think and reimagine themselves and adjust their world view. It strikes all the chords we want it to strike and it launches us into new realms of artistic swirl. As long as it stays unfinished, it can remain a fantasy we can cling to as we’re drifting off to sleep, still wondering if we’re enough. Our unfinished projects help us answer that question …with a question that can remain unanswered.

The truly brave among us …finish. It is no more complicated than that. The beginning is easy and lovely. The middle is difficult, arduous and mind numbing. And it is where many lose their focus, lose their vision, lose their stamina and sometimes …lose their minds. But the end is where we meet God. At the finish line is where you find the next level of yourself you didn’t know existed. The end is where you shed a certain part of your skin and become something new.

On Thanksgiving day, I was the author of one book and I had (as a recording artist) recorded four (4) CDs. By Christmas day, I was the author of THREE (3) books and had recorded SIX (6) CDs. On Christmas Eve I plunged into one of the worst bouts of depression I’ve been in in decades. I knew it was coming. That type of emotional journey always triggers a spiral for me. Usually, it’s wrapped in one project and it’s manageable. But this time is was wrapped in several projects at once …and it was debilitating.

The spiral begins with the fact that I’ve now completed something. I’ve put it into the world. I have to live with the consequences of its failure (or worse, its success) for the rest of my life. I can’t hide anymore. THIS was what I thought was good enough to occupy everyone’s time. No matter what my grand fantasies were about how that piece of art is received, I now have to deal with the reality of it. The fantasy has been replaced. I don’t get to hold that anymore. The secret is out. And I will be judged based on the reality …not the fantasy.

All artists go through some form of this postpartum depression, after completing a project. And if you’re not willing to face those demons, you should probably do something else. God knows I want to do something else almost every day. But I keep going. Sometimes (most times) I don’t even know why.

Whatever your “it” is this year, I hope you finally get around to it. But I offer a friendly word of caution from the abyss. Remember that when it’s finished, it will not look like you thought it would. It will not be what you thought it would be. It will not bring you what you thought it would bring you. That’s not what “its” and endings are for.

Regardless of how “it” ends up, do it anyway. It’s in your head and your heart for a reason. And when you get your courage up, you will finally walk through the fires you’ll need to walk through to finish “it.”

And once you finish “it” …you will never be the same.

 

R

 

PS: for those who want to order my first blog book (that I finished over the holidays, “Blah, Blah, Blogger …”) contact me by email.

THE NEW RELIGION …

What if I told you I was agnostic toward Roy Moore and Doug Jones? How would that make you feel about me?

What if I told you that I don’t live in Alabama and therefore, have no real opinion as to how the people of that state should be represented?

What if I said that I don’t know Roy Moore and I don’t know the details of his past, so I have no idea whether or not the allegations against him are true? And what if I told you that neither do you?

Roy Moore looks like a creep to me. He looks like every stereotypical “God, guns and country” right winger ever drawn up in the Hollywood stereotype machine (by the way, Republicans …maybe you should stop putting on-the-nose stereotypes on the ticket? Just a thought …you’re welcome). He might very well be a sex offender. I have no idea. He might be a lunatic. Again, I have no idea. Guess what? Doug Jones might be a necrophiliac. He sure does look like a guy who’s into weird stuff. I just get a vibe. You know …something’s not right.

Does that make sense? Well, it shouldn’t. Because I have no idea about the man. And unless you know him personally, neither do you.

I guess the point I’m making in all of this is that we have found ourselves a new religion here in the land of the free. It’s called politics. Maybe it has been our religion all along, if you think about it …

I’m not denying that sexual predatory behavior is under assault like never before (as it SHOULD be). That obviously played a part in the Roy Moore special election. There’s no doubt about it. When Alabama elects a Democrat, there are special circumstances to be sure. But my fascination, through these weeks, has been the team politics that has shown itself. Because of our access to all the news and information from around the world, all the time, our true colors seem to come out regarding anything political …whether it involves us directly or not.

I know, I know …the balance of senatorial power in Washington DC affects the entire country, blah, blah, blah. Please save the time you would waste on a comment like that in the impending, sure-to-be-interesting comment thread. But I’ll bet a lot of the same people who were “just concerned” about the “morality of the Senate” with the election of Roy Moore, are secretly hoping Al Franken decides not to resign. Well, the truth is it’s not all that secret. I’ve seen the comments.

During the month of advent, the most wonderful time of the year, the season to be jolly, a lot of the “faith” on display isn’t that of something divine or sacred or wondrous. No, we show the world where our faith truly lies and where our treasure really resides, by our posts and comments and inclinations toward what we believe and what we don’t.

Last night, when I saw the election results, my blood pressure didn’t move one way or another. I didn’t see it as a victory or a loss. I found it mildly interesting (maybe less than mildly) and then I changed the channel. But then I read my Twitter and Face Book feed. And I realized who has faith in what.

I hear people talk about their faith. And then I see them wringing their hands and clutching their pearls over who gets elected to what, and what this person did or didn’t do or what they voted for or what they said 30 years ago and how it will affect the congressional voting makeup, yada, yada, yada. And I realize that that person actually worships the state.

The fact is, most of us worship the state. We just don’t know it or maybe we just don’t want to admit it.

For me, (a libertarian) THERE in lies the rub with government touching every single piece of your life, from every imaginable direction. The minute they take something away (that maybe they had no business providing in the first place) it’s tragic and life altering. OR, when and if they decide to take more from you than is reasonable, it can also be tragic and life altering. And so we live on this roller coaster of allowing our lives to be shaken and broken or mended and made whole not by something spiritual; not by something organic and redemptive; not by something true and connective, but by what someone does who sits behind a desk in Washington, DC.

If your faith in the country was shaken or bolstered (either way) with the election of Donald Trump, the state is your religion. If you were more concerned about Roy Moore than you were about John Conyers, the state is your religion …and your concern really isn’t about sexual assault. It’s about voting numbers.

If you throw parties when someone wins and tantrums when someone loses, the state is your religion.

If the answer to the questions I posed at the top of this piece make you angry or agitated in some way, the state might just be your religion.

If that’s where you want your faith to reside, that’s totally fine with me. Again, as a libertarian, I am live and let live. If you want to worship dumpster fires, I say show up on time and sing the best dumpster fire worship songs hipsters in skinny jeans can write. But at some point you will have to be honest with yourself about what you worship and what you put your faith in.

As for me, I stopped putting my faith in anything man made, years ago. It has been my experience that everyone will let you down eventually. Sadly, every person I’ve ever met was a human being. And I can promise you that Doug Jones (as well as every candidate you’ve ever voted for) will let you down in some way.

If (and when) that person you voted for or that bill you backed or that petition you signed or that movement you marched with, turns out to be not what you thought it was going to be, and if the disappointment sends you into an emotional tailspin …it might be time for a new savior.

 

R

OUT OF THE PARK …

“It’s like a hot coal inside my brain. And if I don’t get it out, I will go crazy.”

That’s how I described my obsession with certain projects, to a friend of mine recently. He had originally asked me how and why I write. What was the impetus? What was the reason? Why did I keep doing it? The hot coal analogy was the most accurate one I could come up with. And I think a lot of writers can probably relate.

I started writing poetry at around seven or eight. I’ve got some books of it, somewhere. Every other decade or so (when we clean out the storage room) I read back over my scribblings and wonder how and why my nine or ten or eleven-year-old self was so concerned about so many heavy things. But this – a writer – is who I was supposed to be.

I never said, “I want to be a writer.” I just always wrote. I never “decided” to do any of what I do. I just always did it. That’s what I always tell people who ask me how to start doing this or that. If you want to be a singer …sing. If you want to be an actor …act. If you want to be a writer …write. It has never been more complicated than that. The complication only comes when you start trying to turn those things into money and a living and a mortgage payment and so on.

But usually your gift (and everybody has one) shows itself throughout your life. Often, early on. The meaning of life, in my view, is to simply figure out what that gift is and act on it with all of your spiritual force. Sometimes, it’s about accepting your gift for what it is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I was a great athlete or wished I had wealth building skills. Being what I am is not all it’s cracked up to be. And now that I’m older, I can name several things I would rather have steered my younger self into rather than chasing down words and music.

But I keep getting ideas. So I keep running with them. And here’s why …

My grandmother recently passed away, at 92. But she was a huge influence on me and imprinted a lot of my early development. She told me several things I will never forget. But the main thing she always told me, that continually haunts me, was this: “if you are given an idea, you are also given the responsibility for that idea. It’s yours. And you are its care taker. YOU – not someone else – have to get it to the finish line.”

That thought spurs me on when I don’t feel like being spurred on. And, in a weird way, comforts me when I’m questioning myself. There are so many times when I think to myself, “surely someone else has thought about this or has had this idea.” But then I remember what my grandmother said and I don’t worry about that. I just continue on.

And there are also many times when some idea or project of mine doesn’t make any business sense. That happens A LOT. But my grandmother’s admonition still applies. And I press on. Because I always believe that if something is stirring me about a certain song or record or book or piece of art, then it will stir someone else. If it doesn’t stir me, it probably won’t stir you either. And so I lean into the the things that are burning me up inside …like that hot coal. And I feel responsible for them.

I recently finished my latest offering, One Silent Night. It’s a Christmas story that is full of songs and performances. And just as I was about to sing the last song and send it all off to my mixer, my studio computer failed and ultimately self-destructed. It was old and on its last legs for some time. Now, it is digital heaven somewhere, surrounded by angels of ones and zeros and streets of code. But it left me in a difficult situation.

A dear friend brought a computer over for me to finish on. But we had some issues with licenses of certain plug-ins and we had a headphone mystery we couldn’t solve, etc. These are all bugs that are usually worked out with time and attention. But Thanksgiving shut both of those concepts down. And I was bumping my head on a dead line. So, I sang the last song of the project – the TITLE cut, in fact – without being able to hear myself at all. I just took one “can” off and listened myself in the room, while listening to the piano track in one ear phone. And there was no vocal tuning plug-in available. So, I actually had to sing in tune (what a concept).

Honestly, it was one of the most difficult vocal performances of my life. But I remembered what my grandmother told me. And I pressed on. And I sang it until I got it right. And when it was all said and done …it’s one of my favorite performances. Because I had to focus on what I was doing and I couldn’t rely on fixes after the fact. It was old school. The way we used to make records when I was a kid. I also felt that I was being responsible to the idea I was given. I hope my grandmother was proud.

I hear people talk about things they would like to do, all the time. “Wouldn’t it be cool if …” is a common start to millions of conversations. But how many things actually get finished? How many ideas fall by the way side? How many life changers are gathering dust, in the bottom of a junk drawer?

The doing of something brings power to it. You learn things and discover things and re-work things based on your discoveries. You get somewhere. Whatever idea you’ve been thinking about doing, do it …now. Whatever action you’ve been planning on taking, take it …now. It’s yours. You are responsible to get it over the finish line.

It’s going to be harder than you think and more frustrating than you can imagine. It’s going to require more of you than you want to give. It might cause you to make some new friends and lose some old ones. It might cost more money than was budgeted. It might cost more time than you can spare. But it will get you closer to who you’re supposed to actually be. It might take you to the edge of yourself. But it’s yours to curate and cultivate.

I love the movie The Natural. Mainly because it’s not about baseball. It’s about a man being who he was born to be …if for only one moment. Through all of his missteps and mistakes and meanderings, he finally comes back to himself and his purpose. And in one, last, righteous act, he’s able to use his thunderous bat to rain down sparks and thunderbolts of justice upon the corrupt. He reverses fortunes and curses and sets the world right …by being his true self.

If you keep pressing on and following that little voice – the one telling you you’re on the right path, you never know where it might lead. If the time is right and the stage is set and everything is looking like it’s about to fall apart, you might just step into the pitch and swing …and shoot out the lights.

R

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

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

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

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

GENERATION GAPS …

She’s my last remaining connection to the “Greatest Generation” and she lays dying in a hospital bed. She can barely hear me and doesn’t really respond when I talk to her. So, whatever conversations I was ever going to have with her …have been had.

My grandmother won’t survive the month. She’s 92. And once she’s gone, I won’t know anyone left who lived through the depression or World War II. People who lived through WWII never called it that. When you’re in the middle of something you don’t call it what pointy-headed history buffs label it in books, years later. My grandparents always just called it, “the war.” My son will never hear someone talk about it like that. He’ll never have a meaningful conversation with anyone who remembers it first hand. They’re all about gone.

As I watch my grandmother slip away, I think a lot about her generation. I’ve been binge watching every made-for-TV-mini-series and documentary I can find, lately. I’m missing something about the stability of having those folks around. I’m craving something about them I can’t quite put my finger on.

My mother and father’s generation went to the moon and invented rock and roll. And I love their generation for a lot of things, too. They soared higher, raced faster and reached farther than any generation before them. But let’s be honest …they can be a little unstable at times. And they are prone to wild swings in belief. They developed plastic – wrapped everything in it – then told us to stop using it or we’d kill the planet. They got free love …we got AIDS. They invented the credit card …and left us a pile of debt.

I suppose with great accomplishment comes a downside.

Our generation didn’t win a great war OR go to the moon. No, we took the most advanced technological achievements mankind has ever seen and used them to argue about politics, post cat videos, and send pictures of our penises to people. I’ve been wondering where it all went wrong. When did the adults leave the room?

Don’t get me wrong. I have some mixed feelings about the Greatest Generation. If you think about it globally, only about half of them were really great. The other half actually STARTED World War II. You wouldn’t really put old Japanese or German people in the same group as the American, British and French people we call “the greatest.” And that drags our politically correct, “safe-space” notions to the edge of our comfort zone. We don’t like the idea of “enemies” any more. But guess what? That was reality in the 1940s.

I’ve been examining what made that generation “great.” Was it it their toughness? Their ability to endure hardship? Their absolute refusal to give up? Their unmatched bravery? Honestly, I don’t believe it was any of those things. I know Iraq war vets who are as brave as anyone this country has ever produced. I sang at a soldier’s homecoming once, who had volunteered for NINE (that’s 9) tours in Iraq. On his ninth tour, both his legs got blown off by an IED. And when they found him he was still dragging himself toward his men to help them …without legs. That’s as brave and as tough as anything I’ve ever heard about, in any war, anywhere.

Lots of people have endured horrible things. But generationally, what was it that made these people special?

I was watching a documentary on WWII and something jumped out at me. In one of the South Pacific sea battles, there were over two hundred (200) American war ships engaged …in one single battle. I sat up in my chair and realized THAT was the answer. It was right there.

These days you wouldn’t be able to get two hundred PEOPLE to agree on anything, much less two hundred WAR SHIPS full of people. And yet there they were, in ONE battle, in ONE theater of war, among thousands of other battles, being fought in concert and striving toward the same goal. ONE voice. ONE purpose. ONE focus. That’s spectacular.

When my grandmother was born, women had only been allowed to vote for 5 years. We were 40 years away from the civil rights movement. Homosexuality was still considered (by the medical profession) to be a mental disorder. Slavery had only been abolished for 62 years. No one had yet flown from New York to Paris. And the possession of wine was illegal.

Yet the people of that time rose up in unison to defend an unfulfilled idea and a flawed republic. Why? Why would a Tuskegee airman go wheels up at sun up for a country that wouldn’t allow him to eat at the same lunch counter as his white counterpart? Why would a Navaho wind talker share his ancient secret with a nation that had defaulted on every treaty it had ever signed with his ancestors? How could a Japanese American solider become “gung ho” for a president who was imprisoning his relatives in an interment camp? How did these disparate, victimized groups get beyond their own grievances long enough to fight alongside their oppressors? Somehow, these people knew something about the promise of America that we seem to have forgotten.

Maybe they didn’t see America as an injustice that was DONE to them. Maybe they saw it, rather, as an idea they could affect by participation. Somehow, they ALL knew they were on the side of the good guys …even if the good guys were still pretty messed up.

To me, THAT’S the greatness of the greatest generation. Their ability to see the greater good and their willingness to fight for it.

There are a lot of things I love about now. I love that individuals are more free to be themselves than ever before. I love that everyone has a voice and a way to express it. But I do miss the idea of common experience and shared belief. Today, we can’t even agree that our president is duly elected. We can’t agree on common facts. We don’t even know if the news being read to us is true or made up. In that kind of environment, could we defeat a modern-day Hitler? We would first have to agree that WE aren’t him. Then we’d have to agree that he must actually be defeated. Then, we’d ALL have to take some part – some responsibility – in destroying him. I fear public sentiment would turn against the struggle and moral equivalence would crowd out reason before the job could get done. Maybe even before it could get underway.

When my grandmother dies, a lot of memories and ideas and beliefs and ways of doing things will die with her. And maybe some of them should. But I’m gonna miss people who got dressed up for church. I’m gonna miss people who didn’t feel the need to constantly tell and show the world every single thing they were thinking or feeling …or eating. I miss the idea of lifetime commitment. I miss dignity. I miss grace. I miss humility. I miss understatement. I even (in a weird way) miss consequences. I love undo buttons. But life sure got taken a lot more seriously before they were there.

My grandmother has travelled a long, wonderful journey. And while I will grieve her passing, I know it’s time. She has lived well and she will die well, surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, probably in her sleep …peacefully.

I will miss her. But I think I will miss her generation, and the example they set, just as much.

R

KOOL AID AND COOKIES …

“I’m in your garage,” is the last text I have from him. I keep reading it over and over. There’s something surreal about an active text thread from someone who is no longer alive. But I keep reading it. And I can hear him say it in my mind.

Greg was in my garage, standing at my office door, waiting to have a meeting with my friend, Tim Akers. Tim is one of the best musicians in the world and heads a band called the Smoking Section …full of several other of the best musicians in the world. Their shows are legendary in Nashville. And A-list artists love to sit in with them.

When you see a Smoking Section show you never know when Michael McDonald or Vince Gill or someone like that is just going to show up. It’s one of the coolest perks of living in this town. Tim just happens to be one of my best friends and I was connecting him with another of my best friends for a very strange meeting.

Greg Murtha lived three doors down from me for several years. And he (along with the rest of the neighborhood) watched us turn an old ranch house (that hadn’t been touched since it was built in 1973) into a custom home for a child with special needs. He didn’t know that’s what we were doing in there. But he was the ONLY neighbor who would constantly stop and comment on our progress.

“Reg, it’s looking great, man!” he yelled from his car one day. And I was a bit taken aback because I wasn’t sure how he knew my name. His son Jackson would come over and ask if my daughter could come out to play, when they were small. There was no easy way to explain to him why she couldn’t. And we always felt for little Jackson. He so wanted to play with her. But through the sheer will of continually knocking on our door, the entire Murtha family became our friends.

When my book came out, Greg insisted on reading it as soon as possible. And after he read it, he insisted on barging further and further into my life …and I’m so thankful he did. We became very close. He told me once why my book impacted him so much. He said, “Reg, I think some of us in the neighborhood used to think you guys were just anti-social people who were over protective of your daughter. After reading your book, I realized that what was ACTUALLY happening in that house was completely the opposite of my perception. You guys were going through hell in there. And I was within walking distance …not knowing it.”

For the next several years, Greg would occasionally order an entire box of books from me and hand them out to people randomly. His big takeaway was that you can be standing (or living) right next to someone and have no idea of what they’re going through. He wanted people to think about that.

If Greg Murtha got a single epiphany from my story, I got MANY from his life. Greg went on to sit on the board of directors of my foundation, Angel Wings. And in every board meeting or planning session, he was the one challenging us to think bigger. He was always asking the important questions. And he was genuinely curious about the answers.

I heard him say on more than one occasion, “when and if we talk to the president about this …” and I would interrupt and say, “the president of what, Greg?” His answer? “The president of the United States. Is this important or not?” That attitude made me re-think pretty much everything I do.

Greg travelled the world and worked for organizations that made a difference in people’s lives. I think we all aggregate our own personalities with the personalities of others. In my own case, I have consciously added a lot of Greg Murtha into my interaction with people. To Greg, no one was unimportant. No one’s story was boring. No moment was insignificant. Everything mattered and every action was a supreme opportunity to show love to someone or to speak it into a situation.

And so …the meeting in my office.

Greg wanted to meet Tim Akers and hire the Smoking Section to play at his memorial service. He told us the story of a funeral he’d recently attended where the deceased had been an amazing woman. She’d connected people all over the world and spoken love into people’s lives. And at the reception, after the service, they were serving Kool Aid and cookies and playing very somber music.

In Greg’s own words, “that really pissed me off.” His thought was that her service should have been a huge celebration of a life well-lived. He couldn’t get his extraordinary mind around allowing a person of that much significance to be laid to rest in such somber tones.

So Greg spent the last few months of his life planning his own memorial celebration. And he said he wanted the “best band in Nashville” to play it. He didn’t want anyone wearing black or having to endure “horrible organ music” (again …his words). He wanted a lot of people who didn’t know each other, to show up and meet and drink great wine, eat great food, and dance to great grooves.

We sat in my office and made the plans. And as awkward as it started (for US …it was NEVER awkward for Greg), it ended with smiles and hugs. And after he left, Tim and I talked about what a great idea it was to have this kind of a celebration.

Greg fought through 75 rounds of chemo until his body was simply unable to walk another step. And when my wife kissed him on the head to say goodbye, last night, he was still trying to open his eyes and tell us all something. We left the hospital …and Greg was gone two hours later.

I’ve cried a lot. I’m sure I will cry more. But what I learned from Greg outweighs the sadness. Every time I hear someone say something about their life that they think is a minor detail, I say, “tell me more about that.” I learned that from Greg. I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own. When I hear and see people writhing in anger over religion or politics or something they perceive to be injustice, I try to take a step back and ask more questions, instead of meeting them head on with more anger. God knows I learned that from Greg …and I’m still learning it.

I’m learning that the best life is one of service …NOT ambition and self-focus. And I learned a lot of that from Greg as well.

I don’t know how Greg knew all of this life wisdom at such a young age. But he will be indelibly marked in my heart and on my life. His easy smile and eagerness to serve people is something I will miss. But his inability to end a conversation without telling “just ONE more story, and I’ll let you go” is what I will miss the most. Whenever I hear someone say “last but not least,” I’ll think of Greg …and smile.

People from all over the world, from all walks of life, will be at Greg’s memorial celebration. And I don’t know exactly where he’ll be. Some people hope the loved one is looking down. I tend to hope they have moved on to something so dazzling they wouldn’t WANT to look down.

Either way, Greg, at YOUR celebration …there will be NO Kool Aid and cookies.

R

THE HELPERS …

I’m about to begin a string of summer house concerts. I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’m not all that excited about anything on either side of the show itself. Traveling isn’t the adventure it used to be. Hanging out after a show is getting more and more difficult. I usually just want to go to bed …and sleep.

Over the last few years I’ve gone through a metamorphosis in how approach my entire career. From writing to producing to performing, I find myself in a servant’s frame of mind more than anything.

A few weeks ago I played the Nashville Unplugged show, in Vegas, with my Ghost Town Troubadour comrades and Rita Wilson. Before the show, Travis Howard and I had a conversation about greatness. Great songs. Great lyrics. Great artists. The conversation was honestly awkward for me because I suppose I haven’t thought about that subject in some time. And as I age, I almost feel like a “musical monk” of sorts. I don’t know any other way to explain it. The veneer of accolades and applause and the ability to “wow” a group of people doesn’t hold the same attraction that it once did.

That particular night went something like this:

Although I’ve never been nervous on stage, RIGHT before my first note I think to myself, “they’re going to hate me.” So I play a little harder and sing a little louder. I’m just trying to catch everyone off guard long enough to get through the first song and get my confidence together.

By ten minutes into the set I start the inner dialogue: “What have I been doing my whole life? I should have become an investment banker. What is it I’m doing up here that these people like? DO they like it? Why do people seem to need this? DO they need it? Are they just being nice? They’re just being nice. I should’ve taken lessons. They can’t see what a musical fraud I am. There’s a thing I want to do with my left hand that I haven’t practiced. Crap. Did they hear that wrong note? That girl in the back looks lonely. I’m gonna sing to her. Oh …she isn’t lonely. She was just waiting on her drink and her date. Never mind. The woman to my left is crying. I wonder why. Play to the back of the room. Breathe. Someone on stage just made a comment I can make funny …find the funny. Make them laugh. You need a laugh right here. I suck. I’m awesome. I’m sure I look weird on this note. Can’t help it. This note is hard to hit …focus. I’m quitting tomorrow and getting a real job. I’m never quitting.”

These are the thoughts constantly running through my mind during a show. And I’ve been doing this for decades. I’m sure similar thoughts are running through the head of anyone, on any stage, at any given time.

Because that’s what performing is. And even if you’re famous, the act of performing is courageous every time you do it. You’re leading people somewhere. YOU are in charge of what they are thinking. YOU are taking them into rooms and corridors and spaces of YOUR choosing. And that forces the art of performance into a place of responsibility.

I left that particular night feeling a little depressed. Before the show, a man came up to me and asked me to do one of my CCM songs from twenty years ago. I didn’t do it …but I should have. I don’t even know if I would have even remembered all the words …or ANY of the words. It probably wouldn’t have played well in a club in Vegas. But I should’ve done it for him just the same. And it bothers me that I didn’t …even now.

Because at the end of every show – after I’ve done battle with myself in my head and heart for two hours – I find myself asking, “did I help these people?” I don’t know if other performers think that but it has become my standing question as it pertains to art. Have I helped?

When people tell me they are listening to my music or reading a blog or enjoying something I’ve created, my default question is always, “has it helped you?” I don’t know why I’ve settled on that question. But it seems to be appropriate.

Trends die. Styles change. Crazes evolve. And I find myself less and less interested in popularity and more and more interested in connection. Was I honest? Could you relate? Did it move you?

Art makes us think and cry and laugh and pray and dance and fight and love. Movies and music and literature and art are all here to move us forward and …well …help. If we do our art well, we help. And that seems to be what I aspire to more and more.

I want you to leave my show thinking to yourself, “I feel more love than I did when I came here. I feel some release and connection to something bigger. He helped me think about something I’ve needed to think about. He helped me laugh at something I didn’t realize was funny. He helped me cry about something I’ve been needing to address. It helped.”

I’m looking forward to the upcoming series of house concerts on the “Pass The Hat” tour. I’ll be posting where the shows will be and maybe I’ll see you at one of them. And if I do, I hope it helps you in some way.

I’m an artist.

And artists are the helpers.

 

R