Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Don't Let Them Steal Your Shampoo, and Other Advice on Starting College

I had the pleasure of seeing the talented daughter of some friends of mine in one of her last local performances before going away to college to be a theater major. Conversations with her apprehensive mom (and a couple of episodes of the '80s sitcom "A Different World" the night before) got me thinking what I might say to the girl in this milestone moment. I'm sharing it here in hopes it would be useful to any other young dreamers on their way out the door.

A wise man told me before I started college that, at first, I might think I was the only one like me in the whole place, but, eventually, I would find my tribe (not his word, but it's what he meant) and realize I wasn't alone after all. I found this to be true. Here are some other tidbits I would offer:

  • Be yourself. Until you achieve that, be as many selves as you have to be before you find out who you are.
  • Pursue your craft, your education, and your dreams. Let the boys pursue you (and remember, an immediate "no" is always the kindest and best answer if you know that's what it's going to be; it won't kill him to hear it, and it'll save time for both of you that you can use to STUDY).
  • You will meet some dark and twisted souls (and not just in the theater department). Learn from them, but don't let them steal your joy. Or your shampoo.
  • Don't just spit back at your professors what you think they want to hear. Have an opinion, and let them convince you of its accuracy or inaccuracy. They're there to serve you, not the other way around.
  • Question a grade (respectfully) when it seems unfair. Instructors don't always get it right the first time. It goes both ways like that.
  • Call your mother even when you don't absolutely have to. She'll appreciate it, and it'll make it less obvious when you DO have to call to ask for money. Try randomizing the time and day to make it seem spontaneous.
  • After about two weeks, you'll start to imagine you've seen a familiar face across the quad or the cafeteria, and you'll think it's someone from home,  even if you're sure no one you know is on campus. You are not crazy. This is a trick of the mind that seeks the familiar in the strange, and it means you need to call your mother again, even if it isn't on your randomized schedule.
  • The Baptist campus ministry (then Baptist Student Union) was the best thing about my college experience. Look it up, and if your campus has one, give it a try. Or two. (You don't have to be Baptist to enjoy participating in their activities, though it probably helps.)
  • Be friends with people who applaud your talent AND with those who couldn't care less about it but do care about you, so you'll know you are supported regardless of how well you "perform."
  • College is not just about classes and grades, but without some effort in those areas, you'll be sent back home to live with your parents again. Trust me, it's even harder the second time around. If this isn't motivation enough to study, you shouldn't have left home in the first place.
  • Get used to hearing unsolicited advice from strangers (like this). It makes up a large percentage of a performer's conversations with audience members, no matter how accomplished or competent the performer is, and it makes the strangers feel they're a part of something awesome...like your college experience will be.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Jim Halpert as a ninth-grader?

Flipping through my junior high school yearbook, I discovered I apparently went to school with Jim Halpert from "The Office." He didn't quite have "the look" down...but it was coming along. Just like that mustache.

NOTE: This kid's actual name was Kenneth Daniel, and the school was Trewhitt Junior High School, Cleveland, Tennessee, 1978-79. He probably already knows he's famous, but if you see him, you might tell him, just to make sure. And I realize the actor's name is not actually Jim Halpert; that was just for laughs.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

An incomplete collection of thoughts on idolatry

[Edited in response to some helpful comments—MKH]

I recently joined a Facebook group whose topic is "Jesus Music 1969-1989." Lots of nostalgic posts and pics to reminisce about the Christian music of that period and its impact on our lives.

Some people in this group (like many fans of other genres) are very interested in having their favorite albums from years past. They are willing to pay a little (sometimes a lot) more than the average person in order to get these albums, because they like the music, and because it reminds them of good times and revives their spirits. They post pictures of said albums in gleeful celebration. I get all that—it’s fun.

I did find one post that, even though it was clearly tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, it got me thinking about an issue I've considered over the years. A member declared jokingly that the classic album his wife had recently given to him as a gift would remain sealed "until Christ comes back and says I got a great player in the sky for that."

Ah, sounds like one of those obsessive-compulsive collector types, I thought. There seem to be several in the group, just going by some of their posts. My response was (and is): what's the point of having an album if not to listen to it from time to time, or at least have the ability to do so? Isn't it about the music? Especially if you believe the music conveys a message that everyone needs to hear. Aren't you preventing a potential life-changing experience for someone when when you keep the record (literally) under wraps? How would the artist you hold in such high regard feel about that? It seems to be a little like getting a dog and putting it in a kennel somewhere, just to say you're a dog owner. In other words, just a little crazy. And probably no fun for the dog. Or to use the words of a comic whose identity I can't remember: "That's not a hobby; that's a symptom."

Clearly, as he assured me later in a very patient and measured way, he was kidding. He understands we're not taking anything with us when we go. He said he already has the music in a listenable form and was glad to have the unsealed album for his collection because he was planning to display it because he admires the cover art. His collection is available for listening, not locked away in an underground bunker. I mean, if his wife is OK with it, that's a good sign, right?

But as for the others out there (not just in the group)...I can't help but imagine that on some subconscious level they interpret those passages in Revelation about the seven seals to be depicting Jesus opening His favorite albums from His infinite album vault so He can enjoy them at last in a dust-free environment, in heavenly stereo sound. The noble, never-ending quest for the elusive Holy Grail of vinyl. The neatly-labeled series of issues, all in orderly rows and columns. Perfection. What? Play it? And risk scratching it? Are you nuts?

So the question I have is this: how is this affinity for a physical object (an album) that supersedes the purpose of it (to convey the music) not a form of idolatry? Hard to imagine it isn't. Which (as a wise commenter observed), is to say it would be for me. I don't approach this as Moses fresh off the mountain spotting the golden calf; I'm someone with some experience in obsession and idolatry of my own. (To paraphrase Twain, we're all idolaters, just with different objects). So, not judging, just making some observations and posing the question for consideration.

For some, it's seems especially unlikely that something that carries a religious message would actually come between us and God; others know all too well how these things (church, rituals, etc.) can be the most insidious idols of all, because they make us think our focus is on Him when it's actually on something WE control. And that's what idolatry—and collecting—is all about: control. Filling that void within us with something of our choosing—something we can polish, admire, find security in having the WHOLE set, and post pictures of on Facebook (or Instagram, if that's the preference).

I understand the market assigns value to certain things, and in the record market, the condition of the album is of utmost importance. It's an "investment." Sometimes one that pays real money in the real world. But I would also say that any collector's market is based on, and also feeds, the idolatrous inclinations of collectors. A practical economist might say that value is an illusion until a sale takes place...so if your goal is to HAVE and not use or eventually sell, you never see the proceeds. If your worldly wealth is in things that can't be used, only owned, then until or unless their potential value is traded for things that have actual value (food, clothing, travel, entertainment, etc.), you are destitute (ask the dude with 1,000 Beanie Babies in storage). For some people the only way to free themselves of this burden of false treasure is to give it away, thereby losing their delusion of self-sufficiency. A parable about a rich man and the eye of a needle comes to mind.

Collecting can be a harmless, enjoyable hobby, and even a useful coping mechanism. Sometimes it just gets weird. I once visited the home of a mature couple in Oregon, and as we sat at the kitchen table, we were surrounded by Barbie dolls, mostly in boxes, on shelves that took up a great deal of wall space all over the house. They were not there to be easily accessed by any little girl that might want to take one down and play—that would no doubt be verboten (I don't think many little girls visited, anyway). This is the kind of thing that gets a cute "my, isn't that interesting" feature story in the media. I found it to be creepy and sad.

A few years ago, an acquaintance who clearly has the obsessive-compulsive type of personality (great with numbers, and with a heart of gold, but not a good communicator at all), told me he had several thousand Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars in storage. I was a little taken aback, but it kinda made sense, knowing him. I had a box of cars when I was a kid. I played with them. At some point I gave them to my nephew. He played with them. They're all gone now, and though I'd get a kick out of it if I somehow ran across one, I don't miss them at all...because they fulfilled their purpose as TOYS.

One especially sad tale is that of a veterinarian in Chattanooga. Her collection of dragon figures filled one building (having moved her office next door) and then five temporary trailers she put up next to her practice. She basically had created a dragon museum. That was probably pretty cool. However, she died young due to pulmonary fibrosis, brought on by the effect of living with 40 or 50 birds she kept in her house with poor ventilation. Her penchant for collecting killed her. And her dragon collection had to be split up and sold off to deal with the debts she left behind. Not such a cute story. (Details here).

I'm not saying nothing should be preserved or kept, or displayed in number, even in a Christian home. Some things fulfill their purpose that way, as decoration and reminders of times past (pictures, sculptures, souvenirs, album covers, etc.). (That said, I do wonder if one friend's massive collection of Precious Moments statuettes that fills her apartment isn't just a bit much. No judging here, though!). It's when we place the value on HAVING the thing over ENJOYING the thing itself that I believe we get into trouble.

As a final illustration (a blog with homework!), I would refer the reader to those two great films, "Citizen Kane" (especially the ending) and "Toy Story 2." In both, the message is clear: there is a point where the acquisition of things distorts their purpose AND ours, and it does not lead to happiness. I think that is one reason that, when Jesus called his disciples to follow Him, the understanding was that they leave everything behind.

So, let's enjoy our hobbies, and remember: buyer beware...especially if you already have 100 just like it at home.

Your thoughts and rebuttals welcome.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Would-be burglars beware

So you have a guard dog, do ya? Pit bull, maybe? Well, I guess I'd be more impressed if I weren't greeted every night by the sight of the LION that keeps vigil over my apartment building. Day and night, hot or cold, rain or snow, this faithful sentinel is on duty. And clever, too; dig how's he's disguised himself as a common garden hose.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

There's just something women like about a pickup man

Happy to report that I have completed installing a new pickup system in my guitar with no injuries to myself OR the guitar (other than one tiny imperceptible 1cm scratch by the end jack where no one ever looks but me anyway). And it works!

I'm not a handyman by any means; as a result, I don't jump into projects without careful consideration. It also means I don't always have the right tool for the job. But I'm not totally inept, either, and I like to do the occasional project just to remind myself of that. Saving money is a nice benefit, as well. As necessity is the mother of invention, I did a little improvising. It wasn't always pretty, and I was glad not to have witnesses, but it's the result that counts.

It all started at the birthday writers round I hosted in admission of my 50th birthday. I went first to make sure everything was working properly...and it wasn't. My amp (our sound system) was issuing some terrible sounds, like a mix of hard static and extreme white noise, when I hit the louder volumes. We checked cords, bypassed the mixer, etc., and determined (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the amp was freaking out. It's been around a while, like me, so that kind of made sense. So we replaced the amp with one Gary Talley happened to have with him and I limped offstage in defeat (since it was time to move on through the performing roster). I tried to shake it off (I could've used Taylor Swift's video) but of course given my obsessive nature, I was not completely successful. I suspect everyone had a better time than me. Oh, well, there's always next year (Lord willing).

Started looking at sound systems, and happened to plug in to my cheapo little amp I sometimes use as a monitor, and got the same effect: distortion only on the low E string (the thick one). Whoa...same problem, same guitar, two different amps? After testing on my little mixer with headphones and on yet another amp, I realized it wasn't the amp after all; the problem was with my guitar pickup. An Equis Silver system, no longer made by Washburn. Good news/bad news, indeed.

I took it to Nashville Used Music where the tech could not bring himself to get involved, given the multiple possible sources of the problem and the likelihood of not being able to find and fix it. No man savors the thought of failure. Not SUCH bad news, really, given that I live in a guitar-rich town, and had considered maybe it was time to get a new one (i.e., good used one), make a new start and put this ugly episode behind me. So I went guitar-shopping/browsing, and searched the internet for pickup solutions. Maybe one with a microphone to get that acoustic sound? Opinions are divided on that. Saw a couple of good affordable guitars...and also some that cost more than three times what I paid (uh, am paying) for my car. ("Thirty thousand, huh? Does this come with a case?"). The latter were at famous (and friendly) Gruhn's Guitars. They have a nifty room containing a chair, an amp, and three guitars in which multiple pickup systems are installed, with the end jack (the hole where the cable plugs in) for each labeled, so you can compare them.

Naturally, after careful consideration of the alternatives and the price of each, I went with the cheapest option: order a used pickup system online and install it myself or pay someone to do it. Found a good one on reverb.com (referred via a message board thread, maybe on the Washburn site?) made by Alvarez. It had the basic qualities I liked about my old one: easy exterior placement, volume knob (not a slider), EQ and Presence controls. And as a bonus, an on-board tuner. Nifty. And less than $50 including shipping.

Both parts of the new system that attach to the outside wall of the guitar (preamp and end jack with battery) were smaller than the existing holes occupied by the former parts, but I could see that it could very well install into the old brackets, with some careful cutting. Explained this to two or three guitar shop folks but they seemed skeptical toward my vision. The aforementioned tech at Nashville Used Music had just gone on vacation (to avoid me? I hope not, but it worked out well for both of us). I got a quote from another pro who wanted to create new brackets out of rosewood that would fill the old holes and look nice. It was a very fair quote given what he proposed, but a couple hundred bucks could've put me halfway to a decent replacement. Plus, I wanted to try it myself.

After viewing a few "how-to" videos (thanks, Youtube!), I launched into it by taking out the old preamp and tearing out the innards to leave just the plastic external brackets. I don't have a small enough screwdriver for the job, so I used the little hard-rubber screwdriver bit holder from my drill set (still in near-mint condition, btw) as a handle, with the one bit in it, to turn the screws manually. This gave me better control than the drill would have allowed. (I became less careful as I proceeded). I glued a paper template on it, then I cut (and sawed, and filed, using the less-than-ideal tools on hand) a hole for the new preamp. Messy but effective. The old piezo pickup (a thin little stick that hides under the saddle, changes vibrations to electrical pulses and sends them via a little wire inside the guitar to the preamp) had a plug that pretty much matched the new one. I thought I'd leave it in place, so as not to disturb the setup of the strings, etc.. I checked the new preamp by connecting it all up, putting in a battery, and playing it through an amp. Yep, it worked all right. I colored over what was left of the old silver markings on the bracket with a black Sharpie.

Next step was making the hole for the new end jack and battery unit in the old hard plastic bracket; fortunately the old system had both a 1/4" plug and an RCA plug (the latter of which never worked for me), so it was bigger than the usual deal. Not having a tool to cut hard plastic, I borrowed the idea from one of the videos to use a drill to perforate the cut line and a box knife to do the rest. First, though, I taped the bracket securely to a box in lieu of a clamp (since I don't have the latter) and also taped over the cut areas and drew the cut line on it. Then I drilled the screw holes to match those in the new piece. Once the large hole was made, I used the tiny file on my fingernail clippers (the only file on hand) to enlarge it further. This took a long time, especially, I kept having to exchange drill bits for screwdriver bits. But I'm a single guy, it was a Saturday at this point, so no problem there.

Once I put the new end jack unit in the old, newly-modified bracket, I still had to cut a notch in the existing hole in the end of the guitar to get it all in. I marked the area to be cut, and not having a jig saw, and because the area included part of a bracing element, I thought maybe I should take it to a pro. Or at least someone who has access to a jig and knows how to use it. But, after some thought, I figured I'd give the old box-cutter a go at it. It was only a small chip off the bracing, and even if it would leave a small structural "gap," that would be covered by the bracket. So more cutting and chipping and filing ensued. Inefficient, yes, but again...single, Saturday, etc.

I hooked up the system and plugged it in for another amp test. Here's where I made an interesting discovery: I still got the distorted sound on the bass string. So the problem was probably with the piezo pickup alone the whole time. Oh, well, it's been fun, anyway; the new system didn't cost much more than a new pickup, and now I have an on-board tuner.

So I replaced the old piezo pickup with the new one. This was a matter of loosening all the strings (with a piece of tape to hold them all together), unhooking them from the bridge, pulling out the saddle, pulling out the old piezo, and dropping the new one in (after carefully and with some trepidation filing the slot to accommodate the wider new pickup), then restringing and testing. Beautiful. Except now my action was too low and strings buzzed midway up the neck. The new piezo is flatter than the old one, so the saddle sits lower in the slot. I recalled that the old one had a filler piece, apparently for that purpose. So, we take the string ends out again, take out the saddle (it falls out, actually, which is not ideal), and pop the filler in over the pickup, then replace everything...and realize the filler was UNDER the pickup, not on top. Strings back out (fortunately not having been tightened up yet), saddle out, and that piezo is NOT coming out again in one piece. So, hey, let's hope it won't make a difference; it's all vibrations traveling through pieces of solid stuff anyway. So back on everything goes, with restored action that is low but not buzzy, and I'm happy again.

Somewhere in the amp testing phase, I noticed there was a light knocking noise whenever I moved the guitar. It turned out to be the wire that connects the piezo to the preamp. It's sensitive to any rubbing or striking against the inside of the guitar. So I rather clumsily taped a long section of it to the nearest bracing piece inside, and that stopped the noise. At least until the tape gives out, but that'll be a minor thing.

Next challenge: making the pre-drilled screw holes in the new piece fit the holes I'd drilled in the old bracket. They weren't far off, so a combination of reaming the holes bigger with the drill, and yet more filing of the cutout area, did the trick. Of course I went too far with one hole and now the screw slipped through. I half-filled it with a tiny bit of rolled-up tape and flat tape covering the hole, and went in fresh. This held the screw well enough, though it may need more attention (or super glue) later.

Awesome! We're done! I can clean up all the various tools (and things used as tools) in my living room. Exceeeeeeept...the new preamp juts out just a wee bit more than the old one (having been made to be put on the upper bout and having been put on the lower), and it's a tight squeeze in my fake-fur-lined case. So I retrieve the box cutter, cut a patch out and glue that next to the bare patch to push the wall of the guitar away from that side. Then I glue a patch of thin foam padding to fill the area to add some protection to the unit.

NOW I'm done.

It was just that simple! If you want to hear the results, check my schedule to see where I'll be performing next.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bennett, Stonehill, and Storm: Keeping the faith and staying in tune

Looking forward to seeing these guys in the town of my birth and sometime residence. Two of the three are musical heroes of mine since decades past (and I'm sure Buck Storm is great, too). But this isn't just about nostalgia. The kind of talent and insight these artists offer is timeless, and besides, they've been working at their craft all along. I'm sure it must be an effort to create new work when so many of your target audience members just want to relive the good times and tell you how that song you did 30 years ago changed their lives (wonderful in its own way, but also a burden of responsibility, to respond with appropriate enthusiasm and humility and to continue to achieve that level of artistry). I'm one of those fans, frankly, but I try to keep it on a general level of adulation to preserve their freedom and a modicum of my dignity. But it's tough to be cool about your heroes.

Along with the pic here in some cases, below is what I sent to some local press.

Noted singer/songwriters Bob Bennett, Randy Stonehill & Buck Storm will do an all-acoustic concert on Saturday, November 8, at Metropolitan Tabernacle in Chattanooga. Some of their songs reach back to the days of the Jesus Movement, but all are as relevant as today's headlines. The music begins at 7pm. Admission is free and a love offering will be taken.

Bob Bennett, an early and influential figure in contemporary Christian music, is a master guitarist and storyteller. CCM Magazine acclaimed his 1982 album Matters of the Heart as "Album of the Year," ranking it among the top 20 contemporary Christian albums of all time. His poetic lyrical talents, fingerstyle guitar expertise, and often self-deprecating humor have won him loyal fans as well as opportunities to work with the likes of David Wilcox and Nashville hit writer Don Henry.

GRAMMY-nominated artist Randy Stonehill, known as much for his manic onstage patter as his popular folk/rock songs and blistering guitar work, was a true pioneer in the CCM world. His 1976 album "Welcome to Paradise" is noted as a landmark release in the genre, and his career has involved collaborations with other CCM talents including Phil Keaggy and Amy Grant. Stonehill is still as passionate as ever about sharing truth through music.

Buck Storm, the "young pup" of the three, is recognized as a songwriter’s songwriter and has become a favorite both as a concert performer and worship leader in venues around the world. "I like to write songs about cities and small towns, the ghosts that hover around the edges, dreams and dreamers, families, broken and whole, sin, redemption and the struggle in between, love, squalor, motels, churches, kings, and the common man.... Whatever it is it's from the heart and as honest as I can make it."

Metro Tab is located at 2101 West Shepherd Road, near Exit 1A off Highway 153.

More info:

Call presenters J103-FM at (423) 892-1200.

You never can tell with these things; sometimes they are completely ignored and sometimes they're printed verbatim. We'll see how this one is received.

Want to help spread the word? Join and share this event on Facebook. Download this pdf, print it out, and post it around town. Call and e-mail your friends, and offer to bring them!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Don't expect quick results at the peace talks

Here's another silly visual comparison to serve as a break anyone might need from the current batch of bad news (never in short supply, is it?). I figured it was just a tad too obvious for me to have been the only one to notice the resemblances between Treebeard and John Kerry, and I was right (see how I turned unoriginality into a boast? I got skills!).

This post from 2008 takes it farther than I would have been capable of, so hats off and a laurel wreath (with permission from the laurel, of course) to the wit only known as "Writer the Geeklette."

[The Geeklette's post is a tongue-in-cheek apology for making the comparison previously.]

John Kerry and Treebeard are, certainly, not alike. In fact, there are a few glaring differences between the two:
  • First, John Kerry is a tall, lanky human being. On the contrary, Treebeard is a tall, lanky member of the Ent clan of the Fangorn Forest, encased around the River Entwash.
  • John Kerry is a wounded Vietnam Veteran and a recipient of the Purple Heart after bravely enduring gunfire while captaining a Swift Boat. Treebeard, on the other hand, awakened the Huorns who decimated an entire army of orcs during the Battle of Helms Deep.
  • John Kerry has an intelligent, well-traveled wife. Treebeard, unfortunately, lost his wife along with the other Ent Wives after they crossed the River Anduin in search of better fruit pastures during the First Age of Middle Earth.
  • John Kerry is known as a nuanced speaker who parses his thoughts carefully. Treebeard, on the other hand, spoke Entish, and anything spoken in Entish is only worth spoken when one takes the time to speak it.
Seriously, I wish Kerry the best; he has a job in which victories are few and temporary.