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What If We Don't

I hesitate to publish something that interrupts the flow of our ongoing serialized novel, but this has been a pervasive thought for some time now and I don’t think Facebook or any other social media is the best place for it. Please allow me this one indulgence as I momentarily direct our attention to more urgent matters.


Anxiety has risen around when we’re going to break free of the COVID-19-related shutdowns and “get back to normal.” While the US president is pushing for an unrealistic May 1 date for business to reopen, other experts are projecting much longer time periods. One bioethicist predicts it could be autumn of 2021 before large crowd gatherings such as concerts and sporting events can be resumed. The underlying question on everyone’s mind is, “When are we going to get back to normal?”

But what if we don’t?

What happens if “normal” as we knew it on January 1 of this year never returns? What could that look like? Could we create a better society for everyone if we don’t allow normal to come back? I don’t think anyone would say that our world we perfect before the pandemic struck. There’s absolutely nothing in the world that says we have to go back to the way things were. This is our opportunity to build something new, something better.

What if we don’t return to a society where people are segregated socially, financially, opportunistically, educationally, perceptively by race, religion, gender, sexuality, or any other arbitrary denominator base on traditions of hate, jealousy, and outright stupidity? 

What if we don’t return to an education system that is demonstratively better for those in some neighborhoods, cities, and towns than it is others, leaving many undereducated and lacking the skills they need to survive and/or hopelessly in debt for the majority of their adult lives?

What if we don’t return to a financial system that preys on the poorest of the poor, denying credit to those who need it most, charging fees to those who can least afford them, and rewarding those who hoard the most wealth with opportunities and resources the majority can never achieve?

What if we don’t return to a workforce that undervalues people we now see as critical to everyone’s survival: grocery store workers, food service employees, delivery drivers, postal service workers, first responders, pharmacy technicians and assistants, warehouse workers, and others?

What if we don’t return to a healthcare system that can deny care to anyone because they don’t meet a list of arbitrary and unnecessary qualifications such as insurance, or pre-existing conditions, or ability to pay, or where they live, or their chances of surviving, or their age, or the gender by which they identify?

What if we don’t return to a political system that denies anyone over 18 the right to vote because they don’t live in the right place, don’t have the right ID in their wallet, can’t physically get to the poll, were once in jail, didn’t meet a deadline for registering, or haven’t jumped through all the restrictive hoops?

What if we don’t return to churches, synagogues, and mosques that teach divisiveness, elitism, racial separation, retaliation, warmongering, theocracy, bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, disregard for science and medicine, authoritarianism, and complete disregard for the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum of people?

What if we don’t return to a disregard for climate and other evidence-based sciences, underfunded medical research, the obliteration of our natural resources, complete destruction of entire ecosystems, willful ignorance of climate change, underfunded science education, and pay-for-play publication systems?

What if we don’t return to an entertainment industry that makes its fortunes by exploiting the worst qualities of humanity, finding humor in our ignorance, celebrating irrational stereotypes, greed, corruption, nepotism, class warfare, racial disparity, injustice, and blatant misrepresentation of history and people groups?

What if we don’t return to a music industry that steals songs from songwriters, exploits performers, promotes live-or-die competitions, makes live music inaccessible for the masses, creates profit for labels over musicians, minimizes the role of women, and replaces talent with gimmicks?

What if we don’t return to an art industry that relies too heavily upon a system of corrupt curators and collectors hoarding art and controlling access to galleries and museums, diminishes the role of indigenous arts and gives unwarranted preference to eurocentric elitists, denigrates illustration and graphic design to lesser class status, and blocks access to financial stability for artists?

What if we don’t return to a world where more than 700 million people are food insecure, where 78% of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck—struggling to provide basic necessities, where as much as half of the world’s population does not make a living wage despite endless hours of work, and where workers’ rights are continually diminished?

What if we don’t return to a world where taxes are imposed on those with the least to give while billionaires escape with no taxes at all, where the efficacy of representation depends on the size of one’s political donation, and the voice of corporations dominates over the voice of individuals?

What if we don’t return to a world where any form of sex is illicit, where nudity is prohibited, where personal forms of pleasure are shamed, where professional sex workers have no legal protection, where protection against sexually-transmitted infections is arbitrary and optional, and where individual choice is superseded by antiquated laws based on unjust morality?

What if we simply refuse to return to the dysfunction that previously defined normal? What if we refuse to participate in something that is broken, inept, and unsustainable? What if we say no? What if we consider the possibilities of our own actions, collectively and individually, to change the world and create a new normal?

What if we take this opportunity to disrupt the political systems of the world, to demand more open and honest elections for everyone, to destroy the very concept of party restrictions and the misrepresentation inherent to their existence, to recognize the interdependence and cooperative necessity of every individual on this planet?

This is our opportunity to take control. We don’t have to accept the ineptness of our politicians. We can say no. We can demand resignations where resignations need to happen. We can refuse to support an economy built on corporate greed. We can demand more. 

We can create a new normal—something better, something lasting, something sustainable. All the cards are on the table. What do you choose to do?

The Old Man in the rain

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Caveat and such: I have been sitting on this article for over six weeks because I wanted it to preface the new book I’m beginning next week that uses the fictional account of a pastor to examine the pivotal role of religion in the 1970s. So, to some degree, this is an enticement to excite you to read the next 20 weeks after this. Also, you need to know that the emotional hurt resulting from how the Christian Church has treated me colors both my attitude and perspective in writing. Normally, I at least attempt to mask the worst of my bias but I am unable to do so in this matter. For that, I would almost apologize except that victims don’t need to be the ones apologizing, do they?  Nonetheless, I accept that I have no objectivity as I write this and that it may be offensive to some. I do apologize for any undeserved offense.

“You are no longer welcome to worship with this congregation.”

The first time I heard those words or something to the same effect, they stung to my very soul. I grew up in church. My father was the pastor. For the greater majority of my youth, it was generally assumed that I would, in some form or fashion, follow in his footsteps. I was prepped. I was groomed. I was even allowed to take a seminary homiletics course when I was 15 (I made a B, which was better than what Poppa made in the same course). 

Then, there was a left turn. And another left turn. Without any direct intention, I was suddenly at odds with the very body that had raised me. I wasn’t welcome.

For a while, changing denominations helped. No one said anything when my pictures, of which I was quite proud, appeared in a publication with an article that made liberal use of the word “fuck.” I thought, for a moment, I had found a place where God and I could be cool together. That didn’t last, though, and eventually, I received that letter stating, “We feel it would be to everyone’s benefit if you worshipped elsewhere.”

While it was easy enough for the Church to walk away from me, it wasn’t so simple for me to walk away from them. Church was what I knew. Church was the core of my foundation. I kept trying, but the problem kept repeating itself. Either there was no substance to the congregation’s beliefs, which drives me nuts, or they felt the need to exclude people like me, people whose occupations are sometimes difficult to explain, work that many seem to think results in a lifestyle that is largely immoral. So, the letters kept coming.

“Your continued presence makes some members of our congregation uncomfortable ….”

“Public knowledge of your published works makes it difficult for some to worship alongside you ….”

“As a part of the body of Christ, we cannot associate with someone who is unapologetic for such blatant sin ….”

That last one didn’t just hurt, it made me angry. I challenged them to tell me, book, chapter, and verse any scripture defining my work as sinful. I never received an answer.

Eventually, I took the hint and walked away completely. On my own, I still kept some practices, privately. The music, to this day, still speaks to me. A running joke has been that I am most likely to be listening to religious music, specifically, the hymns and gospel songs of my youth, when I’m editing nude photos. Don’t ask me to explain why I have such a strange habit; it just feels right and reduces stress. 

Once, about ten years or so ago, my love for the music sent me to an Episcopal church across the street from where I was living. It was Easter and I had hope that the music might bring a sense of peace. The sign outside said service started at 11: 00 AM, so I wandered over about 10:45 only to discover that, because of the special day, the service had started early, at 10:00. I got there just in time for the final prayer. I took the hint. God didn’t want me.

Fast forward to this past November. Several churches in town have pipe organs of considerable rank. One, in particular, is especially notable and I harbored the fantasy that perhaps I could slip into a service, sit in the back of the sanctuary, enjoy the music and then leave without bothering anyone. The congregation has a reputation for being inclusive of my LGBTQ+ friends, so certainly it wouldn’t hurt for me to just sit and listen.

Once burned, twice shy, though, I found the church’s service streamed online and watched for a couple of weeks. I wanted to be sure that their reputation was one put into practice and that the message and style of the homily were not going to be counter to my reason for attending. I watched for a couple of weeks and in the homily of the second week, the pastor made a reference that reminded me of an experience Poppa once had. Feeling dramatically overconfident, I wrote the pastor, via email, relating Poppa’s experience. He returned the email with a kind and appreciative message. So far, so good. 

I went to acknowledge having received his message, though, and it all fell apart. When I hit “send” on the email, it immediately bounced back. Being rather surprised, and giving the pastor the benefit of the doubt, my first response was to check the email address to which I had replied. I had contacted the pastor via a link on the church’s website so perhaps he had replied using an email program that masked his address, making direct replies impossible. I checked and found the email address was correct.

The thing about returned email is that there is almost always a reason given somewhere in the body of the bounced message. Sometimes that reason can be difficult to find, but it’s almost always there and this was no exception. Scrolling down, toward the bottom, I found the reason my email had been rejected. “This email address is blocked due to offensive content.”

Offensive content? All I had said was, “Thank you for your kind response.” How was that offensive? The message made no sense.

I then thought that, perhaps, I had dropped an F-bomb in my original message without realizing it. That happens often enough in my speech that I wouldn’t be terribly surprised. I checked. Nope, no F-bombs. I was baffled.

I read over my original message again, finding nothing offensive. Then, again, a third time, because surely I was missing something. I had to be. Finally, on the fourth read, all the way to the bottom of my email, I found the culprit. My automated signature, which Gmail adds on without me even thinking about it, includes a link to my websites. Not just this one, which I consider to only be humorously offensive, but that other one, the photography site, which was, on that particular week, sporting a set of nudes from my Experimental Series, right smack at the top of the home page. 

The reason for the block seemed clear. Whether the pastor had clicked the link personally, or if their systems are advanced enough to send a spider or bot to check the content, one way or the other the decision had been made to block me from contacting the pastor any further. There would be no attending a worship service, no listening to that magnificent organ on the first Sunday of Advent, no association of any kind. Perhaps I’m petty, but if they were going to reject my email, I wasn’t going to give them the opportunity to reject me, too.

I closed the email, expressed some frustration to Kat, and then, after she left for the salon, sat in my office chair and cried. All I had wanted was to sit in the back and listen to that magnificent instrument. I wasn’t going to socialize. I wasn’t going to sing. I wasn’t going to take communion. I just wanted to listen.

Separating Sheep From Goats

I really shouldn’t be surprised by my frustrating outcome, should I? After all, exclusivity and division are core tenets not only of Christianity but every major religion. No matter where one looks, there are “chosen people,” or those “favored by [insert deity name here].” Religious belief banks heavily on how following a specific belief system that, a) makes one different from everyone else, and b) results in preferential treatment no one else gets. While specific details may differ, the primary draw is that those who believe are rewarded while those who don’t are severely punished. 

For millennia, that concept of reward vs. punishment, believe or die, has fueled infinite wars, crusades, inquisitions, political coups, and murder without the sponsoring institutions ever being held responsible for their endless litany of crimes. How could they? No religion recognizes any authority as being more powerful than they and governments have learned that it is best to not challenge them. With no one holding them responsible, save for the theoretical deity who never seems to be directly involved, religions have been given free rein to do whatever they please without consequence. 

Within the Christian belief system, which is my primary reference point, the alleged need for a division between “sinners” and “saints” is codified in scripture such as 25:32-46, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. For those not immediately familiar with the passage, here it is in a popular translation:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

The division is rather blatant and many authoritative leaders stop reading with verse 33. They make the argument that by creating a division between sheep and goats now they are merely following the example Jesus sets. There are multiple problems with that interpretation, however, and I feel rather bound to unpack a few of them. 

First up, let’s look at the phrase which the NIV translates as “All the nations.” The Gospel according to Matthew was written in Greek, so the original phrase is panta (πάντᾰ) ta ethne (ἔθνος). At least, that’s where most translators start. “Panta” is generally translated as whole, and “ethne,” in case you hadn’t already guessed, is the plural root from which we get the word ethnic. Think “whole ethnicities.” “Ethne” is the focus and where we first run into trouble. 

Ethne, in various declensions (this happens to be the third and most difficult to translate), appears 53 times in the approved protestant canon, almost always translated as “nations” or, in older translations, “gentiles” [source]. However, that translation is unique to Christian teaching. 

Secular use of the word more frequently translates the word to mean “company, band, host; of men [source].” This is an important differentiation because how one translates this word defines the scope of the audience. If one translates the word as “nations” then the message is global. If one uses what seems to be the more common translation of “company” then the following judgment is strictly internal and using the scripture for justification of any external division is wrong.

How does one decide which translation is more likely correct? Let’s look at some details surrounding both Matthew’s version of the Gospel and how it has changed interpretations over the centuries.

First, consider that there is no original copy of Matthew’s treatise. Get used to that because it’s true for the entire canon. The oldest reliable manuscripts, and the ones utilized for the most accurate translations, are compiled in the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, both of which date from the 4th-century ADE. There are some external fragments as well, with a fragment known as Papyrus 4 possibly being as old as the second century [source]. The problem we find within those fragments is they show a high number of variations with regional differences that, in some cases, dramatically alter the meaning and direction of the text, including all of Matthew 25. Such textual differences make is logically impossible to consider any of them authoritative because there is no way of knowing which is authentic. 

Second, there’s the fact that the global “nations” or “gentiles” translation doesn’t even appear in religious texts until the 18th century [source]. Prior to the 1700s, theologians looked at the Church as an extension of the specific assembly of believers that were following Jesus in the days prior to his crucifixion. Mind you, they still used the passage to justify violence, making the leap that an even more severe separation would occur at the final judgment. What is important to our conversation here is that there is ample evidence to suggest this was strictly an internal conversation, hence the surprise on the part of those labeled as “goats.” Those who are not already believers are not likely to be surprised by the exclusion because they have made the conscious decision to be excluded. 

What happens with this text, the glaring gap of logic between what was intended and how the Church chooses to interpret the text, is not unique to Christianity. Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu texts hold many of the same issues. Buddhism has an even greater problem as many of its oldest texts have been destroyed completely, making academic comparisons and verification all but impossible. 

I find it interesting that we have no problem arguing the authenticity of Homeric text, which are similarly written transcriptions of oral history [source] but people of faith get all upset and butt hurt when religious tomes are given the same academic treatment. For faith in something unseen to be authentic requires accuracy in the translation of its supporting documentation. Without that accuracy, faith is nothing more than a fool’s adherence to mythologies and fables. 

This leads me to question why I’m so upset at being excluded from what may well be an exercise in multigenerational misguidance? If there is no authenticity in the texts used to claim authority, then there can be no real exclusion. Yet, here I sit, not listening to an organ and feeling very excluded.

Changing the Rules

Religious institutions have a way of changing the rules as it suits them. Mind you, the text they claim supports the original stance never changes, but how they are interpreted does. This creates an interesting dichotomy. In many cases, the changes are necessary for the Church to keep up with modern times. Yet, if the deity of their scriptures is unchanging, and if the authenticity of the supporting scriptures is to be believed, the message needs to stay consistent regardless of changes to society.

Needs some examples? Okay, Let’s take church music up through the 14th century. At first, harmonies had to consist of open fourth and fifth intervals, creating the open sound one typically associates Gregorian chant. That rule was dropped by the 12th century but they kept a ban on the augmented 4th interval, or tritone, because of its dissonance. Even now, while there is no outright ban on the interval, it’s heavily discouraged. Why? Uhm … well … No, there’s no justification for that one. Just a papal edict.

Then, there was the matter of charging interest. There is substantial biblical support for not charging interest on loans, especially personal loans. This is a standard originally found in all the religions based on Abrahamic traditions. During the Middle Ages especially, this tradition was critical to building the economy.

However, capitalism started creeping in around the 16th century, and greed being something the Church has never fought well, it caved. Completely. Only the Islamic faith has remained consistent in not allowing interest to be charged within the regions it controls. 

Oh, and don’t forget the slavery issue. Abrahamic literature, again, is heavy with references to slavery. The Church embraced slavery heavily and some encouraged introducing the gospel to slaves because they came from “heathen” lands. The Roman Church, in an edict by Pope Leo XIII, banned slavery in 1888 after it had been banned by most Western countries.  [source] Protestant churches, especially those in the deep South, waited as late as the early 21st century to finally acknowledge their role in perpetuating the practice and declaring it a sin. To this day, some minor Christian denominations still think the use of slaves should be permitted.

The use of Latin in mass and who could/couldn’t interpret scripture was a HUGE issue for the church. So significant, in fact, that it is one of the primary factors in Martin Luther’s 95 theses that he nailed to the door in Wittenburg, ultimately leading to the start of the protestant movement (not his original intent)[source]. Arguments over this one continue to this day, but the Roman church officially changed its mind as part of the Vatican II Council (1962-65). Mind you, the Church was stretching to find scriptural support for this policy in the first place, but there are still a number of Catholic theologians who feel the vernacular is too tainted and sinful to be used in pronouncing the “word of God.”

I could go on practically forever on this topic. I mean, we haven’t even touched the whole Inquisition thing, the use of mortification (self-harm)[source], the concept of limbo, paying indulgences (still a thing for some stupid reason)[source], and pretty much every other social issue that has seemed to put the Church in conflict with ever-changing societal norms. 

While it’s easy enough to pick on some of the larger issues to affect the Church, I remember some of the problems Poppa had to address during his tenure as pastor. Segregation was a massive issue that may have cost him one pulpit in particular after he did a pulpit-swap with the pastor of a nearby black congregation. Women wearing miniskirts to church. Whether or not an acoustic guitar should be allowed in the sanctuary. Rock music (don’t even get me started on this one). Women wearing pants in church. And to this day, if you want to really raise the dander of fundamentalist Christians, raise the topic of women as pastors, then duck because they’re going to start throwing things immediately. The same goes for LGBTQ+ issues. 

My point is that the Church, and religious institutions in general, place themselves in judgment over social activities with dubious authority. On most contemporary issues, their antiquated and time-sensitive documentation doesn’t remotely come close to addressing challenges such as whether marriage is an absolute requisite, the definition of baptism and whether it’s actually important, the intermingling of differing religious traditions, or even the liturgy of the worship service. 

Religions have sought to establish themselves as social and political authorities, in contemporary terms, since the 4th century. One might argue that religious belief systems were significant even in more ancient governments of Persia, Syria, and Egypt as far back as 6,000 BCE. They claim the authority and then order their postulants and followers to acknowledge their authority or be deemed heretics, a rather dangerous label in certain circles. 

What we fail to realize is that no religion has any true authority outside the spiritual belief system it creates. The United States Constitution, and those of several other Western countries, goes as far as creating distinct barriers between religion and government, barriers that cause religious leaders to chafe because it limits their abuse of power.

Religions want to control every possible aspect of our lives. The ardent and faithful follower is instructed to follow the guidance of their particular deity from the moment they wake up until they once again close their eyes to sleep, and some religious dogmas even attempt to dictate that schedule. Yet, there is no true authority behind their presumption of power, even within their own sanctuaries.

I find it interesting that only Matthew records Jesus allegedly saying, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). Actually, that’s not one hundred percent correct. The Gospel of Thomas also records that statement within the same conversation, but since the book of Thomas isn’t considered canon (more like a blog account versus a published news story), we’re not supposed to quote it. Still, it’s a verse that’s pushed down within the hierarchy of scriptural commands. 

The problem for the contemporary Christian Church is that Jesus, repeatedly, attempts to remove any and all barriers between himself and people seeking some form of spiritual benefit. He doesn’t care how, or if, you’re dressed. He doesn’t care what one’s occupation might be. He was friends with Matthew before he finally told him to quit the tax-collecting day job and become one of the 12. The change in occupation was not a requirement for the relationship. 

There are few checks and balances here and for many denominations, Southern Baptists high among them, there is no authoritative hierarchy at all—individual Churches and pastors are free to make up whatever rules they wish, interpret scripture however they wish, and there’s absolutely no one with the authority to tell them they’re wrong.

Guilt By Association

I have recounted to several an experience I had while preparing to hang artwork at a coffee shop some 12 years ago. I was there taking measurements when a group of three men sat down at a table in close enough proximity that it was impossible to not overhear their conversation and they didn’t seem to care (perhaps they should have). It quickly became apparent that this was a meeting of the senior ministerial staff from a nearby church. The topic at hand was what to do regarding a junior staff member assigned to work with teenagers. The problem was that the young minister had a MySpace account. Remember MySpace? It was really big 12 years ago. 

Anyway, this youth minister had friended someone on MySpace. In turn, upon investigation, completely obliterating any hint of privacy, the senior pastor had checked and this friend had another friend, someone with whom the youth minister had absolutely no acquaintance, who was disreputable because it appeared that he “used drugs.”

Whether the youth minister knew that his MySpace friend was also friends with the disreputable person was unknown. Whether the youth minister had completely vetted every last one of the second-tier friends of all his MySpace friends, an act that would have likely taken dozens if not hundreds of hours was also unknown. How the hell the senior pastor had time to go through his staff’s MySpace friends wasn’t a question anyone at the table dared ask. Yet, because of this one possible but completely unconfirmed relationship, the senior pastor was recommending that the youth pastor be terminated because, obviously, he was not making good choices among his friendships.

And the rest of the staff agreed.

How anyone, anywhere, is supposed to live under such tyrannical rule, or why they would want to, is beyond me. Further, the fact that anyone would give to someone else the authority to act in such a loathsome manner in the name of a universal deity astounds me. Yet, you do. Millions of you. The willingness to condemn one person for the actions of others is astounding. 

There is a curious passage in Christian scripture where one is given a look at the criticism leveled at Jesus by the “establishment,” The passage occurs, almost identically, in Luke’s gospel as well as Matthew’s, increasing the likelihood that at least one of them was manipulated after the fact. Let’s stick with Matthew since we started there. Back up to chapter 11 and we find that John the Baptist has sent some of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

The question itself is interesting and please excuse me for not completely dissecting the Greek again; it would take far too much time for this conversation. If we were to put it in the vernacular, though, it could be accurately translated as something along the lines of, “Dude, are you ‘the One’ [secret code for the Messiah] or are you just jackin’ around, man?”

The question infers a couple of things. 1. John’s followers, who are more “underground” and hidden now that their leader is in prison, need some verification. No one is publicly using “the M-word” because it’s not safe. Claiming to be Messiah in that theo-political environment was a good way to grab the cell next to John’s. 2. Folks who are emotionally committed to this rebellious movement are getting a bit impatient to know whether to back this dude or not. This isn’t a gentle request. There’s an implied demand here that Jesus needs to either step up or shut up.

Jesus tells them to report back to John what they’ve seen and heard, implying they’ve been trailing him for a while and he’s noticed. His dismissive, “I don’t want to get in the way,” was sufficient in getting them to leave, though there’s no way of knowing whether they were satisfied with that answer. 

What Jesus says after that, though, is somewhat confusing and one of the curious places where it appears words have been changed from the original text because anyway one reads the Greek it comes out confusing, leaving it open to the possibility that someone most likely decided to leave something out because the narrative takes a couple of odd leaps where it appears Jesus is babbling a bit, going from how great John is to referencing violence that was taking place. It is in the midst of this that there appears to be a massive gap in the text as Jesus goes from referencing John as “the Elijah that prophecies predicted,” to this odd and seemingly unrelated statement, starting in verse 16:

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Part of what’s going on here is that John the Baptist and Jesus were two distinctly different personalities. John was austere, the guy who wore animal skin and ate all-natural non-GMO food. Jesus, by comparison, had the appearance of being a bit of a party boy, eating at the most popular bodegas, throwing or attending parties every night, hanging out with known con men (tax collectors) and party girls (prostitutes). His statement that “wisdom is proved right by her deeds” appears, based on a variation in the Greek at that juncture, to be a quote of some other well-known literature of the time, though there are no direct Torah references to back that up. What he is essentially saying is “Judge me by what I do, not how you think I live.”

Religious leaders of the day, though, were highly invested in the exact same game of guilt by association that we see church leaders engaged in today. They thought they had a good reason. Jesus wasn’t the only person running around threatening to undermine what we now refer to as Judaism. There was a whole underground resistance movement at the time. When Jesus mentions violence in Matthew 11, he is likely referring to the Sicarii (סיקריים), a group of zealots who carried knives in their cloaks and would attack Romans or Roman sympathizers in public then blend in with the crowd to escape. While it’s easy to dismiss the Sicarii as a splinter group, they scared the shit out of the religious establishment who feared Rome was going to shut them all down violently.  At least one of Jesus’ inner-circle of 12, Simon “the Zealot,” was likely recruited from the Sicarii. It is within the realm of reason, given his actions based on his ultimate disappointment, that Judas had similar anti-Roman sympathies. 

Bartholemew (Nathaniel ben Talmai) was Hebrew nobility and, like Jesus himself, of the house of David, though through Absalom. Modern translation: rich kid with a Nationalistic interest. He likely wasn’t associated with the Sicarii as he had been in Armenia prior to joining up with Jesus, but he still had a vested interest and was likely of the dominant view that the Messiah would be a military leader who would overthrow the Romans. This was a strong belief within the Hebrew community and gave religious leaders more reason to worry. Should someone step up looking to be a military leader, the vast majority of Hebrews would fall in line behind them, putting the religious leaders at risk.

Jude and his brother James ben Alpheus (aka James the Younger) were probably the two most quiet of the 12, but they, also, were known as zealots. This gave the group of disciples a strong connection with the many underground movements actively resisting the Roman government.

Too little, in my opinion, is made of the fact that Matthew was a tax collector. That they made themselves wealthy by overcharging people is well-known. What is understated is the various ways in which this happened. Publicans, as they were called, were legal con artists if we look at their activities in contemporary terms. Generally speaking, they were not to be trusted, but crossing one of them could cost one everything they had, including their life. There are even apocryphal accounts of them trading “favors” for “protection” from the Romans. If there was ever a Hebrew form of the Mafia, it started among the Publicans. 

The remainder of Jesus’ “disciples” were fishermen, a trade handed down from generation to generation. These would have, for the most part, been big, burly men with massive muscles and gruff exterior. Think of them as bouncers or “enforcers.” Now, imagine them being the ones taking up the offering when Jesus finished speaking. A wee bit intimidating.

If we remove the Euro-racist filters imposed during the Renaissance, we come away with a much tougher and, for religious leaders, a more frightening and intimidating picture of Jesus and his disciples than one tends to get in Sunday School. Imagine how they must have felt when this group came to town. It hadn’t taken long for them to become popular. Where they gathered more often than not tended to have a party atmosphere, especially in the evenings after the crowds had gone away. Jesus was likely attractive, his body well-toned from working as a carpenter alongside Joseph, a dynamic personality who naturally drew people to him. In modern terms, he might have been like a night club promoter or DJ. 

Accompanying them was a group of women that the Church paints as “supporters of the ministry.” That assessment would be pure white-wash. Sure, they “took care of” the boys in the band, but in terms that were common to wealthy men of the period, they were fun. They kept the party lively after dark and it is completely unreasonable to think they didn’t provide snuggling services to those who desired such. Yes, there were among them some who had been prostitutes, but the “sin” of being a prostitute wasn’t having sex but making oneself available to whoever knocked on the door. By being part of a consistent and limited group, their sexual services were legitimized and no one at the time would have given that an extra thought. It was only their former occupations that raised eyebrows. 

When Jesus and his group came to town, it was a disruption in the status quo. People who tended to stay in the shadows were welcome. People who had their own conspiracy theories were welcome. People who were marginalized were welcome. 

If we look at this group in contemporary terms and I impose myself into the culture that surrounded them, I would be welcome, because who doesn’t like party pics? There would be pictures of Peter lying unconscious on a pile of pillows, his brother, Andrew, using makeup borrowed from one of the women to draw crude pictures on his face. There would be pictures of people dancing, laughing, and telling stories. Not everyone in those pictures would be completely dressed, either. Mary Magdelene, who by all accounts was quite attractive, would likely have posed for me. Peter’s wife, who accompanied the group often, would have wanted pictures of the two of them, constantly, possibly to the point of annoyance. Someone like me, whose occupation is making other people look good, would have been welcome in the tents and hotels and homes where Jesus and the group stayed!

I would not have been welcome in the synagogue among the religious leaders, though, and any association with this group of disruptors would have been enough for them to shun me for life. Jesus, those who followed him, and those who dared to act like him, were a threat to everything the religious leaders knew. My, how little has changed over 2,000 years!  [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]

Moral Sin Versus Social Sins

Within every society, there is a moral code that governs basic behavior. By and large, that code is universal though it is expressed in different ways. In Jewish and Christian traditions, there are the Laws of Moses or the Ten Commandments. Islam lists 12 sins that prevent one from going to “heaven,” but unlike Christianity, they have no concept of original sin, so as long as one manages to not violate the major sins, they’re good. [source] Hindu’s, similarly, divide their sins between the five mortal sins and the ten venial sins, as defined by the Dharma Shastras. They don’t use the term “sin,” though, and appropriation of that nomenclature doesn’t adequately address the relationship between wrong-doing and the religious context. [source] Regardless of how they are enumerated, their tenents are basically the same: Don’t kill, Don’t steal, Don’t lie, and Don’t claim something/someone is a deity who/what isn’t.

That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Apparently, though, it is too vague because every single religion has added a massive number of additional rules and laws on top of their base. The Jewish Mitzvot contains 613 additional laws and countless rabbinical rules and laws on top of that [source]. At least they bothered writing most of theirs down. Christians, Muslims, and Hindus are subject to a regional or sectarian guessing game where maybe it’s okay here but it’s not okay there and some very bad names have been called on those who accept LGBTQ people or put women in positions of leadership. It’s all dizzying to try and nonsensical to try and keep up with all the variations and divinations.

What’s interesting, though, is how Jesus took all these fussings and musings and laws and reduced them down to two. A common rabbinical argument of the time was which commandment was the greatest. The question was asked as a trap to accuse Jesus of belonging to a sect of outliers. His response caught everyone off guard. Oddly enough, only Mark, in chapter 12, records Jesus saying:

30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The simplicity is astounding. While I could easily write 30,000 words dissecting those two statements, the more simple version is more impactful. Love God. Love others. Love yourself. That’s it. No qualifiers. No caveats. He doesn’t limit it to Hebrews, he doesn’t exclude people of any given profession, he addresses no social distractions of any kind. Instead, Jesus lays it out there bare with no need or requirement for interpretation. Love God. Love others. Love yourself.

I have yet, in my nearly 60 years on this planet, encountered a religious body of any kind that embraced the complete openness of Jesus’ statement. None of them.

The reason is that we’re always wanting clarification, hence we devise social laws to “fill in the gaps,” assuming that we somehow know what the deity intended. Again, this happens in all religions, even the most pacifistic among them. As these social laws build up over time, they create an effective wall between the religious body and the deity they claim to worship. “You can’t be part of our group because …”

As a result, the alleged representative of the deity on earth,  the churches, temples, and synagogues that build high shrines, those bodies responsible for bringing people into fellowship, inviting people to the party, end up creating more barriers than access points, more doors locked than open, too many VIP lists and not enough general admission.

Casting First Stones

I’m running over 6,500 words already and I know your attention span is not that long so let me try to concatenate a few points into one. One of the most well-known and mistranslated passages in the Bible is John 8, 1-7. I’m not going to use the most familiar translation because it’s flat-out wrong. Here’s one that comes closer:

2 At dawn he [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

While there’s a lot that one could unpack from that passage, including all the particulars of Mosaic Law and speculation over what Jesus wrote on the ground, what matters are two things. 1. He did not condone the woman’s behavior but defended her against the religious leadership anyway. 2. He made it clear that there is no ranking among sin—any violation creates separation from God that requires atonement. 

It is that last point that deserves considerable attention because, like the Pharisees standing in the temple court, there’s plenty of sin to go around. Look at the contemporary church. 

  • It’s been over 30 years since the abuse of children by priests was uncovered and yet it still continues and those responsible turn a blind eye. Protestant and Evangelical churches are just as bad but their lack of hierarchy makes it easier to hide.
  • Megachurches build multi-million dollar facilities in the midst of marginalized neighborhoods (because property values are lower) and then ignore the needs of the people who live there.
  • Church fraud exceeds what they spend on charitable causes [source].
  • Evangelicals are committing sin #1 by referring to the president as “the chosen one.”

Once again, I could continue for pages, but just one of those points brings home the emphasis that one sinner does not get to judge another. In defending the woman, he offered her acceptance, not rejection. Numerous apocryphal accounts and Roman church tradition hold that this woman was Mary Magdelene who, from that moment never left Jesus’ side (one wants to be extremely careful in accepting that tradition as truth). What if, after everyone had left, Jesus had said, “Look, your reputation proceeds you and we just can’t have you hanging around our group. You would be a distraction.” 

Which leads to my ultimate question: What am I doing that is so horribly wrong?

The answer lies in the first myth of Judeo-Christian tradition: Adam and Eve. The reference is Genesis 3:7 in the Christian Bible, but it occurs elsewhere in other religious traditions as well. The story goes that, upon eating the forbidden fruit, the first couple realizes they are naked and start looking for things with which to clothe themselves. God comes along and, much to the couple’s surprise notices that they’re not naked. Imagine trying to slip that one past a deity! He gets upset, but not because they’re naked. He’s upset because they were disobedient. Being naked has absolutely nothing to do with what God does next in kicking them out of the garden. Yes, the deity then kills an animal and uses its skin to cover them, but that was arguably to protect them from the elements, not hide their nudity. The late Southern Baptist pastor R. G. Lee identified this as the beginning of the bloodline through the Bible emphasizing that it was disobedience and nothing else that necessitated the shedding of blood right up to the crucifixion of Jesus. 

Nudity? Not a big deal. Ever. Why? Because it’s not a big deal. Ever. Culturally, from the beginning of humanity, it has been a natural condition of life. The prophet Isaiah spent THREE YEARS walking around naked, in public. Why? “…as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush” (Isaiah 20:3). 

Like it or not, laws and rules against nudity have ZERO textual basis and non-sexualized social nudity was common until the 1870s, which is relatively recent given the expanse of human history. Only several years after the invention of the swimsuit did it become mandatory to actually wear them [source]. Christian missionaries then led the movement from that point forward, classifying nudity as a sin despite there being no biblical context for doing so [source].

Thanks to the strong influence of Victorian England, the concept spread quickly around the world and soon public nudity was banned everywhere the crown had any influence. This is why much of Europe still has few laws against nudity, mostly for health reasons, while the UK still holds tightly to a non-nude policy in public. Prudes. 

American evangelicals, however, always on the lookout for something else to make them more exclusive, embraced the laws against nudity in the name of modesty, pitting one social construct against another. Aided and abetted by some horrible misinterpretation of scripture, the lack of modesty came to have explicitly sexual overtones, completely ignoring that an abundance of unshared wealth is also immodest, as is wearing extravagant clothing and flying on private jets, things that evangelicals seem to have no problem doing. 

So, in the face of all this overwhelming hypocrisy, I find myself asking, “Tell me again why you blocked my email address? Why am I not welcome in your churches?”

Ultimately, the answer lies in the fact that I don’t need churches, synagogues, temples, or any other artificial construct to explore my own relationship with deity. The fact that I feel the need to chase after acceptance from such an entity is the greater shortcoming. 

Randy Newman, you know, the guy who wrote ToyStory’s “You’ve Got A Friend In Me,” wrote a song called “That’s Why I Love Mankind.” It goes like this:

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases ‘round this desert
Cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
That’s why I love mankind

I recoil in horror for the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, “Lord, a plague is on the world
Lord, no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”
And the Lord said
And the Lord said

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind

Source: LyricFind Songwriters: Randy Newman God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc.

I don’t need a sanctuary or a congregation or a great edifice to achieve whatever spiritual fulfillment is appropriate for any given moment. Neither do you. If we can’t find our Jesus or Muhammed or Krishna or Buddha or whatever on our own, chances are it doesn’t actually exist. We don’t need artificially constructed walls, we don’t need the confines of social construct telling us what is right or wrong. We know. That inherent morality shared across every religion is inherent within us; we have it when we are born. 

HOWEVER. It is difficult for me to explain, especially to those who have never heard, the power that a well-played pipe organ holds. Since the churches Poppa pastored were all small, we never had anything more than an electronic organ. While those can, under certain conditions, sound sufficient for small sanctuaries, they can’t match the way 60+ ranks of pipe consume the listener’s body, lifts them out of their seat, and fills them with music. The experience can be transcendental.

Unfortunately, organs of that nature are massively expensive and the bulk of them reside in churches who had the funding to match the instruments to great cathedrals. There are a limited number of 36- or 42-rank instruments still functioning in old theaters, leftover from the early 20th century, but for the most part if one wants to hear great organ music, one has to go to a church somewhere. I can listen to Spotify or watch YouTube videos all day but that is never going to replace the experience of actually being there in a grand sanctuary with a well-tuned organ.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled, after all this blathering-on I’ve done for the past 8,000 words, to give you some taste of what I miss. Charles-Marie Widor’s Fifth Symphony for Organ ends with a Toccata that has become rather famous. It is constructed of variations on a set of arpeggios traveling from F Major in fifths to C, then G, then D while the bass works its way down chromatically in a beautifully melodic manner. Arguably, only Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor is more well known and we could debate for weeks as to which is more powerful. 

Widor edited the piece several times so it can change slightly depending on who is playing and which version of the music they learned. While I’ve always enjoyed listening to Dr. Andre Lash performing the piece, the beauty of the Internet gives us the ability to hear it on the instrument for which it was written, the Cavaille-Coll Pipe Organ at Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Here it is, played by that instrument’s titular organist, Philip Roth.

It pains me to no end that music like this is largely confined to institutions that might invite one in for a special performance with a paid ticket but would block that same person from regularly enjoying the litany of great music written for great instruments. This strikes me as an error equal to paid-admission-only museums that confiscate great works of art for viewing only by those whose pockets are sufficiently deep. Both acts are an immoral affront to humanity.

As I begin the new book next week, know that it experiences like these that color my perspective and opinions of memories of things that happened within the Church during the 1970s. The book, tentatively titled Pastors’ Conference, 1972, condenses into the story of a single year many of the things I saw and experienced as I accompanied my father to various events. The space of time allows me to view all that happened with a bit more objectivity, which in some instances means being disgusted by things that were passed over at the moment and sympathetic over moments when concerned actors lacked the power to stop certain disaster. Of course, we’re fictionalizing everything, changing all the names and places, altering descriptions, so that we’re not desecrating the memories of those beloved. Nonetheless, I hope you will find the story compelling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pictures to edit. I’ll be putting in my earbuds and turning up Walton’s Crown Imperial March. Peace be with you.

Reading time: 43 min
spirit of the holidays

Note: The photos heading each section were taken during the year being reviewed. That doesn’t impact the content in any manner but we thought you’d want to know.

Four inches of snow lie on the ground outside as I begin writing this week. More snow is coming. Assuming this publishes on Sunday, December 22, Hanukkah starts tonight and after that, it’s one seemingly endless stream of holidays right through January 1. This is, in theory, the most festive time of year, a celebration not only on religious terms but also of the ending of the year and the decade. There are lights blinking everywhere, including the racetrack, but you have to pay an ungodly amount to see them. Same for the art museum. Same for the zoo. No one wants to drive from neighborhood to neighborhood to look at lights anymore because you might accidentally stumble into gunfire. 

Holidays are here and with them, we’re supposed to feel happier spirits, a sense of thankfulness for having survived and a delight in being able to give to others. Yet, too often that’s not what happens. Charles Dickens, a person with an abidingly deep love for one holiday, in particular, wrote:

Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas.

If Dickens is correct, then we have perhaps become a population filled with misanthropes. The end of our years now are filled more with dread than decadence, worry more than wassailing, regret rather than rejoicing. Many approach the holidays in sorrow, moaning the loss of one unjustly taken from them this year. Each calendar exchange seems to take us another step further away from the giddiness and anticipation that came not only with opening presents but also with seeing our favorite relatives, enjoying the company of cousins we hadn’t seen all year, and setting aside the stresses that had kept our brows furrowed the rest of the year.

Some might suggest that as thoroughly modern individuals we are simply more in tune and aware of reality than were our predecessors. We are too keenly aware of earth’s problems, from foreign wars that have no purpose to climate change that threatens our existence to the burden of insurmountable debt before one even claims their first job. Being “woke” comes with a price that leaves our spirits and our wallets too broke and broken for celebration.

I feel oddly obligated to at least attempt to correct this malaise that is set upon us. Surely, somewhere in the ethos of time and space there still exists some overriding reason to spend the remainder of this decade a little less curmudgeonly, a little more spritely, and perhaps, dare I use the word, happy. Taking a cue from Dickens’, I’ve summoned the Ghost of What-The-Hell-Happened in a search for meaning that might lighten our spirits just a bit. I’m not necessarily looking for a Frank Capra ending, but at least, perhaps, a grin.

It Started In 2010

 Spirit of 2010
2010

The decade started with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Having the games so close without having to actually suffer the insurmountable costs ourselves made the games so much more fun for Americans, and the Canadians, being everything that they are, did a wonderful job playing host. American skier Bode Miller finally won gold, and the US took gold in the snowboarding halfpipe as well thanks to Shaun White. The Olympics were a good start to what seemed as though it might be an outstanding decade.

We were listening to everything from Eminem’s Recovery to Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now, Drake’s Thank Me Later and Lady Gaga’s Fame. We watch a lot of sequels, from Toy Story 3 to Shrek Forever After and started the long and emotional process of ending the Harry Potter series. 

New Orleans made permanent enemies of the Colts when they beat them 31-17 in the Super Bowl, something many will never forgive. When it came time for baseball, the San Fransisco Giants made short work of the Texas Rangers, taking the World Series in only four games. The Lakers dominated the NBA and the Blackhawks took home the Stanley cup.

This was also the year that President Obama was able to sign the Affordable Care Act into law, giving millions of previously uninsured people a shot at healthcare coverage. While politicians have been arguing over it ever since the bottom line is that a lot of people have benefited and would be severely hurt if it is ever taken away.

All in all, it wasn’t that bad a year if you don’t look at the bad stuff. Most of the bad stuff happened on other continents making it easier for Americans to ignore. Sure, we had that one guy that crashed his plane into an IRS office in Austin and a brief bomb scare in Times Square, but we also ended the military’s Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy and put limits on the use of nuclear weapons. So, overall, as years, go, this wasn’t an especially bad one, which makes it good. Right?

Terrorism Takes A Bullet

Spirit of 2010
2011

Without question, the biggest news of 2011 was the killing of terrorist-in-chief Osama Bin Laden. The photo of President Obama in the war room as the event unfolded gave many people confidence that we had a competent Commander in Chief who was making good on the quest to hold responsible the person who masterminded the 9/11 attacks nearly ten years earlier. There was a lot of celebration in the US… and a lot of other people went and hid under their covers.

Oh, and Britain’s Prince William married Kate Middleton, which the biggest wedding since William’s own parents’ event. There was all manner of discussions about succession and tradition but at the end of the day, it was the bride’s sister’s butt that got a lot of attention and sold a lot of dresses.

I should probably mention the hope and joy and came with the Arab Spring movement, but given that ten years later we’re seeing how that didn’t turn out so well, maybe we’ll just skip that part.

More to our liking, the White House defined the Defense of Marriage act barring same-gender marriages as unconstitutional, saying that the Attorney General’s office would no longer defend it. On cue, the state of New York says “thank you, very much” and passes a law allowing same-gender marriages, setting off a tidal wave that would dominate conversations on holidays for the next four years.

We were still watching sequels in the movie theater, still listening to Adele, Gaga, Drake, and Lady Antebellum, and a whole bunch of people picked up The Help by Kathryn Stockett which set off a reading frenzy that lasted a couple of years. Not a bad thing at all.

Rangers made it back to the world series and this time it took all seven games before the Cardinals disappointed the Texas team again. Packers took the Super Bowl, Mavericks won their first NBA championship, and the Bruins took the Stanley Cup in a brutal beating of the Canucks. 

The downside to this year came in the loss of some wonderful people, such as Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, and Christopher Hitchens. We wouldn’t have minded had they stayed around a while longer. Still, overall, the year was positive enough to leave most of us feeling good about ourselves and about the future. We were going to the New Year’s Eve dance with a positive outlook.

Some Years Are Just Rough

Spirit of 201
2012

Being a presidential election year made 2012 a tough one from the very beginning and while the end result was positive it took a toll on the American psyche that is still playing out. This was a tough year to be in charge of anything, anywhere, and by the time it wrapped pretty much everyone, myself included, was glad it was over.

This was a bad year to be a kid. The horrible mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut was preceded by the mass shooting at a movie theater in a Denver suburb. This was a turning point in the national conversation on gun control that ended in mass frustration as elected officials across the country ran and hid.

The topic of same-gender marriage was frequently in the news. President Obama expressed his support for it and the state of Washington made it legal, but the state of North Carolina banned it. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the matter and while everyone in the LGBTQ community was publicly positive, there were still plenty of state initiatives to provide angst to the whole scenario, and nothing started a family argument any faster, except maybe gun control.

We did find some bright spots. The Summer Olympics in London came along in the middle of July and distracted us slightly for a couple of weeks. The biggest news was American swimmer Michael Phelps breaking the record for most gold medals ever. Yay! In fact, the US dominated swimming events for both men and women, which made us quite proud. We were also quite proud of Gabby Douglas for taking the women’s all-around gold in gymnastics and US women for taking the team gold. There was plenty of good news here and we were quite welcome for all of it.

Our music taste became questionable as Brit boy band One Direction dominated rather uncomfortably in what some wanted to term as a second British invasion that, thankfully, never materialized. The one highlight was Lionel Ritchie’s Tuskegee but too many people missed it and the opportunity to benefit from the conversation was lost. 

On the big screen, we watched our backs while Batman, James Bond, Spiderman, a Hobbit, and a talking teddy bear captured our imaginations. Security was a lot tighter in movie theaters the second half of the year, but we coped by buying more popcorn.

The New York Giants offed the Patriots in the Super Bowl, the World Series got tense as the SF Giants took game seven after ten nail-biting innings, Miami Heat took the NBA championship, and perhaps one of the most emotional games came when Roger Federer took the Wimbledon Championship from Andy Murray. There are Brits still heartbroken over that one. 

President Obama won his bid for a second term, of course, but one could feel the division growing across the country. This whole American experience began getting really uncomfortable and in the midst of it all, we lost Dick Clark, Etta James, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, Andy Williams, Sally Ride, Davy Jones, Don Cornelius, Dave Brubeck, and Ray Bradbury. 

On the plus side, Kat and I met at a not-a-holiday-party party on December 6. That’s working out well, so far [evil grin]

Love Wins, Sort Of

Spirit of 2013
2013

The most important event of 2013 came on June 26 when the US Supreme Court determined that the Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting same-gender weddings was unconstitutional. Celebrations occurred. There were still battles to fight, though, as the decision tossed authority back to the states, damnit. 

Much of the rest of the year was a wash, though, as we saw blatant stupidity grow as the National Voting Rights Act was gutted, George Zimmerman was somehow found not guilty of murdering Treyvon Martin, and the whole Bradley/Chelsea Manning thing went down in one of the biggest debacles ever. Ick. Let’s just move on.

There was a 34-minute blackout during the Super Bowl, and no, it wasn’t because everyone had too much beer. Baltimore Ravens eventually won the game, but no one outside Baltimore seemed to care. Boston Red Sox took the World Series in six games and the Miami Heat took the NBA championship for the second year in a row. This was a great year for East coast sports, but the rest of the country responded with a massive, “Meh.”

Movies this year were so disappointing I’m not going to bother listing any of them. Music was slightly better, although we, nationally, listened to far too much Justin Timberlake. The rest of the time we were listening to Pink and Bruno Mars and Imagine Dragons and Florida Georgia Line. We read Dan Brown’s Inferno because we can’t stop. We also read Bill O’Reilly’s, Killing Jesus, Veronica Roth’s, Divergent, and John Grisham’s, Sycamore Row because we were largely scared of new authors.

Stuff falling from the sky was particularly big news this year, to the point one might begin to wonder if the deities were hurling things at us, quite literally, from their distant thrones. Debris from a meteor hit Siberia, killing 1,000 people. One doesn’t expect that on a normal day. Ever. A massive Category 4 tornado flattened Moore, Oklahoma again. Why they bother rebuilding at this point defies logic. They keep getting flattened. They’re not getting the hint. Then, to round out the year, November 17 comes alone and Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee see at least 60 confirmed tornadoes. 119 tornadoes were reported. The damage across the Midwest had FEMA managers feeling quite confused as to where they should be. 

We understand that feeling far too well.

There is practically nothing else about 2013 that is uplifting except Kat and I move in together and three weeks later I hurt my leg and haven’t walked right since. This year was a bitch.

Spies Love Us

2014
2014

2014 was the year the whole CIA domestic spying scandal broke wide open. When it was found that they had hacked and spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee and everyone else. As a result, Congress unanimously passed a law requiring a search warrant to access information on anyone’s cell phone. What that had to do with the Senate Intelligence Committee is still baffling but it made everyone feel good at the time.

The Supreme Court struck down laws in several states, including Indiana, making same-gender marriage legal in more states. This was a HUGE win for the LGBTQ community but simultaneously sparked another debate over transgendered people using public restrooms. Republicans ride the fear-mongering train to re-take the Senate and increase their dominance of the House in mid-term elections. This should have been seen as proof that the majority of Americans don’t give a shit about anyone’s civil rights but their own.

This is also the year the NFL gets nailed for failing to deal adequately with the violence issues of their players, primarily Ray Rice and Adriene Peterson. There are a lot of charges, a lot of press conferences, and in the end, nothing demonstrably was changed to reduce the amount of violence within the league. 

Hobby Lobby showed that privately-owned businesses can get away with any stupid thing they want, particularly failing to pay for contraception as required by law, as long as they claim a religious exemption. That they’re still in business doesn’t say anything positive about the American people. 

This is also the year an unarmed Michael Brown was shot by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. We’ve yet to solve that problem, either.

The Seattle Seahawks win their first Super Bowl ever, which made something like 15 people happy. Giants barely defeat the Royals in seven games to take the World Series. San Antonio prevents Miami from doing the “three-peat” thing in the NBA. No one watched any other sports because we were either hiding from spies or afraid of the police.

We did go out to see Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6. This was also the year that Disney took the “on ice” thing literally and the song “Let It Go” became firmly ingrained in the minds of every six-year-old in the country, making it impossible for any adult to ever use that phrase again, ever. We also listened to Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and for reasons yet to be explained, One Direction. We went to the bookstore and became obsessed with John Green’s novel, The Fault In Our Stars and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

I should probably also mention the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. They were the most expensive ever and more people began questioning whether it was worth hosting. Women’s hockey was a big deal, but so was doping on the part of the Russian national team, which eventually caused a number of medals to be vacated. This is yet another problem that continues to plague the games even into 2020.

We lost a lot of cool people this year. Robin Williams, Maya Angelou, Oscar de la Renta, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joe Cocker, Pete Seeger, Ben Bradlee, and Harold Ramis are top among a very large list. 

We did land a space ship on a comet this year, though, so we have something of which we can be proud.

No Place To Hide

2015
2015

2015 sets a new bar for being scary. From massive earthquakes in Nepal to terrorism in Paris, this year was all kinds of fucked up in ways we hadn’t seen before. A co-pilot locked the pilot out of the controls of a Germanwings aircraft and flew the plane into a mountain, killing all 150 people on board. “Death by cop” became a real problem, and then some smarmy white kid walked into a black church in Charleston, SC and started shooting during a Bible study. A reporter and cameraman were murdered live, on-air. 

The Supreme Court finally made same-gender marriage legal across all 50 states. The feeling of glee was almost immediately ruined, though, when a self-righteous court clerk in Kentucky said it was against her religious beliefs to issue marriage licenses to same-gendered couples. She spent a week in jail and lost her battle but not before soiling what was rightfully a major win for humanity.

The Pope came for a visit. Catholics went nuts, but everyone else kept saying, “Hey, while you’re here, why not do something about that whole pedo-priest problem ya’ll have?” He didn’t. It’s still a problem.

Mass shootings were a bigger problem than ever. 10 people killed on a college campus in Oregon. Five people killed at a military recruiting office in Chattanooga. Three more at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. Then, to round out the year, a married couple shot up San Bernadino. After all this, try telling your kids that yes, it really is safe to go somewhere. Anywhere. 

We were feeling a bit nostalgic as Star Wars, Mad Max, and Jurrasic World took over the box office while Inside Out introduced our kids to their inner emotions, giving them a sufficient vocabulary with which they started therapy. 

Adele said Hello, Rihanna wants to know if you have her money, and Silento ruined ever wedding reception with this whole whip and nae-nae thing that just got completely out of hand. We got all excited when a second Harper Lee book, Go Set A Watchman was published, but then came the question as to whether Ms. Lee was tricked into signing the papers allowing the book to be published. We felt confused, so we turned our attention to Paula Hawkins’, The Girl On A Train

Patriots cheated their way to a Super Bowl win. Kansas City finally got the World Series win they’d been wanting, then silently slipped into relative obscurity. The Golden State Warriors took the NBA Championship from Cleveland. A surprising number of people didn’t know the Warriors were a team.

This is the year we lost Leonard Nimoy, B. B. King, John Nash, Christopher Lee, Omar Sharif, Yogi Berra, and Jackie Collins. 

The year finished with a second terrorist attack in Paris. We never should have left our beds.

Electing Rich Oranges

2016
2016

2016 picked up where 2015 left off, further cementing the concept that, collectively, we’re a bunch of dumbasses who think killing innocent people solves things. The worst included three simultaneous bombings in Brussels, Belgium (35 killed); a shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, (50 killed); a bus that plowed into a parade in Nice, France (80+ killed); and a truck that ran through a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany (12 killed). How did we respond? Why, with thoughts and prayers, of course. 

We weren’t the only killers, though. Hurricane Matthew came along and killed approximately 1,600 people before it was done. I can’t help but note that we’re getting a lot better at forecasting when and where these storms are going to hit but we’re not getting a lot better at preventing deaths. The disconnect there is rather bothersome.

We were afraid of catching the Zika virus that was running around everywhere and that kept some people from attending the most disastrous Olympic games ever in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This was the perfect time to highlight the impossible burdens the International Olympic Committee places on host cities. Venues weren’t ready. Where venues were ready, guests and athletes had to venture through slums of people living in lean-to shanties without enough food to eat. Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Usain Bolt still put forth amazing performances that inspired everyone, but shortly after the games word of abuse on the part of the gymnastics team doctor began to spread and the fallout is likely to be felt at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

There was some softening in US relations with Cuba but since most of those have now been rolled back they’re hardly worth mentioning. Don’t you hate it when you do something good and someone else comes along and ruins it for everyone?

Broncos (Denver) beat the Panthers (Carolina) in the 50th Super Bowl that was more spectacle than game. The world nearly ended, though, when for the first time in over 100 years, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. The curse was broken! Everyone was happy for about three minutes. It was the Cavs and the Warriors again in the NBA championship but this time the Cavs took the series, thanks largely to MVP LeBron James. 

Our taste in music this year was as questionable as our electoral choices. We listened to a lot of Beyonce but we also listened to far too much Justin Beiber. Sia, Ariana Grande, and a bunch of dudes all named DJ something-or-the-other were in the mix as well. This was a year when Shakira and Rihanna made more sense than most musicians.

We were much more content to escape to the theater, where Moana was inspiring, Dr. Strange was mystical, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them kept our Karry Potter hopes alive. Then, Marvel brought us the one hero with which most of us could relate: Deadpool. THIS was the hero we needed and we embraced him.

2016 was also the year most of America became aware of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, which largely swept the 2016 Tony awards. The impressive work inspired us to not only take interest in Broadway again, but also US history as we checked out who this Alexander Hamilton guy was. The roadshow continues to sell out theaters everywhere it goes.

Our reading got introspective and somewhat convicting as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad took most the attention and Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Mathematicians by Margot Lee Shetterly were the hottest things on bookshelves. We were also rather interested in Max Porter’s Grief as social media puts a new spin on how we work through the loss of a loved one.

Then came that damned election. Reasonable people failed to understand how an orange made its way to the nomination. They certainly didn’t expect it to win. But then, to demonstrate that stupidity isn’t just an American personality trait, the UK voted to leave the European Union as well. Both countries have suffered ever since. 

Wait, What?

2017
2017

2017 was the year of the double-take as the reality of our 2016 errors set in and news came at us so fast we hardly had time to react to one thing before we were being hit upside the head from something else. Once again, there was way too much violence and this time the numbers were among the most shocking ever. This was the year some jackass took to the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel and killed 58 people attending a country music festival. The focus quickly turned to how-the-hell no one saw him taking an arsenal of weapons up the elevator, but no one did and a lot of people died, so Congress responded by eventually getting around to banning bump stocks. Yawn. That wouldn’t have stopped the jackass who walked into a church 35 days later and killed 27 more people. Congress responded by saying, “Well, maybe we’ll ban bump stocks.”

Oh, this was also the year that a bunch of fucking Neo-Nazis took to the streets of Charlottesville, West Virginia carrying fucking tiki torches and wearing polo shirts and chinos. Things did not go well. They met with considerable opposition. Then, one of those fucking Nazis drove a car into a crowd of protestors, killing Heather Heyer. Emboldened by the election of the orange, these fucking imbeciles seemed to think this was their time to shine. They seemed to have forgotten that we have a license to kill Nazis, a practice we might consider taking back up.

Mother Nature wasn’t much kinder to us, though, as we were hit with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria all back-to-back. Massive failures of every kind happened, the most egregious of which came in the government’s lack of aid to Puerto Rico, apparently forgetting that they’re US citizens as well. To this day, we’re still not sure exactly how many people were killed by the storms and their aftermath.

Women factored strongly this year, starting with the Women’s March on Washington, DC one day after the orange was inaugurated as president. There were arguably more people at the march than there were at the inauguration. Women were pissed and that didn’t stop as they decided that if they were going to call out the president for his dirty and immoral deeds, they’d call out everyone else, too. The #MeToo movement began and while Harvey Weinstein was the biggest name to be held accountable, there was a crap ton of other men involved as well. For once, we listened and all those men immediately found themselves out of positions of power. It would be fantastic if this was the one thing for which 2017 is known.

But it’s not. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had decided a year earlier to take a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against blacks. It made some people a little uncomfortable but the opposition seemed minor. In 2017, football players across the league joined in and suddenly the protest was mislabeled by the orange as being disrespectful to the flag and the movement became a problem for the NFL. What did the NFL do? Blame Kaepernick, of course. The quarterback was blackballed and hasn’t worked since. Meanwhile, police violence against people of color continues unabated.

There was a huge solar eclipse this year which got everyone excited. There were, of course, the demented leftovers from the Dark Ages who warned the world would end (it didn’t) and despite countless warnings from every medical source on the planet, the orange looked directly at the eclipse without any eye protection. Other than that, though, it was fun to see everyone get excited about science for a couple of weeks. 

We were listening to Ed Sheeran, Imagine Dragons, DJ Khaled, and occasionally Taylor Swift or Salena Gomez, but there was a significant imbalance in the number of music awards given to male performers over women and when we realized that we … just kept listening to the same things because that’s what we do.

At the theater, we were thrilled with Gal Godot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman and scared in a whole new way with “Get Out.” We were largely confused by the 8th installment in the Star Wars sage, though, and despite the Academy Award win, “The Shape of Water” still leaves a lot of people wondering if the movie is promoting sex with fish. The answer is no. 

To escape the lunacy, we read George Saunders, Lincoln on the Bardo and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward among many, many others. 2017 was a good year for book sales.

After 51 years and only their second Super Bowl appearance, it looked as though the Atlanta Falcons might win one for once. No. The Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit and disappointed the entire nation. The Astros took the World Series for the first time ever in seven games against the Dodgers. In a routine that was starting to get boing, the Warriors beat the Cavs again for the NBA Championship. Hey guys, maybe let someone else play?

There was a whole giant truckload of political trash as well. Things we’d just as soon forget, such as the orange using Twitter to set policy. Delving into that mess would just be too depressing at this point. 

Getting Out Of This Mess

2018
2018

There were actually some decently good things happen in 2018, though they’ve largely been overshadowed in our memories by all the stupidity and nonsense in Washington. Let’s start with the fact that it was a united Korean team competing in the PyeongChang Olympics. That was a major milestone of diplomacy that hasn’t been seen in Korea in over 60 years. Norway’s Marit Bjørgen ruled skiing, taking home five medals. American Shaun White repeated as champion of the snowboard halfpipe, and Japan’s Yazuru Hanyu was the first figure skater to repeat gold since Dick Button did it in 1952. The games were a wonderful break that hardly anyone remembers anymore.

Fortunately, there was also a wedding to distract us and this time American’s felt as though they had a stake in the game as Britain’s Prince Harry married American actress Meghan Markle. There was some controversy, of course, because we can’t let love be love. Some were upset that Ms. Markle is biracial. Others were upset that she was divorced. Drama with her family didn’t help matters, either. In the end, though, the wedding was a spectacle and the couple wasted no time making babies that have practically zero chance of sitting on the throne but still get to go to the parties at the palace.

That’s pretty much where the uplifting news ends, though. Robert Mueller’s special prosecutor team handed down dozens of indictments and sent people to jail. There were two more school shootings that no one did anything about because apparently, kids’ lives only matter before they’re born. Sears and Toys ‘R’ Us both went bankrupt, driving home what we’ve known for several years that brick-and-mortar retail has a massive problem that no one’s solving. A racially-insensitive rapist was given a seat on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life. And then, to top everything, the government started separating immigrant children from their families and holding them in cages. Sure, there are some subtleties there but history doesn’t give a shit about subtleties. When Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives in November, the rookies started immediately making the Speaker uncomfortable with talk of doing something about the orange. Someone mentioned the word “Impeach” and all of Washington went nuts.

So, we looked for distractions. We listened to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper over and over because their remake of “A Star Is Born” made everyone feel all gooey inside. Donald Glover countered that with a gritty “This Is America” that made us uncomfortable facing reality but not enough for us to actually do anything. Again. There were a bunch of other songs but, honestly, 50 years from now no one is going to remember them.

In addition to “A Star Is Born,” we were thrilled as Wakanda came alive and the “Black Panther” became everyone’s hero. “Avengers, Infinity War” left us crying, but fortunately there was “Spiderman: Into the Multiverse” and the long-anticipated “Incredibles2” to dry those tears and make us happy. The theater was a great place of escape in 2018.

We emersed ourselves in books such as Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Confessions of The Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg, and Lisa Brennan-Jobs memoir, Small Fry, which is so raw that at times it feels as though she’s carving up her father, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and feeding them to the wolves, then immediately apologizing for the just criticism. 

The Philadelphia Eagles denied the Patriots a comeback and won the Super Bowl, showing some cracks in the Belicek/Brady armor that may hint at the decline of the Patriots empire. The Dodgers returned to the World Series but this time it was the Red Sox who took the series in an uneventful five games. NBA finals were a repeat of 2017 and the entire world is wondering if anyone else in the league even matters at this point.

Solidifying our angst was the number of really important people who died, people who shaped our youths and our understanding of the world. By the time we reached December 31, many of us were wondering if we could just skip 2019 and go straight to 2020. The answer would be “No.”

Crushing Any Spirit Left

2019
2019

Let’s be honest, by the time we got to this year, many of us were feeling beaten, discouraged, and ready to give up. This decade has been hell and we entered it without much spirit or hope for anything more than what we’ve seen every year: bad politics, mass shootings, international terrorism, racism, gender inequality, bigotry, religious abuse, and a deeper ideological divide than any of us can remember.

This is the decade that took David Bowie and Prince IN THE SAME YEAR. It also took Maya Angelou, Aretha Franklin, Stephen Hawking, and Neil Simon. All the nice people, all the people who encouraged us to think, all the people who made us happy, were gone.

Suicides skyrocketed this decade as well and it did so on every level, in every age group, among every socio-economic condition. As a result, there was practically no one in the US who was unaffected. Everyone lost someone.

Even sports didn’t have a lot to offer. The Patriots beat the Rams in the Super Bowl, the Toronto Raptors finally beat the Warriors in the NBA finals, and the Washington Nationals won their first World Series, but all those seemed to be little more than background noise thanks to all the garbage being spewed not only by the orange but everyone on Capitol Hill, resulting in an impeachment investigation that made it clear that not only is everyone in Washington a crook, no one outside Washington gives a damn as long as their team seems to be winning. 

So, where do we look for hope? Now that we’ve suffered through this exercise is there anything left that has a chance to lift the spirits that we pretty much buried in 2016?

A handful of things come to mind. Probably chief among those is the fact that SAME-GENDER MARRIAGE IS LEGAL across the US. Ten years ago, I doubt even the most ardent LGBTQ activist thought we would see this milestone happen so quickly. Transgender rights have improved dramatically as well, though there remains a lot of work to be done on that front. Acceptance has increased to a point where those who still want to argue the point are quickly shouted down by a chorus of LGBTQ allies before those directly affected ever get involved.

There were some serious medical breakthroughs this decade as well, particularly when talking about cystic fibrosis and Ebola. Where AIDS was once a near-certain death sentence, we have reached the point this decade where the disease can be prevented in most cases simply by taking a pill. 

While much of sports have seemed repetitive and dull, the US Women’s Soccer Team proved that they’re worth watching and deserve to be paid just as much as the men, pushing forward the debate about pay equity not only in sports but across the table for all women.

A teenager taught us about global warming when we refused to listen to actual scientists. She stopped flying in planes, made train travel popular, and, perhaps more joyous than anything, beautifully trolled the orange when he tried to belittle her. We’re still dangerously close to reaching the point where we cannot backtrack on the damage done to our planet, but there’s one voice of reason that’s shining bright in the darkness.

We’ve come to understand and accept a lot more about autism and how to respond to people who have it. As a result, schools have become places where therapy and help are available, kids are getting assistance rather than being kicked out for being disruptive. We’ve also paid more attention to nutrition and how food deserts affect kids’ ability to learn. We’re still not paying teachers anywhere close to a sufficient wage but we’re making improvements that mean kids that were left out in previous generations will survive in this one.

We’ve become more conscious than ever of the food we eat, thanks in part to a number of listeria and ecoli breakouts that forced us to pay more careful attention. At the same time, though, we’ve continued to overeat and are looking at nearly fifty percent of the country being obese by the end of the next decade. We have a long way to go, but raising awareness is the first step to solving the problem.

We’ve realized that there’s more to life than work and that a college education doesn’t mean you’ll get a job that pays enough to cover the debt created getting that degree. This led to a sharing economy boom with Air B&B and ride-sharing companies taking off in ways few saw as possible. Travel has once again become big business as more people are concerned about the quality of the experience over other concerns.

We carry in our pockets or our purses the answer to almost every question ever asked and it’s all available at a touch thanks to the new generation of smartphones that double has handy cameras. As we create memories, we capture and share them not only with family but everyone. We see more of how people want to live and sometimes that drives us to improve our own lives in the process. 

There ARE good things here. There are ALWAYS good things, every year. The problem is that the noise around all the bad things is so loud we lose the sound, and the memory, good things. That cheerful spirit of the holidays isn’t gone or dead, it’s being drowned out by a choir of Scrooges who want us to fear them and the possibility of what they might do if they don’t get their way.

Perhaps, just maybe, the way to get that spirit back is to respond to the Scrooges by turning down their volume, don’t give them the platform, and reducing their importance in our lives. Sure, we’re going to vote for president this next November, that is important, but we don’t have to let that conversation dominate our lives anymore. We know the orange is a thief and a crook and that there are other fruits that are just as bad and we need to remove them all. So, come November, we fix that.

In the meantime, we can work on regaining the happiness and the spirit we lost this decade. We can tell more stupid people to fuck off, focus more on getting good things done, supporting more medical research, being allies for those who are disadvantaged, buying more art (not just looking at it), singing more songs, meeting more people who are different than we are, and paying more attention to our own health so that we’re not killing ourselves off faster than we can procreate. Perhaps we can also take this opportunity to stay the fuck out of other people’s business, let people love who and how they wish, care more for the children after they’re born than before, do more to make healthcare universal for everyone so that no one is dying because they can’t afford to live, and getting more exercise for ourselves because we’re too damn fat and we’ve got to deal with that. 

We can do this. We can make the next decade so much better than this one we just barely survived. We can create more good things, do more things that matter, and shut down the old men who have lost their usefulness as our country’s leaders. 

On your mark, get set, LIVE!

Reading time: 34 min
Exploring Creativity

Reminder for those just joining us: We don’t underline links. Anything in bold italics is probably something you can click for more information. Usually.

My version of Adobe® Creative Cloud updated last week. Creative Cloud is the bundle of applications photographers and designers and directors and videographers and artists and everyone else use for everything from video editing to product design to the photographs you see here. Central to my interests, this means Photoshop updated. To say that Photoshop is a behemoth of an application is an understatement. One could take classes for years and still not be proficient in everything Photoshop does. Very few pieces of software dominate an industry to the extent Photoshop does the whole of creative arts.

Of course, when Photoshop updates the emphasis is typically on all the new features that have been added because for all the program can do, we want it to do more and we want it to do everything faster. The problem is that in order to achieve that goal, developers are at a point now where they have to leave some older functionality out. This aspect doesn’t get as much attention and unless one wants to go through all the fine print of the production notes one isn’t likely to discover what has been omitted until they need to use something that is no longer there. 

This time around, Photoshop seems to have dropped support for the older (free) version of a set of plugins I have used extensively [late note: a colleague says it’s still supported, but with extra work. I haven’t had time to explore that possibility yet.] From a development perspective, the omission is reasonable. The plugins are several years old and a newer standalone version is available that doesn’t leach off Photoshop’s resources. The problem from a practical perspective is that the new version is no longer free. The new version is $150, which is more than I had planned to spend on software upgrades this month. Or any month. 

Ah, the beauty is that the plugins didn’t do anything that wasn’t already available in the main application. The attraction is that they do it much more efficiently than one would do on their own. You’ll find the images that fueled this entire line of thought by clicking here.

All this turmoil has me thinking about what it means to be creative, how the reality is far more complicated than the end result would make it out to be, how being creative requires flirting with insanity, and the degree to which no one cares about the process, just the end result. Come take a walk with me through my world for a bit. This can get scary. Bring your own alcohol.

What Does It Mean To Be Creative?

What does it mean to be creative

We are constantly asking ourselves whether something is or is not art. That argument has gone to its furthest extreme of “if someone says its art, it is,” and puts any conversation about quality or talent on the defensive. I’m not sure we’re doing society nor artists any favors by being too accepting.

What we’re less likely to discuss is what it means to be creative. Being creative doesn’t just apply to what we might traditionally consider art. Creativity is involved in all manner of science and engineering as well. Where a new discovery comes as the result of a person trying something different or approaching a question from a unique direction, creativity was involved. That means that being creative does not make one artistic. Perhaps, just maybe, the inverse is true as well. Is being artistic always creative? Does writing an essay or taking a picture or finding a new algorithm for calculating the density of peanut butter mean that one is gifted or have we simply learned how to manipulate the elements from which new things are composed or composited?

In his article Being Special Isn’t So Special, Mark Manson attempts to make the argument that if you’re not setting the world on fire with awe-inspiring art or world-changing inventions, that one shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. After examining the progression and complications of contemporary Western society, Manson comes to the following conclusion:

As they say, wherever you go, there you are. Being special isn’t so special. You will still feel frustrated. You will still feel lonely. You will still feel like you could have done more.

Don’t sell yourself out for the sake of attention and false glory. Not that attention and glory are wrong, but they should not be prime motivators that drive your life.


Instead, focus on simplicity. On nuance. Slow down. Breathe. Smile. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Including yourself. Think about that for a minute and let it sink in:

You don’t have to prove anything to anybody, including yourself.

I’ll admit, there are days, weeks, months, even years where that “it’s okay, you don’t have to be Da Vinci” attitude has gotten me through some low points. However, as I get older, that attitude, especially over prolonged periods, risks being too defeatist to entertain. Okay, so not every picture I take has to be wonderful. Shouldn’t I at least try to make every photograph eye-popping? Trying and not succeeding is one thing. Not trying at all, however, is quite another. I’m hard-pressed to consider as creative the person for whom hum-drum and ordinary is the goal. 

There is an ad campaign that uses the tag, “for when being ‘okay’ isn’t okay.”  “Okay” meets only the most basic goals; it ticks the fewest boxes possible to be considered complete. “Okay” is life’s C-; sure it’s passing, but it’s a meaningless high school diploma that hangs alone on a wall where nothing else of note was ever accomplished.

I think part of what has to be separated is the act of creativity from the act of performance or presentation. For example, as I’m writing this paragraph (painfully struggling over everything except participles) I’m listening to a portion of Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata (It Came To Pass if you’re really that interested). Where is the greater creativity: in the act of composing by Schnittke or the interpretation by Maestro James DePriest performed by the Malmö Symphony Chorus? There’s no question that there’s immense talent on the part of everyone involved, but where, exactly is the greater creativity demonstrated? Are the soloists as creative as the conductor? Is the maestro any less creative than the composer? Can degrees of creativity even be adequately measured?

Into this stream of steaming consciousness is a new study that suggests there are two types of creativity. Experimental creatives build off their experience, bringing years of trial and error to bear before delivering a seminal, perhaps final work that defines the whole of their career. Conceptual thinkers work from abstract principals, chasing raw thought and following it through to its creative outcome. What’s interesting about this study is that is generally age definitive. Conceptual creatives tend to be younger, primarily people in their 20s who don’t have the life experience that might hold them back from chasing new ideas. Experimental thinkers are more likely to be over 50, have experienced some disappointments in their careers, maybe even changed careers multiple times, before reaching an intricately formed and detailed result. 

There’s something to be said for both approaches and it is entirely possible for a person to fall into both categories at different points in their lives. I look at musicians, especially. LadyGaga raised a bit of a ruckus with her “little monsters” when she tweeted that she doesn’t remember her album ARTPOP. Looking at the quality of the music on that album, comparing it to what came before and what was created after, it’s reasonable that the album falls between the conceptual success of “Born This Way” and the more introspective and perhaps experimental sounds of “Joanne,” but the artist is still quite young and may yet develop a different sound as her voice matures.

Comparatively, not everyone who is successful at an early age tops that first big explosion. Consider T. S. Elliot and Pablo Picasso whose best works (arguably, of course) came when they were young. By contrast, Virginia Wolf and Charles Darwin had a whole lifetime of experience behind the works for which they are best known. One of my favorite examples is Matisse, whose early works are exceptional on their own but have absolutely no relation to the work from his later life that demands to be a topic in every art history course ever taught. 

That doesn’t define, though, what it means to be creative, so let’s toss something even more convoluted into the mix. Adobe, the massive software company whose products directly target creatives, teamed up with the creative agency Anyways and writer/researcher Carolyn Gregoire to create the eight distinctive creative personalities: ‘The Artist’; ‘The Thinker’; ‘The Adventurer’; ‘The Maker’; ‘The Producer’; ‘The Dreamer’; ‘The Innovator’; ‘The Visionary’. The test is based on the Miers-Briggs personality exam which almost everyone on the planet has taken. Using their relatively short testing process, I’m apparently the Dreamer, which lists its strengths as being connected to emotions and imagination, empathy and sensitivity. If you want to take the test for yourself, you can do so here. However, at the end of the exercise, I don’t see the test as definitive of creativity any more than I find the Miers-Briggs anything more than a personality snapshot, a definitive point on an extended timeline. One can fit any of the artistic personality types and still be perfectly satisfied with their life sitting on a couch doing nothing. Personality is a filter that colors our actions, not necessarily a motivator that leads one to act.

Perhaps the end result is that what it means to be creative is as undefinable as attempting to determine what is or is not art. If that is the case, how do we begin quantifying our creative lives? If there is no “this is, that isn’t” determination, then on what basis do we justify people investing in, paying attention to, or distantly regarding our work? Volume? Quality? External perception by peers or “critics?” If some people like the work of Sibelius or Gustav Klimt, why are they enthused by those works while others consider both trash? 

As hard as I look at the topic, I keep finding more questions than I do answers.

What Is The Source Of Creativity, Anyway?

Creative Sources

Ask a thousand people a question, get a thousand answers to fuel a thousand frustrations. I’m half-tempted to ask why we need to ask this question in the first place? Does it really matter what the source of creativity is as long as there is creativity? Creativity isn’t a shared resource where one has to worry about their idea being polluted by someone or something further upstream. Or is it? And there’s the answer to the question of why we need to ask the question. Understanding the source of creativity does not make the ideas come any faster or make them any better, but helps us understand the shared space that creatives occupy, that portion of the universe that plants seeds in our brains and waits for them to grow.

Right from the start, however, one runs into a problem determining the source of creativity in that there is no consensus. There are those who look at creativity as an abstract that “lies deep within the soul of man,” (really, someone wrote that). Then, there are those who look at creativity as a role of brain function or, at least, keep making that attempt. Each of those approaches carries with them a lot of evidence based on the observation of what happens when someone is in the act of being creative. What was someone doing/thinking/eating/experiencing when engaged in a creative activity? Based on one’s perspective, the answers can be rather diverse and, at times, even contradictory, leading one to the conclusion that, no, we really don’t understand the source of creativity.

First, let’s get out of the way the concept that creativity is linked to intelligence. Yeah, sure, you may have read that somewhere, and it may be that most the creatives you know are also intelligent people. However, one does not necessarily infer the other. Dr. Rex Jung, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said in an APA interview,

“ … some people have found correlations between creativity and intelligence. They’re usually pretty low, this association. And some people make a lot of that, this low association. But usually, because this association between creativity and intelligence is low, it means that you don’t necessarily have to be intelligent to be creative (source).”

Okay, that’s not the hard break some might have liked. Anecdotally, it often appears that intelligence and creativity are linked, especially if we are looking at scientific forms of creativity, where knowledge of a specific area of study precludes being creative in that field at all. Someone like me, who despite all my efforts still does not understand Algebra, is not likely to have a seminal moment where I solve some math problem that five minutes ago I didn’t realize existed. However, there remain plenty of areas where pre-existing expertise is not requisite to the creative process and, at times, an overabundance of knowledge in certain areas, or even the access to excessive information in an area, can stand in the way of creativity.

Point of fact: following the rabbit trails of research on a topic can cause me to spend a lot of time reading rather than actually writing the article. However, in that case, the intelligence getting in the way is not mine, is it? One can hardly blame the author of an article if they’ve done well enough that I find the words compelling. 

One of those rabbit trails, however, led me to a 1965 article in a now-defunct scholarly magazine called Social Science. In the article, (source registration required) Alfred W. Monk, who was at the time Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department at Albion College, postures that there are three primary sources of creativity. He alleges that,

“Nature, by virtue of its vastness, its order, its beauty, and its challenges to man, constitutes a source of creativity. Man himself, however, in terms of his higher capacities, represents a higher source of creativity. Yet, if man is to develop and to become creative, he needs the kind of society which is most conducive to the development of his potentialities.”

American poet Walt Whitman would have underscored the influence of Nature. A decade after the Civil War had ended, Whitman mused in his diaries, later published as the collection Specimen Days, of the importance of communicating with trees.

One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)

No, it’s not an easy read more than a century and a half out from its creation, but Whitman was channeling a communion with nature that was itself introduced by English author Ralph Austen all the way back in 1653 (source). In fact, the period between the late 19th century and early 20th, prior to World War I, saw a global movement in naturism and contemplating gardens and trees and lying about naked among them. This is the atmosphere that raised great photographers such as Horst P. Horst. 

Neither does the concept that humanity itself, one’s own existence and experience, breeds creativity within oneself. The entire rationale of Mindfulness and its related practices such as many forms of yoga underscores and supports the concept that the answers and creativity lie within the self and flow forth most freely as one becomes “in tune” with the self. This is part of ancient traditions going back at least as far as the 15th century.

Where Munk may be unique, and tragically unheard, however, is in the premise that society has an obligation and need to foster creativity. He repeats the philosophical question of whether Newton would have been equally as creative in the Stone Age, in a society where he might have been seen as a magician rather than a man of science. After fussing around the history of philosophical ponderings, Munk makes a final charge.

“Although it is impossible to predict clearly and precisely the basic characteristics of the kind of society most conducive to the production of geniuses, at least three things are possible. First, from a negative standpoint, it is clear that not less than four types tend to stifle creativity: primitive societies; modern totalitarian states; stagnant, traditionalistic and archaic cultures; and any society that is unstable to the point of chaos. The second is simply the fact that any society that aims at maximum creativity must find its way between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, on the one hand, and instability and chaos on the other. The third is the fact that the creative society must be engaged in creative interaction with other societies. There is no instance of any great nation or civilization in isolation.

Remember, Munk is speaking from the perspective of a society that is still attempting but not yet succeeded in landing a human on the moon when he writes, “… it is well to point to the hope that, while we are on the brink of chaos and disaster, we may also be on the verge of the greatest period of creativity that mankind has ever known.” Given all that has happened over the past 50-plus years, Munk seems to have nailed that prediction on the head. 

As I read and ponder all these things I’m still not satisfied that we, collectively, especially from a societal perspective, understand creativity in its purest form or even recognize it when it occurs either within ourselves or, most especially, within others. I worry that far too much of the creative element is only recognized in hindsight, which leads me to the next section of the discussion.

How Are We Defining Creativity?

Go ahead, define creativity

Over the course of this week, when not chasing down the infinite distractions of this topic, or preparing meals for children who are perpetually hungry, or trying to make a dent in the ever-growing mountain of laundry [seriously, how do we have so many clothes?], or troubleshooting an uncooperative computer program, I’ve been processing a set of erotic images with the intention of submitting at least one of them for inclusion in next year’s art shows. The work has been at times tedious and enjoyable and on some emotional level, both exhausting and exhilarating as the production of these ten images has dominated my focus for the week. 

What bothers me about investing so much creative capital into a set of pictures is the constant concern that, short of me standing right next to the observer explaining to them what they are seeing, they will neither understand nor appreciate what they are viewing. I know that I’m not alone in harboring that fear, either. We have all been pelted with stories of artists and scientists and creatives of various kinds whose work was completely ignored until after their deaths. At times during the educational process, there seemed to be a subliminal messaging that to be creative is to doom oneself to obscurity in this lifetime and fame after our name has been forgotten.

One prime example that has received a fair amount of attention only in the past few years is the fact that it was women, specifically black women such as Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, Miriam Mann, Christine Darden, and Annie Easly whose work, largely unheralded before the release of a movie about their contributions, who are responsible for many of the creative advances in both science and art through the latter part of the 20th century and into the beginning of this one (source). What if the movie Hidden Figures had never been made? Would anyone outside their most immediate family have recognized their creativity before their deaths? 

I am thoroughly convinced that a lot of people sit on creative thoughts and ideas, never sharing them or pursuing them to any degree, for fear of being ridiculed, told their ideas are silly, or being told they’re wasting their time. The problem starts when we’re young. Parents and preschool teachers who have a lot on their minds find it too easy to push aside a child whose creative bantering is disruptive. As children enter school, they’re told to sit down, be quiet, let someone else do the talking. By the time they’re teenagers, even those with immense talent in specific public areas of art and entertainment are they shouldn’t hum while reading, or drum their fingers on the desk, or doodle on their test papers. It is the rare individual who survives this system into adulthood with their creativity fully intact. 

Yet, I am fully aware that there is a perfectly legitimate and authoritative argument that knowledge within a particular standardized framework is necessary to develop creativity in more rigid areas of study, such as math, economics, and physics. Economist Tim Leunig argues that creativity is born of skills that are developed in the classroom and sites the manner in which Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine as evidence. As mentioned previously, there are certain forms of creativity that can only come with a specific amount of knowledge already in place. Leunig and others refer to it as a creative form of literacy that, when absent, creativity has difficulty establishing a foothold (source).

Part of the challenge is that creativity in a field such as mathematics is not the same as creativity in the arts. A painter might come up with an elegant manner of expressing a math problem, be completely and utterly wrong about the math problem, and it still is art. If a mathematician were to express the same incorrect problem within the language common to that field, they would be ridiculed, scorned, and possibly driven out of business. 

Julian Astle, the former director of Creative and Learning Development for the RSA, has written that “Creativity is not a single thing, but in fact a whole collection of similar, but different, processes.” Hence, we have difficulty recognizing creativity at different levels and in different fields because we’re looking in too narrow a zone. 

For example, if we’re looking at an Ansel Adams photograph of the American desert, the tendency is likely to appreciate it for its framing, for the way in which Adams captures light at just the right angle to make the image aesthetically astonishing. What we often miss, however, is Adams’ genius in calculating when that light was going to appear, the precise time at which it would appear, and the conditions that had to exist for the light to appear at all. What is often praised for its aesthetic creativity is perhaps more astonishing for its scientific creativity and use of knowledge to create something visually pleasing. While there is no question that the photographer had a creative vision, he also had a creative application of knowledge that facilitated that vision. To fully appreciate the photograph, then, we have to consider not only what was captured but how it was captured and even the manner in which the photograph was processed. 

Inversely, the presence of artistic skill does not predicate creative ability. The Suzuki Method of teaching music, for example, is often criticized for producing musical automatons. Yes, the four-year-old knows how to play Mozart with technical precision, but the aesthetic value is lacking. Music requires more than just an iteration of notes and sounds in a specific order. A digital machine can just as easily reproduce the pure sound as can the four-year-old. However, there is still a noticeable difference between the child’s performance and that of a master such as Yoyo Ma The child is reciting notes on an instrument much as they might recite “Mary had a little lamb.” Ma is creating something new, something different, every time he picks up his cello, even if the notes on the page are exactly the same.

At this point, I have to insert the existence of composer John Cage (1912-1992). Cage was to contemporary Western music what Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was to contemporary art. The fact that the two avant-garde artists were friends set up one of the greatest events of public art in the 20th century [you’ll have to read more about that here.]. As a composer, however, Cage’s perspective on creativity and music and sound was unique, influenced not only by Dadaism and his fascination with music theory but by Zen Buddhism and the concept of silence. 

When in the 1940s the Muzak Corporation began piping music into offices everywhere as well as subway platforms and department store elevators, Cage led the revolt by composing the piece 4’33”. Asserting that silence was as important to music as sound, the premiere performance of that piece in 1952 went something like this:

  • Pianist David Tudor walked on to the stage at a chamber music hall in Woodstock, New York (yes, that Woodstock).
  • Tudor sat at the piano and propped up six black pieces of paper.
  • He shut the lid to the piano.
  • He clicked a stopwatch.
  • At the 30 second mark, Tudor opens the piano lid, pauses, then shuts it again.
  • Rain begins to fall (Cage had nothing to do with that … I think).
  • Tudor repeated his actions after two minutes and 23 seconds.
  • Audience members began to leave.
  • One minute and 40 seconds later, Tudor opened the piano lid, stood up, and bowed. The performance was over.

The audience was livid to the point that some wanted to run Tudor and Cage out of town. The response from every “respectable” music critic in the country ferociously declared that 4’33” was insulting to audiences and to the music community. Even Cage’s own mother told him the work was trash. 

Not everyone saw it as a waste, however. Musicians such as John Lennon and Frank Zappa would later hail it as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (source). 

Abstract painter Willem de Keunig was once (perhaps apocryphally) debating art with Cage when he made a rectangle with his fingers and placed them around a scattering of bread crumbs on the table. “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art,” De Kooning said. 

Cage disagreed. “The frame is everything,” he said. 

Out of context, everything is just noise. The sound of wind rustling through the leaves. The whir of a finely tuned car engine. A violin playing a lone melody. All nothing more than irritants until they are provided a frame, a context that reveals the genius of creativity. Suddenly, we see and hear and understand things in a different light, we appreciate their beauty, we place value on their existence.

With that understanding, or at least from that perspective, perhaps it makes sense to say that creativity on its own is just noise. If I write a song, something I did once upon a time, but no one ever hears it, or the people for whom it is played are unable to understand it, what was created holds little value. Sure, I might like it (I rarely do) but is it enough to create for our own understanding or our own pleasure? If we do not create to the benefit of someone or something outside ourselves, is there value to creativity at all? The answer seems to depend on whom one asks.

Who Owns Creative Property?

Who owns this mess

If there is value to creativity, and let’s assume for the moment that there is if for no other reason than the deepened depression that comes with the alternative is debilitating, then there is an inevitability to the question of who owns that value. Normally, I would reference some piece of law at this point, but when it comes to the overall survey of creativity, the law only serves to confuse and discourage us even more. This topic is a real-world nightmare that does nothing more than make millionaires of lawyers who spend years arguing without end. We have constructed a nightmare by attempting to hold the value of creativity to something that can be bought, sold, traded, franchised, and licensed. None of it makes a damn lick of sense and it only serves those whose understanding of creativity is completely self-serving.

A significant portion of the week has had the perils of Taylor Swift filling my Twitter feed. The country-turned-pop diva left the label, Big Machine, because of alleged improprieties on the part of Scooter Braun, one of the company’s big wigs. No, it’s not because it’s impossible to take seriously anyone named Scooter. This runs deep and has its own legal issues taking place somewhere else. This week’s particular challenge is that, in exchange for spending millions of dollars building Ms. Swift’s career, Big Machine owns the rights to all the songs she recorded during that period, even if she wrote them herself, which applies to a large portion of her back catalog. Scooter was not part of Big Machine while Ms. Swift was under contract there. He bought the label after Ms. Swift had left. Because of their previous legal difficulties, everyone knew it was just a matter of time before this became nasty.

This week, Ms. Swift claimed that Big Machine was refusing to allow her to perform any of her old songs at the upcoming American Music Awards. Their alleged justification was that doing so amounted to re-recoding the songs (because the show is taped) and Swift isn’t allowed to do that until next year. 

Scooter says, “Did not, she’s just trying to get me in trouble.” Okay, those weren’t the exact words, but reading the explanation issued on Friday, it reminded me far too much of the arguments between children when a parent was not present to witness the alleged grievance. The whole mess is missing any substantial evidence on the part of either party and, quite honestly, the best response might be to send all parties to their room without any dinner. 

What the on-going argument does, however, is to highlight the perils and, often, the futility creatives face when attempting to monetize their creations. Every form of copyright and patent law upholds the rights of the creator to claim ownership of the created—sort of. If one discovers something or creates something of value while in the employment of another entity who might benefit from that discovery or creation, then the employer may own the rights to what was created. Check the small print of your employment contract. This is just the tip of a very big iceberg where the matter of creative rights depends on the specific circumstances around the how, where, when and why of creation complicated by whether it was sold, how it was sold, and whether the person doing the selling had the rights to sell in the first place. Yes, the whole mess is muddy and discouraging.

There are basically three general areas of protection: patent, copyright, and license. The most simple breakdown goes something like this:

  • Patents apply to physical objects or processes involving physical objects or the plan/concept for physical objects.
  • Copyright applies to any item created through the general artistic process, regardless of medium nor the manner in which the item might be presented. 
  • License is the means through which a patent or copyright holder allows someone else to utilize, perform, display, or otherwise make use of that protected property.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But, of course, nothing ever is as easy as we’d like and there are more crooks and crevices within intellectual property law than one could adequately cover in a dozen books. 

One of the most significant problems comes when one tries to sell something they’ve created. For centuries, especially within the field of the arts, once something was sold, whether a song or a photo or a sculpture, ownership moved from the creator to the buyer. The buyer was then free to do whatever they wish with the object, even to the point of destroying it. Creatives often felt left out when the buyer would then go on to make a fortune re-selling their creation. I cannot help but think of this every time I see a painting selling at auction for millions of dollars. Be sure, the artist isn’t making a freaking dime from that resale. 

Licensing was developed as a way for creatives to continue making money off their creation as the value of that creation grows. For example, if the Associated Press called me up and asked to use one of my photos of the Vice President, I would likely sell them a limited use license that allows for a specific manner of distribution while maintaining the copyright in my own possession. I could then enter into a similar agreement with another media entity if someone else asked to use the same photo. 

The problem with licensing is that it may work too well. When the concept was developed in the 1920s, it centered primarily on intangible assets. However, with the advent of computers, software companies such as Microsoft utilized the concept of selling licenses so that they could re-sell and simultaneously limit the use of their software, creating different rules, and pricing, to apply to differing circumstances. As more and more of the creative world has moved to the use of digital tools, we’re finding that many of those tools require individual licensing.

For example, not only do I have to license Photoshop in order to process my photographs, but I have to also license fonts for various type, brushes and patterns for various effects, and even some specific color palettes. This drives up the cost of every image I process. I have the choice, then, to either absorb the license fees as a cost of doing business, or I can attempt to reclaim those by adding them on to the price of images that are sold. 

I don’t especially like the licensing system, though. Imagine if the same philosophy was applied to building a house. I might license the lumber from Home Depot, my hammer from Stanley, my saws from Stihl, and my nails from someone else. Obviously, I would factor the cost of those licenses into the price of the house, but what happens if, in the middle of the project, Stanley decides that they are discontinuing the license for the hammer I’m using. I’m supposed to return the hammer and obtain a new model which, big surprise, costs twice as much. This impacts the cost of building the house, but the person buying the house is likely to be quite upset and may even cancel the contract if I go back mid-project and try to raise the price.

Another sore spot in the area of digital licensing is that many products are licensed based on a subscription. Maintain the subscription and the license is in force. Drop the subscription and one can no longer use the product. Never mind that the real value of the product is considerably less than the accumulated subscription cost, to continue using them is a copyright violation.

Yet, the people who created those tools deserve to be justly compensated, do they not? And being that digital product is intangible, it is subject to licensing where products such as lumber and hammers and saws are not. The situation exists because so many of the creatives involved are freelance, part of a gig economy that leaves fair payment for one’s creativity up to an ungrateful end user who thinks they should get everything for free, including end product. Instead of being supportive by buying products and services outright, the society that should be supportive of creativity in all forms instead starves it to death with inappropriate payment systems that keep us all on proverbial street corners looking for handouts.

And that leads us to the final thought.

Are Creatives Crazy Or Are Crazy People Creative?

who are you calling crazy

Honestly, I don’t know creative people in any field that haven’t had their bouts with mental illness of one form or another. I sit here almost every Saturday questioning my value, wondering if I’m the only one who thinks my work has value, and questioning my worth as a person. Plenty of others have it worse, fighting with suicidal thoughts on a regular basis and dealing with urges of self-harm. We may make jokes about van Gogh cutting off his ear, but the number of creatives across every field who hide scars with long sleeves or, more recently, heavily inked tattoos, is higher than anyone can accurately measure. Not only do we suffer, but most also suffer in complete silence.

I have found it interesting as I’ve looked at this subject in sometimes painful detail the number of psychopathological challenges that have been found common among creatives.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Manic ideations
  • Suicide

Every study seems to have their favorite malady and plenty of famous anecdotal subjects who conveniently fit the diagnosis that particular psychopathology despite not being available to participate in an actual study, usually due to having been dead for a hundred years or so. 

On the surface, it’s easy enough to accept such studies because of our own need to explain the mood swings, the sudden outburst of anger followed by uncontrollable crying, hearing voices when no one else is in the room, and the persistent urge to drive one’s head into a wall, among other symptoms. 

The fly in this seemingly obvious ointment is Alan Rothenberg’s book Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. In preparation for this book, Dr. Rothenberg interviewed 45 Nobel Laureates and failed to find a single instance of a psychiatric disorder. None. Zero. Some of the most creative people in the world and they don’t exhibit any of the plagues that seem to haunt the minds of others. That kind of puts a pin in all the other studies who looked at more “average” creatives.

Maybe part of the problem is that we’re not reaching our creative potential and that is making us crazy? There’s certainly an argument for that, but there is no hard scientific evidence in support of the theory. 

What does seem almost certain is that Cognitive Disinhibition plays a roll in what is at the very least considered artistic eccentricity. Cognitive Disinhibition is the inability to ignore the things we would be better off ignoring. You know, like constantly chasing rabbit trails instead of sticking to the research one needs to do. For anyone who has Cognitive Disinhibition, the Internet and especially social media are like death traps. The overabundance of information constantly changing and being updated feeds that inability to filter out information we don’t really need to know (source).

Where does that leave us? A 2013 study says this:

Reduced cognitive filtering could explain the tendency of highly creative people to focus intensely on the content of their inner world at the expense of social or even self-care needs. (Beethoven, for example, had difficulty tending to his own cleanliness.) When conscious awareness is overpopulated with unusual and unfiltered stimuli, it is difficult not to focus attention on that inner universe.”

That might explain how many creative people end up seeming antisocial or having difficulty participating in social events. The same researcher says in a similar study:

In all of our studies and analyses, high IQ, when combined with low LI, was associated with increased creative achievement. These results are particularly stunning in the analysis of eminent achievers and high-functioning controls. High IQ clearly appeared to augment the tendency toward high creative achievement characteristic of low-LI individuals.

These results lend support to the theory that there may be qualitative (e.g., failure to filter out irrelevant stimuli) as well as quantitative (e.g., high IQ) differences in the processes underlying creative versus normal cognition.”

Just for clarity, LI in this instance stands for latent inhibition, “the varying capacity of the brain to screen from current attentional focus stimuli previously experienced as irrelevant.” So, to summarize, intelligent people who are easily distracted are also more likely to be more creative. That’s nice to know, I suppose, but it doesn’t explain why so many creatives are happy taking a handful of sleeping pills and never waking up.

Hold on, Dr. Carson isn’t done. In yet another article she and her colleagues write:

“…These results also support the theory that highly creative individuals and psychotic-prone individuals may possess neurobiological similarities, perhaps genetically determined, that present either as psychotic predisposition on the one hand or as unusual creative potential on the other on the basis of the presence of moderating cognitive factors such as high IQ (e.g., Berenbaum & Fujita, 1994; Dykes & McGhie, 1976; Eysenck, 1995). These moderating factors may allow an individual to override a “deficit” in early selective attentional processing with a high-functioning mechanism at a later, more controlled level of selective processing. The highly creative individual may be privileged to access a greater inventory of unfiltered stimuli during early processing, thereby increasing the odds of original recombinant ideation. Thus, a deficit that is generally associated with pathology may well impart a creative advantage in the presence of other cognitive strengths such as high IQ.”

Translation: The whole matter may be one of genetics. The same genes that result in mental incapacities in some people may create “unusual creative potential” in others, with the possibility that a person and shift back and forth between the two. In short: we’re born this way, baby.

Oh, but this gets way crazier. If we recognize that there’s a problem we have to try and solve it, right? Famously, Timothy Leary and others tried using LSD and other drugs and while it might have made them more creative for a period it also made any mental issues worse. So, we’ve all been told to stay away from psychedelic drugs.

Until a couple of years ago. Microdosing. Are you familiar with the term? It’s when a drug is administered at levels significantly lower than the norm. One of its most common uses is in hormone therapy where it’s shown significant promise. Now, apply that to psychedelic drugs, specifically LSD.

A 2018 study showed that people who microdose LSD and mushrooms score higher on wisdom, creativity, and open-mindedness while scoring lower on dysfunctional attitudes and negative emotionality. While this is far from being any kind of a cure, it is some sign that there are at least options that might momentarily mute some of the more negative symptoms that creatives regularly endure.

Pardon Me While I Soak My Head

I'm done

Seriously, my head is throbbing. It’s now late Saturday night, stress has created a pain at the base of my skull, and I’m trying to find a way to wrap up this bitch of an article so I can take a hit of scotch and go to bed. I’m not convinced that all this research this week has actually solved anything except that I have a lot more information in my head now to contribute to all the Cognitive Disinhibition. 

Here’s where my brain is at for the moment.

  1. Those of us who are genuinely creative are damn lucky. There are a lot of people who work in creative-related areas that can’t actually produce a damn thing but have been led to believe that they are creatives. Their frustration is significantly higher than the rest of us and many end up in mental institutions … doing art therapy.
  2. Creativity has a mind of its own and shows up whenever, wherever, and for whatever reason it wants. There are a thousand ways to stimulate the creative mind and no, not all of them are healthy, but when every molecule in your brain is telling you that you have to create something then consequences be damned, we’re going to create. Something.
  3. Creativity can be the answer to a math problem no one else can figure out or a smattering of bread crumbs on a table or the cacophony of a dozen ring tones smashed together and punctuated with rhythmic silence. What matters is the frame, the context, how one allows others to experience their work. If you think you’ve made a freaking masterpiece then show it off like a freaking masterpiece, not in your mother’s garage.
  4. What you create is always a part of you even if it is no longer with you. Possession is an illusion. If you create something, it is yours. If someone else can rif off what you created, let them because in doing so you celebrate the creativity you both share. Nothing worthwhile deserves to be locked away by any means physical, contractual, or digital. Sing your songs. Make your art. Discover new worlds. Let no one tell you no.
  5. It’s not being creative that presents mental illness, it’s the pressure, whether internal or external, to create that drives us right smack over the edge. Creatives are under constant pressure to produce more and as we do it is supposed to be different and better and more astonishing than what we did last time. Feel free to call bullshit on that whole scenario. 
  6. Someone needs to be taking care of creatives because, for the most part, we do a lousy job taking care of ourselves. We’re a mess, ya’ll. And while we should embrace the mess that we are, let’s get real and appreciate that there are probably days/weeks/months that we shouldn’t be left alone in a room where there are sharp objects. We need people to check on us and not believe us when we say that we’re fine. We’re creatives. We’re not “fine.”
  7. We all need more sleep.

There is a long-haired orange tabby kitten peering over the edge of my laptop most likely wondering if I’m going to get anything to eat and if I do whether he can mooch some if it. He gets his balls lopped off on Monday. We are removing an element of creativity from him. 

Too many days I feel as though I’ve had my creative balls lopped off.  I go back over the questions I’ve asked here and despite all the research, I can’t answer any of them. Then, a poem comes to mind from the pen of Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose depression and exhaustion drove him into a manner of solitude. He wrote, in part,

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,   
Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
   Left of six hundred.


When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

My creative friends, we are the six hundred. Charge on.

Reading time: 40 min
Grammy Reviews, Old Man Talking

Here we are, once again, at that time of year when attention starts to turn toward music and the impending Grammy Awards occurring next week. In previous years, we’ve tried letting the kids make predictions, looking only at new artists, and other versions of attempting to select winners. None of them have been remotely accurate.

Having come to the conclusion that those in the recording academy who cast votes for these entries are most likely certifiably insane, I want to spend my Grammy review time this year taking a more serious look at what was nominated. Many of these nominations are deserving of an award. Others, as always, are clueless and insulting.

There are 84 categories of Grammy awards and it would take more time than I have in my schedule to cover even half of those, especially when a large chunk of the awards don’t go to individual songs but entire albums of work. I’m not sure who exactly gets paid to sit around and critically listen to all that music, but it’s not me.

What I’ve done is limit myself to the single tracks nominated in the seven areas I feel most comfortable discussing. Those are:

  • Pop
  • Rock
  • Country
  • American Roots
  • R&B
  • Gospel/CCM
  • General Field

Just to be clear, “General Field” is how the academy describes that overall set of awards such as Record of the Year and Song of the Year. For those who’ve been asleep for a while, one might also note that the Recording Academy no longer separates categories by gender. There is no “best male/female vocalist” in any genre.

For most the genres, we limited our reviews to Best Solo Performance, Best Duo/Group Performance, and in some categories, Best Song. Even with those limitations, we still have a rather lengthy list. If one is bound and determined to listen to every second of every song, be prepared to spend the better part of the day with headphones stuck on your head.

As we go, clicking on the title of each song links to it on Spotify. I’ve composed all our reviewed songs in a single playlist that we’ll include at the end of the article. Any title marked with an * is nominated in more than one category.

There’s a lot to discuss and to hear, so let’s get started on this task quickly.

Pop

2019 Grammys, Old Man Talking

Pop is the broadest and most inclusive genre, encompassing most anything that one might find on the Billboard Top 100 list. Anyone who listens to an adult contemporary or top 40 radio station is likely to be familiar with these songs. Still, there are a couple of outliers that don’t quite seem to fit and seem to skew the categories. This is also a genre where songs that are public favorites don’t always win. Let’s look at the songs.

Colors – Beck

Wait, Beck’s still relevant? I honestly thought they’d disbanded or something. Apparently not. This song is evident that the group is somehow stuck in the 90s and managing through time travel to send their music into the future.The clap track on this song kills me and the pan flute is one of the most pretentious things heard in this year’s nominees. I would like to believe that most of the music-listening world has evolved beyond finding this enjoyable. Yet, would the song be here if it didn’t have fans? This is a disappointing song that time hopefully forgets quickly.

Havana – Camila Cabello

When even grade school kids know all the words to the song and can dance to it, we know the song has achieved a high level of penetration. This is a powerful and memorable performance of a song that uses Latin rhythms and tempos to capture an image of a fantasized society where everyone is beautiful and everyone knows how to tango. The Pentatonix cover of the song only helped fuel the song’s popularity. The live recording is the version nominated and well worth the listen. Just be prepared to dance wherever you are.

God Is A Woman – Ariana Grande

Be aware: This song comes with an “explicit” tag attached. This song generated plenty of controversy when it was released last year, but in an interesting and ironic turn, Grande’s feminist anthem actually mentions God more often than do the majority of the songs nominated in the Gospel/CCM category. I wish I was kidding. Ariana is riding a popularity wave and her millions of fans are very vocal in their support for the singer, especially when she broke up with her boyfriend. I might worry that the Recording Academy could come under attack is Ms. Grande doesn’t win something. Is the song any good, though? It’s listenable and its message resonates with women. Personally, I don’t think it’s her best option and the recent release of Seven Rings may prove distracting.

Joanne – Lady Gaga

Everyone is so focused on “Shallow” that it is easy to overlook Gaga’s other nominated work. Joanne, which is her given name, is an acoustic song with more of a folk feel to it than what we would generally consider pop. When the strings enter about half-way through, they feel a bit forced, as though someone at the record label decided that, “Wait! We’ve not spent enough money on this song. Let’s add strings!” Gaga doesn’t need any help here. In fact, there are moments throughout the song when it feels as though she’s channeling Joan Baez. Joanne is a wonderful contrast to the heavily-produced “Shallow” and does much more to show off Gaga’s voice.

Fall In Line – Christina Aguilera with Demi Lovato

Christina Aguilera knows how to do a big, powerful anthem and this is yet another in the long list of anthems that punctuate her career. There are plenty of pro-feminist songs with overtones of the #MeToo movement nominated this year and this is the loudest, most likely to slap someone in the face of all those songs. There’s little doubt by the end of the first verse that Xtina is fed up with all the bullshit and is ready to kick some ass. Then, as she is prone to do on these big songs, she enlists some help from a friend. This time, it’s Demi Lovato who matches Christina’s level of angry quite well. The Academy should be warned: upset Christina and she just might bitch slap a presenter.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart – Backstreet Boys

Again, here we go back to the 90s. At least this time around the song itself is a little more contemporary but the synth drums and a cappella break at the bridge are classic Backstreet maneuvers sufficient to give one whiplash from the force of the throwback. While I’m sure that those original Backstreet fans that have never been able to completely adapt and move on with their lives are excited that the boys are nominated again. Coping with the progress of time doesn’t come easily for everyone. The sound is ultimately dated and the song isn’t enough to justify a comeback from a group that most of the world didn’t miss in the first place.

“S Wonderful – Tony Bennett & Diana Krall

Tony Bennett is 92 years old, still recording, still performing, and still being nominated for Grammy awards. In my opinion, they should give him his own category and just mail him the trophy. The man has no peers—they’re all dead. Putting him in a contest with anyone else is inherently unfair. Over the past several years, we’ve seen the crooner do duets with several people, some of which haven’t worked especially well. Diana Krall’s more mature and professionally developed voice is the best match yet. Her rich vocal tones blend nicely with Tony’s voice, even if he is starting to crack around the edges a bit too often. I wish they had done this album say ten years ago when Bennett was still able to match pitch without having to slide into every note. Even now, though, there’s no one in Tony’s league. That doesn’t mean he’ll win in such a broad category, but the man deserves a trophy.

Girls Like You – Maroon 5 with Cardi B.

This is classic Maroon 5 with plenty of rhythm and Adam Levine singing notes too high for human ears to hear. Every dog in the room perks up with this song comes on, though. Maroon 5 has a predictable formula for their hits and this song follows that pattern so well that if one is listening and not watching the video they might become distracted. The break with Cardi B. jolts one’s attention back to the song because her hard-hitting rap style is so diametrically opposed to the smoothness of Adam’s voice that one might think their device has jumped tracks or had an emotional breakdown. This is meant to be a song that is supportive of the women in one’s life and there’s no question that there’s an “awww” moment at the end of the video where Levine is standing with his wife and baby. Lovely picture. If one is just listening to the song, though, it comes off like most men’s response to the #MeToo movement: hollow and short of any real content.

Say Something – Justin Timberlake & Chris Stapleton

I have a feeling that, at this point in his career, Timberlake is trying to make sure he has enough Grammy-nominated tracks to complete a “Best of …” box set. That seems to be the only reason for this song to even exist. Sure, having Chris Stapleton sing along gives Timberlake some crossover airplay, which probably adds nicely to the bank account. Musically, though, this song is nothing special compared to anything else for which Timberlake’s been nominated. In fact, I’m a little surprised this one made it onto the Grammy list at all. Halfway through the song, I left to go refill my coffee cup. I didn’t feel as though I’d missed anything when I returned.

My Way – Willie Nelson

This is the one exception I’m making to the rule about albums. The song itself isn’t nominated and the song from the album that is nominated is in the American Roots genre. More on that later. I’m including this song, though, because it adequately represents the entire album. Willie is 85 years old and one has to wonder if there’s any chance he’ll make it as long as Tony Bennett. Listening to this song, and the accompanying album, one gets the feeling that Willie doesn’t expect to make it as long as Tony Bennett. There’s a melancholy feel here, not the triumphant success that we get from Sinatra or Elvis. Willie actually makes the song feel sad, as though it’s the last song he sings before hanging up his guitar and bandana for good. My god, we hope that’s not what’s happening. I will say, he makes one feel all the feels here. Those above a certain age might want to have a tissue handy.

Rock

Grammys Review, Old Man Talking

One sure way to feel old is to consider oneself fairly well versed in the rock music genre and then realize that one knows absolutely nothing about any of the nominees except that one was dead before the song was ever released. Ouch. I had to listen to a lot more than just the nominated songs before I felt comfortable commenting intelligently. The good news is that I came away with a couple of new bands that I really enjoy hearing. The bad news is that, once again, there a couple of nominees that cause me to question the Recording Academy’s sanity. What seems obvious is that no matter who wins there will be plenty of fans who think their favorite band was robbed, and they may very well be correct. The Academy doesn’t exactly have a strong record of “nailing it” in this category so we’ll have to see what happens.

Four Out Of Five – Arctic Monkeys

At first listen, this appears to be another one of those rock songs with drug-induced lyrics that make absolutely no sense. That’s not necessarily unheard of in this category. There were plenty of hits in the 1970s that made no sense at all. What the song addresses, however, is the online society that reviews everything. Yes, we’re looking at you, Yelp. The lyrics are the type of statements one makes when leaving an online review. The title, “Four Out Of Five” refers to the number of stars one might leave for a product or service.  If the lyrics sound like nonsense, that’s probably intentional. Most reviews are absolutely nonsense. The strong part of the song is the incredible harmonies, especially in the bridge, that remind one of the more important bands of the 70s. This is a band worth getting to know. There’s a skill level I hope we see continue.

When Bad Does Good – Chris Cornell

If sentimentality counts for votes, and it often does, then this song is a sure winner. After all, who wants to deny a dead man his last award? There’s an eerie feeling, though, that sends a few shivers up my spine while listening. When the song opens with the line, “Standing beside an open grave … your life decided … “ it is difficult to not read some serious foreshadowing into it. One of a group of songs Cornell had recorded but not released prior to his death in 2017, one might consider us fortunate to have ever heard this song at all. Fortunately, Chris’ widow, Vicky, found the tapes and made sure they received the proper treatment. We are fortunate to hear Cornell’s soaring vocals one more time. This song is a rare and final treat. Still, it feels jarring when the song abruptly ends, like the jerk on the end of a rope. My stomach wrenched at the thought. We lose too many brilliant musicians to mental illness. Perhaps this song can be a reminder that people who appear strong often need help, too.

Made An America – Fever 333

Gun violence gets the attention in this guitar-heavy rock tome trying to bring its cause to our attention. If the number of gun-related deaths is any indication, however, we’re not listening. Part of the problem here is that the lyrics alone are not strong enough for the song to stand out. The hard driving rhythm and screaming guitars, both of which are admittedly well done, sound like so many other angry songs of the 2000’s that it is too easy to reach over and turn down the volume. Before the lyrics have a chance to really click in one’s ears they’ve likely already decided that they’ve heard this song before and hit the “skip” button. This is the challenge with songs in support of a cause: if the music is not enough to slap one in the face repeatedly, few are likely to actually hear the words.

Highway Tune – Greta Van Fleet

Nostalgia is big when creatives in a field have difficulty coming up with something original. I won’t say that is necessarily the case with the band Greta Van Fleet, but the 70s throwback is so strong they should all be wearing paisley shirts with bell bottom jeans and rope sandals. The band has a couple of other nominations so I came to like them by the time I was done. Unfortunately, this particular song picks up on the mommy issues that were so prevalent among bands in the 70s and it’s not especially attractive. “Momma” this, “Momma” that … is anyone’s mother evening listening? Juxtaposed against all the feminist-leaning songs this year, this comes across woefully out of touch and in need of therapy.

Uncomfortable – Halestorm

This band based on the brother/sister duo of Lzzy (no i) and Arejay Hale is at times reminiscent of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and at other time the drum-driven sound of an 80s hair band. Lzzy’s vocals are pretty impressive and at times threaten to overshadow the band. When we get close to that point, though, Arejay’s drums come bursting through and the instruments take the spotlight. I have a feeling that I would totally enjoy seeing Halestorm in concert somewhere. This is the kind of music that is best experienced live. Unfortunately, that means it doesn’t transition well to recorded play where it feels as though we’ve heard this all before. Nostalgia sounds are not always the good thing we want them to be, even when they’re done well.

Black Smoke Rising – Greta Van Fleet

This is more what I expect from a rock song in 2019. The 20-second intro is a nice hook that keeps repeating throughout and easily incites movement even when the lyrics are lacking. This is a song with which one can connect and simply enjoy for the next four minutes without feeling that they have to leave immediately to rush out and save the world. If the old American Bandstand were still around, the song would rate well for being “easy to dance to.” Bonus points: the bridge is such a throwback to The Doors but it’s well done, not heavy handed enough to make the transition back feel awkward. This is the song that left me liking the band. I can handle more of this.

Jumpsuit – Twenty One Pilots

Why is this band still getting nominated for Grammys? This song is so commercial that it should only be 30 seconds long. Unfortunately, the intro alone is 38 seconds and reminiscent of a whiskey ad. That whiskey is cheap and tastes like the stuff dripping from underneath a 1984 Buick. The song can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. The bridge gets all soft and pretty with a Hammond organ taking off so much of the rock edge that this begins to sound like a pop song. Which direction are we going with this? I’m baffled that this is nominated for Best Rock Song. Perhaps someone at the Academy owes Tyler Joseph their life or something. Music quality is not why this song is on the list.

Mantra – Bring Me The Horizon

There are times when one can easily ignore the “explicit” tag next to a song title. Don’t make that mistake with this song. Small children do not need to be in the room when it is playing. That being said, I’m still trying to figure out what the song’s title has to do with the rest of the song. Okay, the name gets yelled out twice during the song. There’s still no obvious correlation and, if anything, the scream interrupts the flow of the music. Not that anyone is likely to mind the interruption. I’m guessing the sole purpose for this song existing is someone’s inherent need to do a bit of head banging and it delivers from the start with a 30-second intro that sends one’s neck into auto-response mode. You’re going to at least nod your head a little. I’m over the whole dual vocals an octave apart, though. That technique is SO 20 years ago. Please don’t make me yawn so hard, it hurts when my head is bobbing.

Masseduction – St. Vincent

Writers Jack Antonoff and Annie Clark have created the perfect song for the media-addicted generation that cannot seem to put their phones down. St. Vincent provides the perfect voice to drive the point home. This is how rock in 2019 should sound. I had heard the full version a couple of times before and definitely agree with its nomination for Best Rock Song. However, if one really likes this song, they’ll want to listen to the piano-only version with no background vocals. St. Vincent’s voice is mesmerizing and the musicality of the composition is crystal clear. St. Vincent is one of the few rock acts I would consider paying outrageous ticket prices to see—not that I’d actually go because I’m a cheap old man on a budget—but I’d at least consider it. If the Academy would let me vote, this one would get my pick. They won’t let me vote.

Rats – Ghost

Remember, those of you over the age of 50, those 70s bands that would don face paint and invoke satanic imagery that made your parents uncomfortable? Remember how we all thought we’d left that behind? Guess what, the band Ghost has brought it back with a spooky apocalyptic song threatening death and destruction at the hands, or teeth, of a massive plague of rodents. If the visuals are not enough to give one nightmares, you should probably be in therapy. Often. The strong point of this song are the incredible harmonies with bonus points for the harpsichord. We’re definitely feeling some throwback vibes here and to some extent we don’t mind all that much. Still, the constant repetition of the word “rats,” especially toward the end, is more than a touch  creepy and should never be the last song one hears before going to bed in downtown New York.

Country

Grammys Review, Old Man Talking

Know this before I even start: it’s been 30+ years since I’ve liked anything about contemporary country music. I grew up with my parents listening to it all the time. If we were in the car, the radio was on a station such as KFDI in Wichita or KVOO in Tulsa. Both were only AM stations back then, but their reach was broad and their sound was pure country: Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Country music sounds nothing like that now and if anyone does sound like those legends, the idiots at the Recording Academy put them down in the American Roots categories competing with Blues and Folk artists, which does no one any good. There are two bright spots among this years nominees. The rest … well, don’t expect any roses from me.

Wouldn’t It Be Great – Loretta Lynn

I’m still trying to figure out how it is that Loretta Lynn has a song in the Country category but Willie Nelson and John Prine get sent to the purgatory of American Roots. I’m glad she’s here, and will be more than a bit upset if she doesn’t get the award, but my expectations are low since the Recording Academy clearly doesn’t know what it’s doing with Country music. Loretta’s song feels the divide between old and new as well, not to mention the divisiveness across the country. Hers is another in the list of songs looking for hope and healing, bringing people together. She does so with a classic country sound that hides the fact she’s old enough to be the grandmother of most the other artists nominated. It is good to hear her voice again. Let’s hope people who matter pay attention.

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Maren Morris

Somewhere in Nashville, a record producer apparently decided what folks there were writing wasn’t good enough and went searching for something different. What they found were some early recordings by Elton John of songs he wrote with Bernie Taupin. The songs are some of Elton’s favorites and include hits such as Rocket Man, Honky Cat, and The Bitch Is Back. Someone handed Sir Elton a big ol’ royalty check and he gave them permission to do a compilation album, country style. Just go ahead and say yuck now. Maren Morris gets Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, from Elton’s 1972 album, Honky Chateau. Understand, back in the early 70s, recording executives didn’t know what to make of Elton so they tried, laughably, to make him country by putting fiddles, pedal steel, and mandolin in the instrumentation. The sound isn’t country, but at least they tried. Ms. Morris’ cover doesn’t even try and comes out sounding more Pop than the original. They even dropped the mandolin. This song, and the whole project, is a disaster.

Butterflies – Kacey Musgraves

Ms. Musgraves has been touted by some as the new Taylor Swift of Country music. For those too young to remember, the Pop superstar got her start in Country music before transitioning to where she belonged in the first place. Arguably, Ms. Musgraves seems to be on a similar path. If this song is any indication, she’s ready to make that crossover now. Without question, te song has a lot of appeal in both genres and Musgraves’ fan base hits that same teen female demographic as Swift’s. If it weren’t for the pedal steel in the band it would be difficult to call this Country music at all. I think this song proves she can compete in the Pop category. Her record producers might do well to help her make that jump now while there’s time. Once she turns 40 the Recording Academy may try putting her under the American Roots label as well.

Millionaire – Chris Stapleton

Country music’s core demographic never has been an especially prosperous one. By and large, they are hard-working, blue collar men and women who often live in rural or agricentric areas and frequently struggle to make ends meet. These are the folks often referred to as “salt of the earth.” Millionaire hits those dear folks right where their heart is with themes such as the value of a “good woman,” beat up cars, and the importance of love above everything else. Chris is blessed with a strong country twang to his voice so it’s difficult to put him anywhere else even when he’s singing with Justin TImberlake. Here, there’s plenty of acoustic guitar playing rhythm under that electric lead that could stand to be turned down a touch and enough sentiment to serve as a dipping sauce at a backyard barbeque. One still gets the feeling Stapleton is trying to not sound as country as he is. Go ahead, son, pull those boots on and wear that cowboy hat proudly.

Parallel Line – Keith Urban

No. I never have bought into the idea of Keith Urban as Australia’s version of Country and this song is the perfect reason why. Okay, it’s nice that Nicole let’s him keep his music career as a hobby, but her Oscar and 94 other awards far outweighs his four Grammys and CMA awards. What’s important to realize is that Urban’s awards were gender-specific in years where, let’s be honest, the competition was pretty weak. This year’s nomination feels more like a courtesy nod than a serious entry. The song is far from being the strongest of the nominations and just barely has enough bent tones and hints of twang to sound remotely Country. This is middle-of-the-road pablum. The nomination pads his resumé a bit and he can go back to judging singers who are, far too often, better than him.

Shoot Me Straight – Brothers Osborne

THIS IS NOT A COUNTRY SONG! Sure, the boys have a decent country twang to their voices but that’s not enough to get past the fact that every other element of this song is one hundred percent rock-and-roll and rightly deserves to be in that category. The hard bass line and screaming guitars are so far past the country music line as to make the vocals irrelevant. In fact, strip the song down to the lengthy instrumental break (cut way back for radio play) and this song is so rock as to make Jimi Hendrix fans jealous. Well, maybe.Calling this a country song is like calling Cher a lounge singer. Actually, now that I think about it, Cher does country better than this.

*Tequila – Dan & Shay

I’m sitting here listening, and listening, and listening, waiting for the moment this turns and decides to be a country song. That turn never happens. Instead, yet again, we have another Pop song too weak to actually make it in that category, so hey, might as well try Country. Production kills this song, over reaching from the single piano at the start to the not-so-subtle strings and background vocals on the last verse. Play this song without announcing the artist and no one is likely to put it in the country genre, which is an ongoing problem with this entire category. The song is nominated multiple times within the genre but there’s no way it’s strong enough to deserve a win.

*When Someone Stops Loving You – Little Big Town

LIttle Big Town is known for its harmonies as much as anything and those play heavily into making this song appealing, right after the fact that almost everyone can identify with the emotion of the song. Country music loves talking about love, either having it or losing it and losing it tends to create the bigger hits. This time, the group pierces the heart with lyrics one might group in with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” only slightly less heart breaking. Slightly. The lyrics are strong enough that one doesn’t really care if the verses sometimes sound a little too Pop. It’s a rare person who doesn’t understand the feeling of losing love like this. Grab a tissue and have yourself a dirty cry. You won’t be the only one.

* Dear Hate – Maren Morris with Vince Gill

One sees this duo listing in the nominations and has to wonder if the young Ms. Morris can come close to matching the seasoned Vince Gill. The verdict is: sort of. The harmonies between them work well enough because Vince has been down this road before, is an amazingly talented musician, and knows how to blend with just about anyone. However, when Gill takes the second verse solo, this becomes a different song. For those few seconds, the song really sounds Country and when Ms. Morris comes back in for the chorus it’s like being slapped in the face with your dad’s aftershave. The message here is similar to that of Loretta Lynn’s and is likely the reason Gill agreed to do the song. .

Meant To Be – Bebe Rexha with Florida Georgia Line

This song is confusing. Since when do Country songs come with a digital click track? Oh, wait, Ms. Rexha isn’t Country, is she? In fact, when one looks at the other matchups on the album on which this song appears, one sees names like Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, and 2 Chainz. Florida Georgia Line is so out of their element on this one it isn’t even funny. One has to really stretch to nominate this song in any category and I can only think that it’s nominated for Best Country Duo/Group because all the other options sucked really, really badly. The one good thing about this song is that it’s short. The impossible contrast between vocal tones only hurts for three minutes.

Break Up In The End – Cole Swindell

Meh, I guess I can let this one slide. As a composition, which is where it’s nominated, it hits the Country market with all the big issues, especially a futile love and alcoholism. One could reasonably question whether this is about an actual relationship or some poor guy’s excuse for not starting one, but that’s ultimately irrelevant. Emotion runs deep with this song and that’s what ultimately matters with a good country song. I do wish it wasn’t so damn heavy on the production. This is one of those songs that would play better stripped bare with a guitar and maybe a stand-up bass. The music should be as raw as the lyrics and the heavy-handed kitchen sink production ruins that.

I Lived It – Blake Shelton

Another songwriting entry, let’s count down all the country clichés the song hits in the first verse: Daddy, Granny, screen door, church, Momma, trucks, getting drunk … And that’s just the start of this song that seems to pit country veteran against the rookies. The song gets to the crux of many of Country music’s problems: living the life versus just singing the songs. Oklahoma-raised Shelton was the perfect person to voice this song. He still owns and regularly visits a home in Southwestern Oklahoma despite spending a great deal of time in LA and Nashville. Shelton also gives the song a lot of country “street cred,” which never hurts this time of year. While the song hits all the typical topics, though, it’s a bit too smooth and a bit too gentle to get a person’s attention. This easily becomes background music where the message becomes lost. A more driving tempo would make a lot of difference here.

Space Cowboy – Kacey Musgraves

Do not confuse this with the song of the same name performed by the Steve Miller Band. This song isn’t nearly that good. Yet another song about lost love and breaking up leaves one with the opinion that country music writers must be a lonely bunch of people. Granted, there are numerous references to horses and cowboys and barn doors and gates, all part of an extended metaphor for leaving a relationship. But once again, between Musgraves’ Pop voice and a truck load of production the song didn’t need what we end up with is a Pop song with country references. For all the songs this year about love lost, this one leaves its listener feeling lonely, and possibly in search of a new radio station.

American Roots

Grammy Awards, Old Man Talking

I strongly dislike this category and remain quite upset at the Recording Academy for trying to lump traditional Blues, Folk, Bluegrass, and traditional Country all in the same bucket to compete with each other. This category is a disservice and disrespectful of all the songs nominated. They are all too different and cover too broad a spectrum of music to consider any one of them better than the other. While far from being a new category, it’s one of the most stupid moves the Recording Academy has ever made and there’s no damn good reason for it to continue. As a result, I’m a little more sympathetic toward the songs that got stuck here. They all deserve better.

Kick Rocks – Sean Ardoin

This is a big, hard-driving blues anthem that is best served by a big New Orleans-style band complete with harmonica and accordion in heavy doses. Fast-tempo’d from the very start, this song doesn’t take a break or even slow down until everyone in the band has had their say. One can easily imagine that in a concert setting this is the song that sets up a 20-minute jam session with everyone in the neighborhood sitting in on the fun. Sure, there are some lyrics here, and the whole idea of telling someone to “kick rocks” is as brash and defiant as the music itself. The lyrics are almost irrelevant, though,

Saint James Infirmary Blues – Jon Batiste

Over the past few years I’ve come to deeply appreciate the massive talent abiding in the body of Jon Batiste. This young man can run with the big dogs in any genre tossed at him and the fact that he’s been doing just that since he was a teenager speaks to how deeply and personally he understands music as an entity. Jazz is where he’s most at home, though, and what he does with this old standard is heart-stopping. In most every other cover of this song, especially Van Morrison’s, the dirge is treated with lush orchestration, a heavy, mournful introduction, to help set the mood. Jon doesn’t need any of that. He jumps right in with nothing but his piano, slowly adds some mournful background vocals, and eventually a single trumpet. As a result, this may be the most emotional rendition of this song yet. One probably wants a stiff drink nearby when listening to this one because it’s going to hit all the feels.

All On My Mind – Anderson East

It is the fully orchestrated version of this blues piece that is nominated and it’s easy to understand why it’s nominated. The song powerfully packs a lot of emotion into 3:44. Equally as compelling is the stripped-back “acoustic” (not really) version. Here, East’s heartfelt vocals shine more than in the full version where they sometimes get overshadowed a bit. This is one of those rare songs that works well late on a Saturday night, a snifter of brandy in hand, maybe a good cigar, while contemplating all the worries of the world and deciding that none of it really matters all that much. If one can time the brandy and cigar to end at the same time as the song, you’re ready to go to bed and sleep well. A song like this is the heart and soul of blues and deserves to be in a blues-only category.

Last Man Standing – Willie Nelson

It’s not fair to Willie or anyone else that this song is included in this category. This is pure honky-tonk country, the kind of music that country music embraced until it up and decided it needed to feel more stadium worthy instead of the corner of a backstreet bar. This is what Willie does best and he does it with a touch of his trademark humor. “I don’t want to be the last man standing,” he sings, referring to the fact that all his peers are gone. Then, one can almost hear that grin spread across his face when he adds, “Well wait, maybe I do.” Unlike the severe sadness of his “My Way” cover, Willie takes his role as the oldest man on the stage with a quick tempo and a sense of humor in this song that does its best to keep listeners from feeling too down about the fact he’s the only Outlaw left standing.

All The Trouble – Lee Ann Womack

This song feels older than it is. In fact, when I first heard it my instant response was to check to see who else had covered it. The answer is: no one. Womack perfectly captures the smoky tone we’ve heard previously in artists such as Bonnie Raitt. Ms. Womack’s not that little girl on the big ol’ stage anymore. She is her own defining presence and this song takes advantage of that maturity. If it has some trouble finding a radio home it might be because it could easily be dropped into just about any playlist and work, from country to blues to pop. Womack can handle the rough-edged tone and pull emotion from every note.The line “even Cinderella had to find her own way home,” resonates and I won’t be surprised if there aren’t at least a half-dozen covers this next year. I don’t see anyone topping Womack’s version any time soon, though. This is gold.

Build A Bridge – Mavis Staples

Many throughout the music world are keenly aware of how divided the United States is right now and the Grammy nominations have plenty of songs written to address that issue, offering hope, encouraging healing. At 79, Ms. Staples understands this issue better than most because she’s suffered through the racism and division at its worst. A respected member of both the Rock-and Roll and Blues Halls of Fame, Staples gives us the kind of action that invokes action. “I’m gonna build a bridge” flies directly in the face of the chants to build a wall. Mavis knows that walls are not the answer. The song is powerful, but ultimately one has to ask whether any of these songs are doing any good? Perhaps radio stations need to start putting the bulk of them on high rotation, let that message sink in a bit more.

Knockin’ On Your Screen Door – John Prine

This two-time Grammy winner is another country legend the Academy is afraid to let in the country category because he’d steal all the awards from the young folks who’ve taken over that genre. Prine flexes his country muscle with a rough-voiced song that everyone else wishes they could record but can’t. One has to have lived through some deep shit and clawed their way out to give this song the raw kick needs to resonate. That experience is obvious from the first note and is a large part of what makes this song work for him. I’m not sure anyone younger than 60 could even come close.

Summer’s End – John Prine

Having multiple nominations in the same category is not unheard of for an artist, but for the 72-year-old Prine it is an example of how flexible and varied his style is. Summer’s End is a more full-toned ballad inviting a lost love to “come on home.” Know that there’s a heart-wrenching backstory to this song that becomes more evident when one sees the video. This may be the only nominated song that hits hard at the opiate epidemic and the video gives Prine’s words extra meaning. This is John’s first original material in 13 years and there are places where his age shows, his words slurring on occasion and his voice trailing off the end of phrases. Summer’s End is a special song that deserves a lot of airplay and all the attention it can get.

R&B

Grammys Review, Old Man Talking

R&B has long been my choice for chill. Anytime I need to calm down and get over myself, R&B is where I turn and it rarely lets me down. The very nature of the genre, however, requires it to be constantly evolving and this year we see some especially significant changes starting with The Carters releasing their first album together, bringing two powerhouse talents to bear in a field that seems ready-made for them. At the same time, there are some “old school” voices in the mix that remind us how beautiful a seasoned voice is. If the rest of the nominations get one worked up, this is where we go to settle back down.

*Long As I Live – Toni Braxton

Long As I Live is Old School R&B. Ms. Braxton’s voice has only grown more smokey and sultry with time, making her distinguishing vocals all the more appealing. If her music was your groove “way back when,” then this song is going to feel as comfortable as your favorite pair of pajamas. When the song talks about “I’ll never get old,” we feel the richness of Ms. Braxton’s voice and are thankful that she’s still recording, still performing, and likely to keep doing so for quite some time. Equally impressive, though, is the size of Ms. Braxton’s more youthful fan base, Millennials who either weren’t around or were too young to care when she took home her first Grammy. Hers is a voice one cannot help but love and this song promises there’s going to be plenty to love for a long time.

Summer – The Carters

They finally did it. Jay-Z and Beyoncé brought their real-life hookup into the studio and the results were everything we hoped. Well, perhaps everything I hoped. The blending of hip hop and pop into a smooth R&B sound didn’t exactly please fans on the outer edges of the other genres. Those fans will have to get over their disappointment, though,because this album significantly changes the course of R&B in its brilliant merging of two of music’s biggest talents. Summer employs a traditional R&B band, complete with Hammond organ and a jazz flute. Carefully layered on top of that sound are Beyoncé’s smooth vocals. This song would have garnered a nomination if the accolades ended there. What puts the song over the top, though, is Jay-Z’s break that layers his contemporary sound over the old-school tracks. We may well be witnessing a historic moment for the R&B genre. Everyone else should take note.

Y O Y – Lalah Hathaway

My how Donny Hathaway’s little girl has grown! Nominated multiple times this year, Lalah makes a strong return this year with a dark, smooth sound that keeps the strong harmonies of her 90s recordings with a more contemporary instrumentation. I swear that’s a sitar I’m hearing in this song. Her voice has matured quite a bit from those early recordings and she seems ready to take her place in the current R&B market. She’s still a bit of an outlier in the genre, though, the influence of her daddy’s music still present. Y O Y isn’t edgy, which is not a bad thing but definitely separates her from the other nominees. This is a good song with a good sound, though, and Lalah makes her presence known all across the Grammys this year. It’s going to be interesting to see where she goes next.

Best Part – H.E.R with Daniel Caesar

Best Part is almost perfect. The acoustic start is one of the most beautiful openings of any song nominated this year. If only the producers would have stayed acoustic all the way through. Unfortunately, as the song goes and and gradually adds a distracting warbly synthesized sound, the whole tone becomes a meddled mess that distracts from the quality of the vocals. I looked for an acoustic version and couldn’t find one, which makes me sad. H.E.R. has a great sound and the vocals deserve a lot more attention than they are given in this recording. There’s no way for me to know whose idea the synth was, but perhaps next time they’re in the studio H.E.R. would do better to just unplug the electronics and stick with a natural sound.

First Began – PJ Morton

PJ stands out from the other Best R&B Performance nominees in a couple of ways. First, he’s the only solo male voice in this female-dominated category. Second, First Began is the only song nominated with a tempo marking faster than snooze. Add in some soaring strings toward the end and his is a very different take on R&B from what everyone else in the category is offering. In fact, one might argue that this song might do better were it in the Traditional R&B Performance category. After all, PJ’s sound does have a little more old school swing to it. He’s not afraid to take this inherently laid-back attitude and make it move a little bit. Perhaps it says something about our collective mood that we’ve leaned so heavily into the slow songs this past year. First Began is a nice break that, if nothing else, keeps us from falling asleep in our easy chair.

Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand – Leon Bridges

A high, sustained violin line with harp and glockenspiel has one half-expecting Nat “King” Cole’s smooth vocal to gently walk into the song. Leon Bridges’ amazing tenor isn’t quite the same tone as Coles but fits this song well and defines what makes the Traditional R&B category different from the regular R&B category. One can almost feel Bridges standing on the stage of the Apollo Theater dressed in a sharp suit in front of a full orchestra. The biggest problem I have with this song is that it’s barely three minutes long. One hardly has time to settle into the soft groove before the song is over, leaving one’s ears longing for more.

Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight – Bettye LaVette

Ms. LaVette’s cover of this Bob Dylan song has some challenges. First, it not only has to overcome the expectation one might have from Dylan’s recording, but Aaron Neville’s well-known cover also. Those are some mighty big musical shoes to fill and not just any voice can step there. To some degree, Ms. LaVette’s voice has a touch of that grit one hears in Dylan, though hers is one developed through years of living rather than the natural tone Dylan possesses. She’s nowhere close to being as smooth as Aaron, but she does come closer to his tempo, shortening the song considerably from Dylan’s six-minute marathon. LaVette puts a little more “mean” in her streets and more emotion in the urgency of her voice. It’s nice to get a woman’s take on this song. One might want to listen two or three times before moving on.

Honest – Major

There’s something about starting a song whose entire focus is honesty by singing the verses in falsetto. Granted, Major’s falsetto is on point and well tuned. We don’t hear him struggling to reach the notes as is often the case with other vocalists. Still, one has to question whether the move was really in the best interest of the song. When he drops into his full voice, the song is stronger, its message more clear and earnest. In moving back and forth one gets the impression that he might be afraid of his natural voice the way someone with anorexia is afraid of eating too much. Yet, the more he makes that transition the more one wishes he’d honestly stay with his natural tone.

How Deep Is Your Love – PJ Morton with YEBBA

Who the fuck thought up this disaster on vinyl? First, covering the Bee Gees and calling is Traditional R&B is just wrong on every conceivable level. Second, even adding YEEBA’s soulful voice is not enough to yank this song out of the disco mire. No matter what one does, there’s still a mirror ball and backlight dance floor and some fool strutting around in a white suit everytime this song is played anywhere on the planet. To call this traditional R&B is an insult to everyone else nominated and to the entire R&B genre. Moreover, recording this song was a slap in the face of everyone who enjoys R&B. I’ll allow that the song might be fun to perform in concert, but this is disco, man, any way one slices it.

Made For Love – Charlie Wilson with Lalah Hathaway

R&B loves a good duet and Ms. Hathaway’s voice is a nice match for Wilson, allowing him to relax a bit so that his vocals don’t always feel quite so forced as they do when he’s in his upper register. Still, Charlie has to put a lot of effort into staying on top of the sound. I’m not suggesting anything’s going on other than Wilson’s not as young as he once was and that’s starting to show a bit. This is still a great song that I’m enjoying listening to. Added note: Charlie’s currently on tour. He’ll be at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 15. Those who have expendable cash would likely enjoy the experience. It’s nice to know that Oklahoma can produce something other than country musicians.

Come Through And Chill – Miguel, J. Cole

Come Through and Chill is one of the more contemporary sounds in the R&B categories and, like a lot of people, I’m still wondering if the original title might have been Netflix and Chill because this is exactly that kind of song. I can see the streaming service not approving of the reference, though. The instrumentation here is rather thin compared to others in the category but the touch fits the song. What doesn’t fit as well is the rapped bridge or the rather creepy idea that it takes three guys to convince someone to come over and hang out. I mean, those other two guys aren’t staying, are they? Or is Miguel only trolling for kinky mates? Not that it matters, I suppose, but it just seems a bit heavy-handed, dude.

Feels Like Summer – Childish Gambino

Can an R&B song be too smooth for its own good? Feels Like Summer pushes that envelope a little harder than necessary. This is one of those songs that is so consistent in rhythm and dynamics that it can sit in the background and no one notice. Seriously, the needles on the mixing board couldn’t have moved the entire song to get a sound this consistent. I’m not saying the song is boring, mind you. Feels Like Summer is a cool song and deserves a spot on everyone’s summer playlist. We need songs like this. Do we need them winning Grammy awards, though? Probably not. Were this to become a trend, we’d all be falling asleep in places where we don’t need to be falling asleep.

Focus – H.E.R

Oh, wait, everything I just said about Feels Like Summer? Copy and paste that here as well. The deathblow for this song is the harp on hyper reverb. Listening to that, all brain function shuts down and one immediately enters a comatose state. This song is so smooth and so pretty that one has to focus, and focus hard, to make it all the way to the end. There’s not even enough coffee at Starbucks to help. Next time you have insomnia, give this a try; it’s safer than watching CSPAN.

Gospel/CCM

Grammy Review, Old Man Talking

Being raised in church and having played so much gospel music over the eons one might think that the Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music genre would be my favorite. It’s not. It used to be, back some 40 years ago, but I don’t even recognize this flaming pile of horse manure. Out of everything we listened to here, only two dared to mention God and only one directly referenced scripture (totally out of context). What these categories have become is little more than subpar R&B songs that were too weak to run in a regular category. These are songs designed for the megachurch, for people who want to be seen going to church but don’t want the burden of having to actually believe anything. I had to listen to two hours of hymns after I finished this category. B. B. McKinney has to be rolling in his grave.

You Will Win – Jekalyn Carr

This feel-good pseudo-Christian garbage is yet another in a too-long line of megachurch anthems that has no depth or spiritual meaning to it at all. If one is looking for any mention of God they’re not going to find it here. Why? Because God would just get in the way of You. This is a bastardization of the gospel that encourages people to focus on what they can do, not what Jesus can do through them. The line “Lay hands on your money” sent me straight to the nearest trash can so I could vomit. I’m willing to give contemporary gospel songs a little leeway, but this is so far over the line that one has to say “enough” and turn off the nonsense. I’d rather listen to Stryper.

Won’t He Do It – Koryn Hawthorne

Unlike the other songs in this category, Won’t He Do It wasn’t actually recorded for church so, in a way, it’s unfair to hold it to those standards. Won’t He Do It is from the soundtrack to the television series Greenleaf, which is all about the dark underside of a Memphis-based megachurch in trouble with the IRS, the FBI, and a whole list of other folks. One has to guess they’re not sitting in much favor with God, either. Of course, TV church is nothing like real church, even though the average megachurch does its best to present that level of production every Sunday. This song is heavily produced in a way that strips it of any form of sincerity. The R&B feel is too easily adaptable for mainstream audiences and has no real message to it. Perhaps it was popular with fans of the series, but it is not a seriously Christian song.

Never Alone – Tori Kelly with Kirk Franklin

Kirk Franklin has had a strong influence on gospel music for several years so it’s not the least bit surprising to see this song on the list of nominees simply on the power of his presence alone. While Franklin does get writing credit on the song as well, though, his actual participation is limited to about five seconds worth of an excerpt from a sermon. That’s it. Five seconds. The rest of the song is solid R&B. Ms. Kelly has a pleasant-enough voice and the song doesn’t make any critical errors. As an R&B song, it’s rather nice, though probably not a Grammy nominee. What this song is not is Gospel. Five seconds of Kirk doesn’t cut it. Insert eye roll here.

Cycles – Jonathan McReynolds with DOE

Recorded live, Cycles brings the sounds of church to the background of this song almost like orchestrated vocals. We hear the audience when the engineer decides we need to hear the audience, punctuating McReynolds’ vocals. In one sense, this song distinguishes itself within the category by actually mentioning “the devil.” Nowever, none of that does enough to keep this from sounding like the anthem for an overly-enthusiastic twelve-step group. If anything, the song is dismissive and disrespectful of mental illness, which is a problem the contemporary church has failed to address adequately. Too much of the song wastes time suggesting that one’s faith is a cure for depression. No. Do not listen to that tripe. Get yourself to a professional and get some real help. If one really needs help breaking the cycles of mental illness and destructive behavior, see a therapist.

A Great Work – Brian Courtney Wilson

A Great Work is the only song in the gospel category that is actually based on scripture: Philippians 1:6. The verse reads thus:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

There is a temptation here to think, “Finally, a gospel song that dares to quote the Bible!” Unfortunately, that excitement wanes as one listens to the song and gets the impression that everyone is little more than God’s Home Improvement Project and that once  he’s done with you he’s going to set you on a shelf with his other pretty little projects. The song takes the scripture completely out of context (not the first time that’s happened). I’m sure it’s another song that’s fun to perform in front of an enthusiastic audience and I know from experience how easily one can mistake the thrill of that excitement for something it absolutely is not: the presence of deity. Health and prosperity is not the gospel of Jesus and, regrettably, that’s where this song goes, right down the trash chute.

Reckless Love – Cory Asbury

One has to be theologically brain dead to even pen the words “reckless love of God.” How is it remotely possible for God to be reckless about anything? Are we saying that our relationship with God is haphazard, accidental, and left to chance, for that’s certainly what “reckless” infers. If that’s what one believes, I would dearly love to see the scripture they interpret as supporting that theory. This is feel-good pablum that tries to make God relatable by bringing him down to a human level when there’s zero biblical authority for doing so. God cannot be reckless about anything and still be God. If one is confused about the love of God, let me suggest one take a listen to this or this or even this. God’s love is a lot of things but reckless is not on that list.

You Say – Lauren Daigle

Lauren Daigle, Jason Ingram and Paul Mabury have written a very nice pop song with only the most distant of religious inferences.Unfortunately, the song doesn’t have any edge to it so to put it in the Pop category means it would be completely ignored. It’s totally inappropriate for CCM, though. Let’s stop playing with meaningless inferences that one has to struggle to understand. Gospel music needs to take to heart the words of the apostle Paul at the beginning of his letter to the Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ…” I am rapidly growing tired of repeating myself in this category.

Joy – For King & Country

Are megachurches doing Vegas-style production numbers now? That’s exactly what this song feels like. Drop down the mirror ball and turn on the lasers. The music itself is dance worthy and the oft-repeated line of “let him move you” is just the sort of phrase to get a pentecostal congregation on its feet. I can see this being really popular with those dear souls who show up for church on Sunday still half-lot from Saturday night. Turn up the volume and everybody bust a move. Perhaps next they’ll install a full-service bar in place of the communion table. I’m sure that will really help attendance. You do know I’m being sarcastic, right? Please nod your head in rhythm if you understand.

Grace Got You – Mercy Me

Another dance song? I know it has been a minute since I darkened the door of a church, but the line, “You just got away with somethin’” doesn’t seem to fly with the basic tenets of Christianity. If anything, this sounds more like someone added a few extra voices to the hook of a hip-hop song. Using the word “grace” doesn’t make the song Christian any more than cracking one egg on a sidewalk makes an omelette.

Known – Tauren Wells

Known is a very pleasant pop love song. Sing it to your significant other on Valentine’s Day, it’s perfect for that. Actually, this cliché ridden song is more appropriate for a 14-year-old audience that still has fantasies about perfect love and hasn’t been jaded by being dumped via Facebook. What’s Christian about the song? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’m done.

General Field

Grammys Review, Old Man Talking

Finally, and thank you for sticking in there this long, are the awards that are televised, the ones that everyone cares most about. Sure, getting any Grammy is a career booster, but getting Song of the year or Record of the year is bankable in terms of negotiating deals with record labels. It’s reasonably safe to say that all these songs have already received a great deal of airplay, have had their spot on the Billboard charts, and sold hundreds of thousands if not millions of units. Winning in one of these categories typically means another bump in sales and can help boost a winter tour. These are biggest awards on the list so let’s see what we’ve got.

I Like It – Cardi B. et, al

Cardi B has been immensely popular this year, even putting herself in the middle of some political conversations. All of her non-musical activities translates to huge sales of her songs. What’s interesting about her nomination this year is that the song isn’t an original. Instead, it’s a cover of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 Boobaloo hit, I LIke It Like That. The original was extremely important to New York’s Latino community and the revival of the song has brought some of that excitement back, even though all the “guest” artists Cardi piles on is perhaps a bit excessive. The song is so popular that there’s even a four-second clip, and a brightly smiling Cardi, in Pepsi’s lead Superbowl ad. However, interestingly enough, it is the only nominee in the Best Record category that isn’t nominated elsewhere. That could be a sign that it doesn’t quite have what it takes to win this year.

*The Joke – Brandi Carlile

I’m still trying to figure out how this song, released in November of 2017, qualifies for this year’s awards. The song, part of a massive undertaking by Carlile and Nashville producer Dave Cobb, was the first release from the album, By The Way, I Forgive You. The rock-country aria is dedicated to those trying desperately to survive “The Joke” of American politics. The late Paul Buckmaster provides a rich string arrangement to go with the warm piano and some pretty impressive drums. The song has been out long enough that some of its original lustre may have waned but the fact that it is nominated in multiple categories all over the list is testament to how delightfully written the song is. This is a massive song with plenty of emotion and heart. There are likely to be multiple gramophones in Carlile’s hands before the night’s over.

*This Is America – Childish Gambino

This has been Donald Glover’s year in a number of different ways. After premiering the song on Saturday Night Live, views for the video shot through the roof, instantly catapulting the song up the charts. Some have called the song frightening while others call it genius. The video is loaded with metaphors and symbolism related to race and gun violence in the US, making it one of the most important records to permeate American society this year. The challenge is whether the Recording Academy as a hole is ready to give the Best Record award to a rap song. Historically, the Academy has a thing for sentimental ballads that are easily remembered and sung by a large number of people. This Is America hardly fits that requirement. This one is unique to Glover and it’s difficult to image anyone else even attempting the song. It’s downfall may be the fact that it’s too unique.

*God’s Plan – Drake

Is Drake as popular as Childish Gambino? Does it really matter? Both musicians have some rabid fans but Drake hasn’t spilled over into the mainstream this past year in the way Donald Glover has and God’s Plan isn’t as powerful a song as This Is America. In fact, the song has some significant problems. Someone set the autotune on high for this one right from the start to the point it becomes annoying after about four seconds. Add in the fact that, like many of Drake’s songs, this one is repetitive and void of any kind of melody and it’s difficult for this song to grab hold outside its base audience. Old ears like mine have difficulty with songs like this, though. When I have difficulty identifying a melody my mind shuts off rather quickly. The song may win in another category but probably not this one.

*Shallow – Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga

No song on the list has received as much hype as has Shallow. The song from A Star Is Born has already won the Golden Globe for best song and the popularity has only grown. When Gaga called Cooper onstage to sing the song with her at a recent concert, the moment instantly went viral. That creates a problem for the Academy, though. Are they voting for the song itself or for all the public sentiment and popularity it has? To some degree, they need to consider both and no one will be terribly surprised if it wins. At the same time, though, The Joke is easily the stronger composition and this wouldn’t be the first time the Academy ignored other wins to go with a better song. This one could honestly go either way.

All The Stars – Kendrick Lamar with SZA

I’m not sure why this song was nominated. I’ve listened to it enough times to think that perhaps, just maybe, it’s SZA’s presence on the song that saved it from complete Grammy obscurity. Lamar’s parts are so heavily autotuned that one might wonder if the producer needed him in the studio at all. I’m more likely to believe that it is the song’s presence on the Black Panther soundtrack that provided the nomination for the song. Were this song to come along on its own, there’s no way it would be on this list.

Rockstar – Post Malone, 21 Savages

For old ears like mine, Post Malone’s Rockstar is difficult to hear. There are a couple of four-measure hooks that are repeated ad nauseum for a little over three and a half minutes. Add to that the fact that, at least from where I’m sitting, the song glorifies the very kind of toxic masculinity that we’re trying to remove from our society. With lyrics about “fuckin’ hoes and popin’ pillies,” this hardly seems like a song that sets a good example. I’m holding out for someone to give me an explanation of how the most offensive lyrics are somehow metaphors for something remotely redeemable. Anyone? Bueller? The comments are open below. Educate me.

*The Middle – Zedd, Maren Morris, & Grey

The Middle is a unique song in that one probably wouldn’t expect German producer Zedd to pair with a Country artist like Maren Morris. Trade rumors tell that Zedd went through twelve other people before settling on Maren. The song had a long road before its eventual release but all the careful attention to detail pays off with a song that has a light Pop feel to it that’s not too fast but not the typical ballad, either. This is an easy love song, the type of tune that might be playing on the radio when a young couple falls in love. As such, it’s well within the Academy’s standard modus operandi that the song could stand a chance of winning. However, given that it was released all the way back in January of last year and didn’t quite receive the same level of attention as The Joke, there’s some question as to whether enough Academy voters actually remember it.

*Boo’d Up – Ella Mai

In case you weren’t paying attention, Boo’d up was the romantic love song for the summer of 2018. There’s no way to count how many wedding receptions had this song on the playlist or how many relationships were brought together. The “different” song on Ella Mai’s EP Ready, even Mai wasn’t expecting the song to receive the response it has. Now she finds the easy R&B song nominated in multiple categories in addition to Song of the Year, something that hasn’t happened to a pure R&B ballad in more years than I can remember. Why the song is such a hit seems to baffle record producers but I am pretty certain it’s proof that solid song writing that pays attention to a singable melody can be a hit in any genre.

In My Blood – Shawn Mendez

In My Blood is one of those songs made for karaoke night when you’ve had a bad day and don’t care that you can’t actually sing. Generally speaking, I doubt there’s a Millennial in the US that can’t relate to this song on one level or another. In fact, that relatability is likely why it has done so well. There are emotions and experiences here that resonate with this generation of young adults more than any other song this season. Whether the song wins or loses the Grammy, it is still likely looking at a very long life on the karaoke circuit. What better way is there to address one’s miseries than by singing them out? Songs like this don’t always hit the very tops of the charts. With so much emotion and honesty present, it’s the kind of song one remembers throughout their life.

There you have it. I’ve done all my brain will allow me to do. The entire playlist of all the songs we’ve reviewed is below. We hope this has been enjoyable.


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Reading time: 61 min
Old Man Talking

Of all the music one hears in their life, what would you want to be the last song you hear before you die?

Normally I wouldn’t say anything but given how emotionally challenging it was to write this article, I feel it only fair to warn those sensitive to end-of-life topics that portions of this article could trigger related anxieties. Please use your best judgment in continuing.

This article contains several links with useful information related to the subject. Don’t be afraid to click on them and examine the information for yourself.

When a thought is put out into the universe on the scale of an article in The Washington Post one has to assume that there are a lot of people meant to receive that message. One can only speculate as to why so many people need that message at that particular time, especially when the topic isn’t one of national concern, such as the president losing the launch codes or some similar disaster. When the message strikes at a more personal level, one finds it difficult to ask the universe what’s about to happen for so many people to need that thought right now.

Such was the case when the Post published this opinion piece recently by Dr. Mark Taubert. Dr. Taubert specializes in palliative medicine in Britain. He’s the one who looks for the best way to make a patient comfortable when curing their disease is no longer an option. For many, he’s the last doctor one sees before death. Sounds like a cheery job, doesn’t it?

Dr. Taubert wrote the article after walking into the room of a dying patient whose family was playing Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” Dr. Taubert found the selection amusing, given the cheerful disposition of the music juxtaposed against the gravity of the inevitable end-of-life event. He quite nicely, and in fewer words than I tend to use, spoke of how our brain functions shift as we are in the process of dying, allowing our auditory system to receive a higher level of energy while other portions of our body, and our brain, are shutting down. He makes a case for making one’s wishes known in advance should our own families be faced with similar circumstances.

Articles like this tend to come off as rather morbid. No one likes to think of the inevitability of death, even though doing so is one of the most responsible and compassionate things one can do. With all the other negatively-toned news the Post has to published, I can’t help but wonder why the paper chose to publish this article at all, and especially right at this particular moment. A brief op-ed like this seems like perfect fodder for an online publication that needs something to fill space on a Tuesday, not valuable column inches in the Sunday edition.

I don’t believe accidents just “happen” anywhere in the universe. The implosion of a star millions of light years away creates a massive amount of energy that expands throughout the galaxy for eons, affecting everything it touches. If the op-ed team at the Post was convinced this was a good article to publish at this exact moment, I have to believe that a lot of people need to consider this situation right now, including me.

Before delving into the issue of trying to unravel which song I want to hear last, though, we need to consider the issues surrounding chronic and terminal illness as well as the manner in which one dies. Yes, these are challenging conversations to have but, again, we are at our most responsible when we tackle these issues before they become necessary. After making a will, discussing and planning our end-of-life care is one of the most important things we can do for our families. As for choosing a final song, well, that may be the most difficult aspect of all.

Planning For The Longest Life Possible

The Last Song I Ever Hear -- Old Man Talking

Everyone dies. We understand that. We don’t necessarily like to think about it, but it inevitably happens. If we’re fortunate, by the time we get to that stage in our existence we’ve lived a full life and are ready to pass peacefully. Certainly, not everyone gets that opportunity and we are more than aware of situations where lives ended without any warning. The amount of planning we can do for sudden death is limited to having a will and a pre-paid service plan of some form (I’ll discuss those later). However, for the greater majority of people, death is something we at least get a hint at. There’s no good reason to not give the matter some serious thought.

Let’s look at the facts for a minute. Those of us living in the United States have a reasonably long life expectancy, despite the numbers having shrunken slightly in the past couple of years. Most women can expect to live well into their 80s and most men into their mid-70s. Yes, death is sexist if one goes strictly by the numbers. Still, compared to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, we likely have a lot of life ahead of us. Few people are terribly surprised to hear of someone reaching the century mark in life. As medicine continues to develop ways for us to maintain a relatively decent quality of life, more of us may live to be 110 or even 120.

However, living a long time doesn’t necessary mean that we’re all that healthy.  

Roughly 65% of all deaths in the US are due to some form of chronic illness. I know, you thought I was going to say heart disease. Heart disease, cancer, lung disease, sepsis, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, COPD, and HIV are all among the rather long list of chronic diseases that ultimately prove fatal for those who have them. Those numbers skyrocket when one adds developing countries into the mix.

The thing about living with a chronic illness is that one can’t always predict how quickly it’s going to do its dirty deed. When caught early and treated correctly by a professional (don’t even talk to me about “holistic” cures), their effect can be minimized and one can enjoy a quality life for a very long time. Yet, one has to live with the knowledge that at any given moment something unseen and unsuspected can trigger a rapid advancement of the disease, bringing one to a critical state literally in the blink of an eye.

Whether it happens quickly or over the long term, we eventually get to that point where we’re no longer ambulatory, our quality of life declines, and our disease becomes terminal. Still, we might live several more years. My paternal grandfather lived almost 14 years past his doctor’s initial diagnosis. My father, unfortunately, was not so lucky and passed within a matter of months. Either way, death is more likely to take us slowly, over days, weeks, or months, rather than suddenly and unexpected.

Given such inevitability, it makes much more sense to plan not only for our eventual demise but for whatever term of palliative and hospice care one might need in the final period. Again, yes, I understand this is not a fun conversation, but it is a necessary one.

Giving Some Dignity To Death

The last song I ever hear -- Old Man Talking

The call came late in the afternoon, December 1, 2002. I was sitting in my downstairs office at home. The day was cloudy, the temperatures relatively cool for North Georgia. I don’t remember exactly what else had my attention, but I was waiting for this call. There was no hesitation in answering when the phone rang.

My father had started chemotherapy that morning. Weeks of radiation had failed to reduce the size of the tumor growing on the left side of his head. The hope, presented to my father as cheerfully as possible, was that the chemotherapy would kill the tumor and that surgery might be possible afterward. That wasn’t the way things turned out.

Mother was sobbing as she relayed the news. Poppa had responded negatively to the treatment and had almost died on the table. The doctor would not be making another attempt. Poppa’s situation was now terminal.

Instead of killing the tumor, the attempt at chemotherapy seemed to invigorate the damn thing. While we had already made a trip to Oklahoma earlier that year, we hastily made plans to be back there for the holidays, knowing that they would be my father’s last. We talked with the boys, attempted to prepare them for what was coming, but the truth is that we were all caught off guard. We had not planned at all for this scenario.

Unfortunately, we are not alone in being caught off guard. Of the millions of deaths that occur due to chronic illness, the number of families prepared to handle the challenges of long-term end-of-life care are few. Think you can handle some numbers? Here are some of the statistics most pertinent to our conversation:

  • Over eight million people annually receive support from a long-term care service: home health agencies, nursing facilities, hospices, residential care communities, and adult day service centers.
  • As of 2015 (the last year for which accurate numbers are available) 12 million Americans needed some form of long-term care (longer than six months).
  • 69% of persons over the age of 65 develop disabilities before they die. One fifth of those will incur over $25,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
  • The National Alliance for Caregiving estimates that approximately 65 million family and informal (non licensed) caregivers provide for an elderly family member.
  • A national survey conducted by Myers Research Institute shows that the majority of assisted living facilities discharge residents whose cognitive abilities reach moderate to advanced stages. This often limits the patient’s ability to find suitable care outside a nursing home.

Now, how many people actually want to spend their last days in a nursing home? Not many. While the conditions of many nursing facilities has dramatically improved over the past 20 years, the greater majority of people would much rather live out their final days in their own home surrounded by faces they know (or once knew in the case of dementia patients). In fact, in 1999, the Supreme Court of the United States confirmed the right to receive care “within the community” as opposed to an institution whenever such care does not diminish the patient’s quality of life.

“Dying with dignity” is a phrase we often heat associated with arguments for selected life termination in the event of terminal diagnosis. However, that phrase should also be applied to that term leading up to one’s end of life. While how we die is an important conversation for some, the manner in which we live our final years, weeks, or days is important for everyone. If we want to preserve the dignity of our life, then we need to plan for that eventuality and discuss those plans with our loved ones.

Otherwise, families are too often left in a lurch, told they need to provide care for a loved one and having no substantive idea of who to call or where to turn. Siblings squabble, families splinter, and meanwhile the patient’s quality of life is reduced to the point where significant time is shaved off their life simply because no one knows what to do. In worst case scenarios, the government steps in, minimal care is provided, and any dignity that was left is lost.

Facing Our Fears With Peaceful Determination

The last song I ever hear -- Old Man Talking

My father’s last words to me were, “I love you, son. Take care of your mother. Tell those boys how much I love them.” His physical pain in those final hours was so severe that no amount of morphine was sufficient. Seeing tears roll down his face broke my heart. He did not look forward to death because, as always, he was concerned about his family more than himself. He did not fear death, though. He knew that everything surrounding the next step was secure. He was confident in his faith and in the knowledge that Mom would not have to worry.

I have never understood why we fear death so much that we are unable to discuss it intelligently and plan for its inevitability. For people of faith, so very much of the music and rhetoric that dominates religious services revolves around the promises of what comes after this life. Christians, especially, have whole volumes of hymns such as “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “The Old Ship of Zion,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.,” all of which celebrate moving on beyond this life. For those agnostic or atheist, the end of this life is simply a transfer of our energy back into the cosmos. Allowing mythologies and old tales to subdue us with fear regarding death is something that has never made sense to me.

What I do understand, however, is Poppa’s desire to take care of his family, especially Mother. Most people (there are always ornery exceptions) don’t want their passing, or their end-of-life care to cause unnecessary burden or trouble for their family. My maternal grandfather lived with us off and on for several years and it always bothered him when any aspect of our lives, no matter how trivial, required adjusting to make sure he had the care he needed. While I tease my boys that I plan on hanging around and embarrassing them until I’m 150, the reality is that I hope they never have to worry about any aspect of my care. Love leads us to make our transition from this life as peaceful as possible for everyone, not just ourselves.

Achieving that goal, however, requires some determination and planning in three general areas that one can never address too early in life. When one considers the possibility that a stroke or accident or unexpected disease may leave us without the ability to participate in our care planning when we need it, the assurance that those possibilities have already been addressed allows us to live our entire lives with a greater level of peace.

There are three areas of planning one needs to address.

Financial Readiness

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the population can be divided into two groups when it comes to financial planning: those who do and those who don’t. I’m in the latter group. Not that I didn’t try, but when one’s income is inconsistent, as it is not only for most creatives or anyone who is self-employed or a serial entrepreneur, the consistent contributions necessary for intelligent financial planning are not always there.

Planning early is the advice financial planners always give, but in an economy that emphasises experiences over savings that often doesn’t happen. When we do realize we need to plan, somewhere past age 40, we start realizing that we’ve already missed out on a lot of options that would benefit us. Past the age of 45, a number of insurance options grow considerably more expensive and if one has a pre-existing condition or four, as many of us have, the best life insurance policies are often out of our reach.

There are a couple of necessary steps to take regardless of one’s circumstances. First, know what the costs are in your area. The Genworth Long Term Care Survey is a helpful resource that breaks down costs for one’s general region. This is helpful when one is considering their options.

Second, get some help. This is tough for a lot of us. Admitting that we need help planning for our final years feels fatalistic, as though we’re already giving up. We’re not. Asking for help is a move that makes us stronger. AARP has a number of suggestions (no big surprise there). However, what might make more sense is consulting a local palliative care provider who offers a full range of services. They often have financial planners on staff or can put one in contact with social workers who are aware of the full range of financial options.  Know that Medicare does not pay for what they call “custodial care,” so one is likely to need other options.

Long-Term Care Preparation

How does one plan for something when they don’t know exactly what they’re going to need or when they’re going to need it? Again, there are two critical steps that we have to consider. The first can be done to a certain extent online: know what options are available. Most palliative care companies have websites that detail the various services available. Interestingly enough, the VA website does a good job of covering a great many of the options, though I certainly wouldn’t recommend going through the VA to exercise any of those options.

The second step is a little more involved: deciding what you want. This is challenging because as we sit here right at this moment I know I’m not sure exactly what I want. I know I don’t want to be a burden on Kat or any of my boys. At the same time, I’m far to grumpy an old man to tolerate being in a facility as long as there are other options.

Earlier this week, I took a moment to watch the Netflix movie, The Last Laugh, with Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, and Andie MacDowell. While the movie itself had a number of inaccuracies that bugged me, what it drove home for me was that very few of us want to be “put up” somewhere. We’d much rather remain active even if it means doing something out of character, like driving across country on a comedy tour or posing nude for an art sculpture. Another important point, however, is the need to communicate our desires with our families.

We’re not as likely to get what we want in our final years if no one knows what we want, and I mean in excruciating detail, such as wanting to have a hound dog by my side no matter what, and what might happen if a caregiver ever comes at me with gazpacho. I’ve never understood the point of cold soup.

Sure, we want to consider what happens when we reach that point where we can’t get out of bed unassisted or its no longer safe to make our own coffee. We also need to communicate what we want prior to that point as well. If we don’t want to look at latter life planning as a fatalistic exercise, we should make it clear exactly how we want to live.

FInally, it is important that we have someone we can trust who has some form of power of attorney. At any point where we are unable to communicate for ourselves for any reason, we need to know who has our back and that they’re going to respect our plans and wishes. There are various forms of Power of Attorney, so talk with a social worker or legal expert to determine which works best for you and then choose carefully.

End-Of-Life Planning

Finally, let’s deal with the inevitable. Talk about it, plan for it, and then don’t worry about it. No, this isn’t going to be a fun conversation no matter when it occurs. However, here’s what I do know: it’s a lot easier to make those decisions now than leaving them to a grief-stricken family. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Coming from the background I do, where not only did Poppa officiate at a number of funerals but family members owned funeral homes and I even worked in a couple during college, I am extremely well versed in how the family that seemed to be holding it together during one’s decline falls completely apart in all the worst ways after one is actually gone. Trust me, leaving your end-of-life planning to the grief-stricken is not advisable.

I no longer have any family members (that I know) still involved in the funeral business, so I reached out to Chris Highsmith, a former classmate who now owns Burckhalter-Highsmith Funeral Home in Vinita, Oklahoma. I wanted to know if prepaid, pre-planned funeral services were still available. They are, and I want to encourage people to consider this option no matter what other financial options they might have at their disposal.

Both my parents had prepaid plans that they had purchased when my brother and I were still very young. I cannot begin to express how much of a relief that was when they passed. When Poppa died, all Mother had to do was sign papers ordering the sufficient number of death certificates and deliver the suit in which Poppa would be buried. Perhaps even more critical, though, was when Mother passed six months later. Her death was sudden and unexpected. There was no emotional planning. Still, my brother and I walked into the funeral home and were immediately assured that everything was in place. We only had to provide her clothes.

Again, we are a unique family. The funeral director we were using was a family friend with whom we had worked for years. What I didn’t know, however, if plans such as the ones my parents had were still available for purchase. There had been talk in the late 80s and 90s of discontinuing those options due to a lack of interest on the investment.

Chris assured me of two important things: A number of funeral homes still offer the service, and yes, they are transferable. Just this past week, Chris was fulfilling a prepaid plan that had originated in California in 2002. This is important as many of us don’t know exactly where we’ll be when we pass. I’m still holding out for eventually moving to the West Coast. There are plenty of people who have dreams of spending their final years somewhere warm. That doesn’t mean we can’t go ahead and plan for this final event.

Do this. If the thought of going to a funeral home creeps you out, a number of funeral service providers, including Chris’, provide pre-planning forms on their websites. Let me encourage you, though, to develop a relationship with a funeral director. They really are wonderful people, often with the best sense of humor. In my opinion, this is just as important as having a will. Define exactly what you want and get that emotional challenge out of the way. Once it’s done, communicate to someone where those plans are and then proceed to live the rest of your life with all the bliss one can muster.

Listening To The Music

The Last Song I Ever Hear -- Old Man Talking

Now that we’ve gotten all the necessary planning out of the way, let’s get back to talking about music. Specifically, the music we want dominating the latter part of our lives. This is important on a number of levels.

First of all, for the vast majority of our lives music has played a role in all the important events we’ve experienced. We remember the song playing when we first fell in love, that song that just clicked at the first concert we attended, and the song we found comforting when we were really, really sad. We jam to music while driving, while working, and while at the gy. When music has played such an important part in all the rest of our lives it is silly to not include it in our end-of-life planning.

Secondly, there is increasing evidence that music has a positive effect on our health as we age. As I talked about palliative care with a friend who recently lost her father after a prolonged illness, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that one of his care providers would routinely bring her guitar and not only play music he knew but facilitated his participation, even if it was just tapping on a tambourine. Music helps us focus, at least for a while, on something other than the pain and loss of function that one often experiences in those last months of life.

Third, hearing is one of the last functions we lose before we die. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that as other body functions begin to fail our hearing is actually enhanced, making it all that much more important that the sound around us be carefully considered. Would one rather here the beep-beep-beep of life monitors counting down our final heart beats or something that makes us smile as we remember the heart beats we’ve already enjoyed?

What we don’t want is some random selection of songs that hold no meaning for us. I have a broad and varied taste in music but if someone thinks I’m going to tolerate a playlist of “golden oldies” from the 1950s, they are sadly mistaken. When I reach that point where I could “go at any time,” I better not be hearing strains of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as I take my final breaths. So help me, I’ll come back and haunt someone if that happens.

Fortunately, we live in an amazing time where we don’t have to rely on our advice to family members or caregivers. We can create our own playlists of songs that actually have meaning to us, music that leaves us happy as we contemplate taking our final breath. There are plenty of ways of doing that, from putting songs on a flash drive to creating a playlist on one’s favorite streaming service. With just a little work we can rest easy knowing that some toneless contemporary drivel is not going to be stuck in our ears for eternity.

Mind you, we’re not talking about the music played at one’s funeral service. While there may be some overlap, the music at a memorial service is not for us but for the people who are left. This is a selfish moment. To hell with what anyone else wants to hear. Let this be your own playlist. No judgement allowed.

Sorting Through A Lifetime of Favorites

The Last Song I Ever Hear -- Old Man Talking

Of course, the moment one sits down to distill a lifetime of music memories into a handful of final choices, we begin to realize just how much music we’ve enjoyed over a lifetime. We also are likely to realize how much our tastes have changed. There are some songs that we thoroughly enjoyed in our teen years that we might not be able to stand now. How does one curate this final list so that it’s not 24 years long?

I cannot provide all the answers for you. Not everyone has complicated music tastes. I have a good friend who has been a country music radio DJ for over 40 years. His playlist is likely to be pretty straightforward. Mine, on the other hand, is all over the place. To help you narrow down your choices, here’s how I constructed my list.

  • Five songs from my earliest memories. For me, these are all gospel songs with a heavy tendency toward traditional spirituals such as Mahalia Jackson’s “Great Gettin’ Up Morning,” and Ethel Waters’ “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” Popular music was all but nonexistent when I was little so even though my belief system is dramatically different from my parents, these songs still tug at my heart and provide a sense of warmth and comfort.
  • Five songs from when I first started choosing my own music. I received my first transistor radio in the summer of 1968. Oh, but the wonderful songs I suddenly discovered! The best part was that it came with an earpiece so I didn’t have to divulge to my parents the rebellious sound choices I was making. Songs from this period include Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” Peter, Paul, and Mary’s take on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and, perhaps somewhat inexplicably, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel.” The line “What goes up must come down” is something I will always hear sung in my head and if one isn’t careful I must just get up out of my deathbed and dance to that one. The memories I have of that summer are still as fresh as any.
  • Five songs my early teens. That period between ages 12-14 isn’t especially long, but they are extremely influential and for many people accompany a lot of “firsts,” such as the first love or first kiss. For me, however, my parents’ influence was especially strong during this period. Living in extreme northeastern Oklahoma, it was only country music on the radio (FM radio was just getting started) and most of the opportunities I had for experiencing live music involved the church, particularly the resurgence of gospel quartets. This has stuck with me forever. I love the harmonies and the passion found in this music, even if I don’t agree with their precepts. All the artists from this period are gone now, but I’ll never forget watching Rosie Rosell sing “Oh What A Savior” or George Younce stepping into “This Old House.” I have a ten-hour playlist filled with this music and it’s still my go-to specifically when I’m editing nude photographs. Don’t judge me.
  • Five songs I will always want to hear one last time. Okay, calling this section of the playlist “songs” is a bit of an understatement. This is the music from my formal education in the field, the pieces that I’ve either played or conducted at significant points in my schooling. These five pieces alone are well over an hour in length. Sorry, not sorry. These are masterworks and, so help me, if there’s an ounce of muscle control left, my arms are coming up and my hands are going to move through all five. I also have to be very specific here, though. I was trying to explain this to Kat and she looked at me as though I am crazy. Not every classical recording is the same. If I’m listening to Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto in b-minor, it had damn well better be Van Cliburn at the piano or I’m likely to throw something. Similarly, if I hear some thin-toned rendition of the “Choral” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, know that I will get out of my bed, no matter how close to death I might be, and beat someone with the nearest baton-looking instrument I can find. The 1964 Decca recording with Leopold Stokowski conducting is pretty much the only one I find acceptable. The double bass sound is too thin on everything else.
  • Five songs from my mid-late teens. Yeah, we’re skipping straight over the disco years. I don’t need that in my ears. There were some classic songs from this era, though, and this was probably the era most difficult to narrow down to only five songs. The various playlists I have from this period would take three full days to get through if we played them non-stop. I narrowed down my choices, though, by thinking which ones would likely have the greatest meaning for me as I lie in bed wondering if my next breath might be my last. Morbid, yes, but effective. The five I ultimately chose are songs that would, in one way or another, be fitting were I to die while they are playing. If given a choice, I’d rather “Listen To The Music” be the last thing I hear, though “Dust in the Wind” is also totally appropriate. Any of these five are fine, thank you. Not that I’ll remember, or be able to communicate my appreciation, but those who know me best will appreciate the significance.

Why have I not chosen anything from later in life? Because, let’s face it, music from the late 70s-early 80s was the best. There’s a reason these songs are still popular even in contemporary culture. By the time we made it to the 90s too much of the music was being over-produced, digitally influenced, and in many cases just plain horrible. Why would I want to listen to anything when I’m dying that I don’t listen to while I’m alive?

Sure, I try to keep up with contemporary music and there are artists like Jon Batiste and Kendra Foster whose talent I greatly respect. I need to be awake and have my cognitive abilities in tact, however, to appreciate their music. While I enjoy what they’re doing, their music has not had the opportunity yet to attach to my soul.

One of the benefits of advance planning, however, is that we can always change things. If I live another 30 years (or 60) then I’m likely to revise the playlist, adding another section of music that speaks to me now. Planning ahead doesn’t mean that we can’t change things if our circumstances change.

What we have to realize is that we don’t have control over everything that happens to us. While we may live very long and active lives, and I certainly hope we all do, there is also the very real chance that one might suddenly find themselves with limited functionality, their body unable to fulfill all the tasks we expect from it. It is against that inevitability that we make these plans now.

I have absolutely no idea why the universe put this topic into the cosmic conversation at this particular time. As I’ve done research this week, I’ve come to appreciate the wealth of options that are available on every level. We who are past the age of dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse are surrounded by opportunities to remain active and vital participants in society even past the point of being fully ambulatory.

What I cannot over-emphasize is that we need to plan and make these decisions for ourselves and then fully communicate these decisions to our loved ones. How we spend our final years, months, and days should not be matters of hastily made decisions put off until the last minute. We control our quality of life for our entire life when we plan now.

Here’s my final playlist, for now. Listen if you like. More importantly, make your own. Let the last song you ever hear one that you can carry with you into eternity.


All images included in this article are the copyrighted property of charles i. letbetter and cannot be used elsewhere without express written consent.


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Old Man Talking

Awards season is here. While the Golden Globes are already passed, we still have to suffer through the Critic’s Choice Awards tonight (the 13th), the Screen Actors Guild Awards January 27, the Directors Guild Awards February 2, the GRAMMY Awards February 10, the British Academy Film Awards February 20, the Writers Guild Awards February 17, the Independent Spirit Awards February 23, and then the Academy Awards February 24. The entertainment world in general and Americans especially not only has a thing for handing out trophies but making sure everyone’s project has a chance to be recognized.

Yes, even in entertainment, we want everyone to have a chance to get a trophy.

Trophies are nice when we’re in junior high or maybe even high school. They provide a sense of accomplishment and encouragement to keep moving forward. Parents like it when their children receive trophies because it gives them the hope that perhaps, someday, their child might make something of themselves and move out of the basement.

For most people, we stop chasing trophies as adults. Sure, there are professional awards and some of those can significantly boost one’s career. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t hope each year that a project I was on might win an ADDY or CLIO award. My reasons, however, were not so much for the accolades as for the pay bump that inevitably came along with such success. Having a little trophy to take up room and collect dust didn’t then and doesn’t now have much appeal.

In the entertainment industry, though, the number of trophies one has makes a huge difference in how much one earns for subsequent projects. Women, especially, who have traditionally been severely underpaid in Hollywood, need the recognition that any one of the long list of awards can deliver. An Oscar is worth millions for many actors and actresses. One of the reasons there are so many entertainment awards is because they can have such a dramatic impact on a winner’s career.

Awards are so heavily valued in the entertainment industry because producers and studio heads are of the opinion that the buying public are more likely to spend money on well-known award winners than they are unknowns. Winning awards creates a level of fame th at results in greater box office returns and higher record sales. So, winning any one of those awards we’ve listed really matters, right?

Well, not always. Sure, there’s the short-term bump that comes from winning an award, but over time the fame that comes from winning an award fades if one doesn’t follow with yet another award of some kind. Having that bright light shining on one can also reveal some aspects of one’s life that are less than appropriate. Ultimately, in as little as one generation, chances are not high that one’s name is fondly remembered.

Time Is The Enemy Of Fame

Old Man Talking

The temporary nature of fame becomes evident every time I try talking to my 20-year-old about anything that predates his period of entertainment consciousness, which apparently didn’t kick in until somewhere around 2007. Any time I make a reference before that, with the exception of Veggie Tales or Dora the Explorer, I get back this clueless look that questions whether I’m just making up names out of thin air.

If we’re honest, though, those of us who are not true cinephiles or trivida geeks don’t relate to anyone whose career existed prior to our own period of “awakening,” whether that came with the onset of puberty or some traumatic event that found us seeking solace in a song. All those “old” movies and television shows are for the benefit of our parents, who remember when those shows and movies were new. While a handful are strong enough to survive into the contemporary lexicon, such as I Love Lucy, most programming prior to the 1990s is now locked away in a vault somewhere, waiting for a wave of nostalgia to bring them back. Even the TV Land cable network, which placate those just older than myself with multiple reruns of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Andy Griffith back-to-back during the morning, fill their primetime schedule with shows that, for my generation, still feel recent: King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Two And A Half Men.

Perhaps no better example exists than going through the list of people who won Oscars for Best Actor/Actress in a Supporting Role. Without going back into “ancient history” (the 60s), consider whether you recognize any of these names:

  • Lee Grant
  • Beatrice Straight
  • Melvyn Douglas
  • Lina Hart
  • Harry S. Niger
  • Peggy Ashcroft
  • Dianne Wiest
  • Mercedes Ruehl
  • Geoffrey Rush
  • Roberto Benigni
  • Benicio Del Toro
  • Marcia Gay Harden
  • Jim Broadbent

Chances are very high that if one is under the age of 40 that none of those names mean anything. There are even two names in that list who won for leading roles but are not actively remembered outside the narrow community of those committed to such trivia.

For those who do genuinely remember some of those names, the list is somewhat tragic. There are actors and actresses that were really big deals back in their heyday but didn’t receive their Oscar until shortly before their deaths. Others represent once-bright flames that never managed to reach their perceived potential for whatever reason.

Our point is that fame is a very momentary experience that simply doesn’t last for the majority of those who achieve it. One can spend a lifetime chasing after a trophy but within a decade after their passing their name, and achievements, are all but forgotten.

This brings us to a critical life question: if what we’re doing isn’t going to last, then why are we doing it?

Let’s take a look at three times when entertainment awards didn’t do much to help anyone’s long-term popularity at all, then we will examine what is a better personal goal than trying to become famous.   

A Vanishing Legacy

Old Man Talking

When one looks at the list of primetime Emmy winners in the comedy category, one sees some pretty impressive names: Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Jean Stapleton, Valerie Harper and Bea Arthur. Sandwiched in between Lucy’s and Jean’s wins, though, is the name Hope Lange. If that name doesn’t immediately  ring a bell, you’re not alone. One would have to be of “the greatest generation,” or somewhere close to that, to remember the actress who won the award for Best Actress in a Comedy both in 1969 and 1970. The show ran for two seasons on NBC and one on ABC before being completely cancelled.

Ms. Lange’s career spanned from 1942 to 1998. It was movies that first made her famous. When she was cast in Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe, the famous blonde was so jealous of Lange that she pressured the film’s producer to have Lange’s blonde hair dyed a light brown. That still didn’t keep Lange from walking away with and marrying the film’s leading man, Don Murray.

In fact, Ms. Lange was considered a bit of a bombshell on her own during her youth. Many thought it downright scandalous when she was cast in the 1957 movie Peyton Place, which was considered so risqué at the time that many theatres refused to show it. She dropped Murray for an affair with actor Glenn Ford, her co-star in Pocketful Of Miracles, then married producer Alan Pakula who she later divorced so she could date Frank Sinatra, who was later replaced by novelist John Cheever. She so often played the sultry sexpot in films that she became typecast to that kind of role, which might explain why her television career in more tame roles tended to struggle.

Even though she won the Emmy in her category two years in a row, her performance was not enough to save a show that came of mild up against My Three Sons and The Lawrence Welk Show while on NBC. When the series moved to ABC, it had the bad luck of being on against Family Affair, [No, if you’re under the age of 40 you’ve likely never heard of any of those shows. Trust me, they were big at the time.] What’s worth noting there is a sad reality of television preferences in the 70s. Each of those shows beating Ms. Lange in the ratings was male-dominated programs that fed into the long-standing patriarchal view that was at times rather heavy-handed. It would take Mary Tyler Moore, whose show started in 1970 on a different network, to prove that women could handle a primetime series on their own (Lucille Ball was considered an anomaly that couldn’t be duplicated).

By the time Ms. Lange was cast in her final roles in Message from Nam and Clear and Present Danger, she was already seen as “that old actress whose face you sort-of recognize but can’t remember from where.” Her final appearance was at the 40th anniversary celebration of Peyton Place in 1998. When she died in 2003, hardly anyone outside the industry bothered to notice.

Lange’s fading fame is a perfect example of how quickly and easily history ignores those whose legacy is thin. Contemporaries who tended to put Ms. Lange and Ms. Monroe in the same basket have wondered if the latter’s continued legend might have suffered a fate similar to Lange’s had she not died when she did. Would we still remember Marilyn Monroe if she had filled the late 60s and 70s with projects that never captured the public’s enthusiasm as the star grew older? Hollywood has never been kind to aging actresses and it has only been through the persistent insistence of people such as Glenn Close and Dame Maggie Smith that women have secured notable roles and awards past the age of 40.

With more new programming being produced now than ever in the history of visual entertainment, the opportunity for momentary fame is within the reach of more people than ever and millions of people are grasping for that brass ring. Sadly, that most likely means there will be millions more people winning awards whose names are quickly forgotten.

A Bright Light Slowly Dimmed.

Old Man Talking

Anyone who was alive in the United States in 1977 likely remembers the song You Light Up My Life. Winning both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for best original song, it broke records at the time, staying at number one on the Billboard charts for an unprecedented ten weeks, more than the Beatles’ Hey Jude. Even after slipping from the number one position, the song remained on the charts seemingly forever. By the time it disappeared, radio DJs were so tired of playing the song that many broke their copy and vowed to never play it again.

And they didn’t.

If ever there was a song that represents famed denied, this is it. On one hand, Debby Boone, the daughter of squeaky-clean singer Pat Boone (you know, the guy with the white loafers) shot from complete obscurity to instant stardom only to fall back into obscurity. For the better part of a year, Ms. Boone was everywhere, on all the important talk shows, on variety shows and television specials, and in all the music-related magazines.

The song was trouble from the start, though, and that trouble continues to haunt the legacy not only of Ms. Boone but two other people closely connected to the song.

You see, Debby Boone was not supposed to be the person who recorded the hit. In fact, if one watches the movie of the same name, for which the song was written, it is not Ms. Boone’s voice they hear, but that of Ukrainian coloratura Kasey Cisyk. When writer Joseph Brookes hired Ms. Cisyk to record the song, he told her that her version would be released as the single. By all rights, it should have been Ms. Cisyk, not Ms. Boone, that shot to fame with the song.

Brookes changed his mind, however, and decided to re-record the song with Ms. Boone, who was carefully coached to specifically imitate every detail of Ms. Cisyk’s version, right down to where and how she breathed. Only in the movie’s credits is Ms. Cisyk given any recognition. Even on the Original Soundtrack recording, the song is credited to “Original Cast,” not Ms. Cisyk. Ms. Cisyk continued recording jingles such as “You deserve a break today,” and “Have you driven a Ford lately,” before dying of breast cancer the day before her 45th birthday in 1998.

Joe Brookes, who wrote the song and the movie script as well as directed the movie may have thought he’d win by double-crossing Ms. Cisyk, but life didn’t turn out so well for him, either. The movie itself, starring Didi Conn in the lead role, bombed. By the time the song fell off the charts, not only were people tired of hearing about it but the industry was tired of Brooke’s overbearing and blatant self-promotion. He fell into the same obscurity as his song.

That didn’t stop Brookes from trying to play himself off as a top Hollywood director, though, and in 2009 he was indicted for multiple “casting couch” rapes. He was, in contemporary terms, the precursor to the #MeToo movement. Brookes never came to trial, however, choosing to hang himself while still in jail in 2011. Only the jailer and Brookes’ victims noticed.

Life hasn’t necessarily been all bad for Debby Boone. If one pays attention to certain sub-genres of Christian music they’ve likely seen some of her occasional projects popping up there from time to time. She also married one of the sons of Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt), who was herself a major musical powerhouse of the post-war era. After Ms. Clooney passed in 2003, Ms. Boone recorded a tribute album in 2005, covering some of her late mother-in-law’s hits. The album met with marginal success among Ms. Clooney’s fans in the soft jazz community. She has, at the very least, managed to stay busy even if she’s nowhere near the limelight she was in 1977.

You Light Up My Life proves that fame can be manufactured for a moment but the level of manipulation and deception required to make that happen is unsustainable and ultimately leaves everyone associated with it in relative obscurity, hiding from the very thing that put the light on them in the first place.

When The Laughter Stopped

Old Man Talking

More recently, the star of Monique Angela Imes, known professionally as Mo’Nique, is one that seemed poised to shine among the brightest of the bright. After winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2009 for her role in the movie Precious, she was given her own late night talk show on the BET network. In 2015, she received an Emmy Award nomination for her role as Ma Rainey in the HBO film Bessie. Everything seemed to be going well.

Then, it all stopped.

When something like this happens the rumors start flying and it would be inappropriate for me to repeat those here. For her part, Mo’Nique has publicly stated that she blames Lee Daniels, Tyler Perry, and Oprah Winfrey, all important figures in black entertainment, for blackballing her. While such a move does not seem characteristic of any of those people without sufficient reason, they have not responded publicly to the claim so we’ll just have to let that go.

One criticism that has been documented is that Mo’Nique refused to participate in some of the publicity effort around the movie Precious. We all know how that works: weeks before a movie hits theaters, stars are assigned to do interviews on various talk shows and other media outlets as part of the publicity for the film. For the vast majority of actors, even major names, participating in such efforts is in their contract with the studio. Refusing to participate in publicity is certainly something that would give a studio pause before hiring a person again.

Another significant possibility, though, is that Mo’Nique’s brand of comedy did not change as the attitude of the country did. We’ve seen this happen with other comedians whose careers on the backside of the #MeToo movement are taking a rapid nosedive.

Earlier in her career Mo’Nique was known for saying”White and black people, we’re just mad at each other, we don’t know why we’re mad at each other. We’re not each other’s enemy. We’re not the enemy. It’s the Chinese people we need to watch out for.” Where jokes like that drew applause back in 2000, by the middle of President Obama’s second term it was becoming increasingly obvious that a disturbing number of people do look at people of color as the enemy. The old jokes stopped being funny.

Mo’Nique has not been off the main stage all that long so I was surprised that when I asked ten people over the age of 25 if they remembered her, it was only the white comedian who did. Her fame among mass audiences has disappeared. That’s not to say she still couldn’t make a comeback. Mo’Nique is a strong and courageous woman for whom anything is possible, but her path back is going to be more difficult than it was the first time.

The Futility of Chasing A Prize

Old Man Talking

There are a lot of awards and prizes that are given to people outside the entertainment industry, but few others have the ability to bestow any significant level of fame outside one’s own industry. Getting one of those shiny trophies, at least in certain categories, pretty much guarantees one a spot on the talk show circuit for the next fifteen minutes or so and a host of new project offers with enticing salaries attached. When entertainment contracts can be worth several million dollars, going after that trophy can seem like a worthwhile effort.

For most people, however, chasing after a trophy or some other prize often ends up rather futile. Perhaps the greatest prize in the United States is that of President. Surely, if there is anything capable of cementing a person’s legacy, winning the presidency would do it. Rutherford B. Hayes might argue with that supposition, however.

As nasty and partisan as contemporary elections have become, we’ve yet to come close to the nastiness of the 1876 campaign that elected Hayes as the 19th president. With the South still in turmoil and the political process largely handled by corrupt state-level poll bosses, the election was so contentious it was not finalized until an act of Congress recognized Hayes as the winner a mere two days prior to the March 4 inauguration.

As part of the deal made in Congress, however, Reconstruction policies in the South ended immediately and with it any chance former slaves had of achieving any of the civil rights they had been promised by President Grant’s administration. Policies toward native peoples suffered as well. In the end, most historians consider Hayes one of the most ineffective and unimportant presidents to ever hold the office. Hence, the reason many people don’t even know his name. Winning the prize is futile when one doesn’t do anything worthwhile in the aftermath.

Fame is a right now, in the moment type of recognition. Once the moment is gone, so is the attention that comes with it. While an elite few are expert enough it chaining together one moment after another, the vast majority fall short even though they may possess superior talent and skill.

When we allow winning the prize to become our primary focus and goal, we place ourselves on a merry-go-round that gives one no opportunity but perpetuates a cycle of chasing the next, bigger, louder, brighter, better-paying moment in hopes of winning the next statue or trophy. When life ultimately tosses one off that merry-go-round, often aggressively, one often finds themselves wandering in random circles on a downward spiral into oblivion.

Defining Success On More Intelligent Terms

Old Man Talking

When we win awards in junior high and high school, they’re meant to be motivational; they encourage us to achieve and do well and for a lot of people that motivation has worked as long as they were in high school. Beyond that, however, the method tends to break down. Life and work are not the structured environment we have in school. School makes it safe for us to focus on something without the worry of paying bills or feeding a family (in most cases). Unfortunately, as much as that might help one learn necessary skills or information, it does little to prepare us for the harsh realities of life.

Outside of the educational system, awards and their associated fame are not so much motivational as they are distracting rabbit holes. Sure, everyone likes winning an award, but in the real life those trophies and any resulting fame have to be secondary goals to prevent one’s career from flaming out unnoticed.

Perhaps we would do better to define success not by what awards and trophies we’ve won but by the happiness we generate in our own lives and the differences we make in the lives of others. I am convinced that people who are not happy with themselves first are unable to be a positive influence for change on anything outside themselves.

While we can sit and argue all day over what constitutes happiness in anyone’s life, there are some characteristics that are commonplace no matter what it ultimately is that makes one happy.

  • The ability to do something well.
  • Enjoying doing that thing we do well.
  • We are not overwhelmed by what we do
  • We can momentarily set aside that thing we do to enjoy other things
  • We are not jealous of nor threatened by others who do the same thing well.

For some people, finding that thing we do well comes naturally, a talent or skill with which we seem born. Others struggle to figure out what that thing is, trying first one item and then another. There are a couple of important considerations when looking for that thing one does well. 1. What we do may be something quite simple, such as mowing the lawn or folding laundry. The level of complication in what we do in no way diminishes the importance of what we do. 2. What we do well may change. We are not stuck being the same people our entire lives. If we are 68 years old and discover something new that we do well, there’s no reason to not change up and do that thing.

One also needs to realize that some things we do well we may not enjoy doing. Inversely, things we do enjoy are not necessarily things we do well. Let’s take music as an example. I have a bachelors degree in piano. Playing piano is something I do well, but I do not enjoy practicing enough for it to be the center of my happiness. While I enjoy playing occasionally, it is one of the other things I do, not the main thing. At the same time, I love singing. Unfortunately, I’m not especially good at it. If I were good at it I would consider letting that be my main thing but even the dogs leave the room when I sing. I do better to put my focus on photography, which, for me, meets both goals.

When those five elements come together in harmony, then we have found our secret to being happy. Not someone else’s secret, mind you, because, as we’ve said often before, what works for someone else does not necessarily work for us. Our happiness lies first within ourselves and what we do.

I Want To Dance With Somebody

Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is often quoted as defining success as follows:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

While we might, in contemporary terms, question whether one needs respect from anyone outside themselves or whether honest critics actually exist, Emerson’s last line is where the gold is found: “to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”

There you go, that’s the ultimate award, knowing that at least one life has had some moment of relief, had an opportunity to breathe, because you were there. Winning this award doesn’t necessarily require one to climb mountains or weigh a certain amount or look a certain way or love specific people. Winning at life is not about accumulating a wall full of trophies or the largest bank account or taking the most exotic vacation. Winning at life is about holding a child’s hand as they walk into a new school for the first time. Winning at life is when we look at the server who spilled the soup and smile, then add an extra ten percent to our tip. Winning at life is when we hire the felon who no one wants to give a chance because, once upon a time, he sold pot.

We misunderstand success if we, for even a moment, think that it is about us and our happiness. Success is when we take that thing we do well and love and use that thing to better the lives of other people.

Across his many books, the late philosopher Alan Watts warned that we err when we look at life as a journey with a starting point, an ending point, and a prize at the end. Instead, he insisted, we must realize that life is the dance that is happening right now, that both future and past are illusions. In his opinion, we waste time and effort when we overthink and overanalyze. “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes,” he said. “Zen … is just to peel the potatoes.”

When we look at life as a dance, a moment to experience and share rather than a line of goals to be met, we put ourselves in a position to help that one life breathe easier. The best dances are not those we dance alone but those we share with others. Dancing together, we have no need for awards or trophies or fame, we only have need of what we can share with each other right now.

As you go through the coming week, I challenge you to consider how we are approaching our lives. Do we live for the awards shows, the red carpets, and the shiny trophies, or do we live for the dance, sharing our happiness with a goal of making a difference in the lives of others?

You must choose for you. As for me, I want to dance with somebody.

Reading time: 22 min
Old Man Talking

Grammy® Award nominees represent the best of the previous year’s music but the Old Man found he recognized few of them. So, experts were called in to help.

January is here which means that awards season is upon us. 2017 saw a lot of artistic offerings across all the major forms of media, but when it comes to individually evaluating those choices only one area is really practical: music.

Sure, I would love to have the time to watch every movie or television program nominated for an award and heaven would be the ability to see every Broadway production so as to make intelligent Tony award predictions. No one is paying me for any of that, however, and the lights don’t stay on by themselves. Music is the only one where we can listen to the nominated songs and make reasonable predictions as to which might win, or which should win.

Pulling up the list of this year’s Grammy nominees, however, I discovered that I had a significant problem: I don’t know who any of these people are! What is a SZA? Why doesn’t Childish Gambino grow up? Why did someone write a song about a very specific time (4:44) and did we really need another song about a phone number (1-800-273-8255) when I still have 867-5349 stuck in my head from 30+ years ago?

That was when I realized that I have a fundamental flaw hampering my ability to judge the quality of music fairly: I’m old. My ears are no longer well-tuned to the sounds and nuances of contemporary music. I expect a discernible melody somewhere in the song. I expect a song to be about something, anything, even if it’s a duck. And, silly me, I really would like it if the people performing the music demonstrated some relationship to humanity.

Obviously, I need some help, an assistant who is younger, more in tune with today’s sounds. Someone who enjoys music and isn’t jaded by what seems to be a descent into a non-melodic hell. Yes, I realize that in typing that statement I sound exactly like my parents did in the 70s.

Fortunately, we have two such beings attached to our family and, on a particular day, we chose to listen to the nominees, an extra being filling the age gap between the first two. Since this is the Internet and not everyone reading can be trusted, we’ll refer to them as Li’l G, age 9, Tipster, age 7, and Extra Kid, age 8. The only question is whether I could get them to listen to music objectively for hours on end?

Knowing children as I do, I only had to say the magic word: party! They were all three instantly ready and eager to participate. Whether they would be able to endure through the duration of the project was uncertain but they were my best shot at getting a reasonably objective opinion even if we couldn’t reach a consensus on which songs are best.

Obviously, I didn’t subject the children to every category that the Grammy’s list. After all, there are 84 categories with five nominees per category. That makes for something in the neighborhood of 420 songs.  We would be here for days, especially considering that a hefty number of those are album categories. We just don’t have that kind of time. I also eliminated categories where the nominated songs were heavily laced with profanity (inappropriate for children) and instrumental genres that would be likely to put the kids to sleep. I also eliminated a couple of categories I knew would leave me heaving into a trash can.

Our end result isn’t necessarily a straightforward prediction of who will win and more of an opinion as to who should win. I tried talking with my young cohorts about the music and sometimes they gave me decent and surprising answers but other times there were rather ambivalent, especially with genres where the music tends to be slower and less enthusiastic. Children don’t chill. Ever.

I’ll add more analysis toward the end, but for now, let’s focus on the nominations and the various choices.

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Record of the Year

This is where we started, which sounds like it would be a strong beginning. It wasn’t. The nominees are:

  • Redbone

     Childish Gambino

  • Despacito

     Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber

  • The Story Of O.J.

     JAY-Z

  • HUMBLE.

     Kendrick Lamar

  • 24K Magic

     Bruno Mars

The kids thought Redbone was creepy and didn’t understand the point of The Story of O.J. so, those two were out of the running from the beginning. Despacito, not surprisingly, all three knew and could sing along with in Spanish. The Extra Kid has Hispanic roots so she was especially fond of this one. The Tipster liked HUMBLE at first but then changed her vote to 24K Magic along with Li’l G. They both love Bruno Mars and the fact they can dance to his music is a large part of the reason why. In fact, there’s a bit of “American Bandstand” philosophy to their entire approach. If they can’t dance to a song they’re not as likely to enjoy it.

Personally, I fully expect Despacito to win this one if none of the others for which it is nominated. The song dominated airplay a majority of the year and even if we’re a bit sick of hearing it now that doesn’t diminish the way in which it impacted the entire music scene for 2017.

Song of the Year

Curious about the difference between the Record of the Year and Song of the Year? Easy: Song of the Year is the songwriter’s award while Record of the Year is directed more toward the artist (though producers and engineers get trophies for that one as well). Not that the kids cared, especially when there were duplicate nominees. The choices are:

  • Despacito

     Ramon Ayala Rodriguez, Justin Bieber, Jason Boyd, Erika Ender, Luis Fonsi & Marty James Garton Jr, songwriters (Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber)

  • 4:44

     Shawn Carter & Dion Wilson, songwriters (JAY-Z)

  • Issues

     Benny Blanco, Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen, Julia Michaels & Justin Drew Tranter, songwriters (Julia Michaels)

  • 1-800-273-8255

     Alessia Caracciolo, Sir Robert Bryson Hall II, Arjun Ivatury, Khalid Robinson & Andrew Taggart, songwriters (Logic Featuring Alessia Cara & Khalid)

  • That’s What I Like

     Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Philip Lawrence, Bruno Mars, Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus & Jonathan Yip, songwriters (Bruno Mars)

All three kids went with That’s What I Like. Two primary factors dominated here: 1) they already knew the song well, and 2) they could dance all over the room. For them, this was an easy decision. 4:44 was too confusing and convoluted for them and while they appreciated what 1-800-273-8255 tries to say the serious tone ends up being a real downer for them. They didn’t like how they felt after listening to it. Issues was pretty much a “meh” from them. That’s What I Like had them on their feet, which was welcome after the other four songs. These kids don’t like music that brings them down.

My take, however, is that 1-800-273-8255 is the right song for the right time. My concern is that I’ve not heard it before this listening, which means it probably hasn’t dominated airplay enough to win the Grammy. Suicide is a huge issue, though, and while these kids may not be dealing with the issue yet, there are plenty of teens and young adults who are.

Best Pop Solo Performance

Pop is the genre kids hear the most. They’re teachers play it at school and they stream it on their devices. They knew both the songs and the artists before we started listening so this is probably their most objective choice. The nominees are:

  • Love So Soft

     Kelly Clarkson

  • Praying

     Kesha

  • Million Reasons

     Lady Gaga

  • What About Us

     Pink

  • Shape Of You

     Ed Sheeran

What immediately caught the kids’ attention is that this is the only category that isn’t dominated by male artists. This is a problem for the industry. When even little ones notice that women are not represented as much as men record labels, music promoters, and radio execs should probably take notice. This isn’t the place to get neck-deep into the issue but women need to be more present in this field. After saying all that, though, all three kids voted for Shape Of You. They love the song and, quite honestly, it probably is more the song than who sings it that matters to them. Sorry, Ed.

For my money, though, Pink’s What About Us strikes me as the strongest of the nominees and all five nominated songs are pretty strong. All are going to have plenty of support, but Pink probably comes closest to capturing the emotion most of the nation is currently feeling.

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance

There was a lot of talk about this category as, again, the kids were up dancing pretty much through the entire set. They wavered back and forth quite a bit before making a decision. The nominees are:

  • Something Just Like This

     The Chainsmokers & Coldplay

  • Despacito

     Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber

  • Thunder

     Imagine Dragons

  • Feel It Still

     Portugal. The Man

  • Stay

     Zedd & Alessia Cara

Of the group, only Stay had the kids yawning. The girls went with Something Just Like This. They were singing along while dancing their little hearts out. Li’l G, though, preferred the rhythmic Thunder. He said he liked being able to “feel” the music. Feel It Still probably came in a hard second place for them though there were moments they stopped dancing and asked, “huh? What’s that talking about?” Well … uhm … let’s just say “big kid stuff” for now.

I’m going with Li’l G on this one. Imagine Dragons has a song here that makes it almost impossible to sit still. Perhaps even more important is that one doesn’t quickly get the urge to strangle someone after hearing it three or four times in a row. The race is likely to be tight but I think they can come out on top to take home the Grammy.

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Best Rock Performance

Rock is a more adult-oriented genre so I wasn’t sure how well the kids would handle the categories. All three kids live in homes where rock is a regular part of the household playlists, though, so they did better than I expected. The nominees are:

  • You Want It Darker

     Leonard Cohen

  • The Promise

     Chris Cornell

  • Run

     Foo Fighters

  • No Good

     Kaleo

  • Go To War

     Nothing More

I understand why the late Leonard Cohen is on this list. You Want It Darker is a moving summation of his life and career. I get it. The kids, however, were begging me to turn it off. They weren’t impressed and found the song depressing. They liked the other four songs from a music perspective but thought No Good and Go To War were too negative. They were unanimous in their choice of Run for this category. I’m not sure they understood the song so much as they liked the concept of movement. They liked moving to Run.

Foo Fighters have had a strong year so it won’t surprise me if they take home the Grammy on this one. Don’t count Chris Cornell out, though. The Promise is strong, it just doesn’t carry the PR punch.

Best Rock Song

There are duplicates from the previous category here and the kids don’t like choosing the same song twice (they don’t think it’s fair). For them, there were really only three choices. The nominees are:

  • Atlas, Rise!

     James Hetfield & Lars Ulrich, songwriters (Metallica)

  • Blood In The Cut

     JT Daly & Kristine Flaherty, songwriters (K.Flay)

  • Go To War

     Ben Anderson, Jonny Hawkins, Will Hoffman, Daniel Oliver, David Pramik & Mark Vollelunga, songwriters (Nothing More)

  • Run

     Foo Fighters, songwriters (Foo Fighters)

  • The Stage

     Zachary Baker, Brian Haner, Matthew Sanders, Jonathan Seward & Brooks Wackerman, songwriters (Avenged Sevenfold)

Since the kids aren’t connected to the 70s like I am, they were completely unimpressed by Metallica’s presence on this list. None. I was rather disappointed as well. This seems like a nomination for nostalgia’s sake, not because the music was especially good. Blood in the Cut fared a little better but once again the kids found the message to deep and too depressing. The girls liked that there’s a female artist on this list but not enough to vote for her. The Stage was their unanimous choice.

I think there’s a very good chance Foo Fighters could take this Grammy as well if nostalgia doesn’t take over and give Metallica one last award. The Stage is good but I think Run has enough popularity going for it to get the trophy.

Best R&B Song

Time became a factor here and if I had it to do over I might have selected Best R&B Performance or even Best Traditional R&B Performance over this category. I wasn’t sure how the kids would respond to R&B so I went with what I thought they would appreciate most. Judging from their later response to the Gospel category, traditional R&B might have been more to their liking. Still, they didn’t fuss about this category, either. The nominees are:

  • First Began

     PJ Morton, songwriter (PJ Morton)

  • Location

     Alfredo Gonzalez, Olatunji Ige, Samuel David Jiminez, Christopher McClenney, Khalid Robinson & Joshua Scruggs, songwriters (Khalid)

  • Redbone

     Donald Glover & Ludwig Goransson, songwriters (Childish Gambino)

  • Supermodel

     Tyran Donaldson, Terrence Henderson, Greg Landfair Jr., Carter Lang & Solana Rowe, songwriters (SZA)

  • That’s What I Like

     Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Philip Lawrence, Bruno Mars, Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus & Jonathan Yip, songwriters (Bruno Mars)

Two songs dropped from consideration immediately. First Began was too mellow for their liking and Redbone can’t get out of the creepy box. Location was a bit tough for them to follow, though they liked the melody, and of course, they loved That’s What I Like. Surprisingly, though, they were unanimous on Supermodel. They liked that it was a female artist and all three really liked the song and were singing along by the end.

If SZA doesn’t get the Grammy for this one, which is probably my choice as well, Khalid delivers Location for its songwriters. Both are strong songs so it’s going to be a matter of the mood Grammy voters were in when they cast their ballots. This is a tough choice. The industry and the genre both need a female to take home this hardware. There needs to be a message that women’s voices are important and viable. At the same time, though, Khalid holds a lot of influence over the industry and has a lot of friends. Neither artist winning surprises me.

Best Country Song

Can city kids appreciate country music? Apparently better than I anticipated. Given their strong response to the R&B category, I was ready for complaints when we started this one, but those complaints never came. Who knew the kids could be so broad-minded? The nominees are

  • Better Man

     Taylor Swift, songwriter (Little Big Town)

  • Body Like A Back Road

     Zach Crowell, Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally & Josh Osborne, songwriters (Sam Hunt)

  • Broken Halos

     Mike Henderson & Chris Stapleton, songwriters (Chris Stapleton)

  • Drinkin’ Problem

     Jess Carson, Cameron Duddy, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne & Mark Wystrach, songwriters (Midland)

  • Tin Man

     Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall, songwriters (Miranda Lambert)

I didn’t tell the kids that Taylor Swift wrote Better Man. I was afraid that might sway their opinion too heavily. I needn’t have bothered, though. Both girls loved the song anyway. I have to wonder, though, if the fact that neither of the girls’ birth fathers is part of their lives influenced their decision. Li’l G, on the other hand, went with Sam Hunt’s Body Like A Back Road. He wasn’t so impressed by the song’s lyrics, though, as he just really liked the tune and the tempo.

When I look at this category I see a lot of sexism in the songs. Better Man puts all the blame for a failed relationship with the guy; he just wasn’t good enough–he should have been better. Meanwhile, Body Like A Back Road objectifies women in a way that’s painfully stereotypical of country music. The genre and society don’t really need either song. Tin Man and Broken Hearts are only marginally better. The whole “broken heart” scene felt really shallow. That leaves Drinkin’ Problem, which, again, is a bit stereotypical but at least doesn’t degrade and insult someone in order to feel good. Midland’s a strong band so they could carry this song for a Grammy win.

Old Man, Talking Merch

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Best American Roots Performance

Wow, the kids really caught me off guard on this one. They were plugged in from the very beginning and stayed in there through all five songs, which was saying something by this point in the process. The nominees are:

  • Killer Diller Blues

     Alabama Shakes

  • Let My Mother Live

     Blind Boys Of Alabama

  • Arkansas Farmboy

     Glen Campbell

  • Steer Your Way

     Leonard Cohen

  • I Never Cared For You

     Alison Krauss

Okay, so they still weren’t terribly enthused by Leonard Cohen. They did admit that he fits better here than in the Rock category. They really got down with Alabama Shakes and the Blind Boys of Alabama, though, and swayed along with Glen Campbell’s final song. Their unanimous choice, however, was Alison Krauss’ I Never Cared For You. They liked the full sound and the clarity of Krauss’ voice even though the song wasn’t as upbeat as some of the others.

Can Krauss win the Grammy for this one? I’m not sure. There’s a lot of sentimentality with the Blind Boys of Alabama, Glen Campbell, and Leonard Cohen on the list. Krauss has the stronger performance of the five but the tendency to give trophies to dead people is strong. Don’t be surprised if Glen Campbell steals this one from the grave.

Best American Roots Song

This is a strange category. Songs get dumped here when they don’t really fit anywhere else. This makes for rather diverse listening. The nominees are:

  • Cumberland Gap

     David Rawlings & Gillian Welch, songwriters (David Rawlings)

  • I Wish You Well

     Raul Malo & Alan Miller, songwriters (The Mavericks)

  • If We Were Vampires

     Jason Isbell, songwriter (Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit)

  • It Ain’t Over Yet

     Rodney Crowell, songwriter (Rodney Crowell Featuring Rosanne Cash & John Paul White)

  • My Only True Friend

     Gregg Allman & Scott Sharrard, songwriters (Gregg Allman)

By this point in the day the kids’ ears were getting tired and their bodies were getting restless. If a song didn’t catch their attention within the first ten bars or so they pretty much checked out for the duration. We were about half-way through It Ain’t Over Yet when one of the girls said, “These old guys are just depressing.”  and it’s a sentiment that has some merit. That may explain why Li’l G and the Tipster went with If We Were Vampires while the Extra Kid preferred Cumberland Gap. Both of those songs have a younger appeal and don’t get caught up in that one-foot-in-the-grave feeling of wishing one had lived their life differently.

I’m hoping David Rawlings takes home the Grammy on this one. Would I have liked for Gregg Allman to get one last award in? Yes, but the song nominated just didn’t cut the mustard. I think If We Were Vampires is out of place for this genre. Rawlings gives us a song with a historical feel to it that is encouraging. He deserves the award.

Best Music Video

Videos! Yay! Who doesn’t like music videos, right? Music videos are an art unto themselves and song doesn’t necessarily need to be that strong for the video to score points. The nominees are:

  • Up All Night

     Beck

     CANADA, video director; Alba Barneda, Laura Serra Estorch & Oscar Romagosa, video producers

  • Makeba

     Jain

     Lionel Hirle & Gregory Ohrel, video directors; Yodelice, video producer

  • The Story Of O.J.

     JAY-Z

     Shawn Carter & Mark Romanek, video directors; Daniel Midgley, Elizabeth Newman & Chaka Pilgrim, video producers

  • Humble.

     Kendrick Lamar

     The Little Homies & Dave Meyers, video directors; Jason Baum, Dave Free, Jamie Rabineau, Nathan K. Scherrer & Anthony Tiffith, video producers

  • 1-800-273-8255

     Logic Featuring Alessia Cara & Khalid

     Andy Hines, video director; Brandon Bonfiglio, Mildred Delamota, Andrew Lerios, Luga Podesta & Alex Randall, video producers

A video makes a lot of difference in how one perceives a song and that came out in Li’l G’s vote for The Story Of O.J. He said that he still didn’t like Jay-Z’s frequent use of the N-word but that the video helps explain what the song is about. The girls were not so convinced, though, and enthusiastically went with Makeba. They loved the rhythm and tempo of the song as well as the bright colors and constant movement of the video.

There are reasonable arguments to be made for all the nominees in this category so I’m not sure who might actually win. I’m still rather partial to Logic’s 1-800-273-8255. As strong as the song is, the video drives the message home even stronger. Show this as a PSA, please. Often. Humble and The Story of O.J. serve specific audiences and are too non-inclusive. Makeba is cute and fun but lacks substance. And lord knows what Beck was thinking. 1-800-273-8255 does a beautiful job of approaching a very challenging subject. Give them the Grammy, man.

Best Gospel Performance/Song

I saved this for last because I figured after everything else they’d heard all day the kids could use a little church if you know what I mean. There are some super-serious and often downright depressing songs among this year’s nominees and while they may be appropriate and reflective of society we still need someone, somewhere, coming at us with something positive. The nominees are:

  • Too Hard Not To

     Tina Campbell; Tina Campbell & Warryn Campbell, songwriters

  • You Deserve It

     JJ Hairston & Youthful Praise Featuring Bishop Cortez Vaughn; David Bloom, JJ Hairston, Phontane Demond Reed & Cortez Vaughn, songwriters

  • Better Days

     Le’Andria

  • My Life

     The Walls Group; Warryn Campbell, Eric Dawkins, Damien Farmer, Damon Thomas, Ahjah Walls & Darrel Walls, songwriters

  • Never Have To Be Alone

     CeCe Winans; Dwan Hill & Alvin Love III, songwriters

Again, I was concerned that the genre might be too laid back for the kids to pay attention, but I was wrong. Even with the softness of Too Hard Not To the kids were zeroed in, swaying with the music. You Deserve It had them up and singing along by the second verse. It was My Life, though, that received their unanimous vote and their reasoning is something that not only resonates for Gospel music but is a heads up for Christianity in general: don’t hit me over the head with God. My Life only mentions the deity once, preferring to use the pronoun Him instead. For the kids, that made the song more relevant.

Now, who’s going to actually take home the Grammy? I’m expecting CeCe Winans scores another one here. Of the group, hers is the most traditional gospel with very straight-forward religious lyrics and an encouraging message. Too Hard Not To and Better Days are both nice, melodic songs, but they both could almost be ballads in the Soul category if only the Grammys had a Soul category. You Deserve It got the kids’ attention but it’s more of the shallow, meaningless worship drivel that has made too many churches more of a feel-good experience than anything spiritual. Never Have To Be Alone carries a message on a beautiful voice, and CeCe is well respected in the Gospel community.

Summing Things Up

This isn’t the strongest Grammy awards we’ve ever seen but there’s a good reason for that: We were either too depressed or too angry or too frightened over the past year and the music we embraced is reflective of that. We don’t have songs that make us feel good because we didn’t feel good about our lives, our country, nor our future. 2017 was a rough year and our music shows that.

Unfortunately, the music also shows just how dominating men are in the music industry. On one hand, I’m a little surprised we’ve not seen more sexual abuse/assault allegations in the music industry, but then, considering what Kesha went through with Dr. Luke (which is reflected in her nominated song) who can blame women in music for being reluctant to step forward? Men have an iron grip on every aspect of this industry, one that’s not going to loosen just because Russell Simmons and Benny Medina are accused of rape. Industry execs will happily throw both producers under the tour bus in order to maintain their dominance.  

We need more women in music and we need them having better songs so that lists of future nominees don’t limit women to the pop categories. We also need more women in the production booth and running the labels. The music industry is still trying to figure out the whole digital thing and the men that have been in charge for eons are blowing it. Time to let the women grab the reins.

The Grammys also don’t reflect how people have turned away from mainstream genres in favor of more regionally-focused independent bands. Here, the music industry needs to start paying attention. Local bands don’t charge thousands of dollars for front row tickets. Local bands have better music that isn’t over-produced. Fans feel a stronger connection with local bands and their loyalty is more fierce.

In many ways, this year’s Grammy nominations show us where the music industry is failing. Consider the songs the kids preferred; upbeat, danceable, positive messages that don’t preach an agenda. They don’t care if you lost your boyfriend. They don’t care if you feel cheated. Those are your feelings and they don’t want them. The kids prefer music that ignites their imaginations and gives them a reason to dance.

As an industry, the music business has gotten so bogged down in whether labels are getting paid enough and whether they’re addressing the “issues” that they’ve forgotten the overwhelming reason people listen to music is so they’ll feel better.  Too many of this year’s nominees don’t do that.

But then, what do I know? When we began this quest I didn’t even know who SZA is. She’s a beautiful person with a killer voice. I learned a lot listening to these nominees so we can’t justly say that it was all a disaster. There is some very good music on this list. In fact, you can listen to all 51 of the songs on our list over on my YouTube channel. Listen for yourself and let us know whether you agree with our choices.

Of course, we’ll find out who really wins on 28 January. I doubt I’ll actually be watching live, given that I rather detest awards shows, but I’ll be paying attention the next morning, for sure. We’ll see if the list of winners warrants a follow-up.

This was an interesting experience with the kids. Remind me to do it again next year. Maybe we’ll even invite you next time.

 

Abide in Peace,
-The Old Man

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Reading time: 26 min
Happiness

Good morning, dudes! If this were a traditional church, we would probably begin by singing some hymns or maybe having a live band guide us through some of our favorite songs. This is not a traditional church, though. I mean, you can hum something if you want, we won’t fault you for that. For those so not inclined, though, we’ve created a playlist specifically for this morning’s homily. We encourage you to listen to a few songs before beginning to read.

So much of our social philosophy is summed up in the songs we play the most. That’s not especially unusual, mind you. Popular music has always been reflective of society, whether intentional or not.

One such song comes from the 1996 movie Space Jam and was, at the time, a hit for the now-disgraced artist, R. Kelly. A couple of lines from that song particularly stand out:

If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it

The song is meant to be inspirational and encouraging, but anyone who follows that advice is almost certain to be disappointed. Just because one believes in something, even with all their heart, doesn’t mean it is going to happen. Having faith doesn’t actually move mountains.

Do you know what does move mountains? Dynamite and dump trucks, baby! Actions trump beliefs every time.

Unfortunately, since the early part of the 20th century, that’s not what we’ve been taught, and that’s holding us back. In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends And Influence People. The book became an instant bestseller and only the Bible has sold more copies. There are Dale Carnegie courses all over the world, teaching people to succeed by simply believing that they can succeed. Carnegie wrote:

If you believe in what you are doing, then let nothing hold you up in your work.

We hear that and we think, “Hey, that sounds pretty good.” So, we practice believing in what we are doing and we try as hard as we can, putting all our faith into our effort, and … we fail.

Downer, man.

Then, in 1952, a New York City pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, published the book The Power of Positive Thinking. Again, the book was an instant bestseller and has been touted by hundreds of business people. Our current president (#45) even attended Peale’s church when growing up. All these people were listening when Peale said:

Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers, you cannot be successful or happy.

Once again, people all over the world latched onto these words of encouragement, making Peale and his church very, very rich in the process. The system worked … for Norman Vincent Peale. Others, though, had a little more difficulty.

Over and over throughout the twentieth century, this philosophy of believing things into reality has been preached by both business leaders and clergymen looking to make a quick buck. Within religious circles, the practice is known as “Prosperity Theology.” Some of its best-known proponents are the late Oral Roberts, Robert Tilton, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, and Kenneth Hagin. They all preach that all one has to do is believe. Have a positive attitude (buy their books)! Live a healthy life (buy their supplements)! Give generously (to their ministry)! Do that, and you cannot help but succeed!

Their congregants number in the tens of millions, every last one of them thinking that the only reason they too aren’t on Forbes’ list of millionaires is just because they’re lacking faith, they don’t believe quite enough, they need to be a little more positive.

So, why aren’t those ministries millionaire factories?

One of the most well-known preachers of the 19th century saw this trouble coming and tried to head it off at the pass. Charles H. Spurgeon, a British preacher whose works continue to be studied in seminaries and was a particular favorite of my late father, put it this way:

“I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say, ‘Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?’ You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may do service to the cause of God. But what I said was that to live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian.”

Now, let’s take his words out of the capsule of Christianity and apply it to just normal folks like you and me, and what he’s saying is that if money is your only goal, you’re just not chill, man.

Even more important, though, is that we realize we cannot simply “believe” ourselves into being happy. Happiness, that state some refer to as Nirvana, requires some actual effort that goes beyond positive thinking.

The number one issue with the whole positivity thinking philosophy is that it is severely flawed psychologically. To maintain a constant state of positivity, one must repress the negative emotions and feelings that naturally occur. Repressing emotions, positive or negative, is a very dangerous practice.

There are two ways to look at this problem. The first is through science, which should always be where we look first. Scientific research shows over and over again the unhealthy effects of repressed emotion. This gets serious, dudes. I mean, you could die from holding stuff in.

A study from the University of Rochester and Harvard School of Public Health shows that people who repress anger, specifically, have a 70 percent higher risk of dying from cancer. Ouch, dude. That right there seems to be a pretty good argument for not putting a cork in what we feel.

The  Journal of Psychosomatic Research published a study from Kings College that compared 69 patients with breast cancer to a control group of 91 patients with benign breast disease. What did they find?

“There was a significant association between the diagnosis of breast cancer and a behavior pattern, persisting throughout adult life, of an abnormal release of emotions. The abnormality was, in most cases, extreme suppression of anger and, in patients over 40, extreme suppression of other feelings.”

The level of scientific research on the topic is rather considerable and it all demonstrates that repressing emotion is bad for us.

Anecdotally, we have the bad example of the stoic fathers of previous generations who never showed any emotion. Their children grew up starved for love, attention, and any sense of affirmation. As they became more detached, their wives divorced them. They were misunderstood, accused of not caring, and died premature deaths from stress and heart disease. Theirs was not a pleasant existence and it is good that we have, for the most part, put those bad habits behind us.

We are also warned on a more spiritual level against repressing our emotions. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher well-known in some circles, wrote in his book, Penetrating Wisdom:

“When we recognize an emotion, such as strong passion accompanied by jealousy, we are actually breaking down the speed of that emotion. The total sense of recognition is important in both Sutra and Tantra. In Sutra, it is mindfulness. In Tantra, if we see that nature and look at it nakedly, we will see the nature of that wisdom. You don’t need to logically apply any reasoning. You don’t need to conceptually meditate on anything. Just simply recognize and observe it….We will have the experience of that wisdom by simply being with it without conception. Therefore, recognition is quite important.

“The first step is just simply to observe it. Simply recognize the emotion and then watch it as it grows or as it continues. Just simply watch it. In the beginning, just to have an idea that [the emotion] is coming is very important and effective. In the Vajrayana [Tantric] sense, the way to watch these emotions is without stopping them. If we recognize the emotion and say, “Yes, it is passion,” and then try to stop it, that’s a problem. Rejection our emotions is a problem in Vajrayana.

Happiness

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

The whole concept that we can just will ourselves into happiness, that we can shut everything negative out of our lives and be successful, is misguided at best. We are approaching the concept of happiness from the wrong direction, with a mindset that prevents us from being able to abide peacefully.

Happiness and contentment, that condition known within the Church of the Latter-Day Dude as being a dude, comes not from shutting out the negative and clinging desperately to the positive. Rather, it comes from finding the balance between the positive and negative in our lives.

Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American philosopher dude, wrote of joy and sorrow and gets it right for dealing with all our emotions:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

When we go hunting for happiness, we look for something that immediately becomes invisible to our eyes. Happiness is not something we can capture in a net, quantify with statistics, or place in a container and dole out as we desire. Rather, happiness is a state of balance between all aspects of our lives, not merely emotions, but the physical and spiritual as well.

A truth of our existence is that if we let any one aspect of our lives get out of balance, we feel troubled, out of sorts, and perhaps even disgruntled. The imbalance doesn’t have to be large or significant. Following Gibran’s metaphor, even the smallest sliver of weight tips the scale. Spilling a bit of coffee on a clean shirt. Missing the turn signal at an intersection. A child disrupting a moment of meditation. In the grander scheme of things, none of those events truly matter. Yet, each one has the ability to tip the scale, putting us out of balance, sometimes for an entire day.

We must realize that we can no more will ourselves into happiness than we can cause a flower to bloom on command. Happiness does not come and go at our beckoned call. Rather, happiness is a condition of our condition; a state of contentment that finds acceptance in whatever life chooses to throw at us.

I find it deeply disturbing that we expect someone to lay out a path to happiness for us when genuine happiness is a journey we must travel for ourselves. My experience cannot be duplicated even if you attempt to follow immediately in my footsteps for once I have stepped upon the sand, the sand has changed and responds differently to each step that comes afterward.

Lao Tzu said:

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

There is no 7, 10, or 12-step plan toward finding happiness. One cannot create a list and check off each element as it has been achieved. Sure, the Internet is full of so-and-so’s “steps to happiness” but what we must realize that we only find happiness when the steps are our own. We cannot find happiness at the end of someone else’s path.

Why do we search for that which is impossible to find? Google does not have the answer. Joel Osteen does not have the answer. All the books on all the shelves in all the libraries do not have the answer. We do not find nor control happiness. Happiness finds us and then lets us be.

How does happiness find us?

For happiness to find us, we must first be open to being found. We must know who we are and what we want. Lao Tzu wrote:

At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

We put up roadblocks against happiness when we deny who and what we are. Start with the fact we are human–at least, most of us are. Work outward from there and meditate on what it is that defines you, your passions, your being. What controls your attitudes and your actions?

The answer is there at the core of your being. Accept it. Don’t mask it, excuse it, or blame your reality on anything or anyone else. Run with it. Embrace it. Only when we are first open and honest about who and what we are can we be open to happiness coming into our lives.

We must also make ourselves open to the influence of others in our lives. The Dude had Walter, Donny, Maude, and even the Stranger, all of whom influenced his state of being. When Donny died, The Dude felt sadness in part because he had lost one of the sources through which some portion of happiness and completeness funneled into his life.

Likewise, we need those friends, those relationships, who accompany us on our journey as they travel their own. Not that we need anyone else to make us happy, but that in the camaraderie of others we open wider the doors of our life so that happiness might find us. Through those shared pieces of life, the conversations, the experiences, the travels, the frames bowled, we dismantle some of the walls that keep us from achieving balance and allowing happiness into our lives.

Happiness finds us as we are doing the things that we love–the things we are good at doing. The character of Donny in The Big Lebowski is an apt metaphor for this truth. Happiness finds Donny when he’s bowling. While he has plenty of shortcomings in other areas, the one thing Donny does well is throwing one strike right after another. Putting that bowling ball onto the polished wood is Donny’s moment of zen.

Happiness

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Each of us has something that is our thing, our particular ability, the one thing we do better than anything else we might be asked to do. Perhaps it’s a talent with which you were born, or a skill carefully honed through hours of learning and practice, but it’s there. Doing that thing at which we’re good opens the door to happiness, making it possible to be content with our work.

What saddens me is the frequency with which people are denied doing that thing they do best. They’re told, “you can’t make a living at that,” or “you’ll never get rich doing that thing.” Don’t let anyone push you away from what you do well. Embrace your abilities and happiness is more likely to embrace you.

We also make our lives more open to happiness when we reject the complexity and confusion that life tries to force upon us. Remember what Lao Tzu taught us:

Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.

We know well the metaphor used in Tao te Ching about water being murky when it is stirred and clear when we are still. We are admonished to be patient and allow the water around us to be calm.

Being still when it seems like everything around us is going to shit is one of the most difficult things we might try to do. I am far from having this mastered. Mediation works for some. Yoga works for others. For me, it’s the peace and quiet contemplation that comes with being alone with a cup of coffee early in the morning. Finding that place of simplicity is important for each of us for many reasons, not just happiness.

Simplicity, though, sometimes takes some serious work on our part. Many of us grew up in a society that places undue value on materialism, the accumulation of things that we allow to surround us. Those possessions complicate our lives. We feel we have to protect them and that somehow our value as a person is lost if we don’t have them.

Happiness finds us most easily, however, when we have nothing. Consider the many peoples of third world countries who struggle even to find food to eat. Yet, they dance and sing and experience happiness at a much higher level than we do because there is nothing blocking happiness from reaching them.

Compassion opens yet another door to happiness and it is here that I fear we are mostly unfamiliar. Greed and selfishness drive so much of our society that fully embracing a life of compassion puts us at odds with much of what those around us consider normal. We shy away from being overly compassionate because we fear people might see us as weird and even question our motivation.

The Tao te Ching teaches us to act without expectation, however. This is a universal truth we find in all the world’s major religions, to demonstrate compassion and not expect rewarded just because we did something good.

Remember the Big Lebowski, how he had all the trappings of riches and even manipulated The Dude and stole from the foundation in an effort to make himself richer. Yet, in the end he’s left helpless on the floor, crying.

Compassion changes our course, away from complexity and down a path where we look to help those around us rather than trying to benefit from them. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be paid fair wages for legitimate work that we do, mind you. But neither should we expect or demand tips for doing the decent thing, such as helping change a flat tire or attending the landlord’s interpretive dance performance. Being compassionate removes significant barriers between us and happiness.

You know what else smooths the path to happiness? Music. There’s a reason that music is such an integral part of many religious rites and services. Music both calms our spirits and frees our minds from troubling thoughts, allowing us to focus on the things that truly matter, like not burning the nachos.

This is why I include a playlist with our Sunday postings. When you come here, burdened as you may be with whatever is going on in your life, I want to give you music that allows you to set those worries and concerns aside for a while. My hope is that in doing so you are better able to focus on the abiding truths we hope to present.

What music works in this regard? That, dear dudes, is totally up to you. Today’s playlist runs a wide gamut of old and new, instrumental and vocal, calm and excited. Not everything will speak to everyone, but chances are everyone finds something there that works for them.

If happiness rides a horse, then surely the name of that horse is music.

Finally, my dear dudes, I encourage you to lay aside the pursuit of happiness and strive to abide in the joy of the moment. Be present now and let the happiness of the moment wash over you. We can do nothing to alter the past and the future is best left to fend for itself. We gain nothing from guilt or worry. We gain everything from embracing the present.

The Buddha taught us:

The Secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.

Here is where I feel some more “traditional” religions fail us. They would have us looking toward some future event of deific significance. As a result, their followers spend entire lives so consumed with worry and anxiety over being prepared for what they believe is coming that they are incapable of participating in the joys that are here for them now.

Happiness cannot be sitting out somewhere in some static place in the future waiting for us to arrive for our paths may never take us to where it is seated. Rather, we must give happiness the opportunity to embrace us now, where we are, doing what we do, being who we would be.

The final song in today’s playlist was chosen because I think it might embody the state of mind in which happiness is most likely to find us: Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. We’ve traveled far. Trouble won’t leave us alone. Yet, there is a sense of peace, of being at home, just sitting there watching the tide.

Feel free to jump ahead in the playlist and listen along:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watchin’ the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
‘Cause I had nothin’ to live for
It look like nothin’s gonna come my way

So I’m just goin’ sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay, wastin’ time

Look like nothin’s gonna change
Everything, still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes

Sittin’ here restin’ my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, yes
Two thousand miles, I roam
Just to make this dock my home

Now I’m just gonna sit, at the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo yea
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time (whistle)

Songwriters: STEVE CROPPER, OTIS REDDING

© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group

My dear dudes, as we go about our lives this week, may we not pursue happiness, but rather open the many doors that allow happiness to come to us. May we not fall victim to those telling us we can find happiness in thinking positive and repressing other emotions. Instead, may we embrace the balance that our emotions bring to our lives, be still when the waters around us become agitated, and dance to the music of the air.

Abide in peace,

-the Old Man

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Happiness

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Reading time: 19 min

This is SO what one doesn’t expect to happen at your average Foo Fighters concert.

Or any other concert, for that matter.

 

Enjoy your Monday, Dudes

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