Monday, March 20, 2017

Remodel

Over spring break I remodeled my music studio. This is the place I’ve written my last four CD’s and recorded the last two. In here, over the past eleven years, I’ve taught hundreds of students to make music. It has looked the same the entire time. I decided a face lift was in order.

Before:



When I was working for other people, I’d heard that a simple paint job or changing light fixtures was all it took to reinvigorate employees with lagging motivation. I thought it was hogs wallow until, while working for a Fortune 100 company that paid its employees next to nothing, I watched it happen.

I was amazed. None of us got a raise. They moved us from a number of smaller offices into a bullpen full of cubicles. We all got “new” desks and chairs. They were new to us, anyway. This was not a better work environment by any means. More distractions, more oversite, less privacy. Yet, we were all excited and productivity rose for a few months after we moved across the hall. It was impressive. I’m not even sure the higher ups at the company were aiming for the bump in productivity. It was just that the company was growing so fast. We needed the extra space for all the new employees.

Remodeling my studio was difficult work because I don’t really know what I’m doing. But, it was a nice change of pace. It reminded me of why I am so happy teaching music. Years of construction work was not only unfulfilling, but incredibly hard on my body. My favorite thing about the drywall business is that I am no longer involved in it!

Although, I still remember driving my oldest son around Omaha and pointing out buildings and homes I’d helped to build. I did feel a strong sense of pride in the work I’d done.

Other Remodels

When I was twenty-four, I was involved in a multilevel marketing company. My up line (the couple who recruited my wife and I into the business) decided to get a large office just inside the 610 loop west in Houston. I helped paint the new office. I didn’t feel the excitement or any extra ownership in that office. Probably because I didn’t really work there. I’d show up for the Tuesday night recruiting meetings and the Saturday morning trainings, but I was rarely in the office. I was always out and about in Houston, meeting new people, delivering product, coaching my downline and my customers on how to get better results. That’s where I was happy, excited, and engaged. Ultimately, it didn’t work out, but I had a good time while I was working the business sixteen hours a day.

At thirty-two, my last year in construction, I helped my church remodel a new space they’d rented. It was an old building in Council Bluffs, IA. At one point, we knocked out a wall to make the sanctuary space bigger. The pastor had located the breaker box and turned off the power to all the outlets. I was tearing out the wall. When I got to the wiring for the outlets, I asked if he was sure the power was off. He assured me it was. I tentatively tore out the wiring for the first outlet. All good. I began to work more quickly. When I got to the third outlet, I grabbed the wiring and pulled hard enough that my hand slipped to the end where the wires were exposed. I large spark and a shooting pain emanated from the contact point. I’d burned the pinky on my fretting hand pretty badly.

It turned out, the previous tenants had used the third outlet for the copy machine and, instead of using a forty watt breaker they used two twenties. You live. You get burned. You learn. I finished the remodel with a badly burned hand. I didn’t even attend the first service. I never felt any extra motivation or ownership there, either.

Back to the Studio

After: 



The space looks completely different. More vibrant. Larger. I am looking forward to teaching here. I am looking forward to creating new music here. I am interested to find out if the color I chose for the walls really does improve the concentration of my students. That’s what the research I found says the effect is supposed to be.


I am more motivated by the facelift, but I did all the work and made all the decisions. One would expect me to be excited. I am interested to learn whether any of my students become more motivated by the new look of their learning space. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

My Epiphany

Yesterday, I sat down to write today’s article. This is the week I scheduled to lay out President Trump’s plan to punish the poor. There is more than enough material to prove this is the administration’s and Republican congress’s plan. As I sat down to write, I felt an overwhelming urge to walk away. Go work in the garden or play guitar or piano.

That’s when I had my latest epiphany. All this political stuff is important and it’s depressing as hell.

I’ve decided, for my own health and well-being, I need to stick to my own wheelhouse. My purpose in life is two-fold:

        Create as much beauty as I possibly can in this world.
  1. Draw the attention of others to all the beauty and bliss I find already existing in this world.


Someone else is going to have to fight these political fights.

I’m out.

Here is the first piece my self-redirectioning has produced:




Safe



I sit peacefully on the front porch
Safe from the early March rain
Gentle and cold
It washes the pine pollen from
                the trees
                the air
Causing it to gather like greenish-yellow dirt
                in the cracks in the sidewalks
                in the gutters along the street sides

The wind picks up
Waving the pine boughs
I imagine they are palms branches
I am Egyptian royalty
Safe and wealthy on my front porch

A solitary dove calls from a neighbor’s tree
As I am about to answer,
                preparing to blow the avian call
                through my hands
Another of its own kind responds
                from the southwest

The wind calms
The thunder fades to the southeast
The rain persists
It sounds like bacon lightly frying
As it collides with the earth
Each miniature impact
Reminds me of my safety


I linger 

Monday, February 27, 2017

What is the Earth's Intrinsic Value? or Exploit the Entropic Environment

Last week’s article, Bully the Bad Guys, began a four part series on President Trump’s unfolding agenda. If you haven’t already, you might to read it before moving on to this week’s article.

In the Trump administration’s first week they put a gag order on all employees of the EPA and the Department of Agriculture. This order prohibits all employees from communicating with the press or public, including the use of social media. This includes all research scientists. As of February 26, 2017 this order has not been lifted.

President Trump also signed executive orders authorizing the immediate restarting of construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone Pipeline. Both of these pipelines had been reluctantly stopped by President Obama after unrelenting public pressure. President Trump obviously felt none of that pressure.  

The administration nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. What are Mr. Pruitt’s qualifications to run the Environmental Protection Agency? He sued the agency fourteen times in his tenure as Oklahoma’s AG. Thirteen of these fourteen lawsuits were with oil and gas companies as co-parties. These same co-parties also happened to be large scale contributors to his election campaigns. A reported $300,000 in total.

His confirmation was pushed through the senate last week so he could be confirmed before thousands of emails from his time as Oklahoma Attorney General were released. This was done in spite of requests of democrat senators to wait for the emails so a more informed decision could be made. These emails subsequently revealed an extraordinarily close relationship with oil and gas companies. He even copied and pasted an email from Devon Energy onto his own letterhead and sent it as a complaint to the EPA he is now tasked to head.

He was found to again be copying and pasting language from emails from lobby group American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers in a complaint he filed with the EPA about ozone limits.

Mr. Pruitt is on public record denying the science that mercury “poses public health hazards.” It should be noted that while he was Attorney General of Oklahoma the number of lakes in the state listed for mercury contamination went from fourteen to forty. His contention during his confirmation hearing that states should be setting and enforcing environmental protection laws also needs to be pointed out.

Is it Mr. Pruitt’s intent that the EPA allow states to deny environmental science and allow their jurisdictions to become continually more toxic?

I am sure we won’t have to wait long to find out.

According to Myron Ebell, who ran the EPA transition for the new administration, the Trump administration is planning a one billion dollar budget cut in the first physical year. The 2017 FY budget is $8.27 billion. Down from $10.3 billion in 2010.

As we watch the dismantling of the EPA and other agencies in the government by this administration, we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions.

1.       Does the earth from which we are formed and sustained, our only home, have any value outside of profits corporations can extract from it?
2.       How important is clean air, clean water, and clean soil to me?
3.       Am I willing to stand by and watch as corporations collude with their political caddies in Washington to take us back to the fifties, sixties, and seventies with burning rivers, toxic smog, poisoned ground water, and subdivisions built on soil so fouled it causes cancer and birth defects in the residents?
4.       At what point do we value the health and vitality of flesh and blood humans, wildlife, and the ecosystem that makes life possible over the profits of soulless and rapacious corporations?


In his inaugural speech at the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Pruitt called for civility. I wonder how long he expects us to remain civil while he ignores and suppresses the environmental science and insists on harming the population of the planet for the profit of his corporate donors.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

President Trump's Unfolding Agenda

We are now one month into the presidency of Donald Trump. He told us on Inauguration Day the time for talk was over and now it was time for action. He has kept that promise. He has signed a minimum of twenty-five executive orders to date. There is at least one more that is being talked about being signed today or tomorrow. It is supposed to replace the one a lower court put a stay on and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that lower court’s ruling.

One month has passed and the President’s agenda is coming into focus. So far, I can see four main parts:

1.       Reward the Rich (gutting already weak regulations designed to prevent another financial collapse like we had in 2008, Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs employee and former George Soros employee, as Secretary of Treasury, and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State – so much for draining the swamp, eh?)
2.       Punish the Poor (repealing Obamacare, reducing block grants to states for Medicaid, and beginning calls of “From Welfare to Work” and appointing Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education)
3.       Exploit the Environment (gutting EPA regulations, appointing a man to head the EPA who is opposed to its existence, and pushing through the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines over vehement resistance)
4.       Bully the “Bad Guys”

Over the next four weeks I will tackle each of these in reverse order.

One thing before we start. I predicted four weeks ago, part of the new administration’s plan to was to overwhelm the average person by doing so much the work-a-day individual with a job, family, and other obligations couldn’t possibly keep up with it all. This is a tried and proven effective tactic used by many governments, including Clinton, Bush, and Obama. It’s not just for dictators anymore. The administration has proven me correct to this point, but I won’t be patting myself on the back anytime soon. I would have much preferred to be wrong on this point.

Bully the Bad Guys

Candidate Trump made this one crystal clear on the campaign trail. Whether he was advocating torture of prisoners of war, promoting a policy of war crimes such as, “going after the families of terrorists,” or asking military consultants, “why do we have nuclear weapons if we aren’t going to use them?”, he put us and the world on notice:

                It would be “Open Season” on bad guys in a Trump administration.

It was funny right up until the moment Hillary Clinton conceded the election to him. Now, we are getting a more precise definition of what he means by “bad guys.”

Mr. Trump’s definition of bad guys includes all the undesirables a reasonable person might expect. Terrorists, drug cartels, criminal gang syndicates, and violent criminals who are also illegal aliens. A good list, so far. It also appears bad guys include refugees from war torn regions, and any media outlet that doesn’t simply regurgitate his preferred propaganda for the day.

President Trump seems intent on pursuing a scorched earth policy with any dissenters. If you call him on clear fabrications and lies, you suddenly become the liar. He doesn’t have to offer any coherent arguments or facts proving you are the liar. He doesn’t have to present any facts proving he’s telling the truth. He simply calls you dishonest over and over again and lets his supporters do the rest.

Whether beating people at his political rallies who disagree with his proposed policies, cancelling subscriptions, or boycotting specific retailers or news organizations, the President and his supporters intend to silence through intimidation and bullying, both around the world and here at home.

This bullying can be seen in how Mr. Trump cancels meetings with heads of state who have signaled they will not be giving him what he wants, such as the President of Mexico. It can be seen in his hanging up on the Prime Minister of Australia. It can be seen in the aggressive, confrontational style of his policy advisor Stephen Miller. It can be seen in the way he constantly pulls unsuspecting individuals off balance when he shakes their hands. (Rabbit trail: for a good laugh, check out the video of his hand shake with Prime Minister Abe of Japan. The Prime Minister's response speaks volumes about how other world leaders experience President Trump.)

One person who is conspicuously not on the list of Bad Guys is a brutal dictator who murders journalists, assassinates or jails political opponents and heads of state, and is hell bent on expansion of his own empire.


You might want to think carefully, however, before questioning the President on this matter. You might find yourself on that Bad Guy list. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Secret Poet

No words would come this morning. It is a rare occurrence. So, here is part of a short story I am working on. I'd love to get some feedback from you.


Fidgeting, Terri sat at her desk trying to write. The sun was already up over the desert behind the little adobe house. Her desk faced out the back window. She could see the desert becoming less still. She wanted to get out there and walk through it. But, she still hadn’t written her poem for the day. No walking until the poem was on paper. That was the rule.
                Terri had lived a life of very few rules. Almost none, in fact. This was a rule she had decided was important, so she kept it as best she could. She had spent her life exploring the world. Finding what she liked. That’s how she felt about hiking in the desert. Like she was just finding what she liked.
                As she walked through the desert she could feel herself soaking up the life. Pulling it from the sun, the sage brush, the undersized mesquite trees, and the undersized deer. Even when she didn’t see them, she could feel the rattlesnakes, coyotes, and the desert hairs. She’d gorge herself on the life that flowed through them.
                In the evenings, sitting on the back porch with a cup of coffee, her guitar, and a notebook, she’d savor the desert life she’d pulled into herself on the morning hike. She imagined pulling it up to re-chew, like a cow with its cud. She’d roll the life around inside of her, sending it to her limbs and bringing it back again into her body before sending it even further. This time to her hands and feet. Pulling it back in again to stir around inside her like a cake batter, she’d send it to her fingers and toes. Finally, she’d send all that desert life to her head where it would roll around like waves in the Pacific Ocean.
                Then the ideas would come. She’d jot them down, so she could use them for the morning poem. Only after the notes were safely ensconced in her notebook would she begin to strum her steel string guitar. Singing old songs with her husky voice.
                The singing and playing were like the poems – for her. She didn’t need anyone else to hear her play and sing. She knew she was good, not great. She took pride in being able to learn a song she liked or, even better, write a song she liked.
                She felt the same about her poems. She was working to become the best poet she could be, not for others to admire, but because she enjoyed it. She also felt a responsibility to whatever it was that gave her the abilities she had and enjoyed so much. God, the universe, genes, it didn’t much matter to Terri. Her main concern was to demonstrate her gratitude by being a good steward.
                She could feel the little desert dwelling warming under the strengthening sun. Dispelling the desert night chill. She looked at her notes from the night before. Still, nothing moved inside her. Nothing bubbled forth needing to escape.
                Often the poems would spill forth, fully formed, like they’d been wombed up inside her. The words, images, and metaphors would seem to have been nourished and nurtured by the life she had soaked up the day before. Like an egg soaks up life from a sperm cell and, feeds off the mother’s increased appetite until a completely new and different life is molded within. Finally, this new life bursts into the world. And all in just twenty-four hours.
                But today, no words, no images, no metaphors reveal themselves. Terri learned long ago not to worry over these times. That lesson was learned when she was trapping for a living in Alaska when she was a much younger woman.

Terri drove into King Salomon, Alaska the first week of August. After storing her bags in her tiny cabin, she went straight to the guide service office. She and her guide left the next morning. They didn’t seem surprised at all when she showed up alone. The guide treated her like a one hundred pound, eighteen year old girl showing up to hunt caribou was nothing out of the ordinary. She liked that.
                On day three she killed her first caribou. They packed it back to the guide office. The office sent it over to the butcher. Terri asked the woman at the office to tell the butcher she wanted the hide. She and the guide went right back to the bush. It took five days this time, but she got her second caribou. They repeated the process one more time.
                Terri asked if there was a family or a tribe she could give the meat of the second to. After delivering the meat, she asked if they had someone who could make her a coat of the two caribou skins. The old woman they introduced her to made Terri a coat and a pair of gloves. They were the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
                The following day she showed up back at the guide office and told them she was ready to go to work. Ove the next three seasons they trained her as a hunting and fishing guide. She worked hard and learned fast. The entire time she was learning to be a guide she was also learning how to trap for pelts. After five years of working as a guide she felt she’d learned enough and saved enough to spend the winter trapping by herself.
                She made five grand her first year.
               

At twenty-six she felt like she’d found her calling. She spent her summers guiding fishermen, August and September guiding hunts, and winters trapping for furs. Terri didn’t think there was any way she could be any happier.
                The young woman lived this way for over a decade. The season become a liturgical rhythm in her life. The Alaskan bush, her cathedral. Fish, hunt, trap, recover and make repairs. It was a sacred circle she could count on. The challenges were many, but understandable and solvable. She could see the progress of her skills, her career, and her place in the small community.  She never thought of her life as lonely. Solitary and satisfying was how she would describe it. Besides, every guide assignment she was meeting new people.
                Then the letter came from her cousin, Fernando. Her parents were both getting older and needed help. It was becoming difficult to get out to the homestead often enough to make sure they were OK. Would she be willing to come home and help?
                Of course she would. Terri didn’t even consider it a sacrifice. It was just the way life worked. They had given her life, raised her, and helped her become the woman she was. Now it was time for her to return the favor.
                It was difficult saying goodbye to her friends and way of life in Alaska. It was the first time she’d cried in five years. She’d been out on a hunt. The dirt gave way under her while she was walking a short ridgeline. She fell and rolled a hundred feet or more before being stopped by a boulder in the middle of the hill. She cut her leg badly. She had to stop to make camp, disinfect the wound, and stitch herself up before they could continue. The client had been a proper Texas gentleman and offered to go back to the office, but she refused. They lost half a day, but she made sure the client filled their tag.
                Terri sold all her traps and her snow machine. She made arrangements with the one real estate office within fifty miles to rent her place out for her. She gave her truck to a family she knew could use it and headed to Anchorage to buy a plane ticket to Phoenix. Then a bus ride to Santa Fe. Fernando picked her up.

                The heat was far worse than she remembered. She’d spent nearly the same amount of time living in the arctic cold of Alaska as she’d lived in the desert. Living in the shadow of the last ice age for half her life had disoriented her from the heat. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Uncle Jim

My uncle Jim died last week. He was in Panama. He got the travel gene from my grandparents. He seemed a perpetual motion machine his entire life. He fell from his scooter and cut his arm. He didn’t have it looked at, apparently trusting his body to do what it always did – recover. After a few days there was obviously something wrong and a neighbor or the family he was renting from (details are a bit fuzzy) took him to the local clinic. The clinic sent him immediately to the hospital in Chiriquí, but it was already too late. He died of the infection.

One thing everyone agrees on about Uncle Jim – he lived. To learn of his life ending from a simple cut that went septic is strange. I still have not found what feel like the correct words to describe my feelings. They will come in time. I hope.

When he was a kid, he was caught raising a chicken in his bedroom when, one early morning, the chicken revealed itself to be a rooster.

As a teen, he was found to be selling golf balls for twenty-five cents apiece to golfers who had lost theirs on the course. Eventually, someone figured out he was in fact “ransoming” their own balls back to them.

He was shipped out to Viet Nam in 1967. I was born in May of 1968. The winter before I was born our grandmother asked our mother to name me after him. He hadn’t written home in many months. She was certain he wasn’t coming back at all. My mother refused. I think her superstition overcame her great desire to please her parents. She had a deep fear of naming her baby after a newly dead relative. Also, she had a deep, irrational fear that, if she named me James, her baby brother really would be dead. She just couldn’t do it.

So I was christened Dean Ronald and Uncle Jimmy came home a few months later.

We had intermittent contact through the years. When I was ten or so, he brought his speed boat to the family camping trip in Virginia. When I tried to ski behind it, he accelerated like I was one of the teenagers and not the fifty pound wisp I was. The powerful engine pulled me up out of the water and the tips of my skis under. I did a flip and landed on my back, knocking the wind out of me. My family being who we were, I wasn’t allowed out of the water. I skied behind his speed boat, but I don’t remember it.

Was I concussed?  Maybe, I doubt it. If I was, it was not my first or last concussion, so it mattered little in the grand scheme of things.

At another family camping trip at the same campground, I was probably fifteen. I demonstrated I had no concept of discretion or decorum. As he and some of the older cousins sat around the fire, I asked him if I could buy some pot from him. He was visibly shocked. After a few seconds of calculation, he recovered and demonstrated why he was everyone’s favorite uncle. He said, “I won’t sell you any, but I’ll give you some.”

He gave me a little baggie of roaches and dried leaves. One of my cousins and I smoked it all that night. I remember being really high and then going to sleep.

Over the past week I’ve been privileged to learn a few more stories from other cousins. He went home to the Lehigh Valley a few years ago and settled down in the same house he grew up in. I am a little envious of my cousins who got to spend more time with him. Their kids got to know him, as well. Lots of laughter. Plenty more craziness I hadn’t known about.
We only saw each other a couple of times in our lives after that. We were both busy running around this vast country of ours.

Uncle Jim was always thinking outside the box of normal. Even spending winters in Panama because it was warm and inexpensive.

He lived his life as a creative force.


I hope he enjoyed it.

The rest of us did. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Daymare

It was a great weekend. I built another garden box in the backyard. We are going to be overflowing with fresh vegetables for the next seven or eight months. I was able to sit out by the fire pit three nights in a row. I wrote five new poems.

Rick Bass’ book “In a Little While” arrived in the mail on Sunday afternoon. In anticipation of the new book’s arrival, I reread “The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness.” I am always captivated by the poetry of his prose and how he is able to make the surrounding environment a participating character in the story. He may or may not be a genius, but he is brilliant and highly skilled at what he does.

I heartily recommend all his writing, but it is his fiction that is strikingly beautiful to the point it sticks with you. Like peanut butter sticks to the inside of your mouth and you can taste it long after you’ve eaten, so his words stick to the inside of your mind and heart. Often, this stickiness manifests itself in outward fashion. You may find yourself searching out solitary places in nature, or wandering outside at night just to look up and ponder the infinite beauty.

Start with “The Watch” and “The Hermit's Story.” Before you finish these two, you’ll be hooked and you’ll find yourself building your own Rick Bass library. Enjoy.

Now, onto what is going on in my eclectically jabbering brain…

I have this recurring daymare. It can’t be called a nightmare because I am fully awake when it happens. I don’t like “waking nightmare” because it is inaccurate and doesn’t convey my participation. And we do participate in our day dreams, whether or not we realize it.

I guess you could say I go into one of my creative trances and that would most definitely be true. But, daymare is the most accurate and conveys the sense of it succinctly.

As I was saying, I have this recurring daymare where the earth is a sentient being. In this scenario humans are not the pinnacle of creation, but resemble more the bacterial communities we now know are living within our own bodies. The earth is going about the living of its life. Creating, growing, and changing with age. Maturing into a personality that respects and nurtures life as best it can. It also has an evolutionary need to propagate its own species.  It seems the earth has only recently become aware of our existence in its biological systems. We have multiplied out of control to the point of becoming a sickness within the earth. Her immune system is now beginning to engage us. She is developing antibodies to defend herself and her vital organs. She sees us as an invading pathogen, like the Bubonic Plague, and is responding appropriately.

We must mutate and become beneficial bacteria if we are to survive as a species. I am not certain we can transform fast enough. I’m not even certain most of us care to. We see ourselves more like the parasite, the liver fluke. The liver fluke is a flat worm type parasite that lives in snail slime. When ants ingest the snail slime the liver fluke burrows into the ant’s brain. It then takes over the controls.

The liver fluke’s entire goal is to have the ant be its Uber driver. The ant’s sole purpose for existence is to take the liver fluke to its preferred host – one with a liver. Thus its name. This worm allows the ant to behave normally while there is no preferred host in the vicinity. But, when a preferred host is near, the liver fluke takes over the controls and directs the ant to station itself in the perfect place to be eaten by the preferred host.

In my weird daymare, I am always concerned that we are acting like the liver fluke, but the earth is far more evolved than our species. We believe the earth is here for us to subdue, exploit, and, once we have used it up, dispose of as we leap to a new host, but the earth is far more evolved than we are or can conceive of and it knows how to deal with parasites. I fear the earth is about to take a heavy dose of antibiotics genetically engineered to target Homo sapiens sapiens.

Will we mutate in time?

This is where my daymare always ends.


See you Thursday.