This Weird, Freaky Bird

Here’s one of my favorite paradoxes, courtesy of Bruce Springsteen, from his 2012 SXSX Keynote Address:

Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have ironclad confidence, but doubt – it keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and, you suck!

It keeps you honest. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry, and stay alive. And when you walk onstage on tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have. And then remember, it’s only rock and roll.

Here’s a similar one from author Elizabeth Gilbert, taken from her book Big Magic.

…Art is absolutely meaningless.  It is, however, also deeply meaningful.

That’s a paradox of course, but we’re all adults here, and I think we can handle it.  I think we can all hold two mutually contradictory ideas at the same time without our heads exploding.  So let’s give this one a try.  The paradox that you need to comfortably inhabit, if you wish to live a contented life, goes something like this.  “My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (If I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely)

Gilbert goes to on claim that we need the mental agility to leap between these two polar opposite in a matter of minutes.

So if I attack these paradoxes from a different angle, do we actually find balance?  That seems more like an ideal, not quite a practical way of living.   The equality of the paradoxical ideas is an illusion.  We must accept the paradox, but then also accept that we will forever be sliding back and forth between these ideas.

I can’t freeze my mind the moment that It trips the threshold between the ideas.  My mind is too fluid.  Perhaps that’s a lie I’m telling myself.  To slow my mind down, find the balance between contradictory ideas…that would probably earn me some genial applause from the zen masters.

In reality, when I find myself too far on one end of the spectrum, the other end beckons.  It calls to me, either “Get serious” or “Relax!”, depending on where I find myself.

I frequently fumbled this balance as a leader.  I always espoused to my band that our music was important, that we were part of Kansas City’s heritage, that we were bringing people together with the power of live music.  I worshipped that god every night.  I transformed our stage into an altar, and I sacrificed myself on it, again and again.  I cared about every random customer that stumbled into our bar, rushing over to them in exultation.

This was really intense to be around, and it wasn’t easy to talk me down from this position.  The only compromise I was willing to make was that we had to entertain these people.  To be an effective professional entertainer is to step outside of yourself and take a seat in your own audience.  You must observe how you appear to others.

So here we find that rack that I was mounted on for six years.  I was a slave to the holy mistress of music, while also a professional entertainer.  Was this a perfect balance?

Depends on your viewpoint of me at the time.  If you were a patron, stumbling into our bar, looking for a good time, a good beer, or good company, then you probably saw a professional entertainer onstage.  I loathed being self indulgent, and the interactive element of our platform allowed me to directly poll the audience for the kind of music they wanted.

However, if you were a fellow musician, in a band with me, then I was a fireball of passion, angst, and sacrifice. This was tough to take for long periods of time, anything more than a few minutes.  These dogged professionals, their skin burned from my heat, have been thankful to be away from me during the pandemic.  I might never recover them.

It runs counter to my narrative that the power of live music pulls us together.  But we’re not talking about music now.  We’re talking about egos (crowds love me!), sacrifice (extra rehearsal to get this bass-line right), determination (this isn’t good because we didn’t practice enough), and disappointment (we worked on that and the crowd didn’t care).  The artist in me says that all of these things are necessary steps on a journey.  The human side of me, my heart that values connection, is unsure what I gained from all that tension.

We’re so bad at saying goodbyes these days.  Social Media allows us to stay connected forever; we’re perpetually presented with photos and videos of anybody, ranging an entire life span.  There’s a distinct possibility that I’ll never see some of these musicians again, but the more I evaluate that, the more remote it seems.  What’s lost forever is our context, not necessarily our bond.  Live music is being reborn like a phoenix, and we don’t know what the plumage will be for this weird, freaky bird.  We sure as hell watched it burn, though.

Now we see it again, so small and fragile, yipping around in the ashes of what it was.

            This eternal, mythical phoenix is also a contradiction.  It’s always dying, and it’s always being born, in a cycle.  There’s a big burst of fire when the cycle starts over, but it’s death and birth at the same time.

            Death and birth at the same time.

Unique, But Not Special

I’m up really damn early today.

            There are humans out there, getting up even earlier.  Pounding it harder.

            The pandemic draws me to stillness.  The morning hours, so peaceful, before my kids wake up, transforming the home into a crowded bounce house.  This place, this mind, asks not for more noise.  I’m seeking ease and calm.  Time to be alone with my thoughts.  This journal.

            There are musicians getting up before me, and practicing.  Athletes who are rising and stretching, exercising.  Some of them even do it with kids, even in a pandemic.  Some of them are sick, some are near death.

            I’m unique, but not special.

            I know all these people are out there, some in my neighborhood, many scattered across the globe.  Artistic, creative, passionate people.  They are unencumbered by all the things I complain about.  Sure, they’ve got their own demons, their own battles, their own injustices to rail against.  But they complain less than me.  Some don’t whine at all.

            For months, I’ve been a heartbeat away from renouncing the cloth and burning all the musical instruments in my house.  I’ve crafted goodbye speeches and drawn up wills, all in my head, all in my angst.

            For now, I don’t practice songs.  I practice something simpler.

            At the piano, I practice scales.  Technique, the mere art of having my fingers touching the keys.  Up and down, at a brisk pace around the circle of 5ths, back to home, back to middle C.  No songs, but it’s still undeniably musical.  Undeniably purposeful.  Gains. No wanderings.  The musical equivalent of push-ups, crunches, and jogging.  Training for the moment.  Conditioning for the moment.  Look at all these people, pushing themselves forward.  Look at the humans!  I can say it with joy:  I’m unique, but not special.  I’m not alone!

            How many of them train without knowing what it’s for?

            Martial artists train for a fight that might never come.  They can prepare their bodies and minds, but they know that the fight will have a host of variables beyond their control.  That’s okay.  The ones I admire bring a quiet sense of confidence, because they have a plan and have been trained to respond correctly.

            I train now for a different world, a world not seen for generations.

            We’ve been here before.  We humans made it through.  Look at the humans.

            I’m unique, but not special.

            I’m still here.

            I’m here.

Who Knew All Along

I would like to know who I fooled

at the end of my life.

I kept deep, dark secrets up until my last breath.

Who bought it?  Who remained fooled?

More importantly…

who had me figured out?

Who knew my secrets, but never told me.

Who accepted these dark things about me, and walked along.

Why was I never able to talk to them about my secrets.


the deepest, darkest secrets are the ones bursting from us

The ones we most desperately want to share

to scream from the roof tops.

But I’d rather know

who knew all along.

The Art Of War, drifting from music to parenting

Sun Tzu

Authors Note: This post is from June  of 2020, when the Howl At The Moon band in KC was formally disbanded due to Covid-19

Sun Tzu

The Art of War in Parenting

My buddy Drew recommended Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to me years ago.  He enjoyed framing the audience as the enemy to be conquered.  I’ve read The Art Of War three times now, each time with a different translation.

My first foray, I felt lost.  While I sensed that I was reading wisdom, the language was too stilted for me to appreciate.  Drew’s analogies seemed like a stretch, but I enjoyed searching for them.  This was also high tide for e-readers, and I’ve never been able to enjoy an e-book the same way as a traditional hold-in-your-hander.

I purchased The Art of War for Managers a few years ago.  The authors sprinkled in casual managerial lessons through-out, making finding the leadership lessons much easier.  By this time I was leading my band at Howl on a nightly basis.  I felt like I had “troops”, instead of being an army of one.  I enjoyed it, and I passed it on to one of my favorite band-mates, Sean.  Sean has been gracious to share stories about his Chinese heritage and trips to the mainland, and I’ve loved learning about China and Hong Kong through his experiences.  I’m always ready to bond over Chinese philosophy with Sean, or any philosophy for that matter.

Now, I have no band in a professional sense.  I’m reading the latest translation, the first by a woman, Michael Nylan.  I’m enjoying it immensely.  Nylan’s translation holds on it’s own; she hasn’t inserted any modern anecdotes as a crutch.  My mind constantly drifts towards having a band, and conquering a crowd.

For a time, I wanted to continue to use The Art of War in this manner, but now I’m picking up parenting tips.  Most recently, I found this passage:

In Warfare, there is

1.     Deserting

2.     Insubordination

3.     Peril

4.     Collapse

5.     Chaos

6.     Rout


These six are hardly due to natural catastrophes, they are the commander’s fault.

I was able to lightly ascribe these to leading a band, but they really hit home for parenting.  Any six of these is basically a failure of leadership.  Here we go.

Desertion follows one arm attacking another ten times it size, when the strategic advantages are equal on both sides.

             I’ve seen my kids give up or become frustrated when they feel completely outmatched by something.  This has happened only a few times in organized sports, but seems more likely in scenarios that challenge their intellect.  If it’s ten times beyond their understanding, they will abandon it.  It’s my responsibility as a parent to present challenges that will push them, not overwhelm them.

Insubordination follows when the infantry is eager to fight, but the officers are weak.

            This is my children failing to be patient when something they want is just out of their reach, and they take it without permission.  This can be theft, or commonly extra food in the kitchen.  My kids are probably testing boundaries, and also testing the consequences for their actions.  I need to give them a strong sense of integrity to keep them from making impulsive decisions, and give them comparable consequences when they give in quickly to temptation.

Peril follows when officers are eager to fight, but the food soldiers are weak.

            The metaphors get slippery when Sun Tzu seems to interchangeably use terms like rulers, generals, commanders, officers, and soldiers.  I rarely position myself as ruler, and most of the information in this book is for generals and warfare.  So let’s say in this example I’m an officer.  Peril happens when I shove my kids into an activity that they find frightening, but I don’t.  They are too scared to function.  This is similar to desertion, but not quite the same.    It’s okay for them to be challenged and out of their comfort zone, but I still need to teach them about fear, and Ideally coach them through it.  Even when attempting something dangerous, they should have a way to feel safe.

            Sometimes, I’m the thing that’s frightening to them.

Collapse comes when unbridled rage consumes a senior officer, so much that he moves with-out authorization to engage the enemy and fails to understand his capacities.

            The warning here is for me.   Do not loose cool.  I should be thoughtful, strategizing, and not lashing out at people when I fail.  My kids are watching.  They will collapse when they see me flailing.

Chaos comes when a weak commander fails to enforce the regulations and delvers instructions that are far from clear, so that his officers and men cannot be trusted and his military formations are in disarray.

            When my three kids play with their three cousins, chaos usually ensues, and we parents laugh and use that term lightly.  However, we bristle when we sense that our kids aren’t respectful, and their energy is out of control.  Are people are getting injured or property is being damaged?  It could be that I failed to adequately calculate the risk of the activities, or the chemistry between children is off.  They might need to be separated for their own well being, especially if disagreements are spiraling out of control and turning violent.

Rout comes when a commander proves incapable of assessing the enemy, so he sends a small force out to engage a large, a weak force to attack the strong, or he operates without crack troops as a backup.

            Bad planning led to total failure.  Nobody had fun, and the only thing we learned was that we should have had a better plan.  That’s a tough lesson, and I’m unsure how much my kids should be penalized for their perceived lack of a plan, especially if I’m supposedly in charge.

Reflecting back on this list, I find that some of these things are inevitable.  Making mistakes and failure is how we learn, even as parents.  I’ve undoubtedly experienced these six failures as a parent, but the true crime would to be refusing to learn from them.  The supreme lesson from the Art of War is that the best preparation will yield to no battle at all.  Conquer your enemy without fighting, before the battle ever began.

Paul will give a presentation about the Art of War: Onstage, July 8th at 2pm, at the Central Resource Library in Overland Park.

Subscription models for us, in a new era

Self publication.  Traditional publication.

Unsure how this pans out in a pandemic.

I find the Substack model most intriguing.  A straightforward e-publishing method that allows you to groom a subscriber base. Writers have control over how and when a paywall goes into effect.  No need to pay a fee for the service, the service makes money when you make money.

For the various writers and journalists being laid off around the world, it seems like a good deal, but some are complaining about the loss of the newspaper, the magazine, or even the curated website.

It’s not lost, it’s just reduced.  There is less variance of voices now, and the freelance journalists who thought they had a home?  Squeezed out.

So they’re given a choice: claim your own audience, or keep seeking assistance with publication.  Is this adapting?  It depends if you consider yourself a professional journalist. A professional critic, maybe?  I’ve watched some of my favorite writers bounce around between papers and news-sites.  If they had an independent feed or blog, would this be my way of supporting them?  This concept is within arm’s reach of Patreon and Kickstarter, established routes for artists to fund their projects.

It also seems to squeeze content creators OUT of the professional sphere.  What is the business model here?  I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s dichotomy of Entrepreneur vs. Freelancer.  Direct subscriber models seem to drift towards freelancers, since the person doing the creating cannot step away.  Yet, it doesn’t seem project based.

If I’m in the mindset of the person doing the subscribing, it’s either “I need to read this content” OR “I want to support this writer”.  I believe this is also a dichotomy, much like the Stones vs. The Beatles.  Nobody can hold both of these things equal, one is slightly dominant than the other.  If you polled your meager audience and made them choose between the two options, the ensuing data would reveal how your freelancing business is actually operating.

But does that matter, if the $ is flowing in?  Maybe the ensuing data would just illustrate the tilt of capitalism.  The critical question: How much of my income from writing should I put back into the freelance writing ecosystem?  As in, pay other writers for content that I need/want.

It’s a stone’s throw away from the concept that we should give 2% of our income to charity.  It’s a concept that charitable foundations have embraced.  Big-thinker charity types are trying to raise it to 3%.  That percentage mark would drastically increase charitable giving worldwide, but these ideas were before the pandemic and the new probability of economic recession.

What we end up with is a bunch of artists trying to argue for their own existence as professionals.  Hey, you need us.  You need to be entertained, or challenged intellectually.  But who is going to pay for the good stuff?  Who even decides what the good stuff is anymore?

Let’s say I allocate 2% of all my income towards supporting artists via subscription services.  If I want to pay money to see one of them in concert, or buy a book, do I re-allocate money from a different artist subscription in order to offset the additional cost?  This micro-budgeting seems stupid, but it’s not far my wife and I budgeting how often we go out to eat, and what restaurants we support, usually lining up with our tastes.

We pay a premium because of both the product (the food and drink) and the experience (the service and atmosphere).  We’ve suffered through enough zoom meetings to know that we cannot control the service and atmosphere of the internet, but we can try to control the product.

I’m getting to the heart of my woes as a musician lately.  I’ve been an entertainer specializing as a cover artist that worked primarily in bars and restaurants.  Any product I served up was hardly  unique.  I viewed myself as part of the service and atmosphere, and my employers agreed.  Upon scrutiny, this is actually an unholy alliance that devalues what I create.  My covers weren’t really that special, since there are already thousands of piano bar entertainers in the country, and our product doesn’t actually have much variance.  We end up overly relying on the atmosphere setting a standard of what our audience expects, and spreading ourselves over localities and regions.  I relished exceeding an audience’s expectation, but the business reward was just more of the same.  Freelance work led to more freelance work.

You could argue that’s how it’s supposed to work.  I’ve long held a Darwinian view of the music industry, especially of side-men.  If you are mediocre PLUS untrustworthy, unreliable, and unpredictable, then you won’t be contacted for more work.  This is the plight of the freelancer, and we rise and fall accordingly.  This was a value I’ve held tightly for decades, but it’s challenged by this paradigm shift.  Without live music, what is the value for my product as a free-lancer?

Time get busy making something.

Pre Jam Panic

I’m compiling a mental list of all the things I want to take to a blues jam at Knuckleheads, but might not. It will be my first encounter with other musicians in over two months. I have no friends there; all strangers. I’m not required to play; I could show up and sip beers and watch.

That part of me that wants to jump in and mess up as I go; it likes to play around with my ego. Those two parts of me, the jumper and the ego, have gotten me this far. It’s so important to be noticed, but I want to prevent myself from making a bad first impression.

From checking out the profiles of the hosts, there’s probably already a musician eco-system happening here. There was probably a scene before the pandemic. I won’t know if the musicians here are desperate for things to return to normal, and reboot their scene, or if they are scattered, lost, and confused. There really might be competing agendas here today.

I’m scattered, lost, and confused.

I’ll bring my bass. Bass players and keyboard players are usually in high demand, but that also means that they camp longer at jams. That’s awkward. The turn-around for guitarists and singer is always really fast, if the host is doing a good job of managing the flow of musicians. That’s mostly the challenge of an open mic host, dealing with guitarists and singers. The rhythm section players usually end of managing themselves, or in some cases stay static the whole time if they’ve been hired to play. So then this tension arises that if a different rhythm player (bass, piano, drums) asks to play, the current player onstage needs to police what’s happening at that instrument. Sometimes somebody is so bad, or just a pariah, that the open mic host will openly call for somebody else to come play.

So it’s hard to know if you’re asked to step away, was I bad? Or is someone legit trying to police the spirit of the jam and get more players up? Maybe the bassist just had to pee. Or they wanted a break to go talk to a friend in attendance. Or their tired and they want to go home.

This is why I become an intense observer at jams and open mics. Open mics are a different story, where there is no band and everybody in the audience is isolated in their anxiety and unable to actually listen to whatever is happening onstage. That’s probably why the most fun I’ve had at open mics are when I have no plans to play anything, or with anybody. I’m off the clock.

But if I’m trying to understand a scene, I’m watching the interactions between the players. Are they laughing and smiling at each other? Are they nervous? Are they just spaced out? Are they trying to communicate about the silliness of the lead singer? They do looks for that, and that’s an indication that they have discussions about the silliness of the singer offstage. Or maybe they just look impatient.

It could also be that they are locked in professionals. If they have blank faces, they are probably concentrating, doing their job, in the moment but passive at the same time. That’s zen, baby. I’ve spent so much time onstage, I need to be either paid extra or be really feeling it to plaster a smile on my face. It can be the marker of a professional entertainer, but it’s tough to sustain as a professional musician. Playing an iconic riff, watching the crowd react, jumping into the meat of the song. That’s like clockwork. Like a boulder rolling down a hill. A cascading waterfall.

Maybe I’ll get some of that today.

Gear Options:

Bass. P-80 piano (simple key sounds, piano + ep) or MOX8 (much more robust key sounds, including organs, clavicle, etc). Personal drum sticks. Cable for bass. Stark tuner for bass. Cable for keyboard.

I’ll need to dig a functional case for the MOX8 out of storage. It’s really heavy and unwieldy, so I’m tempted not to take it. I think my play is to scan the stage and see what the keyboard situation is before I bring on in. It’s possible there is none, which frees me up in a big way. If keyboard player is hesitant to let others touch the instrument because of coronavirus, I’ll probably stick to bass, or offer to bring in a keyboard from the van. Probably best to have my first beer just watching, and then decide what to go get.

Plugging through tonight on the site

If you’re reading this, you might stumbled upon the soft-launch of this website

I made great strides tonight on my reduxxxx website. While the my kids and cousins ate pizza and watched movies, I put together a list of 300 songs that comprise my repertoire. They were dutifully inputted into a spreadsheet, and then uploaded to a graphics program called Flourish.Studio.

The goal is here to have a cute, interactive version of my repertoire that is accessible live online. I find my repertoire projects branching off in different directions now.

  1. A public version of my rep that I share with audiences, categorized by mood

  2. A public version of my rep that I share with audiences, categorized by traditional genre.

  3. A private version of my rep that is completely comprehensive, with songs weighted and categorized for how useful they are, and my ability to play them confidently without aid.

This last piece is to keep me rep on deep-freeze while on quarantine. When I’m called up for my first request show, I’ll need a day to practice and review what’s fresh and what’s grown stale in my mind. No doubt I’ll need to create a series of lyrics and chord charts to serve as crutches for my first gigs back.

I’ve got the full list at 326 songs. Even with beautiful graphics, that amount of information (300 song titles) seems overwhelming to the user. I cut it down to 300 and experimented with formats, and I’ll definitely need to optimize the final graphics for mobile, since I’ll be encouraging folks to access the graphic during my shows. It still seems like cutting the public rep down to 250 is the way to go, with disclaimers included that this is a sampling of my full repertoire. Maybe it’s best to keep that mysterious.

Brooke encouraged me to add a spot for email sign-ups, and a space for upcoming shows, including our unofficial Drive Way concert the weekend of Father’s Day. I’d like to see the navigation bar of the site a bit more obvious, so the user has a sense of where to go and what to do, unless I stick with the whole shebang being one big scroll-down. Navigating to different pages might not be necessary when I’m offering services.

I’m unsure for the process for publishing blog posts. Route them through A Couple Duets FB page, or post to my personal news feed and twitter? Trying to wean myself from social media, so I don’t want to ride or die on this.

Another couple days of focused work on the site, and I’ll have something ready to launch.


Nine minutes

You’ve got nine minutes, chief.

You’ve got nine minutes, and then you’re on. You’re live.

You trade masks. You trade saddles.

Who am I, talking to you. Mask off.

I’m behind you, smirking.

I see your smirk. Think you’re clever? You’re clever enough.

But can you be honest.

Your smirk faded. What happened?

Seven minutes left, chief.

Honest is tougher than clever, am I right? I’m right.

You’re clever, but I’m right.

Anybody who thinks that honestly is easier than being clever,

well, they ain’t honest.

Or they are fooling themselves.

So they’re fools.

You’re a fool, too. A clever fool.

Grow up. Man up. Man down, while you’re at it. Why not?

Do all the man things you think you’re supposed to do.

Unsure who you think you’re impressing.

Five minutes chief. The baby is literally waking.

Four minutes. You wasted your time and mine with that wine sip.

Don’t turn away from this.

Be an honest man. Tell the truth, in everything.

If you think you can’t, then you need to find the truth somewhere else.

You think the truth isn’t here? It is.

I’m telling you the truth right now, chief.

Three minutes.

C’mon. Get ready.