The Seductive Nature of Making the Grade

It’s said that back in ancient Rome, returning Generals were given a triumphant parade, their troops marching behind them, slaves bearing treasures and exotic animals pillaged from far off lands. In the General’s chariot, standing just behind him, was a slave… and as they passed by the adoring throngs of people cheering the General’s name, the slave would whisper in his ear:

“Fame and glory are fleeting. You are only human, and you, too, will someday return to the dust.”

Confession time:

I spent six years in the Army, two and half years in Active Duty, three and a half years in Reserves. I spent my first four years as enlisted, but my last two years, I was an NCO, a non-commissioned officer. A Sergeant.

Contrary to what some folks will tell you, it’s really not all that hard to succeed as a Private in the Army. Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there wearing what you’re supposed to wear, and you are ninety percent there… after that, do what you’re told to do when you’re told to do it, and you’ve aced the last ten percent. Once you’re out of Boot Camp and Advanced Training – and as long as you don’t get shipped off somewhere jerky people are trying to kill you – the Army is not a bad gig.

(Those stories you hear about Boot Camp are true, by the way… so if you have a problem with authority – especially when that authority is doing its best to emasculate you in front of all your compadres – think twice before signing up. I  only just got through by the skin of my teeth.)

I was a very good enlisted soldier. Having spent many years in the Scouts and a couple of years in JROTC, I nailed the daily routine. Being smarter than the average bear, being willing to give way more than what was expected, meant I was noticed by all the right people in all the right places in all the right ways. I began wracking up badges, medals and promotions in nothing flat.

I was back in Texas for maybe a year when I was sent off to Sergeant Camp – Primary Leadership Development Core, or PLDC. Took a month in Active Duty, but the Reserves condensed it down to two weeks. Arkansas sucks in the summer time, hot and humid as Southeast Asia, so I spent a fortnight looking liked I’d been dropped into the deep end of a swimming pool wearing all my gear, I was so sweaty. The training was a blast, though: learning Small Unit Tactics, leading mock assaults, calling cadence, delivering Operational Orders (Op Ords), writing up After Action Reports (AAR), setting up Guard rotations… it felt like being back on Active Duty. I got my PLDC ribbon, and a month or so later, I got my Sergeant Stripes.

Here is where the confession truly begins.

For four years, I had been the high-speed low-drag enlisted kid with all the potential. I was accustomed to being viewed that way, I was accustomed to being treated that way. I knew all my superiors thought highly of me, expected great things from me, and so they treated me differently than the majority of the rest of the enlisted. That was my status quo, and I was good with that. Once the Sergeant Major pinned on my stripes, however, that all changed. The officers visibly relaxed around me. The other NCOs were much more friendly and open around me. All of my superiors were suddenly treating me as… one of them. I was no longer the kid with all the potential – I was the man who had made it. I was now one of the Cool Kids.

It was an intoxicating sensation.

Most of my life, I had been the nerd outsider, fodder for bullies and shunned by cheerleaders – being embraced by the Ruling Class was not something I had ever experienced. I wasn’t expecting it, and I didn’t know how to handle it. For about ten minutes, I was walking on air, I was all that and a bag of chips. Luckily for me, my swelled head had the good fortune to swagger up to my Best Bud. I mouthed off something self-centered and aggrandizing… and without missing a beat, my brother gave me the side-eye. “Don’t pull that horse hockey on me, Boyfriend. I remember when you were in Boot Camp about to crap your britches because you couldn’t pass the PT test, crying about how much you missed your girlfriend.”

You could hear the air deflate out of my ego. I got over myself right then and there.

Emotionally, I was appalled. All it took was Making the Grade for me to turn into THAT GUY. Intellectually, I was stunned. I didn’t even notice it had happened – my best friend had to point out I was being THAT GUY before I even saw it. I was damn lucky the Best Bud had been there… that ten minutes could have been much longer. That ten minutes could have been permanent.

I learned my lesson. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing now, it doesn’t matter how much applause I receive or how good the reviews are, I always keep one foot on the ground. I remind myself how blessed I am, how much of the success is based on being born with good genes and not on anything I did to earn those talents… and I keep my ego in check.

All these stories we are now becoming privy to, all these men in positions of authority abusing their power to sexually harass and assault their subordinates… I can’t help but wonder… how many of them would have been different people had they just had a best friend beside them to keep their ego in check? How many were seduced by that intoxicating sensation of having Made the Grade and became THAT GUY with no one there to remind them of where they had come from?  Had someone just warned them in advance about the change in attitudes, been with them to weather the shift in paradigms, how many of these abusive rapist assholes could have otherwise been paragons of humble success?

I’m not making excuses. No one put a gun to their heads and demanded they be serial abusers – they all made their choices. These dirt bags need to be investigated fully, and if found guilty, they need to lose their jobs, be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and go to prison, all while being shunned by their professional communities and the public. What I am saying is those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. The ancient Romans understood the intoxication of success and the seductive nature of adoration… and placed someone next to the Champion’s ear to remind him not to forget where he came from and where he would eventually end up.

Whatever your career goals, be it business or artistic success, do yourself a huge favor and have that friend to whisper in your ear, keep you grounded and humble. Because when it was my turn and left to my own devices… I failed. I became THAT GUY. A brother was there to save me from myself. So don’t chance it – have a brother or sister there in case you need saving, too.

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Birthday Crossroads

Dentist

“‘Cause I’m a DENNNNTIST!” Photo courtesy of Mesquite Community Theatre

Years ago, I had a blog that was attached to my personal website. I wrote a bunch of stuff I was really proud of, I wrote some fluff I wasn’t so attached to… and then I wrote some stuff that I probably shouldn’t have written; stuff that was technically all about me, but included other people who would rather have those events not discussed so openly and certainly not so confessionally. After catching hell from folks irritated that their dirty laundry was being aired out, I dropped the blog, deleted it, and lost all the old posts. This made a bunch of folks happy, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth… because while they could complain about their dirty laundry, I wasn’t discussing them; I was discussing ME. I was talking about how those decisions they made influenced and changed my life, and if I was going to be honest with my story, I was going to need to include those people in the narrative. But… as it sometimes happens… honesty and artistic integrity get in the way of relationships. To keep those relationships in solid ground, I would need to promise not to discuss certain details of my life in public. So that blog died.

FVWdoor

Still trying to master the whole “Selfie” thing…

When I started this blog, the mission statement was very narrow: this narrative would be about me and my attempts to not be such a nerd and transform myself into a Rock Star; it would be about losing weight, learning instruments, and performing gigs. With parameters that specific and that tight, worrying about other people and their feelings should never have been a worry… so I didn’t worry. I just started writing.

It was a few months in that I found myself editing myself, not discussing certain matters. I have four other men in my cover band; most of them have significant others, some of them have exes, some of them have kids, and the band itself has a reputation to build and maintain. I do work with two different community theaters, full of troupes of actors and directors, one of which has a board of directors. My wife has aunts and uncles and cousins; I have aunts and uncles and cousins; we both have friends and those friends have family and friends. And even though I had chosen a very specific niche, because I was writing about my life, I still found myself needing to worry about other people’s feelings. As much as I want to be honest, I didn’t want a repeat of last time with its deletions and promises not to ever talk about certain folks and events for as long as I’m writing.

ETGBatVFW

I love doing musical theater… but this? This is where I feel most at home, on a stage with these friends…

It’s been three months since I last blogged. I am finished with my first musical of the year, which, by all accounts, went great. The band had its first gig in eight months a couple of weeks a go, it went well – not perfect, but solid enough to make new fans. I’ve written four more songs, for a total of ten so far, technically enough for an album, but definitely enough for an EP. I am definitely in the summer musical, so much so I just started giving voice lessons to two of the actresses and hopefully growing the class with as many of the other cast members as possible.

And I haven’t written about any of that.

Busking

Nothing better than friends, family, and live music on a sunny day…

My experience with the Winter musical was great. Everyone said I did a good job, I enjoyed the director, I loved the cast, I made some new friends, and I may have opened up a new creative venue for myself. The experience of working in my home town vs working at my parents’ home town was different, though. Not bad… just different. I thought I would be writing about those differences, but I’ve found myself not wanting to… I don’t want my words to be misconstrued and somebody taking an observation as a criticism. I haven’t wanted to talk about the band’s process of getting back into working mode, afraid someone would misconstrue my words and think I’m complaining or criticizing. I don’t want to discuss my voice lessons, afraid one of my cast mates will get my meaning wrong, feel they’re being criticized. I haven’t discussed my songwriting process for fear I will annoy my band mates and musician buddies, or put them all out of sorts.

I haven’t been writing because I’m afraid if I express my opinion, I will hurt or upset somebody. Because I have hurt and upset people before.

I told someone a few nights ago that creating art is the act of ripping open your chest and exposing your heart; that making good art meant always riding that ragged edge of your emotions and risking losing control of them. And since this blog is about a portion of my life that touches other people, for the last three months I have not been taking that risk – I have been keeping my heart securely in my chest, and I have been keeping a very tight reign on my emotions.

Yet again, I now find myself at a crossroads when it comes to this blog. Yet again, I find myself at a loss as to how I’m supposed to create good art with artistic integrity and intellectual honesty while not creating unintentional hurt and needless drama. I am not happy about this particular turn of events. I will have to do some soul searching yet again, decide if I’m going to continue the blog, and, if I do, how I will proceed.

On a happier note, I did just spend a long weekend in the lovely and historic Louisville, Kentucky visiting ETGB’s Biggest Fan. Officially, this was my Birthday Gift to myself, but unofficially, it was the perfect opportunity to grab my mom and a couple of long-time close friends, and carpool up to see our Sister From Another Mister in her gorgeous hometown. Mom had a blast; all the old friends who hadn’t spent any real time together in years got a chance to bond over old memories, great food, and decadent food; and my Kentucky Bestie and I got a chance to be Besties, as opposed to having to settle for texts and a phone call once a week if schedules allow. The trip was worth the exhaustion, though I am very sorry the High School Sweetheart was on her driving shift when the monsoon started coming down. She did great, but I did finish out the trip home behind the wheel just in case the rain got that bad again. I’ve had two nights in a row of eight hours of sleep, so I am back to feeling like my old self once again.

New Year, New You

snow

For Dallas, this is the winter apocalypse…

It’s the start of a new year, and this particular weekend, it is cold. Not “Yay, it’s Winter – better grab my festive scarf!” cold, but “OMG! Are you freaking KIDDING ME?” cold. North Texas doesn’t get too many hard freezes, and we rarely fall below 20ºF, but Saturday morning I checked the news and it was 15º where I live. And before you Yankees start yapping about how that’s nothing, where you live it is routinely in the minus digits, remember I live in a state that routinely hits triple digits during July and August; and not the dry heat you get in Arizona, but the humid heat you get in the Congo, that sweltering heat that means you’re drenched in sweat by the time you walk from your front door to your car. 107º in the summer and 15º in the winter is a bit much for a temperature swing.

(I knew a girl from Minnesota, we waited tables together at the local Tex-Mex restaurant – her first winter here and she was all “It doesn’t get cold like this where I’m from! This is that cold that seeps inside your clothes and into your BONES!” So yeah, our humidity creates hellish winters when those Blue Northers come barreling into town. So shut up.)

It is a new year, though. Grand things are on the horizon. Which means the possibility for drama has also increased.

double-neck guitar

Proof that my bandleader did not kill our drummer…

The band is doing its best to rehearse. The holidays and family obligation got in the way, but that always happens November and December. Our bassist has to spend some time away for work a couple of weeks in January, then I’ve got a personal project the last two weekends of February and the first weekend of March – we’re doing the best we can to get together when we can, but sometimes even the weather seems to be fighting us. When we have gotten together, we sound pretty darn good – not quite to where we were before everything blew up, but we are getting there. Hoping to be able to books shows in March, we should definitely be able to book in April.

I have some personal projects this year, the first of which is I’m reprising the role of the voice of the killer plant from outer space, Audrey II, in the Mesquite Community Theatre production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Rehearsals started the first week of January. I am thrilled – I was hoping to get to do some work with the lovely folks at MCT, and being asked to play the part was a dream come true. The cast is wonderful, the director is fantastic, and the music director is amazing. It’s weird to be with a new group of theatre folks, but it is also exciting and invigorating.

ensemble

My new crew with the Mesquite Community Theatre – this is the ensemble.

As it stands right now, I am supposed to be in my friends’, The Vagabond Players, summer musical in August, as well. It’s a wonderful role and an opportunity to be out on stage, showing the local theatre scene what I am capable of. The dates are the same as an out of state venue for ETGB, however, so I am waiting and hoping the dates can be resolved – if the dates can’t be moved, I am stuck disappointing some good people and close friends. Which sucks – as much as I want to do more music work, pursuing more possibilities always came with the threat of conflicting dates. I used to tell myself I was just over-exaggerating the possibility, and yet here it is: my first “Can’t Be In Two Places At One Time” obstacle, and I haven’t even started auditioning for more stage work.

I am so hoping my friends can work this out. Both opportunities are too good to pass up.

I did a benefit for a teacher friend a couple of months ago – she’s taking her theatre kids to New York, needed some help raising money for the air fare, so I sang a couple of show tunes for her. I had a blast – I also made a new contact in the local music scene. Once I’m done with “Little Shop of Horrors,” I’m hoping I can catch up with him, hit an open mic night he frequents with a bunch of the local musical theatre scene, and make even more contacts.

benefit performers

A bunch of pros and semi-pros raising funds for theatre kids to travel to Broadway… Yeah…

I have been writing some lyrics the last few years; a few months ago, I managed to corner my guitar phenom nephew and had him write me some backing music to what I considered to be my best chance at a hit. He added in some rhythm tracks, and I am pleased to say my nephew did a good job – we now have a solid demo of a song we have written. It’s rough, it could use some tweaking by folks who know what they are doing, but it shows real potential: the makings of a hit song are all there.

Now that I have actual proof I can do my part, I’ve been showing lyrics off to friends, and so far, even the cheesy songs read pretty good to them. I’ve got the beginnings of one song started with my good buddy and band leader; I’ve got another sent off to my phenom nephew; I’ve got another sitting with a keyboardist friend; and I waiting to hear back from my other guitarist about maybe taking on a pop rock ditty I’ve got rumbling around in my head. With a fair bit off luck and some hard work, I might be able to get all my lyrics set to music in the next few weeks.

What to do after that is another obstacle.

I wrote last summer about how the band was pushing up against that invisible line that separates one professional tier from the next, and what that might entail. One option is to become a tribute band, which are big in these parts these days; another is to add more variety of songs to our sets, become a full-on party band, which are also big in these parts; and the last option (and my personal favorite) is to start writing and producing our own songs, start marketing ourselves as both a cover band and an originals band. But that’s IF the band wants to try and make the jump up to the next tier. That next tier comes with a new set of responsibilities: an increased workload both out front and behind the scenes, the possibility of needing to bring on a manager and side players, a harder push with the band’s marketing, and on and on and on. Playing the bike rallies, playing the dive bars isn’t all that lucrative, but it is FUN, and more than a good enough time to make all the hassles to book the gig worth the time and effort – that isn’t a guarantee when you’re looking to book festivals, outdoor stages, and bigger bar venues. It definitely means it’s now your full-time job, regardless of how well or not well you are getting paid.

the rhythm section

The Rhythm Section teaching us how it is done…

Every indication, every conversation I’ve had with my band leader says he’s happy where the band is, and he’s still cool with the amount of hassle he has to put up with to keep us there. He may change his mind about writing original songs at a later date, but if he does, it will be for the fun of writing original songs, NOT with a mind to move the band up to the next tier. Playing the rallies, playing a dive bar here and there is where he wants to be. Honestly, I don’t blame him – the band has proven time and again that is what we excel at.

I’m ready to grow as an artist, though. I’m ready to add “Songwriter” to my resumé. If I find myself with a dozen songs ready to be recorded and my band isn’t in a place to cut them… I’ll cut them myself. My band has first dibs – the demo I made with my nephew was produced with my band in mind; my band is full of amazing musicians – if I do record the songs myself, they’ll be the first people I ask to help me out in the studio; but one way or another, my plan for 2017 is to have at least an EP (preferably a full album) of original songs co-written by me and my music buddies ready by Christmas. What comes after that is a worry for next year.

The band is getting closer to hitting the rallies and bars again. I hopefully have two musicals scheduled. I have one new contact made, with the possibility of more down the road in eight weeks or so. I have people saying they are on board with helping me complete my songs. It’s the first week of January, and so far 2017 is already looking pretty darn good.