Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes It Rains. Think About That For A While.

Bull Durham movie poster

Bull Durham © MGM

I really like the movie “Bull Durham.” In my opinion, it is a perfect movie: romance, humor, tragedy, character development, sports, sex, excellent dialog, wonderful acting, brilliant direction… why it didn’t win the award for Best Picture of the Year is beyond me. One of the aspects I appreciate most about “Bull Durham” is when Annie is explaining that “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.” So while Nuke is learning to breathe through his eyelids (old Mayan trick… or Aztec, I get them confused), Bobby is getting released from his contract for being in a hitting slump by The Organization.

It’s a lesson that can be easily applied to any professional artistic endeavor: acting, dancing, singing, fine art, illustration. There’s the magic… and then there’s the nuts and bolts. You can be a fantastic actor or dancer or singer, doing some of the best work of your career, but if the box office isn’t selling any tickets, your show will close and you will be hunting for another job. You can be a wonderfully gifted oil painter or water colorist, but if no one buys your work, you will be manning a cash register during the day. If you are a “professional,” you are expected to deal with both aspects equally well. That’s also part of the job.

It’s hard being a working creative mainly because so many people just don’t understand what it is you do. It’s assumed that you can just turn on your imagination like a faucet and brilliant ideas just flow out. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens: you sit down at your desk and think “I need something like this,” and out comes this brilliant, fully-fleshed out idea that needs no tweaking. That scenario, however, is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, you sit there with the equivalent of a blank page in your head, not a clue how to get where you are to where you want to go. So you try a variation of an old idea, then scrap all but a part of that attempt to go in a new direction, then keep the few parts of that idea for a reversal of the original theme, and on and on and on. Finally, you have something that doesn’t suck, and you present it to your boss or your client, and you hope for the best… and when you are really lucky, you’ve been working with this person a while and know what kinds of things pique their interest, you get back your work with just a couple of simple edits. This is also the exception, not the rule – what usually happens is your work comes back looking like someone took an ax to it, it is bleeding so much red ink. At least you now know what the boss-client doesn’t want, and you can redo all the work you spent all that time killing yourself to do.

lightbulb drawing

My day job… or what the public thinks is my day job, anyway. Graphic © bigstockphoto.com

The only thing worse than a boss or client who has no idea what it is you do is a boss or client who does; someone who may not be a creative themselves, but who has seen behind the curtain enough times that they know it’s not black magic you’re conjuring up in your office. They are the ones who say things like “Once you know what I like, once you’ve got the template in place, it shouldn’t take any time at all to do what I want done.” And they are partly right – once the nuts and bolts are in place, it doesn’t take a lot of time to get something done – so you can’t argue with them.

They, however, have completely overlooked how much time and effort it takes to get the nuts and bolts of your template in place.

I was supposed to have an interview Monday. Answered an ad on Friday and was asked to call in and talk to the COO, we set up the interview. Before that could happen, Mr. COO sent me a project. I don’t do spec work, but we did have an interview, so I figured this was an audition; since I didn’t have any plans I would need to cancel, I went to work. After an afternoon of bleeding on the page, I came up with two distinctly different concepts and sent them in.

Sunday, I got a reply – no good. Text was too large, graphics were too small, and the design wasn’t edgy enough. I was thanked for my time.

ETGB at Chasers poster

Honestly… does that look like something I spent an hour creating?

It was the “Thanks for your time” that bothered me. That sounded a lot like a brush off. I was looking forward to the interview, and now I was being dismissed along with my afternoon of effort. I mulled it over and decided to take the high road: I would ignore the brush off, I would take the criticism as constructive, and redo the projects. Since my potential client hadn’t attacked the concepts, I would leave the backgrounds and color schemes in place – I would shrink the texts, add big graphics in their place, and use edgy, grungy fonts. I spent another afternoon on my unsolicited project, then sent the new proofs in.

The new proofs worked, much closer to what my soon-to-be interviewer had in mind. I made the last edits he asked for, and my now-employer asks me to let him know how I’d like to be paid, and to expect a bunch of projects coming after lunch.

To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. I went from feeling I’d blown the opportunity to winning over the COO by sheer determination, talent, and experience. Got my foot in the door with a ton of work as my reward for not giving up. I was on the top of the world, thinking the Universe is about to give me a much-needed and hopefully deserved break.

The first of the tiny corrections came in. Names were misspelled, one of the participants had dropped out of the program. No problem, I made the edits and sent the project back in. A disclaimer needed to be added to the bottom. Not a problem, I made the edits. The new projects began streaming into my email, along with an inquiry on how I want to be reimbursed for my work – I did the math, realized it would be cheaper to be paid by the hour than by the project, and let him know I can charge less if I’m on a W2. Then I gave him my hours.

“That’s about 3x as much as I would have expected. Now that you know what I want, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour to do a project. So let’s keep the hours to a reasonable level.”

According to his math, what he wanted was a project an hour… or, if I was charging by the project, what he was expecting to pay was the equivalent of one hour’s worth of work per project. He knew how long it took to put together the nuts and bolts, so that’s what he was expecting to pay for. He was completely discounting the talent and creativity.

Mobile DJ set up

I know… don’t judge me. As part-time jobs for a college student go, this one didn’t suck. Photo courtesy of weddingdancemusic.wordpress.com

I was already finished with the first of the new projects – I was still staring at it, trying to see if it was up to the level of edgy I had created over the weekend before sending it in – when that email came across my inbox. I read and reread that line about “3x as expected” and “reasonable level” over and over again for the better part of an hour… and then I did the only thing I could do: I turned the job down. I don’t do projects for a quarter of what I’d normally charge, regardless of how much work was about to land on my desk.

Back when I DJ’ed wedding receptions and corporate events, it was a standing rule that if the client wanted you to stay and work past your initial time, it was a standard $50 an hour for each hour of overtime. When the band does private gigs, unless we are up against a venue’s closing time, we are constantly being asked to stay and play passed our contracted time, at which point my band leader says “Love to, but you have to pay us extra.” And invariably, there is always someone who tried to talk me into DJing for free, or tries to talk my band leader to get us to play for free. “The equipment is already set up, you know you’re having a good time, you know we’re a great crowd – stay and play. It’s not about the cash – you know you do this for the love of the music.” It’s that last one that always makes me mad. Because it’s the truth: I DJ’ed and I perform in the band because I love the music, and truth be told, I would have have performed for free, just to indulge that love.

But this is a consumer-based world we live in, and people do not appreciate what they get for free or what they get on the cheap. I don’t charge for my services because I’m a mercenary; I charge for my services because of the level of respect it brings out in other people. And if you discount my talent and my creativity and then expect a discount for my skills and experience, I’m not going to work for you. You, Mr. COO of the company I would give my left arm to work for, do not respect talent and creativity.

UPDATE:

After everything went down, I turned off my email and purposely ignored it the rest of the evening, then went to bed early. I didn’t want to be that fourteen year old girl who keeps checking her messages to see if he had texted back. It had been a stressful four days and I was done being stressed out – I took my sick stomach and pounding head and hit the sack.

After I had finished writing this post, I finally opened up my email – Mr. COO of the company I would give my left arm to work for had written me back no less than four times: three begging me to work with him on rates, and another asking if I would teach a social media class next month. Evidently, when he low-balled me, he thought that was the return salvo of a bidding war for my services. I was stunned… and then I was appalled. My sick stomach and pounding head returned in record time.

A smart entrepreneur would have gone all mercenary. A smart entrepreneur would have upped his rates to the point of raking high-ranking executive over the coals. I’m not a smart entrepreneur, however, and I don’t know how to be mercenary even at my most pissed off. I do know that when someone tries to screw you over once, they will probably try to screw you over again. So after a lengthy email, I told him I would still have to pass on the job – since he’d already shown he didn’t respect me, my talent, or my experience, I just didn’t want to work with him. I got no reply back today, so I’m guessing it’s safe to open my email again.

A Living Entity or Brushing Up Against the Invisible Line

Keith, Kelly, and Tim

Me showing off my brother, Kelly, for Tim’s obligatory selfie. Photo courtesy of Tim Lovick.

There’s the band as a marriage metaphor, which works when all or most of the original band members are still in place; and then there’s the band as a living entity metaphor. I tend to go with the living entity metaphor personally. In my marriage, I have an equal say in things, and while I tend to take a back seat in decisions concerning things like how to decorate the house, my lovely Lady Fair knows my tastes and tries to keep that in mind when picking out colors and designs. As Paul likes to say, “I don’t run my house, but I have veto power.” That’s not the case with the band. I can make suggestions, I can ask questions, I can push for certain decisions, but I don’t actually make those decisions, and I certainly do not have veto power. That’s Paul. The band is Paul’s band. Now, Paul is smart enough and wise enough to take everybody else’s strengths and preferences into account when making decisions, but at the same time, the final Yay or Nay is always his. So no, the band is not a marriage – it is a benevolent dictatorship, and we are all free to leave if we don’t like Paul’s stewardship of the band.

This band is a living entity, though. Paul is the brains, Super Dave is the heart beat, JC is the back bone, Tim is the imagination, and I am the voice. And like a living being, the band has ups and downs, peaks and valleys. There are times when the band is on all cylinders and just unstoppable… and then there are days when the band cannot get it’s act together to save it’s damn life. Sometimes, the peak and the valley are on the same damn week.

10th Anniversary Cancerian poster

One of our favorite gigs of the year…

The band has never had a period where it could just cruise, rest on its laurels and enjoy the view – the band has always been in some kind of transition. Before Paul brought me onboard, the band experimented with having two female back up singers. This did not work, mainly because the females in question used a little too much liquid courage to psych themselves out enough to perform in front of a crowd. Not long after they ladies were cut loose, I arrived… so technically, I was brought on to be the ladies’ replacement, singing the pretty back up.

It was unthinkable that we would need to replace Patrick, the drummer… and then suddenly, we did. Seven kids with a vicious recession on was too much stress on Patrick and the entire family, so the band had to go. JC was brought in, and even though he was half the age of the rest of the crew, he got along great… until we had to replace JC, who had decided to move to Los Angeles. Patrick came back, life got too vicious again and he left, and then JC moved back to Texas and he rejoined the crew.

Jon co-founded the band with Paul. Jon is brilliant. Jon is an amazing bassist, with a jazzy kind of interpretation of classic songs. Jon also had very definite ideas about the direction he wanted to go with the music the band was doing; when that didn’t happen, he decided he just wanted to show up and play… but soon, he didn’t want to do that, either. After not returning phone calls or emails for weeks, Paul brought in Super Dave so the band could start booking dates again. Jon found out he’d been replaced by social media, and we haven’t heard from him since. Not our finest hour, and whether he admits it or not, it still haunts Paul.

When Gary’s carpal tunnel took him out of the band and Tim came on board, the only original member of the band Paul created 12 years ago… was Paul. The brain was intact, but everything else in the body had be replaced with a transplant.

The band at Chaser's

The crew and Little Brother, taking care of business. Photo courtesy of the wonderful Michele Moore.

It sucks when you lose a band member, even if it happens with a minimum of fuss, as in Patrick and Gary’s cases. The upside is, though, with the infusion of new blood comes new song ideas. When JC settled in and became THE drummer, the band got a lot better. When Super Dave came in and brought a new wealth of songs, the band got a lot better. When I discovered the meaning behind the songs and found my voice, the band got a lot better. Now that Tim is on board with his tenor harmonies and lead guitar licks, the band has gotten better once again.

With all the transplants in the band, with all the improvements the band has made over the years, The East Texas Garage Band is poised to make a big leap.

There’s a line no one can see, but everyone who deals with any kind of creative, artistic pursuit knows it is there and it is real: it is the line that separates amateurs from professionals. A lot of times, the division is really easy to see: go to a comic convention and take a walk around the art show, you will see a definite difference in quality between the amateur work and the working professional’s art. Some times, the division is almost impossible to see: go online and read some of the fan fiction out there, some of it is as good – if not better – than some of the published novels on book shelves. When you are really lucky, you catch an amateur actor or dancer just before they hit the big time, and you get to say “I saw them when no one knew who they were.” Well, a band faces that same line. It takes a certain amount of time and energy to get to the top of the amateur level, to be the best an amateur can be… and then you stall there. Because the difference between the “extremely gifted amateur” and the “working professional” is incredibly small, yet almost impossible to bridge. A lot of the time, it’s the X factor that separates the two categories, that indefinable ingredient that you know when you see it or hear it. The real bitch is it’s a band – nearly all the members have to have that X factor or be so close to having that X factor before the band as a whole is ready to make that leap to The Show.

With my singing, with Tim’s leads, with Super Dave’s playing, with Paul’s leadership and showmanship, and with JC’s outside the box syncopation, as of just a few weeks ago, The East Texas Garage Band was knocking on that line, poised to make the jump. Which, in our case, being a cover band in DFW, meant potentially leaving the B-level of acts and joining the A-level tribute bands. Also meant doubling our fee, and being able to get that. We’d need to have a serious conversation about where the band wanted to go at that point: being an A-level act in DFW means either being a tribute band (which we don’t want to be), adding dance and party music to the repertoire (a possibility, just not a strong one), or create some original tunes and try to go pro (my preferred choice).

JC wrecked his truck.

me at Chasers

Trying to see where the hell the guitarists are going with this song… Photo again courtesy of the lovely Michele Moore.

Just days after our last gig, just over a week until our next gig, and JC lost control of his vehicle while heading home from a concert down in Deep Ellum, woke up in ICU with two broken arms, two broken wrists, some broken ribs, and a cracked bone in his playing foot. One wrist required surgery, his playing foot required surgery. He is laid up for weeks, possibly months, and until he heals up enough for physical therapy, JC has no idea what effect this will have on his ability to drum: could have no effect at all, which is the hope; could be done drumming for the rest of his life, which is a panicky worst case scenario, but is still a possibility.

I took JC flowers from the band a couple of days after they moved him from ICU into a private room. His foot was still swollen like a grapefruit then, the doctors hadn’t gone in after that bone they were worried about. It was the first time I had been to a hospital since Sherry had died almost two years ago, and I was not digging the sensation at all. As his singer, I’m pissed as hell that JC has done this to himself… but as his friend… damn it all… I am just so grateful he’s still alive. Had he been going just a little faster, had the wall he hit been just a little taller, and that might not have been the case. When I couldn’t force out any more words of encouragement, I got the hell out of there… I was wiping away tears by the time I got back out to my car.

I’ve just buried too many people lately. This cut it a little to close for comfort for me.

My brother, Kelly, drums for a local cover band and knows most of our songs; more importantly, he’s all about the playing and doesn’t have time for any drama, his real life is dramatic enough as it is. Paul quickly gave him a call, we scheduled an emergency Friday night rehearsal, and we went out to the middle of nowhere to play the private gig that had been on the calendar for months. We weren’t as tight as we’d been the couple of weeks before, but Kelly is a pro, Paul and Time are pros, and with Super Dave keeping everybody in the mix, we were still pretty dang good. Two weeks later, we showed up at Chasers and did it all over again with the same result.

We just don’t know what’s going to happen with JC, so Paul made the executive decision to go on hiatus for the foreseeable future, which means Chaser’s gig was probably our last of 2016. He and Tim have been getting together to mesh their guitar grooves; hopefully, I’ll get a call soon saying they guitarists are ready for a vocal rehearsal, work on some harmonies. As for what I’m going to do to get my performance fix, I haven’ decided yet. Upside to all the drama the last month? Lost ten pounds. Say what you want about the stress diet – it works.

It also means that invisible line we were just brushing up against has retreating out of reach again.

25 Years

DSVpatch As far as my musical life is concerned, everything has been turned on its ear. The band lost our secret weapon to health issues; my solo work guitarist joined a band; my new piano player and singing partner got called away to work on a Broadway album; so musically, I was a dead man walking during the holidays. Good news is the band has a new guitarist and vocalist, and our first official show with the new line-up is in two weeks, which just happens to be my annual Birthday Bash – I will have a Rock Star post about the bash soon after; and as soon as I’ve cleared the air with my two musicians, I’m hoping to have another post or two.

In the meantime…

I wrote this over on Facebook, decided I needed to go ahead and share this here. Because even though this blog is supposed to be about me becoming a Rock Star, this is part of who I am, and a big reason I am who I am.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When I joined the Army, it was three weeks after the invasion of Kuwait. I did not join because I wanted to get shipped off to the Persian Gulf – I joined because my work life was going nowhere, I was in love with a wonderful woman I could not support, and I was desperate to feel that sense of belonging and purpose I had back when I’d been a kid in Boy Scouts and JROTC. I wanted to belong to something greater than myself… but I also didn’t want anyone asking me why I didn’t have the stones to go off and do my patriotic duty. So even though there was a very good chance I’d find myself in the middle of a desert in six months time, I signed the paperwork, took my oath, and headed off to Basic Training a month later, September 25th, 1990.

I got my orders to go to Desert Storm on February 1st, 1991; I got married on the 3rd, and then graduated on the 8th. I took a quick trip back to Texas so that everyone I cared about would have one last memory of me laughing and smiling; and then I flew back to Augusta, Georgia, where I would spend the next week doing… well, nothing. Somewhere deep inside the Pentagon, it was still being debated exactly how many troops would be necessary for the Persian Gulf; while the Generals and Admirals made up their minds, I spent a week picking up garbage, mowing grass, and trying to stay out from underfoot. Even after I was shipped down the road to Fort Benning to be outfitted, there was still scuttlebutt our particular group of soldiers wouldn’t be called on, more than enough boots were already on the ground. So while we took possession of our still-wet from gun oil M16A1’s and fresh, never-before-used protective masks complete with atropine injectors, the ones of us with something or someone to lose kept hoping and praying we’d get left behind.

February 19th all that hoping and praying were for nothing. We all loaded up onto a double-decker jumbo jet, wedging all our gear in around us, and took off. First for New York City for fueling and supplies; then to Belguim for more fuel and fresh pilots; and then finally to King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. The trip took nearly twenty hours – even though we’d boarded around 6am, I stayed awake the entire flight. The last thing I wanted to do was rush this trip, so I did all I could to make the flight last as long as possible.

I’ve always had a high opinion of myself – I’m smart, talented, and semi-charming when I’m not trying too hard. I never thought I’d actually end up in a war zone – somehow, someway, the Universe would pull some strings at the last second, poke me in the ribs and exclaim “Psyche!” and put my butt somewhere else out of harm’s way. I was still holding on to that delusion five minutes before the jumbo jet landed – the pilot came over the loud speaker:

“This is your captain speaking. We’re coming up on King Fahd International Airport and are going to start our descent. Since we’re not sure what can of reception to expect, we’re going to corkscrew in so it’s harder to get a bead on us. If at any time I hear bullets bouncing off this aircraft, I will gun the engines and we will head back to Belgium. Attendants, prepare for final approach.”

Never before in my life had I ever prayed to be fired on – my prayers were not answered. Twenty minutes later, I was on the tarmac and carrying my gear towards an airplane hangar full of cots. And it hit me that I was not one of God’s favorites – I wasn’t going to get a last-second reprieve; I was going to war. Worse, I was no longer a person – I was just a thumbtack on a map signifying unit strength and placement. While I could say that I was truly a part of something bigger than myself for the first time in years, I’d done so by sacrificing my individuality. I was just a service number on someone’s clipboard somewhere, a faceless, nameless cog in the military machine. If I died, no one I cared about would know for months, maybe years.

(Maybe not at all. The Army had sent me overseas in such a rush, my records had become lost. I would be stateside six months before my records would catch up with me in Colorado.)

Since the 8th, every time I stepped onto a vehicle, some of the soldiers I knew and had trained with had been pealed away and sent somewhere else. Graduation had sent all the Reservists and Guardsman back to their homes, including my best friend and Best Man; the trip to Fort Benning had separated more of my old company; and after a night at the airport, the replacement detachment people divided up even more of my old squad. By the time I loaded up onto the old, rickety double-decker bus, I was by myself. No one I’d met in Basic Training was still with me. My support system was now the Army. I’d have to depend on the fact we were all in the same uniform to prompt my brothers and sisters to watch my back… just as they’d depend on their uniform to prompt me to watch theirs. Which is how my particular experiences differs from my contemporaries, my other friends around my age with military experience like my band leader – when they were sent into hairy situations, they were with the people they knew, soldiers they had trained with. They knew how each squad member would react in given situations, had some indication as to how their NCO’s and officers would lead them. I had none of that – all my friends, squad members, NCO’s and officers were gone. I was surrounded by hundreds of people wearing my uniform, and yet I was completely alone.

(Well… sort of wearing my uniform. While I had gotten a new rifle, bayonet, helmet, and protective mask, I had not been issued a Desert Camouflage Battle Dress Uniform – I was still wearing the Woodland Green BDU’s I gotten in AIT, the replacements for the set I’d been issued in Basic Training that no longer fit after I’d dropped forty pounds. The other soldiers that had been snatched up directly out of AIT were also in green BDU’s – the joke soon became if some sort of enemy aircraft came in for a strafing run, we should all huddle together and try to camouflage ourselves as an oasis.)

There is scared, and then there is scared… and then there is what I was experiencing. I was numb. It was as if someone had injected novocaine into my emotional core – I was thinking clearly, I knew exactly what was going on, I understood what was being explained to me and I followed orders to the letter… there was just no emotional response to any of it. I was scared past the point my system could process it, so it had stopped processing anything: no fear, no joy, no skepticism, no anger, no longing, no nothing. As far as emotions were concerned, I was a functioning corpse.

(While I was awake – asleep, I had nightmares of being chased by something horrible trying to kill me. One night it was Jason from the “Friday the 13th” series; the next night, it was the Alien aboard The Nostromo; zombies shambled after me one night; and one extra special night, it was the giant spider I’d first dreamed of when I was four years old, the jet-black horror the size of a VW Beetle that had haunted me ever since. Every night, I sat up, jolted awake by whatever it was pursuing me, trying to catch my breath and hoping I didn’t cry out in my sleep… only to realize I was in the Army, sleeping in the dirt with my field jacket as a pillow, in the middle of a war zone. And then I would wish I was still asleep – as terrible as the nightmare had been, it was less terrifying than the reality I was living.)

DesertStorm I was supposed to join an artillery unit that was laying down suppressing fire for the 101st, but my convoy got stuck waiting for a tank division to cross the one and only highway going our direction for four hours; by the time we reached the halfway station, it was after dark. Since it was pitch black and a wrong turn meant finding yourself inside the wrong end of Iraq, our bus driver refused to go any further – we’d carry on at first light. That night, February 22nd, the ground assault officially started; and by first light, the unit I was supposed to be joining was one hundred miles in country. The decision was made that I and the rest of the replacements would stay at the halfway station until our receiving units found a place to park.

(Replacements. The military estimated that there would be 30,000 casualties the first wave of the ground assault, so all of the units had the number of their personnel increased to 125% capacity. I and the rest of the soldiers I was holed up with were to replace those unit members injured or killed during the first wave, which is why a communications graduate was being sent to an artillery unit.)

I don’t pray often. Not because I don’t think it works, but because of the exact opposite – I do think prayer works, and if a prayer of mine is to be answered, I want to make sure it’s a situation completely out of my realm of control, as close to a miracle as possible. It’s rare when I pray, but I found myself gazing into the heavens that night. That far out in the middle of nowhere, there are no ambient city lights to interfere, so stars are visible all across the sky. In all my years of Scouting and volunteering with The Order of The Arrow, I had never seen some many stars. I had listened to everything my drill sergeants had been telling me since late September, I knew what was expected and what had been planned for, and I knew what my chances were expected to be. I wasn’t scared of dying – when you’re dead, you’re dead, nothing left to worry about – but I couldn’t shake something one of our drill sergeants had said weeks earlier:

“It’s not the bullet that has your name on it you have to worry about – it’s going to find you no matter what – it’s the one labeled ‘To Whom It May Concern” you gotta look out for. ‘Cause it don’t care who or what it hits.”

I didn’t want to lose my legs. I didn’t want to end up blind. I didn’t want to be maimed. I didn’t know how strong I could be, and I didn’t want to put my wife of less than a month through a lifetime of nursing me. So I prayed. I asked whoever or whatever it was that had me convinced there was a higher power at work to not let me be crippled; if going home whole was not to be, then please, just go ahead and kill me.

I then told the Universe I’d make it easy. I had every intention of going home. I had a new wife I’d never been on a honeymoon with, never lived with as a married couple with, and I’d be damned if I didn’t get the chance of experiencing the simple joys with her. I was going home, so whatever and whoever got in-between me and her had to go. I’d kill whoever I needed to, I’d destroy whatever I needed to, I’d become whatever monster I needed to be to make that goal. I wasn’t asking forgiveness – I was just stating fact. If I wasn’t to go home, then kill me now, because there would be no middle ground.

Four days later, the cease-fire was called. The middle ground wouldn’t be necessary – I’d be going home. And well sooner than expected: mine had been one of the last planes to land before the ground assault, so I was with stationed with a bunch of Independent Ready Reservists who’d been called up with just days left on their contracts. The IRR’s had careers and families back in the States, and their wives were hard at work, calling their Congresspeople to get their husbands sent back home ricky-tick. Their combined pestering worked, so instead of the six months I’d expected to spend in the Persian Gulf, I spent just under six weeks, long enough to earn a couple of medals and the right to wear a combat patch.

After that, life happened so fast, I didn’t have a lot of time to process what I’d been through… other than to notice my head suddenly sparkled. Where once I’d had a stray silver hair here or there, I now had hundreds of stark white strands all over. I moved my wife to Colorado Springs for two years of active duty; then to Arlington, TX for three years of Reserves while I want to art school at night, holding down a full-time job during the day. It wasn’t until after I got my orders moving my status to the IRR and I graduated that the war began to seep in. Not showering enough love and praise on my deserving wife was the first indication something wasn’t completely up to snuff; a lingering dissatisfaction with my day job and it’s lack of social significance another. But it was after the invasion of Iraq that everything came bursting out.

9-11 had been traumatic, but no more so for me than it was for any other American; the invasion of Afghanistan didn’t bother me, really – if anything, I was disappointed it had taken weeks to get to doing what I thought would be undertaken the week after the Twin Towers came down; but when the military went into Iraq, something inside me snapped. Iraq had been my war, and my war had been over for a decade. I had gotten accustomed to my participation being overlooked or even forgotten… and yet, here it was: boots in Iraq, fighting my war all over again, restarting what I had been led to believe had been finished. As I watched the news, as I saw the troops land inside my war zone, I began to sniffle. Slow tears began to slide down my cheeks. I wiped my eyes and went back to getting ready for my day job, making pretty pictures to sell couches to the Middle class… only the tears kept coming. Not a sobbing fit… just slowly tearing up, clearing my throat and wiping me eyes, over and over and over again, for the next three days.

For three days, the only time I wasn’t crying was when I was asleep. I stayed home from work. The counselor I’d started seeing after my marriage had started to crumble was sympathetic, but not much help. If I wanted the tears to stop, I’d need to confront all the stuff I’d buried a decade earlier.

There’s an unspoken truth to being a soldier: you’re only truly a soldier when you’ve done your job during a war. Whatever you’re particular job specialty, part of what you train for, part of what you prepare for, is doing that job in the field during a combat operation. And while the training and preparation is vitally important, it is still not the real thing; soldiers with combat patches – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – get afforded a higher level of respect than soldiers without. I had a combat patch; I had felt that respect while I served; but I also felt like a fraud – I’d only done half my job. I knew what it was like to stand up and be counted, I knew what it was like to be ready to lay down my life, and I knew what it was like to be in a war zone surrounded by not just enemies, but FEAR… but I didn’t know what it was to be under fire; I didn’t know what it was like to be counted on to protect my brothers and sisters; I didn’t know what it was like to take another life in defense of everything I hold dear; and I especially didn’t know if my courage would hold true in the face of hopeless odds.

During the war, I’d been prepared to do terrible things – now, years later, part of me was thankful I’d never had to do those terrible things; but just as large a part of me was wracked with guilt I hadn’t done those terrible things. Thankful I hadn’t had to do a terrible job, but left feeling like a fake because I hadn’t had to do a terrible job. And now that ground forces were back in Iraq, I was thankful I wasn’t there with them, yet feeling guilty that I wasn’t still serving my country; and worse, even more guilty for feeling thankful it wasn’t me overseas a second time.

For years, my wife and I would see and read reports of people who’d never finished their military contracts finding themselves called back into uniform years later. People a hundred pounds overweight, grandmothers in their 50’s, high-paid executives who had forgotten to resign their commissions, all being backdoor-drafted back into serving. And even though I knew my contract was over, I’d received my letter saying I’d been removed from IRR roll, I still went to the mailbox every day with dread, half-expecting to find the letter commanding me to go to my nearest recruitment center, half-hoping to find that same letter so the dread and the guilt would finally be over.

I was at home, in-between freelance assignments, when the troops officially left Iraq a few years ago. I cried as I watched the convoy cross over the border. Since that day, I haven’t had a nightmare about being reenlisted in the Army – while there were still troops in Iraq, I had that nightmare every six to eight weeks or so.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It’s the middle of an election season, so the anniversary of the ground assault has been overlooked and ignored by the media except for the military magazines and newspapers. It originally took about two years for me to go from being an American hero to a footnote. Back in 1993-94, the economy was starting to improve, unemployment was dropping, and the stock market was beginning a meteoric rise. The Persian Gulf had been the former President’s war, and he was gone, replaced by charismatic Southerner who had never served in uniform. No one was still itching to shake the hand of a veteran any more – they all had important things to do.

After the caskets started coming back week after week, month after month, after “Mission Accomplished” had been declared, suddenly the same folks who’d had important things to do ten years earlier were crying as they hugged me, thanking me for my service. by 2006, I was back to being an American hero again.

Another ten years have passed, and I’m back to being a footnote. The veterans of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are probably starting to experience that sensation, as well. No one is talking about the “advisors” that are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one is talking about the backlogs in the VA hospitals, and no one is talking about the suicide rate among the recently discharged veterans.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Since mid-January, when I haven’t thought about my 50th birthday party bash in March, I’ve looked at the calendar and remembered where I was 25 years ago. This isn’t just my 25th Wedding Anniversary, and this isn’t just my 50th birthday… this is the 25th anniversary of my becoming a Desert Storm veteran, and like it or not, that is just as important as the other two events. I’d be lying if I said there were never times I wished that wasn’t the case… but it is what it is. And I am who I am.

Somewhere That’s Green

Doo Wops rehearsing

My lovelies, The Doo Wops, during rehearsals: Tracy, Crystal, Becka, and Cheray.

I was planning on writing a small novel about performing in Little Shop of Horrors, but once again Life has a way of changing my plans. So while I am commenting on the musical, this post is about being at the crossroads.

The musical was amazing. It had been a while since I last acted, so it was a joy to stretch those creative muscles. It was also extremely fulfilling to work with folks who didn’t consider themselves singers, helping to show them that the same artistic choices that go into drama are the same choices that go into musical theatre – as the artist, you’re attempting to convey a message to the audience and create an emotional reaction; the difference is you’re using song instead of prose. Helping turn actors into singers and singers into actors is an experience I won’t soon forget.

I’m looking forward to doing more work with Erin, our piano player and music coach during rehearsals, as we are already putting a show together. My Doo Wops – Tracy, Crystal, Becka, and Cheray  – all stole my heart with their enthusiasm and energy. Our Audrey, Sherri, may be the single most talented person I’ve met in a long time: amazing voice, amazing range, amazing ability with accents, and the single best cold read of a script I’ve ever heard. Our puppeteer, Hayden, never failed to tickle me with his backstage anecdotes, and never failed to make my vocals look good out front. I finally got the opportunity to work with two very talented gentlemen, Mitch and Dorman, a personal dream of mine come true. I am so looking forward to seeing Hannah act, having adored her as our Assistant Director. The Vagabond Player’s founder and my buddy, Ron, gained a whole new respect for what I do as a vocalist as he learned basic singing techniques; while I got to peer behind the curtain to see how the magic is made as he produced mayhem into a show; experiences that have deepened our appreciation of each other. Our director, Jeff, trusted me far more than he had reason to, an act of faith I’ll always cherish. And the remarkable young man Ron and Jeff found to play Seymour, Austin, not only stunned me with his talent and incredible work ethic, but he is rapidly becoming one of my extended family even while he’s off at college. You can never have enough brothers, and Austin quickly became one.

The set

The absolutely stunning set, with my alter ego center stage.

The musical didn’t go off without a hitch, but after six years of performing live, I didn’t expect it to and it didn’t throw me. The rehearsals also didn’t go off without a hitch, but after a lifetime of dealing with creative people, I didn’t expect it to, artists have a reputation for being temperamental; this did throw me a bit, though. I wasn’t prepared for the reaction I would have to certain events – the intensity of my feelings stunned me. I started one of the early rehearsals with a talk about how being an artist meant making a choice to create something where once there was nothing, and how you couldn’t do that while being a victim – you could only do that by being a warrior. That was a particularly interesting week.

I also wasn’t prepared for my reviews once the musical finally opened – evidently, I did great.

I’m a singer, and Twoey the killer plant is mainly a singing role with the least amount of dialog out of anyone in the main cast. I never really had any doubt I’d nail the songs – my worry was always my speaking parts. Bobby always said as an actor you need to know why you’re walking into a scene and why you’re walking out of a scene – you came from somewhere and you’re going to somewhere, and there’s a reason why. He called this “doing your homework.” So I did my homework: I asked myself “Who is Twoey, really?” Answer: a manipulative con man who convinces other people to do things against their better judgement, all to benefit himself and his end game… or in layman’s terms, Twoey is a pimp. I read and reread my sections of the script, comparing my dialog to the dialog of my fellow actors in the scene, asking myself how a pimp would attempt to sell these lines. I did my best to listen to how my cast mates were reacting to my lines and react to them in kind. I did my best to tailor my songs to best suit the dialog instead of showcasing my voice, which immediately improved my delivery.

When it came time to open the show, I was no longer worried I was going to embarrass myself, which meant I could concentrate on doing what I felt I’d be hired to do: knock Twoey’s songs out of the park. When opening night was a success and the cast was meeting with the audience, I was expecting compliments on my singing – I wasn’t expecting compliments on my acting. Yet that night, and every performance afterward, my acting was as praised as my singing.

For a month, there was nothing but the musical, either rehearsing the entire show or performing the entire show. Then it was the last performance and BOOM! Done. Set torn down, everybody heading their separate ways, and Ron and his wonderful wife, Gayle, moving on to their next show set to open in October. I went from 110 mph to zero in the span of about 90 minutes – my mind and my creative soul were not ready for such an abrupt stop.

Keith as the Narrator

I doubled as the opening narrator; I later came out to sing “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” – the looks on people’s faces when they realized it was the dude in the tux who was voicing the plant – PRICELESS!

I never considered myself an actor. I can deliver a line when I need to, but I’m no Olivier – my first art of choice is singing. With this sudden influx of unexpected praise, my definition of myself was thrown into turmoil. Maybe I’m not a singer who can act; maybe I’m a singer AND an actor. Maybe I always shied away from acting because that was Bobby’s domain, and I could never be the artist he was. Maybe I’ve been limiting the ways I could be performing by adhering so strongly with the vocalist label I’d slapped on myself.

The last few weeks have required a lot of soul-searching, a process that is not yet done. I am still considering more acting – I’m not, however, seriously considering television or movie work. Amazingly enough, that possibility actually came up in a couple of conversations and meetings over the last month or so; with my age, my look, and my open schedule, the consensus was I could be doing some non-union acting gigs if I was willing to do some traveling. I’ve decided against that – if I’m going to spend a few days down in Austin earning next to nothing, I’d rather spend it singing in a bar than standing around on a set. And I still don’t see myself as an actor as much as I now see myself as a performer – while I certainly wouldn’t turn down an extras gig if it came my way, I’d much rather do my acting on a stage, preferably in a musical. I want – I NEED – that audience.

Right now, the pressing matter is what to do about my days. Just found out I missed out on a temp-to-hire job because I didn’t have the latest buzz term on my resumé – had all the skills the buzz term encompassed, mind you, but since I wasn’t acquainted with the new technospeak, I was passed over for someone who was. I am very good at what I do, but evidently I have fallen a step, if not two, behind the times. So the question is: do I swallow my pride, dive head first into the newest technologies and coding to get me up to par so I can get a corporate gig? Or do I chuck 20 years of experience and put all my energies into crafting a performing career that is artistically fulfilling but lacks any kind of financial security or even certainty? And how do I get my head and my heart to agree on a course of action?

Because at this moment, I am truly torn. I don’t know what to do.

The Dream That Is The Golden Rule

When I was a little tyke, my parents would take us to Sunday School with my cousins. This practice didn’t last long – both my parents worked, we moved across town, so getting up at the crack of dawn on one of my parents’ few days off was both an imposition and impractical – but for a while, my little brother and I were steeped in the Southern Baptist. There’s not a lot of Bible Study you can give a seven year old, but you can teach the basics: Adam, Eve, and the Apple; Noah and the Ark; The Good Samaritan – those kind of stories. The one thing that actually stuck with me was The Golden Rule: treat others like you’d want to be treated.

When I was a few years older, in school, 7th, 8th, and 9th grades taught History: Texas, American, and then World. American History taught basic Civics; and spent time on The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson put The Golden Rule right there in The Declaration of Independence – everyone is the same, and because they are the same, everyone deserves the same treatment.

Simple and direct: we’re all equal so treat everybody the way you’d want them to treat you. Fantastic advice. Easy rule to understand.

Too bad no one follows it.

Oh, people say they do. People convince themselves they’re on the moral high ground, but the reality is they’re justifying their actions. The reality is they wait to see how other people treat them, then treat them back as they find according. The reality is they treat people they like and respect cordially, but folks they don’t know don’t get the time of day; junior employees get treated like peons; service industry workers get treated like indentured servants. And folks of different backgrounds – different ethnicities, different religions, different sexual orientations, sometimes even different genders – are just flat out shunned. They are Other. And in this world, it is Us against Them.

Because it’s easier. It’s more seductive to see the world in Black or White terms. We are the Good Guys. They are the Bad People. What we do is Right. What they do is Wrong. And it’s easier to entice people to believe as you believe if you make the argument in stark, negative terms: We are the only Ones who are doing Right, the whole world is against Us for believing as we believe; We are The Underdogs, so We can do anything We need to do to protect Ourselves; and anyone who will not see the Righteousness of Our Cause is our Enemy, and must be defeated at any cost. It works, as it calls on one of our most basic instincts: to herd together for mutual protection.

Nuance is hard. Nuance takes work. Seeing the shades of gray means feeling empathy for a stranger. Truly comprehending an issue means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and walking their mile. Complete understanding means risking the discovery that you were wrong; that you will face the choice between admitting your mistake or burying your head in the sand, pretending everything is still the way you always thought it was.

As a country, we didn’t always rush to the low road – there was a time, not that long ago, when instead of stooping to the lowest common denominator, Americans strived to listen to our better angels. We knew that being an American meant taking the road less traveled; the High Road of Idealism versus the easier paths of Bigotry, Elitism, and Isolationism. And we wanted to do Big Things; we wanted to answer the President’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Not because it bettered ourselves, even though it did; but because it enriched those around us – our service made not just our country, but the world, a better place.

Powerful people learned to pit one side against the other. Powerful people spent a lot of time and a lot of money learning to phrase ideologies in a certain language, an Orwellian Newspeak where greed is good and charity is bad. Powerful people taught their followers and their constituents ideas that had once been noble were now shaming labels. And these powerful people did not do this to benefit others – they did this to directly benefit themselves. For ratings. For votes. For money. For even more power.

It’s not hard to see how we got here, even in such a short amount of time. And it’s not impossible to change the status quo, to remove these powerful people from their positions and prevent them from doing further harm to the country. But it IS hard. It means taking the High Road, even though you’re rather stoop to someone else’s level. It means trying to understand where someone else is coming from instead of just assuming they are completely wrong. It means embracing empathy and sympathy, even for those people we ardently disagree with. It means understanding we are all equal, and we all deserve the same level of respect and dignity. And it means treating people the way we would want to be treated; doing that first, then waiting for the treatment in return.

You can call me a Dreamer. But my hope, my dream, my prayer is… that I’m not the only one.

Nothing to Prove

Cosplayer

Cosplayer at the 2013 San Diego Con. Photo courtesy of http://www.mtv.com/geek

I’m a Geek. Even though I stopped collecting, I still call myself a comic book geek – I have Steranko‘s autograph, I have Stan Lee‘s autograph, I have Julie Schwartz‘s autograph, I have Martin Nodell‘s autograph; I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek: TOS and Star Trek: TNG; I was standing in line at the butt-crack of dawn for Return of the Jedi and at midnight for Phantom Menace both opening days; I have every Harry Potter book in hardback; I watched Firefly on Friday nights, then gave copies of the DVD to my friends; I’ve seen every Highlander movie, including the bootleg Director’s Cut of the first sequel; I have a copy of the translated Crying Freeman manga in trade paperback; I can tell the difference between a Ditko Spider-Man and a Romita Spider-Man; and I have original artwork from Stangers in Paradise framed and hanging in my dining room. No one doubts my Geek Cred.

Spending whatever meager allowance I could muster up for comic books when I was 8 or 9 was cool; making weekly treks to the comic book shop when I was 16 or 17 was not. I caught a lot of grief for my passion, up to and including losing a letter-grade off of a paper when my English teacher didn’t consider X-Men #137 a viable source material, and being tossed over a table by a football player who didn’t appreciate my wrecking the Bell Curve in Art VI with anatomy studies of Colossus. Now that The Avengers is the biggest movie in the world, Harry Potter is the biggest movie franchise in the world, Game of Thrones has been nominated for an Emmy for Best Drama three years in a row, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won the Oscar for Best Picture, being a Geek is suddenly cool. Very cool. So cool even the hipsters are wearing their Justice League t-shirts ironically with their hoodies and black rimmed glasses. I was never un-cool – I was just thirty years ahead of my time.

Now that is finally mainstream to love comics and manga, animation and anime, Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon however, there’s a bit of a backlash from the Geeks who withstood the stares, the name-calling and the bullying for so many years – they’re not ready to be amongst the normals, they still maintain their self-image through exclusivity. Suddenly, it’s all about the True Geek versus the Johnny-Come-Lately’s: you’re not a true Whovian unless you were watching the Tom Baker years on Saturdays at midnight on PBS; you’re not a true Avengers fan unless you knew who the purple alien was at the end of the film without Googling Ain’t It Cool News; you’re not a Potterhead if you don’t know which of the Marauders was Harry’s father; you’re not a true Geek if you’re a girl into Cosplay; you’re not a true Geek if you’re a girl at the Con just for the Twilight panel; you’re not a true Geek if you’re a girl, period.

Again and again, boys, young men and adults; amateurs and professionals alike, are complaining that the press shows up and spends too much time filming the Cosplay hotties, the Booth Babes, and the Geek Girls in their Team Jacob t-shirts and over-sized glasses. And because there are a small number of attractive model-types showing up at events in revealing costumes and bikini-ready bodies, the True Geeks have labeled all females Un-True, only there to garner attention to themselves, attention they couldn’t get somewhere else. Girls aren’t real Geeks.

Bullshit.

25 years ago, I started dating a beautiful, amazing young woman. Since I wanted to spend every waking hour with her, I introduced her to comic books – I started her off with my original run of Elf*Quest. When that didn’t run her off, I took her to my comic book shop and asked the clerk for a suggestion: needed a comic book for a girl who wasn’t into long-underwear characters. The clerk said a new series had just started a couple of months earlier, was dark, gothic, more fantasy-based and was getting amazing reviews, might just be what she was after – soon, my Lady Fair was dragging me to the comic shop every month to pick up the next issue of The Sandman.

My wife is a Geek – a bright, talented, friendly, lovely Geek. My wife took to being a Geek like a fish takes to water. The Sandman statues in the house belong to her. She introduced me to Harry Potter. She introduced me to The Guild. It’s her Strangers in Paradise original artwork framed in the office. She stood in line seven hours to buy tickets for the opening night of the new Star Wars movie. She’s read every Sookie Stackhouse book. She’s read every Anita Blake book. She’s read Mists of Avalon. She owns every season of Buffy on DVD. She wrote Mobile Suit Gundam Wing slash fiction. We stood in line at midnight together to get our copies of Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows. We stood in line together to see the final Harry Potter movie in 3-D at midnight.

Does she know who Lamont Cranston is? No. Has she ever played Skyrim? No. Does she know the difference between Jor-L and Jor-El? No. Does my wife know who Spider Jerusalem is? Yes. Has my Lady Fair beaten every level of Portal and Portal 2? Yes. Does the love of my life read Joe Hill and John Scalzi? YES.

My Lady Fair has nothing to prove. The PFC from my reserve unit who introduced me to Ender’s Game has nothing to prove. My ex-girlfriend who introduced me to Robert Aspirin and Myth Adventures has nothing to prove. The high school marching band member who introduced me to Elf*Quest has nothing to prove. All the intelligent, warm, amazing girls and women I know who are unapologetically enthusiastic about the comics, novels, movies, games, music, and television shows they love have NOTHING. TO. PROVE.

And as for that meager handful of hotties that show up and steal all the thunder, two things:

1. Remember the old adage “All publicity is good publicity.” If that amazon with the belly so tight you could bounce a quarter off of it in the almost-perfect Witchblade costume means the Con gets that much more time on the evening news, then that’s a Win-Win for her AND the Con. Quit yer bitchin’.

2. Remember what it felt like when the Cool Kids wouldn’t let you in their club. Then grow the fuck up.

Because here’s the thing: if you spend your time excluding people from your “club” because of their gender, no one will think of you as a  GEEK – they’ll be thinking of you as a DICK.

The Doubleclicks, who said it better than I. And the stuff I didn’t link to? Go look it up.

Apologizing

Apologizing: does not mean you are wrong and the other person is right; it means you value your relationship more than your ego.

from my Lady Fair’s Pinterest page

It’s been over a month since my last post, and be now I should have written about my birthday gig, my first David and Keith gig, the Buzzards Roost gig, and any number of other happenings, in one blog or maybe two – I haven’t, because I haven’t wanted to.

I wrote on my Facebook page a few days ago that I get depressed, but I do not have depression, or as we call it at my house, “Depression with a capital D versus depression with a lowercase d.” I am firmly in the lowercase camp; my lovely Lady Fair, some family, and more than a few friends are capital D’s and have been for years. Which means all the well-meaning but essentially useless advice ignorant people give to the capitals work just fine on me: getting out of the house and soaking up the sunshine, exercise, journal writing, seeing a funny movie, visiting friends and family, or just flat out deciding to be happy – all effective. I just have to make the choice I’m no longer going to feel bad, then do the proper acts to not feel bad.

(The point of my Facebook post was all those acts and activities that work on me DO NOT work on my lovely wife and our friends and family. Depression with a capital D is biological – the brain’s chemistry is fighting against its own best interests. And while getting some sun, exercising, writing and socializing can help mitigate the triggers leading up to a tumble down the rabbit hole, once the tumble is taken the only things that can help are loads of therapy and an effective drug cocktail, and not necessarily in that order. So the next time you decide your loved one with capital D Depression just needs to get over themselves, feel free to punch yourself in the face repeatedly until you get some education and develop some compassion.)

I made the choice not to do the healthy things; I made the choice to bask in the shadows and indulge the hurt. While my intentions were to finally face that particular pain, in my bad place I said some things to people that were not in keeping with the person I want to be. And since the choice to be in the dark had been mine in the first place, I had no one to blame but myself.

I sent out two apologies today. May not do any good, those bridges may be burned to the ground, but that wasn’t what was important – what was important is that the two friends deserved the apologies, so the apologies got sent. Another hard lesson learned: sunlight may be the best antiseptic, but shining a light on dark place isn’t the same thing.

My new partner, David Fox, and I have our second piano lounge gig tonight, hoping we don’t get rained out (May in Texas, got to love it). Please check out the final song of our first outing as a duet. And remember: it’s far easier to find the light if you stay in the light.