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.

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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.

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.

And The Hits Just Keep Comin’

Bobby's sister, Sherrie

Bobby’s sister, Sherrie

I’d hoped that by now I’d have written about the July wedding reception the band played, the open mic nights I’d been attending every other week, or the music my crew and I had planned on recording and why that hadn’t happened yet – that’s what I’d hoped, but that’s not what I’m writing about. Because that’s not what’s on my mind.

2014 is kicking my ass.

Not personally, mind you. In Keffusland, everything is actually doing pretty well: got a day job helping keep the bills caught up; still doing a little freelancing on the side from time to time; singing strong, making new fans every time I do; band has a couple of rallies coming up, that will be major fun and garner us some major exposure. Life isn’t perfect – could use some benefits, could use a little more money per hour – but all in all, not too shabby. A hell of a lot better than last year or the year before, so yeah, the personal life has no major complaints.

Bad things keep happening to people around me. A lot.

Started back in January: my email got an alert from my Monster account about a possible job fit – lo and behold, it was a position at the job I’d left two years before. I texted my friend at the old job:

“Hey! You’re looking for a graphics guru – who left?”

The text came back. “OMG! We didn’t tell you! The senior graphic designer died.”

Over the next few minutes, my friend texted all the details: the senior designer got sick, but refused to go to the doctor until he attempted to drive into work and had to turn back around, he’d gotten too dizzy to continue. A trip to the emergency room revealed double-pneumonia – he was quickly admitted into the ICU and put into a medically-induced coma. While he was under on the antibiotics, he had a stroke. And then another stroke. After the third stroke, there was nothing left of my old co-worker. His family took him off of life support over the holidays.

The senior graphic designer had been with the company since its founding – all the original logos, package designs, spec drawings were all his; all the early catalogs were produced by him. And he wasn’t that much older than me, in his early to mid-fifties at most. I liked him – he was a little crusty, he didn’t like working a second extra minute if he didn’t have to, but we shared the same dry sense of humor and love of heart-clogging gas station snacks. I’d have gone to his service had I just known what had happened in time.

A month later, and I was sitting at his desk, temping while the president of the company looked for a new senior graphic designer – I’ve been there ever since.

Just about the time it was decided I needed to take on the late senior designer’s old job of laying out the new catalog, I got the call from my mom that my cousin had passed away. He’d been a hard-drinking chain-smoker since his teens, so the news wasn’t as surprising as it was just unexpected – last I knew, he’d been forced into early retirement from his failing health, but he wasn’t in horribly bad shape. I was wrong. My cousin had a reputation as a party hound with a penchant for extremely dirty jokes when he was young and spry; he was also always to first to show with his tool belt on when someone in the family needed a helping hand; and if he was on the job, the job got done right or it didn’t get done at all. We were thankful he wasn’t in pain any longer, but he was beloved and would be sorely missed by us all.

It was barely six weeks later that I got the call from Bobby’s family he was in a coma. It was barely twelve days later I’d deliver his eulogy. It’s been seventeen weeks since we all lost him, and none of his friends and family have recovered – there’s this pall hanging over everything, like a cinematographer leeched the scenery and all the players of some of their color. The world just isn’t as bright.

In late June, a good friend and former co-worker at an older job called my cell phone while I was heading into work. “Are you sitting down? Because you are not going to believe this: the Marketing VP was found dead, sitting in her car in a parking lot on Saturday. Last anyone had ever seen her was leaving work Thursday – she’d been missing two days.”

Had my buddy not warned me, I could have driven off the road, I was so shocked. My old Marketing VP had been a stunningly attractive, wonderfully charming woman of amazing competence and capability. She’d revamped the department, understanding early on the key to getting materials out on time was not just more hands on deck but better organization: she hired more account managers, then delegated authority to long-term designers that played to their strengths. In short order, the department was cranking out more catalogs and collateral materials with fewer designers on staff.

Bobby; his mom, Mary Ann; and his sister, Sherrie, around 1979-80

Bobby; his mom, Mary Ann; and his sister, Sherrie, around 1979-80

I’d screwed up: I took something personally that was only business, reacted with hurt feelings when I should have been more pragmatic, and I ended up losing that freelance gig. She was the only bridge I’d ever regretted burning down, and I’d still held out a small measure of hope that if I couldn’t salvage the professional relationship, I might someday repair the friendship – finding out she was gone hit like a mule kick to my chest. The funeral was for family only, so I hung my black tie back up.

Finding out about my old boss was the last straw: too much bad emotion had a physical response. I had a fever by the end of the day; by the end of the week, I was home sick with a upper-respiratory infection. I was still taking antibiotics, still hoarse at the July Fourth wedding reception the band played for one of our biggest supporters. The next weekend I had all my voice back, but only about half my lung capacity for our last bar gig of the summer. I took advantage of the band having the rest of July and the first weekend of August off to rest and heal up.

About a week before Labor Day, a buddy posted up on Facebook some horrible news: rather than explain to his parents he’d rather keep working the family store than deal with the stress of college, my buddy’s very intelligent, very sensitive son had taken the pistol stashed in the office for security and taken his own life. I was at work the next day, making the arrangements to take off for the service when I got a text from Barbara Ann, Bobby’s sister-in-law: “gm keith sherrie is n icu not good machines r breathing for her”

Sherrie was Bobby’s sister. I left the office, found a semi-quiet corner of the warehouse and called Barbara Ann for the details. Sherrie had been out running errands with her boyfriend when she started feeling bad – she asked if they could head back home so she could get a breathing treatment for her COPD. Her boyfriend complied and took them to the house – he heard the breathing machine hum on, heard Sherrie say, “Call 911,” and then he heard her hit the ground. She’d stopped breathing and soon went into cardiac arrest. The EMTs had resuscitated her twice on the way to the hospital, but she remained in a coma. Bobby’s mother, Mary Ann, was with her in the ICU, Barbara Ann would be down with her husband, David, when they could swing it.

I thanked Barbara Ann for the information and ended the call. I couldn’t breathe and my head swam – the similarities to Bobby were unavoidable. I wiped my eyes, got my act together, then told my co-workers what was going on and that I had to go. I got in my Mustang, hit the road, and then called my lovely Lady Fair, filling her in.

The Kaufman hospital was a breeze to get to compared to its Bedford counterpart, just a quick left turn after leaving the highway. Mary Ann saw me and honked her horn as I was walking towards the doors – she needed nicotine and it was too hot to stand outside, so she was sitting in her running car with the air conditioning. “Thank you so much for being here,” she sniffed, squeezing my hand. I shrugged, holding up my arms. “Where else would I be?” I answered. Bobby had been my oldest friend – he hadn’t just been adopted by my family; I’d been adopted by his, as well. And since he couldn’t be there for his family, I damn sure would be.

One request for information landed me in the third floor ICU in no time. Sherrie’s son, Justin, was in the room with her – except for the breathing tube down her throat, Sherrie looked asleep. She also looked gorgeous: good color, plump cheeks, eyelashes impossibly lush, as is her big blue eyes would flutter open at any moment. I hugged Justin as he tried to put his thoughts in some semblance of order – as desperate as he was to hold on to any shred of hope, Justin had experienced too much life not to be pragmatic. Against his will, he was already planning for a future without his mother, worrying more and more about his grandmother – two children lost in less than four months was more than anyone should have to bear.

I made plans to head back in the morning – the results of the EKG would be ready, and I wanted to be with the family when they received the results. I hugged my folks good-bye and headed for the car.

“Are you ready to do this again, Keith?” Mary Ann called after me. The question had a double-meaning – she trusted that I caught it.

I shook my head. “No!” I called back. My answer had a double-meaning – I was afraid she’d ignore it. I climbed into the Mustang and headed home.

No one was completely sure how long Sherrie had been without oxygen, but it could have been as long as fifteen minutes – the EKG would hopefully let the family know how much hope to hang on to. I got up as if I was going to work, put on clothes I could wear with my sports coat even in the summer – I always feel more confident in a sports or suit coat, and I’d learned a long time ago professionals take you more seriously when you wore one, even if it was matched up with blue jeans and gym shoes. I headed back to the ICU waiting room, welcoming family members as they arrived and we waited for the results. It was after lunch before the attending doctor and the hospital chaplain finally met with us.

There was definite signs of brain damage – how much no one would know until Sherry woke up. Sherry was showing signs of wakefulness, an improvement from two days before. But that was all the doctor could tell us for sure – the recommendation was to just keep Sherrie under observation for a few more days, see what developed. The family was frustrated – we’d all hoped for more definite news. Mary Ann heard what she needed to hear – she heading back to Sherrie’s room, asking her baby girl to please wake up. I hugged Bobby’s pretty niece, Doniene. “I’ve got to get back to my life. If I can make it back up here over the weekend, I’ll see you then.”

She squeezed me back. “Thank you so much for being here.” The tears came back to my eyes. “Where else would I be?”

Sherrie and Bobby two years ago, maybe the last photo of the two of them together

Sherrie and Bobby two years ago, maybe the last photo of the two of them together

I’d missed most of Wednesday and all of Thursday at work; Friday was the day before a holiday weekend, so I made sure I was at the job all day so the regular full-time employees could start their vacations early if need be. Saturday was a band rehearsal that lasted most of the day. The practice went great – new songs were coming along, old songs were sounding better than they had in months, and my lung capacity was almost back to normal. The practice room had been like a sauna, though, so once we were done, we were done – I headed home to a much needed shower and a good night’s sleep.

Sunday brunch with my mother-in-law fell through, so I headed back to the hospital to see Sherrie. In the two days I’d been gone, her appearance had completely changed. The breathing tube was gone, with just a cannula in her nose providing oxygen. Someone had pulled Sherrie’s hair up into a pony  tail on the top of her head, exposing her terribly frail neck. She didn’t look as plump – the skin of her face seemed to be pulled tighter, sinking in her cheeks a bit. Most striking of all was her lower jaw which had fallen open, as if all the muscles had gone slack, as if she had no sense of self-awareness at all. My chest got tight – I’d been in too many ICU’s, I’d seen that look before, I knew what came next. I started asking the Universe to not let her linger too long.

Monday was Labor Day, so I went back to the hospital – my Lady Fair and I were in between the rotation of family members, so we sat in Sherrie’s room for a little while. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t see me – she didn’t see anything. Tuesday, I went back to the hospital. Mary Ann was coming in just as I was leaving, so she filled me in on what the kids had decided on the day before: they were moving Sherrie to Oklahoma for in-home hospice care. Mary Ann wasn’t going to fight it, which told me she’d stopped asking her baby girl to wake up. I walked her down to her car for another smoke break, hugging her close when we made the parking lot. Mary Ann was even smaller than a few days before – she hadn’t been eating. If I had to guess, she probably hadn’t been sleeping; just chain-smoking and crying and praying. “When it’s time, will you take care of things?”

My heart sank. “Mary Ann… sweetheart… I’m not a minister.”

From a million miles away, her tear-filled eyes stared up at me. “But, Keith… you’re the closest thing we’ve got.”

I couldn’t say “No” again. Bobby had been my oldest, my closest friend – I’d be there for his family.

I didn’t go to the hospital Wednesday – I needed the break, I needed some time with my Lady Fair, and I needed to process what I’d just promised Mary Ann I’d do. My phone buzzed – I had a message from Bobby’s close friend and former roommate, Loretta. “Sherrie has passed. Please don’t post. Waiting to let the kids know.”

All the air left the room as tears trickled down my cheeks. I told Kristi, who cried. I texted my mom. I texted my sister. I called my brother. I texted my band leader. I went to my office to check Sherrie’s Facebook status – soon, words of condolence started appearing on her wall. The kids knew. I wiped my eyes and went to bed.

Over the next few days, I helped plan my second funeral, wrote my second obituary, and wrote my third eulogy. I didn’t know Sherrie as well as I’d known her baby brother – it wasn’t writing Bobby’s eulogy that was so difficult, it was editing it down to just ten minutes that was the challenge. Sherry’s obituary was a challenge from start to finish, fighting me the entire way – it took me part of Thursday and all of Friday to compose, barely finishing before I needed to get ready for the visitation. My lovely Lady Fair and I took separate cars to the funeral service Saturday morning – she wasn’t sure if she was driving with me to Oklahoma, she might stay back and spend some much-needed quality time with her mother. The funeral home’s chapel was packed, mostly with family and friends, but with some of Bobby’s friends making the drive, and Justin’s Dance Moms rounded things out (among other things, Justin owns and operates two dance studios in Dallas specializing in drill teams). A little after nine in the morning, I stood at the podium and welcomed everyone to the service. I outlined what was going to happen, then I officially began things by reading the obituary I’d written. Sherrie was survived by so many people, and I’d been asked to name them all, some of the grandkids were old enough to notice if they hadn’t been mentioned – mother, brother, sister-in-law, niece, five kids, two stepkids, seven grandkids, seven step-grandkids… so many people… but only three names remained.

“She was preceded in death by her father, David Wesley Laye; her nephew, David Wayne Laye, Jr.; and her brother…”

My voice broke as tears suddenly appeared. I’d practiced the obit, but I’d never actually said it standing at the very same podium, wearing the same shirt, wearing the same sports coat, as I had sixteen weeks earlier; and it suddenly hit me full force that Sherrie’s brother – my brother – was dead.

I forced his name, “Bobby Lee Laye,” then choked out “She was 53,” and sat down as a long-time friend of the family said a few words. I dropped my head and pulled myself back together as he led the room in a prayer.

I delivered my eulogy without a problem. The service didn’t go as smoothly as Bobby’s, but it still went fine – at least, I assume it did; I didn’t get any complaints. I got the chapel cleared and the casket loaded into the SUV for the trip on time, which made me a hero in the eyes of the funeral directors who still had back-to-back services to go. My mother-in-law didn’t need my lovely Lady Fair, so she decided to make the run to Oklahoma with me. Nine hours later, we were home. I skipped the drinking I had planned for the evening and went straight to bed, tired and soul-weary.

Sherrie Ann Johnson

Sherrie Ann Johnson

The day after Sherrie had passed, I’d gotten a note that a former officemate of mine, a wonderful young woman I still miss working beside, had lost her mom. I was tied up with Sherrie business, so I shot a quick condolence; now that the service was over and life almost getting back to normal, I shot her a longer note apologizing for being so distant and asking her how she was holding up. I’d just gotten back her reply when another note appeared on my screen: Bobby and my old friend and former roommate, after years of watching his mother decline, was letting us know his vigil was over, she had passed just that afternoon.

I stared at the screen, numb. I quickly typed out “Oh, my dear sweet brother… I am so, so sorry. Love to you.” I then turned off my computer, went straight to the bedroom, crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head. My Lady Fair turned off the light and shut the door for me – that was ten hours ago.

Since I first got the news of my old senior graphic designer, I’ve been doing what I can not to complain. Going to visit someone in the ICU is stressful, but way less stressful than if it was your sister, your mother laying in the bed with a tube down her throat. Attending a funeral is depressing, but no where near as heart-breaking than if it was your brother, your child laying in the satin covered in roses. So many people I care about are dealing with such loss, I’ve been doing what I can to focus on them, keep this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year about them and not about me…

but I am so tired. I can’t process one piece of bad news before another piece of bad news arrives. Gravity seems to have gotten stronger, I feel so heavy and sluggish. There is this band of stress that lives right across my eyes – I’m a second away from crying all the time. And whatever progress I made coping with Bobby’s death is just gone, wiped clean – it was exactly four months today that I did everything I could to honor him right, to bury him right, and it feels like it’s still happening today, that I still have that eulogy to deliver. I just want to go back to bed, pull the blankets up over my head, and stay cocooned there for a week. A month. Until New Year’s Day and this damn year is over and done with.

I am truly blessed to have people who think the world of me, and bless their hearts, they are seeing the cracks in my armor and doing what they can to send me love and support. I’m trying to listen to them, I’m trying not to hurt their feelings, I really am… but I’m just so raw and worn out. This year can’t end soon enough for me.

Working? Playing? What’s the Difference?

Bad Reputation

Bad Reputation, a Joan Jett tribute band and one of my favorite shows to see…

As a graphic designer, especially in the early days after graduating art school, I spent a lot of time at my desk staring at my computer monitor. To the untrained eye, it would appear as if I was just gazing into space, goldbricking on the owner’s dime; those with any experience with computer programs and large files, however, could tell that what I was actually doing was keeping track of the progress bar, waiting for my software to complete its job. On more than one occasion, at more than one job site, I’d have to point to my monitor at the bar/pinwheel and address the shop owner over my shoulder, “See that? That’s my computer chugging away. So if that progress indicator is working, then so am I.” Such honesty wasn’t always appreciated, but I also never mastered the ability to look busy while I waited for my files to load, transfer, batch, save or archive – when I was stuck at my desk at the mercy of my software, I was stick at my desk at the mercy of my software. I did learn a truth early in my career: a lot of people I was going to be doing work for would not understand the ins and outs of my particular profession – a lot of the practices they associated with a desk job wouldn’t apply to my career field, and a lot of the practices that did apply to my career field wouldn’t look like I was working.

The same thing holds true for Operation: Rock Star. A lot of what I do looks like I playing or just plain wasting time. That is just not the case.

Singing is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on, and I love it more than I love anything else, but don’t be fooled – singing is work, especially if you’re doing it right and you’re doing all you can to give the audience the show they deserve: you’re utilizing your diaphragm; you’re breathing in all sorts of weird ways to maintain support of the song phrasing; you’re dancing around on stage; you’re coming up with stage banter or adjusting to equipment snafus on the spot; heck, just the being upright for the three to four hours of a show is tiring. If all I did was show up five minutes before the show and leave five minutes after the show, I’d still be exhausted at the end of the night.

But I don’t show up five minutes before the show or leave five minutes after the show – I’m at the venue the same time as the rest of the band for load in, two to four hours before showtime, even if the band leader has enough roadie help that I don’t have to pick up a single piece of equipment; I don’t leave the venue until all the equipment is loaded up, an hour to ninety minutes after my last song, even if our contract stipulated we’d be paid by check. I’m there with the rest of the band for a few reasons; if someone needs to drive to a store to pick up a replacement part or supplies of some kind, I’m available to run errands while the roadies finish setting up the gig; I can schmooze the bartenders, waitresses, venue owner, and/or patrons before the band’s first downbeat while everyone else is tied up making sure the lights and sound work; and most importantly, I’m a member of the band, not a prima donna lead singer – if the band is expected to show up at 7pm for a 9pm showtime, then I’m there at 7pm for a 9pm showtime. Showing up and leaving with the rest of the members of the band means that a four-hour gig 9pm-to-1am gig translates into a seven-hour work shift, not including drive time. That’s a day at the office.

Rock Theory

Rock Theory, my brother’s crew and the best classic rock cover band in Dallas…

That’s just my band’s gigs – attending other bands’ gigs is work, as well. Yes, I’m there to listen to great music while enjoying a beer or two, but that’s the least of what I’m actually doing: I’m looking at their lights and checking out their sound system, comparing it to my band’s set-up looking for a faster, cheaper, better way to put on our show. I’m paying attention to the music in their sets, watching to see what songs the audiences are responding to best and if it’s a good song to add to my band’s wheelhouse. I’m checking out the venue, judging how many patrons are bar regulars versus hard-core band fans, how the bandstand is situated within the venue, how the owners and/or managers treat the musicians, and whether or not my band would be a good fit for the location. I’m listening to the vocals, analyzing the harmonies and the delivery of the melody. I’m studying the front person, listening to how they vamp between songs, watching how they move on stage and interact with the other band members during the songs. I’m networking with the band leaders between sets, because you never know where a gig referral or fill-in vocalist opportunity might come from. Even the open mic nights my partner, David, has been hosting are work shifts. Every opportunity to be onstage is a chance to practice my stage craft, hone my vocal chops, network with other vocalists and musicians, and hopefully make new fans – receiving a comped brew because I nailed the bartender’s favorite song is just a bonus.

I spend hours at my computer finding and printing out lyric sheets, watching and singing along with YouTube videos of songs I’m learning. I spend hours creating band events and uploading gig photos to the band’s Facebook page. I spend hours designing and producing gig flyers and promotional posters. I spend hours researching other band websites. I spend hours listening to other bands and artists perform their renditions of cover songs. I spend hours on t-shirt designs for our fans the band still can’t afford to manufacture. Even writing this blog is me working – not only am I using social media to network with fans, amateurs and aspiring professionals, but I’m forcing myself to analyze every aspect of this journey to document what I can and should be doing better to become a full-time vocalist. The only difference between Operation: Rock Star and my daytime job as a graphic/web designer is I enjoy Operation: Rock Star much, much more.

Gotta get back to work – found an acoustic version of The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down I want to show the rest of the band. In the meantime, check out some of my favorite area bands: Bad Reputation  Rock Theory  Vagrant  

And here’s that acoustic cover I’m in love with: from the AV Club Undercover series:

Dookie Occurs

Last Friday night was going according to plan as best it could – David had been feeling poorly most of the week, so I scuttled our last chance at a rehearsal so he could stay horizontal for a couple of days, heal up before our gig; but beyond that, everything was copacetic: got a last-second Facebook announcement out, had more than a few RSVPs from my email blast earlier in the week, the Lady Fair had gotten home late, but early enough to hit the road with time to spare, the PA was in the SUV, and my hair looked fabulous. My sweetie changed her cloths, I splashed on some cologne, we piled into the Saturn, and we sped off to Greenville – with the normal slowdowns over the lake heading to Rockwall, I was only going to be maybe ten minutes late – completely acceptable when you’re aiming for an hour early and you only need a half-hour at most to set up the gear. Just as I pulled up to the venue, I could see the patio was packed; I could also see the guitarist serenading the guests. My thought was, “We’ve got an opening act. Okie-dokie. Let’s hope he finishes quick.” I pulled into the crowded loading dock and was met by my visibly upset partner before I could kill the SUV’s engine. “We’re cancelled. Gig’s been double-booked.”

The patio was a wedding reception; inside had a jazz-ish duo on a keyboard and guitar. My partner and I were one musical act too many.

David & Keith @ Landon's Winery & Bistro

Not quite…

I got out of the car and grabbed my smart phone, quickly posting to my Facebook page the gig was kaput. I posted on the event page, then tried to contact my parents to warn them off – too late, they’d already been there 10 minutes, they’d been inside confusing the hostess about who they were there to see. With Mom’s help, called the other RSVPs of the scheduling conflict. Once all the announcements and phone calls were made, I invited David and our booker, Julie, back to the parent’s place for some wine and fellowship – they declined and headed off to their necks of the woods; my Lady Fair and I headed to Mom and Dad’s to ponder life’s mysteries and view my folks’ photos of their trip to Ireland.

Julie, bless her heart, spent the majority of Saturday morning beating herself up over the snafu; separately, David and I told her the same thing: don’t take it personally, it’s just business. Jules got the message and is now hard at work trying to pin down a new location for the David & Keith Show.

I’ve spent the last eighteen years as a graphic designer, web designer and production artist, three jobs that just thirty years ago would have all been lumped together as commercial artist. In the commercial art field, you’re expected to have all the creativity, talent, and skills of an artist while maintaining all the discipline, ambition, and teamwork found in a business professional – you literally have to keep one foot in one world ruled by half of your brain and the other foot in another world ruled by the other half of your brain; and it’s the inability to keep those conflicting demands balanced that scuttles most rookies. I can do the balancing act, I can keep all the plates spinning, but I don’t enjoy it – one of the biggest reasons why I’m trying to become a rock star.

The upside to the eighteen years of playing with crayons while wearing a tie and sports coat is I learned a while back not to take things personally. The suit from the suite on the 18th floor didn’t like the layout – that’s not the same as being told you did a lousy job or that you’re a crappy artist; it only means the suit from the suite on the 18th floor didn’t like the layout. Once you understand this, once you understand your job isn’t to create the most awesome layout ever, your job is to make the suit happy by making their sometimes bass-ackwards ideas the best the idea can possibly be, you find your job gets a hell of a lot easier. Not easy, mind you. But easier.

Same holds true for gigging, especially in a city full of locations but lacking in hard-core fans. Bars in Dallas, Fort Worth, and the surrounding metroplex are primarily owned by entrepreneurs – there’s a handful of big name franchises like the House of Blues and Gilley’s, there’s a resort or two like the Gaylord Texan, but by and large the places willing to book me and my crews are mom-and-pop joints. It takes two personality traits to open a bar: an insane belief in yourself and an utter disgust of the 9-to-5 grind. These traits make for some damn fun people to have at your party, but a booger-bear to deal with on a professional basis: always expecting you to make time for them, always expecting you to be gracious while they’re allowed to chip at your pride, always expecting some kind of compromise which entails them getting everything they want while you get to feel fortunate you got a deal at all. And God bless ’em, that’s part of their job as owner and operator of a venue: paying as little as possible for as much value as possible. Would be nice if some of them were a little less dick-ish about the process, but like I said, it takes some major stones to think you’ve got what it takes to succeed as a bar owner in this town – superiority complexes come with the territory.

And it’s not like musicians are that much better. The better the artist, the more they’re apt to think they walk on water while needing constant ego stroking – which manifest in them being just flat-out flaky. Forget about trying to get  a decision on something pertinent, signatures on a contract, or getting your phone calls and emails returned in a timely fashion – you’re lucky to hear from them within the week. AND THEY ARE NEVER SATISFIED: Lead guitarists are pissed they’re not getting as much of the spotlight as the lead singer; lead singers are pissed the lead guitarist never has to worry about sore throats or sinus infections; bass players are pissed they’re constantly overlooked by the audience and taken for granted by the band; and drummers just want all the gawd-dang drama to go away so they can get back to beating the skins and having a good time. If you’re lucky, you get to deal with professional musicians that are professional; if you’re unlucky, you get to deal with prima-freaking-donnas. And today’s professional can be tomorrow’s prima donna at any time.

When I made the decision to branch out musically, the first person I contacted after clearing my plans with Paul and getting on the same page as David was Julie – Julie was starting a promotion company, I knew I didn’t want to book gigs if I could avoid it, so I happily partnered up with her. I knew from the first day there would be problems from time to time: she’s an attractive women in a town filled with good ol’ boys dealing primarily with alpha males on one side of the business and touchy-feely creative types on the other – shit would happen, there’d be no way to avoid it. With luck, when the dookie did occur it would be the alpha makes and/or touchy-feely creative types to blame and not my dear Jules, but I was still prepared to not take it personally if Julie stumbled.

I don’t know what happened Friday. I didn’t take it personally. Moving on.

I’ve got David’s open mic night tomorrow, the band is playing a rare mid-week gig Wednesday, then I’m headed to see my brother’s band Friday for what is rumored to be their lead singer’s last gig – if I have any energy left over, one of my other favorite groups is playing the nearby biker bar Saturday night, would love to hear more from their completely amazing new female lead singer. With any luck and more than a bit of hard work, by the time next month’s Friday night David & Keith gig arrives, the snafu will have been sorted out or a new venue will have been located.