What I Forgot about Open Mics

Last night I went to an open mic for the first time in many years. A friend of mine started one not far from where I live a few weeks ago and I had planned on supporting her effort. Unfortunately I just joined a new band that rehearses Monday nights, at the same time the open mic runs. Last night we took the night off and two of us made our way over to Hamburger Mary’s in Oak Park, IL where Kat Fitzgerald was running the event. There weren’t many folks there, but those of us who were put on a nice In the Round type of event, eschewing the stage in favor of a more intimate close in feel.

I was feeling somewhat stressed due to just having confirmed that we were due for some probably costly home repairs, and had a pretty good crank going, which seemed to be the prevailing emotional state of the entire household as well. I was at the point where I really just wanted to veg in front of Netflix for a few hours, put life on hold and maybe sip some scotch in the process, something I don’t frequently do due to possible interactions with my prescribed meds. Also, I must admit that there was a period where I was a regular at many open mics searching for work with bands. I found myself weary of the open mic scene and the mixed success I was finding there, especially after discovering that most of the people at them were there for a temporary escape rather than recruiting. I was basically burned out on the whole open mic thing. Instead of giving in to the voices in my head, after I finished my dinner I grabbed one of my Godin nylon string guitars, made sure the gig bag had everything I needed and headed out the door.

I hadn’t seen Kat to speak to in several years. We’d been in touch over facebook, but I hadn’t actually talked to her since she moved back to the Chicago area from San Francisco. It was great to see her, meet some new people and make some music with them all. Another person was there whom I hadn’t seen in years, Debbie Mac, and it was nice to actually talk to her as well after not running into her since I’d left a band some four or five years before.

When it was my turn to play I ran through some fingerstyle pieces, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan, Linus and Lucy, and a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes before closing out my part of the set with a spontaneous jazzy blues jam with my friend Bill Kavanagh on bass, and Kat playing Cajon. All in all it felt good, was low stress and I forgot about my issues for a while. I also accompanied a couple other folks as we went the rounds before we closed up shop just a little bit before ten o’clock.

All in all it felt more like a casual gathering of friends who all just wanted to spend a bit of time making music together. Sometimes at open mics I’ve been to there has been a bit of a competitive edge present, not quite the head cutting of some of the old jazz sessions, but there was an element of that present. Not at all last night, which was nice. No one was there to prove anything, just that they were capable of having a nice night out making music strictly for the fun of it, talking shop and getting to know some new folks. I’d forgotten about that aspect in my many years away from it. Here’s to a pleasant sense of community!

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Repetitive Stress Injuries: Temporarily Side-lined

Some aspects of pain are a natural byproduct of learning an instrument and are to be expected.  For stringed instrument players building calluses on the finger tips is an excellent example of this.  You practice until you’re uncomfortable, then stop and try again later.  Eventually your fingers grow accustomed to the sensation of working the strings and you build sufficient callus on the each finger to no longer have an issue with it.  Working unfamiliar muscles can result in lactic acid buildup which brings a different sort of discomfort, but one that most folks who have exercised are familiar with.   Stretching is vital to avoid many injuries, but it is also an area that is not addressed very often in the learning process.  Most of the time it comes up when an injury is either forming or has already manifested itself.

I have been having some issues with might right elbow that indicate that I probably have a repetitive stress injury that is impacting the ulnar nerve.  It seems to be a bass-centric injury in that the worst symptoms arise when I’ve been working with the bass as opposed to the guitar.  I’ve concluded that the ergonomics of my guitar playing are different than my bass playing.  One of my doctors agrees, and after noting the worsening of the symptoms, she stated that I should take an extended break from bass playing before the symptoms became even worse and started impacting my guitar playing as well.  She also advocated finding a good physical therapist to get me started on the road to recovery.  While this area is not her primary area of expertise, she is no stranger to RSIs as she has been dealing with her own for several years now.

So this has left me with a definite dilemma, as I am active in three bands as the bassist.  All three expect rehearsals and one is a semi regular three set a night band.  It was during the most recent gig with that one that I came to the realization that the problem needed to be dealt with in one way or another.  We were performing in a local watering hole and about half way through the second set the pain started in my elbow, followed by numbness and prickling running down my forearm.  If it had been my left arm I would have worried about my heart, but it was my right and not radiating from the shoulder.  By the end of the second set I was in significant pain and my right hand was starting to go numb in the ring finger and little finger.  The situation simply worsened through the third set, but I grunted my way through it; not necessarily the best decision health wise, but I made it through the gig.

If this had been a one-time occurrence I would have left it at that, but this has actually been building for some time now.  I have been having pain in the elbow there for some time and bouts of prickling and numbness running down my arm in that area that has come and gone.  I’d mentioned the prickling in passing to my PCP when I had my annual physical, but she was more concerned with some other things at that point and it was an “oh yeah, almost forgot about it,” comment on my part.  Given that my current symptoms are basically classic for some variation of tennis elbow, I’m fairly confident that I know what’s going on and my other doctor was in agreement with my assessment.  The treatment options that I have found thus far are pretty simple: rest, icing, and anti-inflammatories.  Severe cases might require surgery, which I would like to avoid.

I’ve also been exploring different positioning, moving from a five string to a four in order to change alignment, shifting strap lengths and instrument angles, and paying close attention to how my right arm responds to the changes.  I’ve been trying to move my elbow position as soon as I get any pain twinges or start feeling the prickling numbness occurring.  I traded my Carvin SB5000 five string for a Carvin Bunny Brunel BB70 four string, hoping that the difference in body shape, weight and less elbow travel to hit the low string would help.  I’m also trying to consciously play as lightly as I can with my right hand; trying to avoid digging in and working the muscles any harder than necessary.  Thus far the difference hasn’t provided any significant relief and I’m looking at another three set bass gig looming on the not so distant horizon.  The pain is under control, but the numbness and prickling are very much affected by how long I’m on the instrument at any given time.

So, I’ve started making my band members aware of my situation and have let them know that it is in all likelihood going to result in my having to take an extended break from performing on the bass.  I really don’t want this to get worse, particularly since I still can play guitar symptom free for the most part.  Thus I’m left with some pretty limited options.  We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

Late March 2017 Updates

It’s spring and the world seems to be waking up all around me.  We’ve had a couple of false starts, complete with a couple of days where the ground turned white, but it appears to be now definitely started.  Fortunately it doesn’t seem like the false starts impeded the return of the spring flowers as the neighborhood’s crocuses are in full bloom, the daffodils have started, snow drops have presented themselves and the forsythia are now doing their things as well.  It shouldn’t be too long until the redbuds bloom.  I’m hoping that the one my wife and daughter bought for me several father’s days ago will finally bloom for its first time.  We shall see as it’s a little early for it to hit its stride yet.  Musically the stride is being struck, however as things are finally moving forward with the bookings.

I have three gigs lined up in the next month or so with the blues rock band I play bass for, have two folkish guitar gigs on the books with Cedes Buck, a local singer/songwriter, an opening gig with the classic rock band, have a web site near launch ready for the trio, and have been added to an original band, The Hurtin’ Kind, as their lead guitarist.  It looks like my first gig with them will be in June.  I’ve also invested in some fingerstyle guitar music to add to my solo bag of tricks so it’s easy to say things have really started moving along.  Next week I’ve got seven rehearsals slated then a gig.  Still looking for that balance between gigs and rehearsals, which I will be attaining one way or another.

My writing has been on hiatus mostly because of the political nightmare I’ve found my country mired in.  It was occupying entirely too much of my working memory to the point where every time I sat down to write essentially the same tirade would start emerging from my keyboard and wriggling itself across the page.  So, I decided to step back from the writing and focus on music and teaching for the time being.  Sometimes when I find myself faced with this type of rutted thought process I find the best thing to do is simply stop, take several steps back, and attempt to get my perspectives under control.  I’m still really upset with what is going on, but stepping back has allowed me to start refocusing myself on the things that I need to do for my music and the other aspects of my life that need attention.

That being said, I do find that I’ve committed myself to quite a few projects, all of which require varying levels of attention.  I’m going to have to make some decisions regarding them eventually in terms of ultimately where I want to be, which definitely leans toward the original line of things.  I do like being busy as it keeps me moving and doesn’t give me time for inertia to set in, but the shotgun approach can only go on so long.  We’ll see what shakes out of the next few months and where it takes me.  I’ve been in contact with a friend in San Francisco whom I’d lost contact with some 20 odd years ago.  He’s experienced some success with the direction he’s taken, kind of a gypsy jazz/Americana mix that keeps him working steadily in San Francisco, and gigging in various other locations as well, such as New York.  Ultimately, I’d like the situation he’s built, but not necessarily in the same genre.  It’s starting to become clearer though, which is good.

So this is my version of an update on things in the world of Christopher Hopper.  The balls are all in the air, and it would appear that more are being added as the days pass.  I’m hoping that I can keep them all up there, and if any are dropped the results aren’t too damaging.  Here’s to spring!

 

Struggling with Dystopian Fiction in the Trump Era

Lately I’ve been finding that reality has been impacting my reading. I’ve been reading a decently written book, Trackers: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller by Nicholas Sansbury Smith, that takes place in the US after a North Korean EMP attack that wipes out the entire US electrical grid. The nukes which trigger the EMP bursts are delivered by aircraft, which are flown in at about 50,000 feet where the nukes are detonated for maximum EMP effect. A container ship that was formerly outside the EMP zone sails up the Potomac and detonates a nuke that wipes out much of DC. The end result is a nation brought to its knees from the total power outage and North Korea being reduced to a crater from the retaliation strike. The book is a reasonably well-crafted piece of fiction that was obviously decently researched. After I was part way into the book I did some research and discovered that it would take at least three years to partially restore power to limited areas in the US if this actually occurred.

A few years ago I would have had no difficulty dealing with the material in the book. We’re technically still at war with North Korea; an uneasy cease-fire from 1952 or so is what stopped overt action but a peace treaty was never negotiated. The current regime is less than stable and a substantial threat, but diplomatic solutions have still been actionable. With our current administration, however, diplomacy is not really an option, neither is anything remotely in the range of a reasonable response to anything. In the book the aircraft transponders are rigged to give an IL 28 bomber the signature of a Chinese airliner, which is how they penetrated into our airspace. I’m not certain whether or not this is indeed possible, however, the end result, however, I’m finding to be entirely too plausible particularly when taking into account the current occupier of the White House.

The EMP situation, resulting radioactive fallout, and corresponding challenges on the local and national level are a large part of the story, but there is a secondary plot, which brings a murder/mystery/thriller aspect in as well. I would like to see where it is all leading, as well as how it is resolved, but I have found the over-arcing premise to be entirely too plausible. Something that I thought only a year ago would be a sufficiently far stretch from the possible has become entirely too much of a plausibility for me to enjoy the book. Given our current administration I can’t help but find myself running through the scenario and taking it seriously both as a former infantry officer and as a middle-aged father with a 12 year old daughter. I find myself looking at how badly out of shape I am, how ill-equipped my household is to deal with this potentiality, the reality that we live in one of the largest cities in the country (Chicago, a potential target), and the poor potential for food foraging, and hunting opportunities afforded to such a place, not to mention the masses of potentially dangerous clumps of humanity competing for the same limited resources. The end result is not one that bodes well in this type of scenario.

I’ve never been the paranoid doomsday prepper type. I do love dystopian science fiction novels but most of the ones I’ve read were improbable to say the least. When the potential for the fiction to become reality starts to encounter a blurry line my enjoyment level drops significantly. I’ve stopped reading the book because I’m finding myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the premise. This is the first time I’ve encountered this type of a reaction to a work of fiction. I have quit reading things before that were disturbing either from the levels of graphic violence present or predation upon children, which I simply can’t stomach. But the reality being presented in this book is a nightmare that seems entirely too plausible in today’s environment.

I must say that I do want to finish the book, because the writer was definitely doing his job. The book is interesting, holds the reader’s attention and the characters are definitely believable. The issue I’m having has nothing to do with the writer, indeed the writer has provided a premise where the willing suspension of disbelief is all too easily acquired given our current political scenario. My issue is that it is all too possible that this type of an event could happen in the near future, and it almost seems like the current administration is openly courting bringing it to fruition. This administration has created international turmoil through its actions and statements, both with our allies and regimes we’ve historically stood against, not to mention cozying up to the current ruler of Russia who is using the opportunity to be more openly aggressive in the European regions, and fielding missiles that were developed despite treaties established with us to prevent further escalation.

Yes, That was Cool

Getting up this morning was rough.  I got in late from a Tuesday night gig, around 1:30, then finally fell asleep around 2:30.  I really only dozed until my alarms started going off at 6:15.  My a-fib started acting up during the last set and kept creeping in and out while I was sleeping, which wakes me up, so what sleep I had was fitful.  Regardless of playing last night I still had to get up and pack lunches for my daughter and wife, as well as making sure they got to school and the train on time.  I also confirmed a rehearsal for next Tuesday evening and started ticking off my schedule for the next few days in my head, an attempt to stay on track and look at what is coming up next.  My wife suggested I hit the gym today, but I’m seriously dragging and have a rehearsal tonight, some class preparation to do for teaching tomorrow, as well as another rehearsal tomorrow night.  I’m also processing last night’s gig, running over it in my mind and focusing on locking it away into the memory banks.

I have a mental bucket list; it’s in my head and not actually written down.  Last night’s gig was a bucket list event for me at a venue where I’ve wanted to perform for years, and while I performed on my secondary instrument, bass, as opposed to guitar, it fulfilled the requirements I’d set for checking off the list.  Last night I played a gig at Buddy Guy’s Legends here in Chicago, and got paid to do it, the two criteria that I’d set for the bucket list.  There was the added bonus that Buddy Guy was actually at the bar while we were on.  I’d set the getting paid aspect because the venue has an open mic most Mondays where people can come in and jam.  Getting paid makes the gig a professional appearance, as opposed to a recreational one.  From my personal perspective it gives more weight to the performance.

We played two sets, a ninety minute one followed by a half hour break, then closed things out with a 45 minute set ending at 12:15.  The venue is back-lined with good gear which makes playing there a real treat, plus I got to run through an 8X10 cabinet, which can really move some air.  We weren’t overly loud, but I could feel the speaker working and it sounded really good.  One of Greg Guy, one of Buddy’s sons, ran sound, and he had us running with no fuss and a fantastic mix.  He, like everyone else there, was genuinely nice.  He had a clock set up at the front of the sound booth facing the stage, so the performers on stage could keep track of the time without messing around looking at watches, which can sometimes send a mixed message to the audience.

The venue itself is fairly large, particularly when considering that it is right in the Loop where real estate is pricy.  It has a second floor as well, though since we were set up on the stage in the big room I didn’t venture upstairs to look.  The first floor has an open floor plan set up with a large bar at the front and a smaller one toward the back adjacent to the kitchen area.  There are plenty of tables with ample seating as well as a dance floor for anyone who wants to get up and groove to the tunes.  The walls are covered with photographs and guitar after guitar, most with autographs.  Behind the back bar the wall has a series of signature guitars, all signed, including a Jeff Beck model Stratocaster, a Derek Trucks model from Washburn, a Stevie Ray Vaughn Strat paired with a Jimmie Vaughn, a Gibson B.B. King Lucille model, an Eric Clapton Strat and a few others as well.  There are many other signed guitars over the front bar and the entire effect is essentially a whose who shrine to the blues.

All in all, last night was a win on the personal level, and if I get the opportunity to play there again I will quite happily do so.  It’s the kind of venue that is a joy to perform in and they do their best to keep it that way.  I do regret that I didn’t sit down and have a meal there because after looking at the menu I found all sorts of New Orleans based goodness to be had.  Everything on it looked good; even the food items I’m deathly allergic to (shellfish) looked good!  So now that I’ve checked off a big item on the old bucket list, I guess it’s time to revisit it and start looking toward determining the next big item to aim at. Let those good times roll!

 

The United States of Dystopia?

It has been a while since my last post. I decided to take a break from writing; I had been hard at it for just under 90 days and the well had pretty much run dry. Additionally, with all of the political turmoil here in the US, most of what I was finding in my brain was simply screams of outrage, which wasn’t translating well to the page. I needed a break, and I needed it badly. So I took one and while I did things continued to go down hill quickly here in the good old United States of America. Our democracy has been downgraded to flawed, and I’m thinking that pretty soon it will no longer be recognized as a democracy at all given the actions of the orange fiend in chief. If he has his way, he’ll have the American people goose-stepping their way to hell. However, the protests are continuing and people are making their voices heard.

I am having extraordinary difficulties dealing with what is going on here, and anyone who can’t see the parallels here to Hitler’s rise to power is delusional. The man has been working from Hitler’s playbook all the way through the election and now is acting upon it in office. He just put a neo-nazi, tear-down-the-government-like-Lenin propagandist in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a civilian who hates the federal government and wants to destroy it. The cabinet he’s put together seems to be geared towards the same concept in each field. He’s gone past any element of reasonableness into the realm of a clear and present danger to our nation of the highest order, and today is only the tenth day he’s been in office.

His targeted ban of Muslims from entering the US, effective with the stroke of a pen, including those with green cards, violates everything this country stands for, and has been cited as being unconstitutional by many. Once again, the parallel is to Hitler cannot be dismissed, nor can the fact that the only Muslim countries exempted are where he has personal business dealings. It is also notable that the ones exempted are also where the terrorists responsible for 9/11 came from. Then he stated that maybe there should be an exemption made for Syrian Christians, which makes the singling out of Muslims even a clearer cut act of bigotry, hatred and unconstitutionality.

Every day that he has been in office thus far has been a potential mega disaster in the making. The wall between the US and Mexico, a 15 billion dollar waste of money that only serves to divide this country and make enemies to the south, could lead to a 20% tax on Mexican goods sold in this country. The bulk of us recognize the wall for what it is, another racist agenda that does nothing for anyone. If anything it makes matters worse, and now Mexico is justifiably angry with the US. The orange fiend has also escalated hostilities with China to the point where they are moving their missiles into better range, preparing for war with the US. He’s threatened the stability of NATO, as well as starting to ramp up nuclear weapons stockpiles and recreating the arms race. He wants more battleships, despite a lack of need for them, and an increase in military strength across the board, which I must say causes me great concern. Let’s face it, he has no impulse control, seeks vengeance for every perceived slight, has no conscience or empathy for anyone, and wants a bigger military. Anyone else unnerved about where this is headed? This doesn’t even include what he’s doing to strip health care away from people who desperately need it.

We only have one world and the doomsday clock is really ticking away in the background. Meanwhile the administration is attempting to silence anyone who disagrees or might provide information that is contrary to what is being provided by the administration. It is threatening the press and its Constitutionally guaranteed freedom, overtly not giving one red hot damn about the Constitution, and has done its best to silence governmental offices that can provide information that challenges the administration’s doctrine of ignorance. It has sent gag orders to the FDA, the National Parks Services, the EPA and all of the other Administrative arms of the government, instituted hiring freezes and is essentially attempting to assume total control over everything. These are not actions of a government for the people and by the people. These are the moves of a group of people who is attempting to hijack a democracy and create a totalitarian regime.

I love dystopian fiction and while I really enjoy reading it I have absolutely no desire to live in a dystopian reality. Unfortunately the bridge between fiction and reality is weakening and it’s looking more and more as if that is the road we are actually heading down with the current administration. Our reality is becoming skewed into an Orwellian nightmare of huge proportions with horrendous implications for the very near future. Every day is bringing a new revelation of the depths to which we have fallen and it has given no indication of slowing down. There are people standing up, huge numbers of them, and some decent men and women in our political system who are standing up for justice and what this country truly stands for. We simply must do what is right, otherwise dystopia wins and the world ends as we know it.

They’re Marching Everywhere!

The sun is shining today, of all days, and has been since I hauled myself out of bed. It is well past dawn and on into the mid-afternoon now, and I’ve seen hope today take form in massive protests taking place all over the country. Here in Chicago almost 250,000 people joined the Women’s March today, while numbers came in around 500,000 in Washington, DC. And those were the two largest of many across our nation, and elsewhere as well. Today’s march in DC dwarfed yesterday’s inauguration attendance, and sends a clear message that the people of this nation are not content. They are sending the orange man a clear message that they are uniting to stand up for their rights, and their way of life. They will not cower under his glares and misogynistic behavior.

I’ve been watching the images scroll in from across the country on my computer, and as they have my feelings of pride in my country have been being restored. More precisely, my feelings of pride in my fellow Americans have been as I have watched this movement gain momentum, and the numbers continued to grow. Here in Chicago the organizers had to adapt and then readapt as the people continued to arrive. They were expecting around 22,000 initially, from what I’ve seen, which quickly morphed to 50,000 and some changes in rallying points. By 10:30 this morning the numbers hit 150,000 strong, then, two hours later close to 250,000 people were marching, chanting and showing their solidarity against an incoming administration that seems hell bent on destroying years of social progress, denying people of their civil rights and turning our planet into an ecological disaster zone.

This in and of itself is such a ray of sunshine at this point. Seeing that there are so many folks out there that aren’t blind to what is at stake in our country gives me a sense of hope that somehow we just might make it through this somehow. I’m not naïve; I know that it is going to be a long haul, but these are truly significant numbers of people openly aligning themselves in pushing back against the darkness that is threatening us. It gives me hope that our country isn’t up for sale to the highest bidder, and that we’re not going to go quietly into a lockstep goose-stepping future.

I’ve seen so many photos shared by my friends of the marches in their areas across the country. Smiling faces as they held their signs with their friends at the staging areas and along the march routes, hand made signs that some had obviously spent some time creating. These were people DOING something about the situation we are faces, people who care about the direction of our nation, and its policies both at home and abroad. Women from all walks of life, many there with their families, came together and made a massive statement for everyone in the world to see. Smiling faces filled with determination to do the right thing and stand for justice and all that is good here.

I’m thankful to all of them. And I’m thankful for the folks who, while they might not march, contribute to the cause in their own ways, whether it is writing letters to their representatives, volunteering in their communities or whatever they can do to help move this forward and keep hope alive in this country, particularly hope that we can continue to move forward as a diverse country, filled with a rich cultural heritage that welcomes difference while guaranteeing equality for all. I don’t want to see that wealth squandered by despots, nor do I want the principles that this country was founded upon to be lost. There is too much at stake for us to let that happen.

I’m hoping that this is a sign of things to come and that the American people will continue to stand up against corruption. We should be that shining light of freedom, equality and justice that we have dreamed to be and so many have come here to find. We are capable of so much good, so much more than the incoming administration represents. We have the ability, the strength, and the knowledge. Now, with the advent of these marches, I’m also seeing that we have the motivation to take the steps to make ourselves heard and to keep driving forward, not set the clocks back fifty or sixty years to the halcyon days of the straight white male. We are ALL Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious creed, gender or orientation, and every single one of us will be heard. After all, in this country the government is SUPPOSED TO WORK FOR US.