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.

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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.

20 January 2017

I’ve been under the weather pretty much all week, between the onset of a cold over last weekend followed immediately by a stomach virus that is a bit on the painful side.  This was my first week back in the saddle in an academic setting, so I taught through it, but fortunately only had to push through two days at work.  It has also been pretty much a solid gray week, with one morning where the sun poked out for about an hour, and rain off and on for at least the last three days.  It’s starting to blur.  Today was a sad day all around what with the orange man taking office and immediately removing the climate change, LGBTQ and civil rights pages from the White House web site.  I’ve been trying to stay away from the book of face, but that has been difficult.  All and all, it has been a pretty dark week and the stomach virus has pretty much eliminated seeking succor in food.  Tomorrow there’s a women’s protest march in Chicago that my wife wants us to take part in as a family.  My daughter wants to make signs, but doesn’t want to be in a crowd of 50,000 people, which I understand.  I’m not a crowd person in the slightest and I have some safety concerns, but the cause is just.  I’m also concerned about whether I’m going to feel well enough to do it.

I am having difficulties with mood management this week due to all of this.  First, it has been so dark around here for the past seven to ten days that it is taking its toll despite the morning use of the “happy light.”   It is our breakfast companion.  It has been positively dreary outside between the constant overcast skies and the constant damp wetness of everything.  Even turning the lights on inside only helps a bit.  I could pull the drapes and drop the blinds on it, but then I’d really feel like I was living in a cave, something I don’t think would help.  Then there’s the whole being sick thing, and while I am thankful that the cold aspect is over, this stomach ailment is a major drag that is also affecting my intestinal tract, which probably isn’t helping my serotonin levels either.  I’ve been able to eat very little over the past three days, haven’t been able to stomach coffee, but have managed to keep up with my meds.  I’ve stopped taking the fish oil though until this passes.  It’s too unpleasant.  So the lack of sunlight combined with physical malaise has been making things rocky on the emotional front.

The advent of the orange man’s reign is also a major emotional drain that I haven’t come to grips with as of yet.  I’m not saying that I’m going to be okay with it, because that is not something I can foresee by any stretch of the imagination.  I simply cannot come to grips with how this travesty occurred, and it is plaguing me to no end.  This is a waking nightmare for me largely because I can find no evidence of a shred of decency in the man.  We’ve gone from supreme class, intelligence, and a dedicated civil servant to this narcissistic sociopath.  I’m grieving heavily for my country, and for all those people who will be harmed by this administration that has been dubbed the least qualified cabinet in our history (one of the nicer things that has been said about it).  I keep thinking that I’m going to wake up any moment and it’ll have simply been a really preposterously horrific nightmare.  Unfortunately I’m not sleeping.

One of the benchmarks of character is how we handle adversity.  Do we cave in, assume the fetal position and wait for things to pass?  Sometimes it feels like the thing to do, and I’m sure that all of us have wanted to at some point.  Right now I’m tired, and I don’t feel well both physically and emotionally.  What I really want to do is crawl off to bed, pull up the covers and go to sleep for a really long time, at least until the sun decides to shine again.  But I can’t.  I have to do, not check out until things get better.  I’ve got performances to give, lectures to teach, a family to care for, and an innate desire to resist tyranny, injustice and bigotry.  Even if I’m depressed, sick, or tired, it’s my duty as a decent human being.  So I’m resisting.

 

Goodnight America: “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Today had brief moments of sunlight, which ended up being overwhelmed by an endless sea of gray. It is the last day of the Barack Obama presidency and as the light fades from the sky turning gray into darkness I can’t help but feel like night is befalling our country. Tomorrow someone I have no respect for, who I do not look upon as legitimately winning the race takes control of our country and starts dismantling it. I just saw that he intends to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NPR, all of which have enriched so many lives in our nation and in the case of the latter has been one of the last bastions of truly responsible news reporting. Some folks have decried me in my hometown for saying this before, but there is a parallel in history for this, a small man with an odd mustache who led his country into some of the darkest acts and times of the last century.

I have great respect for President Obama, and while he was not perfect he truly is one of the finest examples of an American that I’ve encountered during my lifetime. He spent eight hard years piloting our country, bringing us out of an economic crisis the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the stock market crashed in 1929. He fought for everyone, and truly cared about the people of this nation. While the Affordable Care Act did have room for improvement, he honestly tried to bring health insurance to the masses and in doing so tried to make peoples’ lives better. Despite facing racism and obstructionism from an opposing party, he fought on to make changes happen, and all the while exuded class, eloquence and dignity. There were no Obama scandals. The only scandals were the actions taken against him by many members of the Republican Party, including colluding with a foreign head of state against him. Still, he out-classed them throughout his eight years at the helm.

Now we’re left with this. Tomorrow our country is swearing in a person who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, who has no sense of self control, who lied his way through his campaign and was assisted by Russia in winning the election despite being beaten by 2.9 million votes in the popular vote. Before taking office he has already done huge damage to our standing with NATO and our other allies, as well as threatened China and infuriated our southern neighbor, Mexico. He doesn’t understand how government works, is in massive debt to foreign nationals, and is a crude caricature of the type of America we should not be. He has spent more time tweeting about being insulted by people than he has preparing for the job he’s taking tomorrow. Seriously, someone who actually asked why we don’t use our nuclear arsenal should not have the nuclear codes.

I want a leader who brings out the best in people, not the worst. I want a leader that I would put up as an example of being a moral and just person. I’m not naïve; I know that the position involves making very tough decisions where the morality is questionable, but I want someone there who I trust has the intelligence, fortitude and best interests of our country making those decisions. I want someone who respects the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, understands what they mean, and recognizes they apply to everyone in our country, not just the powerful. I want someone who respects women, minorities, the LGBTQ community and the true cultural wealth this nation possesses and that equality is for everyone, as is respect. We had that with President Obama.

Tomorrow we enter into a dark time for our country. A man who has no respect for the office he is taking is swearing an oath. A man who is known to be a massive prevaricator is swearing an oath. Think about that. The founding fathers of our nation attempted to set up a government that had a series of checks and balances in place. Currently the ultra right wing controls those checks and balances, essentially fast tracking whatever changes they want to make. They’re not concerned about the impending ecological disasters, nor are they concerned about their constituents. They have their own agenda, as well as their favorite lobbyists.’ The changing of the guard is very different this time. The incoming regime has no concern for individuals’ rights, nor any empathy for anyone other than themselves. Goodnight, America, “a change is gonna come,” and it’s going to be a hard one for us all.

What Have I done Today to Get Closer to my Goals?

One of the new things I’m doing this year is every day I try to do at least one thing that gets me closer to one of my professional goals.  Granted, every day that I write, I’m getting closer to one of my professional goals, that of a daily writing practice.  However, what I am really looking at is something aside from the things that I already do on a somewhat ritualistic basis.  Today I’m kind of crammed because it was the first day of classes, so I’m a bit behind the power curve when it comes to getting my regular things done, like this writing bit.  I also have a rehearsal tonight in Addison, Illinois with one of the bands that is actually working.  This rehearsal also includes auditioning a keyboard player, so I’ve got to set up my book to put the songs we’re working for the audition up front.  This week I’m trying to get in an hour a day working on jazz standards with one of my guitars.  This is the daily thing that is aimed forward.

I am tenuously forming a goal for a direction to pursue musically that provides me with both personal satisfaction and an element of regular challenge.  I’m still trying to flesh out the concept but it’s related to jazz, so that’s why I’m working the hour a day on standards drill.  I’ll continue with it until the concept crystallizes further and gains more clarity, at which point I’ll sharpen the focus in what I’m doing with the guitar during that time frame.  I am drawn to improvisational music and using pieces for the jumping off point, but I’m interested in finding something that speaks to me as an individual more than the jazz standards do.  I’m not certain at this point if it’s going to come to me writing material, or finding a niche of existing tunes that gives me a better sense of it all.  It could be a combination thereof for that matter.

I’m also open to the possibility of using some classical pieces as jumping off points.  There are many pieces that are theme and variation sets that essentially are the end result of the composer playing or working around the original concept in what could be thought of in terms of a documented improvisation session.  Bach’s Art of Fugue runs through quite a few variations based upon an original concept, and while he used the fugue as the form, and the variations as an example of what could be done, it is quite a remarkable piece of music in its entirety.  When it comes down to it, Bach was known during his lifetime primarily for his prowess on the organ and his improvisational abilities as well.  Today we know him most for the massive amount of extremely high-caliber compositional work he left behind.  It is interesting that there wasn’t much of a divide between performers and composers at his time.

Whichever the form, or even a mixture thereof, I have my glimmerings of where I want to head next in my musical pursuits.  I don’t want to spend the next forty years of my time on the planet chasing my musical tail doing the same things I have in the past, as that wouldn’t be productive in a manner that supports forward movement.  Additionally that’s too much like treading water for my tastes.  I want to move toward something that I feel reflects more of my take on music, and gives me a clearer avenue to shaping what is being presented in live performance and on recordings as well.  I’d also like it to be my project that I take the lead on as opposed to another sideman gig.  This would be another welcome change as well since the bulk of my musical career thus far has been as a dedicated sideman in other folks’ projects.

It has taken quite a while for me to get this far, to the point where I have at least glimmerings of where I want to go from here.  About ten years ago I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do.  I was ready to take the leap, put myself on the line and take the chance.  What I was shooting for didn’t happen, in fact the opportunity to leap passed by in a blink.  It took the wind and everything else out of my sails, mostly because I had my sights so firmly locked on it that I hadn’t allowed myself to come up with alternative scenarios, as in if I don’t do this, then what else is the next best viable alternative.  Here it is ten years later and I’m just now starting to get an idea of what next.  I guess that’s just the way it works sometimes.  So, I’m going to do that one thing today that gets me closer.

 

Revaluating Past Work: My Oso Guitar a.k.a. The Bumble Bee

Back around 2003 while I was building guitars in the shop off of my father’s art studio in Tucson, I experimented with an Oso body.  I call it that because it is similar to the Zuni bear fetishes in shape.  At the time Klein was building an interestingly shaped electric guitar that was designed so the neck would be elevated, angling upward when the guitarist was seated as opposed to parallel with the ground.  This appealed to me, as my classical training has always come into play when positioning any guitar or bass I play.  I didn’t want to copy a Klein, even if I was in the learning stages, so I came up with the Oso body.

I ended up making two Oso guitars, one black with EMG strat pickups and one yellow with two Lace P-90 pickups and a three way switch.  The black guitar had a nice lacquer paint job, thanks to my father.  The yellow I stained and sealed myself.  Between the two the yellow Oso was a more successful instrument once the build was completed.  I pulled it out of my closet today here in Oak Park and put it through its paces this morning, after years away from it, just to refresh my memory and reassess the instrument.

The guitar is quite comfortable on the leg, and on the shoulder as well.  I carved the body from ash, and it is smaller than say a Telecaster so the weight is fairly light, but not as light as swamp ash.  The neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard.  I carved a tall bone nut from a blank, and the bridge is a Schaller roller bridge with the spacer still attached to the base.  The tuners are Schallers as well.  I have the action set as low as I could get it, but there is some buzz on the low E and A at the sixth and seventh fret.  The neck is flat, no bow, so if I took it off and adjust it a bit I might be able to remedy that issue.

The guitar sounds quite good, particularly when using the neck pickup.  It produces a nice clear tone across the spectrum that warms up as the tone is rolled back.  The bridge pickup sounds quite good as well, with some bite but the highs aren’t piercing which is a relief.  When the two pickups are combined the tone is a bit weak and quacky.  Unfortunately it’s not one that I would choose to use, and I don’t think there would be too many alternative takers out there who would.  I am pleased though with how the neck pickup worked out, as it is the one that I use most anyway.

The neck is narrow across the fretboard and the string spacing is a bit on the narrow side as well.  This makes for fast picking, but also necessitates more precision with left hand finger placement.  It doesn’t take much to send the low E string over the edge.  The frets feel a bit tall, especially close to the nut which feels a little bumpy when sliding down to them.  I might be a bit overly sensitive on this right now, as I have some cracked skin that is bumping along over them.  One aspect that does displease me was that the access to adjust the truss rod is in the neck join like the original Fender guitars.  This makes adjusting the truss rod a bit of a pain since I have to take the neck off to make changes.  I built this guitar before I learned how to build the neck with the truss rod access at the headstock, though.  Later attempts eliminated that issue.

Overall, it’s a better instrument than I originally thought it was, and everything is still solid on it fourteen years after I built it.  That pleases me immensely.  That being said, there are definitely points that need improvement.  The neck pocket needs to be about a quarter inch deeper, allowing the strings to come down to the pickups more closely, and then the two areas with some fret buzz could be refined somewhat.  All in all, though it’s definitely not a bad guitar for a somewhat early attempt at building, especially when the reality is that I only did this for about a year, maybe a year and a half.  I have another from the same period that is still in Tucson.  It is blue with has a single cutaway and is a more traditional shape in some ways.  It is loaded with a pair of Rio Grande humbuckers in a Les Paul configuration.  I’m looking forward to bringing that one home and re-evaluating it as well.

 

Sharing A Stage: Opening for The Tubes

Last night Speed of Sound, a classic rock cover band I play bass in, opened for The Tubes at Tailgater’s in Bolingbrook, Illinois. I spoke to three of the band members, guitarist Roger Steen, bassist Rick Anderson and keyboardist David Medd. All three were approachable and had no problems conversing with a local semi-pro who just happened to be in the opening act. Anderson quietly offered me the use of the bass rig that was rented for the band with two stipulations: that I didn’t play too loud or blow it up before he got to play. I had to smile at that. It was a huge Ampeg head on top of an Ampeg 8X10, which Anderson stated was basically, overkill for the venue; a 4X10 would have been fine. I thanked him, but opted to run with my much smaller rig set up on the other side of the stage where I could hear the band better.

The gear that The Tubes contracted filled a good portion of the large stage, and as openers we set up our gear in front of their backline after they were done with their sound check. It was quite evident that they had no interest in a loud presence through the monitors and desired a very comfortable stage volume. They’ve been doing this for about forty years or so, thus they are quite familiar with what they want and need versus the “if it’s too loud, you’re too old” perspective that many aging rockers tend to adhere to. That being said, the front of house sound was huge, clean and clear.

It was clear that Tailgater’s had set up for the event as a concert style production with high dollar tables filling the area that normally would be a dance floor in front of the stage. One of the band members noted that ticket sales were down, but he still maintained a cheerful and professional demeanor despite this. The sound check took a while, and it took the sound team a bit of time to get the keyboards into the stage mix at a level that the band was happy with. At the start the keys were washing everyone out except the drummer, and it took about ten minutes to nail that issue down, including switching out a monitor. Once they cleared we set up and ran our sound check. I have such a small footprint that I can set up in about two minutes, so I sat in place and looked out at the venue wondering how many tables were going to be filled.

People were starting to file in while we did our sound check. The doors opened at seven. We finished our prep by about 7:40 and then settled in to wait for our 8:30 hit time. People started filling the place up close to eight while I was trying to find a quiet place to sit down and breathe without anyone talking to me. My A-fib had kicked in shortly after arriving at the venue, putting me in a bit of a cold sweat, sucking my oxygen levels down, and sapping energy away, so I requested a stool just in case I needed it on stage. During sound check I was having difficulty getting enough air to push into my higher register for the vocal backups, while seated so all I could do was hope that the A-fib would pass by the time we hit. I talked to our front man after the check and gave him a heads up to which he replied, “oh no, I was hoping you’d cover some for me since I’m still kind of sick.” All I could give him was I’d do what I could. So there I was twenty minutes before the show, sitting on the stage steps doing deep breathing exercises to try to bring everything into sync.

We hit right at 8:30 to a fairly full house. The more expensive seats in front of the stage weren’t full, but the rest of the place was packed in. We were only supposed to go from 8:30 to 9:30 and that’s what we did, running through our set and roping in the crowd. It’s really nice to play to a good crowd. When you’re playing well, and they like what you’re doing it creates a mutual energy feed. Despite there not being a dance floor, we had people up and grooving to the tunes, dancing in the areas the wait-staff had roped off and solid applause after every song. A guy could really get used to this!

The breathing exercises helped get my ticker back in line, so I managed to hit the high notes when and where I was supposed to and I provided fill in support for our front man when he needed it. It felt good, while I was up there, or better stated, I felt good. I was surprised at the volume we were producing, though. We’re essentially a power trio plus a front man. So our instrumentation is guitar, bass and drums at this point. We’re looking into adding a keyboard player in the future, but our core is pretty basic. Despite this we have no difficulty providing a wall of sound, especially when we’re fully mic’ed up and pumping through an excellent club system. We definitely warmed up the crowd for The Tubes’ performance! All in all it turned into a pretty solid good night. I’m looking forward to many more in the future.