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.

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.

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.

 

Off Topic: The Social Media Mire

Social Media has become quite a pervasive entity in people’s lives.  We open accounts with the goal of finding and keeping up with friends that we’ve lost track of, to make new friends with shared interests, or to promote our businesses.  The bands I’m in use Facebook to promote their shows, as do thousands of other groups, artists, writers, dancers, and anyone who wants to be someone.  As people spend more and more time on these outlets, their lives and beliefs are being influenced whether they believe it or not.  Over the past few years I’ve watched the information that is being passed along, and have observed the willingness of folks to believe almost anything they see there, as long as it fits their preconceptions, and reinforces their personal beliefs.  Better yet, if it plays to their fears it becomes even more believable.  Combining this with the alt. right’s destruction of the public’s faith in the “main stream media” has created a conspiracy theorist’s dream come true, an open audience that will entertain accepting something as factual, that has absolutely no connection to truth, let alone correlation to it.

I used to view social media as a place where I could virtually hang with the peeps, and it still is to a certain extent.  Through Facebook, for instance, I’m in contact with many people from my past that I had lost touch with over the years and many over many moves from one part of the country to another.  Despite being a writer, I’ve never been much of a letter writer and although I’ve done better with email.   Facebook brings an element of immediacy to the connection that isn’t there with email.  You also can compartmentalize your interactions, without having to commit to full conversations.  This gives me a feeling of connection with these folks that I value, but in reality I don’t have to invest much effort to maintain the connection and neither do they.  In this aspect the entire connection is somewhat misleading in that it too, is virtual.  I’m not really interacting with these folks on any concretely meaningful level aside from maybe allowing myself and the people I’m following an opportunity to not feel isolated, even if in reality we are.

From my perspective this is one of the major negative issues with social media, the blurring of reality and fantasy, which extends to the quality of information that is being presented to its users.  People post meme after meme, attaching meaning to what is mostly a bumper sticker approach to communication.  Some of them are funny, which is fine because that is what they are meant to be, but all too frequently they’ve become rallying points for solidarity with some political or politico-religious statements where no-one bothers to check the veracity of the posts.  I’ve seen statements accepted as fact that any high school English student should be able to discern to be based on false premises through very light research and when presented with the factual information the response was, “well, it sounds like something he/she would have done. . .”  And that was the tenor; the person didn’t care about the facts.

Repetition is one of the ways that people convince others to believe things that aren’t factual, and social media is one of the largest purveyors of this type of communication.  There are laws about truth in advertising, and in advertising subliminal messaging is illegal in the US.  Repetition of misinformation, however, with the purpose to mislead the public isn’t ethically right, but it’s also not illegal and essentially that is one of the grand loopholes in the entire social media experience.  People are being misled on social media everyday by the millions.  People see the same thing over and over and eventually it starts to influence their beliefs.  They trust their friends who are reposting things that they have seen posted by other folks who’ve seen it somewhere on their feed and reposted it, so they accept it as fact without bothering to check the veracity of the so called information being presented.  Much of this type of information’s sources are not listed or made available, or is listed but the source is questionable at best due to either bias or shoddy reporting.  The more often it is seen and repeated, the more it worms into the beliefs of the folks reading or seeing it regardless of it’s actual credibility.

Yes, we are being manipulated every time we log onto social media, and it’s not by our actual friends or contacts, although they may unknowingly be contributing to the issue through reposting things.  We now know that Russia influenced our most recent election in the US in part through using social media to manipulate the American people’s beliefs about the candidates.  They ran a misinformation campaign on social media to support the individual they wanted to run the US for the next four years, someone who is a committed social media user himself, launching destructive twitter post after twitter post despite not even being in office yet.  If you choose not to believe that this is the case, just think about how a lie about you, or someone you know, was spread and ended up damaging that person on a personal level, or that person’s reputation because enough people believed it to make it accepted as fact among the majority of people around that person.  The remarkable thing about this is how easy it is to convince people to believe a lie, and then once they’ve bought into it, how difficult it is to make them believe the truth.

 

Reviewing the Past Year with Eyes on the Next

After being gone for close to a week I find myself back in Oak Park, Illinois and back to the good old Midwestern gray skies once again.  It was nice to see blue skies out in Tucson, Arizona, and to enjoy a short hike in the desert without burning up in the process.  My family and I arrived home yesterday evening and picked up our dog, George, from Spike’s Boutique Hotel for Dogs shortly thereafter.  This morning I had a rehearsal with one of the blues-rock bands I’m playing with, The Blu Wavs, and tomorrow night I have a gig with them in Palos Heights.  I’m off this New Year’s Eve, which is a plus because I can spend it with my family as well as avoiding the inevitably impaired drivers that come with that particular holiday.  On the negative side it’s usually one of the better payouts of the year, so I’m missing that.  Saturday is New Year’s Eve, and my wife likes to set aside some time to review the passing year, making note of good things that happened, places visited and experiences accrued, as well as some time to consider the incoming year and set some benchmarks for it.

This past year has had some interesting turns, particularly toward the end, assisted somewhat by taking both the summer and fall semesters off from teaching college.  This past summer I did teach three weeks at the Dominican Gifted and Talented Camp, one week of Creative Writing, one week of Star Wars Fan Fiction writing, and then one week of American Literature focusing on Ernest Hemingway.  It was fun for the kids and for me as well and it was two more weeks than I taught the summer before.  I had two weeks scheduled for the previous summer, but only one flew.  This summer I was scheduled for two and picked up the third due to a scheduling conflict with the originally slotted instructor.  I managed to acquire the third through a combination of networking, social media, and luck.

The summer was slow in terms of gigs because I was officially band-less.  I did a couple of pickup gigs for local block parties, which were fun, and I also performed with a group that was assembled for an original music block that was also fun.  Through these gigs I added contacts and now have some increasingly reliable folks with skills to draw from for similar situations.  Starting in August I started increasing my musical commitments to what I have right now, four groups, two of which are actively performing and two of which are in the process of building up to it.  This is a welcome shift in the tides as well, as I was not working nearly as much from a year ago in August to last June.

I’ve also landed a part-time gig teaching English Composition for this Spring Semester at Moraine Valley Community College.  I have two classes stacked around mid-day on Tuesday and Thursday.  The pay is much better than where I was teaching last year, and it only requires that I’m there two days a week versus the four I was at the old position.  I’ll still need to plan preparation time, grading time and allow for a longer commute, but the result is I will still have a good amount of time for my writing and musical projects, two distinct plusses.  MVCC is south of Oak Park, and is very close to a large natural area with many acres under the auspices of the Cook County Forest Preserves that are quite nice.

With everything that has come along during the past six months or so, I’m finding myself developing a strong desire to clarify my musical direction, especially the overall arc of where I want to go with it.  I’ve piled on the projects, hoping that they will start to generate income, and a couple have started to bring in some funds, at least in bits and pieces.  It’s definitely not a living as of yet, but it’s a start.  However, I do think that I need something more from it all, as well as a good deal more cash coming in from it.  I’m coming to the conclusion that I really need a solid direction that is under my control and that excites me.  I’m a fairly steady guy; not much really gets me excited.  I look forward to things, but in so far as getting a real charge out of pretty much anything, it really doesn’t happen all that often.  So this is something that I really need to do something about in the next year.  I think that it is truly vital that I do this in the very near future.  After all, another year has passed and so has another birthday.  It looks like one thing is certain, I’ve done some preparation for tomorrow’s time with my wife and daughter!

 

Making a Life in the Arts: Make the Commitment, Do the Work; Expect Payment.

A life in the arts provides its inherent challenges, not the least of which is making a living within your art. Some folks go to school, graduate, then go on to graduate school, finally landing a job teaching in their field at the college level. While this might seem like an undesirable compromise to some altruists out there, the reality is these folks are lucky. They have found a way to make a decent living in their field, have the opportunity to continue pursuing their art, and are the ones who actually stand a chance of building a retirement fund in the process, all the while having access to other benefits like health care.   Some take the route of teaching in their field in elementary, middle and high schools. For those who land full time work there, it can be a reasonable living; however, in today’s public schools the arts are one of the first fields to be cut when funding crises occur. There are other ways to make your way in your field, but they are not for the uncommitted. If you can’t commit to doing everything it takes to make a living in your particular field, then you really need to face the fact that the only way you’re going to make it is with a day job.

The lady who owns the dance studio my daughter goes to studied dance through the college level, danced professionally for years, and is a certified dance teacher, licensed to teach in public schools as well as privately. She is currently in her middle years and still dances as the opportunity presents itself, but most of her professional life at this point is directly linked to her school here in Oak Park, IL. She has two studios, one in Oak Park and the other in Forest Park, which is a neighboring suburb. She has a cadre of instructors who are all excellent, and she still is very active teaching. I am amazed at the amount of work she puts into the studios, with dance concerts several times a year involving full productions on excellent stages in the area. She’s a dynamo who is also currently starting a dance company as well, featuring students and local professionals, and giving the ability to experience a full on professional production for the members. She spends enormous amounts of time teaching dance and choreography, producing the shows, choreographing dances and all the while maintains a positive attitude regardless of how stressed she might be. If you’re curious about her, her name is Diane VanDerhei, and her studio is Intuit Dance Studio in Oak Park, IL.

Diane is an example of the level of commitment necessary to be successful in the often cut-throat world of the arts. Most musicians that I know who aren’t teaching in colleges full time, either don’t make a living as a musician, relying on day jobs to pay the bills, or cobble together an income from a variety of sources, usually a combination of gigging, teaching private lessons, and working in a music store, or some combination thereof. I have a friend, Erik Truelove, in Tucson, AZ who is one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with and a wonderful gentleman to boot. Erik has always been something of an entrepreneur and has worked as a contractor doing construction as well as having his own businesses over the years. Erik started a music school in Tucson called Drum and Drummer. Originally it was started to teach percussion, both group sessions and private one on one lessons. He also sells percussion instruments through his school. He has been successful, marketing his skills very well and has been expanding the school to include guitar, piano and bass lessons as well. This is in addition to working as a drummer on a fairly regular basis. He has a cadre of instructors as well as other staff who man the desk and take care of various aspects of business. This being said, the reason the place is running so well is that Erik committed to the project and didn’t go in part way. He had a plan, worked the plan and is getting solid results.

Often people go into the arts and have a somewhat flaky assumption that inspiration is something that cannot be rushed, you just have to wait for the moment and it’ll come. Most of those folks are still waiting. In order to be successful in the arts, whether it is dance, art, writing, music, or whatever, work must be done and it must be done on a regular basis. The people who are out there on the local level and making a living at it are all committed to doing the work it takes in order to reap the rewards. It’s also important to have a concrete understanding of what you need in order to make a decent living. What is a decent living must be ascertained otherwise it is simply a vague concept. Determining what you need to make also has a hand in determining what you need to do in order to hit that target. If you’re not willing to do that, then it’s definitely time to look for a different stream of income.

Too many people approach a life in the arts with the romantic notion that artists are dreamers who keep their own schedules and can’t be troubled with worrying about money. And far too many adopt an attitude that they’re selling out if they start thinking about the money aspect, looking upon those who expect to make money with sneers of disdain. The fact is people need to eat. They need a safe place to sleep and they need to be able to take care of themselves. Expecting to be paid for your art is simply the difference between a professional and an amateur. And if you have any hopes at all of making a life for yourself in the arts, you really need to focus on both your art, and how you can make a living with it. That is actually one of the key factors in succeeding. The other two are total commitment and tons of hard dedicated work.