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Entries in podcasting (6)

Wednesday
Aug252010

The Intersection

Devoted readers of this journal probably know that I really am not a big fan of technology, and that my general attitude toward it is that I like it enough if I can wrangle something creative out of it. Some will recall the old story about when I was a kid and managed to take my first bike apart as much as I could, only to be like a deer in the headlights when instructed to put it back together. That was perhaps the first instance showing my lack of aptitude for coping with material things and technology. That has been borne out many times since.

But this summer I got my newest computer—my third since about this time in 2001—and have plunged into new programs and even new roles as I embrace podcasting for Jubilee Economics Ministries, and have done an extensive site rebuild with them, bringing them into the social media age. All that, considering that up till earlier this year I knew quite little about those options. It has indeed been a change of attitude, particularly since I rode my old computer into the ground it seems, with it not powering on at all now, a scant week or two after I got this new iMac. I had really ambivalent feelings about computers and the digital life. But a funny thing happened this year when JEM needed to find a way to spread their word farther than they were able, I happened to be in the office and had at least some suggestions.

It does help having a new machine with programs that output contemporary files and media. I do like this thing, particularly since at least my old computer had the good sense to just die when its replacement came, helping make a decision for me. Kelli has taken the first machine I got in 2001 as a replacement for her own iBook that died in the spring of this year. She is bracing for a new Macbook or something. Along with this new machine I needed to get a new audio interface, and therefore more preamps that I don't particularly need, but it does make a nice lean recording environment. I got Logic Pro and Peak Pro. I am quite familiar with Peak from years of sermon editing, but Logic is a new kettle of fish that I hope to have some discipline to learn.

JEM is just one use for this stuff. Now that I understand podcasting and am quite well equipped to do so, I have been pitching ideas to people about shows that might be ready for the format. I proposed a 'cast for Kelli and her fellow female ministry buddies. It would be a potentially hilarious and yet very intense look at ministry from the perspective of women in pulpits and in chaplain positions. It would be called (rather irreverently so for the conservatives who like to cite one lame line in 1st Corinthians) "Women Who Speak In Church." There are a pool of potential participants from Kelli's circles.

Another would be a lesson type program with Dr. Phil Calabrese, who has much to teach about the contents and meaning of the Urantia Book. He, after 40 years of study and reflection on the book, is among the best people in the world to do a program to spread the word. He looks at it as a scientist-mathematician who wants to see if what was said in 1955 and before was predictive of what science is uncovering today about certain cosmological relationships, archaeological discoveries, etc. If Kelli takes part, she too can share from a perspective shaped by many years of reading the book, but also as a theologian and pastor.

Those are just a couple things. Notice I didn't really say that I was involved in any of it particularly, at least not as the centerpiece of things. One of the things that is emerging is a feeling that these skills and tools need to be put to some other use than self promotion. I've worked an awful lot on JEM stuff this year, and done a site rebuild and a half. (We were going to use Wordpress like this site does, but ended up finding a kickass plan on the Squarespace infrastructure, so we dragged all the WP stuff over after a fairly complete job on WP.) A lot of time, but on reflection, maybe too little still, considering they have been asking me to write for them, or for the Streetlight newspaper, for some years now. I don't know if writing is my place with JEM; I happened to be the guy who knew enough of this web stuff to take them someplace else when the time came. The whole website in its revamped form is actually going to change the way JEM operates and presents itself. This is suitable repayment for the influence that JEM has had in my life, helping me see the world in a vastly different way in the wake of so much personal upheaval. Recall that I met Lee of JEM just a couple weeks before I got evicted in 2005, as if to say that God had some other plan, and was introducing a whole new father figure that was going to point the way for the next stage in life, now that the old one had essentially passed on that responsibility. So, the countless hours of volunteer work don't seem like much.

Not all the media work is as volunteer though. I got a few bones this summer for crafting a single page site for the writer-blogger-podcaster-polemicist James Howard Kunstler. He has two books now that are novels about the post oil future. Both are supported by one-page sites that I designed. (See World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron, the sequel.) Working for JHK is interesting because he too was highly influential, even as far back as 1998 when I was given a copy of his book, The Geography of Nowhere, which was perhaps the first real dose of social consciousness that I embraced as my own. That book and its survey of the wasted landscapes of this nation did awaken the sort of consciousness of how my world operates, the sort of consciousness that was jolted again a few years later in 2004 when I saw Kunstler in the peak oil cautionary film, The End of Suburbia—a film which I was showing in 2005, just days after I met Lee (he attended, we later collaborated on a showing of The Corporation), and days before I got evicted from my suburban home.

When I met Lee, I thought I was starting a project called EONSNOW, and rather boldly asked him to support my project. Now that seems hopelessly preposterous, being a pretty untested entity myself, and he having years and years of pastoring experience, and life experience to excel mine by double. So now, years later, it is right for me to take my place in a support role to what he is doing, even as he has allowed me a great latitude to experiment and change the plan daily. But finally, he, with the message, and I with the means to get it outside of his office,  are on to something. We're quite excited.

One of the lessons in my mens' rites of passage was that "your life is not about you." If I were to set up two poles in my life, viz. my relationship to technology and media, those poles are that I used a lot of it to be pretty self-aggrandizing and me-centered in the earlier years, and the opposite was to shed as much of it as possible and find myself disregarding the media options that I used to use, sort of like a dry drunk. Either too much or too little—a dualistic mindset that is anathema to honest spiritual progress. Either of those poles was about me whether in indulgence or in denial. It is sort of like the story of the Buddha who experimented with hermitic self-denial for several years after living the lavish life that was his birthright as a son of a royal man. Ultimately, he found the third way between the poles and embraced that.  So it goes here, I hope. I am not a businessman who plans and executes the business of web work, but I am a creative person who wants to share time and enthusiasm. Right now the business of pushing potatoes during the day makes clear the way for pushing pixels by night on a volunteer basis. JEM is now presenting the type of content I wish I had the consciousness to articulate back in 2005 when I was doing the EONSNOW stuff. The intervening years have done much to re-focus on the outer realm, but only after a lot of inner realm work. Understanding that my life is not about me is one bit of humble pie that one eventually has to live with.

Technology, such as I have to deal with in this kind of work, is a blank slate. I've certainly abused web communications in the past, and been a bad netizen. (But that has largely faded except in the Google realm where everyone's misdeeds will be saved till the end of the age of electricity.) But on to other things. JEM has a coherent and holistic message that I believe in, so I decided to jump into that flow and do my part.

I've read Parker Palmer's book Let Your Life Speak a few times now. In it he talks about how he had to face what his Quaker tradition calls "way closing" many times—rejection, failure, disappointment—so that "way will open" into new opportunity, one step closer to knowing what one is really called to do. He gave an example of how he traced his path toward being an educator. It was a seemingly odd one until he figured out how components of past interests were leading him to what he loves to do now, and finds he has the inner light and energy to lead him to do. Telling about wanting to be a pilot or an ad exec, he found the aspects of those things that left clues that perhaps were not even considered as they were happening.

For me, I considered that my past history of building plastic models demonstrated that I liked to devote myself to projects that started and stopped and involved many stages to complete—assembly, fine tuning, painting, presenting. Or that later on I got into doing cassette recordings with home made tape box "art" (now that is stretching it) with liner notes that filled most of the available space. I did that for years, and that developed into CD projects using increasingly sophisticated technology, culminating in Receiving, which was an all-digital project that aspired to the same thing as in the early days: record it, make the cover that explains it all, and package it. Getting into the website was an extension of the liner notes where every damned detail could be explained. Podcasting now is an extension of that, integrating the web and audio interests as well as the knack for developing something from pieces to a finished product on display. Other interests of mine are looking at the dynamics of relationships at the personal level, or at the larger human level, social critique, bible study and interpretation, volunteering for socially useful causes (home delivered meals, church offices) and maybe more. So right now, it makes sense to be doing this work for JEM, even if it can only be done with technologically advanced toys and tools. It seems that right now this is what I need to do, seeing how it lies at the intersection of various interests and abilities.

Sunday
Jul182010

Digital Hell

Oh. I have a love-hate relationship with Wordpress. Every once in a while when it comes time to upgrade the thing, I get into stuff that is pretty over my head. Add to that that I am creating a new site for Jubilee Economics Ministries, getting their podcast programs going (four episodes in the can now—subscribe in iTunes here), and it has drawn me back to a digital environment that I enjoy only to the extent that I can get something done. And when one is in database hell, it actually gets a bit scary. I've never really proven too good at backing things up, and I do get in a panic when it comes time to do such work. Somehow, I've kept Wordpress working for me since early 2006 or so when I dove into it. I just upgraded this week to version 3, and while doing so, I also took advantage to move its location within my server, so that it functions as the site's root. (The address now really IS http://tapkae.com and not /blog with a clumsy redirect.) Anyhow, WP is sensitive to this stuff and I am bound to blow it sometimes and have to call for help. This time around my server company has not been as helpful so the site took a half week vacation.

Anyhow, all this new work is being joined by other projects: some web work for James Howard Kunstler (home page is based on an earlier version I did, but he kept the graphic banner) and his new book The Witch of Hebron. (I also did the front page for his last book, World Made By Hand. This book is a sequel.) The Jubilee Economics site is planned to be another WP site, and I am looking forward to getting them a far snappier site both for visual sake, but for function's sake mainly. They really deserve some good presence on the web, and WP is the way to get their stuff presented. I am digging on WP3 as an easy-to-configure thing, making menus a lot easier, and other bits that I have fought with have become a lot more bearable, or even easy. But I have to make up for a fading interest in web design in the last few years. I sort of let the social media thing pass me by, in part because of a genuine interest in easing away from digital friendships in favor of in-person relationship, but also that my machine has been aging all along and slowly but surely, various things that make web use fun and interactive have slowly decayed. Last year it was Yahoo Instant Messenger, MySpace and YouTube that all began to be glitchy and then completely unsupported. Other bits like embedded movies and stuff that plays on the latest version of Flash players or even Quicktime players just don't show up. It drove me nuts to go to the Apple site and find that even THEIR media player was not supported on THEIR machines, old as mine is. Damn, Apple, if you want to sell people on your new stuff, shouldn't you make your video ads and tutorials playable on old machines so those of us who are using ancient tech? Sure, I have a 2003 model that does plenty of stuff pretty well, but the web is a place of abandonment for me! So I have been looking at new stuff.

And then after the business of scanning the new Apple output for the last year or so, sometimes checking in on a shop like Crywolf, and then more hand-wringing as I weigh how much digital life I want to lead, I finally threw down for a refurb iMac 27" last week and am eagerly awaiting the thing upon my doorstep. Of course this means more hunting for programs (some at great expense, others nice and cheap), and if I hope to do audio, then I will need a new Firewire based audio interface, at least enough to do the two-track podcast recordings, and perhaps a version of Logic to be the main audio program. But, I guess that having my old computer for six years is a long time to stretch it. I've had the means to buy for a while, but last year was the year of the bikes. Right now I'm wondering how much use this present machine will get. For a while, it sort of has to do what it does for me as a recorder and editor in Pro Tools and Peak; Photoshop editing; Dreamweaver and web work; direct disk-to-disk copying on two drives. But so many other things are ripe for updating. Kelli's machine actually died earlier in the spring, so she might get more time to use this for her fairly light demands, and that might stall her getting a laptop. We shall see.

Thursday
Feb182010

Unplugged Life

Most of you have no idea how many times I log in to write a new blog, then abandon the idea after a few distracted trips to other programs or other sites. I shut it down and try again maybe an hour later, maybe a day later, or a week later. I've been at this activity for nearly six years now. (I consider April of 2004 to be my official foray into actual blogging, otherwise my earlier web site entries functioned in about the same way for about two years before, albeit without server-side functionality.) I've processed a lot of thoughts and events here. I've spilled some beans here. I've toyed with a couple "voices" in my writing here. Sometimes writing has been a great relief to finally put something into words and therefore some clarity. Other times it seems like going through the motions.

My general trend for much of the last couple years in particular, but also since my Halcyon time in 2003, has been to push further back my computer related communications. I might need to clarify. Obviously the blog has almost entirely happened in that time, but as regards the various other sites and groups I might have once frequented or might hang out on if I was not even as steadfast as I am, I have limited myself a good deal. These days I have nothing to do with Facebook (started an account under a bogus name and found it impossible to locate friends with any efficiency so I dropped it and think I canceled my account), MySpace (have an account but my browser is old enough that I can't even log on or see other people's pages anymore), and I also don't Tweet (I find the idea of communicating in 140 characters to be preposterous.). I do a lot less of any digital anything now. Back when I was online and haunting music tech and artist newsgroups and forums, I was not really a great citizen and beside that, there is never any end to all that. One never wins any of the arguments before the Nazi word is thrown out, therefore ending whatever thread was going on. All that was a time-suck. In 2003 I knew I needed to drop all that. Blogging is at least for me my place to say whatever I like and not have to argue. And, believe it or not, I am writing far less on blog entries than I did for forums.

The fact is, I am vastly enjoying the various in person relationships I am having now. All my erstwhile use of forums and newsgroups and all that was just a stand-in for the relationships I wanted. I put a greater premium on doing in-person activities and just don't care that I am not on FaceBook, MySpace or Twitter. Kelli is a FaceBook user and that is more than enough for me, even to hear about it or to wait for her to put it away. I do quite like our in person time as it anchors us to something while many other parts of life whirl us around as if a tornado. I actually do dream of the day when I can separate from computers and phones, longing for an "Office Space Moment". I still rather like my music library and some things, but until all that fails me too, I can at least limit myself with that social media shit that just sucks time and isn't as vital for me as the real thing it would like me to think I am experiencing when I am not. There is just something refreshing about not mediating all one's relationships through electronics, in the same way as it is refreshing to have your daily personal exchanges not mediated through the world of commerce (tellers, customer service, etc. all playing like they're your friend when all there is is business to be done and the niceties are enough to make you not want to run out forever).

The thing is I have a lot going on. A lot of it is at church or through those relationships or similar ones. I work in a place where there isn't much of substantial talk but I've carved out a few small niches with a couple people. It is sufficiently unsatisfying (yes) that I still must try to relate to people on the outside. I keep meeting and developing relationships with more folks at church since the congregation is rather large. It is a perfect antidote to the commercial relationships that I don't like. I scarcely even call people, church or not. I hate phones. I carry my own (which barely seems to ring) and one for work (which gets email, calls and two way chatter). When done, I want out of all that. I am sick of little devices being my leashes, offering minor headaches of annoyance and the impossibility of actual communication. Bah!

I'm rather enjoying low-tech and old time methods to do things. Biking with a not-very-efficient-drivetrain has been an obvious one—riding a 100 year old piece of technology that is far more satisfying than the new shit, or cars, or whatever. I've found a bit of fellowship in the bike world, but found existing folks were were interested in biking but were waiting for someone to get them out finally. Cooking has been fun, having learned to make some soups and having developed my roasted tater technique in the last year or two, using all fresh ingredients that passed under my knife. Doing so is also a community building effort, whether for Kelli and me, or friends, or for potluck events. I've been dabbling with my music gear of late, and just feel funny when playing electric guitar since the sound emanates not from the box I have strapped on, but from a box across the room. (And when playing acoustic, I don't even have a great guitar, but the acoustic chamber does feel more vibrant and immediate than electric.) So, all this is of a whole. I am rather enjoying the limited approach.

Recently I had to reacquaint myself with my computer audio programs—ProTools LE, Peak. The idea of doing podcasting is exciting but I really have lost my patience for software, glitches, menus, settings, and all that. I like editing stuff and making things happen, but having been away from this stuff for a couple years since I pushed aside my musical life and also left the church where I recorded and edited each week's service, I have sort of forgotten a lot, at least regarding configuring things. It all seems foreign to me. We shall see how this podcasting stuff goes. There is stuff to learn, and part of my role is to help Lee understand his digital media options (he's almost 70 and too busy to learn all this stuff, see?). Odd, considering I barely know and don't care for the stuff myself. And, right now, even if I wanted to, my computer is sufficiently old that various media plugins are updated and leaving my machine behind. Now I am almost pressed into buying a new machine so I can do stuff I don't really want to do anyway.

The liturgical season of Lent is upon us. Traditionally it is a time to maybe give something up, but more so to consider one's spiritual path with honesty. And to me, the decision to play along with technology (or not) is a big part of my questioning. A book I read in 2006 has continued to be influential on me: Better Off by Eric Brende. He conducted a yearlong experiment on himself and his new wife. He lived in a community that was related to the Amish, and from that source and others like it, the litmus test question before me about technology is this: does a device encourage or inhibit community life? Does it feed individualism that takes people out of relationship? How much modern technology does one need to live a fulfilling life? What kind of technology helps one accomplish that? He came out understanding that one can do quite well with technology that would have been normal to 19th century folks, if not before, and that most of the stuff we distract ourselves with is way more than we need, and robbing us of a good deal of community life, self-reliance, exercise, connection with nature and so on. Another book, World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler, is a bit of fiction that in some oddly satisfying ways says about the same thing—the answer to no modern technology is in communal effort and cooperation. Any other way is death.

Where I come from, theologically, we might say hell is disconnection from God, from community. I've been there. Lots of people have been there. But with things the way they are now, relaxing the isolating grip that has been upon me thanks to endless technological options, I feel like I've been able to claw my way out of that pit. So many means of communication and mobility, still so much misery. So much alienation. Irony, much? The answer isn't in more technology. With realization like that, I sort of have to welcome my earlier notions of energy crisis because at this point, that is about the only thing that seems like it can break our addiction to this stuff. I realize hardly anyone is seriously on board with this idea, thus making my Lenten journey more or less a solitary one. Oh well, faith isn't knowing for certain. It is moving ahead into the cloud of unknowing and being confident things will come out okay.

Friday
Feb052010

Oddness Indeed

In the space of one weekend or so, I was nearly simultaneously asked to reprise a life I thought I had left behind. The first request was more of a realization that I might be better off donating my time to Jubilee Economic Ministries by using my studio space to record stuff for a podcast. I had been trying my hand at doing stuff in the office, and I guess it was sort of clear that it was hardly lighting me on fire. But on the day when Lee was breaking the news that a hoped-for grant didn't come through, one that would have funded a DVD project, we had to set our minds to other tasks to widen the delivery of their message. So we tossed around the ideas of YouTube videos and podcasts. I've of course been equipped this way for years—the same years I have known of JEM have been the exact time when I have been at odds with my erstwhile identity as a studio operator. But, I suppose maybe it is time to reclaim that part and put it to some use, lest all my gear sit here and do nothing at all. We meet on Monday to record something, to get a feel for things.

The other odd calling out of hiding came the very next day when a young lady at church, active in a great many things there since she came onto the scene in the summer, asked if I might show her some guitar stuff and music theory tidbits to jumpstart her interests. Now I think this is odd because I wouldn't want to learn guitar from a guy like me, but I am not totally useless with the musical theory for a beginner, so maybe that will do some good.

Odd how these things came out of nowhere, at once.

I have been poking around with a functional studio setup in my office room, drums, guitar and bass amps and all. So far I've captured some acoustic guitar ideas and have been trying to learn parts to Nik Kershaw's song, Wouldn't It Be Good. This has involved watching a few YouTube videos to help witness certain hand positions on guitar because certain chord voicings were just totally escaping me. I was watching about a half dozen of these videos and getting nowhere then finally someone posted a detailed tutorial which, aside from being a pretty faithful cover of the song, was nice enough to make the hand positions on the various parts a front and center attraction! Damn. I was doing it the hard way. But finally this video made a lot of things clearer! (The biggest breakthrough came with the voicing of the G and E chords in the chorus and the melodic line behind the verse vocal. I still relate to piano better than guitar when it comes to picking out parts. Bummer I don't have any keyboards now.)

Thursday
Mar092006

The Power Of Bill Ray Compels Me

Required listening while reading this: The Power of Disco Compels You

Sometimes you just never know who will validate you seven years after you wanted or needed it. Artists are always in that bind; who can tell when their work will ever matter to anyone? And of course, it happens often enough that artists get dead before they get famous, or even recognized.

In late 1992, I wrote some silly song lyrics about a guy who had disco fever despite being a gross anachronism, and a first incarnation of the song was recorded by my buddy Matt and me in our drum-vocal duo Rhythmic Catharsis. RC was something that we did so we could get out and play drums and be loud and obnoxious youth. It worked. I never planned for it to be the start of my recording and composing history, but that is what it became.

I reprised that set of lyrics in 1995 when I embarked on another recording project and was looking for some material. This version was marginally better, but not worth writing about here.

Then, in 1997-2000 or so, I spent time re-recording a number of my older and completely irreverent songs and placing them alongside newer ones that were of similar character. The gear I was using was newer and would have been a total wet dream to an earlier version of me, given the various things I could do with it in the recording realm. Light years ahead of my cassette work, the VS 880 was the recorder I used for those years. I once again took advantage of my earlier work and wanted to give it a more refined recording while not losing the spark.

The odd thing about these re-recordings is that during my work as sound man and instrument tech, I happened into a number of professional gigging musicians who somehow were conned into saying they liked my stuff. A few of them came in to record bits, some specifically intended for certain tracks, and some were just off the cuff jams that got turned into something. Drummer Bill Ray is well known in town as a technically proficient and versatile player, and is among the upper crust in town, as far as players go. We had met at the Music Mart store back when it was on Convoy St. in 1990. At different times, we had both worked there. But after some early encounters with Bill, he slipped off the radar for me. Then I happened into him as he was doing this ultra schmaltzy corporate cover band gig with Polyester Express, for whom I sometimes worked as soundman/assistant. So Bill and I got a chance to reconnect and around that time, I was working on a new version of my song, and hitting road bumps. In fact, it was hitting so many road bumps, I was about to totally ditch a version of it which still goes unheard to this day!

I had a tentative drum loop which let me compose the track, lots of ideas for how to record things, but it was all getting real dense on my little eight track recorder. I asked Bill to come in and record some drums so I could get a convincing part in which at least would improve my sense of what needed to stay or go. So, one cold day in the last week of 1998, he came by my then-newish recording shoebox of a studio and proceeded to lay down the drums to this fourth incarnation of my little bit of disco fantasy. He did it with authority. I had what seemed to be a basic sound ready to record, and back in those days, I had no tracks to give to each drum on its own. It went down as stereo, and it was all EQ'ed and compressed as it was going to be printed. So Bill came in, and proving that no two drummers are alike, he played my same kit with my same mixer and EQ settings, and totally sounded unlike anything I ever did. You can hear it now; the snare drum hits the compressor and it explodes in your head. I was actually going for that lame dead 70s snare drum, but he just gets the sound out of any drum, see?

Anyhow, the song took all of 1999 to finally nail down and mix. The drums went down and were never changed a bit since he played them. All the other work was trying out doubled guitars, layered vocals, alternate vocals, solos, and so forth. With only eight tracks and two going to drums alone, my options were few except for all the sub mixing and bouncing, and finally, a lot of cutting of redundant parts of the arrangement. Mixing was made easier but by no means easy. Finally, in early 2000, over a year after the recording commenced, and years after the first idea for it, I got a version that was far grittier than I imagined, but far more fun and amusing when you factor in all the things I didn't plan on—Bill's explosive and dynamic but ultragroovalicious drumming, Todd's half-improvised monologue at the end, and then of course the fact that I finally improvised my way through whole new sections of lyrics while keeping the best of the old stuff intact. I also have to say that there is some bass playing on there that I did that I still marvel at because even now I don't approach the bass that way, despite bass being a favorite instrument of mine for the years since. The rhythm guitar is my work too, but it's totally uncharacteristic and another element of chance that keeps this track exploding. The guitar solo is by Danny Donnelly, the guitar player in Polyester Express, right along with Bill Ray. The whole lyrical story and monologue of Todd's is a tapestry of in jokes concerning Bill and Danny, and a nod to our late soundman buddy Phil Cole, who did in fact attend the last Led Zep show in the states in 1977.

Yeah, it was a victory to get that one in the can. I still listen to it and just enjoy it because it's funny. It's one of my finest pieces because it was one place where a lot of things came together for me. It's one of the few tracks that took a year to nail but still sounds spontaneous and edgy.

Skip ahead some time to the last month or so when Bill Ray sends me an email saying he thinks the time has come for my music to get heard and he wants to do anything he can to help. He heaps praise upon me for the stuff I've done. I'm sort of caught off guard; it's welcome but so out of the blue as to almost confuse me. He started talking up the song, and all things TAPKAE in his web world. He got me to create a MySpace account which I previously avoided like the plague. He got me played on some podcasts that were inclined to listen to his advice. He says he wants to play on some of my new stuff.

Flattered, me, but I'm at this point where I don't even know what I want to do in music. Not that I knew what I wanted to do back in the late 90's, but I did invest all the time I had in making music, not knowing if it would be heard, or when, or by whom. I wasn't concerned with peak oil or world economic collapse. I wasn't concerned with corporate mischief, or being a husband. I just recorded by throwing a load of shit on the wall then watching to see what stuck, and working with it accordingly. I didn't worry about if my gear was good enough to record professionally. I just threw myself at it because there wasn't anything else to do. I pushed the wrong button until I got the right sound. That's all I did.

So now, Bill is making himself at my disposal, and I have to wonder where the spark is. Do I record the various "serious" music scraps that have been accumulating for the past few years since Receiving was made? Do I just jam and hope that I get better stuff than all the things I've thrown out in the last few years with myriad other players and combos? Oh, there was no formula to my madness in 1998. Getting a guy like Bill or Danny, Marc Ziegenhagen or even Mike Keneally was utterly huge to me then, but I sort of had to take what I could get and make it work because it's not like they'd be at my beck and call. I guess I'm not used to someone of Bill's caliber stooping to my level and confusing me with a certain type of validation that I don't even get from most of my listeners. On one hand, I want to just shed all my complex thinking of peak oil and economics and all and reclaim my innocent halcyon days of recording into the wee hours. On the other hand, that is impossible, but it's not like my current musical output does much to reflect the current complex world-weary person I am now. I have long since burned a notebook of naive and cliche-ridden lyrical ideas that didn't have the goofy spark of The Power of Disco Compels You, or the utterly childlike love story of I Wanna Be Your Puppy. I've erased hours and hours of wanky jams that were possibly okay at least to keep around as notes, some of which were transcendent in moments, but the sheer amount of material, all with no particular focus became overwhelming for me.

I once used multitrack recording to hide my utter lack of ability on most instruments, but the current me doesn't want to do the multitrack recording thing, nor is the current me quite up to performance level on bass or guitar, nor is the current me bursting with ideas for things to compose. Nor is the current me loaded with enough clout to be a band leader. So what does a guy like me do when a guy like Bill Ray wants to play on my stuff mainly because he believes in it and would far rather do original music and stay clear away from the corporate cover band scene which took him to a desperate personal crisis? When do I decide it's time to not throw out all the stuff I record? When do I compose something that is "good enough"? Or when do I re-adopt the old habit of working with tracks until I know they are either good, or total shit? When can I shake the self consciousness?

Thursday
Nov242005

Thanksgiving

I began to record the services at my church three years ago. Jerry, our minister, has been with us nearly 20 years now, and he has been a great friend for most of that time, except for the times of course when I never showed my face around there for years at a time, but that was a reflection on me, not him. I began to do the recordings as a way to uphold my end of the deal, thinking upon reflection that his place in my life was tremendously influential on me, and to preserve his work would be a good and noble way to show that. Each week, I record the service and then take the CD home to edit out the sermons, which I keep an archive of for the whole church to use. I also put the audio up on the web. And in this case, the first recording I made there, on November 24, 2002, is on Thanksgiving, and coincidentally, exactly three years ago now. I loved this message right away, and periodically, I would revisit it. Finally, I decided to transcribe it. It might be a bit much to transcribe all the recordings, but this one I didn't want to miss.

Readings:

Psalms 100
Luke 17:11-191
Thessalonians 5:16-18

Our reflection this morning concerns the commandment to give thanks. If we look at biblical references to giving thanks, we find that they are many. To give thanks is one of the major commandments of the biblical witness. In the Hebrew bible, the act of giving thanks is primarily declared in the book of Psalms. This is where the greatest number of references occur. When we consider that the book of Psalms was the liturgy book, the songbook of ancient Israel, covering nearly a millennium of time, we see how central thanksgiving is to our faith. We begin to get a deeper appreciation for the central role of thanksgiving in the worship of God—the God of the Exodus, the creator and savior of the world. In the most famous of the Psalms, Psalm 100, the Psalm commands us. “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, give thanks to Him. Bless His name.” What does it mean? To enter God’s gates with thanksgiving. Of course it meant to enter the temple with thanksgiving. But there is a deeper meaning. Thanksgiving is an approach, an entry into the holy presence. A way of moving toward the divine countenance, a way of unlocking the gate of the Spirit. There is a negative corollary: do not give thanks and remain at a distance from the divine presence. Thanksgiving is the key that makes entry into the gate of the holy presence possible.

We do not always find reasons to give thanks. Often life seems too harsh, too absurd, too filled with conflict and destruction. How could we possibly give thanks in such a context? Many years ago now, a very sensitive person asked me, “how can I give thanks for bread and good food when so many are starving to death? Am I to be thankful that because of luck I am not one of them?” I suspect that all of us at one time or another have asked ourselves a similar question. Sensitivity to the suffering of others raises the question of the validity of thanksgiving, perhaps as nothing else does. Still we are commanded to enter His gates with thanksgiving. Why the commandment—and what we do with the seeming conflict—between it and the reality we often feel…is our task.

Insight into the answer of why we give thanks is to be offered us by our text for this morning. By remembering that according to all of the accounts, Jesus’ offering of thanks substantially took place at the meal he shared with his followers on the night on which he was betrayed, arrested, and delivered into the power of Rome to be killed. Thus, the time-honored name of the liturgy surrounding his meal is Eucharist, which is the Greek verb, “to give thanks.” So at the center of the passion story, or almost at the center of the passion narrative of Jesus is the commandment to give thanks. We may wonder how Jesus gave thanks, but that’s not the question. The question is why did he. And in answering why he did, we may come to a deeper understanding of why we must.

Jesus was of course following the Passover liturgy, commanding as it did, the giving of thanks. But there was more than that… there was a deeper root of giving thanks. We’re told Jesus was shocked and puzzled because only one out of ten lepers returned to give thanks. I think Jesus was shocked and puzzled not because he felt slighted but because such callousness amounts to a disregard for the miracle of being. The miracle of being. And the God who gives it. Fundamentally, thanksgiving arises from the deep appreciation that we do not create our own life—that all we have, we owe. It's not trite to say that there is no such thing as a self-made person. But many people act as though that were the literal truth. The next thought has to be ‘what happens when people behave as though we owe no one else or any other our being, our life, our breath?’ And the answer to that question is clear and precise. All of the violence and destruction and ruin that we know in history, and our own time give to us the insight that they rest on a fundamental false premise, and that is that we owe no one thanks for anything. We owe no one anything. We are the measure of all things. We can do as we wish, as power is the extension of our own ego that is not in debt to anyone or anything else.

All lip service to the contrary (such a predominant idea) and living action throughout history and our own time leads us of course, into the shadows, and thus we have to counteract it.

So we have to be clear. Does not an ethic of justice and love, compassion and care, rest on the living acknowledgement that what we have, we owe? Does not an ethic of justice and love, care and compassion rest on the reason for our giving thanks? Thanksgiving is a sacrifice. It’s the sacrifice of our own egotism, our own self-centeredness, in acknowledgement that we are surrounded by that which gives us life, and breath, and everything else. Life is gift granted to us for a season and a time. To fail to give thanks is worse than death. It is to be insensitive to the source and goal of our being, and those who have sustained us along our life’s way. And, as Elie Wiesel has written, “The opposite of life is not death. It is insensitivity.” Insensitivity to the mystery of our being, and the being of others inexorably leads to the violation of our own life, and the life of others. And so we remember, thanksgiving is a living memory of who we are, who we owe, and of the God who granted us the mystery of existence in the first place.

Paul of Tarsus commands, “in everything, give thanks.” Having tried to be sensitive to the reason for giving thanks, we come closer to an understanding of how we may give it. We may give thanks because it is owed and because it is a reminder to ourselves of who we really are. Paul commands, in everything give thanks, and that means that thanksgiving must also take on the contours of resistance. Resistance.

My teacher, father Gustavo Gutierrez, from Lima, Peru, the so-called father of Latin American liberation theology, told us that at the root of all theologies of liberation is the heart and spirit of gratitude. Gratitude. Why? Because the powers of oppression, the powers of destruction and violence seek to destroy the reasons for thankfulness, thus casting people into despair, cynicism, nihilism, and the way to resist is again to give thanks. To remember all the reasons for giving thanks. And that’s why, often enough, in the heart of the poorest favilas in Latin America, the center of the community is a joyous thanksgiving. People who live on the edge of starvation, giving thanks as a way of resisting the condition that forced them into that situation in the first place.

The way to resist is to give thanks. Thanksgiving is an act of resistance because it consecrates the world where we are—delivering it into the presence of God, entering the gate of the Holy, recognizing the source and mystery of all being, beauty, justice, loving kindness. For all the reasons the powers of the shadows give to erase gratitude from our hearts, we are in the midst of them to give thanks as a testimony to their lie. Thus in everything, we are to give thanks.

Think if you will of the most simple and profound act: saying grace over bread. Saying grace over bread. A simple act recounted by us countless times in our lives. And we remind ourselves of the Hebrew blessing, as old as Judaism itself:

Blessed be thou O lord our God,
Master of the universe
Who brings us forth bread from the earth.

Amen.

A simple “thank you.” It does not seem much. But it was said in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Even there. And we know from Alexander Solzenitzen that prayers of thanksgiving over a crust of bread were said countless times in the gulag of the Soviet Union. Prayers of thanksgiving as resistance. The consecrating of life and breath and the world itself in the face of all that seeks to destroy. And at our own tables too. Thanks over bread. The consecration of life. The wonder of being. The beauty and preciousness of love, friendship, and hope as resistance against all that seeks to take it away.

Thanksgiving is entry into God’s presence—the gate of the Holy. Gratitude is the key to God’s future opposed to the death we seek to sow in ours. How do we give thanks rests in why we give thanks. We give thanks to acknowledge the mystery and wonder of life. The mystery and wonder we did not and do not create and for which we owe everything. It is simple then to give thanks. It may be done at any time…surely, over a piece of bread, but also at any other time. We are to be a living thanksgiving, as seal and testimony that creation, life, breath, beauty, wonder do not belong to us except as a gift, and that therefore, we are not the lords of the earth, for the one lord of heaven and earth rests with us.

And so we say,

Blessed be thou O lord our God
Who has created us,
sustained us,
And enabled us to reach this season.

Amen.