Moderate giftedness & temporary excellence

I was clicking through links on an old Austin Kleon newsletter (which I highly recommend) and came across this one on moderate giftedness. It’s an interesting idea that also started me thinking about my place in the world where creativity is concerned.

The upside of the internet and social media is that, like Sly & The Family Stone once sang, everybody is a star. You’re the star in your own movie, you can share what you’re doing with the world, and reveal the most intimate details of your life. It’s a great equalizer in that some unknown musician’s song is passing through the same conduit as the new T-Swift ditty and that your self-published e-book can sit on a virtual shelf next to Stephen King’s new novel.

The downside is the exact same thing. It’s a double edged sword because while more choices can be good, too many choices just crank up the background noise. There’s no contrast.

The idea that at one time, people were special because they were the best at something in their village or family. Now, that doesn’t hold as much sway because who needs to listen to the guy down at the local pub when you can get the best music ever recorded downloaded to your phone in a matter of seconds? Who needs to check out an indie film when you have streaming apps? And even if the pub singer has his music on iTunes and the indie film is on Netflix, what are the chances that you’ll find it?

As a musician and a writer, I’ve seen both sides. It was a thrill to record an album in a professional studio, get the CD’s, and then see our music on iTunes. However, it was always a struggle to get people to come to shows. Why? Probably a mixture of things, but the bottom line is that there’s a whole lot of things vying for our attention. For creative people, that can be an incredible downer.

So what’s the solution? For me, I’ve been trying to make my life a little bit smaller, bit by bit. Slowing down and concentrating on what’s in front of me. I still shift my eyes up to get the big picture, but without focusing on it all the time, I find it’s more awe inspiring rather than depressing.

Does it work? Sometimes. But it’s sure better than the alternative.

Sometimes, It Pays To Be Stupid Lucky

I’m a firm believer that Luck is actually a combination of opportunity plus preparation – that you can only be “lucky” if you’ve done the requisite preparation when you’ve been presented with an opportunity. I believe that’s true in maybe 90% of our lives, which is why I keep working at the things I love – so that when opportunity comes knocking, I’m not stuck sitting in my undies munching on Cheetos without a clue as to where my pants or a napkin are.

This isn’t about that ninety percent. I’ll get to that at some point.

This about that other ten percent. When it seems like God just looks down and says “You know what? Let’s just see what happens when I drop this right HERE.” Those moments when you’re in the right place at the right time for no good reason. When dumb luck smiles in your direction and decides it’s your day.

I’m pretty sure it was my senior year of high school and I was walking down the band room hallway with my buddy Jayson. We had a substitute on this particular day, so the inmates were having the run of the asylum, but nothing too crazy. That was mostly because we knew our sub was a special person – a woman who actually requested to sub for band and just liked being around creative kids, even if they were a complete pain the ass. As long as the place didn’t get set on fire and someone was playing music, it seemed that everything was okay with her. An incredibly nice lady.

We were going past the band director’s office when this modern day saint of a substitute said “Hey, you two like jazz. You want tickets to this show tonight? My husband and I can’t go.”

Free? Free with a capital EFF? Sure! Who’s playing? Nevermind, doesn’t matter.

Except it did. My buddy and I wound up with prime seats to see Rebirth Brass Band at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH.

To say this was a “formative experience” would be underselling it. For a honky kid from New Hampshire with a burgeoning love of soul and funk, this was like mainlining music straight from the source. New Orleans became Nawlins and this was the moment I became hooked on live music. I’d never seen anything remotely like Rebirth. To say that our high school jazz band was like what they did was sort of like saying my Ford Escort was like a Ferrari – technically speaking, they’re both cars, but that’s about it. They blew the roof off that place and then some. By the end of the night, they were inviting the audience on stage with them to dance… and somehow, I wound up there dancing… in front of people… with nary a sip of alcohol involved.

Maybe I was spoiled, but to this day, I’m always excited the day of a gig – whether I’m playing or just in the audience. Because you never know what could happen. You might get pulled on stage. Some random guy might ask to sit in and slay it. The lead singer from the band might jump off stage and sing while dancing through the audience. Maybe nothing happens but a good night of music. Maybe the band is having an off night.

Whatever happens, it pays to be prepared. That’s where the other 90% comes in – because you have to say yes and then be ready for what happens.

And a little dumb luck doesn’t hurt either.

Not Really Spreading The News

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend a couple days walking the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan with a good friend from college. Along the way, I ate a ton of good food, did some tourist-y stuff, did some nerd tourist-y stuff, went to church at Hillsong NYC, and saw my favorite band of all time Tower of Power slay at Brooklyn Bowl. It was a blast that even driving home in a monsoon couldn’t dull.

One thing I didn’t do was take a ton of pictures or post on social media.

Partly that’s because the times when it would’ve been most convenient to post, I was at my hotel which was a black hole of cell service (in spite of being able to see over a dozen cell towers from my window) and had wifi that was only slightly less spotty than a rented room in the deepest parts of the Amazon. But it was mostly because I didn’t feel like it.

There’s something about walking around New York that’s very peaceful for me. Maybe that seems an odd way to describe being in a city that’s famous for never sleeping, but that’s the best way I can describe it. The constant movement of people, cars, buses, taxis, and lights reminds me of staring at waves on the ocean or a fire. You never see the same pattern twice because it’s always changing.

To get a little more strange, I guess you could describe it as a reverential attitude that kept me from reaching for my phone (unless it was for getting directions). For the same reason I didn’t want to take a picture of the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center, I didn’t want to spend too much time snapping photos. Because I wanted to really feel those moments rather than worrying about capturing them in pixels.

Now, there’s also a chance that I’m romanticizing my lack of social media savvy as well, which I’m also okay with. Either way, I feel like I was present for the whole weekend, got some much needed time with an old friend, and got up close and personal with a band that’s now closer to an American musical institution than anything else. Which is all I really cared about anyways.

Bill McElaney, 1956 - 2019

In Memoriam

Bill McElaney is the type of person that I hope each of you has in their life. That person that you find yourself saying something along the lines of “If it wasn’t _______, I wouldn’t believe it.”

On more than one occasion, I heard Bill advise someone to learn to play guitar because it could take you around the world. This much I know is true. Bill traveled the world as a musician. And now that he’s passed away, he’s had memorials in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and more than likely in Ireland in the near future. If it wasn’t Bill, I wouldn’t believe that someone’s ashes could go on tour. But here we are. Continue reading →