Saturday, July 2, 2011

My First 4 Minutes of Fame

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Life as an Artist

Strings and Fingers

It seems as if I’ve always been involved in some sort of arty-type activity. Music, of course, has very often been my focus, be it playing trombone in elementary school, junior high, high school and during my brief visit to Western Illinois University; or playing guitar from the time I was fifteen until now. From time to time there have been a variety of craft projects, which I created concurrently with the always-present music. I learned leather carving by watching my father and from a number of instruction books. I made belts and wallets and purses, plus bracelets, knife sheaths and watchbands. Of course, I made guitar straps, too. I painted, without much success, with acrylics, but only briefly. I discovered that I knew nothing of the fundamentals of painting or drawing, and that lack resulted in very flat, crude, uninteresting paintings. I took up stitchery for a while, mostly because it was something I could do indoors where it was warm to pass the time during the long winters while I was living in the mountains of Colorado. I’ve done a bit of woodcarving here and there throughout the years. I learned woodcarving when I was a Boy Scout. I learned a lot about survival in the Boy Scouts, too, and I consider that very much of an art form if you are to do it well. Then there was macramé, basket weaving, Popsicle stick sculpture, carpentry, and landscaping. Oh, I almost forgot poetry, really bad poetry, oh, and theatre in the park during the summer and some musicals in high school.

In recent years, I’ve tried to elevate my photography to more or less fine art. I set the guitar down for several years, though I always kept one within reach. Recently, I’ve gone back to playing a little guitar now and then. And singing – I originally took up guitar so I could accompany myself as a singer. That of course led to songwriting, which because of the bad poetry, was never as good as I hoped it would be. In the last 10 or so years, I’ve done some car restoration, too. I consider auto restoration quite a high art form when done properly, not the way I do it. I dabble. I’ve got a dune buggy that I’m very happy with, but some of the other projects have fallen short of my ideal, primarily due to lack of funds.

Recently, when my employment situation underwent a bit of a setback, I realized that I’d been writing for longer than I’d been playing music. A few years ago, I thought I’d give writing for the sci-fi market a try. It was going well, I was starting to get some interest and feed-back from an editor when I got sidetracked for a few months and lost my momentum. I went back to playing music for while after that, but ultimately I realized that I simply didn’t have the uncompromising drive that it would take to get out of the small lounges where I was playing and move up into a higher echelon of success. That’s when I set the guitar aside and went to work in the “real” world. I’m not bad at working in an office; I have all the right skills. I can run word processing software, bookkeeping programs, spreadsheets, and data-base programs with the best of them, and I know the alphabet and my English grammar better than most. I can do office work, but I get bored fairly quickly, and that inevitably gets me in trouble and I have to move on. For a moment I thought I might like the security business, but, apparently, I’m too observant and intelligent to get along in those circles. I’m always able to see a much better way of doing the job and so, once again, I get myself in trouble for doing that instead of just mindlessly doing what I’m told. More recently, I thought maybe I could take up writing as a way to be creative and gainfully employed at the same time.

That’s where I am today, more or less. I’m writing --blogs and short stories. Because of the advent of self-publishing platforms like this one, I can get my writings out into the public eye without having to gain approval from editors or publishers. I just need a few more public eyes to find my stories interesting. That’s the next phase of this new stage in my life as an artist. I’m trying to find the art in promotion and marketing. It’s not as obvious as I had hoped, but I’m going to keep plugging away at it.

If all else fails, I did renew my security guard license for another couple of years.

Friday, April 1, 2011

From Analog to Digital


I learned to type in my senior year of high school. I was about the only boy in the class. We used manual machines that would jam if you pushed two keys at once. At the end of each line you had to push a lever on the right side of the machine to move the carriage over so you could begin a new line of the left margin of the page. To pass the course, you had to be able to type 35 words per minute with only one or two errors. I passed. Barely.

When I went off to college in 1969, I took along with me a little portable manual typewriter because “everybody” said that it would be better to type up whatever papers I might need to present in whatever courses I might be taking. I used that typewriter to write letters home, letters wherein I lied about how hard I was studying and told the truth about how much money I needed. I never used the typewriter for coursework since the only course work I actually turned in was in music theory, and you can’t type music on a portable typewriter. Since I had no idea why I was even attending college, naturally, I failed to maintain an adequate grade point average to permit me to stay there. I was not particularly unhappy about that fact in that I had no real reason to be there in the first place, other than some faddish notion of the time that “everybody” needed to attend college. The maxim was: If you don’t go to college, you won’t be able to get a good job.

As it turned out, that part about needing a college degree to get a good job was mostly true. I’ve had quite a few jobs in my life with very few of them qualifying as what I would consider “good.” My definition of a “good” job has always been one that would allow me to use my creative abilities to solve interesting problems in exchange for enough money to live comfortably during those hours when I am not working. Somewhere in that definition there should be something about “minimal supervision,” since my ideal employment situation would include being given the problem and the physical resources to deal with it and then turned loose to get it done. All the times I’ve gotten in trouble as an employee were a result of my trying to implement that ideal and not taking into account the fact that employers want to be able to tell you what to do, how to do it, how much time it should take and what resources should be required. That would be fine, if said employer requesting the specified job knew whereof what he spoke. Usually, that was not the case.

In my working life, I’ve always worked at finding better, more efficient ways of doing things and have then proceeded to do them that way. Most of the time, the employer wants the job done some other way and he and I end up at odds this. To sum up the problem, I enjoy myself and do well when I am working with someone, and I am miserable and bored when I work for someone. Given these facts, you can see why I work much better, more efficiently with myself and by myself then I do in a regimented group. If you also guessed that my confrontations with my employers were frequent and sometimes heated, you’d be correct.

The first computer I ever saw was being used at the first “real” job I ever held. My father got me a job with a company for which he was working as the national sales manager. The company made industrial florescent lighting fixtures in its own factory in Denver, Colorado. The sheets and rolls of steel came in on the receiving dock and the finished products went out on the company trucks at the shipping dock. In between these two doors, the steel was pressed, formed, washed, painted, assembled, boxed and stacked in the warehouse ready to be loaded on the trucks. When I first started there, I spent all day hanging parts on the paint line. Eventually I graduated up to receiving clerk and warehouseman. Up at the front of the factory inside a large room with windows from the middle of the walls to the ceiling were several tall machines with tape drives on the front of them. In the middle of the room there were punch card readers, and I suppose somewhere there were card punching consoles. They used this computer system to process the payroll for the factory. It may have had other functions, but that’s the one I know for sure that it performed. I could see it from the lunchroom while I was eating the food I bought from the blind guy who manned the cash register in the cafeteria. The blind guy also played a pretty mean piano; by ear, of course. I worked there for about three years until I was fired for coming to work late every day. I wasn’t the only one who did that, but I was the one they chose to make an example of so that the others who were also chronically tardy would knock it off. I wonder if it worked. Probably not, since the company went out of business a short time later.

If the next company I worked for had a computer, I never saw it. Computers were pretty large in those days, so I guess if they had had one I’d have seen it. What they did have was lots and lots of cardboard and I helped them make cardboard boxes until I got so thoroughly bored with my job and my life that I left Denver entirely. My dad had gotten let go from the lighting fixture company in the meantime and had moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado where he was selling cars for the local Chevrolet Dealership. He got me a job in the parts department. There was no computer there either, but there was a pretty cool tape punching machine that we used to order parts from General Motors. You’d punch in the part numbers and quantities and out would come this long strip of tape about an inch wide with holes in it that in some fashion communicated the ordering information to GM when we loaded it up into the tape reader and dialed the factory’s number. It was a wonderful machine, but like I said, it wasn’t a computer.

The next computer I saw was an Apple //e. That’s how Apple printed “II” using the “/” marks. Very cute, eh? I thought it was an interesting and, more important, potentially useful tool that might be of some value in the secretarial service my wife had recently purchased. When she bought the business, she had the idea that she would type a few letters, answer the phone once in a while and spend the rest of the time reading a book, thereby generating enough income to make it worth her while, but not so demanding that she couldn’t sit back and enjoy herself once in a while. I suggested that if we bought this little computer, we could offer additional services and, perhaps, attract a few more clients. The idea appealed to her and the prospect of us working together in that business was attractive to us both, so we bought the little computer. I took it out of the box, set it up in the living room and proceeded to read the instructions. Reading instructions is probably the thing that I do the best. Almost everything I’ve learned thus far, I have learned from reading instructions, everything from computers to vehicle maintenance, from drawing to guitar.

I made that little Apple //e do all kinds of stuff. I word processed, I kept the books, I created spread sheets. I created proposals, terms papers, letters, and at one point I even wrote a book on it for a client. It was a great little machine and it always did its best. Carol answered calls on the 27 phone lines, took messages, typed letters on her typewriter, took in new work, and handle client relations. We were very busy and it was a lot of fun, but Carol did miss the days when there was time to just sit and read. When we sold the business and moved to Los Angeles, I brought that computer along with me. I used it for a number of projects which I did out of my home, including the aforementioned book. Sadly, though, the state of the art for computers raced on past the little Apple //e and I was forced to move on to what everyone in Los Angeles seemed to be using at that time – DOS-based PCs.

I started working out of other peoples’ offices using their equipment. I ran into a computer called a Vector that ran on a CP/M operating system that was being used to merge address lists with form letters. I input a lot of data into that Vector, but that machine was obsolete even before I started operating it and was soon replaced by some PCs; PCs without hard drives. Everything in those PCs was operated from 5.25” floppy discs, from the operating system to the programs. I learned how to merge data with form letters using lots and lots of discs. It was slow, but it was more personalized than just sending out a “Dear Customer” letter. I entered thousands of names and addresses and saved them to discs. That high school typing class has served me well. It’s the one thing I learned in high school that I have found useful.

I worked with operating systems from CP/M to DOS to Windows 3.11 to Windows 95 to Windows XP to Windows Vista and finally to Windows 7. Why it’s called Windows 7, I don’t know. 3.11 was a good system, so was XP, after Service Pack 2. So far, Windows 7 is pretty stable and works most of the time. I’ve always been amazed at how an operating system that is supposed to manage the computer’s memory in such a way as to allow you to run many programs at the same time, does its job so badly. Yet, a great many of us still buy each new version of this system hoping that, perhaps, someday it will perform as advertised.

Don’t get me wrong. I like computers. They are wonderful tools that have evolved from very simple calculating machines to devices that allow us to communicate with the world, do our own taxes, keep our bank accounts and investments under control, watch TV programs, play games, keep track of our friends and relatives on a second by second basis, and find information on all sorts of things, some of which is actually valuable and useful. Of course, there’s also a gargantuan amount of garbage available as well, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the valuable and the worthless, especially in an era where judgment is frowned upon and the line between good and evil has been intentionally blurred. Not a problem for me, though. I can tell the difference. If no credible source is cited, then it’s trash. If it sounds too good to be true, bet on it being a lie.

Having grown up using computers, I understand their value. I also understand their short comings. They are a tool and that is the way it is best to think of them. As the internet continues to grow, as the web of communication lines continues to expand, there is the possibility of there coming into being a great international community where information can be freely exchanged. To some degree that is happening already, but unlimited information flow is dangerous to those people who would keep their citizens in chains, both mental and physical. It will be interesting to see what the future brings as more and more people connect across the web and find out that they are not alone in their desire for freedom, that those people in other countries all have very much the same desires, wants and needs. People want to be free to create, to think, to learn, to move about, to speak, to share ideas, to experience new things and make new friends. This is dangerous to those with a vested interest in making people think of themselves as slaves and victims, who depend upon fear to control the population. This is dangerous to those leaders who would convince their people that some other people are their enemy. What if people just got to know about one another, about how they each lived out their lives? What if it turned out that those other people weren’t actually the enemy? Knowledge and communication are extremely powerful and dangerous tools to put in the hands of an entire world. That’s how ideas get spread around and ideas are the most dangerous things of all. Ideas can lift up a whole nation, even a whole world. They can also bring it all the way down.

Me? I’m all for those ideas which raise man up, which lead to more freedom, which encourage man to create and produce and exchange. That’s what I’m promoting here on my little virtual homestead on the incredibly vast worldwide web. I encourage you to do the same in whatever way you can. Communicate. Share. Uplift. Enlighten. Be dangerous. Connect. Compute.

Friday, February 25, 2011

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get out of the Spotlight. Part 4.

No One Heard Her Cries

Getting back into the music business in Los Angeles was easy. Succeeding in the music business turned out to be a bit more difficult. Of course, achieving success depends upon what your view of success might be. If you shoot for simply getting paid to practice your craft, than I guess I succeeded. Sometimes.

During my performing years in Los Angeles, I worked with a number of different people, some friends, some strangers who acted like friends but weren’t, and some strangers who became friends and still are. I played with a band whose lead singer was a woman who knew only a few songs, but always hired people to work with her who could fill in the rest of the show. She promised to pay me, but when it came time to collect, after I had worked with her quite a few times, she pled poverty and so we parted ways. It was an odd parting, in that she made it clear that my actually asking her to live up to her part of the bargain was some sort of betrayal on my part.

I played some bass guitar in an alternative music group which was great fun. In Los Angeles, though, you mostly don’t get paid to play your original music; instead you are not only expected to provide entertainment for the venue, but your own audience as well. I also played bass with and for a few friends from time to time. The best group was one where we performed mostly original country music. In that one, we played in Portland, Oregon, and at several county fairs around California, as well as around Los Angeles. I still have friends from that band.

Eventually, though, I ended up going back to my original single act. I found a place in a city called La Puente. It was a bar and restaurant with the unimaginative name “The Place.” It was a small bar, and when I first started playing there it served food in the early evening, but most of the people who came there, came to drink, and drink they did, in quantity and all evening. It had originally been owned by a woman named Maggie, who I was to meet later, but by the time I started playing there it was owned by a man named “Tex.” Tex and I got along and the style of music that I was playing was just what the patrons of that bar were expecting, so everyone was happy. Well, almost everyone. There was some guy who claimed to be a distant cousin of the guy I replaced who would, from time to time, came and sit at the bar near where I was set up and harass me endlessly. Having already done my time as a bully magnet, I was mostly immune to this sort of nonsense. The most difficult part of dealing with this guy was not a self-esteem problem, but more of a self-control problem. I found it difficult not to drag the guy out behind the bar and kick his ass all the way across the parking lot. I restrained myself and eventually this guy went away, probably to search for more susceptible prey.

Other than the occasional drunk and out-of-control idiot, I enjoyed playing at “The Place,” right up until Tex decided to sell the bar and retire. The new owners immediately began to do what a great many new owners do: change things. They wanted to attract a different crowd and imprint the bar with their own personalities. It didn’t work of course and they eventually went out of business. The one thing you don’t want to do with a thriving neighborhood bar which has a built-in clientele who have been drinking there for years is to change everything around. You lose your regulars, you attract a few new people for a while and then you wind up sitting alone at the bar while your expenses mount up and you can no longer make payments on your loan. I saw that one coming and bailed out early.

That was also about the time that I came to the realization that I was never going to be anything more than a lounge act, playing old songs and watching the patrons slowly drink themselves to death. It was time to get a “real” job and stop trying to be Willie Nelson or Don Williams. The country music business already had a Willie Nelson and a Don Williams; and what the fans were looking for was more Garth Brooks and Randy Travis and the like. I never did have the stage presence to be very good at working with the audience. What I was good at was singing and playing. In the music business, singing and playing are only the beginning of what you need to gain acclaim and popularity. You also have to be communicative, open, friendly, and a genuine “people person.” You have to care about each of your audience members. All I cared about was singing and playing. I never really liked working in bars and I never actually went to bars much unless I was getting paid to play there. For some reason, getting drunk and out-of-control, or getting drunk and being artificially happy, never really appealed to me. It’s the getting drunk part I didn’t care for. Intentionally numbing up my mind and poisoning my body have never really held that much appeal for me. I’ve always found more satisfaction in doing something well, in finding a problem and solving it, or in helping somebody with a project. It was time to move on.

Oh, I still have all the guitars and amps and stuff. I still have binders and binders full of song lyrics and chord charts, left over from the days when I could play 400 songs or more, but I don’t really play much anymore and my vocal skills are rather rusty these days. What I finally realized was that, from the very beginning, I was only playing and singing because I thought it would make me “cool,” that it would cause people to like me and want to be my friend. I was always playing to please someone else, to impress someone, to receive admiration and appreciation. None of these was reason enough to continue. I’ll have to get back to a point where I play and sing because it’s enjoyable to me, and where I can give my talents to someone as a gift without expecting anything in return. Only then will I be able to rekindle my interest in performing. Until then, I keep an old classical guitar close at hand so that whenever I feel the need, I can pick it up, strum a few chords and try to remember the words to an old Hank Williams song or two.