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This is the song I was trying to write two weeks ago, which I referred to as a songwriting failure and declared that if a song doesn’t come together in one session it’s typically not worth going back to. I did go back to it for week 22 of #songaweek2018, and got myself this song.

It’s compiled of a variety of ideas I’d collected but was having trouble sculpting into a cohesive whole. Even though none of the ideas were directly inspired by the S-Town Podcast, I finished listening to it just before finishing this song, and that somehow gave me what I needed to pull it all together. Something about the tone of that story, the range of emotion, the brilliance and dull despair that can coexist in one person’s life, the bald facts of life’s brevity and its bewildering mix of beauty and brokenness.

The suggested theme was “celebrity.” I didn’t deliberately work with that theme but again, I think there’s something related here. For one thing, S-Town made John B. McLemore a celebrity, and it’s surreal and feels a little bit wrong when I Google his name and find it being sold on T-shirts now. Also I think most of the verses but especially the ones starting “what does it mean. . .” and “if you repeat. . .” do speak pretty directly to the culture of celebrity worship.

Some days I’m sick of everything
Can’t keep my head up, can’t want to try
Tired of hearing my own voice
Can’t find a reason to even cry

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

All I could say has been said before
What good is winning if it’s just a game?
I never could stomach spinning rides
But any other world is just the same

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

What does it mean to gain the world
And lose your own soul in the deal?
Why try to build the greater good
On lesser evils you’re too numb to feel?

I’m drinking elderberry wine
Out in the summer moonshine
with the ones I love
Some happy you can bottle
But most of life is best in the flesh

If you repeat and repeat a word
It’ll start to sound like gibberish
If you stare in the mirror long enough
You’ll start to look ridiculous

They come to me in fits and starts
These glimpses of my wild heart’s
Most sacred pledge
I’m trying to remember
I’m trying to remember
I’m trying to remember
What I am not supposed to forget

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“It is different in the United States,” I once said, not entirely realizing what I was saying until the words came out. . . “We are told it is the greatest country on earth. The thing is, we will never reconsider that narrative the way you [Turks] are doing just now. Because to us, that isn’t propaganda, that is truth. And to us, that isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism. And the thing is, we will never question any of it because at the same time, all we are being told is how freethinking we are, that we are free. So we don’t know there is anything wrong in believing our country is the greatest on earth. The whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion.”

“Wow,” a friend once replied. “How strange. That is a very quiet kind of fascism, isn’t it?”

– from Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen

Last week our family drove to Colorado for our friends’ wedding. There’s nothing like a road trip to unwind your mind, get a slightly larger sense of the world. Even if it’s only across the monotonous plains of the midwest. A book helps too. Nathan read the book quoted above as I drove. That, and a billboard in desolate eastern Colorado, inspired this song. The first two lines are exactly what I read on that billboard.

Every American could benefit from a wider-ranging road trip, out of the country, to see what our “normal world” looks like from the outside. To get some sense that we are not everything. Or everyone. That our culture has become our god, and maybe it’s time for some healthy agnosticism.

Here’s my song for week 14 of #songaweek2018. Because of our road trip and kids home for spring break etc., I didn’t get to spend as much time arranging and recording this one. So we went for some sort of Woody Guthrie/church hymn mashup feel I guess!

God bless Donald Trump
God bless the American flag
God bless our feedlots and guns
Our ditches littered with plastic bags

God bless our ignorance
God bless our irrepressible greed
God bless the arrogance
Of self-satisfied cynics like me

There is no god
There is no god
Like the god of the USA

God bless the invisible hand
And all the blood sweat and tears that it took
God bless monopolies
Apple Amazon Google and Facebook

God bless the movie stars
And Youtube and Instagram too
God bless our think tanks and blogs
Our talking heads with nothing to do

There is no god
There is no god
Like the god of the USA

God bless our border walls
Our freeways and our towers of wealth
God bless our amber waves
Of grain that we avoid for our health

God bless democracy
And the way we do things here in the west
God bless America
At least the version that I think is best

There is no god
There is no god
Like the god of the USA

 

 

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Being over 40 is strange. One week I get hit on by a store employee, the next I’m given the senior discount without being asked about it (and I live in a back-asswards society that tends to see the second situation as more offensive than the first!). It seems to depend on what I’m wearing, how my hair is done – I’m a chameleon at this age. I can hide my youth, I can hide my age. I’m in the middle, middle-aged.

I started writing this song when I was out for a run at the end of February two days after the second big snowstorm in a week. The sick-of-winter time of year. I haven’t run much the past month or two because there’s been so much ice, so I was feeling out of shape and a bit cranky at first. But the sun was shining, and I got into my groove, and I discovered, I’ve still got it!

It doesn’t matter what you think when you look at me; if I know I got it, I got it. “It” is something we are all born with, and can joyfully exhibit for our whole lives. It can shine through for that brief part of life when we match our youth-crazed culture’s definition of attractive, but it’s way more than that.

I spent the last couple weeks watching the Winter Olympics, all those toned young bodies, and the “old” ones slightly over 30 wistfully discussing the end of their careers. I think, oh you cuties, there’s so much ahead of you, you’ve only just begun!

But that’s only if you want to.

Here’s my song for week nine of #songaweek2018:

I’m just a little bit thick in the head and the middle
Just a little bit sick of playing second string fiddle
But don’t you worry bout me boy
I’ve still got my voice
Don’t feel bad for me my sweet
I’ve still got my feet
And they know how to go

I’ve still got it
Down to the soles of my feet
I’ve still got it
I’m more than what you see

She’s just a little further back on the same road as me
When she gets to where i’m at I think she’ll get what I mean
Aw, don’t you worry bout me dear
I’m still breathing here
Don’t go crying for me honey
I’ve even got a little money

I’ve still got it
Down to the soles of my feet
I’ve still got it
I’m more than what you see

So don’t you worry bout me son
I still know how to run
Don’t you worry bout me dude
I’ve still got it pretty good

I’ve still got it
Down to the soles of my feet
I’ve still got it
I’m so much more than what you see

 

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I started writing week 8’s song for #songaweek2018 while standing in front of my son’s middle school as school let out and crowds of vibrant young people walked past me, just days after the latest mass shooting, which once again happened at a school. I thought, “let all these children be healed.”

That line morphed into “let all these children believe . . .” and you can hear the rest of it below.

Often (unless I’m writing a fun/goofy song) I try to spread my words in layers, make things subtle, pack the lines with depth so everything isn’t right there on the surface for an easy takeaway from the first listen. But this time I found myself bucking that habit and writing something more straightforward.

Creating art inspired by or expressing a political or controversial idea is a challenge. I want to make music, not propaganda. I want to appeal to common humanity and shared experience/empathy, not set up false dichotomies or overly sentimentalize. I want to make a case for what I see as important, but not be preachy. All of that was in my mind as I wrote this song.

Ultimately, my hope is that we as a culture will listen to our youth, and that they can be confident that we are listening, that we care, that we aren’t brushing aside their descriptions of their lived experience – and that we are willing to reconsider some things, including gun regulations, in light of what they say to us.

In the days even since I wrote this song, I’ve been encouraged by what I’m seeing and hearing in our country – a rising tide of concern from people of varying political stripes, companies breaking ties with the NRA, politicians’ feet held to the fire – and much of it driven by young people who aren’t even old enough to vote yet. Maybe these children are turning my first lyric idea for this song on its head, and by their activism, helping us all to be healed.

Let all these children believe
that when we lose them we grieve
and that we care more than we’ve been letting on

Let all their sad hearts be cheered
that love is stronger than fear
and no amusement’s too dear to be let go

But we’ll lower the flag have a moment of silence
Discuss mental illness and virtual violence
And when all has been dutifully said and done
We’ll get right back on out there and play with our guns

Let these courageous young minds
teach us to change with the times
and not be willfully blind to what they show

Let these new voices be heard
Let’s hear their hearts and their words
and not be hard and unstirred by what they say

If we just lower the flag have a moment of silence
Discuss mental illness and virtual violence
And blithely decide that our work here is done
We’re just impotent citizens with fancy guns

Let all these beautiful ones
be treasured more than our guns

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I used to scoff at my brother-in-law for being a vegetarian. Now I mostly eat vegan.

When Bill Clinton was elected president while I was in high school, I was afraid the world might end. In 2016 I voted for Hillary.

I’ve argued about all sorts of theological and philosophical points over the course of my life, most adamantly against some of the very things I used to believe myself.

I changed my college major three times.

I planned to not have children. Now I have two.

For a while I thought I was done with organized religion. Now I sing in my church choir.

I used to wear my hair like this:

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As Paul Simon sang, “I was wrong, and I could be wrong again.” (“Sure Don’t Feel Like Love,” from his album Surprise which that girl in the photo may not have liked but I happen to love.)

“Family” was the theme for week six of #songaweek2018. I didn’t have much interest in working with that theme, as I feel like already half my songs are family-related and it’s not even anyone’s birthday or anniversary or Mother’s or Father’s Day this week!

I built this song from the first two lines which I’ve been storing in my “scraps and starters” list for years. And now that it’s finished, I think there’s a lot of “family” going on around this song after all.

Last week the Super Bowl came to Minneapolis, and for that reason Westboro Baptist Church chose my hometown of Owatonna, which is on the freeway 70 miles south of Minneapolis, as a Sunday morning stop on their way to agitate at the big game. They demonstrated at a number of churches during Sunday morning services, including the one my in-laws attend.

I don’t agree with Westboro Baptist. I also don’t agree with my in-laws and their church on some things. But our extended family across the country joined them to pray for that morning, and my father-in-law reflected to us afterwards in a text message:

Much has happened in me spiritually through this. Pride comes so subtly. Grace comes so abundantly from God and [God] wants us to have that same grace. God is even changing me.

Do you hear that? That humble and gracious attitude? That’s the stuff that keeps extended families coming back together despite all kinds of differences.

We can always find ways we don’t see eye-to-eye with other people, including our own family and friends – and including our own past and (if we could foresee) future selves!  But if we can keep this attitude of grace, of “I could be wrong,” it’s easier to see heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul, human-to-human. And that’s where and how real change happens anyway.

It’s okay to lay our weapons down. We can still hold strongly to our beliefs and values, and even talk about them with people who disagree. We just don’t really need those weapons of pride, guilt and shame, bitterness, contempt . . . they never work well at getting the point across anyway. They become the point, and everybody loses.

And besides, that thing you think and feel so strongly today, may just end up on your future self’s cutting room floor. But better that than another person.

I used to get injured more often
back when everything had a point
I went around hammering nails into coffins
at least I think I did
at least I thought I did
but I could be wrong

I used to go throwing my lot in
with the causes I fervently felt
These days I feel lots of nothing
at least I think I do
at least I feel that’s true
but I could be wrong

How many miles must I walk in your shoes
until I can feel your soul?
How many words should I leave unsaid
so I can finally hear you?

I’m starting to sense I’ve been spinning forever
orbiting the light
Sometimes I’m stupid, but sometimes I’m clever
at least I think I am
at least I hope I am
but I might be wrong

Winning the war isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
Conquerors can’t afford love
So I’ll stand in my faith and I’ll lay down my weapons
Cause I could be wrong.

 

 

 

 

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This is a song I’ve been wanting to write for a while now. I think the desire started about the time I realized the Trump campaign, with its hatefulness toward immigrants and others, was no joke. And it’s only grown during his presidency, which has sadly, ill-advisedly, continued that tone.

While Uncle Sam points gruffly out from posters declaring “I want you!” to the fittest and finest, another American symbol, the “mighty woman with a torch,” invites the least and the last. Like my own mother, she’s confident that she can always come up with enough for anyone who shows up at her door – and that her home will be enriched by every person she welcomes into it.

Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” inscribed on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty, provided the lyrics for my song this week, the third week of #songaweek2018. The images in the video are all public domain or creative commons licensed, with attributions noted in the video description in case you’d like to take a closer look or see more from any of the artists or photographers.

Enjoy this video. Take a look at America the beautiful.

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So while I was writing a song a week last year and devoting my blog pretty much exclusively to that effort, I was coming across an increasing pile of articles about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), and why everyone should at least try to understand what’s going on and what may be coming down the pike.

Tim Urban at Wait But Why did some pretty substantial summing up in two posts – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence and The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction. This two-part series is a long read but worth it if you want to get some background and do some thinking on this topic.

Which might get you scared or excited at what could happen within your lifetime. I mean, immortality or extinction?! That’s kind of a big deal.

But then for some humanizing balance, I recommend Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People. Its author, Maciej Cegłowski, points out that those espousing AI’s potential to immortalize or annihilate our species are making some pretty bold assumptions about what intelligence ultimately is, and that some of this smells a bit megalomaniacal.

A story about computers taking over the universe (and then either saving or destroying humanity as we know it) captures our imagination more than a story about technocrats gradually sucking the soul out of human society by pushing for increased levels of surveillance and invasive technologies in their quest to prepare for the anticipated AI revolution.

Ceglowski’s article includes a quote I fell in love with: “If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” A search for the author of the quote, John Rich, turns up that he’s a country music singer/songwriter.

Superintelligence, I would like to believe, if and when it does arise, will not be supercerebral. It won’t just encompass the intelligence of computer geeks, but also musicians and plumbers and the infinite depth and breadth of being – of which we humans have only a limited understanding and a small share.

Which spins everything back around for me. Religious and spiritual traditions tell us that a superintelligence like that has already arisen – in what we call God or whatever other name has been given to the supreme being – and that this God brought all we know into being.

So ultimate being, superintelligence – do we project this back to before life began, or forward in time? Do we give rise to it, or did it give rise to us?

Or is this all my less-than-superintelligence asking all the wrong questions, thinking in a linear timeframe, boxed in by the laws of whatever computer simulation or created universe this is?

Thinking is fun!

 

 

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