The ukulele is one of the most irritatingly happy instruments of all time. It’s kinda like the flute. Every time that I hear one, I can’t help but think of people sitting on a beach somewhere, just being happy and care-free. I have heard several uke covers of songs for years now. It has always been a dream of mine to own a uke. Then, I would write one of the darkest pieces that I could think of. The stark contrast was too beautiful to ignore. I needed to make it happen.
This is a dream that I have had for a long time. I had even thought about doing a cover of a metal song for my concept album. As with most of my musical dreams, they don’t usually transpire when I want them to. That is, until I was on a trip to Puerto Rico. When I travel for work or military purposes, I usually get a per diem. Money set aside to feed yourself outside of the comforts of your home. Most normal people will eat at restaurants that they can’t normally frequent. Not me. I ate off of dollar menus and pocketed the profits. I was going to make my dream a reality. Enough talk. Time for action. As a side point, did you know that ukuleles are not that popular in Puerto Rico? Despite all of the beaches, very few people play out there.
After a trip to the closest music store that I could find, I returned to my hotel room with my new treasure: an electric/acoustic spalted maple top concert ukulele. I spent the evening learning chords and a few Twenty One Pilots songs. I wanted to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. I really wanted to write a song.
The next morning, I packed up and went to the airport to return home. I didn’t buy a case to carry my new treasure in, so I was stuck walking around airports throughout America wearing a heavy metal t-shirt and oddly carrying a ukulele. Tyler Joseph is right. There is no dignified way to carry a uke. In addition, you get a lot of weird looks. Oh well, this was a goal realized. Everyone was free to judge if they wanted to.
When I got home, I got right to work. After messing around with my new instrument for several weeks, I finally wrote something that carried a weird overtone. This happy little instrument was capable of producing sorrowful movements. As I was playing a rough version of the song that would become Whispers, this track in the back of my head began playing. It was a weird combination of arrogance and loathing. I was proud of myself, but I hated myself. I had been trying to explain these dual intentioned thoughts to my wife for years. Here they were. My head was spinning in contradiction, enough to make me want to stop playing. Who was I kidding? Who wants to hear this stuff? My musical fantasy was a pipe dream. One that would never realize. Why was I even trying to write an album?
Then it hit me. I could never get my wife to understand what a weird neighborhood my mind really was. This was it. A weird musical sound track with all kinds of conflicting thoughts. If I could capture this, she would be able to hear what I hear. I wouldn’t have to explain. I have this crippling fear of failure that never runs my actions. Then, I have this arrogant can-do attitude about everything. You know the kind, nothing is ever gonna be able to hold me back. But wait, then there’s my past. But wait, how many times have I let my past dictate my future? I started recording. This was the ticket.
After I finished, I ran right to the living room. I interrupted a late evening marathon of The Walking Dead, but I did not care. She had to hear this. I will tell you what I told her that evening. If you want to take a journey through my mind, you have to listen to Whispers. It is as close to my minute by minute thought process as possible. Even in it’s rough form, this is the residue of my experiences. This was the first momentum in my next recording project.
One of my favorite albums this year is Of Mice & Men’s Cold World. True story, I had my sights set on them back in 2010. When they released Those In Glass Houses, I wrote their name in one of my notebooks. After the several twists and turns that I took since then, I completely lost track of them. One day, I was looking through all of my lyric notes. I found one of these lists on a loose piece of paper. As I reviewed the list, I realized that I never did pay attention to any of their releases. Seven years and four releases later, I finally remembered to look back into them. You see why I write these ridiculous lists?
I followed my own recommendation. Starting with their most recent release. It took several months to move past Cold World. Several months. I was floored by Austin Carlile. His personal story was engrained in every lyric. His pain. His return to faith. His crippling disease. His hospitalization(s). His departure from the band. Cold World was his punctuation to that period of his life.
One of my greatest causes of anxiety is the apparent lack of justice that exists in this world. Why does everything roll out the way that it does. The villain seems to win far more than the good guy. Good people die young. Crimes go unpunished. Success is granted to people that don’t deserve it. I think Austin and I had a lot of the same thoughts. No matter what I thought, I didn’t have a choice but to pick up and keep moving. It was not my place to assess what is just any more.
After years of soul searching, I have come to the conclusion put forward in Seether’s cover of Black Honey. The song came out at the right time. I was a little distraught about how others seem to be caught in these vicious patterns of self-preservation. People will say or do anything to protect whatever it is that they think is sacred. Whatever it is: image, money, position. It doesn’t matter. They will fight relentlessly to protect things that they barely deserve. I’m not talking about the things that need to be protected either. Things like family, friends, relationships, those things are worth protecting. I’m talking about shallow stuff that doesn’t matter.
I listened to Black Honey so many times. Like an obscene amount. The video currently has 1.1 million views on youTube. I have watched it well over 300 times. No joke. During one of these lamentations, it hit me square in between the eyes. Why am I pissed off at bees for stinging me after I repeatedly keep putting my hand in the hive? I am the one that is doing the thing that warrants an attack. If I don’t like it, I need to stop putting my hand in the hive. It was really that simple. In the war of work, I would keep getting stung. I needed to stop taking it so personally.
That was my personal victory. After several hours of thought, I knew that it was my sole responsibility not to replicate behaviors that I didn’t approve of. It would be so much easier to just cave and act like I witness many others. As I learned when I was 10 years old, I had to relearn again. I am never going to change this world; I just had to let it know that it would never change me.
As I approached my 33rd birthday, I began to have this irrational fear of death. I’m not entirely sure why. I got this nagging feeling that I would not make it to 34. To make matters worse, I didn’t simply feel death. I felt that it would be violent and miserable. I would imagine myself dying in some crazy ways. None of them were quiet and peaceful. They were all horrible. Some accidental. Some in criminal activity. The obvious looming of a war time death. No matter what I did, the feeling would persist. I thought for sure that it was curtains. Because I have the luxury of being on the other side of it now, I can state that this went on for the better part of six months.
I felt like an absolute lunatic. For several reasons. I had never been afraid of death before. For a person that has a belief in eternity, death is an escape from the grips of this life. It is supposed to be relief, not fear. After several bouts with suicidal ideation, I had definitely explored the option. It never freaked me out before. I have specifically chosen a career path that could send me packing to the Pearly Gates at any time. I’m pretty young. Not that people don’t pass away all the time, but I am not really a risk taker. There was little evidence that supported that my fears were true. Nonetheless, no matter what I did, no matter how I tried to divert my thoughts, it always came back.
I didn’t really feel like I could explain this weird fear to people. I chose to embrace the fear. There are so many things that we leave undone. So many things left unsaid. If this fear were to be real, I simply could not leave any loose ends untied. I needed to try better to let people know how I feel. I needed to spend time doing things with people that mattered the most to me. I had to right some of the wrongs that I felt were unresolved. I actually took a mental inventory of people that I might need to make peace with. I never acted on it, but I did make note. I sought to complete some of the goals that I hadn’t accomplished yet. Yes, that includes recording music. Oddly enough, that also includes writing a book (Welcome to it!). If I was wrong, my life would be better as a result. If I was right, I would have no regrets. It was the only thing that made sense.
More importantly, I needed to be more transparent with my life. I needed to commit to sharing the darker aspects of my life. The struggles, the trials, the pain, the defeat. Most people already heard the good stuff. I had been overinflating that for years. I needed to put things back into perspective. The frailty of life really started to weigh in on me. I wanted to make it count.
Ironically enough, the feeling did pass. I write it off as some kind of weird, mid-life crisis. Either that or I was coming to grips with the concept of my own mortality. I’d done that several times, to include making actual arrangements in the event that I passed on deployment. If there was anything that I learned, it is to stop tip-toeing around life. Make every moment count. Make every conversation count. No fear. No excuses. Just results.
My kid’s have owned this Jewel lullaby CD. It just keeps getting passed down from kid to kid as they grow up. The backstory behind the CD is that our two oldest kids heard someone demo the CD at a Walmart in Washington. They thought that it was their mom. Her mom bought the CD to comfort them while she was on deployment. Truth be told, she doesn’t sound much like Jewel, but she is a phenomenal singer. I can see why little kids would confuse them. This CD is responsible for more peaceful bedtimes for several years. I will say she sounds like Jewel just to get the kids to sleep on time. I am willing to make that sacrifice.
One evening, I was putting our two smallest kids to sleep. I was rocking our son. The peace and bliss of him sleeping in my arms was interrupted by the visuals that Jewel sets forward in Sweet Dreams. A generally dark room, with the soft golden glow of a lamp. The slowing breathing. The fade off to sleep. Very sweet imagery. As I allowed my imagination to run with the scenario, my mind faded to dark places. Same set up. His room. Only this time, I was putting him to sleep for the very last time. As he drifted off to sleep, his breath (already shallow by this point) slowed and eventually ceased. I could not bring myself to put him down. In this made up scenario, I had imagined so much for him. What I wouldn’t have given to trade places. Let him stay. Take me. He is still innocent and unblemished. He deserves a chance.
I replayed the song several times, just sitting in the dark. There was no other light except for the blue glow of the CD display screen. I could make out the features of his little face. He had exceeded every single person’s expectations. He was excelling them at this point. He seemed unstoppable, yet somehow absolutely frail under the right circumstances. I could not bring myself to put him in his crib. I sat there as if the scenario was real. What happens if this was the last time I could hold him? With my own fears, I really needed to make time with him count. I had heard this story too many times with heart babies to know that my fear was real. It could happen at any point.
I feel guilty about turning this beautiful song into something dark. I have listened to it again outside of the context of our situation. It holds a lot of weight on the future. Raising them right. Enjoying the time that is spent. It is an extremely innocent song. The music is very sad. I then reviewed it under our context. It is easy to follow the emotion of the music and take the lyrics to dark places. I guess all is fair in art. I do get some of the power in interpretation, right?
After a job change, I had basically committed to placing my family on the back burner. There is a lot of investment into learning the aspects of a new job. You have to prove that you are trustworthy and a hard worker before you can really start asking for much. The way that I saw it, I had already lost that at my previous job. May as well change things up with hopes that things could be different. In the forefront of my mind were the financial troubles. The loss of one income. The increased travelling out of town over night for doctor’s appointments. The loss of our fancy, big house. I really dug in as a way to try to forget all of my failures. I felt that if I worked hard, invested more, and proved my worth that everything would begin to turn around. I volunteered for trips out of town. I signed up for weekend events. I stayed late. I had to prove my worth.
How else would I begin to see that this wasn’t gonna work out well for me? Glad you asked. Through song of course! One of the evenings that I stayed at work late, I was working on a spreadsheet. As always, I had music playing in the background. Gemini Syndrome had just released Momento Mori. I was half-listening as I finished my work for the day. They did not let me down with Lux. It was a great enough album to sound track my life for the transition into this new position. What would Momento Mori have to offer? Sorry, Not Sorry. Speaking direct conviction into my life. What was I working for? A fancy, green currency? I don’t even have the satisfaction of holding it any more. It is entirely digital at this junction in history. I can’t take it with me, but I didn’t really have money anyways. Thanks, Gemini Syndrome. Guess I’ll be heading home now. That was exactly what I did.
When I was 23, I wrote a song about perception. The message of the song is that no matter how hard we try to hide out our emotions, we can never hide the way that we feel, the way that we are, from God. The conclusion is “I can’t lie. Oh you know, I can’t lie to you.” Apparently, the younger versions of myself knew more than I know now. I wish that I would have learned that lesson while I was busy trying to write a song about it.
My interest in this particular song stemmed from hearing Twenty One Pilot’s Screen. Tyler is making nearly the same point that I was trying to make back then. I never finished the lyrics. I didn’t even put music to it. I just had a basic message and a general melody. I got to digging through my old notebooks until I found the song. The song that I had started so long ago filled a massive void in the track list for my concept album. Some of the lyrical content, written way back when, fit perfectly into the messaging that I was trying to achieve in this piece. It was almost too perfect. While thumbing through my notebook, I found tabs and song ideas for one other piece that did not fit in the project that I was working on back then. It was spotless for this project. Movement was happening!
As I truly assessed what I was trying to say, I became instantly convicted. This song was supposed to be about transparency. Being real. Being honest. Sharing struggles despite public perception. If I can’t lie to God, why would I fake it for other people? Great question. The answer was that I couldn’t do that any more. I needed to be honest. I needed people to know that I was terrified of losing my son. I needed people to know that I was wrestling with anxiety that nearly ended my life through suicide attempts. I needed people to know that I had to seek out counseling. I needed people to know that I had been trying to bury my doubt through nicotine and alcohol use (as if the smoking was obvious enough). I needed everyone to know that I was a wreck. I didn’t have anything together. Nearly nothing at all. If I wanted to truly get better, it was time to start being honest. I was gonna have to install a screen on my chest.