From The Darkness Of Hate To The Light Of Hope

The Lorraine MotelI had the opportunity, for the first time, to visit Memphis, TN last year. One of the places I knew I had to visit was the Lorraine Motel, the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as importantly, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

To say that standing in the parking lot, below the balcony in front of room 306, was poignant would be ridiculously understated. There probably aren’t enough words to describe exactly what it was, emotionally, to be there. Suffice it to say, that it was smaller than I imagined, and still echoing the cries of millions.

The thing is, at a spot where we experienced one of the darkest moments in our history here in the United States, there was light everywhere. The employees, the volunteers, the visionaries who created and run the NCRM have wrestled away the darkness from this place, and shone a light of hope and equality and freedom for everyone.

I took my time on my trip through the museum. I went alone, which somehow seemed right for this first time visit. I made my way through the exhibits. I stared for a long time in to the window of the preserved room where Dr. King spent his last hours on Earth (he liked coffee as much as I do, it appears). I learned. I felt guilty. I felt proud.

At the end of my self-guided tour, on the advice of a helpful and friendly volunteer there, I went in to the little theater and watched a short documentary film. As the lights came up at the end,  I had to compose myself for a few moments before I could go back out in to the world.

Directed by Adam Pertofsky and nominated for an Academy Award a couple of years ago,The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 is a riveting account of Dr. King’s trip to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers, and in particular the man who was the only one on the balcony with him when he was shot, Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles. Dr. Kyles is as inspirational to me in this film as is Dr. King. He has carried forth these four decades a heavy burden, to bear witness, and he has done it well. I hope one day I have the chance to meet him and to thank him for the way he has lived his life.

On my way out the door I thanked the volunteer who had recommended I see the film and told him I was bringing a copy home so my kids could see it, too.

Those of us who have it better than those who came before us, have an obligation to pass along a world that is better than we found it. We’re 40+ years on now, and plenty of us are still not “judged by the content of our character.” To say that we have not come a long way would be wrong, but to pretend we don’t still have a long way to go would be just as wrong.

We need to actively keep the dream alive. We need to keep The National Civil Rights Museum a tangible touchstone for us, and our kids, and their kids, and theirs.

In the months leading up to my Memphis trip last year I had become aware of and joined Co-founded by actor Edward Norton (American History X, Fight Club), Crowdrise is essentially a social networking site for the greater good.

Upon discovering it, I immediately began to realize that Crowdrise is a great tool to bring critical mass to critical issues. Still, for my first attempt at participation there via my own “project,” I wanted to ensure I did something that would first and foremost resonate strongly with me.

After visiting the NCRM, it was clear what my first project would be.

They say you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. Nowhere is that more true than in Memphis, TN at the National Civil Rights Museum, where “they will never, ever kill the dream.”

“Martin Luther King didn’t die in some foolish way. He didn’t overdose. He wasn’t shot by a jealous lover. He wasn’t shot leaving the scene of a crime. He was a man with an earned PhD degree at 28, a Nobel Peace Prize . . . Oratorical skills off the charts. All the things he could have been, U.N. ambassador, big churches all over America. He could have been a university president. All the things he could have been, and here he is with all these skills, dying on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, helping garbage workers.” ~Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles


Observations From The Wilderness

When I unexpectedly lost my job last year, I became a data point: one among millions of people in the United States looking for work, and not finding it.

Nationally, the unemployment rate for May (the most recent month for which data is currently available) stood at 9.1 percent. Here in New York state, we’re doing better than that, with a May unemployment rate of 7.9 percent (752,094 people).

Of course, the unemployment rate measures those actively looking for work, and I have seen the suggestion made that the drop in our state rate may have to do with some former job seekers simply giving up.

Some days, it is hard not to give up.

Like most, I have been in the job market before. It has always been a humbling and frustrating experience. That there are so many of us in the market now has made it no less so. In fact, the process of looking for a mutually beneficial professional relationship with a new employer seems to have become even more frustrating. And it’s not the economy, stupid.

If I have had one thing repeatedly proven to me in the past year, it is that many employers simply “don’t get it.” More often than not, applications for open positions are met with silence. Nothing. No reply at all.

Other times “due to the large number of applicants, this will be the only contact you receive from us, unless you are contacted for an interview.” In the worst cases, interviews are conducted with no follow-up contact on the final decision at all.

This is entirely unacceptable.

I’m sure I speak for many when I say that we aren’t looking for handwritten thank you notes and home-baked cookies. We’re looking for the professional courtesy of communication. I don’t even care if it is the rhetoric-filled, canned mass reply, as long as it lets me know where I stand. It is simply a part of the cost of doing businesses — and mass, blind, copied emails don’t cost a thing.

What potential employers who behave in this way “don’t get” is that every one of us (remember, that’s 752,094 New Yorkers) is a customer. Note that I didn’t say a potential customer, because by expressing interest in your company we have initiated that business relationship.

Think I’m wrong? Go talk to someone you know who is looking for work. Ask them about their experiences in the search. Did they experience any of what I describe, especially the more egregious slights? If so, ask them if they will give that employer their business? Will they ever apply there again?

Personally, I harbor no ill will for the employers who communicated with me about how impressive my credentials are, but that they’d found a better fit for the open position. I can disagree with a decision you’ve made and still feel good about your company. I suspect many people can.

With the unemployment rate so high the past couple of years, businesses are burning bridges and destroying relationships with the lifeblood of their existence, their customers, in record numbers.

We the unemployed are at a vulnerable position at this point in our lives. We will have long memories about those who treated us well, with professional courtesy and respect, and those who did not. The companies that will excel, and in some cases survive at all, are those that understand that every interaction you have says something about your company.

Ignoring people is certainly no road to success.

This entry was also published as an op-ed piece by the Syracuse Post Standard and on July 25, 2011.

The Road to Nashville…sort of

Picking the songs for NashvilleJohn Prine would have us believe “it’s a big old goofy world,” and I guess I’m fully bought in to that philosophy, given how many times I’ve found myself saying that very thing.

Exhibit A, at the moment anyway, comes as I await with great anticipation my forthcoming demo project via Cliff Goldmacher’s Nashville Studio Live.

Back in the mid ’90s to early 2000s I wrote a bunch of songs. I bought a four track recorder. I had more guitars than a hack like me should ever be allowed to look at, forget actually touch. I had some things to say and I worked long and hard to say them. Then, I put them away.

The thing is, they wouldn’t leave me alone. I won’t say that the home song demos I recorded haunted me, but they certainly wouldn’t let me be, either. They didn’t just sit there in the back of a drawer collecting dust and fading in to my own personal oblivion. It hasn’t been until very recently that I have understood why.

A song isn’t finished until someone hears it.

For those 16 years since I wrote the first of my songs, I have largely guarded them like some dirty little secret. Finding Cliff and NSL, though, has put some things clearly in to context for me.

I am a “non-performing songwriter.” This is something I have always known, but only recently have hung the name on. More than that, I have only recently made peace with the fact that this is something that is 100% OK. You see, I’m a guy who loves the work of Bruce Springsteen, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jackson Browne and Gretchen Peters. Those folks are all tremendously gifted, acclaimed and accomplished songwriters…who can rip your guts out, or make you weep with joy, when they perform the songs they’ve written. I couldn’t do that and I really didn’t know what to do about it relative to my own work.

In steps George Marinelli, founding member of Bruce Hornsby and the Range, longtime member of Bonnie Raitt’s Band, and all around great guy. One Friday not long ago, George on Twitter tweeted for “Follow Friday” a suggestion that folks follow Nashville Studio. I followed the link in their Twitter profile and this set the wheels in motion for my now impending songwriter demo sessions in early August (we’ll be cutting four songs). Thank you, George.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that reading the past year or so about the career arc of the great Matraca Berg has also inspired me to take this leap. While Matraca is a fine performer with a fantastic new album (The Dreaming Fields) recently released, her induction in to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame was largely earned by writing songs that other people made famous. Her new album comes a mere 14 years after her last fully new collection of songs was released.

Nashville Studio LiveThe technology to be able to cut songwriter demos in Nashville, while not taking on the cost of actually being in Nashville, is something that was not available to me when I was writing and recording my songs. That’s huge. More importantly, though, Cliff and his service have made me very comfortable with the idea that it’s OK to let the gifted guys who are playing on the demos bring them to life without me.

While I intend to market the songs once finished (Keith Urban, call me), I have no preconceived notions that anything much will become of them. I realize mentioning my songwriting in the same essay as I mention Matraca Berg and the others is more than a little bit over the top (and perhaps even laughable), but I try very hard to live my life in such a way that I don’t let myself make other people’s decisions for them. So, we shall see what happens.

If the only thing that comes of this is a wonderful experience, with musicians I respect highly, who have played on some of the music I love, then I cannot possibly wish for any more than that.

Well, I do wish I’d written “It’s A Big Old Goofy World.”