Bridging the Gap

In case anybody caught yesterday’s podcast, I had a weird realization when I got up this morning.  The Kids of course know my story — and I’ve told my story elsewhere on this blog.   But if you didn’t know that story, there’s a big gap in the information provided on that particular, spontaneous podcast.  It seems I never really explain how I got from living in that big mansion to being homeless on the California streets so quickly.    It then occurred to me, perhaps you would like to have that information as well.

So I dug up this talk I gave into my then-partner’s Motorola smartphone on July 3, 2018.  It tells the story, and then some.   Seems I was a lot more patriotic in those days, and I also knew a lot less about psychiatric conditions.  But the essence of the talk is neither my patriotism nor my lack of savvy.  It’s about classism in America, and social stigma, and the hope that one day, we will bridge the ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the super-poor in our society.   We are, after all, all human – and only human – each and every one.

Andy tells his story on July 3, 2018
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A Homeless Person Has a Life

The second column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-oriented site Spokane Faith and Values, where I have been writing throughout the pandemic.  Below is a verbatim transcript of the piece.  

I recently raised a public objection to the notion that I ought to change my phraseology from “homeless” to “houseless” in everything I write. I felt a bit miffed that the person who made this suggestion had never actually lived outdoors.  

But I am someone who has lived outdoors — not just for a while, but for years on end. During those years, I associated largely with others who were in the same boat. I learned how such people generally speak of themselves.   As a result, I use the words “outside” and “outdoors” more than either of the other two–and I feel compelled to explain why.

In a way, I have the same motive as those who wish to replace “homeless” with “houseless.” The word “homeless” has a lot of pejorative connotations.  But both of these words end with “less.” They still suggest that the person who lives outdoors is necessarily lacking something. But this is not always the case.

In my case, after struggling in and out of untenable living situations in the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, I made a conscious choice on April 15, 2011 to join an intentional homeless community. While most of us had experienced a crisis that led to a loss of residence, we unanimously believed that to live outdoors was the lesser of evils. For one thing, we found it preferable to live outside rather than to pay exorbitant rental fees for acceptable living situations (not to mention paying decent rent for unacceptable situations). 

In short, we had a heck of a time finding living situations in the Bay Area that were both affordable and acceptable. So for the time being, we were content to stay outdoors. 

It was there that I found the language most prevalent among all who shared my predicament. This was a simple exchange between the words “inside” and “outside.” If someone had a roof over their head, we said they were “inside.” If they didn’t, they were “outside.” This is how homeless people speak of themselves in the Bay Area. It’s also how they speak of themselves in Moscow, Idaho. And while I have never been homeless in Spokane, I wouldn’t doubt that this parlance is common there as well.

Is there a reason for this linguistic preference? I think there is. It speaks to the essential difference between two disparate camps. Some people have roofs over their heads, and some people don’t. Furthermore, there is nothing morally wrong with sleeping outside — so long as one is not sleeping on someone else’s property.  The landmark decision in Martin v. Boise would seem to support this.

This leads nicely into the second of the seven inequities I have wanted to discuss.

A Homeless Person Does Have a Life 

It was often assumed that, because we had wound up homeless, all of the conclusions we had drawn throughout our entire life span were in need of revision.

This led to an amusing observation. If a person had been a lifelong conservative, and they became homeless, that person was supposed to “become a liberal.” Why? Because the liberal social workers were feeding them.

If a person had been a liberal all their lives, and they became homeless, they were often told that they should “become a conservative.” Why?   Because the Salvation Army was feeding them. 

How many people in those days approached me in order to proselytize their particular version of Christianity? Very many. How many people asked me first if I already knew Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior? Very few. 

This imbalance appears to have evolved from some of the preconceptions I discussed last week. It was rarely considered that someone might have become homeless due to a lack of tenable housing. It was almost universally assumed that they became homeless because there was something wrong with them.

Homelessness is Not a Disease

In the rooms of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, there are many “clichés” or sayings intended to assist people who have hit huge “bottoms” in their lives. One of these is: “Your best thinking got you here.”  That statement is then followed by suggestions as to how the recovering addict or alcoholic might change their way of thinking, in accordance with the 12 steps.

I can understand how this would apply to the enormous losses one might incur through drug addiction or alcoholism. People do “drink themselves out of house and home.” Many people with drug problems wind up alienating friends and family, as well as landlords. Many do wind up outdoors. This cannot be denied.

But here I found myself having consciously chosen homelessness as the lesser of evils in a precarious life-situation that had yet to be resolved.  Numerous people approached me saying, in effect:”Your best thinking got you into this position. I have suggestions how you might change your way of thinking.”

I felt like saying: “I agree that my best thinking got me into this position.  But you have never been in this position; therefore you cannot advise me as to how to get out of it.” 

This is how the details of homelessness differ radically from the details of drug addiction or alcoholism. The A.A. member who makes that suggestion is a recovering alcoholic and does have valuable information to share.  But the person who, having always living indoors, makes such a suggestion to a homeless person, has no relevant personal experience. Therefore their suggestions, however well-intended, are not often useful.

This disparity — or inequity or imbalance — is something that can be solved through better communication. But before we can even begin to make that effort, we need to dignify, not only the homeless human being, but the homeless experience itself.

In short, there is nothing wrong with being homeless.

We need to understand this simple truth, and to have it acknowledged far and wide. Look how many people are on the streets! Despite the best efforts of all involved, that number is only bound to increase — especially now, when more people than ever are losing their homes.

We need to stop moralizing, and start accepting. We need to stop obligating people who sleep outside toward quick entries into undignified indoor living situations.  Homelessness is neither a crime nor a disease. We need to stop criminalizing the homeless, and we need to stop treating them as though they are sick. 

If we cannot truly help them to get inside, let us please make it easier for them to live outdoors.

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Talking Shop, Part One

This Wednesday’s podcast is an excerpt from a long conversation involving myself, Kelsey Chapman our Artistic Director, and Cooper Knutson our male lead in the ongoing workshop of my new musical Eden in Babylon.   If you’re interested in my personal story involving wealth, poverty, and homelessness, you probably don’t want to miss this one.   Toward the end, it fades after revealing the connection between my own story and that of the main character in the musical drama, whose name is Winston Greene.  

The song referenced by Cooper, called “Hunted,” involves Winston’s arrest in the second Act, which precedes his attempted assassination.  An instrumental version of it may be found here.   

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Tuesday Tuneup 103

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. Why do you ask?

Q. Aren’t you a little quiet this morning?

A. Didn’t sleep well enough.

Q. Can you get more sleep?

A. Maybe a nap, maybe later.

Q. Anything going on that you want to talk about this morning?

A. Well, I’m a bit down.   But I think it’s the kind of thing that more sleep will eliminate.

Q. Down about anything in particular?

A. My personality, I suppose, as usual.

Q. Down on yourself?

A. Yes and no.  I’m not down on my achievements, or my work.   But some of the dumb things I do kinda get to me every now and then.

Q. Like what?

A. We discussed it earlier.   I put my foot in my mouth sometimes.  It’s awkward.

Q. Is this that thing of “jumping the gun” again?

A. Yeah, that’s it.  Jumping the gun.   Speaking before I think.

Q. When was the last time you did that?

A. Oh, maybe last night.

Q. What was the context?

A. Talking to somebody from California.  I mentioned a great compliment I had received.   But it wasn’t to highlight the fact that I was complimented.  It was to illustrate a point.

Q. What was the point?

A. A parallel between the protagonist in my musical and my own personality, me being the one who wrote the musical.

Q. Somebody compared you to the main character in your musical?

A. Yes.

Q. In a good way, or in a bad way?

A. Oh – a very good way.  It was highly complimentary.  But the point is — it was a factual comparison.

Q. Factual?

A. Yes – it illustrated an intriguing parallel.   So I was hoping that the person from California would catch the parallel.  Instead, they only caught the fact that somebody had “said something sweet” to me.  The way they said it — “Ah, how sweet!” — indicated that they didn’t understand or appreciate the parallel.  They related to the fact that I was complimented — not to the substance of the complimentary statement.  They could have said it about somebody saying something nice about my shirt.

Q. So how did you put your foot in your mouth?

A. By calling attention to the fact that someone had complimented me, rather than to the dynamics of the intriguing psychological parallel in the first place.

Q. So the focus was on the fact that you were complimented, not on the essence of the complimentary statement?

A. You heard me!  It’s like I just said.  It was as though I spoke out of ego — out of wanting the Californian to know that I had been complimented — kinda like I would have done when I was still down in California.  But in so doing, I missed the opportunity to get an intriguing psychological phenomenon across to them.  In fact, I could have left myself out of the picture entirely, and it would have been a much more meaningful interaction.

Q. Why did you not do so?   Why did you call attention to the fact that someone had flattered you, rather than to the intellectual dynamics of an interesting topic in the first place?

A. Because I was talking with a Californian.

Q. But – but — why does it matter whether they were a Californian or not?

A. Because in California, everybody was either always very critical of me, or else they were feeding my ego with inordinate praise.

Q. So you inordinately praised yourself, in order to defray their criticisms?

A. Exactly.  I defended myself — even though I had not yet been attacked.

Q. Why do you stigmatize Californians?

A. I think “stereotype” would be a better word.

Q. So why stereotype them?   Why stereotype anybody?

A. I don’t know.   It took years for me to realize that my best possible solution in life was to simply leave the State of California.  Since then, I’ve basically been raving to old friends of mine how great it is up here in Idaho.   But they never receive the positive.   They just think I’m down on Californians for some reason.

Q. Are you?

A. Well — I can count the number of Californians I still talk to on one hand.

Q. What is it about California?

A. You got me, man.  They have this attitude — and I don’t like to stereotype people or box them in — I hate it when people do that to me — but it’s this glaring generalization that I can’t escape.   They somehow — in general — put forth the attitude that they’re better than the rest of us, simply because they live in California.  And it’s like whoop-de-doo.   For all the problems that California has, you’d think they’d stop telling everybody in all the other States how we’re supposed to live.

Q. Are you sure you want to post these words online, where everybody can see them?

A. Not really.

Q. Then why are you doing it?

A. Because of my personality.  I stick my foot in my mouth.  I don’t think before I speak.  I jump the gun.

Q. Can you get better at this?

A. Maybe.   Gradually over time, I suppose.

Q. Say — I just thought of something — were you hurt by the way you were treated in California?

A. Hurt doesn’t even say it.   I was  only as though I was a piece of garbage for about twelve years, while I and a bunch of other so-called pieces of garbage were struggling to survive.

Q. You mean, when you were homeless?

A. Yes.   When I was homeless.   When we were homeless.

Q. But nobody’s treating you like garbage now, are they?

A. Not that I can tell.

Q. Then why bemoan the past?

A. Because I have no guard against becoming homeless again.   I’m just a check or two away.   One single emergency, and I’m probably out on the streets.

Q. And then what?

A. Then we’ll see how all these people who seem to like me so much will treat me.

Q. But they’re not Californians, are they?

A. No – but they’re people.   And people have their ideas about homeless people.   They usually don’t change them — until they themselves become homeless.

The Questioner is silent. 

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Gratitude List 1654

(1) Taking a week off from EIB rehearsals was just about the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. I caught up on my sleep as well as on reading and housecleaning. Was also able to devote more time to my daughter and to my friends. Grateful for the power of rest.

(2) The first column in the five week series is beginning to take off, surprisingly enough. Though the essential message — having to do with stigma — is a challenge to articulate, I have confidence that after five weekly columns, I’ll have gotten the point across. Grateful for the opportunity.

(3) I’ve sold five new From a Distance piano albums already. Taking the cash bit by bit to the Dollar Store for groceries is reminiscent of a former time of thrift, when all throughout the 90’s I took my tip money four nights a week to a Lucky grocery store after getting off my regular gig at Gulliver’s Restaurant. Never had a food bill in those days, never had to go to a food bank, never went hungry.

(4) I was a new man when I arrived at the recording session yesterday. The spirit of professionalism was striking, and we nailed “Turns Toward Dawn” on the 3rd take. The way that Liam and Cody work together, both with expertise in their respective fields, neither having known the other before a few short weeks ago, is beyond impressive. After the session, we ran “Oracle.” This was the first time I’ve accompanied it since Cody took over teaching the choral parts, and it rocked. I was blessed — I was jazzed — I was proud.

(5) Grateful for my church, where I’ve been a member now for over 4 1/2 years. They have supported me in my best and put up with me in my worst. Very thankful for my new life in Idaho, after years of struggling on the San Francisco Bay Area streets.

Don’t lose faith. Promise yourself that you will be a success story, and I promise you that all the forces of the universe will unite to come to your aid; you might not feel it today or for a while, but the longer you wait the bigger the prize.   — George Bernard Shaw  

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The Challenge They Overlooked

I’m doing a five-week series on homelessness for Spokane Faith and Values.   While I don’t like to work on the Sabbath, I figure it’s not too much work to paste each column in the series here on five successive Saturdays.  The first column was published last Wednesday on this page, and a verbatim transcript of it follows below.   

I recently came out and identified myself as a person who lived largely outdoors throughout a 12-year period of time in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being as I was fortunate enough to escape the situation where a one-bedroom apartment rents for up to $3,000, and alight upon beautiful Moscow, Idaho where my current one-bedroom apartment rents for $481, I consider myself to be in the ideal position to express what homelessness is actually like. That is, from the perspective of those of us who have lived it.

Being an introverted artist-type, I was naturally overjoyed to find myself in the year 2016 to be a person who had now attained to quiet enjoyment of residence.  One of the first items of indoor convenience that I found myself extremely thankful for was something you might not expect:

Finally, I had my own power outlet. In fact, I had several. 

When I lived outdoors, it was a constant struggle to find a power outlet where I could plug in my laptop. Outdoor power outlets were scarce, and when I found one, I dared not use it very long. The thieves and vandals who roam the outdoors would have eventually found me. In fact, five laptops were stolen from me in a three year period of time in Berkeley and Oakland alone. Two of those thefts were the results of strong-armed robbery.

No longer did I have to worry about any of that. Nor did I have to be worried about being kicked out of coffeeshops, either because of a two-hour time limit in the crowded Bay Area, or because I was “one of them.” No longer did I have to face the situation of somebody refusing to serve me because I was a homeless person.  Though often they let me in, at other times they did not. There being many thieves on the streets, I can’t say that I entirely blamed them. On the other hand, I was not one of those thieves.  I was only an artist, trying to do his art.

“A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is His delight.”
— Proverbs 11:1

All of this points to a “false balance” — what I call an inequity. There was an unusual schism between those of us who lived outdoors, and those who did not. So, when I finally achieved the power outlet that I had been praying for, I set about to delineate these inequities for the good of those who still live inside. I did this in a spirit of conviction, knowing that many are losing their homes these days, and even more so during the current economic crunch.

I pinpointed seven inequities — instance of imbalance, or of injustice.   Seven disparities between the way the world is seen by those who live outside, and those who live indoors.

The first of these is couched within every word I have thus far written in this column. We who lived outside knew that our main day-to-day challenge was to deal with all the unusual features of outdoor living. Those who had not yet lived outdoors invariably thought that our challenge was something else.

In other words, people wanted to know what had made us homeless. In the process, the reality that we simply were homeless was often swept aside.

I can assure you that in the past five years in Idaho, I have done everything that would have “made me homeless” in California. And guess what? None of them ever made me homeless.

This stigma interfered with all our efforts to find dignified, indoor living. It was assumed that we were criminals. Surely we must be drug addicts or alcoholics. Or simply losers, with no work ethic.

At best, we were thought to have serious mental health disorders. If so, the stigma against those with mental health conditions also came into play. We found ourselves morally judged for internal mental conditions over which we had no control.

As a result, we were often directed toward living situations that we found worse than staying outdoors. Since we “couldn’t take care of ourselves,” we were referred to board-and-care homes. Since we were “drug addicts,” we were referred to rehabs. Since we were “crazy,” we were referred to psychiatric facilities. And since we were “criminals,” we were handcuffed and thrown into jails, often at the slightest of pretexts.

By no means am I trying to suggest that those elements do not entail within the realm of the many different sorts of people who live and sleep outside.  The National Coalition for the Homeless has estimated that roughly one out of every four people experiencing homelessness is drug-addicted. That’s a pretty high count — but what about the other three-fourth?

It is also estimated that about one-third of people enduring homelessness have serious mental health disorders. That’s a lot of people struggling — but what about the other two-thirds?

Not to mention, what proportion of criminals live inside? White-collar criminals who get away with it?  Employers who screw their workers out of wages? Addicts who can afford the designer drugs, and use those substances quietly behind closed doors?  All of these play into the biggest difficulty that we had in communicating with those who tried to help us.

It was very often thought that if we could solve all those other problems, we could solve the much huger problem that is homelessness. It was very seldom thought that if we were to solve homelessness, we would be in a better position to solve all those other problems. And it was rarely thought that few of those problems even applied.

I have six other inequities to describe before this series, God willing, is over. But first and foremost, the biggest inequity was this: It was often thought that we were homeless because we had failed in some other area. It was rarely thought that we were homeless because we had failed to sustain a home.  

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In the Bleak Midwinter

I’m sure there have been bleaker midwinters than this (but I’m not sure when.)  The image on the soundcloud is right outside my door, at around eight in the evening last night.   The music behind the image conveys my thoughts around the theme of “In the Bleak Midwinter” — the Harold Darke setting to the words of Christina Rossetti (not to be confused with the more well-known setting by Gustav Holst.)  I hope you enjoy my thoughts.   

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New Album: “From a Distance”

It’s been about a year now since I’ve released a piano album.   From a Distance reveals the best of what I’ve been able to produce throughout the year when we’ve been social distancing and sheltering in place.   Unlike previous albums – which were recorded either with a Motorola or a Samsung smartphone, all selections were recorded with either an iPhone 11 or an iPhone 7.  The result is a much higher sound quality.  I listened last night, and it really gives the listener the feeling that they are attending a private live piano concert.  

Here are the twelve selections on From a Distance:

The Letter – Wayne Carson
Desperado – Glenn Frey & Don Henley
The Way We Were – Marvin Hamlisch
We Three Kings – John Henry Hopkins Jr.
In the Bleak Midwinter – Harold Darke
Be Thou My Vision – Traditional (Irish Origin)
All the Things You Are – Jerome Kern
Somebody Loves Me – George Gershwin
I Get a Kick Out of You – Cole Porter
I’ve Never Been in Love Before – Frank Loesser
Never Never Land – Jule Styne
From a Distance – Julie Gold

So far the album is available only on CD.  If (like some of us) you still have an affinity for that particular medium, why don’t you leave a mailing address in the Contact form, and I’ll pop one in the mail.  I do request a $15 donation.  (You can make that where it says “donate” below the page here, or get back to me if you don’t use PayPal.)

I really think you’ll enjoy it.  (I’ll also be posting my version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” in about an hour, and “From a Distance” next Friday.)

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A Man of Integrity

I was very impressed with the psychiatrist I saw on the single day referenced in this story.  In fact, I put a call into the clinic this morning to see if I could use his name.   It being six years ago, however, he might not remember me.  It being a very memorable event, however, he just might.   Then again, he struck me as such an amazing individual, it’s quite likely that all his visits are just as memorable.  So maybe he won’t remember me after all.  We’ll see.

I believe it was the year 2015 when I decided I would try to get a $20 monthly disabled bus pass, rather than continue to hike up my transportation bill with two dollar drops here and there.  Because a regular bus pass was $80 in Alameda County at the time, I figured it was worth a shot.

As I strolled into the clinic where a psychiatrist was to evaluate my case, I saw a young doctor approaching me from down the hall.  He seemed a bit distraught, or perhaps preoccupied.

“Mr. Pope,” he addressed me.  “Right this way.”

He sat me down in his office and started us off with something unusual.   Apparently, he needed a twenty-minute recording for some sort of presentation before some kind of board.  Thinking I might fit the bill, he asked if he could interview me.

“There is methamphetamine abuse in your history,” he began. “Would you mind if I recorded your answers to some questions first?  Then we can see about getting you your disabled bus pass.”

“I don’t mind at all,” I agreed — even though I did mind.  I never could shake the “tweaker tag” that followed me around, year after year, via medical chart.  I believe I signed something, and the interview began.

Although I don’t recall the exact line of questioning, I was quite surprised when he stopped the recorder about five minutes into the interview.

“I don’t believe you!” he cried. “You are not coming across like a tweaker.”

“Thank you,” I said.  

“In fact, you are coming across like a highly intelligent, perfectly capable and competent man.  I’m sorry, Mr. Pope, but I do not believe you have a legitimate disability, and I am hesitant to sign for your disabled bus pass.”

“Well, um — it probably says on my chart that I am bipolar.”

“Yes it does.  And you are showing no symptoms of bipolar disorder either.”

“That’s probably because I’m not bipolar,” I continued.  “Ever since I had an episode in 2004 that I believe to have been medication-induced, doctors have been reading the word ‘bipolar’ on my chart and not questioning it.  In fact, you are the first clinician who ever has.”

“Does this disturb you?”

“Not at all,” I replied.  “I take it as integrity.”

The doctor paused for a moment.

“I take your statements as integrity, as well.”

“I appreciate that,” I replied.  “But I must say, there really is something wrong with me, and it really does keep me from being employable.”

His interest piqued.  “What do you think is wrong with you?” he asked.

“Well, for one thing, I am able to perform complex tasks that most people find almost impossible — such as typing at an extremely fast speed and playing a piano just as fast.  I have no trouble organizing my thoughts into complex sentences, and to create impressive improvisational music comes natural to me.  However, I am incapable of doing the simplest things that most people do routinely.  I have a really hard time buttoning my shirt and zipping up my pants.   My hands seem only designed to type and play a piano.”

“Go on,” he said, seeming to be intrigued.

“I have great difficulty concentrating.  Oh, I concentrate fine — until I come up against a snag.  Then my mind drifts off into outer space, and I have the devil of a time returning to the intended point of focus.  Although I write profusely, I can count the number of books I’ve read cover to cover on two hands.   My mind spaces out when I’m reading, and sometimes even finds itself rewriting the book I’m reading — all before I realize what I’m doing.   Couldn’t get a college degree, in fact.  Couldn’t handle the reading load. “

“Stop right there!” he exclaimed excitedly.  “Now I have something I can use.”

He turned the recorder back on and let me speak for another twenty minutes.  Then I watched as he immediately picked up my papers, and signed for me to receive a disabled bus pass.

My jaw dropped open.  “Wow!” I shouted.  “What is wrong with me?”

“You’re ADD, man!!”

I tend to doubt that the good doctor will remember me — at least not by name.  And with the fast pace of the business in the Bay Area, he may well choose not to return my call.  It was that very fast pace, however, that led one doctor after another not to question the misdiagnosis they were reading on my charts.  In such an environment, it was certainly refreshing to encounter a doctor whose professional integrity exceeded his sense of hurry.   We’ll see if he returns my call.  

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Tuesday Tuneup 102

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. A place of extreme excess.

Q. What do you mean?

A. I’m extremely excessive.

Q. How so?

A. Well, for one thing, I talk too much.

Q. But aren’t you an Introvert?

A. That I am.

Q. But aren’t most Introverts very quiet people?

A. Probably.   I’ve met a few others who are pretty chatty, though.

Q. Do you find those people to be extremely excessive?

A. No, not really.

Q. Then why do you think of you yourself as such?

A. Well, it’s not just that I talk too much.

Q. What else do you do?

A. I don’t think before I speak.

Q. Do you speak too soon?

A. Yes.  And often, there are consequences.

Q. What kinds of consequences?

A. I wind up annoying people.   Being in a leadership position, I give instructions that somebody begins to act upon, and later I realize the instructions were incorrect, and I alter the instructions after the fact, expecting them to switch gears and act upon them.  Very poor leadership, on my part.

Q. So you’re saying that you “jump the gun?”

A. Yes.

Q. Has anyone conveyed to you that they are annoyed with you?

A. No – not exactly . . .

Q. Why do you think this is?

A. Well obviously, they’re too polite to tell me, and they’re afraid of hurting my feelings.

Q. But you are convinced that they are annoyed with you?

A. Yes.

Q. What does it matter what they think?

A. Oh I don’t know.  I guess it doesn’t matter what they think, so much as it matters whether or not I do the right thing.

Q. And what is the right thing?

A. I’ve already told you!  I need to stop talking so much, and I need to think before I speak.  But that’s not all.

Q. What else is there?

A. Sometimes when I get super-stressed, I deliver a message to the wrong recipients.  A message that is supposed to go to say, a therapist or counselor, somehow goes to one of the people who is working for me.

Q. So you dump on them?

A. You might say so.

Q. Now what do all these things have in common?

A. Impatience.   I am too impatient.   Maybe not the talking too much — but the jumping the gun, and the need to vent — it all points to a spiritual problem.   I must be more patient.

Q. Can you now begin to do so?

A. Only if I trust God for the results.  I tend not to do that.  I don’t trust that the Universe is going to unfold as it should — if only I get out of its way.  Rather, I think that I have to do everything myself.

Q. Where does that come from?

A. Lack of faith.

Q. So you need more patience and you need more faith?

A. It would seem so, yes.

Q. Seem so?

A. Things are not always what they seem.

Q. What do you mean?

A. I already have faith.  I already have patience.  These are fruits of the Spirit.  And I already have the Spirit.  Faith, patience, love, joy, peace — these are all in me.   They’re inbred in our Divine Design.  I just need to exercise them — to practice them.

Q. Are you perfect?   Doesn’t everybody make mistakes?

A. But Jesus said: “Be therefore perfect – even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

Q. Why do you think he said that?

A. He wanted to inspire us to the highest possible standard.

Q. Has anyone ever achieved the highest possible standard?

A. Only one man has done so, in my opinion.

Q. So if only Jesus has achieved the highest possible standard — in your opinion — why are you so hard on yourself?

A. I don’t know.  It just seems that — nobody has ever accomplished anything truly great by going easy on themselves.

The Questioner is silent.  

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Gratitude List 1652

(1) Health and self-care have been distinctly better since having finally finished a very challenging and unanticipated task. Actually got eight hours sleep the night before last, and six hours last night. Starting to run again – did three miles in the snow with my NanoSpikes. Sat down to meditate thereafter, and though I slept through most of the twenty minutes, it still seemed beneficial.

(2) Finished the first column for the five-week series on Spokane Faith and Values. Completed a draft of the second column, which I’m about to edit and submit. Grateful for the opportunity.

(3) It was nice to hear my daughter introduce me to a friend of hers yesterday by saying: “This is my dad Andy.  He was on the streets for like thirteen years and now he’s a published journalist and widely respected, and they’re producing a musical he wrote about youth homelessness.”  (A bit hyperbolic on both ends, but still nice to hear.) Grateful for a daughter who is proud of me.

(4) Big night tonight, if Cooper doesn’t get snowed out on the mountainous 30 mile drive.  Five musicians and five singers are going to be gathering with sound engineer and all kinds of recording equipment, hopefully to record “Sirens of Hope” and “Turns Toward Dawn” before we lose Cooper to a lead in a TV series.   (Asking for prayer).  

(5) Observed a very restful Sabbath on Saturday, which no doubt contributed to the unprecedented eight hours of sleep.  One thing I did do was fix the ending to Desperado.  It was a labor of love as opposed to all the stressful stuff that constitutes “work” in our high-pressure, fast-paced society.  You might check it out — we all need to let Somebody love us — before it’s too late.

The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, power and grace. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Won’t They Ever Learn?

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt; their acts are vile.
There is no one who does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven
upon the sons of men
to see if any understand,
if any seek God.
All have turned away,
they have together become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
Will the workers of iniquity never learn?
They devour my people like bread;
they refuse to call upon the LORD.
There they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is in the company of the righteous.
You sinners frustrate the plans of the oppressed,
yet the LORD is their shelter.
— Psalm 14:1-6

Don’t Fear the Reaper

It was late one afternoon in the year 2012 as I departed from Ohlone Park, where I had been sleeping all day in the sun.  As I walked slowly into town, I had felt a kind of pathos that I related, not specifically to my homeless condition, but to my overall position on the planet.

“I really am not meant for this world,” I told myself.  “Who am I trying to fool?”

At that thought, a very slow strain of song began to well up inside me.   Very low notes, in a minor key, sung very slowly.   I remember likening the strain to a dirge — to music that might accompany a funeral.   

I must have appeared to be either very pensive or very downtrodden.   I recall a woman with dark hair stopping to look at me.  She gestured toward me as though to ask me if I needed help, or if I wanted to talk.  But I only looked at her and smiled — and kept on going.

The theme developed into eight measures of true melancholy and darkness.  I couldn’t get the music of my mind.   Then, as I entered onto Shattuck Avenue, I ran into my friends Jerome and D’Angelo — two very large African-American men with whom I was camping out at the time.  (We were sleeping in a vacant lot, and I felt their presence often protected me, as I sometimes stayed up working on my laptop throughout the night.)

“Jerome!” I cried.  “D’Angelo — I’ve got this song in me.  It’s deep.  I’m not quite sure where it came from.”

“Can we hear it?” asked Jerome.

“Of course,” I replied.  “But let’s seek a place in private.”

The three of us then walked to the Redwoods, where we stood beneath the tall trees during the setting sun.  No one was within sight, as I slowly sang the eerie melody.  I sang four measures slowly, then paused.  I then sang the same four measures again, getting even slower at the end.

Their reactions are unforgettable to this day.

D’Angelo looked aghast, almost shocked — almost terrified.

“You better take that song right back where it came from!”  He cried.  “That is dark – it’s a song of death!  I believe it is evil!”

“No, no,” Jerome, a brilliant writer, was quick to disagree.  “Dark is good.  Andy should keep that passage – and expand upon it.”

I recall watching D’Angelo look over to his best friend Jerome silently.  Of course, anyone who knows me knows already that I took Jerome’s advice.

I walked slowly about the city of Berkeley that evening.  I walked in dark corridors, in quiet places where people were not gathered.  By the end of the night, I had the A Part, and the B Part, and a little bridge.

I also has a Dell laptop in those days, with Finale software installed.  So it wasn’t long before I came up with the saxophone solo, the wooden clarinet, the harp, and other instruments.  It was at first wooden and pastoral, then brassy and urban.  I remember going over to this guy Lorenzo’s apartment with it – I remember playing the fully sequenced version below for a homeless journalist we called James the Greater.

It was on that night that the Urban Elegy was born.

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Tuesday Tuneup 101

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. To be honest with you, it varies from one moment to the next.   Sometimes I’m coming from a place of peace and love toward all humanity.   At other times, I’m coming from anger.

Q. Anger?

A. Well – I like to call it “righteous indignation.”

Q. Are you indignant at the moment?

A. No, not really.

Q. Are you coming from a place of peace and love toward all humanity?

A. Well, I wouldn’t say all humanity —

Q. Then where are you coming from at this moment?

Pause.

A. A very pensive place.  A place of thinking things over.

Q. Why is that?

A. I imploded the other day.  I shut down from stress.  I got to the point where the deadline, however self-imposed, was so much more important than any other thing in life — including my own self-care — that I literally shut down.   I became non-functional.  I imploded.

Q. Did anybody witness the implosion?  Or was it completely internal?

A. Oh, it was seen all right!   I wonder, however, if they knew the extent of it.

Q. Were you trying to hide it?

A. Yes and no.  I didn’t hide the fact that I was upset about something.  But I don’t think I conveyed the full extent of the inner implosion.

Q. Why not?

A. It would have been rude, ugly, and self-centered.

Q. So you suppressed it?

A. Well, I never exactly expressed it.

Q. What did you express?

A. Oh, some minor peeve that everybody knew I would get over in minute or two.

Q. But what was really going on?

A. Extreme insecurity.   We all implode every now and then — but me personally, I prefer to implode in private.

Q. So you were afraid that they would detect your implosion?

A. Exactly.  As I collapsed inwardly under the stress of pressure and deadline, I began to throw out smokescreens, in an effort to divert attention away from the implosion.

Q. Did it work?

A. I think so.  I think they just thought I was irritated.

Q. What exactly do you mean by “implosion?”

A. Well – it’s hard to define.   This graph, however, may be useful:

implosion

Q. Where did you get that graph?

A. Free Thesaurus.  

Q. To which of those external manifestations did your implosion lead you?

A. What do you mean?

Q. I mean – on the circle there – did you explode?  Did you go off?  Did you collapse?

A. Almost all apply.  But mostly, I think I “broke.”

Q. What did you break?

A. I broke my resolve.   I broke my code.  I broke my standard as to how I am to comport myself among the others.

Q. The others?

A. The other Artists.  The Artists who were, at that moment, in my midst.

Q. What is your code?

A. I could write books about it.

Q. Can you capsulize?

A. I’ll try.

Pause.

A. My code is not to be a people-pleaser.  Not to say or do things because I am trying to get a favorable reaction from one or more of the other Artists.   Obviously, I cannot please everybody.  And in such a small, close-knit group, such measures  — born entirely of personal insecurity — are transparent.

Q. Have you not only told me what your code is not?

A. Can you repeat that, please?

Q. I said: “Have you not only told me what your code is not?”

A. Ah, I see.  I have in fact only told you what I aspire not to do.

Q. But what do you aspire to do instead?

A. I aspire to act according to the standard.

Q. The Moral Standard?

A. Well – that goes without saying.  But it’s not the standard that is most applicable in this context.

Q. What standard is that?

A. The Aesthetic Standard.

Q. Clarify?

A. I believe in an absolute aesthetic standard.   Just as with morality — and in my view, ethics — there is a standard of Beauty for which we all must strive.

Q. How does this apply in the context of the Artists?

A. Because we’re trying to get it just right.  We’re trying to make it as beautiful as we can make it.  And if we fall short, we feel it.  It drags down the energy of the whole room.   When we come closer to it, we feel that too — and it lifts up our hearts.

Q. Wow — so, this people-pleasing of yours, it interferes with the striving for the standard?

A. Of course it does.  People-pleasing is ugly.  The standard is beautiful.  But the gist of this discussion is merely this:

As long as I stay focused on our mutual desire to reach the highest Artistic standard, I will avoid my self-centered desire to make positive impressions on the other Artists.  And then, ironically, I will probably make the best impression I can possibly ever make.   Because it will no longer be I who seeks to impress.  It will be that which I and the other Artists have mutually created.  

It is that final Artistic product that I hope — that we hope — will impress the world.

The Questioner is silent.   

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Gratitude List 1651

(1) Finally got that huge project concerning the time signature change out of the way.  Even got inspired in the process and heard some cool three part harmonies in my head that I was able to add to the score.   The result is a 12-page combined vocal, bass and guitar score to my song The Word from Beyond.  I’m not only proud of my work, I am relieved and thankful to have finished it.

(2) Really enjoyed the Coffee Talk on Saturday morning. I always enjoy hearing the perspectives of all the religious journalists, and often more so, the atheists who are clearly freethinkers and untainted by dogmatic doctrine.

(3) One of the Kids came over and helped me clean up the house.  Got a jump start anyway – still gotta do the bathroom.  She sang while she worked, too.  Nice to have supportive people in my life.

(4) I agreed with my editor-in-chief to a five-week series on a certain theme, to begin on the 17th and run for five consecutive Wednesdays.   Also, my Hobo, Homeless or Houseless piece will be published this Wednesday.   So I get six in a row — this could lead to something even better.

(5) I hope you enjoy this rehearsal version of The Urban Elegy that we did yesterday.  It’s a rough recording, but the essence of the song is there.   You can hear the Wendt Brothers harmonies as well as solos by Zazen and Keva, and four part harmonies throughout.   I’m proud of these young Artists.  We’re all proud — and I’m grateful.

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Hobo, Homeless or Houseless

Submitted this morning to Tracy Simmons, editor-in-chief of Spokane Faith and Values.  

I recently learned that the word “homeless” is no longer considered politically correct among many people currently working in related services. It has been replaced by “houseless” because the word “homeless” has developed “pejorative connotations.”

Arguably, the word “homeless” replaced the word “hobo” because the latter had developed pejorative connotations.  Logically, it is only a matter of time before the word “houseless” develops pejorative connotations.

But I am not here to lambaste the concept of political correctness.   Personally, I think P.C. is a great idea in theory, but in practice it burns more bridges than it builds.

If this offends my lefter-leaning friends, so be it.  I find myself often wishing I could be seen as a person who cares about World Peace and social justice without having to get crammed into the liberal “box” — and this is one reason why I am not comfortable identifying as a “liberal” — even though I am more than happy to identify as a “progressive.”

(Another reason is because the word “liberal” has connotations that may suggest a permissive lifestyle, which as a Christ follower is not my bag.  “Progressive” works because I’d definitely like to see us build a better, more solid, less divided society.)

To the point, I am not about to change my language.  For the past five years, I have been writing profusely and passionately about the homeless experience. My writings include a full-length musical about youth homelessness in urban America, as well as numerous blogs, essays, and published articles. The idea that I need to change my language is almost Orwellian. It is not as though I can pretend that we are suddenly at war with “Eurasia” and not “Europia.”

Also, in case it hasn’t been clear, my homeless rights advocacy is not the result of an unusual and unfounded compassion for those experiencing the homeless condition. I myself was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know whereof I speak from personal experience, and I network with others who have shared that experience. I have been trying to contact my friends from Berkeley, California who have also experienced homelessness, one of whom I have interviewed on this site. Though no one there has gotten back to me yet, I seriously doubt that this fix was effected by a homeless person, or by anyone who has ever experienced that condition.

I did learn in discussing the matter with the graveyard shift worker at the corner store that she had been homeless for several years as well. She told me she knows of no homeless or formerly homeless friend who would identify themselves as “houseless.” She also made the interesting analogy that, although she identifies as “queer,” people who do not share her orientation object to her identification. Of course, having been homeless herself, she knew as well as I do that one of the worst things about living outdoors is that people who lived indoors often told us how we were supposed to identify ourselves.

And yet, when we pleaded with them not to use words like “housed” and “shelter’ in reference to us when we were seeking residence — but to please say “found a place” or “place to live” instead – it fell on deaf ears. Why? Because we were not people. We were homeless people. A person can look can look for a place to live. A homeless person has to look for shelter.

Do you think for one moment than when I left twelve years of homeless and borderline-homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I finally moved to Moscow Idaho in a successful search for dignified, indoor residence, I told the prospective landlord that I had been homeless? Or that I was looking for “shelter?” Of course not! Think about it! He’d have moved on to the next applicant.

In fact, when I later tried to help an elderly man experiencing homelessness get an apartment in that same complex, the landlord told me: “I’m sorry, Andy. If I let him in, I’ll have to let them all in.”

While the conversation with the woman in the store was somewhat comforting, it did little to assuage my concerns. In fact, I couldn’t sleep till three in the morning, and woke up at 5:30 feeling nauseous.

That nausea persists to this moment. But I do want to make a statement in closing. That statement is simply this:

The day when we learn that it is more important to listen to the words of people who have experienced something that we have not, and that it is more important to raise awareness of that condition, than it is to label it with words that we find less offensive or pejorative, that will truly be a very great day.

The problem with political correctness in this instance is that it bi-passes the need to actually decriminalize and rehumanize the homeless individual, by choosing a different term that will be “less pejorative” rather than by dealing with the pejorative discriminations and prejudices themselves.

I’m in a lot of pain. What a sorrowful turn of events for Homeless Rights Activism.

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Homeless at the Piano

The other day I was leafing through old WordPress posts, after Ashley Peterson submitted an intriguing post around the concept of editing past material. It didn’t come as much of a surprise that many of my older posts reflected a different spirit or attitude than I have today. Therefore, outside of minor edits (spelling, grammatical, etc.), I decided not to edit my content. It would seem hypocritical of me to do so, even if I disagree today with what I wrote back then.

One thing that glared was how much black-and-white thinking there was back in those days, and how I would often hyperbolize for the sake of emphasis, in a way that could easily have belied my statements. For example, at one point I wrote something to this effect:

“Here in my new life, lots of people like to listen to me play the piano. When I was homeless, the only people who ever cared about my music were other homeless people.”

This is both black-and-white and hyperbolic. While it is true that most of the people who cared about my music were homeless, it is not true that nobody who lived indoors didn’t care to listen. Also, it’s natural that most of my listeners were homeless, simply because I myself was homeless, and I mostly hung out with homeless people.

Let me tell you a story that exemplifies this.

Piano Key- Middle C In Grunge Stock Image - Image of black ...

We who were over 55 had the privilege of hanging out at the Senior Center, where there happened to be three pianos. In the morning, I would sign in, and head for the Baldwin upright in a distant room in the corner of the building. I did this for the sake of privacy, because I was afraid of making too much of a scene at the other two pianos, where I could more easily heard. I didn’t want somebody to tell me to stop playing, because I might have been making too much noise.

Next to the little room on the corner was a room with a number of pool tables. Early in the morning, a group of people who happened to be almost entirely African-American homeless men would congregate to play pool.

Naturally, they would hear the piano, and sometimes come into the room to listen. I remember playing the jazz break in the song Skylark, and looking up and a man was smiling, snapping his fingers. Another time, I looked up after the song, and five Black men were clapping wildly outside the door.

Of course, this was gratifying. Every musician loves an audience.

But one day, I went to the piano at eight in the morning as usual, and there was a sign on the door of the adjacent room, to the effect that it was closed for repairs. But something seemed odd. It didn’t really seem like anything needed repair, nor was anyone repairing the room.

Disgruntled, I approached the front desk and spoke with one of the administrative aides, whose name was Laura.

“Why is the pool room closed?”

“Uh – the guys were making quite a ruckus, and they kinda smelled of alcohol, and they were starting to get a little loose with our property – and you know, we had to shut it down.”

“But Laura, you guys just took my audience away!”

“What do you mean, Andy?”

“Those guys were always clapping for me, and cheering, and all that! Now I don’t have anyone listening!”

“Well Andy, why you just play the Yamaha in the auditorium near thhe main dining area?”

Puzzled, I replied: “But then you guys are all gonna hear me.”

“But Andy – we want to hear you!!”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling strangely enlightened. “Well, in that case, I guess I’ll play.”

Long story short, it wasn’t too much longer before a number of Senior Center employees were sitting in the auditorium with their smartphones and tripods, filming a concert that I performed at the North Berkeley Senior Center. In fact, I played the music to Turns Toward Dawn at that concert, though the lyrics were not written till 2018, when I was already in Moscow.

I believe I still have the videos to that concert in storage somewhere. I might fish them out at a later time. But I gotta be honest with you — when I look at the man who played that concert, he does not look like the man people look at today. I easily looked ten years older than I do now. (Why my posture was better, I have no idea.)

All vanity aside, what is your take on all this? I mean, sociologically? Psychologically? It seems a bit unusual that I would have restricted my musical offerings to other homeless people. I have my theories, but it would be interesting to hear yours.

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Tuesday Tuneup 100

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. What do you mean, where am I coming from?

Q. Just what I asked – where are you coming from?

A. Don’t you usually open with a different question?

Q. What do you mean?

A. Don’t you usually ask me: “what’s happening now?” on Tuesday mornings?

Q. Don’t you think it’s time we came up with a different opening question?

A. Come to think of it — now that you mention it – I was getting a little tired of that question.

Q. Why is that?

A. For one thing, I was running out of answers.   

Q. Do you like the new question?

A. Kinda.  I just think that if somebody’s passing by this morning, and they’ve never read one of my Tuesday Tuneups, they’re going to wonder what the heck we’re talking about.

Q. But can’t they just click on one of the three Tuesday Tuneups below and figure it out?

A. Sure — that is, if they care to.   Why should they not just surf off to some blog that makes more sense than this one?

Q. So what if they do?

A. What do you mean?

Q. Why should you care?

A. Good point.   It’s not as though I’m exactly into “collecting followers.”   WordPress tells me I’ve got almost 1000 by now, but I can guarantee you there are probably less than 100 who actually follow.  And I can only think of five or ten to whom this Tuneup will even be appreciable.   And even those people might be bored by now.

Q. Do you want to change the subject?

A. Kinda.

Q. What would you rather talk about?

A. Basically, I want to tell you where I’m coming from.  I never answered your first question in the first place.

Q. Well, where are you coming from?

A. Brain-dead. 

Q. Brain dead?

A. In a daze.

Q. Why’s that?

A. Oh – I busted my butt trying to get all this stuff done by last night.   By the time we had the first joint rehearsal of all the musicians and singers, the band had all their parts written in 4/4 swing and the singers were still working out of the book where the song was in 6/8.  This meant the measure numbers were different in both books.   It stretched the limits of my intellectual faculties trying to keep things moving.

Q. But wasn’t Cody in charge of the singers?

A. Cody was working with the singers in Room 33 using the Green Piano.  It’s a large room and the seven singers could social-distance there.  I was working with the band on the chancel in the sanctuary.  But since only three of the band members showed up, we decided to combine the two for the last half of rehearsal, because 7 + 3 = 10, which is the legal limit for a gathering under the city ordinance.

Q. And how did that go?

A. Well, outside of the conundrum I just tried to describe, it was wonderful.   With what Cody Wendt has done for our singers, combined with what the musicians from the School of Music are doing, I couldn’t be happier.   I hadn’t been sleeping well for stress of deadline and pressure..  But last night I conked out and slept the sweet sleep of the innocent.   Woke up a new man, although —

Q. Although brain-dead?

A. Not anymore!

Q. Why is that?

A. Good coffee.  And I’m going to put it to good use.

Q. How so?

A. You don’t know?  I gotta get those vocal parts into the right time signature!

Q. Aren’t you a bit imbalanced these days?

A. Well – duh!   That’s what happens when you have deadlines.   You let everything else go, you don’t clean the kitchen, you don’t clean the bathroom – you cram as if your life depending on it.

Q. And is this healthy?

A. Not at all.  It’s just modern life.

Q. What do you make of it?

A. In the ideal world, there would never be any deadlines, any pressures at all.  As I just told Lauren Sapala, I would work at my own pace, slowly and steadily, and not release my work until it was absolutely complete.

Q. Isn’t that called perfectionism?

A. Not in my book.  It only becomes perfectionism when you have to rush to meet a deadline.  So you turn in a half-done job, like I did last night, and when you whine about it, people call you a perfectionist.  If there were no deadlines, there would be no perfectionism.

Q. What would there be?

A. There would be a beautiful new world full of relaxed people who have time for each other and who don’t block other people out of their lives only because they have to meet a deadline.  We would all stop running The Marathon Race to Hell.  

The Questioner is silent.  

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Gratitude List 1650

(1) Although I’ve had a very rough week — underslept, brain-dead, irritable — I’ve noticed that I perk up whenever I think of the Kids. Something about the way they’re so into it — it’s inspiring. They make me feel good about myself, and about what I have to offer.

(2) Really happy that Cody has taken over the teaching of the music. I sat in at the end of one of the rehearsals yesterday, and I was very impressed with his work. In fact, I was impressed with all of them. They seemed eager to show me what they’d accomplished. And when they showed me, I was proud.

(3) Stressing over the drum parts, I decided I needed help. So I went over to the School of Music and talked to the jazz professor there, who happens to be a percussionist, to see if maybe a student could help me out for credit. To my amazement, he told me he’d be happy to score the parts himself.

(4) Realizing I really didn’t have time to score all the saxophone parts either, I approached the sax player and proposed that he score the part in exchange for a stipend. He agreed, and that’s one less thing to worry about. Now I have more time to read Ashley Peterson’s blog, for which I am also very grateful. You learn something new there every day.

(5) Managed to squeeze in a new article for the religious site. It’s called “Diverse Not Divisive.” I’m grateful that the journalism hasn’t fallen completely by the wayside, but what I’m really grateful for is that Eden in Babylon is beginning to have the feel of a community project — a collaborative effort. I’ve never known a place like this before in all my life. This town is just what it claims to be. It truly is the Heart of the Arts.

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