15 October 2021 -- Reboot

It’s been seven months since I posted anything new here, and I am sorry about that. I have missed you, and I have missed doing the work. I made a really strong start of things, posting daily for quite a while after launching this site in August 2020, but several forces have pushed me away from music over over the last half year or so — and especially over the last two months. I would like to unpack some of these things here so I can get a better handle on them moving forward.  

Oddly enough, when COVID restrictions starting letting up last March — and people starting playing and enjoying live music again — is precisely when I started to pull back on my musical efforts. Blacksburg has almost no live music scene to speak of, and when the few venues we have here started booking folks to play again, it was a bit of a crush as we all tried to get on their schedules. I really don’t want to compete with other musicians, especially my friends and other performers I know personally, so I just stepped back, hoping to give everyone just a little more space *and* to give myself some space, too, since hawking for gigs is one of my least favorite things to do.   

Moreover, being a musician is some people’s livelihood, their job, like my friend Kat Mills, a marvelous singer-songwriter here in Blacksburg. Music is really quite important to me, but it is not my career, and I certainly didn’t want to get in the way of people like Kat who were finally getting back to work after a painfully long hiatus. And some musicians just need to perform more than others, and I need to respect that, too. I am thinking here of Kat again, who has told me that she is first and foremost a performer, that she writes songs so that she can perform for an audience. That’s not my story. I’m not driven to perform. [In fact, it took me quite a while to get over my stage fright, but that’s the topic for another post.]  I am feeling increasingly driven to write songs, though, and I like to perform occasionally so that I can share those songs with folks, but I also have this site, Facebook, Instagram, and the like as ways to share those songs, too.  

What has really pushed away from music of late, though, is my job here at Virginia Tech. Two months ago I got an unexpected promotion to become the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Honors College. It’s a great fit for my skill set, I am engaged by the challenges of the new position, and I think I can do some good for the faculty and students I work for. Not gonna lie: I also got a nice raise. But it has been a *very* steep learning curve, and I often feel that I have accomplished very little at any given time, despite my seriously increased workload, other than put out the biggest fire burning that day. I have repeatedly felt like I am simply drowning in email. I am spending much, much more time on campus than I ever have before, and when I come home, I find I have little energy or motivation to play or write music.

Two factoids that might help shed some light on my current work situation. First, there is a surefire, undeniable way for me to know that I am running on a ragged edge at work, and that is when I find myself eating breakfast at McDonald’s. If I am eating a Sausage McMuffin, I am clearly in trouble. And I have eaten breakfast at McDonald’s a LOT this semester, and we are only half way through. Second, a few weekends back, I was at the grocery store around 11:00 am on a beautiful Saturday thinking, “You know, maybe we’re about to turn the corner. Maybe we are getting a handle on things.” And then my phone rang. It was my friend Ian Littlejohn, calling from the Blacksburg Farmers’ Market. “Hey, Paul,” he said, “Are you OK?” “Yes, Ian, I’m fine. Why do you ask?” “Well, because you are supposed to be here playing music this morning. . . .” I am still dumbfounded by this disaster. I *love* playing at the Blacksburg Farmers’ Market. How in the world could I have possibly forgotten about this gig?!  And what *else* of importance have I been simply forgetting of late in my overcommitted state?  I spent the rest of the weekend feeling very sorry for myself.  

That Monday, however, my friend, Karen Kaapcke, a painter in New York City, was visiting with the students in my creativity class via Zoom, and she said something striking: “Artists sometimes wonder how or even if they can continue doing their creative work when things in their personal lives get really difficult. We feel like we should shy away from our art, put our energies elsewhere, that it’s unseemly or selfish to be doing the work, or maybe just impossible to even try. But when things are going badly is *precisely* the time we should lean into the work.”  That brought me up short. Up to this point in the semester, I had been doing a pretty poor job of leading by example. I was definitely spouting “Do as I say, not as I do” as I urged the students to keep their hands in and keep pushing in their creative endeavors, even when exams, illnesses, roommate problems and the like were getting in the way. My hypocrisy was pretty arch and did not feel good at all. So I turned to Ollie, who sits in the first row, about five feet to my left and said, “Ollie, at the start of our next class, I want you to ask me how much time I have spent playing the guitar this week.”

In short, I made myself accountable, and I started to do the work again. And Karen is absolutely right: my attitude toward work and toward life has improved a LOT since I leaned into the discipline again. Writing songs is where I am supposed to be, and what I am supposed to be doing, no matter what else is going on inside or around me.  

In the last two weeks, I have written a new song from scratch and finished one that had music but no lyrics.  It feels good to be back in the game.