Mojo Bag

He was the gangly Karate Kid back in 1980-something, but Ralph Macchio struck an equally nostalgic chord (pun intended) as Eugene, the wannabe-blues guitar player from Long Island. This was in the movie Crossroads, a flick that burned out those VHS heads from overplay in the Taylor homestead.

Those who’ve seen this oldie (well it’s an oldie where I come from, McFly), will remember Eugene hitchhiking the road with his yellow Telecaster, bland fedora and blazer getup, walking the sun-baked miles next to his mentor Willie, aka: Blind Dog Fulton (beautifully and unsettlingly played by the late Joe Seneca).

The movie was far from perfect, and I still swear all that fast guitar filming was sped up a half-step to sound Paganini fast (no disrespect to Steve Vai, who is awesome), but there was a scene right before the final showdown where the elderly Willie passed on a bag of Mojo to young Eugene. “I’m giving you all the magic I got,” Willie exclaimed. This is the part where a seriousness passes between the two where Eugene, who previously called ‘bullshit’ to all this devil/crossroads folklore, starts to feel that he is about to face down a real monster.

The mojo bag.

I looked it up. There are a lot of variations, but the typical mojo bag is small and can fit in one’s hand. It’s usually velvet-like in texture, with a drawstring to close up the magical contents inside. You can buy one conveniently through your Paypal account or go the YouTube route and DIY. What you put inside the bag is supposed to be magic. For some, that can be animal bones, hair, Xanax, the dung of ancestors, cat vomit, or voodoo-god-knows-what-else.

Years ago, I had a mechanical pencil that I took with me for every test during the hundred years I spent in college. The pencil was nearly falling apart by the time I graduated, held together by scotch tape and crazy glue. It’s now somewhere in a toolbox of forgotten things, but, man, did I need that pencil to cope with test-stress back in the day.

Then for a short time back in the 90s (because they were in style), I carried around a miniature, plastic troll on a key chain. It served no purpose, but I had to make sure it was with me wherever I went. If I left it at home, I was convinced something had shifted in the universe against my favor.

And for a while, index cards ruled my pockets. I had to have one everywhere I went. I didn’t always write useful quips on them like Anne Lamott suggested, but – dammit – the index cards had to be in my pockets or else I felt something was missing in my life.

There’s this three-year-old that lives in my house who swears by his blankie. It’s not just a security blanket that Linus Van Pelt would approve, but it has magic powers. It keeps the monsters away at night, and it adds an invisible shield of comfort and protection everywhere it goes. And if the magic fades, one simply passes the blanket through the washing machine to restore its powers.

Ironclad confidence, peace and security, when found, are forms of magic — especially for children. Maybe it will take a special coin, rock, or doll to help the kids along as they grow up and become adults to continue searching for new magic. Maybe it’s a lie that we tell children that eventually becomes the truth on the chance that we make them believe in themselves, like the bits of confetti we put under their pillows at night to make the next day at kindergarten tolerable.

Maybe the mojo bag is a bag filled with lies inside. And if you don’t believe the lies, the magic won’t work. You can fill it with pencils, trolls, and index cards, but what good will that do if you don’t believe in their power. It surely won’t help you beat the devil at the crossroads.

But maybe the person giving you the mojo bag has the real magic, and maybe that magic does work when it’s passed on to you. It doesn’t have to be in the form of a small bag you can buy at a gift shop in New Orleans. It can be encouraging words, a hug, a moment of quality time, or a feeling of nurturing support. And this all doesn’t have to come just from someone else; it can come from within. That’s the real mojo, right there.

In the meantime, it’s okay if we personify an object and make it house our confidence and self-assurance. Sure, let’s bottle it and sell it to ourselves. After all, it’s never about the object anyway. It’s about releasing what’s already there inside us the whole time.


I'm giving you all the magic I got!
I’m giving you all the magic I got!



It Takes This Long to Learn the Guitar

How long does it take to learn how to play the guitar?

The answer is: when you stop playing, you stop learning.

It’s been said that writers are born, not made.

So are athletes.

So are scientists.

So are cookie chefs.

Sounds like something most elitists would say, especially those crustacean cookie snobs.

Reading comes easy for my little girl, but she was not born to do a forward roll in gym class with ease. I am also guilty of many shortcomings, forward rolls included.

A neighbor of mine plays hockey professionally. After seeing a set of shiny golf clubs in his garage one day, I joked if his swing was as good as Happy Gilmore’s. His response was a modest nod, and I did well to hide my jealousy. Share the wealth, pal.

Advantage may come down to just physical biology.

Your muscles, your connective tissues, your joints, your bones, your brain and your heart may function far superior to mine. From this, you may be more adept than I am at climbing tall trees. In many of us, we are as unbalanced as we are sturdy. We may stand steady on one leg while teetering on the other. But it’s not just about functional strength.

It’s being awesome at choosing the right colors when decorating a room.

It’s being able to tell great stories.

It’s being able to sing like golden honey.

We call them gifts.

These are the innate abilities we have that make us unique. Sure you have prowess of balance because you have mastered all that fleshy matter around your ankles, but does that mean you are born to be a champion clog dancer?

Consider what follows as a letter to my children:

I’m left-handed and left-brained. So I had no business picking up the guitar, let alone learning it right-handed. It took several years just to get comfortable with it. Though I claim to be no master at it, it was something I was just determined to learn. Hours and days and weeks. Call it naive stubbornness, but I’d like to think of it as courageous persistence.

If you really want to learn something and be good or even great at it, you already have what it takes.

Persistence. Heart. Courage. Discipline.

It’s going to mean chunks of time out of life, but you will make progress if you really want it.

It has nothing to do with being born flat-footed, or having less speed and strength than those you admire. Some of those athletes on the field have to work three times as hard just to stay competent.

Avoid gauging your progress and abilities against the success and abilities of others. You should focus on yourself as your measure.

Find your reasons for why you want to learn something so it can become your gift. If it’s because you want to imitate your heroes, you should visualize yourself at your funeral and hope there are no quips about your lack of originality. Be brave and smart about it. Create a plan. Reward yourself for every small achievement.

When you fail (not ‘if’), move through it and continue as long as the desire is there in your heart.

Okay, I lied. This letter is really a letter to myself.

Thank you for writing this to me.

The Long Line at the Bar

Oh that bleedin’ line to get in the bar.

It must mean the bar is popular, a good drinking hole to share a drink called loneliness. Easiest point of entry. You walk through a door or two and get hit in the face with all that sour tang of beer, sweetness of wine and medicinal aroma of whiskey. Or maybe it’s a dive and it’s just buckets of stale ale. Either way, it’s a place that you’re trying to get into if you can just get past the bantering line of people in front of you.

So what’s the hold up? And who the hell is that bumping against my leg?

I’m humbly sorry good maiden. That’s a microphone stand milady, nothing more, and I’d not meant it to bother up your fine personage out in the open. Still, I do need to get past your fair grace, for you see the band must get their equipment through the door and setup post-haste.

The place where live music once flourished and musicians wrestled to get through the line of people was the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in Nashville, Tennessee. Those Saturdays there were most memorable, where you’d find a long line outside filled with first-time anxious drinkers, listless tourists and old regulars waiting to go inside as dusk set in. There past the double doors amidst the curiously placed foliage, artful chalkboards and cigarette machine was the door guy who waited patiently for you to fish out your ID and door money to get in.

This particular door guy was a crafty fellow. For at some visits you’d see him scanning your ID with a vigilant eye, the gatekeeper to this particular realm. Other times, he’d be helming the main bar with a friendly smirk and expectant eye. Sometimes you’d see him with a content face as he tirelessly worked the grounds. The best times I remember were when he’d sit in with the house band, ripping the guitar and singing to his heart’s content.

His heart.

The first time I met Alan Hall, I had no clue he lived with another person’s heart beating inside of him. I only knew him as that door guy. He would walk up to you, an approachable man with a kind face, boyish almost, and speak in a pleasant, intelligent voice. Then as the conversation continued, he’d throw in a silly jape that would set you into startlingly fits of laughter. Most surprising about Alan was discovering his virtuosic music ability. Why so? Because if you were that good, why would you be hidden from the world? Such is the lament song of many struggling musicians, perhaps.

I should have known he was kindred, a gifted musician that listened to the house band more often than naught – not so much as to criticize, but to revel with like-minded souls. I had the routine down with Alan whenever I played the Saucer. I’d point at him during a music set as he strode by toting empty bottles and spent pilsner glasses. He’d nod, his Beatlesque hair waving to-and-fro, and jump up on stage to relieve me of my duties as I relieved him of his (unless his manager protested on those rare occasions). What followed were usually impromptu moments of Georgia Satellites, Rush and smokin’ SRV: all of it unrehearsed, raw and completely brilliant. Those moments were rarely recorded, but all too well remembered, even in the haze of alcohol-drenched recollection. Alan played like a pro should, took every song in full stride and pounded through on gear foreign to him with ease.

After it was over, he would exit the stage to applause, especially from his co-workers and beer goddesses, and he would part with a smile and a nod of thanks toward the band. We’ll do it again, that nod would say. That happened pretty much every gig Alan played with me at the Flying Saucer.

Life is fleeting.

Alan passed away on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, his love of life incapable of being bounded within his failing heart. I only knew him through those carved bits of time playing out at the Flying Saucer, and even in those small moments I understood Alan was a special spirit full of many hats from scholar to warrior, none of it truly defining him in one term. He wasn’t just the door guy. He was a good man. A good man of many talents. And he was a good friend.

The line is long for many, the wait even longer. Sometimes you can cut through, the door guy giving you a wink. Eventually, we’ll all get through sooner or later.

Rest in peace, Alan.

Donations and condolences can be made to Alan Stuart Hall’s family at: