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.

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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: http://www.parkermemorialfuneralhomes.com

How to write a novel during weddings

The wedding singer.

It’s not Adam Sandler in his curly mullet crooning to grow old with you.

In my reality, there isn’t a ruffled-suited Jewish guy living out a sad, conflicted affair of pondering over his wasted talents among the void of paid-for-hire wedding performances, and there’s definitely no Drew Barrymore. Sure, there’s been a number of Jewish, Gentile and non-religious gigs where I’ve played the role of wedding singer; this is someone who’s also donned the helm as corporate singer, pub singer, not-for-profit singer, karaoke singer and sometimes just-plain-drunk-at-home singer.

Those weddings are almost always fun. We get to play in front of many guests that can’t wait to throw down on the floor and get totally sloshed in the process (usually in the start of the second set after everyone has crammed enough food and drink down his gullet). What better way to enhance that than by hiring a band that can play all the Journey and electric slide songs that you need?

In some weddings from my past, the band is heralded as treasured people bringing magic to the event. Other times the band is simply the help, and all pathetic band members are hid in the back out of sight until show time. One thing that most of those weddings have in common (other than glorious amounts of booze) is the band break. One. Two. Three. Sometimes the rare four. During the break, each band member revert out of Rock-god character and scrounge for food and rest.

Most of my band-mates have the ubiquitous iPad, using this as both a last-minute lyric sheet along with wiling away the time between band sets. I’m not against the Apple ecosystem, but I do live in the Android world.

So what do most determined, struggling, unpublished writers do when they are stuck with FREE TIME? They usually procrastinate and avoid writing. Then they feel guilty about it and make the effort to write (sometimes more than half-hearted). Oh, but I left my laptop at home. Oh, but freehand is out of the question because my handwriting sucks beyond recognition. Seriously, what the hell is that scribbling supposed to say? Yes, all of this is whiny mewling. So instead of surrendering to the easy way out (because hey baby there ain’t no easy way out), this is what I’ve resorted to.

The first wedding set consist of the weak songs: the quiet songs. Everyone has attended the ceremony. Provided the bride and groom agree to marry, relief sets in for all, and so does hunger. The buffet line or staff-carted dinner plates are ready, and the wedding party and guests tuck in. The band saves Whitesnake for later, letting the wedding patrons feast in comfortable mingling, squabbling like those geese Robert Redford heard in Sneakers. The last song is a degree higher than Fleetwood Mac, beckoning of things to come later. Then it’s the first band break. The band is parched and eager.

Enter the following: Kindle Fire 8.9 HDX tablet with keyboard, Teamster, Dropbox, Evernote, mobile data tethering, Moleskine, index cards and Scrivener.

A note to wedding planners. Please insist on a venue that includes free WiFi. How else can that guitar-player/wedding-singer in the band sync his last edits together? It’s true, though. The best way I’ve found to write anywhere is to always have a remote way of writing — other than freehand. The sickeningly elite can write by mind alone anyway, but most of us do well on a handy cell phone. Except for me. I was born with ridiculously fat thumbs and fingers most adept at playing second-rate Eddie Van Halen solos. Texting prose on a cell phone for me is like using a toilet brush to paint Bob Ross portraits. It can’t be done.

The Moleskine fits in the left pocket always, comprised of eureka-inspired scribbling and index cards (yes, freehand does hold one hostage). The Fire HDX has Evernote for online note-taking (which I’m not too keen on for all my note-taking) and the Teamster app does remote link like a magic wormhole back to my desktop where resides the main draft in Scrivener. It’s a pretty solid setup and not too costly. One asks why not just get a Mac notebook and put Scrivener on it, but I enjoy what Amazon has done with the Fire HDX; plus it includes several self-help books to goad oneself on. It might be a little Rube Goldberg, but the whole point of those elaborate concoctions is to see, with alacrity, the final part when that robot arm dumps the dog food in the bowl. That final part for me is to have no excuse not to write, even after Last Dance of Mary Jane has played through and the band takes another break. BICHOK has finally arrived. How else can one ever hope to get better at it?

Of course, the guests don’t want to wait too long. Thank goodness for fluff music during band breaks. Sometimes the break music usurp the band’s magic, but to that I say let the guests have what they want. Oh what’s that? We’re on after this song? They want to hear me sing? They want to watch me play the guitar? Okay, let’s save this down. No, I’ll be right there. I just need to fix this run-on. What song are we playing? I don’t even know that one…

No excuse. Remote it.
No excuse. Remote it.