Friday, March 18, 2016

Spring Break

I can't wait for next Friday.  PA school is a grind.  We have basically no time off.  A three day weekend with no upcoming tests feels luxurious.   So to have nine days of no clinic - with tests still a comfortable month away is going to feel like a months long sabbatical.  What will I do with this time?  Last fall my friends Erik and Laith and I talked about how we needed to go on a vacation together.  We discussed a few different options - my preferred location was New Orleans.  About 6-8 weeks ago I messaged both of them about doing a trip.  I didn't hear back from them.  Well, it turns out that my friend Laith had auditioned for The Voice, but couldn't tell anybody yet.  Erik was just being a jerk (just kidding Erik ; ).

So, now I had to decide what I was going to do.  Find someone else to go with me at the last minute?  Or just go down to New Orleans by myself?  I decided on the latter.  I love traveling - but to be honest I prefer doing it by myself.  I have very particular interests and activities that I like to do on vacation.  Usually they are things that seem odd to others.  Just ask my wife.  We love traveling, but compromising on what I want to do and what she wants to do can at times be challenging.  And as my wife is finishing up her MBA and her break doesn't line up with mine - it seems like the perfect time for me to just do my thing.

While planning my trip I realized that my route would take me past many locations that have a common theme - a theme that is very much in the national conversation today - our racial divide.  I know - what a relaxing thing to be contemplating during my spring break!  I guess I'm weird that way.  My goal is to write about the history of race relations in many of the places I visit in a way that doesn't shy away from our history, but also cast anyone as the devil.  We are ALL capable of kindness, intelligence, and fairness - but we are also capable of cruelty, ignorance, and injustice.  That doesn't mean that we shouldn't hold people accountable or that I think the Black Panthers have the same moral responsibility for racial strife as the KKK.  But I'm going to try to focus on the dynamics of power, which is in my mind, the main driver of racial animosity - not just in this country, but all over the world.

Will I just be recounting a never ending list of historical injustices that have plagued racial minorities in this country since before its founding?  Yes and no.  Those events must be acknowledged and described fully - so that we can come to grips with how horrific it is that these things happened on our soil.  But, I think it's more important from the context of how those events shaped our current nation.  Why are we so segregated?  Why do minority communities still experience poverty, violence, incarceration and addiction at rates higher than Whites?  What do we have problems acknowledging the contributions of minorities to our nation?  How can it be that in 2016 we are still dealing with racial strife?  Why do people feel like they have to shout "Black lives matter" in 2016?  And is that "reverse racism"?  What do our current presidential politics say about us as a people?

Yep - that's some pretty weighty stuff alright.  But I don't think that we can move forward without conversation.  Sure it's scary.  But like I would say to a patient with PTSD - the only way to move beyond our past is to fully explore it.

Here is a map of where I will travel starting next Friday afternoon.  If anybody has any suggestions of places to visit that are near where I'll be traveling - please let me know.  I've got a lot of ideas, but I do actually realize (contrary to what my wife tells me sometimes) that I actually don't know everything.

Here is a map of my planned route. 

The places I'm planning to visit because of their significance are Kansas City MO, Oswatomie KS, Tulsa OK, Dallas TX, Tyler TX, New Orleans LA, Vicksburg MS, Memphis TN, Ferguson MO.

Wish me luck! ; )

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Mind blown

So, um, yeah - that actually happened.  My friend, who I have known, for 34 years was on a TV show that millions of people watched last night.  Pharrell Williams came out of his chair and bowed to him.  Adam Levine said he was "unlike anyone we have ever had" on The Voice.  It was insane.

Not that I didn't think Laith had the talent or ability to "make it" as a recording artist - but I always thought it would happen differently.  I thought that some record producer would catch one of his shows and he would get a small contract and then tour, first regionally, and then nationally.  As he said - he has played over 300 gigs a year for the last 20 years.  Laith is definitely pretty big in the Ann Arbor music scene.  And he had made some significant inroads into Detroit and up north in Traverse City.  He even was playing more nationally in the last several years.  He played in Los Angeles, Denver, New Orleans, Kansas City etc.  But for it to happen - the way that it is happening - like he just jumped on a rocket ship to the moon at the age of 38 is just plain crazy.

So, I don't know if I'm going to write something necessarily every week - but a few things came to mind that seemed worthwhile to discuss.  I thought I'd write a little about some of the influences on Laith musically when we were growing up. Laith is completely his own person and yet he is very much a product of his environment.  I would say that a large number of American musicians have had one of two things which influenced them - a strong church music program and/or a strong public school music program.  Laith had both.

Our church, Zion Lutheran in Ann Arbor, had about 2,000 members when we were growing up.  So, a pretty decent sized church.  But we had two people that not many churches of any size have - we had Dr. Donald Williams and Carol Muehlig.  Don was from just outside of Atlanta, GA.  He migrated up to Ann Arbor to study organ at the University in the 1960's - and found a church home at Zion.  By the time we were in the choir he had been at Zion for ~20 years.  Carol was from Ann Arbor and served as the associate organist and choirmaster.

Don was a great choir master, but also a nationally touring organist.  At the end of the service each Sunday he would play a postlude - many people would stay in the church just to hear him play.  His "go to" was the incredibly difficulty Widor Toccata.  Here is a youtube of the piece so you know what I'm talking about.  It's actually pretty Rock'n Roll to my ear.

Laith has done a lot of study on guitar and none of it was with Don - but I think his ear for virtuoso playing came directly from all those years of hearing Don and Carol play the organ.  One of the most fun things about being in the church choir when we were really young was that Don and Carol would let us play the organ after choir practice.  They called it "monkeying on the organ."  Donald and Carol were not only incredible musicians - but they were giving with their time and wisdom.  They were also a great team.  Don was bombastic - if he laughed you could hear it three blocks away.  Carol is more quiet - but, also very talented and a great teacher.  They showed how one style is not right for every student.  You need a mix of styles to reach the greatest number of people.  Most importantly, they made everything seem very accessible to us.  They allowed us to be curious and creative.  I only wish that Don was still alive to see Laith last night.  

So, although Don and Carol certainly were a big influence on Laith - they certainly weren't Laith's only influence.  Ann Arbor is known for The Big House - but it's also a great place to be as a musician.  It's pretty much a given these days that if you go to a Broadway show there will be somebody in the cast from the University of Michigan musical theater program.  The other "Big House" in Ann Arbor is Hill Auditorium.  And even though the most recent event there was Jim Harbaugh's crazy signing day extravaganza with Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Ric Flair etc - there have actually been even more historic concerts that have occurred there : )

During much of the 20th century the University's "May Festival" would bring some of the greatest classical musicians to Ann Arbor.  The Philadelphia Orchestra was a main stay while the great Eugene Ormandy was musical director there.  When Leonard Bernstein was in the last year of his life he decided he wanted to conduct one last time in three places - New York, Los Angeles, and Ann Arbor.

Classical was just a piece of music scene in Ann Arbor.  The two most famous musicians to come out of Ann Arbor are Bob Seger and Iggy Pop.  Seger, with his "Old Time Rock'n Roll" appeared to be of the past - but he had a huge influence on the future of Rock - even Kid Rock sites him as his most important influence.  Iggy Pop along with the MC5 basically invented punk rock.  And although Ann Arbor is not Detroit - we certainly are in the sphere of influence of Detroit.  In the 80's, less than an hour from where we lived Derrick May, Carl Craig and others were creating the new genre of Techno.  That energy which created Motown was still there - it was just finding new ways of expression.

Southeast Michigan in the 20th century is one of the most unique places this world has known.  There is a reason there was all this incredible creativity going on.  The auto industry brought in people from all over the United States - but also the world.  A huge Ford plant was just 10 miles down the road from us.  Our friends' parents were not only executives, but they were blue collar auto workers, engineers - and of course professors at the university.  Ann Arbor has a population of only just over 100,000 people - but it has the energy of a town 10 times the size.  The energy of that town on a football Saturday was incredible - but it was also our normal.

Jonas Salk studied here before discovering the Polio vaccine - James Earl Jones found his voice there - Arthur Miller studied theater there.  Because it is a relatively small place and there were so many amazing things going on it made you feel as though anything was possible.  It also gave us a lot to live up to. 

We might have grown up in the 80's, but there was still a lot of the 60's still left in Ann Arbor.  At one time it was probably the most liberal place in America - or at least it was tied with Berkeley.  Cheech and Chong talked about going to Ann Arbor in one of their movies because of the famously soft pot laws.  Local activism and national activism seemed to merge in Ann Arbor.  John Sinclair was a local guy who was a poet, journalist, band manager for the MC5 - among other things.  He got the attention of the authorities with his political activism - he started a group called "The White Panther Party" - which was supposed to be a group of whites fighting for racial equality with just as much as a military bent as the Black Panther Party.  To make sure he couldn't make good on some of his threats the authorities gave him a 10 year prison sentence for giving two joints to an undercover policeman.  His plight became a cause celebre for the entire radical left.  A concert in Ann Arbor in 1971 which was held to try to get him released included John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, the poet Allen Ginsburg, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, etc. 

We also had a very strong music program in our public schools.  Laith went to Community High School - an alternative school that was based on much of the educational theory put forth by John Dewey, who was also a faculty member at the University of Michigan.  Community had an incredible Jazz program.  Their Jazz band was a regular at the North Sea Jazz festival in Amsterdam.  Several professional musicians came out of that program. 

So, when I see Laith on stage - I see all of those influences.  It's not just the long hair and beard (which is kind of funny to me because he was pretty clean cut most of his life), it's not just the bluesy voice that occasionally gives way to a clear falsetto, it's not just the virtuosic guitar, it's not just the emotion that he sings with - it's the combination of it all.  It's how he took all of these influences - how he perfected his craft through a lot of hard work - and then put all of it together in a way that is completely unique.

One of Laith's albums is called "Long Time Coming" - a long time coming indeed brother.