What’s a “listening room”?

Back in February I got to play my second show at the Downtowne Listening Room in Cincinnati. A community space located inside an old department-store-turned-apartment-complex, the DTLR is an ideal venue where local + nationally-touring artists come to play and the audience comes prepared to listen. “Prepared to listen” means that there is no talking permitted inside the venue once the show starts. It’s a rule well-followed by now: if you talk [or even whisper] during the performance, you’ll kindly be asked to step outside. It’s a true listening room.

Scott & Diana SkeabeckThe hosts are an extremely kind and generous husband-and-wife duo prone, as lovebirds often are, to finishing each others sentences. Scott and Diana have created a truly unique listening room environment in the heart of downtown Cincy. After my over-sold-out show back in February, I sat down to ask them a few questions about their mission. Here’s part of our conversation:

ME: What inspired this?

SCOTT: The Downtowne Listening Room was created because we lived in the northeast corridor, the Philadelphia area, and these kind of places were all over the place. And when we moved to Cincinnati — and no disrespect to Cincinnati — there really wasn’t a place you could go to listen to music and hear a pin drop. And it drives us crazy when we are listening to music we love and people are talking and not listening, not paying attention. You wouldn’t go to the movies and ignore the screen. You don’t go to the art museum and ignore the paintings on the wall. But people go out to bars and restaurants and places and they ignore the music, and it drives us crazy. And we’re not even the performers! So that’s why we created it.

ME: When did you start it? And how has it grown?

DIANA: We started it in June of 2015. We’ll be celebrating our 3rd-year anniversary this June. When we first started, it was hard to get people in the door. But Scott did a lot of promotion — sending out newsletters and flyers, contacting radio stations and what not — and over time we’ve gotten a following from people that have come here, told their friends about it, you know, brought new people in with them…

SCOTT: …so bugging the heck out of people works. That’s what we find. (laughs) And I think the hardest thing is they don’t understand what a listening room is. They say, “Well, why would I pay $10-$15 to see Matt or Kevin or whoever play music when I can go to the bar and get music for free?” It’s like, well, you’re getting music but you’re not listening to music. This is where you listen and you get the stories and you get the background. We had a CD from pretty much all of you guys, and we listen to the CD, but then when we hear you tell the stories behind it, we listen to the CD again and we get almost a different experience out of it. It’s like, “Oh, that’s why that line’s in there!” You don’t get that by just passively listening. It’s active listening which is so important. We’re pretty passionate about it. (laughs)

ME: And you don’t a make a dime?

DIANA: No.

SCOTT: No. All the money goes to the artists.

DIANA: This is our hobby. We don’t golf. We don’t collect art. We don’t collect wine.

SCOTT: And it’s cheaper than a what?

DIANA: Corvette.

SCOTT: It’s cheaper than a Corvette. But only by a little bit. (laughs)

DIANA: Plus, we get to listen to great shows.

SCOTT: Right, and we listen to them in the environment we want to listen to them in. And we listen to the people we like. So…we like you. We really, really like you, as Sally Field would say. (laughs)

ME: Well, I like you guys. So, thank you very much. Anything else you want to say?

SCOTT: Everybody come out to Cincinnati! Downtown! Come to the DownTowne Listening Room! Boom! (laughs)

ME: The lady doth concur?

DIANA: I concur, yes. Come see us!

The Blessing of a Broken Dishwasher: Mike Mangione’s “Time & the Mystery”

Our dishwasher broke right before Christmas. It wasn’t anything disastrous, but we did have to wait about two weeks for new parts to arrive. This meant two weeks of having to clean the dishes by hand, something I came to see, unexpectedly, as a blessing.

When we lived in an apartment, we didn’t have a dishwasher. The dishes were always done by hand, often while blasting music, streaming podcasts, or listening to NPR or lectures on YouTube. Once we moved into a house with a dishwasher, that experience — the experience of actively participating in an essential task — was no longer required. It honestly didn’t even feel like an option anymore. We had a dishwasher, after all, so it seemed ridiculous to not use it.

But in those two weeks of reverting to doing the dishes by hand, I re-discovered something: the joy of slowing down.

There’s freedom in resolving to put everything else on hold and do something that [may seem trivial or inefficient but ultimately] needs to be done. (Please, don’t tell my wife I wrote that.) I found myself thoroughly enjoying the break from all the other “stuff” I had to do. I pulled up a playlist of lectures on YouTube to listen to while I scrubbed and rinsed. A few days in, I seized the opportunity to finally start listening to Mike Mangione‘s new podcast Time & the Mystery.

Mike is a fellow musician, an internationally touring singer-songwriter, performer, and recording artist based in Milwaukee. While I really don’t know him all that well, personally, our paths have crossed many times over the last seven years. We’ve shared a few concert bills and I’ve had the privilege of hearing him perform (both solo + with a full band) several times outside of my own tour schedule. He’s a talented songwriter who expresses interesting ideas in his music. And he’s got a great stage presence. For those reasons alone, I’ve been a fan. But what I really appreciate about his new podcast is how personal it is.

In each episode, Mike sits down with someone and has a conversation. It’s as simple as that. He’s had conversations with comedians (Jim & Jeannie Gaffigan and Tom Shillhue), authors, professional athletes, bishops, and a plethora of musicians and producers (Matisyahu, Duane Lundy, Ben Sollee, and more). There’s no political agenda. Each episode simply provides an opportunity for the listener to sit in and listen as two people discuss life, love, family, inspirations, purpose, art, the creative process, community, and more. As Mike describes it:

“It’s not about sound bytes. It’s about sitting with people and taking time, slowing down.”

Our dishwasher has been fully functional for over three weeks now, yet I’ve still washed the dishes by hand over half the time. It gives my hands a chance to work and my ears a chance to listen. It gives my mind a chance to open, absorb, digest, and reflect.

Perhaps this goes without saying at this point, but if you’re unfamiliar with Mike Mangione’s music or his new podcast, I recommend them both.

A Violent Christmas

For many the world over, December 25, 2016 was a violent Christmas.

If you’re at all familiar with my music, you know that many of my songs (The New World, Enola’s Wake, The Dark Side, Brothers) deal with violence as it’s manifested in our modern world. As we move into the 17th year of the 21st century since the first Christmas, now seems as good a moment as any to reflect on the problem of violence.

To start, it’s nothing new. Men have been committing acts of violence for as long as men have existed. Even in the Bible — a collection of 73 books broken down into roughly 1,200 chapters — the first homicide occurs in the 4th chapter of the very first book (Genesis). As a chronology, as the story of a people, the Bible is an incredibly, intensely violent library.

But despite all of the genocides throughout history, the deadly wars waged, the various and grotesque forms of torture, abortion, and capital punishment that man’s creative capacities conceived, something changed, legitimately and significantly, in the 20th century. Violence and war became mechanized. The ability to kill in greater quantities and from longer distances slowly but surely made the concept of killing easier to swallow, perhaps, easier to rationalize and justify. The statistic below may well illuminate this point.

This statistic appears on the back cover of a book by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman entitled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. The back cover of the book goes on to state:

“The good news is that most soldiers are loath to kill. But armies have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming that instinctive aversion. The psychological cost for soldiers, as evidenced by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. The psychological cost for the rest of us is even greater: contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army’s conditioning techniques and directly contributes to our rising rate of violent crime, especially among the young.”

That last sentence brings to mind the city of Chicago, where more than 40 people were shot over Christmas weekend alone and where well over 700 homicides occurred in 2016. On the international scene, Grossman’s quote brings to my mind recent images of the harrowing events in Aleppo, events that have been ongoing and worsening for the last several years:

What does all this have to do with Christmas? Everything.

The message of Christmas is peace: “and on earth peace, good will toward men,” as Linus the Evangelist relayed it.

The prophet Isaiah foretold: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” (Is. 11:6) The metaphor speaks of peace — peace between adversaries, fear of death and the desire to take life relinquished. Isaiah was referring to the long-expected Messiah named “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:5) and whose “dominion is vast and forever peaceful” (Is. 9:6). You don’t have to be religious to see the appeal, to see the beauty and the poetry in the story and the message of Christmas.

As we continue on in this new year, my hope is that all who celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace every December will make a conscious effort to remember the peace of Christmas on a daily basis and reflect — sincerely and intensely — on the problem of violence in our world, on the evolution of man’s willingness to mechanize himself as an instrument of death, and on the recurring failure of human ingenuity to find non-violent solutions to problems.

For far too many the world over, December 25, 2016 was a violent Christmas. Was “Peace on earth!” only ever meant to be sung by angels? Or is man able to have a voice in the great song, if only he’d choose to sing?

From the Vietnam War Memorial in downtown Indianapolis. A photo posted by Kevin Heider (@kevinheidermusic) on

Louisiana Teachers Answer Higher Calling After Flood

AUTHOR’S NOTE | The recent flooding in Louisiana doesn’t seem to be receiving as much national media attention as perhaps it should. A dear friend of mine has been working tirelessly amidst the chaos since the rain stopped, and I felt compelled to share his story. If you appreciate the following perspective, please share this post.

Despite the fact that both of the records he’s released in the last two years have hand-drawn sailboats on the cover, Chris Cole is not a sailor in the Cajun Navy. He’s part of a much younger organization, born out of necessity this past week: he is a soldier in St. Michael’s Army.

While he travels as often as his schedule allows — as a songwriter, performer, musician, and recording artist — sharing his songs and stories with audiences all over the country, Chris has a love and a gift for teaching. This August he started his fourth year at St. Michael the Archangel, a Catholic high school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Barely a week into this academic year, however, school was, to put it mildly, interrupted.

“It’s all kind of blurring for me now,” he begins our conversation. “It’s a mess, man.”

Between Thursday and Sunday (August 11-14), Baton Rouge was hit with about 21 inches of rain, and some of the surrounding areas were hit even harder. Tens of thousands of people have been rescued. Tens of thousands of homes have been destroyed. The death toll as of Friday (August 19) remains surprisingly low at 13, though that number may well rise as more homes are searched.

Other than the possibility that school might be cancelled due to a few roads flooding over, nothing about this rain seemed too far out of the ordinary for August in Baton Rouge. “Nobody was talking about the rain being abnormal, as of Thursday,” Chris says. “On Thursday people were like we’re waiting to see if what’s-his-name is gonna swim and win a bunch of gold medals. On Friday, no one gave a shit.”

Chris lives in a second-floor apartment. His home and area weren’t damaged. But the best word he can think of to describe what just happened in Baton Rouge, where he’s lived his entire life, is: devastating.

He sent me a text on Friday afternoon. I didn’t hear from him again until Sunday night. “It’s pretty crazy,” his text read. “I just got phone service again…It’s nuts how fast it all happened. I’ve never experienced this.”

Once they got a bit of relief from the weather, a handful of other teachers from St. Michael’s reached out to Chris for help. “Me and these guys, we’ve got tools so we’ve just been going and gutting people’s houses.” This is St. Michael’s Army.

The Crew

from left to right: Jeanne Kinney (girls basketball coach), Kevin “Doc” Andry (band director), Chris Cole (history & Russian language teacher), Rob Smith (athletic director, history teacher)

Out of sheer necessity, they’ve become a crew, perhaps the most daunting kind of crew: a wrecking crew. They enter homes that have been destroyed and begin the process of cleaning and rebuilding them…by destroying them more. “We rip your house to shreds to save it,” he tells me. That’s the only way. Water, on objects where mold can grow, is like cancer. They’ve got to cut the cancer out as quickly as possible, if they hope to save the house.

Houses in Baton Rouge flooded with anywhere from three to 12 feet of water. “The houses I was in had five, six feet of water,” Chris says. The flooding process, as he describes it, is like this: Water fills the house. Eventually the refrigerator is lifted, opens, and all the food is exposed. All the animals — snakes, rats, etc. — that may have sought shelter in the house or simply may have been swept into it via the rising waters are now dead, wet, and rotting, along with all the food. The drywall has been soaking wet in Louisiana’s heat and humidity for days and mold is starting to grow. When Chris’ crew steps into a home to start gutting it, this is what they’re stepping into. “There’s a creepy feeling to a lot of these houses,” he says. “There’ve been a few times where the smell is so bad it just makes you want to vomit.”

photos by Emily Froeba

photos by Emily Froeba (click to enlarge)

 

Tons of people have already started the process of starting over. “People will be gutting and cleaning houses for the next month,” Chris surmises, “at least the next month.” But everything that’s ruined, everything that’s trashed, everything that needs to be ripped out, where is it all going to go? People have essentially been piling it all up outside, in between the sidewalk and the street. Chris is a teacher, an artist, and an accomplished songwriter, so he’s very particular when choosing the words to describe this scene: “Imagine walls of shit, that just smells and it’s rotting. That’s what driving down the street is like.”

Chaos and destruction can bring out the worst in people. There’s been a lot of theft — carjacking, boatjacking, people stealing valuables, stealing food, pulling guns, etc. Chris says, “It feels like Walking Dead stuff.” And yet, the best in people is being brought out, too. “Restaurants that are open, they’ve just been setting up in the parking lots and giving people food…Everybody kind of turned inward in the right way, to help each other.”

Despite the fact that people’s homes and places of work — along with most vehicles, clothes, and access to food — have been destroyed, the strength of community seems to be prevailing. “People have been volunteering and cooking and just driving through neighborhoods to find hungry and thirsty people who may not have eaten any other way.” He wrote that to me in a text message after our conversation. It was a positive he really wanted emphasized.

“My life feels very day-to-day in a way that I don’t think it ever has before,” Chris says. “You’re just constantly reacting to what’s going on.” That’s what his crew from St. Michael’s is doing — reacting to what’s going on. But there’s so much to be done. It’s exhausting. I can hear it in his voice when he tells me: “The crew I’m working with, we kind of feel like we’re wearing down.”

For almost a week now they’ve been moving from house to house, gutting and cleaning as best they can. “The school, since it’s dry, has been helping coordinate,” he says. Folks at St. Michael’s are reaching out to the families of their students to make sure that everyone is okay, that everyone has food, a place to stay, the help they need. “I get a list of people texted to me every day, like, all these people need help,” Chris tells me. “The scope and scale is too much…That’s been the most overwhelming thing…” He’s referring to the struggle that he and his crew now have to face every day: deciding who to help. That’s “the most overwhelming thing.” If they choose to help this person, they’re choosing not to help that person. And they can’t help everyone. There are too many in need. “How do you decide who to save? Who to help? It’s a frustrating guilt and dilemma that weighs heavy on all of our crew…”

The way Chris talks about his crew is inspiring. He had respect for them before the flood, as friends and colleagues. But that respect is more profound now, more rooted in gratitude and admiration. There’s a comradery between them, like they’re on an adventure. It’s not an adventure any of them ever wanted to go on, but at least they’re on it together. “These people are so amazing and as bad-ass as you can get,” Chris says. “We’ve been through the shit and now we’re a family.”

photos by Emily Froeba

photos by Emily Froeba (click to enlarge)

Chris’ apartment, car, and possessions weren’t damaged at all by the flooding, but so many people close to him [and who live just a few miles from him] have lost everything. Needless to say, his perspective is unique. Some of his family members’ homes were destroyed. Some of his students’ families’ homes were destroyed. And rebuilding isn’t always possible. In far too many cases, whether a lost home will be rebuilt or replaced depends entirely on whether the homeowner had flood insurance. If so, rebuilding may well happen. If not, for too many, foreclosure may be the only way to try to start again. “I kind of never want to buy another object,” Chris muses, as though he’s thinking out loud over the phone. “Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas may become very Buddhist in their attachment to objects.”

Emotions have run the gamut. Everyone seems to be processing the events differently. Some have very healthy, detached attitudes about it all. They seem hopeful, optimistic, and grateful to be alive. For others, that level of detachment hasn’t come so easily. “The guys that I’ve been around, they’re handling it worse than the women,” Chris tells me. “They feel helpless, like they couldn’t save their homes for their families.”

He’s been able to observe a lot of folks sifting through the wreckage of the lives they knew a week ago. But it doesn’t seem to be the loss of possessions or things, even expensive things, that hurts the most. Rather, it’s the loss of photographs, family heirlooms, objects that meant something, that represented people who may have died long ago. To no longer have these objects, this seems to trigger the most tears. Losing the last thing you have to remember someone by feels like you’re losing the person all over again. With the tangible reminder either lost or badly destroyed, will the memory remain? Or will it, too, like the flood waters, eventually recede, leaving behind a murkier, faded version of what was? Witnessing moments where such loss is realized, I can tell, was profound for Chris.

photos by Emily Froeba

photos by Emily Froeba (click to enlarge)

As of today, classes are set to resume at St. Michael’s on Monday (August 22). As a teacher, that’s an administrative decision that Chris has to accept, though it wasn’t one he had a hand in making. He wonders, “What are our expectations as educators at this point?” Subsequent questions follow: Do we get on kids for not doing their homework? Do they even have a computer at home still? Do they have clean clothes? Do they still have their school uniforms? Do they have food? Do their parents still have cars? Are they even going to be able to get to school? There are still so many uncertainties. “The normal resources you have don’t exist,” he says. “A lot of the rules that make up school make no sense in this context anymore.”

It was interesting, to say the least, for me to hear Chris’ perspective. One of the first things he said to me on the phone was, “I feel like my brain is a mush right now. I’m really tired…I don’t think I’ve had much time to reflect on what’s happened.” He’s been working non-stop, day in and day out, for a solid week. I asked a handful of questions over the course of our conversation, but for the most part it felt like a one-sided stream of consciousness.

Some text messages he’s received from friends who live in other parts of the country have made him realize just how many people still have no idea what’s happened in Louisiana, or, at least, that so many people don’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation or the depth of the destruction. While he wishes folks were a little more aware, he doesn’t feel like he can really blame them. He was more interested in other things a week ago, too, after all.

He’s not angry at anyone. And he isn’t looking for someone to blame. He simply wants to do the work that needs to be done. He isn’t interested in politicians flying down to Louisiana for photo opportunities. If they’re going to grab some tools and help gut some houses, all are welcome. Otherwise, politicizing the situation doesn’t help anybody.

Then there’s that inevitable question that people from the outside are already asking all over social media: why bother rebuilding if it may just happen again? Chris admits that it’s a hard question to answer. He describes to me this sense that the environment is connected to the culture so much so that what they’ve got, their whole way of living life, couldn’t ever be duplicated anywhere else. So that question, ultimately, isn’t much different than: why don’t you leave your home and all you’ve ever known and just start over somewhere else? Sometimes people do that. But it’s never easy. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be asked so assumingly.

Two videos, in particular, seemed to go viral on my Facebook feed this week: (1) the dramatic rescue of the woman and her dog from a car submerged in water and (2) a kid showing off his dance moves on the local news. Chris’ inflection becomes more relaxed and jovial when talking about the latter. “It was such a perfect moment for everyone down here,” he says. “I kind of want to vote for him for president. He should be president.”

In terms of what’s next for Chris, I suppose that will be returning to St. Michael’s on Monday to resume classes. He’s teaching Art History, World History, and Russian Language & Culture this year. While getting back into the swing of school seems so strange to him after everything that’s happened, he acknowledges the benefits of returning to some semblance of normalcy. He’s also considering giving up his apartment to a family who needs it more, in which case he would “just find some other place to stay.” As I said, he’s just trying to do what needs to be done as best he can. “We’re doing life. This is what it is,” he says. “And I don’t want to trade it.”

UPDATE (8/24/16) — Classes did resume at St. Michael’s on Monday, August 22nd. While some students and their families are still “living in shelters and without anything,” Chris told me that, overall, “it was a good thing for them to get out of those places and have some fun with their friends.”

MAKE A DONATION | If you’d like to make a donation to help the victims of the 2016 flooding in the St. Michael High School community, you may do so here.

SUPPORT CHRIS | If you’d like to support Chris as an artist, please consider purchasing his music on iTunesAmazon, or Bandcamp (music streaming services pay artists very little money).