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Work in progress

I’ve never been very good at predicting my future, but occasionally I get it right. I wrote these words in a note to Lynn sometime in 1986 or 1987, when we were in our early twenties:

Darling, I know you wonder whether I really need you. I know that you will be insecure from time to time and there is really nothing I can do about it but keep loving you and proving your doubts wrong. But I hope, darling, that someday — someday after we’ve been together for twenty or thirty years, when we’ve loved each other, stayed with each other, been apart, been together, been happy, been sad, and still our love is as strong as ever — I hope that then maybe you will accept that I love you, I need you, and NOTHING will ever pull me away from you. For me, love is for keeps.

At that age, I had only the vaguest notions of where I was headed. But apparently some aspects of my future were absolutely clear to me, like a lighthouse shining out through otherwise impenetrable fog. I knew that promises were just promises, but I also knew that given time, I could prove to Lynn that I meant what I said.

Now, I’m astonished to realize that I’ve been working on that proof for a quarter of a century, and I hope maybe my deeds have shown the truth of my words. Today is our twenty-third wedding anniversary, but I’m not done proving my point. I meant it then, and I meant it now. I’m not going anywhere.

Happy anniversary, darling.

When you’re young, if you’ve got a reasonably good life, it’s easy to feel that things are always getting better. You’re constantly moving forward, learning new things, climbing career ladders, building a life. But eventually, one reaches a point where life isn’t so much about climbing and building anymore; you’ve pretty much become the person you’re going to be and built the life you’re going to have, and it’s more about enjoying what you’ve got and working to maintain it. For as long as you can, anyway, because you know nothing lasts forever. The robust health of youth eventually fails; your career winds down; the children grow up and leave; it’s the way of things. (I suppose this is the definition of middle age.)

Viewed in that way, your life reaches a peak (or, if you’re lucky, a plateau), after which things start getting worse rather than better. And if that’s the way things work, I can’t help but conclude that I have now begun that downward slope. Asked today to choose a favorite age from my life, I would be tempted to choose from the many times when my life seemed to hold so much more promise and excitement. There was my childhood, when I was free to dwell largely in my own imagination; my college years, when the future was nothing but endless possibilities; the early years of our marriage, when we wielded the amazing power to build the life we wanted; and, towering over them all, the breathless excitement of our headlong rush into parenthood. It would be easy to say “those were the good times,” especially for someone as susceptible to nostalgia as I am.

But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t want to go back, even if I could.

It’s overly simplistic to compare different parts of my life and judge which is “better,” because life is a terribly complex thing, and assessing it is complicated by the distortion of rose-colored glasses. Each of those wonderful, exciting times from my past also had its share of sadness or frustration. The question, really, is simply whether any given time in my life has things in it that bring me happiness; I am, after all, here in this moment, and all that really matters is what my life is now.

I would not want to be any age other than the one I am, because this is who I am, this is my life, and there are things in it that I would not want to give up. It might be fun to revisit 1987 and remember how much I enjoyed working at the student radio station, but I’d also have to remember how much it hurt to be away from Lynn so much of the time. Similarly, I might want to go back to 2000 and reacquaint myself with the toddler Laura; but I’d much rather spend time with the almost-teenager version, who is much more interesting to talk to.

Looking forward to the years still ahead of me, I hope that I will still have many opportunities to grow and learn, to build new things, and maybe even climb a ladder or two. But more importantly, I hope that I am always able to keep my life full of things that make it worth living. I’m not really all that concerned about how full the glass is, as long as it’s always got something in it.

Last weekend I did something I haven’t done for almost a decade: I started recording a new song.

I’ve been semi-retired from music since I finished Unqualified in 2002. I did record a handful of songs for my “Unfinished Business” project, and I produced four CDs containing remixed and remastered music. But all of that work was focused on the past. I hadn’t written a new song since Unqualified.

During the last year and a half I’ve had some real reasons why music wasn’t an option. There was the breakdown of my music-production system, which left me unable to record anything even if I’d wanted to. And then there was my thyroid surgery and the long, slow recovery of my voice, followed by a persistent sore throat that lasted the better part of a year. It was within the realm of possibility that my musical career (at least, my singing career) was over for good.

But sometime around the beginning of the year, without intending to, I started writing a new song. That in itself isn’t too unusual; even during the last decade, there have been a few false starts or ideas I never did anything with. But this one, for whatever reason, interested me enough that I kept at it, and after a couple of months of intermittent work I found I had a song completely written. I honestly wasn’t sure whether this was something I knew how to do anymore.

Last Saturday I could find no reason to procrastinate further, so I opened my recording software, powered on the keyboard, and started recording a proper take of the song. I started this process almost reluctantly, but I quickly gathered steam and continued working on it for much of the rest of the weekend. It’s still far from finished, consisting of just piano, bass, and drum parts, but it was satisfying to get that far.

I also attempted a rough vocal, just to see how it was coming together, and was not at all happy with the result. It is clear to me that the quality of my singing voice has changed, probably permanently, and it remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to manage vocals I’m happy with. I’m not sure yet whether my voice is simply shot, or whether I just need to learn how to use it again. (I haven’t done any significant amount of singing in years, so even if my voice were undamaged it would be out of shape.)

But ultimately, none of that is the point. The song I’m working on is a small thing, a slight composition under three minutes in length, and I can’t even be sure it’s any good. Nor am I at all sure that I’ll be able to record it satisfactorily. But it’s time I found out.

It’s high time I got back to writing about the music that has inspired me. I had thought that I’d write next about Mike Viola and Fountains of Wayne (and eventually I will); but my current musical mood prompts me to go in a slightly different direction.

I grew up with a knee-jerk disdain for country music. It was the 1970s, and I had no use for the watered-down mainstream country of artists like Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, or Alabama, and even less for the “outlaw” singers like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

But in 1988 I married a country girl, so it became impossible for me to avoid the genre entirely. Fortunately, at that time country music was undergoing something of a rebirth, led by neotraditionalists like Randy Travis, the Judds, Garth Brooks, and Clint Black. Eschewing the overproduced top-40 approach, these artists focused on songwriting, clean and tight production, real instrumentation, and top-notch musicianship.

I remember the actual moment when I was won over: Lynn and I were driving to Kings Mountain for a visit with her family when the Judds’ song “Turn It Loose” came on the radio. This, I realized, was not corny Hee Haw music, but a rocking, bluesy pop song with an irresistible melody (and, appropriately enough, lyrics that extolled the virtues of “country with a little bit of rhythm and blues”). I realized that I didn’t have to merely tolerate country music: I could actually like it.

Over the next several years I discovered quite a bit of country music that I liked: not only the Judds, but also Mark Chesnutt, Mike Reid, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, and the unavoidable Garth Brooks. Between 1990 and 1995, most of the CDs I bought were country; I was totally disconnected from the trends that were then driving the pop scene, particularly “grunge” bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

But by the mid-1990s I’d drifted away from country, largely because the Internet had led me to the indie pop scene and a wealth of Beatles-inspired music by bands I’d never heard of. I stopped paying attention to country music and remained pretty much unaware of any developments on that scene for the next decade and a half.

So what changed that? Laura did, indirectly. Like all middle-school girls, she’s a huge fan of Taylor Swift. That meant Lynn and I got to listen to Taylor’s music rather a lot, but fortunately we quite liked it. Largely because of Taylor, we tuned in a couple of country awards shows last year, and for the first time since the ’90s got a taste of what was happening on that scene.

It was interesting to see that some of the old faces were still there; country isn’t as youth-obsessed as rock, and veterans like Reba McEntire and George Strait are still topping the charts. But there are a lot of new faces too, and it didn’t take long before Lynn and I discovered quite a few we liked. Current favorites include Miranda Lambert, the Zac Brown Band, Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum, and Darius Rucker (formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish). In recent days I’ve been obsessed with Brad Paisley’s American Saturday Night album. (Ben, if you’re looking for guitar heroes, you could do worse.)

But has country music inspired me as a musician? I suppose it depends on what you mean. Back in my college days I recorded a couple of country-flavored songs (“Artificial Heart Blues” and “What Will I Tell Them?”), but both were essentially parodies of the genre. During the early ’90s I wrote a song called “Strong As It Ever Was,” which was inspired by the country music I was then listening to, but my attempt at recording it was embarrassingly misguided and remains unreleased. (Perhaps someday I’ll try again.)

But if I get my singing voice back, I certainly hope to return to songwriting and recording. I don’t have the country cred to pull off the boots-and-Stetson look, nor am I likely to start writing songs about drinkin’ beer and fishin’; but my music has always been influenced by whatever I’m listening to at the time, so who knows?

Lincoln vs. Hitler

It seems clear that in a physical contest, Abraham Lincoln would defeat Adolf Hitler easily. Lincoln’s physical strength, not to mention his extraordinary reach, would give him a huge advantage over the sickly and unstable Hitler. Lincoln would, not to put too fine a point on it, kick his ass.

But that’s not what this post is about. I was thinking the other day about these two men, and how they are pretty much unsurpassed in their status as iconic figures in modern history (at least in Western history, and especially American history). It is difficult today to picture either man as an ordinary human being: they are somehow superhuman, almost like demigods. In modern terms, Lincoln is a superhero, and Hitler a supervillain.

Oddly enough, I think part of this phenomenon can be attributed to the affectations that characterized their physical appearance, and made them easy to caricature. Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and beard, Hitler’s moustache and haircut: they’re so recognizable that they’re all you need for a Halloween costume. These broadly recognizable features make them seem more like cartoon characters than real historical people.

But obviously it doesn’t stop there. It’s hard to think of any other modern historical figures about whom there is such consensus of thought, at least in broad terms. Lincoln is universally regarded as our greatest president and as a man of surpassing wisdom and political effectiveness; Hitler is universally reviled as a personification of evil. Yes, there are those on the fringe who don’t agree with the consensus view: you can find historians who question Lincoln’s legacy, and of course Hitler has his enthusiastic followers even today. But these weirdos are not mainstream, and they’re not taken seriously.

But here’s the part that got me thinking: as clear as these consensus views seem to us today, this clarity emerged only over time. Their iconic status emerged only from historical perspective and did not exist during either man’s lifetime.

During his lifetime, Lincoln certainly had admirers. But like any politician, there were also many who disagreed with him, and many who viewed him with unalloyed contempt. It goes without saying that Lincoln was hated by the Confederate South and its sympathizers, so much so that one of them eventually killed him. But even within the North, even within his own cabinet, there were those who disapproved of his policies and even questioned his intelligence. His martyrdom contributed to his mythic status, but only the perspective of history could make him the hero he is today (even in the South).

With Hitler, it’s tempting to conclude that the depth of his villainy was perceived even at the time. Certainly wartime propaganda depicted him as a monster. But the propaganda of the enemy is hardly to be trusted as a measure of the perceptions of the time. It’s more instructive to remember that Hitler had considerable support from the German people, and willing accomplices in all that he did; his evil was not at all evident to those around him, even though in today’s Germany he is vilified every bit as much as he is here.

And so I’m led to the question of how we can know whether these consensus views represent actual truth. It’s worth noting that with Lincoln we honor a victor, while with Hitler we revile a loser. If the North had lost the Civil War, would we remember Lincoln as a well-meaning but misguided president who tried to stand in the way of the inevitable separation of the Confederacy? If the Axis had won World War II, would we remember Hitler as the (perhaps flawed) founder of a unified Europe?

I like to think the answer is no. I like to think that history happened the way it did because these men were who we perceive them to have been, not the other way around: that right does make might. Surely the Confederacy was wrong, not only about slavery, but also about their viability as a nation and their rejection of the sanctity of the Union. Surely Hitler’s insane racist ambitions were doomed because they were incompatible with human decency. But I guess one challenge faced by historians is the avoidance of such assumptions.

So if there is an inevitable tendency, in history written by the victors, to deify the winners and vilify the vanquished, I guess the real question is whether there are counterexamples that might reassure us of our objectivity. Victors whom we see as evil despite their victory, and losers we see as heroic despite their defeat. I don’t know enough history to know who the best candidates might be, but I assume there must be some.

Of course — back to my original point — we usually don’t see historical figures as purely heroic or purely villainous, Lincoln and Hitler being exceptions. And I guess that’s probably how it should be.

After two weeks on the low-iodine diet, last week I finally underwent the long-awaited radioiodine ablation treatment. The objective was to kill off any remaining thyroid tissue that remained after the surgical removal of my thyroid in January.

The idea is simple enough: the thyroid is the only organ in the human body that uses iodine in any significant amount, so a dose of radioactive iodine will concentrate in thyroid cells and leave the rest of the body alone. To make sure this happened, for two weeks I starved those leftover thyroid cells of the iodine they craved; and then, last week, I got two shots of Thyrogen, an artificially synthesized version of the hormone that stimulates the thyroid. Desperate for iodine, those cells were ready to soak up the first iodine they saw, radioactive or not.

It was actually a multi-step process, though. On Monday I got the first shot of Thyrogen, and then I had some blood drawn for preliminary lab work. On Tuesday I got a second shot of Thyrogen, and then a small dose of iodine-123, a relatively weak isotope that is used for imaging purposes. Then, on Wednesday, I was scanned using a type of imaging called SPECT (single-photon emission computed tomography): basically, I was scanned with a gamma camera, a detector that picks up gamma-ray emissions. Weak as it was, the iodine-123 had by this time concentrated in the remnants of my thyroid, which meant that (to a gamma camera) they were glowing like Christmas-tree lights.

The scans were tedious and boring, but painless, and by Wednesday afternoon the doctors had determined exactly how much residual thyroid tissue I still had. This enabled them to calculate the exact dose I needed of iodine-131, the stronger isotope used to eradicate thyroid tissue.

For imaging purposes, I’d taken an iodine-123 dose of two millicuries. For treatment, I got an iodine-131 dose of fifty millicuries. (This is still a relatively low dose; it’s not uncommon for some patients to get 150 millicuries or more.) Each time, it was administered the same way: the technician placed in front me a tiny flask, like a test tube, propped up inside a lead cylinder. I leaned over and sipped the solution — only a couple of milliliters — through an ordinary flexible drinking straw. It didn’t taste like anything, just like a small mouthful of water, and I washed it down with more water.

After the treatment dose, I stood in a designated spot while the radiation safety officer, a short distance away, used a handheld device (something like a Geiger counter, I guess) to measure the radiation coming from my body. Satisfied that it was in the expected range, he then escorted me out of the hospital and sent me home. It was kind of surreal, really; I could feel nothing, and apart from that measurement of my radioactivity, there was no empirical evidence that anything at all was going on. As I walked to my car, I thought about how the people I was passing had no idea that I was dosing them with a minuscule amount of radiation.

For the next two days, I had to observe some precautions to limit my exposure to other people; but since I work from home most days and have the house to myself most of the day, this wasn’t really much of a hardship. By Friday night these restrictions had expired; and now that I was free of the low-iodine diet, we went out and celebrated my ability to eat what I wanted and go out in public without irradiating anybody.

Yesterday I went back to the hospital for another round of SPECT scanning, presumably so the doctors can make sure the iodine went where it was supposed to, and I suppose also to provide a baseline for comparison to later scans I’ll probably receive.

That’s it: I have a follow-up appointment with the nuclear-medicine doctor in six weeks, and I still have to see my endocrinologist so we can fine-tune my dose of thyroid hormone. But as far as I know, my treatment is over. I’m hesitant ever to say that that’s the end of the story, because I’ll always have to be monitored for any sign of recurrence; but I suppose I can reasonably say that I am no longer a cancer patient. I’m now a survivor.

Only a couple of weeks after my post explaining how Will Owsley inspired me musically, I learn today that he is dead, having apparently committed suicide.

I’m appalled and depressed by this, and I have to confess my reaction is largely a selfish one. First, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to enjoy listening to his music quite so much ever again, tainted as it now is by the knowledge of what came later. And second, of course, I’m disappointed that I won’t ever get to hear anything more from him; I was sure he had more in him.

I guess I should be glad I had the chance to see him perform, and to shake his hand. But … damn.

As part of their emergency-preparedness planning, local authorities are preparing to distribute potassium-iodide (KI) tablets to those of us who live within a ten-mile radius of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant. Our house is just inside the ten-mile radius, so we qualify.

From my perspective, this is amusingly ironic. The pills are protective because they saturate the thyroid with iodine; this prevents it from absorbing the radioactive iodine-131, which is a significant nuclear hazard. In other words, the pills are intended to protect against exactly the same kind of radiation exposure that I am voluntarily undergoing next week. (Of course, I’ll be getting a controlled and relatively low dose.)

But I guess I can take some perverse satisfaction from the realization that, if we do have a meltdown, I don’t need any pills. I don’t have a thyroid anymore, so I can just laugh at the iodine-131.

Today is Day 4 of the low-iodine diet I have to follow until after my radioiodine treatment, and so far it hasn’t been too bad. But there’s still a long way to go: the treatment isn’t until the first week of May, and I have to continue this diet until a couple of days after I receive the dose of Iodine-131. So all told, it will be close to three weeks. I have plenty to eat, but it’s going to be hard to avoid monotony.

People ask me what one can’t eat on a low-iodine diet, and there isn’t a simple answer to that. A couple of broad categories of foods are forbidden: I can’t have anything from the sea (because iodine is water-soluble and concentrates in the ocean), and I can’t have any dairy (although my dietitian has informed me that butter doesn’t count as dairy, oddly enough). I also have to avoid canned foods, because the lining of the cans supposedly contains iodine.

Apart from those broad categories, the main concern is iodized salt. Salt itself is fine, but it has to be non-iodized. The problem is that almost all commercially prepared food has salt in it, and there’s no way to know what kind of salt they use. Consequently, restaurant food is out of the question; so are any kind of frozen entrees, mixes, or other such convenience foods.

This sounds very restrictive, but in practice I’m finding that it mainly just means that food preparation requires more work than usual. Almost everything has to be made from scratch using fresh ingredients (because that’s the best way for me to know exactly what I’m eating). So if I want tomato sauce or mayonnaise, I have to make it myself.

So far, I’ve been managing OK. I eat oatmeal (not instant) for breakfast; lunch is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, using homemade bread and unsalted natural peanut butter which I salt myself with non-iodized salt. For dinner I’ve been eating things like vegetable soup, made entirely with frozen and fresh vegetables rather than anything canned. I’ve nearly made it through the first week, but I can see already that this weekend I need to spend some time making some different stuff, so I can maintain an interesting variety.

Oddly enough, this experience reminds me obliquely of a writing exercise I participated in many years ago, along with a group of friends who were interested in writing. I don’t know where the exercise came from; probably from a writers’ magazine or book. But the assignment was simple: write a poem or story using only one-syllable words.

At first glance, this seems to be an exercise in vocabulary: can you manage with simple words, rather than depending on more complex or florid language? But as I worked on it, I realized that wasn’t exactly the point. It was an exercise in conscious word choice: rather than just letting my thoughts flow onto the page, I had to think about each and every word I used.

The other participants in this exercise all chose to write short poems. But I was in an overachieving mood; I decided that if I was going to do this, I was really going to do it. I decided to try to write a real story, a serious story with some kind of point. And to make it even more of a challenge, I would write a story that included computers and a hospital, subjects that seem to require polysyllabic words.

I found that there really isn’t much you can’t write about with one-syllable words; you just have to work harder at it, planning exactly what you want to say and being very careful with your words. Which, as it happens, are good things to do when writing anything.

This diet is proving to be a similar challenge. There actually aren’t many kinds of foods I can’t have; but I have to plan exactly what I’m going to eat, and I have to be very careful putting my meals together one ingredient at a time. In some ways, I’m eating better on this diet than I do normally: more fresh fruits and vegetables, more scratch-made meals, and fewer processed foods. It’s a lot of work; but I won’t be surprised if I discover some things I like, things I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t been forced to depart from my usual patterns.

But it’s easy for me to say that now. Ask me in a week, and I’ll probably just tell you how much I want some pizza.

For those who are interested, here’s my monosyllabic-word story:

If I’m going to talk about music that has inspired me, I guess I should start with an easy one — easy because I’ve mentioned it before. But before I talk about Owsley, let me first provide a bit of context.

Many of the artists who have influenced my musical tastes are ones that I discovered because of the Audities mailing list, an online discussion group that I’ve belonged to since the mid-1990s. The Audities list was originally founded as an offshoot of a long-defunct independent music magazine of the same name; it’s dedicated to discussion of “insanely great pop,” which in this case means melodic, guitar-driven pop-rock music of the sort that was pretty much invented by the Beatles.

It’s a style of music that hasn’t dominated since the 1970s, but it isn’t all about oldies: there are still plenty of bands making music that the Audities crowd loves, and occasionally some of them even become popular (examples include Fountains of Wayne and Ben Folds). Many others, however, toil in obscurity, working independently of major labels and radio exposure, at best achieving only local success. And there are some who fall somewhere in between.

Will Owsley, otherwise known simply as Owsley, probably falls into the latter category. His eponymous first album came out in 1999; I found it thanks to Audities, and it soon became my favorite release of that year. Indeed, it took up nearly exclusive residence in my CD player for months on end. I thought that it precisely hit the sweet spot between retro and modern; the songwriting was clearly inspired by the old-school melodic power-pop I love, but with plenty of contemporary touches. Most of all, though, it was one of the best-sounding CDs I’d ever heard: the production (largely by Owsley himself) was outstanding, with a crisp, clean, rich sound that just begged to be played loud.

So when I heard that Owsley would be performing at a nightclub in Chapel Hill, naturally I had to go. And, as I’ve told before, it was the experience of watching Owsley’s musicianship on stage that prompted me to finally get serious about the guitar. I signed up for lessons, which not only helped me improve my playing, but also led more or less directly to my album Unqualified.

Here’s the small-world part of the story. The guitar teacher I ended up working with, Scott Olin, had a long history in the local music scene and had worked with early incarnations of Ben Folds’s band during their Chapel Hill days. He also knew Owsley, who had shared some studio time with Folds. So it wasn’t difficult for me to communicate to Scott what style of music I was interested in, and I was pretty confident he was the right guy to help me get there.

I should mention that Owsley was previously a member of a short-lived band called the Semantics; they produced only a single album, which never even got released in the U.S. (I was lucky enough to score an imported Japanese copy; when I told Will Owsley this after the concert, he said that even he didn’t have a copy.) It’s also a great album, though it’s impossible to get. Notably, the Semantics’ drummer was Zak Starkey: a successful drummer in his own right, but perhaps most famous for being the son of Ringo Starr.

Owsley released another album, The Hard Way, a few years later, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as his first; it was well produced, but it seemed to me that he was consciously trying for a harder-edged, more modern sound, and consequently I think he lost some of the melodic brilliance of his earlier stuff. That was six years ago, and I don’t know what he’s been doing since then.

Interestingly, although Owsley indirectly provided the spark that led to Unqualified, there isn’t much on that album that was directly inspired by his music. The one exception is the song “Is Danielle There?”; the arrangement of that track, with its prominent piano and old-school synth sound, was kind of my take on McCartney filtered through Owsley.

However, I was significantly influenced by Owsley as a producer: the sound of his first CD was my benchmark, the goal I was trying for as I mixed and mastered Unqualified. I don’t think I came anywhere close, but that’s what I was going for.

Like most of the music I’ve found through Audities, Owsley’s first CD is out of print and hard to find. However, it is readily available as a download from Amazon, and it remains one of my favorite albums of the last twenty years.