Bill – One Year Later

This week I’m taking a break from my series on development to reflect on where I am 1 year after the death of my friend and longtime band mate Bill Petersen.

I still miss him of course but I also feel  lingering guilt.  Not because I had anything to do with his death but because I could’ve been a better friend.

This may seem tangential but stay with me:

All the victim blaming stuff in the media lately has made me realize how ingrained it is in me and everyone.  When something bad happens to me, I almost immediately ask myself, “how could I have prevented this?” In fact, just writing the words “when something bad happens to me,” makes me cringe a little.  My inner editor wants to change that line to, “when I make a mistake” or some other language that makes me responsible for everything I experience.

But the truth is that there billions of other people in this world and many more forces in the universe at play all the time.  To think that we are 100% responsible for our paths is arrogant, in my opinion. And writing that today is relieving in some ways.

Bill had a lot of stuff going on that lead him to an early death.  Sure, some of those factors were his own doing – in 10 years of knowing him, I never knew him to do much of anything physically strenuous even close to what you might call “exercise”.  In the time we lived together near St. Ed’s University in Austin, I witnessed a lot of beer drinking and TV watching.  Bill knew he had some medical issues that eventually led to his heart condition but he chose to just live his life the way he wanted.  It was really easy, after he died, to say that he hastened his own heart failure and it was really easy when it was happening to essentially blame him for not taking better care of himself (which I still think he should’ve done!)

But Bill didn’t choose to have the heart condition.  He was born with it.  I guess he could’ve chosen to work a day job that didn’t provide him any health insurance but even if he’d had medical insurance at the time of his first heart attack (pre-Obamacare), the cost of his treatment would have still put him in debt for life.  Plus he probably would’ve had to have  some job that would’ve prevented him from playing music or doing what he loved.

There were lots of ways he could’ve probably lengthened his life.  But what was the price?  Was it worth it? Just barely, to him. Bill LOVED salty food and beer.   After his first heart attack, he lived 5 more years that were spent fighting the temptations of all that he felt was worth living for!

I mean… he couldn’t eat pizza.  That’s just unthinkable to me.

Last night Hen3ry Q Vines said to me, “Joggers and non-smokers die every day.”  HA!  So, even the people who do all the “right” things eventually die.  What choices could they have made to lengthen their lives and at what cost?  I suppose they should’ve had the foresight to be born in a future where their consciousness could live on forever by some technological means I can’t even imagine.  It’s their own fault.  It was a bad choice to be born now.

That sounds silly but I think that’s the message many people get from our society – if you’d just made better choices, all of this could’ve been avoided. I guess that’s true when it comes to things like dropping out of school or spending all your money on weed instead of paying the rent. But it doesn’t apply to things we don’t actually choose — like someone else’s actions or biological realities. She would’ve made so much more money had she only been born male…

Each of has only our own experiences and resources at hand to guide us.  Some of us are lucky enough to be born into lives that are rich with those things.

Most aren’t.  Does that mean that the less privileged are unworthy of help?

Apparently so.  Americans are so obsessed with “the best” in our modern day Social Darwinist climate.  If it’s not the absolute best, it may as well be dead last and not bothering to foster.  Anything short of #1 is not worth helping.

That seems so backwards to me.  We only seem to want to help those who are already winning.  So the only way to deserve or earn help is to not need it?  Sounds like the entertainment business… or just about any business in the US.

(What’s mind boggling is that those “winners” are often only winning BECAUSE of the help they get but don’t acknowledge – like corporations that lobby for lower taxes and regulations as they bank on public funds/infrastructure, claim public resources for their own and then create their own self-serving regulations that keep anyone else from having a piece of the pie ever. Even more mind boggling is how we seem to buy into it hoping to be struck by the lightning bold of luck so we can become just like them!)

There’s truth to the idea that we all make our own choices and must live with them but it’s not as if we all have an entire spectrum of options ranging from the best to the worst.  If we did, who would ever choose anything but the best?!

Because of that, “the best” is relative and in our only-the-best-will-do world, “the best” eventually just becomes lowest common denominator – odorless, colorless and easy for everyone to digest.  If variety is the spice of life, then most Americans choose to eat mayonnaise sandwiches.  They’re “the best”.

Bill never ate mayonnaise sandwiches.  Not until the end, anyway, when the cost of all that spice caught up with him and he had to start making choices his body could afford.

He lived how he wanted.  He paid the price but I think he was glad to.

I wish I’d been more understanding.  At one point, his health and attitude became so bad that I finally made him take a 6 month hiatus.  He did NOT like that.  I felt bad even at the time, but he felt awful, acted like he couldn’t stand rehearsing or gigging and wasn’t playing well.  He didn’t talk to me much in those 6 months and you know… he never really came back full time.  I felt somewhat justified (but not happily so) when, at the end of the 6 months, he had a cardiac “event” that made him realized he really did need to focus on his health.  That was about 16 months before his death.  I’m really glad that there was time for him to be annoyed with me and then for us to grow closer again before he passed.

I guess what makes me feel so damn bad is that I was just another person telling him he needed to give up something he loved so he could go on living – and even worse so that I could go on doing the thing he loved without having to drag him along (his own words).   One more person giving him mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread as if eating enough of them would ever make the salty sirloin dinners that made life worth living an option again… all the while indulging in those delights right in front of him.  Sometimes literally.

I wish I had found a better way to be more inclusive and kept him more active in our band.  I wish I’d played to his strengths rather than writing off his surliness as unwillingness to grow or change for the better when if fact it was because maintaining his existing abilities had become so hard for him.   I wish that when he was gruff with me, I could’ve seen the bigger picture – that his anger and impatience weren’t because of me, just directed at me because I was the guy in charge.

I mostly wish his last meal in OCT 9, 2014 would’ve included a salty ribeye and a whole twelve pack of India Pale Ale.

 

Development Part 2 – Private Victories (Sounding Out the Words)

I didn’t come up with the concept of private victories. It comes from the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (An excellent and extremely helpful and empowering book that somehow gets lumped in with manipulative pseudo self-help books and get-rich-quick schemers.)

I won’t go too much into author Steven Covey’s writings on private victories other than the concept that you must have private victories before you can have public victories.

It’s hard to refute this logic. I’ve used the marathon metaphor before and it works here – you have to build up to running 26.2 miles. Getting there requires lots of frequent, small private victories of running a little further and and little further every day. By the time you run in the event, you will have essentially already run a marathon privately!

(The amazing thing about marathons is that if you run one, you’re pretty much a winner in everyone’s book. It’s like a private and public victory at once. When my mom ran one in her late 40s, it was a massive private victory just to finish the event and everyone around her recognized it. Friends and family and neighbors congratulated her. None of them knew or cared who actually placed or won the event but they knew she was in it. In their minds, she may as well have finished 1st!)

I think a lot of times, though, musicians and bands want that public victory (a sold out show, a good review, money, etc.) so badly that we try to skip past the private victory stage and wind up presenting something that’s not really what we had in mind or is some half-assed version of it.  This is like trying to turn a private failure into a public victory?  “We couldn’t play a single song competently but we were signed to Geffen on the spot!”  That doesn’t happen… often.

Before I moved to Austin, I was really into practicing and preparing before a first show with a band. Over the years I fell into the same trap as most Austin musicians: Performing in front of people was really just as private a victory as a good rehearsal because no one was going to be at the show anyway so why not at least get the name out there and start building it up? The problem with this Austin way of doing it is that, really, every show is an opportunity for a public victory… or a public embarrassment!  Most people who see you live will only see you a few times in their lives. In a lot of cases they will only see you once. In spite of decades of fandom, I have only seen Van Halen – one of my favorite bands – one time and, while they played well, they sounded like crap.  I didn’t go see them last month in Austin because they’re known for terribly live sound and I didn’t need to pay $100 to experience that again.

What If you suck or are half-assing it when someone sees your show?   “I saw a mediocre band stumble through their first show!” Not exactly the kind of word of mouth commentary that spreads like wildfire through a community of gate keepers.

Comments from random people occasionally remind me of my own rush to public victory. “Oh, I’ve seen you guys before. You have the accordion and trumpet player.” Wow. That means they have seen the band in 11-12 years. And no wonder. They band they remember was pretty mediocre… except for the apparently memorable instrumentation.

(Of course, at some point, you just have to say, “This is good enough,” and go do your show or run your marathon. Austin is a great place to incubate your ideas/band, I just think we sometimes need a little more time under the heat lamp.)

I think private victory is ultimately more important than public because it HAS to come first. Public victory may never come, but private victories MUST. They may never make your wallet fatter, but they will make your life richer. I’d personally rather spend time on my death bed recounting the greatest moments I lived rather than counting the dollars I accumulated (especially the ones I never even used).

Here’s a list of private victories that many (most?) of us take for granted:

learning to walk
learning to read/write
learning to speak
learning to count

Those are some pretty basic skills but think about how much you use them!

I recently met a fellow who, at the age of 51, cannot read. Now, I have known that illiteracy exists, but really seeing how it affects people is staggering. Without reading skills, this guy doesn’t know what’s in his food, what street/warning signs say, what his mail says or even that he’s picking up the right supplies for his job. He can’t use the internet. He drives but not legally. Without that private victory of learning to read, this poor fellow is relegated to the most menial of tasks from temporary manual labor employers because there are some really basic things he just can’t do – like filling out paperwork.

It’s hard for me as someone who learned to read as a kid to understand why this guy has gone so long without learning to read. I mean, it’s a shame that his parents or teachers didn’t teach him but he’s 51 and knows that not having the skill has held him back.  He could learn and could’ve learned at any point. Yet he chooses to go out there and find work that he can do with his current skill set and seems happy enough. And that’s totally cool. I don’t hear him complain.

But it makes me think about the bands and musicians I’ve seen or heard that are just barely stage-worthy wondering why they make such slow headway. So often I’ve heard some sentiment akin to “we’ve paid our dues, we deserve a weekend gig/opening slot for a big show/more fans/etc.” And paying dues is a GREAT metaphor for this kind of thing because paying your dues only guarantees membership — not success. I mean, I pay my dues at the YMCA, but if I want my abs to be as mouthwatering as my glutes, I’m going to need to do more than just walk on the treadmill a couple times a week. I’m going to have to do some exercises I don’t like or even know – get out of my comfort zone and take the time to develop my six pack before I start playing shows shirtless again.

Going through the process of achieving private victory prevents unnecessary public failure because you get the chance to “sound out all your words” (to keep the reading metaphor going) without criticism or scrutiny from anyone. It gives you luxury of (mostly) private trial and error. This is why school was invented!

When I was much younger, I was really into skateboarding but I was really terrible. I’d often get angry and throw my board on the ground. I felt so embarrassed to be so awful – especially in front of the kids a little older than me. Looking back on those days, the older and better skaters never made fun of me — because they had all been through the same process I was going through. They’d needed individual time to develop.

Plenty of people with a LOT of public success realize the value of private victory, too. For many of them, public victory can even lose its luster… “I’m the top selling artist of all time. Neat! Now what?” For many the answer is golf.   For some, it’s a whole other career – Brian May. For others is philanthropic work.  There are plenty of examples of people who achieved huge public success and then practically disappeared. I feel certain that Mark Hamil has had a very fulfilling life since Return of the Jedi in 1983. (Of course, that’s about to change since a contractual obligation will force (ha!) him back into the role of Luke Skywalker.)

Regardless of what’s next for already-successful people, they will need time to develop whatever it is – even if it’s just more of the same thing like a new movie or album – and that development is never or barely seen by the public.

You never stop having private victories and the most publicly successful among us know it.