That American Life


In 1986 I moved from the U.S. to South Africa with my family. I eventually grew to love South Africa and thought of it as my home. But America always had a kind of mystical quality about it. America represented the good life. America was a place where everyone succeeded. America was where you could do anything you wanted to do and you could have anything you wanted to have. Everything was good in America.

In 2008 I moved back to the States to live. I chose to settle in Nashville, TN without really knowing much about the place. The first few years were both difficult and full of wide eyed wonder for me. They were full of new experiences, and new people. Although I was 31 when I moved, I think of myself during that time as a freshman in college. I was naive and dumb and full of inexplicable hope. 

When my hopes remained unrealized I grew bitter and felt that America had let me down. 

It’s been a decade since then and what I used to see as a grey, ugly city, has begun to feel like home, and has begun to show it’s colors. What I used to think of as “hard times” I now see simply as life. Things that used to seem broken now seem like blessings.

The chorus of “That American Life” says:

“Somebody get me some water, so I can take a bite of this whine.

Somebody paint this paradise with a little bit more sunshine.

Somebody fry me some bacon. Let’s eat it with some apple pie.

Somebody cut me a slice of that American life.”

It’s not a very glamorous self-portrait but I think it describes my former attitude fairly accurately. “Hey my throat is a little dry from all the complaining. Could you get me some water so I can can really tell you about my troubles? While you’re at it, this sub-tropical beach we’re on is a little sandy for my tastes. Can we have something done about that? The sun isn’t shining quite the way I prefer it. I’m hungry bro, but this food in front of me, while perfectly fine and capable of nourishing me, isn’t the tastiest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Let’s find something better. Let’s find the most amazing food we can think of and eat it all at the same time. Bro, I am tired of not being the wealthiest bro around. There’s people doing better than me and I think I want some of what they have.”

It’s hard to understand loneliness until you have been lonely. It’s hard to understand love unless you have been loved. If you have been both lonely and loved, you understand both of those conditions better than you would having only experienced one of them. You don’t really know good coffee until you’ve forced down a mug of stale gas station brew. You don’t really know wealth until you’ve experienced poverty.

I didn’t write this song to address inequality. I wrote it as a way of acknowledging that things are never as bad as they may seem. In fact a lot of what feels like difficulty ends up being a path to strength. A lot of what feels like poverty becomes a path to wealth. It’s easy to look back and see the good in situations that didn’t feel good at the time. We all do that. I wrote this to encourage myself to pull those experiences into the present. To remember to highlight the good NOW.

But it’s worth saying that in the current climate of inequality of race and sex, those of us who have known wealth and privilege should search our experience for those moments when things seemed difficult and no-one understood. We should look to the lonely times and the times when we were unloved and the times when we wanted more than we had, not so that we can wallow in our miseries, but because it might breed in us a small measure of compassion. If we can remember what it felt like to be unheard we might be more prone to listen. If we can remember what it felt like to be lonely we might be more prone to reach out. If we can remember what it felt like when we didn’t know how we would get the rent paid, in spite of our best efforts, we might be more willing to help those who need it. 

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I’ve recently discovered podcasts. I mean, I’ve known that they are a thing for a while. I’ve known what they are. I just never listened to them. I was a hold-out on the whole “smart” phone thing. I liked having small phones that made calls and told me what time it was but didn’t do much else. Then I had a series of stupid “smart” phones that for various reasons didn’t do much good so I honestly never bothered to even try to listen to podcasts on them.

But now I can listen to podcasts and I do. I’ve been listening to the Robcast, which is basically Rob Bell, talking to people about spiritual things. In one of his recent series he talks with this guy, Pete Rollins, about love. One of the things they talk about is the idea that humans tend to think that they want certain things. They objectify those things. Maybe it’s a house. Maybe it’s a better job. Maybe it’s someone to love. Maybe it’s something else. But the idea is that there is this fantasy that a person imagines, in which a very specific set of things or circumstances happens which conspire to make them happy. Sometimes they get the very thing or things they are fantasizing about and, of course, they are not happy.

What we really want is the struggle for the thing we are fantasizing about, but we are so convoluted that we have to trick ourselves into struggling. We have to have a prize to strive for or we will just sit on the couch and eat stuff and drink stuff and become slobs while we watch television.

My own fantasy has always been that at some point I will have a life in which I have the freedom to sit in my studio all day long, writing songs and recording them. I will of course take long breaks to go walking in the woods, or maybe go fishing or cycling or some other such thing. I have no financial worries and I have a whole lot of time on my hands.

Mostly, I’ve never had that. I’ve always had a job and responsibilities and other realities of life to contend with. You know…like people.

Years ago when I was convincing myself to pursue music as a career, I did that mental exercise in which you ask yourself, “What would you do if you had millions of bucks and could do with your time whatever you wanted to do?” My answer has always revolved around the making of music. There’s another part to that mental exercise in which you ask yourself, “What activities do you do, in which you can totally get lost?” These days we call it “flow”. There are things that people do in which they reach a state of super productivity and that state is called flow. Time passes and things get done and then you look up are realize you missed lunch and you felt good about it. Again my answers to that question have always revolved around making music in some form.

So when some guy on some podcast said, “The thing we really want is the struggle.” I was skeptical. Obviously I don’t want the struggle. The struggle is the thing I want to avoid. I just want to be able to do what I want when I want to do it and I don’t want anything to stand in my way. Struggle is hard. Struggle is struggle. Why would I want that?

The answer lies in one of the definitions of love. To love something is to give your life to it. To do whatever it needs and wants. To make it happy at the expense of your own comfort and happiness even. In other words, to love something or someone, is to struggle for that thing or person.

The fantasy isn’t real. It probably won’t ever happen. If it did, it wouldn’t be like it is in my brain and even if it was, I would discover that there are things about the fantasy I never considered. Like boredom. Like taking all my time for granted and never actually entering the door to my studio because I have so much time. I think I just want to watch some Netflix. After all…there’s some snacks in the pantry and I’m not feeling very inspired right this second, so….. I’ll just do that another time.
But, as we all well know…The. Struggle. Is. Real. And it’s beautiful! I can’t have my fantasy for real, maybe. But I can have the struggle. In fact I have the struggle. I have it. Now. It’s mine. I get to keep it.

So when I say I love music, all I’m really saying is that I tend to give my life over to the struggle of making it. When I can’t figure out Pro Tools or when I can’t figure out the chords to this song, or when I have nothing to write about, I struggle. Somehow I keep coming back to it and doing it again. I guess I don’t mind the struggle. I guess the struggle really is what I want.

You’re probably done reading and I’m done explaining so I’m not going to tell you how this song relates to this post. You’re just going to have to listen to it and figure it out. You can have that struggle. It’s my gift to you. Just trust me. It relates. It’s the whole thing. It’s just different.

We only get one life. We all have struggles. Struggle is it. Learn to enjoy the struggle. That’s the point.Share on Facebook

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Blue Plate Special

Hey Folks,

Just a quick one to share a radio show I did earlier this year at WDVX’s Blue Plate Special in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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