Inflection Points

Posted May 5, 2012 by lwillj
Categories: Daily Life, Music

The other day I went biking. I have biked fewer than five times in the months I’ve lived in Austin. In college, I often biked at least five times a day. Unlocking my familiar two-wheeler brought back the incredibly vivid memories of campus. It felt as if I had zoomed to class only days before.

Yet it was more recently than that – just nine months ago – when I drove to Austin from Maryland. My memories of the trip feel relatively vivid, as much as endless stretches of highway can be. But several months of memories have piled on top of them and stripped them of their immediacy.

As it turns out, my travels are not yet over. Once August rolls around and my lease is up, my bike will go back in the car along with everything I own (except perhaps MY NEW ORGAN!!! – that will require organmovers) and I will point the compass back east.

Thus, my time in Texas will have been just one year. Aug ’11 – Aug ’12.

I did not intend for it to be a short stay. In moving here, I did not make any temporal plans, aside from forcing myself to at least stay one year by signing a lease before I turned on my van’s ignition in Annapolis. I was open to the possibility that Austin might have the right mix of music and government and warm weather that I might even make my life here… family, career, retirement.

Well, nope.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with Austin. Simply, it is not for me. Yes the city is overflowing with musicians. If you have a band and want to play a lot of live gigs, move to Austin. You could play shows several times a month easily. Stay here for a couple years, get a lot of gigging experience, record your stuff, make some videos, plan a tour. Great training grounds.

Except, I’ve realized, that path is not really for me. The easiest way to say it is that Austin has very little jazz (from what I can tell). There are a couple jazz joints, there is a symphony hall, and UT has a solid music program, but these sorts of things make up a minority of the city’s music. It would fit me better if this music city had a larger concentration musicians who were really stellar. Practiced professionals, virtuosos, people who would push me to great in whatever weird multi-instrumental way that I could be.

I’m also in a hybrid category. I didn’t go to music school, so I can’t quite play with the big guns at my current abilities. But I’ve learned enough that I get bored with your average rock band. It would take a few years of practicing and hunting around for the right musicians to work with to find my proper place.

That particular challenge aside, I’m actually not turned off by a musician’s life at all. I have a rough sense of what it would take to turn this into a career: lots of work, patience, and doing 100 different things to get by. I might get a lucky break here or there and enjoy some level of success for a brief time. If I could pay the bills and generally play the kinds of music I enjoy, I would be happy enough.

But I wouldn’t be satisfied.

The world has some serious issues. Our energy system is altering our habitat in a drastic way that millions will be displaced by sea level rise. Hundreds of millions around the world live in poverty without proper nutrition or health care. Education, at the very least in our country and certainly in most other places, fails to reach and empower huge numbers of people, perpetuating poverty and disenfranchisement. Our civic systems have big structural problems; many nations still have dictators. Women around the world are sold as sex slaves. Many places treat women as second class citizens. The human race still wages war on itself all too often.


and I want to make little ditties all day? Just because it’s fun? I couldn’t live with myself. I can’t live with myself even now.*

and that’s why I’m leaving.

Granted, many musicians give voice to the problems of the world and very artfully articulate the injustice of it all. But it is so difficult to see how that actually helps correct those injustices. Power isn’t relinquished because you sang about it…

Cynics ask: what effect can just one person have? Indeed, that is the next question, and I will have a lifetime of answering it.

Yes I could work on problems in Austin, but I’ve also learned this year that it’s hard being in a completely new place where you don’t know anyone. I’ve made some great friends here, but I have family back east and I think I’ll find a better community for myself in the DC area. Jobs and possibly grad school and eventually new family will probably have a say about where I ultimately wind up. But for now, that’s where I’m headed.

The best thing though – I will still play and write music the rest of my life. It won’t be full time, and I know I’ll miss the joy of playing and writing music any hour of the day. But life is long. I managed to find time for both school and music for at least ten years, I’m sure I can schedule some jams into my work week for the next sixty. And I’m honestly excited to find out how my music progresses over that time, even if it is just on the side (life goals include writing a musical and a symphony).

Yup, things are just getting started.



[Also, I have been caught up in things and have been rather quiet online lately – I hope to write about different aspects of my time in Austin throughout the coming weeks, which should make for blogs that are more bloggy and less journaly. The album will also come with a flurry of web activity.]

*I do not intend to knock career musicians, this is about my own set of motivations.


Purchasing Organs and Poetry

Posted February 24, 2012 by lwillj
Categories: Music, Poetry

After a couple weeks of trollingly refreshing craigslistings every day for organs in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston, I think I’ve found something awesome. I haven’t fully lined up the purchase yet, but it is very promising, and I am very very excited. It’s not a Hammond, but it’s a step toward owning one someday.

In light of that (and inspired somewhat by the poetry textbook my friend Tiffany gave me – for lyric writing help) I drafted* a poem this evening:

Hammond, My Hammond

I clicked to tell them yes, “confirm my order” several days ago.
I too should note I stared at screens for months to make sure I would know
that I would have not one regret-
a certainty and not a bet-
as soon as it arrived,
for I will play this Hammond organ till the day I die.

But once I clicked to say “I do” and paid a dowry to the store,
it’s like they took me to the trenches and I’m writing home from war.
My mind can think of only she;
each second is eternity
for I have waited years
to make myself a virtuoso who could hold her dear.

But do you think that over time I might grow weary of her sound?
The toys I wanted as a kid soon gathered dust and lay around…
With her, I don’t think that’s the case-
I’m older! With developed taste…
Whatever does unfold,
I know that she will give to me a music filled with soul.

Life In Austin Update, Six Months In

Posted February 12, 2012 by lwillj
Categories: Daily Life, Music

Well, world of readers, it’s been about six months since I began this music adventure. Memories of my drive across the country are still quite fresh, but it also feels like a long time ago that I finally bought a mattress* and a desk – my first furniture purchases post-college.

During the first few months, I wanted to get some creative work done without much distraction, so I lived like a hobo hermit musician, spending the bulk of my time practicing, songwriting, and recording (and hemorrhaging my savings). Come the new year, I fixed up my website to display the work with a shade of professionalism, and home-printed some simple business cards. Then I could finally get down to business meeting other musicians and finding substitute jobs playing the pipe organ for church services.

To which there has been some success! I am now in two bands, have jammed with a couple others, and have a handful of substitute jobs lined up, with the promise of more to come. Thus, I have staunched the outflow of money a bit and am developing a social life.

But that’s not all! I have plans to: develop a particular kind of music website (details TBD, but get excited), work on a piano-singing solo act, record at least another albumlet, and to write some solid essays on this blog. The tricky part will be in scheduling it all on top of my band rehearsals, shows, and pipe organ gigs.


“Well, thanks for the play-by-play,” you say, “But do you like the life as a musician?”

That is a complicated question. Employment and income feel fairly scattershot and insecure – even successful musicians I have spoken to say that you need a few different gigs going to adequately get by. Also, my life has been pretty abnormal so far, since I’ve been living off savings (and benefitting from the extreme good luck of having no student loans and, thanks to the health care law, no health insurance payments yet), so I can’t properly judge whether or not the financial situation bothers me yet. But I am cognizant of the difficulties that low income creates for the eventual realities of owning a home, having kids, paying their tuition, retirement savings, and health care.

Mostly though, I find that music is not enough. Sure it is a lot of fun to play shows, it is satisfying to record music that people enjoy, I can get lost exploring infinite sonic possibilities, and I do meet a lot of interesting people by playing in a variety of settings.

But it neglects the whole other side of me that is passionate about policy. I voraciously read the news every day, so much that I have trouble tearing myself away to practice. Even during the Super Bowl, I was constantly switching between a livestream of the game and a policy paper from NIST about innovation and manufacturing policy. Plus, when I imagine myself as an old man looking back, a life of simply making people smile (and rock out, of course) won’t be as fulfilling as changing the world in some concrete way. Sure, musicians talk about peace and enlightenment, but rarely do they pack a effectual punch (Bono being the most obvious exception).

But! It is still somewhat early in this story. As I get more involved in various projects, we will see if I find some way to satisfy my policy side. At least, I know that I will always at last play music on the side like I’ve done for most of my life already anyways.

As I’ve said from the beginning, I’m giving music a full shot. I know for sure that I’m in Austin until August. And if things are cookin’ and hoppin’ and bumpin’ I could easily see myself staying longer.

We shall see.

*For the record, when the salesman says he slept on a $90 mattress for ten years and then asks you to move your (not very heavy) mattress around because he has back problems, take note to buy a nicer mattress within a year or two.

Three Articles: Freedom, Iran, Libertarianism

Posted January 16, 2012 by lwillj
Categories: Government/Politics

Three important articles worth reading:


10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free – Op-Ed by Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post, 1/13/12

This op-ed is a list of the questionable ways our government can currently deprive people of their rights.

It is easy to be afraid of terrorist attacks and subsequently pass laws that give the security bureaucracies more power. It will be slow, tedious, and difficult to reign these powers back in. I would suggest that a Ron Paul candidacy would be good in the sense that it would get more people talking about these issues, but I had the same thought in 2006 – that an Obama candidacy would be good because he spoke to the aspirations of the levelheaded middle. Presidents and presidential candidates do not solve problems. A lengthy application of political pressure on lots of representatives and the president does. We’ll see if that happens…


How Obama should talk to Iran – Op-Ed by Trita Parsi in the Washington Post, 1/13/12

Parsi outlines a more comprehensive, sensible, and courteous approach the U.S. could take to its decades-long standoff with Iran which has been particularly rankled for the last half-decade on the issue of nukes.

It exasperates me TO NO END that the leaders of countries act like ten-year-olds. I even wrote one of the short essays in my college application five years ago about how stupid the U.S.-Iran escalation was. The fact that this problem has continued and then heated up to threats over the Strait of Hormuz is irritating beyond words. There is no good reason why the U.S. should dislike Iran. Sure, Iran and Israel might have disagreements, but the India-Pakistan (they both have nukes!!) disagreements are clearly just as worrisome. The U.S. and Iran don’t get along purely because they don’t get along. It is THAT stupid. This article is the adult in the room (along with, apparently, Turkey and Brazil).


Libertarian Illusions – by Jeffrey Sachs in the Huffington Post, 1/15/12

In this post, Sachs argues that libertarians (and Ron Paul) ignore other vital societal values, like civic responsibility and compassion.

It was tempting to insert quotes from this post, but the whole thing practically needed quotes – so go read it. I have my own private theory about some of the large strains in philosophical thought which I will outline briefly here but elaborate on more another time. It goes like this… Liberty, equality, and utility are all important ideals worth striving for. But any one of them taken to the extreme at the complete expense of the others creates a society that nobody wants. So beware extremists, like pure libertarians. For instance, imagine an equalitarian party (everyone gets the same salary!) or a utilitarian party (well these rich people are SUPER rich and happy, but hey, it’s a net plus for society, right?). Preposterous. Get over yourselves, libertarians.

A Review of Parting The Waters by Taylor Branch

Posted January 14, 2012 by lwillj
Categories: Books, Government/Politics

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

This. Book. Is. SO. Good. Wow.

It spans the decade of 1954-1963 and tells the epic tale of Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights struggles. It is not your snapshot version: clocking in at over 900 pages, you get the real meat of the story. You live through that decade as you read.

This means you get all the nitty gritty details of each 1950’s-era news cycle. An altercation occurs! King comments on it… People disparage him! He feels stuck… But just weeks later, the comments are forgotten and the next battle is at hand. It gives you great a perspective on all of today’s political controversies, and it exposes their silliness.

Amazingly, you don’t get lost in the details. The book is truly an American Epic – the struggle of a people for their rights and freedom with some fascinating larger-than-life leaders grappling with each other publicly and privately. Lord of the Rings is good and all, but this is an astounding tale of the grandest scale, and real at that.

The story starts when Republicans were still the most favorable party to blacks, a vestige of Lincoln’s emancipation. But both parties include civil rights elements in the presidential election of 1960 – blacks are a demographic worth courting. Then Kennedy’s win is aided partly because he and RFK made two phone calls about King being in jail (it wasn’t just Daley in Chicago delivering votes!), which the black community responds to with a drastic shift in support. But! Kennedy heads a party full of viscously ardent segregationists in the south. That tension permeates the interactions between the racist southern governors and RFK at the Justice Department as the movement’s confrontations with segregated institutions ignite in conflict.

J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t make anything easier, since he is always hunting for some (nonexistent and absurd) communist threat and influence. His dirt on JFK’s affairs secures his power at the FBI, and he insists that a couple of King’s friends are such a threat that he gets RFK to approve wiretaps. (For historians, I imagine those wiretaps are a treasure.) Exasperatingly, Hoover does not enthusiastically commit his FBI resources to investigating crimes in the south, more because of his own bureaucratic motives than segregationist ones. It certainly does not help King, the movement, or the poor people who were persecuted to have an unhelpful FBI.

Then there is the baptist church! One fascinating angle I had not heard before is how King wished to have the national baptist church organization help lead his civil rights efforts. But doing so meant the church’s national leadership needed to change. The stories of the National Baptist Conventions are as full of conflict as any events that decade, with a large swatch of preachers trying to unseat the president of the organization, J.H. Jackson, who tyrannically outmaneuvers them and holds onto power. He even dramatically rebukes King, demoting him within the organization and accusing him of something close to murder. Don’t forget, these are preachers doing a bunch of fighting!

Plus you have the global conflict of the US vs the USSR. Some of the civil rights stories make it into the international press, casting a bad light on the US, which pressures Kennedy from another side.

For flavor, peppered throughout are little mentions of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, who had gangster friends which caused issues for Kennedy at one point, plus Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr.

And the whole struggle (the point of it all, really) is this radically nonviolent movement against a very deeply rooted and violent racism in the south, with all kinds of enablers, intimidation, habits, and fears. It is not a war where the other side surrenders and it is over. It is a whole swath of institutions that King and the movement must continuously chip away, from segregation laws and business practices to intimidations against blacks registering to vote, all across several states.

Most perplexing is that the book ends before many policies really change. Brown v. Board of Ed and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 are ruled and passed in the book, true, but their implementation was not easy nor immediate: two big stories of the movement are when James Meredith tries to register at the University of Mississippi and all of Robert Moses’s efforts with voting registration in Mississippi. The results of Civil Rights Act of 1964 are not in the scope of the book. Plus, even if policies had changed immediately, it would not drive racism out of peoples’ hearts.

Because essentially, that is the long-tail ending of the story, and it has not even ended yet. Sure we have elected a black president and ended blatant lawful segregation, but there is definitely still a distinct community of black americans who are not respected or understood by much of white america. Political struggles have concrete endpoints. But social struggles exist in hearts and minds, and cannot be changed quickly by policy. But that’s a discussion left to several more essays…

Anyway, my summaries do little justice to the book. It is truly an experience to immerse yourself in the story. Thankfully, the terrors are mostly history so the reader can excitedly see how the events play out and be spared the emotional damage. The violence at times is utterly terrifying and Branch, an excellent storyteller, turns some of the famous photographs into real life on the page. After reading it, you very much appreciate the struggles our nation has gone through to overcome its original sin.

I highly highly recommend this book. It is incredibly well written and the story is a supremely important part of our nation’s history.


On a much more personal note, the book intrigued me also because I was interested in learning about this era that my dad’s side of the family was a part of, albeit in the periphery:

My dad and my pacifist grandfather had lunch with King in (I think) 1959 at some church event somewhere. My dad remembers King appearing very tired (and when Branch spoke at my church a few years ago, my dad mentioned this memory to him, to which Branch said it was probably because King was traveling all the time, giving speeches). My grandfather was a Democratic congressman from Colorado for one term, 1959-1961, and he attended the 1960 DNC in Los Angeles. And my grandmother was somehow friends with Harry Belafonte, who she had a crush on (we still have his records – also, he’s still alive?!). Plus, they were living in DC during the march on washington, and attended it. And, my parents have a poster of Bayard Rustin hanging in their office.

So as I read, all of these family stories gained another dimension of clarity.

My enthusiasm about the book also brought something out of my dad that I did not expect. He started college in 1960 when he was seventeen and soon wound up in radical student politics, joining an early version of SDS. So he came of age during the whole national upheaval chronicled so eloquently by Branch.

Anyways, there I am, sitting in my parents’ study, gushing to my dad about how good the book is, having just read the fascinating account of the Montgomery bus boycott. “There were other people who had gotten into altercations on the buses! But some organizers knew they wouldn’t be good examples to use if they wanted to make a statement out of it! But then Rosa Parks got arrested! And SHE was this really sweet, upstanding citizen, so they instantly rallied around her and then-”

As I’m raving on about Rosa Parks, to my prodigious surprise, my dad starts tearing up a little bit.

He remarks huskily, while he blinks at his computer screen, “to think, that she would then lie in state at the US capitol… simply amazing…”

Now, I’ve sat in that study and talked to my father about all sorts of things – politics, economics, policy, family, the neighbor’s dog, whatever.

But I’ve never before in my life, in that study or elsewhere, seen my father come close to crying.


Posted December 2, 2011 by lwillj
Categories: Music

Or, committing myself to live up to the following.

The plan for the next three days:

record the rest of the parts on the last song (i.e. everything but drums, which are done), record a couple little missing parts on a couple other songs, mix them all, find/create albumlet art, release Stick Figures

accomplishing all of this in that time span means I can then spend two weeks creating “song-a-day” ‘s before I go visit the folks for Christmas

So get ready for some LWJ MUSIC (Does anyone even read this blog anyway? I guess my stats tell me…)

And a teaser for the two or three of you who read this and might go listen once they are available…

Stick Figures probable song order:

7 Billion Universes
Do Something Unexpected
Fuck The STRAW Man
The Great Zombie Switcheroo

Take Your Friend To Work Day

Posted November 28, 2011 by lwillj
Categories: Society

Employment contracts should, in addition to vacation time and sick leave, apportion one or two days a year for a worker to take the day off in order to go observe someone work in a completely different job.

It could be a drastically different job within the company, or a position in an entirely different sector. There could be a very simple craigslist-like service that does a little lottery apportioning out of who-goes-where-when, making sure to spread the days out over the year so that it doesn’t cause a larger economic hiccup. Similarly, each worker should only be allowed to have someone follow them around for a couple days each year, to avoid excessive distraction.

But think about it. We might be vaguely aware of what kinds of work others do, but to actually follow them around for a day would really show you the kinds of issues other people might have. If you wind up in your client’s (or supplier’s) industry, it might give you some insights into their side of the deal.

It would also be a refreshing little educational vacation from your own daily routine. And if everyone does it a couple days a year, you would get used to the mild awkwardness of intruding upon someone else’s life.

Perhaps the more exciting and persuasive aspect would also be the potential for innovation. When people with wildly different perspectives run into each other, it can lead to insights you might not otherwise have come up with.

Think of the stories. From the mundane and annoyed, “Oh god that one time I had to go sit at an insurance agent’s desk all day…” to the fascinating, “I had no idea that’s how much coal the plant burned in a single day!” With everyone doing this, the stories of coworker’s experiences would help create even more links to other parts of the economy.

Sure some people would treat it like a chore and just fiddle around on their iphones all day, but I think a lot of people would generally get at least a little bit of the spirit of the endeavor.

Just one way to help build more connections and empathy in society.