About Sam

I am owner/operator of Gigspots. I am an event producer, promoter, booking agent, blogger, journalist and agent for bands and live music venues. I live in Lancaster, PA.

Fits & Starts for Roots & Blues

Are you having fits & starts over the schedule for Roots & Blues?  Do you know the phrase fits & starts?  In the case of deciding who to see, where and when during Lancaster Roots and Blues festival, the phrase could describe how you are wrestling with choices.  You decide who to see, you discover an option, you feel conflict and you flip.  It’s a good problem to have.  Don’t give yourself conniptions as my mother’s people would say.

Map-of-Festival-2016-LRB
I have to try and be everywhere at once.  It’s my job as Director of Operations.  Of course that’s impossible and I’ve learned to let it be.  I can’t introduce every band or even see every band.  I can’t stop what I’m doing and have a beer with every friend I run into.  So I build a framework for each night: start, middle and finish.  I try to mix business and pleasure into the decisions.  Then I let the chips fall.  All I have to worry about is getting everyone checked in, sound-checked, parked, fed, paid and pampered.

Friday 2/26.  By the time the VIP Reception opens at Lancaster Visitors Center at 5pm, I will have been on the job ten hours already.  So I’ll have a cup of Gerhart Coffee and a glass of Barossa Valley shiraz.  I’ll munch some delicacies by Chef Tim Carr.  I’ll hug and introduce my pal Kaleigh Baker before she performs solo acoustic.  Then I will dash to Convention Center to introduce Sweet Leda as they open the Main Stage at Freedom Hall B at 6pm.  I’ll get to boogie a few minutes there before I start the laps of this phase of operations: opening.

By 7:30pm most venues will have opened and the VIP event will be ended.  I’ll secure the Visitors Center and check in on the Food Truck Court on Market Street.  If I start a counter-clockwise lap from there, I’ll catch a bit of Sam Baker at Ware, Left Lane Cruiser at Tellus 360, The Ogham Stones at Elks Lodge, Banditos at Chameleon and Ten String Symphony at Trust PAC before introducing Kapali Long to open Dispensing Company’s stage.  Dude is coming from Hawaii to play our festival.  That’s my plan 7:30-9:30.

MaceoThat gives me 30 minutes to try and catch a few minutes of Marah at Tellus 360 and solve any festival problems before Maceo Parker hits the Main Stage at convention center at 10pm.  What could go wrong?  Of course I want to be there to see a legend and his 12-piece band show us what it’s all about.  That just doesn’t happen every day in Lancaster.   I hope to see 15-20 minutes before I begin the next phase of laps: finales.

Chameleon and Ware Center will be wrapping up between 11-11:30pm.  I hope to fit introducing Gabe Stillman and The Billtown Giants at Federal Taphouse into those laps.  They go on at 11pm and are some serious blues-rock pals who call Bullfrog Brewery in Williamsport their home.  I know you never heard of them.  You heard it here first; be there!

Frog HollerAs I hit my 17th hour on the job Friday, I want nothing more than to introduce Frog Holler at Elks Lodge Ballroom and have my first beer of the night.  They will celebrate 20 years together in 2016 and for my money, they embody everything a roots and blues festival should be.  Last pause of the night will be at Federal Taphouse for Toronzo Cannon.  It will feel like being in Chicago and my feet will likely feel like I walked there!  Then it’s back to headquarters to review and prep for Saturday!

toronzo

Reboot Camp

I ended 2015 wanting a fresh start.  On a simple level that meant tasks like cleaning out the closets, reorganizing my office and sorting a few piles of “pitch, keep, or pay it forward.”  On a higher level, it meant choosing healthy over haggard.  Somewhere in between, I needed to repurpose my business to reflect five years of experience.  So I’ve thrown away a bunch of stuff, quit smoking cigarettes and begun the redesign of Gigspots.  January 2016 has been the hardest month of my life since boot camp in 1981.

You learn a lot about yourself in challenging times.  I was sure I would die those first few weeks of basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, the most misnamed post in any man’s Army.  Fifteen weeks later I knew I could “fuck, fight and hold the light” on any continent.  Thirty five years later I laugh at the memories and love to tell the stories.  Our drill instructors loved to remind us that “You assholes volunteered for this!”  They all had been drafted and served combat duty in Vietnam.

A former student recently reminded me that I’d recommended a book to her, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.  She said it changed her life; I knew it had mine.  The four agreements you make with yourself are:  1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take anything personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions and 4) Always do your best.  After this reminder (thanks S.F.), I recalled that the book had popped up in some close friends’ lives recently.  I decided I had to re-read it.  I don’t believe in random.

The week before, I had uncovered Ruiz’s book cleaning out my office and I also found my copy of the book Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath.  This personality assessment book meant much to me when I had decided to leave teaching and try to rediscover what mattered to me.  The idea behind the book is that our society wastes much time and energy trying to “fix” our weaknesses rather than recognizing and employing our strengths.   My top five themes are Empathy, Input, Intellection, Activator and Connectedness.

So the boxes of photos and books from my past remind me of tough times endured and joyous times realized.  They give me something to do instead of smoking which it now seems I spent most of my waking hours doing.  I’ve been taking time to rediscover elements of my character and reassessing how Gigspots.com should reflect them.  After all, I am the brand.  My life themes are the business themes.

So I empathize with your need to find entertainment among people you enjoy.  I do the homework to give you input on what’s out there.  I ask the big questions like, “Will this enrich some lives?” and I support the causes, not just the events.  Think global, act local.  Connectedness means “…fortifying the bonds between yourself, the people you know, or even those you will never meet.”  That’s what Gigspots is about.  I’m building campfires we can all gather around and celebrate what makes us human.

Here We Go Again

I was born and raised in Pittsburgh where “Here we go” is followed by “Steelers.”  The MNF game last night between the Steelers and San Diego Chargers was a lucky win for my team.  A friend of mine is fond of saying, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”  I think if you work hard enough towards a goal, luck just might find you.  I hope I’m right.

bjorn1I can tell you that Bjorn Jacobsen is working hard on his PA tour.  The NEPA leg included two Wilkes-Barre gigs and shows in Bloomsburg, Williamsport, State College, West Chester, Lancaster and East York: eight shows in ten days.  I was lucky to be his host, wheel man, sound man and big fan on five of those nights and I’m looking forward to a few more before Boy Wander heads back to NOLA.  His singing is stronger than ever and he still thrashes that acoustic guitar.  There was a brief sighting of Amanda and baby Adelei at DipCo and jeepers that baby is cute!  Bjorn is opening my big show this Friday 10/16 at Elks Lodge.  Come see how strong and lucky The Wayfarer has become!

Jamall AnthonyIf you want to see work that’s play, join us for Music Fridays in Lancaster at The BPOE Elks Lodge Ballroom this Friday. Bjorn opens with some jangly, rootsy tales of love and woe.  Soul singer Jamall Anthony from Coatesville is in the middle.  Maybe you saw one of his LAUNCH Music Conference shows or have heard him on 93.7 WSTW?  This guy can really sing and this could be an, “I saw him when…” moment for all of us!  Here’s a bit of what made me say YEAH two years ago at LAUNCH.

Shrimpboat is the 8-piece super-group that means PARTY in Lancaster.  They’ve played all the biggest events in town since forming: NYE, Celebrate Lancaster, FlyFest, The Long’s Park Summer Concert Series etc.  Their stated mission is to get hips shaking.  They do it and make it look easy.  Come get some easy!

As the stage doors at DipCo swing shut (one showcase left), a window is swinging open at Federal Taphouse.  I’ve been asked to book a series of performances there between now and Christmas.  First up will be Skribe on Friday October 23rd!  As I left the meeting confirming this experiment at Taphouse, thinking, “Ok, who do I get to play in two weeks?”  I received a call from Skribe.Skribe2  A venue had just cancelled a 10/23 gig on him and could I find something along his tour route?  I don’t know what to call that but luck.  If you’ve seen Skribe, you know how lucky we all are!  If you haven’t, your lucky day is 10/23 when you get to see him for free, eat artisan, wood-fired pizza and drink craft beer.

So I got lucky trying to do good for a local business and a touring musician friend.  It’s been a mantra at Gigspots and the folks I work with are doing well.  It’s also what motivates me to work harder.  I’m about to add ten new venues to Gigspots.com.  It will be a lot more work but I believe I’m serving the community.  I believe if you do good, luck finds you.  Doing good and doing well are not synonymous though.  Doing good is about rewards for others.  Doing well is about rewards for you.  The luckiest people find ways to accomplish both.

Stagelights Dim at DipCo

I got some sad news over the weekend.  The Lancaster Dispensing Company has decided to cease staging live music after Thanksgiving 2015.  They have been a live music venue since opening in 1978.  To me, it was the equivalent of having your favorite uncle die.DipCo new

I grew up in the restaurant business.  I know it’s a really tough way to make a living.  You count your inventory by the ounce and your profits by the pennies.  You work every weekend and most holidays.  There are hundreds of laws to comply with and you can’t choose your neighbors.  You are the top of the food chain so everyone else’s costs get passed on to you.

So why did the music have to die?  I can only conjecture on Bradley and Judy’s reasons for making what I’m sure was a very tough decision.  I’m not keen to guess and frankly it’s none of my business.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to stage eighteen Gigspots Showcases there.  I have two shows left: October 10 and November 14.  I’d be well pleased to see a good crowd!

OneKoast MD's Finest IX mapDipCo has long been the hub of Lancaster’s music scene and it served me as a place to introduce many bands here.  It was a pivotal stop as I would take bands on tour around the region.  Besides getting their first exposure in our crucial Lancaster market, those bands knew they would get guaranteed pay at the end of the night.

There are few guarantees in life and fewer still for musicians and restaurateurs.  Most of those folks count on people coming in the door to cover their expenses and put some bread on their own tables.  Any musician will tell you that nights with a guarantee are what keep the boat afloat.  Any restaurateur will tell you that the only guarantees are that the bills will arrive and that regular customers can make or break you.

I’m not looking to lay blame any more than I’m guessing what motivated DipCo to stop the music.  There are a few facts that I can share.  The cover charge at the door is five dollars on music nights.  It’s been that price for decades.  Every night, I would see 12-20 people turn away at the door rather than pay it.  We all know that there is no place cheaper to eat and drink downtown and the food is great.  What’s the logic in paying $8 for a beer somewhere else when $8 at DipCo gets you a beer and live music all night?  On the other side of that coin: DipCo’s cover charge is $5 but their average sale per customer is nearly $12.  If you drop the cover charge, can you count on that clientele to meet your averages?  Or will six people share the large nachos and a pitcher of water while enjoying the music?  Either way it’s a risk.  And what value do you place on the artists’ work?

The only guaranteed losers in this equation are the musicians.  There is now one less place to play where you will be guaranteed a payout at the end of the night.  There is one less chance for you to reach the Lancaster market and build your following.  I know that’s crucial because so many nights are dependent on people coming through the door.  And yeah, I know that cover charges and hence band pay have been stagnant for thirty years.  It was $5 to see two bands in 1985 and it still is at nearly every venue.

Live, original music is only a small part of what The Lancaster Dispensing Company has given to our city since 1978.  I’ve had hundreds of great meals and memorable nights there.  It’s where I first met many of my favorite people in Lancaster, where I always brought out-of-town visitors and where I always could count on seeing friendly, familiar faces.  That’s not going to change.

bjorn1The Gigspots Spotlight Showcase on October 10 features two of my friends who are musical freaks.  Returning to the area from NOLA will be Bjorn Jacobsen, the Wayfarer himself, bringing savage tales of busking for a living and being a new daddy.  And yeah, all that dark stuff from the past and weird prophesies for the future will boil over too. Clinton Hibshman Opening the night and a whole can of whup-ass on guitars, harp and songs will be Clinton Hibshman.  I don’t waste a lot of words trying to describe him.  I just turn it up and grab a beer.  He embodies everything that happens at my favorite kinds of parties.

Help me make my last two shows at DipCo those kinds of parties.  Let the food, drinks and good times roll!  Have you partied there?  Have you played there?  Let’s celebrate what it’s meant to us all.

Up Around The Bend and Back

Ah summer!  I had a great season.  I shared a lot of laughs, adventures and good times with family and friends old and new.  I haven’t been blogging but boy have I been living!  The only problem with not writing is getting started again.  Then yesterday morning I heard the old Creedence Clearwater Revival tune “Up Around The Bend” from Cosmos Factory and knew I had my prompt.

Up Around The Bend

By Creedence Clearwater Revival

There’s a place up ahead and I’m goin’
Just as fast as my feet can fly
Come away, come away if you’re goin’,
Leave the sinkin’ ship behind.

[Chorus:]
Come on the risin’ wind,
We’re goin’ up around the bend.

Ooh!

Bring a song and a smile for the banjo,
Better get while the gettin’s good,
Hitch a ride to the end of the highway
Where the neons turn to wood.

[Chorus:]

Ooh!

You can ponder perpetual motion,
Fix your mind on a crystal day,
Always time for a good conversation,
There’s an ear for what you say.

[Chorus:]

Yeah!

Ooh!

Catch a ride to the end of the highway
And we’ll meet by the big red tree,
There’s a place up ahead and I’m goin’
Come along, come along with me.

[Chorus:]

Yeah!

I guess I’m wired that way.  As a soldier, I learned that On Leave means leave it behind.  As a student and later a teacher, I treasured my summer vacations.  My life certainly is NOT a “…sinkin’ ship” I need to leave behind.  But when I get to “…where the neons turn to wood,” I’m glad to get out of the glare.

Of course I found time for some Gigspotting!  Have you seen my latest videos of Medusa’s Disco, Ton-Taun, Leo & Cygnus and Stolen Rhodes?  How about my playlists from LAUNCH or The Ladybug Festival?  If not, they’ll be there and they’ll soon be joined by many more.  I’ve been up around the bend but now I’m back.

jocelynf2And whoa, Daddy, do I have some great shows lined up for fall!  I hope to see you every second Saturday at Lancaster Dispensing Company and every third Friday at The Elks Lodge Ballroom!  Up first: Jocelyn Faro and The Ragazzi plus Justin Angelo at DipCo 9/12!

Gigspotting Off the Grid

I just spent a week in Denver, CO.  The elevation greeted me pleasantly and low humidity kept me cool.  The trip centered on friends so I caught no shows.  Amos Lee and David Gray played Red Rocks while I was there and Blues Traveler was headlining on the Fourth of July.  My wife and I (still the best date) passed many hours downtown in fabulous craft breweries and cantinas but never saw any live music. There were a few buskers and a Zac Brown concert at Coors Field.  LoDo, or lower downtown, kept its rhythm with piped-in hits of the moment or those you’ve known for decades.  People sing along and sway.  The city was beautiful and clean, fresh yet historic.  I don’t know how those people stay so fit with all the great food and beer at their fingertips.  I will say downtown Denver is quite foot and bike friendly as are the people.

Bullfrog3On July 9-11 I’ll be hosting a Gigspots Premiere Showcase at Bullfrog Brewery in Williamsport.  I love this place with all my heart and I’m thrilled to have three nights in a row to share some music they have not heard.  Stolen Rhodes is touring nationally and Thursday 7/9 fit perfectly for their first visit to Billtown.  Lavacave makes their first appearance Friday 7/10 at Bullfrog although Robin Chambers has appeared there before with Bjorn Jacobsen and Nick DiSanto’s brother Leo has played there plenty: as a duo with Jeff Bryson and also as part of The Vinegar Creek Constituency.  On Saturday night, those wild boys Medusa’s Disco will play a rarely-seen acoustic show.  What a first impression!  My name for it is “acousticophonic:” an unplugged cacophony.

P6250084Bullfrog Brewery is the only place you’ll catch me the rest of this week.  Besides staging these shows, I’ll be hosting Loyalstock and living in a tent.  The only electronic signals I’ll be receiving will come from stars and fireflies.  I’ll be back in time to fly my Gigspots banner at Ladybug Music Festival in Wilmington, DE on Thursday July 16.  Friday July 17 is Sweet Leda at Reading Band Shell.  Sunday July 18 I’ll be at Long’s Park for Lake Street Dive.  All three of these events are FREE!  Till then, it’s me, the bugs, the creek, the music and a pile of some of the greatest people I know.  Pie for breakfast.  Late night campfires.  Tubing in between and Bullfrog Billtown Blonde on tap.  Seizure later!

 

It’s A (Road) Dog’s Life

LeoCygnusI’m so American.  When summer comes, I crave the road.  The only show I’m staging in Lancaster this summer is July 10 at 551 West featuring the dynamic Leo & Cygnus from Annapolis.  Maybe you caught them when I had them at DipCo in May?  If you missed them, don’t make that mistake twice.  The show is free but this band’s stock is rising and they’ll likely be playing huge festivals by this time next year. 551 West If you know 551 West, you know to go hungry.  Everybody I’ve taken there now eats there once a week.  551 West King Street in Lancaster PA. http://www.551west.com/.  Seriously.

I’m headed to Pittsburgh this weekend but not for The Rolling Stones or Dierks Bentley.  I’m taking my family to visit mom and remember my dad.  He was a great man; I’ll never be half the father he was.  In the wake of another senseless race crime, I realize again what a blessing it was to have a blind gentleman as a father and role model.  He never judged anyone by their appearance; he couldn’t see them.  Of all my miles to cover this summer, this trip to my hometown feels the most important.

OneKoast MD's Finest IX mapBetween Monday 6/22 and 6/29, I’ll visit venues in York, Harrisburg, State College, Millheim, Williamsport, Bloomsburg, Wilkes-Barre, Philly, Wilmington DE and western Maryland.  As I recruit bands for my fall showcases in Lancaster, I’ll be making arrangements for these venues to catch the bands on their way to/from my shows.  And I’ll love every mile and every stop.  Draw a circle around Lancaster and lines to these cities and you’ll see we are the hub in a big wheel of culture and fun.

Bullfrog5After a week in Denver, CO I’ll be staging my two biggest events of the summer: four days of hosting bands at Bullfrog Brewery in Williamsport and some of my favorite revelers (and bands) at Loyalstock.  That’s when I trade my Subaru for an inner tube and my smart phone for fireflies.  If you can make it to Billtown July 9-12, find me at the Frog for Stolen Rhodes, Lavacave and Medusa’s Disco (acousticlamor)!  It may be the only four days this summer when I’ll be holding relatively still… in my moving and grooving way.

chameleon10thTwo things before I dash: Happy 30th Anniversary to Chameleon Club in Lancaster, PA and to its founder Rich Ruoff!  In June of 1985 he opened the door on Christian St.  In February of 1988 I attended my first Blues Festival there and realized Lancaster was where I was going to put down roots.  I never imagined then that thirty years later, I’d be working for Rich and Lancaster Roots and Blues, A Festival of Music.

Congratulations to the completely amazing Angela Sheik, whose submission video for an NPR Tiny Desk Concert contest landed her an interview and feature on NPR Weekend Edition this Sunday 6/21! angela npr

Thank you Rich and thank you Lancaster for being a hub that rolls smooth after all the miles.

Sulk or Burn?

I’ve been filling my rainy day with various Gigspotter tasks: uploading videos, contacting agents, reading the blogs and the latest Fly Magazine.  Were you at Tellus 360 for the tribute to the Radiohead album The Bends three weeks ago? bends tribute All twelve of the artists performed one of the album cuts and then a few originals.  Angela Sheik nailed it for me this morning.  Her performance of “Sulk” was singular and remarkable and I hope Radiohead hears it.  Hearing it today gave me the juice to care not a whit for the weather’s plans.  Seeing the joy and verve she threw into that performance reminded me why I started Gigspots and why it fascinates me every day.  Thank you bands and especially Dani Mari for orchestrating the night!  I’m not worthy!

Browsing 298 Recommended Pages and Notifications on Facebook lead me to a blog on The Key called “Philly Music 101: How to Book a Show at a Philly Venue.”  It was filled with sound advice and some notable quotes.  One of my favorites was by Christianna LaBuz of World Café Live.  Christianna La Buz: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. It’s a pretty small industry and everyone knows each other, so don’t talk smack. Stick around for the bands playing after you. Be kind to your openers; you never know, you could be opening for them someday. Treat your sound engineers with respect – it’s a thankless job and they can easily make you sound like garbage. Tip your bartenders well – they talk to more people at the venue than anyone and it’s just the right thing to do.”

The Key blogger, Sarah Hughes, made some keen points around the quotes she got from LaBuz, Chris Ward from Johnny Brenda’s, Jesse Lundy for Point Entertainment, Yusuf Muhammad for Vintage Freshman and Sean Agnew from R5 (quoted below).  If your band wants to play Philly (or anywhere), I suggest you follow the link and read the whole blog.

So – you got your gig. What now? Performers might think that the only thing next is showing up at the right address on the right day without missing a band member, but there are some things that you can do in the meantime to show that you are adamant and grateful for the slot you got. Making a solid impression with show bookers can create an important relationship in the industry. A good place to start is with promoting the show on your end, and not just leaving it up to the venue. Promoters like it when a band is excited about their performance and getting people out to see them. Agnew talked about how this will start you off on a good note for venues:

You will quickly become every club’s favorite band if you hustle and get folks out for the show. You’ll definitely get invited back and then quickly rise to the top of the list for when we can add local bands to bigger shows.

Everybody wants to draw a crowd.  If this was middle school, all you’d have to do is yell, “Fight!”  We’re over that now.  But you need to fight to succeed in life and pursuing your art is a noble fight.  Radiohead does it.  Angela Sheik and Dani Mari do it.  The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were bar bands once.  Of course there’s a competitive element to landing a gig at the place and time that works for you.  But we’re all in this together.  One of the best things I heard that night at Tellus 360 (besides the bands pouring their hearts out in tribute) was all the musicians saying how great it was to be there together.

Sulk

By Radiohead

You bite through the big wall, the big wall bites back
You just sit there and sulk, sit there and bawl
You are so pretty when you’re on your knees
Disinfected, eager to please

Sometimes you sulk, sometimes you burn
God rest your soul
When the loving comes and we’ve already gone
Just like your dad, you’ll never change

Each time it comes it eats me alive
I try to behave but it eats me alive

Springing and Swinging Into Year Five!

The Gigspots calendar starts in April and we just celebrated our fourth birthday.  Spring has been quite the rush!  I enjoyed LAUNCH Music Conference as usual.  The 20th anniversary tribute to Radiohead’s album The Bends at Tellus 360 was spectacular.  The tour I arranged for my pals Pete Bush and The Hoi Polloi put them in two of my latest favorite spots: Sprout Music Collective in West Chester and The Grape Room in Philly. LeoCygnus I wrapped up my season of showcases at Lancaster Dispensing Company and am already planning to return with another great season in September.  Thank you DipCo for your stage and hospitality!  Thank you Jessica Smucker and Leo & Cygnus for a great finale!

How am I wrapping up the hometown season before May fades into summer and I hit the road?  Of course I’m throwing a show!  Tonight May 15 I have the hottest lineup in town.  The show opens with a new project by some familiar favorites called Tractor Jerry and The Mud Bucket.  Mike McMonagle and Dom Billett will take things up a notch.  Corty1Then Corty Byron Band will remind us that Lancaster rocks!  Our last act is a bittersweet send-off to Second Hand Suits, who have announced an indefinite hiatus as a band while the fellas pursue some new directions.  If you love music, have any sense and $7, join us for the best show in town at The Elks Lodge, 219 N. Duke Street, Lancaster PA 17602.  Doors open at 7:00pm with music starting shortly after 8pm.

What’s left of me will be heading to the family retreat near Williamsport on Saturday morning and I’ll be off the grid for about a week.  Then it’s on the road: talent scouting, venue recruiting and festival fun will ensue!  The Gigspots Showcase is going on tour!  We’ll be hosting shows at select client venues all over PA, MD and DE.  It’s time for you loyal local bands to hit the road with me and go visit those bands who came to Lancaster to play!  Watch this space for tour announcements! Wave Disco Queen

Big Plan, Small Man

gigspots smApril is a big month in my life but last week made me feel very small.  I celebrate four years of Gigspots this month with both pride and trepidation.  Am I making a difference and can I sustain it?  Am I brightening lives, fostering culture and saving the economy one gig at a time?  Am I creating opportunities for young people, acting locally and thinking globally?

Meanwhile, Islamic terrorists were slaughtering Christian school children in Africa.  Diplomats were negotiating over who can or cannot have nuclear weapons.  My daughter was packing for a trip to Germany when that Germanwings pilot crashed his plane full of people on purpose.  My mother fell ill and wouldn’t be able to celebrate Easter with the whole family.

Meanwhile, America obsessed over The Voice contestants and their March Madness brackets.  As an American, a Christian, a son, a father and a businessman, it seemed the world was spinning faster than usual.  Could I stay grounded while not letting the gravity of it all crush me?  I wondered for the billionth time if one man’s thoughts, beliefs or actions really made any difference.

Then I remembered being a teacher.  I didn’t have all the answers then any more than I do now.  But I felt like if I asked the right questions, or provoked a few new thoughts, maybe the next generation could come up with an answer or two.  Those young people never let me down!

So I revisited my lessons this week.  What follows are two essays I used for years as examples of crisp, poignant writing and thought-provoking analysis framed within classic religious literature: the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita.  You don’t have to be religious, political or an English teacher to enjoy them.

If you’re about to click off, let me preface the essays this way.  The first, “Fear and Faith,” was published September 12, 2001, while I was teaching freshman English and the World Trade Towers were still smoldering.  The second, “You’re In Here Too,” was published in The Sun magazine the day my father had open-heart surgery after surviving cancer and a stroke.   I felt pretty small on those days too.

Fear and Faith

By John Wimberly

Western Presbyterian Church

September 12, 2001

To some, the World Trade Towers were a symbol of an economic system that works.  To others, they were symbols of an economic system whose success is built on exploitation. Regardless of where one stands in the debate about the causes of wealth and poverty, Tuesday’s terrorism leaves us no choice but to admit that fear, hatred and violence increasingly define the relations between the rich and poor.

Those who don’t have wealth fear that their children’s lives will be worse than their own.  Anger grows as they watch their loved ones die of diseases that disappeared years ago in developed nations.  Leaders who foster hatred of the developed nations suddenly sound reasonable.

Those who have wealth grow increasingly fearful of the masses of poor people.  They become resentful that their wealth does not give them the freedom and safety they once assumed it would create.  Leaders who tell them that the poor are a threat to their well-being suddenly sound reasonable.

It is a recipe for madness. A blue print for mutual self-destruction.  Where does it end?  The world’s major religions all agree that it is the responsibility of those who have to help those who do not.  Jesus, for example, talked about financial stewardship more than any other single issue.  What we do or don’t do with our money is an issue of profound spiritual significance.  The strong are supposed to help the weak.

And isn’t the well-being of others an important aspect of good economic policy as well?  Impoverished people don’t buy products.  Uneducated people don’t constitute a good workforce.  Strong economies produce jobs that can enable the poor to build a better future for themselves and their families.  Long term economic self-interest requires attention to the needs of others.

If both economists and the world’s religions agree that self-interest and the interest of all are inseparably intertwined, what is the problem?  The problem is fear, fear that morphs into hostility…that morphs into a willingness to fly a plane into a skyscraper; or fear that turns into a vengeance-filled cruise missile flying through the night with hopes that it will hit an enemy.

The opposite of fear is faith.  Our daily lives are built on hundreds of large and small acts of faith.  We have faith that when we get on a plane, it will take us to the scheduled destination; that when we sit in an office, we are safe; that the sun will set tonight and rise tomorrow.

What is at stake today is whether we will live lives of fear of lives of faith.  We live in a national and personal moment of truth.

In Washington, this is John Wimberly for Marketplace on NPR.

Did you notice that Pastor John Wimberly was writing for Marketplace on NPR, a show about economics?  Did I mention that on September 11, 2001, it was Yearbook Picture Day in my school?  Smile for the camera and never mind that there are still 1,600 planes in flight in America right now or that you have family and friends in DC and Manhattan…

You’re In Here Too

Jim Ralston

The Sun July 2006

It’s morning but still dark out.  It’s also raining and cold.  I’m walking out of a twenty-four-hour fitness center, on my way to the all-night Waffle House, when a woman hails me from her car.  She has just run away from her husband, she says, and needs gas money to get to her mother’s.

Gas money now, is it?  Who doesn’t need gas money to get to their mother’s these days?  Probably drug money she’s really after.  I hate being panhandled.  But a softer voice inside me says, Hey, wake up.  Here’s a human being in distress.  This is an opportunity to be of help.  It’s not your concern what she does with the money.

                “He’s a bastard,” she tells me.

Peering into my wallet, I see that my smallest bill is a twenty.  Ouch.  I was thinking of a couple of dollars, five at the most.

“Here,” I say, handing her a twenty.  “This won’t get you very far these days.”

She thanks me profusely.  I can see that she is crying.  She waves and honks another thank-you as she drives off.

An hour later, my own gas tank topped off, I sit down to prepare my classes over a double espresso at the Daily Grind.  I’ve only just begun working when my laptop crashes and won’t restart.  Now I’m the one who feels like crying.

OK, I tell myself.  That’s the way today is going.  Close your eyes.  Take a couple of deep breaths.  Disappointments are there to remind us of the big picture: Everything that’s created also falls apart.  This machine is like my body, which will crash too one day.  Both machines are far from new.

Or big picture number two: For most of the world, a sudden fifteen-hundred-dollar setback would be heart-stopping.  I can pay for this.  I have a credit card.  By world standards I’m economically privileged.

Finally the coffee and sugar start to kick in.  Dawn is breaking.  The rain has stopped.  I try my computer one more time, to see if a miracle has happened.  It hasn’t.

In my world-literature class this morning, I am teaching the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu scripture written in the fourth century B.C., in which the god Krishna takes human form as the charioteer of the warrior Arjuna.  Krishna presses upon Arjuna that the attention we pay to particular outcomes in life, be they good or bad, should be minimal.  Fortune will change like the weather:  Now you have fallen ill.  Now your illness has been cured.  Now you have gone broke.  Now you have inherited a stash of money.  Now somebody has put a ding in your new chariot.  Now you have fallen in love.  Relinquish attachment to outcomes, Krishna advises; be equally indifferent to success and failure.  The real value of what happens “out there” in the ever-changing world (and, from Krishna’s perspective, “out there” includes your own body) lies in the opportunity to see anew from “in here” – from the perspective of the eternal soul.

In the afternoon I’m coming down pretty hard from my morning caffeine trip when I learn by phone that my book has been rejected by a university press that held the manuscript for longer than two years.  In a recent conversation, the press director told me he was optimistic.  I close my eyes and suffer this rejection for a few minutes.  Why me?

Then a little voice inside me says, Why don’t you ever ask, “Why me?” when something good happens?  Did you utter, “Why me?” when your daughter was born healthy?

After my three-hour night class, I circle the residential streets looking for an inconspicuous place to park my van and sleep in it.  It’s been a long day.  I don’t feel like driving an hour and twenty minutes home just to drive back again in the morning.  A spot beside a church is always promising.  Even better if the church is a little run-down and offbeat, like the Free Methodist, or God’s Love, or the Unitarian Universalist.  Karate clubs and yoga centers are also good – if they’re in a part of town where an aging Dodge conversion van doesn’t appear out of place.

Tonight, though, like last night, I end up in the Wal-Mart parking lot.  It’s open 24/7, and there’s a restroom.  Plus I can buy a bedtime snack.  I steel myself before I go inside.  Watching people mull over their purchases in a Wal-Mart late at night can put me in a mild depression.  You’re shopping here, too, the little voice whispers as I stand in line to purchase a sack of peanuts so I won’t wake up hungry at 1 A.M.

Back in my van, satisfied that I’m unobserved, I pull down my bed in the back and slide into my sleeping bag.  The traffic along Interstate 81 is a dull roar, but a steady one, so it won’t disturb my sleep.  The traffic never stops.  It goes all night.  I try to think of it as a distant wind.

I’ve aligned my bedside window to a parking-lot light to illuminate the pages of my book.  Outside, some kids are skateboarding.  A couple walks by pushing carts full of groceries.    I hear them talking two feet away, on the other side of my tinted window, as if they were alone: about how long the day has been; about how tired they’ve been feeling lately.  The window at the foot of my bed perfectly frames the big red letters of the Wal-Mart sign: AL-MART.  The W has burned out.  I notice the R and T are starting to flicker.

After half a page, I’m falling asleep.  Wisdom doesn’t come easily, Krishna teaches Arjuna.  It takes practice to develop a mind quiet enough to hear life’s deeper truths.  It takes discipline.  It takes lifetimes.

So…I’m practicing.  I can’t control what thoughts pop into my head.  I can think and organize beliefs.  I can choose to act based on fear, or faith, or greed, or kindness or hundreds of other motivations.  I can do my best and hope I leave the world a bit richer than when I found it.  Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith.  Cue the music!  Pack a bag!  We’re not small; it’s just a big world out there…and in here.