Farewell, 2021: Happy Holidays!

Greetings, visitor!

It’s been a long year and there’s so much to share. Until I have a chance for a full update next year, here’s a brief jingle like a dash of nutmeg on Christmas eggnog.

Where do I begin?

Although I can’t claim the Grammy-winning yoni of 2021, congrats to CardiB for WAP!, I sure have a lot to be grateful for. My adventures abroad as an American expat may be over for now, but after living in Spain for the last two years, I can humbly claim numerous gifts of beauty and friendship from afar. And these awards of profound human experiences remain.

I returned to the United States in September, leaving Spain where I taught English as a foreign language. Spain was quite an adventure during a global pandemic, of which I will speak more about next year, profoundly memorable in so many ways.

I made some heart-warming new friends.

I ate some delicious food.

And I saw some stunning works of art, both natural and man-made.

Although I appreciate my time in Spain, as the global pandemic continues, I’m happy now to return to friends and family in the United States, easing back into a more stationary career on this side of the Pacific Ocean.

With a little luck and a lot of patience and perseverance, 2022 should be quite a productive year for this website. Meanwhile, I invite you to connect with me on one of your favorite social media platforms to follow this site’s development.

Until we meet again next year, you can find me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Happy holidays!

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 7 of 7) ~ What Comes Next: 2020, 2021, & 2022 [Revised]

Declaring one’s intentions can be risky. If public announcements don’t fall prey to hollow chest-thumping, they can feel restrictive, like binding contracts incapable of being changed.


And yet I’m willing to accept these risks. I know that sharing my plans can offer some direction for this site’s development. So, think of this as a provisional roadmap.

Grab a map below. Dog-ear what interests you. And plan your visits accordingly.

Editor’s Note: As of January 30, two months after this article’s publication, it’s clear that all projected projects for 2020 have been delayed. I’ve canceled the 2020 year-end podcast review and postponed several 2021 projects until 2022, including my street photography exhibit, the Discharge journal series, and the periodic music series based around non-genre-specific themes.

A Map for the Rest of 2020

First up is a long-form article I wrote earlier in the year about some of my personal and professional experiences during the 2010s, Heavy Words: Todd B. Gruel’s 2010s Reflections on a Life of Service to the Arts. The retrospective article is structured around a self-reflective narrative inspired by music albums released from each year of the decade.

Next up is an annual end-of-year review series dedicated to honoring some of my favorite music releases from each year. The lists will be structured within some fun, I hope, non-genre-specific categories that I created. In a twist to the intended norm for this series, this year’s list will feature music from the 2010s as a supplement to my 2010s retrospective article.

One of the more ambitious projects of the year is a multimedia blog series about a hiking trip to Camino de Santiago that I took during summer 2020. Even though this series is a bit delayed, and I can’t boast of hiking the entire Camino Frances route, I believe that it’s still worth commemorating that experience.

A Map for 2021

My goal for 2021 is to establish greater regularity with this website, posting on a monthly basis, ideally on the last Sunday of each month.

I’ll likely start the year by sharing my published articles. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to publish my writing in a variety of online publications. Much of my writing focuses on the arts, especially underground music. But some of my work has broader appeal, including a blog about the farm-to-table movement. Whether you find new music to listen to or a writing phrase to chew on, I’m content to showcase how one’s relationship with any discipline is developed over time with care and dedication. As always, if I can do it, you can, too.

One of the site’s wildcards is an episodic blog series promoting socially and politically conscious music from around the world. Unlike the rest of the original content that I publish on this blog, this series will be exclusively written by visitors of this site. Yes, that means you; feel free to invite your friends, neighbors, boss, even grandma. My purpose is to provide a platform for non-professional writers who have something to say about music that helps us better understand our roles as citizens of the world and stewards of the planet.

Finally, to balance the more curatorial nature of this site with something more personal, I plan on writing quarterly updates about meaningful goings-on within my life. These updates will assess the current challenges that I face along with lessons that I learn along the way. They will feature a section collecting quotes from podcasts, books, and films that engaged me during each season. I’ll reflect upon the relevance of these ideas for myself in a way that may also be helpful for others.

A Map for 2022

After I purge my reserves in 2021, I should be ready to boot up my multimedia blog, tentatively titled, Curious, The Blog, by 2022. Unlike the main blog on my site, which focuses more on my own work, this one will exclusively curate the work of others, covering subjects from astronomy to zoology, mixing literary quotes with microscopy photos, yoga videos with heavy metal documentaries. More than any other project, this blog will express the beating heart of both this website and my worldview, offering a reason for embracing the world, in face of all of its complexity and diversity, with an abounding sense of compassion and wonder.

Next up, I’d like to share some of my recent photography. Since I retired my analog camera and I’ve yet to commit to purchasing a new digital camera, I’ve been using my iPhone to shoot street photos during my first year in Spain. Working on this project has helped me appreciate how the sequencing of still images can simulate a moving image narrative similar to cinema.

I may publish a monthly series, titled Discharge, based upon my journal entries _____

I may also publish a periodic series of music lists structured by non-genre-specific categories that I created: 1) Shhh, Quiet Please!—ambient music that draws us nearer to the realm of the sacred in an increasingly commercialized world; 2) Curious and Curiouser—conceptual music that asks bold questions of art and humanity; and 3) Fuzzy Grooves—rhythmic music that makes us dance or at least sway in our chairs. 

Once again, thank you for your patience. Thank you for your interest. Thank you for visiting.

Photo taken from Public Domain Pictures.

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 6 of 7) ~ Lessons Learned: Conviction

After moaning for weeks about the touchy elevator in my new apartment, I eventually accepted that maybe the elevator wasn’t malfunctioning. Or, rather, if it was, it wasn’t in greater need of maintenance than my own expectations.

Granted, many of the technologies I find in Spain are either currently broken, were recently broken, or are fated to be broken soon. Over the past year, I’ve found that Spanish culture excels at living carnally in the present: food, drink, and fun, there’s a reason why fiesta rhymes with siesta in Spanish. In contrast, Spanish culture seems much less disciplined when expressing its passion for life through bureacratic systems.

And yet, to borrow a five-fingered slogan from the tie-dyed bongo drummers of the world, it is what it is. However dysfunctional the elevator may be, it is ultimately my approach to using that is inadequate. As frustrating as it may be, I can’t rely upon anyone else to fix the issue. I have to account for my own response to this reality, taking the initiative to adapt to my environment.

In my apartment, it’s not enough to press the elevator call button casually and walk away [as seen, perhaps, in the video below]. What’s required is a special touch: one must press the button firmly, hold the button depressed, and then wait for the sleeping machine to respond.

This struck me as a fitting analogy about managing life’s relationships. Whether we’re framing our connection with ideals, goals, projects, or people in our life, the essence of how we should conduct ourselves remains the same:

1) Be firm in action
2) Be committed to follow-through
3) Wait for a response from the world

I submit the above rule as a working model of conviction.

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 5 of 7) ~ Current Challenges: Applying Energy Management

At the sagging end of 2020, I’ve begun to appreciate energy management more practically: merging the pursuits of mysticism with science, it’s not a philosophy that can exist apart from a practice.

Despite the challenges that arose during an extended COVID-19 quarantine, I have managed to stumble forward in some ways. While confined indoors, I began a daily routine of calisthenics and meditation. More than anything else, meditation has helped nurture a non-intellectual side of my being, creating a space for stillness and silence in my life.

That’s far from saying that I’ve found any mastery in the approach to tending to my daily needs. Any sense of balance has been fleeting. Peace, a daydream. As much as my new practices have helped me, I remain a recovering perfectionist with a self-imploding work ethic.

At the beginning of the year, my glut of free time during the COVID-19 quarantine was a rush. I took pride in inking my ambitions on paper [as pictured below], carefully managing projects according to priorities, workflows, and thematic content. To keep me on task, I diligently tracked my progress along the way.

Trouble is, my initial enthusiasm was short-lived. In hot pursuit of a swarm of goals, I found myself urgently scrambling from one project to another, tirelessly striving for the satisfaction, or at least relief, that comes from reaching the next achievement. However, with little rest, reflection, or joy along the way, I burned out quickly. It turns out that one’s energy is a limited resource as precious as one’s time.

Quite frankly, at this point in the year, it feels like I’ve wandered deep into a forest without a guide. I’ve been hoodwinked by the trap of conditional fulfillment. My tangle of to-do lists now appears less like a ladder to higher ground than an ensnaring net.

Struggling to find a path through this thorny issue, I recently called upon a friend for feedback. With a background in middle management and an appreciation for systems thinking, my friend explained energy management as an approach to guiding the momentum of one’s life. I like how his view focuses on directing what’s already in motion. When in doubt, my friend encourages, do what compels you. Appreciate the mystery.

As someone who deeply appreciates life’s mysteries, the celebrated Indian author, mystic, and guru Sadhguru has his own inspiring view about energy management. In his Columbia University talk, Youth and Truth, he addresses the urgency of harnessing life’s most precious resources, offering insight that is as profound as it is simple:

“Life is just a combination of time and energy, isn’t it? Limited amount of time. Limited amount of energy. If you run into walls here and there, time and energy will go and your life will go. It’s very important you run through the door, not through the wall. Yes? Where there is openness, there you go.”


Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 4 of 7) ~ Current Challenges: Understanding Energy Management

At first glance, my greatest challenge during 2020 appeared to be time management: What should I do with so much free time?

Not only did I have the standard summer break for people working in the teaching field, I had an additional two months off after being inactivated from my normal work duties due to COVID-19. This break seemed exactly like the gold mine I’d been dreaming of for years. If only I had the time…

Upon closer inspection, the ongoing challenge lies less with time management than energy management.

But what in God’s name is energy?

For some people, energy involves polishing oversized crystals or shuffling Tarot cards while rambling on about auras. It’s often experienced as an intuited feeling accompanied by a belief in a metaphysical force that can help guide our lives.

For others, energy is a property of matter, something that must be calculated to be understood. As defined by Brittanica, “Energy, in physics, is the capacity for doing work.” And as Wikipedia reminds us, echoing my high school science class, “Energy is a conserved quantity; the law of conservation of energy states that energy can be converted in form, but not created or destroyed.”

For me, I currently grasp the concept of energy as an enigma, something equally practical and profound. If pressed to the task of defining it, I’d puzzle it as follows. (Warning: brace for heavy riffing.)

If time is as a trans-existent void within which space emerges—the former being the-formless-what-is within which the latter, all-that-is-to-be, persists in coming forth—then matter is the visible embodiment of energy. Okay, something like that. 

Problem solved?

Not quite. This sort of heavy riffing seems like a delightful solution by evening. But it’s of little use in resolving my daily needs the following day.

In moving forward, the pressing issue remains: How can I better manage my potential for doing meaningful work to support the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of myself and also, possibly, hopefully, of the world?

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 3 of 7) ~ What I’ve Been Up To

During the COVID-19 quarantine in 2020, I had plenty of free time for projects that had long been shelved due to lack of time.

This website was one of them. And yet after building it, I was not yet ready for the commitment of publishing regular content. Instead I was quickly consumed by other projects.

I spent the first four months of the year writing two articles—one ambitious retrospective article about my personal and professional life during the 2010s, including my relationship with the arts; and one career-spanning interview in celebration of the 80th birthday of an avant-garde musician who I’ve long admired, Keith Rowe.

After completing the second article of the year, I was burned out. I had approached both projects with great reservation. Due to working so intensely with the written word for five years, I had finally reached my personal limits—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Yet I pushed forward, as I tend to do, out of stubborn determination to strike off another project from my endless to-do list.

So, I figured, enough of serious, long-form writing. Why not switch up the medium for a change of pace.

I first spent six weeks editing a video for my friend’s bachelor party. It took me two years after my friend’s wedding to muster up the time for this project. I’m a man of my word, perhaps to a fault.

On a roll, I then taught myself the fundamentals of the motion graphics application Motion. I spent several weeks crawling through an online forum for technical support, fussing over this recreational project about a self-help workshop that I founded and still facilitate with some friends.

Unfortunately—surprise, surprise—my change of medium was not enough to sidestep or soften my excruciating work ethic. At this point in the year, I desperately needed an outlet that was less tedious and analytical. It was time for some simple fun: no laboring over unpaid words; no fussing over new software.

After taking a six-year break from music making to focus on writing, I felt compelled to buy a classical guitar, eager to start fingerpicking again. The audio sketches I made over summer give me some hope that there will be a new guitar-based album…eventually.

Meanwhile, feeling restless after a prolonged quarantine and burned out from my tireless to-do list, I decided on a whim to take a trip before the school year began. In early spring, with minimal planning, I headed to Barcelona with a friend for several days, then I left on my own to hike a northern route on the Camino de Santiago, a historical network of pilgrims’ routes that lead to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in Northwestern Spain, for two weeks. The 12-day hike through northern Spain was a rejuvenating experience, creating space in my life to appreciate the solace of nature and joy of new friendships. The trip remains memorable enough that I plan on blogging about it soon.

I stand proudly in the back row with a bucket hat and a lopsided grin, celebrating the end of a long journey with the new family that I made during my 12-day hike through northern Spain from Leon to Santiago de Compostela. Photo by unknown passer-by.

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 2 of 7) ~ A Moment of Clarity

After dodging this blog entry over the summer, I recently arrived at the end of my delay while lying on my bed one Sunday afternoon.

Staring upward at the hanging ceiling lamp [pictured below], I found motivation the way a big toe stumbles upon a corner of the bed in the middle of the night: for a moment, the narrative noise babbling through my mind was interrupted; my attention suddenly throbbing, pulsing with new possibility.

My hanging ceiling lamp. Photo by Todd B. Gruel.

Eye to eye with my silent coach, part clinical menace and part floral beauty, the plastic ceiling fixture suggested a mix between an operating table light and an exotic jungle flower. The circular silhouette framed the reflection of my desk window, my faithful computer seen waiting at stand-bye.

I’m not sure what intrigued me. But in a moment of clarity, my sudden change of perception inspired a change of behaviour.

Stop delaying. Take a deep breath. And get started. Now.

As I ease back into my job as a language and culture assistant in Murcia, Spain, the school district now opened again after COVID-19 forced a shut down throughout the country earlier in the year, it’s time to wring out some words about my recent goings-on along with my next plans for this website.

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 1 of 7) ~ So, Where’s the Content?

Forgive me, Father, for I have— 

Okay, maybe I’m being just a little dramatic. Eight months after I launched this website in March 2020, I’ve had a modest visit count by most measures. Granted, I’ve shared very little content so far; nor have I made much effort to promote it. Still, the principle remains. 

Although my infrequent action on this site isn’t quite penance-worthy (yet), in our era of digital consumerism, content is king. That is to say, in the 21st century, we can find anything we’re looking for at any time, and a lot of it. Nowadays, when falling short of one’s quota has become grounds for exile from the kingdom, the reigning law is clear: Those who aren’t constantly producing new content will be forgotten; those who aren’t constantly consuming new content will be lost. 

Enter a new boogeyman on the block. Around 20 years ago, social theorists diagnosed our postmodern condition as a kind of intoxicating, highly infectious anxiety disorder. Eventually, the condition took the form of an urban acronym, FOMO, short for Fear Of Missing Out. But what is this unspecified thing that we’re missing out on? If it’s not the next best thing that we’re scrambling for, it’s at least the next thing, whatever that means for us. 

Regardless of what we frantically seek, we can often trace it to the bottomless pits of mass and social media, the so-called infinity pools whirling around the center of our collective consciousness. Unless we’re off-the-grid hippies or senile senior citizens, many of us are tempted by the same FOMO refrain, fascinated by the spectacle of new news and other lives: more, more, more; give me more, more, more. 

Of course, I’m certainly not immune to ego distractions. But I’d like to think that my motivation with this website is less about building an empire of adoring fans than about sharing an enduring sense of wonder about life with fellow seekers who stumble my way. 

As I continue developing my website over the next couple of years, I’ll do my best not to disappear into the digital ether. Meanwhile, whoever you might be, thank you for your patience. Thank you for your interest. Thank you for visiting.

Photo taken from Public Domain Pictures.

US Halloween & Election Day 2020, Frank Zappa Style: The Torture Never Stops

Trick or treat?

Halloween is paving the way for the United States presidential election this year, knee-deep in the COVID-19 crisis of 2020. Fortunately, as we’re peeling smashed pumpkins from the street, riding a national sugar high in various states of isolation, anxious and uncertain about our future, democracy persists. We remain citizens bound to a collective, members of a culture larger than ourselves.

In the final installment of this mini blog trilogy dedicated to American musician Frank Zappa, it’s worth looking at two cultural events that were personally significant for Frank: Halloween and Election Day. If the previous entries about Memorial Day and Independence Day leaned upon irony—frankly, considering the theme of pairing national United States celebrations with Zappa songs, it’s hard to avoid—this one shoots straight from the hip.

With a dash of his patented humor, Frank once mentioned in an interview, “Well, in this world of basic stereotyping, give a guy a big nose and some weird hair and he is capable of anything.” Frank, of course, fit that profile consistently throughout a career spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Frank also fit the profile of a free-thinking eccentric. He was a socially conscious, politically opinionated rock musician who might be considered a liberal progressive by many ballots. Yet he spared no sharp judgements for either side, seeing that the Democratic and Republican parties are both prone to the same corrupting forces.

Frank was not just original, he was authentic. The distinction, in my mind, is crucial. Yes, I know that authenticity is the new buzz word within certain circles, but hear me out. If originality is often outwardly focused, or, at least, finds its identity in contrast with something outside of itself, on what it is not, authenticity is inwardly focused, measured in alignment with itself, on what it can’t help but being.

In other words, Frank was consistent, in his own way, even in the face of his peculiar contradictions.

Although Frank scoffed at the rampant drug use so prevalent in the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, he was a heavy tobacco smoker who amusingly referred to his revered substance as a vegetable. His music influences were as colorfully nuanced as his lifestyle choices, combining a love for the dissonance of classical composers such as Edgard Varèse with the feel-good grooves of 50s rhythm and blues bands.

Frank was cynically anti-establishment, never succumbing to the naively hopeful anti-intellectualism of his time. And maybe that’s why Frank loved Halloween so much, appreciating its deeper history; Halloween, as we know it, being a modernized, domesticated celebration with roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, a time when it was believed that ghosts roamed the earth freely, the past returning to visit with the present, helping us or haunting us, in turn.

Frank never tolerated the tyranny of -isms that rule our lives. The disembodied figures in the lyrics for his song “The Torture Never Stops” [excerpted below] evoke the flickering shadows on the walls in the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s allegory of the cave:

“Flies all green and buzzin’
In dungeon of despair
Who are’ll those people
That is shut away down there
Are they crazy
Are they sainted
Are they heroes someone painted
Someone painted
Are they -isms
Later ornated
Once they come they have been tainted
Once they come they have been tainted
Never been explained
Since at first it was created”

These unexplained -isms personify the dungeon-crawling ideologies that infiltrate our institutions and our minds. However, given a fly-buzzin’ human form in “The Torture Never Stops,” they are subjected to natural laws of decay. We are reminded then that all that decays can corrupt or be corrupted.

I can imagine Frank’s vigilant voice counseling discernment in our time of pandemic blues and hyper politicization: While peeling candy corn from your teeth, get out there and vote. As dysfunctional as the political system is, and as inadequate as the candidates are, we still have a choice, limited though it may be, in guiding the course of a country. The invitation is ours to lend a hand to the present in service of a less corrupting future.

Rest in peace, Frank.

“The Torture Never Stops” from Frank Zappa’s Halloween 81 live album.
Frank’s full, nearly two-hour 1981 Halloween performance. He always was a charismatic front man.
A video of Frank promoting voting.

US Independence Day 2020, Frank Zappa Style: Outside Now

Can we appreciate a home that we’ve perhaps never truly known? Would we recognise it if we found it? What would it look like?

Of course, we can address the question figuratively, wax existential for a quick minute. But in 2020, we can now address the issue experientially. In a time when our homes have been displaced by COVID-19, our daily lives derailed, I submit these questions in observance of another Zappa-fied American holiday: this time a fire-works-free Independence Day.

Amid a world-wide pandemic that crosses borders without concern for human conventions, we’re beginning to appreciate our homes quite differently in isolation. This year we’ll have to imagine history’s shadows illuminated on the backs of our eyelids from a distance, do without the smell of sulphur lingering in the air, a noxious aphrodisiac to obscure a domesticated dream.

A restless revisionist to the end, musician Frank Zappa approached his craft the way one approaches a borderless home. Never satisfied for what has comfortably settled into place, he wandered fluidly between the probable and the possible, returning to his older songs throughout his life, willing, with each passing performance, to see what he heard differently.

On “Outside Now,” Frank’s soulful prog-rock soundscape reflects his adaptability with invigorating energy. Like all of Frank’s music, each version of its performance frames its own vision. Yet they all share a wry sense of humor and contagious grooves, reminding us to look closely at the world (including ourselves) and see it all askew (if not anew) from another side.

Despite the national weather or the latest public health crisis, hope remains in 2020. There’s no need to light a fuse to illuminate what we believe in. Wherever we find the prospect of a brighter future, we are welcome to celebrate it our own way, with or without an amplifier, individually or collectively, but always courageously, and with as much zest for life that we can muster.

“Outside Now” studio recording from Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III
“Outside Now” live from München, Germany, 3-31-79
“Outside Now” live from Rotterdam Broadcast, 1980
A moving cover of “Outside Now” by the Zappa tribute band, The Band from Utopia, performed after Frank’s death — Stuttgart Jazz Open, July 94

US Memorial Day 2020, Frank Zappa Style: Chunga’s Revenge

While we reflect on what freedom means to us during the COVID-19 quarantine, it’s a good time to celebrate where we can.

For zealous patriots and protestors alike, whatever flag we raise or trample upon the lawn, only the foolish wait for history to sanctify our losses. If politics, at its best, aims for unity, it can’t help falling short at the borders of our disputes. In contrast, music can remind us that we are all conduits for a different kind of message, the kind that vibrates in our chest—and spirit—and moves our feet to an unseen rhythm.

Fortunately how we move to the beat is beside the point. What’s important is that we keep on moving. In times of grief, like times of longing, we may drift out of step to the master rhythm, but we’re never alone, for long, on the dance floor of life.

So let’s pay some respect to the tolling hour this Memorial Day. Politics aside, every casualty of war is a tragedy.

Full stop.

Of course, there aren’t words or sounds powerful enough to revive a life beyond the grave. But before we grow too grim, let’s carry on in remembrance of those who no longer can.

Musician Frank Zappa’s legacy is more American than apple pie, raw and unapologetic, topped with a dollop of zest that only he could muster. Although his music can’t raise the dead, it can raise our spirits from a realm beyond the aftermath of humanity’s self-inflicted wounds.

Frank’s song “Chunga’s Revenge” captures the mood of the occasion with a certain somber gleam. A pulsing bass line marches beneath an electric guitar riff playing scales with the stars.

Perhaps its the lively wardrobe? Maybe the heroic scale work? However Frank’s performance catches us, powered by hope and a fire for righting social wrongs, we are all invited to put on our finest tropical shirt and shake it loose to some slick Zappa riffs. We can change the world, if we choose to—one note at a time…