Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 2 of 6) ~ Reflections About Living Abroad

In November 2019, I moved from the U.S.—in San Diego, California—to Spain in order to teach English as a foreign language. I worked for two years as a cultural and language assistant in Murcia—in the southern heart of Spain—while surviving primarily off of a government living stipend. After relocating to the U.S. in September 2021, I want to take a moment to reflect upon my experiences of living in a foreign country.

Several months after I arrived, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world and eventually reached Spain. Despite the unfortunate global crisis, I decided to remain in Spain and make the best of it.

Traveling internationally takes courage, not to mention patience, persistence, and humility. Living abroad is certainly not the same as vacationing abroad. If that sounds like an overstatement, it’s hard to convey how revolutionary an active encounter with a foreign culture can be. If one approaches the experience with an open mind and heart, the influences of travel may linger long after one returns home: challenging one’s life preconceptions while inspiring a greater awareness of oneself and the wider world.

If you haven’t yet crossed a border into a different culture, The Portable Wife offers a generous sampling of quotes about traveling that might—hopefully—inspire you to apply for your first passport. Reflecting my experiences in Spain, the following quotes illustrate the intricate dance between risk and reward, confrontation and celebration, that colors the spirit of a traveler.

“Splendid to arrive alone in a foreign country and feel the assault of difference. Here they are all along, busy with living; they don’t talk or look like me. The rhythm of their day is entirely different; I am foreign.”

—Frances Mayes

What I found appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire. Equally exciting would be the work involved in overcoming that helplessness.

—David Sedaris

If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.

—Anthony Bourdain

When it comes to crossing a body of water to walk in someone else’s shoes, I owe a debt of gratitude to travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain who embodied such active curiosity and compassion in his world-wide adventures. In my own humble way, I endeavored to channel Bourdain’s spirit during my two years in Spain. As I wrote about in my winter 2021 blog update, I remain privileged to have indulged my culinary curiosity, visited such beautiful places, and met so many wonderful people. But while the majority of my expat teacher colleagues were charmed by Spanish culture, many of them looking for a way to live in Spain permanently, my experiences, in contrast, were different. 

To start with, weathering Spain’s administrative processes thoroughly taxed my prized patience. In contrast to the easy-going nature of daily Spanish culture, I experienced Spanish bureaucracy, at times, as calloused and temperamental.

In 2021 I made six trips to the local immigration office to renew my Spanish visa. Each time I received inconsistent instructions from different staff about which documents and taxes were required. After paying the wrong tax initially, my request for a reimbursement was rejected due to failing to file the proper paperwork.

Before I decided to return to the U.S., I also had problems re-applying for a third year in the English teaching program in Spain. After submitting my teaching application online, I was informed that I had checked a wrong option within the application system, an error that couldn’t simply be amended, thus requiring that I repeat the entire process anew. 

Dangerous conjecture alert! I can’t help wondering if the bureaucratic undertow systemic to 21st-century Spain may be a carryover from the nation’s former glory days as a reigning world sea power. Perhaps the battle-ready swords brandished by the Spanish armada in the 16th century have been buried under mountains of administrative paperwork: the hunger for new global conquests replaced by the zealous control of its own governmental functions. 

My questionable humor excused, when I wasn’t wrapped up in administrative red tape, I tangled with Spanish culture in other ways. Although the people I encountered in Spain certainly face their own struggles, in my experiences, their carefree lifestyle—for better and worse—seems to be carefully programmed for dissolving all obstacles to immersion with the present moment. The trouble is that sometimes people differ about how to live in the present. And sometimes our differences become the source of our conflicts. As the Frances Mayes and David Sedaris quotes from above relate so movingly, the challenge then is adapting to the resulting sense of helplessness that the assault of differences inspire.

Living in a foreign country is a stimulating reminder that we are all influenced by differing personal and national histories. Our histories program us to identify with particular behaviors and beliefs, preferences and priorities. We further identify ourselves by our attachment to cultural and psychological narratives, only some of which we are conscious of and have chosen. By nature we tend to take our programming for granted, if we’re aware of it at all, until certain experiences—like trekking through Northern Spain with strangers during a global pandemic; like waiting in the immigration line a sixth time to reconcile missing paperwork—shock us into a deeper state of self-awareness.

Fortunately, there are tools other than traveling abroad that can provide us insight into who we are as people and, perhaps, why we are the way we are. Character assessment tests, for example, help measure how we interpret the world, including how the particular patterning of our thoughts, emotions, and motivations influences our interactions with the environment. Out of all the existing personality systems, I’m particularly fond of the Enneagram. The American Journal of Psychiatry defines the Enneagram as, “… a personality theory describing nine strategies by which the psyche develops a worldview and relates to self and others. Each of the nine “types” has a basic fear, basic desire, and predictable behavior pattern in times of stress and security—all of which shape motivations underlying behavior.” 

Within the Enneagram, the nine character types each have their own strengths and weaknesses, perspective values and oversights. No character type is better or worse than any other; each type grows by learning to develop the potentials unique to its range within the character spectrum while also exploring the potentials unique to other types. This strategic growth process persists, unresolved, throughout our lifetime.

Although it’s highly inadvisable to characterize a national culture as a whole, I believe Spain’s worldview and coping strategies share many qualities common to an Enneagram Type Seven character type. The Enneagram Institute describes Sevens as Enthusiasts, the busy, fun-loving type: “Sevens are extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. Playful, high-spirited, and practical, they can also misapply their many talents, becoming over-extended, scattered, and undisciplined. They constantly seek new and exciting experiences, but can become distracted and exhausted by staying on the go.” 

In contrast to Spain’s party-centric, easy-going nature, I share many qualities common to an Enneagram Type One character type. The Enneagram Institute defines Ones as Reformers, the rational, idealistic type: “Ones are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They are teachers, crusaders, and advocates for change: always striving to improve things, but afraid of making a mistake. Well-organized, orderly, and fastidious, they try to maintain high standards, but can slip into being critical and perfectionistic.” 

In order to balance the energy I exert in pursuit of my ambitions, home has long been important to me as a cherished space for rest and recovery. During the nearly two years I spent in Spain, I lived in six different apartments, averaging one new place per season. I can’t help feeling that the record of my living arrangements reads like a cheeky outtake from a Charles Dickens dramedy. 

I arranged my first living situation before I arrived in Spain; however, my naivete enmeshed me in a sort of indentured servitude to my host family. The mutual arrangement involved a barter: I would provide various household support for free rent. Yet it ended quickly with a disagreement about the terms of our agreement. 

After that initial misjudgment, I avoided prostrating myself to the rule of unwritten contracts, but I had recurring problems finding a peaceful place to live.

My second apartment was wonderful, except my roommate had a daughter, God bless her, with a rare genetic disorder involving uncontrolled bouts of screaming. 

My third apartment was sandwiched between a parking garage below the apartment that was busy by day and an upstairs neighbor who marched restlessly around in her apartment at night—each stiletto-heeled footstep a cold, hard slap on the marble-floored hallway above me. 

My fourth apartment involved living with a young Spanish doctor who worked night shifts along with a party-loving Italian doctoral student who loved to drink and womanize. Additionally, I had neighbors above who hosted loud social events most evenings. 

My fifth apartment featured a rambunctious party-loving family on the attic floor above me who drank and smoked themselves into a stupor routinely after work. Then there was a British next-door neighbor, poor guy, who spent his waking hours in various states of respiratory distress. 

And my sixth apartment was quite ideal on the surface, I lived in an artists’ community on the rural outskirts of the city. However, I struggled, initially, with an unemployed Moroccan roommate who smoked defiantly inside her bedroom; her second-hand smoke traveled through the ceiling between our adjoining wall, leaving various organs of mine burning, throbbing, or dripping throughout the week.

Every time I moved, I had an opportunity to exercise flexibility of spirit along with faith that something better would come along. The struggle, of course, is addressing one’s struggles in the present tense when they loom overhead like a fatal bird of prey. In response, throughout my life, I’ve sometimes dressed my hardships with a compound of stubborn grit and defensive skepticism. But a healthy perspective sets the foundation for a healthy transformation. It’s thanks to my struggles, and not in spite of them, that Spain served me so well as a stage for self-exploration.

As a whole, I believe that Spanish culture is distinguished by its laidback passion. I found Spain to be a country where a soft hedonism rivals the rigors and rituals of Catholicism. In the agricultural region of Murcia, where I lived for nearly two years, there are more lemon trees than weeds. People walk slowly, talk loudly, and eat, drink, and smoke with great frequency.

In Murcia, locals throw around one phrase frequently, no pasa nada, which they conjure like a spell of protection when facing anything that threatens to derail one’s momentum. In practice, the phrase seems to suggest a casually dismissive meaning: don’t worry about it, it’s not a problem. But translated literally, the phrase glitters quite differently, meaning nothing happens, a carefree attitude dismissing actionability: you carry on with your life, and I with mine. (After my initial resistance, I eventually gained a certain respect for this outlook—depending on whether I was on the giving or receiving side of its expression.) 

In Murcia, elderly women shuffle down the street cradling loaves of bread like national treasures. If you get in their way, you may be bludgeoned by a bread crust the size of one’s shin bone. Look out!

In Murcia, grizzled men puff cigarettes idly on sidewalks, speaking with gravelly voices finely tuned by years of tobacco devotion. Rather amusingly, the lead protagonists in English movies imported to Spain are often dubbed using the voices of these alpha males. If you’re ever visiting Spain, check out their version of Singing in the Rain. It’s bizarre.

When not dodging human obstacles in public, I spent the early 2021s nursing a painful knee condition. A freak sporting accident from a decade ago created a meniscus tear that had slowly degenerated over the years. My first encounter with a Spanish physician was a frustration for us both; the man had little patience for my half-articulated questions, my dense cloud of Spanglish eventually leading to an equally dense cloud of cursing from the doctor who briskly escorted me out of his office and into the care of the surgical ward admin. 

Even though I had concerns about the dependability of the system supporting me—case in point: hospital staff would sometimes leave their phones off the hook in order to avoid answering them—I decided to move forward with my much-needed surgical operation in April 2021. Despite my challenged experiences, I’ve been able to recover steadily since my surgery and I’m grateful for the healthcare system that financed my operation. One year after my surgery, my knee continues to show signs of healing.

After living abroad for nearly two years, in light of a global pandemic still raging in 2023, and all of the uncertainty that has normalized in our lives, it’s time to lay to rest my travel muse, for now, while I pursue new personal and professional developments. Yet I returned to the U.S. with mixed feelings. While I returned as a proud U.S. citizen, I also returned with some heated critiques.

I remain critical of the rampant consumerism within U.S. culture. In the U.S., people have grown accustomed to collecting personal belongings with compulsion, if not abandon. We accumulate. Even homeless people lug around shopping carts teeming with their precious cargo. In contrast, people collect experiences in Spain: intangible, fleeting moments that exist only when shared with—and between—people. 

I also remain critical of the divisiveness of the political landscape within U.S. culture. The collective culture is heavy with warring ideologies competing for our allegiance. There is no issue too small to tear families and friendships apart. If you attend a social gathering where some variety of opinions is present, notice the table talk: It will take more than a magic show to clear the air after a deep-dive into controversial topics ranging from vaccinations to gun control. In contrast, disputes in Spain could always be resolved with a little humor and, more than a little, food and drink. 

I’d like to believe that no individual or nation, no culture or philosophy, is untouched by vulnerability and virtue. I tend to think that our angels are wedded to our demons—except our demons are often misused or misunderstood angels. We are equal in design. We are equal, though we hardly recall it.

However we negotiate the divide between what we are by influence of nature versus nature, there are some things in life that can (and should) be changed; there are other things that can (and should) be accepted. It is wise to discern the range and role of our agency. Whoever and wherever we are, how we care to live is vitalized by how we express our attention. John Tarrant, director of the Pacific Zen Institute, instructs us about the life-giving power of attentiveness: “Attention is the most basic form of love. Through it we bless and are blessed.” With attention, life is nourished and sustained; without it: life dwindles in decay.

Life will go on with or without us. In the here-and-now journey of the everyday, no passports are needed. We are all visitors invited to delight in this trembling moment together.

(The featured image is a photo of the painting English Ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588 by an anonymous 16th century painter. The image exists in the public domain by courtesy of Wikimedia.)

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 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…