Heavy Words: Todd B. Gruel’s 2010s Reflections on a Life of Service to the Arts

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Todd B. Gruel
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The Makings of an Article (Plus Living Will)

Forgive the bold introduction. But it hurts. As a willing writer, my back, bank account, and odds for salaried employment within the arts all hurt the same. After devoting the last five years to a barrage of writing projects, especially those promoting left-field music, indulging another long-form project was hardly an ideal start to a new decade.

Of course, I’m grateful to have a platform that publishes my work. Considering the questionable posture and vacant stare, however, I could double as an art school model. (As is, the disrobing of one’s soul is less reimbursable than the disrobing of one’s flesh.) Despite my interest in contributing to a Best Albums of the 2010s article for another site, due to pressing life events at the close of 2019—moving to a new country, starting a new job, learning a new language—I was unable to do so. Still, I felt the urge to review the previous decade on my terms.

And so, with stubborn conviction, a trial for spine as much as mind, I assumed the familiar position: huddled over a desk in a bedroom corner, wrangling a blinking Word cursor bridging earth and sky, syntax and sensibilities. I hope, every time, that there are no casualties along the way.

If you find my body… You know what to do.

The Goal

I began this article in early winter and finished it in the middle of spring during the peak of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of basking in the sunshine of southern Spain, a big reason for my recent relocation, I was locked up indoors, a prisoner to a virus and a hostage to myself. Providing a backdrop to our collective psyche, the quarantine affirmed my intuitions about the interbeing of all life and the gravity of human agency.

From the outset, the goal was clear: In contrast to journalistic protocol, I reviewed one music release from each year that best expressed that time in my life, considering the music experientially, not as a thing in itself—a cultural product extrinsic to my selfhood—but as a resonant force inseparable from my own lived journey.

While curating musical and personal events, therefore, I avoided the revisionist’s temptation to re-write history from the patronage of a more present present. I am human before I am artist. And if a yearbook is worth the interest of any reader, especially curious outsiders (including my future selves), it ennobles, surely, not despite but because of its blemished portraiture.

The List

The article pivots around one list, Todd’s 2010s Yearbook Awards, in which I’ve narrated connections between the bumps, lumps, and occasional triumphs in my life and the music that engaged me throughout the decade. Over the past five years, my writing has championed music artists on the outskirts of mainstream culture, exploring nonconforming art forms ranging from field recordings of melting glaciers to sound compositions created with vegetables. Expanding this purview, Yearbook Awards mingles music that is more avant-garde with music that is more pop-leaning. Disregarding genre and popularity, I welcomed the lesser-known electronic drone composer beside the much-mythologized indie singer-songwriter, the street-savvy jazz quartet beside the “Heaven Metal” pop project, my inclusions drawn solely from the music that lingers in my nervous system.

If readers leave this article solely with new music to listen to then that’s fine. Deeper yet, I hope that some readers leave with a renewed appreciation for the world’s startling complexity, steadfast tenacity, or, possibly, irrefutable beauty. Far humbler, I’d celebrate simple fellowship: an experience with art, however fleeting, that reassures us that we are not alone.

[Please note: all indented quotes that follow, unless otherwise stated, are sourced from my own social media posts. Additionally, I’ve included readers’ polls in the final section of the article in which I encourage your participation. Since I live a lifestyle that splits the difference between monks and vampiresboth cloistered refugees from a fallen worldI cherish interactions with my readership, welcoming signs that my public words are more than private hallucinations. Those who wish to respond to the polls will find links to my social media platforms at the end of this article.]

Todd’s 2010s Yearbook Awards

Life in 2010:

I don’t remember much from this far back, to be honest. At least not without computer assistance. Who knew that I would find a use in data mining Facebook for some residue of my former self. Apparently, a beautiful woman bought me a cheese sandwich at a bar in Oceanside, California.

I also recall being tempted by a less charitable offer from this classy gig posted on Craigslist:

We need a person to wear a lampshade at our New Year’s Eve party from 12 AM to 6 AM. Male preferred. You will be required to wear speedo or thong and stand for several hours. We will give you a break from time to time. It doesn’t matter what you or your body look like because we will not judge you. Yes, we will criticize you as if you were an art piece and will be treated as though you are a classy piece of furniture.

And that’s a great place to pause. Who am I? And what was I doing considering such a bizarre proposition?

I grew up in San Diego, California, in the United States. As an undergraduate, I studied Literature and Writing Studies along with Philosophy. As the witticism goes, that and a couple of dollars will get you a cup of coffee. In the wake of my less than practical humanities education, I strayed into the helping professions, eventually specializing in mentoring kids, teens, and adults with disabilities. After the economic recession in 2008, that’s exactly where I remained.

In 2010, I left two meager part-time jobs for a single full-time job, working as a donation center attendant for a global non-profit. The hours were nice; the job, pedestrian. Again, I was stuck, drifting, buffeted by unseen forces. The wind-whipped plastic bag in Ramin Bahrani’s short film, featuring the charismatic narration of Werner Herzog, illustrate those times.

Surviving off of minimum wage in a city with a higher cost of living is quite challenging. I saved every penny that I could, frequented food banks and contemplated how to spend the money I made recycling my roommates’ empty bottles.

Other highlights include attending my 10-year high school reunion—interesting to see how our memories serve us, or not; and participating in a paid art-therapy experiment. The Craigslist studio art gig involved slathering my body with paint and thrashing away at a canvas-wrapped punching bag. Anger is a curious accomplice, part therapist, part saboteur.

Music Highlights of 2010:

Kieran Hebden’s electronic project Four Tet thawed me out from my increasing discontent. Guided by a mesmeric pulse and a warm production, There is Love in You rivals Hebden’s masterpiece from 2003, Rounds. At its best, Four Tet merges tender textures with sprightly beats, building big grooves from small phrases. Recalling the urgency of Kieran’s former collaborations with jazz drummer Steve Reid while anticipating the moodiness of his future collaboration with Burial and Thom York, There is Love in You is saturated with an emotionalism that transcends the circuit board. Whether sampling soulful vocals, gamelan, or ATARI-sounding synth, he treats his sources with respect, combining strands of hip-hop, house, jazz, and folk into a dreamlike collage. From the album’s first track (“Angel Echoes”), percolating vigorously after lurching into being mid-groove, to its last track (“She Just Likes To Fight”), with radiant guitar arpeggios floating off the quantized grid, a sublimity prevails that could still command a dance floor. There’s no need to lace up the boxing gloves. Kieran offers us an alternative to art therapy gigs: computer music that begs to be played in the Sistine Chapel. Wherever we are, we are invited to stop what we’re doing—smile—and cut a rug into a lattice of x’s and o’s.

Life in 2011:

Working as a donation center attendant was never intended to be anything but a stop-gap maneuver. Just something to interrupt my inertia. From there, I found another full-time job as a program instructor for adults with disabilities. Although becoming increasingly cynical about my profession, there was still a part of me that just wanted to love and be loved.

In my free time, I recording my first solo studio album thanks to a sound engineer who I met—once again—on Craigslist. The project, one that I’ve yet to fully finish and release (oh, the pains of perfectionism), adapted music from a disbanded group of mine into a more electronic direction. More rhythmically inclined than a previous studio recording with my band WiseBlood (another project shelved due to my self-imposed perfectionism), I loaded ambient, finger-picked folk melodies with spry beats, YouTube samples, and my own sparse sung vocals.

Unfortunately, my work in the classroom was intensely physical as I tended to my students’ basic survival needs in addition to leading their classroom instruction. In the process of deadlifting a student onto a table to toilet them, I dislocated my shoulder. With a sharp stab of pain, my life changed forever.

Music Highlights of 2011:

Much has been mythologized about Justin Vernon’s first Bon Iver album, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Recorded in a cabin in the Wisconsin backwoods while he was recovering from illness and heartbreak, the album established him as a voice of a generation within indie circles. Proving that he’s more than a chilling falsetto with a beard and a backstory, Justin struck gold, or at least two Grammy awards, with his sophomore album Bon Iver. Unlike his debut folk fever dream, Bon Iver benefits from greater conceptual ambition, taking geography as a compass for exploring the self’s relationship with the world, and expanded production that includes pedal steel, strings, and horns; from the double kick drum and dueling guitar leads on “Perth,” conjuring a steampunk version of a heavy metal climax, to the fey arrangements on “Minnesota, WI,” swaying to an Afrobeat rhythm interlaced with gossamer synth, the textures are subtly symphonic. I recall walking around the county jail by my house while listening to “Holocene,” the hair on my neck alert to every syllable of Justin’s sung revelation, And once I knew / I was not magnificent. At this point in my life, I was beginning to understand the grace in accepting our limitations. There’s an end to all things. To truly savor it, we must embrace freedom within humility.


Life in 2012:

Understanding what to let go of and when to move onwards also helps. For years, I had been talking to friends and family about moving from San Diego to the State of Washington. But I could never afford it. Finally, I had an opportunity to save money while working overtime as a program instructor. After an old friend from Olympia, Washington, offered to house me until I got settled, I was set!

I packed what I could fit into my Saturn sedan and drove up the Pacific Coastal Highway 101 during late winter. A particularly poignant Facebook post captures my awakening as I gathered the strength of will needed to empower a major life transformation:

So, apparently, the universe is onto me has deployed its timely messengers to foil my insidious plans for self-imposed victimhood. It seems to be reminding me that the burdens of pain, pity, anger, and even doubt are mine to bear alonebut traditionally aren’t supported by the tribune of All-Goings-On. Accept no contingencies for change, hope, and happiness it says; expect nothing without merit, nothing short of all we are: Here and Now, the matters of mind…

Music Highlights of 2012:

Known to working-class word nerds of the world as the leader of Winnipeg, Canada, folk-punk band The Weakerthans, John K. Sampson emerged from the hiatus of his mainstay project to surprise his patient fans with his first solo album, Provincial. Powered by jangly pop melodies, John’s yearning vocals unravel the tangle of social issues that knot our daily lives. Turning the familiar into the peculiar, John treats myths, pop culture, and local geography with the same generous imagination: fan-fictioning a romance from The Simpsons (“The Last And”); repurposing a Bach melody (“Stop Error”); petitioning for Reggie Leach’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame (“We, The Undersigned”); even personifying a house with characteristic charm (“Taps Reversed”): The calendar requests / A meeting to discuss / The time we waste: “When would be good for you?” The kind of clarity that John’s music emotes is only possible if one first engages the world from the depths of uncowering empathy. While some people scream for revolution, throwing bricks through corporate windows, I’ve long admired how John draws you in with his pensive choir boy voice, believing that strength itself can turn into an oppressive force when not first softened by a love for what we hope to change.



Life in 2013:

2013 was quite a marathon. I broke up with a girlfriend due partially—okay, largely—to my growing intrigue with online dating. Beyond the prospect of romance, I was both fascinated and horrified by how we market ourselves in the nether regions of the internet, posturing, screening each other according to some unseen rubric. Of course, some people sold for too little; some held out for the highest bidder; others were there solely for the show. For a while, I considered writing a coffee table about this strange social experiment. OkCupid became my pusher. Like all amusements, it can overtake your life.

But a good thing came from my curiosities. A woman who I met online offered up a couple of her roommate’s kittens for adoption. One of those cats became the undisputed queen of my life: Emily Dickinson. To this day, Emily remains the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, more precious than our most revered national parks, and the smartest roommate I’ve ever had, humans included. Forever her believer, I made a video tribute for my best friend.

In less fur-divine news, I struggled to find work after moving up to Washington State, eventually settling on a caregiving job. Bad decision. Due to the intensive manual labor—I was helping clients who couldn’t help themselves with their activities of daily living—I ended up hurting myself, again. Unfortunately, due to my combined arm, hand, and finger conditions, my motor skills were compromised for several years. (At my worst, I could barely turn the keys in the car ignition, write my name, or chop vegetables without pain.)

Needing another intermission, I enrolled in a local community college. Thanks to the generous support of one compassionate staff member, I received grants that fully funded my associate’s degree. After considering web design or paralegal work, I eventually settled for a humble concentration in office administration.

At the same time, knowing that I’m destined to be more than an admin, I was already questioning my future, wondering where to go from here and how to get there. I spent a weekend reflecting at a local nunnery (the nuns were quite accommodating when the local friary was not available), journaling and walking the grounds. Eventually, after a prolonged period of contemplation, two career paths compelled me: 1) acquiring and organizing collections of books; or 2) writing books and teaching others how to do the same. In the case of the former, I would need a Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. In the case of the latter, I opted for a Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) with a Creative Writing focus. Whether I’d become a librarian or professor, graduate school was necessary.

Since I couldn’t justify spending money on a creative writing education, I applied exclusively to MFA programs that offered full scholarships. With admission rates hovering between 1-3%, the odds weren’t good. But we all die someday. Those odds need no collateral.

Music Highlights of 2013:

In 2013, Brown University physics graduate James Hinton left the science lab for a different kind of breakthrough: trading in safety goggles for headphones as he doubled down on his budding music career. Yet the forms of time and space he explores with his solo electronic project The Range are still reduceable to variables of force and energy. His second album, Nonfiction, ranges across moods and modes, one moment zig-zagging to club-whipped beats (a giddy cowbell animates “Loftmane”), the next swaying to slow-burners (unwinding to an elastic bass line on “Everything But”), grimy (calling out naysayers on “Jamie”) and mesmeric (a Geiger-counter beat builds critical mass on “Seneca”) in equal measure. Beyond its counterpointing rhythms, The Range compels with its conceptual aesthetic, sourcing all of its vocal samples from videos of amateur performers on YouTube. The production is crisp, leaving room to move without fumbling over one’s feet—and plenty of overhead for flashlight torches. At the core of Nonfiction is a heartfelt swagger inviting us to spotlight unseen corners of the world and turn the implausible into the luminous.


Life in 2014:

Okay, who shot Suge Knight? In other rap news, Kayne West was hospitalized in Australia during a tour. Leading diagnosis? He has a soul. Doctors say that he recovered normally, although life will be more difficult from now on. Sometimes the animus precedes the brain stem. Evolution’s still a mystery, eh?

While both hip-hop celebrities recovered under medical supervision, I recovered without an IV drip in an institute of higher learning. As I rushed through a program in Office Administration, I struggled with personal legal issues, eventually winning a worker’s compensation claim for my shoulder injury but losing another one for my arm injury. After representing myself in a court of law, an arcane world with all the power but little of the magic of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, I was glad not to have pursued a paralegal career!

Instead, I was pursuing a less certain dream. Although I was accepted into a reputable graduate program for Library and Information Sciences, I ended up declining the admissions offer. Turns out—much to the demise of my IRA—that I was much more interested in writing. Out of the six creative writing programs I applied to, one put me on the waitlist. Though an admission’s offer never materialized, the thrill of even being considered trumped my interest in pursuing a librarian career. I decided to apply again next year.

I also began questioning what I was doing in the dreary Pacific Northwest. Ironically, I realized that I had left one extreme for another—permanent summers in San Diego, California, for permanent winters in Olympia, Washington. Although I enjoyed the seasonal changes and the lower cost of living, I felt out of place.

That is until I realized that we’re never entirely out of place if we can find some hint of beauty wherever we are. With chronic rain comes green landscapes. So why not enjoy nature when the clouds part, breathe some air that’s not leaked from rusty exhaust pipes? Come summer, I bought camping supplies and headed to a nearby national park, leaving my worldly concerns behind.

Music Highlights of 2014:

American singer-songwriter Steve Gunn got his start in Kurt Vile’s backing band, The Violators. However, far from Vile’s garage fuzz and terminal bedhead, Gunn chases different dragons. Way Out Weather merges the tradition of Americana folk music (“Wildwood”) with the restraint of ambient minimalism (“Atmosphere”) and the breezinessof Indian raga (“Tommy’s Congo”). The combination of slinky guitars and searing lap steel entwine thrillingly with banjo and harp, creating a lushness that stimulates as it sedates. Add in sparse vocals that stir the swirling throng and you have yourself an enlightened summer with a brisk aftertaste. As Steve sings on the chorus of “Milly’s Garden,” a cautionary proverb that is as true as it is weathered, I was learning to reevaluate the danger in forcing one’s goals to suit one’s soul, Your faith is savage / And your mind is damaged / You’re more than halfway there. The chorus concludes with weighted uncertainty, balancing fate in the hands of careful phrasing, That place is wrong / You’ll move on / You’re already gone.


Life in 2015:

Second chances are a wonderful thing. Whether or not it was necessary to further my undergraduate education as I did, I enjoyed participating in extra-curricular activities while I was there. Joining a writing club inspired me to start a cinema club of my own and to participate in a college budgeting committee. Eventually, I graduated with high honors—my hard work rewarded.

As fortune has it, I met someone at a job fair on campus who led me to a position as an employment consultant for a local non-profit. Being one of three marketing specialists responsible for keeping a company funded was no easy feat, but it was a rewarding challenge none-the-less.

I also interned throughout the year for a couple of local nonprofits, assisting with various marketing and communications projects. And I doubled down on my freelance writing on the side. Meanwhile, in preparation for a second MFA application round, I scrapped together another writing portfolio, switching my program focus this year from poetry to creative non-fiction.

Music Highlights of 2015:

Carrying on my tradition of returning home for the winter holidays, I celebrated New Year’s Eve with an old friend at an 80s-themed house party. The event was held on a rural property with a pool in the backyard and donkeys in the front. Surreal. Retiring to the car after a long night, I turned to Never Were the Way She Was for a final pick-me-up. Although there’s nothing remotely retro about the chamber duo’s Gothic vistas, Colin Stetson’s sax and Sarah Neufeld’s violin collaboration does cycle through stages of a classic party timeline: anticipation, climax, comedown. Besides sharing a marriage bed, the music couple share a background in stadium-status rock groups—Colin, most notably, as a collaborator in Bon Iver and Sarah as a touring member in Arcade Fire. The two know all about crescendos. The fire they share on Never Were the Way She Was, however, is more mercurial. After a moment of glorious friction on opening track “The Sun Roars Into View,” a slow burner stoked by the whirlwind of Colin’s circular breathing technique, the blaze subsides, glowing in patches throughout the album. Mostly, a thick fog rolls through these swamplands, carried wistfully by Sarah’s violin and wordless vocals. A bog lily in a mire, does life not bloom fragrantly though sparingly, drooping, then falling again, quietly awaiting the next arising?


Life in 2016:

Nostalgia can be a strange familiar. Like looking at a machine-cut jewel, it Nostalgia can be a strange familiar. Recalling our distant lives can seem like twirling a machine-cut jewel: memories catch light with the slightest of turns, sparkling ambiguously, always teasing and yet ever withholding their identities.

As a child, I would often fall asleep listening to The Beach Boys cassettes. Their pristine vocal harmonies endeared me forever to the infectious thrill of pop music. Much as I may have wished to ride their wave into shore as an adult, I never got further than lip-syncing in my elementary school talent show.

Mining childhood nostalgia, I saw Mike Love’s formation of The Beach Boys perform at the Paramount Theater in 2016. Playing up his bad-boy image in the band, Mike’s production felt like a spectacle, some hybrid anomaly, half natural and half artificial—especially distracting was a video recording of model-worthy women surfing at pristine beaches. Of course, we’re all exhibitionists in our way; the pageantry of life is unavoidable.

Once again, after another round of applications, I was denied admission into graduate school. In the wake of the bad news, I decided to take a break from that pursuit to develop a new writing sample.

Other events involved leasing a car after dealing with some mysterious electrical problem with my old car. I also got my first job for state government, a generic, administrative position that fulfilled a long-standing goal of collecting a paycheck without registering a pulse. (An EKG would be baffled.) For a moment, I enjoyed the leisure todisengage from my work.

Meanwhile, back at the nose end of 2016, I was still struggling with chronic pain in my extremities, a condition worsened by the desk-bound writer’s lifestyle. I evaluated what I could do to heal. Recognizing that there is a pathway bridging mind and body, the nature of which both scientists and philosophers have long debated, I set out on a “spiritual sabbatical,” starting the year with a massive diet and lifestyle reboot. Targeting foods and recreational substances, I cut out many chemical crutches that I had, throughout my life, relied upon for support.

In the process, I learned that anything that alters your mood can be used and abused, justified, taken for granted. Regardless of the particular psychotropics purged from my bloodstream, not one was harder to quit than those that are permissible in even the most straight-laced households. For anyone preening from the sidelines, I invite you to reconsider the toxins we deem socially acceptable.

Take Exhibit A, the real gateway drug, the mafia don that rules all others: refined sugar. We’re weaned on it from the crib. Its grip is absolute. It’s everywhere, in almost everything we eat or drink. Check those labels! Although not easy, surrendering my weekend six-pack and Swisher Sweets ritual, for starters, was a parting fling in comparison to the tabloid divorce from my daily pastries and Saturday morning coffee! I was trembling in the death-grip of those institutionalized hustlers. (Refined sugars took me six months to shake off; and caffeine took me three years, needing to first taper to green tea before I could ditch even my mild caffeine habit.)

Perspective gained. We should all be very careful when judging someone else’s domestic habits. If it’s not a chemical we’re ingesting, it’s a pattern of thought or behavior. We all oblige ourselves to structures in our lives that we climb above or hide behind in order to leverage some advantage. Even if our bloodstreams can testify with a clean conscience, our souls cannot do the same. Looked at by even the most myopic biographer, our histories would, at best, make unreliable witnesses. If our name is not preceded by Your Honor, it’s best to leave the prosecution for courts of law.

Music Highlights of 2016:

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma embodies a shifting serenity within his work. Besides his tenure in drone-rock band Tarantel, Jefre’s solo music tends towards a free-floating ambiance. Yet when he disrupts established symmetries, as he does on the short solo EP, In Summer, it leads to exciting discoveries. “Love’s Refrain” and “Blue Nudes (I-IV)” sway to rubbery bass lines beneath guitar chords that dazzle like party sparklers. As an interstitial field recording, “Little Deer Isle” forages through a meadow busied by honey-drunk bees. And cinematic album-closer “Prelude” mixes white noise, distorted piano, and a panting dog in a musique concrète montage. As if to emphasize the immutability of energy, the recordings received analog tape treatments, Jefre surrendering his intentions to chance procedures, allowing the tempos to shift, cadences wobble, pitches hiccup erratically. Its refusal of any native shape is part of its beauty. But where do we draw the line between stability and transience? Inertia? Entropy? Hardly fatalistic, In Summer represents decay as a force conducive for growth, the human-willed forever grappling with the nature-given, each encouraging each to fulfill its purpose.


Life in 2017:

Still mining a sentimental vein, just hoping for a slightly more authentic experience, I saw Brian Wilson’s formation of The Beach Boys perform at the Paramount Theater. This time, my stubborn idealism did not disappoint. Although a flawless jewel in memory, the performance sparkled differently on stage.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the ubiquitous pop icon, Pet Sounds mastermind, self-taught prodigy, and intrepid psychedelic explorer, Brian Wilson, in concert. Two weeks later, I am still processing the sugar high from that performance. Sure, he may have hobbled onto the stage with assistance. Sure, he was white-haired, visibly fatigued, with a belly bulging far past his prime. Sure, he sang like a figment of his former selfin fact, he sang like a figment of any qualified studio vocalist currently on the market. But the fact remains that when he sang it didn’t matter if he hit the notes; because what he hit was our hearts. And our hearts are the keyholes to our past, our innocence, our transcendence. Thank you, Brian, for reminding us that music is still the sound of God speaking to uswhen we care to listen.

Needing to feel my pulse again during my 9-5, I got a new job at a different state agency. Unfortunately, I held another admin position with similar results. Even the job’s greater responsibilities couldn’t rouse me from the ceremonial sleepwalk of bureaucracy. It’s frustrating to feel that your employer cannot appreciate your potential, believing only what can be quantified and committee approved.

After two graduate school rejections, I decided to pause for reflection. What were my motives? And what was I willing to sacrifice for this elusive dream? In need of a break, I packed my bags, rented a car, and headed east, settling, eventually, in the Sawtooth Range of the Rocky Mountains. Raccoons scavenging in campgrounds; moose grazing in flower fields: It’s inspiring to see nature thrive with such tenacity.

Meanwhile, I continued freelancing, creating a promotional video, Building As a Birthright, for a local sustainable building company, ION EcoBuilding. Desperate to find some handhold into the communications field, or at least to feel more engaged with my career, I weighed other options. Throughout the decade, I had periodically revisited the idea of joining the military. But after consulting with recruiters more seriously in 2017, I knew that I would face difficulties due to my general state of health. Once again, I was facing another obstacle to another pathway. Once again, I was shelling peanuts in an empty bleacher, longing for an unlikely future.

Music Highlights of 2017:

Throughout civilization, the things we’ve accomplished with a broken heart are astonishing. With her shoegazing pop project Midwife, singer-songwriter Madeline Johnston carries on the tradition of piecing together art from our relational debris. Recorded in Olympia, Washington, and Denver, Colorado, Like Author, Like Daughter evokes mountain silhouettes against grey skies. Yet it’s hardly a rainy parade. Madeline sings through the haze of plodding drums and fuzzy guitars in a way that justifies her self-christened genre of “Heaven Metal”: her voice, haloed with studio effects, shimmers like sunlight that one has waited for all year. “Song For An Unborn Sun” capturesthe pathos of human perseverance in the form of an anthemic dirge. “Name” shimmers with just guitar and vocal mirages. “You Don’t Go” unravels a single descending chord melody. Titled after an art piece by a college friend, Cait Cantrell, Like Author, Like Daughter takes inspiration from Cait’s idea about how wecan weave stories that we author into those that we inherit from our environment or biology. Of course, there are always constraints to our agency: we are all entwined, obliged to something beyond our control. But we are also singular. Universal. And we persist because there’s a story still worth living. And there’s no better author to share it than ourselves.


Life in 2018:

In hindsight, 2018 felt especially unsteady. Nevertheless, thrashing for traction at the end of the decade, that’s exactly what made it so eventful. During the workweek, I still patrolled the floors of state government. Off the clock, I was pleased to have moved, during 2017, to a quiet lakeside studio in a rural part of town.

My writing lumbered along. I received a rewarding commission to write liner notes for Fábio Caramuru’s beautiful EcoMúsica | Aves, a conceptual project merging field recordings of birds with stately piano. However, after two years of vigilance with my “spiritual sabbatical,” I was still not experiencing the relief that I wanted. So, I turned to the Paleo diet after hearing so much about it. Restricting my diet exclusively to select nuts and seeds, animal proteins, and fruits and vegetables seemed extreme. But, soon enough, I noticed a reduction in my inflammation issues. I began to heal!

Although I was making progress with both my writing portfolio and my health conditions, my routines were well-oiled to the point of rusting. Like an Old Testament God, my writing habit required consistent sacrifices in order to prove one’s devotion. Except, more watchmaker than cloud watcher, my provider didn’t exactly offer showers of mana in times of need.

Thanks to the promptings of others, I paused to play along the way, enjoying some memorable first-time experiences: I traveled to Las Vegas for my friend’s bachelor party, my first trip to Sin City as an adult was a tame one by local standards, including recreations spanning from a gun range to a day spa; attended what turned out to be the final year of the Sasquatch! Music Festival, and my first music festival event; and road tripped to Montana for my first backpacking trip at Glacier National Park.

Music Highlights of 2018:

While walking along Shi Shi Beach over summer, a stunning shoreline in Olympic National Park, I listened to Giulio Aldinucci’s Disappearing in a Mirror like one studies a cipher. Immersive and enchanting, Giulio’s electronic compositions reflected the droning movement of the emerald landscape: slow, distant; close, fleeting; the passing of people blurred with the tide, elongated into a ghostly smear. An archeologist of a sort, Giulio creates mosaics of cavernous loops sourced from mulched orchestral recordings: glacial string and choir samples float through heavy dusk (“Jammed Signals”); pulse with kaleidoscopic grandeur(“The Eternal Transmission”); dissolve into sand and air (“Notturno Toscano”); or swell into a bristling cloud before fading (“The Tree Of Cryptography”). The gnostic track titles suggest that even if reality defies rational comprehension, its revelation is inseparable from our flesh-bound experience. A stoical mysticism streaks these recordings, gleaming in a way that is both reverential and existential. Faith is not a start-less thing. Progress is mere change if we forget the ending. If we don’t know where to go, we can check the beginning: what comes first, the meaning or the motive?


Life in 2019:

Until the very end, I was testing my commitment to the grad school pathway. What purpose did this goal serve in my life? And how much was I willing to sacrifice for it?

Approaching the expiration deadline for my Graduate Record Examination, a dehumanizing standardized test that I have no interest in ever retaking (I don’t believe that creative potential can be quantified), I applied, for the third and final time, to ten creative writing programs. Painfully poetic, I submitted as many applications as I could afford solely using the money I made donating my plasma during 2018. What are our dreams worth if we’re not willing to bleed for them?

Unfortunately, I made it no further than a waiting list for the same lone program. It was like being winked at by a stranger at a party, only to wander over as they introduce you to their partner. The third time is a charm. Until it disappoints. Mired by my day job as an extra in a zombie horror film that is state government—a stifling production with a big budget yet a small imagination—I woke up defeated, desperately in need of decontamination, at least a serious salt scrub.

Instead, I settled for catharsis in a surprising music genre: heavy metal. Thanks to Rolling Stone journalist Hank Shteamer’s podcast Heavy Metal Bebop, along with the Heavy Metal Historian and Heavy Metal History podcasts, I began to observe a purpose behind the genre’s darkened façade. Recalling the Biblical parable about the vomiting of lukewarm water, a state of being that Christ condemned for lacking the conviction of being either hot or cold, heavy metal leaves no room for complacent hand-wringing. To fight the forces of evil requires action: we cannot take a stand for what we believe in while standing still; we cannot speak our truth without raising our voice. The dangers of inertia, the enemy of progress, are subtle and seductive, hindering humanity’s struggle for (and with) morality. Truly, this is a message worthy of a Sunday morning sermon.

After being swaddled in red tape for three years, I binged on metal’s throat-shredding amperage, glam metal vocal wails and death metal blast beats alike. With its high-contrast worldview, in which energy is not meant to be conserved but exhausted, heavy metal offered neither safety nor security, but a visceral purge.

Three years after starting my “spiritual sabbatical,” the focus had evolved from nutrition and exercise to moral, or at least trans-materialistic, influences, including how we inhabit time, or, rather, how time embodies us. This trifecta—roughly summarized as matter, motion, and meaning—primed the way for the next musical-moral discovery: jazz.

Despite playing saxophone in my middle school band and being a long-time fan of Keith Jarrett’s improvisations, I never fully appreciated the genre’s diverse history. From swing to bebop, cool to free jazz, I was smitten. Here was a realm of music with an instinct for every intellect, a message for every form. Finally, I was able to contextual the magic of Keith’s Vienna Concert as something other than an anomaly. Matching heavy metal’s passion and craftsmanship, jazz raised the stakes with greater flexibility of spirit and wider scope of vision.

Beyond the sheet music, jazz models a way of being with(in) the world, helping me discern when to voyage into the unknown and when to revisit and revise the standards; when to solo with the wind, wandering into the thick of it brave and alone, and when to refrain from playing at all, holding still and quiet, leaving room for others to contribute. Most therapeutic of all for a perfectionist, the genre’s fondness for blue notes and off-the-cuff improvisation values the necessity of uncertainty and the utility of errors, suggesting how our inevitable misstepscan revitalize our stride.

Deadlocked at the end of the decade, I realized that I’d rather terraform Mars alone than continue cruising the cubicle farm for traces of life. I knew I needed to do more than fill the aching grad school void with some equally thorny ambition. Wondering what to do next, I recall standing with my eyes closed at work, praying for inspiration. As soon as I had calmed myself, a guiding image came to mind that I could feel: the Mediterranean sun! In the wake of heartbreak, my Plan A denied, I prepared to follow the light as an English language and culture assistant in Spain.

Sometimes life requires us to make sacrifices, reminding us that love is never anything that we can possess. To truly love something, we must learn to let it go. And let go I did. Of a beautiful studio by the lake. Of a life-long book collection. And, of course, of my fur-clad queen herself, Emily Dickinson, along with her adoring brother, Buddy. Daring to dream differently, it was time to be more than a bystander in my own future, to risk feeling uncertain in order to chance feeling fulfilled.

At the risk of sounding patronizing, let this be an inspiration to you all: If I can do it—knowing nothing about the city of Murcia beforehand (other than that it’s a university town known for its abundant sunshine), and having no time to re-learn my high school Spanish (mi español es muy malo)—then you, too, can do this. No false modesty here; and no, if I choose to blow anything up your ass, it will be the truth, not hot air.

Despite my best intentions, the obscene hours I spent hunched over my keyboard in dedication to my solitary craft (only Hollywood can make the writing life look glamorous), the application fees I paid using money I made donating plasma (side effects include two hematomas, for a start), it was not enough.

Of course, I was heartbroken. I’d been handed a bag of lemons instead of rubies. But after a prolonged period of sulking, it was time to do something better with myself. Worse than perfectly reasonable adult-concerns regarding the ballistic trajectory of a well-planned career leading to the landing-place of eventual retirement is the complacency of living as an extra in a zombie movie with an unseen director. For those who cling tightly to safety nets, know that I don’t have the answers you hold so dear; as wise as your questions may be, I don’t know what comes next. But I have learned that holding out for certainty is a surefire way of missing out on the impossible beauty of The Great Perhaps.

And that’s why, far from a mid-life crisis, I’ve come to appreciate this new adventure as a mid-life AWARENESS. Living abroad is the perfect opportunity for self-discovery within a stimulating new environment. Rather than a full-ride through the closeted covens of academia, I now have a joyride through the world’s bus lines and into new routines, cuisines, and friendships. 

Life is not fair. It makes no promises. The powers that be will tease and tempt you from afar; spit in your face; call you names behind your back. But you’re only down for the count as long as you forget your purpose.

Plan B: Make lemonade. Stand up and drink up, you thirsty animals. Life is too short to be anything but quenched.

Music Highlights of 2019:

At the flailing-armed end of my decade, Le Rex’s Escape of the Fire Ants arrived on the jazz scene to rebalance impulse with analysis. Hip to both the past and the future, the ensemble of drums, trombone, tuba, and saxophones swings through a dozen recordings with joyful abandon, twirling a baton to a tickle-some beat. The title track, “Escape Of The Fire Ants,” leads the way, bouncing between meters with Baroque-tight harmonies. Even the album’s darkest track, the ironically titled “One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy,” is enlivened by soulful horns that lend a bright side to the titular Greek king’s eternal punishment, a charge to hoist one’s burdens with a limber heart. Although these compositions are versed in music history, they are road-tested in parks and pubs. The band’s playful re-framing of world-traveled folk tunes—roaming from Belgrade to Lagos, New Orleans to Chicago—combines theprecision of classical music with the gusto of marching music. It’s good, clean fun. And yet it’s more. While we are waiting for our next peak, our next break, waiting for God, the universe, Lady Luck to indulge us, I’m reminded that inspiration, in art and life, is a discipline that one develops, a harmony of labor and love.


A Calling (Another Writer Writes About Writing)

Wise and undoubtedly true, a colleague has assured me that Writers as a whole have the same amount of woe as non-writers. Granted, the woe of hungry, unpaid (or underpaid) writers seems especially woeful for those who live as such. But we don’t hold a monopoly on hardship. No life is free from thunderstorms.

Despite the temptation to sing the woes of all humanity, I’ll leave that task to the poets. I represent only a skinny portion of the spectrum. Much has been said by music artists and labels about the cultural impacts of modern technology on the art market. Yet, from my awareness, much less has been said about writers. As we ease into another decade, I can’t help singing the blues of this particular storm cloud.

Considering that my body of work thus far, 70 pieces deep into a five-year portfolio, has retailed at a sum less than the price of the latest iPhone—the average blurb has taken me 5 hours, a review 40, a feature article 80, an interview over 120, not to mention this article that pushed past 300—it’s safe to diagnose my writing as a compulsion, a craze for the craft blurred with madcap philanthropy. Like peering down from a sheer cliff, reckoning with this math is a reckoning with gravity.

Unfortunately for ambitious arts writers seeking career advancement, backdoor passes are required for admission into many print publications; if you peer past the bullet-proof glass, you’ll see the salaries hidden in a sleepy dragon’s lair—go ahead, you can wave if you’d like. Those who hustle to pay their bills often do so by merging art and commerce. Meanwhile, some of us toss around greasy maxims, like The reward is in the writing process, applying that balm liberally to help rationalize the chaffing. Idealism notwithstanding, writers usually welcome a readership’s engagement with our work, knowing that someone, if only for a moment, is willing to pause their day to consider our humble words.

But careful now. I’m neither a soul-blind materialist nor a disembodied spiritualist. My doubt and faith are poles bound to the same globe, each completes the other with the same conviction. Nowadays, in addition to biology lurching along to its primal survival drives, society has increasingly fallen prey to big business. The reign of Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene seems all the more terminal. It’s a certified miracle to find anyone caring for anyone else unless it benefits them. But I believe that one can agree with a diagnosis and disagree with the prescription. Fortunately, miracles persist. We are redeemed by each act of agency that encourages human selflessness,that counterintuitive, counterrevolutionary, code-jamming instinct that gives hope to not only humanity but to the world at large. Whatever we wish to preserve, we must serve what we love—before it disappears.

I’ve found that the most generous people are often the most gracious. Likewise, empathy, it seems to me, is the realization of a dormant abundance that overwhelms one’s being. Both occur in moments when we relate to something beyond ourselves as the root of our blooming (or vis versa)—in less poetic terms, the experience of deeply caring for others is actualized when serving (seemingly) external realities (as if they are) integral to our collective consciousness. (Plato’s cave contains both light and shade, prison and playground distorted by cognitive vantage.) Far from any airy self-help theory, kindheartedness is a fierce force that many people underestimate. Whatever name it takes, a gracious spirit can lop the heads off of fire-breathing snakes, turning our cultural and hereditary nightmares into garden fertilizer.

Readers’ Poll #1: What thunderclouds darkened your horizon during the 2010s? How have acts of generosity and gratitude helped to brighten your life?

Review of Five Years of Writing

Granted, my body of work may be modest among my colleagues. Still, after having written 80 pieces for 7 publications over the last five years—ranging from blurbs in collaborative lists to social media campaigns; from food blogs to 30-page feature interviews with artists—I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge a few highlights.

Regardless of the medium, I enjoy experimenting with formal structures. Although language play is lesser explored within non-fiction circles, the study of poetry inspires me to help prose throw its own parties. Five pieces of mine explore form as an expression of content. The coda in A Closer Listen album review of David Vélez’s The Things That Objects Can Teach Us About Ourselves uses the forward slash as a metaphor for man’s unstable relationship with our environment. The album review of Noon’s Disquiet staggers between modal tones, drunk on puns and punctuation. Fluid Radio album review of Ursula K. LeGuin’s collaboration with Todd Barton, Music and Poetry of the Kesh, uses a crossword puzzle referencing sci-fi author LeGuin’s captivating oeuvre. PopMatters album review of Tangents New Bodies pivots around an internet questionnaire about sexuality. Finally, the interview with Lorem’s multi-media project Adversarial Feelings expresses anxieties concerning the possibilities of artificial intelligence through fragmentary narrative techniques.

Four PopMatters pieces showcase especially pressing, universal messages worthy of deeper reflection. The Institute of Landscape Architecture’s multi-media project Melting Landscapes encourages a new urgency in the addressing of global warming. An interview with two authors who contributed to the posthumous book about prolific blogger and cultural critic Mark Fisher, K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), discusses the conflicts and contradictions of unchecked capitalism. The book review of Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, surveys the nature of this problematic element within the history of society. And the book review of Beauty proves that one of humanity’s long-standing virtues is even more crucial in our increasingly utilitarian world.

Three pieces are personally noteworthy due to my experience of writing them. To this day, the longest piece I’ve ever written was an interview with Japanese electronic musician Iku Sakan for PopMatters. An immoderately charitable undertaking, my nearly year-long correspondence with the elusive artist tested patience as much as stamina. I still get acid reflux recalling the harrowing, though rewarding lesson in how far one should go to indulge the work of others.

Meanwhile, it was my personal and professional honor to interview Portuguese avant-garde musician Rafael Toral for Tiny Mix Tapes. After an initial naïve contact with the artist during my university years in the early 2000s, a time when I was making ambient music of my own, I was able to follow-up over a decade later, conducting a thorough study of Rafael’s work. Beyond learning about his creative inspirations, methods, and objectives, I was honored to get to know Rafael as a person, humanizing an intensely creative mind who I’ve long admired from the sidelines of fandom.

And finally, while I was first settling into freelance writing in the middle of the decade, I had the opportunity to write a blog about the farm-to-table movement for Washington Hospitality Association. After interviewing a range of people involved in various roles within the then-trending cultural movement—restaurant owners, chefs, farmers, political candidates, and social activists—I was in awe as to how complex the issue is. I look forward to exploring other common interest subjects that have consequences for us all.

Readers’ Poll #2: What was your greatest achievement during the 2010s? What purpose did it serve in your life? What did you sacrifice and gain in its pursuit?

Lessons Learned

  1. In life, sometimes the most reasonable thing that we can be is unreasonable. On one face of the coin, we should know when to push ourselves, when to fight for what we believe in. However, with a flip of the coin, sometimes even quitting can be a victory worth fighting for.

  2. All life is relational. Everything, material or otherwise, is interconnected, in some way, with everything else. I have a relationship with my computer; desk; bedroom; family; employer; country; chosen ideologies; inherited biology; fears and anxieties; dreams and desires. Our relationships have histories that—whether or not we recall, know, or understand them—guide our lives. Even the lone deserted islander shares coordinates on a map with a past and a future that are relational. We all carry a history of our existence, including the cosmos, within us.

  3. While the cosmos operates according to the laws of space and time, humanity observes the laws of values and boundaries. If our values are often something we experience as instilled within us, principles of behavior that justify how we focus our time, our pursuit of meaning is dignified in observance of our finitude, boundaries that we discover in the space within which we function. The integrity of our relationships depends upon how we create and enforce these boundaries.

  4. Art is not enough. It will not save us—at least not on its own. It’s easy to lapse into gratuitous chest-thumping, boasting of our precious creations. I can’t help believing that the output of any one person is not enough to save a fallen world. That is not self-evident. To be clear, art is essential to humanity, contributing to our cultural and spiritual development, empowering and enlightening in equal measure. It’s part of our story; it can improve our story. But, with all due respect, we would all do better to leave the saving to firemen dragging strangers from a burning house.
  5. I’ve thought a great deal throughout the decade about what makes a good person good. Still, even with the head-start, I’m not sure I could pin down a discrete definition; it remains a far too wily subject to capture on its own. Instead, perhaps I can narrow the scope a little further, teasing out what makes a life well-lived and worth living.

    From weddings to funerals; from small talk with strangers in a foreign country to representing one’s self in a court of law, one trifecta of character qualities seems especially suited to enriching our varied lives: Humor; Honesty; Humility.

    Humor offers resilience, even fleeting joy. It can brighten rainy days. But humor is a mere pleasantry when not backed by a righteous purpose. Humor, alone, can deceive. Honesty offers strength, leads to revelations that can’t be earned in any other way. But the truth can be a cold-blooded monster when encountered in the wild. Honesty, on its own, can abrade.

    Humility, a spiritual underwriter, upholds all virtues. It empowers us to take chances, pledging comprehensive coverage if anything goes wrong. However, it’s humbling to think that even humility has limits; even humility can trip over its shadow. On its own, humility can be misguided, drifting into spineless inertia or the showmanship of false-modesty.

    Despite their differing natures, these three wise men grow from the same seed. There’s no need to consult a genealogist: only a family reunion will first tame them, and then set them free.

Readers’ Poll #3: What lessons did you learn during the 2010s? And how have they changed you?

What’s Next

Over the last five years, I dedicated the majority of my free time to serving the needs of artists, editors, record labels, publications, etc. In the process, I became a midwife bearing the stories of others at the expense of my own.

Although I’ll be reducing my writing output over the coming years, I’m currently planning a column that will explore albums in narrative blurbs within the following thematic structures: 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 move off our chairs. I’m also entertaining an idea for a cultural essay that I’ll write using an acrostic structure. Lastly, I’d like to eventually start a podcast dedicated to creativity. The podcast will conduct interviews with established creatives in various fields, uncovering insights into their word-view and workflows along with the challenges that they face with their craft and career.

Moving into the new year and beyond, my main priority will be building up my website. I look forward to hosting a unified space for my various multi-media projects. In addition to a visual blog that will curate the work of others (covering subjects from astronomy to zoology, mixing literary quotes with microscopy photos, yoga videos with heavy metal documentaries), the website will function as a personal portfolio for my own work, including photography (although I spent 20 years taking analog photos of industrial textures, a vision inspired by the chance operations of multi-exposed and cross-processed film, my digital photography these days spans a range of urban themes) and music (for the sake of cultural curiosity, in addition to the constraints of travel, my current project is based upon repurposed record samples; at some point this decade, I’d also like to reprise my field-recording-infused, ambient folk project WiseBlood—note: due to sharing a name with other music projects, upcoming releases will likely be published under my name, Todd B. Gruel).

Apart from art, I don’t need a counselor to announce a boundary violation in my life. It’s time to live my own stories; develop new hobbies; retire old projects; rest; and, most crucially, trending as it may be, embrace a spirit of mindfulness—I look forward to exploring how disciplines like meditation can help me connect with my visceral, intuitive self, cultivating courageous clarity around self-awareness and acceptance. Unfortunately, the pursuit of perfection, an ideal that self-improvement flirts with if only from a distance, can fester into a fear of the real and, therefore, an escape from reality. Whether through enlightenment, salvation, rationality, or carnal passion, the question remains: Who are we when we’re not striving? What shape? Which reason? Whose faith?

Although we’ll undoubtedly need the world’s support along the way, every journey begins with a lone step forward. If we finally reach what we seek, finding it lacking or incomplete, we should not condemn the vision for the vista; rather, we should greet it as a friend: thank it, hug it, then bid it farewell.

Whatever happens next, every breath should be blessed by a deeper purpose. On and off the spreadsheet of life, an accounting must be made for how we use our time: that tax-impervious, market-deaf commodity. There is no board of directors to manage that ledger; no computer hacker to refund that balance. As something we spend but never own, we are called to guard it, and release it, with loving wisdom.

Readers’ Poll #4: In preparation for my sample-driven music project, I’m welcoming feedback regarding what to include as source material. Regardless of genre and popularity, what do you consider to be the single most iconic Western music recording from each decade of the 20th century? (Please respond with up to one selection per decade that best reflects the political, social, and spiritual context of its time.) Additionally, I’m starting a column that will explore this theme beyond the Western canon of the 20th century. For better or worse, and everything in between, which music recordings do you believe best capture the defining spirit of its era? (Please respond with a 5-7 sentence blurb for each of your selections. Consider why it matters to you and why it should matter to others.)

Readers’ Poll #5: What disciplines of matter, motion, and meaning did you develop during the 2010s? What were your obstacles? How did you address them? And what (and how) do you look forward to experiencing more of (it) during the 2020s? If you’d like to respond to any of these readers’ polls, share something else on your mind, follow me, or just say “hi,” please do so through any of the following means: Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Medium, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, or www.toddbgruel.com.

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