A Songwriter meets a Dog
Solo Touring at the age of 62, day by day by day….
*these are notes from the road. I intend to keep the time I spend writing them to a minimum. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy them. They are subject to editing and deletion and susceptible to self-importance. If you like them, consider becoming a paid subscriber to the songwriting essays.
10/13/2022 Day Two - The arc of dogs, you can’t do that, and nothing is normal
This is Mocha (or Moki, depending on the mood of his owner). He’s a service dog. Like all service dogs, he is an impressive figure, alert, kind, ready, no nonsense. Also, since he’s surrounded by college students who are understandably thrilled at his presence, he’s good humored and affectionate. I wish people referred to me in those terms!
He helps out a person who is suffering from neurological issues caused by a virus contracted years ago. I watched him in action and it was something to see!
Another of my friends, who is legally blind, has had a series of service dogs and I’ve been witness to the passing of the responsibility from older dog to younger dog.
I wonder how people who have service dogs manage the emotional pain of aging, infirmity, and death in these animals where the love is so immediate, where there is so much gratitude.
A year ago, my dog, as much as a family dog can be one person’s, Amy, finally was in too much pain at the age of almost 15, for us to let things go on. It’s a bittersweet gift to a person when they can alleviate the suffering of a loved one.
This year, my wife’s dog, Molly, after almost a year of reduced mobility, was let go. She was over 17. Another bittersweet expression of love.
Those were old dogs, by any standard. But the arc of a dog’s life is painfully short for the humans that love them. When our last dog standing, Scout, showed up, a refugee from a dumping in a state park, rescued by Girl Scouts on a camping trip, one of my first thoughts was, “damn, another dog to lose too soon.”
Christmas, 2020. Just before the arc started bending the wrong way. Amy, the black Shepard, Molly, brown cattle dog mix, and Scout, the Beaker, 50/50 Cocker and Beagle (he’s still riding along on the arc, just slower and quieter, these days).
Two UK tours ago I stopped at a welcome break on the motorway in the Uk Midlands to call my friend, living in Taiwan, whose dog, only 12, had died suddenly. The dog was famous in the musical community. Too soon. But it would always have been too soon.
Why do we tie ourselves to this arc of living and dying?
In the book series “His Dark Materials,” there is a passage where the witches, who live much longer lives than mortals, rue the fact that they keep falling in love with mortals, guaranteeing themselves great sorrow at relatively young ages.
But they can’t help themselves, because they love who they love.
I loved a lab rat I rescued when I was 12. She was the smartest animal I’ve ever shared space with. I killed her by leaving her in a hot car while our family did something on vacation. I’ve never gotten over it.
But I wouldn’t have gotten over losing Esmerelda (what a name for a rodent!) when she died a natural death a year or two later.
I didn’t get over the deaths of our dogs, Cinnamon, Lily, Amy, Molly, or the cats, Emmy, Phoebe. Or the family hamster.
But I’m always in the arc, joy to sadness, every damn time.
I love who I love. Witches and men.
Lucky man? I think so.
When you lose an animal companion, It feels like every step outside into the world presents you with an animal to remind you of your loss. I spent the entire Uk/Euro tour meeting dogs.
We still have Scout, so I am still a dog person when meeting other dogs. But I can also remember when I had more dogs, and how I miss them.
Sad lucky man.
This hotel I’m staying in is nice, with a terrific staff, has a convention center feel, with about 6 cars in the parking lot.
I am tempted to take a red dry erase marker and write REDRUM on my mirror when I leave.
But that would just be wrong.
Right next door is a college with a huge, partially fenced in parking lot. I decided to cut across it to return to my hotel after a short walk and was stopped by Security and threatened with arrest. When I said “there aren’t any signs,” the security guard (who had to drive over when I was ten feet away from stepping onto the public sidewalk) pointed to a sign that I could only have seen from the other side and said, you can go to jail. He stopped the car as if he was getting out, as if I was going to wait patiently for him so I could face justice. I just kept walking, but it got me to thinking.
Maybe this was the career move I should have made. Maybe this was my “Johnny Cash picking flowers and getting arrested, leading to his reputation as an outlaw” moment.
“Nathan Bell, tattooed ex-con.” That would probably sell records, get press. More than “Nathan Bell, guy who does his job.”
Unfortunately for the bottom line I’m not that guy. I’ve never intended for my life or personality to be bigger than the songs.
It is my hope that my songs begin the discussion.
In fact, one of the most interesting parts of my craft talk/class today was the discussion about intent in activist art.
A student asked me if I’d rather write songs that were obvious rallying cries or more subtle, with more shades of grey.
If you are reading this, if you listen to my music, if you have ever spoken to me, you know that I have an approach that tends toward being a witness rather than a cheerleader.
I obviously have enough ego and drive to want people to hear these songs of witness and fact. But this is difficult for me. So I keep describing rather than telling and hope that somewhere in the lyrics is a phrase or an idea that sticks with the listener.
The students also mostly agreed that the personality of the artist is more likely to be distracting rather than helpful. And they wanted honesty and immediacy in the music and art that they consume.
In fact, the one thing everybody agreed on was that their generation can tell when somebody is bullshitting them.
One of the students said, “you can’t do that.”
As a potential ex-con, I agree.
The Nott at Union College. Completed in 1879, 16 sided stone building. One of my favorite things.
The last time I was here in Schenectady this felt like a normal, beautiful, active college campus.
But even my hosts agree that nothing has really returned to normal. That, although there was a burst of excitement from the returning students when the Covid restrictions were loosened and classes began again on campus, many of the students are still showing signs of unease and even PTSD.
I could feel it during the class, a sense of fatigue that was less physical than emotional.
My circumstances, dealing with being a caretaker, and then taking on new financial management duties, as well as rebuilding my teaching business made it simple for me to ignore the effects of two solid years of pandemic management.
Speaking to these classes I felt a kind of resignation that what I had to say about paying attention to the details of other people’s lives as a way of moving forward wasn’t the right message for the time.
With everything hanging over their generation, including accelerating climate change, economic class warfare, gun violence, the increase in religious autocracy as political philosophy, and a society that is struggling to accept young people as legitimate levers of social change, they are all also struggling with what qualifies as self-care.
It’s hard enough to be young. The world tells them that them that they’ve got it made, that their best life awaits, that now is the time to be free, happy, adventurous. Young people are told every day that they should enjoy life while they are young.
College should be the “time of their lives.”
It really should be.
But what if the older generations have failed you? What if my generation has forced you to start thinking about how difficult the future will be?
And imagine a plague. Imagine the day that the plague is declared “over” and life is to start again.
Imagine stepping out your front door and into a world that feels strangely bright and unfamiliar.
Imagine being told that you are the hope for the future when you haven’t even been able to believe that there IS a future.
And imagine doing that before you’re old enough to have seen any evidence that a world disrupted so severely can, and will return, to normal.
They aren’t walking out of Central America to escape drug cartels, or huddled in tents in western Africa waiting for 30 years for the UN to help them find homes, so without these obvious indicators of stress and tragedy, we can forget that these students are suffering.
They are impressive young people, but they are tired.
I believe that they will save the world. Everything they say to me tells me that they intend to save the world.
But first we have to let them save themselves.
First, we have to save ourselves.
Because nothing is normal.
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I have been reading your posts now for, I think, a couple of months. For whatever reason, the one today requires me to attempt to express my appreciation to you. I have been a follower since your Bell and Shore days, the in-between-years, and your solo days which followed. I love the honesty in your writing and that in your songs, the humility you express in both "venues," and your love for "doing your job" as an artist, teacher, and family man. In my opinion your realistic view of life today which can be daunting and even depressing for many coupled with your positive beliefs in what's still good in us and the potential in those coming after us is refreshing and hope giving. I expect that your time with students as well as your audiences comes across the same. Thank you.