The Fun (and Necessity) of Physical Things

the fun of physical things

Would you rather play or watch?

Over three decades ago, I worked as a day baker for a retired professional athlete in my hometown, Lake Orion MI. This man was an interesting character. After playing Major League Baseball, he went into the food business but kept his hand in baseball. He did fantasy camps, consulted young athletes and their coaches, did color commentary on broadcast baseball games, signed autographs at card shows, etc. However, he let me know more than once that he’d rather play than watch baseball any day. (Detroit Tiger pitcher Mickey Lolich was my boss, for those interested.)

We are physical creatures. We have five senses, all clamoring for stimulation. The essence of feeling more alive, not less, is to be fully, bodily involved in life, whenever possible. An actual, rather than a virtual, existence.

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax is easily the most interesting read I’ve come across in the past few years. This is not simply a book about the resurrection of the vinyl LP market. It includes that, but also has chapters on board games (Settlers of Catan), film photography (FILM Ferrania), longhand writing and sketching (Moleskine) and much more.

Sax is a journalist in Toronto, ON. The opening of a new vinyl record shop near his apartment renewed his lost love for 33⅓ hot wax. He bought a turntable and began bringing home records. Inspired by his experience with turntable and record albums, he ventured out into the world to places like Nashville, London, Milan and New York to understand why people—many of them born after turntables, rotary phones and typewriters were ubiquitous and who’ve been raised in the speed-of-light, digital world—are turning back to simpler, more archaic forms of hobby and interest. What he found was stunning.

Physical things like record albums, pencils, chess boards, film and brick-and-mortar bookstores are not dying; they are attracting interest and market capital. Oh, and making money. Sax uses analog as a metaphor for things that involve physical, face-to-face interaction, with as many senses involved as the experience will allow. An analog approach and technology is about the experience of the participant.

There are many benefits to analog technology but here’s just one: It slows you down as you use it. Analog things cause you to be in the moment due to their slower and ungainly nature. They don’t depend on fiber-optics and binary number combinations. 1’s and 0’s have their limits.

What are some of your favorite analog things? Records, real print books, Monopoly, hand woodworking tools? And how can adopting or revisiting analog technologies and practices give you a richer life in addition to your digital, online world?

Tell us in the comments!


Suggested Resources:

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Michael Gelb)

Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter (Norm Abram)


Image Credit: Christian Fahey


“And In My Hour of Darkness”

“When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom

Let it be.

And in my hour of darkness

She is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom

Let it be.”


If you’re a Beatles fan, you recognize this classic.  What you may not know is the story behind the song.

In the late Sixties, Paul McCartney was going through a difficult season.  He had a dream.  In the dream he saw his deceased mother.  She said to him, “Let it be.”

His mother’s name is Mary.  Mary McCartney.

Those of us with a Catholic background probably thought he was speaking of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  But he wasn’t.  At least not consciously.  Paul was baptized a Roman Catholic so perhaps his upbringing was leaking through.  You’d have to ask him.

If nothing else there is a message in “Let It Be.”  One, especially if you’ve been graced with a good mother, is this: Listen to your mom.  Remember her encouragement and wise words.  Remember her self-sacrificing behavior.


Suggested Resources:

Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics, 1965-1999 (Paul McCartney)

“Let It Be” (The Beatles)


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The Joy of Discovery

Discover for YourselfI first picked up the guitar in 1976.  I was a sixth grader and the guitar was a borrowed Harmony.  I set out, at first anyway, teaching myself using a guitar method (records and books) by Kenny Rogers, then a member of the First Edition.

Before long, I found a teacher on the recommendation of a friend.  Don taught me to read music (The Joe Fava Method for Guitar for guitar fans).  But he also taught me the songs of my heroes:  Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and others.  Don had an incredible ear for music and taught me note-perfect rhythm and solos.  Remember, this was long before the days of the internet, YouTube, tablature charts ad nauseum and the like.  There were, in fact, very few songbooks for the music I loved.  Led Zeppelin Complete was the exception.

Don learned all sorts of songs by ear and taught them to me.  You have to go back into a time capsule to appreciate what this entailed:  Listening, over and over, to songs on a 33 and 1/3 vinyl album, picking up the needle and starting over, etc.  until you got it.  From his work, I learned songs like “Don’t Want You No More” (Allman Bros. Band); “Roundabout” (Yes); “Ten Years Gone” (Led Zeppelin); and “Purple Haze” (Jimi Hendrix).  It was exhilarating.

In subsequent years–again before the avalanche of information, courtesy of the digital age–I followed the same method, dragging out records and listening to them over and over again to get a song just right.  I remember doing this with “Leader of the Band” by Dan Fogelberg.  The exhilaration only heightened.

There’s something about digging things out for yourself, mining your own vein of gold and connecting the dots via your own sweat that having something handed to you just doesn’t cut.

Challenge:  Whatever your vocation, hobby, avocation, etc., pop the hood, get inside for yourself, explore, experiment, play around.  It’s kind of like apple pie:  Why is it that apple pies made from apples from your own apple tree just seems to taste better?  It’s the same idea.

You’ll be delighted with all the cool things you figure out for yourself!

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A Composer At His Best

Elton John at PianoI’ve always enjoyed the A&E program, “Inside the Actors Studio.”  The main draw for me is this, namely, that the show and its skilled host, James Lipton, focus on questions of substance dealing with craft.  None of the paparazzi-kinds of questions one would expect from TMZ or other news outlets dedicated to the inane and superficial.

Though focused on acting, actors, and actresses, and filmed in the presence of students from the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at New York’s Pace University, from time to time, Lipton hosts musicians.

A while back, I happened upon an interview with Sir Elton John, Lipton’s guest for this particular show.  I’ve been an Elton John fan since about 1975 when my parents bought me my first record album, “Elton John’s Greatest Hits.”  I was fascinated and eager to hear what he had to say.

I learned a few things about the habits of Elton John and his approach to musical composition.  Those of you familiar with Elton know that he writes music and has spent a good deal of the last forty-six years working with friend and lyricist, Bernie Taupin.  Bernie writes lyrics in sixty minutes.  Elton writes songs in thirty minutes, as a rule.  If the song does not come in forty-five minutes, he shelves it for a later time.

When I viewed the clip below, I was simply blown sky-high.  In it, Elton John shows how he can put any text to music.  It is stunning.  Enjoy.

A true craftsman.

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“The Geese and the Ghost”…And Its Influence

geese-and-the-ghostHave you ever found something that has been hidden in plain sight for years and you simply didn’t know it was there?  And then kicked yourself saying, “How did I miss this?”

I did a few years ago.  Anthony Phillips, one of the original members of Genesis.  I found him in an oblique way.  And I’m delighted I did.

Thirty-four years ago I was a young guitarist, taking lessons, playing in bands and dreaming of one day becoming a rock star.  My guitar teacher turned me on to a guitarist I’d never heard of—Phil Keaggy.  My teacher had a handful of albums by Phil.  I fell in love with The Master and the Musician.  Fingerstyle, jazz, classical, rock, medieval, Celtic.  It has it all.  Phil’s palette is multifaceted and displays many hues.  It remains my favorite instrumental album.

What I did not know at the time was that there were two weighty things influencing Phil Keaggy’s creativity during the  period in which the pieces on The Master and the Musician were composed.

First, Phil and his wife, Bernadette, had lost five children due to premature birth difficulties during the mid ‘70’s.  One can’t even imagine their sorrow.  Phil channeled the pain of these terrible losses into his music.  (This, according to Bernadette in her book, Losing You Too Soon.) This was the difficult season in which the pieces that comprise The Master and the Musician had their genesis.

Second, Phil had been listening to Anthony Phillips’ brilliant album The Geese and the Ghost during this period.  A friend turned him on to it.  Phil unquestionably has his own voice and creativity—he’s recorded over fifty albums now—but you can detect flavoring from his enjoyment of this fascinating recording.

The Geese and the Ghost is primarily instrumental.  There are a few vocal pieces, all winsome, featuring Phil Collins among others.  The album has a certain otherworldly, at times medieval, vibe.  Brilliant, cascading 12-string guitar work.  Multiple overdubs.  Oboes, recorders, mellotrons, synthesizers, strings.  And lots of guitars.  It will take you to another place.

We all tend to be composites of our influences and that is a beautiful thing.  Who has influenced you, artistically or otherwise?

Buy The Geese and the Ghost as well as The Master and the Musician, both available through the iTunes Store.  See what you’ve been missing.

Hobbies: What Are Yours?

hobbiesBill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago—one of the nation’s largest, recalls a time in the late 1980’s when the church was experiencing unbelievable growth.  This growth taxed him and his staff in a big way.

Eventually Bill reached a breaking point.  Burned out.   Letting fly on his colleagues in an unprofessional and inexcusable way.  He needed help.

He’d been urged by friends to get counseling.  Ego caused him to balk at this until he could take no more.  He went to a counselor.

One of the first questions his counselor asked was, “Bill, what do you do for relaxation?”

“That’s easy.  Nothing.”

“This has to change.”

He urged Bill to find an outlet.  Recreation.

A hobby.

As a younger man, Bill loved sailing.  But, worried about the disapproval of parishioners, he didn’t pursue it.  What will people think if their pastor buys a sailboat?

He decided to let the critics think what they may and bought an old sailboat.  He remodeled it and made it seaworthy.  Then he formed a sailing team and entered regattas.

It has been a godsend for him and he’s had the time of his life.

Everyone needs a hobby.  I’m a musician and an audiophile, so mine happens to be collecting music.  As far as tape goes, cassettes are okay, but no 8-tracks (the hiss on both formats is annoying). Mp3’s are great.  CD’s are better.  (I just recently acquired a number of CD’s of old masters from the era of the Great American Songbook–Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong, etc.)

But by far, my favorite is records.  33&1/3 vinyl albums and 45’s.  The sound is better.  The music breathes and the layers are more apparent to the ear. The artwork is outstanding.  And I can get treasures on the cheap.  It is quintessentially cool.

Recent vinyl acquisitions:

Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits” (Simon and Garfunkel)

The Music Man” (Original Cast Recording)

Beautiful Noise” (Neil Diamond)

Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” (Al Jolson)

How do you relax?  Tell us about your hobbies.


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Phil Keaggy Casts A Giant Shadow

I’ve been playing the guitar for thirty-six years now.  I started as a twelve year old in 1976, pulled into the music world by the incredible coolness of watching friends play “Smoke On The Water,” “Dream On” and “Time In A Bottle.”

I started studying under a fine guitarist named Don.  Don had the good sense to teach me how to read music.  He had a fine ear as well.  And so, along with learning the rudiments of guitar and music, he taught me the music of my heroes.  Led Zeppelin.  Jimi Hendrix. Yes.  The Allman Brothers.  It was an exciting time to learn.

Very early on, Don kept telling me about an amazing guitarist named Phil Keaggy.  I didn’t know who Phil Keaggy was.  I knew that, like Don, he was a Christian and I had not been exposed to the Jesus Music of the 1970’s.  Was I in for a surprise.

I left my lessons in the late 1970’s carrying home records of all my favorites and recordings of Phil Keaggy as well.  I was stunned.  This gifted guitarist could play lead guitar and fingerstyle equally well.  He played incredibly fast, something that got my attention in the days where Eddie Van Halen was breaking in and breaking speed records on six strings.

Like Phil and Don, I eventually became a born again Christian and Phil’s music occupied a big part of my life and repertoire.  My favorite album of Phil’s, to this very day, is The Master and the Musician.  It is an instrumental album trading in all different genres for the guitar.  Classical.  Folk.  Jazz.  Rock.  Fingerstyle.  It has it all.

Phil has made a career of uniquely overdubbing multiple guitar parts when recording, creating rich textures of sound.  It opened a new world for me and taught me to listen more carefully to music.  Not just the melodies and tunes, but to the architecture.  In that way, he carries on very much in the tradition of Jimmy Page, who also specialized in multi-layering of guitar parts.

Here are some other unique Phil facts:

  • Phil is missing the middle finger of his right hand.  He lost it in an accident at his family farm when just a wee lad of four.  This makes his fingerstyle work all the more stunning.
  • Phil is highly in demand as a studio musician but does not read a note of music.
  • Phil is about five feet, five inches tall.  And yet he casts a large shadow in the world of the guitar.
  • For acoustic guitars, Phil favors handmade instruments from luthier James Olson.  In his earlier years, he played a handmade Mark Evan Whitebook.  The sounds of these instruments are stunningly rich and full.
  • For his electric work, he favors his sunburst Gibson Les Paul.  His 1971 flame top Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, which he used in his band Glass Harp, now rests in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Phil lives in Nashville TN but is a native of Ohio.  For about five years in the 1970’s, he lived near Ithaca NY—close to my home—and friends of mine were instrumental in bringing him to upstate New York.

Buy Phil’s albums.  The Master and the Musician is a fine place to get acquainted with this remarkable musician.  You’ll be glad you made the effort.

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