The RPM Challenge

On January 20, 2010, I signed up for The RPM Challenge. Little did I realize what a huge impact it would have on my life.

I’ve been a musician for most of my life. I took some piano lessons as a kid and I learned to play acoustic guitar when I was in high school. I wrote a few songs here and there and learned a few cover songs over the years. In college I bought a 4-track cassette recorder. I didn’t do a lot with it, but I always envisioned myself as a recording musician. Not as a profession, mind you, but as a hobby.

In February of 2009 I loaded up GarageBand and tried to learn how to record myself singing and playing. I wrote a blog post at the time that ended with “Neither version is particularly good, but I had fun.”  And that sort of summed up what I was doing.

In March I posted this:

I purchased a refurb Mac Mini for the studio and have been setting it up over the past few days.  I think it’s going to help me a lot to have a dedicated system in the studio (a term I use loosely since it’s really just an extra bedroom with a couple of guitars and a mixer).  I’ve been testing things out and I think I’m going to be quite happy with the Mini

I began re-interpreting songs by my friends in the band Sha-Pink.  Their songs are…. odd, to put it gently.  Here’s an example:

By July I had recorded four of their songs, which they featured on their podcast (or “Oddcast”, as they called it). I think that made me a Sha-Pink tribute band.

So there I was – learning how to record and working away on cover songs. Then January 2010 came around and I sent an email to Darrin from Sha-Pink.

Convince me I need to participate in RPM2010.  It scares the hell out of me, and I have no idea how I can do it, but… I think I have at least three songs I can flesh out already.

He wrote back quickly:

You have to do it because it’s WAY FUN. Who cares if you don’t cross the finish line? Less than a third of the bands do.
If the sun rises tomorrow and Letter 17 is not registered to participate in the 2010 RPM challenge, the dead shall walk the earth in search of fresh tasty brains. You don’t want to be responsible for that.

He was right. I didn’t want to be responsible for the zombie apocalypse  So I signed up.

In the first 15 days of February I wrote 13 songs, 11 of which appeared on my eventual album. I learned that I could write. RPM2010I also found an amazing community of supportive people who would read my blog posts about my new songs and give me encouragement and feedback. One person reached out to me and asked for the tracks to one of my acoustic songs. He sent it back to me the next day with layered background vocals.  Another time I made a comment about how listening back to one of the songs I’d just written made me feel like a real musician. I received a response of “That’s because you are a real musician.”

On Sunday evening, February 28, I packaged up my completed CD and mailed it off to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  I had completed The RPM Challenge.  On the morning of March 1, I handed a CD to THE WIFE and she finally had a chance to hear what I had been working on all month.  You see, not only had I not written many songs over the years, THE WIFE had only heard me sing a very few times.  And here I was handing her a music CD with 35 minutes of original music on it.  She listened on her drive to work and wrote to tell me that she liked it and was proud of me.  I surprised her.  I also surprised myself.

I’ve now participated in six RPM Challenges, and I’m about to start number seven. I’ve met and worked with people from around the world, from a guitarist in Spain to a bass player in Canada. I’ve sung along with lovely ladies in Cornwall and Texas. I’ve worked with people in San Francisco and New York.  I made friends with a drummer at work and we formed what we actually call a band, although I still don’t sing in front of others. We’ve since added another vocalist and guitarist from Phoenix. And remember that guy who added backing vocals to one of my songs the first year? He’s recorded with me nearly every year, singing and playing keyboards. He lives in Canada. We’ve never spoken to one another, but we’ve worked together on music for years.

So that all makes for a fine story about how I found a musical community, but that’s not really what this is all about.  RPM fundamentally changed me.  It took me from talking about what I wanted to do to actually doing it. My signature on the RPM forums says it all:

I wrote 5 songs in 25 years. Thanks to RPM 2010, I wrote 13 more in 15 days and used 11 of them for my album. My wife had heard me sing maybe 3 times in 17 years. Then I released an album. So I basically went from zero to 60 in a month.

And it’s true. I also gained a level of self-confidence that I previously lacked.  Why yes, I AM a musician. Seeing the look on people’s faces as I hand them a CD is always interesting.  “So, wait.. this is real?”  Yes.  Yes it is.  They smile and snicker a bit, but invariably I receive an email in a day or two telling me how much they enjoyed my record.

Is my band The Beatles?  Are we going to sell hundreds or thousands of records?  No on both counts. Honestly, if we sold ten I’d be thrilled beyond belief. But I’ve given away a few hundred CDs over the years and I’ve amused people with some songs about donkeys.  I’ve also found an artistic outlet and a way to follow my passion.

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

The RPM Challenge is meant to get artists creating art. RPM stands for Record Production Month. The Challenge is to record and release an album of at least 10 songs or 35 minutes of new, previously unreleased music during February, the shortest month of the year. If you can also write all of the music during February, that’s even better, but it’s not a requirement. Will you release Sgt. Pepper’s?  Probably not. But you might surprise yourself by what you create.

If you’re a musician and you’ve always wanted to do something like this, sign up for The RPM Challenge.  Don’t be scared.  We’ll help you. You’ll might end up with a record. Or you might end up with something more.


Gap Year

We walked to town last night for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. We like to sit at the bar as we know the bartenders and a good number of the wait staff, plus the owners nearly always swing by and we get to say hi to them, too.  But the main reason we like to sit at the bar is for the other people. Nearly every time we meet someone new, interesting, and fun. Last night was no exception as we met Rajib.

We were chatting along pleasantly when we reached the inevitable question: “So what do you do for a living?”  As usual, THE WIFE and I both chuckled as she turned to me (as always) and said “Yeah… what DO you do for a living?” When I told Rajib that I was temporarily retired he lit up. “That’s great! I’ve taken a year off three times in my career so far!”

Did I mention that he’s the CEO of a $100M+ company?

We proceeded to have a really great discussion about priorities and the concept of really understanding what is important to you. He recommended the book The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying, which he basically distilled down to “no one ever went to their death bed saying ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’.”

I’ve been reading about the Adult Gap Year, which is apparently more common than I thought. It’s what I’m experiencing right now, even if I’m not so sure it will go on for a year.  Truth be told, I figured I’d be back in the job market by now, but I’m not, and I don’t have any immediate plans to do so.  Why, you ask?  Good question.

  • I DON’T HAVE TO GO BACK:timandgidge I was concerned that financially I would be required to go back to work sooner rather than later. I was wrong, although I’d certainly be happier if the stock market would play along with my long-term projections a little better in the short term. Still, I figured that we would have to cut back on savings, which we haven’t beyond what I was contributing to my 401(k). While I would certainly like to have those dollars going towards retirement right now (I’m a big fan of dollar cost averaging, so down markets are buying opportunities), I can live with investing a little bit less now than we were before.
  • I’M JUST NOW SETTLING IN: I’m in month five of this retirement and I’m just now hitting the rhythm I thought I would have back in September. I’m baking more (and better!) bread, working from my own sourdough culture, and I’m spending significantly more time on my music. I’ve moved from “inept” to “not very good” on piano, which is a huge step forward. I’m also running more regularly and I’m becoming a better cook.  These are all things that are both comfortable and comforting.
  • I HAVE AN ALBUM TO WRITE!: February is nearly here, so it’s almost time for The RPM Challenge, where I (along with a couple of band-mates) record an album of new, original music and release it at the end of the month. I’ve done this for the past six years and I’m really looking forward to this seventh time around, particularly since I have a new lead guitarist and second vocalist to work with now. The idea of facing RPM without the pressure of squeezing it in via two hour blocks in the evening and all-day marathons on the weekends is really freeing. Plus, THE WIFE is looking forward to seeing me throughout February, including on Valentine’s Day and her birthday.
  • I STILL DON’T KNOW WHAT I WANT TO DO: This is the big one.  I can get another job, whether it be financial or technical. I’m certain of that. The question is, since I don’t HAVE to do those things, do I WANT to do them? Right now the answer seems to be “I think that doing the things I’m good at are a good way to have someone give me some money.” And that’s all fine and good, but if I don’t HAVE to work, will I want to be someplace for 40+ hours a week? Currently, I don’t. I could do something for a shorter period of time (a consulting engagement of a few months) or something more permanent with a more flexible/shorter schedule (30-ish hours a week, or maybe less?) and be happy, or I could step down into something with a lower level of responsibility than I’ve had previously. I could also just punt the whole thing and do something strange  like open a bakery (that’s highly unlikely, by the way). I’m still waiting for some bit of clarity to arrive, but I’m not counting on anything.

When I started this whole “First Retirement” journey I was encouraged to take at least six months, off and I’m starting to understand why. You need at least some of the time to figure out the lay of the land and to figure out how to operate. It truly has been wonderful to unburden myself from years of corporate stressors held deep in the recesses of my mind, but it’s also been great spending time learning what the proper consistency of a good bread dough is when you hold it in your hands.

How long will this go on? I really don’t know. So I’ll keep moving forward as I am until something tells me to change.





The Bread Crumb Incident

2016-01-02 17.33.48I made a beautiful couple of loaves of bread the other day, but managed to leave the salt out of them. It was a new recipe from a new book and I skipped a line in a paragraph.  It happens.  I’m just glad that I noticed it before I posted a picture to Facebook asking if anyone wanted a loaf.

Today I decided to make lemonade from the proverbial lemons and turn the bread into seasoned bread crumbs. THE WIFE has some great herb salt that would really make the bread crumbs come out nicely, plus everything would be homemade.  Double bonus! I broke out the food processor and began grinding away. I quickly realized that I had more than enough bread to fill two large cookie sheets while still leaving a good bit of bread for the backyard birds.  As is my custom, I consulted the interwebs to see how to best prep the crumbs – 300 degrees for 20 minutes to dry them out. Easy enough.  I can do that.

But this is THE RETIREE we’re talking about here.

It was all going so well until I decided to rotate the pans.  As I lifted to lower pan I clipped the edge of the shelf (the large cookie sheets are new and are much larger than my old ones), flipping the sheet over, depositing equal amounts of bread crumbs on the floor, and on and around the oven door.

After muttering a string of profanties my meditative mantra I took off for the garage to grab the shop vac. It cleaned up a good bit of the mess on the floor, but I began to smell something burning. It was crumbs in the door, which was still open. Luckily, I have a second, smaller shop vac that has a crevice attachment. I grabbed MINIVAC and cleaned everything up. All told, I lost about 60-70% of the crumbs as the pan I flipped had more on it than the other one, but that’s probably okay as it was A LOT of breadcrumbs.

When I took the shop vac back out to the garage I decided to empty it out. I didn’t need bread crumbs molding inside the vacuum. I loosened the lid on the vac and saw that it was quite full.  Apparently I hadn’t emptied it in a good while, so I dumped it over into a trash can and…. unleashed a huge cloud of dust, filling the shop. Oh yeah… last year when we had a neighborhood cat bless us with a litter of kittens in the basement, she also brought us a flea infestation, which I treated with diatomaceous earth. If you’re not familiar, it’s powdered silica and is similar in consistency to flour, except that it dries out most anything it touches.

So now I’m dusty, dry-skinned, and rather annoyed. So what to do at this point? I figured I might as well go all in, so I grabbed the blower attachment, turned on the air compressor, and blew all of the dust out of the shop vac filter.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out where that ended up.

I put everything away (after blowing some of the dust off of myself), walked back into the house, and sat down to write this post.

It’s days like today that I think about posting my resume to job sites.



Perseverance And A Hacksaw

I am not particularly handy. I’m not inept, and I’m more than willing to wield a tool or operate a chainsaw, but many of my attempts at supposedly simple repairs go horribly awry.  Back when we used to podcast regularly we had a segment on the show called the Manly Task Of The Week.  The theme song included someone saying “OW!” It was appropriate.

That brings me to Sunday night when THE WIFE noticed that there was water under the sink. I’ve been baking a lot of bread and using a number of large food service containers lately, which means I’ve been washing a lot of food service containers and filling up that side of the sink regularly. I noticed that the putty around the strainer basket seemed to be developing gaps, so when she saw the water I was pretty sure that the basket needed a new bit of putty.

On Monday morning I did a very wise thing. I looked up YouTube videos on how to remove the basket and how to properly apply putty.  After a few videos, I pretty much had it down – remove a small nut on the bottom of the basket, then turn a much larger one on the top, possibly using a large wrench, and take everything apart. From there I learned a couple of tricks about how to apply the putty, plus I read what amounted to a holy war on a plumbing website about the merits of putty versus silicon. In short, I did my homework. I went out to run some errands and picked up some putty to come back and start the job.

The bottom nut came off easily, but when I attempted to remove the upper retaining ring the entire basket turned. Yep – the putty was definitely gone.  No problem, I thought.  I’d just do what they did in the videos and grab the basket with one hand and break the ring free with some channel locks.

I’m sure you know how that worked out.

After fighting with the ring and three different wrenches for about 30 minutes, I became convinced that 1) the ring was fused to the threads, and 2) the people on YouTube are either magicians or liars.  Still, this is about par for the course for a Manly Task, so I didn’t let it bother me too much. I sprayed some WD-40 on the threads in hopes of loosening up the locked ring, and I headed to Lowes.  I needed a really big set of channel locks and a new strainer basket. Even if I could get the parts apart, chances were good that I wouldn’t want to reuse them.

About 20 minutes after getting home and continuing to struggle with the ring, I texted the husband of THE NEIGHBOR (hereafter known as FLOYD SOLO). He walked over a few minutes later and we tried each grabbing a wrench to see if we could make any progress.  All we really accomplished was verifying that the ring was fused to the basket.  FLOYD admitted defeat, and I contemplated calling a plumber when he suggested I call our favorite handyman. I rang up THE HANDYMAN and he told me he could be over in the morning. “I’ll get it off, even if I have to cut it off.”

Now I had a plan.  Sure, we couldn’t use that side of the sink for the night, but it would be fixed tomorrow.  And I still had all of my fingers and no major bruises or other wounds.  Honestly, that’s a pretty successful TASK for me.

But still… I wondered if I could get the ring off. I headed to the garage and found my dremel and some cutting disks.  I put on some goggles (Norm always told me that was the most important piece of safety equipment, after all) and tried some cuts to see if I could cut the ring loose. It was working, but my hand slipped a couple of times, creating some stray cuts. I became concerned that I might slip and damage the sink, plus it just felt slightly unwise and unsafe.

That led me to one more video. One featuring a hacksaw. I’m not even going to link to this one – I’m just going to include it. It’s short and the guy is basically channeling how I felt at the time.

2016-01-04 16.26.08I headed to the garage, grabbed my trusty hacksaw, and decided to give it a shot. After all, what did I have to lose? THE HANDYMAN was just going to cut it out anyway.  So I got to cutting and… it was actually pretty easy. I only had to cut through the threads, which were thin.  It took about 15 minutes, but pretty soon I was done. I called THE HANDYMAN back and told him what I had done, then verified that 1) putty was the right choice, and 2) the slightly different type of strainer basket I bought was okay. He told me I was right, so I got to work.

After all of that, it took about five minutes to install the new basket. Honestly, it took me longer to clean up than it did to install.  I ran a few water tests, re-connected the plumbing lines and everything actually worked. MANLY TASK COMPLETE!

2016-01-04 16.54.04So now’s the part where I’m supposed to have some sort of great, deep philosophical point to make. And… there really isn’t one.  I was patient. I accepted that things were going to go wrong.  I asked for help when I needed it. I validated my assumptions. I was willing to admit that I wasn’t going to complete the job successfully, but then I found a way to do it anyway. So maybe there is something here after all. Perhaps all of this time off is making me ever-so-slightly more patient and measured.  And that, apparently, is a good thing.

But maybe that’s not the point.  When I cut the strainer loose and then eventually finished the job I texted the two photos in this post to FLOYD SOLO. His response:

Sometimes perseverance and a hacksaw win out

Yeah… that seems like a better lesson.