Blog in Z-flat Major

Welcome to Z-flat Major, the official bPatrick blog.

A Better Place 

My dad died last Monday, March 4th. He was 92, and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past summer. Due to the low success rate of treating that particular type of cancer, along with his age, he decided against chemo or radiation. He wanted to enjoy the remaining time he had left, and not spend it sick from treatments. He made it all the way through the holidays and into the new year with barely any symptoms, even as blood tests indicated the cancer was progressing. While hospitalized in February, the doctor said the CT scan showed it had spread to his liver, and after a few days, he was released to go home under the care of Hospice. We all expected he still had at least a few more weeks, but on March 4, he passed away suddenly and quickly, surrounded by family (including some from out of town who had come to visit and were getting ready to leave that day). I had the incredible privilege of being by his side as he left this world.

I could go on and on and list all the ways my dad was blessed, both in life and in death. He made it into his nineties, and had survived a couple of small heart attacks, from which he had bounced back. While he did have the heart issues, his health was otherwise generally great throughout his life. He and my mom were married for 59 years, and enjoyed many memories together. My dad was a happy-go-lucky, physically small guy with a huge heart and smile to match.  

When I think of all he saw in his ninety-two years, it blows my mind. He was born in New York City, almost three years before the stock market crash of 1929 that signaled the start of the Great Depression. A huge baseball and hockey fan, he grew up watching many legends in those sports, along with notable figures of the big band era. Dad served in the Navy in the final year of World War II, and after Duke University, went on to follow in the footsteps of his father and began a career in the financial district of Wall Street. He and my mom were married in 1960, and eventually moved to Rhode Island, where all things Yankees and Rangers transformed into Red Sox and Bruins for Dad. In later years, he often enjoyed going to Florida during spring training. He also had the opportunity to travel to many places, including a six week post-war European adventure with a good friend of his during the 1950s. I could certainly go on and on here, and turn this post into a book with all the stories.

My dad wasn't perfect. Like each of us, he struggled with his own unique challenges and weaknesses. But he truly loved and cared for his family. One treasure I'll always have is a collection of encouraging notes and letters he gave me during a particularly difficult season in my life during my late teens and early twenties. Though it was something I had to work through and that no words or actions from another person could fix, he tried nonetheless.

Over the years, I've seen friends and family lose their dads at much younger ages. In 1993, my friend David's dad died suddenly at the age of 69. Another high school friend lost her dad when he was in his fifties and died suddenly one day while playing golf. Both uncles on my mom's side of the family died around 70 from cancer. My church music ministry has exposed me to many situations where I played for countless funeral services related to all sorts of tragic and terrible situations, including a fifteen-year-old girl who was hit by a school bus and more than one occasion of young people who died in car accidents.

As the years went on, I knew this day would one day come. I wondered if I was being selfish in some way. I mean, after all, I got to have my dad around for way longer than many people do. Isn't it considered "normal" to lose someone who's elderly? I tried like crazy to encourage him and to make it so he wouldn't be afraid of his approaching death.

For someone who's been involved in church music ministry for most of his life, I'm not necessarily very "religious" in the sense of beliefs, dogma, and rubrics. I don't believe there's one specific path to God that is exclusively the right one while all others are wrong. I believe there's elements of truth in all spiritual traditions, and I'm very much on a personal quest and path of learning more. But I 1000% consider there's so much more to us than our lives in this physical body here on earth. I do a lot of reading and a great deal of searching, and all the things I've read from so many diverse perspectives, along with the experiences people from all walks of life have had, have left me sensing there's so much beyond what we know. The one thing that seems impossible to me is that this life could be one big random coincidence. I tried to share all this with my dad. But I wonder if, somehow, he was pretty much totally at peace and it was myself I was trying to prepare...

In more contemplative moments, I've thought about how there must be a reason and purpose for this physical experience on earth. But as I watched Dad dying those final weeks, I went through times of being absolutely pissed off at God - for making my dad go through that, as well as other people I've lost, and for all the heartache, hurt, and illness people everywhere experience. I know religious people would say things like it's not God doing that - it's because humanity is imperfect or fallen or whatever. But when a sports team loses a bunch of games, or a company does poorly, it's not the players or employees who take the ultimate blame - it's the coach, or the CEO. So I was like, "ya know what? God's supposed to be in charge. So the buck stops there." I've thought and said a lot more colorful things than I'm writing here. If there really is such a thing as a life review in God's presence, it's gonna make for an interesting conversation between myself and the Almighty.

In death, Dad was blessed just like he'd been in life. Here he was, battling one of the most ugly, insidious, painful cancers known to humankind, and he went for most of his illness with barely any symptoms. As the symptoms finally began to grow, he had a quick and graceful exit, surrounded by loved ones. He was never forced to experience the worsening physical conditions that were sure to come. For that, I'm thankful. Maybe that right there was the Divine making its presence known.

And now, here we are. Just like that, he's moved on to the next experience of his spirit's journey. And now I know what it is to lose a parent. It seems almost impossible to imagine the world without him. Every time I call or stop by their condo, I expect to hear his voice answer the phone, or see him sitting there. It's like this raw, bittersweet heartache. There'll be these moments of peace, where I feel like he's all around us. And then that'll be followed by piercing waves of sadness. In one card I received, there was a quote that read: "yes, your life will not be the same without your Dad...but your life is not the same because of him." I've learned it doesn't matter what age a person is when they die - it still hurts to lose them. Even if you believe they've moved on to something so much greater, the bottom line is, you miss them, and nothing will ever make that go away.

The night before he passed, he'd gone to bed early. The family members who were visiting went in to say goodnight to him. In the course of that exchange, he told them, "I'm going to a better place." That's a common phrase that's often used to describe moving on from this world. What strikes me, in retrospect, was the timing. Was it coincidence? Or did he somehow know the next day would be the beginning of his new life? I hope and pray I one day get the chance to ask him.

 

 
          Robert Joseph Russo         

  January 26, 1927 - March 4, 2019

Breaking Bad Part II: "I Am the One Who Knocks" 

Wow! Wow! Ummmm.... wow! I've watched many television series over the years, but I have to say Breaking Bad was my favorite of all time. Vince Gilligan did a profound job of creating a story with multi-layered characters and interwoven plots that impacted viewers on so many levels. It was simultaneously entertaining, exciting, and disturbing. The messiness of humanity was masterfully portrayed, as was the reality that the line between good and evil may not be as distant or foreign as we may think. As Walter White sank deeper into the nefarious world he created, and manifested Heisenberg (his dark side alter-ego) more and more, I often couldn't help but think of the old saying, "there, but for the grace of God, goes (any of us)." 

In my earlier post, I mentioned how I related to Walt at the start of the series. Before I go any further, let me state that I don't think my story is special or unique in any way. There's probably many who feel this way and have experienced what I have, which is probably one of the numerous reasons Breaking Bad was so popular. Maybe you'll recognize what I'm talking about. For those who have seen the series, you'll definitely understand the title of this post. 

Growing up, I fantasized about being the rebel... about being the cool kid who, with a whimsical smile, broke the rules but yet was loved by all. However, in reality, as I described in my previous Breaking Bad post, I was the "goody-two-shoes" who played by the book and was often scared of his own shadow. When I became an adolescent and young adult, I still struggled with this to a certain degree. My desire to be liked and accepted often caused naivety and disappointment in all manner of relationships. While I watched the "bad boys" have their fun, get the girls, and enjoy admiration everywhere they went, my fear of getting in trouble, making a scene, creating or feeling discomfort, or causing someone to dislike me often caused a backing down on my part, even when I felt I was justified. While I wanted to be one of those alluring "bad boys," I was anything but that. On those occasions when I finally managed to break some of those rules and partake in some things and behave in ways that might have surprised or shocked others in my life (especially the "church people" who, interestingly, I came to look at as the "goody-two-shoes"), I felt a sense of excitement and aliveness, as well as a passive aggressive feeling of payback to all who I had previously felt powerless around, and all who had ever taught me in the first place that I needed to be the nice guy who played by the rules.

While my life and experiences never got anywhere remotely as extreme as Walt's did, from the beginning of the series I felt an affinity to him. For many years, I had also swallowed anger, fear, disappointment, and frustration. Therefore, whenever I broke free of that persona, the accompanying feeling could be a rush. Many reviews and assessments of Breaking Bad point out that on numerous occasions throughout the series, Walt says he's doing the illegal activities for the benefit of his family, when in fact he's really doing it for himself. For the first time in his life, he feels powerful and in control. That's something I, and I'm sure many others, can empathize with.

At the same time, I also get where Jessie Pinkman, Walt's associate in crime, is coming from. As the story unfolds, we come to see Jessie as kind of a big kid at heart, with childlike wonder and an ability to maintain a moral compass amidst the seedy world that surrounds him, and despite his partner's descent into darkness. While he's no altar boy and definitely commits his share of bad deeds, he also struggles with the guilt that comes along with it. He has a conscience, along with compassion for those he sees as weak and vulnerable, particularly children. 

But, like a child or teenager, Jessie is seeking affirmation and a strong figure in his life to approve of him. He comes from what appears to be a wholesome, middle-class family, but they have given up hope that he will ever get his act together and have thus dismissed him from their lives. Jessie genuinely admires Walt, who becomes a sort of father figure to him. In return, Walt seems to genuinely care about Jessie almost like a son, and even as Walt's evil side grows, he still manages to have a connection to Jessie.

At different times in my life, I found myself enjoying the company of people I admired and saw as "cool," carefree, and rebellious. While it certainly happened outside of the music realm, often these people were fellow musicians and bandmates. Because of my musical skills, I'd often find myself accepted into circles and around people who outside of that would probably not have a lot in common with me. It was the stuff of sitcoms and movies, where the dorky kid gets to hang out with the popular kids because of some particular skill or extenuating factor. For many years in my musical collaborations, I was also usually the youngest member of the group (sadly, those days are long gone). One particular band was a scenario similar to those worksheets they give to kindergartners where they pick out what doesn't fit in the picture. In that case, there were five rough looking guys in leather jackets, bandanas, torn jeans, etc., and Barry the keyboard player looking like he just stepped out of Express or one of those type stores. And I loved it. Getting that approval was indeed like the nerdy kid in high school who suddenly gets accepted into the popular crowd. In various seasons of my journey, I had my own versions of Walt, or more precisely, Heisenberg.

Whether literature, movies, poetry, music, or any type of art, the ability to make an audience see themselves in the art and relate to it on a deeply personal level is a sign of mastery and excellence. Vince Gilligan certainly achieved this with Breaking Bad. Now that Christina and I have finished the series, I've been reading and watching some reviews and analyses. I have seen where, as I expected, there were critics who felt the show glorified methamphetamine and brought it out of the shadows and into the mainstream. This sentiment was particularly common in law enforcement circles, who deal with this epidemic on a daily basis. There was also the criticism that it wasn't realistic. These critics pointed out there's no way in real life Walt or Jessie would be as lucky as they were in avoiding death or arrest. Some also claim there's no way an operation producing that much of the drug could operate within the United States. 

Some of these criticisms could be warranted. But then again, what television series or movie is ever 100% accurate? Of course the main characters are going to usually avoid death and find their way out of impossible scenarios. For example, as an ICU nurse, Christina can easily point out technical inaccuracies in shows like Chicago Med and Chicago Fire. Braveheart certainly took artistic liberties with the story of William Wallace, as did Amadeus years earlier in its portrayal of Mozart. The list here of shows and movies that took certain liberties could be endless.

Overall, Breaking Bad clearly paints the fine line between good and bad, and shows how the perfect storm of circumstances could cause anyone to go to places they, nor anyone else who knows them, ever imagined. The characterizations portrayed clearly show the rawness and realness of being human. I highly recommend Breaking Bad for this reason, along with the entertainment value. In my opinion, it doesn't glorify drugs. It shows what can happen when an otherwise good person falls into any kind of addiction, whether that be the addiction of using drugs, manufacturing drugs, the addiction to power, or anything else for that matter.

Would You Like Some Truth With Your Coffee? 

Truth. Whenever I hear that word, I can't help but think of Jack Nicholson's iconic line in A Few Good Men: "You can't handle the truth!" I also think of a book I read a while ago (the name escapes me - oh boy, does that mean I'm getting to that age when that starts happening? Reserve my room at Shady Acres!). Anyhow, it was by a writer for New Yorker magazine (I think), and it chronicled his attempt to live strictly and literally according to the Old Testament for one year. In one hysterical scene, he and his wife are at a restaurant when an old friend from his wife's past comes over to say hi. She suggests that they plan a get-together sometime, to which the writer, abiding by the Bible's code of honesty, blurts out something along the lines of, "No thanks, we already have enough friends." Needless to say, his truthfulness wasn't a huge hit with the woman (or with his wife).

I think Nicholson's character nailed it when he spewed his famous line. Much of the time, we can't handle the truth. We tell ourselves one thing when deep down we know something else. We hide the truth to protect ourselves or others. I mean, it's probably not a good idea or helpful for job security to tell your boss or coworkers all the things you can't stand about your place of employment. How many men throughout history have fallen into the trap of giving their honest opinion about a wife or girlfriend's new outfit? Television sitcoms have made fortunes on that kind of stuff! Is it really a good idea to tell some big-mouthed relative what you really think of them? Sometimes, the truth can be hurtful to others. Sometimes it's necessary, but it's important to have the ability to discern when that's the case, or when it's just going to cause needless hurt or anger.

A lead character in the New Testament asked, "What is truth?" Good question. Political ideologies claim to possess the pathway to an ideal society based on what they believe to be true about that particular society. Here in the United States (and probably many other countries), those who passionately support a certain political party will claim that their office holders and candidates speak the truth, while their opponents are mistaken and/or less than truthful. 

The claim of possession of the truth really ramps up when you get into religion. For example, in Christianity alone, you'll find the Protestant denominations and believers who claim that the Bible is the 100% inspired Word of God, and that eternal salvation can only be obtained through the grace of God and an acceptance of Jesus as one's Lord and Savior. Then there's the Catholic Church, which claims that it's the true church established by Jesus Christ, and salvation requires both grace and good works, as well as weekly attendance at Mass, reception of the Eucharist and other Sacraments such as Reconciliation, etc., and adherence to church doctrine and teachings as taught in the Catechism. And that's just Christianity. There's also so many other religions and spiritual traditions that all claim to be the pathway to truth.

The discussion of truth doesn't end at politics and religion. In philosophy, there have been many thinkers who support the notion of the existence of Natural Law - the idea that certain rights are inherent to all sentient beings, and that certain principles exist in the universe that are constant through the ages. I personally tend to believe more in the Natural Law principle on the basis that something that is wrong, such as murder, rape, or theft, is wrong regardless of the time or place. On the contrary, there have been philosophers who have proposed the idea that truth and morality are flexible, dependent on the circumstances of the time and situation. This has been defined as moral relativism.

There's also thinkers and researchers out on the "fringes" who believe that nothing is what we think it is. They include those who believe in extra-terrestrial involvement in human creation and in the world today, those who believe that our five sense consciousness limits us from seeing the reality of existence and creation, those who believe that our world is under the control of some dark spiritual or otherworldly force, and many others who claim that truth and reality is something entirely different than what we're taught.

For most people, this is way too much to think about, especially considering how much time and energy is spent just working day to day to put food on the table, taking care of homes and families, and all the other never-ending responsibilities and tasks of life. Even for those who wish to explore these topics, one would need twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week for multiple lifetimes to begin to make a dent in all the information that's been compiled throughout history. 

It's not for everyone. My wife, Christina, while respectful of my passion for contemplating these topics, is one who would rather focus on the "here and now" of everyday life (which, interestingly, focusing on the here and now is a huge subject in a lot of spiritual topics I've explored). She points out how getting too caught up in seeking deeper answers could lead one into an endless search, akin to a cat chasing its tail, and could maybe lead to unwanted side effects like frustration or depression.

But just because seeking truth is such a daunting task, does that mean we say "forget it" if we truly wish to explore? I don't think so. But I happen to be one of those people that has a passionate interest in exploring. I've often compared everyday life to being in a shop and looking at all the merchandise that's in the glass cases and on the shelves. Truth-seeking, in this analogy, is like going up to the shop owner and saying "that's very nice... now show me the real good stuff you keep in the back room..." 

But then I wonder... was Nicholson onto something? If I happen to find the truth, could I handle it? Is the truth deep inside all of us? Maybe it's similar to how I've often imagined God - simultaneously more complex and more simple than we could ever imagine. 
 

Breaking Bad 

* The posting below was written while we were in the midst of watching Season 2 of Breaking Bad. Be sure to check out the Part II follow up to this, written after we concluded the series!

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Ok, so I realize we're about a decade behind, but Christina and I are obsessed with Breaking Bad, the AMC television series that aired from 2008 to 2013. We recently began watching it after getting Netflix. As many of you probably already know, the series gets its title from an old Southern expression that refers to a person who turns to the wrong side of the law. It revolves around a financially struggling, terminally ill high school chemistry teacher (Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston) who starts manufacturing crystal meth to leave money for his pregnant wife and special needs son. He's assisted in his endeavor by a former student (Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul) who failed his class and eventually became a low level manufacturer and dealer. Throw in a DEA agent brother-in-law, along with a host of other characters, and you have a series that is, like it's subject matter, quite addictive! Christina and I have now experienced the infamous "Netflix binge."

I haven't read much commentary on the show, because I don't want to see any plot spoilers. But my gut feeling is that many viewers are rooting for Walt and Jesse, despite the fact that they're contributing to the drug epidemic that shatters so many lives. Like any well-crafted story, whether in literary form, theater, or film, the viewers are pulled into it, and vicariously experience the thrill, danger, and excitement, as if it's we who are one wrong move away from an unpleasant death or a lengthy prison stay. I know that's the case with Chris and I. We're only on Season 2, and already on multiple occasions we've found ourselves making verbal commentary, trying to give the characters our input, as if they can hear us. 

There's probably many people who can relate to Walt. He's over qualified and underpaid, spending his days teaching students who, for the most part, would rather be anywhere but there. He and his wife have a surprise baby on the way, and his teenage son has cerebral palsy. They live from paycheck to paycheck, and are pretty much one unexpected circumstance away from financial catastrophe, which comes in the form of Walt's cancer diagnosis. When he hears his Fed brother-in-law talking about how much money drugs pull in for the criminals they're busting, he decides to put his chemistry skills to use in a different way, with the noble purpose of saving his family from certain financial ruin. 

I believe when push comes to shove, we'd all do anything to protect or save the people we love. If the circumstances were extreme enough, I believe that includes the realm of what's considered illegal. So, for starters, this probably makes the audience sympathetic to Walt. But I believe it goes even deeper than that.

It seems in our modern society, and throughout history, the everyday working people have always gotten the short end of the stick, while the rich corporations and government leaders (or back in the day, the royalty) get richer. Here in America, we practically pay an arm and a leg in medical insurance alone, often to insurance companies who will find any way possible to skimp when it comes time for them to pay out. The pharmaceutical companies rule the medical industry, charging astronomical prices for the side effect-laden substances they peddle and blanketing Washington with their lobbyists. I just read where one prominent congressman went to D.C. with a net worth in the $360,000 range and came out worth over $7 million! All this amidst the ever-increasing costs of living and endless taxes for the "common people." The words of the immortal George Carlin ring on: "it's a big club, and you ain't in it."

How many people have found themselves in a situation like Walt, with crappy health insurance, or none at all, and faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatment expenses? So I think when people hear of someone who finds a way to strike back against any injustice, or even read or view it in the fictional setting, deep inside there's a part of them that's glad. It's as if that individual who stood up somehow represented all the people who have felt stepped on. Through the generations, the heroic outlaw has a place in people's hearts. Another movie that comes to mind is Braveheart. Completely different circumstances, and I'm sure that story was spruced up and tinkered with for Hollywood, but the basic theme of people fighting back against brutal oppression is endeared by people of any era. While Walt in Breaking Bad may not have been helping anyone outside his family, the idea of doing something extreme to help loved ones is what I think resonates.

There's other subplots and themes in Breaking Bad, and the writers and actors did a tremendous job of creating characters that are very real and human. For example, Jesse, Walt's partner in crime, at first appears to be a burnout drug user and dealer, but as the story progresses, he shows that he has a good heart and spirit. He comes from a stable family background, and his addictions and shortcomings have put a severe strain on his relationship with his family.

As I said, I haven't read much commentary on the show, because since it ended in 2013, I don't want to inadvertently see any spoilers about where the plot is heading. However, I imagine there must have been people who felt the show glorified the drug trade. I'd be willing to bet that people who have lost family members to addiction or who have or have had someone close to them who is battling addiction might not be huge Breaking Bad fans. I get that, and can't begin to imagine what experiencing such a thing is really like.

However, the show does a great job of confronting a question that humans have always faced: at what point does protecting and caring for loved ones outweigh what society may deem as right or wrong? As someone who has always tried to shake the "goody-two-shoes" stigma of my upbringing, I personally have a great appreciation for how Walt goes from being a quiet, meek kind of guy guy who always plays by the rules to someone that's quite the opposite. How many times in my life have I done the polite thing, or spoke calming words to diffuse confrontations, when after-the-fact I daydream of having taken a different approach? Of course, on those occasions when I did take the different approach, I've often felt guilty about it later! So yeah, I get a kick out of Walt's antics, relate to him, and find myself rooting for him, though at times he seems to be taking it a bit far, such as in the things he says to Jesse or in his moody confrontations with his family. He also finds that this lifestyle will eventually require him to make choices that go against his sense of morality.

At one point, Walt makes an interesting observation. He says that before he got sick, he used to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something such as finances or whatever his particular concern was at that time. It always seemed there was something weighing on his mind, and he was filled with anxiety. However, after his diagnosis, he said he started sleeping through the night. It makes you think about the stuff we think is so important, but actually isn't. 

So if you happen to have Netflix or get it anytime soon, definitely check out Breaking Bad. Don't be surprised if you too find yourself on a binge!

Hello, 2019 

In 1908, British poet Minnie Louise Haskins published a collection titled The Desert, which included a poem called God Knows, later changed to The Gate of the Year. It read: 

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: 

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” 

And he replied: 

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand in the Hand of God.  That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” 

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

As we enter 2019, I can't help but think about Haskins' words and how applicable they are to my own life, and certainly to the lives of many others. In these tumultuous days we face collectively and individually, The Gate of the Year is every bit as relevant and applicable today as it was over a century ago. It doesn't take much imagination to think of all of the risks, problems, and issues of contention we face as a society, and how these challenges may manifest in the year to come.

I once had the notion that the older you get, the more certain (as much as "certain" can exist in this world), stable, and maybe even mundane life became. Now, as I venture into those years I once looked upon as my "older" ones, I realize this isn't necessarily always the case. Uncertainty can often cause feelings of excitement and adventure, but it can also bring with it much fear and worry. As someone who was never a huge fan of change, the fears and worries can pretty quickly grow to overshadow the excitement and sense of adventure. In my case, when every day becomes an OCD wonderland, I know the 'ol fears and worries are in high gear.

Regardless of what spiritual perspective you come from, it's often said that we have a purpose and reason for our life. I've heard it said it's no accident you were born when and where you were. Whether you believe we live a "one and done" life according to the plan of God, the Creator, the Source (or whatever term you prefer), or whether you believe we live many lifetimes in various circumstances of our soul's choosing so as to learn certain lessons, or anything in between, there is a sense in many of us that we have some sort of purpose to fulfill.  

The big question is "what is it?" What if it's not what we think it is? Christina (my wife) once challenged me and my lofty thoughts about life's purpose by asking me something along the lines of "what if your entire purpose for being here was because of one person who needed to hear something you sang one particular day in church?" After my ego stopped gasping for air, rolled over, lifted itself to its knees, took a few deep breaths, stood up, dusted itself off, and staggered over to a chair to sit down, I reluctantly pondered this concept. A while back, I read Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, in which the main character learns how nothing in life is random, and the individuals and experiences of life are connected.

Maybe reality's like Albom's story, and we have no idea what it was really all about until it's over. Ha, and then there's those that say we exist in multiple parallel timelines going on simultaneously, covering the span of any and every possible circumstance and storyline you can imagine. Or maybe it all really is like the movie The Matrix, and this is all one big illusion... pause while head explodes from overthinking....

For whatever reason, I've been afforded the opportunity to learn that very little in this world is what we think it is, or were taught and conditioned to believe. That can be the most disturbing or the most inspiring realization one can have. Often it's both. It's like the beginning of a brand new life. By no means do I have all the answers, and I probably never will. At least not in this lifetime. But at the same time, the blinders are off.

Hello, 2019. I've got high hopes for you. Together, let's deviate from the known way. Through the darkness, guided by the Hand of God, we'll find the breaking of day. 

A happy new year, filled with many blessings, to all of you!

 

Let It Go, Let It Go 

Have you ever wondered who the "they people" are? You know, "they say...." I wonder if they have a headquarters somewhere. Anyhow, these "they people," in their infinite wisdom, are probably responsible for the old adage, "practice makes perfect." There's also variations of that, such as "perfect practice makes perfect," which serves as a caution against losing focus while rehearsing whatever it is you're working on improving. I don't know if this will get me inducted into the Loyal Order of They People, but I'd like to add my own variation: "practice makes perfect (almost)." 

Ugh. After I wrote that I did a random Google search. Guess what? Apparently I'm NOT the one who came up with that! So I guess my short-lived membership in the They People Hall of Fame is officially revoked!

Let's face it. When you care about something, it's hard to let go. If you change "something" to "someone," I'm sure anyone who's a parent could attest to that. At some point, you gotta let go. At some point, your children have to go out without you looking over their every move. There comes a time for them to have their own life. I'm sure more than one parent has shed a tear or two on their way home from dropping their child off at college. In any relationship of any sort, letting go is huge. Micromanaging another person doesn't tend to lend itself to a happy, healthy environment. 

But what about when it comes to whatever else happens to be your passion? Perfectionism and striving to be your best at whatever you do is a great quality...until it isn't. More than one artist, author, composer, and probably many others have struggled with when their creation is ready for the world to experience. "Not just yet" is an all-too-familiar theme.

As someone who struggles with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, this is daily territory for me. At the core, it comes down to anxiety. The anxiety can be related to any number of things, including the frequent fear of not being good enough. What if people don't like us and our creations? If I had a dollar for every time I've gotten stuck on some particular lyric or note in a song and wondering whether it's just right, there'd be a lot of zeroes added to the end of our bank account balance!

Don't get me wrong. It's important to do our best at all times. In whatever profession you're in, I'm sure you can think of examples you've seen of work that's not up-to-par. But when we become so scrutinizing that we can never finish anything, we inhibit ourselves, along with anyone who might benefit from our work. 

But let's face it. We often know all the logical reasons why we should or should't do or feel something, yet go there anyway. It's easy for others to tell us why we should or shouldn't do this or feel that, but they're not us. Haha, I legit one time had a counselor say to me, "just don't do that." What?????!!!

So I'm not going to tell you to just let go. You already most likely know you should, and you don't need to hear it from me. And to be honest, I'm still working on this myself, sometimes with success; sometimes not so much. But I will share what's worked for me in making the progress I have made.

First, the things we get hung up on and focus on are things that the overwhelming majority of others would never stop to think twice about. I can't tell you how many times I had performances where I thought I was way off, only to afterwards have people raving about how much they enjoyed it. Likewise, there have been many times I thought I was having a great performance, only to not get that type of feedback. Clearly, we're not always the best judge of ourselves, and never really know what it is that will resonate with others.

When it comes to practice, you can only do so much preparation before you need to get out there and do it for real. Both in bands and as a solo performer, time and time again I've seen where the show doesn't truly tighten up until you have a bunch of live performances under your belt. Getting away from music, I'm sure this is true of many other professions, including sports, surgeons, first responders, military, etc.

There's no such thing as perfection this side of heaven. I think it comes down to our needs and how we want to be viewed by others. If we struggle with self-esteem, then often we'll look to others to lift us up, and that's when we might get too obsessed with perfection. 

I've found that looking at the big picture helps. What's our purpose? Our goal? For me, it's to create music that will have a positive impact on people's lives, in the same way that the music of others has touched me. Therefore, it's important to keep creating and keep moving forward, not getting stuck in one place. I can't say I'm always successful with this, but every step is something to be celebrated.

Today's your day. Let us hear what you've got to say. Woah, that rhymes. But is there a better rhyme? What if people think it's corny? Ummmm, yeah, in this case, they definitely will! But you get the point...

bPatrick, Uncle Barry, and the Price of Tea in China 

So, as you probably figured, I haven't gone through life with the name "bPatrick." Well, actually, I sort of have. Patrick is my middle name, and B is my first initial. But it's not like I filled out the name line of my grammar school tests with "bPatrick," though that would have been funny, now that I think about it - especially with the lower case b leading the way and the certain subsequent Picasso of red pen from any number of professionals entrusted with my academic formation...  anyhow, back to the present... 

I got the inspiration for bPatrick from other artists who have done something similar, particularly Adam Young and Toby McKeehan. Adam Young has released music under his own name, and in 2007 established the electronica project known as Owl City. I've always greatly respected Young's music and lyric writing, along with his signature production and singing. Owl City was another subset of Adam Young, but yet it was, at the same time, Adam Young. I also enjoy many of McKeehan's songs, released under his artist name, TobyMac. You all can probably think of many other examples, including many from outside of music as well. It's nothing new under the sun by any means.

Before bPatrick, I released some music under my legal name, Barry Russo. I'm sure, somewhere along the line, I will again. Just like Adam Young and Owl City, Barry Russo is bPatrick and bPatrick is Barry Russo (hmm, kind of getting a church vibe here, though I'm by no means in the same caliber as their lead character). 

I was named after my mom's brother, and my uncle was a story all to himself. In my eyes, as well as many others, he was the definition of "cool." As a kid and young adult, he was always the one who got into all kinds of mischief. Yet he was the kind of guy who had a heart of gold, and would do anything for anyone. He was the life of any gathering, and had a personality that drew people in everywhere he went. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2014, after a battle with lung cancer. But his memory and spirit live on. He was a huge influence on my life, and had a sincere appreciation of my musical progress over the years. I can still see him sitting out there with my Aunt Pat at various performances of mine with a look of complete enjoyment and a sly smile on his face. You'll probably hear a lot more about him from me.

But that was Uncle Barry. I, on the other hand, was always kind of the dorky kid growing up...you know, the one who imagined breaking the rules and being a badass, but was always too chicken to actually do it. I never possessed the "cool factor" that Uncle Barry did, though in later years I'd often try to appear as if I did! Which is what brings us back to music, and possibly (hopefully) a lesson for all of us.

Once upon a time, I dove into the pool of songwriting and recording. More like an ocean, actually. With my entire heart and soul, along with a good amount of money and countless hours invested, I was determined to "get it right." I had a vision of what the end result would be like, but I had no real clue on how to get there. I ended up listening to and relying on the people I surrounded myself with, because they had more experience in this realm. In the end, I lost sight of who I was. Or maybe to be more precise, I dove into it without a clear vision of who I was to begin with. Because at the end of the day, the challenges I faced weren't all about music and recording. To put it simply, I had a lot of things to straighten out in my life and a ton of growing up to do, and what I would learn would eventually transcend my musical world.

To use my ocean analogy when speaking of those first recording endeavors, it was like I was getting tossed around by the strongest waves and tides. It wasn't the fault of those around me - they were just trying to help, based on their own experiences and who they were. But as the process went on, nothing felt natural or smooth. I felt riddled with doubts and anxieties about the musical results I was getting, and about conforming to how others thought my music should sound and how I should look and present myself. But I'd always put my preferences and opinions on the back burner and defer to the knowledge and opinions of those around me.

Meanwhile, the inner warning sensor was screaming. Often, it felt like I was trying to be something I wasn't, in every way. For example, I was trying to be an "artist," yet was being careful to hide, or at least downplay, the very things that were a huge part of my story, such as the fact that I was already making a good living as a working musician (church music ministry, cover bands, piano bars, functions, ceremonies, teaching piano, etc.), because, as I'd been told by many sources, those things would make me sound like less of an artist. As if "artists" just appeared out of a vacuum, ready-made to take the stage and wow the world. Based on what I'd heard, I feared if I admitted being a successful working musician, people would instantly dismiss any notion of me as a real artist. But, in that line of thinking, struggling at a non-musical job that one hated to pay the bills would somehow be seen as "artsy." It didn't confine itself to pop/rock artists either. I once provided piano accompaniment for a very successful opera singer at a wedding ceremony. In conversation, she mentioned how she never let those who booked her for extensive European opera tours know that in the off-season, she supplemented her income singing for weddings, because then they would no longer take her seriously! 

Back in those days, I had some songs that could be classified as specifically being in the Christian genre. However, I was careful never to mention any of the doubts, questions, thoughts, or differing insights that might be considered off limits for someone who performed at Christian venues, and likewise avoided, or again at least downplayed, any mention of venues I performed at that might seem unseemly for a Christian musician. 

Finally, there was the age factor. My life story is one of a late bloomer. I constantly felt uneasy when the subject of age came up, because I felt sooner or later, I'd encounter those who deemed me "too old" to be taken seriously as a recording artist, especially in a music industry filled with bands and artists in their teens and early twenties, time markers that even then had passed me by.

As a result of all these things, it seems the songs themselves, along with the image that surrounded it, never really clicked. They never had the magic, or as some say, that "X factor." Something was missing, and it seemed I was spinning my wheels. Oh, don't get me wrong. On the surface, to those on the outside, I had the appearance of someone doing all the right things. I worked hard, made a good living as a musician, and was pursuing songwriting and recording. But deep inside, conflict ruled the day.

During the time of some major life transitions that followed, during which Christina and I got married, I took a long step back. By some unexpected twist of events that occurred very naturally, we ended up relocating, another ingredient that fueled my time of growth and transformation. Everything that I learned along the way will be a huge part of this Z-flat Major venture, and I'm excited to share it with you.

For the last couple of years, I've waded back into the world of writing and recording, this time from a very new perspective. I have a much clearer vision, and while I'm open to advice and input from others, I'm now clearly the captain of the ship, and steering in the direction I want to. I'm way more hands-on with many of the steps in the process that I used to rely on others for, and have been accomplishing things I never imagined I could. The final destination is still a bit of a mystery, but for the first time, I'm thoroughly enjoying the journey. I'm thrilled with every aspect of the writing and recording process, and can't stop listening to the final mixes of these first few songs! If they bring hope, inspiration, thoughtful reflection, and plain old enjoyment to others the way that the music of countless bands, artists, and composers has to me over the years, then this adventure will have been a success.

As a sort of symbol of my new beginning, I thought it would be appropriate to release the new music under a different name. But I still wanted it to be real, and to be me. That's when it hit me. Growing up, my family referred to me as B.P. (sorry, British Petroleum) to differentiate me from Uncle Barry. And as I mentioned earlier, Patrick is my middle name. BPatrick emphasizes the "BP" and utilizes my middle name. The lower case b (bPatrick) was just a quirky variation, because let's face it, I'm sort of quirky. As for the Realign collection of songs, well, a realignment is exactly what I went through. For now, I'm releasing the songs one at a time, as singles.

So by this point, you may be wondering what exactly my little trip down Reminisce Lane has to do with your life or, as I borrowed from the catalogue of colloquial old sayings, the price of tea in China? 

I doubt there's a need for any great preaching skills here. From my little tale, I'd be willing to bet there's many of you who can make the possible parallels to your own life journey. It seems some of us come out of the womb knowing all this kind of stuff already, while many of us have to learn it, sometimes painfully, along the way. No matter your profession or your passion, you need to follow your heart, along with your inner GPS. Often, we don't know it all, or even a little bit, and it's important to be open to the guidance of those who are more familiar with the paths we're traversing. But ultimately, no one knows us like ourselves, and if our gut's telling us something, we need to honor that.

Whatever your "it" is, some of us get it right the first time, and hit the home run in our batting premiere. Likewise, many of us strike out a bunch of times. But what's important is to get back up to bat, or back on the bike, or whatever analogy you feel like using. You have your own "bPatrick" in you, and every now and then, you just need to realign. It's my hope and prayer that it brings you the happiness and fulfillment you desire and deserve!

Why Z-flat Major? 

Why Z-flat Major? What does that even mean? Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with music theory knows the musical alphabet only goes as far as the letter G, and then returns to A. There's no such thing as a pitch or a key designated by H, or I, or any other letter beyond G. There are such things as quarter tones that fall between the notes of the chromatic scale, which are prominent in certain cultural music, such as in the Middle East. But Z-flat? That's not something we recognize as existing. Which is exactly the reason I chose that name for this blog.

Many years ago, I watched the movie The Matrix. In the film, most of humanity is controlled by artificial intelligence, and live within the parameters of an illusory computer simulation known as the Matrix. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who leads a group of rebels, offers Neo (Keanu Reeves) the choice between the red pill and the blue pill. The red pill will make him see a whole new perspective - reality for what it is. The blue pill, on the other hand, will simply put him back to "sleep," and he will return to the illusionary life that he thinks is real. 

The older I get, the more I grow to see that so many things in life are not necessarily what we thought they were, or what we were taught. Yet, so often, we go through our lives, just assuming that we know so much. We live within the framework of what we learned in school, at church, or at home, or what we hear or read about in the news. We never stop to consider the possibility that we're blind in many ways.

What if all of our beliefs about the world around us are the result of brainwashing and programming? What if there's so much more to our existence than we ever imagined? What if we could see those new shades of life, our very selves, and everything and everyone around us, in all their beauty? What if we understood love and joy on a far deeper level? What if we were able to see and comprehend the tapestry of everything that happens in our lives (the "good" and the "bad"), how it all fits together, and how it relates to the purpose of our existence? What if death was no longer something to fear, not because of something we were taught or told to believe, but because of a peace we grew to understand with absolute certainty? What if we could hear the sounds of Z-flat major?

That's the direction we're heading in here. A little bit of everything. You see, I'm searching. I believe many of us are. I invite you to join me in this endeavor and take this journey together. While I may introduce topics as I feel compelled to discuss them, I want to hear your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I want your input to also guide what roads we travel down. Trust me, I don't claim to have all the answers by any means. We'll all be learning each day for the rest of our earthly lives. So, with that said, fasten your seat belt, and together let's enter the rabbit hole...

 

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