Monday, May 28, 2007

The Guitar

Most people think the guitar is a musical instrument. I see it as a bit more complicated than that. To me, the guitar is a family of 10 to 12 musical instruments (or more, depending on how you count). Most of them have some similarities--most have six strings, most are mainly made of wood--but there are differences, too, including more or less than six strings, use of metal in place of wood--and some look quite different from the rest.

Part of those differences stem from the fact that those 10 to 12 instruments are used in even more styles of music, and each type of music puts different demands on the guitar and the guitar player. The "licks" a bluegrass guitarist uses would be out of place in rock--the rocker's playing wouldn't go over in a jazz setting--the jazz player doesn't measure up in a classical guitarist's eyes--get the picture? As a matter of fact there have been times when it seemed to me that after playing guitar, the most common activity of guitar players is looking down their noses at each other. They get to feeling that their musical genre and type of guitar are superior to the others. There are some who aren't so snobby, but all too many are.

And that's to be expected, really. Guitar players are not angels; they're fallen human beings, just like the rest of us. So enjoy the music--as many styles as you can--but when they quit playing and start putting each other down, just take it with a grain (or five or six) of salt!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

My Musical Family

I haven't said too much about music here so far, but it has always been a part of my life. As far back as I can remember, I was singing. When I was fifteen I took up playing guitar, and kept singing. In high school I was in Concert Choir and Varsity Ensemble, as well as church choirs. And when the Hawkins family got together, we made music. My father played guitar, mandolin and tenor banjo (he had a couple of violins, too, but in his own words, "he never got the squawks out"). He had played in a few bands, working the bars around Harrison and Ross, Ohio in the late 1930s and early '40s (near Cincinnati). Once they got on the radio--live show, before the days of DJs. My grandfather played guitar and mandolin, my grandmother played piano and guitar. But I only learned last year that my great-grandfather, who died before I was born, had also played guitar. We were together, playing music, and my Dad sang one of his old songs that I'd remembered him singing over the years, but my son Caleb was struck by it and asked him to write down the words, then got him to talk about where he learned it--turned out that when he was little, his grandfather, my great-grandfather, had played his guitar and sung it to him!

My sons carry on the family tradition. Nathan, the older, plays guitar and electric bass. But Caleb, our youngest kid, took after my Dad--he wants to play everything. He started with guitar, then banjo, then mandolin, then fiddle. Added upright bass (he had one for a while, but sold it--they take a lot of room). He had dulcimer lessons from a friend of ours some years ago, now he has one--it's about the only instrument he's had formal lessons on. Also added harmonica and dobro recently. He's messed around with keyboards at times. Once in a while he plays the electric bass he got from Nathan.

We still take our instruments when we go to visit my folks. Dad will be 88 this fall, but he still gets out the guitar and plays with us, at least for a while. I'll sing and play a couple of their old favorites, and Caleb will either do something old or some of the songs he's written (unlike me, he is a songwriter). I've also been singing to our youngest granddaughter, born this year, and she seems to like it. Looks like the tradition will go on.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Commumion Meditation

The day after feeding the 5000, Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum, where He made the statement, "I am the bread of life." Later on in that discussion He said, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your fathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever."

This teaching freaked out his listeners. The Jews had no tradition of cannibalism, and the Law of Moses required them to avoid eating or drinking blood. John records "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." But the Twelve did stick with Him. And I can imagine them, a long while later at the Last Supper, when Jesus gave them the bread and wine, saying "This is my body" and "This is my blood", looking at each other and thinking, 'Is this what He was talking about that day?' Probably the lights really came on for them after the Resurrection.

I don't think there is anything magical about the bread and juice. It isn't the going through the motions of Communion that makes the difference in us. But it is a reminder that our life comes from Him, our new way of life depends on Him. Our spirits must feed on Him.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Remodeling Questions

I've made my living as a remodeling contractor for over 20 years now. And in those 20 years there have been two questions that come up again and again. The first is "Why is it so hard to find someone to work on my house?" The second is "Why does it cost so much?" I don't know who will see it, but I thought I'd lay out my take on the answers to these.

One answer that applies to both questions is that there aren't enough people doing the work to handle all that needs to be done. I've read the contractors' magazines for 20 years. And there have been items and articles about the labor shortage in the building trades for almost the whole time. There aren't enough young people coming into the building trades to replace the ones who are quitting or retiring. I saw an article last year saying the average age of a subcontractor in new residential construction is 45. And my own experience on jobs goes along with this. The last new house I worked on was in 1996; in the month or so our crew was on that jobsite, I saw maybe one man who looked to be under 30. Of the crew of 4 that I was with, I was the youngest at 46. Back when I started in this work, there were 4 of us who got together to take on big jobs, such as roofing a large house or siding or interior trim in new houses; I'm the last one of the four still in the construction field. Age and injuries have taken a heavy toll; not too many stay in construction until retirement age. A lot of things in construction used to be considered young men's work (framing and roofing, for example) but now older men are doing them because there are too few young men. The biggest relief so far has been immigrants (legal or illegal), but they work out best on large crew jobs, with one good English-speaker to interpret for the rest.

A second factor on both questions is that construction can be a hard way to earn a living, in other ways besides the physical issues. To begin with, the whole field is rather seasonal. The winter is slow. Around March or April it starts to pick up. By June I'd often be booked up for three months out--one year it was five. After Labor Day the backlog shrinks to about a month or so, then by November you're going week by week, then day by day. In January I'd usually have only a week or so of work for the whole month, two at most. We learned to cope by saving all year so we could take a two-week vacation in January (there's no such thing as PAID vacation when you're self-employed).

Along with the seasonal work, you don't always get paid for a whole day's work. I've always told folks I'd do jobs from one hour long up to a month long. The main value of the one-hour jobs is that they often lead to bigger jobs--many people will try you out on something small and call you again for something bigger. But it is almost impossible to schedule more than half a day's work on one-hour jobs. People's own schedules and the variables in length (half an hour here, one and a half there, then a trip to the hardware store for something unexpected) throw things off and you can't get everything in. My real bread-and-butter is the week to two-week jobs, and the month-long jobs are nice when I can get them. Any longer than that and I start to lose other work because I'm tied up too long. And sometimes, especially in the spring, I have to take a half-day or a whole day out and get estimates out to people so I can keep the work flowing.

That brings up what is probably the biggest single expense in contracting--estimating. Everybody expects free estimates. In fact, they are not really free--they are paid for by the people who actually have work done. How many estimates does it take to get a job? It can be as high as 10 per job, in the commodity fields like siding or windows. In most remodeling, the experts figure you're doing well if you get one job for three or four estimates. I love repeat customers, because with them I often get 3 jobs out of 4 estimates. On the other hand, I've had people call up wanting some estimate in the spring--and that's all I hear from them until they ask for another estimate. I reached the point a long time ago where I don't even do a third estimate if the person hasn't had any work done at all. "Tire kickers" like that just run up the costs for everybody else. How much does it take to do all these? Generally I can kill an hour going to look at the job, sometimes two. The estimate itself may take an hour or so for a simple job, 8-10 for a complex job like finishing a basement or designing and building a deck.

Over the years I've seen plenty of fellows try to move from working for a contractor to contracting on their own; most start out charging their new customers what they were getting paid per hour as employees. After about 6 months they figure out that with all the time they are really spending, they'd clear more per hour as a minimum wage employee. A few learn to charge more for their work; most go back to being employees.

The above isn't a complete answer to the two questions, but it's a start. This post is getting long enough, but maybe I'll come back to the subject someday.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

More on Spiritual Gifts

Last night's message at church got me thinking some more on this topic.

I think there are some things that are a combination of talent and gifting. For example, being a worship leader requires a certain level of musical talent, but I've known some very good musicians who could not lead worship well. I think this may be a composite of developed skill and gifting.

I also remember Steve Sjogren, founding pastor of the Vineyard in Cincinnati, sharing that he once believed leading worship was one of his gifts, but later concluded that he was a worshipper, and when he picked up a guitar and worshipped, other people got drawn in.

There are some spiritual gifts that are not that pleasant to be involved in. For most of my adult life I've had a form of the gift of discerning spirits: I don't identify evil spirits, but if something is going on and the Holy Spirit is not in it, there's some kind of internal alarm that goes off in me. Unfortunately, when that alarm goes off, it often means I have to go talk to somebody--somebody who really doesn't want to hear it. Know what? Many of the pastors I've known do not have much appreciation for this gift, especially when they have a new pet project in the works. I do have to be careful not to mix up this with my own likes and dislikes, and not to speak until I'm sure of what I'm hearing. It doesn't happen all the time; I'd say the "alarm" has been quiet for a couple of years now, and that suits me. It's not a comfortable gift.