This Is The Level Things Could Be At

I graduated in the top ten percent of my high school class. And this is the sort of thing I don’t think you’re supposed to know, but I also had the highest SAT score in my class. I’m not saying that to brag, I’m not sure how impressive it is to do well at Norwell High School in Ossian, Indiana. Those two facts bounce around in my head a lot. They’re a snapshot of who I was then, this smart kid whose life had, up to that point, been decided pretty much by where he grew up.

I carry that snapshot around because of what happened next. I didn’t go to a great (or even good) out-of-state school, I didn’t even go to one of the big in-state schools. I went to Indiana State University, solidly ranked in the top six public schools in Indiana, but light years away from IU or Purdue. (When you go to State, a lot of people confused that for IU. Eventually, I stopped correcting them.)

State happened for me because it was the only school I could find that had something that looked like a Film program. And by that, I mean it had the only program that had Film in the title. I literally looked at a list of all the majors in Indiana, provided by my high school counselor, found the word Film and said “yeah, that’ll work.”

For a while, as late as a few years ago, I’d get questions about why I went to Indiana State when it came up (Now, it just doesn’t come up.) ISU’s a safety safety school for a lot of people – not a first choice, definitely not the only place you apply, dumbass.

Applying to ISU was easy. Sure thing. No problem. No worrying. No conflict

Cashing in on that snapshot of myself (the one I still carry) would have taken work, and it looked like there was a perfectly viable alternative that just, uhm, wasn’t going to take that work.

My time at State was great, but man, it was filled with that same sort of attitude. I left high school wanting to make movies, but during my four years with essentially unlimited access to equipment and more than enough free time, I think I made one thing I didn’t have to make (and that was mostly because I talked a cute girl into being in it.)

I wasn’t scared of success. It was just easier not to even try for it. At least, it starts that way, but then you start to look around and realize there are all these people who are doing all these good or even great things and you’re just… not. And the crazy, maddening, frustrating thing about underachieving is that you only have to make excuses for so long before you just forget that you’re doing it.

You can feel that there’s better in you, but it feels trapped somewhere else. Even if you think that it might be right outside the door, questioning why you can’t find it leads to an agoraphobia that makes it impossible to leave the house.

You forget that you’re the one who caused it. And you never learn that you’re the only one who can stop it.

After I didn’t study for the GRE, picked a school I knew I could get in to, and eventually graduated grad school, my girlfriend found me an apartment. And a job. Because those were things I couldn’t do for myself.

I was done with school and knew I didn’t want to go any further, but I didn’t know what was next. There was no easy option, and I was paralyzed.

The job wasn’t a great job, but it was exactly what I needed. I needed to show up some place at 8:30 every morning and work at a job that didn’t push me. Because when you have to get out of bed every morning, when you leave a lonely apartment where you’ve pulled your bed into the living room so you can play Xbox until you literally fall asleep, if you absolutely have to wake up, you eventually want it to mean something.

You eventually remember that you can do better.

I put together a document that said “I can do more for this company” but meant “I can do better than this.” I stopped doing data entry, started doing communication stuff, and caught the eye of the sales consultant that worked with the insurance company and started making the drive from Muncie to Indianapolis to work with them.

 daneepye and ajbrown7, before we were pye,brown. Photo by Holly Holladay, before she was Holly Holladay.

daneepye and ajbrown7, before we were pye,brown. Photo by Holly Holladay, before she was Holly Holladay.

It’s during this chunk that danee and I found each other again and we started calling ourselves pye,brown, even though we didn’t really know what that meant. I moved to Texas because loving someone from very far away is stupid if you don’t have to.  The sales consultant took me on full-time and said I could work from Austin.

That move was maybe the first time I really took a chance on myself. The first time I wanted to go make something awesome.

And then I got laid off. Seven months after I moved. Two months after we got married. And, again, I was done. So done. Gutted. Totally out of energy, totally out of faith in myself. The morning I got the call, July 5, I cried like I can only remember crying once before, but this time danee was there.

This wasn’t just my problem this time, this was also her problem, and that made things so much worse.

I regressed. Hard. I started a lot of projects I never finished, I played a lot of pinball, I applied for jobs as required by the State of Indiana to receive unemployment, and I was lucky enough to have a handful of good friends and this still-new person in my life to keep me above water, however barely.

I needed them. I wasn’t sure I could do better. I was pretty sure I couldn’t.

And then danee found me a job. Because that was something I couldn’t do myself. The job was back in Fort Wayne, and it let us check off two of the three things we had on our to-do list. (1. Find Jobs. 2. Move. 3. Fuck Shit Up.)

Working at that job, the arts non-profit marketing job, was a constant struggle to do better. My co-workers, my boss and I would work daily to make things better, to make something awesome, and then watch as those ideas were beat back down to the status quo by a culture of fear, misogyny, and British accents.

After twelve years of trying to convince them to do better, my boss did better for herself and moved on. I got promoted, I got stiffed on pay for the second time, and I decided my business card said Director of Marketing and Public Relations, but my job was to fight.

I fought with my new boss, weekly. I was too young and inexperienced for the job, and too low in the organizational chart to make big differences on my own, so I fought and begged for him to fight for me and my team and for the organization.

He won those fights, the ones with me. And he never had the other fights, the one for the team or the organization. Five months into my new job, I asked him for one thing I’d done well since I took over. He couldn’t come up with anything.

So, I left. I left in the same way I think my old boss did, defeated but sure I could do better, trying not to look back but stealing glances and hoping, praying, that someone behind me was going to take my leaving as a sign that maybe that place could do just a little better.

No one did. No one’s gonna take your fights as seriously as you do. Especially if they’ve underachieved for so long that they’ve forgotten they can do better.

At the Grammys back in February, Kanye West jumped on stage as Beck was accepting the award for Best Album, an award he beat out Beyonce for. It all felt incredibly familiar, a throwback to Kanye’s prior interruption of Taylor Swift, when she beat out Beyonce for MTV’s Video of the Year award in 2009.

Kanye stopped short of interrupting Beck, really, and a ton of people (including Jay Z and Beyonce) let out this giant sigh of relief. But West wasn’t done.  Later that night, on the E! post show hosted by his sister-in-law Kourtney Kardashian, Kanye went back in. 

“I just know that the Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We ain’t gonna play with them no more. And Beck needs to respect artistry and he should’ve given his award to Beyonce. Because when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration. And we as musicians have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyonce album and they feel like it takes them to another place. I’m not gonna do nothing to put my daughter at risk, but I am here to fight for creativity. That’s the reason why I didn’t say anything tonight, but you all know what it meant when ‘Ye walked out on that stage.”

There’s so much going on in there. If you only saw Kanye’s almost-hijacking, you might think he was willingly making himself the butt of the joke, but when he’s given a live mic and time to explain himself, it’s clear that’s not the case.

This isn’t a joke. It’s serious. And it’s not about Beck and it’s not really about Beyonce, I think. It’s about doing better. 

Here’s Bullseye host Jesse Thorn, writing about after Kanye’s initial incident with Taylor Swift:

Throughout all of this, West has occasionally had a bizarre and unpalatable outburst like this. But what’s fascinating to me about his outbursts is that they’re always about merit. Wrong or right, he seems to care so passionately about popular art that he can’t help but speak out. There were times when it was about him thinking he should have won, but there was also this time — when he thought Beyonce deserved credit. Or the time Kanye won and promptly handed his award to one of the few hip-hop artists who’ve matched his creativity and fearlessness, Outkast. Not as a tribute, but because he thought they had earned it more than him.

Merit matters to Kanye. A lot, clearly. Four years after the VMAs, the topic came up again in an interview with Jon Carmanica of the New York Times as West was promoting his Yeezus album:

West: I don’t want them to rewrite history right in front of us. At least, not on my clock. I really appreciate the moments that I was able to win rap album of the year or whatever. But after a while, it’s like: “Wait a second; this isn’t fair. This is a setup.” I remember when both Gnarls Barkley and Justin [Timberlake] lost for Album of the Year, and I looked at Justin, and I was like: “Do you want me to go onstage for you? You know, do you want me to fight” —

Carmanica: For you.

West: For what’s right. I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things. So when the next little girl that wants to be, you know, a musician and give up her anonymity and her voice to express her talent and bring something special to the world, and it’s time for us to roll out and say, “Did this person have the biggest thing of the year?” — that thing is more fair because I was there.

Carmanica: But has that instinct led you astray? Like the Taylor Swift interruption at the MTV Video Music Awards, things like that.

West: It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.

“I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.” “It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.”

As someone who’s a fan of Kanye West, some of the language he chooses is incredibly frustrating. Somewhere in what he’s saying, there’s an idea we can all get on board with, right? Some things are really good, and those things should be the things that we raise up as good! It’s really straight-forward!

The problem comes in because Kanye doesn’t couch his opinions in those kind of terms. He’s not interested in taking the temperature of the room to find out who had the best album. He heard Beyonce’s album and it’s the best album of the year. End of discussion. Give her the trophy.

It’s easy to criticize Kanye for being tone-deaf, for not knowing the “proper” time to speak out, for grabbing attention he doesn’t deserve, for being difficult. 

There are smarter people than me who’ve written about the problems of criticizing Kanye (white people, think real hard or risk sounding racist) and the constant hand-wringing over Kanye’s ego.  As Heben Nigatu at BuzzFeed wrote about the first track of College Dropout, “We Don’t Care”:

If you chalk up his “we don’t care what people say” attitude to simply his ego, then you have missed the point entirely. This isn’t about ego; this is about boldly asserting yourself in a world that is not meant for you. This is a vanity that is rooted in bringing the community up with you. To the ire of some who are so wrapped up in the anxiety of respectability, the message he gives the kids (in front of all these white folks who are listening to his music!) is not to be modest but to unapologetically laugh in the face of a world that does not care about them. The joke’s on you, white America. We made it, and we don’t even have the decency to be grateful. We’re laughing. We dare to laugh.

Maybe that makes sense to you, maybe it doesn’t. And maybe it’s enough to excuse Kanye’s brashness and maybe it’s not. Maybe, like so many of the people I talk to when Kanye does something like he did at the Grammys, you want to ask questions about whether or not he “understands irony” or if he’s just being a dumbass, or some other question that leads me to believe you think this 37-year old multi-millionaire musician has the intellect and self-control of a toddler.

However you react to Kanye is fine with me, because I’m pretty sure it’s fine with Kanye, but I think you’re doing yourself a disservice to write him off.

Kanye West is using the tools he has to fight for a world that fits a little closer to his ideal. These outbursts, these interruptions, they make headlines because they’re such a shock to the status quo. No, the committee didn’t immediately change their mind and no, Beck didn’t give Beyonce his trophy, but those weren’t things Kanye had any control over, not really.

He did have the ability to change the conversation.

There was a thing he could do and he did it.

Sure, it might not mean a lot in the big picture, but every time Kanye does something like this, every time he makes waves and causes controversy and takes some kind of action that he honestly thinks is going to make his world better – it’s really inspiring to me.

And I don’t mean that in the motivational poster sense, I mean I have a physical, mental and emotional re-action to it. When Kanye gets “crazy” I want to write or start a project or make a mess or stay up late or wake up early. Kanye West gets me excited, every time he does something like this, to get back to the fight against bullshit.

It is so easy, especially if you’re the type of person who is prone to forgetting that they can do better, to get sucked into thinking about bullshit. If you’re a writer, you’re tired of seeing E.L. James make a fortune off something you “could have written.” If you care about your city, you’re tired of seeing money go to the “wrong places” or projects. Whatever you care about, it’s so easy to find all the wrongs that need righted.

But if you’re like me, with a long-track record of not doing things, of not feeling like there were things you could do, of feeling power-less and less-than and along for the ride, of waiting for something to happen to you that will make your situation better, finding wrongs that need righted doesn’t help anything.

Doing literally anything does.

For me, Kanye’s this reminder that we all carry around a vision for the world we’d like to be in, a way to make things better, and that there are times when the best thing you can do is just run on stage, grab a microphone and say “this is not right.”

I was so hesitant for so long to do that, either publicly or with myself. And the thing about not wanting to put in effort and not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to make things better, is that almost everything in your life will tell you that’s the right thing to do.

Stay in your seat. Don’t speak up. Don’t hope for better.

I went to the college I went to and I took the job I did and I did so many other things because it was easy, because it was the status quo, because I didn’t have to work at it and it wasn’t going to offend anybody.

I do less of that now. Danee sees it more than anyone, I get angry at myself when something isn’t good enough and then on the good days, I go back and make it better. I didn’t used to do that. The work we’re doing with pye,brown – that’s not easy either. But, years after we came up with that name – we know what it means now. It’s long hours writing and editing, it’s meetings over lunch breaks, some nights it’s only sleeping a few hours (if at all) and some weekends it’s standing outside in the cold with football fans when I’d rather be somewhere warmer.

And the result is more of the kind of marketing we want to see in the world.

I’m taking more stands, too. Not exactly Kanye-level yet, but something like publishing my proposal for Arts United (along with a note that says they’ve already seen this and turned it down) is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have done before.

It’s not perfect. But it does make me feel like I’m in a fight for something better.

There are times when I’m not a good fighter, too loud or too sloppy or misguided or just ineffective. I’m doing that less and less, I think. I’m learning to stop myself before I grab the microphone, at least some of the time, and wait until the post-show.

But seeing Kanye fight his fight makes me want to keep fighting mine. Not in spite of the people he’s pissed off – because of them.

Fighting is hard. And the people you’re fighting against (whatever you’re fighting for), will always work to convince you that your fight is hopeless, misguided, inappropriate, worthless.

For a long time I believed them. And then I stopped, and I started believing they were wrong, and things got better.

Kanye’s a reminder of that for me. His fights aren’t perfect, but they are important. And in a lot of ways, I think he’s winning – despite the critics.

Maybe we can win, too.

Taco Dudes

Even though, technically, it’s been over two decades since I lived there, when I think of “home,” I think of Chino, California. That's C-h-i-n-o. Not Chico. Unlike it's better-known, NorCal, party school counterpart, Chino is a small, nondescript city in the Inland Empire (a.k.a. the I.E.) and is only known for two things: cows and a maximum security prison (and probably the prison more than the cows). If you’re not from the I.E., you might know Chino as the place where “The Jesus” from The Big Lebowski did six-months for pederasty. It was also mentioned, in an equally flattering light, on the show The O.C. as well as on The Simpsons, American History X, and in the songs “Murder was the Case” by Snoop Dogg and “Original Prankster” by The Offspring.

(For a slightly more positive and highly honest review of the city, check out what The Mountain Goats have to say.)

So, yeah, I grew up in Chino, which means that I learned about God, and race, and family at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on D Street, and I found out what the guts of a frog look like at Ramona Junior High. I went ice blocking and I called myself a Conquistador. These are all very "Chino" things to do, and whenever I go back to visit, I love to drag Brown to all those places I miss.

Because of the nostalgia factor, I’m always hesitant to try new restaurants in the area. Trying something new means one less meal we can have from one of my favorites like Bravo Burger, In-N-Out, or Tropical Mexico, but over the holidays, we saw someone wearing a Taco Dudes T-shirt, and we knew we had to check it out.

 

As you can see, the branding is on point. The Taco Dudes logo sums up everything I feel about Chino.

It’s perfect.

And, although I’d never heard of Taco Dudes before, as soon as I saw the address I knew exactly where it was. I could picture the building. It used to be a burger stand, which I’m sure had a name, but I’ve only ever known it by the name my uncle gave it -- “The Greasy Spoon.” I don’t recall ever eating there, but I passed by it often on my way to and from school and on my way to church.

 Image via Jon Z. on Yelp

Image via Jon Z. on Yelp

The current owner, Eddie Lara, has made some major upgrades. Not only is the building more inviting and filled with Skater/Mexican/Chino-centric art, the food is amazing. Let’s put it this way. If you are Mexican, no food is ever better than your Grandma’s, but this place comes pretty darn close.

And, yes, the tacos are great, but it was the pozole that took me from fan to zealot. Growing up, I never really liked menudo, but it was part of our Sunday ritual. After church, the kids would run to the hall for hot chocolate and donuts, and the adults would have coffee and menudo. At some point, I switched to menudo, but I could never quite stomach (pun-intended) the tripe. The viejitas in the kitchen were always kind enough to indulge my request for “menudo sin tripe,” and they’d ladle around it to give me a bowl of broth and hominy. I had an complicated method of piling on cilantro and onions, and then squeezing fresh lime juice to give it just the right flavor. The pozole at Taco Dudes took me right back to that place, and I didn’t even have to skip the meat this time. I’m sure their menudo is fantastic, too (if that’s your thing), but I’ll never know because the pozole is going to be my go-to dish whenever I’m back in Chino.

 Bowl of pozole with toppings on the side. 

Bowl of pozole with toppings on the side. 

So, if you are from Chino and you haven’t been yet, you should definitely give Taco Dudes a try. But make sure you've got a little extra time just in case you come across someone you know. On my first visit I ran into two old family friends that I hadn’t seen in years, and we spent some time catching up. When they say it’s “Your Friendly Neighborhood Taco Shop,” they aren’t lying. 

The Next Track.

Every generation is going to find their own way to fetishize the process of making a mixtape. For a while, it was sitting in front of a dual-deck tape recorder and actually making a mixtape. Then, it was hours on Napster or Kazaa or Limewire, waiting for songs to download and restarting everything when your CD burner’s buffer filled up, and now it’s dealing with the fact that you have practically every song ever recorded and you’ve somehow got to turn that into a playlist that someone wants to listen to and will be impressed by and enjoy and have happy thoughts about you when they listen to.

Because that’s what it’s always been about, right? Whatever you had to do to put that mix together, it was about giving to a person or a group of people and saying “hey, I put some time and thought into this and I hope you like it.” It’s not important because it’s hard, it’s important because it’s for you.

(If you think the “for you” part of a mix isn’t important, you should totally try giving your girlfriend a mix you made for an ex-girlfriend, as I did in college. For maximum effect, totally forget that the playlist name burns with the CD from iTunes, totally forget to change it, and totally make sure your current girlfriend does not share the same name as your ex.)

The weird thing, of course, is that as important as “for you” is, nothing on a mix is “for you.” It’s music usually written by people you’ll never meet, people who’ll never know your story, people who’ve written songs about people they have met and stories they do know. But you get that perfect mix from someone, either a flame or a friend or a co-worker (mixes are great, cheap office presents, guys) and it feels like this magical, special thing, this document of that time spent putting it together and of a time, a moment when they handed it to you or it showed up in the mail, that first listen, all of that’s wrapped up in this thing that’s mostly other people’s work.

It’s the curation that makes it special. What songs made it? What songs didn’t? And how does the whole thing work together?

And that process of making the whole thing work together is a pretty good metaphor for the kind of work pye,brown does for clients. We’ve been super lucky to work with some incredibly creative clients and collaborators. We’ve pitched some projects, we’ve had some projects brought to us, and some projects have come about at the tail end of meetings when no one can remember where the idea came from.

As part of the revamp of our website, we’re slowly putting together the first real look at what we’ve done as pye,brown. Some of it’s client work, some of it’s our own projects – but none of it really belongs to us, not entirely.

That’s how we like it. We started pye,brown as a partnership because it’s more exciting to work with a partner than it is to work solo, and its much more interesting to work with people outside of our partnership than to work in a vacuum. It does create a question, though. As people who are more than a little rooted in the academic idea of “texts,” how do we know what’s really pye,brown’s? 

The individual pieces of our work, the campaigns, the projects – those are the tracks on our mix. We’re on each of them, sometimes taking the lead and singing a few bars, sometimes back at the drum kit just putting the beat down.

We’re hoping that something else comes out in the mix. Something that we can’t jam into every project, something that you’ll see a little glimpse of here and there, something that comes together when you take our work as a whole.

We’re incredibly proud of our work taken piece-by-piece, and we’re more excited about it taken as a whole. It’s a mixtape, a burned CD or a playlist that we keep adding to, each project extending a little more on the stuff that came before it and making a little room for whatever’s next.

Back to music for a second, we’re slowly catching up to the great catalogue of The Mountain Goats. John Darnielle has announced that the band’s next album is entirely about wrestling and he wrote on Tumblr about some of the reaction he expected to receive.

Some people might be thinking to themselves, JD, wrestling, I don’t know, I’ve never really been into wrestling, but did I steer you wrong with the Bible album, even though you may not have been super-into the Bible? Fear not. In a world of false promises and hollow gimmicks, please rest assured that the old maxim still holds true, whether scrawled on the back of a claim check or carved into a bench in an abandoned locker room: you can’t trust much, but you can trust the Mountain Goats.

We’re not sure what’s next for pye,brown (that’s one of the best things about this), and we’re not sure that you can swap out our name for the Mountain Goats in that last sentence just yet, but we’re gonna do our best to make sure that with every track we add to this tape or CD or playlist, you can throw it into your music delivery device of choice and find something that not only feels like it's from pye,brown, but feels more than a little bit like it’s for you.

Photo courtesy Todd Hyrck.

More words.

Out In To The Night.

In grad school, I was pretty good friends with two other guys in the program. Adam was starting his transition away from being a pastor, and Rod was back in the Midwest after a career as an actor in Los Angeles. I was the baby of the group, both in age (by at least a couple years) and definitely in life experience. Once or twice a week the three of us would make the trek from the Letterman Building to The Atrium to grab breakfast, avoid work, decompress and debrief.

In a lot of ways, grad school is set up to make sure you don’t actually get to know any of these people you see everyday. So, in an attempt to break through that, we decided to pick ten or so songs that meant a lot of each of us and burn CDs.

I don’t remember most of the songs I put on my disc, but I know “Cannonball” by The Legendary Trainhoppers was one of them. Graham and I had seen the band playing with the Avett Brothers during our Summer of Concerts, we’d bought the CD, and that’s the song that had stuck with me (and still does). It was the soundtrack for the thousands of miles I drove during grad school, miles of colorful memories and questionable decisions. When that period of my life ended and I partnered up with danee, that song was there, too.

“Texas by Dawn, Arizona by Night” popped into my head every time we left Austin, pointed toward California. It’s around sixteen hours from our old apartment to the Arizona/California border, another four to danee’s hometown of Chino Hills. Times out just about perfectly.

“Pack your bags, pack ‘em all, we ride tonight.” When we made the move from Austin to Fort Wayne, we did not do a great job of planning. We left late, in the middle of the night, pye taking off before I did to get a head start, leaving me to throw the last few things in the U-Haul and drop our keys off. By that time, we were leaving Austin sadder than we were when we showed up. But there was a job and family in Indiana, and I was excited to show danee what life was like in this weird little city I grew up in.

That concert with the Trainhoppers and the Avett Brothers was one of the things I had in my back pocket when danee and I were talking about moving. In the years since then, the Avetts had gotten pretty big and I’d always been annoyingly proud about having seen them so early, at the corner of Wayne and Calhoun.

Damian Miller, the bass player for The Legendary Trainhoppers, died last week. He was 32, incredibly young, and judging by my social media feeds this last week, loved by a ton of people.

I didn’t know Damian, but he was a part of this song I love, this song that made it easier for me to move home from Austin, this night that made me love Fort Wayne just a little bit more. And I’m really grateful for that. There are so many people in this town who are feeling the loss of Damian deeper than I can imagine. And it feels a little weird to be writing this, sort of, addendum to all those stories of friendship and family and love and sadness, to be tacking on a post-it note that I’m afraid might be read as just “Dude, I liked your band.”

So here’s the point I think I’m trying to make: since danee and I moved here, I’ve been chasing nights like that show. The Bomb Shelter, Quarantine, pye’s bowling birthday party, the super-weird pizza party before Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, it’s all aimed at making this place feel like a place where something is happening

There are hundreds of things that make nights like those great, but more than anything else, it’s the people involved. And there are plenty of people in Fort Wayne working on making awesome nights of their own, and I’m trying to get better at thanking them when I have the chance.

I never got to thank Damian, but this is a small thank you to the rest of the Trainhoppers, and everyone else who’s making Fort Wayne a place worth calling home.

A Good Midwesterner.

Back in the day, you really got the feeling that this was like a trade. And it wasn’t about just trying to outdo what was ever on some cool design aggregator site in the morning, it was about the most effective way to use one color on some old crappy thing. Now I might be wrong. I might be totally delusional. But the logos were better then.
— Aaron Draplin

Hearing Aaron Draplin talk about his favorite signs, you can’t help but look at “old crappy things” a little differently. And here in Indiana, there are plenty of old crappy things to look at.

But there’s beauty here, too.

There's just no way you can spend any significant amount of time in Fort Wayne without noticing this blue beacon in the night sky, for instance.

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The GE sign is practically a second moon for parts of this city, hanging out up there while you’re waiting in line for a Bravas dog outside The Rail. It’s a relic left over from the last generation’s Fort Wayne, a reminder of the city that was built out of bolts and grease long before anyone thought about “merging layers.” The sign’s brilliant at night, but it still shines during the day—just these bold white lines against a blue sky, held up by a grid of scaffolding, all of it resting on these giant brick buildings. If you’re looking for a metaphor for the Fort’s transition from where we were to where we’re going, you could do a lot worse.

 

Like so many things in a city in transition, the future of the sign (and those big brick buildings) is up in the air. Maybe someone will come along and turn it into something awesome. Maybe it’ll just sit there. We’ve heard a lot of people dream about what they might do with such a space. But if it ever does transform into something awesome, one thing is clear—it's “not going to do anything on its own.

Nothing happens without at least a little risk. And maybe that risk will involve time, pride, reputation, or money, but for big things to happen, someone's got to put something on the line and get their hands a little dirty.

A few weeks ago, Ron Myers took a risk and emailed Aaron Draplin to figure out what it would take to get him to Fort Wayne. There’s a ton of risk there, most of it pride-related, but Ron said Draplin was awesome, there was a date that would work, and DDC vs. FTW was penciled in. So, now Ron’s got this question: How does the money part of this work? He and some friends were ready to foot the bill themselves if necessary, but first they threw a Kickstarter together and reached out to the community.

And then we all got to take a risk.

Of the types of risks you can take, money is often the easiest one. If you’ve got it, spending it is pretty easy, and as pye’s dad used to say “you can always make more.” So, we saw the Kickstarter, had a quick Gchat, decided the adventure was worth the risk, and did what we could to make sure this awesome thing happens. The hard work on the event was already done. Someone else already had the idea, had already figured out how to make it happen, and had done the prep work.

Good ideas are easy, and finding the money might be easier than you think, but money only matters if you’ve already done the asking and the planning—if you’ve done the work.

In Draplin’s “50 Point Plan to Wreck Your Career (or Save It),” he notes that “as a good Midwesterner you’re told you’re gonna hate your job.” That's not a Midwest thing randomly, it's a Midwest thing because this area was built on farming and manufacturing, hard and boring work that's probably not hard to hate.

It's easy to feel like we're past that, like our degrees and our non-profit backgrounds have earned us a lifetime full of easy days with our asses in comfortable chairs in air-conditioned rooms. We don't have to hate our jobs, not at all, but we're being naive if we think they're not going to be hard work. It’s not all glowing blue signs—we've got to have a building to put that scaffolding on.

And sure, maybe the hard work won’t be washing dishes, or plowing fields, or working on an assembly line, but then again, maybe it will. We can’t keep waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting, to transform this space. And it’s not going to do anything on its own.

Ron, his friends Josh and Kryste and his wife Carly, carried most of the load this time around. We jumped in at the fun part, and you should, too. Get in on the Kickstarter to make sure you’ve got a seat when Draplin rolls into town and to show a little support for good, Midwestern work.

If you’re thinking “But I’m not interested in signs or design or Futura Bold,” well, we think it’s about a lot more than that. For example, while standing about “seven feet away from dangerous-ass trains,” Draplin has this to say:

 

We just saw one of the CN logos go by—Allan Fleming’s classic logo from 1950 or 60 or some shit. And it still works today. That quality of readability from across some field in the west. To come down here and see it, where I could go lay down in that rail and get cut in fucking half, you know, I need that reminder. You gotta get dirty.

Yeah, he’s talking about a logo, but when we start to think about what that old blue sign says about us, about our city, it doesn't seem so crazy to think that maybe he’s talking to us, too.

Maybe it’s time to get close to those rails. Maybe we need a reminder of this city’s past, a reminder of what that sort of work feels like.

Maybe we gotta get dirty.

Awesome photo at the top stolen from Maxine Denver's Vimeo. 

Because It's Ours.

Friends, there’s a lot happening in Fort Wayne, and it’s exciting. Sometimes it’s hard to know which new, shiny thing to focus on. And when you’ve got new farmers markets to visit, new restaurants to try, and new trails to ride, it’s easy to forget about the things that have been around awhile.

Cinema Center is one of those things you shouldn’t forget about. Forgetting about Cinema Center, especially right now, will mean the loss of one of our greatest community assets.

Let me explain.

Before settling in Fort Wayne, Brown and I were keepin’ it weird in Austin, Texas. And after my four years in ATX I was ready to get out. Aside from friends and breakfast tacos, the only thing I really miss about living in Austin is the Alamo Drafthouse. Once you’ve experienced a movie at Alamo, you’ll never want to set foot in a mainstream movie theater again.

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I say ‘experienced” rather than “watched” for good reason—the success of the Alamo comes from paying attention to the entire phenomenological experience of going to a theater to watch a movie. They’ve figured out how to serve amazing food and drinks without distracting from the film. They tailor the pre-show videos and entertainment to the film or the event you are about to watch. Sometimes it’s bubbles, sometimes a guy in a jet pack, but at an Alamo event there’s almost always something you didn’t expect. It’s not just what happens on the screen, it’s what happens leading up to, during, and after the film that matters most.

But the Alamo isn’t the only theater where I’ve had unforgettable film experiences.

In college, I stood in line with a dozen “Dudes” in bathrobes waiting to see The Big Lebowski at the Act II in Berkeley, CA. I ate pizza on a sofa while watching Melinda and Melinda at the Parkway in Oakland. Brown and I shared gourmet cake balls while we watched Circo from one of 50 insanely comfortable seats at Austin’s Violet Crown. And unlike any film I’ve seen in some generic multiplex, my memories of these films will always be tied to the theater I experienced them in.

And then, of course, there’s Cinema Center.

If you haven’t been lately, you’ve been missing out. They’ve hosted awesome movie events like Braineaters’ Ball, a Hitchcock-themed Oscar Party, a Spinal Tap Party, a poetry reading for On the Road, a hot dog night with Bravas, and the Midnight Movie series, just to name a few.  Want to watch a movie outside and eat a burger? They’ve gotthat, too. And, with Jonah at the helm, I get the sense that this is just the beginning of bigger and better things to come. Or at least it could be.

But Cinema Center needs your support.

Support can take many forms. The most obvious and most immediately helpful way to support Cinema Center is in the form of a donation to the Digital Projector Fund. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Subscribe to the mailing list. Join the Facebook group. Go to the next event that piques your interest. Donate a Facebook status or Tweet by linking to the Digital Project Fund. Or better yet, become a member.

To invest in Cinema Center is to invest in Fort Wayne’s most valuable resource—community.

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It’s no secret that most of today’s movie watchers are dissatisfied with the theater experience and prefer watching elsewhere. But make no mistake—we’re all still watching movies and not just the blockbusters. As the late Roger Ebert pointed out, “The myth that small-town moviegoers don’t like ‘art films’ is undercut by Netflix’s viewing results.” But today’s audiences want more than just the film; they want a positive communal experience.

This communal aspect is, I think, Cinema Center’s greatest asset. It is also its greatest source of potential. We are only seeing the beginning of what Cinema Center has to offer, and it would be a shame not to have a place that brings people together in the experience of film the way the Alamo has done for Austin.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Cinema Center become a carbon copy of the Alamo. They are different theaters. They serve different communities. They have different missions. But, with our support, Cinema Center can fulfill its goal of becoming, “a wildly popular destination in Fort Wayne’s revitalized arts campus downtown — attracting diverse new audiences, partners and sponsors; showcasing the true artistry of film; and offering people the best moviegoing experience in the region.”

It won’t be the Alamo.

It will be better…

because it’s ours.

 

The Program.

I feel like most of the videos I Like or Retweet on the Internet have a certain level of ridiculousness to them. Truck full of cows overturns, only to leave all the cows unharmed, mooing, and newly-free? Can’t share that fast enough.

So, I’ve had a hard time figuring out why I’m more than a little obsessed with a clip of Indiana Men’s Basketball coach Tom Crean after IU’s victory over Michigan a while back. By all accounts, Crean should have been happy. The Hoosiers had just clinched their first undisputed Big Ten Regular Season Championship since 1993 which, at least in Indiana, is sort of a big deal.

But in the clip, Crean is anything but happy. He’s in the face of Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer and he’s fuming. “You know what you did! You helped wreck the program!” At this point, Meyer’s aware this is a little more than your standard post-game handshake and starts to disengage. Crean goes after him, pushing up against one of his own assistants, who is trying to hold him back.

Before his gig in Ann Arbor, Meyer had been an assistant at Indiana under Crean’s predecessor, Kelvin Sampson. Sampson had left IU amidst recruiting controversies that saw sanctions leveled against him and the school. Crean inherited a team that was facing three years of sanctions, and a roster that only consisted of two walk-ons.

In the years since then, Crean took the team from a 6-25 record to finishing this regular season at 25-6. But there he is, after one of the team’s bigger victories all year, going after someone he feels is (at least partially) responsible for the rough state he found the Hoosiers in.

“You helped wreck our program!”

I’m not exactly sure it’s a fight Crean should have been picking. He’s not going after Sampson here, and everything happened before Crean rolled into Bloomington.

Maybe this should have all been water under the bridge.

But to Crean, it wasn’t. He didn’t go after Meyer because Meyer had done anything to him personally, he went after Meyer because of what he’d done to the program.

He’s going after Meyer to let him know his actions weren’t going to be given a pass, just because they happened before Crean was on the job.

Meyer had hurt the program, Crean is now the steward of the program, and he was going to be damned if he’d give Meyer a free ride on it.

And here’s why I think I’m just a little in love with Crean in this clip: every week, I feel like I’m getting closer to being part of something like the program, something that I’d be totally willing to come off looking like a lunatic on television to defend.

Danee and I have stumbled into this group of people during our 15-or-so months in Fort Wayne and it’s starting to feel like something much larger than the sum of its parts. Katie Pruitt’s already written a bit about it, back when we thought it was just Mad Men Club, but it feels like we’ve expanded so much since then. We’ve found allies through our jobs, through the organizations we volunteer with, through Twitter, through things like The Bomb Shelter, and all of these people have become Real Life Friends, and everybody seems to actually get along pretty well.

We’re together at Henry’s, or helping Andy and Katie move, or in five minutes of conversation at the ACPL, or at Oscar Night at the Cinema Center, or (occasionally) at a pye,brown event like The Bomb Shelter, but wherever it happens, it always feels like we’re pulling in the same direction.

Any ideas we might have had that it was location specific fell apart when Graham drove three hours Friday night, showed up unannounced to play Rock Band, and the room immediately exploded with happiness. If we thought it was just about hanging out, that myth was busted when everyone saw Ryan Schnurr’s video of The Bomb Shelter and immediately fell in love. It feels like we’re constantly redefining the edges of this thing, but always expanding, and every time we push things out a little further because we’ve found someone else we’re a little obsessed with, it’s an excuse for celebration.

We don’t play sports and we don’t have jerseys and we don’t really have a name, but watching Crean stalk Meyer makes it pretty clear to me that these people are my version of the program. I don’t know how long this will last, I don’t know how big it will get, but I absolutely know that if I felt someone had done something to wreck this thing we’re all working to create, I would go after them with that intensity Crean showed.

And yes, deciding to do that might look crazy at the time, or on Sportscenter the next day… but when it’s about something bigger than yourself, when it’s about the program,  you’d be crazy not to.

The Next Thing.

We’re making a conscious effort in 2013 to make fewer Really Big Plans and focus more on doing The Next Thing as well as we can. The next thing for us is The Bomb Shelter, but we can’t help but work on one or two of the Really Big Plans in the process.

This is our second time producing The Bomb Shelter, our weird night of stand-up performed by people who don’t generally do that sort of thing. The first one was a huge success, creatively, and we’re looking to improve on everything this time out.

One of the things we had a hard time figuring out for TBS2 was how the money side of things was going to work. Heading into the first show, we knew there was no way we were going to break even. We charged $5 a head, mostly so we could say the event wasn’t a total financial loss, but also to get people used to the idea of paying for something.

The Bomb Shelter is a pretty weird idea and maybe an even a weirder experience. We’re asking people to do something they haven’t done before, something that everyone seems to agree is actually pretty scary. And we’re asking the audience to go along with them on that journey, to be supportive, to laugh, and to give these people a chance to be successful doing this really big, really scary thing.

We know the comics have bought into the idea because they’re up there, telling jokes in front of people. We know the audience is on board because they’ve paid. It’s never much ($10 for the next show), and the point will never be to make money, but it is really important to us that we get this buy-in from the audience.

The Bomb Shelter is The Next Thing for us, but it’s also the next step toward our Really Big Plan. We’re trying, slowly, to carve out a space for people who are interested in the same sort of fun, weird, occasionally awkward projects that we love. These projects aren’t going to be for everyone, but we already feel like we’re finding allies.

So, we want to make sure that you know that your $10 doesn’t just symbolize the price of admission, or even just your buy-in and support for this edition of The Bomb Shelter,  it also goes into making the next one better. We’re not looking to take money out of this system, we’re looking to fold whatever small amount we (might) make off this back and turn it into something bigger.

If you buy-in to the idea of The Bomb Shelter, either by performing or buying a ticket, you’re helping us create a night that promises to be a little bit weird, a little bit awkward, and also a lot of fun for all involved. You are also helping us make the next thing funnier, weirder, and hopefully bigger.

Thanks for that.

Tickets for The Bomb Shelter on  March 2 go on-sale Friday, February 1st.

Yes.

I’m the first person to choose staying home over going out, getting back early over staying up late, and (much to the ongoing madness of pye) finding something on TV rather than renting a movie.

If there’s an easier, less expensive, less exciting path that’s where I want to be.

I’m planning on working on that in 2013.