May 1, 2024 - Royal Holloway, University of London, England

Being a successful bard requires above all else adaptability. 

Of course that applies to life in general.

You plan and plan and plan and then you inevitably have to adapt and stay as relaxed and focused and efficient as possible while doing so. Sometimes you have to make split second critical decisions to get things back on the right track if they start faltering.

Your first responsibility is to get to the gig and deliver the best show you can under whatever conditions you find yourself. Everything is channeled towards that goal: how you prepare, decisions you make in the moment, how you spend your energy for the 23 hours of the day you’re not onstage. 

A lot of planning went into my UK/Ireland tour. The formal planning stretched back to 2019 but one of my contacts for the tour I met in 2017. So the six Odyssey shows over fifteen days was a long time coming and required all of my knowledge and all of my experience to piece together and execute. 

A (not so) brief diary:

Thursday, April 18: my flight leaves Chicago at 10:30 pm. I am able to sleep some (restlessly) in a seat that is clearly designed for someone four inches shorter than me. 

Friday, April 19, Day 1: I wake up in London Heathrow. I’ve only ever connected through London and this will be my first time on the ground in country.  Immigration and customs is easy, I find the bus my host at Oxford recommended, and an hour later I’m pulling my suitcase and guitar through the streets of Oxford to St. Hilda College (part of University of Oxford) and my accommodations, which is a perfectly suitable room somewhat nicer than a dorm but more spare than a hotel room. I do a 20 minute resistance band workout designed by my trainer called Gene Goodkin’s Hot Body Workout and shower off the travel. I’ve been invited to attend a workshop performance of a piece of music based on Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, and I do so, meeting my hosts there, one of whom saw me perform at the Orality and Literacy Conference in Austin in 2019. He’s really the lynchpin of the whole tour as he put together a whole conference to help contextualize my work and performance. After the show I go out for dinner and drink a little bit too much. Not an atrocious amount, but the combination of the adrenaline of a new place, the nerves about the first show, and my jet lag is brutal. I don’t sleep well.

Saturday, April 20, Day 2: I wake up at 7:00 am local, which is 1:00 am Chicago time and it feels like it. It’s sunny and chilly as I walk a little less than a mille to the site of the conference. Oxford is beautiful and not unlike an American college town. The crowd at the conference is great. The papers are great. I feel okay about mine (on the Blues of Achilles) and I get through my Odyssey performance okay for a first show of the tour. I can feel the stress of travel on my body and brain. A guitar student of mine who attends college in London comes to the show and seeing a familiar face is a nice thing. A shorter evening with dinner and less drinking. My hosts are now my friends and I get what to me is the most important sign that things went well: an invitation to return. I don’t sleep well again.

Sunday, April 21, Day 3: A travel day. First though I drag myself out of bed and take a 5 mile run. It’s sunny and 40. I run through the deserted weekend streets of the town and find the Oxford Canal running path, which weaves along the water next to docked long low houseboats with smoke rising from their chimneys. I see a cat. I miss my cat. I see a dog. I miss my dog. The run helps clear my brain and I’m ready to head to Dublin. I almost wait for the bus in Oxford in the wrong place and have to run to make sure I get it.  After that, things proceed with no issues. I check my guitar (which is always a little nerve-wracking) but it shows up at baggage intact. A bus ride through the city center to my hotel and I’m already in love with Dublin. My hotel is nicer than what I would have booked for myself and I drink my first true Irish Guinness. It’s delicious. I try to go to sleep early and do a little better than the previous nights. 

Monday, April 22, Day 4: Monday is a day off. Routine is important. I’m up as early as I can get breakfast (7:00 am) in the hotel. I do a list of administrative and booking tasks like I would at home. I take a 10 mile run, which is amazing. I figure out the bus system, get some Euros, and head down the city center where I spend time exploring: an exhibit on poet Seamus Heaney, the Temple Bar neighborhood…  I find another Guinness. I eat stew. I again go to sleep early.

Tuesday, April 23, Day 5: Up for 7 am breakfast, administrative and booking tasks, 5 mile run. Still feeling a little jet lagged, which is disappointing on my fifth full day. I head to University College Dublin on the bus.  After waiting for about 15 minutes for my contact by what I thought were the front gates, I head into the campus and just find the building and performance space for myself. Turns out he’s waiting at a different gate. By the time we meet at the lecture hall, I’m set up and ready to go.  An audience member approaches me before the show and says he’s a huge fan of The Blues of Achilles. Whenever something like this happens, I’m pleasantly surprised. I can see in the streaming data that people are listening to my work, but to actually meet a listener in the wild so to speak… it's a nice little jolt of dopamine. The show is good. My voice in on better footing than Saturday but I can feel I’m still pushing a little in a way I shouldn’t be. The discussion is particularly good and my host and I go for dinner. It’s a fantastic time and I have maybe one more Guinness than I planned on. Again, I have made a new friend and get an invite to return. Sleep is hard. 

Wednesday, April 24, Day 6: Another travel day and a long one. I wolf the hotel breakfast quickly and am on a 7:45 am bus back to the airport. I have to connect back through London and then get a on a second flight to Edinburgh. And I have to check my guitar in Dublin and not see it until Edinburgh. That makes me more nervous but also, I can’t control it.  The flights are without incident. On the second one, I sit next to a woman with whom I strike up a fairly in depth conversation. Her background is in delivering humanitarian aid in war zones. It’s a nice connection, human and interesting. She shares my relief when my guitar appears at baggage in Edinburgh. Edinburgh is amazing. My meticulously researched AirBnb is all I hoped for in an absolutely ideal location right beneath Edinburgh Castle. I get off the tram and immediately hear bagpipes. I do the Gene Goodkin workout, wash the travel grime off, and go find food, foregoing a drink for the first time in week. Talking to my wife this week is difficult to coordinate. She has a huge work event (actually two) all week and the time difference means we rely heavily on just texting with the occasional Facetime call. She sends me pictures of our dog and cat. I sleep a little better.

Thursday, April 25, Day 7: Up early, the coffee shop below my flat opens at 7:00 am. Admin and booking. 5 mile run up to an absolutely gorgeous view from Holyrood Park.  My contact picks me up at noon and gives me a more in depth tour of The Royal Mile. Of all the places I visit, Edinburgh is already the one I want to come back to most with my wife.  My host and I have a lot in common in Classics and music, which makes the day even more fun. The show is really well attended and in a beautiful small theater. My voice finally feels whole. Afterwards, we get a beer at a pub with music going on, a group of people playing and singing in the corner, everything from originals to traditional tunes to The Grateful Dead. I say goodbye to another new friend and for a third time get a return invitation. I’m on my own for dinner. I’ve played half the shows and been away for a week.  I do laundry at my AirBnb, another good planning decision. Having to pack for only one week instead of two has made me much more mobile as did packing layers that can be worn more than once. I sleep a little better still. 

Friday, April 26, Day 8: Up early, coffee shop below my flat at 7:00 am. Admin and booking. Then… an epic 10 mile run. So epic I made it the subject of my blog on Edinburgh. My plan for the rest of the day is to wander The Royal Mile and I execute it perfectly. I find an old cemetery with a memorial to local fallen soldiers. I mix a couple coffee stops in with an early evening drink and a fish and chips. Eating well is hard on the road. Running helps balance out some of it but I find I have to pick and choose where I indulge with food. A 10 mile run day is a good day to indulge with fried fish.  My wife is in New York for another work event so we have a house- and petsitter. I think that makes me a little anxious and leads to a night of subpar sleep. I just can’t quite get to two consecutive nights of good sleep and it is taking a toll.
 

Saturday, April 27, Day 9: Up early, coffee shop below my flat at 7:00 am. Admin and booking. 5 mile run to a third and new part of Edinburgh. It’s really maybe the best town for running I’ve ever been in. I walk to a different train station (again thankful for my AirBnb location) and am on a late morning four hour train ride to London. It’s my first time actually staying in the city of London and my meticulously researched hotel proves to be a winner. Walking distance from the train station and two blocks from The British Museum, which is my one and only plan for the weekend.  I have dinner with my same student who came to Oxford and that’s a nice way to fill the rest of the day. My wife is home safely and things with the house sitter went great. My hotel room is dark and quiet. Sleep is back to being acceptable. 

Sunday, April 28, Day 10: It’s raining lightly in London but that doesn’t stop me from my planned 10 mile run. First though (say it with me), up early, coffee shop for amazing pre-run breakfast of a bagel with Nutella and banana (seriously, where have you been all my running life), admin and booking… then my run. Which is amazing. I weave past the Royal Palace (yawn) through Hyde Park (great) and to Abbey Road Studios (holy shit!). Back to my hotel, cleaned up and over to The British Museum, which is even better than I had hoped for (minus of course the problematic aspects of the acquisition of much of their collection). After a late afternoon lunch, I realize I’m really starting to feel the strain of the tour… right on schedule, 10 days in. I felt like after my 10 day Greece-The Netherlands-Italy tour of 2021 I had hit about my limit for international touring (and maybe touring period). Sure I did more than that on my Record of Life/Loss/Love tour in 2018 (14 days) but I had my wife with me for half of it and then had 3 different friends to stay with and see during the second half. Plus over the course of 14 days I only had two off and one of those was staying with my best friend’s family in Reno. The way I feel on Sunday evening tells me that even with cool things to do in great places, three days off on my own is too many. I sleep and actually really sleep. I know once I get rolling on my three shows in three days, things will improve. 

Monday, April 29, Day 11: Up early, breakfast at 7 and etc etc etc. A quick 5 mile run on both sides of the Thames gives me a nice perspective and goodbye to the city. I walk back to the train station and easily find my train to Cambridge. It’s beautiful in Cambridge. The stay and show are amazing. I get my coveted fourth invitation to return. The only slight complication is that my allergies have just exploded and my ears are plugged. My voice is okay though. Worn, but okay. My uncle’s deceased partner’s sister (get that?) whom I have never met comes to the show and that heightens the intensity and beauty of it for me. After the show I have no obligations and I commit to my second straight night of no alcohol sleep. I fall asleep thinking about home and in the middle of the night have a weird semi-waking dream in which I’m talking to Sophocles about why Philoctetes didn’t take his own life in his play of the same name.

Tuesday, April 30, Day 12: Up early… you know most of it if you’ve been paying attention! The one change is that I don’t run. Five straight days, 40 miles total is my limit right now and my body feels like it needs a break. So I listen to it and instead I walk around Cambridge which is nice. After hectic slightly delayed travel, I do a pared down version of the Gene Goodkin workout, and play a really wonderful show at Exeter.  There I see the professor I first met in 2017 when I played Harvard who is not only an academic but a really wonderful author of reception retellings of Greek myth. It is so nice to see a familiar face and make new future familiar faces at our group dinner after the show with the department chair and two other professors. The scene at the bar takes a turn for the humorous when they close the kitchen before we can order food and the department chair convinces (compels?) them to reopen it so I and I alone can order a chicken sandwich called The Cluck Norris. Hugs and an invitation to return. I have to be up early to make a set of trains with a very tenuous connection to the last show of the tour. 

Wednesday, May 1, Day 13: It’s even earlier than usual as I wake. I check if I have my voice… and I do. Phew. I know now that as long as my trains cooperate, I will make it to all the shows and through the tour without getting sick or losing my voice, which is a minor miracle and a huge load of stress off. The stress returns as I watch my window of connection to my second train shrink from the already tight 9 minutes to 5 minutes. At the Reading Station, I’m running from platform 10 to platform 4 and onto my train with 2 minutes to spare. Double phew. An hour later, I’m off the train in Egham and walking uphill to the campus of Royal Holloway, part of the University of London an hour west of the city. Egham itself does not feel like London, more like a post-industrial rustbelt/midwest college town. 

I make it to the theater in which I’m playing and I’m thrilled to be greeted by excellent theater staff including a professor and a tech person. Because I often have to do all my own tech for shows, whenever I have help in the form of an actual tech person, it feels like an incredible luxury and immediately sets me at ease. The theater itself is beautiful. Compared to the big grand space in which I performed the night before, this room is intimate with a very shallow back wall and ringed galleries above.

I’m relaxing in the green room as my Classics professor host shows up to go over the show plan. Here’s where my bard’s sense of trouble, finally honed after 377 Odyssey and 90 Blues of Achilles performances, should have started screaming at me. 

Our pre-show conversation consists of my host saying “There’s not much that can go wrong here” and me saying “After 377 shows, I’ve seen just about everything so we should be good.”

Somewhere, the gods of performance started laughing and rubbing their hands together. 

The show itself is simple and great. Incredible sound, quiet and engaged audience. I channel my relief at making it to the end of the tour intact into the character of Odysseus as he gets home intact.  

I start the discussion and as an audience member asks the first question, the door to the theater opens and there begins a parade of octo- and nonagenarians in wheelchairs, pushed by attendants, rolling across the stage floor (which I’m on) between me and the audience. One, two, three, four… I’m watching them go by incredulously. They don’t even seem to be acknowledging me. The audience member continues asking his question undeterred. I feel like I’m having a fever dream.  What the fuck is going on? The “real” audience isn't reacting as I would be. I see my host talking to one of the attendants but no one is stopping and soon this row of wheelchair bound folks is sitting facing me as I attempt to answer the audience member’s question. And they’re still sort of talking and making noise amongst themselves. 

Finally, I have to assert myself. 

“Hey! We’re having a discussion here so if we could be quiet, that would be great.” 

I find a tone with authority and a hint of something that could be annoyance but definitely not anger. This is a learned voice from performing in front of 14 year olds for so many years that I’ve found will determine how these situations go. Even if you are screaming inside, you have to leave room for the distrupters to not feel accused, to feel invited to join the interaction. 

“Well, play us a song,” one of the attendants (I think?) responds.

Holy shit. 

“Play you a song? The singing is over, we’re doing a discussion here,” I reply as gently as I can.

“We came all this way to see you play music though. Play something happy.”

Double holy shit with a cracker on top. 

It all becomes clear in a flash: it’s a group outing from a senior living residence that ran so late they missed my performance but decided to come in anyway and now wants to hear music. 

I make one of those instinctive performer’s decisions to drop my resistance and go with what the room is telling me to do to defuse the situation.

“Oh? Something happy? How about something at least bouncy?”

This gets the room quiet and focused on me. I sit back down and play On My Way, the Telemachus song at the beginning of the show. 

I finish and the residents (the ones who can) applaud. The room is quiet. 

“Now, let’s get back to these questions.”

My (original) audience complies and we’re back on track. 

As the questions unfold, I can see that the elderly residents are gradually laughing at my jokes and smiling and nodding as I make points. The attendants are engaged too. 

Discussion goes on for 20 minutes until an attendant raises her hand and says “Would you play another song, maybe the one on the screen?”

I look up and my slides are on Blues in B in which I imagine Odysseus narrating a condensed version of his journeys in the form of a blues song.

“Sure. What a great way to finish the show.”

I sit down and sing (for the second time in 45 minutes) the song:

I’ve got stories, I’ve got pain
Seems like so much of my praying’s been done in vain
I walked the roads to reach the sea
But through it all the world never got the best of me

Checked at every turn, tested every day 
Even the wind was against me 
As I made my way
I saw the ghosts of a checkered past 
But through it all I made my love last

Tempted by sweetness, beaten by scorn 
It's taken me years to finally be reborn 
From this time, I've had enough
I'm done with playing dead
But through it all I saved the skins I shed 
But through it all I saved the skins I shed 

For the second time that day I get sustained and warm applause, this round feels somehow even warmer, perhaps factoring in what I did to get the show back on track.

The residents and attendants want pictures with me and after the room clears my hosts and I almost collapse with laughter at the episode. At lunch, the phrase “Wheelchair Invasion” is evoked and fondly. Other words used are “unforgettable” and “incredible” and “amazing” and “magical.” We wrap up with warm goodbyes and a sixth invitation to return. 

It’s the mid-afternoon as I walk down the hill from campus to my AirBnb, which is a neat one bedroom apartment in a converted church. When I booked the tour, this last show was going to be Thursday so my flight home isn't until Friday afternoon, meaning I have the rest of Wednesday and then all day Thursday and Friday morning with nothing planned and nothing to do in a pretty limited environment. I look at trying to move my flight up to Thursday but from what I can see online it would cost me over $2000 to do it. 

I call my wife to tell her the story of the last show. I can feel a little despair at not getting home until Friday late afternoon. The adrenaline and excitement that pulled me through the six shows and two weeks have been exhausted and I’m (predictably) crashing. 

I resolve to combat it by going for a run, the one thing that I know will make me feel better. That assumption is challenged immediately when it becomes obvious that as amazing as Oxford, Dublin, Edinburgh, London, and Cambridge were for running and walking, Egham is not. The sidewalk in the direction I’m running ends as the road grows into a highway only about a third of a mile into the run.  I turn around and notice a little path that cuts into the trees and follow it. It takes me straight up a giant hill flanked by meadows. The path is just barely not muddy and I’m hating the hill but at least it’s something.  

Then at the top it opens up onto a paved road and my jaw falls open. There’s a beautiful manicured property with ornate gates and at one end an open air building overlooking the fields below. It’s a monument to the British Air Force. On all four sides of the interior walls are etched over 20,000 names of airmen and -women who died in action. Framed pictures and tributes to the fallen sit on ledges below the names. There’s a building with spiral staircases up into a tower where the view gets even better. There is no one, not a soul, around. It’s just me. I sign the guestbook and see that there are days, weeks, and even months with no entries. 

I always pay special attention to war and military sites like this because the Homeric poems are some of the original memorials to the war dead. 

Later on the run I see two crows having a midair battle with a Red Kite.

The rest of the route confirms what I suspected about the area. There’s not much to do and even running is not that pleasant or easy. I top out at 7 miles with some difficulty. I want to do 10 the next day, but that seems like it will involve some dreadfully boring and tedious routing.

I get back to my flat to a text from my wife that she called American Airlines and was able to move my flight for no cost to the next day, Thursday morning, at 8:00 am.

The joy that filled my heart… instead of landing late afternoon Friday and fighting my way home through rush hour traffic as insult to injury, I’m now scheduled to land mid morning Thursday essentially getting two days of life back in the comfort of my family.

One more pub dinner and I’m headed to bed. I get the best sleep I’ve had in two weeks.

Thursday, May 2, Day 14: The one saving grace of Egham is that it’s a 15 minute Uber to Heathrow. I’ve got a whole row to myself on the flight and nothing to do for 7 and a half hours which is why this blog is coming in at over 4000 words. 

Finding my success as a musician later than most in life has a lot of benefits. As a younger person, I don’t think I would have been able to assemble or survive or enjoy a tour like this. 

Or appreciate it. 

Now, I appreciate everything. And take pride in it. Because it really is the most amazing conglomeration of everything I’ve ever done in life and everything I’ve ever learned. Intellectually, musically, practically, business… uh… business-ly. And it just keeps giving me whatever I permit it to give me. 

When I sing the line 

Through it all I’ve saved the skins I’ve shed

I know intimately of what I sing. 

Every true bard does.

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