OTR, Take 21: Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Click here if you'd like to listen along to the album as you read.

It's amazing how quickly you can reprogram habits with a combination of public commitment and accountability. I've been participating in a group accountability exercise designed to encourage mindful and healthy practices. Two of the requirements are spending no less than 10 minutes outside each day and exercising for 32+ minutes each day. I've been hitting those goals through long, brisk walks with Clare, who has the energy of a million suns.

Note: this is Clare insisting we play at 11:15 pm, after a five-mile walk.

For the nearly two weeks that I've been participating, this has been fairly straightforward. Hell, Wednesday and Thursday were sunny and in the high 60s here in Pittsburgh. Absolutely perfect walking weather. It was easy to get in a four- to five-mile walk. Yesterday, however...yesterday was in the low 40s, windy AF, and the type of rain that is determined to pelt you into submission. "Just go back inside. This isn't worth it, I promise you."

I'm not going to lie: I was very close to just saying, "Fuck it, I'll get a red X on my check-in." And for several hours I had been resigned to just skipping the day. The visual projection of the ❌ in my mind really bothered me, though. I did not want another scarlet letter this week! (I got my first ❌ when I broke the no sweets rule and succumbed to a mint chip Crumbl cookie.)

So I leashed Clare up and out we went. For the first twenty minutes, it was absolutely miserable. I was soaked through, the wind was firing the large, heavy raindrops at me like ordnance designed not to kill but drive you crazy. Even Clare, who unlike Winnie doesn't mind the rain or snow, seemed to think this was a step too far.

At the outset of the walk, all I could think about was how miserable it was, how ridiculous it was that I was out in the elements just to avoid a ❌. At some point about a mile and a half into the walk, I started thinking about some things that had been going right in my startup firm. Clare and I picked up our pace, right into the teeth of the wind. What had been a wretched journey in the freezing rain transformed into a reflection on the state of my business and a slow, reluctant recognition that the pieces were fitting together, that the slow building I'd been engaged in for the last two years was coming to fruition. For the first time, while speed walking with Clare, soaked to the bone, I realized that it was going to work.

The thing most entrepreneurs don't say is that every day is an existential struggle, whether real or imagined. There's a part of you that is convinced that you've build a house of cards that will fall over with the slightest bit of adversity. There's another part of you that projects a supreme confidence in the business. We need both parts, but we likely spend more time in the former state.

There's a mostly unspoken aspect of entrepreneurship: we have strapped our family's future to this endeavor, and we have the responsibility to support employees and their families. That can be a heavy weight, the trust that people put in you to build an enterprise that will provide.

And so, with my soaking wet dog happily walking at my side, two miles from my house because I forgot to turn around earlier, I experienced one of those rare moments of transcendent joy. It's going to work.

It's going to work because I've been doing the hard things, even when I didn't really want to. It's going to work because I didn't want the ❌ on my ledger.

I woke up this morning, as I've been doing more often lately, well before my alarm was set to go off. It was still dark out and Clare didn't even pretend to be interested in getting out of bed. Audra won't wake up for another three hours or so. There's something I really love about these interstitial, liminal periods: the pregnant stillness before sunrise or the eeriness of the gloaming, when things seem to float in impermanence.

As I sipped my first cup of coffee – okay, *record scratch*. I'm going to call myself out on falling into a well-worn trope. I make my coffee deliberately merely warm, so I can gulp it down, like a child with no self control. I don't sip coffee. Anyway, having had my first cup of coffee, I walked over to my record player and started sifting through records. A lot of the records I have are loud, whether rock or jazz, and I wanted a record to match both my mood and an early morning inviting reflection.

Once I saw the spine of Bright Eyes's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, I knew that it's what the day calls for.

I didn't realize how dark the photo is when I snapped it at 6:30.

By the time Conor Oberst released I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning in 2005, he was a veteran musician. He was also 25 years old. He released his first solo album in 1993 at 13 years old and had been releasing music at an absurd pace since he burst onto the Omaha, Nebraska scene.

The Omaha, Nebraska Scene? I can hear the derision in the question. But certain locations at certain points of time find a critical mass of likeminded people and they become consequential beyond their size or history. I've heard this described as a scenius. Think Seattle in the late 80s & early 90s. Think Frankfurt for critical theory in the 30s. Think Omaha in the mid to late 90s.

Some of my favorite bands from that era emerged in Omaha, most of them on Saddle Creek Records – a record label that Oberst and his brother started. Here are some great tracks from that era:

Cursive is so good, and this one gives a good sense of their sound.
These guys are stupidly good live. Once saw them open for Bright Eyes.

Oberst had his hands in all of this: he was first pulled onto stage by Cursive and was a member (at times) of both The Faint and Desaparecidos.

Yet his music, the music he made under the moniker Bright Eyes was something very different, something uniquely his own. His music is oddly confessional, in the way that can only happen if one hasn't been told again and again that you'll never make it. He wrote songs without fear – about his fear and insecurities. It is as though he didn't know how to couch things to protect himself.

When I was in high school, Bright Eyes was still underground enough that only those keyed into the scene knew about them. It was a mark of good taste to know Fevers and Mirrors, to traffic in the music of these Omaha upstarts.

By the time I got to graduate school, Bright Eyes blew up with Lifted and were about to get huge with I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. It wasn't cool any longer to be into Bright Eyes. This pained me, because at the time I still cared about that stuff.

In 2005, I was dating a girl who lived in NYC. I'd go down often (I was upstate in Binghamton) and we'd go to shows. We saw Bloc Party's first US show after the release of Silent Alarm in February 2005 at the Roxy. We saw Bright Eyes tour after the release of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and it's sister album, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. I think the show was at Webster Hall in late May.

My girlfriend wasn't super thrilled to go to this show; she thought Bright Eyes wasn't hip enough. We were on shaky ground and we would break up a few weeks later.But I wanted to go, so we went. About midway through the show, the band went into one of my favorite tracks from Lifted, "Lover I Don't Have to Love."

As the bend went into the second verse, Conor stood up on the keyboard bench, which immediately started teetering. He played the keyboard riff heavier and heavier with one hand, grasping the mic with his other hand, until the bench gave out on him. He fell, headfirst into the keyboard, a dischordant bang that didn't even phase the band. It clearly wasn't the first time. Microphone still in hand, he laid on the ground, raised his left hand to finger the chords and began singing the verse.

It felt like he was acting out the last sputters of the relationship. The cab ride back to Gramercy that early summer evening was ice cold.

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