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Jerry Earl Johnston: Learning patience from song loops and the desert sun

In Baker, California, the tall thermometer read 109 degrees.

The one in my car had another opinion. It said it was 111.

All day the local radio station had been warning senior citizens, people with heart problems and those on medication to stay inside.

I was all three of those people. And I was out in the heat.

At the bottom of a big hill near Baker, a caution sign read: Turn off your air conditioner for the next 15 miles. Things just kept getting better and better.

To distract me while I fried, I blindly grabbed a CD. It was “Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” an experimental ditty by Gavin Bryars, a British composer.

I put the thing in the machine.

Bryars is known as an “avant garde minimalist.” That's to say he writes busy, broken music that most people can’t stand, and years ago when I first heard “Jesus' Blood,” it got under my skin.

For his composition, Bryars went to skid row in London and recorded an old man singing the hymn “Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” Then he put the song on a loop — playing it over and over while adding a little something each time. A violin maybe. Or a choir. For the last few loops, Bryars adds the voice of blues singer Tom Waits, singing along with the old hobo. The song loop repeats a million times, and if you’re not in the right frame of mind for it, the thing can make you raving crazy.

But in the California desert, I was already a little crazy.

To this day, I’m not sure what Bryars was going for with his composition. Perhaps, by slowly building the song up, he was showing how mighty sequoias grow from little seeds. Or maybe he was showing how lush the old man’s faith felt inside of him as he sang. In his heart, maybe the old man was Tom Waits singing with a symphony.

But I find my own lessons in it.

I find lessons on being patient and paying attention.

We think the song is the same over and over, but it’s really not. Each loop is a fresh adventure. I learned to see the world that way many years ago while playing golf with local pro Mike Reid. What he said has stuck.

He said many golfers say “I've had this exact same shot a dozen times.” But, says Mike, that’s not true. Something's always different. Maybe the grass is longer or the wind stronger. Maybe the sun's higher or lower. The truth is every golf shot is unique, one-of-a-kind. Just like every moment we live is one-of-a-kind.

I try to see life that way. No matter what I’m doing — even setting the table — I try to view it as a fresh experience, as a chance to live in the moment.

As for the lesson about patience, most would agree that patience is in short supply today. Things that once took a generation to change now change in a year or two.

We’re forced to process things at a maddening clip. We no longer live on a human scale. We live overloaded. So is it any wonder people lash out at others like lunatics?

We no longer know how to live on a human scale, and it’s making us nuts.

Now, back to Baker.

About 20 minutes after starting up the hill, I reached the summit and reached the end of Bryars' CD. Did I get impatient? A bit, but I caught myself and found a nice place inside to relax.

Now comes the hard part. As more and more things come unglued and fly apart in our world, can I still find patience and the "human scale" again?

I better. We all better. If we don't, we'll end up pining for the days when desert driving and minimalist music seemed like real concerns.