Day Three…

…And thank God, the final day. Phuck Philadelphia.

I’m heading home earlier than I had planned. I couldn’t wait anymore. I’ve never wanted to see Knoxville so badly in my life. (And it’s funny that the second I became homesick, Kentucky was not my home. But that’s just a bonus.) I’m sitting in a terminal right now, waiting for my flight to board, where I will be whisked back into the comforts of a tiny apartment, a roommate who is hellbent on making me quit smoking, the job I’m really bad at, and yet still love so, so much… The comforts of Open Chord, Awaken City, small group, Wednesday night worship, Tuesday night Love Wars, and my family. My real family. I can’t wait to get home to a sink of dirty dishes, or a floor that needs sweeping, or the bed that needs making (although I’ll probably have to sleep in it first). Life without my son continues to be an existence more miserable than words could ever describe… But what I do have, I’m grateful for. For the God who loves me and the people who put up with me, I’m grateful. And I’m doing the best I can to show it.

After an audition that was too horrible and humiliating for words, I left the convention center and wandered around Philadelphia for a couple of hours. I finally sat on a park bench after I found a 7/11 and bought a pack of cigarettes. (Sorry, Joy) and waited for the bus stop. And by the way, smokers in Philly must be rich, because that pack cost me $8. I yank my patch off, and into my fifth cigarette, I hear a girl’s voice. “Hey, there.”

A Philadelphian is speaking to me? “Hello.”

“I’m just wondering… Did you just audition for The Voice?”

I realize she must have noticed my guitar, and explain to her no, that I was at a callback for America’s Got Talent. She thought that was amazing. She then proceeds to explain to me that she does a podcast for her school’s music department, and she really wanted to interview me. Right there, on the spot.

The interview was quick, but detailed. She asked me where I was from, what I was doing here, the audition process, and then asked me how today went. I probably sounded pitiful, but I said, “I didn’t even really get to sing.”

She didn’t miss a beat. “Will you sing right now?”

And so, for a podcast for the entire University of Pennsylvania, I sang. And it felt awesome. I had so much fun doing that, I wondered why I couldn’t do it back at the center. Then I remembered the lesson I’d learned from my first audition, and that was that there’s no joy to be had in this. I looked around at where we were standing and noticed that we were in the presence of three angel statues from three different Catholic churches. And now I know exactly how Peter felt when he heard the third cry of the raven.

I don’t care if I never sing again. I just want to go home.


Day Two: Survived Asian Serial Killer, Ate an Angel

I would like to state, for the record, that I have slept a total of six hours since Wednesday night. Whatever parts of this don’t make sense, I’m too tired to care.

Day Two Rundown 
I made it to the convention center in a hair’s fraction of the time I was supposed to be there. We sat in a smaller auditorium than yesterday and were given the game plan for the day. If our contracts were good to go, we would proceed to have our physicals and psychiatric evaluations. We were all waiting for a good hour before we saw anyone again.
I was sitting off in the corner playing guitar and doing a couple of songs. There wasn’t much else to do. The cliques had been made pretty quickly, and I wasn’t invited into them. Off to the left of me was a tall, scrawny Asian guy, who apparently wasn’t invited into any cliques, either. But for good reason; he was scary as frick. He made everyone uneasy. He would lock his eyes on someone and just stare at them, not moving at all. I don’t think the guy blinked once.
He starts to stare at me, and stares with this look like I broke his chopsticks and ate his rice. I’m trying to just ignore it and play guitar, but… he couldn’t be ignored. He was right there. He kinda starts staring at this other girl, and goes back and forth between us like he’s trying to figure out which one to maim and kill. Women can communicate just with facial expressions. I don’t know if you men are aware of that, but we can. I sort of shrug to this girl and shake my head, and with her eyes, she asks me, “Is this guy for real?” I half-laugh, half-fly off the handle. She decides to play his game with him and just stares back. She never looks away, even when he does. This went on for I don’t know how long, and the guy finally stops.
Later when people start getting whisked away, the ones of us left behind are taking turns doing our acts and giving feedback to each other. You see people on both sides of the equation at this point. The ones who are really good are there, and the ones who… aren’t… are also there. I heard some singers that put me to shame, some dancers, a magic act, and something crazy involving nine hula hoops which would later be lit. (They call themselves Child’s Play, and basically turn all the games you played as a kid into Dante’s Inferno.) The muscles guy of the group asks Asian killer guy to do his thing. He gets up, goes out to the center of the room, and starts to, uh… “dance.” He walked us through every move he was doing, as far as what it was called, why he called it that, and yes, these were all dance moves he had created with his own sick mind. His grand finale was called the seizure. It looks exactly like what you would expect.
I was a bit worried about my evals. I mean, my tattoos, my back story… I wasn’t sure how much to tell. I know they’re like leeches when it comes to building your story for the stage, and they want as much as they can get. But, it’s NBC. How graphic do we want to get? So, I kept everything to a bare minimum. I’m not actually allowed to share the details of the interview, but I think 90% of it went very well, and I’m happy to say I’m healthy. And yes, by the way, Asian killer guy apparently passed his evaluations, too. I shouldn’t have been so worried, I guess. One guy was disqualified on the spot because of a heart arrhythmia. Remembering what my grandmother used to tell me growing up, “You don’t tell everything you know,” I just kept my mouth shut.

In other news, I discovered that there is a restaurant (the same chain I work at) almost within a rock’s throwing distance of the hostel I’m at. As soon as I saw the bright logo, I knew my life was going to be okay. (Have I mentioned that I love my job?) And it’s time like these that I wish I could tell you where I work, just so I could brag on them. Philadelphia is a cold, cold place. Some might argue that it’s because we’re so far up north, but I think it’s the people. But even in cold, cold Philly, I was greeted with a smile and a bright “Welcome!” I let out an audible, “Aww!” and then had to explain to the cashier that I was a fellow employee at another location. When I told her what I was doing and where I worked, they gave me my food for free.
Not only did I get my food for free, but they have what’s called a “Philly Cheese Chicken.” They insisted that I had to try it because they were the only location in the entire chain that offered it. All I can say is, my life has changed for the better. I didn’t know how deprived we were before I had this sandwich. Biting into this thing was like biting into an angel; a messy, cheesy angel with golden hair. I ate an angel. And I’m reminded yet again that I work for the greatest food chain in the entire world.

I have to be back at the convention center in the morning at five. But guess what I found out? Auditions for The Voice are tomorrow in the same place, same time. Someone asked a tech guy/camera guy/whatever he was if we could go audition for them. He said, “We own you there, too.” And since people will undoubtedly be asking, no… We cannot. But if I don’t get some sleep soon, I’m not going anywhere. …zzZZzz…

Day One in Full

I’m not going to lie; I’m a bit drained… Here’s a quick run-down on day one.

Day 1
I spent the majority of day one trying not to lose my sanity. A lot of things happened in between the six hours I was awake and when I finally reached Philadelphia. In case you’re planning on flying soon, and it’s your first time or it’s been a long time, I’m going to tell you something that’s going to help you out immensely. Are you ready? There’s not an airport employee on this entire blue planet that gives two flips that you are a flying virgin. No, really. They don’t care. And by telling them you’re new to this, it only irritates the already (apparently) rushed people.
Once I got on the plane, I couldn’t find my seat. I was supposed to be in 11F, which had been pictured near the front of the plane. Good news there; if the plane crashes, I’ll go out first. I finally mange to sit down in what I thought was a wider seat, only to find out it was the emergency exit. To the right of the little window was a picture guide, giving step-by-step instructions on how to open the door in case there was an emergency. Suddenly, a flight attendant comes by and says, in a voice that tells me she takes her job way too seriously, “Ma’am, you are seated next to the emergency exit of the plane. In the event of an emergency, are you willing and able to operate the exit?”
I shrugged. “Sure.” I was the best one for the job, and knew it. Because if the plane goes down, I won’t open the door. I’ll barrel through it. There’ll be an opening in the exact shape of my body, large enough to everyone to make it through (except for maybe one lady in the back… bless her heart…). People will think a gazelle is loose on the runway.
I saw another sign next to the picture diagram that said “33 lbs.” I was terrified to lean against the exit. We hit 33 pounds a long time ago.
I’m pretty sure I felt that door budge just a hair before lift off. I sat straight back in my chair and did not even breathe to my left for the next two hours.

I planned on using city buses when I got here so I could cut down on the trip costs. Once we landed and I walked the mile it took to get to baggage claim and get my suitcase, I proceeded outside to wait on the bus. After looking at the schedule, I learn that I need bus 37. Problem with that… There’s 37 blue, and 37 purple. I was on 37 blue for five blocks before me or the bus driver realized I was on the wrong bus. I quickly got off and walked back to the airport.
Once I got on the right bus, the driver explains that 37 purple route switches to the 37 blue route. I asked him how a color blind person survives the bus routes. Being completely serious, he said, “The bus doesn’t change color.” Driver wins.
When the next purple bus came by, it came up just as the blue bus was leaving. Not being able to tell which was which, I ask a man standing nearby which bus was blue. He awkwardly points to the direction of the bus – I’m not even sure to which one – and proceeds to tell me, “The blue one is the blue one.”
Of course it is. But, I’m trying to be understanding, because I really need his help. So I explain to him, “I’m colorblind. So I’m not actually sure which is which.” He asks what colors I can’t see. “I can’t see red or green.”
“Oh…” He grabs his shirt and says, “This is red.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m cured.” Okay, I didn’t really say that, but I was thinking it. I’m color blind, not color stupid…

If you can imagine the most hippie place in the world, and then multiply the hip by ten, you’ll be close to the Philadelphia House. It’s one of those places where people hail lava lamps, and Bob Marley is Jesus Christ. It’s set up like a dorm room or a boarding house, with a strict policy of no old people allowed. You slept in a room with three other people (I actually had a room all to myself). You can all then share the living room, bathroom, and kitchen. The bathroom isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s like a gym locker room, with about four shower stalls and four bathroom stalls. It’s only $20 a night, and geared towards mostly young people and college students. In exchange for such a cheap price, you’re given a task once you sign in, like cleaning the windows or doing dishes, or something. My job was to sweep and mop the upstairs. I also booked through AirBnB, and used a coupon to get $25 off my first trip. So total, my lodging costs for this trip is $15. I’m really beginning to get good at this frugal travelling.
They have a rec room with a few games in it, a pool table, a tv, bookshelf, and – I know it may surprise you – two guitars. And EVERYONE knows how to play guitar. No, nobody liked my Jesus music, but in my experience, hippies are nicer than some church people. They let me play and practice, and even let me test out my audition song for them. (Hello, Adele.)
Also, let it be known that Tiffany is da man. (Em, don’t worry about it…)

But you weren’t interested in any of that, were you? Getting into the convention center was a fine task, and nothing exciting really happened.. Today, it was only the legal overview.

Here’s the good stuff, and why I’m a bit messed up:  The contract for America’s Got Talent is 50 pages long. And there’s no double-spacing or big font. Among many of the things listed in the contract, here’s a few highlights:

-They can kill you. That’s not much of an exaggeration. The contract says if death or injury comes to you due to negligence, gross negligence, or WILLFUL negligence, they are free of liability. WILLFUL.
-For the next 12 months, NBC will own your soul. So if they decide to call you up and say, “Hey, we got a reality show, and you’re in,” you have to do it. Otherwise, you are breaking your contract. Also included in that year, you cannot perform publicly (for profit or otherwise), accept other contracts, publish work, mainstream work, or otherwise come out of hiding in any way unless NBC tells you to.
-You have to pass a physical and psychiatric evaluation. Let’s talk about my testimony and my tattoos…
-In addition to those evaluations, they will have access to your medical records (which includes everything from hair transplant surgery to psych wards), criminal history (even from when you were a minor) whether you were found guilty or not, personal history, family history, work history, and credit history. They will know the number of times you’ve farted in your life before you ever go on the show.
-NBC has the right, and will use it, to refuse you any contact with your friends and family, even children, for days or weeks on end.
-They have the right to film and record you doing anything, anywhere. That includes bedrooms, dressing rooms, bathrooms, and any room where “an individual would have a normal expectation of privacy.”
-If NBC decides your story needs a little tweaking… They reserve the right to tweak. That means that they can defame, demoralize, humiliate (the contract used the actual word HUMILIATE), exaggerate, or falsify your life for tv’s sake.

In other words… I have decisions to make. Quickly. And I’m finding myself in the awkward position of not really knowing if I want this more than anything, or if I want to get back on the plane right now and go back to work.


City Lights

4 AM should not exist. That’s what I told myself when my alarm went off this morning. I rushed to get ready, and the friend from church who was taking me to the airport arrived just after five.

5 AM, and I’m packed up heading to Philadelphia. All I could think about was how tired I was. Greg and I talked in the car about random things. Nothing too important. I was feeling pretty good, until I saw the exit for McGee-Tyson Airport. Denial stopped, and panic set in.

The first thing to note here is how cold the employees are. Everybody was rushed and short and not inviting at all, and I needed them to be. I needed them to explain to me the stupid questions I kept asking, because telling me I need to go to the “terminal” when I don’t even know what that means… Greg had to swoop in and save me twice, even after he’d already left. There was a lot of doubt getting on the plane, a lot of fear, and I won’t say I didn’t want to run out of there and beg someone to just take me home.

As soon as I stepped onto the plane, a rude stewardess stops me, and in some accent I couldn’t understand, said something to the effect of, “You can’t take that guitar on here.” She then proceeds to take it from my shoulder, and without even knowing what’s happening, throws it carelessly into a carry-on closet with a hundred suitcases, all ready to be knocked around and against my soft case covering. I opened my mouth to ask her a question, but she just waved at me to go down the aisle, I guess to keep the line moving.

I couldn’t find my seat. I’m pretty sure I sat in the wrong one. And of all places, I landed in the row with the emergency exit. A different flight attendant came over and asked me if I was willing to open the door in case of emergency, to which I said okay. I was thinking now was an emergency.

The flight attendant came over the intercom and informed everyone that if anyone wanted off the plane for any reason, this was their last chance to exit. It took something pretty deep out of me to not run off of the plane right then. I don’t even know why I stayed. By that time, I was so beaten up and miserable that I didn’t care if I never saw my guitar again. I just didn’t want to go to Pennsylvania, to go be involved with God knows what, and I didn’t want to feel the way I felt right then.

The plane took off, and I turned my phone to the window to film the scenery. And then I start asking myself the hard questions. “Have you lost your mind?” was one of them. “You’re going to go be on a TV show? Why?” “It’s a waste. You’re a waste.” The enemy was just laying into me hard. I wasn’t even sure where half of it was coming from.

The plane ascends to that point just before everyone’s ears began to pop. And as I’m looking out the window down to the shrinking scene of Knoxville, I see it. Now, I guess an atheist wouldn’t have seen anything more than city lights. But Jesus said, My sheep hear My voice, and they follow Me. Maybe that’s why I saw it. And I’m a believer in taking whatever comfort you can get. Below Flight 5126, in perfect formation, were city lights in the undeniable shape of a cross.

I drew some crazy kind of peace from that. There’s so many people right now in my life who are watching me and biting their nails, like I’m a movie full of suspense. They know how they want it to end, but know that it might not end that way. And right then, I felt the Lord saying, “I’m not nervous. I know how the movie ends.”

I wonder at times, doesn’t Christ make me free from anxiety, and free from fear? Doesn’t he break bondage and chains? The short answer is yes… But there’s more to it than that. By having freedom, we are free to do as we please. It doesn’t mean the things of the world won’t be there. It just means we don’t have to be a slave to them anymore. Being free means even though you really fear something, you do it anyway. Being free means even when you want to run away and forget, you stay and fight. Freedom means that even though every fiber of your being is screaming at you to bolt it off the plane, you choose to stay in your seat. Freedom means you are free to decide if you’re going to stay home where it’s safe and familiar, or to go to a foreign city, scared and alone, armed with nothing but a guitar and the blood of Christ. And freedom means you can decide if you see city lights, or a brilliantly illuminated cross, telling you it’s okay.