Meet the author: L. Kris Gowen
First, Kris, I want to thank you for allowing me the privilege of being one of One Nation Under Song’s first readers. I’m excited to see where this project goes for you, and am thrilled to be a small part of your writing adventure. I loved this story. So, to set the scene in the briefest of ways, your book is a memoir about the time you drove to and sang karaoke, non-stop, in the 48 contiguous states. (Phew!) And the motivation for your journey was having lost your best friend to lung cancer. She was 43. Is that correct?
Yes. Molly was in stellar health when she was diagnosed at Stage IV. Karaoke helped me with my grieving process and was one of the few things that could bring me joy during a difficult time. The book talks a lot about that.
Let’s dig in.
Q: In the interest of full-disclosure, we should let readers know that we went to school together from elementary through to graduation, meaning we’ve been friends for a long time. I have to say. . .as kids, I had NO idea you loved to sing! And still do. It’s weird, isn’t it? How we can feel so passionately about something and people around us might have little to no idea. What did you make of this passion when you were young? What about your family?
A: Singing has always been a reflex for me -- I hear a song on the radio, I start singing! My family isn’t that musically inclined. Apparently my paternal grandfather (he was in his 90s when I was born so I only met him when I was very young) had a knack for music -- not trained, but could play anything by ear. My maternal grandfather liked to wander around the house singing. My parents forced me to take piano lessons, but I was never any good. As you know, I played the flute in middle and high school. But overall, I wouldn’t say my background was at all musical yet there has always been something there that draws me to singing.
Q: This was an epic journey you undertook! Epic. Forty-eight states. There are a lot of bars across this country. I know you touch on this in the book, but practically speaking how did you choose?
A: I couldn’t have done it without the internet, that’s for sure! Sometimes I did a basic search, focusing on larger cities/towns, and sometimes I relied on the Karaoke Across America database. Steve Hess, a karaoke aficionado in Texas, has built this incredible database of shows across the country -- and he does it all as a labor of love. I also asked Reddit users who had some great ideas as well. That said, even if I found a show online I called or used Facebook Messenger to make sure that the show was still current. Websites often contain old information so I needed to check. Sometimes friends knew of places as well, so that was great. Someone I met through Karaoke Across America even set up a show for me because he knew it was going to be hard to find a show in Vermont! It was such a wonderful gesture.
Q: I’m fascinated by the intersection of creativity and healing. You share at the outset of your journey about Molly's death, and grief was one emotion (of many) that propelled your journey. I’m so sorry for your loss. Would you share about the healing you experienced through your creative expression of singing and karaoke?
A: Singing helps me through horrible times. I suffer from depression, and I’ve found that karaoke is the one thing I can do that truly distracts me from everything else that’s going on. When I sing, I’m in the moment. I can sing a song that reflects my mood, or takes me away from how I’m feeling for a time. The result is therapeutic and can last for hours after. In many ways, karaoke has been my saviour. (I love this answer because I think the misconception still runs rampant that we should “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” or “get over it” when depression hits. And that art is somehow superfluous to recovering/handling/treating our mental health. Nothing could be farther from the truth.)
Q: This is really a two prong question, because I think traumatic experiences and emotions like grief do often propel us out of our comfort zones. Grief was a touchstone through the story, but so was community, and the juxtaposition of the karaoke community you found amidst our political landscape and discord. What did you learn about how coming together in community might transform our relational America?
A: Oh I wish that I learned something that could transform America right now! One thing that I did learn, though, is that everyone has some good in them. I also believe that a lot of people are acting out of fear right now. I don’t know what to do about that, but something needs to be done. We are afraid of the unknown -- biology wires us for that -- but we can overcome it. I believe we need to put more effort into increasing empathy and understanding. Community can do that. Just interacting with others who are different from you has been shown to increase acceptance of others who are different from you.
Q: You write about how the drive to succeed was ever present for you. What you called “logical pursuits.” (And congratulations, of course, on your Ph.D., many, many academic achievements, and your academic textbook, Sexual Decisions. Wow!) I am wondering, though, if you wish you’d received more encouragement to follow your passions, or at least explore them. Our backgrounds are similar, and I do.
A: I do wish I could have followed my passions earlier in life. As you know, the town we grew up in is very focused on academic success so that was always the priority. The extracurricular activities, while sometimes fun, also tended to focus on winning (sports) or molding me into a more “well-rounded” person who would look more appealing to admissions committees. Once I went to college, I gave myself permission to explore more of my passions -- I got involved in dorm theater and intramural sports, for example -- because they were fun, not because they were going to get me further in life. I continued this after college by getting involved in community theater, a roller hockey league, and yes, karaoke. What would have happened if my singing was encouraged more when I was younger? I honestly have no idea. I’m pretty darn lucky to be where I am today.
Q: Also, I think a lot about the idea in life of balance--if balance is even possible, how to combine the many aspects of ourselves for authentic living, what balance would actually look and feel like. I wonder what you make of this, and was it part of what drove you to undertake such a grand adventure?
A: I am a firm believer in life balance. I work part time in order to be able to do things that interest me outside of work. The cut in pay, which I can afford (I recognize the privilege of that), does create the need to be more careful with finances, but I believe also gives me a much happier life. I don’t have a powerful job. Could I have pursued one? Yup, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to give up time with friends, time to work on projects that are fun for me. I want to be able to leave work in the mid afternoon and meet someone for coffee, think about sexuality education in our community, find a place to sing. I’m much happier putting my life together in this way. I’ve taken some risks, for sure. I’ve left my job and rented out my house to live overseas. I quit a job to do the karaoke road trip. I am so grateful for these experiences and I hope to take another huge risk sometime in the near future. There’s so much out there I want to experience and I believe it’s possible to go for it.
Q: I hope I’m not giving too much away, but I pulled a quote of yours that really struck me:
“All the pieces were there to lead me down a similar path, but for whatever reasons just got assembled differently. While I’m slowly learning to accept the fact that what drives me is different than many with my background, I still feel that sense of guilt knowing my sense of completeness doesn’t reflect all I’ve been taught about money, status, and security. For whatever reason, my utopia is driving around in a car singing karaoke.”
You were referring to having a privileged upbringing and an extensive education that “should” have lead to very high economic earning status. I’m fascinated by your feelings of guilt around this. Would you be willing to expand on that?
A: I was groomed to be a certain kind of successful person. I was taught that I was supposed to love my career and put every piece of me into it. Academe really stresses that if someone with my background isn’t a tenured professor somewhere, or at least directing some institute of some sort, then I fell short somehow. When I was getting my PhD, I started to voice my intentions to not pursue an academic career; a professor told me to keep that part of me silent, as no one would want to work with someone like me. Professors supposedly want to work with people who will become prominent in academe so that they have a legacy of protégés. I’m not really someone an academic can point to and say, “Yup! I worked with her! She’s a part-time Evaluation Specialist who spends as much time as possible singing karaoke and volunteering for various causes!” I don’t feel fulfilled applying and receiving grants. Getting an academic paper published doesn’t bring me pride or joy. When I realized that, I got scared. I had been training to do those things most of my (young) adult life and I didn’t enjoy them. What had I done? I wasted people’s time and resources -- not my own because I do use my education to allow myself the life I lead. But I feel I didn’t meet the expectations of many who supported me.
Q: For me your sentiment struck a deep cord because I also learned to couch my identity in my profession/career and have struggled mightily with untangling who I am from what I do and finding ways to appreciate myself on multiple fronts. I have an advanced degree that one could possibly argue has gone to “waste” because I’m not currently using it to earn money or advance myself career-wise. Aren’t we so much more than that? And what’s wrong with a utopia that involves singing karaoke?
A: I love my life that allows singing karaoke. I encourage anyone to follow their loves, but I am also a realist. You have to be able to make things work -- you need to care for yourself (and possibly others) and that means sacrificing somewhere. That said, everyone is so much more than their job. Pursuing education is a beautiful thing. It’s fine to go to school to study something and have that be a part of who you are without being a part of what you do.
Q: I’m not sure I have a question here, but there’s a ton of drinking that goes on throughout the book. Of course, your karaoke experiences are happening in bars, but do you think we have a collective problem with alcohol? Don’t get me wrong. I love me a few glasses of wine. But ???
A: There is a lot of drinking in karaoke bars. At almost each place, I saw someone who had had way more than their share of alcohol and it’s hard to watch those people try to sing; they fall down, slur words, or just stand there because they aren’t really sure what they are doing. Being drunk is one thing -- sometimes a drink or two helps give people the courage needed to get up and sing -- being so intoxicated that you can barely stand is another. There is also a lot of not drinking in karaoke. There were more than just a few states where I didn’t drink. Sometimes I just didn’t feel like it, and sometimes I was more deliberate about my decision, thinking about how much I had consumed in the previous days. I saw a lot of singers who drank tea or water or soda. Singing sober is a different experience and I was surprised at how easy it actually was.
Q: What would you say to a young person (or a not young one, for that matter) dreaming about undertaking a rite of passage such as yours?
A: Go for it! Whatever age you are, whatever that rite of passage is, it will be unique to you. It’s exciting to know you’ve done something that matters to you. I don’t think we should have to apologize/justify doing something meaningful to ourselves, doing something simply because it brings us joy. (I SO AGREE!)
Q: How did your journey enhance your experience of living in the present moment? What remains with you still?
A: My belief in the importance of life balance is stronger than ever. When Molly was diagnosed, everyone thought she had all the time in the world -- time to watch her children grow, time to practice psychology, time to be Molly. When she was gone, I had a hard time finding anything that really mattered. All I had left was this odd goal of wanting to sing karaoke in all 50 states, and losing Molly made me realize I’m not really sure how much time I had left to do it. So I made it a priority to do what brings me joy. I quit my job, took a summer off, and just went for it. And it was magical experience. My time was my own. I was doing what I loved.
The 48 states took 99 days and 17,774 miles; I drove on smaller roads when possible. I have a better understanding of America because I left the interstates. I went to dive bars, fancy establishments, suburbs, rural areas, cities. I was one of the few people in Portland, Oregon who wasn’t that surprised when Trump was elected president because I met people, saw the political support for Trump. I think I saw two pro Clinton signs on my entire trip. That’s telling. (OH, how I’d love to discuss this more, but not here!)
Q: In terms of writing, can you share about your process? The idea of writing a book about experiences in 48 states is overwhelming. You knew at the outset you were going to write this book. I’d like to know how you managed the magnitude of material you surely returned home with.
A: Actually, I didn’t know I was going to write a book. I did keep a blog (https://melodysseyusa.wordpress.com/), but I did that mostly because I enjoy writing and wanted to let my friends and family know what was happening. I took a tiny notebook to each karaoke venue. I took notes about everything I saw, what I sang, how I was feeling...as a researcher, and a qualitative one at that, I think I’m primed to be in this “observation mode.” When I got back to where I was staying, I’d write out my notes either that night or the next morning. It became part of the process, part of the journey I enjoyed so much. Then, when I decided I would turn this experience into a book, I would go to coffee shops every day after work and write. I added a lot about my grief, about Molly, about me -- that was the scarier part. Turning the book slightly away from a karaoke focus and sharing more about myself.
Kris is happy to answer questions. If you have one please utilize the Comment section below or send me a private message and I’ll make sure Kris gets it.
L. Kris Gowen, PhD, EdM, received her doctorate in child and adolescent development from Stanford University, and her master of education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also the author of Sexual Decisions: The Ultimate Teen Guide. She lives in Portland, Oregon—despite her dislike of gray skies. Her favorite artists to karaoke are Donna Summer and Olivia Newton-John. In her one foray into national competitive karaoke, she came in third to last.
Buy Kris's book HERE via Inkwater. (She receives more of the royalties.)
Buy Kris's book HERE via Amazon. (She's happy either way!)