New Washboard with Viking-Themed Artwork By Jerry Villalobos

So what kind of instrument does an American with Swedish blood in his veins use when playing washboard? Well, look no further, friends. I enlisted the help of my artist friend Jerry Villalobos to create my very own Viking-themed washboard. As many of you know, I've been having a great time playing washboard with G Burns Jug Band here in San Diego, and have recently been adding to my washboard arsenal. I wanted a unique washboard with which to practice at home and perform on special occasions. My ambition was to have an instrument that reflects a bit of who I am, and I spoke a bit with Jerry about which motifs might be fun to explore. The result of our first washboard project is what you see here, and I could't be happier.

Artist Jerry Villalobos holding my new washboard with me at the Red Crow. San Diego, CA, 2015

Artist Jerry Villalobos holding my new washboard with me at the Red Crow. San Diego, CA, 2015

Many people around San Diego know Jerry's art through his fantastic tattoo work at the Red Crow (2848 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92104), and I figured (correctly, as you see!) his professional background made him an ideal candidate for these collaborations. We are also interested in exploring a classic Naval theme in the future, reflecting my time as a musician in the U.S. Navy, and I think that the histories and esthetics of the washboard, Navy, Viking culture, and tattoo-influenced art all fit together wonderfully.

Swedish-Viking-Washboard-Jerry-Villalobos-Anders-Larsson.jpg

I'm sure many of you will be seeing this beauty at venues around Southern California (and beyond) in the coming months, and I will be sure to post upcoming collaborations and work involving the washboard as well.

Thanks --as always-- for tuning in!

The Military Challenge Coin: a Tradition of Honor

A friend was kind enough to recently give me a wonderful present. I've had a display case for many of the "challenge coins" I received during my time in the U.S. Navy as an MU (musician), though the old case didn't have enough room to include all my favorite coins. The new case, seen here, handsomely displays all my challenge coins, or "command coins" as they are also called. As I arranged them in an order that made sense to me, I realized it would be fun to share them with you all, and reflect on why they are special to me.

26 challenge coins, proudly displayed at my home in San Diego, CA.

26 challenge coins, proudly displayed at my home in San Diego, CA.

I won't spend too much time on a history of the challenge coin. A quick Internet search will yield interesting theories on its origin, some dating the phenemenon back to WWII, others to WWI, and still others to Ancient RomeI do find the name itself intriguing, and was interested to read different explanations for its meaning.

A Pirate motif, reminding us that at the end of the day, the U.S. Navy is just downright cool a lot of times.

A Pirate motif, reminding us that at the end of the day, the U.S. Navy is just downright cool a lot of times.

I was surprised to read during my Internet exploration that some consider the word "challenge" to mean that the awardee successfully met a challenge, and receives the coin to commemorate the achievement. I always associated it with the tradition of having a coin at the ready at a local watering hole, ready to accept the potential challenge from another service person (loser buying a round of drinks), but I like both meanings. 

Students who graduate the Navy School of Music with a score of 3.0 or higher get the honor of a name plaque on the walls of the school, as well as a command coin. 

Students who graduate the Navy School of Music with a score of 3.0 or higher get the honor of a name plaque on the walls of the school, as well as a command coin. 

One of the most appealing characteristics of the challenge coin, for me, is that it is completely void of tangible reward, career advancement, politics, or monetary value. The honor begins and ends with the coin, but it is indeed an honor. So much so, in fact, that Bill Clinton included his own collection of challenge coins in his official Presidential portrait

Former President Bill Clinton's official portrait includes his challenge coin collection in the background.

Former President Bill Clinton's official portrait includes his challenge coin collection in the background.

The act of giving and receiving the coin is a bit of a ritual unto itself, with no formal or written how-to, but simply taught and understood through experience. If a woman or man in military service thinks you've done a good job, that service person may approach you, extend a hand for a respectful handshake, and (without verbal recognition of doing so) also pass the concealed congratulatory memento during the handshake. It is considered bad form to look at the coin upon receipt, and etiquette dictates the recipient discretely put the coin away in a pocket as soon as possible, only taking it out  to admire at a later, more appropriate time. In fact, Navy Band lore includes the story of a musician sailor who was told by an admiral to give a coin back after blatantly examining it upon receipt!

HSC-85 "High Rollers" Navy command coin.

HSC-85 "High Rollers" Navy command coin.

My most prestigious challenge coin. I received this from the highest ranking individual in the  Department of the Navy , the  Secretary of the Navy  (aka  SECNAV ). 

My most prestigious challenge coin. I received this from the highest ranking individual in the Department of the Navy, the Secretary of the Navy (aka SECNAV). 

In any case, I enjoy looking at these mementos, and am proud to have them in an accessible place at home. They've become a scrapbook of sorts for me, and immediately take me back to some of my proudest moments of service. I will never forget, for instance, performing for the Secretary of the Navy (one of two times). On the first occasion, I was undersatndably thrilled to receive a coin from Mr. Ray Mabus, only to learn after the fact that there had been a mixup, and I erroneously received a coin that had been intended for him! I respectfully returned the memento via mail (under the guidance of my command superiors) to the intended recipient, and was soon given the coin orginally meant for me (accompanied by the letter you see here). 

A letter I received from then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to accompany the appropriate coin after a mixup on the  Midway .

A letter I received from then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to accompany the appropriate coin after a mixup on the Midway.

During my time in the Navy, I was privileged to perform for President Barack Obama, former President Jimmy Carter, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), the Vice CNO,  then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, of course, thousands of brave American women and men who served in uniform. Some of these occasions were commemorated through coins and/or Fleet Letters of Commendation, while others were not. All were special to me, however, and my challenge coins are a great reminder of a proud and rewarding time for me. 

I received this from an  Air Force  Command Chief Master Sergeant at the  Vandenberg  base in California. I remember the evening distinctly, since I also had the privilege of meeting two astronauts.

I received this from an Air Force Command Chief Master Sergeant at the Vandenberg base in California. I remember the evening distinctly, since I also had the privilege of meeting two astronauts.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the G.I. Bill and VA Home Loan *But Were Afraid To Ask

Ok, so this is not a comprehensive FAQ piece on the G.I. Bill or VA Home Loan, as the name might suggest (who am I kidding? That reference is so old at this point, I'm not even sure why I'm using it!). But I do want to share some thoughts on the subject of two of the military's (apparently) best benefits - the G.I. Bill and VA Home Loan. After all, those are two of the biggest incentives and motivators for many young people to join the military.

The road from service to student and homeowner can be a rough one, even with the G.I. Bill and VA Home Loan. Here I am on the Coronado Bridge, working for Navy Band Southwest in San Diego, CA. 

The road from service to student and homeowner can be a rough one, even with the G.I. Bill and VA Home Loan. Here I am on the Coronado Bridge, working for Navy Band Southwest in San Diego, CA. 

The reasons I myself proudly signed on the dotted line for the United States Navy were similar to many of my shipmates and friends I would meet later. While I was excited to serve my country doing one of the things I do best (playing drums), there were also more practical, and well...selfish reasons for joining. A steady paycheck,  a sense of purpose, and the VA Home Loan and G.I. Bill were real motivators for me to join. Truth be told, I would have served anyway, but I can't deny that it was exciting knowing further education, and perhaps my first home, were on the horizon.

Two years and two letters to Congress later, here I am after receiving my master's degree and professional writing certificate from San Diego State University.

Two years and two letters to Congress later, here I am after receiving my master's degree and professional writing certificate from San Diego State University.

Please note I did not write "free education" in the previous paragraph. I have friends who have put their lives on the line in Afghanistan, only to be told later by those who had never served that they were so "lucky" to have the G.I. Bill. I assure you, the courageous women and men who have served our country in uniform are privileged to do so, but not lucky. The benefits of the G.I. Bill and VA Home Loan are absolutely ones that have been earned by our service members. 

But can our Veterans actually use benefits like the G.I. Bill and VA Home Loan? It seems especially pertinent to ask this question today, as we see reform measures of a troubled VA move sluggishly move through Congress. In this Veteran's experience, I can share that the VA Home Loan is exceptionally difficult to use here in the competitive real estate market of my hometown, San Diego. Though not exceptionally picky in my search for a home, I found myself competing with up to 25 would-be buyers within the first week of a home's listing. The VA Home Loan is designed to protect the Veteran/service member, but its stipulations are often so stringent and costly to the seller, that those offers are not even considered. In competitive markets, there are usually plenty of cash, conventional, or FHA offers that will almost always beat out the VA bidder.

Similarly, the G.I. Bill can be an unwieldy obstacle when the Veteran tries to actually use it. Again, in my experience, I had significant payment delays (months, at times), which led to my appeals to Congressional representatives, countless phone calls and meetings, and a whole lot of stress. I realize that dealing with bureaucracies can be trying for anyone, but it is dumbfounding to me -and many other Veterans-- that this and other benefits can be so difficult to use. I often found myself not only navigating the bureaucracy of the state school, but also that of the VA. The truth is that legislators and community bigwigs (even those who are Veterans) most likely never have to use these kind of benefits, occupying a completely different socio-economic bracket than the vast majority of American Veterans trying to use these kind of benefits. I suspect that many proposals are designed first and foremost to look good on paper, with little concern regarding the actual execution of these programs, benefits, and so on.

Why am I writing about this? My intention is not to complain or point fingers, but rather contribute to a larger conversation, giving a humble insider's view. I have had the wonderful experience of receiving a master's degree and professional writing certificate at San Diego State University (go Aztecs!) by using my G.I. Bill. Thanks to the G.I. Bill and SDSU, I have met colleagues and friends I will know, and with whom I hope to collaborate, for the remainder of my life. I also bought a home, though not with the VA Home Loan. After several unsuccessful bids, I adjusted my strategy, and ultimately found a wonderful first home in the City Heights neighborhood of Oak Park, aided by an FHA loan. 

I am certain there are a myriad of experiences and stories related to these benefits. I know Veterans who have had an easier time using them, as well as Veterans who have had a more difficult experience than I have. As more and more of our brave women and men leave active duty and return to civilian life, I hope that we continue to monitor these opportunities so that we can most effectively help those who have helped us.