Thursday, December 15, 2016

10 Tips for the Annual Bake-Off, by Suzy Crocker

Today is the annual bake-off for all the teachers and staff at the school where I teach. I'm new. So, like, I figured I'd show a bit of team spirit since I skipped the mannequin challenge. The rules were: Select a celebrity chef. Find a recipe. Bake enough for 52 people, and we'll have a grand old time eating everything on Thursday, December 16.

So: Some tips to keep in mind for next year:

Today's colossal fail from the new music teacher.
  1. Sometimes it is better NOT to start baking at 3:37 a.m. the night before the bake-off with a recipe you've never tried before.
  2. Sometimes, it is best to try the recipe first, period.
  3. Recipes made to be cooked by chefs are sometimes best left to chefs. Pre-toast the walnuts? Pulverize the oatmeal?
  4. When the recipe says, "Place dough balls 3 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet," it does actually mean 3".
  5. When the recipe says, "Bake at 325F," do consider NOT baking at something close to 350, even if your oven is from 1961 and all temperatures are approximate anyway.
  6. Ideally, do not cool cookie sheets on back deck to speed the cooling process, especially when it's windy.
  7. When the art teacher says, "Oh yeah, the bakeoff. I never do that," heed her words more carefully. Be less cynical of cynical people. Sometimes they are right.
  8. When asked to make enough for 52 people, consider baking something that only requires one oven insertion, not something that gets divided and baked in 12-piece increments.
  9. Consider the role of "taster," rather than "baker."
  10. Duncan Hines is a fabulous chef. 



Monday, December 5, 2016

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, or Possibly Insanity

Dear Friend:

Since I last wrote to you, many things worth writing about have occurred. Musical events that brought us to tears. Insights on practice and performance. Parenting revelations. Brief moments of spiritual enlightenment. Family joy. Horrible self-realizations and the tiny little triumphs over self-doubt that occur like, oh, every five minutes. None, however, have inspired me to write to you like the realization I had today.

With a big concert behind us, no immediate freelance deadlines, little worry about this week's music lesson plans, and one sleeping toddler, I looked around my house and decided that I'd fill my two precious hours alone by cleaning the kitchen. Five minutes in, I experienced an a-ha! moment. I realized why the house is always more messy than I'd like.

I. Freaking. Hate. Cleaning.

You who can afford a house cleaner, I do envy you.

And you who cannot afford a house cleaner but who have found ways to achieve both personal and spiritual satisfaction from transforming chaos into order, I respect you immensely. (I do not understand you, but I think we're still friends, right?)

As for the rest of you who live in clutter and mess, and kind of hate it but can't seem to get around to cleaning on a regular basis, this blog is for you. I want you to know you're not alone.

Are you out there? Gawd, I hope so. If not, I'm going to be REALLY embarrassed.



Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Parenting," and Other First World Problems

My friend Ellen Lubin-Sherman* wrote to me after yesterday's blog with some helpful advice. (She also advised me not to listen to advice.) She said:

About being a good mother...are you present?  That's all that matters." 

Being present may not be so simple, but the advice is. And here's the thing:
"In Yemen's war, trapped families ask: Which child should we save?" Presence, like the concept of "parenting," is a first-world problem. Given Yemen, and Aleppo, and also the kids in my school who get free lunch and donated clothing, whose parents are in jail, who have suffered trauma in one way or another, I'd say that we can probably all stop worrying and start having fun by accepting the chaos and unpredictability of parenthood. It's not a science. If you do "this," you won't necessarily get "that." So, just keep doing this, be sure there is love, and then hope for the best.

Still, there's no harm in trying to be a little more present, so I tried today. Present, as in aware of what the hell you are doing. It started with my morning practice session. It's a struggle for me, as I get back into practicing, to start slow. To start with playing long tones: deep inhalations, followed by the longest exhaled note I can muster. If we believe all those centuries of Buddhist knowledge, we don't doubt that deep breathing and slow exhales are yogically valuable. However, as a wind player, it's also physically valuable. As you exhale, you become aware of all the places you hold tension in your body. You attend to your posture. You focus on what it feels like to make a good sound. You develop the muscles in your face and in your core that support a strong, steady tone. You focus on your body, and you drop your shoulders, straighten your back, release your neck. Your body has to be relaxed to make beautiful music. God. That's hard.

With Irish music, we have very notey tunes. Like bebop, these fast runs are unbelievably satisfying to tear through for goal-oriented maniacs like me. It's really freaking fun to fly through the notes in solid rhythmic time... especially when you can... but sometimes the quality of sound suffers. Or the groove becomes shallow. Lower notes don't speak fully, and triplets get a little automated. Your body remembers the tune through muscle memory and your brain actually has no frigging idea what notes you just played, in what order, and why.

So, despite a good start, this is the reason that my practice session ended with a failure of presence. After a nice half hour of playing through the tunes for our Christmas concert on Sunday, I couldn't help myself. I started blasting through a tune to finish up my practice session, because it FEELS GOOD. The sprint to end the run, it is a satisfying catharsis. Today, I didn't think about it; I just started doing it. Partway through the tune, I realized that though my body was executing the tune correctly, I actually had no idea what tune I was playing. I had to think for a moment. Man in the Bog. Of course.

Nope, I wasn't entirely present. Oh well. But somewhere in there was a solid intention, and that is what keeps the boat afloat.

*Hat tip to Ellen, as the one who dubbed Marie Kondo as a sadist. Who talks to socks?


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Suffering of Abundance

And the theme today is: Too Much.

That's what's been keeping me away these days. The point of restarting this blog was successful, meaning that I wanted to ignite my "writer's mind" and get to a place where I am observing life like a writer again. (Definition:  Walking around smirking and muttering to myself in a witty narration of just about everything that happens all day.)

The writer's mind has been ignited. And that means I have a new thing to suffer with: The weight of "not doing." Because, like, I'm doing so many other things, dude. Too many things. Too much.

Like:

Christmas shopping. Last year, when it came time to wrap gifts, I could not believe how much I'd bought for everyone. Swore I'd never do it again. I'm doing it again. Hi.

House full of shite: About seven years ago, we visited the immaculate home of one of our musician friends. Feeling that I could possibly enjoy a very clean home, I borrowed his Feng Shui book. On about page 3, it said, "First, you must declutter." I put the book down and made lists of everything I'd throw away and in what order. Once I had decluttered, I'd get back to the book. So, I started with the bathroom closet. It was good for like a week. And the book? It's still on my shelf. Unopened. And please, we must not speak of Marie Kondo. She is a sadist.

News: Oh, it's just too much. Don't go there.

Kids: We are never good enough parents. We have short tempers, we say "NO" too loudly and too often. (By the way, it feels really good to yell it; try it now. I'll wait.) We ignore them sometimes when they stub their toe in the kitchen because we are cooking and we really don't want to burn the garlic. Plus, they keep talking all day. Like, frigging constantly... so... you know. Point: There are too many ways to be better. Maybe we can just accept our failures and move on. That's my motto.

Music: No sane person should be a parent, have a new job, and keep doing concerts for which one must learn new repertoire, practice, send out press releases, make posters, put the posters up around town, and continually put crap on Facebook. Friends, I beseech thee: It's a good idea to wait until your kids are all over 18 before you start making CDs and doing concerts and stuff, when you already have a regular day job. It's a good idea to focus on how to be a good parent, and less on whether you can really exercise rhythmic accuracy on that awesome Liz Carroll tune. (See "Kids," above.)

Failure accepted. Journey proceeds.



Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful

Seriously. THANK GOD (or whoever) that we have this day to make us stop for a little while, like about 10 minutes between the stuffing preparation and the turkey insertion, to think about what is good in life.

What I am thankful for most this year is that I left that big job in the city to come do a little job teaching music in a school five minutes from my house—a little job that is much bigger than the other job because it matters more. And because it allows me to get back to my kids, be around more, and be home. Big.

One of the biggest reasons I left that big job was because my big girl, I thought, was maybe struggling and maybe needed Mom around more. I wanted to be there for her, and also to be a little more present for my little boy.

Well, I'm teaching in her school and you know what I've discovered from watching her in action and also talking to the other teachers a little bit? That she's just fine. Not just a little fine, but a lot fine. A big fine. And that she always has been.

And there's nothing I'm more thankful for than that.

Wishing you all a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

~~~~~

While you're waiting for the turkey to cook this morning, visit the Lindsays new website at www.irishmusic.us! It's what I did this week instead of writing to you, and what I finished this morning between 6-7:30 am, when I should have been preparing dinner for 8. Oops. Time to make the turkey...

~~~~~


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Chris Smither and That Old Pa Rum Pa Pum Pum...

"If every town had one of these, we could weather any political storm." So said performing artist Chris Smither last night to a sold-out crowd at the Spire Center for the Performing Arts in Plymouth. He was talking about the venue, a former house of worship turned performing arts space—a more appropriate fit for the transformative experiences we need so much, in the language we speak today. Music just might be one thing that can help keep us from collectively jumping off a cultural ledge. Well, Chris Smither's music certainly will, at least in this house. A bluesman, a songwriter, the voice of a poet fitted over acoustic guitarwork that is impeccably, precisely natural: the musical incarnation of freedom. He's been writing and performing for more than 50 years, and owns the stage with the poise of a statesman, only with open eyes and an open heart. Ego checked at the door. Thank God he lives, so we can too.

Watch him here by clicking this link. I tried to embed the video but Blogger took it away. You'll have to follow this link. And please do. It's worth it. But come right back.

And so with that said...

I haven't been writing much since November 9, because I've been stuck for what to say. No words, and too many words.  I've been trying not to close off. Forcing myself to read the news. Forcing myself to hear what my activist friends have to say.

"Organize," they say. They have petitions. I signed some.

"March," they implore. I probably won't.

"And call the hell out of Washington! Tell them this is not right!"  Will I call any of these reps? Probably not. (But I do agree. It's horrific and devastating, and it keeps me up at night. Then again, so does...um... everything?)

Someone I know posted a color-coded spreadsheet with the numbers of all our House and Senate members, with phone numbers and suggested days to call each. So she wouldn't forget who to call and when. So she wouldn't get overwhelmed by the task at hand. So we could do it too. So much to do. Such a big world to save; such small shoulders.

You see, I am a poor boy too.

I have no gift to bring, that's fit to give a king.

Shall I play for you?

Mary nodded.
The ox and lamb kept time.
I played my drum for him.
I played my best for him.

Then he smiled at me...  Me and my drum.

Click here to listen to Alex Boyé sing it with his African choir.




Thursday, November 17, 2016

Flower Power in the Classroom

Just one caring adult can change a child's life. That was the message sent to all teachers in my school from our principal yesterday. He asked us to watch a video from a former foster kid about how one person who cared about him had ensured his later success in life.  Watch it, if you have time. It's inspiring. In sending us all this video to watch, our principal was reminding us of how important our jobs are.

My friends, this new job of mine, teaching music to very young school children, is probably the most important job I've ever had, and also the most challenging. One reason it's challenging is that some of the kids in every class have behavioral challenges. They haven't learned yet how to sit still and listen, or perhaps they are really not able to. So keeping a classroom in control is very hard. Very.


But what's the most challenging? The mental work and the spiritual work. The internal work that has to be done every day to remind myself that it's not about me. Training myself not to get angry or frustrated at the child who is not listening and who is disrupting the class, and to remember that this child is not intentionally trying to ruin my class, or my day. Remembering to respond to him or her in love, not anger. Sometimes it helps to speak sternly to a child, but my experience is that whenever the stern moves into angerland, someone ends up crying (not me) and only acting worse. Worse! My childhood memory is that a teacher would yell at the student, the student would clam up in fear, and the problem would be solved for that day, or that hour. But this is not what happens today. That was the past. Now, what I see is that when a teacher yells at a student, most of the time the student seems to only get more disruptive.

What I'm seeing is that the thing that seems to be most effective in the long term -- the thing that shocks a child into full engagement, at least SOME of them -- is a response from a loving place.

Do you know how hard it is to be loving when 19 kids are mostly singing along to "Simple Gifts," and 1 is doing cartwheels and making silly faces behind you, or crawling along the floor on the way to the conga drums, which he or she intends to bash as loud as possible? This is after you've already told him or her to sit down about 4,000 times.

Serenity now. Om. Om. Om. Om. Om. Om. Om. (This is not working.) Om. Om. Om. (What time does this class end? Five more minutes... phew.) Om. Om. Om. Om.




Friday, November 11, 2016

No words, and too many words.

Day 32.

I have no words. And I have too many words. Thank God for music.

I had the great honor of seeing Shawn Colvin perform last night at the Spire in downtown Plymouth. A brilliant concert, and shockingly, I had not really heard her music before. A songwriter, poet, and musician of the highest order. She had just come off a two-month tour with Steve Earle, another brilliant soul, and was going this one alone. She said she was a bit disoriented, as she began.

Oh, really? I wonder why. Her first song was Paul Simon's American Tune. Sheer power. (Lyrics)



Sang it with a power that broke hearts open with the first strain. Floodgates.

After performing, at the end of the night, she said thank you. She was recentered, she said. The music had helped to heal her. And this is what it is about.

What I've seen from artists in the last few days: A redoubling of purpose. We must continue, with ever more strength, they are saying. It matters now more than ever, they say. We must offer our love. We must stick together.  We must overcome.

To return to Karl Paulnack's words in Wednesday's post:

...my friends, someday at 8 P.M. someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. 

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. 

Our work is cut out for us now. Let's keep making. Never was it more important.











Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Finding a Way Forward

Day 30

Last night's election results signify a triumph of all of the very worst parts of American culture. I am speechless, but mostly deeply afraid.  I woke up at 3 am and checked the election results and I couldn't fall back to sleep. So I did what I often do: I went to work. It just so happens I had to proofread something this morning that helped me find just a little bit of hope. I share it with you here. It's long but worth it.

Being an artist, a musician, a poet, may be more important now than ever. This article reminded me of that, and helped, a little. Maybe it will help you, too.

An Excerpt from Music Division Director Karl Paulnack's welcome address to incoming Boston Conservatory students, 2004: 

One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school. She said, “You’re wasting your SAT scores!” 

On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music—the kind your kids are about to engage in—has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment; in fact, it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music and how it works.

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time, written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp. 

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp: a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today, it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps—we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September of 2001, I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001, I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 A.M. to practice, as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard and opened my music, put my hands on the keys, and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. 

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome.” Lots of people sang “America the Beautiful.” The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The U.S. military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pastime. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds. 

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece, Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us, the way a good therapist does. 

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in E.T. so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you, I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation. 

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw, and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert, and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?” 

Remember the Greeks: Music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2 A.M. someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 P.M. someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. 

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. 

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force, or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.


###

Monday, November 7, 2016

Day 28, and Where Are You? BAKING.

Thank you, friends, who believe me when I tell you that I am going to write to you everyday. Because then when I don't, you ask me, "Are you ok? I didn't get your blog!" Thank you for listening. Here's why you didn't get it: I DIDN'T WRITE ONE! Wait, no. I didn't write FIVE. Eek. (I'm not yelling, it's the caffeine.)

Reason #1: I'm wicked busy being a parent, a spouse (sometimes), and working too much. Repeat: Working too much. See Day 1.  It's wicked hahd, as we say in Massachusetts. And we do say it.

Reason #2: Self-doubt. As in, "Who do you think you ARE, writing about your life in a way that others might actually get inspired by?" and "Why do you think you have ANYTHING to offer anyone anyway?" and also "Shouldn't you be [playing blocks with your son • helping your daughter with her homework concerns • hanging out with your husband • practicing your instrument • cleaning the bathroom • vacuuming the living room • sending a birthday card • paying a bill • prepping for tax season • raking leaves • ironing socks • getting cardio • eating fiber • calling your father • calling your brother • doing your other brother's resume • calling your sister • calling your husband's mother • calling your friend's brother's mother's sister's mother's father's son] right now?"

So, I have plenty to say, but this week I feel that I am not worthy to say it, because art is actually not necessary. That's why it's so damn hahd to keep doing it. And yet we do.

If all else fails, bake. I made this last night with a few adjustments, and Oh. My. God. You must make:  Raspberry Ricotta Cake.



My substitutions:

1) Use only 1 cup of flour. Instead of that last 1/2 cup flour, use 1/4 cup flax seed meal and 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut.
2) Use one extra egg.
3) Use only 1/2 cup of sugar.
4) Use only 1/4 stick butter, not a whole stick.
5) Consider lightly sugaring the raspberries and letting them sit for like an hour.
6) Use one entire 14-oz container of part-skim ricotta. That's the small one; I think it was 14 oz. Confirming would require me to get up, so I'll leave you on your own, with that one.

Dessert, then breakfast. Trust me.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Unbroken Ribbon of Concentration Sometimes Breaks

Day 24

It is true that the writer's mind stays engaged when daily practice is followed. It's true that daily musical practice creates what the late flutist and saxophonist Yusef Lateef once called "the unbroken ribbon of concentration." It is also true that the dearest of friends sometimes visit from overseas, and that practice ribbon is broken, only to leave room for other, stronger and way more fun ribbons of connection. It's ok.

Your friend's writer's mind is a little disengaged today, but her musical mind is not. So, here's a daily song for you... If you haven't heard of contemporary Irish singer/songwriter Damien Dempsey, I'd like to fix that for you:


Friday, October 28, 2016

"I've Got No Love Today"

Day 18

The cleaning saga continues. (Bear with me, this won't be boring.) This morning, at 5:30 am, it was straight from bed to coffee pot to dungeon. That is, the basement. Our friends arrive this evening and, in preparation for the evening or two that we might spend in the basement bar, it was my job to clean the "other" 1/4 of the basement, otherwise known as "sort of my 1/4 of the basement, full of my stuff plus the stuff that doesn't fit in your 3/4 of the basement." (But I love him. And needless to say, my stuff fills the rest of the house.) The basement must be cleaned lest anyone see what lurks beneath the surface.... the visual proof that, even if the kitchen is clean this week, actually the people who live in this house are insanely busy. Shhh, don't tell. It's cool.

So, there I was hefting dust monsters, strewn air conditioners, and painting equipment of every shape, size, and condition. It was so gratifying to set organization to the clutter, and I started feeling like everything else today is going to be okay, no matter what happens. I was thinking about Michele Obama's statement about taking care of her children. It went something like this, "We have to get our own house under control before we can run the White House."

Damn straight, woman. We really do have to get our houses under control first. I know too many women, including me!, who have put their own houses last. Our siblings need us, our parents need us, our friends need us. And they really do. But I know that for me, it's a very delicate job deciding whose needs matter most at any given time. Brother needs us, but so does son. Father needs us, but so does husband. Who wins? I don't know! It depends. Sometimes it depends on how much they need us and what they need us for, and we are forced into a priority game... who needs us most? And who matters most? And what about the person who has to face the fact that it is not them who matters most today?

Sometimes I even remember to ask, What do I need most?

Do you see any easy solution? I don't. Sometimes we just can't be there for some of the people who need us. It ain't easy for anyone involved, but it's the only way to prevent the basement from turning into a disaster. Sometimes, when someone needs us, even though we know it's not what we learned in Sunday School, it seems we can find only one answer:  "I love you, and I hate to disappoint you, but ... "  Well, let Chris Smither tell you. Sometimes bad news is best delivered in song:



If you want to see the lyrics you can find them here.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Cleaning Is ... I Can't EVEN.

Day 16

I missed a few days on the blog but not on the writing. Day 14, I wrote my editor's letter for the magazine I publish, and Day 15, I wrote a meaningful devotional piece about the winter solstice for my church's advent calendar. You didn't see them, but they happened. Now, you may ask: With two kids, three jobs, and two bands, how do I have the time for writing? The answer is easy. I don't clean. (And this would explain why we haven't invited you over in so long.)

Today is an exception. I've been up since 5 am running around in circles trying to tidy up, because we have guests coming from overseas on Thursday and the place is a wreck. We found someone we can afford to do the cleaning as a one-off thing, and so I'm on the tidying mission so that she can actually find the floor in order to vacuum it. 

Such a cute word, "tidy." It means that one must walk approximately 14 miles in a 700-sq-foot space, in one hour or less, in tiny little bursts from room to room returning every object to where it is supposed to be. (The time required to have and then recover from several nervous breakdowns are also included in this tally.) You see, we have a very strict rule in our house. Every time one moves from one room to the other, one MUST bring an object, and that object must ABSOLUTELY NOT belong in the room to which you are bringing it. Then, one must LEAVE IT THERE.

For example: 

-Hairbrushes at all times must stay in the living room, never the bathroom.
-Shoes must remain under the office desk, kitchen table, or bathroom sink at all times, never in the shoe rack.
-Trash must be left everywhere, except in the kitchen, proud home of the trash can. 
-Dirty mugs and cereal bowls must be left either in the living room or by the computer, not in the dishwasher, which as it turns out is in the kitchen.
-And since we do have a coat closet, it is imperative that coats are left either on the backs of chairs in the kitchen, sprawled across the couch, or if possible, tossed violently onto the shoe rack by the door. Floor is also acceptable.

It's been two hours and I've finished three rooms. Back is sore, so a perfect time for this brief rest to write you a note. Hello! Good morning! I miss you. 

Two more rooms to go. And just look at the time! Ten minutes is up. Back to work.




Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Tale of Two Saxophones: A Litany of Horror and Woe

Day 13

Yesterday, in a blinding rainstorm, I found myself driving down a dark, undeveloped dirt road that wound ever more distant from civilization into the snarling New England woods. Orange pine needles littered the road as the Jeep splashed through deep, boggy puddles. All alone, I nervously tossed bagel crumbs out the window to mark my path as I dove deeper and deeper away from civilization. Suddenly to my right, the woods cleared and I saw what creature lurketh in the deep, dark forest.

Gasp!

...an instrument repairman.

A neat, gray house emerged from the darkness. Its perfectly manicured, thick green grass was edged with sinister impatiens, dancing forebodingly in blood red, teeth-gritting white, and eye-burning pink. A lush rhododendron glistened a warning from the heart of the front lawn, its pointed leaves like fingers beckoning my reluctant heart into its evil lair.

Come, come, it whispered. Spend, spend.

The perfect garden belied the evils that lurked within. I hefted my hoard to the front door, and knocked. A great beast snarled from within, a sharp-toothed Sheltie who scratched and howled toward me as the door creaked open. Tethered to that beast was that most insidious of villians, that Cheshire-smiled scoundrel: a retired band director . . . Darker still, a clarinet player.

He lured me into his dungeon. He pointed a finger at a creaky chair. "Sit," he intoned. He then inspected my stash... the lithe and bouyant Yamaha alto sax, and the gnarled, lumbering Martin baritone, both quaking in his grasp. He turned them to and fro, and all at once, he dashed to a great cauldron in the darkest corner. In a great cloud of smoke and spray, he concocted a potion and grabbed the alto by its neck. He poured acid down its throat and plunged a drill into its gizzard! It sputtered and sprayed, quivered and shook ... and what emerged was the darkest grime from the dankest, slime-infested lagoon.

The torture had only begun, but I could take no more. I ran from the place, leaving my blessed horns behind. "These are saxophones, not your children!" he cried, laughing madly as I ran from the threshold. My fear burned a grey trail in the grass as I rushed to my mud-soaked wagon, desperate for escape.

Home! To home, I must again. As I drove back down the dusty road, his evil lair disappearing in my rear view mirror, my heart clenched. I made one solemn resolution, that it should follow me all the days of my musical life: Guinness is Guinness, and saxophone is saxophone, and if you value your musical life, my friends.... ne'er the twain shall meet.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

We Don't Need Another Rockstar

Day 12.

A parent wrote a kind letter to me a couple weeks ago, telling me just how much her little guy has been enjoying music class. He comes home at night singing the songs he learned in school, and now, she tells me, "He wants to be a rock star!" And then the inevitable question... "Where can I get him some music lessons?"

Great! I LOVE IT!

But: 

I started teaching music because I want more children to experience the joy of musicmaking, and to grow up into adults for whom music is a source of joy in their lives. But I don't want to farm rock stars. Don't you read the stuff some of those stars and starlets say on Twitter? 

The real problem is that striving for rock star status is exactly what gets in the way for so many aspiring musicians... and dare I say, for just about every artist and writer I know. My heart breaks every time I think of my many, many friends who have stopped performing, bands that have broken up, painters who have stopped painting, writers who stopped writing, because they had a broken dream. They came to a point where they didn't feel it was worth it anymore; they weren't getting any traction. Fame is elusive.

In all of these cases, they lost sight of the love of the doing. They became an artist because of how much they loved making their art, but somehow that got obscured by the pursuit of making a masterpiece. And when the masterpiece didn't come, they forgot about the "making art" part. We want to make a hit; we want our work to have enormously broad reach.... and sometimes this reach gets mistaken for self-worth, and when the reach doesn't come, depression descends. I have stories upon stories of artist-friends who have emerged from depression when they realized they weren't going to be famous. They all have stories of having reconciled themselves to it, and have found ways to live happily... but guess what? Most of them are no longer making their art, even locally. 

So, with this in mind, Mom: I have an idea! Lessons are great, but also expensive, and for kids who are 5 and 6 years old, they are usually not the same as having fun playing music. How about if, instead of ever mentioning "rock star" to your wee dude, just keep letting him make music at home. Take him to local concerts, where the guy on stage with the bright red electric guitar and white hair is the same guy that fills gas tanks out by the airport. Get tickets to the local Philharmonic, where some of the music teachers in the schools perform. Go see early shows at kid-friendly venues in town, where regular folks in regular clothes are jamming out and having fun, with no microphones at all. Go see the high school musicals every year. They're really good! 

There are so many ways to carry a love of music into a life, and there are so many ways that the people in your neighborhood are doing it. Be careful of unwittingly setting them up for a far-off and statistically unlikely end goal. Just take them out and around and see how regular people are bringing music into our daily lives. 

And who knows, maybe The Dude might turn out to be a rock star some day after all. But if not, he'll always have the music. That's the important part. 



Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Grave Misspelling of "Practice"

Day 10.

In my new life as teacher, I am surrounded by a cacaphony of motivational posters. And I mean cacaphony. Every room in the building is chock full of motivational one-liners, plastering the walls with cute little ditties about motivation, about behavior, about full-body listening, about being kind, about grit, about imagination. That stuff.

I like this one in the Band Room. It encapsulates this whole struggle we face getting to our ten minutes a day... and also outlines exactly the struggle of every musician who actually cares very deeply about perfecting their craft:

P. R. A. C. T. I. C. E. See?

The only problem is, there's a letter missing, and it will explain the silence of Day 9:

F

As in, "F*ck, I Forgot.

Also, Forgiveness.

It is the last F that allows you to return to T, which here may be tenacity, but also stands for "Try again."

Day 10. Hello. Let's try this again.

Ah, just look at the time! 10 minutes is up. Now let us go in peace.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pause for a Moment of Joy

Day 8.

Have you heard of Iris Apfel, the style icon who rose to fame in 2005, at the age of 80? She had been fashionably New York–fabulous all of her life, it seems, but it wasn't until 2005 that the rest of the world knew it, thanks to a last-minute exhibit cancellation at her local museum (Oh that little joint? They call that the MET, you know... the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC), and some enterprising individual quickly assembling an exhibit devoted to her sense of style.

That's an inspiration, and a good reminder. It's very easy to think that it's too late to do the thing we wish we'd done, especially when all around us we see praises lavished upon the prodigies who have achieved remarkable mastery at a very young age, particularly in music. Anyone famous in mainstream music these days—and famous in this sense is not about the fame but about the reach—is generally very young. We're no longer young. When talking about our musical aspirations, Soul Papa and I have many, many times rationalized: "Well, that ship has sailed. Let's just play locally and have fun."

With that humble goal in mind, we started playing locally recently, but very quickly, we discovered that something is different this time around. A wonderful new bandmate has appeared in our lives, and he has brought a new energy to our music. We are no longer a duo with a hired bass player; we are now a trio. And that is lifting us up. Together we are making music better than we've ever done before, or at least more satisfying than ever before. We feel optimistic. We did a wonderfully satisfying 90-minute set and we didn't want it to end, and I can't wait til next week when we can do it again.

You know what? This is getting really good. Maybe we can do something with this. Maybe we can have a broader reach. Perhaps we can shoot higher than the 25-seat gastro pub two miles from our house.

Perhaps someone will devote an exhibit to us at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, and our fame will be assured.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Well, Hello Dalai.

Day 7.

Thank goodness I have so many close, dear friends on Facebook. Take my old chum the Dalai Lama, for example. His post this morning was a welcome voice of positivity in a feed that has gotten so bad and so terrifying that for the first time, I really just need to turn it off. And then, well, Hello Dalai!



Teaching has been an enormous lesson in compassion. I have two class periods that are entirely off the wall, and it's so challenging and difficult at times--these two classrooms get so chaotic--that it feels impossible to cultivate a culture of warm heartedness. These kids aren't paying attention; somehow I'm not holding their attention. It would seem that they are being intentionally disruptive, intent on destroying anyone else's opportunity to actually learn and have fun. In the height of the chaos, I get frustrated, but contain it as well as possible, hoping that a stern moment or two will scrae the bejaysus out of them and get them in line. So far, that hasn't worked. Then after they leave, I pack up and clean up feeling deflated. Bad kids, I say! You can see mischief in their eyes in class; you can see them thinking, how can I break the rules? What can I get away with?

But of course, it's not bad kids. You see these same children out in public with their parents and the devilish look is gone from their eyes, and they look innocent, vulnerable, full of love. You realize how lovable they are, and how much they want to love.

So how can we encourage an internal desire to "behave," an internal motivation to learn? How can we make them want to do the right thing? I'm sure the solution is to create a culture of compassion, a classroom in which they know that they are accepted, loved, and wanted.

If I ever figure out how to make that happen, I'll let you know. Every week, I'm trying something new and I'll keep going til I get these kids on target.

In the meantime, expect me to be making a bee line from school to the liquor cabinet every Friday at 3:45.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Navels and the Mobius Strip

Day 6.

Some days, it's perfectly inspiring to look at one's navel, to extrapolate and propound upon issues we believe are relevant to the Universal Navel. Other days, Aleppo, and the newly violent polarization that the presidential campaign has incited, win out. Held up against the unspeakable suffering of Aleppo, and the terrifying threat of a blind mob, that navel seems petty, vacuous, tedious, irrelevant. Yet these things whose gravity would seem to diminish the value of our daily struggles as artists may be the same things that make it so important that we persist.

Friday, October 14, 2016

How's the New Job?

Day 4 (ok, and 5).

Folks have been asking: How's the new job?

Well, teaching music to kindergarten and first grade is no easy task. The music part is relatively straightforward, but managing their behavior? Sometimes, but only to myself, I say: "It's hard. Real hard." To everyone else, I say: "I'm a beginner again. Eventually, I'll get it." I've vowed never to say "It's hard," just like I try not to say, "I'm so busy" ... because... yawn. Who cares? We're all busy. And life is hard for all of us.

Here's what I've been saying instead: It's a wild ride to be a beginner again. I left a career at the top of my game, when I felt like I was one of the very best at much of what I was doing. And then I started again, into a job where everyone else is pretty darn good at what they're doing, while I'm the trainee. New kid on the block at age 47.

Some class periods have been fabulous successes. Others have been abject failures. It's almost confidence-killing... that is, if you look at it that way. Here's another way to look at: We've done new things before, and we didn't die. We can do them again.

About five weeks into teaching, I've experienced some brief moments of reward, almost always overshadowed by "Oh sh$t, now what do I do with them?" Midway through my second month, the teeming mass of 72 arms and legs that is a classroom has slowly and loudly subsided into 18 individuals (times 7), and I know a lot of their names now.

Mind you, I'm nowhere near cruise speed, but I have faith that it's coming. Someday the captain will say I can now remove the seatbelt and recline. For now, I'm climbing to altitude speed and that's where the most fuel is burned. Seatbelt on, tray tables stowed safely in the seatback in front of me. Oh, I'm burning lots of fuel, and I can't wait 'til the flight attendant comes around with the drink cart. What sustains the flight for now: The ticket is bought and paid for. I know that I took a risk, made a massive change, and for the right reasons. Someday maybe the job will be rewarding too, but right now, perhaps rather than being on a climbing plane, it's more like I jumped off of it and am doing my best to enjoy the open air rushing by before the parachute opens ... not entirely knowing whether or not the parachute will open, but pretty damn sure it will.


It's hard, alright. And I'd highly recommend it. A good life is built on the faith that the parachute will open, and in the meantime, we will resolve to enjoy the freefall.