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! 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!


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:


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.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sometimes you just have to start.

Day 3. 

Today, instead of writing for 10, I did something else I've been putting off for about five weeks. A bulletin board for my music classroom. I love making things, painting, and decorating. Yet I just couldn't get to this little project. Why? WHY!?!?!?

Well, perhaps my initial idea was too big, too elaborate. I was going to follow the school's ocean theme by creating fish out of musical instruments. A saxophone/eel. A guitar/fish. A bodhran/flounder. Brilliant! And yet I couldn't get started. Plus, I have never actually made a bulletin board for a first grade music classroom. So there's that.

But it is important. See, two of my first grade classes are problems. The kids are all wonderful, but I'm having a hard time keeping order. My colleague suggested that I decorate the room so it will "feel" more like music. Great idea. Last week, I resolved I wouldn't go through another week without at least some music decoration in that room.

Today is my only open block to do any of that sort of work, but I had made other plans for the morning. I had stuff to do. Pack a bag for Soul Fry's after-school swim. Ignore the dishes in the sink (which is a BIG project... it takes days.) Sit in and help out in the classroom that I'm having trouble with, during their regular day. Lots of things, see? Important things.

I was ready to rush out the door, and I remembered my bulletin board. My coat was on. My bag was packed. Then I thought, well, how about make a few music notes out of construction paper and at least stick them on the board? Ok.

Then, I did that and realized I had five notes. The word music has five letters. Ok, draw the letters in the noteheads.  That'll only take a minute or two. Then I thought, hey... I have music room rules. I made one little paper cloud for each rule, matching the color of the notehead it corresponds to.

Then, I thought, I need singers. I drew singers. Then I thought, gosh, these singers need bodies not just heads. So I made five shirts.

And then I was done. I stuck everything into an envelope and rushed out the door, and the rest of the day has proceeded as normal. That took about 10 minutes. And I have what I think turned out to be a half decent bulletin board....

Bulletin board, sweet bulletin board, be it ever so humble. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ode to the Maturing Overachiever

Day 2. 

Well. You'd think 10 minutes was easy, wouldn't you? 

Not at all. Day 2, and already I forgot, all day, that I was supposed to write today. Now it's 10:00 pm (past my bedtime), I've had my nightcap, spent time with Soul Fry and Mini Fry, and am in bed in a dark room, illuminated only by the cold blue glow of the brand new Mac laptop I just bought today. (Tools of the trade, needed for day job, no luxury, not to be celebrated, nothing to see here, move on ladies and gentlemen.)

And now for the third paragraph, where the story actually begins:

Today's theme? Focus. In that fateful coffee chat the other day, the meeting that inspired this modest writing campaign, my young writer friend pointed to another thing that was getting in the way of her writing: She's interested in too many things, and she only has so much time. She wants to do it all, and sometimes that gets in the way of doing just about anything. What to pick?

She asked me whether the urgency to do just about everything in life fades as one gets older. I told her no; it doesn't go away for some of us. Because I still want to do everything, I said. But two days later, I am rethinking that statement. Actually, I was wrong. And other creative women I've run into lately are having similar realizations. We are actually no longer interested in doing everything (because it doesn't work) and wish to focus.

One musician colleague of mine today told me that she had her epiphany somewhere in her early 40s. She had been working several jobs: teaching during the day, teaching privately on the side, and serving as the lead singer in her own successful local band. At age 43, she realized that she didn't want to work so much any more. So she quit the side jobs, took a significant hit in income, and focused on her teaching. (And her professional athletic career. Serious. Very serious.) And today, she's very happy.

Then just a couple hours later, I ran into a friend as she was rushing to a choir rehearsal that she was leading. She is the director of fine arts for a very large local school district, a teacher herself, the music director at a bustling local church, and is running a production of a musical at the moment. Oh, and managing two young kids. And going through a divorce. And somewhere in her 40s. Worn to the bone, pulled in too many directions, and feeling a little untethered, she melted into tears as we talked. She's just worn out. Incredibly talented, full of energy, but doing too much. Not enough time to center herself. Aware of the problem, unsure of what to leave off, leave out. Too many hours spent doing too many things, all of which she loves. She knows that maybe she could get help from friends if she asked... if she could only find the time to sit down and identify what it is that she needs help with.

How long would it take? 10 minutes, perhaps?

Today was a day when I met highly successful women in their mid-40s who are feeling ready to do just a few things and do them well. That might be the benefit of maturity: You start to identify the persistent themes. The things that matter most. Possibly, you start to feel less fractured, because you start to eliminate the detritus and focus on the most important things, even if you seem to only have 10 minutes a day to do it.

How will you spend your 10 minutes today?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Just Ten Minutes.

My buddy and I yesterday met for coffee. We both have recently made big job changes. Mine, by choice. Hers, by layoff. Both of us are writers at heart, and both of us have young kids... hers younger than mine. I share some of my overflow editing work with her, so we were meeting to talk about upcoming projects and the possibility of formalizing the relationship as an official business. The conversation turned to writing. As it does.

I have a completely myopic belief that all editors are actually writers who chose editing in order to actually make a decent living. Editors get paid far more than writers generally, and it's an hourly wage. Writers, who shoulder all the creative responsibility, are the ones sitting up all night worrying whether they can pull it off before tomorrow's deadline. In contrast, editors get to read, grump about all the things that are wrong, and then go home at 5:00 at Friday to a predictable paycheck and a big, smug glass of red wine.

I asked her why she thinks we are trying to start an editing business when we actually want to write. Well, we need to make a living, we agreed. And editing pays better. But is that enough? Of course not. The creative muse is more nudgy than a seven year old. Even when we tell it no, it keeps asking and asking and asking and asking and asking until we want to explode. We had a longer-than-fun conversation about all the things that get in the way of a writing practice. Kids. Work. Kids. Mostly kids. Being with our husbands. Cooking, cleaning, weaving and spinning, music, and also kids. And money. And on and on it went. All the reasons why not. Far more numerous than reasons why.

I had similar issues when I was working my full-time job at a music college the last five years, when I felt I had no time to practice music myself. Too busy. Working too much. Kids needed mom when mom was home. Lots of freelance editing work. All of it was real. I convinced myself at the time that "it wasn't the season" for music in my life, those five years. Well, I guess it wasn't. But I have a suspicion that maybe, just MAYBE, I could have made the time, and I would have felt just a tad more satisfied. I could have done it. I think we all can.

The secret: Lowering our expectations. And so my friend and I agreed to a simple, doable discipline moving forward... let's lower our expectations. Yes, it does take 25 minutes for the brain to get fully engaged in a project. (Excuse!) But we don't have 25 minutes, so let's just make it 10. Let's write for 10 minutes a day, and then we can say we are still writers.

And here we are.

Look at the time. 10 minutes is up. Gotta go wake the kid.