I’m an eclectic music listener and am always thrilled to be introduced to new music from any genre. Since I spent time at the Winnipeg Folk Festival this summer, I’m posting some new favorites from the year that lean toward the pop/folksy end of things, but here they are:
Good Old War: Indie band from Philadelphia. Their name is an almagation of the musicians’ names. They stated emphatically that it wasn’t an endorsement of war! Great outside performance at the festival. Current album: Come Back as Rain
Chastity Brown: Musician from Tennessee. I saw her at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, opening for Dar Williams. Her music really sticks with me. Current album: Back-Road Highways
De Temps Antan: French-Canadians out of Quebec. I remember very little high school French, but the energy and winning rhythms made this one of the more entertaining performances at the festival. The ability to play, sing and use tap boxes simultaneously was amazing. Current Album: Les Habits Des Papier
Royal Wood: Once I was done giggling about his name, I really enjoyed his performance in Winnipeg. Current Album: We Were Born to Glory
Dar Williams: Well-known pop/folk singer-songwriter. Saw her at the Cedar in Minneapolis. This song, about one of the costs of war, brought me to tears, but acoustic live performances always hit me differently. Current Album: In the Time of Gods
What new favorite songs or artists
did you discover this summer?
In high school, we were forced to take an assessment called the Career Occupational Preference Survey (COPS). It was supposed to define the possible kinds of work you might enjoy doing, based on your interests. I was directed towards engineering, public relations or education career clusters.
Nothing I do today remotely relates to any of those careers. My dream jobs run like this, in chronological order of when I thought “it would be awesome to be that when I grow up”: librarian, writer, English teacher, writer, architect, writer, spy, writer, accountant, writer, personal trainer, writer….you see where I’m going with this. Yes, I love to write. Will I be able to squeeze a career out of it? I can’t predict that, but writing does the thing that nothing else does. It allows me to be a little bit of everything, while justifying reading for hours on end as “career development”.
I recently re-read parts of Margaret Lobenstine’s The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One. I read it several years ago and it was an epiphany. If I had not read this book, my next step would be to have myself evaluated for ADD. Friends were being promoted in careers, finishing advanced degrees, building stable floors under their feet. I was still struggling to figure out what I wanted to do. I was seeing my desire for constant change as a weakness, because I seemed so wishy-washy compared to the solid citizens around me.
Over the years, I’ve halfheartedly committed to the writing life, but like a restricted diet, I assumed that the career of a writer had a formula and if I didn’t follow it, then it was my failure. You get an English or Journalism degree. You hang out with other writers in salons, exchanging bon mots and bed partners. You spill coffee on yourself while running to get the big story. You sit hour after hour plodding away at a typewriter, with a bin nearby overflowing with rejected copy. You write erotic prose after feeding your 500 cats, a neighborhood eccentric in a big floral hat. Or my personal favorite: you spend all your time brooding and drinking and smoking, while snarling angrily at publishers and readers alike. But they put up with you, because on paper, you’re genius.
After reading tons of “how to write”, “when to write” and “what to wear when you’re writing” bits of advice, I’m more convinced than ever that this is a way of life for me. No writer is consistent except that they write. Whether it’s after they’ve finished a triathlon or while they’re laying around in their underwear at 3p.m. nursing a hangover. You can know a little bit about everything or a lot about one thing. It doesn’t matter.
I still argue with myself whether I should get an MFA or set a timer on my desk so that I’m locked into writing time, but that’s just insecurity rearing its ugly head. I’m writing and I’m writing more consistently than I ever have in my life. I’m a jack of many trades and master of none, which is to say that I don’t know much about anything, but whatever I do know, I’ll be sure to write about it.
Like many parents who have spent the summer with their children, I’m counting down the hours before the start of school. I will also be participating in a school of sorts. Next week, I start a writers’ workshop that runs for a couple of months. I’ve attended writers’ workshops before and have a pronounced aversion to them.
The Loft Literary Center has, with a sheer stroke of agoraphobic genius (and for those of us who loathe trying to find parking downtown), added online workshops to its curriculum. No more trying to avert my eyes while listening to Lonely Dude’s awkward porn (did I date you?). No need to doodle while Ms. Trivial Pursuit details her pedicure and why it makes her feel oh so pretty. No more gritting teeth through “foreshadowing that solves your mystery on the first page” mysteries. I have to admit, I’m a really unhelpful workshop colleague. I have a problem that has plagued me most of my life. The human voice puts me to sleep. And when I must stay awake against my natural inclination to snooze, I get downright mean.
I have never been a particularly good student. When I started college after my Army stint, I was determined to be the student I thought I should be, but it only took one professor to put me into a coma. He was about 400 years old and read his lecture from a binder while sitting at a desk. His notes made a crinkly sound, dried from age and repeated use. It was Ancient Near Eastern History loaded up with Sobekhoteps and Mentuhoteps, so my class notes were neatly written for about half a notebook page before a single line slid down to the bottom of the page, ending with a spot of drool, like the period on an exclamation point.
Even in classes with charismatic teachers, it was only guaranteed that I would finish one page of notes before spending the rest of the time fidgeting, prying my eyelids open and imagining what various pairings of classmates would look like if they were to have sex. Hey – I’d rather be a mental perv than snort myself awake to an entire classroom of people staring at me. My fear was not exaggerated – it really happened to me. Twice.
My nodding off has not been limited to the academic world. I headed off into the business world engaged and enthused until the very first meeting – company orientation. I stayed focused long enough to figure out when I would get paid and where the table with the bagels was located. I dread meetings around conference tables, where everyone can see my head lolling and then snapping to attention as I try to keep myself awake. It’s sheer torture.
The only theory that I have about this problem, is that I like to fall asleep listening to books on tape and sometimes news on the radio. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, when I would hoard a little transistor under my pillow. As an adult, I listen to anything read by Jim Dale (the Harry Potter audiobook reader) or the news on NPR and I conk out. I’m no good in churches, concerts where there’s too much verbal “fill”, plays that don’t do frequent scenery changes and technology discussions with my husband (okay, that might be about the subject matter). I can read for hours on end, but read to me and you’ve got a small window before my nose starts softly whistling and my head flops forward.
Sometimes you just have to embrace your limitations and find solutions to work around them. The online forum might very well be the place I learn best. At the very least, I’m hoping to be a kinder, more professional workshop classmate. Just don’t expect me at any of your readings.
I have gazed at my navel. It is deep, but not unending. This is my 26th blog post and if I didn’t know myself, I’d refer myself to a good therapist. I’ve got another 5 drafts waiting to be rolled out. Conventional wisdom says that you should “write what you know”. Ouch. 5 posts down the road and I might be tapped out.
My blog posts started out meekly, touching lightly on subjects that I had an interest in but that were not as personal. Now I’ve got skin in the game. The ball has started rolling and I’m a little worried about where it might end up. I’ve only lived 45 years, so at some point I might need to be a real writer and come up with original, non-navel oriented writing. Frightening.
When I started researching blog writing, it was to meet a goal: do something, anything that would make me write regularly. I’m already discovering the pitfalls of having such a friendly community. You start to hunger for the numbers, the praise, the mere acknowledgement that what you are doing is enjoyable to others. You start imagining your words through other people’s eyes. You start editing with an audience in mind. Your voice shifts slightly with painful self-consciousness and your narcissism is rewarded for acting out. Writing starts to feel less natural, less enjoyable and more like work.
Maybe it’s my midwestern work ethics. I hunger for the struggle, the indicator that tells me I have earned what I have reaped. It’s not supposed to be easy or fun or fulfilling without the blood, sweat and tears. I have a feeling that the “struggling writer” portion of the program is about to begin. This is mildly better than the “starving artist” plan. All that navel gazing made me hungry.
My fantasy as a child was to have a house that was all mine, where I was safe and where all the other children and animals who needed homes would live as well (it was going to be a very, very big house). It would be a long time before I could claim that some part of my wishful thinking had become reality. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I lived in a house with a yard that I owned (with my much better half). Before that time, I lived in 7 rental properties, 9 barracks, an old school bus and a gas station undergoing a home conversion, with gas pumps as part of the landscaping.
During my elementary and middle school years, I lived in a converted office space above a main street tavern in a small town. I shared the irregular rooms with my 3 siblings and mother and stepfather. On any given night, we could look off the porch into the alley and see misdemeanors in the form of public urination. The best place to be was wherever home wasn’t – at the park, at a friend’s house and my personal hideout, in the stacks at the public library. Whether it was the close quarters or the alcoholism or sheer dysfunction, home did not feel safe. I learned to pack light. I would compulsively do an inventory of the paltry, but sentimental items that were mine and I would always know where they were in case I had to leave on a moment’s notice – a practice put to the test in conjunction with calls to the police.
Resourceful kids are made, not born. I sought my own shelter. There were the friends’ homes with the parents that seemed too good to be true, work where the restaurant owners took me under their wing, a bike that kept me in motion and a zillion extra curricular school activities. If I look at my high school yearbook, I don’t look like the shy and awkward nobody that I imagined I was. I was in track, speech, band, choir, school plays and musicals, and editor on both the newspaper and the yearbook. I wasn’t a social butterfly or civic-minded. I was seeking places where I could feel at home and be safe.
The ability to create my own safe haven has served me well over the years. I am an expert at packing and unpacking. I can travel light, which served me well in the military. I knew how to let go of possessions that were not important. The 12 years I’ve lived in this house in suburbia is the longest period of time I’ve spent in one place. I feel very fortunate to be able to live in a house, but I still live as if I’m ready to run. My possessions are centralized in one room, with my necessities in another. I still carry a shower bag, as if I’m living in a barracks. I’m territorial and defensive about the space I claim. My husband, who always had his own bedroom and spent his entire childhood in the same home, occasionally needs to remind me that certain rooms are “ours”.
I have had a lot of time to think about what having a home means and it has nothing to do with yards or ownership or age and everything to do with the feeling when you walk in the door – a sigh of relief, a deep exhale, a relaxing of tight shoulders, the dropping of bags, backpacks, luggage. It is sanctuary, an unburdening of the mind and body. I do not take it for granted, but I no longer lay awake at night, wondering if I’ll be living somewhere else tomorrow. While it is true that the only constant in life is change, I know what it means to be home and how to create that feeling anywhere I go. It’s the proverbial lemonade from living a life in motion.
Life is hard and sometimes it’s not the big events that make it so. Like a badly-played Jenga game, sometimes a week is mired in little frustrations stacked clumsily one upon another until all your intent to be mature and calm and put together comes crashing down around your ears. My intent this week was to be organized, efficient and productive. There’s a lot going on in our household, from remodeling to having company here to preparing for the start of the school year to senior care taking.
Frankly, life is feeling like a lot of straws on this camel’s back. Last weekend, I was stung by a yellow jacket wasp twice in our basement (a sure sign that we’ll be running a vacuum all fall trying to suck up the queens before they take permanent residence) and I got some sort of middle-aged sleep injury that feels like a torn muscle in my shoulder. My knee crumpled beneath me while doing a hip toss self defense move in taekwondo. It made a distinctly crunchy sound (ice, ice baby).
Yesterday the battery died in the car remote key, I stepped in cat barf after putting on clean socks, the Kikkoman soy sauce got knocked over in the fridge spilling on everything inside and out onto the floor and then I had to make a trip into downtown (hate driving there!) to pick up a sick husband. I try to give myself the “this is life, there are much worse things that can happen and isn’t it nice to be middle class with all these petty, minor complaints?” speech so I can “woman up” and move on with things.
The sports bra was really the last straw. For a mixed gender audience, let me just say that a sports bra, of the ilk that you can run and do fast round kicks in without knocking yourself out, is generally very snug and this particular kind is pulled over the head. This should not be attempted when half awake, slightly damp from a shower or in any attempt to look appealing to your significant other. They’re wonderful when on. It’s the getting there that really bites. After wrestling with what looked a tangled bungee cord around my armpits and neck, I finally gave in and had a good, blubbery cry. Now I can get on with things.
My company arrived last night. She is an old Army friend and has a son with a high degree of autism who is the same age as my daughter. He’s an escape artist – hence the quick remodel for a secure guest room. My friend was widowed when her son was a toddler. She’s struggled to take care of herself and her child over the years and despite whatever sense of failings she has about her parenting, he is a happy and safe child. She struggles with the need for constant flexibility – cancelled vacations, absent sitters, a child on the loose and her own personal grief about expectations gone awry. But the things that turn her day are just as small as things that turn mine – an evening of reading sabotaged by a rampant child, car troubles, a terrible recipe outcome, a backed up sink.
It’s good to have perspective and to even to develop a book series telling people not to sweat the little things, but it’s also okay to acknowledge that sometimes a stack of small things makes for a triple decker crappy day. I think it’s the denial, the peppy positive tag lines that make it so much worse. When I acknowledge that a sports bra can knock me down, that it’s just the kind of day I’m having, I’m already preparing to get back up. I’m rewriting the narrative for humorous retelling down the road. Perspective is good, but making someone else laugh with you about the silly, frustrating things that happen in daily life is magic.
My post from earlier this month, Midlife Rebellion (or Why I Decided to Get a Tattoo) got a little “Freshly Pressed” love and now I’m here to say it’s done, here’s a picture and here’s how it went down. Let me just get the obvious issue out of the way: ouch, ouch and #$%@ ouch! Yes, it hurt. This is an expected consequence for getting needles poked into your skin. It was manageable pain in the sense that I did not pass out, vomit or wail. Childbirth has a way of putting these things into perspective.
After filling out the requisite paperwork, showing my ID and approving a quick sketch, I waited in the studio’s reception area to be retrieved by the tattoo artist (tattooist? tattooer?). I had been referred to Shane Wallin, the owner of Twilight Tattoo in the Powderhorn neighborhood of south Minneapolis. His place is very, very mellow – from the anomaly of a small garden bed in front of the building to the warm earth-toned environment inside. Nice artwork, a clean setting, laid back staff – just a nice setup altogether. It gave me confidence that my tatted friends had not led me astray.
I sent Shane my idea for a tattoo in advance. I wanted something simple – a vine or tree representing my love of gardening and of my own personal growth, with my family’s initials worked into it. I wanted it on my inside forearm so I could see it. Thoughts of picking someplace hidden occurred to me briefly, but I did a trial run with some henna tattoos over the summer and decided that I liked it in plain view. He laid out the design for me and I asked that it be pulled back from the wrist a little for the option of a long sleeve cover up. I was thinking of funerals, which gives you my frame of mind for this appointment.
When I get nervous or anxious, I am unnaturally calm and quiet. I’d like to think I’d quickly develop rapport with someone preparing to poke me with needles, but my anxiety was pounding in every vein in my body and I could barely make eye contact, much less conversation. Shane was quiet and polite and got down to business quickly. When he said “Ready?”, I could barely answer as my eyes had been hypnotized by the big ass needles he had just ripped out of sealed packages. My mother and a nurse had to hold me down when I was 9 just to prick my finger for blood. Let’s see how me and the big ass needles play out.
During my research on tattoos, I read that the wrist and near the inside elbow crease would be painful due to all the nerve endings. This turned out to be fact for me and when he started at my wrist, I thought that I would have to wrap up the show early and leave with a solo leaf. The pain decreased as he worked his way up the arm – not sure if that was my adrenalin kicking in or a location issue. I didn’t watch him work for most of the time, but focused on breathing. Then he did that top leaf outline near the elbow and I was yelping in my head like one of those people trapped in their bodies who are only able to blink to indicate that they were still alive. Okay….breathe….I’m sure he’ll be done any minute.
The “problem” with going to someone good at their craft is that they take the time to do a good job. He kept psyching me out by carefully looking over his work and deciding something needed to be better. He’d set one needle down and I’d look up like an eager Labrador. We’re done, we’re done, right, we’re done? Then Shane would pick up the other needle gun thingy (yeah, my research didn’t involve much terminology) and do some more work. Finally it was done, he gave me the care instructions, I paid and headed for home.
I have to say I really, really like it. Which is probably a good thing. Since it’s a tattoo and all.
I have to decide what to do with my grandfather’s military uniform jackets. When he passed away several years ago, my grandmother hesitated about giving them to Goodwill, so I asked for them. I knew he valued the wool jackets with worn patches. They were to him what a wedding dress is for a woman – a barometer of youth and golden days. He was so proud that he could fit into them after a grandma-induced diet, that he modeled them for me whenever I visited.
My grandfather was an old-fashioned gentleman, born into a Midwestern upper middle class family with all the sensibilities and prejudices that came of the time. He was kind to his family, though, tolerating a monsoon of estrogen and talk about “feelings”. I think he was relieved when I got married, if only to have one more player for the men’s team.
For many years, he was a book salesman, traveling all over the Midwest. He told funny stories with enthusiasm and wonderful accents. He loved to tell jokes. After I joined the Army, he was relieved that he finally had someone to talk to about his military experience. He’d tell anecdotes from his stints in the Navy and the Army, about customers he’d met on the road and about an idyllic childhood in Illinois.
Big band music was his bailiwick. He would make tapes of the music he loved, recording himself as the DJ in between songs. Standing in the kitchen with his finger near the pause and rewind buttons, he’d say, “Listen to this part, kiddo.” He wanted me to hear what he heard, to not miss a trumpet solo or drum flourish. When I was younger, I learned to play Glenn Miller, Hoagy Carmichael and Tommy Dorsey on my flute (small band music!) and we’d play “Name that Tune”.
My grandfather also helped me learn the value of civility and respect. He was from a different time – we argued about women in combat, gay rights, economic and foreign policy, exchanging several long and heated letters over the years about our beliefs. It never changed our regard for each other. It was never nasty or mean or irretrievably damaging to our relationship. It was okay to disagree and still like each other.
I grew up abandoned by a father and living in fear of an alcoholic stepfather. My grandfather was there, walking me down the aisle when I got married and then years later, listening to my talkative toddler while she sat on his lap. In a family where men have not come off well, my grandfather was the guy who redeemed them all.
I mourn him now more than ever. My family of origin is extraordinarily private, insular and can be counted on one hand. There was no memorial or celebration of my grandfather’s life. There was no way for me to say goodbye or shed tears. One day he was just gone, with nary a whisper in the universe.
It is human nature to want to leave an indelible mark, to pass on a part of ourselves – to know that we mattered. Sometimes this is what drives us to have children, to work so hard at a career or even to write a blog. Most of us will never pass this way again and only live on in the memories and hearts of the people who loved us.
In a family as fractured as mine, so many memories have been forever lost. There are some memories no one wants to retain, but in the case of my grandpa, I will be his standard bearer. I will write about him, tell my daughter the jokes and stories, keep records, do my best to be a caretaker of the things that were important to him. He mattered in a way that all good people should. Not loudly, but immeasurably.
His tumbledown end began with one stroke followed by another. One of our last phone calls ended abruptly, as I began to cry while he struggled to speak, an effort that surely exhausted him. I miss his stories, even though I heard them a hundred times. I miss his presence in the world. The music he loved so much will remain on my playlist and I will hear him saying “listen to this, kiddo”.
For now, I’ll carefully store his jackets, so that someday, someone else will have to wonder what to do with them and recall the stories and music and that he was loved by me. And the beat goes on.
My husband and I laughed at the antics of our 8 year old daughter when she discovered “Hogan’s Heroes” on YouTube. Lately, she’s been digging an underground bunker in our backyard, as witnessed by the muddy hand prints on every door knob in our house. She is, like her father, an inventor of sorts and loves all the gadgets and tricks in this TV show. We laughed when she stomped around saying “I know nothing!” in a German accent. I stopped laughing when she asked me what “Heil Hitler” meant.
I’ve been fairly restrictive about television habits. A few inappropriate shows have slipped through. She loves snuggling up with her dad to watch “Cops” (I cringe as I write this). When she gets caught doing something naughty, I sometimes sing “Bad girl, bad girl, watcha gonna do?” Supervised television watching leads to less appropriate shows for her, but it also means we’ve had some great conversations about things that don’t happen in everyday life. I’ve rationalized lazy parenting as an educational tool. I have skills.
When she asked me what “Heil Hitler” meant, I was immediately conflicted by what tone the conversation should take. I imagined having to explain to the principal why my daughter was pretending to be a Nazi at recess. She is watching a fictional comedy about a POW camp during WW II – historical events with no context. The question is, how much context do you give an 8 year old? I loved this show growing up, but as an adult, I know too much history to enjoy it anymore. I’ve read WW II history books, seen the concentration camp at Dachau near Munich and visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Any humor seems much, much too soon.
I haven’t had the classic “watch out for evil strangers” talk with her. I know that evil is often mundane – a family member on the fringe, a quiet neighbor down the street, a helpful teacher or coach. There is no way to tell your child about true evil without giving them nightmares and skewing their view of the world around them. We know that statistically speaking, most people are trying to be decent human beings. I don’t want her to see every stranger as a potential pervert or any gesture of kindness as a threat – that’s my job. Our focus has always been trying to teach her to listen to her own warning system, which gives us a false sense of security. What warning system? Until now, the tense tone in mom’s voice before she starts bellowing is the only kind of “danger” she’s had to deal with. How do you explain Hitler?
As an adult, I’m jaded. In the complicated and frequently re-written tapestry of history, evil comes in all shapes and sizes. Nationality, religion, relationships – these dividers have no relevance when it comes to humans’ ability to be cruel to other humans. But I also know the heroic stories and the amazing things that humans have done. I have a sense of balance and karma. This is what I must give to my daughter – a balanced view of the world. So, I have cautiously explained that Hitler was a very bad man who led a lot of people to hurt other people. In her terms, Hitler is Voldemort. The US Military, the French Resistance, Oscar Schindler and others like him – they are all part of Dumbledore’s Army. It feels like a lie, since history is not so easily divided into good and evil, but it’s harder to explain that the world is full of Umbridges and Snapes. People are not always as they appear.
As my daughter matures, I look forward to having progressively grayer conversations. If she learns that not everything can so easily be labelled and divided and set on opposite sides, her critical thinking skills will sharpen and that will make her a better citizen in the world. Until then, I need to stick with the truths that she can understand, but ones that won’t keep her up at night. Tossing and turning over the dangers she’ll face in the world – that’s my job.