Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A Prayer for Advent

Oh God,

We are coming through this period of Advent, this period of waiting, of traffic at the mall, credit cards posed; overwhelmed with the love we have for our friends and families, yet still feeling everything we have to give is inadequate.

Even in the midst of our loving family we can feel alone. We miss the ones who are not here, wondering how Christmas can still be Christmas without them, We wonder how we will make it through the trials ahead’: January and February loom long, dark and cold.

But along with the fear, there is a branch of hope. We are incurably wounded and grieving, our heads in our hands, yet still peering through our fingers at the late rising sun on an unimaginably cold morning.

And then, quite unexpectedly, we hear the birthday songs of the new baby, this child whom we approach with tenderness and wonder. We see our own children light up with simple joy, and we remember what it’s like to be light again. We feel the stirring of green shoots in our own hearts, straining toward the faint light of a candle, the rose gold beams of the dawning sun. And we thank you for the fact that no victories are ever won except by this slow tender growth, this steady sun, your immutable gaze, your compassionate forgiveness, daily bread. And we see that you have patiently waited for us all our lives.

So today, we will wait for you.


Friday, December 17, 2004

The Sky in Mid December

The sky at four o'clock on December sixteenth. The sky in mid December when the front shifts from subhuman pre-deep freeze (so cold one breath goes straight to your brian and holds it in a nump clasp, not quite friendly, not quite lethal) to something more human, more gentle; still cold but just enough to be grateful for fires. The sky in mid December just before sunset, blue at the top, marked. Streaked with plane lines, exhausted plane tails trail by a saucy crescent of a moon--the moon just another white mark. The sky in mid December with the naked trees shimmying their branches black black against the sky like the fingers of African dancers. The sky in mid December when the light is fading and the rim red blaze hits the hills to the west and you almost miss it.

You almost miss it because you are filling your gas tank. You almost don't look twice as you're filling your gas tank at the Gibb's station next to the Polish deli. You almost don't look twice when the best part of you notices the sky. You almost space out and keep the gas pump going with the heel of an old high heeled shoe you keep in the backseat for just this purpose: so you can disengage from the pondorous act of filling your gas tank. You could disengage, turn your back, walk a few feet and make a call on your cell phone. But instead you fight through the sickening moment, the moment of engagement and you hold your gaze steady on the scene, as a body surfer off the coast of New Zealand holds the wave; as a climber grips the hold in the rock face; as a prize fighter takes the blows as he waits for the opponant to wear out; as a woman pants through the contraction. Your job is so much easier and the very most hard.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

And This Should Be Done While Taking A Vigorous Walk

Thanksgiving was full of thanks and full of giving. In my cynical past, I sometimes thought of Thanksgiving as a cruel prelude to The Festival Of Anxiety Where You Spend Money You Don't Have Trying To Please The People In Your Life With Whom You Have the Most Complicated And Loaded Relationships, AKA Christmas. Thanksgiving, in my mind, was Christmas Lite. The food wasn't as good (remember I am not a turkey fan) and the pressure wasn't as high. The ground was still bare and the pumpkins might still be rotting on the porch.

Let me tell you about Thanksgiving this year. Collect, if you will, in your mind, a family where the term "taking a nap" is as titillating and as shameful as some sexual acts. Where high achievements go hand in hand with sainthood and where conversation routinely is taken to include only discussion of Things That Matter: the state of the world-physical, political, ecological, artistic-- the state of your soul. MAYBE the Red Sox. And this should be done while taking a vigorous walk.

We are: a top Washington DC lawyer, two kick ass US history teachers, two nationally ranked tennis players, three professional folk rock musicians, a real estate mogul cum internet savant, a reporter for the nation's number one celebrity magazine. And that's just the under five crowd. (I'm not counting Dave's parents who are even MORE impressive They showed up later in the weekend, leaving at 2am when they heard their future grandchild was on the way, arrived at the hospital at 5:15 and stayed until 9:30am. They had to go back to NYC because Dave’s mother was staring in a play, and she had a matinee at 2pm.)

We get up and go. We Do it Now. We succeed. We are productive.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love these people more than I love any people on earth, and I believe I would even if I weren't related to them. They are funny, intense, sincere, interesting folk. They have huge warm hearts. Once, a friend told me, right after meeting my parents, "Oh, Nerissa, they are like gods! They shimmer with gold!" I am so proud to be a member of my family. I look forward to visits and feel sad when they're over. I call them up, instant message with them, tell them of my triumphs and woes. They listen and commiserate, encourage and cheerlead. In short, I am deeply blessed and did not deserve any of this.

But there is one thing that does not come naturally to Nieldses (nor to some of their significant others). We do not feel exactly comfortable with unscheduled unplanned time. We like to Know. We like the Plan. Especially if it's MY plan, and not, say, my mother's plan. So vacations of yore were spent hiking all forty six of the Adirondacks high peaks, driving all over Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland to see AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE in two weeks, playing tennis, golf, etc.

As I said in an earlier post, I have never hosted Thanksgiving. The morning came, and Tom and I stuffed the turkey (a small, free range one) and roasted two ducks, cut up purple potatoes, made a coffee chocolate cheesecake, steamed some green beans with almonds. At one point, I looked at my watch and said, "It's time to grieve my losses," and pulled out a journal from three years ago when I was single on Thanksgiving. The desert years. Tom had them too, those years when you can be smack dab in the middle of your family and feel a million miles away. I showed him a picture of me, a group photo, and I am indeed smack dab in the center, with a big grin on my face, because God forbid I appear unhappy about the fact that my eleven year marriage was over and I was single. So we took a break and I cried, and man, did that feel good.

My family began to arrive: my sister Abigail with her husband Mark and the twins, just seven months old. My beautiful parents. My pregnant sister Katryna and Skinny Dave (he gave up Nasty Orange Circus Peanuts). Amazing Amelia who is no longer afraid of Cody the No Longer Barking Dog (we trained him! Ask me how!) We gathered the food, we lit some candles even though it was broad daylight. We read a couple of Bible passages, one from Micah: “For what does God ask of us but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God?” and Matthew: “Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not nor do they spin, yet even Solomon was not arrayed as one of these.” We went around the table and said what we were thankful for, what we were sad about and what we wished for the world. We ate and laughed and cried and loved each other.

Then the most amazing thing happened. We did nothing for about two days. We sat around and held babies and chatted took digital photos of each other and played unscheduled silly games, like Attaturk and Balderdash. We went to see Ben Demerath and Northern Lights at the Iron Horse. We went for walks in the park and to the playground at the YMCA. We hung out. Pre-scheduled C-Sections aside, one cannot rush a baby. Katryna sat among us like a queen, gently helping Amelia into her Princess shoes (pink with sparkles), pontificating on the merits of cranberry sauce with horseradish, and kicking ass in Attaturk. Occasionally she’d have a contraction and we’d get all excited, but Wednesday, Thursday and Friday all came and went with no visit to the hospital. We were at the mercy of the smallest and least productive us of all, and we were enjoying that.

There is a term a writer in one of my workshops named Elizabeth taught me: Fikka. It’s a Swedish word meaning “to have coffee and pastry and conversation.” My aunt Elizabeth, the potter from upstate NY has a similar term called “Argy Bargy.” That’s what we got to do over Thanksgiving weekend. We fikka’d. We argy bargied. And then at 5 am on Saturday morning, Tom and I got a call from Dave: “Come meet someone,” he said. We threw on our clothes and ran across the street to meet William John Chalfant, infant extraordinaire, sure to be great and accomplished, even if all he ever does is sit around and fikka.

Not that there weren’t accomplishments during the weekend. Well, of course, Katryna had a pretty serious accomplishment, and you might say that William, having been born, accomplished something somewhat significant. Also, seven month old Emmett crawled his first steps (or are they “kneps?”) and Abigail won the Balderdash tournament. (At least I think Abigail won. All I know is that I didn’t.)

At church the Sunday before, Stephen preached about the passage in Mark where Jesus gets told during one of his big Pow Wows where he’s preaching and healing and making miraculous things happen, that his mother and brothers are waiting to see him.
(Mark 3:33-35.) “And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.’"
The sermon was about families of choice and is a comforting theme this time of year. Even Jesus had family problems-they thought he was crazy for much of his life and he wasn’t able to perform miracles in his home town because of their unbelief. Like I said earlier, I realize how rare and remarkable and wonderful it is to have a family whom I believe in. I’m not wise enough to presume they are doing the will of God, but I do know they are doing the best they can, that they make me laugh, that they hold me when I cry and that they are all continuing to grow. And for all this, and so much more, I continue to be thankful.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Opinions on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is coming, and for the first time in my adult life, I am hosting the big Turkey meal. There’s one problem: I don’t like turkey. (I like duck). I know I will receive lots of opinionated e-mails for saying this, but I’m a brave lady, and right this moment, there is no one in my sight. Therefore, I have the illusion that I can say whatever I want with impunity. So here goes: Turkey is pathetically inadequate compared to any other variety of poultry (especially duck.) It’s practically all white meat, and its legs and wings are bizarrely gigantic. In order to keep it from being dry, one has to baste it all morning or afternoon long. You have to put the rack in your oven down to the bottom and you can’t cook much of anything else in there while your turkey roasts. And what if it’s underdone by mealtime? Did I mention I have a phobia of food not being ready on time when throwing a dinner party? Did I mention my phobia of having people judge my housecleaning/cooking/hostessing skills in general? Especially my mother and assorted female relatives?

The good friends I turn to for advice when it looks likely that I might start making bad decisions said this: “Don’t try to please everyone at Thanksgiving. Everyone has his or her own favorite traditions from childhood. You will not be able to replicate them all. Just do your best and make sure the food is fresh and not burned. Try to have fun. And don’t overwhelm yourself.”

So what did I do? I sent out a group e-mail to my family (fourteen of them, going on fifteen—as of this writing Baby November is still not born). Among the many questions I asked was “When should we have the meal? Lunch or dinner?” Those family members who are parents of young children (my sisters and brothers-in-law) opted for noon; it’s too much of a hassle for them to try to eat a fancy meal at any time approaching bed time (5:30-midnight, in the case of Amelia, Emmett and Reese). But my parents said they wanted the meal at dinnertime. They said a lunchtime meal would knock them out and they wouldn’t have the energy for touch football, our family tradition (naturally).

I also foolishly mentioned my aversion to turkey in the family newsletter (“Why do people even bother with the whole buy/freeze/thaw/cook for twelve hours nightmare? Can’t we just pick the frozen bits out of the turkey pot pie?”) And received mostly agreeable feedback and votes for the much tastier and easier to cook duck, which I had proposed as the alternative. “Hooray for duck!” wrote one family member. “A much better national bird! Although both birds resemble our president: he IS a turkey and he ducks all the issues!”

However, one family member who shall remain nameless and unidentifiable said--poignantly but annoyingly--“if it’s not a horrible imposition, I’m a huge fan of a small, but whole turkey-one of my traditions is hacking off a leg and eating it.”

This one lone sentence sent me into a tailspin of despair and rampant people pleasing. For now I will have to serve turkey AND what Tom has taken to calling “duckey.” In the middle of the night, I am tormented by visions of me on Thanksgiving morning, basting, sweating, hacking at poultry, the duck undercooked, the turkey overcooked—or vice versa. And what about the apple pie? And the chocolate coffee cheesecake? And the garlic mashed potatoes for my parents but garlic free mashed potatoes for Katryna? And the green beans with almonds for Dave but almond free green beans for Abigail? And should there be a paper turkey centerpiece? Tom wants cranberry sauce in a can and to make sure that the can lines are clearly visible. Wait-- shouldn’t we acknowledge the genocide of the Indians at this point in time? And what about the Electoral College? Should it be abolished or not? My mother says yes, my sister Abigail says no. They are both brilliant students and teachers of US History, and if we don’t take this particular opportunity to have them each debate the merits of the system, we will have lost some crucial porthole into The Next Phase of our Republic. Why oh why did I ask anyone what they wanted? Why did I have to make this a democracy when a dictatorship has served hostesses of Thanksgiving perfectly well for almost four hundred years? Did the Indians ask the pilgrims if they liked corn pudding?

In the middle of the night, these thoughts swirl through my poor tired mind, alongside visions of Iran going nuclear, Condaleeza Rice taking over Colin Powell’s job, Tom DeLay getting away with criminal acts and poor John Kerry eating Chinese take out in his Senate office because he’s too ashamed and depressed to join his colleagues at the Capitol Hill luncheon. In the middle of the night, I carry on arguments with people who call themselves Christians and also voted for Bush. I point to all the Bible passages that support my side. I show them images of the powerless and downtrodden and beg them to have mercy. I dream of powerful men becoming impotent and crumbling into the arms of a loving God. I get it that we cannot come to God with our minds. It’s got to be our hearts. And no one can drag us there. I’m not even sure it’s a choice.

If my family can’t even agree on a time to have the Thanksgiving meal, what hope is there for peace for the world?

One of my favorite quotations of all time is by A.J. Muste, the great activist for peace in the 20th Century. He said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Peace is a lot harder than the alternatives. Staying with people you disagree with is one of the most difficult things to do, and as history marches on, the whole notion of staying seems to become less and less appealing. Isn’t that one of the messages of 1620 and The New World? If you don’t like the people you’re with, sail across the ocean and found a colony. Or get in a covered wagon and ride across the plains, found a homestead. If you don’t like your relatives, go to a spa for the holidays. If you don’t get along with your partner anymore, move out, move on.

Are we letting our compromising muscles atrophy? When do we acquiesce and cook two different birds? When do we say, instead, “I’m sorry. I know you’ll be disappointed, but it’s going to be duck instead of turkey.” I am curious about this process, and something convinces me that arriving at some answers in myself is the route to arriving at the answers for the greater community.

A few days after the election, a group of us gathered for potluck, singing and debriefing about the way things went down on November second. We sat in a circle and shared war stories (funny that we call them that, isn’t it.) One person had been a part of a program that brought the conversation across party lines, asking questions instead of arguing. And it occurred to me that the old truth that you can’t change anyone—they have to change themselves—might hold true for the political discussions as well. In my whole life of debating and arguing (the local pastime where I grew up, inside the Beltway of Washington DC) I have never once, in all my brilliance and determination and terrier-like adhesion to pet issues, EVER convinced anyone to believe what I believe. And the same holds true for me—no one has EVER been able to convince me of anything through intellectual arguments. The only time I’ve ever changed my own mind about some issue is when I’ve been asked questions, gently, when the questioner is full of non judgmental curiosity. As in, “What’s wrong with turkey? What if you got it pre cooked?”
“Hmm,” I would say, “That’s okay then. In fact, that’s a great idea.”

To counteract the swirling thoughts and the insomnia, Tom and I are hosting a project called Journaling For Peace. It will be an eight week course starting with a Day of Peace at our house in Northampton, where we will practice talking and writing and thinking from our own centers, our own hearts. Where we practice listening. Tom’s been trained as a mediator, a practice that’s all about finding the space in your self where compromise is possible, poking around at all the firmly held beliefs to see if there’s a little wiggle room. For instance, you might be passionately pro choice but not chose to have an abortion yourself, when the time came. Or you might be passionately pro life but rethink the matter when your sister’s life is threatened by a pregnancy. You might really like duck a lot, but if faced with the task of cooking it yourself on Thanksgiving morning versus reading the New York Times, you might decide turkey would be just fine after all. You get to see which is your attachment to essential truths and which is your attachment to being right. Those are rarely the same thing.

What if, instead of telling my conservative friend who thinks the Bible is the literal word of God and that George W. Bush has been chosen by God to save us from the scourge of Satan in the person of Saddam Hussein—what if instead of telling that person, gently but firmly that he is irrational and wrong, what if instead of that, I started to ask questions: “Why? Oh. Interesting. Tell me more.” What if I sat for a half an hour and without making rude faces or rolling my eyes, actually listened, as if I were listening to a friend whom I loved, telling me she really thought the Bay City Rollers were a better band than the Beatles? At the age of seventeen, I would have divorced this friend. At thirty-seven, I can forgive her ignorance and poor taste. What if I treated my Republican friend the same way? (Without my characteristic patronizing superiority—which is my gift.) Would the world really end if I let him keep believing his delusion? Probably not. And maybe he would, after getting to talk all he wanted without interruption, for half an hour, maybe he would return the favor and start asking me some questions. Either way, I would change. Either way, I would get to have my tight fist opened and begin to acknowledge that perhaps I might not have all the answers.

It’s so hard to know when to quite kicking and screaming about this election. Some days I want to give up, shrug my shoulders, say, “I lived through Reagan, I can live through Bush II,” and delete all the messages in my in box. Some days I want to weep about Tom DeLay getting away with his crimes against Democracy. Almost every day I feel powerless. Was there voter fraud? If there were, would I feel any better? One friend says the idea that the Republicans stole this election is comforting because then they’re not really in the majority. Another friend says the opposite: “Face it, we’re in the minority. I’m moving to Toronto where people think like me.”

What I’m hoping to get out of the eight week course, Journaling for Peace, is a place within me where I can rest in the knowledge that peace is possible. That change is possible. As that old hymn goes, “Let there be peace on earth and let peace begin with me.”

At the Cheer Up Post 11/2 party, our friend, Hal, read us this article by Michael Ventura from the Austin Chronicle last week: “Don't demonize people who disagree with you. That's how Bush and Cheney behave. Behavior is more important than belief. What does belief matter, if your behavior apes your enemy's? Behavior shapes reality. Belief merely justifies reality. Demonization creates demons. Your enemies are as human as you are. If you treat them that way, the outcome may surprise you.”

I want to learn how to shape reality through my behavior. What better use of my time is there? And what better way of practicing Thanksgiving?

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Musings Post 9/11/01

I am putting together a curriculum for an on line class called Journaling for Peace. After the Great Computer Crash of October Oh Four, I had to do some archeology of my own, sifting through old CDs of burned information to see what remained of my previous thoughts. I came across this peace, which seemed relevant.

Written October 2001:

I found it physically impossible to watch more than about three minutes of TV a day for the past few weeks. I think the human brain is not equipped to handle the information we were bombarded with day after day, or more like hour after hour. Yet like others, I found it strangely compelling, as if the watching of it would render it unreal, like the footage of Independence Day I'd thought it was when I first saw it. When I heard that the footage of the Palestinian kids dancing in the street that was shown ad nauseum on CNN was actually taken in 1991, I gave up on the commercial media. Since then, I’ve gleaned almost all of my information via the internet.

Dar pointed out to me that we really have to see the reaction to Sept. 11 as a victory for our own increased understanding of the complexities of cultures, religions, those who do things differently from the “traditional American family.” We have a new awareness that we CAN’T use violence to end violence. We now understand that the people of Asia are people we or our good friends have visited, lived with, learned from. That so many of us received countless versions of a petition awakening us to the horrors inflicted on Afghani women by the Taliban. We already knew that bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age, as some Bush officials suggested in those first terrifying hours after the bombings would only shuffle the rubble around.

Like many people, I am angry. Sometimes it’s hard to know with whom I am angry. Sometimes I’m angry with the unknown terrorists and sometimes I’m angry with the USA for being so rich and careless and cruel to the rest of the world. When something like this happens; when one is hurt, one gets angry. That’s a natural reaction.

I am a pacifist. And I think one of the greatest mistakes of the pacifist movement had made is to show a face of anger towards this country, its government, its people. It is easy to dismiss me when I am so angry that my face is contorted. It's easy to dismiss me when I’m chanting slogans. It’s easy to dismiss me if I look like a freak. It’s much harder to dismiss calm, reasoned individuals who have gathered together to gently suggest-or even insist on-peace.

We are the luckiest people on earth to be born to this land of plenty and opportunity. I believe it’s our responsibility to share our good fortune with each other and the rest of the world’s population.

I can’t believe it’s God’s will that thousands of people died. I can’t believe it’s God’s will that Israel should be covered in blood. The acts on Sept. 11 were the acts of people who believed they were doing God’s will. Theological questions are at the center of this. Once again, I am reminded that every issue and question at its core is a spiritual issue or question.

We should respond carefully and thoughtfully. It is not effective to kill a mosquito with an AKG. What is the point of bombing a country where the women are so disempowered they are not even allowed to show their noses? We should pray for our leaders and we should pray for the movement that sent these terrorists. We are all one. I certainly didn’t vote for George W. Bush, and I am no fan of his. But if he brings peace—true peace—-no one will be more grateful or more supportive than I.

Like all of you, I've been shocked and depressed and confused. But what's true for me always is true for me today. True North is smiling at people I pass on the street, keeping in touch with my family and friends, being grateful for the beautiful cloudbank over the Connecticut river at 7am, walking my dog through the cornfields down by the river and watching her hop over the squash vines. Rubbing her ears even if I'm so stressed that I see her innocent ignorant puppiness as irritating rather than winsome. Fearing the worst will not make your last days on earth happy ones. Not that these are the last days on earth, but if they were to be, I'd rather spend them laughing and dancing than frozen in fetal position in my closet. The Dalai Lama said:

"The Chinese took my homeland, burned our monasteries and killed our families. Am I to let them take my happiness and serenity too?"

Which isn't to say that I am taking my own advice (as usual). I am fearful as the next one. Katryna and I have been convinced that no one is ever going to come out and see live music ever again and that we will starve and Amelia will have to eat grasshoppers. But ke garne as they say in Nepal: what can you do? You can make a record. You can take the golden opportunity handed to you by the gods and by Rounder Records to put something down on shiny CD to remember this time in your life. You can keep a journal and hope that some of it makes sense so you can read the not-too-personal portions of it aloud to your descendants (assuming once again that the world isn’t going to end, that is). You can laugh when your sister sticks her tongue out sideways, points her knee in the direction of the door and pretends to hold a baton horizontally and then makes like Fred Flintstone into the vocal booth at the studio. You can rejoice as the four month old baby smiles her curly grin at everyone she encounters, not knowing anything at all about airplanes, terrorists, diets, the stock market, smart bombs or even diplomacy. She just knows that it feels good to be held and kissed; that it’s really fun to roll over even though it requires a lot of effort and grunting, and that every day has something so fascinating that the most compelling thing to do is just to watch it go by, and when you get the chance, reach out your hand and try to touch it.

"We must be the change we want to see in the world."-Gandhi

"The practice of peace and reconciliation is the most vital and artistic of human activities."-Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

America: She's Not Half Bad

On November second, I was joyfully optimistic. I wore my Red Sox cap all day and said, "God is smiling down upon Massachusetts." I said, "We're going to win!" and I believed it. I was ignoring the polls and counting on the fresh faced, passionate young voters I have encountered all over the country in the past four years. I was elated by the surge of interest in Democracy.

Tom got up at 5:30am to drive up to New Hampshire and volunteer for the Kerry campaign, standing with fellow Democrats in intersections with pro Kerry placards. A retired vet with a scraggly beard watched Tom and the other volunteers, limped into a nearby McDonald's and came back with styrofoam cups of coffee for all of them.

The other thing I was saying yesterday was, "No matter what, about fifty percent of the country is going to wake up broken hearted tomorrow." I was saying this to try to remember that even though it looks like we are a nation of red vs blue, Republican vs Democrat, insane religious fanatics vs thoughtful generous people, we are really all one. We really are; every piece of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years, from any and all philosophical or religious traditions, or even good old fashioned Yankee common sense tells me that.

Almost fifty percent of the electorate voted for John Kerry. He got 252 electoral college points and some fifty million votes. Heck, twenty five percent of the state of Utah voted for him! I'll go with that! So even though today I felt so sad and angry and fearful that it was difficult to pick up a pen, difficult to put on a smile, I take solace in some things.

I take solace in the fact that in a wartime election, in a climate of intense (partially manipulated) fear, the Republican Smear Machine only just barely worked against our sensible candidate.

I take solace in that fact that John Kerry will have a much more pleasant four years now. This war in Iraq is an abomination. We have invaded a country that never attacked u, nor was it planning to. We have killed over 100,000 Iraqis and lost over a thousand of our citizens and there is no end in sight. This war is illogical, irrational and morally repugnant. We need to find a swift road to peace. Had John Kerry been elected, he would have inherited this mess, plus rising gas prices, a bipolar stock market, and a deeply divided electorate. Not a picnic. My astrology teachers say that when predicting who will win an election, you look at the candidates birth charts. Whichever one has a bigger shit storm brewing in the heavens is the one who generally gets elected. Now, I do believe that had Kerry been elected, he would have helped raise respect for the USA internationally, been able to build coalitions, but then again, what nation at this point would want to volunteer its army to help us in Iraq? If Kerry had been elected, my anti-war friends and I would have had to yell and scream at Kerry to bring us to peace. Now we can just go back to bashing Bush, which we all have gotten pretty good at doing.

This is easy for me to say: I live in Massachusetts. My gay friends can get married. I don’t have even have a single Republican friend to irk me. And the truth is, I didn’t care a whit about Kerry’s well being; I just wanted him to be president, to ameliorate the global threat of nuclear terrorist, to make some sense out of the health care and social security messes, to balance the budget, to give a face of reason and justice to our country’s figurehead.

And I’ve been close to despair. We worked so hard! We did everything right this time! We raised so much money! We registered so many new voters! It’s tempting to throw it all in, cancel my subscription to the New York Times and go dig in my garden, ignoring the rest of the world. It’s also tempting to follow my good friend, Charrette, and convince Tom to move with me to New Zealand.

One of my all time favorite quotations is by Mahatma Gandhi:
"When in despair, I remember that all through history the way of
truth and love has always won. There have always been tyrants
and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in
the end they always fall." They always do. The mean part of me says, Bush will get his. Nyah nyah.

But at the same time, as angry and hateful as I feel, I also have to admit that this time around, I don't think Bush stole the election. He was properly elected, it seems. So I will acknowledge him as my president, something I haven't really done until now. I don't think he's evil. I think he's troubled and confused. I think he had a hard time as a kid, was probably dyslexic and struggled in school and has a chip on his shoulder against the intellectuals he came into contact with at Andover, Yale and Harvard. He's an alcoholic, who through his disease seems to have found a sort of spirituality. This I can understand and respect; after all, I am a Christian too.

But what I can't understand nor respect is the way the Republican Right has misappropriated Christianity. Both parties and the media seem to buy this lie: that Christians believe in fighting terrorists and Muslims, gays and women's reproductive rights; and that Democrats are Godless perverts who only eat French food.

My friend, folk singer Carrie Newcomer, a Quaker and an activist, told me this amazing fact last week during our Folk the Vote tour: The Bible has over 2000 references to the poor. If you were to cut out every time "the poor" are mentioned in the Bible, the book would literally fall apart. It would not hold together. By contrast, homosexuality is mentioned seven times. And never by Jesus. Jesus's ministry over and over again is about caring for those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder: prostitutes, adulterers, lepers, thieves and murderers. Oh, and the poor.

From the Book of John, chapter 21, verses 15-16:
Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."

Jesus never once mentions homosexuality.

As a Christian, I believe Jesus died on the cross to show us that salvation is possible, and that it is ours if we only believe. But what that means to me is this: what Jesus proved was that if we can show up and actually be present even in the worst of circumstances, we will not die that particularly gruesome death of detachment that almost every human suffers, many many times a day. This includes tuning out, being in denial, sticking our heads in the sand. What Jesus did, and what He alone could do was to be absolutely present for his own life, his own experience. He said both, "My God, why have You forsaken me," and also "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." He was with his own anguish and he was with his murderers, with compassion.

WWJD about 9/11? The scriptures are clear: "if anyone hits you on your right cheek, turn and offer your left also." (Matthew 5:39).

In the restaurant in Lenox where Tom and I had lunch today, my fellow Bay Staters were furious.
"We should secede!” said one woman. “The People’s Republic of Massachusetts!”
Patty said, “Let’s get all of New England and the west coast to join Canada.”
Dave Hower said, “My friend Mike says the goal should be to get George W. to leave the Oval office in handcuffs.”

I say this. This is our country. Remember those 25% in Utah, the 48% in Virginia, who voted for Kerry. For that matter, think of the 41% in Massachusetts who voted for Bush. (Where are they, anyway? I never see them.) Even though we are in the minority, it’s just as much our country. Thank God for the Constitution which protects minority rights. There is much in the country to love, much to be proud of. So I plan to go out and buy a huge American flag and hang it from my flagpole. Then I will hang some Buddhist prayer flags along side it and get a huge lawn sign that reads: NO BLOOD FOR OIL. It’s my flag. It’s my country.

This is a time for stout hearts. This is a time for a long view. This is a time for courage, my friends. Invite a bunch of people over to your house and tell them to bring their best story of the campaign of 2004, their most hopeful encouraging story. Share food, share music, share Bush jokes. And keep planning the revolution.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

All Things Are Possible

"All things are possible." These are the words that have been with me since October 20 when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in game seven of the playoffs.

Katryna called me sometime in late September after the Red Sox got into the playoffs as the Wild Card team.

"I can't help but think," she said. "That if the Red Sox beat the Yankees, John Kerry can beat George Bush."

"Stop," I said. "Don't say that! You'll jinx them both!"

For I too, believe in curses. And at the time, the idea that the Red Sox could beat the Yanks was way more absurd and far fetched than that Kerry could beat Bush.

Now I'm not so sure. I'm also, quite frankly, thoroughly disgusted with the campaign--both campaigns-- and more fearful than ever. Not to be a downer, but jeez. Now, I am constitutionally unable to support George W. Bush based on positions he's held probably all his life, or ever since he got sober at any rate and knew what he stood for (if this is, in fact the case): he's got a terrible attitude toward the environment, he's for so-called tax relief which I call "lower taxes for rich guys and corporations"; he's anti-choice and he says "nuclear" wrong. Worst of all, he purports to disdain intelligence and made a mockery of his own educational opportunities. But the nail in his coffin, as far as I was concerned, was how he handled affairs post 9/11. Unlike (apparently) the majority of the country, I was appalled at the way he turned an unprecedented national tragedy into a global-political opportunity to advance his own foreign agenda.

I was terrified after 9/11. I felt profoundly unsafe, and I desperately wanted my commander in chief to make me feel safer. I believe that violence begets violence, and that we were attacked by people who feel supremely unsafe and threatened. These people cruelly used what means they had to fight back. Their actions were wrong, and this was blatantly obvious to virtually all citizens of the world (scenes of Iraqis dancing in the street notwithstanding--and as I recall, those scenes, shown ad nauseum on CNN, were actually taken from years before in a different context.) I'm not suggesting we should have pacified terrorists. I'm suggesting we should have taken that time to formulate a plan in the context of all the world's leaders. We should have--yes--tried to talk to the so called enemy.

"But we don't negotiate with terrorists!"

Well, where does that get us? To a world where the oppressed have no other recourse than stealth; where the citizens of wealthier countries live in constant fear that the voiceless enemy will attack at any time? I'd rather look my enemy in the face and hear what they have to say than insist on ignoring them until they disappear. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that approach hasn't worked so well in Israel.

So I wasn't thrilled to hear John Kerry say yesterday almost verbatim what W. said in 2001: we will "hunt down and destroy" terrorists. He's trying to out-cowboy the president.

Well, just as far-right conservatives must have said to each other in 2000 when George W. Bush was calling for "compassionate conservatism" and trying to come off as some kind of a moderate, a lot of my liberal pals are telling me that John Kerry is not really going to be a cowboy once he's our president. He just has to talk that way now. You know what? I believe them. I know Kerry will be a better president, and that's why I am campaigning for him, and he will get my vote. But I still feel sick to my stomach. This campaign is a horror show. Both sides are lying and distorting and spin spin spinning. It's another kind of war; another kind of violence. It's bad for the soul.

I woke up at two in the morning Thursday from a nightmare: there had been a bad call and the Red Sox hadn't actually won. They were still playing; the Cardinals had caught up and it was 3-3 in the 14th inning. Tom was sitting two feet from the TV and I was knitting and thinking, "it never changes."

But it was a dream. We did win. We broke the curse. Curses are powerful. We all believe in them, even if we say we don't. We jinx ourselves all the time. We say, "I can't sing" because once, when we were little, some mean older person told us that. We say "I can't do math" because we got a C in freshman Algebra. Actually, a C means you can do math. Just not as well as Einstein could. We say "I always get my heart broken" because if that happens even once, it's so painful you sometimes think "I'll do anything to prevent that from happening again, so I'll put out a big sign saying 'it's not possible for me to love. Leave me alone.'"

All things are possible. The world changes. The world changes in ways way beyond anyone's control, in mysterious evolutionary ways. Dinosaurs, it seems, turned into birds. Fierce gigantic dinosaurs! Who weighed a billion tons and shook the ground when they walked! They turned into soaring eagles, clever bluejays, tasty ducks, winsome hummingbirds.

Curses get broken. We say, "I may not be able to sing like Maria Callas, but I can carry a tune." We say, "I can't do calculus but I can balance my checkbook." We say, "My heart is broken, and it is mended; it is stronger in the broken places and I will love again." We say, "this is a new day, a new ballgame. And we're going to win it."

Thousands of college kids have registered to vote. No one is polling them. No one is counting them as likely voters. But on our Folk the Vote tour in St. Louis and Cincinnati, young women came up to me with tee shirts saying "Students for Choice: I Don't Trust Any Bush But My Own." They have fire in their eyes. They know the power they wield in their fingers: the power to vote. The power to change. The power to break the curse of expectations.

Friday, October 15, 2004

The Death Rattle and Other Things that Scare Us

Yesterday, in the wee hours of Thursday morning, my hard drive crashed. The Death Rattle had begun Sunday night, when Tom and I came home to a horrific noise that sounded not unlike a supernova in its last millennia, I would imagine. We stared at the screen. It was frozen on an AOL news report on George W. Bush, and the little cursor was spinning around in a misleading rainbow circle, which signifies trouble to Mac OS X users. I restarted the computer and nothing happened except the noise got louder.

"Oh my God," I said, the way people in the twenty first century do when confronted with this problem. "I haven't backed up The Big Idea in days! Everything I love is on this computer! My life is on this computer! Everything I've ever written! My unpublished writings! All my emails, all your emails to me! The beginnings of our courtship! The iPhotos I've been taking of Amelia and Emmett and Reese; the photos of us kissing! The photos of the Adirondacks! My mixes!" I gasped. "My Ultimate Bob Dylan mix! I'll never be able to recreate it! Not to mention all my own new songs, which I will be able to recreate, but still. What a pain."

Tom rubbed my shoulders empathetically, and I spent a sleepless night thinking about what a fool I was and how now I'd need to buy a new computer and how it could be worse, and people in hurricanes had lost a lot more--it could have been my Martin guitar!-- and people in Iraq had lost even more than the people in hurricanes and I was a rich spoiled brat for even being sad about my lost works of ART!

OF ART! I am an artist and these works are like my children! I will never recover from this loss! Once, I wrote a funny story; I was in tenth grade and it was a spoof on the Odyssey, and my English teacher, Barbara Shapiro read it out loud and said I was a genius. I lost it two months later and forgot everything about it expect one line from a song Odysseus wrote at the end, to the Goddess Athena:

O, great goddess with gray eyes like the owl
Penelope has drenched me, please hand me a towel.

That's the worst thing I've ever lost. It's twenty-two years, and I'm still not done grieving that loss. How will I recover from the loss of everything on my hard drive? I won't.

Be quiet! No one cares about your stupid works of art! PEOPLE ARE STARVING ALL OVER THE WORLD! GET A REAL JOB!!!!!

That's about how it went in my head. Then I got up Monday and turned the computer on and lo! Familiar desktop, familiar everything. The Big Idea restored. All was well. I promptly emailed a copy of it to myself and to Paradise Copies to print out to give to my editor and went on my merry way. Did I back anything up? Why should I? No more death rattle!

Until Thursday morning. Tom shook me awake. "Sweetie, your computer's making that sound again."

I stumbled into my office and turned off the computer and slept soundly, knowing that Death Rattle does not mean actual death.

I was wrong. This time when I tried to boot it up, it flashed an icon of an empty folder and a Picasso like face, moronic in its mockery of me, the lazy non-backer-upper who didn't listen to Patty, Jeff, Sheila, Tom, Katryna, my parents, my high school history teacher and my psychic. I got out my glow in the dark plastic angel and wound it up. Nothing. I took the poor thing to some Mac people in town whom I trust and they kept it all day, performing feats of derring do to no avail.

"It's kaput," said Manuel the Mac Guy. "You can send the hard drive to California to this company that might be able to retrieve some of your data, but they'll charge you $800 whether or not they get anything back for you."

Fortunately, I had only lost two days of writing: Tuesday and Wednesday. Unfortunately, these were two primo days for The Big Idea: I'd written the scene when Rhodie hits bottom in Alaska after being chased by a red truck a la Deliverance. I'd written the scene where Rita quotes Shakespeare and shakes her head in disapproval over the increasing religiosity of her three children. I'd written the second to last chapter of the novel. And I'd written little tidbits throughout the 427 page ms. that were funny and irretrievable to my memory except that I remember they were funny. I spent yesterday and today mining my memory and rewriting, and I'm sure some of what I recovered the old fashioned way was better and some was worse and mostly it's all fine, and it’s true, this is much better than someone dying or getting sick or people getting divorced or your child being called names by the other kids in school.

What I really miss are the photos. Also the emails. Also the sense that all is well in the world. My friend Sheila wrote me that this had happened to her and that she was comforted by the thought that losing things helps us to recognize how little we actually need to be okay, and that sometimes those of us who spend our lives in front of the computer might do well to look up every now and then and recognize there is more to the world than what we have created in our own little worlds.

And I HAVE created a world in my computer. I have my comforting, changing screen saver of photos of family, loved ones, scenes from all over the country that make my heart sing and remind me where I've been. I listen to a constant stream of music from my iTunes. I keep in touch with friends, colleagues, writing students, my editors and agents, family through email. And even this, this blog, what is this if not an online, virtual way of performing? Even though it's been suggested that an acoustic guitar might be superior to a computer, I actually maintain that the advent of computers and emails and this virtual community you are a part of --simply because you're reading this-- has increased compassion, awareness and creativity in our world, not decreased it.

One more thing: as I was driving around western MA today, admiring the leaves, feeling the same sadness watching them fall as I feel about my lost darlings on the hard drive, I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Good planets are hard to find." And I got to thinking about environmentalists, and environmentalism. It seems obvious to me that humans can create toxic substances that could literally poison the planet. That is, at least, a possibility. One of the most common (conservative) arguments from those opposed to "the environmentalists" is derision: "You all are a bunch of Chicken Littles, running around saying, 'the sky is falling, the sky is falling.' You overreact. You are fearful. Calm down."

These same people tend to be the ones who are into Homeland Security, who think the world will be safer from terrorism if we maintain a position of Red Alert in respect to anyone who might seem like a terrorist, namely (these days) people who look like they might come from the Middle East. And to these people, I say, "You are a bunch of Chicken Littles. You are overreacting. Calm down."

So most of us have fear, but why is it that we have fear of different things? What makes one kid grow up to fear destruction of the planet at the hands of polluters and another grows up to fear destruction of the planet at the hands of terrorists? Why is it that when Katryna is afraid she procrastinates and wants to curl up and go to sleep, but when I am afraid I want to race around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to do as much as I can to control my situation, throwing money I don't have at computer technicians and thinking that going out for dinner to a really fancy expensive meal will solve all my problems?

I don't know. But I do know that I am going to take my digital camera out tomorrow and take pictures of me and Tom and Katryna and Amelia and Dave in the glorious fall foliage before it becomes, as our friend Bill says, “Stick Season.” I am going to make a new Ultimate Bob Dylan mix. I am going to finish a draft of The Big Idea. I am going to back everything up to CDs. And I’m going to try to trust that all these things we lose are replaced in some form or another; that we are meant to grieve our losses-even elections, even baseball games- so we can be compassionate towards others who have lost.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Christopher Reeve and West Cummington Church

Blog #6
"There are four things we all need. We need to love, and we need to be loved. We need to know and we need to be known."

And I do. I want you to know who I am. That's why I write. I want to be loved. That's why I sing. But as I was sitting in church yesterday, listening to the parson preach, I thought, "Is that really all? Because I seem to need desperately to know that there will be enough mangos, salmon and butternut squash in my refrigerator for the rest of my life. I need to know that I will always be able to pay my heating bills. I need to know that if I or Tom gets sick, I will have a way of paying for it.”

I want to be set for life.

The minister is Stephen Philbrick, Parson (a word which means--drum roll please-- "person,") of the Congregational Church in West Cummington, MA. Tom and I discovered this church in early 2004 and have been coming here as often as possible ever since. Tom had a party last January, shortly after we began dating, to introduce me to his spiritual friends. Ann, Andy and Susan represented the Catholics; Rick the Buddhists, and Sharon was batting for the Baptists. Sitting next to Spiritual Friend Fran Henry, I said, "And where do you practice your form of spirituality?"

"At this little church near where I live. The minister is a poet and a shepherd," said Fran.

That was enough for me to want to check it out. A poet and a shepherd? Sold.

The first time we visited, Stephen, a strong man in his fifties, wore a kind smile that made me feel he wanted to be friends but would wait for us to let him know we were ready. He was also wearing a big button saying, "This church affirms all marriages." Another plus. I was comfortable. Fran was there, sitting next to Stephen’s wife, Connie, a potter like my beloved Aunt Elizabeth. Connie had huge beautiful eyes that looked straight at me, clear and welcoming.

But what won me over completely was the music. After a moment of silence at the beginning of the service, a small white haired woman named Penny, her back to us, began playing the piano and humming along softly. She was singing to herself, to God, maybe to us, inviting us into some kind of private meditation. And I felt the elusive Holy Spirit; that intangible Presence I've been looking for all these years. Sometimes I find the Spirit in an unacceptable receptacle, like a Grapevine church full of people who are going to vote for George W. Bush. I am not proud of my prejudices against fundamentalists. I recognize that my level of charity is that of a particularly unevolved Neanderthal, but there you have it. Think of it as a kind of spiritual tone-deafness. In order for me to come to God, God needs to be packaged in a way I can tolerate. God must know this, because She certainly has sent me wonderful teachers over the years in various guises: books by Marcus Borg and Thomas Merton, lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh, funky churches and spiritual centers all over the country that, for whatever reason, felt good but not quite like home.

Penny let me know I was home. She played “How Can I Keep From Singing” and “Abide with Me” and led African American spirituals, the kind my parents taught us when we were kids, singing around the kitchen table with an acoustic guitar. She stood on her tiptoes and sang with her head thrown back and joy pulsating out of her dancer’s body.

Then Stephen began preaching, mixing personal anecdotes with interpretations of the Bible I could get with (God as Superego in the Garden of Eden; Jesus, in saying He has come not to unify but to divide, as an “individuator”—encouraging us each to be true to our own peculiar Light), mingling scripture from the Tao and the Baseball Book of Wisdom with all the Gospel preachers (including the Gospel of Thomas.) This was the church I'd been looking for since reading M. Scott Peck's A Different Drummer in 1990, a book which calls on churches to be havens for community building in our suffering, fragmented post suburban world.

Stephen also shared his poetry with us:

I am water,
You are clay
I am what the world needs
But you are what it is made of.

When we meet: mud, and muddy water;
Thickening, loosening, even (a little) panic.
Waiting for each to settle,
Within each.

It is a gospel of courage and honesty that he preaches. He preaches against the Iraq war, but he also preaches against the knee jerk reaction some of us liberals have of demonizing the US, automatically assuming our government means harm. He laments the war on terror by pointing out that by calling it a war on evil, we ignore the evil within ourselves: “The evil in ME; we can learn this anywhere, from any argument we've ever had with someone we love.” He goes on to say that we can learn this from Jesus: “if we know ourselves we will realize we are the children of God (yes, just as we really are.)” We have within us heavens and hells aplenty, but it is not what goes into our mouths that creates sin. It’s the hate that comes out of our mouths. The deeds that we do, the words that we say.

“This is not America bashing. This is a native son grieving."

Tom and I left the church shaken. Our minds had been exercised, along with our hearts and our spirits. I have been to wonderful churches that exercised my mind. I have been to wonderful churches that exercised my spirit. Likewise, my heart. But never all three at once. We felt so happy, so full of joy, so deeply seen and loved it was almost hard to take. We told our friend Ann Turner about the experience. She nodded, and talked about the first time she felt God’s presence in that kind of way. “It felt like ‘savage joy’ and that it was so fierce, strong, and all- encompassing, that God knew I couldn't take it in all at once. That He had to let me feel the joy of his presence in little bits, suited to the small handbag size of my heart.”

She told us about someone who was praying, and he was so filled with the joy of God's presence, that all of the buttons on his waistcoat popped off as his chest expanded. That’s how I felt leaving West Cummington.

While we were tearing down after the Iron Horse last Saturday, I said to Dave Hower," I envy you getting to be in so many bands. I am going to miss playing with Katryna so much."

"You could be in other bands, too," he pointed out.

I shook my head. "Somehow, that would feel like cheating to me," I said. "Maybe what I'll do is see if I could do some music at my church."

The next evening, at 8pm, Penny called me up. "Nerissa, we've been talking. Any time you'd like to do music at West Cummington, we'd love to have you. In fact, I'm going away next week. Will you take over?"

So yesterday, Tom and I made our now familiar trek up the mountains to the little white church with no bathroom. Tom drove. On my lap were copies of the two hymnals and the folk song supplement, plus my own copy of Rise Up Singing. I still hadn't decided what to do. I don't play piano, so "Abide with Me” was going to be a challenge. But I'd circled Cris Williamson's “Song of the Soul,” and also my favorite from the Christmas Revels, “Lord of the Dance,” and of course “Amazing Grace.” I also ventured my own “Give Me A Clean Heart,” a song I’d swiped from an amazing church in Amherst I went to once called Hope Church.

"I've never been more nervous in my life," I told Tom.

"Why?” he said. "You do this all the time. You'll be great.”
I shook my head emphatically. "It’s totally different. This feels like service. If I screw up in The Nields, I’m just making a fool of myself. If I screw up at church, I’m letting down the whole congregation. It’s disrespectful."

Tom looked at me and grinned. "You think what you did last night at the Railway Cafe in North Adams wasn't service? Besides, I was at church a few weeks ago when you were in Philadelphia. Penny forgot the words to one of the hymns and the chords too and she laughed and everyone laughed. No one's going to care if you screw up. It just reminds all of us that we’re human."

This made me feel better, and I remembered the first time I'd ever performed my own songs. I was fifteen and in high school, an all girls’ school called Madeira in Northern VA. My voice teacher wanted me to sing my own songs for the recital. This would've been fine, except when I got up there to play and sing, I noticed with dismay that my hands were no longer my own; they were trembling as if they had suddenly decided to engage in the Hippie Hippie Shake. Also, I no longer knew any of the words to any of the songs I'd ever sung, let alone the ones I'd written. I looked out in to the mass of teen-age girls, all of whom surely hated me and had been plotting my fall for eighteen months, or at least would giggle about pathetic me on the way back to classes.

"I've never done this before," I said after attempting to put my trembling hands in the general vicinity of the fretboard of my guitar. "And I'm really scared."

The entire auditorium exploded with the applause that only an all girls’ school can produce. They clapped courage into me, and I played my first song. They gave me a standing ovation. I haven’t really ever had stage fright since then.

We want to be known, Stephen said in his sermon yesterday. We want to love. (And some of us want security.) I signed on this morning and saw that Christopher Reeves had died. Even though, as readers of this blog now know, I prefer Spiderman to Superman, I loved Christopher Reeves. He was an example to me of an intrepid spirit. When I was going through my divorce and feeling very sorry for myself, I had a quotation of his above my desk:

Q: “How do you get through your life without feeling sorry for yourself?
A: Oh, I feel sorry for myself. I allow myself to feel completely miserable and self pitying for exactly one half hour a day. Then I stop. It’s essential. But it’s equally essential to count your blessings and keep hope alive.

The bad news for me is there’s no such thing as being set for life. I would’ve said, before June of 1995 that Chris Reeves was set for life. Then he was thrown from his horse and suffered a spinal chord injury. Still, he got to live for nine more years with purpose and love; he knew, he was known; he loved and was loved. He made himself see that every day, just as he advocated for others, becoming more and more a vessel for compassion and empathy as the years went on.

The bad news for me is I don’t get to lead a life with total security. But I can sing at the West Cummington Church; I can let myself be seen and loved by these people with the kind faces, and better yet, they can teach me to go back out into the world knowing how to see, know and to love. And when I am awake to this, I am so filled with happiness that the buttons burst off my waistcoat.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Why I Like Spiderman More than Superman

Blog #5

I liked Superman when I was a kid, but not as much as I liked Spiderman. I liked how tortured Spiderman was, how geeky, how bewildered by his own nascent powers. But Spiderman disappeared from TV around 1976, and all I could find was the George Reeve version of Superman. Perhaps Congress was offended by seeing the colors of the American Flag on an arachnid during our bicentennial. Somehow Superman seems more American, more clearly patriotic. He is quintessentially American in a way Spiderman is not. Spiderman was twisted and confused, cursing his strange spidery gifts even while using his talents to help The People, practically Bolshevik. Spiderman was maligned by the media, whereas Superman, in his Clark Kent guise, it could be argued, WAS the media. And Superman was beloved; he leaped tall buildings in a single bound, after all. The people never turned against him. “Look,” they said. “Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”

One thing that intrigued me about Superman in 1976 was the story of George Reeves.
“He killed himself,” my father told me.
“Why?” I said, horrified. At the age of nine, this was the first suicide I’d ever heard of.
“Well, I think it was because he tried to play other roles, but no one could see him as anything other than Superman,” my dad explained. “The same thing happened to the kid who played Dennis the Menace.”

This morning, Tom came back from walking Cody to find me glued to the TV, watching a DVD of the last episode of the second season of The West Wing, the one where President Bartlett curses out God in Latin in the National Cathedral after his secretary, Delores Landingham gets killed in a car crash.

“Do you watch any current episodes of this show?” Tom asked me later when we were eating breakfast and reading our newspapers.

“No,” I said. “I don’t like it ever since Aaron Sorkin left. Now it’s just ER with politics instead of patients. Now it’s about big dramatic plots and crises in the lives of the ever tormented characters. I’m not interested in that. I liked it when it was funny and smart and had natty dialogue and was more about how the story was told and less about what the story actually was. Also, I have a theory that TV shows should only last three seasons anyway. After that they jump the shark and become unbelievable.”

Tom nodded. “Congress should pass a law like the twenty second amendment to the Constitution barring any TV show from lasting past three seasons. “

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe that would’ve saved George Reeves and Dennis the Menace.” I was grouchy. Tom was reading the Boston Globe and I the New York Times. Kerry is doing better, but the race is too close to call and the Bush machine is probably going into diabolical overdrive. Last night I prayed hard for good things (other than reelection) to happen for my political enemies, but my heart is still a screwed up muscle of partisan fury. Checking to see if Tom had better news, I noticed my hero, Bob Dylan’s photo on the backside of Tom’s Globe and I shrieked. He has a new book; an autobiography! The Times had an article on the front page of the Arts section:

“The Old Him is the hellhound who taunts Bob Dylan. From time to time this 1960’s deity surfaces driving nostalgists to rhapsodies (the Old Him is back!) but making Mr. Dylan angry enough to want to bite himself… ‘It was like carrying a package of heavy rotting meat,’ he writes about his most celebrated songs. ‘I couldn’t understand where they came from.’” (Janet Maslin, New York Times, 10/5/04)

I love Bob Dylan, and reading this reminds me that my heroes are not Superman or anything having to do with TV shows. Bob Dylan has made forty albums and been on a never-ending tour since the mid eighties—-twenty-five years AFTER he started touring in the first place. The article in the Times ends with this “epitaph” from his book: “Some people seem to fade away but then when they are truly gone, it’s like they didn’t fade away at all.”

I have this theory that it is a gigantic blessing that my band, the Nields, never made it big. It’s a blessing that we never had a hit. To have a hit is to be defined by that hit. To not have a hit means you are continually trying to write a better song than the last one. To have a hit is to continually try to write something that is as good as the hit was; or else to write something totally different, to reinvent yourself (as Dylan did/does so well). But what if you just want to keep being yourself?

Also, having a hit or not having a hit can’t protect you from the suicidal thought: “This is the end.” George Reeves thought it was the end; Dennis the Menace did too. Aaron Sorkin might or might not have had that thought, but certainly I’ve had that thought about The West Wing. And I’ve thought, “This is the end/My career is over/ The band is over,” so many times I can’t even count. I remember thinking this in 1995 when we finished making Gotta Get Over Greta and had to drive from three in the afternoon from the studio in North Brookfield, MA to Black Hills, NC to perform at 10am the next morning at a festival. Katryna had a polyp on her vocal chords, and I thought she might never sing again. The entire time we were onstage, I thought, “This is the last Nields show ever. Katryna will lose her voice and we will never play again.”

I had that thought “We will never play again” in 1998 when our record company folded and took our CD back catalogue with them.

I had that thought in 1999 at Oberlin College when we’d decided to make a huge change in our touring and have Katryna and me do more duo gigs and fewer band shows.

I had that thought in 2000 when Katryna was pregnant with Amelia.

I had that thought in 2001 when the Nields did the last show with David Nields in New Haven on the Green.

My Buddhist friends tell me that everything changes and the quickest way to create a climate of misery is to try to hang on to what is past, to fight the change. At each stage, I’ve been able to do this, to say, “OK, well if this is the end, I’m going to enjoy myself for this last show.”

My Christian friends say the one unforgivable sin is suicide, because suicide is the complete absence of faith, the most willful declaration of self-assertion and attempts to control circumstances. Suicide is saying to the world, “I’m not able to live with this condition any longer. If it can’t be the way I want it, I quit.”

It’s never really the end.

In our own version of the never-ending tour, Katryna and I were in the middle of an ongoing conversation in the Van just last week.

“Remember that folkie we opened for in the mid nineties, the one who said, ‘If I win the lottery, I’m never playing THIS club again?’”

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember. Hey stop at the next rest stop. I need coffee.”

“Fine,” said Katryna who was driving. “Well, if we won the lottery what would you do?”

I thought about it. I probably would buy some more clothes, but not a lot because too many clothes confuse me and I always end up wearing the same thing day after day anyway. “I’d hire someone to drive so I could read and write in the back seat like I used to when we traveled as a full band. Also, fly first class.” I said. “And I’d lower our ticket prices so more people could come to the shows. And I’d buy Patty season tickets to the WNBA. What would you do?”

“Hire a tour bus with a jungle gym in the back; open a college fund for both my kids and pay the band members to tour with us sometimes,” said Katryna. “And sleep in hotels where they give us soft terrycloth bathrobes."

Winning the lottery notwithstanding, we’ll be on the road again next March, back in the van, doing our shows, staying in Comfort Inns and lugging our guitar and suitcases full of CDs around Chicago O’Hare airport, reading O Magazine with Hoi Polloi in standard class. I don’t know why we don’t have to be Superman in order to by happy, but we don’t. Like Spiderman, like Dylan, we’ll look backwards and forwards and shrug and enjoy the music that we’re making right this moment.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

What's good about the South?

Blog #4

Sometimes secession seems like a good option. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad the North won the Civil War. I’m glad we no longer have the scourge of slavery, and that the Union held and all that. But just think: if the South had succeeded in seceding, John Kerry would surely be a shoe-in today. Of course, if the South had seceded, George W. Bush would be Czar of Texas instead of our president. (If just Texas had seceded, or Florida, or Tennessee, for that matter, but that’s four year’s ago’s story.)

Other compelling reasons to secede: if New England were its own country, we could be on a different time zone and have Daylight Savings all year long. Here’s why: we all (up here in the Northeast) complain that just when we need that extra sweet hour of sunlight the most, in dour November, the government takes it away from us, as if it were tax dollars or school music programs. Their argument? “Little Georgian school children would have to wait for the school bus in the dark otherwise,” they say. If you examine a map of the US, you will indeed see that Georgia is quite a bit west of New England, indeed neighboring Alabama is in Central time. But if New England were its own country, all we’d have to fight with (we meaning me, here in Western Mass) would be those cranky down Easters in Bar Harbor. They’d probably want TWO extra hours of daylight savings time. And then the sun wouldn’t come up here until 9 am!

We rehearsed as a full band last night over at Katryna and Dave’s house/studio, the great and mighty Sackamusic. Dave had reorganized the furniture, by which I really mean electric music making machinery, amps and the like. I got to Sackamusic first. Amelia said, “Come sit down to dinner, Nerissa. Sit here, next to me,” and she pointed to a tiny plastic purple chair at her play table. I obliged. She was wearing maroon pants with yellow numbers all over them and little braids in her hair.

“Oh, Amelia,” I said. “I love you so much it hurts.”
“Why does it hurt?” she said, cocking her braided head.
“Because,” I explained. “The place in your body where you love is here,” and I pointed at my heart. “It’s called your heart and it’s a muscle. And when it really really loves someone—which is its job, you know—it has to work hard, so hard it hurts a little. But in a good way.”
“In a good way,” Amelia nodded vigorously. “Nerissa, I love you.”
“Thank you Amelia!”
“You know how I know? Because my stomach hurts. Just a little. In a good way.”

Dave Hower got there at 6, followed immediately by Paul Kochanski and we plunged right in, playing straight through the two full length sets we’re doing at the Iron Horse this Saturday—not repeating a single song. We practiced for four hours straight without a break. Although by the end my voice was tired and so was my right shoulder, it was the most fun I’ve had in months. Sitting in that room, bathed in the sounds of those fine musicians, I felt invigorated, suspended.

Maybe we could have a weekly—or even monthly—local gig. I need to play with these people more often.

Maybe just Texas could secede. I’d miss my friends in Austin, though. And I’d need a passport to get there.

I just went through files and files of old Nields memorabilia in the hopes of finding something to inspire a chapter for The Big Idea, my novel about a family from Jintucket, Massachusetts who is also 3/4ths of a rock band. Came across most, if not all our old newsletters. As I was reading through them and chuckling to myself, Patty called on her way down to Mohegan Sun to watch the WNBA.

“Listen to this,” I said.
“Wait!” she shouted. People on cell phones are always shouting. “I called you for a reason! Is the moon full tonight?”
I pulled out my handy ephemeris, for I am an astrology guru-to-be.
“Yesterday,” I said. “Why?”
“Because everyone’s driving like maniacs! “ Patty wailed.
“Lunatics,” I corrected her. “Now listen to this.”

(from the Nields Newsletter #19, winter 1997)

We write this from the Beautiful South! Namely the dressing room of Carrboro, NC’s finest club, Cat’s Cradle. We love this club, and we haven’t even sound checked yet. They gave us jellybeans and popcorn cakes. ‘Nuff said.

We love the south. It’s warmer plus they have Waffle House.

So in case you didn’t hear, I broke my foot. I was stage diving at the Music Farm in Charleston, SC and forgot that you need to have people there to catch you in order to execute the move with optimum grace. Then, three days later (having temporarily established myself as a “stool” performer, something I’ve feared and loathed since the late 70’s during my brief Donny & Marie observing phase) in Birmingham Alabama I fell OFF my stool in the middle of “Alfred Hitchcock” (what can I say? That Les Paul is heavy!) and tumbled forward, making contact with first the mic stand, then a cup of hot tea and ultimately the floor. The combination of the sound of the Les Paul hitting the monitor at full volume and the hot tea falling into my ear led me to the conclusion that I had become deaf. I was very sad. Then I noticed a fan was video taping the entire event. That made me sadder. Then the water fell out of my ear and lo! I could hear again!

I must say, there is something empowering about having your absolute worst performance nightmare (i.e. falling on your face) actually occur and living through it. I want to thank those hundreds of fans in Birmingham who gave me the courage and support to finish that show. Okay, I lied there were only 37 fans there, but still.


Patty was laughing so hard she had to stop the car by the side of the road, but not so hard that her capitalist brain wasn’t whirring.

“Leave all those newsletters on your porch tomorrow,” she said. “And I’ll take them to Paradise Copies and make them into books and we’ll sell them at your Iron Horse show on Saturday.”

I do love the South. Reading the newsletter reminded me of this. I love the South the way I love certain parts of my own personality. Not necessarily the co-operative parts but absolutely crucial parts nonetheless. Like the part of me that likes pink frilly things. And astrology.

My friend A. from Uruguay says, "From a foreign perspective, especially a Latin American one, there's really no difference between Democrats and Republicans. Kennedy was just as brutal to us as Reagan." I'm trying to hold on to this as some sort of consolation just in case I have to mourn in November. There is a south beyond the south.

I even love George W. Bush. I do. I don't want him to be president, but I have grown to love him, yea these past four years. I cannot tell a lie. There is something endearing about his bemusement. There is something sweet about his visage. He doesn't make my heart hurt the way Amelia does--though he does make my stomach hurt sometimes. Who's to say that's not love? The "worst" happened in 1997-I fell on my face at a gig-and I survived. Much worse things actually happened after that, to me, to the USA, to the world. In the face all this, the pain of this beautiful planet and her lovable craven misguided well-meaning greedy humans, what can we do other than exercise our little heart muscles to the point of near exhaustion? And play on.

Monday, September 27, 2004


By popular demand, this blog is now syndicated for your reading pleasure.

Use the "site feed" link to the right, or just use the straight URL:

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Happy reading!

Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Perils of Prayer

Here’s the problem with praying: you often get what you pray for. When Katryna got pregnant (answered prayer #1), I finally saw on my calendar exactly that for which I had been fervently praying: four and a half months of unscheduled time! The time I needed to finish my novel The Big Idea.

“Wahoo!” I said. “I’m going to be a novelist! I’m going to get up at five am and drink coffee, and write all day long in my pajamas! My book will be finished by Christmas!”

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I love singing for a living, love writing the songs, love traveling around the country with my sister. It’s just that sometimes I have fantasies about having health insurance and weekends off. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to rely on my wits so much. I f I were someone with an honest trade, like a carpenter or a garbage collector, I’d always have work to do. If I run out of ideas, I have nada. This can make a person anxious.

True to form, almost immediately, I freak out. “If we stop gigging, I’ll have no money! How am I going to drink my Starbucks? Dear God,” I pray. “Please send me students so I can keep drinking coffee.”

“But how am I going to get students?” My crafty little brain wonders. “I know! I’ll put ads in local papers! That’ll get students. Soon I’ll have so many I can have a pantry full of coffee! The coffee will smell so strong I won’t even have to drink it!”

But no one, not ONE person signs up for my writing workshops because of local ads. They come by word of mouth and through my email list. So I call the Valley Advocate and say “Will you write a story about me so I can get students and not have to pay you for advertising?”

“No,” they say. “That’s not how it works.”

Even so, God sends me students in abundance, and I love them. I love reading their work and listening to them tell their stories. I love them so much that I decide I’m going to be a teacher. I am tired of being overexposed. Also, I am tired of staying thin and muscular. I want to be round and soft and have some padding to protect me from the glaring eyes of People Magazine and Those Who Judge, Singing is too hard. I will give it up.

“No!” says Tom, my sweet and smart fiance. “I love to hear you sing!”
“I’ll sing just for you, honey,” I say. “I’ll sing love songs and Bob Dylan.”
“No,” he says again. “You need to keep singing. It’s your gift and you love it.”
“I hate it,” I say. “I’m tired. My neck hurts. I have Stiff Neck Virus again.”

Stiff Neck Virus is my father’s term for what happens when suddenly your shoulders creep up to your ears and you have to turn your whole body in order to converse with the person sitting next to you in the car. I always get Stiff Neck Virus after a long weekend on the road or a plane trip where I have to lug my six thousand pound guitar.

“And that’s another thing,” I tell Tom.” I’m sick of carrying my guitar around airports. I refuse to tour anymore unless I get a personal valet who follows me around carrying my baggage.”

I pronounce “baggage” as though I’m French.
Tom rolls his eyes. “With what money are you hiring this personal valet?”
“With the money I’ll save from not spending it on my masseuse. Also with the Tax Relief credit George W. Bush is promising us.”

But Tom’s on to me. I give up singing for exactly one day. Then I’m back at my guitar, my delicious little 1930’s Martin and I write a new song called “Big Red.” And of course I want to play it right away.

But I have no gigs lined up after October 10 when Katryna goes on maternity leave. I freak out and call Patty.

“Patty! Get me some solo gigs! I need to play my new songs.”
“How about a tour of Europe?” she says. “You always wanted to tour Europe.”
“NO!” I wail. “Not without Katryna! I’ll be lonely!”
“Bring Tom.”
“OK,” says Tom.
But Tom also wants to do other things, like, I don’t know, his own WORK. He’s a writer too, writing a book in the morning, free lancing in the afternoon. Plus there’s Cody, our Australian shepherd with the loudest bark on the block. Cody’s a frustrated performer too. Someone needs to stay home and take him out for his Frisbee practice.
Plus, I remember why I needed the maternity leave in the first place.

“No Europe,” I tell Patty. “I have a wedding to plan. And a book to finish. And students to teach.”
“How about some house concerts then?”

Then I pray to God, “Please God let John Kerry win. And if you’re not concerned about the outcome of the US presidential election, and in the grand scheme of things, I’ve got to say, that wouldn’t really surprise or disappoint me if that were the case, then at least please God, let me feel like I am doing something inspiring and useful to make people more aware of their place in a democracy. Let us understand in a first hand and clear way how we all need to use our gifts to help the community, the nation. I am an American and I love this country. Show me how to be of service.”

The phone rings. It’s my old friend and former student Mark Oppenheimer. He’s just been made editor of the New Haven Advocate. “Hey,” he says. “Can you write a 3000 word essay about your transition from rock star to novelist? “

“Do I have to pay you to advertise?”

The thing is, as much as I want attention, as much as I want to write and have people like what I say and sing, I have an equal and powerful reaction against the exposure. It terrifies me and makes me want to hide in my room with a book about Buddhists or Catholics or Feng Shui. I realize this does not make me an easy person to please. Or to live with. I really love myself, but sometimes I drive me crazy.

So I go on a tour to the Midwest with Katryna and we stay with our great friend Jill Stratton. Two hours after I get home, Paul Shoul, the great Northampton photographer, is over at our house to snap my picture. And then my profile is on the cover of the free paper all over New Haven. I feel overexposed and as though my skin in being slowly peeled off my body and I want to hide and never be seen again after the paper comes out. At the same time, I want my picture on the cover of the Valley Advocate too. This is what it’s like to be published. Whiplash. No wonder I’m always getting Stiff Neck Virus.

The phone rings again. It’s Jill Stratton, the one who coined the term Folk the Vote which I stole for my first Blog post yea those many (two) days ago.

“Hey,” she says. “I know Katryna can’t fly because she’s too close to her due date. But will you be a part of my Folk the Vote show? It’s two concerts in swing states: St. Louis (MO) and Cincinnati (OH) with Carrie Newcomer and Lisa Loeb. Monday, Oct. 25 and Tuesday Oct. 26.”

And of course I say yes, because it’s my patriotic duty, but I am scared to travel alone, sing alone.
“God,” I say. “Is this your idea of a joke? Because I’m not laughing.”

Just to be clear, God doesn’t actually talk to me. I mean, not directly. But this is definitely a conversation we are having, me and the Forces of the Universe. And I am getting the impression that this Force has a sense of humor, even if (for the moment) I don’t.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Nerissa Keeps Her Mouth Shut Sometimes

September 23, 2004 Birthday of Ray Charles, John Coltraine, Ani DiFranco and Bruce Springsteen.

"It's a great morning," Katryna said. "The polls show Kerry behind by just 3 points! And the Red Sox won last night! And Jon Stewart is on the Today Show!"

For once, I knew all this since I was sitting in the Comfort Inn lobby eating my breakfast and watching TV--to be specific, I was looking at video footage of someone named Laci whose husband, Scott Peterson apparently maliciously murdered her and her unborn baby. Katryna had called me on my cell phone from the room we were sharing. Just before she called, I'd seen my first Kerry ad on TV followed by my first Bush ad. We're in the suburbs of Philadelphia this morning, about to perform at a school. Since we live in Massachusetts, not a swing stage, we don't get commercials. I can't say I miss them.

I am encouraged by the polls; ridiculously so, if you must know. Good news buoys me and energizes me. Being an optimist is an act of true courage, because that which I fear greatly is the direct consequence of optimism: appearing to be a fool.

We heard Kerry last night on NPR; his voice is shot, and somehow it makes him sound more compelling and down to earth. To me, he makes perfect sense, and I have no qualms about his ability to lead us for the next four years. But 48% seem to disagree, although only 9% of REPUBLICANS think GWB should continue to govern the way he has been. Not much of an endorsement.

I'd like to tell people, "Just because Bush is a better campaigner than Kerry doesn't mean he'd be a better president." But since no one who's never won a presidential campaign has ever gotten to prove that, I keep my mouth shut.

So Jon Stewart said something like, "I don't know why people are so unhappy with Bush. I mean, sure, we invaded Iraq because he told us they were harboring Al Quada and had WMDs, and they didn't; but look! Iran has Al Qaida fugitives and weapons of mass destruction. So really, Bush was only off by one letter."

About the wedding dress. Katryna and I went down to Virginia to see my parents before our Jammin Java gig on Friday. My mother took us out for dinner and then we decided to shop.
"Girls' Night Out!" hollered Katryna.
"White," I said. "But it doesn't have to be a wedding wedding dress. It could be a flapper dress. Or a big white coat. But I want to wear white. White's a good color on me. And I need to be able to spill coffee on it and not feel too terrible about that later. Those are my top criteria."

We found a really nice dress, but it was basically a slip. I don't think my Catholic future mother-in-law would be too impressed. So the search continues.

Speaking of Catholics, now that I am kind of one by soon-to-be-marriage (though they've got all sorts of rules and tests that I don't pass, so I won't be converting anytime soon; plus I don't believe in that whole blood and body thing); I wonder what the Catholic priests say behind closed doors about the fundamentalists. I mean, we know what the Fundys say about
Catholics,right? "Papists." "idolatry." "Truly tasteless possessors of baroque icons." But what do the Catholics say about the Fundys? Do they call, for instance, call them "Fundys?"

I want to know. When Tom and I go to the Catholic Church in Northampton, there is a lovely, smart and kind priest named Father Gene. When I come up with the others for communion, I fold my arms across my chest to indicate I'm not taking the Host. So Father Gene blesses me in this lovely way: "May the God of your understanding bless you and help you to know your true gifts to the world." Isn't that cool? And he gently touches my forehead. It's kind of amazing. I leave feeling totally blessed. But sometimes Fr. Gene is on vacation, in which case, I may face the Bopper. The Bopper kept trying to stick the wafer in my mouth when I approached, sort of as if I were a soda machine and the wafer were a quarter. "The BAHHHDY of Christ, the BAHHHDY of Christ," he kept saying. Resolutely, I kept my mouth shut; no easy feat, mind you. Finally I hissed, "I need a blessing!" He looked at me indignant and whapped me firmly on the head. No words about the God of my understanding. Just a nice corporal punishment.

About this blog: Oh my GOD! I LOVE you guys! What fun! What have I been missing all my life?

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Nerissa's First Blog

It's September 21, the last day of summer. I woke up surrounded by thick clouds, but already they've cleared. Where did they even go?

When told that Katryna was going on maternity leave in mid October, a well meaning friend suggested to both of us, "While you're not touring, you should have a blog."

To which we both responded, "What's a blog?"

Still not knowing what exactly a blog is, we are going to blog anyway. Or die trying. This is what I think a blog is. A blog is a kind of journal, different from the newsletters we send our fans. Not so finger pointing. But also not a story, like the novels I write. Not so impressionistic. Katryna says she has a friend who, first thing every morning, is compelled to go online and read some random guy's blog. Why? He doesn't know. "It's kind of a train wreck," he says, helpfully. Being a narcissistic artist, I of course want that kind of power and control. So I will do my best to provide virtual trainwrecks for whatever our readership turns out for this.

Potential Train Wreck Number One:

Our manager, Patty, who has been with us for over ten years now, steadfastly and faithfully carrying Torch Nields, has found a new love. The Other Women are the WNBA. Oh, sure, she tells us she still loves us, but the signs are all there. Rarely does she actually come to one of our shows anymore, and when she does, you might notice a small light down by her waist area where she's eyeing her palm pilot to keep up with the score. She's gone every weekend, too. We call from the road.
"Hey what's up?"
"Oh, Connecticut won in overtime. Nykesha got a triple double which would have been great but the coach of the Shock blah blah blah."
"Hey, Patty, at the show last night, we sold a hundred thousand dollars worth of merchandise and I stood on my head and did five cartwheels..."
"Lisa Leslie got the tip-off, but then Lindsay Whalen rebounded with an assist from Tina Thompson. All in all Sun won in a buzzer-beater. And there were seventeen no-look passes! Four by Diana Taurasi!! And I swear Diana smiled at me!"

Soon, I fear, we are going to have to go back to Peter Quince, the gentleman who managed us before Patty, long before Patty. Peter Quince was actually not a bad manager, except he has a voice like a girl's and I'm pretty sure promoters used to smirk about that behind his back. "He sounds just like a girl! In fact, he sounds like Nerissa! Imagine going through life as a man who sounds like a girl!"

Anyway, Peter Quince did a pretty good job managing us. He was courteous and respectful and never pushed us too hard, except me. He had kind of a thing with me, that I was never writing the kinds of songs he wanted to hear on the radio. "Can't you make it sound, I don't know, a little more like ABBA?" he said when I brought him "Ash Wednesday." (Come to think of it, I think Patty is an ABBA fan, too.) Peter Quince told Katryna she should try singing Libarace covers. And he wanted us in uniforms. Also, Peter Quince has a thing for Siegfried and Roy. In fact, that's where he's been for the past year; in Las Vegas camped with what insiders call The Devoted. But I know he'd come back if Patty really left us for good.


The thing I'm going to miss about touring is standing up in front of a group of people who are usually a lot more knowledgeable than I am. The audience answers my questions so efficiently. Much better than lugging my volumes of encyclopedeiae out from under the bed. So here are the questions of the day:

-What is the WNBA and why does Patty like it so much better than us?
-How exactly does the stock market work?
-What is the largest province in Canada? (It's not Quebec and Northwest Territories isn't a province. It's a territory.)
-Why don't we pray for John Kerry to win? Is it just because we don't want to seem like those Praying Republicans? Is it because we think we're too evolved and sophisticated spiritually to believe in a God who sits around being swayed by the numbers or intensity of people praying for one political candidate or another? "Hmm," says this God. "A flat tax kind of goes against what my son, Jesus was preaching about, but I really like the idea. Nice and simple. I think I'll keep the chads from falling off again in Florida this November."

Is the reason GWB is ahead right now because he's praying? Is John Kerry praying? Is this just a big old prayer contest? Could we get the monks of Tibet with their prayer wheels to pray for John Kerry to win, and then stick some extra dynamic prayer wheels in the rivers of Tibet and also the Connecticut, Hudson and Mississippi and direct them all to pray for John Kerry?

I think God really could listen to reason, or at the very least some howls of despair. I don't really have that much pride. I want John Kerry to win, so much, that I'd be willing to lead Prayer Vigils For Kerry. This is how we'll pray: "God, please let John Kerry win. Please let Bush and his friends retire and give them a nice severance package and good weather with no hurricanes down in Texas. Please disillusion the masses and let us all, for more than ten seconds, look up from our Game Boys, Reality TV shows, New York Times Crossword puzzles, lotus positions, Downward Dogs, WNBA marathons, cell phones, fascinating Internet Blogs and notice how much better things were BB (before Bush) and work together to elect a man who is smart, capable and really is not that bad."

That should be his campaign moniker: John Kerry: He's Not That Bad.

I like Kerry. I think he's effective and competent and would greatly improve diplomacy with our allies and adversaries. In fact, Katryna and I could have a Why I Like Kerry rally, a Folk the Vote, if you will. We're going to sit around and sing songs, all of which are going to reformat to focus on our Man. "James" will be retitled "John."

John, John, John
John will Kerry On
For someone so outrageous you come off as so calm
If only people knew him, they'd love John
If only people knew him....

And Mr. Right Now:

His hair is pompadourier than my dad would like
But he'll vote for him
(vote for him, vote for him...)
He's just returning from a cross country voting drive
I'll vote for him (vote for him, vote for him)
Pull the lever right now, for Mr. Right Now...
All these things that you promise to me
Don't mean nothing if you can't win Ohio
Right now.

I like this. We should have this Folk the Vote Rally. We're thinking Halloween weekend. I'm dressing up as Ann Coulter and Katryna's going as Laura Bush. We'll do it at Cooley Dickinson Hospital just in case Katryna has to, you know, have a baby or something.