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


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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.