Monday, June 25, 2012

Tangled Up In Blue

"I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that..." -B. Dylan

I finished the amazing Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethrope when she was in her early twenties, at the same time my early twenties meme chose Tangled Up in Blue was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Katryna and I came to celebrate and open the show for them.

Tangled Up in Blue started in the fall of 1987. I'd almost lost my voice to nodes the summer before, shrieking "Born in the USA" an octave up from Bruce to 300 campers a day, and in my forced silence (3 1/2 weeks of complete voice rest plus steroids was my prescription) I made a vow: should I get my voice back, I would no longer hide it as I had freshman year at Yale. Too scared to audition for the a cappella groups, or to play any of my own songs outside my bedroom, I was at risk of drowning in my sea of insecurity. If my voice came back, I would do something. Something big.

But until then, I'd do something fun. Why not start a folk singing group? Yale didn't have one. We could sing some old songs, Peter Paul and Mary arrangements with an added bass part. I asked my then boyfriend Trex what he thought. Previously a non-singer, Trex was always up for anything, "I'll get the entire FOOT crowd," he said. "I'll get the Berkeley common room." And he got both. He said, "Show up with your guitar at 7pm Tuesday," and I did. In my hand I clutched my first arrangement" "Come Go With Me To That Land," in my rhythm-challenged notation. We had about ten people there that day; the following week we had fifteen. The third week we were back to ten, but we had at least one per part (always shortest on tenors) and that was good enough for me. At some point, towards the spring, Leon Dewan joined us on lead guitar, and we had our first "jam" (as a cappella concerts are called, at least they're called that at Yale.)

The other brave thing I did was "rush" the mainstream a cappella groups. In the middle of our second or third rehearsal, members of Proof of the Pudding swept in and sang me out of the Berkeley Common Room, members of what would become TUIB looking on with some pride and perhaps confusion. A few days earlier, I'd heard that I'd gotten into the Yale Glee Club. I was now in three singing groups. Would I come back to them?

Well, of course. In those very first rehearsals, I knew I'd found what I'd been looking for: a group of people with whom to share what I loved most: music, activism, laughter, politics. In the years that followed, I eventually quit everything but TUIB, letting the music direction fill the evenings that weren't taken by Shakespeare, classical guitar, poetry and my own songwriting. The first friend to come out to me was a freshman from Tangled Up in Blue. I was initiated into the counterculture; me a nice Democrat from an upper middle class Virginia home.

The fall of my junior year, the group held its first auditions, and to our amazement, people actually showed up to try out. We worked hard those years, but mostly we were having fun. I pushed the group to be more precise musically, and some folks left because of that. During March spring break, we decided to go on "tour" and hopped in some cars and drove down I-95 to stay, half of us at Trex's mother's house and half at my parents'. We performed at my old high school and made enough money to pay for our gas and several huge spaghetti dinners.

That spring, Leon came bounding into our rehearsal space (now Byers at Silliman College) and said, "Hey! I just got us a booking at CBGB's!"
I felt as though someone had pounded me on the back, in a congratulatory manner, but a little too hard. CBGB's? Home of the New York Dolls, the Patti Smith Group, Television, the Raomones, Blondie and the Talking Heads? I was going to bring my little Yale folk a cappella cum guitar band? I had to call my once and future band mate David Jones to tell him. He'd be chartreuse with envy.

We climbed back into the assortment of cars we used to get anywhere--my 82 Chevette with the broken window and missing rear view mirror and Trex's Mitsubishi that I'd totaled the year before--and made the pilgrimage to the Bowery.

It was a crisp spring day, and it was still light when we arrived for sound check. The club was empty except for Jimmy at the bar who let us in and swung around to the soundboard as we clambered up the stage. The place reeked of beer and piss and vomit. The walls were covered with beer cans. The stage was chalkboard black. I was afraid it would bite me. I was not entirely sure this wasn't the headquarters for satanic rites. It was so dark inside I forgot it could be light anyplace else. And I felt like I might levitate with excitement. Jimmy said if we brought him a blank tape, he'd tape the show from the board for us. We ran around the corner to a bodega and brought him back a Maxell casette. As I was tearing off the plastic wrap, Joe Shieber, our excellent tenor said, "Nerissa, you should play one of your songs." I froze. I'd never performed a song I'd written in front of anyone all alone, by myself, other than this group of people.

"Only if Leon plays one of his," I said.

We mounted the stage at 12:30 on a Wednesday night. We did our repertoire: "Come Go with Me to That Land," "Seven Bridges Road," "Hangman," "The Times They Are A Changing," "Ohio" and "Hurry Sundown." I played a new song by myself called "Agape." Leon played "Farm of Isosceles." There were two people in the audience and I think we made two bucks.

A few months later, or maybe it was the following year, we went as a group to see and hear Pete Seeger, along with Mikata, at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven. After the show there was a VIP gala upstairs. We galloped through the red velvet cordons and formed our horseshoe, singing "Wimoweh" to the Holy One. He excused himself from some major donor he'd been talking with and came over to listen to us kids. "Wonderful," he croaked. (He was about to turn 70 if I have my dates right. It's amazing how long a person can be old.) "You all should think about coming to Peekskill. I'd love to organize a workshop on rounds."

We floated home that night, extolling Pete's (underappreciated) skills on the banjo, gazing at his autograph (which we then used shamelessly in a "teaser" for our next Jam), feeling certain that we had arrived.

When I graduated, along with many of TUIB's founding members, we decided to celebrate by driving around the country in Steven Michel's father's Suburban (Ben) and a rented minivan (Jerry). Above is our plotted route. We spent many a night in sleeping bags on the floors of the homes of alums and kind parents, and we ate a lot of pizza. We sang at Old Faithful and made $75, and we saw the Grand Canyon and Paolo Soleri's Utopia at Arcosanti.

As I was unpacking from this trip, in my first post-college apartment, I had Bob Dylan's Dream playing on my turntable. (Yes, a TURNTABLE!!!) I had to stop what I was doing and sit on the bed, tears streaming down my face. It took me about two years to stop grieving what I lost when I left college and TUIB behind, and the only thing for it was to start a new band.

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had

With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split

How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that
Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

Leon Dewan today

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mustard Seeds and the Newport Folk Festival

Nerissa & Katryna and the Falling Down Barn in 2007

I have sudden and severe laryngitis. I can no longer yell at my kids. In fact, I feel myself to be so at their mercy that I am being extra nice to them, smiling a lot, giving them heretofore forbidden juice boxes, letting Elle play "Two Grenadiers" over and over during her violin practice and not making her play her review pieces at all. Things are going so well with me not talking that I am contemplating feigning voicelessness indefinitely. Who, really, would miss my pontificating? (Don't answer that.) To top it off, I made Elle read to me last night. She can sort of read, but she'd much prefer someone read to her, especially since we're halfway through Harry Potter. But she gamely attempted Owl At Home last night, and because she had no choice, she made it through an entire chapter. I was reduced to clapping and vigorously nodding my head, poking at the page with one finger when she didn't get the word right. It made me wonder if I would write more if I spoke less.

In my Underground Seminary, I have been instructed to ponder Mark 4:26-35, otherwise known as the Parable of the Mustard Seed. More on the Underground Seminary in a future post. The piece of this passage I particularly love is the brilliant observation that God's Kingdom can come to us from the most minute of "seeds"; a stranger's look of kindness. A song on the radio in the grocery store. Someone's Facebook post. And the sower is oblivious to the "fruits" of her labor. Once she's sown her seeds, she leaves the rest to the soil, the sun, the rain.

26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

The other big event in our lives is that we are finally attempting to fix our falling-down barn. I had huge fantasies of renovating it and turning it into a writer's den/underground church/Tom's office/yoga studio/guest house. That will have to wait until the sales of The Full Catastrophe exceed $5 million/our kids get through college/Universal Health Care passes. In the meantime, if we don't salvage what is there, we will have to tear it down (which would not be free--it would cost us $10,000 and then we'd have no place to dump our stuff, I mean keep our bikes and kayak and canoe.)

It's not the money I mind. It's that we are spending our early mornings cleaning the thing out. We discovered a squirrel's nest the length of almost 4-year-old Jay, way in the back. And among the squirrel's treasures was a box that contained all my old arrangements for Tangled Up in Blue and subsequent singing groups I ran pre-Nields (Tintinnabulations, A Capelicans, the Jimmies; groups we ran while teaching high school). GOLD! Hooray! Plus a bunch of press shots of the trio Nields that freaked us all out. And, the coup de grace, the program from the Newport Folk Festival 1994, the year we got to play it.

That was almost twenty years ago, and it was surely the turning point in our career. We got the gig because we had become friends with the associate producer's daughter (Nalini Jones, now a writer and mom) at the Loomis Chaffee School where we were teachers and dorm adults at the time. When I close my eyes, I can feel myself back up on that stage, the sea air over Fort Adams blowing my hair into my eyes, my mouth aching from grinning so much. We played first in the line up, and people were still streaming into the park at the beginning of our set. We sold over 200 copies of our then-new CD Bob On the Ceiling, and from that moment, everything about our career sped up dramatically, shaking the tree we lived in until we all came tumbling down, but not without a lot of shouting for joy into the wind.

The Nields at Newport 1994

Nalini had asked me to write for the program, an essay called "Know Your Song Well," about being a folk musician in the early 90s when folk was making a comeback. I will post this essay separately, but for now I will say that reading it made me realize that my band came along at the most fortuitous time, and that if we were in our mid 20s now instead of then we probably wouldn't have had a shot. I don't write this to take away an iota of our hard work and possible talent; but I do say it to make the case for fate, for history, for the Perfect Storm of events in any person's life or career. Or for the winds that blow that little mustard seed here and yon. Who knew what we sowed then? Who knew where those 200 copies of Bob on the Ceiling went?

Katryna and I have been talking a lot lately about fame. I have written this before on this blog, but when we were in the van driving around and around, Patty used to ask, "Would you rather be rich or famous?" "Rich," said a couple of members. "Famous," said a few others. And I said, "Neither. I want to be influential."

Of course, if you believe the Law of Attraction, this was a big mistake on my part. Everyone is influential. I should have manifested money and acclaim instead. Then I'd have my barn cum church/writing den/office/guest house. But on the other hand, it is really lovely to have exactly the amount of fame and money that I do have. It's perfect. If I had any more money, I might not teach as much as I do, and teaching is so good for me, so pleasurable, so connecting. And if I had any more fame, I would feel scared. As it is, I have the kind of fame where people I don't know are nice to me for no reason at all. Occasionally friendly people come up to me at the airport and tell me they saw my band fifteen years ago in Ann Arbor, or Austin TX, or Portland OR, or South Carolina (we were always playing in South Carolina.)

Last Thursday we had the great privilege to play a house concert in Rhode Island, in a house overlooking Narragansett Bay. The folks who opened their home to us had first seen us in 1994 at Newport and had bought a copy of Bob that day. 18 years later, their home was filled with friends who listened as attentively and laughed as hard as any audience we've ever had. There were 40 people there that night. That might seem small compared to the 2000 we played for at Newport in 1994, but to me, that night felt just as magical. What is the Kingdom of God? In a word, Unity. That feeling that you are a part of something so much bigger than yourself, so much more than you can ever hope to understand. As a performer, nothing makes me feel as whole, as unified, as part of some bigger mystery than singing my songs with my sister to an audience who gets it. What is the Kingdom of God to you?

Nerissa & Katryna overlooking Narragansett Bay last Thursday

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

10 Things I Know About Time Management

Somehow, against all odds, I have become a pretty good time manager. This from a girl who used to lie on her back helpless under the weight of the world, AKA procrastination. For many years, I was unable to do the things I most wanted to do, namely my homework, any kind of exercise, or to practice my instrument. The needed effort to get up for any reason other than to open the refrigerator to forage for a snack just wasn't there. But people can change.

I just celebrated my 45th birthday. 45 is a prodigious number, and for women it holds special significance, as 45 really is (usually, anyway) the age after which we won't be having (any more) children. But I spent a lot of time on my birthday remembering another turning of the year: the birthday when I turned twenty. That was the year I began to grow up, the year I planted a lot of seeds that have been coming to fruition ever since. I told the blogging class I teach to do a practice post in which the writer offered some bit of wisdom or information in her/his own voice, concisely and with some humor. I thought I'd try to do the exercise too, so today, here is what I know about my topic du jour: time management.

Ten Time Consciousness Maxims

1. Get really clear on priorities, and do first upon awakening the thing that matters most. Getting clear on priorities is actually the hardest part of time management. If you don't know what you want, you can't do it. (More on this coming up.) Instead, you'll race around doing what others want, or you'll be like I was, flat on your back or glued to a TV screen with one finger in a jar of almond butter. How do you find out what you want? Get to know yourself. For me, this meant writing in a journal (another thing I wanted to do but couldn't--until I took advantage of a wormhole.) Eventually, I just made myself write first thing when I got up in the morning. It was like having a therapy session with myself. The writing was awkward at first, but over time I got to like it. And more importantly, I got to like me. What mattered most? It changed over time, but when I was twenty, it was music. So on songwriting days, I’d pour the coffee and sit down on the carpet with my guitar and notebook. Later, it became journaling. Then exercise, then meditation. Now it’s my husband and kids; I am sure to give them my full attention when they first wake up.
Conversely, to find out what doesn’t matter, do this exercise: make a graph of a week and systematically write down exactly how you spend your waking hours (and how much you sleep, for that matter.) Don’t try to edit your actions. Honesty is key here. If you spend 14 hours a week watching TV, write it down. At the end of the week, see how much time you actually spend working, exercising, emailing, Facebooking (who knew that word would become a gerund? Sorry about that.) See where your “lost” time is. With this knowledge, you can move forward and make the changes necessary to do the activities you really want to be doing.

2. Maximize Your High-Energy Time Zones. You might already know when in the day you have the most energy. Then again, you might regulate yourself by dosing up with caffeine and beer. This might work for now while your body is at its vigorous peak, but sooner or later your circadian rhythms will take over, and at this point it will be very helpful to (in unison, please): Know yourself.
One miserable summer between sophomore and junior year, I decided I might as well sleep between 1-6, whether am or pm. I seemed to thrive from sunrise to about lunch, and then wilt until dinnertime. Undaunted, I just drank some more caffeine.
Later, I solved this problem by taking a fifteen-minute power nap at about 12:30pm. And then drinking some caffeine. But I still tend not to schedule anything very important during what I think of as my low energy zones: 11-1pm and after 9pm (though if we have a gig, I am usually still onstage at 9pm.
I do notice that my energy is highest when I first get up. (I recognize that this is not true for everyone). So I like to use this high-energy time to do something I might not have the wherewithal to do later. In the beginning, I chose to journal every day first thing. Later, this switched to meditation and exercise. After many years, I know that I write best in the evening, and that midday is a great time to read or watch a portion of a video. My appetite peaks at 7am, 11:30am and 5pm, so that’s when I eat. I used to eat dinner at 7pm when my parents always ate, but this meant I was “dalling down” (my daughter’s phrase for starving to death) and snacked like crazy in the late afternoon. Now I just cut to the chase and serve everyone dinner then.
Notice your own high and low energy zones. Eat when you’re hungry, rest when you’re tired. Don’t hitch your rhythms to anyone else’s and see what comes naturally.

3. Find a planner and get married to it. Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out strongly suggests choosing just one, and I couldn't agree more. It's when I write the kids' friends' birthday parties down on my wall calendar and neglect to put it on iCal that I get into trouble by double booking myself at a reading in Brookline. Keep all dates and to do lists in one place.

4. Your datebook and your to-do list are like Donnie & Marie. Apologies to those born after 1977. What I mean by this is that your to-do list is useless if you don't schedule in when you are going to do each to-do. To this end, the first event you need to honor is an hour a week of planning time, and then five minutes a day following that up, with calendar and to-do lists in hand. I look at my week on Sunday night, and I write down what needs to get done and when I am going to do it. I refine this process each morning, going day by day.* Inevitably there are surprises: my manager will email me to remind me that I need to send out a newsletter to our fans, and then my two hours to write my novel or find my summer clothes in the attic gets postponed. I go through phases where housekeeping is more important, and phases where it takes the back burner. Ditto the amount of time I spend trying to look presentable. But I always make time for family, exercise, writing, music and reflection. (In fact, there usually ends up little time for anything else. Oh, well.)

5. Schedule Down Time and Family Time or Risk Burnout and Fallout. And Possibly Divorce Enough said.

6. Leave Space for God/Chance/Lila/Sh*t Happens. Whenever I schedule myself to the minute, I get tripped up. I am not running the show. If I don't give myself big margins in between the things I want to do, nothing in my life seems to work. I have a strong sense that God wants me to help out. So I leave space to make phone calls, take phone calls, make a meal for a friend in need, pick up someone's kid for a play date (and this means leaving space and margins in my kids' schedules), have an impromptu date with my husband.

7. Wisely Use Small Pockets of Time. For things I don't like to do, I work well in tiny increments, say 15 minutes or less. Any more makes me anxious. So I trick myself by saying, "I don't feel like cleaning up the dishes right now, but I'll just do it for 5 minutes." Then I set the timer and go. Usually, if/when the timer goes off, I ignore it because by then I am immersed in my task, it's almost done and I have a rage to finish it. Here are some things I can do in small pockets/packets of time:
-make one phone call
-meditate (15 minutes, sadly, is really my limit, even though I have been a meditator for almost 15 years and honestly believe it is the key to all happiness)
-run around the park (I shoot for 20 minutes of running per day or 30 minutes of walking)
-ablutions (5)
-dishes (I say 5 but it's usually 10-15)
-my daughter’s violin practice (30 though I trick us both by saying "short practice today")
-guitar practice (my own, sadly, 10 minutes, once in a blue moon)
-check in/snack with husband (every evening, 20 minutes)
-"reading" audiobook on iPhone (every chance I get, especially while cleaning or running)
-yoga (5-7 minutes-good for one sun salutation or the stomach series in Pilates)
-journaling (Dar Williams gave me a Five Year Journal five years ago. It's the best. I can only write about 1" by 2" worth of text per day. But over time, I can look back and see what I was doing the previous year(s). I used to write 3pp of long hand every day. Not so much since having kids.)

8. Don't Kill Your TV. That's what I did. Yes, I'm way more productive, but I miss out on all the cool shows. I am hopelessly behind on Downton Abbey, and I have never even seen Mad Men. When I used to watch TV, I would multitask. I would knit and mend clothes and sew on buttons, or I'd prepare a mailing. Since I don't have TV, I don't have any pockets of time to do these sorts of tasks, and so I don't do them at all. Plus, there's something really great about watching a show with your honey. Then again, there's something really great about actually talking to your honey, which is what I get to do.

I’m being a bit facetious, of course; and partly I am reacting from having just read Laura Vanderkam’s awesome book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think in which she makes many good arguments for killing one’s TV. I did stop watching TV, about 10 years ago, and I don’t miss it (that much). Vanderkam’s book is excellent at showing how to minimize wasted time, and she defines wasted time as driving around to do errands, cleaning up one’s house, making meals, doing laundry. She says that if you can afford to, offload all these chores onto someone else. But I’d argue that some of these tasks can become “found” time, the way I used to “find” time to do my knitting while I watched TV. Here is what I do while simultaneously doing housework, including laundry.
-listen to an audiobook like Laura Vanderkam’s
-listen to music or a podcast or the radio
-catch up with myself
-think about a song idea or plot for a novel
-cultivate mindfulness
-talk to my husband or child
-make a phone call
-plan my week

9. Do It Now. My parents taught Katryna and me this major life lesson when we were wee lassies. They had it embossed on some Scotch glasses (naturally), and I must say, they modeled that behavior pretty darn well. The idea behind Do It Now is that you are and you will be busy. So busy that if you don’t do it now (“it” being, let’s say, a bill from the phone company, and “do” being “pay it”), it will become an annoying piece of paper in your inbox whose little burst of energy has been lost. It won’t get paid on time, and you will end up paying a penalty. Same with answering email: if I read the email and don’t respond right away, I inevitably lose a bit of my enthusiasm for the response. (Though sometimes, if the email invokes a too strong response from me, it’s probably better for me not to do it now.)
Whenever you get the idea to do something worthy, at least consider doing it now. This works really well if you’re in the kitchen and have just finished a meal and there’s not a lot else going on and you remember that you need to call the plumber to fix your toilet. It doesn’t work so well if you’re in bed with your lover and you suddenly think about alphabetizing your books.

The other big time management life lesson my parents taught, which went along with Do It Now, is “you’ll feel really good about yourself if you do what you’re supposed to do when you said you would do it.” Of course, this might come under the category of “brainwashing,” but it was an effective way to internalize a strong parental directive.
One caveat: I am especially keen to organize my systems—RIGHT NOW-- when I have a project due, especially a book. If I am supposed to be writing, I suddenly become very interested in organizing my spice rack and sorting through my children's clothes. There is a reason for this. The creative part of one's brain feels safer when it's in a structured environment. I have no idea if this is true, but I do know that every writer I've met agrees that, helpful or not, they feel compelled to clean house before they sit down to write. It seems the very act of cleaning and sorting gives the brain a burst of serotonin and energy. After de-cluttering, I write like a fiend, have fantastic conversations and am prone to do spontaneous handstands.

10. Give Perfectionism the Boot. Perfectionism, says Anne Lamott, is the enemy of the people. It's a sad, evil lie, the single worst foe of all creative types. Perfectionism is the Devil Incarnate. Perfectionism whispers to us, "This is your one and only chance. Don't blow it." And then we're stymied. God tells us, "I've got your back. Go for it. You'll learn from your mistakes. There are no wrong turns, as long as you follow the dictates of your heart and stay honest."

*By "I" I actually mean Julie Morgenstern. If I, Nerissa Nields, were to actually do this step, I'd be so evolved and productive that I would probably not be writing this blog, having realized that it's impossible to both maintain a blog and write songs and novels and other books. But I have not planned well, and so here you have this post.