Friday, May 30, 2014

Last Word on Yale Reunion

About Spotify. I get why musicians who hope the CD will somehow make a comeback are doomed to disappointment. As a consumer, I cannot believe how great Spotify is. And yet...

Amelia, Elle and I left for my Yale reunion on Friday afternoon, and as we made our way onto 91 South, I handed my iPhone to my 13 year old niece and asked her to play my new mix, 1989. She did so, and for a few songs, we rocked along to the melange of tunes. But pretty soon, someone told a story which led me to mention Jay's obsession with "Brave," at which point Elle insisted we listen to it right away. Since we could, we did. And then Amelia wanted to play us something from HER iPod touch, and then we were basically playing DJ. Which is cool. But I realized that we are now in a world where the music is completely in the hands of the consumer. Even the "artist" who does nothing more than create a playlist gets compromised by the handler of the device. It's all singles, all the time.

So what of the writer who conceives of a full-length CD? Are there any listeners out there generous enough with their time to actually listen through it? I am not sure I am that generous. I just want to hear my favorite songs. Maybe when I was 15 I was willing to listen to all of Paul Simon's pre-Graceland Hearts & Bones, which is wonderful but requires some patience, but not today. Today, I want that one song ("René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War"), and I am totally going to buy it on iTunes. I might pay for it five times before I'd buy the entire album's worth of songs.

I had hoped to blog daily about my reunion, a sort of on-the-scene reporting. As I clambered up the five flights of Lawrence Hall to get to our dorm suite, I was composing the blog. As I found out for the second or third time that two friends of mine had married each other (that's the great thing about losing your memory--you get to be happily surprised over and over again), I was writing the blog. As I recognized my suite mates, and as we made a wonderful connection around being Suzuki violin parents, I was writing this blog (and taking pictures--see below.) As I took the girls to the Drama School's fantastic workshop in which two freshly graduated drama students were working a scene from Henry VI Part 1, I was composing in my head.

As we studied Maya Lin's Table, as I was thinking about how hard it was to be a woman at Yale only 20 years after co-education, as I revisited the beautiful Sterling Library where I spent so many hours studying Shakespeare and old microfiche for my theatre classes, all this time I was writing to you. But I had not brought my computer, and even if I had, I would have been too busy talking to old friends (and too tired when I wasn't talking) to write. In fact, I was so completely exhausted by the reunion that I left early and went home with Tom and Jay, who came down to watch my panel on Saturday afternoon.

The panel was the reason I was there. I love seeing old friends, and I love nothing more than sitting around and talking, but I probably wouldn't have gone if the reunion committee hadn't asked me to participate on a panel. The one in question,“Making Music: An Inside Look at the Music Business/ Creative Process," consisted of an amazing clarinetist/composer named Derek Bermel who is currently Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and the beloved musical hero of my class, Mark Miller, Minister of Music at Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey and teacher of sacred music at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, who also serves on the faculty of Drew Theological School. We knew him as Bubba, the guy who could make Woolsey Hall shake on Halloween when he played the organ. And then me. I brought Katryna for reinforcements. Jen Jacobsen, one of the best singers and people I know, was the moderator for our group, and she did a fabulous job interviewing us, creating a sense of cohesion to our panel, and keeping us on time--an incredible feat, considering we talked and each performed several songs or pieces. Jen is a lawyer for Sony Music who is currently working on legislation to make the Spotifys of the world pay artists and labels a fare percent. So there is hope for us musicians, and I don't have to feel guilty using Spotify.

How awesome is this? And what is better than musical collaboration?

Eric Rosin, one of my classmates, said, "At Harvard, everyone who shows up Freshman year looks around and goes, 'Why are all these people here at my school?' whereas at Yale, the incoming freshman looks around says, 'How the hell did I get in here?'" I can't speak to the Harvard experience––and I suspect they actually feel the same––but certainly I and everyone I knew at Yale lived in fear of being discovered as the admissions committee mistake. (I have heard Yale admission folks say that if they took the entire admitted group of 1400 and replaced them with the next 1400 on the list, they'd have just as strong a class.) On our panel, we each shared experiences of being rejected from groups, crushed by reactions of faculty to our work, or--in my case--refusing to try out for any singing groups at all, because I was positive I would not get in. "Yale did kind of try to crush us," Derek said. "But the other side of the story is that I was tremendously lifted up by my classmates. In the end, that's what I took from the place."

Yes. That was my experience too. It was a highly competitive world at Yale, but it was also highly collegial, and everyone (mostly) had tremendous respect for the talents of their colleagues and peers. When I had the notion to start a singing group to be accompanied by my acoustic guitar and sing folk songs, I was absolutely astounded by the enthusiasm my crazy idea drew. On the first day of rehearsal, the Calhoun Common Room was crowded with my friend Trex Proffitt's entire Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trip contingent. For the next three years, I'd like to say that I put my head down and worked to make Tangled Up in Blue a singing group that people would want to join. But the truth is, I was just having fun, and doing the thing the admissions people had hoped I would do with my little basket of talents. All around me, sophomores were lifting up their heads too, after the Big Crush of freshman year, and discovering their own talents––that gift only they could give––and finding ways to express themselves.

I found my old year book, and next to my photo I'd used as my quotation Dylan's line from "Tangled Up In Blue," "All of these people we used to know/They're an illusion to me now." And I'd thought of that line again, in the week leading up to the reunion. Who were those people? Did they matter to me?

Yes, it turns out. They did. Even the ones I barely knew--even the ones I never knew. They were the school I went to, far more so than the buildings or the classes or the professors. My peers educated me, through their courage--for every one of them, I am sure, had the experience of being crushed by Yale at some point in their four year career--through their ambition, world view, passion and commitment. I would not be who I am today if I hadn't been lucky enough to go there. All those people I used to know--they are amazing.

And--Yale is not the be-all and end-all. Being at Yale even for 24 hours re-infected me briefly with the idea that Yale was it, that probably no one else had ever had a good idea. But of course I have met thousands of people in the past 25 years who have proved to me that you don't need an ivy education to be inspiring, funny, brilliant, insightful, big-hearted, courageous, talented and charismatic. In fact, what I was struck by at the reunion was not so much the dazzling achievements but the quiet contentment, that feeling that I was having of contributing appropriately to the world, based on one's true talents.

And when the panel was over, I knew I was ready to go home. I was full to the brim. I got to see my dear friend Leon Dewan. I spent a lovely twenty minutes hanging out with Trex and his wife Beth and their fantastic kids. I jumped on stage at Woolsey Hall and sang with the Glee Club. We let Jay kick the soccer ball around Old Campus with some other kids who had, in a few hours, become his new best friends. But instead of dressing up and eating the fancy dinner at Commons, we dragged our stuff over to Claire's Corner Copia, a vegetarian deli where I had practically lived senior year. It was at Claire's, back in 1989, over my usual meal of soup, salad and bread–– plus the occasional Lithuanian coffeecake and hazelnut coffee––that I first conceived of moving to Western Mass. As I have said previously, I don't know where I got the idea, but it was probably from Alice's Restaurant.

I had this vague notion that Western Ma (I didn't even know there was a town called Northampton, except as it was home to Smith) was hip and full of artists and musicians and intellectuals and liberal do-gooders. So I set my sites on one day living there.

And I am here to say...Susan Chua was right. The food at Claire's is really not good. But I didn't care. I wanted to sit one more time in that red bricked room, eat my expensive salad with its meager portion of tofu and elderly cooked vegetables, bus my dish and then hit the road back home, ready to dive back into my life. Goodbye, 1989. And thank you.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Yale Reunion and Spotify 1989

This is a bad formula: rainy day, PMS, and a nostalgia mix from 1989. I upgraded to Spotify Premium (though I am not sure what I gain, since I don't listen to Spotify that much. I did it mostly to support those musicians, like me, who want those Spotify royalties.) "Luka" is on, and whoa, does it bring me back. Magic, music is, and more evocative even than the sense of smell, which is what usually slams me back in time. Right now, I am back in 1987, home from college, late May, a rare Virginia rain. Hopes in my heart to have a career like Suzanne Vega's, though I couldn't even have articulated that then. Waiting to hear what my Words & Music College Seminar professor thought of my 50 page paper on the apocalyptic imagery in Dylan's "Desolation Row." Going to the mailbox every day with baited breath, the way we all approach our inboxes today. What on earth is it like to be a college student today, what with FaceBook and texting? Do people even miss their pals when they go home for the summer? Back in '87, we had the telephone, and the newly invented...what were they called? Oh, yeah, answering machines.

Today, I don't want to do anything. Gmail changed its inbox, and I just spent ten fruitless minutes trying to restore it to the old system. My new crown hurts, and I chickened out in the dentist's chair when she asked me if she thought it needed to be adjusted yet again. I said I was fine. I wasn't. What is it in me that makes me want everyone to think I am more OK than I really am? I have totally unsexy things to do on my list: edit a scene from The Big Idea, practice piano, and beyond that, tidy my office. I don't want to do anything. So I should probably do just nothing. Or, perhaps, there is some big feeling I need to feel that I don't want to. The gloomies have got me. I lie back on the couch and do some nothing for awhile.

Then I go back to focusing on my Spotify mix. I put on Tracy Chapman, and I remember John at Record Works, my supplier in Virginia who shared my love of the Beatles and insisted I buy Tracy's debut album, produced by Joni Mitchell's then-husband Larry Klein (who also produced Shawn Colvin's Fat City, my favorite of her albums, but I am getting ahead of myself.) Shivers up my spine, thinking of how that CD changed my life, how I played it over and over on my elaborate multi-unit stereo which I lugged back and forth from Virginia to New Haven, up and down the Jersey TPKE, up and down four flights of stairs to my dorm room. I hear Bonnie Raitt's "Something To Talk About," and think about our first summer as a band, playing at Williamstown Theatre Festival, discovering the fabulousness of Bonnie Raitt and loving her guitar playing. I put on "Bohemian Rhapsody" and am in the audience of a Trinity Pipes show, watching my amazing sister sing with some of the best singers I've ever heard, with this incredible guitarist they all call "Guitar Dave" playing along. Neil Young's "Ohio" was a song we covered in Tangled Up in Blue, and here I am, next to Leon Dewan, proudly flatpicking that riff, while my crazygreat tenor friend Joe Shieber sings the shit out of "Tin soldier's and Nixon coming..."

There is no better track in the history of the world than the original "Knocking on Heaven's Door." TUIB also covered this, and when we sang it at my aunt Elizabeth's house in upstate NY on our 1989 cross-country tour, five year old John Colonna, her son stood up after the applause and shouted, "But heaven doesn't HAVE a door!"

"Cactus Tree" by Joni Mitchell felt to me, in the fall of '88, as though Joni had crawled inside my head and had catalogued every boy I was dating. I had a Sony Walkman, and my job in the afternoon's was in the Dean's office, often delivering mail. I'd make my rounds in the New Haven rain, with this song playing in my ears. It took me years to figure out how Joni had tuned her guitar for that song.

When I first heard of Suzanne Vega, I was jealous. She had done what I wanted to do, and so my first reaction was to pretend she didn't exist. Then I heard "Luka" and immediately wrote my own song ("Tripping the Light Fantastic"--better left unheard, folks.) Same with the Indigo Girls. I was so jealous that they had stolen my idea of being two women singers that I refused to like them for several years, even though I bought and listened to all their CDs. Now, I kiss the ground they trod upon.

I stuck on Sinead O'Connor's "Mandinka" just because it was produced by our Greta producer Kevin Moloney, whose picture I will put here to freak out Katryna:

And then I stuck on a bunch of random 80s songs, some of which I hated at the time (Tears for Fears) but have now been around so long they have worn me down from sheer exposure and corporate nostalgia. In fact, I am so old now that I am not sure some of my memories are truly my memories; I might have borrowed some of them from the movies or have them confused with the memories of some of my contemporaries who drank too much at the time. Either way, I now like the song "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." So shoot me.

This is a work in progress. I am hoping some of my classmates will help me remember what else needs to be on this mix. Oh! Like ALL of Graceland! And the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon. And the Folkways Woody Guthrie/Ledbelly tribute. And Sweet Honey and the Rock. And Vladimir Horowitz Plays Mozart. But this is just my slice of the late 80s.

After I make the mix, I call a friend and cry. I pick up Johnny for violin, and on the way, I see a woman who looks like my best friend from 20 years ago, in my Loomis Chaffee days. And there on the streets of Florence, it IS my best friend, Gwendolyn. I pull the car over and screech her name. I jump out of my car and she grabs me by the shoulders and we both jump up and down like little kids. We make plans to see each other when I get back from reunions; I jump back in my car and continue to violin. At dinner, we listen to the mix and let the music rock us back to the past and forward to the present. It works on me like water, gently washing me clean again, massaging my heart, preparing me for whatever is next.

To hear the mix, you'll have to follow me on Spotify, apparently, though I have no earthly idea how to do that. But you probably do. The mix is called "1989."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reunion Part 1

I have a fear that the pet store was not totally accurate in their presentation of the genders of these guinea pigs. It's just a feeling I have; plus last night's dream about finding giant white mice, the size of lop-eared rabbits living in my refrigerator on top of the lettuce and the eggs. Also, the diagrams on the internet to demonstrate the sexes of guinea pigs are troubling. That's all I'll say about that for now. But if we end up having a litter of baby guineas, I am going to take them babies back to Dave's Soda and Pet shop and politely inquire how much it costs to neuter adult guinea pigs.

My kids are in heaven, though. The guineas make very sweet chirpy sounds. They purr and cuddle and eat kale leaves out of the kids' hands.

I am in heaven because Jay now sings pop songs, like "Let it Go" and "Brave" and "Sir Duke" in his sweet little soprano. Elle whistles along, or plays songs on her violin for the rodents. Not every day is like this, or to be more precise, every day has its share of screaming fits and dramatic exclamations about the torture of being so bored by life in our house that Tom and I should be seized and have our parental licenses taken away. But I know how fleeting these golden years will be, these years when the kids would mostly rather be with us than off on their own. And so I breathe and try to remember to look up at the sky and really pay attention.

But this is not my forte. On the weekends, I try to take it all in and be one giant pincushion of appreciation, and usually by 9am all of us are yelling at each other. Then we have to lower our expectations, have some tearful apologies, and go on about our business. By afternoon, we are all friends again, and by Sunday we are exhausted as though we did not just have two days "off." (Of course we didn't have two days off!)

I am getting ready to go to my 25th Yale reunion. I am sick with anxiety about the whole thing, though a part of me is full of healthy anticipation and curiosity. Back in 1985 (!!!!!) I was, to put it mildly, anxious to be going away to college, even though I went with the ultimate security blanket: my high school boyfriend, an excellent guy who was very patient with my extreme co-dependence and neuroses for almost five years. I look back at pictures of myself and cringe. Not so much for the 80s fashions (white flats, balloon pants, bad perms) as the look in my face. I so desperately wanted people to like me, and I didn't yet know that I was pretty much OK. The first two years of college are a wash of misery, conviction that I was the mistake in the admission process, and overeating. The second two years I climbed (or was lifted) out of the muck and mire and fell so deeply in love with the place that all I wanted upon graduation was to figure out a way to stay in New Haven for the rest of my life. Failing that, I got engaged and started a rock band.

In anticipation of my reunion, I just listened to "Tangled up in Blue," the song I loved so much I named my singing group at Yale after it. Listening today, that song is clearly about Bob Dylan's 25th college reunion! I am pretty sure Dylan went to Yale and was writing about all the same people I used to know who are (somewhat of) an illusion to me now. But many of these people will quickly prove themselves real on Friday when I see them again, 25 years later, and I may well fall in love with New Haven again.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wormholes, Best Trick in Beating Resistance, and Perfectionism

And here’s where the concept of Wormholes comes in. Wormholes, as I define them, are these little breaks of opportunity in my great wall of resistance. They’re the moments when I feel like maybe, if the circumstances were just right, I might possibly be talked into:
• Giving up bananas (they are SO not local)
• Organizing my office
• Writing a new song
• Doing more than just my one sun salutation in the morning
• Doing more than just 2 miles in my morning run
• Doing whatever totally heinous chore has been on my To Do list since two years ago Christmas (Today it's finding a new stylus for our aged turntable; last week it was filling out copyright forms to register the songs on our new CD)

Now, if I take advantage of these miraculous wormholes, the impossible not only can happen, but usually does with remarkable ease, especially if I have a little grace and humility about it. I resist playing the guitar until I stop telling myself I’m supposed to be playing the guitar. Then, usually, I want to play it. I go through phases with it, and today I know that about myself. Some years I practice diligently, with love and great enthusiasm and creativity. Other years, I coast along. Even though I have made my living as a singer-songwriter who plays the guitar, I know I will never be a virtuoso. What I have done is evolved my own style, and today it’s good enough for me. And I got that style from a certain amount of “just doing it,” as a certain shoe company would say. Just showing up and gritting my teeth and pushing that Sloth to play scales and figure out songs. On the most wonderful days, actual enthusiasm would appear in the middle of a practice session, and I know there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than just joyfully banging away at my guitar.

Best Trick Beating Resistance
“Play till you feel like resting. Then rest till you feel like playing.”––Martha Beck

When I have a lot to do and I don’t feel like doing anything, I make a deal with myself. I say, “Okay, then: do nothing. But really do nothing.”
Doing nothing involves reclining on my couch and staring into space. I do not get to talk on the phone, read, check my email, or sleep. On the other hand, I do not have to meditate, count my breaths or practice any kind of spiritual discipline whatever. All I do is space out. Somehow, this always relaxes and refreshes me, and before too long, my spinning mind has a million things it wants my body to do. I jump up and start accomplishing all the tasks I was fixing to resist.

Perfectionism is the Enemy
So when I look back on my “goals” list, my IAP sees all the things I haven’t done and won’t ever do. (Not going to be the next Beatles. I am clear on that. Don’t think Harvard Div’s in my future either, but that’s another story.) My IAP can sometimes be quite disappointed. But the truth is, I played the guitar well enough to make a career that has sustained me emotionally and financially and artistically for the past 22 years. Instead of becoming the next Beatles, I have this fantastic patchwork life: a manageable, wonderful music career, and a life as a freelance teacher of writing, music and life. I get to write books, go to my kids’ assemblies, and have date night with my husband once a week.
Like the person who really wanted to be a gardener in Ogunquit, the Real Me chooses the life I have made over the life I thought I should have when I was 22. This life, as they say, is right-sized. But I am also glad I gave it my all and “went for it.”

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician's Guide to Navigating Your Twenties, by Nerissa Nields, Mercy House 2013

Friday, May 16, 2014

Setting Goals and Resistance, Part 2

The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals
I am working on songwriting even as I post this. So far, so good, but man is it hard to get me to sit still!

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician's Guide to Navigating Your Twenties

The trick for me is to get the IAP and the Willful Child talking calmly to each other instead of having one of them throw a tsunami-size tantrum while the other one nags like a critical op-ed writer. For this is the challenge. As soon as I set a goal––like getting in shape so I can look great in a Betsey Johnson dress—my inner six(teen) year old (WC) immediately rolls her eyes and curls up in bed with a book. Meanwhile, my IAP goes ballistic on the poor reader, screaming, “Your thighs! That bulge above your triceps! Not to mention you’re going to get osteoporosis and heart disease! Get out of bed and do forty laps around the park!”

Eventually I learned to treat these two opposing personalities the way I would treat a cat. Cats (at least the ones I lived with) don’t respond well to direct orders or being scooped up and cuddled. They like to be wooed, approached at a 45 degree angle. Slyly. Gently. Coyly. And so when I am feeling listless, I have my IAP say, ever so slyly, gently, and coyly, “Wow, remember how nice it was to go for a run? You used to bring your iPod and listen to Anna Karenina. That was fun. Hmmm. Maybe if we go back to running, we can download Middlemarch. You could start by just walking, and call Susan on your cell phone… no pressure.” The six(teen)-year-old responds much better this way (though she negotiates for Patti Smith’s Just Kids in lieu of Middlemarch), and there is peace, harmony and fitness in the kingdom once again.

But this diplomacy has been long in negotiation. This should give you hope: in order to meet my second goal (to be the next Beatles) I knew I would have to practice my guitar a lot more. (I am undisciplined about practicing my guitar, and I pretty much always have been.) When I started at age eleven, that directive: “I should practice more!” rang in my ears every time I came home from school and saw my little nylon string guitar safely tucked away in its black pleather case. What did I do? Sometimes felt kind of sick and guilty and stuck the guitar in the nether regions of my closet. But often the desire to make music would come and pull at my heartstrings, and I would pull the guitar out of the case and open my Beatles for Easy Guitar book, sit down on the carpet and painfully play a few songs with especially easy chords. But I’d get so frustrated because the songs sounded nothing like the Beatles LPs I’d put on the record player that I’d slam the book shut in frustration and lock my guitar up in its case, to be ignored for the next few weeks. Still, the IAP had some effect, as I eventually played the guitar for my living.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Setting Goals and Resistence, part 1

Today, Katryna and I rehearsed (and even kind of wrote!) songs for our new CD. So my post is from my book How to Be an Adult: A Musician's Guide to Navigating Your Twenties. Makes an excellent graduation gift. Just saying.

Setting Goals
Goal-setting is probably not new to you. Who hasn’t at some point tried to achieve something just beyond one’s reach? How does one do such a thing? By working a little harder, a little longer, a little more often, in a focused way. We can set goals for ourselves around almost anything: making it through school, training for a race, mastering an instrument, achieving a social status, winning a chess ranking, winning first prize at a Rubik’s Cube tournament. When I was 22, my goals were: to never have to feel lonely again; to start a band that would be the next Beatles; to write a hit song; to look great in a Betsey Johnson dress; to have a daily yoga practice; to run every day; to keep a daily journal; to (eventually—many years in the future) have a family; to go to Harvard Divinity School and be a minister living in western Massachusetts.

Dealing With Resistance
The problem with setting goals is that as soon as we do, 95% of us come up against the source of all evil: Resistance. [For more on Resistance, you must MUST read the excellent Steve Pressfield's The War of Art.] Resistance, as I am defining it here, means not doing something you know you want to do, ought to do, love to do, and won’t do––yet have no logical reason for not doing. There is something about the nature of resistance that speaks to the very heart of this question of maturity. We all know resistance in some aspect of our lives; we all know that huge creature slouching toward the mall, if not Bethlehem, this three-toed sloth who sleeps all day in the cool of the trees and rouses itself only to eat and excrete. We all know the frustration of setting a goal—to keep our living room tidier, to jog three miles in the morning, to practice the guitar, to send out that resumé, to straighten out our finances––only to watch as the weeks go by and helplessly observe that sickening refusal in some deep part of ourselves to participate. What is it? Where does it come from?

I have no idea. All I know is that I recognize this sloth in myself, and it baffles me that I have accomplished as much as I have, given its hegemony over me. But I do have some observations.

Of course, if we never set goals, we’d never have to deal with resistance. I tend to see the whole issue of resistance to goals in myself as a conversation between a very willful, creative child and a very ambitious parent with the “Real You” stuck somewhere in the middle.

Sigmund Freud uses the terms “id,” “superego” and “ego” here, but some of us have problems with old Siggy, so I’ve provided some alternative jargon for you. Perhaps your resistance is actually healthy and self-protective. What if the goals you are setting for yourself are the wrong goals anyway? What if these particular goals do not support your true dreams and desires? What if the Real You––your true self before socialization, the unique person you were meant to be during your brief sojourn on this planet—what if this You does not care about glamour and fame and money? The Real You might think your perfect manifestation to be a gardener in the town of Ogunquit, Maine. The Real You might fall in love with an overweight, illiterate cab driver with eyes like Tom Hanks’ and a heart as big as Canada. The Real You might just want what it is meant to want.

Your Inner Ambitious Parent (IAP), on the other hand, is who and what our peers, People magazine, The New York Times and perhaps our actual ambitious parents tell us we should be––what we should look like, how much money we should make and what we should accomplish in our lifetime. Your IAP has been told to follow in the family business, or to be a doctor or a lawyer or something (please, God) that will provide our parents with some security upon retirement. Your IAP might want you to be straight, though sometimes, in some communities, gay. Your IAP wants you to contain your feelings (unless it’s Italian, which means it wants you to be extremely emotive, operatic, and a good cook and lover to boot. Pardon the “boot” pun). In short, the Real You and your IAP might be worlds apart.

Maybe the reason you keep procrastinating on your screenplay or sleeping through your morning workout is that you don’t really want to be an award winning documentary filmmaker or a triathlete. Maybe your house continues to be a disaster area, even though you subscribe religiously to FlyLady , because you don’t really want your house to look like it sprung from the pages of House Beautiful. Maybe this resistance is some kind of divine protection, a cry from the dark saying, “This is not me!”

The Willful Child on the other hand is not that helpful either, though some of us in our teens and twenties champion our WC and follow her on a long goose chase to degradation (see The Prodigal Son and a bazillion other characters in literature). The Willful Child is not that keen on making money, friends, or attending to personal hygiene. She’s fun for awhile, but not for a lifetime. You really don’t want her running the show, or you’ll end up like one of my actual willful children who, on occasion, refuses TV and candy simply because their actual IAP (me) is offering it to him or her. Or in my case, the WC is that same sloth spoken of earlier who doesn’t so much stamp her foot but rather curls up on the couch for an entire season if left undisturbed. Life, of course, is a process of finding that balance between chaos and rigidity. The balance point changes over time, which is why we need to practice balancing a lot.

(For tomorrow: The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Sandra Tsing Loh and the 'Pause

I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing Sandra Tsing Loh on Monday night. She spoke to a group of fabulous 40-60 something kick-ass Northampton women at Cathi Hanauer's house, and read from her new book The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones. We were all in hysterics ("hysteria" comes from the Greek "hystera" which means womb, people) at what Cathi had termed "a 'pause party." And it's a great thing to laugh at what we most fear and relate to, with a group of others who seem to feel the same. I swore ahead of time I would not buy another book, since my list is so terrifyingly long, as is the stack by my bed, but I was first in line after the reading, and I haven't been able to put it down since.

I'd wanted to come because in 2011 my friend Jess Bacal (whose great book Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong also just came out) had sent me a link to this excellent article from The Atlantic. I think it's poetic and also scary that when I spoke to Sandra, I had no memory of what the piece was about, only that I had loved it.

"It was about menopause," said my friend Lisa, who is younger than I by a good five years. (Younger as in she can remember what she reads, not as in: "she added, 'Duh!'" Which she could have.)

"It was?" I said.

So that was why, when she told us on Monday, that we should think of "menopause" not as a change from the regular state (fertile) to the abnormal (infertile), but a return home to the state we knew as girls, it rang familiar.

"IT’S INTRIGUING TO ponder this suggested reversal of what has traditionally been thought to be the woman’s hormonal cloud. A sudden influx of hormones is not what causes 50-year-old Aunt Carol to throw the leg of lamb out the window. Improperly balanced hormones were probably the culprit. Fertility’s amped-up reproductive hormones helped Aunt Carol 30 years ago to begin her mysterious automatic weekly ritual of roasting lamb just so and laying out 12 settings of silverware with an OCD-like attention to detail while cheerfully washing and folding and ironing the family laundry. No normal person would do that—look at the rest of the family: they are reading the paper and lazing about like rational, sensible people. And now that Aunt Carol’s hormonal cloud is finally wearing off, it’s not a tragedy, or an abnormality, or her going crazy—it just means she can rejoin the rest of the human race: she can be the same selfish, non-nurturing, non-bonding type of person everyone else is. (And so what if get-well casseroles won’t get baked, PTAs will collapse, and in-laws will go for decades without being sent a single greeting card? Paging Aunt Carol! The old Aunt Carol!)" (from The Bitch Is Back, Atlantic, Oct. 2011.

Of course, I have lots of thoughts and feelings about this, but right now, today, it's refreshing to remember that I am in a cloud of estrogen which propelled me to take a break from my work to jog down to the Smith Botanical Gardens and spend five or ten minutes holding my son's hand as his Kindergarten class got a tour. I'm glad for that cloud; and I am glad that it will end, and that someday I will go back to putting my writing front and center. Or sit on the couch and read a novel. Or just take more evenings off to watch a hilarious and brilliant woman share her life and her art with a bunch of other hilarious brilliant women.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mother's Day

My writing group isn't meeting tonight, because I got invited to hear Sandra Tsing Loh read at a friend's house. She has a new book out called The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones. Though I'd generally rather write with my writers than almost every other activity, I wanted to say yes to this invitation. I don't know from raging hormones (yet) and I like to be prepared for such eventualities. But what I want to write about today is Mother's Day.

I feel guilty saying this, because I know how hard Mother's Day can be for those who have lost theirs to either death or illness or painful choice; or for those who yearn to be mothers and aren't, or who were mothers and suffered the cruelest loss. But I have come to appreciate this holiday, and not just because my kids made me beautiful cards, gave me the day off and just plain exist. I hated it as a child, and in our family it was almost universally ignored until the three daughters became mothers ourselves and started getting cards, flowers (or resenting the lack thereof). Now we regularly thank our own mother. Now we get it.

In church yesterday, Steve said, "Every day should be mother's day. We owe a debt we can never pay back." And all of us had a mother, however imperfect. My life was changed when a wiser woman (not a mother herself) shared her own breakthrough: "I realized that the sometimes mean, sometimes crazy alcoholic mom I had was exactly the mother I needed to become the person I am." That statement set me free as a mother. Whenever I worried that I was wrecking my kids, I thought of this: the mother you get is the mother you need. For better or for worse, my kids got me. And mostly, it's for better. I have to trust that even when it's not so lovely--like when I ignore them for my iPhone, or yell at them for not showing up for violin practice--that somehow, someway, God can turn this to good: compost becomes flowers.

More about Sandra Tsing Loh tomorrow.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Guinea pigs

My kids got guinea pigs last week. The guinea pigs effectively bought us a year off the dog question. What Elle really wants is a dog. Her ambition in life, courtesy of a movie called Snow Buddies (which features talking golden retriever puppies who all have the word "Bud" somewhere in their name) is to be a musher. She wants to move to Alaska or Maine and raise sled dogs. Meanwhile, she would like us to get her a dog, more than anything in the world. In the past few months, we have found her stretched out on the couch, weeping silently, her arm over her eyes, grieving sweetly for her lack of dog. Everywhere she goes, she points out the dogs, races up to their owners and politely asks if she can pat them. She gets down on her knees and puts both her hands into the fur around the dog's neck (the bigger the dog the better, mostly: her favorites are Aussies, Great Danes and, inexplicably, Shih Tzus). This is very hard to resist.

Jay does not want a dog. He wants to be a dog. For now, I prefer the Jay dog to an actual dog. Jay still can curl up easily on my lap (though he is not allowed to lick my face, though he can pantomime), and I am savoring these last months of Kindergarten. I too want a dog, in theory. I don't really want to have to walk it, and I don't have time this summer to take a pup to obedience school. But I know I can't stay the tide forever. If you saw Elle with her arm over her eyes and her fingers in our neighbors' dogs' fur, you couldn't either.

So for now: guinea pigs. Their names are Eleatt (pronounced "Eliot") and Zippy. They are great, so far. They purr and grunt and chirp. Elle sits for hours with Eleatt on her chest, curled in a little ball. So far, Jay has not killed Zippy. All is well.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

New CD, New Van, New Commitment

What have we been doing lately? Glad you asked. In addition to the usual, Nerissa has been writing a huge number (like 20) of songs; we drove our new van, Bessie Van Gogh, down to Virginia where we played at our church Immanuel Presbyterian, and also at the Ethical Community Charter School where we did our Pete Seeger Wasn't That a Time? show. Meanwhile, as we drove up and down the Jersey Turnpike, our kids made a chart of all the states represented on the license plates of the cars we passed on the way.

We visited the Mall in DC and tried to go to the East Wing of the National Gallery, but it was closed. So we visited the West Wing and gave the kids a scavenger hunt: "Find a painting with fruit in it." "Find a painting with two women," etc.
We also went to the American History museum and looked at a display on the Civil Rights era. We watched footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and also saw Joan Baez's guitar, which she played at the Lincoln Memorial.

We sang Pete Seeger songs and some of our new ones. We used our brand new sound system. We were grateful for every single extra inch Bessie Van Gogh afforded us. We hung around the playground while our kids gamboled, and we talked about the new CD we are going to make this summer. We talked about a CD release tour in 2015; about going to Florida for a gig, about our dream of performing in all 50 states in our lifetime (we've played all but Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Hawaii.) We showed our kids the neighborhood we'd lived in in the 70s. We saw our parents. We saw spring in Virginia, which gave us hope that spring would eventually come to Massachusetts.

Last weekend, we celebrated Elle’s 8th birthday. Katryna's kids gave her the soundtrack to Frozen, a movie she'd watched with her friends at least twice before we got to see it as a family. Jay had also seen it without us. Katryna's kids know every word of the soundtrack, and after dinner Saturday night, the four kids closed the French doors, which separate the dining room from the music room and proceeded to sing and dance along to practically the entire movie, emoting majestically with their arms, shooshing their hair back dramatically along with "Let It Go." We grown-ups snuck over to the backstage area to spy on them. They were in perfect bliss; and I realized that this was their music as much as anything has ever been my music, and for that reason, I decided to love it, even though it is the kind of aggressive pop music I have historically eschewed.

I was 8 when I discovered my first LP--the LP that I would wear out, play over and over, knew every note to: The Captain and Tennille's Love Will Keep Us Together. Katryna and I used to do the same kind of interpretive dance, belt-it-out reveries to that LP.
The joy and vulnerability is so delicious to watch, but we felt almost guilty spying on them. In fact, five year old Jay eventually spotted us, and when he did, immediately said, “Go away. This is pwivate.”

We are about to record our 17th CD. We have almost all the songs. I should have been working on a song tonight, but instead I wrote this. I feel the need to connect back to the readership of this blog during the next few months. My creative entrepreneurial group (CREMA—Creative Entrepreneur Mastermind) met last week and talked about how important it is for writers to be disciplined, to write when they say they will write. To write for at least an hour a day. I want to commit to that for the next two months leading up to our time in the studio. When I am not writing and performing regularly, I forget who I am. (Which might not be a bad thing, but for the sake of argument...) It’s almost impossible for me to remember that my music matters unless I am onstage, or it’s the day after a show, or I’m singing a new song in church. By day two, post-show, I have forgotten that anyone likes my music or remembers who I am (if I have forgotten who The Nields are, which I usually do, why should anyone else remember?) We are not gigging very much this summer because this time around, we're doing the "hole up in the studio" version of recording a record (whereas with The Full Catastrophe we did the "let's try to live our whole lives while recording for an hour a week" version. Result? A record that took three years to make.) Now is a good time to remember that I am a musician and a writer and not get distracted by my child's guinea pigs (more on that later) or get consumed by a clutter-clearing initiative.

I need, once again, to commit to an hour of creative time per day. Not so much in the hopes that I will write something Outstanding That Outlives Me (OTOM=my perpetual goal), but to remind ME that I am an artist, first and foremost. Remember when I spent a whole month blogging every day? That was March 2009, after having that formative tour/vacation in Florida where I couldn't appreciate the view of the Gulf of Mexico because I was too tired. On that trip, we played a couple of shows at the Craftsman House, and while resting between, I found a book called The Mud Pie Dilemma about an artist named Tom Coleman who had struggled to raise a child and make a living while remaining an artist. It gave me a kick in the pants at the time––I was newly postpartum after my second child, Jay––and I committed to a daily blogging practice. I don't think I can do that right now, though I hope to in July and August while we're recording the new CD. But for now, I can commit to hitting the piano, guitar or laptop for some daily open-ended creative time. I want to feel some of that exuberance my kids feel when they sing along to "Let It Go."

“If you had started doing anything two weeks ago, by today you would have been two weeks better at it.”
― John Mayer