Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Why I Don't Get to Feel Superior Ever Again

Last week, we bought an all-wheel drive minivan.
Before you stop reading, send me threatening emails or unfriend me, hear me out. There are stranger things, Horatio...

Before there was the mini van, of course, there was the oft celebrated Jetta,which could run on vegetable oil and in any case got 41 miles to the gallon. Tom and I bought it shortly (like 3 days) after seeing Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Only problem with the Jetta was that, by 2014, it could barely contain the four of us, let alone our stuff, so if we went anywhere at all, we'd need to put the Yakima on the roof. When I pick the kids up from school, only one of them could have a playdate, and if the playdate was Elle's best friends who are twins, I had to make them walk home, which was fine if the weather was ok (though Jay inevitably protested). When my parents came to visit, we had to go everywhere in two cars.

And then there came a procession of not one but two gas guzzling silver trucks, a honking Tundra and a much svelter (but still guzzling) Tacoma. They were the purchases of my husband, and since I've vowed never to speak ill of him, I'll just leave you with that information. I am a loving wife, and I want my husband to be happy. 'Nuff said. Plus, that husband of mine bikes almost everywhere. It takes him over two months to use one tank of gas. Still. There were two trucks. And a Jetta. Did we really need to be a three car family? I mean, a two-truck, one-car family? No.

But there came a time when said husband came to his senses and said, "Lo, good Wife! But these silver trucks doth consume much more than their share of global commestables in the form of fossil fuels, and methinks we should unload at least one of them! For I have climbed high up yonder mountain, and I have seen the New Order, and Lo! It containeth no trucks!"

Or something like that. Anyway, the point is we were both feeling sick about the two stupid trucks taking up space in our driveway, not to mention making it impossible to get in or out of our driveway without scratching said vehicles on the arbor vitae, or occasionally leveling the arbor vitae. Meanwhile, Katryna and I have some gigs coming up on which family members wanted to join us. We're going to visit the grands over April vacation, and while at it play at our old church (Immanuel Presbyterian--come on out on Wednesday April 23 and see our Pete Seeger Sing Along!) and do a school gig in New Jersey on the way home. Katryna's ancient Sienna, which used to be our touring vehicle, has gone well over 200,000 and is in grave need of repairs, if not the grave itself. Not to mention, it's snowed in at the moment. We can't all fit in her Corolla, not 3 kids, a sound system and the guitar, the violins and the stuffed animals and pillows and blankets and all the garbage we'll surely accumulate on the trip.

And so the idea curled up in my brain like a seed about to unfurl, and soon I was mentioning minivans to Tom at every opportunity. "Well, if we had a minivan..." I'd begin most sentences. And for the first time, he was not opposed. Well, actually, this was the first time. See, I'd had an aversion to minivans. I felt that to own a minivan was to just roll over and declare myself a middle-aged mom whose priority was her kids. NOT THAT THERE'S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT!!!!!!! But it didn't fit with my own self-image of hip aging-rock-star/environmentalist.

Elle concurred. "No!!!!" she wailed, pointing at the sticker in the car dealership. "This gets 17 miles to the gallon! Let's get a Prius!"

Our plan was to sell the trucks on Craiglist for $11,000 (Tundra, 91,000 miles) and $8000 (Tacoma, 169,000 miles) but no one else, apparently, thought that that was a good idea. Why? Who could resist this photo we posted?

The trucks did not budge. So, just to see what would happen if we went to the dealer and asked what the trade in value would be, we spent a Sunday afternoon not buying a minivan. "See?" I told Tom as we walked away from their insulting offer ($6000 for the Tundra, $4000 for the Tacoma). "I don't budge."

We did test drive the van, though. And all my Puritanical, high-minded, Polarbear-loving leanings were sorely strained by the smooth ride, the leather seats, the amazing sound system, the automatic doors, the squeals of delight from the kids in the back seat (even Elle was won over). We could live in that van.

Still, it was just all too much. Literally. Too big. Too fancy. Too wasteful! I'd thought, initially, we'd buy and sell on craigslist and end up with more space in our driveway and a bit of cash. Instead, we were facing a much smaller number in our bank account and two huge losses on our trucks. And no vehicle to lug the trash to the dump. Or to loan to our friends who were moving, or to offer as a prize at the auctions our school and church hold annually. (Two days with Tom's truck!)

So Tom and I had a sleepless night, a dark night of the soul, if you will. And when we woke up, we were in agreement.

"Let's do it," he said. "You need it for your gigs. And we can bring it to the Adirondacks. We need to be able to carpool, have playdates for the kids."

"And I was thinking," I said. "That you should keep the Tacoma. You love that truck."

The truth about what happens when you go to a car dealership to see what the trade in value of your trucks is that you eventually buy a car and spend way more money than you want to. So we have a lot less money now, and no more room in our driveway. I spent a week in feverish buyer's remorse, thinking of all the worthy causes we could have supported, all the time off we could have taken. And we have blood on our hands, not that we didn't already; but now we can't act superior to all those other minivan moms and dads who are, like us, just doing the best they can, trying to juggle it all. My friend said, "You feel sad because you didn't win at the car game? No one wins at the car game! Only car dealerships, who are experts. We're supposed to lose money on our cars!"

Still, I have to admit, as I read through what I have written here, I still shake my head at myself and scold. "What are your grandchildren going to say to you when you tell them, 'Sorry that there are only cockroaches and starlings and squirrels left. Here are some pictures of all the other animals we annihilated by driving gas guzzlers and drying our laundry in machines. We could have been more eco-conscious, but it was crowded in our Jetta!'" And they will look at you, these grown up children, and say, 'Wah, wah, wah. Tell it to the polarbears."

But maybe beating myself up is better that than the alternative: blaming everyone else. Or each other. Truth is, I was so judgey of Tom and his trucks, in case you couldn't tell. I felt no compassion when he said, "But it's so much fun to drive!" Now, that's how I feel about my van, who I think is named Bessie, for she is like a big, contemplative, ruminating bovine. I drive around in Bessie, and it's just so much fun. OH! The humility.

This morning, Tom got in the Jetta to go somewhere (we're still mostly driving the Jetta.) But because of the recent late March torrential rains, he spun and spun and spun the wheels. No movement. That baby is completely stuck in the mud.

Thank goodness for our 4 wheel drive truck and van. I get to be one among many, on the ground, not looking down from above. We're in this together.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Thoughts Post-FAWM

I am paying a debt of honor by finally reading Charles Dickens. And by "reading," I really mean listening, since all I ever do anymore is listen to audiobooks. And by "all I ever do anymore" I don't mean that literally. Because I do a lot. This is my daughter's depiction of her day:

You can surmise the apple does not fall far from the mama tree. I got up this morning at 6, did some yoga, then meditated, then counseled a friend on the phone, then cuddled my 5 year old, made him and me breakfast, then made my daughter's breakfast, then tidied up, did violin practice with the kids, then cleaned the house, ran to the Y, lifted weights, ran home (all while listening to my audiobook), led a phone meeting, ate lunch while listening to NPR on my iPhone to try to figure out what is going on in the Ukraine (now I kind of have an idea, which is better than yesterday), then sent out a dozen emails and texts that ranged from the personal to the familial to the various businesses and classes I run. Then Patty (my manager) and Katryna came over and we had an hour meeting to figure out booking issues, and by the time it was over, I had to pick up the kids from school. I took them straight to the corner supermarket to get bananas and milk and to the post office where I sent a friend a CD copy of my demo of new songs. Then I dropped off Jay at a playdate, took Elle to her violin lesson, talked to a friend who has a rare stage 3 cancer about her chemo treatments, picked Jay up from the playdate, scooted home with the kids, made them dinner, ate dinner, played ten minutes of piano, and here I sit in my writing group, writing prose for the first time in a month.

Our prompt today is a poem called "Let Go. Return" by Josephine Johnson, from 1937. In it she writes:

This is the need, the deep necessity of every life:
To scatter wide seed in many fields,
But build one barn.

This is our blunder, to have built
Gilt shacks for every seed,
And followed our sowing on fast anxious feet,
Desiring to grind the farmost grain.

Let go. Let go. Return
Heighten and straighten the barn's first beam.
Give shape and form. Discover the rat, the splintered stair.
Throw out the dry, gray corn.

Then may it be said of you:
Behold, he had done one thing well,
And he knows whereof he speaks, and he means what he has said,
And we may trust him.
This is sufficient for a life.

I am queen of building gilt shacks for every seed. Did this woman worm herself into my head and speak to me from the grave, reaching her hands out to grab my ankles the way Pip imagines the dead might treat his sinister nemesis Abel Magwitch in that first chapter of Great Expectations? For this is my midlife crisis, right here: I am in danger of letting my barn fall down because I am so busy tending to every little gilt (guilt) shack. And which ones really merit my attention?

On the way back from the violin lesson, Elle said, "I didn't know T had cancer."
"How did you know she did?"
"I eavesdropped on you."
"Ah," I said. "That is a good skill to have."
We drove for awhile. She said, "When did she get cancer?"
I said, "No one knows when exactly, but she was having trouble breathing, and they found out about it around Christmas." My eyes welled up a bit. I had just told T how brave I thought she was, and she said, "You'd do the same thing. I mean," and here she had pointed at Elle who was on the floor playing with the violin teacher's baby. "We don't have a choice. We can't just roll over and die." T has two young daughters. I said now, to Elle, "We need to pray hard. Not that that always works, but sometimes it does. And we need to be really nice to her kids right now. And I am going to be really mad at God if we lose T."

Elle paused. Then from the backseat: "It's not exactly God's fault."

Part of the problem is that the barn, as I saw it, was the music I created with my bandmates. The music is obviously my life's work, even as I can neglect it dreadfully for months at a time. This past month, I did not neglect it. I spent the whole month of February writing songs, 14 to be exact. Well, really 13. One was a duet of Katryna singing "You've Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley" with Siri, the iPhone voice over.

My big contribution to that number was to immortalize it on my own iPhone and post it on Facebook. But I did write 13 whole other songs, some of which are pretty good. And what was great about the experience was that I don't even care that much if the songs are good or not, or if I'll record them and put them on my next CD. I now remember how to write songs, and I have confidence that I can. February was like spring training. I'm ready to play ball now.

But like so many mothers I know, I also feel that my "real" work is my family: nurturing my relationship with my husband, and the day-to-day mothering of my two children. I spend much of my energy (as demonstrated by my big list) on keeping the machine going, that contraption that feeds, clothes, transports, amuses, bathes and grooms and educates and snuggles my children. And on many occasions, that other barn (for I won't, certainly, call this a gilt shack) seems directly at odds with the first. Which barn gets the attention, the small improvements? How can I chose which beam to straighten when they both need fresh wood? How can I chose which one thing to do well?

Well, for one thing, let's simply acknowledge that Josephine Johnson wasn't writing at a time when women could, from a practical perspective, raise two barns. But in the age of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nora Ephron and Cate Blanchett, to name just three career moms among countless others, I think it's fair to say that many do, nowadays, build two barns. (Men as well as women.) But perhaps I don't need to build fourteen. Maybe I can let some of my smaller projects be just that: smaller projects. Pete Seeger's death reminded me that my true calling is still, and always will be, conveyer of song to a group, however humble that may look. It's a ministry calling, every bit as dramatic as Jonah's. We don't get to choose where we get sent. I might prefer Telluride Bluegrass Festival, or the Grammies to the parking lot of River Valley Market, but I am a singer, and as Pete said to the HUAC, "I'll sing for anybody." We singers can only hope, as Dickens might say, to be beams of God's grace, shining on all alike.

Back in the car, I was struck by Elle's lucidity. I don't know if agree with her, theologically. I have read When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and I am intrigued by the idea that since an omniscient God cannot co-exist with an all loving God, we need to choose which we believe. I haven't come down firmly on either side, and I suspect, still, that God is somehow all loving and omniscient, but we humans can't possibly be expected to take such a long view. Still, I said,

"You're right. I agree with you, actually."

"I don't like when people blame God," Elle said. I turned to look at her. She's seven, now. She wears, daily, a fuzzy plush vest of tiger stripes with a tiger hood, and on top of that an Adidas windbreaker. Her eyelashes are so long I sometimes can't believe they're real, that she's real, this elf-like child of mine who can go from regular silly kiddo to wise-beyond-her-years sage on a dime's turn.

"Neither do I," I concede. "Thanks for the reminder."

So it's March, now. The songs got written. Now it's time to make them good. Write more songs. Schedule the recording we'll be doing this summer. Book some gigs. Practice piano, play guitar, read some classics, listen to a lot of old and new music, hand your guitar to young ones stronger, thank God, thank God, thank God.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

I'm Pretty Sure That My iPhone Is Making Me Sick

I’m Pretty Sure That My iPhone is Making Me Sick

I’m pretty sure that my iPhone is making me sick
And still I can’ stop poking at the apps and the pics
Every time I hold it to my head
It makes the insides of my body feel like lead
Not to mention when the thing goes dead
I want to poke my eyes out with a stick
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that my iphone is making me sick.

I’m pretty sure that my iphone is making me stupid
It’s as if all my vast stores of knowledge have been pillaged and looted
If I don’t know a fact, I poke the question in Safari
I might recall your number but I’m sort of in a hurry
So I ask, and I’m reminded by Siri
It’s just as if we’re paired by an arrow of Cupid
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that my iphone is making me stupid

iphone, you’re like some magic wand!
Harry Potter’s got nothing on you
One day you’ll have an app for apparation!
Will there be anything that you can’t do?

I’m pretty sure that my iphone is wrecking my marriage
Even though my iphone and I go like a horse and a carriage
My husband says my face is turning green
From all that hunching over tiny screens
My children want to flush it down the can
Until they see that I have Instagram
And then they, too, step in the hologram
They’re walking the plank, they pledge to join me in bondage…
Yes, I’m pretty sure that my iPhone is wrecking my
Yes, I’m pretty sure that my iPhone is making me
Yes, I’m pretty sure that my iPhone is making me sick.

By Nerissa Nields
©2014 Peter Quince Productions ASCAP all rights reserved
Feb. 20, 2014

Sunday, February 16, 2014

FAWM Halfway Check In

It's more than halfway through February, and I have seven songs written. I need to do something today or risk being mad at myself. We're in the Adirondacks for the long weekend, and it's cold, thick with snow and gorgeous here. Our Jetta couldn't make it up the steep driveway, so it's parked on the dirt road we live off of. We hiked everything in: food, luggage, violins, guitar, computer. Left the cross country skis in the car.

My first day on vacation is always a waste of sorts. A clearing out. I am useless, cranky, exhausted, depressed and non-functioning. This makes everyone in my family mad at me, which only exacerbates the problem, but today everyone, including me, is much better. We all had to readjust expectations and accept that we are not fully evolved beings quite yet. Things that helped: crying, telling the truth, making dinner together, listening to the 70s mix I made, and playing Attaturk. Jay can now read and write! This is quite an advantage in life, as is being able to play Attaturk.

Katryna helped a lot with FAWM. She said, "Don't think you're supposed to come up with 14 finished songs. Just get 14 song starts. We'll refine later." So that being said, I think many of these are very close:

1. Dave Hayes The Weather Guy
2. Everybody Needs a Witness
3. Turn It Around Again
4. Welcome Song
5. 12 Rocking Princesses
6. Snowblower
7. Skunk

I should also say, not that it has anything to do with anything, that all this not-being-able-to-get-up-the-driveway has us in New Car Lust mode. Suddenly, we need a car with AWD, even though in the almost 8 years since we've owned our Jetta, we've only regretted the front wheel drive twice. That Jetta gets 41 miles to the gallon. Plus it's paid for.

We also have two, count them two, silver trucks with 4WD, but neither one is appropriate for long family trips. And we are trying to sell one of them.

And finally, in the list of things that have nothing to do with FAWM, Elle wants a dog more than she wants anything in life. That child is determined (see: violin and cleverly tricking me into being YESM=Yelling Evil Suzuki Mom), and I think a dog might be in our future. Next car will depend on size of said beast.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

FAWM #3: Welcome Song for Guitar Students

I told my guitar students yesterday that I would write them a new "Hello" song. Currently, we've been using "Good Morning, Sunshine," which is the HooteNanny welcome song, written in 2006. It's pretty easy, but for a brand new beginner, the changes come fast. Plus there is a pesky F#m7 which is kind of advanced for newbies. I wanted to give the guitarists their own song, anyway. So here it is.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

FAWM Day #2 One down

I wrote my song! It took me all day, but it's finished, or close to. It's called "Dave Hayes the Weather Guy." I know he's Dave Hayes the Weather Nut, but "Nut" was just too silly for the song. I will post the video in a few days. Meanwhile, I am working on another song in E tuning, and it's killing me. I should go back to it. More soon. Here's the writerly advice for the day:

Saturday, February 01, 2014

FAWM Day One-Excuses, Excuses

It's February 1st, the beginning of February Album Writing Month, and I feel doomed because I have lost my journal. I am in the middle of my writing retreat, a Deep Retreat in which we spend all day Saturday (all day!) writing, with breaks for lunch, dinner, and of course singing tonight. It's 9:55am and I have already wasted 25 minutes of my writing time searching for this journal, making my cup of tea, reheating my cup of tea, gathering two different guitars, (one in standard, one in E tuning), finding my songwriting journal (different and NOT a replacement for my actual journal in which I have collected all my brilliant thoughts and ideas for writing this month). I also gathered three fat files from my filing cabinet full of crappy song starts from the 90s, plus some guitar lesson ideas and random sheet music. I made my bed. I made a new category of "Reminders" for my iphone, whose screen got wrecked this morning when, in the middle of my run, I answered a text from my sister and the thing flew out of my hands and shattered on the pavement. Naturally, I am thinking that I'll have to make a trip to the Apple store in Holyoke to get it replaced. This weekend. (Maybe I should go now.) I need to send out my newsletter to remind folks about the next retreat. And really, as I am sitting here not writing songs, I am contemplating the notion that I am more of a teacher than a writer now, anyway, and so maybe I should spend my time coming up with articles and blog posts instead of new songs. My Pete Seeger piece was published in today's Gazette. Maybe I should call the Gazette and see if I could be a writer for them! That would get me out of this songwriting gig.

I have written a lot of songs in my life. I have not counted them but figuring that I've averaged about 12 songs a year since I was 18––I am now 46––that's well over 300 songs. That seems about right.

Does the world really need any more songs by Nerissa Nields? Haven't I written enough? Can't I just keep singing my old songs?

To my right are two full bins of clean laundry waiting to be sorted. Maybe I should sort them. Maybe that would be a good thing for my right brain as I compose.

And what should I compose? I have a lot of ideas, and the ideas have no central axis. I have ideas for typical Nields teen age girl songs. I have ideas for spirituals and protest songs, and silly kids songs. We need to make a new CD this summer. I have to have the songs by then. This thought makes me want to pant like a nervous dog. I have an essay I want to finish. I am dying to get back to my novel The Big Idea, but I pledged to my novel group that I would not touch it until after February. I need to write songs. Where is my journal???

Ira Glass said this great thing about writing that I am just going to post right here:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
― Ira Glass

OK. A lot of work. The laundry will remain unfolded. I am hereby checking in to write a song. It might not be a song that ever sees the light of day, but right now, I will write a song. I'll let you know how it turns out tomorrow.