Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Punches to Ashes

Here we are, Ash Wednesday. As I get older, when I think about it all coming down to ash once more as the sum total of my existence will be blowin’ in the wind, I think about what, if anything, I’m leaving behind. When my son, in his contemplative moments after 10 p.m. or anytime we're in the car more than five minutes, starts to ask me his cosmic questions about faith and God and life after this one, I always bring the conversation back to what we can do while we are here. I try delicately to make the point that frankly, I don't know that there is anything after this. And if this is all there is, what’s the best use of it? I don’t need some invisible deity or the threat of eternal damnation to tell me that the most important thing we can do here on earth is try, in the end, to be good to each other.

Yesterday I was talking with a woman who came into our office for a meeting. She works for one of our region’s burgeoning health care empires with locations in the Middle East. Apparently, jobs for these locations come with a giant rulebook that includes not speaking to women. Most of my friends can’t imagine me surviving long in a place where you can’t say “hello” while you’re walking down the street. A world where human interaction is legislated to that degree is a real drag.

People make things difficult. People make rules. Now, sure, we need some rules. But some people make up their own rules and expect the rest of us to fall in line even if they have nothing to do with anything else. These are dangerous rules--set-ups. These are the rules that the Wall Street CEOs or Southern Governors want to live by, not the rules the rest of us have to live by. Everywhere and all the time, people are waging some kind of heated and unwinnable war of “Because I Said So” in governing their communities, their businesses, and their own lives, using the best ideas or people closest to them as weapons. Can anyone really believe that woman who just had octuplets actually has those babies’ best interests at heart and not her own self-aggrandizement—including her own doctor? We all do it to ourselves, too, we all get lured into something and before we know it we’re part of the problem. But it’s hard not to be in this largely constrictive and shortsighted world of “either/or” instead of a world of possibilities where it’s safe to offer a different approach.

Fortunately at least in the world I spend most of my waking hours, I do encounter a lot of folks who don't limit themselves, who choose not to limit themselves in the way they solve problems. It’s exciting and refreshing and and I feel very lucky to have met so many creative leaders – and by creative I mean not just performing arts types but also the business men and women whose unique approaches and styles have revolutionized the way their workplaces operate. Frankly it has been a big influence on my own ability to overcome the hurdles I place in my own way. There is always, always a choice, always. Now, we might not be capable of making that choice because of our own limitations or because of a law preventing us from doing so, or because of some lie we’ve told ourselves. But that doesn’t mean there is no choice.

I liked Obama’s reference to a Day of Reckoning in last night’s speech, appropriate for the eve of Lent, the season of sacrifice. Life does not go on forever, and very few of us are living on the best possible terms with ourselves, our families, or our neighbors. The choices we make will always have consequences for someone, maybe even so far down the line that we can’t possibly know them. I still battle with my rash and hasty retorts at times, and every now and then I woefully and embarrassingly misrepresent my best intentions. Those moments always are followed by sincere regret. And, sometimes I fire something back that does represent my best intentions – but it still isn’t very nice and not always necessary.

Should I care, when so much of the rest of the world is mean and nasty? Of course. Sure, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But I have an irrepressibly optimistic view based on my experience that most people are not jerks. And it sure feels like more work to be a jerk throwing punches than to be kind, and certainly the rewards are greater. Which means that being good to each other, at Lent or any other time of year, whether you believe in only now or the great hereafter, should hardly be considered a sacrifice.

One of the many good people I am so very fortunate to have in my constellation of special friends near and far sent me a little something in the last week and it contained this tune. I had not heard of Collin Herring but this song grabbed me just as I was winding up to throw another punch. There’s no point to it, as the song points out. Pull yourself off the warpath long enough to listen to this one.


Colling Herring, from the 2008 release, Past Life Crashing.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Of Tulips

As the evening has worn on, the wind outside my window is howling the way it did a month or so ago, when the temperatures had plummeted below zero without wind. It is cold again here, and snowing, and we're all growing more tired of it every minute.

But just now as I looked up, I saw on my TV screen a scene with tulips. Tulips. I remember tulips, and daffodils, and forsythia. I remember green grass that is thick and shiny. And green leaves on the trees, and some trees filled with blossoms so thick they look like clouds on sticks.

The weather here only compounds the generally cranky nature of Northeast Ohio, almost as if the long cold dark winters and the attitude of Clevelanders feed on each other in a symphony of codependency. As the week wore on and I watched the news and spoke with my dear sister who has been enduring a number of burdens where she works, something became gradually more clear to me.

The icing on the cake was the news that a number of Governors -- South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, to name a few -- were thinking about turning down the stimulus money. Never mind that these are not states that typically turn down a Federal handout. But they don't want the money largely because they can't do whatever they want with it. News to you, boys: we did that already, with the banks, and it failed gloriously, so unless you want a full-scale revolution, don't go there. If you don't want the money, and your citizens don't hang you for turning it back, Ohio will gladly take the extra bucks.

The South really is a stuck place. How I wish that were not true, but just as I think each winter I will never make it through another, one election season in the Carolinas and I might actually feel like hanging myself. My poor sister, who has lived there most of her adult life, has confided in me enough that I realize that the South is chock-full of equally-angry people who still want to be their own country, full of leaders who are suddenly more concerned for their power relationships than playing by the rules to get a few billion dollars in hand to help the people they were elected to govern and protect.

Look, nobody knows where this thing is going. There's no guarantee that the Stimulus bill will do half of what it sets out to accomplish. At this point, will I take half? Probably. That $13 a week doesn't sound like much, but at the end of the day it just covers school lunches for my two kids every other week. Is it going to keep me in my house which I financed with a conventional 30 year mortgage? Not by itself if I lose one of the two part-time jobs I am holding down. But otherwise, sure, it helps some. Over 52 weeks, that $13 adds up to $676, enough for someone else to buy a new washing machine or range (or dishwasher!).

I still want the South that I dream about, the lovely June nights in Virginia, the hills and mountains and woods, the energy of Nashville's music scene, early spring, the aroma of boxwood in the heat of August, the footprints of Washington and Jefferson. And that place still exists. But so does the other South, the one as my sister says is still trapped in the failure known as the Reconstruction.

I plucked these tunes out of my past playlists this week as I slopped to and from work in the endless snow. They were like the salve on the sting of the reality I was facing. My time for daydreaming, for pretending things are different than they really are, have long passed. But I still have tunes like this one that call me back to a place I felt sure I belonged, where some part of me will always be turning toward no matter where I find myself, no matter how illogical or inconsistent the notion. Ancestors on both sides came up through Virginia and so, I will always wonder whether my longing doesn't mark some unanswered question about where I really came from, and from whom. Maybe what I really fear is finding out.

Sung by Tim O'Brien; from the 1996 recording, "If I Go Ten Thousand Miles" by Dirk Powell

Monday, February 16, 2009

Evening Comes Always

Well, America has made it through President's Day weekend without fully imploding. I almost don't believe it myself, but it is only February 18.

I actually had a totally different post written this morning. I had been feeling the ill effects of no blogging time over this long stretch of week or weeks. My work situation has been pretty much foremost on my mind --having enough work, my relationship to work, and the income I've lost as a result of letting someone else control my destiny. (Of course, I'm ok with that, because someone else also is responsible for my health care at the moment.) For a while it had seemed as though I had lost my ability to dream, to enjoy the things that keep me more human, to dare. Just keeping the wheels on the bus moving is enough. Or, so I thought.

This morning I had written another boring litany of things gone wrong, things we all have to deal with now and then. But as I rode into the sunset on the way home from a pretty interesting day, I realized, it really just doesn't matter. Things will always have a way of going wrong. Right now, a lot of people just feel piled up on by things gone wrong. At the moment, it's the new normal. And at some point, they will start to turn right again.

And while I hope that we never forget, or let those responsible forget, how we all got into this mess, and hope even harder that we all find a way out of it in one piece, at the end of the day, life will go on. We will go on with it. There will be in the middle of the grayest gloomiest twighlight a moment of everyday brilliance, like the kids who toilet papered the Madoff house. We all can exude such brilliance. We all need to act more decisively like those kids. To push back a bit, call a spade a spade, not get knocked over by the inconceivable stupidity and ugliness that rears its head sometimes as though without pause. Because there is always a pause, and that's the moment that belongs to the rest of us.
Now that Valentine's Day is behind us -- and my kids and I actually had a great day, thanks -- we can concentrate on one of our favorite holidays, St. Patrick's Day. My kids have taken to the legends and music of Ireland as well as the people and the food, what little they've tasted of it. In a few years I'd really like to take them there, as part of a trip to Europe I have in mind to celebrate Son of Mando's high school graduation. Meanwhile we'll just have to enjoy our bangers and mash and corned beef and cabbage while listening to someone we adore, like John Doyle.

John's a badass guitar player, but I love him best for his renditions of old songs. He is a master, and turned me on early in my attraction to bluegrass and early American music to the Child ballads and to a magical place called www.mudcatcafe.com, where you can pretty much find any version of any lyric or song you ever knew. I hope you'll pour yourself a Jameson's or Guiness and enjoy this lovely traditional tune, My Parents Reared Me Tenderly, from John's Evening Come's Early cd. (True Irish music diehards like Fearless will point out that John was the guitarist for the band, Solas, before going solo.) Taking in this ballad, you realize that all the beauty hasn't really gone out of the world, nor from all the people in it.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Groundhog Daze

Old Punxy Phil told us this week that we've got another six weeks -- or better--of this mess of winter. We're all exhausted as it is. 'Tween the snow, my addiction to Facebook, and constantly wondering when the other shoe will drop, I've not sat down to blog in a while. My sense of urgency -- about life, music, my children, whether or not I'm going to lose any more income -- has a serious case of ADHD. Everything is a crisis, so nothing is a priority. We're on to yet another great idea at work, but I'm starting to fray around the edges. Among the few bright spots in the week, however: there are in fact a few jobs out there that I could actually compete for, a couple of folks have asked my boss for permission to approach me, and the big finance execs won't get any bonuses until after we get our money back.

Another bright spot was the Dixie Bee-Liners show last Saturday. They're doing swell! It was terrific to hear the band pull off some instrumentals, and one heckuva take on "Workin' on A Building." My little girl got to hear one of her favorite tunes first hand while snapping photos, and the kids got a kick out of the shake-and-howdy. The buzz is that there's a concept recording coming out sometime this year.

My older kid took me out for a ski lesson on Sunday. It was my first time, since I wouldn't count my one previous attempt more than 20 years ago at Seven Springs, a resort near Pittsburgh, PA. Son of Mando was quite patient and I managed to get through the afternoon without incident or injury. Even X pitched in a moment or two. As reluctant as I have been to join up with this activity, it was exhilarating, and despite the reports my Son doled out, by the end of the day I was doing reasonably well, and without poles.

I think that's how life is right now. No poles, a slippery slope, someone waxed the soles of our shoes, and we're going uphill--and pushing a boulder.

I will admit that at times I wish I had help with my boulder. But, I don't. So it's inhale, exhale, and keep on moving. Thank golly I know spring is coming, and with it warmer weather and hopefully happier times when I'll feel more motivated to enjoy the things I love, like music, visiting friends and family, maybe a little time away.

I am at the point where I feel downright guilty about not playing music. I haven't picked up an instrument in two weeks. At this rate, I'll never learn any of them. It's a sign to me that I'm really much more overwhelmed and out of sync than I have admitted -- learning new tunes and playing old ones always brought real relief from my bouts of anger and frustration and sadness. Like making it down the hill on skis while still standing up, it's time to bring the music back and put my brain and fingers to work on creating something while other parts of my brain work out these other problems. Couldn't we all use an extra sense of accomplishment?

I think on my list for this weekend will be a fiddle tune by Bill Monroe, one I dearly love, called Roanoke. Most versions are just a little faster than I like, but it's a sweet double-fiddle number. Oh my, but how I long for sweet Virginia. When I make it through the proverbial forest of my trials, I'll be heading down old Interstate 81 to wander off the beaten path along the Crooked Road when it's about 85 degrees in the shade. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll be lost there forever among the great ghosts of Bluegrass, and my snow-shovelin' days will be over.

Performed hear by Herschel Sizemore.