Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring is Sprung, the 'Grass is Riz...

What a glorious weekend we had in Ohio. It was far warmer than usual this time of year, sunny and bright, if a bit windy. We enjoyed a wonderful and long overdue romp with my family, and spent almost all of the day outdoors yesterday. I remember trying to fall asleep and thinking, “I never thought it would be this warm again.”

My mother used to utter this little saying, "Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the posies is?" My best pal from high school recently used that ditty in one of her promos. I had forgotten about it. I do wonder where, after all this time and trouble and this long winter, the posies are for most of us.

I met the weekend weather with a fair dose of disbelief. Part of me was incredulous that my room was not only warm, but stuffy. Part of me suspects I also didn’t anticipate still being in this 15% pay cut situation – forget the other 50%, I’d welcome that second $200 a month off the top back with open arms. Looking down the barrel of summer and the child care expenses that go with it, I’m already bartering with my other part time employer on how I can juggle some work from home.

A giant number of Americans like me don’t show up in the “unemployment” numbers. We are the underemployed, the few and the steady who cobble together two or three jobs where one used to do it all and more. I understand musicians and actors and seasonal construction workers are rather used to this way of life, but for the rest of us, living is getting mighty thin. Still, we hang on to the jobs we have rather than foray into the unknown – nobody wants to be “last in-first out” at this stage in the game. It feels like a game of roulette, and it’s easy to feel trapped.

I have decided to take at least one small step. I’m going to devote some time coming up in the next couple of weeks to developing a personal strategic plan of some sort. Nothing is going to change unless I take action. So I am making myself a priority for a couple of days this weekend. If I can help all these other folks advance in their career development, it’s probably time I spent a little of my time and talent on me. The folks who know me best, also know I suck at this, but I gotta give it a try.

I don’t even have a current resume. I started to work on one back in late fall when the first round of cutbacks took place, but I didn’t get very far. My motivation was a job that turns out most likely not to still be out there given what I’ve heard about the employer. This is what makes me nervous. It would be hard enough to imagine finding work that offered the variety and flexibility I now enjoy – I am hard-pressed to relinquish the support and understanding of an extremely family-friendly workplace that has also allowed me to excel and manage and grow my own client relationships. Cash flow and flexibility run a pretty close race in my circumstances.

There are lots of things I can do, and do well, building on the investment I’ve made in the last five or six years. The one thing I do regret about this downturn is the way it’s taken my attention away from music. There will be no IBMA for me this year, and fewer concerts and outings. There’s been much less time to play since I’ve been working two part time jobs, one of which follows me home more than I like. One of the things I need to spend time thinking about is how I can start a picking circle. Summer is the perfect excuse—and it might give me a chance to meet that banjo-playing Phi Betta Kappa I hope is out there looking for me.

So I gotta tend my own little life and career garden all the while letting the blue-grass grow under my feet and into my fingers.

Here's an old standard for the travelin', it suits a lot of folks right now. It's a comfort, even for an old-fashioned nonbeliever like me. I do believe we all have a lot more ability to see through the darkness and travel further on than most of us give ourselves credit for.

I believe that may be Mr. Ricky Skaggs joining Emmy-Lou Harris on this fine traditional Gospel tune. Hope you enjoy it.

The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Seven Generations and One Great Spirit Later...

It's that time of year when we recognize and celebrate "Earth Day," when companies like Clorox or P&G roll out new "earth friendly" products, Chevy touts its ginormous"hybrid" Tahoe, and we all reflect as we reduce, reuse, and recycle.

For my part, I get to reconnect in a semi-annual fashion with some very good friends who have been presenting Ohio's largest Earth Day celebration for 20 years. Twenty years! I've been working on this since I was pregnant with my son, who is now 14-1/2. My first EarthFest, 15 years ago, was a beautiful, stunningly warm Cleveland afternoon. It was overwhelming if a lot of work, especially at 6 months pregnant. The main musical act of the day was a little known vocalist named Sheryl Crow.

This past Sunday my friends and I pondered how things have and have not changed in 20 years since the first EarthFest--and the nearly 40, yes, 40 years since the very first Earth Day. In the mere months since the 2008 election, I have seen such a proliferation of interest in, literature about, and experts on "sustainable business practices" as to boggle the mind. Suddenly everyone wants to be green, whether it's easy or not. Not days after I suggested that we ought to be recruiting "Chief Energy Officers" I saw the term used in an article. Some of the municipal sustainability officers I talk to report that they get dozens of calls a week from recruiters or companies looking for people like them.

It's all moving so fast. Do we know why? What is the prize? What's different now that wasn't there 10, 20, 30 years ago? Doesn't everyone use Borax to clean their toilets, or lemon juice in their laundry?

Last night I turned on "We Shall Remain" in the background as I tried to organize my week. If you haven't seen it in your viewing area, watch for it. It's the PBS series that explores the histories and legacies of various Native American Nations. Last night's was, appropriately enough, about Tecumseh and the Shawnee, whose communities spanned the area from where I grew up in the Ohio Valley and west, all the way North to Michigan and Indiana before being obliterated by William Henry Harrison's hungry Kentuckians. It was said that they mutilated Tecumseh's body so badly that even those Americans who knew him could not identify him.

What Tecumseh was fighting for was a certain sovereignty, the dignity of his nation and the land they lived on. The Native Americans were our nation's first environmental stewards. The new Federalists, their country but a few decades old, saw no progress without dismantling the native tribes. Thomas Jefferson, for all his romanticizing of the "noble savage" and all his intellectual grace, ultimately regarded the nations as something of another educational project to roll out. He laid out his purpose in his second Inaugural Address: "....Now reduced within limits too narrow for the hunter's state, humanity enjoins us to teach them agriculture and the domestic arts, to encourage them to that industry which alone can enable them to maintain their place in existence and to prepare them in time for that state of society which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of the mind and morals." Righto. In other words, since we've taken all the land they used to hunt on, they'll have to get with our program mighty quick if we're going to be able to tolerate sharing space with them.

How is it that the human psyche can move so quickly from romanticizing a situation, to condemning it? And then, we return to romanticizing it. The values of living in balance with nature up until the early 1800s were supplanted by the values of progress and capitalism very soon thereafter. Now that our economy has disintegrated and we are embarking on Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society, suddenly less is more, balance is king, low-maintenance is cool, and everything green is good again. I would guess that we're the only species that possess this unique faculty of inconstancy.

We are living in times where we are observing indesputable scientific fact. Yet my own sister encountered in one of her organizations a blatant nose-thumbing at the well-evidenced climate crisis. To make matters worse, it's an organization purportedly devoted to horticulture. From my work, I was able to assure her that yes, her colleagues are indeed crazy, as a position arguing that climate change is hooey is entirely out of step with the entire discipline of horticulture and arboreta. But ultimately I'm not sure it was much of a comfort. People are human, and will work hard to preserve whatever reality works for them at any given time. History has proven this again and again and again. If it weren't proving it now, we wouldn't be in this mess.

I just wish that taking care of the earth, thinking critically, living more lightly, nurturing a healthy habitat, and protecting living things less capable of their own self-protection were less of a fad than it's become. Yes, I was impressed to learn that Wal-Mart actually convinced Betty Crocker to straighten out the noodles in Hamburger Helper in order to reduce packaging waste. Yes, I thought it was kind of cool to learn that the Empire State Building is going to get a green retrofit makeover from top to bottom. Sure, I think it is something of a delightful upset that Ohio is poised to make such a splash in wind and solar, given that we don't yet really have the bench strength to pull that off. Even then, while I am morally and ethically committed to getting myself off the grid, my interest in Ohio's wind and solar industry is also more than a little self serving: I have to lay bets that these companies will need the kinds of people I'm uniquely equipped to find, and I hope like hell that they'll pay me to find them.

Unfortunately, my position is not entirely in step with Tecumseh's Great Spirit. We have lost touch with our essentials as we scramble to create a new future where we are all healthy, prosperous, and less encumbered by stuff, not only because it's chic, but, because we can't afford to buy any more junk, and our landfills can't handle any more crap. Did you see the Disney sleeper hit, Wall-E? The movie's blobby, lazy skyship passengers float around on anti-gravity Lazy-Boy loungers in a prescribed and sterile world free of touch and human interaction, while the home planet collapses under the weight of consumer waste. All I can think of is that old public service message with the lone Indian overlooking the pollution and waste, the camera zooming in on the tear trailing down his cheek.

You know the saying--whatever we do today will still be felt seven generations down the line. Based on my own experience, I'm not sure humanity has seven generations left. But I'm willing to give it a try if we can somehow harness this critical mass of interest in the green craze and turn it from a mere marketing success into something truly sustainable. We have come so far and yet haven't moved. We need to take a hard look at the lessons left by our ancestral neighbors who tried hard to sustain a simple, grounded, meaningful way of life despite the machine of progress that rolled over them. We need to keep them near us, listen deeply, and redevelop our intuitive leadership. We need to think creatively and act wisely and respectfully with regard to the enormous yet simple resources available to us. Unfortunately this is harder than it sounds.

Simplifying life and lifestyles is not always popular. And it can be hard; one of my dear friends and favorite people lives even more purposely thinly than I am really capable of (that, and I could never give up cheese). It’s a path that can get pretty lonely at times, even when you are surrounded by people who are supposed to be supporting you.

When I stumbled headlong into Bluegrass during what was arguably the most difficult period in my life, bluegrass was a good companion. It was straightforward, unadorned, invigorating, and it goes with just about everything. It struck a chord at the deepest core of my origination at a time when I had completely lost contact with the values and vision that make me worth the oxygen I use on this planet. After all the education I’d had and the work I’d done and the children I’d begun to raise, bluegrass brought me back to basics, and back to me. From the friends I’ve made in Bluegrass, it seems to be a common experience.

So this Earth Day I wish for you the discovery, or rediscovery, of the most fundamental things that you treasure. Take a moment to pay some homage to the generations that came before and those ahead depending on you now.

Here’s a longstanding favorite tune of mine about the Trail of Tears, performed by one of the great Bluegrass spirits, Mr. Peter Rowan. His generous presence and beautiful, honest voice get me every time.

Trail of Tears

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Now What?

It's a glorious day, an unusually warm, clear, sunny Ohio Saturday. It's the first Saturday in quite a while that wasn't chock full of activity although it's been a fun run. By the time I delivered the kids unto their father yesterday afternoon, it was time for some recalibration. An actual workout (without interruptions or kid-related delays), a healthy salad, some serious catch up and an evening with the neighbors was a good end to the week.

Here it is the middle of April already. At some point I had kept the month of June in mind as The Month of Change. The question is, change to what? With circumstances being what they are, is that really such a good idea? What would be considered "stable" in this economy? The other day in an interview, a candidate proclaimed that her job was "secure." Ultimately she pulled herself out of the search because she felt a move at this time would be less secure. That's kind of how I'm feeling now. I'd be no more "secure" in a new job with what's available in a 40 mile radius than I would be hangliding without a helmet.

I wish I didn't love my work so much. I enjoy it, and I'm quite good at it, at the research, the people and relationship building part. I wish we had a ton of work, I would love to be as busy every week as we were last week.

Musicians feel the same way, I imagine. Their entire world is like one long recession -- sometimes you're doing well, and sometimes you're living off your rainy day fund. What the rest of us are experiencing has been somewhat a way of life for a lot of people in the entertainment business. Bluegrass folks are accustomed to living pretty simply as it is, so when times are thin, it's just a matter of ingenuity. I dunno, maybe Doyle Lawson isn't golfing as much but my sense is he's doing ok, too.

With all the distractions of Yarn Slut's wedding and the holiday out of the way, it's crunch time, reality time, what-next time. I hope that things pick up where I am, so that I don't have to pick up and go. Unfortunately though it's time to get my life back, which isn't going to happen unless I go out and get it. There are classes I can take, spare jobs I can pick up (Shameless turned me on to the perfect part-time remote job with the Change folks and I haven't followed up yet), and also fun to be created and had. Either it's time to reinvent myself again like much of America is doing, or a new more profitable day will dawn in the world I live in now.

In the meantime there's plenty of music to play and listen to, especially Bluegrass, and most especially on a downright beautiful day like today. My daughter proceeded to tell me earlier this week how they had learned a dance to Cotton-Eyed Joe. So I played her a version by the Freighthoppers, and then another version by Big Mon which she recognized as the one she had learned. I ended up listening to that old Monroe-Bluegrass Boys recording the rest of the way through. I had forgotten how much I like this particular barn-burning butt-kicker and so I share it with you all now. Here's one to get you going, called Wheel Hoss.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Love Too Big to Fail

Back in snowy, REALLY snowy Ohio after a busy weekend packed with travel and a very special wedding, it's life back to normal. As weird as it is to go from toes in the sand yesterday to toes back in the boots today, I was actually kind of glad to get home and get settled.

There wasn't really much time for reflection but I took a moment where I could here and there. On Saturday morning, the Big Day, my friends skipped off for some shopping while I decided to chill out with a run before a lovely treat from the bride during her pre-nuptial salon experience (I am now the owner of ten beautifully pedicured toes that stood proud and bare in the warm sand during the ceremony but will not likely see the light of day the rest of this month).

We were all ensconced at a beautiful harborside resort on the Gulf. This is not, you might imagine, my usual kind of trip, so I tried to make the most of the rare opportunity for some self-spoiling. I skipped off in one direction and then another, and finally found a little woodsy/swampy nature trail. It was such a treat to be outside and enjoy the fresh warm air, see flowers richly in bloom, watch pelicans swoop in for a catch. It was also a little odd to be in this oasis while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handcart. But that's the whole point of a wedding away from home -- truly, all of us forgot about any troubles we were carrying and had an absolutely joyous time celebrating with the bride and groom all weekend.

Being in this unusual environment in stark contrast to my accompanying music was quite interesting. For my adventure, I chose Tim O'Brien's and Darrell Scott's "Real Time" effort, recorded in a garage over a similar weekend of food, family, and fun. The songs on the album bear the gritty hallmarks of Scott's direct songwriting style along with Tim's humor and fondness for old ballads which lighten it up.

The album also bears one of the duo's most popular, and almost lucrative, songwriting efforts: "More Love," a tune made famous by the Dixie Chicks a few years ago. To me, it's the perfect wedding tribute. Fairy tale romance is nice for a while, but sustaining real human love requires enormous effort, communication, and unwavering commitment in the face of difficulty and sometimes in good times, too, when it's easier to forget to take care of the relationship. My newlywed friends are madly in love but they are also realists. They'll be just fine.

The song also goes well with the enormous love that filled the small but enthusiastic crowd of friends and family the entire weekend. The poignancy of the date (it was my former in-laws' wedding anniversary) and the gravity of missing some important people (my former mother in law, the mother of the bride, passed away just a little over two years to the day, and a few weeks later that same year the bride lost her Grandmother; not to mention that a host of varied and unfortunate circumstances prevented a mess of other very special folks from being there) make it even more important to recognize and celebrate and, frankly, generate more love, enough love, as much love as necessary.

So I send this song out to my travelin' newlywed friends who at some point late this evening while most of us are fast asleep will arrive at their tropical honeymoon destination to rest and restore themselves and begin their lives together. And the song is for all of us, all of us who have love, give love, desire love, model and teach love. If I believe anything, it's that real human love nurtured and tended and given freely to friends, family, and even -- or especially -- people we don't know, can overcome the most ferocious of detractors, the most miserable of situations, the most daunting circumstances, and the most unlikely allies. Here's to a love too big to fail.

More Love
Performed here by Tim O'Brien on "A Tribute to John Hartford: Live from the Mountain Stage" (Blue Plate Music 2004)