Category Archives: ramblings

If the Sky Can Crack: On losing your chops

So, I wrote about why listening to live music is so important to me. But, asks the astute reader, what about playing music yourself? You have a guitar, right? Doesn’t that give you some of the same stuff?

It does, when it goes well. But of course my own history with playing music is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. Of course it is.

I first started playing guitar in high school, back when I was first discovering my own taste in music and finding that everything from Jackson Browne to Patti Smith, from Segovia to Springsteen, all kinds of music floated my boat. In fact, it was at a classical guitar recital my parents took me to (it might have been Christopher Parkening, although to this day I don’t remember for sure) that I decided I wanted to play guitar. I remember vividly that there was a piece which involved a lot of harmonics, these gorgeous pure chiming notes, and all I wanted to do in the world was to make a sound like that.

Eventually my parents got me a little Yamaha classical guitar (which, yes, I still have and treasure) and set me up with lessons. Before long I’m angling my way through Bach etudes, arpeggios, the occasional soft-rock song. I’m hardly ever more content than when I’m playing. This is around 1976, 1977.

Me at 17, playing guitar.

True story.

Fast forward a year or two. I’m checking out folk and rock songbooks from the public library, figuring out chords to songs I like. (I’m also using the library to read Billboard and Variety and Rolling Stone, when other kids my age are reading Tiger Beat. I am nothing if not Serious About Myself.) I’m using my savings to buy a steel-string guitar because the little classical just doesn’t really sound like rock & roll. (It’s an Ovation Balladeer, the round-back guitar like what Nancy Wilson of Heart played on stage at the time – I still have it, with its bright brassy tone and its propensity for volume.) I’m hanging out with my friend Sally, who also had a guitar; we both want to be Jimi Hendrix and we daydream about white Stratocasters.

A bit later, I bought an electric guitar: not a Strat, but a red Gibson Melody Maker. I kept that for about a year, never quite figuring out how to make it sound like anything, then sold it when I was getting ready to go to college and needed the money. If only I could go back in time and not do that… that was a sweet little guitar. But the electric guitar is a very different animal from the classical. It was a language I could hear and understand, but couldn’t speak it myself yet.

Anyway, college meant the end of classical guitar lessons, though I did manage a semester of beginning piano which taught me a lot about music theory. I kept playing, though I wasn’t practicing as seriously as I had in high school (arpeggios and finger exercises and so forth); I enjoyed strumming Fleetwood Mac and Heart songs in the courtyard of my dorm, singing with friends. After college, I even performed onstage a few times; I belonged to a writers’ group that gave readings a couple times a year locally, and every now and then along with my poems I put an original song into our “setlist.”

That? That was terrifying. Not the part where I was performing something I’d created myself – reading poems onstage never bothered me much. But singing in public felt more vulnerable and scary than pretty much anything I’d ever done. And I didn’t do it much before I stopped.

I’ve often said that if I could have one superpower, I would choose singing. Not playing guitar, funny enough; that has always seemed like something I could get good at if I just worked my ass off for years. I could understand how to get from here to there, whether or not I actually put in the practice time to do it. Singing? That was something other people were somehow good at.

The funny thing is: I have always LOVED singing. When nobody’s listening – in an empty house, in the shower, driving on the highway – I sing. I add harmonies to my favorite albums. At concerts, when they’re the singing-along kind of concerts like Springsteen or the Indigo Girls, I’m right there because nobody (I imagine) can hear me in the crowd.

But not where people can hear me. Which sort of always did put a crimp in my youthful fantasies of being a rock star. That, and the fact that I was too socially awkward to start a band so that I could just be the guitarist and let somebody else sing.

Stratocaster guitarAnyway. Adulthood being what it is, what with full-time jobs and bills to pay and everything, I stopped playing guitar very much. I’ve had brief flings with resuming it – most notably in 2008 when, after an epic road trip (well, it FELT epic anyway) for three Springsteen shows, I felt thoroughly inspired and went out & bought myself an electric guitar. (“So you wanna be a rock & roll star…“)  It wasn’t the white Strat I’d daydreamed of at seventeen, but it was a Strat, by golly. And it felt good to play it. I still didn’t quite understand its grammar and its syntax, but I wasn’t trying to play it like a classical guitar anymore, so I was able to get as far as making noises that were pleasing to my ear, if not my neighbors’ ears.

But that didn’t last. Because here’s the thing. When you don’t play, you forget how to play. You lose your chops, as musicians say. Your fingers feel fat and uncontrollable. Your hands cramp. You can figure out that you should play a B chord right there, but you can’t get your left hand gracefully from one chord to the next. And if you’re still fluent in listening to music, if you have a pretty good ear, you know exactly how crappy you sound. It is really hard to accept “well, I sound a little better than I did last week” when you know you also sound a whole lot worse than you did twenty years ago. When you can hear your own mistakes so very clearly.

This is how guitars end up getting dusty under the bed.

You’re in my mind all the time – I know that’s not enough…

Fast-forward to two or three years ago. I got an iPad, and I promptly downloaded the GarageBand app. Boy, is that a fun little toy. You don’t have to have any talent or musical skill, really. You can set it so that everything comes out in the right key. You don’t have to tune anything. I started noodling around and found myself composing little snippets. Nothing serious, but maybe the sort of thing you’d hear over the local forecast on the Weather Channel. It was stuff that sounded like music, and I was creating it, and holy moly, it was fun. I popped a few of my tracks up on Soundcloud, just for grins.

But it’s the paint-by-numbers version of making music. It’s fun, and maybe it takes a small amount of skill, but it completely lacks the physical aspect of playing an instrument. There’s more than just being able to choose the right notes at the right time – you also have to coordinate your muscles and your breath. Which is why it takes so much practice and also why it’s so absorbing, so immersive, and ultimately so healing.

All my GarageBand noodling was starting to remind me of how much I used to love sitting in my bedroom, working out chords and fingerings, trying to transpose songs into a key I could come anywhere close to singing. But my body resisted the act of going to the guitar case, taking out the instrument, tuning it up. I knew I would sound like crap. Playing badly makes me feel like I am disrespecting the guitar. (I know that is not logical.)

I’m in my fifties now, and I have a full-time job I like a great deal, which does not involve being a musician. It’s no longer even remotely realistic (as it is for every 17-year-old in the world) to daydream about being in a band, traveling around the world, making people swoon with my music. Anything I do now, musically, is going to be just for me. It feels different now than it did back then … but it still feels necessary.

So how to get from disrespecting a perfectly good guitar to doing something that would at least feel like fun and not an exercise in pure frustration?

I think I can blame Eddie Vedder for the ukulele. Or maybe Amanda Shires, who also plays one occasionally. I had a little string of realizations:

  • Buying a new instrument usually motivates me to play, at least for a while.
  • Ukuleles are a whole hell of a lot cheaper than guitars. You can get a decent one, not a professional-quality one but something that is a real instrument and not just a jangly toy, for maybe a little over 100 bucks on eBay.
  • You can’t take a uke too seriously. You just can’t. And maybe, just maybe, if I picked up something that wasn’t a guitar, that I didn’t have to worry about disrespecting, I wouldn’t have the undercurrent of expectation that I would somehow magically sound like I did thirty years ago when I was seriously practicing and playing every day.

ukuleleAnd you know what … it worked. This past June I got a little Lanikai uke on eBay, a pretty thing made of curly koa. I had to look up how it was supposed to be tuned. (Then I ordered a tuner online, which helps tremendously.) I looked up some chord charts, and I started noodling. Pretty soon I was making noises that sounded sort of like music.

And then I figured out a few actual songs. First, “Angel From Montgomery” – a song I have always loved singing. Then U2’s “Every Breaking Wave.” I even recorded that one onto GarageBand and put some reverb and some strings on it. I was up till 4 am a couple of nights figuring out string arrangements. IT WAS SO MUCH FUN! (And weirdly, once everything was pulled together, I could even sort of stand the sound of my own singing voice. Crazy. A little reverb helps, of course.)

And then, just a couple weeks ago, I got out my nearly-forty-year-old Yamaha classical guitar. I tuned it up and I started to play. My fingers hurt like hell after about fifteen minutes, but thanks to the uke-playing I at least had a bit of a start on regaining the calluses on my left fingertips. Then, the other night, I got out my little blue Strat and made some noise. It sounded like crap, I’m quite certain. But it felt so, so good just to strap it on and stand there.

If the sky can crack, there must be some way back…

For the past few days I’ve been working on an acoustic version of U2’s song “Electrical Storm.” It’s a gorgeous song about a couple at an impasse in their relationship, mired in stasis, desperately looking for a way to get back to the love they feel sure must still be there somewhere. It’s not a crazy difficult song to play, really, but it does have some rhythmic quirks and a bunch of barre chords that make my left hand cramp after three or four times through. It is juuuuuust beyond the boundary of what I can currently manage comfortably, and so it’s a perfect song for me to work on.

And the song itself is a good metaphor for the struggle of regaining your chops. You remember how good it feels when you can just sit for hours with the guitar, your fingers in conversation with the strings, fluent. You remember coaxing notes out of it, each note pure and ringing or staccato as the song requires, the notes and measures a language you speak well enough to write poetry in it. You remember not even having to think about where your hands should go, the guitar practically an extension of your body.

And now your hands feel like you’re wearing heavy gloves, the guitar slips out of position at odd moments, the strings muffle when they should ring and blare out sound when they should be quiet. The notes are like tired, angry children who refuse to get in line. You make yourself work through the song just one more time, you practice that tricky chord change over and over and over. You’re glad you live alone because only the saintliest of neighbors would put up with the endless repetition. Your fingertips burn. You soldier through because you remember what it used to feel like, and you want that. You don’t know if you’ll ever have it. But you want it.

coffee’s cold, but it’ll get you through
compromise, that’s nothing new to you

It’s harder, in a lot of ways, than learning the instrument the first time around. You know that musical fluency is water, not stone: unreplenished, it drains away. Every song you learn, or relearn, is a conversation you’re in danger of forgetting – not a jewel tucked away in a box for safekeeping. You realize that you can’t take anything for granted: memory, muscle, breath. You have less of a margin: when you’re fluent, you can go a few days without playing and you’re still good. But when you’re trying to get your chops back, there’s no room for laziness. If I don’t play for a week, I’ll have lost everything I’ve gotten back in the past month. My muscle memory is still shallow – the playing hasn’t sunk in to become a part of me yet.

“Electrical Storm” ends without emotional resolution. The chorus, “Electrical storm, electrical storm…” suggests that the singer wants some external force to come along and crack open the impasse like lightning cracks through the sky – but it’s unclear whether the invocation of the image is wishful thinking, or whether the storm is actually brewing. The coda goes to a couple of chords that haven’t appeared earlier in the song, which suggests some sort of movement out of the lovers’ stasis, but neither the lyrics nor the chords tell you what resolution they might be moving towards. The song ends with the repeated plea, “Baby, don’t cry,” which tells you that both partners feel the pain of whatever’s going on but doesn’t tell you whether the storm (wished for or actual) is breaking them apart or healing them. And yet, by the time you get to the end of the song, you do feel like you have moved through something.

On rainy days we go swimming out
On rainy days, swimming in the sound

It’s kind of like that with getting your chops back. It’s a struggle to regain fluency, to swim comfortably in the sound. Every night you put away your guitar and you don’t know, really, if you’re ever going to get back to where you were – or if getting back to where you were is really, anymore, the goal.

You’re in my mind all the time – I know it’s not enough
If the sky can crack, there must be some way back
To love and only love…
Electrical storm
Electrical storm
Baby, don’t cry… 

“Electrical Storm” lyrics ©U2

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Filed under music, ramblings

Music Is My Strawberry: How concert-going saves me

It’s true: I go to a lot of concerts. I go to shows, small and large, in my own town; I drive up to Indianapolis (50-60 miles or so each way, depending on which side of the city) several times a year; I’ll happily hit the road for a greater distance if the timing is riight and the show is promising. I’ve driven to Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville, even Kansas City (480 miles each way) on multiple occasions. I’ve gotten on planes just to see a Springsteen show. I’ve imposed on family and friends and spent money on hotels when a rational person would have saved it for retirement or a rainy day. Some shows have been better than others, but I don’t regret a single dollar or a single mile. (3,420 of those miles in 2014, according to my calculations. I try not to add up the dollars.)

If you’re not this kind of crazy, you probably wonder: what’s the deal? Some friends accuse me, good-naturedly, of having too much fun. And it is fun, of course it is; I love the highway driving, I love meeting up with far-flung friends in the GA line, I love the music itself and most of the musicians. But this thing goes a whole lot deeper than “fun.”

Buddha told a parable in sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!  (


photo: catlovers (flickr)

We are all, every day, being chased by tigers. My own are no more ferocious than anyone else’s; they are middle-aged tigers, fur glistening with typical middle-aged fears. Money, loved ones’ health, my own health, work, love, mortality. Like anyone in her mid-fifties, I’ve noticed that a few of these have reared up lately and bared their fangs at me. A few months ago I experienced a minor eye problem which is not in itself sight-threatening, but it left me with a good-sized floater that sometimes makes me think a speck of a small flying thing is hovering near my face – could be a gnat, could be a tiny angel, in which case I hope I don’t slap it by mistake – and it reminded me of how some of my older friends say they no longer like to drive at night. I’ve noticed that myself; driving at night isn’t really a problem for me, but it takes a little more conscious alertness than it used to. It’s altogether possible that, some years down the road, I won’t be physically able to strap myself into a husk of silver metal and send myself hurtling down the highway at 65mph in search of music.

Those tigers will eventually – at least that one named Mortality – get me. I’ll be ripped to bits. There’s no way out of that.

Music is made of time. It has a great beat and you can dance to it. The right music throbs you to your bones and blood. Once I sat down at a rock show where everyone was standing, just so I could feel the bass line rumbling through more of my actual skin: my seat was literally shaking with it. Music also takes place in time. One moment the lights are up, the audience is talking and laughing and drinking; the next moment darkness falls and the band slips onto the stage and the tiny lights of amps and transmitters glow across the darkness like nighttime tigers, and the stage lights rise and the audience rises and the great roar rises and whatever room I’m in, a tiny club or a big arena, becomes limitless in space – but still firmly grasped, suspended, held by time. Music has a time signature. Time has signed its contract, time owns it, and me.

When I’m at a concert, I am made of time. I am also living completely in the moment. Music immerses me like nothing else. It captures my senses, my muscles, the beating of my heart. It’s really hard for me to hold still when the music is great. At the very least, I nod my head or sway a bit. At a rock show I’m liable to be the one standing, bobbing, dancing like a giddy maniac. I am listening to music with bone and breath and muscle. If it’s good, I am immersed. I have learned that even singing along can be a kind of listening.

Most days, I worry a lot. And I plan a lot. I love planning for a music-related road trip – charting the route, choosing the hotel, making lists of what to take! But as mindfulness experts and Zen masters point out all the time, living in the present is important. When I’m immersed in music, nothing exists but the moment. Sometimes, it takes that level of immersion to help me let go of the everpresent shadows of my personal tigers. It’s like a long hot shower for the soul. I come out clean.

That strawberry is not just the idea of sweetness. The physicality of music is important. It is muscular, embodied. When you panic, what do you do first? You suck in your breath and then you hold it there, tight as you can. But if I am singing, I am breathing. If I am dancing, even if my actual muscles are relatively still because it is a quiet seated show, my heart is beating. Music involves me intellectually (how does the Edge make his guitar do that??), emotionally (cue up any sad song), and unlike many of my other pursuits (hello poetry), physically. It gets me the hell out of my own head better than anything else I know.

And yes, a lot of my concert-going travels, near and far, are done alone. I have nothing against going to concerts with other people – I do that sometimes too. I enjoy sharing great music with people who appreciate it. It’s fun to hang out in line beforehand, lovely to have someone to save my spot if I duck out for a pre-show pit stop, great to swap opinions over a beer or two afterward. But sometimes, in the middle of a show, I’ll be vaguely aware that someone is leaning over to say something to me, only to find that I’m … not really there. I mean, I’m there, in or near my seat. And I’m there, in my body, in the moment of the music. But I’m not paying attention to my companion. I’m so focused on the music itself, immersed in it, unable/unwilling to surface. I’ve never felt lonely in the middle of a show, even if I’m in an arena with 20,000 strangers. Because I am there with the music. It’s like the actual music is my date. That’s so weird when you put it into words like that, but that is how I feel, when it’s good.

Like a good date, a good concert leaves me little love notes. Sometimes for years afterwards. When I think about my first Bruce Springsteen show, back in September of 1978, all I have to do is remember standing atop a couple of folding chairs on the floor, dancing and singing while the band rocked “Twist & Shout,” and my face breaks into a silly grin no matter what. I remember sitting close to the stage when Joshua Bell was performing, noticing how the violin’s tone sounded ever so slightly different depending on whether the face of the instrument was tipped slightly towards or away from me, and it changed how I understood mathematics, how I perceived the measurement of space and time.

"Little Steven" guitar pick

I remember waking up in a hotel room in Chicago one morning and finding out that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. In the pocket of the jeans I’d worn the night before was a guitar pick handed to me by Little Steven at the end of that night’s show. I carried that guitar pick with me, a tiny reminder that joy continues to exist in the world and that it is always waiting for me on an arena floor or in a seat somewhere. (My mother is fine, by the way. But the reminder persists, and persists in being necessary.) I even love the painful little love notes, like the purple toenail I still have two months after two great U2 concerts because I kept stubbing my toe on the tiny step up into the bathroom of my hotel room. Even that reminds me how much I loved those nights, how much I was willing to put up with in order to find what I was looking for.

Not every show is that life-saving, of course. Most of them are good, now and then I hit a dud, a few of them are truly great. I’m always chasing those moments, barreling down highways in search of them, city to city, chasing those flighty little angels.

I don’t just sit there at a show, consuming it. I let it consume me. (If they are angels, let them be ablaze with falling and with glory.) That’s why I like to be close to the stage when I can – I love not just to be immersed but to be an actual part of it. A good concert leaves me tired, maybe even bruised. I don’t just pay my money and passively take something that I’m given. I let the music give to me but I give back to it as well. There’s a definite exchange of energy: love put out there, love returned.

The vine I’m clinging to is fraying, and it’s burning my hands. Those two mice are gnawing busily away. I can smell the tigers’ breath, pungent with blood. But that strawberry: that single, perfect strawberry is so very, very sweet.

one single strawberry

photo: WIlliam Warby (flickr)


Filed under music, ramblings

Greetings from the Polar Vortex

photo of icy treesAnd greetings to anyone who might still be following this blog! Yes, it’s true, I’ve been frozen in the polar vortex… we haven’t had it as bad here as folks just a few miles to the north, because when the storm came through on Sunday we skated right on the rain/snow line for quite a few hours. I woke Sunday morning to about two inches of snow, but then it changed over to rain… and sleet… and slush… and snow… and freezing rain… and some big fat white globs that rocketed straight down from the sky and looked for all the world like a giant horde of birds was flying over and pooping on us. Every time I looked out the window, we were getting different precipitation. I fully expected frogs to start falling from the sky at some point.image of radar display showing precipitation

Eventually it started to change back over to snow, and I went outside to clear the 2-3 inches of pure gross slush off my windshield and other parts of the car before it froze solid overnight. That was a very, very smart move on my part. This morning I saw a guy across the street trying to chip about 2-3 inches of pure gross frozen-solid slush off the windshield of a mini-van with what looked like a kitchen spatula. He was also not wearing a hat (the temperature was hovering around 5 below zero at that point), so I’m thinking he might not have been the sharpest snowflake in the tundra. But I felt a little smug as I looked out at the perfectly clear windows of my own car.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late, right?), the temperature dropped below zero shortly after midnight Sunday night/Monday morning, and stayed there until around 11 am on Tuesday. We didn’t get the foot of snow that Indianapolis got, but our roads are covered with bumpy frozen slush, which has its own … er … joys? Campus was officially closed both Monday and Tuesday, which was fantastic, as I am relatively sane and didn’t really want to venture outside in the 30-below-zero wind chill. I have been very, very lucky in that my furnace never gave out on me, I never lost power (a lot of people did), and my pipes didn’t freeze. It was on the cool side in the house even so, but I bundled up in fleece and blankets and enjoyed the heated throw I bought on Saturday for the occasion – as did the cats. I have basically spent most of the last three days underneath various combinations of lap cats. It’s been very, very nice.

3 cats on top of electric blanket

note the box in the background, which has not been opened & contains a brand new space heater bought for the occasion. If my furnace had given out during the polar business, I was PREPARED.


High Hopes album artSome people bake cookies when they have a snow day… I apparently write album reviews. If you’re interested in knowing what I think of the new Springsteen album, you can read my review over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. It won’t surprise anyone that I mostly like the album; when I write about music I’m actually less interested in the kind of review that pins the album with a certain number of stars or whatever, and more interested in just delving into it and asking “what’s going on here? what does the artist’s intention for this music seem to be, and does he succeed?” Especially with someone like Springsteen, who’s earned my respect and trust as an artist over the years, I make the assumption that he knows what he’s doing; I am more interested in examining the trajectory of the album and poking at it to find out what makes it tick. I’m not articulating this very well, I think. And I’m not really a music reviewer; to the extent that I have a strategy for doing that sort of thing, it comes more from what I’ve learned about workshopping poetry than from anything else. Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts about the album that didn’t make it into what I wrote, so stay tuned for more, perhaps.

Stay warm and safe out there, everyone – if you go out, wear your hat and mittens and for goodness’ sake clear the snow off of ALL your car windows before you drive! (I shoulda been a mom, huh?)

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Filed under ramblings, reviews, Springsteen

Cicada Summer

It’s not officially summer yet, meteorologically speaking. But here in Bloomington we’re a week into IU’s summer session, the Bloomington Speedway has begun its Friday-night whirring buzz (a sound I’ve associated with summer since childhood), and the landscape is green, green, lush and green. I call it summer.

Many of my East Coast friends are currently freaking out about the impending onslaught of Brood II cicadas. These are the 17-year dudes, so they’ve been burrowed underground since 1996. Cicadas are another thing I associate with childhood summers – both their sound and the brown shells they leave behind when they molt, along with the occasional shed wing, transparent and fascinating. Here in Indiana, our 17-year cicadas come from Brood X (that’s roman numeral ten, not X as in X-files); they last emerged in 2004. They don’t cause trouble really, though when they emerge in huge quantities you’ll see the tips of some tree branches turning brown and droopy – I remember this being fairly noticeable in ’04, though the damage didn’t last beyond that summer. Mostly they just make noise. It is a mating call, and it can be LOUD. (C’mon, the poor things have been waiting seventeen years and they only have a few weeks to live. You can’t blame them!)

cicada and cicada shell

Brood X cicada and shed skin / photo by the author

It’s also said that immediately after a major seventeen-year cicada emergence, editors of literary journals should prepare for an onslaught of cicada poems. We can’t help it, we poet types – when a natural phenomenon is that loud and that noticeable AND it has to do with sex, well, we can’t help but write about it!

I turned out my share of cicada poems during the 2004 emergence, and so for my east coast friends currently bracing themselves for Brood II, I’ll share this one which was published in the anthology And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana.


Brood X
Periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim)

They’re here already,
the tiny mounds appearing around trees
at the edges of Dunn’s Woods,
hundreds of thousands per acre,
the seventeen-year cicadas.
What kind of life is it,
dormant in dark soil,
weathering seventeen winters
and emerging? I imagine
seventeen years of my own shed
dreams, the crisp brown husk of them,
hard translucent covering over the eyes,
the split down the back where the bug
escapes, fat as a congratulatory cigar,
green-black and shining,
singing, alive in all the trees,
alive enough to balance out, in one
hot summer, that seventeen-year sleep.

– Anne Haines
published in And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana (ed. Jenny Kander & Charles Greer; Indiana Historical Society Press, 2011)

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Filed under poetry, ramblings

Dear Boston, Dear World

Boston. Oh, Boston.


I’m working my every-other-Monday split shift, 10-3 at my desk and a 6-9 pm shift on the reference desk. The news of the Boston bombing breaks just as I am on my way out of the building to get dinner. I spend my dinnertime – usually a relaxing couple hours of reading, journaling, enjoying a rare leisurely meal – scrolling through tweets on my phone, trying to sort out the credible from the sensationalistic and the rumormongering and the well-meaning-but-misinformed, trying to share what information might be useful to my friends and my friends’ friends, calling on Boston friends to check in, please. (They do, and they are all fine.) Because this is what we do. We connect. We crave that.

I text a friend. I mean to type “human beings” but it comes out “human wings.” We are hurtling through air, we are moving so fast we can’t stop, we are much too far from the loam and gravel of the earth – or so it seems sometimes.

Later, I am at the reference desk. I am surrounded by windows, and on the other side of those windows are trees breaking into bright green leaf, sunlight filtering through the awakening branches. Beauty, beauty. In between questions I continue to poke at Twitter and other sources of information both good and bad. I read that one of the people killed in the bombing was an 8-year-old child. I don’t know whether this is true or not (I find out later that it is), but after that I find it difficult to smile.

Here in Indiana, we are many hundreds of miles away from the horror. We are living our lives. I remind myself of this, remind myself that all we can do is keep on living. I think about a presentation I attended at a conference a few days ago, which described a study of “librarian approachability”; one of the conclusions was that librarians at the reference desk are more approachable, easier to ask for help from, if they smile at patrons. I remind myself to smile. There is nothing I can do from here, really, but to try to do my job. To help people find the information that they need. To help them feel welcome here. To share a moment of kindness. I try to meet their eyes as they walk past the reference desk, a little more than I usually do. I try to smile at them, and some of them smile back. That’s all I can do tonight: just try to share a little kindness, try to make some human wings feel welcome on this hard planet of ours.



Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

   — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)


Filed under librarianship, ramblings

Heart of winter

I tend to be a little quiet in January, I think. Something about the cold, and the stillness of being in the heart of winter. (Even though, compared to places like Minnesota or even where I grew up in northern Indiana, the winters here in Bloomington aren’t that bad. It’s unusual for us to have more than a couple of deep snows – by which I mean the kind you have to shovel if you want to get your car out of the driveway – in any given winter.)

photo of sunset on a Maui beach

Maui sunset

I’m thinking back fondly on a couple of midwinter trips to Maui. I went in February both times – the first was totally on a whim, spurred by stumbling across a truly amazing airfare. It was shortly after 9/11/01, and people just weren’t traveling by air very much at all. Americans weren’t going to Hawaii because it involved significant air travel, and folks from other parts of the world weren’t in a hurry to jet themselves over to the U.S. either. So I found an airfare that probably covered the airline’s cost and not much more, and although I didn’t even have a whole week of vacation time to spare, I headed for Maui – and promptly fell in love. I’ve said many times that when I got off the plane at the Kahului airport, having boarded in the gray, wintry Midwest, it was like that moment in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy opens the door and the movie suddenly goes from black-and-white to color.

Even though I can’t go back to Maui this year, I can still almost feel the warm water I snorkeled in, can almost taste the incredible fresh pineapples and mangoes and bananas. Before I went to Maui, I didn’t even realize there were different kinds of bananas! Around here, there are just … bananas. I had apple bananas for the first time on that trip, and it was like a whole new world. And don’t get me started on the coffee there! So, so good.

What I love about having great experiences (travel, and concerts, and so on) is how they stay with you even years later. In the below-zero wind chills we’ve been facing these last few days, sometimes I find myself closing my eyes and dreaming back to Maui. Knowing it’s still out there, waiting for me…

Here’s a whale poem I wrote after my second visit to that beautiful island. It appears in my chapbook, Breach.


(Maui, February 2002)

The boat slowed, stopped, small waves
breaking gently on the hull like breaths.
Whale watch veterans of almost two hours,
we shaded eyes, peered at glittering water.

That moment of pure and waiting silence
knowing she was near, then O!
the breach, explosion into air, so close
I felt it in my bones like a great drum

struck. Then struck again. The dark
curve of her body fell toward us
as she crashed back into sea, mountain
of a whale, the mammalian world of her

all I knew just then, all I could take in.
I don’t know if I breathed
until she breached again, and yet again,
great muscular mountain of a whale, sonic

boom of a whale, whole planet of a whale,
wrenching breath from us as we stood
gasping on the drifting boat.
And then the holy stillness.

For those moments we each became
whale, breathing of her, surrounded
by her power, her arc and crash
an actual gravitational force as sure

as heartbeats rocking the salt water
world within the womb. She raised
up her body, her whole cetacean self,
between us and her new calf,

sleek and vulnerable to our well-meant
intrusions. The echo of her sounded
in my own warm-blooded body as my hands
touched before my chest like prayer:

O, mother, mahalo, mahalo.


[“Mahalo” – thanks/gratitude]


Filed under poetry, ramblings

Happy New Year!


As I write this, there are fewer than 24 hours left of 2012. I’ve been mulling over a year-in-review post, but in some ways I don’t even know what to say about the year.

There were some incredibly good times this year. Lots of great time with family and friends, including meeting up with friends I don’t get to see often enough (and some that I met for the first time) at concerts. And those concerts! Five Springsteen shows (Atlanta, two nights at Wrigley Field, Louisville, and Kansas City) – five very different experiences, every one fantastic. And a bunch of other great shows: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Peter Frampton, Bonnie Raitt with Marc Cohn, Mary Chapin Carpenter with Tift Merritt, Jackson Browne, Richard Thompson, the Lotus Festival (most notably MC Rai, Hanggai, and Delhi 2 Dublin), Ani DiFranco with Pearl & the Beard, and Indigo Girls with the Shadowboxers. An embarrassment of musical riches, right there.

There were also some poetry readings, and although I didn’t get a lot of poems written in 2012, I did have a small handful of publications including diode, the Cossack Review, Bluestem Magazine, and Sweet (which gave one of mine a Pushcart nomination). Publication isn’t the be-all and end-all, and it isn’t why I write, but heck, it’s nice.

There were some hard times this year, too – which I generally don’t blog (or tweet or Facebook) about, for the most part – but enough hard times to make the year feel a little rollercoastery. My hard times are about like anyone’s. Family health issues, money stuff, the usual worries and woes that make me mutter “it’s hard to be a grownup.” Life isn’t all rock shows and fun with one’s friends, and it’s the weaving of good and bad times that gives life its rich texture. Well, let’s just say that 2012 was … very textured.

And so, on to 2013. I know that I have poems coming out in at least three journals next year, and I know that I have tickets in hand for three concerts already (Emmylou Harris, the Gaslight Anthem, and Josh Ritter). I’ll be going to a couple of work-related conferences (ACRL and Confab), and even though I’m not the biggest fan of that sort of thing in general, I’m really looking forward to both of these. Okay, I’m looking forward to ACRL as much because Henry Rollins is the keynote speaker as anything else – yes, THAT Henry Rollins, and yes, it’s an academic library conference – but still, it’s nice to be excited about work stuff. And I hope for some Springsteen dates here in the US (he’s already announced a bunch of overseas shows, including Australia and Europe), as much for the excuse to go to random cities and get together with really great people as for the music itself.

I think my biggest disappointment in 2012 was that I didn’t push myself to write more. I wrote some concert reviews and blog posts that I was pretty happy with, but I am sorry for not making more time and space in my life for poetry this year. I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but I do want to read and write more poetry in 2013, for sure. And by “want to” I mean “kind of need to.”

So here’s to 2013. Here’s to rocking out with friends and finding peace with family. Here’s to reading and writing and dreaming. Here’s to good health and happiness for each one of you reading this – may the new year ring in grace, and wisdom, and something that feels a lot like love.

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Filed under ramblings