Saturday, June 30, 2007

Three for Three (a brag)

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So I committed to going to the Y 3 times this past week and succeeded in accomplishing that goal. This morning it actually started to feel good to work out. Got the runner's high goin' on the treadmill and the muscles are remembering how to work the resistance machines. First time back I was sore as hell - and a bit discouraged. Today I feel...strengthened. What a concept.

Quick story that somehow relates to this: I was shopping with my smart as a whip daughter Hannah a few days ago. We were examining the tacos (have to buy the exactly correct ones, you know) and one of the packages read "Flex before opening". So I immediately did my best Hulk Hogan "grrrrrr" full body flex, much to the amusement of Hannah (and probably a couple of startled fellow shoppers). Still don't know exactly what the taco bakers had in mind...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jazz Underneath - my new blog

Thanks to all who have supported my efforts as a writer here. It is due to that inspiration that I've been prodded to start writing about the music I love and play here.

My intent is to write about the music from an insider's point of view but in a non-technical way so that civilians can "get" what it is we're trying to do and hopefully gain a more thorough appreciation for jazz as an art form.

I hope to strike a balance between music geek and the "gee whiz" type of criticism that often rankles those of us in the biz. When I read, for example, Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune, my blood pressure usually ticks up a few notches because the man knows virtually NOTHING about creating this kind of music. (I believe he was a "legit" clarinet major in college; I could have that wrong but there's no way he could play his way out of a paper bag on a blues in Bb).

But I digress. I've often been accused of being a jazz snob. The fact is that I love a lot of different kinds of music, so long as they don't involve bagpipes or banjos. I can even deal with the accordion, probably the most maligned of all instruments. Because jazz has such an unjustifiably small audience I do feel protective of it. I want more people to be able to enjoy more great music; if that's snobbery, please explain.

So please check out Jazz Underneath in the coming weeks. There's not much there yet but there will be. Suggestions for topics to cover will be gratefully considered.

Monday, June 25, 2007

At The Beginning (Again)

A confluence of events: I just paid off all of my non-mortgage debt AND I just went the Y for the first time in (ouch) five months. It might even be six, I don't feel like remembering.

Redemption; a clean slate; renaissance... that's what it feels like, these two milestones. By refinancing my house I was able to get rid of considerable credit card debt. Most of it accrued during the "dark period", the years right after 9/11, coincidentally the years of divorce and recovery. I also paid off the second mortgage on my marital residence, which I have doggedly been paying down as part of our settlement agreement. A tremendous burden has been lifted - poof, gone!

After working through the depression for the last few years (better living through chemistry plus time plus good shrinkage) I finally feel "worthy" enough to take better care of my body. This involves cutting down on the emotional food intake and mixing in some activities that my habit has been to avoid. This is rather odd, as I like to exercise - I like how it feels, the sense of accomplishment it gives me almost every session AND I always feel better generally when I do it regularly. It even makes playing music easier. So why stop? Masochism and death wish are a bit too over-wrought for this syndrome. Call it inertia; poor habits ingrained from my youth, lack of self-respect. That gets to it without getting heavily psychological.

So I get to give it a go once again. I'm clean financially, though still nursing a larger than I would like monthly nut. And I feel inspired to have another joust with the obesity beast as well. There are certain things that I would like to continue (or even start) to be able to do, physically. If I stay the sedentary course in very short order I won't be able to do them. It is within my power to do something about it so I don't have to be a victim. New dictum: Lose it to use it.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~ Mary Oliver ~

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Nascent Native Garden

Last year this area (aka my backyard) was a lovely arrangement of dead grass, weeds and dirt. Confession: I don't like lawns. Grass looks great in the outfield at Wrigley but it's just wrong most other places. So late last spring I set about systematically killing the remnants of lawn that existed back there when I purchased this house three years ago. Admittedly there was a psychological component to this ceremonial grassicide; it went along with the program of erasing and replacing what had been before my former fiance left with the plumber. But that is perhaps a story for another day.
When my kids were a little younger we stayed several times at a place in Dodgeville, WI called High Point Guest House. It is part of an area that is hellbent on restoring the native prairie ecology that had been usurped by farming in the last century or so. In fact, the family that owns the property has been converting what had been the family farm back into prairie - and it's working. I thought it was a terrific idea and that was the seed (if you'll pardon the unconscionable pun) for the idea of having a prairie-ish backyard.

So I did what I always do: thought about it for two years, then started researching just how to go about putting in a garden here in an urban setting. Oh, I forgot to mention that I've never done any gardening in my life, except mowing lawn (yech) and yanking the occasional dandelion.

I discovered a great resource in Stone Silo Prairie, a native plants greenhouse in De Pere, WI. [This blog is starting to read like a commercial for Cheeseland] Anyway, I received a great deal of help as well as some beautiful plantlings (that's the technical term) from them. Last spring I popped them in the then-fallow ground and they actually grew! This year, as you can see, they're goin' gangbusters. The little dudes to the right and in the box by the garage are newly ensconced this year. Hey, this gardening thing is fun!

Phinished Phence

Ta-Da! Proof positive that we ARE handy men!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Power of NO

As I move forward in this so-called career of mine it feels increasingly good to turn down work that I don't want to do. Just yesterday I quit one playing job and said NO to two other things. In the past I pretty much took any gig because...when DON'T I need the money?

Its been a given that I don't work in bars for "the door" anymore; haven't done that in a couple of decades. I don't go on the road because I have a family and other responsibilities in town. I have a minimum fee for recording and live "commercial" work (private parties, corporate events, etc) and, if that is not forthcoming, then I have learned to say no thanks.

But it is only in the last year or two (and I keep having to learn this) that it has felt very powerful and "right" in my bones to politely decline offers for things that I really don't have time for or just don't want to do. I can be bought, of course, musical whore that I am, but there's even a limit there. Usually, however, the things I enjoy saying NO to are low-paying, highly time- or attention- intensive gigs.

For instance, yesterday I got a call from a very fired up sounding woman who wanted me to do some music copy work for her original music. When I asked what form she had the music in (handwritten sheets or a recording I can transcribe from are the normal answers here) she told me that she would come over and "sing it to me". Well, my friends, that just screams lose-lose proposition. She told me she had been working with someone "very good" but that he had gotten busy and just didn't have the time to finish the project. Yes, I understand, my brother.

I also enjoyed quitting a gig yesterday that I was supposed to do for the next 12 Sundays. Man, just writing that makes my skin crawl! It was at a certain sort of medieval, guilt-inducing, pompous religious venue (how's that for PC?). I played a rehearsal, which consisted of me trying to decipher printed sheet music for voices and organ (no bass part, of course) and of the music director telling me things I didn't need to know and failing to cue entrances so that I would have some idea when to start playing. Then came the actual m--- , uh, service. All for a fiendishly low stipend. I derived a tremendous sense of relief when I emailed them with some names of other bass players who might want to take over the gig starting next week.

The power of NO extends into one's civilian life as well. (I could have gone Mike Ditka on you and said "In the music business, as in life...") It can be challenging to set aside time for things that aren't income-producing, responsibilities, family duties and so on. But, the older I get, the more I find that carving out time for what I WANT to do as opposed to what I MUST do is crucial for my well-being. I'm also learning to respect people in my life who know how to do that, even if it means they're not doing what I want them to do! Damn that equality thing!

More generally, it seems like this has to do with creating good boundaries for oneself. I'm not going to wax self-help aisle here but suffice it to say that, for me anyway, it is an excellent life skill to be able to choose, to order my own time, and to say NO when my gut tells me to do so.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Un fleur pour vous

I know, I know, its only a flower... but it is pretty cool!

Handy Men

I've never been particularly good with tools. Between the "somewhat klutzy" gene and needing to take care of my hands to play my instruments, I've just not developed a lot of skills in carpentry, plumbing, electrical and other things mechanical.

Let's just say I know enough to be dangerous in all those areas.

But I had this idea that I wanted to build a fence in my backyard, and it just wouldn't go away. I had this wretched falling down half pint excuse for a wooden fence on one side of my property that I've hated since day one of living here. Since I've been working to have this nice native plants garden back there it seemed to make sense to want to have a more attractive fence to keep it all in, so to speak. So here's a "before" and an almost "after" pic. The red posts are the remnants of the old fence (I'm not crazy enough to want to sink new posts; uh, no thanks). We screwed some treated 2"x3" beams into the existing posts and then attached 6' tall pickets to the crossbeams. Man, what did people do before cordless drill/screwdriver thingies? Carpal tunnel syndrome adroitly avoided!

I got some great help from my son Sam and, over the course of two days, we managed to build a six foot tall privacy fence for under $200. We saved big money at Menard's, schlepped everything home and kept everything level. Pretty handy, eh?

Friday, June 8, 2007

In Memoriam: Arthur Lauer (1932-2007)

Yesterday my friend, the composer Art Lauer, succumbed to the ravages of cancer at his home in Richmond IL. I haven't lost many people who were close to me so far and this death is more difficult than I'd imagined it would be. I saw him for the last time about a month ago, when I delivered the score to one of the pieces I'd been music copying for him. He had fallen and broken his arm a couple of days prior to my visit and was acting pretty loopy and out of character from the pain meds. I talked to him several times subsequent to that visit and he sounded like his normal self, which made me feel that at least he hadn't left us just yet. I'm particularly sad (and angry at myself) for not having made it back up there to see him in the interim. I'd wanted to finish copying another score and bring it to him personally. But that didn't happen and now it is too late.

Unique is such a hackneyed descriptor but Art really was one of a kind. He was fiercely independent, choosing to live way the hell out in the boonies northwest of Chicago, even when he was working theater orchestra pit gigs six nights a week. His music has no traces of "ism"s in it. The scores are modern, chromatic but not dogmatic; they're full of drama without sentiment and a lot of ascetic nuance. Art's work is not over-stated in any way. There's nothing extra in there "for show". It is lean and full of meaning, like the man himself.

Art came into my life only in the last fifteen years or so. I met him on a commercial gig somewhere and made sure to treat him with the deference that his relative age and reputation as a formidable woodwind player seemed to demand. He would have none of that. Art was completely without pretense, one of the most b.s. - free people I've ever known. Over the years I'd play a gig once in awhile with him, but by the time I came into my own as a player he was already past his prime as a performer. He was very generous and kind to me personally and used to visit me occasionally when he came into town to buy his favorite bread and eggs (I'm not kidding). He was an avid reader of mostly dark, brooding fiction - a lot of it contemporary. He turned me on to a number of authors who remain favorites to this day.

Unfortunately, Art didn't get to hear most of his music performed. Historically this is how it has been for composers of serious music, but that doesn't make it any less tragic. He was thrilled in the last few weeks because lately opportunities have arisen for performances of several of his pieces. I've got my copy work cut out for me. I hope I'll be able to serve the composer and the music well by the care I'll take in the process.

I'm playing a gig tonight with at least one or two other mutual friends of Art's. I'm going to insist we play something for him.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Mistaken Identity

This morning I got an email from the banker who is helping me to re-finance my house. I sometimes wonder who is helping who in this process but that's another story. She wrote with some alarm to tell me that there has appeared on my title a $7000 + federal lien on my property in favor of the IRS. What the ?? I have no beef with the tax folk; I'm clean, I tell ya! This lien was filed in February '06 and I had not gotten any notices, bills, peeps... In fact I'd even gotten a substantial tax refund this year. So this did not compute. But of course the onus is on me to show proof that the mortgage company will not have to write a payoff check to the tune of 7 grand to the IRS at my closing. Guilty until proven innocent.

So I spent the first half of the day on hold with various IRS departments. All the agents I spoke to were extremely polite, patient and helpful. Have no qualms about calling them; they're sweet. I learned that I most definitely do not owe the IRS 7K. I subsequently needed to contact the Cook County recorder of deeds office to figure this out. I was on hold for another 20 minutes with the county and finally got someone to look up the document that held the key to the mystery. It turned out that the culprit is someone who shares my name, but not my SSN or my address. My doppelganger appears to be in worse financial shape than me and, while I wish him no harm, I'm glad I ain't him at this point.

At first I really thought I was in a lot of trouble. The paranoia started kicking in: How could all of those notices have eluded my attention? Maybe I'm just in extreme denial and the IRS has caught up with some imaginary crimes I've committed and I will just have to pony up at closing. What on earth was I thinking? All my careful planning regarding paying off my debts and having some cash left over were crumbling right in front of my eyes.

So how do we see ourselves? And does it have anything whatsoever to do with how others view us? It took me quite a while to do the reality check necessary to regain my sense of equilibrium. Getting the correct data from the IRS helped but I should have already known in my bones that this lien thing had to be a mistake. So in a sense I needed some stranger (actually several strangers) to tell me WHO I am and who I'm NOT. That leaves me with the weirdest feeling of self-alienation.

Maybe that's why we need our friends and loved ones: to reflect back to us who we really are, especially when we start to go off the deep end!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Albino Cicada

Orlando Cepeda the Albino Cicada

(thanks again to my bugged out pal S for the eerie pic)

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Fat In America (a good old-fashioned rant)

First, an acknowledgment: It is far more socially unacceptable and difficult for a woman to be F.I.A. than it is for a man.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let me postulate this: Fatism is the only socially acceptable, politically correct and downright hunky dory prejudice to continue to hold in this country. Making fun of the obese is still considered fair game and a good time for all. Racist, sexist and ethnic jokes all have their special place in the American pantheon of genre humor, but jokes about fat people are universally embraced. It is not even OK to protest if someone says something horrifying about an overweight person if you yourself happen to be fat. You're not being a good sport then. Plus, calling attention to your own "weight problem" is never a good idea, unless you happen to enjoy shame and abuse.

For those of us who are horizontally challenged (don't you just love the euphemisms?) certain truths pertain: We are the most diet-aware, nutritionally educated, over-therapyized and stereotyped demographic imaginable. In reality, there are no more lazy, stupid or negligent among the fat than there are in the general population. It is just that the nation is constantly being warned about the "obesity epidemic" in alarming terms that almost always stereotype and blame overweight folks.

We know plenty about how we "should" watch what we eat, exercise regularly and, if possible, make ourselves invisible so the rest of the country doesn't have us there spoiling the otherwise lovely vistas of our national malls, parks, theatres and retail outlets. Oh, and of course there can't be any fat movie or TV stars, with the rare exceptions of John Goodman and Oprah Winfrey. When's the last time a large person got to play the romantic lead? What, we don't have relationships? We aren't sexual?

But then, we Americans love to play Blame the Victim, regardless of the so-called crime. Our favorite pastimes include pillorying the poverty stricken, lambasting the drug and alcohol addicted, hating the homeless and deporting immigrants. The obese are only the latest in a long line of abused classes of Americans. And we are so much damn fun to tease!

Look, I doubt that you could find a single person in this country who, if attached to the ultimate lie detector device, would actually claim they WANT to be fat. The combination of genetics, the pornification of food, the sinister pharma-diet industry, the desirability of TV, DVDs, Internet, video games, the availability of fast food... all of these factors contribute to the overwhelming odds against losing weight or maintaining significant weight loss over time. Once the habits of being overweight take hold it is a herculean task to do anything about it.

Can we have a little civility, then? How about a little compassion in place of the derision that is now oh so fashionable. Obesity is a very visible "problem", so the overweight are like super-sized sitting ducks. (See how much fun it is to hate on the fat!)

What if other neuroses and personal issues were equally obvious? Would it be OK to target habitual liars if their noses did grow Pinocchio-like? How about if we could tell by the shape of someone's head that their credit cards were maxed out? What about smokers? Smoking cigarettes, despite being a proven technique for committing glacially-paced suicide, still retains its status as cool and chic, especially in the (dare I say it) red states. Let's start to ridicule smokers, shall we?

So, the F.I.A. don't want your pity. They don't want special consideration. They just want to be seen as normal. Just like you...with strengths and weaknesses... you know, human beings.