Wednesday, December 23, 2009


It’s Christmas, but you wouldn’t know it by my house, which has no tree, no wrapped presents, no fauxflake or stocking or stray spray of tinsel. It’s not because I’m a curmudgeon. I just started thinking: What do we need that we don’t have? What do we want that we don’t get nearly as quickly as the thought pops into our heads? While this condition is much the same for us every year, it’s the first time I have been stricken by the absurdity—of frantic shopping, of wrapping surprises on the same pre-scheduled day as most of this country and some of the world, as if we’d deprive our child, now too old (not to mention too Jewish) to believe in Santa, of her reasonable heart’s desires for an entire year, as if we should have waited on Hendrix the Creature, her pet bearded dragon. As if guitar picks should be stocking stuffers rather than tools of her trade.

As I sit here, my daughter is pounding insanely on the drums while her friend makes repetitive keyboard sounds, my husband is watching some dull war documentary, the kitchen countertop is covered with crumbs, my back is sore, and my dogs are where they always are—beneath my feet, a perpetual tripping hazard—one of them, Cleo, snoring so loudly that I can hear her over the drums.

But I am practicing a new craft. I am waving away the fog of depression, turning the ugly floaters into the swirling glitter of a snow globe. My daughter taught herself how to play the drums, and she’s good; she has a friend with her, and they are making music, not noise. My husband is watching the movie on our brand new shiny iMac. My counter is crumby because I’ve just made warm, delicious brownies filled with the free bag of chocolate chips Safeway gave us for spending twenty bucks on the ingredients for brownies and chicken stew. My back is sore because I’ve been standing up playing guitar, something I couldn’t do a few months ago. And my dogs are beautiful; at fourteen, Cleopatra’s cacophony is a comfort because it means she is still alive.

If I have a resolution for the coming year, it’s to practice more of this kind of witchcraft, to discover a way to transmute anxiety and sadness into something bright and gleaming, something the crow dragged in.

I have spent far too much of 2009 listing the things that have gone wrong. It’s not that I didn’t earn the right, but pacing back and forth along this path has put a rut in it. Sometimes I wonder if it’s as awful as it is habitual. Now the rut is a damned trench, which makes the climb out a little tougher. All I really need to do is start filling it with each good thing until that, the filling, becomes my groove.

Habits, old or new, are hard to break; however, I’m wise enough to know that my blessings are many. My family, friends, and social networks have literally kept me alive when I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay that way. We had foster families at the beginning of this year, people who fed us and drove us around and made sure we were safe.

Before I sat down to review the year, I’d already panned 2009, in my mind worse than at least forty other years. But some pretty remarkable things happened this year.

• I knitted and sold enough scarves to help pay for an expensive chair, which was instrumental in my recovery.

• I ran almost two miles six months after back surgery.

• I felt the force of several thousand crows lifting off from a field where I stood.

Bob Schneider sat next to me in my car, and, a week later, I got to hang out for half an hour with the very cool Chuck Prophet.

• I have written at least five really good songs this year and will record them in the studio soon.

• I was in two movies, I Will Smash You and 60 Writers, 60 Places, both of them released recently. In two different glowing reviews, my parts were singled out for positive acknowlegment.

• My daughter, Serena, got straight A pluses (except for the A in religion), improved her saxophone, guitar, and drum playing and her singing. She landed the acoustic intro to one of my favorite songs ever, “ Crazy on You,” by Heart, for the Seattle Sounds show in January, and she’s nailing it.

The Book was published! Let Me Eat Cake was not the best book ever written, and I got down on myself a lot after negative reviews, but you know what? Simon & Schuster liked it enough to pay me for my words and to publish them with a beautiful cover and pictures inside. I don’t know too many people who can say that. So there!

I’m not completely skipping gifts and holiday cheer, but I am finally questioning them in light of our dwindling bank account and increasing debt and dismal prospects for employment. And all we have already and all we discard every day. For instance, this week, I’ve received ten Christmas cards in the mail. Half were store bought; the other half were personalized with family photos. Not a single one of the senders wrote more than a generic, nameless greeting and a signature. I appreciate that you thought of me among the mountain of friends who give your hand a writer’s cramp each year, that you’d truly like me to have a blessed holiday, that you’d share your beautiful family with mine. But tell me something—that I’m a good neighbor, a good friend. Tell me you love me and my family, that we’ll make an effort to get together more this year, that you hope my back heals, that I write another book, that I stay with my husband for the 28th year. Make me laugh or think or cry over your sentiment. Those are the cards I save and reread when I need a quick reminder that I’m worthwhile. Unfortunately, my recycling bin fills up first.

So many of you have touched my soul this year. Telling you each might take me the majority of 2010. Until I do, please enjoy the card I made from photographs of the beautiful snow, an icy windshield, and the birds I love. Print it out if you’d like to keep it. When I see you next, I’ll write on the back of it what I love most about you.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

bmm: bad mommy moments

In the following story, the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Photos are for illustration purposes only and do not depict actual persons or television shows.

A friend of mine, Mary, is a little stressed out. In addition to her nearly full-time career, she has two kids in different schools, both involved in sports and artistic endeavors, and her husband is mostly away.

She wakes her son, Ken, for school every day at about 7; he’s usually quick to get ready, and they’re a family of late sleepers, so that’s the last possible minute. One day, Mary calls to him from the other room and gets in the shower. He is of an age that he shouldn’t have to be watched, but you know how that goes; at 7:15, he is still in bed. Mary doesn’t hear him stirring and sees that he’s still asleep. “Get UP!” she screams. “It’s time for school! Get up NOW or else!”

“Or else what, Mom,” Ken calls back before he promptly falls back asleep.

Mary yells again. “Get UP NOW, or I’m gonna come in there and beat your butt!”

“Hahaha, Mom. I’d love to see that!” her son yells back, cackling. He doesn’t budge.

At 7:30, the boy is still in bed, and his mom is yelling again, “I mean it! I’m not kidding! Don’t mess with me! Get up NOW! I swear if you are not up in the next few seconds, I am coming in there to beat your butt!”

Ken erupts into spasms of laughter. “I’d like to see that! Yup, I’d sure like to see you do that! Hahahaha, Mom. Good one, Mom.” And at 7:40, Mary goes in the room and plants a good whallop on his tiny rear end right through his covers, and leaves the room with an extra "Now GET UP" for good measure.

The boy shrieks. “You hit me! Mom! Mom, you really hit me!” He gets up and dresses quickly, though obviously still in shock, alternating between mutters and bursts of yelling. “Mom, it still stings, Mom! It stings from where you REALLY! HIT! ME!”

Mary is now downstairs in her kitchen, facing a new dilemma: what to feed her kid for lunch. Ken had recently declared a disinterest in sandwiches, so Mary had begun packing peanut butter crackers and yogurt. Now the yogurt is coming home nearly uneaten, and there's not much left to give him. “Will you eat peanut butter?” Mary calls to the still-muttering boy. He feels the sting of messing with her, so he asks nicely if she'll put some marshmallows on it.

I am close to tears from laughing at my friend's hysterical tale, but I suck air through my teeth when she gets to the bread. Mary's a little disgusted and embarrassed; she's surprised I'm laughing, as if this were an example of parenting gone horribly wrong. “I was looking at the kitchen counter. My mom was just here, and she did the shopping and bought white bread. So here I am, spreading peanut butter and marshmallows on top of Wonder Bread after having just beaten my kid. Could I be any more white trash?”

Sure. She whooped him through the covers, after all—not with a wet hand. And although the bread pushes it just to the edge, she would have to be missing some teeth and living in a trailer park in West Virginia, and even then she wouldn't make an episode of Springer.

We all have our bad-mommy moments. I yell too much, and I cuss (I could fund Serena's college education with my contributions to the swear jar). I spend too much time on the computer. I sometimes feed the girl cereal for dinner when my husband’s not home. But I pick her up and drop her off on time, make nutritious meals, and grunt disapprovingly when she wears her pants too short or her shirt has a stain on it. I pay attention to her hygiene. I clean the poop from her creature's cage and sit alone in the car next to a bag of crickets every week because she has a tough schedule. I sometimes put the contents of her drawers, her closet, and beneath the bed in a mountain on her floor—something I learned from my own good mom. But I’ve never left her anywhere (unless you count the time I almost drove off from the Target parking lot while she stood banging on the window of the locked back door—a fluke), and I only make her rub my feet when they really, really hurt (usually in exchange for something, like a delayed bedtime so she can watch Law & Order SVU or, her favorite, Criminal Minds).

Roseanne Barr used to say, “I figure by the time my husband comes home at night, if those kids are still alive, I’ve done my job.” While both history and news are full of fucked up parents and damaged children, it's still funny in the proper perspective. After all, a smack on the rump and makeshift fluffernutter on Wonder Bread are not going to put our kids in therapy or give them a movie of the week.

Still, next time, Mary, you'd better use whole wheat.

- - - - - - - -

Do you have a BMM? What is the most embarrassing thing you've ever done, the thing that you were sure made you the worst mom on the planet?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

driving mr. schneider: my day as a runner for the bob schneider band (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

I am sitting in the lobby of Bob Schneider’s hotel, waiting for my favorite rock star to finish showering and get back into my car. As I say this, I still can’t believe Bob Schneider was just in the front seat of my car! It’s even more surreal than the time I touched Kip Winger’s stomach. I look in the bathroom mirror at my face. It’s older than it was this morning, and I have a bunch more new silver hairs sprouting from my center part. But I don’t bother with refreshment makeup or my hat. I find a giant round ottoman close to the coffee bar and try to stretch my still-crippled back by lounging. I imagine I look like a black widow stricken with the Cruciatus Curse—or, worse, like one of those sit-com women who tries to seduce a man by splaying herself atop a bed, putting her body in several awkward positions, eventually giving up and doing something hideous, at which time the boyfriend comes into the room. I prop myself against a mirrored column and call a friend.

I’m a groupie. It doesn’t mean what you think: I am an appreciator, an aficionado, an enthusiast—at least when it comes to a few individual bands (most of whom are mentioned by name in the acknowledgments of The Book). I like seeing live bands more than I like food; indeed, I get through this entire day on a scrambled egg and some beer. I bask in the afterglow of sweaty rock stardom much the way Hendrix the Creature, our bearded dragon, basks on a rock: with his tongue out and a big snaggle-toothed grin.

It’s not celebrity. I wouldn’t wait in line for an actor’s autograph; would not seek out the artist at an opening; don’t care much to meet my favorite writers (I would have my books signed if the line is short). It’s not about sex, either—at least I don’t think it’s about that, though who has not imagined making out with an attractive, talented, famous person (Bruce Springsteen comes to mind—a lot). Hell, I’ve thought about making out with Brandi Carlile, and I don’t even swing that way.

It’s music. Music makes me swoon. Music and lust and love are intertwined in an intoxicating three-way.

Maybe I think that rubbing elbows with talented people will take me back to when I fronted a band and performed every weekend for dancing crowds who knew the pretentious words to my eighties band’s songs (a time before we had computers, sonny). Or maybe all this psychoanalysis of my musical motives is bullshit, and I’m just an old band whore with a solid moral center and a flabby self-image.

When Bob comes down from showering (does he look even better with wet hair?), I barely see him because I’m trying to catch the score of the Ravens game, out of bored curiosity rather than concern. And I think it’s the first time Bob even looks at me, though it may be with a little bit of annoyance—I can’t tell. I just smile.

We get in the car, and he wants to know about museums and galleries, and I give him as much of the scoop as I know about the Visionary and the probably-closed galleries up Charles Street, where I don’t take him, though I could easily have given him a brief tour. We had time. Instead, I turn down Light Street as he admires the bird skull I’d hung from the rearview—it replaced that awful blue and gold Goucher tassel. And now, because “where’d you get it?” inevitably leads to Marty, which leads to "what does he do," which leads to my humorous-but-misrepresentational answer, that “he's an atheist-communist teaching at a Catholic school,” I am sucked, and I mean shop-vac’d, into a discussion about God—or god, as it is in my case.

Oh, why couldn’t we be talking about his son’s little electric guitar or naming the album of songs left after my favorite ones were put on The Californian? (I suggest The Baltimorean, and he loves the sound of it, says it a couple of times, nods, “The Baltimorean, yeah!”)

Without turning his head, Bob asks how a person arrives at that—at atheism. “It’s just another brand,” he tells me. Perhaps it would be, I argue, if we actually celebrated or reveled in the atheism, but we don’t. I’m looking straight ahead, like a deer in the headlights, but with a view of the Maryland Science Center and encroaching traffic. If I crash, it will be God’s fault. “Every religion known to man, from the ancient Egyptians to the present-day religions, is founded on Do Unto Others, and I think we know that moral code from birth. It’s innate. It’s why we feel bad when we hurt someone’s feelings. And those who don’t have that conscience turn out to be psychopaths and sociopaths. I don’t think god can save those people,” I say in similar words.

Is Bob answering me? I don’t know. I am busy rambling about how ridiculous it is that people who treat others with cruelty get to accept Jesus on their death beds and go to heaven. I talk about how I’d rather think of the pretty trees—which change color, lose leaves, come back with a whole new sense of tree-ness—as miracles and everything else man’s fault. Otherwise, if we give credit to a god for the good things, we have to blame him for the Holocaust and kidnapping and rape.

Poor Bob. He might as well be a member of my family now; he can’t get a word in edgewise. He tries to clarify that he’s against organized religion, that it’s just another “brand,” too; he is struggling not to be misunderstood. Or maybe he is listening and thinking. I can’t tell. I am absorbed in making the case for atheism, practically turning it into the irreligious conviction I had previously denied.

By the time we are at the venue, the conversation comes to a halt with the car, and I practically shove him out the door—“Out you go!” or “Well, here you are!”—and go to a bar to drink with the Raven maniacs.

Not exactly. First I make friends with a football-fan-hating cop, who allows me to park with my rear end hanging past the sign. Then I run into Harmoni while strolling back past the club. “There’s so much cool stuff,” she tells me while looking through a store window. She’s lamenting all the money she spends in cities before shows, and I ask what she can do besides shop. “I will sometimes go to a park and take pictures,” she says, and I tell her about the view from Federal Hill, about overlooking the Visionary Arts museum. I’m attempting to walk her out the door, maybe go with her to the hill, but she’s hinting that she’s a solo flyer, so I point in the general vicinity and take my cue to duck into the bar.

I am on duty, but I’m waiting for sound check, which I expect to be between 4:30 and 5:00 and take about an hour. So a 3:00-ish Sierra Nevada is not irresponsible. I’d rather be eating sushi with the guitarist or on the hill with the bassist. After my beer, I charge my phone in the car, and talk to Marty and my sister, who wonders if Bob'll do "Titty Bangin'" tonight, as if I could gauge that by our god discussion. I get Ted's text, and I'm off to sound check.

It’s uneventful at first—a lot of nnns and uuuuhs and “more monitor” and wire detanglement and cord arrangement, but eventually it’s time for drums, and Conrad Choucroun takes his spot at the kit. He looks up and sees me on the second floor. He waves. “Hi, Leslie!”

The whole world stops. Nothing else is happening. At all. (Hint to men: women like this.)

In a few minutes, I’m (mostly) over the flattery and taking pictures and even secretly, guiltily filming a little of the sound check. An hour later, when it’s all over, my handshake to Conrad is replied with a hug. Bob asks for dining advice, and Harmoni worries about time and a shower. Both she and Conrad walk to my car for a lift.

"So what are you working on now," Conrad asks. "Another book?" I'm surprised. I didn't tell anyone about the book—not Ted, not Bob. Perhaps they looked me up on Ted's laptop, or maybe he looked over the summer, when I added him as a My Space "friend." He wants to know if it's a food book, but I say I'm over that and working on a book about going to rock and roll camp. I tell them how hot Kip Winger is in person, and then we segue to crime, and they want to know if it's really like The Wire. I get graphic with my tale of the guy who died on my corner, how I watched the last blood gurgle from a murdered gang banger’s mouth on the corner of my street. I was robbed at gunpoint. And my parents were mugged and my mother beaten up in front of her house. And my sister was robbed at gunpoint at work. "But it’s not
so bad."

I write my cell phone number on Conrad’s key envelope (he still hasn’t called), and I start the driving race—home to pick up Marty and Serena, to my mom’s to drop off Serena, back to the hotel to pick up Conrad and Harmoni. Uptown, across town, and downtown across town. I am there in 43 minutes, despite having to turn around to get Marty's show ticket. I'm three minutes shy of my 7:00 promise, but my charges had only just come outside. When they get in, I apologize for scaring them out of their wits, and they both laugh, somewhat relieved; I might have really worried them. Then Marty does all the talking for the rest of the drive, asking the questions I should’ve asked—how long they’ve been playing, whether they like being in Bob’s band, where they live. Back at the 8x10, I get an excellent parking space, find my name on the guest list, and go inside to drink. I deserve it.

The show’s opening act, One Eskimo, is like a slowed-down Phil Collins with one long, ethereal song performed by not one but four Eskimos with unusual hair. I drink two pints of ale during their short set (and get a third once Bob’s band comes out). Meanwhile, Marty is flirting with two blonds. He picks them up by telling them his wife drove Bob Schneider around all day, and one of them, the drunk dumb one who's my new best friend, says he must really trust me to let me—his hot, young wife—do that.

Marty sits on a stool against the wall with his bleary eyes closed most of the night. I’m on the side of the stage with a couple of friends and have a good view of everyone except Harmoni and Ollie Steck, the horn player. Only once during the show does the front man look my way, and when he does, there’s a slight smile of recognition. Bob is Bob. He sings great, cusses, gets crude, and peforms what I call “The Pussy Song.” I don't like it, but it dispels any rumors that he’s really become Daddy Man, making his songs and shows safe for Rachel Ray’s viewers. Actually, Bob's usual audience is probably those very same viewers—women who love it when someone talks dirty to them. The men love him, too, for getting to say all the things they'd like to but would get slapped for. And he warms up their females. A Bob Schneider show is all the foreplay most people need.

I don’t get a chance to shout out my favorite song, “Game Plan,” and that’s OK because Bob plays “The Hulk.” I yell a thank-you afterward, as if my liking the song in the car that afternoon reminded him to play it.

The show lasts about two hours, by which time I’ve had three pints of beer and leave without my Frunk or any goodbyes, except a text to Teddy asking him to save me a CD of the show. Marty drives us home, and we both agree it was one of Bob Schneider’s best, most hard-rocking shows. That’s all we say to each other. And while my husband is upstairs asleep at midnight, I eat leftover lasagna and think of all the things I should’ve done differently—from my fashion choices to the quality and quantity of my conversation. My biggest regret is not getting any casual, daylight, non-concert photos, for fear I’d look like a fan instead of a professional rock ‘n’ roll driver.

I also regret not using this perfect reply when Bob asked what my husband did for a living: "Oh, he's a titty banger from way back."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

driving mr. schneider: my day as a runner for the bob schneider band (part 1)

On Saturday morning, while my husband and daughter share cinnamon Bismarcks and chocolate donuts, I am getting intimate with a roll of paper towels and a bottle of glass cleaner in my car. I wipe away a year—that’s when my car was last cleaned, just before back surgery—of dog noses from the rear window, grime and bird shit and squashed bugs from the rest. I scoop up piles of hair and lint from the vinyl stick shift bag. I put away CDs that might be embarrassing, stick down a dashboard hula given to me months ago, and scrape off the entire cast of Sesame Street, save Elmo, applied for then-two-year-old Serena; I still love the furry red monster, and I do a wicked impersonation of his R-rated off-camera commentary (“Boys and girls, Elmo needs a cigarette and a six pack real bad”). I take my graduation tassel down; it was only there to hold the pen, which had long been missing. I throw away a ripped road atlas and a mountain of gum wrappers.

That I was cleaning my ten-year-old Pathfinder could only mean one thing. Somebody important was getting in it.

I had volunteered to be a runner for Bob Schneider’s band—someone who would take them where they needed to go—places like the hotel and the venue. I forgot about hating driving, erased the fact that my daughter's first cuss word was in imitation of me yelling at other drivers, dismissed the thought that it could be a nightmare with a Ravens game, already well attended but even more serious with their nemesis, the Colts, in town. But I said yes and wondered how I’d break it to my husband—who has seen about seven years of my bad behavior at Bob shows—that my fantasy might be sitting in my front seat.

My husband feigns hurt that I would clean the car for Bob but not for him or our daughter, yet on Sunday, he takes over the shop vac, sucking up every speck of dog hair from the car's floors and seats and head rests. He can't help it. He loves Bob, too.

It’s probably an odd thing for a forty-(inaudible mumbling)-year -old woman to be doing on a Sunday from noon to eight p.m., during her daughter's last soccer game. It's a task that requires several days of advance preparation, what with clothes shopping, dieting, and hair straightening. I’ve been told I do weird things, that I “squeeze the fun out of life.” (I’m not sure whether this means I kill it with strangulation or suck out its best juices.) But I write what I know, and there’s only so much knowing you can do sitting at the kitchen table with your laptop. And there isn’t much I wouldn’t do for good music. I do not, however, dress on Sunday morning in anything that plunges. I do not, as my sister and husband both suggested, pack a change of underwear. I do not wear my BABY, HERE'S YOUR GAME PLAN t-shirt. I'm in the Threadless haiku tee and black cords, my usual brown cowboy boots, my old Indian hat, and a black jacket. My hair is straight.

I had what I thought to be a pretty realistic grasp on what runner detail would entail: I might take Harmoni Kelly, the bass player, to buy a new lipstick; shuttle Conrad Choucroun between hotel and venue; hunt down several cans of Rockstar Energy; separate and remove all the green M&Ms, because surely Bob doesn't need to get hornier. I couldn’t imagine what I’d do with the front man in the front seat of my SUV; I doubted he'd even get in my car.

My first assignment, from a sleepy Ted Roberson, tour manager, is to deliver Ted and Eric-the-bus-driver to the hotel from the 8x10. I stand outside the bus and wait for them to emerge, pack them up, move them out. When we arrive at the hotel (which hotel is privileged information), Eric tells me he is pleasantly surprised to find a woman driving a stick shift and a truck. Ladies don’t roll like that in Texas, apparently.

The second unglamorous order of business is helping Ted get a new laptop plug from to the Towson Apple store. It is a ten-mile schlep, and the tour manager, who is, follicle-ly at least, nearly identical to a young Bob Ross (he of “happy trees” fame) is friendly but not exactly a self-starter in the talk arena. First I offer him a red-hot atomic fireball; I'd jammed a whole box of them in the side pocket of my door because they're great appetite suppressants. Ted turns his head slowly, like I'd somehow turned into Afro-dite, like the atomic fireball was only the best edible confection known to man. He holds out his hand to receive the individually wrapped, irresistible red tongue burner (and, careful, tooth breaker). Then I entertain him with exciting tales of my guitar prodigy daughter, my thoughts about Billy Harvey having made a mistake leaving Bob’s band, and my opinion about Bob Schneider’s latest album, the cuss-less Lovely Creatures. Ted says that many fans have conjectured that foul language (songs like “Titty Bangin’” are always crowd pleasers) was holding him back from national recognition. But the real reason for this change is Bob’s four-year-old son, which has made him more sensitive to how he behaves in the world. Bah. I don’t know Bob, but I don’t buy it. I think he’ll always know when it's inappropriate to be inappropriate. I pray to the music spirit that Bob does what I call “The Pussy Song” tonight—just as a sign that this Daddy Virus hasn’t affected his gauge.

Serena, almost twelve, has been a Bob fan for most of her life, and let me tell you it was quite a feat quick-turning the volume up and down in anticipation of the fucks and shits and motherfuckers on nearly every record (but especially The Californian, my personal favorite). Eventually, I let the songs play thinking she wouldn’t notice, but she did. For awhile, she’d cover her ears until the offensive word had passed. But soon she just started singing along with “The Sons of Ralph,” and it was all over. (I have a recording of Serena, 9, and my nephew, Graham, 7, singing "Party at the Neighbors.” It’s a testament to the ageless appeal of the Bob.)

Ted thinks his boss will be a household name (and not just in my house) in about six months from a combination of good airplay and his guest appearance on Rachel Ray in early November. He sure holds sway with middle-aged buxom brunettes. By the end of our twenty miles, after discussing Ted’s work as a sound engineer and Bob’s lunatic fan base, we are back at the bus. I tell him I'll hang around Federal Hill so that I can see sound check, though parking is ridiculous during game day. After about ten minutes of riding up and down the same four blocks, I finally come upon someone leaving at 1:45. That’s when my phone buzzes with a text: “Hey, bob would like to go to hotel before load in. I would say within the next 30 minutes. If you could be available to run him over that would be great.”

Bob. The hotel. Bahhhhhhhb.

I find guitarist Billy Cassis on the corner with Ted searching for any glimpse of Bob, who has wandered up Cross Street in road-trip haze. “You know what it’s like to be driving in the bus all night and wake up in the morning and just wander out into a strange place, not knowing where you’re going,” he says. I don’t. I usually wake up and bolt out of bed, fresh and alert, I tell him. But yeah, I do understand. You go on the inertia of road hum. Billy was with Bob on the summer tour, replacing Jeff Plankenhorn, a guy so brilliant that he deserves the cover of Guitar Player. Like Billy Harvey before him, Plank left the backup band to attend to personal projects.

Cassis is only about my height, handsome, with a soft voice similar to that of Billy Harvey. He is both funny about and sensitive to an elderly lady on the street. She’s carrying a grocery bag with Charmin in it, and she looks lost. I’m a little worried that it’s me in a few years—some old ho hanging around a tour bus in front of a nightclub, wishing she had misspent more of her youth.

Bassist Harmoni Kelley returns from wandering the neighborhood and is excited about a thrift shop purchase. Billy thinks that place might have something that matches my own style and tries to sell me on a trip there, but I’m a working girl after all. And I have a Bob Job.

I move my car to the alley, half on the sidewalk, and wait for the man who finally comes in the crosshairs, heading toward us in Chuck Taylors and his FAYM (short for Fuck All You Motherfuckers, of course) hoodie, carrying an issue of The Goon under his arm from a visit to a comic book store. In the daylight, without the drama of darkness and ale, without the magic of crude lyrics and one of the best rock voices a person could hope to hear, he’s just sort of a boy. I move my car off the sidewalk so he can get in, and we go, a little quietly at first. He asks what I do. Well, I drive rock stars around—and apparently not well. A cab has stopped in the street, and I try to go around him, but the light changes too quickly, and I have to back up out of the lane of oncoming traffic. Something like this has to happen when you’re with someone you like. (For years I’d see a secret crush, and I’d always be in sweats with a bad cold and messy hair.)

I tell Bob I’m a writer and a photographer. He wants to know what I write, and I do not tell him that I wrote the book I gave him last time—I don’t want him to think I had any fantasies that he’d have read it or even cracked it open to see whatever I’d scrawled in pink marker to him after I’d had a pint of Smithwicks before the Annapolis show over the summer. It’s not really a man’s book, after all. And it’s certainly no Goon. So I tell him I’m working on a book about rock camps, and I brag on my daughter some more. At one point, I joke: “Now that I have you in my car—“ but he looks a little squeamish, so I just ask what was up when he wrote the songs from The Californian, songs that are entirely different from his usual repertoire. But he was not, as I’d suspected, going through some manic phase (like I was at the time of its release). It was more like what happens when a praying mantis dies and goes into overdrive. It was Billy Harvey’s last album, and it was going to be recorded live in the studio, using all of Billy’s best Billy-ness to go out with a bang and a double-record set. But a friend listened to it and said, “Why not put all these hard rock songs on one album?” So he did.

Bob doesn’t do a lot of those songs at shows anymore. He stopped doing my favorite, “Game Plan,” in favor of the title track. “I have so many songs,” he tells me, including the ones he hasn’t even put on a record yet. But he fears he’s getting a little like his dad, a musician who had a huge repertoire and one day just started playing the same twelve songs over and over again. I think at some point my daughter is going to say that about her father, who is now in his Pink Floyd and Yes phase of guitarring in the kitchen. I ask about his son, who likes to sing in his home studio and wonder about the song he inspired and “cowrote” with his dad, “The Hulk.”

“I don’t do that song anymore,” he says, almost wistfully.

“I like that song a lot,” I say, wistfully.

We’re at the hotel, so I help him get his key from the front desk, and I sit down to update my Facebook status—something like “is at the hotel with Bob while he showers. In the lobby. Hooray for clean. Boo for lobby.” But really—hooray for the lobby. And hooray for finding my own way here, to this point in my life.

To be continued.

(Next: God is Bob’s friend, and drummer Conrad Choucroun is mine.)

*Kissy-face-Bob manipulation by Steve Parke

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

stepping away from the cake

The scale at Weight Watchers showed a 3.4-pound loss after the first week. That's almost three and a half pounds of cake research (and beer research and Halloween candy research, et al.) gone. I realize it's time to step away from the cake in other ways, too.

As you know, I don't blog about confections, though I used to when I was working on The Book. Those days are gone now, and, though I would have loved a bestseller, I have to face some hard facts: I'm no Chesley Sullenberger. I'm no Sarah Palin. I didn't live through Columbine. And these are tough times. Some of us can't even afford a Ding Dong, much less a book that disses a few of them.

So I've redesigned my website to reflect my for-hire photography skills, and I've fixed my blog to reflect that I am more than my first book (and even my second book).

It's not a sweet parting of ways. I'm disappointed that Let Me Eat Cake won't be released in paperback, that it could easily wind up in the cut-out bin, that I didn't get on The View or feed cake to Stephen Colbert. And I could have done a lot more to promote myself.

I don't have that kind of head—the kind that can hand out business cards by the dozen to strangers and friends, that can impose on people, that can beg, that can toot my own horn in any but the can-you-believe-the-luck?! way. And most of the people who can do that are overbearing and obnoxious. For me, it would have been like wearing clothing that's many sizes too big; I would have lost myself.

That doesn't mean I can't or won't ask, every so often (but not face-to-face!) that you buy the remaining copies of The Book, especially from your independent retailer, if a copy can be found there. I worked really hard on it, I tell you tearfully, if the truth be told. And it's funny. And the person you give it to this holiday season will probably really like it a lot.

In fact, I have two signed books I would like to sign and give away, completely free, even the shipping. Here are the conditions. 1. If you like the book, please post a favorable review on Amazon and B&N. And 2.) Please share it with at least one other person. Leave an email address in your comment, and I will put your names in a hat and have a drawing next Monday.

(P.S. You can still see old Cake posts and links to author interviews and reviews at The Cake Life.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

fall's fabric

fall's fabric

the fabric of fall
is a narrow gleaming strip
between bloom and detritus,
at once fresh and frayed.
autumn is weaver,
seamstress, singer.
she is the glee
and the lament.
birds and squirrels
scavenge the yard
for scraps we’ve sewn—
swinging tube of seeds,
bucket of black walnuts,
worms plugged into moist ground.
these are the days
of luscious comforts,
down and cider, fire,
the crow’s song sung
to the tune of radiator hum,
rhythm tapped by knitting needles.
I have worried all the buttons
on this shrunken, ill-fitting year,
and its first good breath
is a last colorful gasp
with flaming maple leaf confetti.
adieu, adieu,
remember me
it calls as the last bright remnants
are stitched into the waning light.
I will.
I will.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

she hearts guitars

When my daughter left the house this morning in her school uniform, she was carrying far too many things: a backpack, a hoodie, her lunch box, a 20-ounce water bottle dangling from the handle, a book, and a magazine. It wasn’t just any book, either; it was a heavy one, the sixth Harry Potter, which she reads voraciously. I looked at her, stuff in each hand, on her back, slung over her shoulder, and hanging off her head and thought how uncomfortable and bogged down she seemed. I wore a fanny pack exclusively for about twenty years (until I was robbed of it at gunpoint—another story) because I loathe carrying things. I wanted to relieve her of some less-necessary stuff, but it was all imperative.

The magazine leaving the house with her was the latest Musician’s Friend catalog, which we’d all given the slow once-over. Serena has read it again and again, always with vigor. On the first pass, she said, “Guess which guitar I want.” She’s been angling for an SG—Gibson, not Epiphone, because she’s a brand snob—but since we saw It Might Get Loud, she has eyes only for the double-neck. So I guessed right.

This morning, with all the stuff she carried, why did she add the burden of the catalog? “Because I like looking at guitars. I like dreaming about guitars,” she said, with the kind of fluttery-eyed ecstasy she used to reserve only for my cooking.

I think I’ve lost my daughter to rock and roll.

I am grateful that it’s only rock and roll (and I like it too). And though I know that in the not-distant-enough future, she could easily be making that face over a boy, I can see her on a Gretsch poster, hair and eyebrows ala Brooke Shields, with the caption: Nothing comes between me and my Hollow-body Electromatic.

Well, a mom can dream.

Serena’s first complete sentence, besides “Mommy, diaper, have it?” which she asked at the pediatrician’s office when he didn’t believe my fourteen-month-old child knew over 100 words (“OK, never mind, I believe you,” he said after the diaper sentence), was this: “Hi, boy, kiss you?” The first time she used it was in the Safeway, and she promptly chased the boy out of line, arms outstretched more like a zombie kissing machine than an awkward toddler.

My girl spent the rest of her first decade finding a way to hang with the boys. For the first five years, that meant eschewing Barbie dolls for Legos and trucks and creepy pirate-y toys with a billion pieces. For the next five, it meant never wearing a dress or her hair down. We had to shop in the boys’ department, or she wouldn’t wear it—even t-shirts with skulls.

But I feel the strong, strong wind of change. The other day, Serena got in the car and couldn’t wait to tell me that her math teacher had played them a Heart song—“Dog and Butterfly”—a song we both used to play and sing. Heart is Serena’s current favorite band—and not just because she likes the music but because a girl plays the acoustic intro to “Crazy on You,” and it’s hard. One of her best friends for nine years said, “Ew, what is that awful music?” She shot him the look of are-you-crazy-or-just-lame? and said, “It’s Heart!” at which time he rested his case. She just shook her head. “He doesn’t know anything,” she told me.

Music has always been a litmus test for couples, so it’s probably not uncommon, even for a ‘tween girl, to start clicking her tongue and rolling her eyes over some boy’s (or parent’s) unsophisticated, undereducated tastes. And I’m glad she’s made this her priority rather than, say, soccer, which she declared three years ago was her “life.” And rather than using her guitar to play the boys, she is more concerned with outplaying them.

I think that what surprised me was the look in her eyes. It’s going to be hard for my lasagna and stuffed peppers to share that look of rapture with pictures of fancy guitars, even when they look as hot as the new rainbow SG Zoot. Oh, baby!

But I'd rather she get that way over a guitar than a man, like her mom. Oh, baby!

Monday, October 19, 2009

fortune teller

Lest you think I'm playing countless rounds of Bejewelled Blitz and neglecting my writerly duties, I thought I'd make a quick appearance as sort of a placeholder while I wait for inspiration.

Recently on Facebook, I asked my friends, in a cryptic status message, for ten words. That is, I said something like, "Drop and give me ten." I got more than ten—some delicious, some nasty, some fun, and many difficult, multi-syllabic conversation stoppers: girdle, fleshy, concrete, sinuous, indolent, fender, milksop, tendril, coagulate, mellifluous, profligate, and vicissitude. I supplied the last two words, tea and misfortune. Here's the poem.

fortune teller

the psychic healer on the corner hitches her girdle
above the fleshy thigh part, spills a hidden wad of bills
to the concrete, then looks at us as she bends, a parade
of sinuous attendant parts folding and unfolding,
a slow dance with the indolent haze of day.
we like to stop our bikes there, feign attention to a fender
while we spy on the Reverend Sister Faye and her milksop
brother, with his mouthful of bobby pins for Faye’s tendrils
which he molds and coagulates against her bare shoulder,
and we can’t tell if the mellifluous calls from cars
are for the Sister or for him, prophet or profligate.
He claps at us to move along, as if the vicissitudes
of tarot and tea leaves were on us,
as if anyone's misfortune needed to be told.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

poopularity contest

Pomp hides a multitude of flaws; circumstance garners lots of sympathy. So with trumpet flourishes and sad, mangled-but-fluffy cute puppehs, I announce that I'm in the running for a Baker Artist Artist Award, code name: dogfaceboy.

Before I realized that this was more a popularity contest, I spent a ridiculous number of hours yesterday uploading photos and mosaics. So please, if you find yourself with a spare fifteen minutes, vote for me. The registration process is daunting (of course). Don't check the box that says you're from Baltimore; you don't have to be a Baltimore resident to vote (only to be a nominee).

Thank you very much, my excellent friend.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

yippie! hissssssss! hooray!

*note: this blog is messed up in Safari—don't know why!

It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing. ~Gertrude Stein

I navigated to my blog from a site about whether shaving makes hair grow back heavier. I had to prove to my husband that it doesn't, that it's merely an illusion because the hair becomes blunted at the ends and because it softens as it lengthens.

I spend a lot of time at the computer. Sometimes I'm looking up stupid stuff like that to tell my husband, who, without it, would probably still believe that hair grows faster after you cut it, or I look up lyrics, a news headline, the source of a quote. Other times, I'm writing or processing photos or chatting with friends, as if they are right in the next cubicle. Only I'm not exactly "working."

I am an artist. Saying that gives me the creeps; it scares me. Because artists, as you know, are unemployable, and it's sort of why I'm sitting here at the computer at 8:07 a.m. on a Thursday instead of getting ready for work.

In between sending out résumés and CVs for jobs like art director and English professor, which are sparse (which means the space between is long), I make stuff. I flit from the camera to the guitar to the manuscript like a butterfly, lingering a time over each thing until I'm satisfied I've sucked it dry, mined it for everything worth taking.

Because my employment frustration could easily occupy my day, I decided to give myself something to do, some artistic diversion to participate in when the laundry was done and the kitchen floor was swept. And that's how I came to win a photo challenge—Survivor: Flickr Island—with five very different photos. I made the best shots of my life. And when that was over last week, I joined a photo class with weekly assignments. Every day, I work a little more on the chapter for my book proposal. I send queries and write poems and songs. I flit.

Last week, I tapped into my home equity line of credit so that I could buy groceries. Because I am an artist.

Right now, I have nothing to do but write and look for work, yet I feel an overwhelming guilt when I try to fill the day with things other than vacuuming and laundry. I rarely pull out my guitar anymore, even for that quick few minutes in the early morning with my coffee. And when I forget my situation and buy a six-dollar t-shirt at Target, I have a panic attack. But when I use the computer for my avocations, it's free. And it's productive. And sometimes it turns into a gig—a photo publication credit in a real magazine (this shot, for the California version of Family), a book review, a portrait job for a friend.

And it feels good. Yesterday, at about 4:30, the wind kicked up outside and began to twirl the rusty pink garden ornament hanging from my Douglas fir. I took 32 stills of it as it swung in the breeze. I stitched them together to make an animated gif and liked it so much that I turned it into a movie. It took two hours, and my husband complained, even though he was gone most of the time, even though I'd stopped while he was walking the dogs to make his dinner salad, cut up veggies for Hendrix the Creature (my daughter's bearded dragon), and would pick up my daughter from soccer. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, he says. I'm always on the computer.

And I'm sure it's not good for me. It cuts down on my attention span and makes me agitated when I'm away from it, like an addiction. It makes me sit far too much. It keeps my house dirty. But it's also just about the only thing I do right now that feels good. I have a sense of accomplishment when I see something through from concept to construct. So even without pay, there's a reward.

While I was making my video, I added some music. And when it was finished, I decided it needed something else—the sound of wind, some whoooosh to run through it as it faded to black. And that's when it hit me that I needed some applause. I tacked it on the second half of the video so that it would linger through the fade to black. The applause made me giddy. Every time I hear the audience clapping, I feel as though they are clapping for this thing blowing in the breeze, this thing I made, and, by extension, for me.

My friend Jennifer asked: what if we had this in our heads all the time? Every time we did something right, the applause would start. Every time we did something we shouldn't—like eat a cookie—the audience would boo. Would it make us think more about the things we do every day?

And what if I'm sitting here on the computer, doing nothing, waiting for the stroke of genius to come? Would they cheer or jeer?

Would they cheer for proving my husband wrong about the hair? Or would they boo, because they thought he was right? Would they clap for me as I sit here this morning, writing an essay in my blog, practicing a craft for which I am sometimes handsomely paid? Or would they blow raspberries at the waste of time?

Would they applaud the laundry and the pile of dog hair swept out the door and the made beds and the chili dinner and the washed dishes but hiss when I pulled out the guitar?

Is it an audience of disappointed, overworked spouses or an audience of artists?

Does the audience have its priorities straight?

Friday, September 18, 2009

happy, challah daze

Before spirituality became contagious, like a yuppie sickness, I considered myself spiritual; that is, I worshipped nature and “frolicked in the autumn mist” and babbled about the sunsets and the sounds birds make. But maybe that’s not because of spirit.

I am religious in my habits: the way I make morning coffee, the way I postpone playtime until my work is finished, how I worship the four-o’clock beer. I adore tradition. Just before Easter break, I pick my Jewish daughter up from her Catholic school early enough that she misses mass, and we have a girls’ lunch—at the same place every year.

It’s Rosh Hashanah, and since I first learned in 2006 how to make homemade challah from my friend, Maya Sprague, I have made it my new holiday—challahday—tradition. I spend the day of our celebration—which is nothing more than a loud dinner with my loud family—baking. I listen to music (today, The Records** and Jim Carroll, which go together perfectly because I have loved them long and well). I take pictures of the dough and marvel at the yeast’s magic and curse the sticky strands that never braid the way I want them the first time.

I love the Jewish New Year because it’s exactly when a new year should be: the kids have settled back to school, I have settled back to writing, and the air has settled—both cool enough to be renewing and warm enough to coax a little red into the last tomatoes. I love that this holiday makes no pretenses, that it’s about sweetness and life. I love the tired joke about blowing the chauffer. I even love the whole phrase, l’shana tova tikatevu: may you be inscribed for a good year. That’s the loose translation. The longer version is, “May God write you down in his book for a good year.” Even though I don’t believe in a supreme being (unless you count Bob Schneider), I do believe in the righteousness of the Golden Rule, which, more than God, is the foundation of every religion on earth. The earliest version is the most beautiful and the most simple: “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.”*

I don’t make resolutions on the Jewish New Year. This is about sloughing off the old skin and returning to the things that make me glow. And it all starts with the baking of the bread.

- - - - - - - - -

Maya Sprague’s Challa, I Love You


2 t sugar
2 pkg. yeast
2 C warm water (105-115°)

6 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 C oil
4 t salt
4T sugar

8+ C flour

1 egg yolk mixed with a little water
2 T sesame or poppy seeds (opt.)

Note: I divide this recipe in half and make it in two separate bowls for two loaves. To one of the bowls of wet ingredients, I add ½ C raisins, 1/8 C cinnamon, and ¼ C honey. Braid the rolls separately.


1. Add sugar to warm water; sprinkle yeast on top; mix with fork. When mixture foams (about five minutes), it’s good to go.

2. Mix the eggs, oil, salt, and sugar. Add foaming yeast.

3. Add flour to wet mixture, one cup at a time, then turn out on a kneading surface dusted with flour.

4. Knead until dough can be handled without sticking, adding flour as needed. (I have never been patient enough to get to that point, so if you find yourself adding more and more flour, just stop and continue with step 5.)

5. Cover dough ball with a dish towel and set in a warm, draft-free place for two hours.

6. Punch dough. Braid. (See Maya's cool video, or braid in three strands.)

7. Put braids on an oiled stone or baking pan; cover, and leave to rise one hour.

8. Brush bread with egg yolk/water mixture. Moisten finger with egg, and press seeds into the challah for decoration (opt.).

8. Bake at 350° until a rap on the bread sounds hollow (about ½ hour to 45 minutes).

- - - - - -

*from "The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 - 110 Translated by R.B. Parkinson. The original dates to 1970 to 1640 BCE and may be the earliest version ever written."

**Singer John Wicks has been doing fabulous things since he's been away from the Records. Check out Rotate; it's superb.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

saving all the dates

We were welcomed to our new neighborhood sixteen years ago with cookies and cards and dog licks and sweet children's hugs. Within a year, we were married, and just about everyone on our block came to the wedding. I remember the little Roesner girls playing limbo and dancing under the tent on the lawn at the Waverly Historic Mansion. I have a photo of Abbey, barely ten, her body bent backward like a yogi.

Lindsay, her sister, was seven or eight then and loved children. She was born to babysit and was always taking care of the neighborhood kids. I will never forget the day I found out I was pregnant. I told her I'd be needing a babysitter soon, and she said OK. About half an hour later, there was a knock at my front door. It was Lindsay. "Miss Leslie," she asked shyly, "Do you mean you're having a baby?" She was overjoyed and checked on my pregnancy often. When I miscarried, she cried. And when I got pregnant again, I waited until I was showing to tell her. She became our best babysitter.

We have shared birthdays and graduations and summer vacations with the Roesner girls. We've been to their ballgames and their recitals and their many graduation parties. I taught them to make mosaics (they're good at it, too!) and bought them books and tools. Once, my husband brought out our black rat snake, and Abbey asked to hold it. The exact moment her father snapped the picture, the snake bit her chin. Abbey was so cool that she barely flinched. We don't have a copy of that photo, but it's on the bookcase at the Roesners' house. The girls are in our wedding album; their graduation pictures are on our refrigerator. Lindsay graduated from Towson University last year and is now a nurse. Abbey graduated from School for the Arts, then Juilliard, then danced with Baryshnikov; she has danced in Canada and New York and all over the world. I wrote about their parents in my book.

These girls are the products not of a village (or a country or a world) but of parents who loved and nurtured them. I stood by and did my job as a neighbor, which was to let them in when it was cold and they'd forgotten their keys; to share cake and steamed crabs and potato salad; to lend books and borrow onions; to approve bedroom colors and ogle artwork, to cheer and rejoice and weep with them. Even so, I can't help but think of them as my girls, as if I did anything more than love them.

Today, I got the Save the Date for Lindsay's wedding, and I am verklempt for her all over again.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

where are those angels when you need them? at ladies rock camp.

I’ve been raising up my hands—drive another nail in
Just what God needs
one more victim.

~Tori Amos, “Crucify”

Many of us have this thing I call the Suck Voice. It doesn’t deserve capital letters, but it demands them. Sometimes you comply because you don’t have so much power. It has you by the gonads, so what can you do but cry uncle.

The Suck Voice is usually not the voice of reason. It’s the voice of fear. And fear is never right, but it’s always loud. Sometimes you think fear makes good sense; doesn’t it keep you away from spiders, deserted streets, fire? Not exactly. You stay away from spiders because they bite (and they are hideous). You stay away from deserted streets because someone could get away with a crime against you more easily there. And you stay away from fire because it burns, and burns are painful.

The Suck Voice has a specific goal. It comes out when you are afraid of failure. It keeps you from doing the things you really want to do by reminding you how fat you’ve gotten, how stupid you’ll look, how old you are, how hard people will laugh at you. It tells you, “Don’t bother. You SUCK.” So stop posting your shit photos to Flickr. Stop writing your crappy blog that no one reads anyway. Stop plunking the strings of your guitar and thinking you are playing it. And, damn it, don’t you dare go to Ladies Rock Camp.

On a day that I had my brain to myself—and, it would seem, an extra five hundred bucks—I enrolled for a three-day weekend in August. It's a grownup, abbreviated version of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, held in two sessions every summer. On Friday, wannabe rockers can pick an instrument they know or have never played, get in a band, and write a song; on Sunday, they play it in a club.

All sorts of frantic guitarring began at that moment, as I sought out loud, rocking rhythms from bands like The Runaways, who I was always told had learned their instruments yesterday.* So when my husband told me the song I’d picked was too hard to learn quickly, I felt a little defeated. I signed up for some quickie lessons, but neither the teacher nor I knew what would help me. So I plugged the Strat into the basement amp and wailed on it a few days, touching the neck and the strings as if I were an alien encountering some fascinating, shiny object of mystery and allure.

And then I got on the bus.

Ladies Rock Camp was mostly what anyone would expect— some instrument lessons; some workshops like songwriting and, perhaps less expected, self-defense; some band practice; some guest musicians. The days began with affirmations that director Karla Schickele calls, “Rock Formations”; we gather in the cafeteria to remind ourselves, with powerful voices and arms, that “We Rock!” Until this very moment, I didn't get its importance. For lunch the first day, the 39 campers, several volunteers, and the few paid coordinators were serenaded by Felice Rosser, a tall, dark, bass-playing woman with braids and a voice as smooth and rich as hot cocoa.

After her performance, we all asked questions, including the excellent, "How do you play bass and sing at the same time?" My question was about the Suck Voice. Felice calls hers the Shadow, after the Jungian concept. Her answer was thoughtful, and I had the feeling she could have gone on about it, that it was something she wrestled to the ground regularly. On this day, she’d won. She was my angel.

On Saturday morning, my group of ten advanced guitarring ladies (advanced! yes, I was in the advanced group!) had an extended lesson, but the first half was spent on individual questions. I just wanted to jam, so I unplugged myself and took a walk. Felice was in the hallway. “It’s my Suck Voice friend," she said. "I’ve been thinking about you all night.”

We talked in the hallway for twenty minutes—about being too dark, too fat, too old, too lousy to do the things that make us feel good and how it is that we get our power back. To some extent, it involves being less judgmental of others. But it certainly involves being kinder to ourselves. We found ourselves remembering a poignant scene from a movie.

In What the Bleep do We Know?, some photos by Dr. Masaru Emoto are on exhibit in the subway. Emoto studied the messages from water by photographing water crystals under various spells. For instance, some drops were prayed for by priests; some were serenaded by Vivaldi and Mozart; others were given labels such as “love and gratitude.” The crystals are beautiful, like snowflakes. But one sample of water, labeled, “you make me sick,” is brown and murky—a water you wouldn’t want to even think exists, much less drink. You’re sad for that water, even though you know all this is impossible.

At that moment in the movie, the moment Felice and I are discussing, a stranger walks up to star Marlee Matlin and says, “If a thought could do that to water, imagine what a thought could do to you.” New-age hooey or not, I cried hard. Our negative thoughts rule us! They condition our responses. They set us up for every failure!

Felice told me that part of grappling with the suck voice means believing that you have something important to say. Whatever way we are compelled to speak—with words, with music, with art, with science, with stillness—is valid and important.

Because what happens to us when we don't suffocate those jealous, rude, bitter voices? We muddy our souls. We become jealous, rude, and bitter. We regret. We resent.

“Every day, I crucify myself.
And my heart is sick of being in chains.”

Yeah, that’s right. Hand me my wings. I rock.

- - - - - - -

*For the record, I never believed that. Lita Ford should have placed in the top twenty of the best guitarists of all time; she's that good. The Runaways' songs only sound effortless. That's their magic.

"Suck Voice" illustration/photo by Jennifer König, who also rocks.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

who's a little bit country?

I’m a big fan of the shuffle feature of MP3 players. I imagine I’m listening to a mix tape made just for me by some hot wannabe lover of my dreams—a guy (or Brandi Carlile) who has exciting, eclectic taste and tries to woo me this way: with Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers” one minute, Peggy Lee’s “Bewitched” the next.* To puff up a well-known movie line, Shuffle is like a giant box of chocolates filled with gooey centers, some of which you might spit out immediately one day but chew rapaciously the next.

In a bar with friends, someone asked what song she’d find on my iPod that would embarrass me. I probably have a bunch that might make you laugh, but these songs were hand-picked for a reason (I can’t really blame the imaginary wannabe loverboy). So I’m just not going to be embarrassed by Miley Cyrus’s “7 Things I Hate About You.” It’s a girly song that rocks out. No matter what you think about Cyrus or Hannah Montana, this is a delicious little piece of formulaic pop songwriting—with clever, albeit teenage, lyrics and a catchy melody.

I won’t blush at “Radar Love” or any of my Bon Jovi and am rather proud of a collection that embraces both the Seedy Seeds and the Prodigy. When my handyman was here yesterday, Kid Rock's "Bawitdaba" came on, and I was a little surprised, as it followed a tasty little Jonatha Brooke number. "You have quite the eclectic collection on your iPod," Matt noticed. I almost hit the skip button, but then I remembered why I put it on there: it rawks!

In the mornings, when I walk, any one of 2,119 songs could pop up—I could listen for six and a half days straight without repeating (though the count might include hours of Vietnamese language lessons). But what surprises me about my iPod is that a few dozen of my two thousand songs might be considered country music.

Wha'? Me? A little bit country?

Last week, “Glory Days” came on the radio the other day while I was driving my daughter to Rock School, and she asked why we were listening to country music. I was appalled. “Country?!?!?!?!?! This is Bruce,” I told her in all caps, boldface, and italics. “Bruce!” I said, as if were in some house of worship and she’d blasphemed my lord. “Bruce,” I repeated, with the echo that accompanies Dana Carvey’s Church Lady's shout of “Satan?!?!?!”

We’ve been writing a lot of songs in my house lately, so we’re examining the structures of the ones we like. I heard Lori McKenna’s “How To Survive” one morning and thought it was a wicked cool example. But what am I doing liking this country-ass song? A few minutes later, I found another to like. “There goes my old girlfriend / There’s another diamond ring / And all those late-night promises / I guess they don’t mean a thing.” Whoa, I thought. Another country song I like!

A few seconds later, I sighed, relieved. It’s only Aerosmith, not country. Wait, how could I have made that mistake? Was my daughter right? Are Bruce, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, and Bon Jovi—all those classic rockers—really just playing country music?

And why do I feel possessive about my Lucinda Williams, my Lori McKenna, my North Mississippi Allstars, but hold Faith Hill, Sugarland, and Little Feat in disregard?

That’s easy. It’s because we don’t love everything in a genre. Rock fans don’t listen to all rock. Country fans don’t like all country. And you can surely like the White Stripes without digging the Decemberists, maybe.

Having the courage to admit you were wrong, especially about your own prejudices, is a sign of maturity. And being hard to pigeonhole is a sign of sophistication. So there cain’t be nothin’ wrong with havin’ a couple countryass songs on yer iPod.

Just so long as you ain't got any of them thar show tunes. Or opera, which is just show tunes in a foreign language.

- - - - -

*My wannabe lover knows I named my daughter, Serena, after Elizabeth Montgomery’s character, Serena, cousin of Samantha Stevens.‡

‡Said lover also knows that Montgomery’s screen credit for that role went to the imaginary Pandora Spocks.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

guardian angels

I have quit writing.

In the past three weeks, I have given it up about seven times. The first time was when my new book contract was rejected by my favorite editor. It was only the second rejection—not the end of the world or the topic by any means. But in this economy, the only books getting bought are by celebrities, fad diet gurus, and reluctant heroes. Those books are rarely good.

Then again, one of my closest friends, Sheri Booker, finally sold her book about the black funeral parlor industry. Nine Years Under will be published by Gotham/Penguin.

Sheri sends me chat messages every few days asking me how my writing is coming. “I quit writing,” I tell her every time.

The first time was right after talking to my agent and promising I would take her advice. She suggested I sell some stories related to the project, and I have dozens in my head, but I am wrestling with the futility of endeavors like these and anguish and fear and all those things that plague writers in the sophomore slump.

After the second time I quit writing, I got a message on Facebook from someone I don’t know and didn’t pay: she “loved, loved, loved” my book, “and so did the 3 friends [she] bought copies for.” Maybe I’d come back, I thought. Nah, I rethought.

Sheri has become my guardian writing angel these days. I think she’s trying to repay me for being hers last year. She had just received constructive criticism from my agent regarding her book proposal, and she wasn’t sure she would bother to pursue the project further. I became her nagging Jewish mother, asking her nearly every time I saw her what progress she’d made, even while I was stuck in the red leather recliner trying to survive.

I am sure she thinks I am the reason she has a book contract now—that I pushed her when she was ready to give up. So when she asks me every other day, she sounds a little desperate to rescue me.

The other day, when Sheri asked me, I told her I was going to spend some time working on large mosaic projects and maybe some photography. I made it sound like I really did have alternate career plans and that I was fine with that. “maybe you do need a small break from writing / but you and i both know that you haven't quit / you are a true writer.”

Last night, I got another Facebook email from someone saying she got my book as a gift and was prepared to dislike it; who wants to read about cake when you can bake one? she asked.

Well, I would sure rather read than bake. I’d rather write than bake.

Oh, yeah. Except that I quit.