Having a Field Day

I’m not a sports gal. One of the easiest assessments I tackled in high school was the question of whether to sport or not to sport. Students who participated in athletics had their Wednesdays and Saturdays totally sucked up with no time for smoking cigarettes in the woods or slamming out an English essay in record time. Wasting my time on a school bus with the annoying chatter of other high school girls and the overwhelming smell of sweaty socks? No thanks. Give me a mile long walk to the local pond with a few pals, scandalous poetry and bathing suit in hand. But in my role as a teacher and benevolent overlord in the dormitory, the fact that my good friend is the athletic director here, and finally given that my lovely husband wants us to be involved in campus life (he’s so good it’s gross), we found ourselves at the girls JV field hockey game this past Saturday. Late September afternoon sunlight, a bucolic scene of rolling grass fields and a winding river, with all of these trappings, it was not difficult to convince myself that I was having a lovely time. I had to have been having a better time than those girls all hunched over with their field hockey sticks. How do they keep running around bent forward at the waist like that? And suddenly I focused in on a disturbing reality: the girls were wearing skirts. SKIRTS!

During the Olympics this summer the blatant double standards and rampant sexism at play in the media’s coverage of the games were being called out on a daily basis. Or at least the outrage was clear in my well curated Facebook feed. Seriously, thank you online friends for being so cool. And if I unfriended you at some point, well, now you know why. You’re probably a racist or misogynist and I don’t have time for you at least not while I’m trying to spend some quality time in the bathroom.

But why are there men’s sports and women’s sports, really? I mean, dig down and ask yourself why? Shouldn’t the goal be to just have sports? Hormone levels certainly impact things like a person’s body size, muscular strength, etc. But an 18 year old girl could certainly out perform a 14 year old boy on any number of athletic challenges. An 18 year old, 160 lb girl could also throw a shotput further than an 18 year old male cross country runner. So what is the point, what is the purpose of division along gender lines? And why on earth are we putting 15 year old girls in skirts on the field? I’m told it is even worse for the female volleyball players. They are basically in tight booty shorts which readily allow a female athlete’s lower buttocks to be on full display during a game. I’d still rather smoke a cigarette (not really, gross) and read some Anais Nin but sports are cool, I guess, and certainly athletic contests are a huge part of our culture. In high school, boys can absolutely join the field hockey team, girls can be on the football and wrestling teams, so I know it can be done. But if a boy played field hockey would he have to wear a fucking skirt? Does the skirt somehow make it easier for these athletes to tilt forward in that weird awkward position for a whole game? Is there any functionality that helps these field hockey athletes play their game by wearing a skirt? Is women’s volleyball such a different game from men’s volleyball that without exposing their butt cheeks the game just couldn’t be played? If a girl plays football are we going to get her a kilt to wear instead of the regular spandex pants? It has been over 40 years since Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the famous “battle of the sexes” exhibition tennis match. Why are there still male and female divisions of athletics? Division. Just think about that word for a minute. Then wrap up the divisiveness in some pink ribbons and be sure to showcase it during non prime time hours.

Speaking of showcasing, I had a rare moment of clarity and outrage this summer. Chris (the aforementioned husband) is on the nominating committee for the Boston Music Awards so this summer he was telling me about the categories on the ballot. All of a sudden I turn to him and I’m like, WHAT THE FUCK? Why are there separate awards for best male vocalist and best female vocalist? Seriously why? Is there a category for best gay guitar player? Best Islamic percussionist? Why does it make any sense for there to be separate categories for vocalists? Why so much differentiation where it does not belong?

It’s not easy to be a female musician or a female athlete in a world where I’ve been told repeatedly that I, despite expectation, don’t “play like a girl” and going to “the game” on a Friday night means going to the boys’ football, basketball or baseball game. We need to celebrate and uplift the women of our communities. But putting them in skirts and continually having separation of categories and expectations based on gender? I don’t think so. We need to be celebrated for sure, but do we need to be so dramatically differentiated? How can we champion female vocalists but simply have a best vocalist category? How can we recognize that girls should be able to play sports and, yes, might not be as big or as strong as the boys on average but should still have the opportunity to compete in athletics?  And all the while fighting the good fight can we please get these girls into some decent athletic clothing?!

If young women want to dress in identical uniforms and run around a field looking much like prisoners out for yard time, that’ fine. And if women want to participate in Lady Fests, music festivals featuring acts with mostly female members, I’m all for it. But we need to seriously think about how we call out gender differences. It is important to recognize oppression, to celebrate accomplishment of underrepresented or marginalized folks, but let us ask ourselves where and when gender is an important part of categorization. Do we need to make what’s between our legs matter in an awards show? Makes no sense to me. If two young athletes are participating in the same athletic endeavor, why do we put girls in one outfit and boys in another? Does wearing a skirt during a field hockey game somehow protect our vaginas in a way that shorts would not? Someone hand me a poetry book, I’m going for a walk.

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Shout Out

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I got two “shout outs” this week. Literally I was shouted at twice this week while being outside. And why was I outside in broad daylight where other people might see me?

First and foremost I teach chemistry at a private boarding school in New Hampshire so I was walking around campus. Walking around with my pink hair and a leopard/paisley print jacket that was most definitely designed by the mother of Fran Drescher’s character on The Nanny. Most of the campus dresses like a hotel wall, but I’m doing what I can to keep boat shoes and salmon pants off the menu. I’m bounding down the granite steps to one of the countless brick buildings when a student I casually know yells “Ms. Alcott! I follow your Instagram, I love it, you are SAVAGE!” Just so we’re clear I do not have a personal Instagram account, this young man is referring to the When Particles Collide Instagram. I love being thought of as savage. A high compliment in my book. Certainly made the following lesson on taking measurements and significant digits a little less of a drag.

Later that afternoon I laced on my new men’s wide toe running shoes to go for a painful 2.5 mile “jog” if you can call my second attempt at moving my body in such a sloshy, joint punishing way around this small, bland, unremarkable small town jogging, then yes, I was about to go for a jog. Why? Good question. For those of you who know me personally or perhaps even peripherally you know I dig fitness. But for the past 5 or 6 years, I’ve been getting into a predominately strength based training routine with some reluctant conditioning thrown in for good measure. All of this work was definitely done in the gym. Not outdoors. Good god no. I need to be near a water fountain, a bathroom and more importantly I need to be able to simply stand around all the while convincing myself that I am still exercising. You know, just resting between sets. Running is relentless. Blech. My long torso/short leg configuration is better for things like pull ups and not so good for long strides. But, I plan on not being near a gym for about a year, and running is something you can do anywhere, so, whatever, I’m trying. And yes, I provided a description of my new shoes earlier because I’d like to share the fact that although I am thoroughly enjoying the actual aging process, not the one I foolishly thought I was experiencing in my 20’s and 30’s, but actual real aging, I am experiencing a few things that are mild obstacles to being footloose and fancy free. My feet, at the big knuckle area, what I’m told is called the bridge of my foot, are widening. They are so wide that I just threw out all but four pairs of shoes. Two Doc Martins with a very wide toe area, a pair of cowboy boots stretched into comfort and my aforementioned men’s wide toe running shoes. My feet were so cramped in every other shoe that my little toe was cramming up against my fourth toe with such excruciating discomfort that I was having a tough time walking. SAVAGE!

So picture your flipper footed, huffing and puffing friend desperately trying to find a sense of peace and purpose slogging along the suburban streets of Exeter New Hampshire. Focus in on a particular split level ranch with a more than ample front yard and strung between two trees next to the road is one of those tension lines with three young boys happily bouncing and balancing, waiting for their parents to arrive home from work. Now I’m a teacher, but only of the high school aged kids. Actual children, elementary and middle school aged, are a mystery to me. I have no idea how old they are and it’s tough for me to judge. But for the sake of the story let’s put this happy trio at somewhere between 8 and 12 years of age. I’m about halfway through my 2.4 miles, feeling like I might actually make it back and just as I’m past the boys I hear the following yelled in my direction: “NICE ASS!”

Nice ass. What? I’m out here, with nothing but my swipe-card to get back into my apartment and these giant clown shoes and a kid is going to make me feel unsafe and harassed? What the ever loving (warning here comes an onslaught of F bombs) FUCK? Who the fuck do they think they are? In all likelihood I am older than their parents. I turn around and run up to them and lay out a bucket full of “fuck you you insolent little shits, do you even have any fucking idea what the fuck you just said to me? You are little piece of worthless shit!” Two of the kids immediately say, “I didn’t say anything, it wasn’t me!” Oh good. Glad to know that little boys are learning that they don’t have to stand up for what’s right or take any responsibility for being in the presence of sexual harassment. Good one society! A+ Then I went up to the front door to talk to the parents but no one was home. I go back to the boys, more F bombs fly like Spiderman webs from my face and the kids keep insisting that they didn’t do anything, and condescendingly asking me what the big deal is. I tell them that they are one step away from being rapists and that they don’t know shit and that they are little fuck heads. Fuck you tiny little fucks, you don’t know shit. Eat shit. Eat my wake of slow plodding pretend jogging I’m about to partake in as I get the fuck away from you idiots.

Clearly they are just idiots. Dinguses. Fools trying on the parlance of their society at large. But Brock Turner was just let out of prison, another unarmed black man was shot by police, Trump seems like a viable presidential candidate for the exact disenfranchised working class folks that he and other capitalist swine have put out of work and I am pissed. And I’m trying to run here folks. I’m trying to be a better god damn person and those fuckers are two steps away from backwards baseball caps, solo cups and shoving their body parts forcefully into an unconscious woman’s body behind a dumpster. Statistically speaking they have already started masturbating to rape centered porn. And me? I let a teachable moment go to waste. A calm approach wherein I attempted to have a real conversation with these boys about why they would think that saying such a thing, or not telling their friend that such a comment was unacceptable would have been a better tac. The calm teacherly approach would have been more productive than my profanity filled rage. But sometimes, out there on the seas, facing rough water and the kraken of rape culture writ large, fight or flight wins and at least I opted for fight. I’m actually amazed that I didn’t throw any elbows or provide a sudden flipper foot to their tender and pathetic groins.

Needless to say, I had a little extra adrenaline when I left the three bouncing shits on the tension line in suburbia and made it home. Quads on fire and my anger raging, what to do now?

This summer, back on tour, during a similarly out of place and space cat-calling episode, the fight instinct won out against flight. I threw a water bottle at a decrepit old man who insisted on calling my babe loudly during our set. (See video)

The first kid, the teenager, he’s right. I am savage. I’m downright in my elemental, primordial, rip your throat out, take no prisoners state of being. The downtrodden are being eaten alive by those higher up the food chain in terms of privilege and resources and you know what? Fuck a teachable moment. Fuck that moment right in it’s pathetic, stony little solar plexus. I’m out for blood. Or at least a good look of shock and disbelief. And next time, I’m posting evidence of my mayhem on Instagram so feel free to tap out a heart for me.

A Credit Card and Letting go of the Fear

photo-64-1-1024x1539I’m 43 this year and a funny thing has begun to happen. The pressure to be HOT is dwindling. For years I thought, in order to be a successful rock ‘n roller the most important things were to be thin and hot. And once those two attributes eventually and inevitably failed me, my chance would over. I would have missed it. But the problem was, I wasn’t working hard enough on what really mattered, which is the WORK. The art, the writing, the playing and the performing.

Distracted from what is truly important I always thought “it”, the elusive success ticket, would soon pass me by. I would age out or mass out.  I had no idea what “it” was and why I would assume that I could only get it from some mysterious outside source. Who was going to confer this status upon me? I felt crippled by the fact that my rock ‘n roll resume would be worthless at 25, no wait at 30, possibly 35, well definitely my chances would be over at 40, no wait, hold the phone, put on the brakes.

These wrinkles, the fact that I am never asked for my ID at the liquor store, the fact that I am at the top end of the pay scale at work because of experience and education level, the fact that I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years, all of this affords me the freedom of insight and perspective. Now I know that if I want it, I’m going to have to build it, create it, sweat for it and ultimately own it. No one is coming with a magic wand, a golden ticket or a free pass to the rock ‘n roll amusement park. And as much as I do crave approval and outside validation, there is something different for a woman in her 40s. I have been busy chiseling away at my own mineral deposits, built up over the years, and there is a vein of pure semi-precious stone lustrous and glimmering that runs through my core and I have finally unearthed it. Turns out that my vein is pink, sparkly and not hot at all, in fact, it is slightly cool to the touch. And it is mine. I built it, I unearthed it and I am working on understanding my core self more and more every day.

Last year, I spent a month coveting several one piece zip up jumpsuits available through a particular store on Etsy. I wanted to up my showmanship. I watched Tad from Sidewalk Driver and Gene Dante with his future starlets sparkle their way triumphantly through their sets as mainstays of the Boston MA rock scene. I stared at old photos of Bowie. And I looked at photos of myself playing live. Always in black, maybe black with a splash of pink. But somehow, still safe. Still holding onto that 90’s aesthetic of looking like a thrift store genius waiting to unleash the fury when you least suspect it. I was always hiding behind a thick set of bangs and nothing too flashy. But these jumpsuits, they were calling to me.

Eventually I took my first dip into the jumpsuit pool. Black with white stars, front zip up. I don’t think I put it on for about a week after it came in the mail. This jumpsuit, this tight fitting lycra announcement of my current state of body development, was begging the question: Do you care? Should a woman of a certain age even don such a thing? Who do you think you are? And more importantly, who do you want to be? No one is coming to give me “it”, I get to create it. And so what does the delivery package look like?

Eventually, on it went, zipped up and I felt, not like an uncomfortable teenager, pulling at my short skirt, or a distracted 30 year old pulling my jeans up over my fat roll while sitting at dinner (I know you know what I’m talking about people!), I felt like an athlete! Like a speed skater, like a gymnast, like a goddamn superhero. A fully body lycra suit, instead of saying, “hey, lady, you’re the wrong shape here, let me just cut into your back fat a little, oh and let me not so gently remind you about those late night snacks by making the waist of these jeans just a little too low, yes that’s it, let the the sides of your midsection roll over the top a little, good, good, now let’s be sure to have you obsess about how your butt looks. Not filling these jeans out? Filling these out a little too much? Oh girl, you still don’t have it babe. Best to just stay home and don’t forget the oversized T shirt, a must have for old broads with body issues this season!” No, this body fitting lycra zip up jumpsuit was saying, “Hey world, this is your beautiful body, just as it is, I am here to fit to you! To celebrate you! To put stars all over that body of yours and I promise to lovingly embrace you and not try to put any amount of flesh anywhere other than where it is, I’m just going to hug it and make it a little more shimmery!”

The final test: I wore the suit to a show. And here’s what’s important. When you take the risk, when you expose your vulnerabilities, when you dare to do something unexpected, the pay off is for the other people in the room. Always, making art is most powerful when we give it to other people, let them hold it, let them soak it in, let it resonate with their own personal narratives. Me in the jumpsuit isn’t about me at all, it’s about body positivity, and not giving a shit about age and body expectations, and about being silly and having fun.

And then I really went for it. I bought the shiny, sparkly, silver zip up jumpsuit. And this jumpsuit, at this point in time, almost nine months after purchase could probably have its own fan page on facebook.

Here’s the funny thing: when you’re younger and people want to compliment you it is almost invariably about your appearance, and more importantly where you are on the hot or not scale and how well you are fooling the world about your age. Conventional wisdom back in my NYC days, was for a band to always lie about their ages. Always. Couldn’t get the “it” if you weren’t super young and super hot. Now, when we play shows and people connect with what we do, like really connect, it has zero to do with being either young or hot. And why should it? Why does telling stories, speaking your personal truth through song have anything to do whatsoever with being young and hot? And why did I allow myself to be bamboozled for so long? Women often come up to me after our set and say, man I wish I could get away with wearing a sparkly jumpsuit. You can, it just takes a credit card, and a lot less fear. And maybe some extra wrinkles.

Lost Voice, Found Love

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Photo by Joshua Pickering

During our last week of tour we only played three shows. And the last one lasted only three songs as a little mini set in between bands at a house party in Vermont. I was feeling rested, healthy and happier than ever. Then we were back in the ancient brick dormitory on the bottom of a hill in Exeter NH. The ancient building has cast iron pipes. Who knows what is growing in between the walls with water flowing down the hill, and rusting pipes allowing water to leak in amounts both large and small throughout the internal organs of the building. There is new sod everywhere on the grounds and lawns and landscaping everywhere. It’s like an all ages allergy festival that costs 45k per year for teenagers to attend. And when I try to breathe the air in my dorm apartment my body naturally says, don’t breathe too deeply. My throat is always dry and scratchy and I don’t sleep well. Add to the picture three days of meetings in massive air conditioning. And voila, I have lost my voice. Everyone assumes I lost my voice because of touring. But no, I DID NOT LOSE MY VOICE BECAUSE OF TOUR. I lost my voice because of returning to WORK. Touring is not exhausting on the voice. I barely talk at all during the day. I rarely raise my voice and I sing for 30-40 minutes per day. Although there is certainly some partying that goes on, it can’t be a rager every night because there is work to do. Touring is a job, it is a passion, yes, it is fun, yes, but it is work and I take it seriously. I do not get sick while on the road because I eat well, stay hydrated and take care of myself. But work, work makes me want to have a raging black out party every single day.

 

This first week back in New England we have three shows scheduled. The impetus is one, to celebrate getting back after three months on the road. Secondly we wanted to return the karmic world into balance by setting up our friends from a small town in eastern Ohio with some New England Dates. Album is a band we were introduced to by our nexus of information on all things touring: Mad Anthony. Since the first introduction we have stayed at their house for a total of perhaps a month and they have booked upwards of ten shows for us. The least we could do was try to return the hospitality. We booked two fairly large rooms: One on Friday at Once in Somerville MA and one on Saturday at Portland House of Music and Events, Portland ME. These venues are larger than the 75-200 capacity rooms we mostly haunt, so Chris did a lot of work on getting great bands, special perks (photo booth in Somerville), doing plenty of online advertising etc. etc. Sunday’s gig was a gig just for us as Album made their way back to Ohio and we had the opportunity to play in our hometown and network with some of Maine’s best movers and shakers in the beer/restaurant industry.

 

My throat was hurting as soon as we slept in our own apartment for a few days and so by Friday’s show I really should not have been talking loudly during other people’s sets, or singing along to every band, or boisterously talking with the bartender at the end of the night as we waited for payout. But that’s how that night went. And the next day we roll into Portland early for soundcheck. Ok, so back to the fact that these shows were bigger shows for us. We normally don’t get a sound check, we get what’s called a line check right before we go on. Sound check is when, way before you play, you set up all your gear on stage, the sound engineer lays down all the lines and mics and you check all the levels and play a song or two to get everything going. Then you strike all of your gear and put it back to the side of the stage. A line check happens right before you play. You get all your gear on stage, the engineer asks you to speak first into your mics, then the drummer hits each drum in succession, then lastly the engineer will ask for you to play each of the rest of the instruments one after the other. Then, boom, you go.

 

Now I have struggled with my voice in the past. Not the dry scratchy situation I found myself in this week, but in terms of feeling confident as a singer. I knew I had a voice somewhere inside of me that wanted to say things, that needed to get stories and ideas out into the ether. I needed to jostle the air molecules with the fire in my belly. But I felt like I didn’t know how to sing, how to find the notes, how to make what was internal manifest externally with confidence and precision. I was actually pretty crippled by my fear of what would come out. Until I started to tour. Until I started playing with a musician a hundred times more practiced and technically proficient than myself. Hooray for Chris Viner. He lifted me up by looking at me dead on and in his eyes I knew that I was not hitting the bar, I was not where I needed to be. So five and a half years after we first started playing together, I have found a version of my voice that I love. I am excited to sing each night. And I look forward to pushing all those air molecules around to the rhythm and melody of what my heart, mind and gut are saying to each other. But during soundcheck all the insecurities came flooding back.

 

I couldn’t sing in key, my voice sounded like a teenage burnout, my upper register, which I rely on so much, in fact the quick switch from chest to head voice is kind of my thing, was completely gone. Panic!!!!! I run to the CVS, get cough drops and some honey tea shit. I stop talking. I get hot water from Dunkin Donuts because there’s no hot water at the club. I suck on the lozenges, I sip the hot concoction from the drugstore, my friend Ringo texts me and says to buy the gnarliest cough syrup and drink as needed, in between songs. Our set is last, a little after midnight, it’s 6:30pm and I am fucked. It’s such a strange feeling to not be able to sing. To have that confidence I worked so hard for knocked right out of me. To feel like the expectations are high. Our friends from out of town are here, this club is my favorite in the city, the sound guy is the BEST in town, or perhaps in New England, or even further, I don’t know, but I am embarrassed about what came out of my face during soundcheck. I am worried.

 

Finally 12am rolls around, I haven’t been talking, I’ve been bulging my eyes out raising my eyebrows, making crazy hand gestures, writing notes and engaging in Charlie Chaplin like body moves to try to interact with folks. I have a water and my cough syrup sitting in top of my guitar cabinets ready for frequent and hefty pulls. My voice is shit. I have zero upper register. First song in the set is Ego, the chorus is memorable because I do this thing where I sing: “I won’t lay low-oh!” and the second syllable of low-oh is a quick flip up to the second E above middle C. I got nothing and the chorus, at least in my mind and ears sounds lame and flat and boring. But I look out in the audience and everyone who knows the song is singing the quick switch to the high note so loudly my heart just swells and everything begins to feel elevated. The set continues. I have to make up new melodies on the fly. I have to speak certain sections like some kind of pseudo 1950’s beat poet trying to talk over a Soundgarden instrumental track. But what I suddenly realize is that I’m improvising. I’m improvising on stage. This is a skill, this is a valuable skill, one that makes art. A skill that creates a performance that will be unlike any other performance. This show is actually elevating our game. No other show will sound or look like this one. Remember the night Sasha lost her voice? It’s Jazz time people. So by the fourth song when I realize that I can’t sing the outro to Burn, because it’s all soft and pretty and total head voice for me I don’t panic. The outro needs to be just voice and guitar, stretched out to really push the point home that something can sound and look like tender love, but it’s really seeping with bitter indifference-the whole point of the song. But I can’t sing it. Do I just stop the song? Nope, I hold out the first note of the outro and say to Chris, on mic, hey Chris, can you take this?

 

Now Chris of three years ago, maybe even Chris of a year ago, would have looked at me angrily, shook his head, jutted out his chin and pounded out a drum fill to indicate the END of the song with a defiant crash/blat. Following this episode there would be tension between us for the rest of the set and later I would ask him why he can’t be more entertaining and step up to the plate to help me with front person duty. And he would say, he won’t do anything unless he’s good at it and he would never risk fucking up. He used to not even want to try new things in rehearsal at home unless he knew he could pull it off, without flaw. I’d like to think that I’ve gotten nicer and I know Chris has gotten so much better at taking risks and engaging in the creative process. He’s also a hundred times better at engaging with the audience. I think he steals the show more times than not. So on Saturday night he closed his eyes, took a big deep breath and made that adorable scrunched up face he makes when he goes for the high notes (B above middle C in this case) and sang in perfect choir pitch. It was unique, lovely and the audience was firmly on our side. I think we endeared ourselves to the audience in a way, in that moment, that would not have been even remotely possible with our regular set. I loved it.

 

A few songs later, it’s time for Constant Disaster. The bridge, not surprisingly contains many repeated swoops up into my now defunct upper register. So I look out into the audience and there is our pal Patia from the band Forget, Forget singing loudly along to the song. I know she knows it. So I invite her on stage. And she sings the rest of the song, bridge, chorus and outro. This is one of those moments. Totally unique and inspiring. I see Frank, the sound engineer cup his hands over his mouth and tilt his head back to yell something at the end of the song as hugs and kisses are exchanged between myself and Patia. I think he’s trying to get my attention. I ask him, from the stage, if something’s wrong. I should have realized of course that if he needed to talk to me, he could just use the talkback feature and get my attention through the monitors. He was just hollering because the moment was so cool. This improvised moment of bonding and celebration between musicians was worthy of a holler. That’s when I thought, I don’t even deserve this awesomeness. Everyone is with me, we’re all making something cool together right now. Necessity is the mother of invention and music is to be shared and celebrated. My heart is full. I am reminded of the purpose of making and performing music. It is for the connection, the interplay, the fact that at a moment everything could go wrong. And that tension between preparation and spontaneity, is what makes live music something that will endure through lip syncing, pre-recorded tracks and massively well done series on Netflix paired with overstuffed couches. So thank you lost voice, thank you pals from Rogers for a heavy metal reason to set up the big shows, and thank you to everyone from Saturday night, that was sheer magic.
Here’s to losing your voice, to find your purpose. But here is also to getting my voice back, I’ve got a gig this Saturday!

Teacher Dreams

Is there some popular meme or incorrectly attributed quote floating along the flotsam of the cell phone hive mind that describes the sentiment “the more you do something, the more you realize how much more you have to learn about it”? During the summer of 1995, recently graduated with a degree in Chemistry and a desire to solely write angry three chord songs on my white Gibson electric after my shift at the local bagel shop, I got misdirected on my path towards a life of mediocre food service work and a total inability to pay back my student loans. My former high school AP chemistry instructor, now the head of The Groton School, called me after speaking with a friend of mine who had just attended her fifth year high school reunion. Apparently my friend alerted my former teacher that I was in fact planning on doing absolutely nothing with my chem degree aside from understanding the toasting of bagels and the spreadability of cream cheese on a molecular level. So on June 13th of that year, my 22nd birthday, I threw a small party to say goodbye to the glorious rag tag group of students, musicians, hippy farmers and hair stylists that had become my Ithaca family and went back to high school. My former teacher had secured me a job as a teaching assistant during the summer school program on campus as well as a job as a Teaching Fellow at my old boarding school.

People have a lot of visceral reactions to the phrase, “elite private New England boarding school.” As a left wing socialist bleeding heart feminist white ally anti-corporate bad-ass I admit, the total of seven years of my life spent living on the campuses of two of the most famous of these institutions sometimes seems a bit incongruent. But in 1987 when I landed on the campus of Phillips Andover, I was swept up into days and nights rich with literature, challenging math problems, research papers, student directed plays, our own radio shows, afternoon teas, and two in the morning what can you hold under your boob competitions. Sure the salmon short, sperry clad, sailing kids from Connecticut were there, but it turns out they could still learn a few things from the raised in the woods by hippies vintage dress wearing kid from Maine. We were banded together by the academic challenges, commons duty when we scraped plates into the trough of rapidly moving organic waste at the dining hall, and our protests to have the trustees divest the academy’s resources from South Africa and to honor MLK day. (They did both.) Being a teenager was hard, as it is for most people, but I felt saved by this institution that challenged me to become a better writer, thinker, and independent young woman. If I had stayed home, bored in my classes and frustrated by a culture that valued blue eyeliner over reading The Bluest Eye, I might have either become the resentful valedictorian or drowned my anger the old fashioned way the smart kids did with an early onset substance abuse problem. But I was fortunate, supported by a generous scholarship, to attend Andover. And the person who influenced me the most was Temba Maqubela, my advanced and organic chemistry instructor. Imagine being a dissident from your native country where you faced violence and the oppressions of an apartheid government and then settling on the campus of George Bush’s alma mater. You would think there would be a lot of anger in there. I still can’t wrap my head around where my greatest mentor came from. But I do know that when he was at the head of the class or overseeing our work in the lab, he was 1. incredibly joyous and 2. wanted us to know that he was especially interested in having more girls take on and be successful in advanced science courses. And four years after my high school graduation, settling into my office in the science building around the corner from now department chair Temba Maqubela’s office, this goal of increasing the gender parity in advanced courses was in print as an explicit goal of the department. There really ought to be a Facebook group, “Women in Science because of Mr. Maqubela.” It would be huge. And now, twenty years later, I’m about to head back to the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy and get my classroom in order for another year of teaching.

That first year in front of students I, like most first year teachers, had no idea what I was doing. But, I felt like it was going well. The students did their homework, put problems on the board, handed in lab reports, took tests and I wrote comments and submitted grades. Actually it felt kind of easy. There was one student who could not shut her mouth to save her life and continually blurted out inane comments during class, but in my recollection, that was the worst of it. I was shocked that kids couldn’t just do simple algebra in their heads, but everything about teaching seemed pretty straight forward. Now, about to enter my seventeenth year as a high school chemistry teacher I am riddled with anxiety dreams and find myself spending hours each morning creating new laboratory content for one of my courses. Sometimes people say, well at this point you must be able to pretty much mail it in, you’ve got all of your lesson plans down by now. LOL. And not a friendly guffaw, this is a rich with condescension and bitterness laugh out loud. You fools have no idea what it means to be a teacher. And let me be frank, I’m a great teacher. Not perfect. I do hate to grade and can be late handing back assignments but I have dedicated my life to the task of getting kids to say, “woah that’s so cool”, and “oh man I totally get it now.” And frequently I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish these goals day in and day out. To be a great teacher means that you must be a great artist. You must continually reinvent your engagement with the world around you. You must learn new skills, new tricks, and new media with which to work.

Great artists do not simply paint the same painting over and over again, and great composers do not write the same song again and again. Great teachers do not teach the same lesson the same way over and over again. Even if it works. There is always something that could be done better. Each group of kids that walk through the door is also different and a lab activity may bring one group of students into focus and create terrible chaos for another. There is new research being done all the time about how students learn and what methods are effective in the classroom. I have no idea how my classes are going to begin this year. I’m still not sure how to teach the unit on heat which, although simple to me, seems to blow kids out of the water every time. How much writing should they be doing in my class? What’s the best way to grade it? How can I get the kids to accept feeling confused and perplexed while they grapple with new ideas? How can I prevent the inherent competitiveness and sometimes pettiness of a small discussion based classroom? What are the most useful assignments? How can I give them frequent feedback without grading several nights per week? How can I get their hands on more chemicals, more equipment? How do I challenge the quick learners and hold up the ones who need more time to process equitably? How do we get more underrepresented kids in the upper level courses? How do I prevent the endless cycle of read, practice, test that is bursting with worksheets and pre-fab data tables? Because believe me, that cycle is easy and kids like it. But I want to challenge them to create and build knowledge, to feel the inherent messiness of science, to design experiments and be kind and helpful to each other. Some teachers seem to have everything ready to go in an appropriately labeled folder. Me? My files look more like Picasso’s Paris studio. In fact, I’ve recycled most of my files, so sometimes my workspace looks even worse, like a vacant studio. I want to make things fresh each time. Like a chef who sees what’s good at the market and then uses her skills and experience to make something unique, this is what I want to do. And so with all of these unknowns, sometimes I feel like I know very little about teaching. The deeper into it I go, the less I seem to know for sure. But that’s why we love art and we value the artist. We do not know what turn of a musical phrase, angle of light or line of poetry will stop us in our tracks and help us to see the world in a whole new way. And the artist does not know how she will create these moments, she only knows that she must continue to try. So on with the pantsless at work, late to every meeting anxiety dreams, I’m sure I’ll have something up my sleeve come day one of classes. Wish me luck.

Amanda and the Bamboo Farmer

As those of you who are friends with me on Facebook might know, at the beginning of tour this summer Chris and I listened to the audio book of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. My impressions of Ms. Palmer before listening to her book ranged from lukewarm to moderate distain. There was something about her music, appearance and big personality that made me feel awkward. Is there a name for that feeling? When you watch someone from a distance and you want to be cheering them on, but something about their unconventional nature just makes you feel awkward. Do you know that feeling? Is there a word for that, perhaps in the German language? Well that’s how the very notion of Amanda Palmer made me feel. But earlier this year a critical mass of my friends online posted her TED talk and I broke down and watched. Prepared to be thoroughly offput by those strange eyebrows, I was instead totally intrigued and impressed. But it wasn’t until we listened to The Art of Asking that I realized I might actually be a fan.

There is one section in the book that has particularly resonated with me during this summer tour. After Amanda sold over one million dollars worth of packages on her most famous kickstarter campaign, there was, as I think most of us know, a heck of a lot of backlash. She addresses a number of things about this time in her life within the book, but the passage that stuck with me the most was her retelling of an old parable about a bamboo farmer. The story is simple. There is a bamboo farmer who plants a shoot underground, fertilizes it, waters it, takes care of the plot and nothing happens for a year, but he keeps fertilizing it, watering it, and caring for the plot of land and finally after several years of constant attention and faith that the shoot will eventually grow, the stalk of bamboo shoots up and grows like crazy in a short period of time. It doesn’t take a degree in English to get the point of the story. First we have to tend to our fans, nurture our fans and then when we ask them for their support they will be ready to blossom forth. Amanda Palmer’s retelling of this parable and her story has helped me to understand two important things about my own musical adventures and endeavours these past four and a half years. First and foremost I’m doing important work by getting out on the road, losing money, but making stronger and stronger connections with people. Secondly, it is possible that I could, one day, make a decent living making and playing music for people.

Let’s start with conclusion number one. Being on the road, losing money, is totally worth it. I know there are a fair number of local acts in various towns all over the country who do not see the value of touring at a loss. This is good sound logic on their part. Why would you want to go to a place where you know no one, play quite possibly to only the other bands and the sound person? The answer for me is that I want to meet my people.  I’m willing to spend time and money in order to find kindred spirits, like minded weirdos, late night revelers, and passionate artists and art lovers making their way in small towns and big cities all over the world. (OK, the continental US and Canada for now.) The first time through a town we might not meet our people. But the sound guy might come up to us after our set and say, you know who you guys should get in touch with next time? etc. We might not have found new WPC fans, but we got one step closer. And when it works, when you meet your people, it can feel almost magical. I can’t quite describe the feeling of walking into Tommy’s Pub in Charlotte NC and receiving a giant bear hug from the guy behind the bar, the owner seated at the corner seat, and many, many patrons. I know about and got some sneak peeks at cool new projects from our band friends in Ohio and I can not wait for them to unleash their awesome new tunes onto the world. Seriously, we know some incredibly talented folks in the Buckeye state. Music, and art in general feeds people, it nourishes them. When I realized that several people in the audience were singing along loudly to songs from our previous albums during our most recent gig in Lansing MI I felt an immediate connection with a community that is not my hometown. This experience fulfilled me in a way that is more than worth the price of a tank of gas, peanut butter and banana for dinner, and the occasional hotel room. And all this fertilizing, it’s worth it even if nothing else grows because I am being nourished just as much as I might be giving something of value to others. The act of caring for each other has value in and of itself.

This exchange then changes the narrative of what my future might look like. My second conclusion from the bamboo farmer story is that a life as a professional musician might not be so far out of reach. I think most of us who play music know that no one is swooping in to make our dreams come true. There is no magic moment when someone takes up the reigns of our careers so that we no longer have to hustle and push ourselves to do more and make more connections. I can’t imagine that a 42 year old and 32 year old wife/husband rock duo is on the wish list of any company with true corporate aspirations. Who knows, but the point is, if we do spend enough time meeting people, making connections and nurturing our friends/fans/band-family we might build a network big enough and strong enough to support the full time making and sharing of our music. The dream of being solely professional musicians seems much more possible when our methodology is to meet individual people opposed to staying at home hoping to be young enough and hot enough and making music trendy enough to attract someone in an office somewhere who will say “Yes you have value! Let’s get you famous already!” We’re creating the true value with the hugs, high fives, late night donut runs, greasy spoon breakfast plates and shots at the bar; the fertilizers of rock ‘n roll.

For now my job teaching allows us to get out there for about 11-14 weeks per year. We’d love to do more, but all in good time. Eventually I’ll write my own book The Art of Rocking as an Old Fart, just you wait.

Celebrate Good Times

We’ve been on the move quite a bit recently so my apologies for not writing sooner. I was thinking about writing a piece delving into my struggles with concern for my physical appearance versus taking the time to practice my instrument. In my 20’s I thought if I looked like a rock star and wrote songs of self righteous indignation, everything would fall into place. I spent a lot of time picking out outfits and setting up photo shoots, but not so much time taking voice or guitar lessons. I had a brief but great conversation with a woman in Grand Rapids after our set about Girls Rock Camps and how to instill the importance of practicing and hard work for the young girls while we also tell them that within a week they can be in a band. But this exploration is for another day. I’ve also been thinking about the viability of rock clubs as our second home of Boston ME has seen a lot of clubs closing recently. I know most local theaters and museums are not profit based, so why do rock clubs need to be profit based? What if we had more places like Space Gallery in Portland ME? Maybe as the baby boomers age, there will be more grant money to run places that celebrate outsider art and local rock music. Maybe? Today, however, I want to celebrate our extended band family. A lot of exciting things have happened in the last couple of weeks for our fellow musicians and artists so how about a little celebrating?

 

Let’s start with the category “Holy Crap! Look who our friends opened for!”

  • Parlour Bells, our glamorous friends from Boston opened for Culture Club. YES, CULTURE CLUB! Nice job guys.
  • Mad Anthony our Cincinnati brothers from another mother opened for the Deftones and Incubus. Oh, and they’re opening up for The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson this Saturday. When people saying “killing it” this is the kind of thing they actually mean.
  • Old Etc. our friends from Portland ME played an after party for Lady Lamb and The Decemberists and both bands showed up! So cool.
  • The Ghost Of Paul Revere our soulful americana pals from Maine played the Newport Folk Festival. Dudes, right on.

Now onto New Videos/New Music!

How about who else is touring?

  • Forget, Forget and KGFREEZE from Portland ME are hitting the road for a few weeks so give these Maine acts some love if they’re coming through your town.
  • Will Dailey Boston based songwriter extraordinaire has been in France all week tearing it up.
  • Willow Talk our spacey psych pals from Philly are hitting the road all over New England so check and see if they’re going to be in your town.

Who put on some killer events and launched new projects in the last couple of weeks?

  • Her Majesty’s Cabaret put on yet another all original sketch comedy show in our hometown of Bangor ME. They keep cranking out the good work!
  • Chrissy Vaccaro, lead guitar player for Boston’s best party band Petty Morals, started teaching Rock ‘n Roll Yoga classes poolside at the Verb Hotel. How cool is that?
  • Psychic Dog fun time rockers from Boston launched their first “Your Friends Fest” which included music and local artists sharing their wares.
  • Michael and Sophia, musicians and filmmakers from Boston launched a kickstarter for their latest movie. Check it out and support it if you can!
  • Speaking of crowdfunding, Ruby Rose Fox is running a Pledge Music campaign to make a full length record.

Early next week I’ll tackle some of the bigger ideas that have been floating around in the brain dome, but for today I think some celebrating was in order. Keep making great music and art friends, I love it.