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When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts.
– M.F.K Fisher
A half-eaten free-range chicken carcass cools in a plastic bag in the freezer. Mashed potatoes congeal in a container and I can still smell the cinnamon and allspice which sat mulling in a crock pot of apple cider. I have just turned on the dishwasher and Rosie licks the remainder of the gravy from her right paw.
Thanksgiving is over.
Our day was quiet. We do not gather in big groups with others or fly to destinations to make annual visits to relations. No, we stay home. We stay home and watch everyone else leave. By Tuesday, the street, normally packed with cars, had begun to empty and by Wednesday night lone vehicles sat at random points along the street. It’s a city dwellers dream come true. Parking spots everywhere. Parking spots so abundant we don’t need to parallel park to get into them. We can slide our car right up to the front of our house without even stopping to ask of the spot we found, “Is it big enough?” Of course it’s big enough — it’s the size of the whole street!
We love the city on the holidays. We stay on Thanksgiving and Christmas just so we can marvel at and wander along near empty streets. Thirty minute drives to other neighborhoods take less than ten minutes. Upon arriving at our destination we comment, “I wish it was always like this.”
The quiet of Thanksgiving day in the city is the reward we receive after surviving the days before. That’s why we stay home. So we can really give thanks for what we enjoy about our life. In the days preceding Thanksgiving we aren’t so grateful. Wednesday afternoon from 3:30 to 5:50 I crawled along the expressway to get home. We moved so slowly that the needle of the speedometer never moved into the part of the dial that actually measures speed. Instead, it seemed to quiver just below in the no-man’s-land of movement without speed. For two hours in a steady rain, I saw nothing but a sea of solid red taillights. In the cars beside me, people talked on cell phones or let their heads rest in their left hands as they aimlessly steered the car with their right. Traffic was dense. And we all inched along the expressway in order to arrive at home and then rush. Rush to the stores, rush to friends, rush to brine the turkey. In the car, everything stopped, once I got out, everything sped up
It was only after dinner, after the chicken (because we need to feed only two) had been dissected that I felt as if I had stopped. I felt as if I had finally rolled up into my perfect parking spot and could step out, unhurried and happy. Now, I can give thanks. It is hard for me to remember to give thanks during the mad rush (who can?). During the mad rush, I feel very little gratitude. Mostly, I resent the holidays for sucking up valuable time (what I do in that time, I don’t know) and for congesting highways and stores. I complain a bit. I get tired. I want to escape the holiday.
And I almost did.
Two weeks ago I said, “Let’s eat out.”
“Let’s eat out for Thanksgiving. I’m too tired to cook. We’ll just go out and have dinner and go to a movie.”
“O-kaayy,” Brian said. He agreed the way one agrees to something they know will never happen. Okay. Sure. Like we’ll ever do that.
But for two weeks, I tried. I cruised the internet daily looking at restaurants and their menus. I read restaurant reviews and looked at prices. And after two weeks, I said to Brian, “Let’s just eat at home.”
“Yeah, I kind of thought you would say that.”
So, last Saturday I went to the Green City Market (the organic market in Chicago) and stood outdoors in the chilly air and chose my potatoes, my pumpkin, and my free-range chicken. I stopped and chatted with the lamb farmer about his pastures and his hay. And I began to remind myself that the day was not about rushing to perfection (the perfect turkey, the perfect pie, the perfect flowers), but about finding the moment of peace that reminds me that this pie, this chicken, this flower are mine. Mine to roast, eat, and admire. And how lucky I am to have this chicken, this flower.
That good, happy, aren’t-I-grateful feeling lasted for a day. By mid-week I returned to hating the holiday to celebrate the day “the Puritans invaded the Americas and displaced the Native people.” Today, half way through boiling potatoes, checking the pie, and burning the cranberries, I realized that I wasn’t breathing, but holding my breath. I felt like I was at work. I wasn’t having a holiday at all.
That’s when I remembered. It’s not about perfect pie or the chicken. It’s about the gratitude for the pie and the chicken. I stopped, mid-potato, and broke a piece of celery from the bunch I was using for stuffing. I walked to Jackson’s cage. I watched her jump for the celery and then chew it with enthusiasm. I love to watch Jackson eat vegetables. She looks so happy to be eating them. She looks so happy eating lettuce that it has made me want to eat more lettuce. She chewed down that celery stick like it was a log going into a wood chipper. I stayed in front of her cage and watched her until I felt myself slow down. Until I felt like I had stopped moving. In my mind, the needle of my speedometer had dipped below zero.
Now, I was grateful.
“Jackson likes CCR.”
“What?” I ask. We’re eating breakfast before going to school and I have a spoon of Cheerios in mid-air. “What?”
“Jackson likes CCR.”
“You mean, as in Creedence Clearwater Revival.”
“Yeah,” he says.
“How do you know?”
“Well, we were sitting together last night reading like we do…” Brian begins the story matter-of-factly as if he’s talking about parking the car. “And I put CCR in and she sat on my chest and started sleeping.”
“So that means she likes it?” I ask.
“I think so.” He says this with more affirmation than doubt as if to say, “Well, of course.”
I decide to play along. Jackson has been enveloped in the odd fantasy-dream world we live in where the cats talk to us and the guitars have names. Brian trades guitars when he thinks they’re ready to go and I move the plants from room to room when they seem to tell me they would like a change.
For us, it’s not much different from people who name their cars and talk about them as people. Years ago when I worked at a girl scout camp in New Hampshire, I knew a Lifeguard who named her car “Stella” just so she could wander parking lots shouting in an anguished Marlon Brando voice, “Stel-la! Stel-la!” I knew another women in Seattle who called her Maxima “Harry.” “When he’s dirty, I call him ‘Dirty Harry.'” And I knew a man in Ohio who owned three Trans-Ams, bought with money he made as a fashion and runway model. The black one with the interior the color of carmel he named “Sheila.” So, for us, the animals not only have names, they have voices and preferences. I discover now from Brian that Jackson has particular tastes in music.
“What else does she like?” I ask.
“She likes The Cars.”
“The later songs — the more pop-sounding ones. But she doesn’t like KISS.”
“Thank God for that,” I say.
“Hey –KISS is great.” Brian responds. “But they make her agitated and crazy. She starts digging in her cage and running around when I play it.”
“So what do you think all this means?”
“Well…” and Brian paused the way small children do when they are asked a question which may not be very serious for the questioner but which is deadly serious for the person being questioned. “I think she likes the blues and blues-rock because they’re happy songs.”
“Sounds right to me.” I say. “She’s a happy rabbit.”
We both pause and take in the picture of Jackson playing air guitar to Stevie Ray Vaughn.
“We have a lot to learn from her.” I say.
“Yes, we do.” Brian says as he finishes his cereal.
Brian brought home a copy of the The Portable Anton Chekov yesterday and without comment handed it to me with the book open to page 597.
“Read this,” he said.
All of those who are near to me have always treated my writing with condescension and have never stopped advising me in a friendly manner not to give up real work for scribbling. I have hundred of acquaintances in Moscow, among them a score or so of people who write, and I cannot recall a single one who would read or regard me as an artist.
“That’s Chekov,” he said.
I’m not sure now what to make of the fact that Chekov was told repeatedly to give up writing. I think it’s supposed to inspire me that he kept writing and had a day job and now he’s Chekov. But I don’t think so much of the end-product of his effort, meaning that a hundred years later he’s Chekov, the “master storyteller,” rather I think of all those days he had when someone showed no interest in his writing. I imagine he might have gone to lunch with a friend and when he said, “I’m writing a story,” the other person, tasteful and elegant, might have looked back with a face as blank as a sheet of paper and said, “Do you still do that?” I wonder, if, in that very moment, he still felt inspired.
I’ve been teaching Tolstoy’s Confessions and he tells a story about a friend who lost his faith. When he was twenty-six, his friend went on a hunting trip with his brother and, as was his habit since childhood, his friend knelt before his cot to say his prayers. He brother watched him and when he was finished, the brother asked, “Do you still do that?” They said nothing else about it, but as Tolstoy writes, “from that day on S. stopped saying his prayers and going to church.”
Having faith in writing or playing music is a lot like having faith in God. We need faith that writing and playing music is still meaningful even if everyone else around us says it isn’t. It’s funny that other people’s responses to our creativity can be so damaging especially because oftentimes it’s so lightly said. “Do you still do that?” isn’t the same as saying, “You shouldn’t do that.” I could handle that. It would make me feel determined and revolutionary. Rather “Do you still do that?” suggests, as Tolstoy implies, that writing or the music is a holdover from childhood, a childish habit like thumb-sucking or gum-chewing, which should be given up once we become adults.
Brian even went through a phase when he gave up playing or writing music because he thought he was “grown up now.” It was shortly after we moved to Louisiana so that he could begin his first job as a professor and as we moved our things into the small house we rented, he began to shove guitars under the bed. The amps, once a visual feature of the living room, were placed into a corner out of sight.
“Guess it’s time for me to be an adult now,” he said.
And, for the first time since I began to live with him, I no longer heard him play guitar. He was a professor now. He was going to teach and research. That was in August. It lasted until December. The longer he went without playing the more agitated he would become with issues at work. He began to sit on the couch mindlessly staring at the television, chewing on one of his fingernails.
In December, when I was out of town, he set up mikes and amps and guitars in the dining room and began recording songs that we play now (“Rosie,” “I Bought You a New Sweater”). It was as if a dam exploded inside him and when I returned from the trip, a few days after Christmas, he handed me a tape cassette filled with songs he had recorded during the three days I was gone. Weeks of material had been recorded in days.
‘Why did you stop playing that year?” I asked him a few years later.
“I thought I was supposed to. I thought when you grew up you got ‘serious’ and stopped playing music.”
Ironically, for me, it’s been the reverse. The older I become the more important it is for me to write and play music. The insanity that results for me and Brian is much worse than facing down the blank-faced person at the dinner table who asks mildly, “Do you still do that?”
Yes. We still do that. All the time.
I’ve been thinking about “day gigs” lately — the gigs that musicians do to support themselves while they do music on the side. I wrote recently about my “day gig” as an “academic professional” (read: Phd ABD adjuncting at local college) and realized that in the history of western civilization I am not the only person to have a “day gig.”
Brian has been reading John Le Carre’s first novel, Call for the Dead, and in the introduction he writes about the day gig he had while he wrote the book. He was working (now famously) for MI5, but which it turns out, despite its James Bond-glamour, is really about as glamorous as your job or mine.
All I was doing was inventing people out of the meagre clay of telephone taps, purloined mail, and investigators’ reports. What else I gave my suspects came from myself. It wasn’t good intelligence work, but in that mediocre world it could easily pass for such. And it turned out to be excellent training for the career I had not not yet consciously embarked upon: namely that of the novelist.
As Le Carre embarked upon his career of novelist, he still had (to my surprise) a day gig. He wrote in the time left over when he was not making a living.
I wrote in penny notebooks. On the train to and from Great Missenden, in lunch hours, in the grey morning hours before going off to work.
Reading this reminded me that many people have written “in those grey morning hours before going to work” or in my case, in the dark hours after others have gone to bed. As I started to think about the artists, musicians, writers who have written during the day job, I mentally began a list.
William Carlos Williams. Day gig: doctor. Real gig: poet.
Wallace Stevens. Day gig: insurance executive. Real gig: poet.
Charles Ives. Day gig: worked in a bank. Real gig: composer
Scott Turow. Day gig: lawyer. Real gig: novelist.
Matthew Arnold. Day gig: school adminstrator. Real gig: poet, essayist.
John Le Carre. Day gig: intelligence agent. Real gig: novelist
There are more, of course, and the novelists and musicians whose day gigs consist of being teachers are too many to count. I was thinking of the day gig because I have thought recently about what I would do if I had more hours in my day to do the things I really wanted to do: write and play the drums. I wondered, and this is a thought I think can occur to many: would I really do it? Would I, if I had all the time in the world, sit down and write a novel? Or practice the drums for hours refining fill after fill? Or, would I wander the aisles of Whole Foods looking for ingredients to recipes I just found on a foodblog?
Brian and I argue about this all the time. I want us to be able to play music full time. He wants to keep the day gig. Not, he says, because he loves it that much, but because it gives him material. What would I write about, he asks, if I just stayed home and played guitar? He thinks many songwriters wrote their least interesting work after they become famous and wealthy because they have nothing left to write about except being a world famous musician. “Like who?” I challenge.
“Who?!?” And he leans in deliberatetly. “One word: Sting.”
I pause. “Okay. You got me. But I still think people can produce after they are successful.”
Brian shakes his head and usually walks off to practice his guitar. I’ve grown to accept that Brian’s idea of success for Short Punks is a punched out CD in a Discard bin at the local used CD store.
I think a lot about my day gig. I try to imagine that my day gig is the magic training ground like Le Carre’s career in intelligence was for his spy novels. The necessary fodder. So while I’m grading papers in a cubicle in the library or in the coffee shop down the street, I wonder if this moment is one I will describe later in an introduction to a novel or a memoir or a collection of essays.
In between grading papers, I would write ideas on the back of comment sheets on which I put students’ grades. I started the memoir, Chick Drummer, on the back of the comments for a C paper.
Some days, I even do it, too. I take out a notebook or a piece of paper. And I write: “I used to write sentences for the book in breaks between grading papers.”
And there I am during the day gig writing about writing during the day gig. Maybe, that’s all there is to it.
I’ve been on the road — no, not touring with the band — traveling for work. You know, the day job. Or, as some musicians call it: the day gig. My day gig as an academic professional means that I occasionally go out of town to “read a paper” at some educational institution somewhere. And, yes, reading a paper sounds about as un-exciting as you can imagine. For academics, it can be a thrill — you know, ideas and things — but for me, this week, it seemed more annoying than thrilling. Giving lectures or reading papers grip me with the same sort of anxiety that used to plague me when I was first starting to play out as a drummer. The major question in my head for both academic and music gigs is: Will I look like an idiot?
Happily, I didn’t this week. There were even positive comments afterwards; I walked away with the satisfied, relieved glow with which I leave some music gigs. But I’m not so much interested today in the lectures or the music gigs. Mostly, I wanted to write about how nice it is to come home.
In the last two weeks I’ve been out of town twice to two different states. I’m not a world traveler so weekly visits to the airport is not usual for me. I’m not a casual, let’s-fly-to- London -this -weekend kind of girl. Flying anywhere is a big deal. I have a friend who used to work in the corporate world and when I once asked how her weekend was, she responded, “It was fine. I was in London.”
“Oh. That’s nice.” I said, feeling distinctly unglamorous.
The next time I asked about her weekend, she said, “Fine. I was in South Africa.”
And the time after that: “Italy,” she said.
It was only after I knew her for a while I realized that despite being in interesting places, she never really got to see them. Most of her time was spent in hotels and meetings. I thought of her in the past few weeks as I returned repeatedly to the airport. Could I have done this for a living?
I think not. I like the comforts of home. I like seeing the daily changes of the leaves turning various shades of red, yellow, and orange before they are swept into my yard by a big rain. I like seeing the women with the baby carriages marching like birds into the Starbucks down the street. I like smelling the bread that bakes in the bakery nearby. And, in my condo-building neighborhood, I like knowing which buildings have come down today.
I am not world traveler. Which is not the same as saying I will not ever travel. I’ll travel, but, for me, knowing that there is a place called ‘home’ makes the traveling more interesting. There is in my mind some place that I can compare every other place to.
So home means 2 cats basking in the front window, a rabbit chewing happily in a cage in the music room, and one husband, lying on the floor of the living room with a Vintage Guitar magazine on his chest and a TV remote beside him. That’s my home. It’s often untidy and usually dusty. Books are piled in corners where they were left once we finished reading them. Cat toys collect dust bunnies around them like nests. The bed is always made, because I can’t feel my day can begin unless the bed is made. Brian, when I am not home, eliminates the need to make the bed by just lying on top of the made bed with a blanket wrapped around him. That is home in all its unrefined, messy glory.
Later, I’ll write more about where I was during the past two weekends. But for right now, I just want to relish where I am, sitting at home at watching two cats sunbathe in a window.
Today’s a two-fer. Two postings in one day. Since I was sick with the flu last week I had time to think of ideas to blog, but then, oddly, once I got better I couldn’t remember what I wanted to write about it. My “idea book” had these cryptic sayings. Your guess is as a good as mine.
The Craig Ferguson Show fantasy
Not Dead Yet: The Blues Duo
Eddie Van Halen — he loves you.
“Instead of a Dali Lama essence, could she make me an Eddie Van Halen essence? I’d take that.”
“It still thinks it’s a tree. It doesn’t know it’s a guitar yet.”
Practicing on the electronic drum kit.
Counting is Hard. Triplets. 1-2-3. 1-2-3.
Everything I ever needed to know I learned from my rabbit.
When I’m on tour…
Einstein and Me.
“Look, the band’s here!”
The Great Gigging Hiatus of 2007
“When are you getting the new interface?”
Recording the third album: The Christmas EP.
Well, there you have it. All the great ideas I had that I never wrote. Now that they’re out there, maybe I’ll actually right them.
Five things Jackson has chewed in the last 3 weeks.
1. Brian’s bass cabinet
2. The carpet in the music room
3. The cord to the Ikea lamp
4. Brian’s face
5. Brian’s MP3 player headphones
So we’re learning the wonders of rabbit ownership. A couple of things you may not have known:
1. They’ll chew on anything within in reach
2. They poop every ten seconds. According to The Stories Rabbits Tell rabbits poop about 200 times a day. That means in a 3 days we have 600 poops in her cage.
3. They’re a lot smarter than you think. She knows where we keep her food and she jumps up on the bin whenever she’s out and tries to open it herself.
4. They can crawl into anything. It took me 20 minutes to get her out from behind the steam radiator.
5. They actually can get along with cats. We worried about this. Rosie’s very predator-like and we imagined coming home to find a bunny carcass. But, as it turns out, Rosie and Jackson (Jax, for short) are pals. We regularly find Rosie sleeping next to Jackson’s cage and when Jackson’s out they chase each other around the apartment.
Here’s a couple of things I’m still working on as a rabbit owner.
1. It’s okay to leave her in the cage for more than 30 minutes. I have cage-guilt. I have to get over that. She likes her cage and I need to get over that I’m abusing her by putting her in her cage.
2. Cage clean-up can be a bitch. When do I do it? I was cleaning it almost everyday for the shear novelty of it, but now it’s becoming a drag. I’m slowly developing a system so that it doesn’t take an hour.
3. I want to get her a rabbit friend. I think she’s lonely. She’s probably fine.
4. I’ve already started to worry about what will happen when she eventually dies. I know, that’s sad.
5. Lastly, I worry that Ben (the other cat) is feeling neglected. He’s probably fine, too.
And so you can have your cuteness-fix appeased. Here are some pics of a rabbit and a cat. All together now: “Awww…that’s so cute.”