Friday, October 19, 2012

The Creative Process

I am sitting here not writing. Well, I was not writing until I started tap-tapping on the computer.

Most mornings, my routine goes like this: Following breakfast, I write in my journal. This I do every day without fail. Most entries are a page at least, but I also have the rare entry that consists of: “More later” or “Nothing to say.” These still count. Following the journal entry, I write one haiku. Every day. Here is an example of a haiku I wrote this summer:

days of steamy heat
I begged for you to visit
in January

After writing the haiku, I head for my office space downstairs, take my beloved guitar from its case and start noodling around, usually playing a surprisingly upbeat bunch of chords. I stop because I realize I have not checked my email. I log in to my account and see that no one has written to me. I wonder why. I start to feel that perhaps I have no friends. I don’t understand this. I log out. Now I am friendless and lonely. I pick up my guitar and play only minor chords. Wait a second! Maybe everyone is communicating via Facebook. I set the guitar down and log on to Facebook. 

Forty minutes later, I pick up my guitar again. I have shut the computer off and decided that I do have friends but they are all very busy posting things on Facebook. I now give my best effort to create a song.

The chord structure is first. I never know what will be appealing. The rhythm? The patterns? Who knows? When I connect with whatever chords I am playing, I am relieved because I know that the person inside my head lounging around my brain wearing an old stained T-shirt who casually remarks “maybe you won’t ever write another song …” is wrong.

Might be wrong.
There is a limited amount of time a person can focus on creating a song, a script, a painting or what we lovingly call “works of art.” I don’t have the data in front of me but I need this to be true. My limit is about two hours of truly focused time.

The afternoon is given over to the business of the art — tending to bookkeeping, emails and whatever else has accumulated on my desk. But I do try to force myself to sit for another 30 minutes to an hour to work on what I call “other writing.” This blog falls into that category. Short stories and plays also are known as “other writing.” I have seven short stories and five plays all in various stages of not being finished.

Back to the song. If I keep bonding with it, if it resonates, the next day will find me tinkering with the chord structure, defining the melody and maybe, just maybe some lyrics will form. One of the most important components of a song for me is that the words need to be the perfect fit for the music. Peas in a pod. Corn in the husk. Now I am hungry and must have lunch.

Oh, the hours I spend on lyrics. There is nothing so rewarding as having words join together in poetry and perfect expression. They are alphabet letters who decided to organize. Every word, every phrase we utter has rhythm and pitch. Their sound can be funny, harsh or gentle.  I do not believe I have met anyone who speaks in monotone. We have natural inflections; our voices go up and down. Unfortunately, this does not mean that everyone can sing beautifully. 

Words can also not get along and make me so frustrated I wonder out loud why I did not get a degree or learn a trade instead of sitting at my desk believing that Mr. Roget, that mischievous scamp, did NOT put all of the words in the thesaurus. There are words missing and I need help!

I do have days — okay, weeks — when I think that meaningful work is overrated, and I envy the person who goes to work, comes home and isn’t thinking about things like “oh, maybe I need to use ‘the’ instead of ‘a’ there in the second line … did I mean ‘and’ or is it ‘but’ …?” I mean, really? Does anyone even notice stuff like that?

At my last stint as a juror for Hennepin County, during the voir dire, the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney asked the jury things like where do you live, what do you do for a living, what does your spouse/partner do for a living. One can learn a great deal about people this way. The defendant can also learn about everyone on the jury, and this bothered me a little because it was a criminal drug case — but that’s a whole different story.

Most of my fellow possible-jurors seemed to enjoy what they were doing in their lives. I listened to them and tried to picture myself doing what they do and came to the conclusion that I have a great job. I like what I do and I’m a very fortunate human being. Of course, when the prosecutor heard I was a musician, he asked if I knew a lot of people who took drugs. I told him that maybe 25 or 30 years ago that may have been true but it’s folk music after all and right now we’re all busy trying to stay healthy and get used to our new knees.

Songwriting is both art and craft. I do believe there is some kind of divine intervention/inspiration that is a part of the creative process. One writer friend of mine said it was like you become temporarily insane. You lose touch with time and there’s all this stuff coming out and suddenly you’re jerked back to real time and you look down at the page and think, how did THAT happen?

And that’s where the craft starts.

I sit with melody, words and phrases that come from I don’t know where, start to move them around, get to know them and get a sense of where they belong, rearrange the furniture and give that T-shirted critic a place to sit down.

And change the “the” to “a” because it does make a difference.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

10,000 Miles at Any Speed

Established in 1973 on the plains of western Kansas to build Sailtrikes, RANS has evolved into a world leader in the ever-growing recumbent bike and kit plane industries. Setting the standard of innovation in these exciting fields, RANS uses cutting-edge technology to produce safe, high-quality aircraft and bicycles. — From the website

Thirteen years ago, I purchased a RANS recumbent bicycle. As of June 12, 2012, I have put more than 10,000 miles on it. Averaging out to less than 800 miles a year may not sound like a big deal. But over the course of these miles, there have been changes in the way I have lived my life and the way I see my world.

My first bicycle was a Huffy. When I pushed the pedals for the first time, the bike went forward. And somewhere in my child’s brain, the same thought I had when I took my first steps bubbled up yet again: “Wow! I’m moving all by myself.”

My Huffy had training wheels up to the day when my dad and I learned that he could — and would — let go. Belwood Lane is a lazy arc, rising gently from where it leaves Holiday Road, rejoining it a short three-tenths of a mile later. Our house was poised halfway up — perfect for sending a kid on her bike down the very slight hill, wobbly but free.

Entering my teenage years, I was focused on getting a driver’s license. Weren’t we all? The bicycles that took us to the store, to school, or to a friend’s house now took us to driver’s education classes. Soon the two-wheelers would be hanging in garages or buried in basements.

I failed my first driving test and was filled with shame since, in Ann World, all of my friends, not to mention every 16-year-old in the country, passed the test on the first try. My adolescent anxiety burned that day into my memory: Officer Peck, who administered the test, stern and solemn, the brown clipboard a few shades darker than his pants, and the unmarked intersection for which I did not adequately slow down. My second test, which I passed, was graded by Officer O’Neill, a heavy-set, fleshy-faced friendly man who, when I performed the parallel parking part of the test, asked rhetorically: “Who could have done that better?” And ever since that first failed test, I am hyper-aware of unmarked intersections no matter what I’m driving.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of the freeways we enter and exit today. It was a visionary move. Because of this project, a driver in Duluth, Minnesota, can ease a car onto I-35 headed south, sit in traffic for a bit because MnDOT is always working on this piece of freeway in or near Duluth, and in a matter of 16 hours (if you drive straight through) be in Dallas-Ft. Worth exiting off of that same freeway. Having the foresight that people might need to move themselves away from an area quickly in the event of a natural or man-made disaster was brilliant. What the planners could not anticipate was the love affair Americans would have with their cars, that we would hang out in our suburbs and stop walking five blocks to the post office. There was no way of knowing the degree to which we would enjoy the isolation of being wrapped inside a ton of steel, rocking down the highway, chatting on the phone, doing our hair, applying makeup and eating whatever we wanted in the privacy of our moving cocoon.

Post-high school, I bought a red Bianchi Broadway, though I cannot remember where I bought it or even exactly when. It had 15 speeds and was classified as an urban bike, its tires a little more narrow, less knobby and a frame a little lighter than its cousin the mountain bike.

On occasion, I would ride with friends around one of the lakes in Minneapolis or on a bike trail, but the bike was uncomfortable. My arms hurt, my back and neck didn’t feel that great and please don’t get me started on how sore my butt felt. Hoping to relieve the pressure on my wrists and arms, I exchanged the handlebars for another set that helped me sit up straighter. I had long conversations with people about bike seats and making the ride a little more body-friendly. A variety of seats were tried: wider ones, narrower ones, a couple with holes in them. More than one person told me I’d get used to it.

One spring day while my partner and I walked around Lake of the Isles, I saw the most peculiar looking bike. It was long and low, the seat large and cushy. I asked the man riding it what it was and where he bought it. He replied that it was a recumbent and he had rented it from Calhoun Cycle. He said he was fairly certain that he would end up buying one of these bikes since he could no longer ride a regular bike due to a back injury. I was fairly certain one of these bikes was waiting for me as well.

Because the recumbent rider is in more of a reclining position, the point of balance is a bit different than when sitting straight up over the hips or leaning forward, as one does on a standard bicycle. When I did a test ride on different styles of recumbents, memories of childhood came rushing in — I started out wobbly and gradually found my balance. I half expected to see my dad standing behind me.

Memorial Day weekend in 1999, after trying out a variety of bikes, I finally settled on a blue RANS Wave.

I continued biking for the sake of exercise, but when I put my bike away in late fall of 2004, gas prices started pushing up over $2 a gallon. Yes, I know — what you wouldn’t give to have gas at $2.19 a gallon. But, at that time, it was startling and I began noticing more people who used the bike as a vehicle. I began thinking about my own impact on the earth’s resources. I thought about how often I used the car to drive only a mile or two. What I had before me was the opportunity to be less a part of the problem.

I started with short trips. Meeting a friend for lunch, going to yoga class; small jaunts of three or four miles under sunny skies. In no time at all, the skies didn’t have to be sunny. Cloudy was OK, and going a little farther — six or eight or even 10 miles — seemed reasonable. I rode to the Minnesota State Fair, parking my bike in one of the bike lots, avoiding the frustration of being in a long line of cars. The more I pedaled around town, the less I wanted to be in a car.

When I considered winter bike commuting, I thought riding a recumbent in the snow might work out really well. Closer to the ground. Not as far to fall. Turns out, the recumbent is not a good snow bike. The fine mechanics at Calhoun Cycle transformed my old Bianchi into a single-speed Winter/Crap Weather bike. I became, officially, a year-round bike commuter.

When I have discussions with people about why I prefer a bike to a car, the list is short: the environment, personal health and so on. Some people seem more impressed with economic stats like this: the bicycling industry supports more than a million jobs and generates some $17 billion in tax revenues every year and more than $130 billion annually in economic activity. One study found that properties located near bike paths increased in value by more than 10 percent, and urban planners are finding that making it easier for people to walk, bike or take public transportation increases a city’s “livability.”

Out of these 10,000 miles, conservatively 7,500 of them would have been done in a car. Maintenance on my bike might average out to $200 a year, and I think that’s high. There have been numerous flat tires, of course. I’ve replaced the seat, rear wheel and a couple of chains. I’ve saved a little money on gas as well as the wear and tear on the car.

I am under my own power, alone and yet a part of a community of people who feel the same ineffable freedom and connection whenever they ride.

There may be some people who have gone farther, but I doubt anyone has enjoyed it more. It’s been a wonderful bike. I can’t wait for the next 10,000 miles.

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood. — Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Helen Hayes, the much beloved "First Lady of American theater" who died at the age of 92, was asked in an interview if she regretted anything. She said she had only one regret: "I never rode a bicycle. I wish I had. That's all."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

No Marriage Allowed

My partner and I will celebrate our 27th anniversary in June. To be perfectly honest, we have little desire to stand up in front of a bunch of people and say, “I do.” We are both rather introverted and this does not appeal to us. As I said, we’ve been together for 27 years. We have the love and commitment part down, and I feel confident that our relationship is witnessed fully by our friends and family every day.

In light of what many of us in Minnesota are calling That Damned Amendment, I’d like to say this: Folks, it ain’t fair.

We cannot receive Social Security, Medicare or disability benefits for spouses. We are taxed twice on domestic partners health insurance. Heterosexual married couples can contribute up to $5,000 annually to a spousal IRA for a nonworking spouse. Gay and lesbian couples? Nope. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

My partner and I would like to share in these benefits that only married people receive. But if that isn’t going to happen, here’s what I think: Let’s get rid of legal marriage altogether and make it a purely religious, sacramental or secular celebratory act. Let the churches, temples, mosques or community of well-wishers deal with the joyful beginnings and some of the not-so-joyful ends. That way, nobody will get the legal benefits that currently come a-flowin’ down the mountain as soon as Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” begins.

The fact that there are so many options in getting out of a marriage — no-fault, at-fault, contested, uncontested, summary, mediated, collaborated, arbitrated — suggests to me that some straight people are not taking matrimony seriously anyway.

Divorce lawyers will need to find something else to do. The government might lose some money initially — no marriage license fees — but in the long run, I think both the lawyers and the government will come out OK.

The industry that has popped-up around weddings will not disappear. We will not encounter wedding planners sitting on the sidewalk with a sign that says, “Will Plan Your Ceremony for Food.” Marriage will still exist. Couples will buy tuxedos and dresses; flowers will be ordered and bands hired.

We might have to figure out some nifty tax-related stuff to make sure women and children do not get royally screwed in this scenario. We might even need to determine — finally — how to achieve pay equity for women in the workplace.

What a world it would be if people were together because they wanted to be together, making a real commitment, free of paperwork and that “So, when are you two gonna tie the knot?” question from relatives.

Seriously? Rather than dismantling an institution already in place, why not just make it more inclusive?

Back to That Damned Amendment for a minute: "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?"

Amending a state constitution to exclude an entire group of people?

In the it-would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-ridiculous category, I have heard that if the United States allows gay people to marry, then what’s next? People will marry their cousins! Their dogs! Their iPads! But we already have laws that say we cannot marry our cousins or animals. (Though it might be legal to marry your iPad.)

Those of us who are gay or lesbian fill out forms — including tax forms — and we are forced to lie by having to check either “single” or “married.” By not checking any box or creating our own box that says “partnered,” we risk further questioning or an audit.

Defeating this amendment does not allow gay people to marry in the state of Minnesota, but passing it marginalizes and trivializes our loving, committed relationships.

Voting yes for this amendment is saying that, in our state, some people are better, more worthy, more deserving than others. It bestows benefits to one group and treats another group of people quite differently, and that makes it discriminatory.

"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?"

The answer is simple: No.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

When The Stuff Breaks ...

On New Year’s Day, the modem died, and my laptop was showing signs of not wanting to do stuff anymore. I surprised myself, discovering that I was OK with not being “connected.” Everything could wait for a day. Nothing bad was going to happen. Our refrigerator sounded louder. I do prefer stuff to break rather than people, but both happened since I mangled the garage door.

That’s how last year started.

On the eve of entering 2011, word came that an offer had been made on my mom’s house. This is the house I grew up in, from age three until I left as a so-called adult. During September and October of 2010, I had more than 23 conversations with 26 representatives at Bank of America about my mom’s reverse mortgage. I tossed and sorted and packed and got Mom moved into her new apartment. My brother John and I washed, primed, and painted the house trying to get it ready to sell. My brother Mike came up from Texas, spending a week removing wallpaper. We put forward a determined effort, spruced up the place, and hoped for the best.

The first day of 2011, Jane and I went out to our garage and pressed the button to open the door. As the door started to rise, it sounded as if it had been out late the night before and we had awakened it too early — at first, pathetic groaning and then it just stopped lifting. I could see where the arm-thingy had come apart from the lifty-thingy. (This is what the manual should call them if they expect anyone to know what they are talking about.) Until we could get this fixed, we’d have to raise the door manually every time we wanted to get in or out of the garage.

The good news is that we have two garage doors. Up until this day, I never thought of this as being good news. I’ve always been a little miffed that the guy who built our garage didn’t put one big door on it.

We decided to lower the door and take the other car. Pushing the button for the other garage door, it moved smoothly for about four feet and then there was a snap and a sound like a long willow branch being whipped through the air. I didn’t know it then, but it was just a cable that had come loose; I could have reattached it and had only one broken garage door. Now we had two doors that we would have to lift the old-fashioned way for a while.

I was back to not liking the guy who built the garage.

Our friend Corey is, by night, an amazing drummer. By day, he cleverly disguises himself as a handyman. It’s sort of a Clark Kent thing. We called upon him to come and help us, but before he could tend to our door, I made things worse.

I was coming back from a gig at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. It was a special gathering to support a brilliant photographer in town who had been fighting a mighty battle against cancer. Musicians, artists, and admirers were all there to let her know we had her back.

Leaving the club, I was driving our 2004 Honda Element, which has a rack on top to carry a kayak. (I don’t own a kayak, and this car actually belongs to my manager. We use it for gigs and it lives in my garage.) I drove down the alley to our garage, got out of the car, raised the garage door manually, returned to the car and began backing in.

What I didn’t know, and couldn’t see, was that when I raised the garage door it didn’t stay up where it was supposed to. As I got back in the car, the door dropped about three inches. Backing in slowly, I suddenly heard crunching, screeching metal. The door and the rack had been formally introduced. I pulled forward to release the somewhat mangled bottom of the door from the top of the car. I wrestled the door back into its track and struggled to get it down and locked. Then I took time out for a meltdown.

About a week later, waiting for various garage panels, I came home and Jane met me at the door. We’ve been together for 26 years and I’m pretty sure I know when she’s not happy. She was definitely not happy. The washing machine had died. It was full of dirty, soapy water and soggy clothes. As for mechanical things, this year was not off to a great start.

Some folks say bad things come in threes. I don’t remember the third thing unless you count the fact that most of our doorknobs came loose. These are old doorknobs and they require a loosening of a set screw, then gently screwing the knob back on and tightening the set screw again. I learned this only after many weeks of trying to whack them back on.

Everything turned out OK. Thanks to Corey, the garage doors were repaired; we bought a new washing machine that is more efficient and economical than the old one; and February was much better than January. Expensive? Yes. But, after all, it was just stuff. The computer, the modem, the garage doors, cars, refrigerators — all those things can and will be replaced. The photographer continues her walk through her particular minefield. No one should have to go though what she is going through, but so many do.

Over the months that made up last year, we got new garage doors, a water heater, a humidifier; I lost earrings, a guitar tuner, and a couple of friends. I expect this year will bring those same unwanted surprises.

I’ll get over the broken stuff — not the lost friends.