Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Pete and Me

I recently heard an NPR interview with Pete Seeger in which the interviewer tried to get his reaction to someone who, in the worst of the McCarthy / HUAC times of the fifties, had "named names" to the Committee, helping to destroy the Weavers' career and causing great damage to Pete in particular. "Aren't you bitter?" the interviewer asked. "I believe in forgiveness," answered Pete.

When I was 17, although I didn't know this at the time, I decided to become Pete Seeger. I fell in love with the Kingston Trio, a kind of Weavers clone, when I was in high school and I was drawn irresistibly to that music. I knew that I wanted to sing these songs with people, that I would do anything--but this is sheer revisonism. I was simply compelled.

I picked out a Sears guitar as a high school graduation present and took it with me to Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. My roommate later told me that when I appeared in the room, guitar in hand, she thought to herself, "What is that?" I definitely was in the first wave of the Folk Revival at IHC. On weekends I would take the long bus ride to McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica to breathe in the rosewood-scented air and to build my collection of early Sing Out! magazines. When I had two chords to rub together (G and D7) I taught my class Everybody Loves Saturday Night, not hard since those four words comprise the entire song lyrics, which we sang at some now-forgotten event. Then I bought a long-neck five string banjo from a small outfit that advertised in Sing Out!, a banjo that I still play more than 40 50(!) years later, and took it with me everywhere. I went to my old high school to lead songs, I went to my old college (when it became my old college after that academically disastrous first year), to lead songs, and I went to the song swaps held next to an athletic field in Griffith Park. I put myself into situations I can hardly believe as I look back, since I was a shy person, all for the songs. I talked with Dave Guard after a Kingston Trio performance at the Hollywood Bowl and found out that he had learned the banjo the same way I was learning, using the Pete Seeger How To Play the Five String Banjo book and by exchanging letters with Pete himself. (Pete was famous for answering all his mail. When I wrote to him, Pete Seeger/Beacon NY, saying that I wanted to play the five-string banjo but hadn't seen any women who played, he wrote back saying that his sister Peggy played (he included a Folkways catalog of her recordings) and that he had learned picking in the mountains from a woman named, if I remember right, Samantha Baumgartner.)

When I left Los Angeles I left behind a large musical family, so I began to recreate my own up north. Every important relationship I've formed has involved lots of singing together. When Carrie and I got together in 1978, singing and playing helping to bring us together, we helped to found a very active and creative branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, an international women's peace and justice group. Now we led songs at national meetings as well as at local and regional rallies and memorials. One of my favorite moments happened when I carried the banjo to an anti-apartheid march in Seattle. We started playing and singing the great old songs and soon there was the first part of the march followed by a gap then a huge circle of singers moving down the street. I celebrate all my major birthdays by hosting a sing along. For my 50th I put a faux political button on the songsheet cover saying, "I owe everything I am to the Weavers." It's true. I do.

Here's what I know about singing together:

  1. You want to do it even if you don't know it yet. Don't avoid opportunities to sing together for any reason.

  2. Singing together means that your bodies are all vibrating together to the musical waves your singing produces.

  3. Singing together means that you're mostly breathing together. (Thanks, Nancy!)

  4. If anyone ever told you that you can't sing, don't believe them. Besides, it doesn't matter.

  5. Singing builds community. The civil rights activist and scholar Dr Bernice Johnson Reagon has talked of how singing together in the racist southern jails of the fifties and sixties removed the protestors' isolation and fear, made them feel close and connected. I believe that only a singing movement will last.

  6. Just sing. It'll do you good.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Congenital Ptosis

I was my parents’ second child, the first having died during delivery by, family story has it, a drunken doctor. In response to my presence in her womb my mother’s body mobilized its earlier-awakened forces with one intention: to drive this alien presence, me, out of there as quickly as possible. For my mother’s blood lacked the Rh factor while my blood was, I suppose, loaded with it. I’m here, as you see, so that story has a happy ending, but my mother endured several more pregnancies, all of them ending with dead babies, often with babies she knew were dead even as she continued to carry them. I have never felt anything but a deep compassion for my mother regarding this. Still, I don't know why she continued having babies—or perhaps this is the arrogant view of someone from a generation with more choices—for she never seemed particularly suited to mothering. But to give her credit, she never tried to make me her "project," and as may be becoming clear I grew up and thrived in my way in an atmosphere of benign or uninterested neglect.

I know how fortunate I am both to be here and to be really very healthy after the attack my little survivor’s body weathered in the womb. But I was left with one reminder of the battle, one little Purple Heart, and that is my eyes.

I was born with bilateral ptosis, a condition in which parts of the eyelid muscles are paralyzed. My mother realized early on that this was a problem, as evidenced in the formal toddler-age portraits in which I am posed always looking down at something, a book, say, or a doll. She pursued medical treatment for me and so I had surgery, one eyelid at a time, when I was three or four, an event I still remember. So now I could look at the camera but those pictures show something still broken as I tilt my head back to gain purchase with my vision through the narrow aperture. Of course I was teased, as was everyone I expect, but I was spectacularly ill-prepared to deal with it. The neighborhood kids called me "look up sky girl," a phrase which still has power over me but which, as I say it, seems like a good first name for a happy Native American child or perhaps some badly-translated Russian. I always had friends, they always were kind, but the rest of the time was filled with roaming.

When I was 17 I had surgery yet again, this time wiring my eyelids to my eyebrows, so that I at least had some control over their use. I coped, I compensated, but I never talked about it. There was a long period during which if someone said to me, "You look sleepy," I’d immediately begin to coolly calculate whether the person was really so valuable as a friend.

At 31 another surgery, this time because there had yet to be a ptosis surgery for this year’s class in the teaching hospital and also because the last surgery was failing, leaving an eyelid curling into my eye. I was treated like a giant walking pair of eyelids in the hospital but this one utilized fascia taken from my leg and resulted in some somewhat normal looking and reasonably open eyelids. (I was visiting a good friend’s brother-in-law shortly after surgery. He was a biker type who took a look at the zipper running down my thigh and, pointing, said, "You get that in a knife fight?")

I became able to talk to friends about it, then acquaintances. I stopped being a connoisseur of ptosis surgery and stopped pointing out ptosis sufferers I spotted among public figures ("Robert Mitchum, check it out! Ptosis.") to others.

My eyes had other attention grabbers: very poor vision, irritation (wired the other way, I have trouble keeping them closed), a corneal disease, one failed cornea transplant, a second possibly failing, a third yet to come. With all this new attention to my eyes I’ve noticed that my last ptosis surgery has mostly failed. I see my eyes at rest narrow into tiny slits and worry that folks may judge me angry or mean. So I take care in conversations to use my eyebrows to open my eyes wider, producing a reaction, I imagine, of wonder at this bright interest always wedded to a look of mild surprise.

I'm okay. Most days I can still see well enough to drive. I'm as flawed as they come. I'm perfect.

With My Dad, 1944

Friday, July 02, 2004

The Fire

The first 14 weeks of 1978 I spent serving a fire. I was as ardent as a new lover in my tender care of the fire for we had a bargain: I would spend hours each day planning for and working towards its health and longevity while the fire in its turn would keep me alive.

I was alone deep in the mountains of Eastern Washington, winter-caretaking some casual friends' recently women-built summer cabin. This cabin had unfinished walls, not-so-clear plastic on the windows, an upstairs bedroom with a roll of plastic for confining the heat to the one-room downstairs living space, and two stoves, an ancient wood-burning cook stove and a converted 55 gallon-drum main heating wood stove. About five years earlier I'd sat in a mountaintop outhouse in Aspen, looking at the Rockies through the glassless cutout window, thinking, "I'd like to live like this." So here I was, up a long dirt trail off a little-used road, without a car, without a phone, without plumbing or water, and without electricity. I certainly was "living like this."

The large stove would, when filled to capacity, hold a fire for about three hours. As evening temperatures rarely went above 20, and often were zero or lower, this three hour limit, like death, wonderfully concentrated the mind. I cut kindling on the porch with a hatchet, developing a stroke that could sell knives at the fair, resulting in nearly translucent slices of wood that sprang apart under the hatchet, releasing their bonded tension with a satisfying "ping!" I cut the logs that were left for my use with a chainsaw, then further separated them with a sledge and wedge and again with an ax, sweating and stripping in the bright snow with Bob Marley and the Wailers singing, "If you are a big tree / We are a small ax," on the cheap cassette player. When the logs were gone I pulled up the ones that insulated the underside of the cabin and cut them, too. I frequently reminded myself, "You're cutting wood with a chainsaw in the middle of nowhere so if you make a mistake you will die." When the logs from underneath the house had been consumed by the fire I went logging in the nearby gully where many fallen trees had settled over the years. These trees held their tension against each other and closely observing these relationships was critical. I remember standing on a slowly bouncing tree while shearing off another tree above and saying to myself, "You'll be all right if you always pay attention." I thought, "This must be how climbers feel."

So I fed the cook stove, which gave me my daily hot meal of brown rice with butter and cheese and canned vegetables which, with alfalfa sprouts, constituted my every dinner, and on this same stove I heated snow that I shoveled and carried into a ten-gallon galvanic basin which allowed me a kind of bath every three days. When I needed drinking water I hiked up thtough the trees to a slow-running spring about a half mile up the hill from the cabin. I carried two five gallon containers, resting while they slowly filled from the stream, then carrying their forty pounds in each hand down the hill, 50 paces at a time followed by a brief stretch, until I reached the cabin, emptied them into a drum, then turn and repeated the pattern until the drum was filled.

The cabin's owners were in the habit of getting up in the middle of the night to feed the fire (to beat the three hour limit). After one night of that I instead settled into the routine of rebuilding the fire each morning and after a time I ceased to marvel that the four inches of water in the dogs' bowl had frozen solid overnight. Of course, after a time spring came and instead of constantly keeping the fire I could sit outside next to the snag and watch its American kestrel inhabitants set up nest keeping. In May I was relieved of all further fire keeping when one of the cabin's owners came to stay and I took the first bus I could find to Tucson to visit my Bob Marley friend.

I never returned to fire keeping and I never talked about it much. When I went places with a group of women I didn't join the (sometimes friendly) competition for best fire builder honors. The fire had given me generosity freely offered. I had nothing to prove.

My Old West

In my neighborhood when I was a child there was just one uneven step down from the world of post-war
starter homes into the magical craggy world of, to me, the old west, weathered hillsides of sandstone and limestone, remainders of no long-vanished inland sea but rather only the nearby former boundaries of an ocean within easy sight and hearing. We kids called one deep gully "Skull Canyon," not from our imaginations but from the animal bones lying all about. At one corner of these hundred or so acres was an actual stable with horses for hire where I could ride. Stretched alongside the stables was an area perhaps a mile long and a half a mile wide, an area I roamed alone in all directions with my cowboy hat, bandana, and Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. (I was a nonviolent cowboy, but you never know.) At night I pored through books of cowboy lore, studying brands, saddle parts, barbed wire, clothing (only a greenhorn called them "chaps" instead of "shaps"), and the many ways that the clever application of said bandana could make one's life better, filter dust from long trail rides, soak a hot brow, or apply a poultice to one's trusty pony, come to mind. I knew many cowboy songs, "Your mother was raised way down in Texas / Where the prickly pear and the cholla grow," which I sang everywhere and, in this empty land, at full volume. One day a herd of horses escaped their fenced pasture two blocks from our house and galloped down our street. Who wouldn't believe in the magic of the west?

I lived this happy, solitary life for about six years. Then the canyons and the gullies, the short grasses and the long, were graded to unnatural smoothness and developed into subdivisions. When they marked the outlines of an elementary school on one of my ranges, I spent my outraged energy by pulling up every surveyor's stake.

But the west as I knew it was gone. The sturdy pinto horses with their big leather saddles loaded with conchos and straps disappeared to be replaced further up the hill by large registered animals wearing small leather pads and carrying strangely English-looking riders, no denims, plaids, or roping heels in the lot of them.

Only a few years later, when the best friend I made during my first year in college was getting married at the end of the term, I spent much thought and effort towards getting her the perfect gift: a pair of saddlebags. What could be better, I thought, for that long ride into the unknown? Among the stunned silent guests at the reception I stood alone, thinking, "Yeah, what a great present!"

My old west travels with me always. The songs are still mine, the always remembered smells and cowboy lore, and, especially, in every place I've ever lived or visited when I automatically pull on my shoes and go for a long roam about the countryside.

Come and get it
'Fore I throw it out!

34th birthday, on Chico

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Beekeeper

My father's name is Emil. In my memory I see him as muscled, tanned, and vital, dressed in the J.C. Penney suntan uniform he always wore to work. For many years he labored as a cabinet maker but later, looking for an income less reliant on housing starts, he worked as a janitor at our parish church where my mother was a teacher.

My father had many interests, all of which he pursued to excellence. When he planted a garden, an
uncommon enough sight in 1950s Southern California, he didn't put in a small patch in the backyard. Rather, he plowed up a 30' by 30' plot near the football field of the parish school from which appeared (but never on my plate) such exotic vegetables as kohlrabis and rutabagas. When he decided to take up raising flowers he built a greenhouse to grow orchids and African violets which he then sold to the local gardening center. Much later, when he and my mom retired to a 10 acre ranch in the southeast corner of Idaho, they built their own large home by themselves--plumbing, electricity, everything. I always knew he could do anything with his hands.

I was happy just to exist in his environment. Our garage was filled with his tools, an excess of tools, so many that each kind had its own drawer, rasps and files here, hammers over there, screwdrivers in this one. I still recall the acrid metallic smell of all these tools. I spent Saturday mornings happily drilling, hammering, cutting, and sawing by myself, listening to the Saturday morning radio shows, with the Buster Brown Show ("Twang your magic twanger, froggy!") and Grand Central Station crackling out of the Zenith. Later the contents of the garage would reach to the ceiling and the garage become even more alluring when my father decided to keep bees.

My father approached the logistics of beekeeping as if it were he who had to have combs filled with honey before winter's dormancy. Great racks of hive parts, frame parts, bottoms, floors, tops, and sides of beehives rose in the garage, each individual piece in a large slot with its siblings. Each wooden piece was cut on a table saw to, I now realize, jigs of his own devising, some pieces cut in the most delicate lacy patterns for future joinery. The sweet waxy smell of foundation competed with the metal bite of the tools' smell for attention.

Nor did my father have just a hobby hive or two. He kept one hundred colonies and moved them around to different blossoms, cheaply-sold eucalyptus honey in the winter, sweet heavenly orange blossoms in the fall. Once, when my mom was sick in the hospital my senior year in high school, I accompanied my dad on a hive-moving excursion. After the sleeping and soothed-by-the-smoker bees had been loaded into the old pickup truck he let me drive us back through the night. As we pulled off the freeway I made an error in downshifting the double-clutched transmission and caused a sharp series of jolts. I don't remember if my dad said anything about it to me but, really, what was his lone irritated voice in the night air now filled with raspy invective from thousands of angry bees?

Still later he impressed me into helping with the honey extraction, putting me off the stuff for years.

I loved poring through the beekeepers' catalogs with their art deco multi-sloped-shouldered jars, so beautiful even if lacking the intense amber liquid inside (they still look like this to me today) and their labels in designs resonant of a golden age that probably never existed. My dad read The ABC and XYZ of Beekeeping from A to Z. Decades later when I saw the book on friends' bookshelf, my heart jumped with delight. Only years later, when I not only understood what we all come to know, that we're really not like anyone else, but began to recognize the serious error of my miscalculation of the order of magnitude of that difference as it applied to myself, did I stop killing conversations by offering such insights as, "Do you know that they found edible honey in the tombs of the pharaohs?"

This complete attention to knowing a thing as thoroughly as possible is my dad's great legacy to me. I'm humbled to say that this legacy continues today in parts of my son's life.

My partner Carrie is visiting him today but I know that if I were there, where he lies, happily, I think, or at least cheerfully, but largely stripped of memory, I'd lean over, smile, and say, "Dad, remember when you kept bees?"

Fathers Day 2004

The Tune

What is the ecosystem of the tune? It is composed of a line of notes chosen from a twelve color palette displayed across a canvas, a sketchpad, a cartoon even, according to a selection from a restricted set of time and rhythm.

With such limited heredity how can the tune be so different from the tune that preceded it, the one that follows? Is this the tune that delights the player causing a big grin when the part with the knocking begins, or the one with the deep heart of the minor chord that makes the player long for home, or the one that turns with a bellow, exciting the dancers and causing their steps to lighten with the partners all laughing with each other, the dance set that ends with a happy pile of tired dancers with their hearts already imagining the last kiss of the night?

The tunes are so many, the repertoire so vast, that the most driven player is pressed to learn more than a handful. Are there 30,000? I can play maybe 50 today, maybe more. But each of these tunes has acquired its own story in my hands as it has in many of the hands that sheltered the tune before. The Butterfly, bringing all the hornpipe dancers up onto their toes, the Butterfly turned and fractured into the "here comes something important" theme in Roan Inish, the Butterfly which nearly froze in my hands in front of the crowd at Wintergrass. The jig Tripping Up the Stairs which we played so many times in front of the market on the day Jerry Garcia died, each time with a raised empty fist and a "This one's for you, Jerry!" The Star of the County Down, so enormous for us, the rich texture and voices, the audiences always wild, the final great performance with the Tacoma Youth Chorus. And Wild Mountain Thyme in the bright sun at the Seattle Center, our singing and playing as the the older woman sat to the side, tears streaming down her face. Then again, Wild Mountain Thyme with the Bellevue Chamber Chorus, the second performance a pure expression of flow. Cup of Tea, introduced at the Session, loved by us, becoming our title track. The Mountain Road, pushing the beat, the step dancers arranging their heels just for us.

We, people like me, are living members of a living tradition. Whether we are aware of it or not our every good act honors and respects that tradition, feeds and waters it until we give it away every chance we get. As with our meditation practice, true non-self is at the heart of the music. We get as proficient as we can, we learn the tunes and study the players, then we turn off everything else and, simply, play.

The tune is demanding. It will not open up for one who doesn't explore all its nuances and twists. But when you have the tune then you can sink and rise through its layers, you can make it sound and move people to dance, to tears, and you luxuriate in the joy of the tune and its power, its ecstasy or sorrow, its softness or its driving current. In the end only the tune remains, passed carefully through your loving hands.