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May 23, 2015

Me: In bed, drinking coffee, reading a book, checking email.

Mr.Spy: At the kitchen table, drinking coffee, doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle and making siren noises whenever a fire engine heads past our apartment to the firehouse down the street.

AJ: Sleeping, sleeping, and sleeping.

Another Saturday morning at Spy Headquarters.

There’s a million things to be

May 8, 2015

I spent the afternoon locked in my office talking to myself.

I haven’t snapped, not yet anyway. But I still need to practice talks before I give them.  I always thought I would grow out of it, would be able to relax and just talk.

Monday, my alma mater is flying me back to Chicago and putting me up at a hotel for two days so I can talk to graduate students about toy-making. The last time the University flew me in, I was living in Boston and had just been accepted to graduate school. They’ve sent me an itinerary and arranged for people to get me from point A to point B on a campus I once knew like the back of my hand.  My first talk, with students from my own department, is in a building that didn’t exist when I was there.  The hotel I’m staying in didn’t exist when I was there.  Time marches on, but I don’t feel that different.

My second talk, to students from several university divisions, is as part of a panel. I am the only untenured faculty on the panel. I’m not sure how I got there (although I have some suspicions).  I’m the only one not employed by the university. I’m both outsider and insider and it’s feeling a little weird.

But I’m also getting to see some old friends I haven’t seen in person in far too long. I’ll be near the lake, which has its advantages.  And I’m going to meet with my dissertation advisor.  Because nothing makes you feel guilty like talking to people about your illustrious academic career and having to confess you’re a total slacker.

Consequently, I will be writing and unwriting this weekend, trying to anticipate what people want to know about working in a toy factory and making toys and then second guessing myself.  I should, really, be working on the talk I have to give next month, which is much more complicated. It’s good to procrastinate with tasks that appear to be useful.

It’s better to procrastinate with a guitar.

She’ll see it in your eyes, she’ll know

May 3, 2015

Yesterday, I bought a guitar.

That sentence is true and it’s important to record, but it’s entirely too dry and mechanical to describe what actually happened.

I posted a photo of my guitar on Facebook with the caption “my new boyfriend.”  This elicited many comments from my smartass friends. “I hear he holds his lacquer pretty well,” said one.  “He’s strung out,” observed another.  I was joking when I posted it of course, but I also wasn’t. A new instrument is a new relationship.  I’ve had my violin and bow since I was in high school and I still remember the process of buying them both.  Now I pick them up to play and they are just part of me.  I know them so well. I know what they will and won’t do.  Every time I play is a conversation with them.

If you’ve ever tried to find a new instrument, really tried to find the right one, you know how intense and emotional the experience can be.  Or at least, I hope you do.  Or maybe it’s just me.  But I doubt it.

Last summer, I had a one-night stand in the same shop with a Gibson LG-2 that I could not afford.  I stayed in the store for over two hours just so I didn’t have to put it down.  And then I had to put it down.  This guitar, also a Gibson, is very similar, but it’s had a harder life and has sustained some damage.  With expert repairs, you’d never know it to listen to it, but it makes it less valuable as an object.  I don’t give a rat’s ass about that.  So to whomever once put a fist-sized hole in the back of this instrument, I thank you.  I’m sure it didn’t deserve it, but I’m grateful just the same.

To try out an instrument, you have to play it, really play it.  I prepare some songs ahead of time, a mix of styles and tempos and volumes, a mix of things I know well and things I’m still learning. It’s important to have things you are still learning, because the right instrument will help you, not get in your way.  It’s not just the way it sounds, but the way it feels and the way it supports you. A good relationship doesn’t just bring you something, it makes you a better person.  I sing better with my guitar.  It doesn’t help me sing.  It has nothing to do with the physical act of singing, except maybe in that my fingers seem to know it already and I don’t have to think about it’s presence in the mix if I don’t want to.

But mostly I want to.

Trying out old instruments is also about trying out their history. I’ve played some very nice new guitars, but I gravitate towards those with a past.  I played one yesterday made in the 1930s that had a nearly triangular neck because so many years of fingers had worn one side flat.  To play a guitar like that is to walk into its world. You have to fit yourself to it, to be willing to throw yourself into it.  In the end it was too dry a sound for me, the strings offered too much resistance.  The guitar played me.

With the right instrument, you just know. As soon as I picked up my guitar, although I continued to give my carefully planned evaluations a try, there might as well have been nothing else in the room.  I was done.  This was it. It commands my respect, but gives me room to move, accommodates my needs.  It doesn’t sing for me, it sings to me or with me.  We do it together. I smile when I pick it up, smile when I hear its first notes each time I play.  I smile just thinking about it.  There’s a warmth to its sound that makes me feel like it loves me as much as I love it.  Crazy?  Probably.  But there it is.

My relationship with my guitar may be even more physical than my relationship with my violin.  I wrap my arms around it to play.  And while my violin and I are an old married couple celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, my guitar and I are just starting our honeymoon together. It’s new and exciting. I am just starting to learn how it works, knowing where the invisible grooves in its neck, left by someone else’s fingers, lock now into mine.  The angle of the curve of its waist, which fits me better than my last guitar.  The stiffer weight of the neck, the smoothness of its tuning pegs, the rippled wood over a recent repair on its back.  The sound of its voice sends shivers down my spine.  The sound of its voice makes me grin just from thinking about it.  Last night I dreamt about playing it, the feel of the cool metal frets against my fingers, the echo from its belly.

I think I’m in love.


When I take a picture of you it disappears

April 30, 2015

It’s performance review season at the Toy Factory, the time of year when we look back and figure out what the hell happened.  In my case, I laid it out in 8 single spaced pages.  I wrote it for myself, really.  I wanted to lay things out to figure out what to do next.  But it’s a fine line between analyzing your work and writing a Unabomber manifesto.

Nevertheless, I had a review this morning that made me blush and I felt charmed all day. It’s been a good year and maybe the first year where I felt I could really see my own hand in every aspect of my work. Toys are a slow business.  It takes a while.  I can’t believe I’m finishing up my fourth year here. It still seems new.  I think that’s a good thing.

I was looking back at some of the blog posts I wrote when I first started.  So many of them contain the word lucky. I still feel that, lucky. Today I was feeling very lucky for having the boss that I have, who is really perfect for me in some weirdly specific ways. I think I appreciate it more this year because for half the year I worked for someone else. That sounds bad.  It’s not that I don’t like him — he’s just a more challenging personality.  And I liked that too, actually. It helped me get more comfortable with my own voice.  He likes a good friendly argument and I do too. But it’s not an easy relationship.

I’m also feeling lucky for the outdoor summer concert series up the street from me.  I always enjoy it, but this year’s program, which was just announced, is weirdly made up of many of my very favorite bands. I literally jumped up and down and shrieked when I saw it.

We’ve had a slight lull for a few weeks, time for the office retrospective, a break after high school acceptances, the end of conference season.  Things are about to kick back into gear, though. I’ve got a couple of trips this month, one to Chicago to talk about making toys at my alma mater, and another to one of the Toy Factory’s branch offices to talk about accounting.  All of those who have ever watched me balance my checkbook may now stop laughing.  And then in June I’ve got a couple of conferences, both nearby, one in New York. Somewhere in there I have to hire a couple of people to help me out while I’m gone.

The lull has been restorative.  I feel like I have control over my work projects again.  And after work, I come home and play guitar every night and think about the things I want to be writing but am not.   I think I will start up again soon.  I’m out of practice, though — on the writing, not the guitar — and I have lost my speed. There are two posts I want to write, one about songwriting and arranging and Sam Phillips and the other about binge watching television. Maybe I’ll get to them one day.  Or maybe I’ll just post about procrastination.

Dic nobis Maria, quid vidisti in via?

April 4, 2015

Hello!  How are you?

Today New Yorkers decided it was spring and suddenly the park was packed with people despite the gale-force winds that were sending all kinds of unexpected objects sailing through the air:  hats, plastic bags, a pair of bunny ears, several farmers’ market booths.  At the market, we gripped our bills tightly, turned up our collars and hid our faces, to avoid being scoured by road grit. The wind toppled the trays of spring flowers and blew down a bin of recycled compost. But we didn’t much care. It wasn’t that warm, but we didn’t much care about that either. It was sunny and sometimes that’s enough.  We’ve had enough of winter.  The crocuses have too, and finally decided to show their faces. And we are very glad to see them.

It has been a fairly insane few weeks since I last wrote.  I played the gig I mentioned, which was a blast.  AJ finally picked a high school.  AJ was confirmed a couple of weeks ago and my parents and Mr. Spy’s brother came out to witness the event.  I played a concert at my church last weekend, which deserves its own entry but, as we’re doing it again next weekend, I’ll wait. My right hand at work got another job for another toy factory that pays more (her last day was yesterday). The fiscal year ended in a flurry of new projects officially begun.  And now Holy Week.

I kind of bailed out on Holy Week this year.  I’ve been too wrapped up in projects at the office to make all the weekday services.  But I played the marathon Easter Vigil tonight. In case you’re unfamiliar, Easter Vigil is a nearly 3 hour service.  The first third is a boatload of readings starting with the opening of Genesis and interspersed with singing and prayers.  The middle third is baptisms and confirmations (of adults, mostly).  And the last third is the regular Mass. The service begins in total darkness except for the huge Paschal candles burning near the altar.  Parishioners get candles as they walk in. After the opening prayers, volunteers fetch flames from the back of the church and light the candles near the aisles.  From the choir loft, you can watch the flames moving around, tiny dots of light down below.  It’s beautiful.  I love it and look forward to it every year. Normally once all the candles are lit, they say a prayer and then blow out the candles and turn on the lights.  In one church I used to work in, they used to keep the darkness until the end of the 1 Genesis reading — (Let there be light!). But this year, I guess due to our new pastor, they kept the lights off through all the readings — a full hour.  Now this may be a dramatic gesture and it was kind of peaceful, but if you expect your choir to sing, it’s a good idea to give them some light.  And that goes double for violinists, who don’t have a free hand to hold up a cell phone flashlight. Next year I’m wearing a head lamp.

Most of the readings are Old Testament and have a lot of dialogue.  Our church has them read like dialogues, with different people taking different parts.  The hands down highlight of the service with the voice of God.  I had no idea who was reading it, as it was pitch black in the church.  But he sounded for all the world like Don Corleone.  I leaned over to my neighbor and whispered “Look how they massacred my boy!”  I am going to Hell.

And on that note, Happy Easter, Chag Sameach, happy full moon, happy weekend.  Whatever you’re celebrating, I hope it’s good.

With the band

March 14, 2015

“it’s Hava Nagila, but don’t play it like that. It shouldn’t sound like the Hava Nagila until the last solo.”

“It’s Funky Nagila.”

“It’s Hava Nagila meets Shaft.  Oh, fuck, it’s just Shaft.”

The bass player — double bass player, mind — starts whacking the strings in a surprisingly convincing imitation of the opening guitar riff.

Solo two goes to the sax player.  Solo three is my friend S, who invited me to sit in with her band, playing fiddle.  “More bluegrass.”

I’m sitting this one out, listening as they work out the details.

“The fiddle should take the second solo,” says the keyboardist/harmonica-player/singer.  The accordion player nodded in agreement.”The sax sounds too much like a clarinet.  It’s too recognizable.  It should be last.  It’s a better reveal.”

And it is.  And so it went until nearly midnight, when I finally caught the subway home, just one stop from the other side of the park.

I’m playing a wedding with the band this weekend, schlepping my fiddle and mando down to Red Hook on a Saturday afternoon.  I got called in for a single song, a tune that was a big hit back in 1919 at the Ziegfeld Follies.  But as the evening wore on, I joined in on other tunes too.  A couple of Argentine waltzes.  A moody, tremolo-heavy House of the Rising Sun.  A Parisian cafe rendition of the theme from Charade.  Except for the Funky Nagila and a tune the groom has written as a surprise for the bride — a concession to the occasion — every tune is in three.  This is the group’s schtick.  And while it sounds at first like it might be limiting, it actually provides enough consistency to allow them to perform in a million different styles.  In a few short hours we’ve covered jazz, bluegrass, old time, blues, klezmer, cajun, and, yes, funk.  I’ve never had so much fun. Or done so much improvising. The beautiful thing about playing second fiddle on waltzes, though, is that it’s easy to fake it.  Find your inner tuba and you’re golden.

Home alone last night, I put on my headphones and practice my mando tremolo.  I sketched countermelodies and tapped my feet.  And then I played through a couple of baroque sonatas for good measure.  Playing folk/improvisatory styles makes the rest of the playing better.  It loosens up both arms and brain, giving you a new perspective on the architecture and a more nuanced rhythm.  It’s more fun.  And isn’t that the point?

Had to get away

February 19, 2015

I am sitting outside on a mountaintop and the only thing that I can hear (besides the sound of my fingers on the keyboard, that is) is the wind.  Living in New York City, there are a number of things about this that are remarkable.

1. I am sitting outside.  I am wearing neither shoes nor a jacket.  I am not cold. It hasn’t been like this the whole trip.  It did snow one night and we woke to this.


2. Quiet is something I’ve nearly forgotten.

3. This patio has more little rooms than my apartment.  I am on the sunniest part, at the far right. To my left, still under the roof, is a fireplace surrounded by adobe benches. Next is an outdoor dining area and off of that, outside the roof, a stone paved desert garden with a fountain. There are more rooms, but I cannot see them from here.

4. Mountains.  Mountains. More mountains.


We have been here since Sunday night (or Monday morning, depending on whether you’re counting in the time zone we left or the time zone where we are now). Two days ago, it snowed.  Now it is in the sixties.  Tomorrow we return to the deep freeze on the East Coast.

I get up and look at these mountains every morning. I look at them again after lunch and once more as the sun is going down.  After dark, I look at the sky full of stars I can’t see in the city.  They twinkle more brightly in the thin air here well over a mile above sea level.

We’ve done more than sit.  We’ve hiked.  We hiked Sierra del Norte


We hiked the Santa Fe National Forest


We climbed up to pay our respects to the Cross of the Martyrs (or as their signs read, “Cross of the Martyr’s” — apostrophes are cheap in New Mexico)


Did I mention the skies are incredible?


And we hiked a high ridge at Bandolier National Monument overlooking the remains of a 12th century pueblo


We resisted temptation.


We looked up.


And now, we pack.


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