Thursday, October 5, 2017

Musings on The Judas Passion after opening night

Worn out.

People don’t think twice about accepting how tired physical labor makes you. We see it in the blank eyes, the haggard faces, of any laborer after a long day. What people don’t always understand is that an incredibly intense burst of mental energy can really take it out of you, too. For someone like me, who is so easily distracted I can’t even sit still for five minutes in my writing sessions without being tempted to pop up and go do the laundry, or the dishes, or answer that email I’d forgotten about two days before, or grab a glass of water (or pee that water out half an hour later), to be so completely “ON”, with a near laser-beam focus that doesn’t waver, for ninety minutes, is like running a 5k at a full sprint (good thing I’m trained for this, hey?). After last night’s performance, I’m feeling quite logy, mentally fuzzy-foggy, and tired this morning, despite a full nine hours of sleep and a cup of coffee so strong it nearly broke through the cup and lit out to make its fortune in the world.

The Judas Passion, make no mistake, is quite possibly the most difficult piece I’ve ever done. I don’t make that claim lightly; I’ve sung some really tricky shit in my lifetime (‘throws choral gang signs’* SVADEBKA, MUTHAFUCKAS!), having covered the choral spectrum from Gregorian chant to last week’s wet ink, and this pretty much beats them all. It’s as if the composer couldn’t make up her mind whether she wanted to be Stravinsky or Ligeti—so she chose BOTH. It’s spiky, changes meter seemingly damn near every other bar, and has no discernable vocal lines. In addition, it’s extremely difficult to find a pitch, and then, when you do, you must hold it in place against the tone cluster being sung by the rest of the chorale (assuming they’re singing the correct notes, which is not always the case), like protecting your hoard of treasure from a band of marauding invaders, while the police (in this case, the orchestra) deliberately look in the other direction, as if to say, “Sorry—we’ve got our own troubles to deal with!” (which, to be fair—in this case, they DO).
And yet—lest you get the impression this piece is but an amorphous avant-garde blob of randomness—there’s arias! And a chaconne! And a fugue—albeit one in five-eight time, in allegretto no less, which means I’m counting with EVERY. CELL. OF. MY. BODY: “One-two-three ONE-TWO! One-two-three ONE-TWO! One-two-three ONE-TWO!!!” And so on. Jerking around in time with that fugue, I suspect I look to the audience for all the world like I’m having an epileptic fit. And I don’t care. There are no atheists in foxholes; there is no dignity on stage. In other words—whatever it takes, honey. As the philosopher once said: Git ‘er done.

So, yes, it’s exhausting. And before you make any comments about singers being pampered babies, or inferior musicians to intrumentalists, let me inform you that the orchestra—one of the finest baroque orchestras in the world, if not the finest—is struggling just as much as we are. And THEY aren’t dealing with getting the right words on top of the right rhythms and pitches. So you can just knock that shit off. Or I will find you. And I will hurt you.

There’s nothing like being grossly underprepared in performance of an extremely tricky piece, with nobody else to rely on for pitches and rhythms, to narrow the aperture of your mind’s shutter down to the very tip of a conductor’s baton (or, in Nic’s case, his hands); one, two, flutter, flap, downbeat, cue—and off we go, damn the quintuplets, full speed ahead!
My heart was pounding so hard before my first entrance (which, by the way, is also the first vocal entrance of the entire piece. No pressure, there.) I thought that it would reverberate in the cavernous space of Bing Hall, loudly enough for the audience to hear (although, in the case of a modern piece such as this, they would probably just consider it part of the percussion, so…that’s good?).

Blessedly, miraculously, we all rose to the occasion: the performance was an order of magnitude better than even the warmup had been.
(An Unfortunate Truth: Fear is a powerful motivator.)
The chorale was mostly on, with very few pitch misfires or rhythmic stutters—although, not gonna lie: there were many, many moments when it felt like we were perilously close to falling off the track. It was very much a high-wire act, but, for the most part, we bobbled and wobbled along without losing the thin, buoyant wire under our feet. I say that with some sort of battle-scarred pride; I doubt there are many orchestras and choirs who could have done what we did, on fewer than six rehearsals.

While our choir director had fretted aloud to us (albeit in the privacy of the car on the way to the venue) whether the old guard of subscribers would walk out on such an avant-garde piece, to our amazement, there were many people at Stanford who gave us a standing ovation! No reviews yet, but it will be very interesting to see what they think of our sound experiment.


* = AKA Kodaly

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

In the Forest of Overwhelm and Un-Knowing, With Only My Tiny Fearful Brain for Company

NB: Whiny existential-angsty post ahead. You may wish to skip this and read something more edifying. No, no need to thank me. I’m a giver.

I suppose every writer finds him- or herself at this place eventually.

Even if, starting a novel, they initially feel (as I did) like a cheetah hot-footing it at 75 mph over the veldt, not even a cheetah can sustain such speeds; they eventually must slow to a trot, then stop.

And sit.

….and sit.

….and, SIT.

When I got home from my trip to Europe at the end of May (it was everything I’d hoped it would be, and then some—thanks for asking!), I felt fired up, ready to get back to work—especially after going to several locations that I’d researched and that were important to my novel; after seeing these places and getting a sense of the history that came along with them, I wanted to bring that element into the story I was telling (through letters written by historical characters), thinking it would give it both emotional weight and narrative impetus. I will say, though, that it was scary as hell to discover that I had to write a secondary narrative that would (hopefully!) dovetail with the main one—as I told friends at the time, it was like turning a page over in the plans to the house you are building, only to find HOLY SHIT THERE’S A WHOLE SECOND STORY HERE! WAIT A DAMN MINUTE—I WASN’T EXPECTING THIS!!—but, since I’d already come this far, I couldn’t just toss my hands up and walk away from the project. I had to try and integrate this new information into my book. I felt I was up to the challenge—even though I didn’t (don’t) have a clue what I was (am) doing, never having attempted a full-length (or any length, really) novel before.

So I did something many writers can identify with: I rolled up my sleeves and dove head-first down the Research Rabbit Hole. HARD. I grabbed every book I could get my hands on at the local library that related to my subject.

(I know that, right now, my high school and college teachers must be sitting in some dive bar somewhere made up to look like the break room at PHS, clinking their glasses and laughing their asses off at the irony of the fact that I’m sitting here doing more homework—on my own time—than my lazy ass could ever be bothered to do for them…)

I was sucking down biographies of Victorian scientists like they were shots of tequila, drunk on the thought that my book was going to be BRILLIANT because I was DOING! MY!! HOMEWORK!!! People were going to READ my novel and LOVE the depth of detail I brought to bear, because dammit, I’d spent HOURS learning about how these men dressed spoke wrote thought ate loved felt, and I KNEW them. I could practically tell you what each of them would have ordered from a restaurant menu; or what their favorite colors were.

I was about a third of the way through my fourth four-hundred-page biography in two months (and the seventh or eighth I’d read in the past year), when, one day, I sat up straight, jolted by a question out of nowhere:

“Hey…why am I doing this? This isn’t directly relevant to my book—in fact, there’s a really good chance NONE of this is going to end up in my novel.”

On its heels, the really uncomfortable question: “Am I just spinning my wheels, avoiding doing the real work?” Or, more accurately, “—the right work?”

Going back to my house metaphor, picture saying “OK! I got this!”, grabbing your hammer, and gamely going ahead with that second story—only to discover your measurements are off. You’re going to have to tear it all down—backtrack, recalibrate, and start again.

So, I did. I tried writing every single scene I’d written so far on a 3x5 card and lining them up on a makeshift storyboard to see if that would jog my muse into action. (The only jogging that happened was me jogging to the fridge for ice to soothe my writers’ cramp.) I reread the story, to see if I still thought it was good (I do. Mostly.) and if THAT might jolt a few more sentences loose. It did, but it was false hope—the narrative limped along for a few feet, then flopped back down again. I went back over the copious notes I’d taken from the books I’d read, in desperate hope that they might inspire me. Nope. All it did was add to the sinking sense that I was way out of my depth—completely inadequate to the enormity of the task I’d set for myself.

I spent the rest of that day—and the next several—surrounded by a buzzing hive of thoughts, questions, and ideas, which I couldn’t make head or tail of: Was I prioritizing the wrong things? Was I completely wasting my time approaching the story from this (3x5 storyboarding) direction? Was I going after the right information? Was I doing the right work? Was there something I was missing in how to organize my research?

…and then the tailspin began: Well, will any of it matter, since I can’t seem to retain any of what I read anyway? Am I just making the 3x5s and reading the biographies as an excuse to avoid admitting that I am well and truly stuck? What the hell am I thinking, that I could actually write historical fiction (even if only a few epistolary bits stuck in between the chapters)?
Of course, Depression/Anxiety Brain, sensing a weak spot, gleefully piled on, saying “What were you thinking, that you could actually write a novel? You can’t do this. You’re not smart enough. You’re WAY too scatterbrained to finish this. You haven’t written anything of substance on this in a year! Leave it to the people who DID their homework in high school, who actually learned how to do research, who have MFAs, who are SMART ENOUGH.”

And I mean, damn, if that didn’t just completely knock the pins out from under me. Initially, the stuck feeling was just that—I felt like I was stuck in the mud, but at least I was still revving my engine. Then the energy ebbed and I was left just sitting, without any momentum at all.

The last few days have been the worst. I feel like I’m walking through a blizzard-ravaged forest—I can’t see where I’m going. I can’t see any resting-place or a way out. I’m numb and thick-headed, and each step is a major struggle. And I mean in everything I try to do—not just writing. The past two days especially have been a dull blur, with my brain flea-hopping from thought to thought, not landing anywhere long enough for me to stay with a project to completion.

But, like walking through a blizzard, I can’t stop—because I don’t have a choice. I’ve chosen this hike through the forest and I can’t turn back, because if I do, I will die (figuratively, if not literally).

Then again, perversely, I suppose I should be proud that I’m here; I’ve read enough to know that the slog through the Forest of Overwhelm and Un-Knowing is archetypal—it’s universal; a place everyone ends up, lost and confused, at one point or another. It’s like “Yes! I’m really part of the sister/brotherhood of writers now!” and I can expect to receive my ‘Bat-Shit Crazy Blocked Writer’ merit badge in the mail any day now. (It’s got a picture of a brick wall on it.)

Oh-one more thing. I’m not sure if it’s connected, unless everything is, but I’ve also noticed that if my conscious mind is on the fritz, my subconscious has been working overtime—I’ve been dreaming every single night this week, when it’s been years since I remembered dreams on a regular basis—I used to be lucky if I remembered one or two a month. Weird, detailed, psychosexual dreams, too—or, alternately, incredibly sweet and comforting dreams (mostly involving Hot British Actors).

So, maybe I just need to learn to trust the process and let my brain rest a bit…while I enjoy the nightly television show and wait for that merit badge to arrive in the post.

Unless anybody has a better idea…


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Thank you very much for your email...

...I am currently away from my desk right now. fact, I am currently away from my home...and from everything with which I am comfortable and familiar.

Please leave a message...with the understanding I may not get back to you in a timely manner.

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was re-packing my bag (yes, I was packed several days early. Anal-retentiveness runs in my family. Don't judge.), that it has been almost exactly twenty-five years since my very first trip out of the country, while I was in college, on a choir tour of Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. It was magical and transformative for me, in the way travel always is: you get lost, you see things you never expected, and, invariably, you learn--about the world, but also about yourself, about what you will and will not tolerate, and that you will never be in control of everything, and THAT'S OK.

One of the memories that sticks with me is not about that trip itself (although there are certainly plenty of amazing memories!), but the flight home--specifically, during the New York-San Francisco leg of the trip. I was trapped in the window seat of a 747 with a Korean woman traveling with her two boys, one and three years old, in the two other seats in the row (to this day I do not understand how she was allowed to buy one ticket for two children...but, as usual, I digress). The younger one, bless him, mostly stayed asleep and quiescent the whole way home; the older one, however, was a nightmare--all over the plane (including stomping across my lap whenever he wanted to look out the window of the plane, which was approximately once every fifteen minutes), babbling loudly to whomever would (or wouldn't) listen. When seated, to release his excess energy he would either kick the seat in front of him, or randomly unleash piercing shrieks (presumably of joy) throughout the flight, while his mother steadfastly refused to either corral or correct him, blithely ignoring the icy stares directed her way by the other passengers.

After having been away from home for three long weeks, and awake for far too many hours, and not being a person naturally inclined to look generously on parents who abdicate their responsibilities--especially on a plane--but far too cowardly and tired to stand up and demand redress from the flight crew, it was all I could do to plug my ears as best I could with my headphones and stoically contemplate my impending sainthood (although, had I a better understanding of the justifiable homicide laws in my home country, things might have turned out very differently). It is not too much of a stretch, I think, to say that They Might Be Giants' "Flood" saved several lives that day, not least my own.

Something else that occurred to me is how much has changed in what I'm packing. I'm not bringing any more clothing than last time, I am sure, but for different reasons: in my impoverished student days, I simply didn't own enough clothing to overpack, even with bringing nearly everything I owned; now, I'm travel-wizened enough to know it isn't necessary to bring more than a few days' worth of clothing (although I will never match my friend Renee, who managed an entire two-and-a-half week trip with the equivalent of a tote bag and a checked bag the size of a cat carrier. I bow in awe of her packing mastery).

Another difference in my pack list--and one that boggles my mind...speaking of overpacking: on that first trip, I brought my Walkman (remember THOSE?), ten or twelve cassette tapes, two Radio Shack speakers that looked like desktop Sputnik models standing gray and conical on tripod legs, plus all the wires needed to connect them to the Walkman, PLUS batteries for both speakers and total, my 'gear' must have added a good ten pounds to my carrying weight. In addition, I had a small but decent snapshot camera that was pretty state of the art at that time with a dozen or so rolls of film, plus a list of addresses to whom I was to send postcards--which would take, if I was lucky, and dependent on where they were sent from, about four* to twelve** weeks--if ever***--to arrive.

*(Switzerland, Germany)
***(again, Italy)

Only twenty-five years later--merely an eyeblink blip in the course of human history, really--I am carrying a small computer, about the size and weight of one of my cassette tapes from that first trip, that carries within it at least ten times the amount of music, along with speakers that are better than my Sputniks, not to mention a camera that takes far better pictures than the old camera did, and not just a list of a few names and addresses but the contact information of every person I know--plus, instead of postcards, I can use that same machine to send a message instantly to any one of those people--along with a picture; a real picture, taken in that moment, not just some stale stock image picked up from a revolving wire stand in some tourist trap gift shop lurking in a museum or hotel.

In addition, I can use it to pull up a map, deposit a check, work on my novel, or any number of things I haven't even discovered yet (it's a new phone. Some slack, please)...or, if I wish, I can just make a mundane phone call.

Plus, the battery lasts a hell of a lot longer than those Duracells in my speakers ever did.

It blows my mind sometimes how much can change, and how quickly.

Some things won't change--there will still be obnoxious children on overcrowded flights; I will learn how very little I am in control; and I will come home with images and experiences I did not have before--which is, of course, why we travel in the first place: not just to expand our sense of how big the world is and how much can change in an eyeblink, but to expand our sense of what is possible.

Oh-and one more thing that hasn't changed:


Thursday, November 13, 2014

This morning

Curled up in the accommodating chair-and-a-half in the east-facing front window of my home, through which comes the faint scent of petrichor from last night's rain and the bright glow of morning light as the sun valiantly tries to break through the clouds. I'm wearing my pajamas and thick, fluffy socks (it's chilly). In my lap is my computer, and I'm writing.

I've been (unofficially) participating in NaNoWriMo--the main reason I say 'unofficially' is that they require one to stick with the same novel for the entire month. While I understand the reason for this--the whole point, after all, is to FINISH a novel by the end of the month--MY main reason for participating is to get into the habit of putting my butt in the chair every day to develop the discipline of being a writer, not just dreaming or talking about it. As William Faulkner so perfectly put it; "Don't be a writer. Be writing."

For me so far, it seems that the first twenty minutes to half hour are spent farting around, trying to find a way in, looking for a window, a door, a crack in the walls that I can use to force entry, like breaking into a house. It's frustrating as hell. Those are the moments when the Inner Critic has a field day reminding me just how inadequate I am, how inexperienced, that nobody is ever going to want to read what I write, I’ll never get published, and so on and so on.

But then, something happens--I see a sentence I want to add to, or have an idea about a scene I want to write, and I'm off and running, usually 'waking up' a couple to three hours later with my daily goal met (or, more often, surpassed). The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it doesn't give one the luxury of listening to the Inner Critic--those words have to be on the page by the end of the day, come hell or high water. In fact, I've gotten to the point where, when the Inner Critic whispers in my ear, "Nobody will want to read this. This is shit!" I reply, "Yeah, I know."--and keep writing. The funny thing is, once I get going, that Inner Critic shuts up right away--it's as if he knows that he can only keep me from writing--he can't stop me once I’ve begun.

And the best part is that it doesn’t feel like work. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be able to do this. I feel a deep sense of gratitude and joy for it all; the morning, the chair, the coffee, the freedom to order my life as I please and not according to someone else’s ideas of what or whom I should be. For this life.

What am I writing about? That's for another post. ;-)

Saturday, August 30, 2014


...I still wear cashmere.

(You will pry those sweaters out of my cold, dead, introverted hands, thank you very much. :-) )

Change your clothes, change your life

NB: This post is a bit more self-involved and navel-gazey than usual; you may wish to skip it for something with more substance. Thank you.

I had a conversation with my dear friend Paul last Monday that helped crystallize quite a few things that had been floating in the brain soup. He writes an amazing blog about fashion throughout history and how our sartorial choices affect, and are affected by, our lives—sociological, biological, and psychological factors all come into play, and are put under the microscope. It’s a fantastic blog, and if you are at all interested in how we choose to show ourselves to the world (and why), then this is the place for you.
Here’s a good starting point—it just so happens to be HIS brief exploration of the ideas behind that conversation:

We had been discussing how our choices of attire change with the tides of life—how the inner becomes the outer; for instance, when my marriage ended in 2003, my wardrobe took a radical shift from black into technicolor—I AM HERE! it seemed to say. Bright clear tones such as apple green, aqua and turquoise blue, and yellows, dominated. That phase was short lived, however: as I became a little more settled, I shifted into earth tones—rusts, greens, tans, and browns were my go-to color choices. Too, I chose to wear short tailored skirts, heels, and boots that showed off my legs, pretty silk blouses, cashmere sweaters, dresses, and, as much as possible, a retro style. This was my wardrobe for over ten years.

Then, around mid-2012, another shift began. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started, just that my choices began moving back into a monochromatic pattern…gray, gray, gray. (OK, maybe a little taupe and black in there.) I’ve been living in jeans (or yoga pants at home) or a maxi-length black skirt I picked up on the cheap, paired with t-shirts or loose, simple cotton tops, again in softer tones of gray, light blue, or white.

I wasn’t even fully aware a shift had occurred until around the time I was packing for New York; NOTHING that was going into the suitcase was an earth tone. No skirts (save the black maxi). No tights, no heels. None of my usual go-tos.
What—? I thought. Black? Gray? How boring. How depressing.

The real wake-up call (and the event that triggered my conversation with Paul) came a week ago: I was in the grocery store in my neighborhood picking up a bottle of wine for a TV night in with a friend. After much deliberation, I’d put on an outfit I’d worn many times before: a light cotton shift in olive green, brown leggings, brown boots, tan cashmere cardigan, and a rust/olive/brown/wine-colored scarf. I’d never felt uncomfortable in this outfit before. But last Saturday, it felt excruciatingly WRONG. Part of it, I now know, had to do with my feelings of not belonging in SF any longer, the pull to find ‘home’, wherever that may be; but, as I wandered the aisles of the Good Life, among all the young, toned, shorts-and-jeans-clad hipsters, I felt like a Yeti.

(I will readily concede that it probably didn’t help that I hadn’t shaved in a week.)

I might as well have been wearing a Lord of the Rings costume, I felt so out of place.

I looked at my closet the next day and realized—none of it FIT anymore. Literally and figuratively. Thanks to perimenopause (and, probably, hypothyroid), ten extra pounds have crept on in the past year, resisting all efforts of extirpation. My clothing, while technically still able to be donned, doesn’t look or feel the same on me as it used to. How much of that is physical, how much psychological? I couldn’t tell you. I think it's very interesting to ask these questions, though, and to keep asking them as our lives shift and change.

Still, my weight shouldn’t have an effect on the choice of color or style. Right?

In our conversation, though, once we connected the dots of my current life, it all made sense.
My shift toward more comfortable, loose, less dramatic clothing started when I made a conscious decision to quit singing full time (a very dramatic, outwardly-oriented career) and become a writer (a solitary, inward-focusing career). As my friend put it, it became less about “Look at ME!” as I became much more home-oriented, and more a reflection of my true—read: introverted—personality. My clothing choices became simpler, more streamlined, and, yes, less costume-y, as my life did.

Too, all the clothing I’m reaching for are clothes that pack well—a sign of my subconscious need to travel light, anticipating my trips to Ojai, New York, and (later this year) Europe, as well as my dream of eventually relocating to Europe permanently.

And, instead of schlubby, I am told, my current look is not boring or depressing, but “elegantly simple”.*

That’s my (current) sartorial story….and I’m sticking with it.

….for now, at least.


*OK, so it was my therapist who told me that, and yes, I PAY her to say nice things to me, so I will take it with a grain of salt.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Few More Thoughts

....mainly, the ones that didn't fit in yesterday's edition of "Random S*** I Thought Of That Might Actually Make Sense With More Caffeine (read: Editing)".

Yesterday, among my other ramblings, I mentioned that we are our thoughts. I genuinely believe that. When we are in fear, our thoughts tend, naturally, toward self-protection, but in a very old, reptilian-brain kind of way. In that state, we are reactive--shooting first, and then asking the questions.

It has been scientifically proven* that in such a fearful state, our capacity for clear, critical thinking is compromised--we are much more malleable and open to being controlled by others. We also are more quick to judge, to think of people who are "Not-Us", especially those outside our immediate circle, as The Other--as separate from us--and, therefore, a potential threat, a dehumanizing move that makes it easier to justify everything from cutting someone off in traffic to genocide. It is exactly that fear-based thinking--especially when reinforced by outside sources such as our families, our religious communities, our government, or the media--that creates racism, religious fanaticism, and is at the root of the justification for just about every war.

I have come to believe that we live in a culture that profits from our fear--from keeping us in a persistent state of low anxiety. We can never have enough, do enough, BE enough, unless we buy this product, have this surgical procedure, believe in this god, have this job or this partner or this much money (and all we need do is look at the example of Robin Williams--or any other celebrity suicide--to see how very little "having it all" means). We are trained from a very early age to believe that contentment is based on external--usually material--factors. So much of what we see in the media reinforces this negative narrative of our world until we internalize it, and it becomes part of our personal narrative. The fear of "Not-Enough" has created a society full of needy, fearful, lonely people who have been convinced that we are somehow lacking--is it any wonder so many people are depressed? In isolating ourselves we have also created a culture where we have been told that the individual is the highest unit of the social order--that self-sufficiency is a virtue, and that lack of empathy is a desirable trait, necessary for material success (i.e., in the workforce). Admitting our need for support from others is not praised, but derided. Empathy is dismissed as a weakness.

The truth is, empathy is an evolutionary necessity if we are to survive as a species. In times when food and other resources were scarce, we survived because we helped each other; because we created units--families, cities, states, communities--to support each other. Alone, we are vulnerable.

In a society where keeping us malleable by keeping us fearful and depressed is the status quo, choosing to be happy, to use our critical thinking capabilities instead of merely reacting, is a revolutionary act. Mental health is a political issue. We must choose to work toward knowing ourselves so that we can be better to ourselves and each other, so that we all can grow as a species.

Yes, we are fanged, shit-flinging apes: but we are also hard-wired to move beyond that, to evolve, to grow. Empathy is a muscle--one that grows with use. Strength doesn't come from hardening against the world, but in softening to it; not fighting, but accepting, what is, from seeing--and acting--clearly, without fear. From remembering that we are all in this together--as our own founding fathers said, "United We Stand; Divided We Fall."

Let's be kinder to each other. Because our survival depends on it.

*=again, I am happy to provide sources upon request.