Monday, August 31, 2009

Singing -- on a Keyboard

A couple weeks ago, Bernie surprised me by asking, "Why do you work so hard for the Press?"

At first I didn't have an answer for him, wondering what he meant by "work so hard" and being immediately annoyed that he'd asked me, "Why do you ... "

I am not introspective by nature. I tend to do what I have to do and then move on to the next thing. Task-oriented, I think they call it. Analyzing my own self tends to bore me silly -- after all, I'm HERE and this is what I can DO, and what else matters, really?

Giving the question some thought, a day or two later I was able to muscle into my motives and eavesdrop on my reactions to submissions to and writings in the Piker Press.

When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me about how her brothers and their friends would sit out in front of their apartment building in the evenings and sing. Sing!

And Mom and I frequently sang together when we were in the car, going somewhere -- show tunes, oldies from the Big Band era, silly folk songs -- we sang, both of us having big, bold voices.

Now tell me, when was the last time you heard your neighbors sing on a summer evening, just for fun? Kids stop singing around age seven, embarrassed by the sound of their voices without the mixing equipment that marks and makes recorded music nowadays. The very few kids who sing try to imitate the pop culture, squeaking, swooping, chanting "Muh-Fuh" -- not really singing, merely imitating rather than putting their hearts into an expression.

The Music Person at our church, marveling at the voices raised in song at our Passover celebration, turned to me one year and said, "How do we get the congregation at Mass to sing like that?"

She really didn't want to hear what I'd have said, so I just grinned and offered her more wine.

You get people to sing -- by accepting that they can sing, and inviting them to do it. You set an example by your own voice, and you recognize what songs they can sing. How many people in any given group have professionally trained voices? Few if any. Then why would you expect them to sing music designed for the professionally trained voice?

Most people have read what is called "legalese" writing, and few understand it unless they are professionally trained to do so. Same with music -- people sing what they can sing. If the pitch is such that only a professional can hit the high notes, the people are not going to sing. If the tempo is so slow that only a professional can drag through the pace, people are not going to sing.

Writing is also like that. If you nitpick every little word, people are going to stop writing. However, if you give them a venue that allows them to "sing" with their writing, they will have a "voice" sounding out loud and clear and individual and beautiful. Sometimes there are sour notes, but I believe that with practice, the "singer" will recover and go on, better than before. Pointing out every sour note is not helpful. Coaching is good. Nitpicking is not. Expecting symphonies from a gang of kids singing on a doorstep is just a waste of kids' voices.

That's why I'm committed to the Piker Press. We're singing. We're writing, we're throwing our words and tunes right out there for the world to hear and see. We don't have to worry about comparing ourselves to a given mold. We are words, and music, and by God, that's why I'm there, most of every day.

Writing is fun, and beautiful, and as liberating as tossing confetti into a brisk breeze. The Piker Press is all about writing, and keeping on writing. That's what's important. We don't have to be chanted in Latin at the Vatican; we don't have to rack up Pulitzers; we don't have to make bazillions of bucks.

Write on, Pikers. The world needs some honest voices raised in prose.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Wednesday Bernie and I knew we had to start planning an exit strategy from his current employment.

Medical insurance is, of course, the biggie, along with its corollaries, eyecare and dental. Dental is the scary one, but we'll have to talk about $$ flow to see if we can afford the three crowns I still need to replace the old, old fillings. The easy part was eyecare. Bernie does need new glasses, there is no doubt. No problem, insurance pays for that, so we get that done before the job ends.

He roared at me to make an appointment for myself, too. After being blind as a bat for much of my life, in 2001 I had a Lasik operation on my eyes, and only have worn glasses to read. Why did he roar? Because I carped about spending the day messing with stuff on the computer, which made my eyes sore and my vision blurred. And I had to admit, that if I am going to have to get glasses to drive or see properly, this would be my last chance. I made the appointment for him for next week, and unexpectedly was told they could see me today.

Wednesday and Thursday I had uneasy dreams -- not horrible, but definitely unsettled -- the thought of having to go back to wearing glasses all the time was so depressing. Each morning I wake up, and look at the stippled patterns on the walls, grateful that I can see them (and the occasional spiderweb catching the morning sun). When I'm out riding, I can see things at a distance others can't, and the depth perception takes my breath away.

So lately, with the Piker Press getting so busy, and me spending so much time in front of the computer screen, I've been having more and more trouble seeing. This is it, I thought, I've ruined my wonderful eyesight ...

I stayed off the computer as much as I could yesterday and today, and went to the doctor's office with great trepidation and no little bit of a depressed heart.

Even though it had been more than eight years since I'd last seen him, the doc remembered me. "Whatcha up to on reading glasses now?" he asked.

"Same as before. I use the +1.50."

"You're kidding. Here, look at this, and tell me which one you can read with no glasses."

I read a line and he sputtered. Then he pounced and did all kinds of eyeball testing, which letter is this, is this better or worse, where is your old chart, let's put these drops in your eyes, now look at this, and that, and this again.

At the end, he said he was amazed; not only had my eyesight not deteriorated, it had actually improved a little bit, and the range of sight was great for a person my age! And then, being a wonderful fellow, he tackled the idea of my eyestrain at the computer. After a few questions, he put together a contraption with standard lenses and held up his small print card. I could read it perfectly. "There you go," he said. "Go get yourself some +1.00 readers. The ones you're using are too strong."

And so I did, and he was right. I'm not jiggling back and forth trying to make the computer screen come clear.

So now, let the fireworks be lit, and the trumpets play loud, triumphant music! Throw confetti in the air, and shout "WOO HOO HOO!" My vision is, to quote the doctor, "Perfect!"

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Off To the New World

This morning the news officially announced the March closing of the NUMMI automotive plant.

The great safety net is unraveling: on the horizon is the end to great health insurance, carefree daily spending, retirement security.

A friend wrote to me recently and said, "You must be frantic [about the pending plant closure]" but I wasn't, and am not, even today, hearing the definitive words.

We've been through some tight and twisty ways before: cashless in Houston, Texas, wondering where the food was going to come from each week, let alone the rent; jobless in Pennsylvania in the middle of winter; cast adrift by refusing to compromise morally with dishonest business practices ... and each time, God has led us, fed us, indeed, amused us with His providence. We have the survival skills we need to get through this -- not least of which is knowing that God is with us.

Now, does that mean that God is going to rain down cashola upon our heads? Probably not, unless we hit big on the lottery. ( I did win $10 once years ago!) But cashola has not given us the experiences that make Bernie and me smile confidently and sleep peacefully. Money could not possibly buy what we have been given -- the great turns of phrase in language, the awareness of nature all around us, the beauty in people's hearts if only they are allowed to show it; the habit and solace of prayer, the holiness that can be given at the end of a mortal life, the sound of each other breathing in repose.

No amount of money can buy what we now hope for, what we can see coming, what we will count down the days and weeks to experience: being able to wake up together, breakfast together, close down the days into night together. While NUMMI was a super job, it has made us feel like we were living in different time zones all the time. Not a little of the pang of seeing the news this morning was thinking, "Six months? Why so long?"

We have appreciated the paychecks from NUMMI. They have been rich, and enabled wonderful things to happen. You don't spit at honest labor and choice pay if you have half a brain. But when the job ends, there should be no bitterness or fear. The good job was an opportunity, not a right.

Figuratively speaking, it's time to start packing. The next adventure is drawing near.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Smokin' Hot

Those are the mountains away south and west of here. Currently, if you look across the flat valley to the south and west, you would not see them -- there's too much smoke in the air.

Fire season is upon California, and thanks to a little freaky weather a week or so ago, an unseasonable thunderstorm blew through the mountains north of here and set the resinous trees ablaze. The winds track south, pouring the smoke into the Central Valley, which, under the weight of the normal high pressure system, has no way of getting rid of the smoke until another weather front pushes through from the west.

Weather report: "100+ degrees with smoke. Northwesterly breezes expected, with windspeeds of walking to crawling on knees and one hand. Low of 66 degrees in the next 24 hours, as experienced by a ground squirrel in a 40 foot deep burrow under an insulated cement-floored equipment building which itself is surrounded by tall cottonwood trees. The rest of you are going to sweat all night."

If it was just 100 degrees, I'd sit out front under the trees with the mister running. However, I tried that Sunday and the smoke got me coughing around 2am until dawn. Not an especially good idea for me today, with the smoke worse.

Nevertheless, this morning I opened my garage studio to the morning air, and it was cool and pleasant. It was grand to wave hello to walkers as they passed by, providing sweet breaks while I worked. Sometimes I just stop and lean against one of the cars in the driveway and look up at the eucalyptus branches, or watch the crows as they prowl about the neighborhood roofs.

There are fires, and they are normal, if inconvenient at their best and dangerous at their worst. The smoky scent of the air reminds me that it is a World out there, one that cares nothing for asphalt or lawns, but does what it must to provide clearing of brush so that young trees can get their start this winter.

In the photo above, you see dried ground and a sere landscape. Look again -- that browned field has been harvested of hay for farm animals; those dried hills are covered with wild oats baking in the sun to make the deer fat, and to plant themselves for the forage of greenstuff by both deer and wintering geese. Eat grain, ground squirrels! The hawks and coyotes and rattlesnakes need juicy fare at their tables.

Even while I'm sneezing, I love this place.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Summer Ends on August 5th

Back to school for the kiddies in this school district today!

California has a budget crisis, you know. You may have heard news anchors screaming this fact at the top of their shrill and artificial voices, as though their networks and stations had no brains at all for good sound equipment. "Let's scream," News-Shouters, are told, "that way the television audience can't turn away and have a normal conversation in the room. Everybody pitch their voices high and turn the volume up loud so that we sound soooooooo important!!"

Not intelligent, just important.

What many are screaming about these days are cuts to California's budget. And especially screamsome is the idea of cutting funds to education. "If you cut the funding to this school's sports swim program, my kid is gonna suffer irreparable damage to his self-esteem! If you cut funding to this elementary school, we won't be able to afford Award Assemblies every month!"

Cut me a break, will you? If you want sports programs for your kid, pay for them out of your pocket, not out of the government's till. School is supposed to be for education -- so that children can learn reading and math and know where France is and that English is actually spoken outside of California.

Last mid-May, Lillian came home from school triumphantly shouting that there was no homework for the rest of the year, because everything had been covered that needed to be covered. The school year still ran through the first week in June.

"Well," the explanation ran, "the kids who know the stuff are done, but we can use the extra three weeks to help the kids who need to review."

What? Isn't that "summer school," which ran through the hot months anyway? Why, then, all the squealing and hair-tearing about the budget crisis cutting 7 days from the school year, if 15 days could be devoted to Pajama Day, and Opposite Day, and the ever-popular Last Day of School When Everybody Plays Outside and Parents Provide Cupcakes?

Oh, and by the way, let's send the kids back to the school buildings the first week of August. Running air conditioning round the clock in the hot part of the year really makes sense when you're strapped for money, especially when average temperatures in the afternoon are in the mid-nineties.

Supposedly this makes sense, to have more days of school at climatically stressed times of year. Of course it makes more sense to have the kids have extra days off in October, when the air is filthy with almond dust and the evenings are too cold to play outside, or extra days in December when the fog socks in and nothing warms you up and there's no time to play outside because it's dark so early, or in the early spring when it's raining and chilly. Of course we should rejoice to send the kids to school when they could be playing in the swimming pools and sprinklers in the heat of the day. Of course. How could I be so stupid not to think that kids would rather huddle indoors than play in summer?

Should I (or the state government) voice this opinion at a Parent and Teacher Interaction Shtick, I (or the state government) would immediately be trussed for burning at the stake, with opponents clutching their hair or bosoms and crying, "Why are you trying to abuse our children?"

Well, we're not, dumbasses. Maybe some of us think that there's a little too much wastage in the "school" system, that's all. Like, why are tax dollars being spent on sports programs? If they're so important for school income, then why are there VOLUNTEER food concessions? To pay for WHAT? A hot dog stand doesn't pay for much. Cut the sports, just do physical education.

Oh, I mentioned that before, didn't I.

Let me say this one more time, cut the sports programs and the "special days" and focus on education. There will be enough money to go around.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Summer 2009

Lil and her pal Elena from across the street got in some desperate summer play today.

Tomorrow Elena won't be home, and the next day ... school starts.

They played in the garage and on the front lawn, then on the back patio, then in Lil's room, then out front again, then in back again, and then in Lil's room, and then out front. They had fun, they had drama; they had sun and then shade. They had a beautifully mild summer day with a sweet breeze, and Sebastian and Howie to play with them.

Born only a few weeks apart, sometimes I hear them play at being sisters.

I wonder often what they would have been like as friends if they had grown up in the kind of world I did. At seven, Lili's and Elena's parents and siblings worry about them crossing our wide street, because utter morons fly along at 45 mph on a regular basis, slurping canned drinks and talking on cell phones, oblivious (or far too self-important to take notice) of the 25 mph limit. When I was seven, Carol Jan and I ranged around our small town on our bikes in the summer (not down town, of course, but everywhere on the east side of town) and we kids spent mornings at the municipal playground, went home for some lunch, then went back to the playground until 5pm, at which point we played in the street or on the sidewalks -- or other kid's houses until dark.

The eyes of every resident in the community were upon us kids, all the time. But it was a town of 1000, and the biggest town in the whole county. People were poor, mostly, and we townies had it real soft compared to the kids on farms outside of town, who worked on their parents' dairies and chicken farms and fields.

Oh well. It was a different planet I lived on then, and it was blown away by "progress" as surely as Superman's home world Krypton fell to destruction. My Home Planet is gone, and Lillian must make her way in this world, however inimicable it may be. How she will grow up is anyone's guess.

That her summer "ends" on August 5th is another post, and it will be a venomous, bitter one.