Whitman

I took a class on Whitman, Dickinson, Keats and Longfellow in college. It was team-taught by two department stars, Dr. Kiefer and Rodney Jones, one a natty dresser with a gorgeous head of curly hair, the other an acclaimed poet, a stereotypical professor in appearance, wry sense of humor and laconic delivery.

While I vividly recall my music department classes and classmates, I don’t remember much about my English classes. I was nominally an English major, but spent all of my free time in the music department, a holdover from high school’s music wing, where one could lounge for hours outside the band room, ostensibly studying or eating lunch.

In college, I had few friends in my major. I met Robby in my Whitman class. We were both just starting to take classes in our major, and excited to be out of gen-ed classes. He was quiet and so was I, both reluctant at first to speak up too much during this three-hour bi-weekly class. At the break, we would compare notes, discuss the poems we were studying, and found ourselves fast friends.

In that way youthful relationships do, we bonded quickly, spending mealtimes and study hours together, sometimes in my dorm room, sometimes in his. He was a transplant to southern Illinois from Florida, living with his beloved grandmother in the summers. He was smart in a way I hadn’t experienced yet, because I had spent so much time with musicians. He was insightful and philosophical, grasping big ideas in a short time, making connections I could not conceive. He was fascinating and funny.

And he was gay.

At least, I think he was. He never told me, but neither had the other gay friends I had. And being in music and theatre, I had a lot, dating back into high school. One of my college friends who was gay would sit and admire men’s butts with me in the music department lobby. We each had our top three. Mine, strangely enough, included the man who would eventually be my first husband.

But Robby never said anything about that part of his life. He talked about poetry and the power of language. We’d talk excitedly about the punctuation and spacing of Dickinson’s poetry, and the florid language in Longfellow. We were both gripped by Whitman, whose language rose like a gentle wind off the page and swept both of us in Romantic Era fervor.

When we exchanged letters over the summer, nature was our favored theme; he was moved by the endless fields of wheat in Illinois, the dry openness of the summer sky, rolling rivers hemmed by trees. They were the most breathtaking non-romantic letters I have ever gotten. I keep them in a box to this day, his blue-inked return address at his grandmother’s house a beacon on the envelope. “This is where Robby lived.”

The next year, my junior year, I got pregnant and my whole life shifted. I was consumed with “what now,” with little time for wheat fields and Whitman. I struggled through a whole entire class on Faulkner, whose themes of broken families and unplanned pregnancy choked my brain as I was faced with a family who turned their back on me because of my unplanned pregnancy.

I lost a lot of friends when I got pregnant. I don’t remember specifically how I lost track of Robby. Maybe it was not having classes together. Maybe it was our vastly different lives. I saw him occasionally on campus. He visited briefly after I had the baby. And once, I ran into him at the grocery store, after I had my second child. He was friendly and my heart ached for the distance my life had traveled from the friends I once had. I was head-over-heels in love with my children, but I had no one to share that fervor with. 

A few months ago, I found out from another alumni of our university that Robby had died a few years ago. Very young, not yet 50. He had a brain tumor, which hurts doubly so because of his intense intellect and humor and kindness. Not the brain–don’t take the things that made him so marvelous. But all of it is taken now, and I never had the chance to tell him how much I missed those elegaic conversations we had, the chiding affection in our late-night meanderings, and those wild and passionate letters about wheat fields.

There’s an upcoming film being shown locally about Whitman. The poetry will be accompanied by some animation. I could just visit my copy of Leaves of Grass, and find Robby in the margin notes. But I think I will go to this film and hear what other people have to say about Whitman, to hear someone else’s intelligent observations of this great, gentle man of words. I suspect I’ll see Robby there, just on the edge of my vision, like he’s sitting next to me in that long poetry seminar, tapping his pen on his notebook pensively. Someone will say something brilliant, and for a moment, it will be Robby again, a dagger in the heart of the matter, bright and clean and smiling as he always was.

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Grab Bag

I’ve been spending a lot of time with my subconscious lately. There’s lots of time to spare, now that Tim’s back to work and my daughter is nearly full-time at her job. Freelance gigs come and go, but I have more quiet in my brain now. And I’m tugged in the direction of the edges of thought that surface.

Like just now, in the kitchen, I was struck by the difference between my husband and me. I was clearing away last night’s cooking mess, a pan I left soaking with baking soda and dish detergent. By this afternoon, the caramelized blueberry muffin overspill had melted back to liquid, and I sprayed it off with the faucet. My cleaning method is a gentle nudge, discouraging stains from staying permanently. I fill pots and pans with water and wait them out. It’s an effective strategy.

 

Tim, on the other hand, sees every thing he encounters as a battle to be won. Not people–just things. He attacks (his word) the dishes with vigor, setting every item gleaming and pristine into the dishwasher, where they will only become sanitized.  Pots and pans are scrubbed, SOS pads exhausted, and the clean and shining pile of pans displayed upside-down on the counter, twinkling as they dry. He faces his laundry with military precision, sorting colors and heat settings diligently, putting clothing right-side out and stacking them tidily on-deck, waiting to be washed. This is, to me, a little silly, because all of his clothes fit into the “beige/gray/bluish/greenish” category, and none run the risk of infecting the others with their bold color. But sort he does, and then washes in appropriate sequence, and then folds and puts away. By the time he’s done, he is exhausted.

That’s true for the dishes, too. Doing the same amount of dishes, he will emerge from the kitchen in need of a nap, or at least a good sit down, while I will have completed the dishes, dinner prep, putting away errant pantry items, and wiping down the counters. He’ll do one thing full-bore and do the hell out of it; I do six things kinda half-assed and meander through while I think about tomorrow’s dinner or making baby blankets or a plot consideration for a story in the works.

I admire my husband’s drive. I love how he can go in one direction persistently, and not be pulled off to the things that trace across his intellectual field of vision. In the middle of that last sentence, I remembered that I want to use the leftover buttermilk from the blueberry muffins to make cornbread to go with tonight’s chicken, so I looked up a homemade cornbread recipe.

That kind of interruption would drive Tim nuts. His method of focus would, for me, result in things that don’t get done. Today, even while I’m feeling like dogshit because of a respiratory infection, I’ve cleaned the kitchen, washed the sheets, cleaned the toilet and the sink, planned a potluck for the community garden and made flyers to advertise it, and planned tonight’s dinner. I should be sleeping, but because I’m going at half speed and doing multiple things at once, I got a few things done.

Tim and I are talking a lot about our neurological differences. It took him a long time to figure out my “grab bag” of a brain, but he did so without judgement. He recognizes my rambling ways as different from his; I see his task-oriented brain as different from mine. And this is the really beautiful thing about long-term relationships that work; we see each other’s quirks and oddities, shrug our shoulders and move along with our days. We’re compatible not because we’re alike, but because it doesn’t matter how we’re different, we still just want to be with each other.

We’re figuring it out, it appears. I can’t help but think of all those people–some friends, but mostly family–who told me I was making a huge mistake getting involved with Tim. He wasn’t right for me, I wasn’t right for him.  Like they knew.

Marriage is so much more than being “right” for each other at a given time and place. It’s more structural, more modular than I ever knew. Tim has the necessary structure for a long-term relationship. It’s just how he’s built; solid, over-engineered, every beam and board measured twice or more. And that’s how he thinks. I suspect the people who warned me off him didn’t really know him at all.

I will never be like Tim, even though sometimes I wish I could; the die on my personality is cast. But I respect his particular, peculiar makeup, and admire how he tolerates mine.

My subconscious wanted to say all that just now.

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Country Music

Growing up in suburban Chicago, I didn’t listen to country music. It was either my father’s symphonic music on WFMT, or my mother’s bobby-soxer/50s crooners, or local pop radio on the radio in my room. Occasionally, we’d click past HeeHaw on TV, but we never stayed to watch. I learned early that that wasn’t *our* kind of entertainment.

Neither was Soul Train, but if I was too sick for mass on Sunday, I reveled in the chance to see people dance to funky music on the UHF channel. Reception was fuzzy but I didn’t care.

My father sang one Mac Davis song, “It’s Hard to be Humble”, when he was in a good mood. Country music was for satire, for humor, for mocking ignorance and lack of sophistication. It wasn’t, from what I could tell as a child, “real” music. Plus, country music was from the south, and people in the south did horrible things to black people. They couldn’t be trusted.

When I went to school in southern Illinois, I found myself plunged into a completely different culture. While still strictly part of Illinois, and therefore the North, southern Illinois has a heavily Deep South-influenced culture, from the accent to the food to the music. The southern tip of the state, from Effingham on down, is physically south of the Mason/Dixon line, and also, oddly enough, the linguistic “greasy/greazy” line. Above this line, the word “greasy” is pronounced with an “s”, below it, with a “z.”

I learned a lot in college that had nothing to do with my major.

Instead of multiple radio channels dedicated to 80s pop hits, the dial in Carbondale was peppered with country music, and I resisted every note. My primary motivation when I went to university was to go out with a lot of boys, but introversion is a terrible thing for a girl with such ambitions, so I let my prospective dates’ music choices be my guide. Guys who liked country music would never be caught dead with a big girl like me; they wanted someone who looked like Daisy Duke. They were the ones who had the “no fat chicks” sign in their dorm windows. I wasn’t safe around them.

My worries about country music were not unfounded; a Mississippi State University sociologist analyzed country chart-toppers from the 1980s through the 2010s, and has found that “country hits increasingly objectify women and glorify whiteness,”

In recent years, Leap reports, country hits have “increasingly depicted women as sexual objects instead of employed equals.” In addition, “whiteness is celebrated far more often than it was in the 1980s and 1990s”—a trend that dovetails with the rise of white identity politics, particularly in the rural areas where the genre is most popular.

…beginning in the 1990s, more hit songs contained “allusions to idyllic pasts.” That sort of nostalgia has obvious racial undertones, made overt in 2003’s “Beer for My Horses,” in which Toby Keith and Willie Nelson “reminisce about when public lynchings were commonplace,” as Leap puts it.

Willie Nelson? Come on, man!

My wariness of country music resulted in lots of music-department boyfriends–brass players, drummers, and later, a husband who was a professional jazz bass player. No country music fans in the lot. Find me a chart-topping country hit with trumpet, I dare you.

Somewhere along the line, Shania Twain appeared. And Faith Hill.  I edged toward country music as cautiously as I could, making sure the lyrics didn’t cross the line into the “bad” kind of country music, the stuff about missing the confederacy and women knowing their place. These performers were women exerting their independence with a twang, accompanied by steel guitar and sometimes mandolin. I could get past my Pavlovian response to the instrumentation and sing along with their lyrics about seeking their own paths.

There’s something outdoors-y about country music, and for that reason, I wished I could like it. It’s playful, like splashing in the swimming hole, drink lemonade in the sun, roll in the hay, all things I enjoy.  I do not enjoy propping up mediocre white men, marginalizing people of color, longing for the “ante-bellum” days (read “slavery”), or praising the Confederacy. With most of country music, I just couldn’t get past that.

And then the Dixie Chicks happened, and suddenly, country music was fun. I mean, “Goodbye, Earl” completely turns country music tropes on their head. (Fun fact: Dennis Franz, who plays “Earl” in the video, went to school at Southern Illinois University. Just like me.) I flung the windows open and played their music at the highest volume. Songs like Cowboy Take me Away, Wide Open Spaces, and Sin Wagon were a joy, and to this day, speak of hot summer nights driving with the windows down.

Then I moved back to the Chicago area, and put away my country music to listen to on my own. I really only had those three artists, but it just felt out of place in the suburbs. Coming to Oregon moved me farther away from any country music, and listening to it here seems doubly insulting to black people, with Oregon’s history as an all-white state.  My listening to traditional country here might signal to accidental eavesdroppers some allegiance with white supremacy, and I won’t allow that lie to spread, even just outside my car.

A few years ago, someone suggested I listen to Kacey Musgraves, saying she was “different” from other country acts. I refused. Then I started listening to Brandi Carlile, whose powerful voice exudes the longing and passion articulated in her lyrics.

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to
It’s true, I was made for you
I climbed across the mountain tops
Swam all across the ocean blue
I crossed all the lines, and I broke all the rules
But, baby, I broke them all for you
Oh because even when I was flat broke
You made me feel like a million bucks
You do
I was made for you
For you

 

One of my friends said Brandi sounds like she’s going to bust a vocal cord. Turns out, I kinda like that. Her songs are about finding forgiveness, about boldly being an individual in a world of conformity, about learning how to love her daughter when it didn’t come naturally, and her love for her wife.

Her experience as a gay performer immediately set her apart from many artists I was listening to, and put me at ease about her message and background. There’s not a single country trope in her lyrics. She’s raw, unhinged, intense.

And purposeful.

Brandi Carlile started her career as a little girl outside Seattle singing country music on stage with her parents in bars and markets. She grew up dirt poor, living in a trailer. Her first love is country music, and now after this great success–six Grammy nominations last year, three wins–as an “Americana” artist (WTH is that, anyway?), she has started working in country music again. This year, she will be touring with a group called The Highwomen, a nod to 1980s country super group The Highwaymen, built of  Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.

The Highwomen comprise Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires  among others who will rotate in. I know only Carlile of those names, but I’m willing to give the group a shot if only to hear her sing music she loves. She has an easy, warm vibrato that veers into yodeling in the higher registers, and she sounds so joyful when she bursts into those moments, I just want to sing with her. And so I do.

She and her Highwomen bandmates have struck out on this path with the intention of bringing more female voices to country music, and to spread a more inclusive message among the fans. I hope they’re successful. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “God, save me from your followers.” I feel like that could apply to country music, too.

And I finally did discover Kacey Musgraves. Last summer, like millions of other people, I stumbled upon her album “Golden Hour,” and fell head over heels in love with her trim vocal pattern, almost vibrato-free tone, and lyrics that defy all KINDS of country tropes.

It takes a lot to woo me musically, but she’s got it; unexpected lyrics, intriguing and simple harmonies and melodic lines, and defiant uniqueness. Her voice gives me shivers. She won the same Grammy that Carlile was up for, and I wasn’t even mad; “Golden Hour” is a thing of beauty.

Here’s one of my favorites; trippy, hypnotic, and full of joy and love. And steel guitar!

It’s summer in Oregon, and I am ready to throw open the windows and blast some summertime music. Here’s Brandi Carlile with her whole family, including some superheroes, on stage last summer in Bend. Tim and I were about 10 feet to the left of the person who shot this video. Best show I’ve seen in a while. Get yourself a little new country music, if you have a chance.

But stick to the women; they’re getting good.

 

Calm Sea

It will come as a surprise only to people who don’t know him, but my husband Tim was hired shortly after putting out his resume. He found an employer that matches his conscientious work ethic, substantially increased Tim’s annual salary, and is near enough to our home for Tim to ride his bike.

Plus, Tim has started working doggedly on the launch of a new hockey-fan site (details to come when the site is ready), so he’s been busy. His active brain has been put to its fullest and best use, and he couldn’t be happier.

I’m down to one workday a week at the music center, plus the freelance work I do from home. Now that garden season is upon us, I spend 3-4 hours every couple of days out in the sunshine.

I picked up a volunteer role as the community garden manager, and it’s giving me a sample of the kind of “more” that I was looking for; using my organizational and communication skills, connecting with people, and in this case, building community in a space that’s lost some sense of common purpose. Plus, it’s given me an excuse to be at the garden every day, puttering here, weeding there, talking to people I have never met.

I am a natural introvert, but when it’s my job to talk to people, I do just fine, thank you. Plus, gardeners are the nicest people on the planet, and we have a built-in topic of conversation literally at our feet. Over the weekend I attended a workshop on inclusion and outreach, and I’m like a kid coming back from a church retreat: fired up with the spirit of togetherness and understanding!

Without all the “god” stuff.

We have–for the time being–stabilized.

I made the right decision to leave my job at the arts center. I do miss the people, but when I visited a couple of weeks ago, I felt the same weight descend upon me–borne of frustration, of inchoate rage at the inept management, a closing-in of the box in which I was allowed to function–that I had felt for months before I left. Loss of morale might better be described as a suffocation, a containment until asphyxiation of the best impulses of  employees.

I am free of the strictures. Thanks to my husband, I have the financial stability to do what comes next. It’s a calm sea for a prosperous voyage.

If it Doesn’t Open, it’s Not Your Door

This is a story I’m not supposed to write until it’s happy.

Two weeks ago, I worked my final day at the place I loved–Multnomah Arts Center–to go in search of something where I can use my skills beyond answering the phone and being nice to customers.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved working with customers. I loved the people I worked with. But unlike every job I’ve ever had, there was no room for me to do anything other than answer the phone and be nice to customers. I tried. For four years I tried. I offered and submitted ideas and updated old policy manuals (“DRAFT ONLY”), organizing file drawers for optimum usage, anything other than answering phones and being nice to people, just to demonstrate my expressed eagerness to move up.

But bureaucrats gonna bureaucrat.

So I tendered my resignation, held my head high through the last 14 days of my employment, and on day 13, my husband lost his job.

It was a similar situation, actually. Tim’s got super-linear-do-it-right-the-first-time brain, and his boss . . . um . . . didn’t. So, in a small office, when there are two forces pushing against the same object, the guy who owns the place wins by default. Tim’s native ability to make a rock-solid program that works flawlessly in perpetuity was not a good fit for a business run by someone who does things slapdash. So Tim was out on his ear.

We were both knocking on doors that would not open.

I’ve had lots of time to ponder the decision to leave my job. There have been moments of regret, a flash across my memory of faces I grew to love, a call from my beloved “work husband” whose continued contact means more than he knows. What the hell did I do, walking away from a steady job? Am I insane?

So no, I don’t have a happy ending to this story. I have some freelance leads, and Tim’s being submitted for a number of spots. This is certainly not our first time down the path of the unemployed; years ago, we both lost our jobs within hours of each other. Tim’s an assiduous job-seeker, and is connected to others in his industry across the country. That’s why he spent 18 months working for and in the state of New York.

I did have to turn down a job possibility at a hot springs center deep in the mountains. That one broke my heart. But I can’t be completely out of touch for more than a day or two, and the location had no cell service or internet. No, sorry. Not with a medically fragile family. Ugh.

On some level, I know we’ll be okay. History is on our side. A period of unemployment  and job search is what brought us out to Portland

But I also know things change. What if the people making decisions see us as too old to take on as employees now? What if the universe views my departure from a steady job as a sign of hubris, and decides to punish me?

Right now, the story isn’t happy. People have been so kind and encouraging and concerned, and that’s been lovely. Thank you in advance, if that’s your thought while reading this. I felt very loved at MAC by the customers and my fellow reception warriors, and I take a sip from that whole-heart-full daily. I have *no* idea what’s next for me, or for Tim.

The sunny side of employment stories for us is our daughter’s employment situation. She isn’t keen on me writing about her (because I made a life out of writing about her when she was a kid), but let’s leave it at this; she is a bold, determined, and hard working. Not afraid to ask for what she wants, not afraid to take it when it’s offered. She blows me away.

I just have to draw from her example and be more bold than I have ever been. And while I wait, I have a garden to tend to, a dog to walk, writing to revise and create, and a husband to snuggle. And I do still have a very part-time position at a music center, which I also love. There have been worse unemployed periods than this.

Just gotta keep knocking on doors.

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