A man of peace

One of my heroes died yesterday, and I wanted to take this space today to share what I learned from him.

I first met Pete Seeger when I was 18 years old. He was singing at a rally to support the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an organization he founded to clean up pollution affecting the Hudson river in New York. I grew up along the Hudson, and I appreciate his efforts towards the Clean Water Act and the saving of the Hudson itself.

I was very affected by meeting Mr. Seeger and seeing him sing. I was lucky enough to have that experience a number of times, because he lived and did a lot of his activism in my local area.

Here are some of the things that I learned from Pete Seeger that have stayed with me:

  • One person can make a difference, even if the problem seems insurmountable. If Pete and other volunteers hadn’t worked on environmental clean-up the Hudson would have continued to decline instead of getting better. In high school I didn’t follow the news or get involved in causes beyond writing. After I met Pete Seeger I started volunteering for political candidates and organizations I cared about, and I became a vegetarian–one person can make a difference.
  • Nice guys can get things done. The media shows us lots of examples of ruthless people winning, but Pete Seeger always seemed like such a kindly person–like a gentle grandfather. That didn’t stop him from being effective.
  • It’s okay to take an opposing viewpoint. For every liberal who sings his praises, there are plenty of other people who think Mr. Seeger was far too left-of-center. He taught me that it’s okay to hold and publicly express dissenting viewpoints, and indeed that it’s important to do so.
  • Music should be shared. I remember that first time I saw Pete Seeger perform. There were about twenty-five of us in a little park by the Hudson in Poughkeepsie. He had the audience sit around him and sing with him, getting us involved. One of the songs he sang that day was the old folk song She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comesand he had us add in different noises and gestures as the song went along. I learned that day that all forms of art are meant to be participated in, instead of just appreciated by observing. I’ve never forgotten that.

I am saddened by Pete Seeger’s passing, but I also celebrate his life–he lived to the fullest, staying involved even as he aged. He’s still inspiring me, and I hope he and his music continue to inspire for ages to come. I know I will never forget him.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
274. Who are your heroes? Take a few minutes this week to reflect on someone who has been important in your life. What lessons have you learned from your hero? Share some of these with someone else.

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Love the one you’re with

Music speaks to me and I listen. You probably have songs that are deeply meaningful to you. Most of us do. This week one of the ones that has been stuck in my brain is Neil Diamond’s song I am… I said.  I grew up in New York state and I’ve been feeling terribly homesick lately. Neil says: “L.A.’s fine but it ain’t home; New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more.” I feel the same about Seattle. There are certain things I love about it, but it’s just not my native culture. I will always feel like a bit of an outsider here.

I go through this occasionally. I moved to Minnesota for graduate school and then to Seattle. I wanted to experience the country. Seattle is beautiful but it’s very different from the East Coast. Sometimes I find that incredibly frustrating, and I miss a lot of the places I grew up around. I don’t have a lot of money to travel, but I go to visit New York and Minnesota when I can.

I’ll probably never leave Seattle. Although I miss people from back home, and I don’t get to see my family as often as I would like, I have found family here. There are too many people and communities I would hate to leave. It’s a weird confusing feeling, and I’m sure many people go through similar feelings around the places they live.

I am sitting today in my living room typing this and listening to the sounds of the rain. It’s been raining all day. The leaves glisten and the air is fresh. I’m going out later to spend time with one of my best friends. As comedian Steven Wright says: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Seattle has its frustrations but it has its compensations, too. The weather is lovely today. The weather is lovely a lot of the time. I am reminded of the Zen phrase: “be where you are”. I am in Seattle, and it is good. Here I will turn back to the wisdom of music–if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Some days are easier than others. I am going to enjoy this rainy day and sip my coffee. Life is good.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
261. How do you feel about the place where you live? Are there compromises? Take a moment to think about your environment and how it affects you. For today, try to “be where you are” and “love the one you’re with”.

Sprinting down the street singing

One of the major themes of Yay! Pigeons is “the wholehearted pursuit of joy”. The wording of the phrase is rather important because even the most joyful person faces adversity and sorrow. You can design your life so that joy comes to visit often and sits in your kitchen sipping coffee. Even so, sometimes you have to chase that sucker down the street to get back to your happy place. You also have to know when not to be joyful. If something truly terrible has happened it’s important to feel the sorrow before moving on. Joy isn’t about nailing a false smile onto a sad face.

How do you invite joy back when you’re ready? I find that joy leaves little bits of itself around the house, almost like someone you’re dating. If you can find these bits you can reconnect and lure joy back into your life. I often find these traces in music. I love doo-wop music and I find it usually cheers me up. It’s also truly difficult to stay morose while singing along to cheerful show tunes. In the past I made myself mix tapes that had a soundtrack to cheer me up. Now I’ve got a couple of playlists on iTunes. Make these in advance so that they’re ready when you need them.

I’ve also had really good luck searching for cheerful music on YouTube when I’m feeling down. Occasionally I post on my Facebook wall that I need a song (or video) to cheer me up and my friends provide the most wonderful things. I’ve found some real favorites this way. It’s amazing what’s out there when you start to look. You need to tailor this tip to the songs that work for you. I’ll stick with my show tunes because the sun will come out tomorrow, and grey skies are going to clear up, so it’s time to put on that happy face. I’ll even lace up my sneakers if I have to. I’ll be ready for the next time I have to pursue joy down the street.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
259. What songs cheer you up? Where do you find joy pretty much every time you look? Make yourself a playlist of music or a list of joyful activities that you can pull out next time you need it. You might even try listening to that happy music right now–it can take a joyful moment and put it one notch higher.

Adventures with Craig

The theme of this blog is the pursuit of joy, and what could be more joyful than music, serendipity, and songs about acne? You read that right, but I’ll get back to that.

As a freelance writer I find all sorts of random work, and some of it’s through my friend Craig. You know the guy. He has a list. This week I applied to review a concert, sent in my writing sample and waited–and this is the full disclosure part–got hired to write a review of a local concert. The people in the bands who hired me were very friendly–the kind of people you’d like to know. I met them at Conor Byrne, which is a very relaxed pub in Ballard, a neighborhood right here in Seattle.

Full disclosure aside, these fellows paid me first, so this is my own opinion of the show I saw. They won’t know what I write until they see this, although I did gush at one of the bands so they might guess their review will be favorable. I went to the concert last night (April 6th.) The opening act was  Kevin Murphy who is in the Moondoggies. I don’t know what the band’s music is like, but Kevin played an acoustic set. His voice reminded me of James Taylor. I hate to compare one musician to another, but otherwise how do I tell you what I heard? His music had gently traipsing melodies, with a quietly insistent vibe. I really liked some of his lyrics, including this line: “I know you hear all the time how you radiate sunlight. Put this foolishness behind.” He wasn’t my favorite, but I’m not a fan of quiet singer-songwriter music, so I think it’s no reflection on his skills or talent. He had a very nice voice.

The second band was called Johnny Unicorn. Oh my god. Oh my god! I went into this gig knowing virtually nothing about these artists. Comparing again, I would say that Johnny Unicorn was sort of like the love child of They Might Be Giants, Devo, and Weird Al. The band took the stage and there was this immediate energy and presence and then they started playing–this is a band that seems to be self-consciously, gloriously weird and I was so ecstatically happy to be there. I would pay to see these guys again. The lead singer, Johnny Unicorn, seemed to be as much a performance artist as a musical act. Music to dance to, music to laugh to. They had a long song called “Breakout” which was all about acne, and I admire any artist who can use the phrase “sebaceous glands” in a piece of music. This song then segued into a song about Christmas. In the course of the energetic set there was a wide range of musical styles and instruments including rap in the style of the Sugarhill Gang, accordian, saxophone, and beatboxing. The crowd was dancing, and we were all having fun. I left with their new album, “Sadness and Companionship,” an aerobic exercise album. This music might not be for everyone, but that’s okay. I loved it.

The final band was called Autumn Electric. This band seemed to be the best on the instruments–the drummer, Chris Barrios, was really incredible, and I enjoyed the hard rocking guitar and the keyboard skills of Naomi Adele Smith (who also adds her talents to Johnny Unicorn.) The lead, Michael Trew, had a sweet voice that reminded me of Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees. Some of the music had a klezmer feel to it with rock instruments, and other pieces echoed Rush and Yes. The band kept the energy going with no dead air in between songs. I liked this band, too, but the volume of the instruments overwhelmed Michael’s delicate voice so I could not hear any lyrics. This is not a problem on their samples on the website, which are quite lovely. In a different venue with a different sound mix, this band would have been really wonderful.

I love my adventures with Craig. As a freelancer, I’m always looking for more work, and it was great to have a night out meeting nice people and listening to fun music. It’s a bonus when I happen to stumble upon something I really enjoy–I signed up for all the fan stuff on Johnny Unicorn–the music just speaks to me. I can’t wait to see what new adventures Craig has in store next week.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
236: How can you introduce some serendipity into your life? Try something at random just to see how it turns out. I might suggest sampling some new music. The bands I went to see mostly have music on their websites, if you’d like to sample them. They all also have Facebook pages.

Links, should you desire them:

Cottage cheese and grunge music

I’m originally from New York, but I live in Seattle now where grunge rock originated. It has always seemed like it’s almost a law that you like it when you live here, and Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are played all over town on heavy rotation. It’s been frustrating, because I’ve never gotten it. I disliked the music when it came out. I wanted them to enunciate. I was tired of hearing how brilliant it was all supposed to be—until this week. I was out and about and once again I heard “Come as You Are”, and I realized I liked it. I went back and listened to their other huge hit “Smells like Teen Spirit” and decided that now I liked that one, too. It was confusing.

My friends teased me that the flannel I wear had made me appreciate the music. Others claimed that it’s all the rain, or that I had simply evolved better musical taste. It could even be that sheer repetition has worked its magic and my brain has given up resisting. Maybe, but I think that it’s something different. I think it’s all part of being fully awake and present.

When I was going to Zen retreats the food would be served in silence and you would accept and eat whatever you were given. Most of the time you didn’t even know what you were getting until it was in your bowl, and this is how I was served cottage cheese. At the time I wasn’t lactose intolerant, so I was able to eat it, but I didn’t want to. I had always hated cottage cheese, and had decided years ago that it was nasty. Consequently I hadn’t tasted cottage cheese for at least ten years. In the silence of the zendo, knowing that I was to eat what I was given, I took a hesitant bite and tasted the cottage cheese. It was delicious, and I ate it regularly after that until my stomach started to rebel.

I think it’s much the same with Nirvana. I hated it instantly when it came out and decided right then that it was nasty. At that point I dismissed it with a label and moved on every time it played. I didn’t listen anymore.  It plays so often here that I’ve started to actually hear it, and my tastes may have changed a bit. I have been listening to those two songs all week, and now I find them musically delicious. It makes me wonder what else I need to taste again for the first time.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

231. Pick something you know you dislike—a food, a song, anything you’ve truly made your mind up about. Try it again without preconception—try to experience it fully as for the first time. Has your perception changed? Sometimes it won’t—I tried again with bananas and I still hate them—but sometimes you’ll find you love cottage cheese and Nirvana.

She sings in English, too

On weekends I like to do things a little differently! Enjoy!

I find a lot of books these days by trusting to the randomness of the universe, and Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers, 2008, is no exception. The title caught my ear as I was reading a list of recommended reading at the library. This YA (young adult) novel is about the confusion of growing up, trying to decide who you are while you’re also trying to deal with the everyday hassles of being a kid. The novel’s protagonist is obsessed with Debbie Harry, the lead singer of the band Blondie. He can’t decide whether he wants to date her or be her, but he adores the power and beauty she exudes. The book fulfilled its promise, and I recommend it.

By the way, you may have noticed that I haven’t included any negative reviews. It’s not that I like everything I read—not at all. I’ve made the decision to only mention books I liked because: 1) It’s not joyful to be negative. 2) I know how much work it is to write a book. 3) Everyone’s taste differs. I might hate something that you adore—for example, I cannot understand the fascination with bell bottoms. Someone else can tell you what not to read—I have more important things to do with my time.

See you tomorrow!

Feel the beat of the tambourine

On weekends I like to do things a little differently. Enjoy!

Sometimes weekends are all about sleeping until noon, then sitting with a cup of coffee and a novel for hours. Sometimes, though, weekends are a whirl of activity. I’m having one of those, and it’s a great deal of fun. Saturday I took a workshop on two-step, and then rushed right over to a square dance. This morning I’m going to attend the 20th anniversary brunch for my Toastmaster’s group and then go to a Mamma Mia sing-along. My friend and I both love the movie, and last time he went to the sing-along version no one in the theater was willing to sing. It was a big disappointment for him, so this time we’re gathering a bunch of friends who have all vowed to go out there and make some noise. It’ll be great preparation for coming home and working on my novel in the quiet of my apartment. I hope everyone reading this is having a great weekend, too, whether it’s busy or quiet.

See you tomorrow!