Oh My Sole

I need to walk. I need to hike. But more than either of these things – I need a decent pair of hiking boots.

Why not go online and buy some? You’d think it would be that easy.

But me and shoes are never that easy. I don’t know if I set up these quests to keep myself always on the brink, teetering between possible success or, more likely, disappointment. It’s a hard lonely road when you set standards that are impossible unless you have a time machine to take you back a few decades.

I found a brilliant pair of Vasque boots on eBay some years back and have not met their equal since. Made in Italy sometime in the eighties they fit perfectly and were so well-made, I could tend bar for eight hours in them and never realize until I sat down at the end of the night that I’d been standing up the entire time. But as these things do, they started to wear out, to break down. I left them over in England back in February, figuring I’d reconnect with them in March but…we all know how internationaly travel is going these days. Hopefully we’ll meet again in 2021.

In the meanwhile, back in March I went on eBay or Etsy again and scored another pair of Vasque boots. Also Made in Italy, they were a decade newer design but looked promising. When they arrived I was thrilled – they fit just right, looked cool, had that indestructible Vibram sole I crave now that I know such a thing exists. 

I wore them exactly twice. The first time was a little bit of a breaking in period but I felt confident the boots would soon take their place in the pantheon of indispensable footwear. The second time was great. They were all I wanted a boot to be – not as good as the classic hikers but the perfect mix of tan and navy, Vibram soles; supportive, comfortable-

Goddamn it the sole fell off one of the boots. Just started flapping, came loose and completely detached itself. Thankfully it happened in the living room and not out on the hiking trail! I pictured myself limping back to my car…it’s bad enough to be on the trail in a mask let alone hobbled by a soleless boot.

That’s when I decided I’d get in touch with Mark the shoe repair guy in Poughkeepsie. I’d heard about him when I was tending bar last year, asking around because the local shoe repair man where we live had retired and there’s nowhere up here anymore to get soles replaced or repairs done. Great Barrington is the nearest, or down in Poughkeepsie.

I heard Mark was an artist – a guy who just really loved keeping good shoes alive. I’d emailed him last year about putting new soles on a pair of Arche boots I bought a dozen years ago at a depot vente, a used clothing store in France. He’d risen to the task, finding the (again, Vibram) soles, doing a beautiful repair, even cleaning the beige suede in the bargain. He’d salvaged a pair of boots worth several hundred dollars new. Even though we never met in person, doing everything by mail as Poughkeepsie is almost an hour away, I felt like I’d made a friend, someone who cared about his work.

So a few weeks back I emailed Mark if he thought it was worth trying to repair these hiking boots. The next day I heard back from his wife. She said she remembered my Arche boots and helping Mark with them. She said Mark had passed away of a heart attack back in December.

It’s been a very hard year. 

My heart went out to her, I was only glad I had said in my first email how thrilled I’d been about the repair Mark had done. I told her my husband had had a heart attack recently, that he had survived; that I could only imagine what she must’ve gone through. I hoped it was okay to say that.

Of course there are other repair people. Of course there are hiking boots. I could go on a website and get something. But I want more. I want magic. I want boots that feel destined for my feet, or to connect with an artisan who cares about their work.

Yes I want to hike. But I want to feel closer to God when I do it.

Is that too much to ask?

kroger plus customer

I grabbed my house keys this morning…

How often do you grab your keys these days? It feels so rare to go anywhere long enough to lock up the house. With an extra person here (my daughter is staying for a little while) it’s unusual that the house is even unoccupied for more than a few minutes. The boat engine is in the repair shop and the only concert coming up is an online one Eric and I are doing to benefit NY State Assembly candidate Betsy Staat on Oct. 8. We all work from home now… sometimes I can hear Eric in the studio working on a song, my daughter on keyboard in another room while I’m playing guitar in my office. 

But there’s grocery shopping and car mechanic appointments and doctor visits and umm, keeping our local wine store in business. When I grabbed my keys this morning, I had to wonder: what is a Kroger Plus card doing on my key ring? There isn’t a Kroger within two hundred miles of here.

I know why the 9Round gym card is on there, even though I haven’t been for a 9Round workout in over a year. To take that card off my ring would admit some kind of defeat I’m not ready for. I don’t think 9Round has been open since March, but back before the pandemic I’d let that high intensity workout lapse. I was just too crazed with getting my book out and the less workouts I did, the longer it took to recover when I did drag myself in there. Yoga seems a lot less punishing, more forgiving to me these days. But I hold out hope that if 9Round survives the pandemic, and I survive the pandemic, I will be strong enough to get through workouts there again. So that loyalty card remains.

And I know why my AAA card is on my ring. Even though I’m not traveling, it’s comforting to have the card there, like a wise hand on my shoulder JUST IN CASE I break down or run out of gas even in front of the house. AAA says I’m prepared, I’m a responsible person who forks out that annual fee, even pays the supplemental premium fee cause hard experience has taught me that if I break down without the Deluxe membership, it will no doubt be exactly one mile beyond the covered area and no way am I ever letting that happen again.

But Kroger Plus? I haven’t been to a Kroger in several years, since I lived in Cleveland or Nashville. Have I?  I know they push these loyalty cards on anybody, and MAYBE I stopped somewhere in Ohio on tour a year or two ago and MAYBE in that giddy headspace of supermarket shopping on tour I’d agreed to sign up with so much enthusiasm that I’d actually slipped the keychain card on my ring?

Oh that on the road megastore freefall feeling! You’ve been in the car six or eight hours. It’s a day off – between gigs – because otherwise you’d be loading in, soundchecking, throwing down food and getting ready to go on. Day off is crucial for maintaining some degree of sanity on the road – not because it gives you a chance to rest – no, never that. It’s most likely a large gap in routing that requires a drive impossibly long for the day of a gig. But there’s also laundry, and email; finding a post office and shipping stuff. Maybe you have a piece of writing or a playlist or an interview you told a blog you’d be happy to contribute, thinking “sure I can knock that out in my room after a show one night” which absolutely never happens because the only thing that got you through the whole soundcheck, dinner, getting ready, will anyone show up, playing, selling and signing stuff, hanging out, getting paid, finding your way to some hotel somewhere – the only way you kept your wits about you through all that was thinking “and then I can watch T.V.”

I’m not the only one who thinks that, right? Oh dear god please don’t let me be the only one.

So days off are for all the other stuff you can’t do on days you have a show. You get to feel like a person for a minute by going to a big supermarket and buying some granola and yogurt and fruit and some bread and cheese and ham to make your own sandwich and a bottle of screw top wine because carrying a corkscrew on the road would indicate too much dedication to wine drinking and lord knows it’s only an afterthought!

While you shop you feel in the flow of everyday life in the way you never can the rest of the time on the road. It’s easy to feel – as I stand shoulder to shoulder with the working folk and the shiftless in the produce section, where every minute or so a spray of water emits from an unseen point, anointing us all while Hall & Oates issues forth from the ceiling somewhere – like I’ll shortly be going home to one of those houses I passed on the interstate, with a trampoline in the backyard. There’s a deck with a grill and even though the interstate is right there and you live in an obscure part of Ohio, it’s autumn and the snow is still a month or two off and there’s just something so hopeful about this time of year, even as the leaves are dying.

I probably talked to a cashier at Kroger and I bet my eyes were gleaming because I was so happy to talk to a random person about random stuff after a day of driving and I probably gave the impression I was a retired schoolteacher with too much time on my hands who haunted all the big stores, not just this one, this might’ve been my third of the day – or maybe TJ Maxx – because there was always that one more thing I needed, a dishtowel or apple corer and let me just run out one more time because I WANT TO SEE PEOPLE.

These days I am the shiftless person with the trampoline in the backyard (not literally a trampoline, I’m not that kind of insane, yet) and I shy away from people. If someone went to shake my hand I would recoil as if their hand was on fire. But you’ll see me haunting the Walmart aisles looking for that elusive apple corer, in my bag the totemic key ring with the Kroger Plus card. I never imagined life could be one continuous day off between gigs.

american tune

Nine years ago this week Eric and I moved to America. We arrived at Newark Airport immigration and stood in line behind Patti Smith, who we’d seen earlier on our flight. She had a guitar slung over her shoulder. Eric was holding his immigration packet in front of him with both hands, like the very valuable document it was. We’d been working on the green card application process for months and this felt like the final hurdle, the step where he handed the whole thing over to an officer and got the immigrant stamp in his passport. Patti must have sensed something momentous going on, because when they called NEXT she stepped aside and gently waved for us to go, our own Lady Liberty.

We rented a car and drove upstate, picking up the keys for our house at the realtor’s in Woodstock. It was only days after Hurricane Irene had devastated the area we were moving to, and the rain was still coming down hard. With great relief we found our house was safe and dry, but since we didn’t have a bed or any furniture yet, we stayed at a friend’s country house.

“Do you think the world is ending?” I asked Eric as we lay in bed that night under pounding rain and the watchful eyes of a Nan Goldin photograph.

The next day, buying a shop vac, a drill and cleaning supplies at Lowe’s, we saw people with everything they owned strapped onto their cars. The hurricane had caused flooding and a path of destruction from the city up to Vermont. We were so lucky. We’d staked everything on this move: sold our house in France and spent everything left over to move our worldly goods from France to England and into a shipping container that would hopefully arrive in a month or two. In the container was Eric’s recording equipment that we needed to finish the album we’d been working on so we could get a record out and start touring to earn money. We had no savings, no credit (I’d used a debit card to rent the car from Enterprise).

All we had now was a house in storm-battered upstate New York, decent health (I’d struggled through skin cancer surgery two months before and still sported stitches from the top of my nose down to the corner above my mouth – entirely paid for by the French healthcare system thank God) and hope that we could make a life for ourselves together in America.

France had seemed romantic, but the reality – it was nearly impossible to earn money without driving eight hours to Germany, or the ferry to the UK, or flying to America; feelings of creative frustration and isolation – was wearing us down. We’d started out thinking we could take it easy as a shabby duo playing cover songs in local bars and cafes, and realized fairly quickly that as artists – together or individually – we still had plenty left to say. In English.

Ash cloud. Swine flu. The challenge and expense of seeing my daughter and family in America.

When we moved to Europe, it felt like it could be forever. We were newly in love, had both escaped disastrous relationships and rural France was perfect for huddling together like refugees out of two separate witness protection programs.

Deep in France we carved out a new identity and strength for ourselves as a dual act. Five years later it felt like we could come out into the light again. Luckily we were able to turn a French village house into a rundown Cape Cod in an upstate New York village. Our realtor, a humanitarian named Gary who helped people in need when he wasn’t making big commissions selling multi-million dollar properties in Woodstock sold us the minivan his family had outgrown for a token $700. There was still a lot of life in that vehicle, and in the two of us: Eric was 57, i was 52.

We found a mattress at Big Lots, and the nice guy who ran the local coffee place gave us a table and chairs and a big old Sony TV. It stopped raining. At the coffee place I ran into a neighbor from Williamsburg, the last neighborhood I’d lived in in New York, and he pointed me to the local library where I got a library card. The sun came out.

The first Sunday afternoon in Catskill, I swung the minivan into the parking lot of the Price Chopper grocery store. Being in America was a hoot! Obama was president. The radio was tuned to NPR. I’d done okay with French, learning to converse reasonably well (Eric was already fluent, having lived in France for nearly a decade previously) and I’d navigated bureaucracy and healthcare out in the French countryside where English was barely an option. I’d tried my best with the radio in France but it was also the culture of America I’d missed, as crass as it was and all over the place. In France everything ran on well-worn rails: how, what and when you ate; how to start and run a business, what you were allowed to bring to a neighbor’s dinner party. I imagined in Paris, with a younger crowd that was different, but in the countryside non, non, non. America, for better or worse, felt like freedom to make it up as you went along.

For better or worse.

The NPR people were talking about 9/11. I realized it was the tenth anniversary. I heard New Yorkers’ voices remembering. I sat in the Price Chopper parking lot at 2:30 pm on a Sunday afternoon (a supermarket open after noon on the Lord’s day!?) connected to the event and felt moved in a way I couldn’t get to in front of the war memorial in our little French village. I’d never lived in upstate New York before, but it didn’t matter. It felt like home.

But sometimes in the middle of the night – especially these last several months – when I can’t sleep, I go on Google maps and zero in on our old house in France, the shutters and door still painted the pale blue we tried so hard to get right. I click on a spot in front of the house and take a walk around the village…it soothes me to imagine that simple place, where the pizza van arriving in the village square on Tuesday night was a big happening. Eric tells me “Don’t weaken – don’t get sucked back in” (to the dream, like he did) and I know nowhere is perfect. But sometimes I wish we could go back to this simpler place, even though it never actually existed. 

queen for a night

I was working on an online show for a venue I’d played and wanted to support, and maybe I’d make some money too. They asked if I’d film and send it in, rather than streaming live. Oh good, I can work on it and make sure it’s good I thought, and not have to worry about our pathetic internet cutting out, or trying to upload a massive file. I’ll just pop it on a flash drive and mail it via the good old USPS. This’ll be easy! This’ll be fun!

Dangerous words.

First I had to rehearse, so I thought of songs to play and started picking up my guitar and practicing for an hour or two each day. I’ve picked my guitar up plenty over the last six months but it’s been to write songs, which is strange. Usually when I’m doing a lot of gigs I never look at the guitar. 

I tried to pretend like I had an actual concert to play. I realized I had a few new songs to work in there. New songs cast the old songs in a different light, maybe now more than ever. When have I ever written from the perspective of a global pandemic? Of things falling apart or breaking open in such an acute way?

“Here’s a song I wrote about sandals…”

But we’re still who we are and it can’t all be heaviness. I ran through songs I often play and a few I hadn’t touched in a while. Threw in a cover, and dusted off a reading because it’s been not quite a year since my book came out.

I started remembering how to do a show again and then I decided on a decent spot in the house for filming. I needed somewhere that felt comfortable and not too full of clutter which really narrowed it down and I didn’t actually want to film in the bathroom so a corner of my office that’s recently been purged of merchandise boxes, archives etc looked good. Eric helped me get the sound set up – the last (and only) online show I’ve done this past half year the vocals should have been louder (there was also that patchy internet but that’s standard).

So I was all set up and then I had to figure out what to wear. I’ve spent most of the summer in clothes fit for mowing the grass or boating, but that didn’t feel like a very appealing way to present myself, so I defaulted to black jeans, a clean shirt and boots. I put on some makeup. After running through a minute on camera I grabbed a jacket out of the closet…the camera adds ten pounds and Covid adds at least ten pounds and I was taking up more space in the frame than felt comfortable – ill-defined space that jutted out from above and below the guitar in ways I wasn’t happy about so I hoped the jacket would help sharpen and define things. God I never go to all this trouble for a regular gig, I mean I try to look presentable and all but I don’t think I’d ever set foot on a stage if I put myself under the kind of scrutiny I was putting myself through for a low-key online show for a folk club.

Then I was sweating so I turned on the AC but it was picking up on the mic so when it was time to start filming I turned it off and started sweating again. I filmed two short sets on my iPhone and I almost felt like I remembered how to do it. I even threw in an encore song even though no one was clapping. I told the nonexistent audience I felt like Rupert Pupkin in The King Of Comedy, a deluded show biz pretender in his amateur basement set hobnobbing with cutouts of his celebrity friends, only I was in the attic playing to my Carole King and Bob Dylan song books and a copy of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

I finished the show and sipped a well-deserved glass of wine. Then I tried to get the files off my iPhone and onto my computer to edit.

Disk Full.

Okay, I’ll delete a bunch of stuff, I thought. Was my performance any good? As much as it’s possible to get somewhere alone in a room in front of a phone, I thought I’d done okay. But then I didn’t even care, I just wanted to move those two twenty minute sets onto my five year old Mac.

It was not to be. Nothing worked. Dropbox shut me down. I tried a separate hard drive. Nothing would let me move the files. I was losing the will to live. I doubted my ability to do pretty much anything.  Oh but I can drive I thought. If only I could get in my car and drive four or six to eight hours, set up, eat some food, put makeup on in a closet and get up in front of a room full or partly full of people, I could throw down. It was all so easy back when we could do that.

So – no online show for now. Life – what’s become of it – is too short. 

I did do a DJ set for Gimme Country that runs tomorrow at 5 PM edt. There’s also the Girl To Country podcast, and if you haven’t seen or heard the Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby track Vote That Fucker Out, it’s here.

INTIMACY (& VTFO)

For the first time in five months I don’t have anywhere to be on Wednesday. Not literally of course. Like everyone, I’m mostly at home. But since late March I’ve had the job (given to me by…myself) of putting up my Girl To City podcast by noon on Wednesday. Last week was the final episode and so here it is Tuesday evening and I’m…

Drinking a gin and tonic.

Feeling free and also melancholy. I didn’t expect the act of reading my book aloud for a podcast to affect me so deeply. Before the pandemic I thought it was something I could just knock out in hotel rooms after gigs. It’s just reading aloud, right? The book was already written and I felt like I knew it inside and out, in the way you know a pair of shoes you’ve worn for ten years or a person you’ve lived with that long.

Well, shoes wear out and people are thankfully unpredictable. Somewhere in between those two was a bunch of words I’d written. They seemed to take on a life of their own when I was reading, then editing. I could never have really thrown myself into the podcast if it hadn’t been for the pandemic so even though I hate what this virus has done it’s given me that. My podcast gave me a purpose, a focus, that didn’t involve butter or cream. Recording and editing gave shape to my week.

What will I do now?

I need to write another book, or I want to. Nobody needs to write another book, ever! It’s too hard, the hardest thing. Though in other ways it’s the best thing. With a book you are master of your destiny. By putting one word after another you can shape the past and shape your future. Up to a point. You still need readers to make the dream complete. And that’s where the hawking and selling part comes in but to be honest I’ve even enjoyed that because I’ve put out a lot of records (not enough, really) but I’d never put out a book.

I think I believed for the decade it took me to write my book (and the decade before that it took me to get to the writing part) that writing a book would change my life. I would become a different person: a writer; an author. I would probably start wearing capes, and brogues. I’d put aside silliness like electric guitars and sit brooding in cafes, when I wasn’t hugging my dear readers and doling out meaningful inscriptions, or hobnobbing with other authors.

Maybe that was my wish. That I could carve out a different job for myself. And in ways I have.

“Why do you want to write a book?” my dad asked me several years ago. “Isn’t music hard enough?” 

It’s all hard, until it ends up wonderful, like the hugging readers part that seems like it happened in another lifetime. “We…put our hands on strangers? Even…pressed ourselves together, spontaneously?” Shudder. What a beautiful thing it was.

Maybe I’ll start wearing the cape to play guitar. In the living room. For the online concert I need to film. There are plenty of things to fill up the time. An online show or two and new songs to get down. I wrote and recorded a new song for The Raymond Chandler Project last week, and Eric and I recorded a song I wrote called Vote That Fucker Out. It’s not exactly intellectual. But I think it gets its point across. Eric made a video for the song and we’ll put it up by the end of this week.

So there is plenty to do. But I already miss the podcast, going back in time every week. Getting on the microphone and reliving my past. There was something about reading my writing aloud that surprised me, made me emotional. I’ve heard that writers should always read their work aloud and I think that’s great advice. But in some instances I think if I’d read this stuff aloud I might have been too embarrassed to publish it.

That was the beauty of the podcast. In this time where we live hidden: behind masks, behind the walls of our homes, without the exposure of being in public onstage that is much a part of my life as cooking meals and driving a car…it was intimacy. 

Remember intimacy? Not the kind we have with old shoes and people we’ve lived with so long we run the risk of not seeing them anymore unless they do something outlandish. Eric brought home a large white tent yesterday and assembled it in the backyard to do recording under…I couldn’t stop laughing at the sight of this tent. It reminded me “wow, that guy – he’s something. What a character. Can I be in the tent too?”

Intimacy—that shared experience in a crowd of strangers—where we see ourselves in a different context and suddenly, magically know more about who we are and life and what it means to us.

I’ll work at finding that again. In the meanwhile, thanks for listening to the podcast. And, uh – Vote That Fucker Out.