Begin Again

The songs I have down. It’s the tea towels that were making me nervous. I’d offered a free hand-screened towel as an incentive to do some pre-sales for my album release and then remembered I haven’t silkscreened anything in decades.

With the help of our friend Clif, I was able to turn a drawing into a screen and our living room into a screenprinting atelier, with Eric displaying dazzling ironing skills and Karen Schoemer making a cameo as wet towel runner. I only wish I’d ordered more towels for the initial run so I’d have a load to sell, but I honestly wasn’t sure how well things would go.

teatowel
Tea towel artwork

The towels turned out beautifully and I’ll have more to sell soon.

I decided I had to start my Mod Housewife shows at Spotty Dog, the bookstore/bar I’ve worked at for almost five years. I think playing in a place where everyone knows you is scarier than playing in a much larger place, but given the amount of time I’ve spent serving people, sweeping the floors, washing pint glasses and arranging books and restocking toilet paper, it’s almost like performing in my living room so I felt comfortable when we set up to play – “let me just move this book display over here.” Doug Wygal, the original drummer on the album, Eric on bass and Alexander Turnquist who is one of my co-workers and a stunning solo twelve string-guitarist, helped me create a joyous racket. That’s what it feels like to me, playing this old stuff and some new songs too. I was able to walk into work two days later with my head held high. I know the locals and regulars & my co-workers think of me as the bartender too polite to yell “LAST CALL” so it’s nice to show them that’s all a cover, at least part of the time.

 

karen-keats-spotty-photo
Rocking the stacks – photo by Karen Keats

Cambridge was Sunday, an afternoon show at Atwood’s. I like this place a lot. Nice atmosphere, good food and people come out. We did this one as a trio but still had too much equipment to fit in the Subaru, so Eric drove his Buick and Doug and I caught up on stuff on our drive, he worked at Sony for years and I spent a lot of time temping there so we were reconstructing a little piece of midtown history on the drive. Played a rocking show and sold records and chatted with people. Home by ten P.M.

I worked a shift, communing with the books until the bar got busy. I feel lucky to have a fun part-time job to balance out the art and commerce, it’s comforting to put books on shelves in their places, fill up people’s pint glasses to just the right level, dim the lights, put on good music and hear snatches of the different conversations going on. Maybe I’m just getting to a different phase of life where I don’t worry as much about what it’s all coming to, or maybe I’m just on a high from playing a few shows and the angst and doubt will come creeping back in?

Spent yesterday packing up and mailing the pre-orders and their corresponding tea towels while a team of house painters worked on the front of our house. Aside from the roof, it’s the first time we had somebody else do work around here and Eric was so sweet, bringing them coffees on a tray – he was going to scrape and paint the weathered parts himself but being up on a ladder alone just doesn’t work and winter is coming. It’s going to look so beautiful when it’s done, we won’t recognize the place.

He changed the strings on my 12-string and acoustic guitar instead.

It feels strange setting off on my own this morning. I’ve played some scattered solo shows the past year but this is the first time I’ve gone off on a solo run in over a decade. The last time (when…when was it?) the world was pre-Facebook, pre-smart phone, pre-Obama! I’m excited and looking forward to playing. I can’t help but pick up on the World Series excitement: Cleveland vs Chicago, I’ll follow that thread of rust belt rivalry and swoop around back to Pittsburgh to remember where I came from. Teach at a songwriting workshop in upper, upper Michigan and come back home to vote.

Cueing up Warren Zanes’ Petty biography for my first audio book of the trip. Running down a dream – again. It always feels new.

mod-housewife-tour-post-4

 

 

Call Mary

The white slip of paper glows on the windshield of my minivan parked in front of the bar/restaurant/venue where I just finished performing.

Damn! A parking ticket. There goes part of the money I made tonight.

I snatch the paper from under the wiper blade and am relieved to see it isn’t a ticket, just some lame flyer. Before I crumple it up to throw in the trash, I examine it under the streetlight. It’s a drawing of a shaggy-haired person – could be a man or a woman – confidently holding a cutaway acoustic six-string. Above, in an elegant font, it says: “Learn to play guitar…FINALLY! Call Mary, 617-429-9441.”

I look up and down Somerville Avenue. No other vehicle has a white slip. Only mine.

Ha! I think. Haven’t I just played for ninety minutes to a decent number of people (given the economy and tonight’s TV schedule)? Didn’t they clap and cheer and buy records afterwards?

But the flyer is too artful to be dismissed. If the font was Comic Sans, Helvetica, Courier, Times New Roman even, I could laugh it off. But no, whoever made this flyer has style, class, attention to detail – they know.

I look at the other cars again: no white slips. That proves it – whoever put that flyer on my windshield knows the truth.

“Learn to play guitar…FINALLY! Call Mary.”

The “FINALLY” in all caps seals it. Mary has been watching me for decades. She saw me years back when I played in the theatre across the street, a much bigger venue. True it had been on a bill with others, a celebration of the label I was on at the time. What a night, standing ovations. Anything seemed possible. Now I’m playing on the other side of Somerville Avenue, label-less, in a bar/restaurant/venue. If I could take back those hours I’ve spent aimlessly trawling the clearance racks at TJ Maxx, listening to other people’s hits through the loudspeakers, Mary would’ve targeted somebody else.

I picture Mary in a candlelit room. Her fingers brush the strings of her guitar and climb higher and higher on the fretboard, all the way into curve of the cutaway while her hair cascades over the soundhole. Notes join together and snake up to the ceiling and out the windows, anointing her sleeping neighbors with love and peace. Mary plays for the joy of it, for the sheer act of creation – not for acclaim or a paycheck. She’s not even smug about it – Mary is above smugness.

Joy, love and peace. I’m calling Mary.

 

12string
Photo by Karen Keats

On tour and looking for Mary in Cambridge MA Sun Oct 23 4 PM at Atwood’s.

A Mother’s Love

“If you love, love the moon. If you steal, steal a camel.” Egyptian proverb

Your honor, I stand before you accused of stealing a coat. If it pleases the court, I have a few words to say in my defense.

I admit the coat belonged, or rather belongs, to my grown daughter, and that I agreed to store it, along with a lot of larger and bulkier items, until the time she felt fully moved in to her new apartment in the city. So for the last couple years, we have stowed a queen-sized mattress, several boxes of books and records, a dresser, some lamps and a trunk in the garage. I’ll add that half of our attic is devoted to “the archive”, a near-shrine: my daughter’s Barbie collection, Simpsons memorabilia, Happy Meal toys and 90’s Disney merchandise. Let the record show I have never shirked my parent-as-storage-facility responsibilities.

But back to the coat. Your honor, when I found it crumpled and wadded up in one of my daughter’s trash bags full of clothes and realized it was a fine quality camel hair coat, I took the time, trouble and expense to have it dry cleaned. My motives were selfish, I admit, but I fully intended to return it to the bag after I wore it once or twice. I even showed my daughter the courtesy of asking if I could borrow the coat – true, I was in England wearing it at the time and we live in New York. If I recall correctly, my daughter chuckled when I told her I had appropriated – I mean worn- the coat. I believe her exact words were “Oh, Mom.”

When I returned home, I forgot whose coat it was and just got used to enjoying it. Everything was fine until my daughter came for a visit and saw the coat. “I’d like it back,” she said. “Can you bring it next time you come to visit?” Here’s where things get a little blurry. The main point is – why can’t I keep the coat?

I’ve never denied my child anything. When she was growing up, I wore thrift shop shoes so that I could put new Skechers on her feet. Summer camp, gymnastics classes – whatever she needed, I found a way to provide.  By keeping the coat, I’m only following that maternal instinct – the coat is in fact too big for her. I’m just looking out for her welfare, the way a mother does.

In summary, I’d like to – hold on, I just had a text from my daughter. Poor thing has a cold. I’m always telling her to dress warmer. On second thought, your honor, may we have a dismissal? I need to drive down to the city to drop off a coat.

 

Twentieth Anniversary

I usually resist going full-on self-promotion here on my blog (even though it can’t help but creep in regularly) but I have to go for it this time as I really want anyone out there in range of my upcoming shows to know about them. It’s been ten years since I did a solo tour and my head is spinning with fear and excitement. Still booking/trying to make a few more things fit/convince this club or that promoter but this is the general shape of things for now. Yep, I still have the coat…

mod-housewife-tour-post-3

Odds Against Tomorrow

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty —

“I’d like a birch beer, lots of ice.” It’s eleven AM in the bookstore/bar, I’m running behind, haven’t counted the register. “Take your time, take your time, I don’t want to be a bother,” the guy says “—Hey, don’t pour THAT much in the glass!”

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty — “Hey excuse me, are you the only one working today?” the guy says. I guess I’m not good enough for you, buddy? Tough. Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty — oh shit, wait, where was I?

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty –

“Excuse me, miss — could you look up a book for me? It’s called Odds Against Tomorrow. They made a movie of it—“

A-ha! This is sounding familiar. I thought I recognized this guy. l know what’s coming next and try to head it if off: “Oh, right!” I say cheerily. “They shot it right here in Hudson”—

He won’t be denied his moment: “It starred Harry Belafonte. Directed by Robert Wise. I was in it.”

I admit I was charmed the first time I heard this story, over four years ago, of how famous noir film Odds Against Tomorrow was shot in Hudson in 1959, and this gentleman, then a young boy (“though you won’t believe it to look at me, I’m sixty-three now; I was ten at the time”) had a role in the movie as an extra. The second time, two years later, I was merely bemused. Now he’s sixty-seven, I’m four years older too, and this time when he starts launching into his story of how Harry Belafonte was so nice, I practically snarl “And every year, for years after, he sent you a Christmas card, yeah – I know, I know!”  But I restrain myself.

“So, hey do you have that book in stock? I asked that nice girl, the one who wears jeans a lot, who works Tuesday and she said she couldn’t find it.”

“Nope, not in stock – I can see if we can get you a copy—“

“Nah, it’s out of print. There’s another book by the same name, but that’s not it.”

“Okay well, I better count this money-“

“Sure miss, take your time.”

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty –

“It’s written by William…um, McGivern, not the other guy.”

What a pest.  Maybe I’ve been at this job too long?

I’m curious and look it up. The McGivern book is out of print, and the internet search for Odds Against Tomorrow mostly yields results for Nathaniel Rich’s 2013 novel of the same name.

I pretend the guy’s not there and finish counting. Then I get out a broom and start sweeping, too busy to minister to the needy.

Later, it occurred to me I have my own story that I tell over and over. I guess we all do. My first solo album Diary Of A Mod Housewife came out twenty years ago this month. I’ve done plenty of other things before and since then (haven’t I? haven’t I?), but that’s the one the most people know. If we don’t mention what we’ve done, will it be as if it never existed? The album’s out on vinyl for the first time in October. You can pre-order it here.

Back in the bar, I’d felt a little guilty for being annoyed, and turned to ask the guy what it was like, working with Robert Wise – who directed over forty films including The Sound of Music and West Side Story.  But there was just a sweaty, half-drunk glass of birch beer on the end of the bar, with a half-poured soda bottle next to it.

 

Been There

You probably haven’t missed me, but I’ve missed you. Yep, it’s your old pal, the Bag.

I’ve had almost two years of quiet contemplation in the garage. I know, it sounds like a lot. But in the world of nylon gym bags, that’s nothing. A blip in a long, long 600-denier polyester life. Guaranteed.

In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to: writing my memoirs. I’ve got an agent and everything, who promises me things will really happen if I can just come up with a decent title. So I’m trying these on for size:

  1. Holding It All In
  2. The Things I Carried
  3. The Longer The Arm, The Shorter The Handle
  4. In It For The Long Haul: From Little League To Rock’s Big Leagues (I know, that one needs work)
  5. Schlepper

That’s a few anyways. As you can see, I’ve really been working hard.

I kept starting to write an update, but figured everyone was so busy with all that’s going on in the world, they didn’t need to hear a grumpy old bag venting, or an annoyingly upbeat bag talking about how good life is, so I’ve kept quiet. But this thing happened the other day, and I need to tell somebody.

Okay, so I heard a lot of excitement from the house. There were houseguests coming and going, regular summer stuff. But this sense of anticipation, I could feel it. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought maybe those two lovebirds were going to have a new addition to the family, but I do believe that ship has sailed (for her anyway) and I don’t have them down as pet lovers, what with all the traveling.

Every day, she’d be out there looking for the UPS man. And she kept talking about how their lives were about to change for the better. I was all ears, sitting here in the dark with the recycling and old wood.

Finally I saw a box the size of a small child delivered, and heard some whooping and hollering. “It’s here!” she cried. She even did a dance around the breezeway, which was frankly embarrassing. I mean, have some dignity lady. But this was clearly a big deal to her, so I let it go.

Then – nothing. It was quiet in the house. No wild banjo picking, so there went that theory. No didjeridoo lowing in the night (“all I can say is – didjeriDON’T” I’ve heard him joke in a fake English accent, so figured that was a long shot).

I’d kind of given up hope of finding anything out when the garage door opened and somebody flung a cardboard box into the pile of recycling. I waited until it was all quiet and then crept over to take a look at the box that had held this new whatever that was rocking their world.

It’s a garbage can.

A kitchen bin. Stainless steel, with a foot pedal.

This is depressing.

I know they’re in there, taking turns popping trash into the bin.

“Remember when you used to be all about the music?” I want to shout.

But I was looking back over her old diary entries, and it seems we’ve been here before. “Ma Poubelle Nouvelle” she wrote, in 2011. My New Trashcan. It’s a touching read, about how things just weren’t right for the two of them in France, and the garbage can in the kitchen proved it.

In two weeks they’ll have been here five years. And they chose me not long after to help them along on the journey. They’ve been building a new life for themselves and this trashcan upgrade is some weird totem. I guess I should be a little more accepting.

Maybe even work all this bin business into my memoir?

It’s going to be a winner. They might even make it into a movie.

Not Fade Away

She has curly silver hair, loose pale linen shirt buttoned up to the neck, darker grey linen trousers. Cool glasses. Sort of Diane Keaton crossed with Melissa Leo. An interesting lady. Sixth Avenue and Twentieth Street, a weekday morning. She looks like she has an interview or an appointment.

I have an appointment too, and as usual I had a hard time getting ready to come to the city. When did I turn into a country bumpkin/hippie? Clothes that feel fine upstate, that even cause me to wonder if I’m trying too hard, don’t feel sufficiently armorlike in the city.

I bought a shirtdress two summers ago. Just dressy enough to feel like I’m wearing something better than what I’d cut the grass, tend bar or buy mulch in.

There’s no way I can wear the same dress to the city yet again. It’s reminding me too much of Long Black Veil, the lady with only one dress, driving up and down the Thruway as the dress grows more threadbare with every passing year, and the face and hair above it grow fainter: “She drives these hills, in her one chic dress.” I ended up wearing black jeans and putting the dress in a bag for the Salvation Army.

The silver hair lady is in front of me in the line to buy coffee. Am I staring? I don’t mean to. But when I see a woman who’s still making an effort, I look. I’m taking notes, I’m measuring myself against her. Not in a competitive way. Just registering – when a person looks at ease with themselves, I want to know how and why. Don’t we all want to be okay? Don’t we want to be seen a little?

I think about invisibility lately. Well, I have for years — it’s hard to believe I wrote a song about it almost twenty years ago! What did I know? I was in my late thirties. I remember feeling surprised and even moved when men told me they go through the same thing. It strikes me now how older ladies alternately mourn and feel relief at the loss of the male gaze.  What goes unremarked on, and the thing that is even more painful as the years pile up, is how a woman might miss being seen by other women.

“You’re dead to me,” say a load of girls under…forty? As if getting older is catching. Or worse, that you have nothing to offer – not in terms of competition, inspiration, mere decoration. The loss of viability that isn’t sexual is the ultimate in humility because it’s not the loss of yourself as an object, it’s as if the very stream of life tumbles on without you. It’s a strengthening process, to plant yourself firmly in the tumble and flow, to stand like a rock or a tree; “I’m still here dammit!”: sturdy enough to at least delude yourself you have some say or influence on the direction the water takes. Or you just flow, running your own race now.

IMG_0757

Ten years ago I became fascinated by those Red Hat Ladies. You know, the society of women that meet in large groups in restaurants and theatres. They wear purple clothes and loud red hats (the younger novitiates in pink hats) to refute their invisibility. “Don’t they look sad?” I’d say to my daughter. “Do you think they’d have me as a member? Just, y’know, for research.” Back then it felt like a little bit of a joke, Look at those kooky old ladies. But they made us look at them. Do they still exist? I haven’t seen one for ages.

The rest room door is locked and I wait for a chance to comb my hair, prepare for my meeting.  The door opens and it’s silver-hair. I give her a giddy smile, like if a movie star you just watched on the screen appeared in the flesh. She stares at me blankly, almost looks worried.

“I see you!” I want to say. “You look great,” I want to say. But I look away.