Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rats in the Basement

     My love and I are sitting on the sand at Wreck Beach. There are maybe fifteen other people down here and only one of them is naked at this clothing-optional site, so I mischievously suggest that we remove our clothes. The day is surprisingly warm for March and we've just biked here so we're sweaty: seconds later we are naked in the sand, comfortably propped up against a log, gazing out to sea.
     From Wreck Beach you can see water spreading out before your eyes; you can also see planes taking off from the airport. I wave saucily at one. The planes and the beach are uncomfortable reminders on this happy day with my guy: reminders of planes that didn't make it, and of starving sea lions not so far from here.
     "I just want to die happy," I say. "I want to die 20, 30, 40 years from now not trying to remember how life was before some kind of cataclysm." I nuzzle my nose against his cheek, where I go to imprint his smell in my brain. "And I don't want anything bad to happen to you."
     "I just want to live happy," he answers, my guy who is practical and funny and kind and loving and tough and infuriating and stubborn and gentle and smart.
     Are we hurtling towards the end? Guess what: we all are, whether the ice melts or not, whether our water runs out or not. I try to keep a balance between burying my head in the sand and knowing what's going on in the world because too much news is bad news and too much bad news is like opening your basement door and seeing thousands of rat eyes staring back at you. When 9/11 happened I remember literally wanting to stop the world and get off, because nowhere felt safe.
     This is it, this is the world we're stuck with. I scrunch my toes in the sand and send up a silent prayer of thanks that I have the luck to spend a lazy Saturday with someone I love. We brush off the sand and don our clothes again and I challenge him to see how many stairs we can run up on our way back to the bikes. We are alive, we are in love, we are healthy. For now that's plenty, that's enough.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

On "I don't know", the power of Yes, and Fake-It-'til-You-Make-It

     This afternoon I walked the short walk to work, and a slight first-day-of-school feeling nagged at my stomach. Today was my first day in my new permanent position as a Junior Piano Class Assistant Instructor. I'd done some subbing last Monday (and indeed, I've been hanging around this music school in various different capacities since last year), but today I'd be working with the two classes and instructors I'll be with until June. There's a fair bit riding on this: If I do well in these classes (and in my other job as an outreach assistant) there will probably be more jobs there in the future and I will have regular work close to home. I keenly want to make a good impression.

     On the other hand, although I was a bit nervous I could tell I was feeling a lot more calm about my new job(s) than I would have felt even a year ago. And although I wanted to make a good impression I was cutting myself some slack too: I would make some mistakes and I would improve, but no one was expecting perfection from me all at once. So what changed? Why am I generally not the nervous wreck I used to be when starting something new? I've been thinking about it a lot in the past couple of years and I believe it really comes down to one thing: I care less about what people think about me. 

     A sensitive older child, I practically tumbled out of the womb wanting to please. My parents' (infrequent) anger or disapproval upset me deeply, even though I would stand up for what I believed in (my mom claims she could never get me to go to my room because I would argue vehemently against it every time). In some ways I was tough and independent: I didn't care what other kids thought and I went my own way even if it meant being thought "weird" or "different". But I've always hated, hated having people be disappointed, angry or disapproving of me, and it's made me timid about some of my choices because I've been afraid to fail. Fail and incur those bad thoughts in others. 

"I haven't an enemy. What a spineless thing I must be not to have even one enemy!" - L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle

That quote has stuck with me for years. 

     But that's the marvelous, liberating thing about getting older: you just stop caring as much about what people think. I can remember walking self-consciously through the bookstore where I used to work in my teens and twenties, a rictus grin pasted on my face because I felt awkward in my body. I can remember bursting into tears because I'd gotten my schedule mixed up and missed a shift at work. I can remember getting all twisted up inside because I had to get mad at a cast who wasn't practicing their music hard enough. 

     But we condition our brains, through years of repetition: we succeed, and we enjoy, and we succeed again. And we fail too, and we learn that it will not destroy us. We make a few enemies along the way, and we grow the balls to stand up for our side of the argument. We learn a few useful things:

  • Doing your job well is more important than trying to be well-liked.  Sometimes you have to get tough. Sometimes you have to be a bitch. I've learned a lot watching my friend Gord with his piano students. He's tough on them, he doesn't take any shit, and they adore him. Being popular doesn't always get results or respect. Actually, being tough will get you respect. My new job is about helping to enforce order and attention in the classroom, and I'm not always going to get to be nice. That's ok. 
  • It's okay to say "I don't know". My sister-in-law and I were having a conversation about this today. She said that when she's teaching and a student asks her something she doesn't know, she'll use that as a tool to see if they can go and research the answer on their own. Being the teacher doesn't mean you know everything... and that's ok. I used to think I had to have all the answers; now I know I can relax a bit. 
  • People will make assumptions. And that's awesome.  As teachers, directors, whatever, we are "gifted" with a certain amount of authority. Unless you really screw up, having the title of 'teacher' or 'music director' helps set you in a certain place in the hierarchy. I'm not saying you should abuse that, I'm saying that you already have some authority. People will assume you know what you're doing! Use that as a natural confidence-builder. You probably got this job for a reason. 
  • Fake It 'til You Make It! I know a guy who bluffed his way into teaching a course on a subject he knew very little about. Every night before the class he would read just enough of the textbook so that he would stay ahead of the students. Now he's winning awards in his field. He had the confidence to bluff his way through until he really was an expert. I refused to teach for years, saying "I don't know how to teach." What a cop-out! Now I've got a few accordion students and I'm learning how to work with kids in a group piano class setting as well. I don't always know what I'm doing, but so what? I'm a good musician and I can pass that on to other people. The technique of teaching itself is something that will only get better the more I teach. And I'm discovering that I love it! 
  • Say 'yes' to things that scare you. Nowadays, if I feel a little frisson of fear when contemplating a job offer, I try and say yes to it. Why? Because I know that it will stretch me, challenge me, and make me more experienced. The reason I feel so much more confident these days is that every job has been a new challenge that's made me grow. Even if the growth was sometimes painful. 
  • Failure isn't the end of life as you know it. Every time I've gone in for some post-secondary education I've absolutely hated it. Bad timing, wrong course, you name it... I don't really know why it hasn't gelled for me, considering that I'm reasonably smart and usually pretty sociable. I really didn't like a lot of the time I spent at Cap a couple of years ago, but it taught me that I was a musician even if I hated music school, and that I wouldn't die if I didn't succeed. I've heard terrible stories and rumours about certain actors, directors, you name it... and guess what? They're still working. If they can still collect a paycheque after the things I've heard, I'll probably be ok. 
  • Know your limits. When I was interviewing for a job at this music school, my friend Gord (who had basically done such good PR on me that they couldn't not hire me) told the powers that be that I would be a perfect piano teacher... and guitar teacher. When my future boss asked me if that was true, I laughed and said no. I can mess about on the guitar, but I have no business teaching it to beginners. Same goes for singing- although I am a good singer I have little knowledge of the science behind it. I have a strong voice and I know how to use it... but I don't want to be responsible for teaching a faulty technique that could harm someone's vocal chords. Until I know more about how voices work, that's off-limits. 
And finally...
  •  Don't compare yourself to others. When I work with some of the incredibly self-assured and confident 20-somethings in this business I can't help but die a little inside. If only I'd been that confident at their age, I sigh. But we're all tied up in knots about things, we fear failure and the things that we take for granted can be terrifying to someone else. A lot of what we see in others is a facade anyway. 
If only I could go back in time and tell Younger Me to just relax a little more and stop worrying so much! When I think of the energy I wasted worrying... But that's part of the journey, and I wouldn't have believed it then. I can only hope that Future Me is a defiant old woman, shaking her fist at nay-sayers and making a few enemies just for the hell of it. Because it will have been a long time coming. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

For Love AND Money.

     It's been one thing after another today. I just had a crying fit all over my poor boyfriend, who had just dropped by for a quick coffee, because I've decided to accept an out-of-town gig for two months this summer. On the plus side: the job sounds tailor-made for me (music directing and getting to perform, which is all too rare); making a connection with a talented Vancouver director (a BIG plus); getting to travel to a place I've never been. On the minus side: having to leave town for 2 months- granted it's better than the 5 months I'm usually away and it could lead to more work here in Vancouver, but I have to leave my band, my home and my guy, and with his erratic work schedule there's no guarantee he'll be able to make it out for a visit, much as he wants to. I can't shake the nagging feeling that I've failed in my commitment to stay in town, but the truth is... there's just not enough work here right now. I've put down some roots, made some connections, and I can truly say that my entrepreneurial side has blossomed since I've been back, but still. Not enough work.

     Paid work, that is. A director called me up today, wanting me to do some work with the cast of a musical she's directing. She's been trying to pin me down for a while but it was a seven-week rehearsal period, which should've been my first clue... "I do have to mention that it's a volunteer position," she said matter-of-factly. "I mean, I'm not even getting paid."

     "I've seen the stuff you guys do and I love your work," I answered, "but I can't commit to another project where I don't get paid right now. I'm freelancing to make a living and I'm struggling. I just can't." This would have been seven weeks of unpaid rehearsals on Sundays and Wednesdays for me; god knows how many hours that director is going to be putting in. 
     Tonight I close a show that I've been working on- as a performer and music director- since before Christmas. Almost three months since we started, and my total pay was less than a professional stage performer typically makes in one week. It's a quirky young company which is trying very hard to rise above its non-pro status and do some good shows... and against all odds, with a skeleton budget and a can-do spirit, they are doing good work. Most of the performers are a good bit younger than me, but not all of them. They work hard at their day jobs and then they come and do this show for the love of it and for a small honorarium. For most of them, it's a small bonus on top of their regular work; for me it's my rent money. I'm glad I worked for them and I'd do it again, but I simply can't afford to very often. 
     In contrast: Last week I was in Whitehorse, staying at the Best Western Hotel with a room (and two beds!) all to myself while my friend Russell had the room (and two beds!) next door. A friend and bandmate of ours had gotten a grant to fly us up there, put us up, pay us a per diem, pay her mother a fee to look after her toddler... all so we could rehearse and workshop some pieces of music she'd composed. It was glorious. No big report to fill out, no performance necessary (although we did two shows for the fun of it); seven days to make music and live comfortably while we did it. All thanks to my friend's initiative, and the Yukon government, bless them for nurturing their local talent. The luxury of getting up every day of that week knowing that I was being paid to do the thing I love most! Of being able to concentrate on one job and one job only instead of doing the usual job-juggling! 
     While we were up there I had a message from a musician I've worked with a lot over the years, a lovely man who pays a fair rate for all the recording sessions and concerts I've done with him. So-and-so wants me to play at an event to raise awareness for a bunch of social justice issues. Would you be available to play this gig with me? It's a voluntary thing but I can pay you twenty bucks. I took a deep breath and wrote back: I think I'll respectfully decline. I have a bit of an issue with social justice groups who can't pay performers. It's not just me who thinks this is wrong; I've had this conversation with some friends of mine who are far more left-wing and socially aware than me and they say the same thing: how can you be part of a left-wing organization and not see the irony in asking performers to volunteer their time and talents? 

     I could make the list longer: The singer who didn't pay me anything for hours of session work; the restaurants (and they are legion) who get bands to "pass the hat" for money and don't even give you a free meal; filmmakers who "have no budget" for music (but hey! It'll look great on your resume!)... But I also want to acknowledge the people who tried really hard to be fair: the singer who paid me my hourly rate for doing session work on his album, even though he's clearly struggling to scrape enough money together to get it finished; the radio personality who always pays generously for the session work I do for him; the small theatre company who only had "an honorarium" to pay me... an honorarium that turned out to be more than generous; every struggling restaurant and musician and theatre company who paid something, even if it wasn't much, because they know how hard it is. 

      I love what I do. I love playing for theatre companies, seniors' homes, and other musicians. I love writing songs, I love recording, and I love performing. I'm learning how to better exploit my skills to make money, whether it's teaching accordion privately, getting work at a music school or developing a custom-songwriting business (stay tuned for how that works out!). But let's get this straight: it IS work. And when I give you my time and my skill-set, you need to pay me. I can't say no more freebies, because every once in a while there's something that's impossible to resist, either because it'll pay off in the future, or because it's so fun/interesting/unique that it's worth doing. But in general I will no longer do work for nothing, and I will be very careful with how much time I give you if you can't pay much. We are all struggling, I get that. But your show/movie/album is not so important that it's worth exploiting me for. 
     The company I'm going to be working for this summer in the prairies contacted me tonight to work out contract details: without even having to negotiate I got a reasonable paycheque, a return flight, free accommodation and an assurance that there would be room for my guy to stay, should he want to visit. Although I'm still sad about leaving town I'm relieved that I'll be earning a decent living doing what I love. 
Too bad there are so many people who seem to think that artists should be happy to create things for love, but not for money. Too bad that we artists are often the ones most guilty of perpetuating that idea. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Life More Ordinary.

Yesterday I sat with my lover for almost 8 hours, working on an e-commerce website for a client of his. At the end of it I felt as though I had developed tunnel vision from all the screen-staring; I had almost broken down in tears several times and yet somehow we muddled through, learning just enough to do what we needed to do... Learning, also, to work together and come out at the end of the day still making each other grin even though the work was frustrating and boring. 

I'm also learning that I'm not good at buckling down and doing stuff I dislike. Performing in front of hundreds of people? Not remotely a problem. Practicing my instrument on the other hand? Ugh. Taking over a rehearsal when the music director is sick? Ok, no problem. Plugging away for hours at an e-commerce site that yields its secrets slowly? Makes me teary and stubborn almost right away. Typical bright-child syndrome: I'm used to 'getting' things right away so having to actually apply myself is difficult. My brother, who wasn't as book-smart as me, learned how to study. I never did. Now the bright older sister is living in one bedroom in her brother's house wondering how she managed to get to 40 without a degree, a real job, or any money in the bank. Well no, actually, I know. Some of it has to do with the fact that I never learned to apply myself, to stick with things even when the going got tough. 

Don't get me wrong; I love my life. I have wonderful friends, a family who supports me (sometimes literally), and many jobs that are exciting even if they leave my bank balance somewhat low. And I work hard, in fiery bursts followed by periods of aimlessness. But after so many years of scraping by, something has got to change. I made a decision this year to put more roots down again in my city, and as I said in my last post, it's paying off. Love came into my life again. Friendships and bands have blossomed. And in my downtime I buckled down and applied myself a bit more: resumes, websites, an increased social media presence. Songs written, songs recorded. Job applications, job interviews, job prospects. This month has been good to me so far, even if my wallet is slim. I landed some jobs and I await news of more. 

It's been a long time coming, this knowledge. And I haven't mastered it yet by any means. But I feel the shift within myself and I'm proud that I haven't been idle this month by any means. 

Today, my guy and I ate our bacon-and-eggs together and talked about our dream projects: a song of mine he wants to animate, a children's book we want to create together. We are both going through some intense transitions right now, both struggling to make a living. But his work ethic inspires me to try harder; my talents as a songwriter and performer inspire him to draw more and think outside the box. We can be good for each other, I think. 

Can I combine living-the-dream with making-a-living? It's still a work in progress. But I feel as if the first tentative steps have been taken, and damn, it feels good. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Planting Seeds.

Blossoms and crocuses are poking up their little heads in this mild, mild winter month. It's wrong, for February, but lovely. I want to say "Slow down, little flowers! You have a few months yet, even in balmy Vancouver," but it's like 2010 all over again, the year we hosted the Olympics and no snow came.  
Little seedlings in the bike lane
Opportunities are poking up their heads for me, too. I went after 3 jobs at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, and got 2 (and the 3rd may yet be mine, it hasn't been decided). I interviewed for 2 more jobs with a company that's hiring for some really interesting stuff. I'll hear about those ones soon.
I feel as though I've made a strong commitment to Vancouver this year, and like a lover who senses that you've quit hiver-hovering and made up your mind, it's rewarding me. With out-of season flowers, yes, but also in the form of new possibilities and opportunities. And a network of family, friends and lover who are all cheering me on, even the ones from the town I'll not be working in this summer. 
Take a deep breath. Can you smell Springtime?

Friday, February 13, 2015


The other day my guy and I had a phone conversation that was a little... intense.

After I hung up, still seething with blame (both towards myself and him), I went over things in my head, as women we tend to do when things go awry. 
Being forty, and fairly clear-headed (I think) when it comes to my shortcomings, I could go back over the conversation and how it had played out, and see where I had said things that were inflammatory. I could also see a pattern in my dealings with other partners which had led to conversations that were all depressingly similar in their outcome: painful discussions with no resolution. What I couldn't see was this: How on earth do you re-wire your brain so that you don't fall into old, bad patterns during important discussions/negotiations? 

A friend of mine recently founded a company based on this very question. His website says:  
"Professionals are using live simulations as a regular part of their training programs, as often the most unpredictable element is the human one. How these professionals assess the situation and react can mean the difference between life and death. What is at stake in your business?"
Good point. and what's at stake in our personal relationships if we can't get beyond the traps that lurk when we try to have emotional conversations? Think about all the things we find it so hard not to say (and by 'we' I mean me) when we're upset:
You always...
You never...
I hate it when...
I'm sorry that I... 
(a really passive-aggressive one that, and one I'm guilty of using: apologizing for a shortcoming instead of getting to the point, which is that I'm angry/I need something.)

The more we use certain phrases, the more we trigger an antagonistic response in the other person; the more defensive/angry/upset they get, the more defensive/angry/upset WE get, and on and on until it's impossible to say anything sensible. 

I've decided that it's time to learn how to defuse my irritation and anger, but how? Simulations, like the ones my friend offers, are a great idea, but I find that the one-person version of this (having imaginary conversations in your head with the other party) are frustrating, and have the effect of making my tension level rise significantly since there's no one else to mediate or offer an outside opinion. One good solution, offered here, is to 

"...defuse the energy of anger.”
Go for a run, focus on your artwork or finish a DIY project, he said. “Break something that needs to be broken.” As he said, the most amazing works, including music, poetry and art, have been created from anger.

It's true. Yesterday (the day after the unsatisfactory conversation) I could have moped around all day feeling frustrated and upset. Instead I tried to do something productive. I ended up writing two songs: one which focused on the darker side of love (thanks to Noel Coward, who wrote an amazing poem on the subject, which I've quoted from before) and a romantic song for my guy.  I exorcized some demons in a creative way and had some tangible results to show for it. 

So what will I do the next time an issue comes up and I need to have "the talk" with someone I'm close to? I don't have all the answers- hell, I don't have many of them. Things I will try: 
  • deep breathing
  • articulating EXACTLY what it is I need to myself, before I even think about talking to the other person
  • finding the balance between blurting things out when I'm overwrought and "sleeping on it" (where the danger can be that I end up stewing over things and making mountains out of molehills)
  • defusing my frustrations by reprogramming my brain: exercising, writing, music...whatever it takes. 
So what happened next, after the phone conversation? Well, while I was still fretting, I heard my phone buzzing. Looking down I realized that I had mail from my guy, who sent me a sweet and sexy message which soothed me into sleep. True to our genders, he moves on while I fret and over-analyze. We've chosen to leave that conversation in the past... for now. And at least I have the perfect original romantic song to send him tomorrow- just in time for Valentine's Day. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I Found My Thrill

I walk north, across Broadway, down the big hill, onto the track where I have tentatively started running again, onto the bus. My accordion is a heavy bulk on my back but I have time to snap a picture as I walk; red berries against a brown background. It's January, but I am bare-legged as I walk. A testament both to the mildness of our winters here and to the heat of seniors homes, which is where my accordion and I are headed today. I learned my lesson after the first few visits: wear as little as decently possible or perish in a pool of your own sweat! 
The home I'm playing at is a religious one; the staff are kind and the residents are the usual mix of avid and comatose. It is a birthday party: the lodge has a monthly party and celebrates the birthdays of everyone born in that particular month with music and cake. Wayne introduces each "celebrant", and also takes a moment to acknowledge the centenarians in the crowd. Wow, there are a number of people in the audience (all women, unsurprisingly; women live longer) who are over sixty years older than me, and I'm no longer a spring chicken. Some of the elders take a well-earned nap, but I hear a strong baritone singing along to "Blueberry Hill", and when I swing into "Hey Good-Lookin'" two ladies on my left clap and harmonize with glee. I try to pick a mix of unknowns and singalongs. "Danny Boy", which I have grown to like, always gets 'em. But the rock-'n'roll/country numbers like "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Oh Lonesome Me" get enthusiastic responses too. I am reminded again that unless they are the really old ones, today's seniors grew up listening to Chuck Berry and Elvis (time to add some of the King to my playlist I guess). 
When I get home I decide to take the old dog to the corner store with me, since bladder/bowel control are becoming things of the past for him these days. Probably the same for some of the folks I played for this afternoon, sadly. 
Waiting patiently to go back inside again.

You know what, though? I took him to the park this morning and he was a firecracker. Up to his old tricks; even did my favourite, where he grabs a big stick and manages to get the end of it wedged in under his collar so he can wrestle it into "submission" all by himself. Happy grin, bounce in his step. Amazing what makes us shed the years: a quick jaunt in the park, a 65 year-old chart-topper and we shed our layers of years and become young again, if only for a few minutes.