Thursday, November 28, 2019

Voices Past and Present

I'm at that odd moment on Thanksgiving Day where things are cooking, but it's too early to cook the final things, and we're still waiting for guests to arrive. There's a short lull before the next flurry of events, and no one needs me right this second. In this bit of quiet I thought I should write.

We've been working on doing a real cleaning of the house this week in anticipation of hosting the big meal today. We have most of the downstairs looking presentable. We organized the game cabinet and moved furniture and dusted all the Mold-a-Ramas. Part of all that cleaning involved pulling all of my old collection of cassette tapes out of a few drawers. It was at the end of the night, and Aden and Quinn were the only ones still up with me. They helped me sort what was there.

I explained the fun of mix tapes. There was real effort to making a good one, often having to tape things off the radio, or a record. I have several old mix tapes--a few from an old boyfriend, a bunch from my brother when he lived in California, one I even made labeled "Baby Tape" that I used to play in our old kitchen as I danced baby Aden around in my arms to calm her when she was fussy. Do kids still compile songs they like to share in a digital format? Or is that completely passe?

I found some embarrassing recordings of my friend Gabby and I making "radio shows" in my basement. Oh we were annoying children--I don't know how our parents could stand listening to us laugh at nonsense all the time. I found bootleg tapes Gabby made for me in the parking lot of Pine Knob where I went to hear concerts by Sting and Nik Kershaw and Depeche Mode. Gabby was more interested in the pre-concert fun we had at those events than the music, so she'd wait out the show with a boom box and make recordings I could enjoy later. (She was and is a good friend, and we are still probably annoying to listen to when we get together and laugh at nothing, but thankfully there is no recorded evidence of that.)

Among the old tapes, I found a few I made of conversations with my grandma. One in particular stands out where all seven of her grandchildren were gathered in her kitchen in Ohio and she was making us breakfast as she told stories. I'd forgotten just what a good storyteller she was. I think of my grandma as more of a listener, but I loved hearing her talk.

I played that tape for my kids in the only working tape player I currently own--a small voice-activated thing I used for recording my lessons before they were born. I only intended to play a few minutes of that tape, but we all got caught up in the story of my grandma getting her first dog, and then about how she met grandpa, and what it was like when he was preparing to leave for the war. We listened to the whole first side of the tape before I decided they really should go to bed.

The tape I keep thinking about most was one from when I was about two and a half, maybe three. My brothers were babies who would occasionally squawk, but for the most part it's my grandpa asking me to recite nursery rhymes. My grandfather had a deep, friendly voice. Aden looked up in wonder when he spoke through my cassette recorder and asked, "Is that my great-grandpa?" She'd never heard him before. He died when I was fifteen. She teared up and listened intently.

In the background on that tape, somewhere behind me and my grandpa, are my dad and grandmother, who sound like they are at the kitchen table. They are chatting and laughing.

It's wonderful to hear, but at the same time overwhelming to realize how many people in that recording are gone. Even little toddler me doing a dramatic rendition of Little Miss Muffet doesn't really exist anymore. I miss my grandpa, and grandma, and dad. I miss the world where that littler me used to live.

I'm looking forward to dessert tonight, when we can break out the tapes for everyone at the table. We can listen to my cousins messily reciting the alphabet and adorably singing for my grandpa. We can hear Arno plunk out simple songs on the guitar, and me and my brothers doing a screamy version of Frere Jacques because we thought it was hilarious once upon a time. And we can listen to my grandma tell stories again. The way she used to at Thanksgiving dinner.

Time to take the turkey out, and start working on potatoes and beans and rolls.

Have a wonderful day, however you celebrate. And remember to be thankful for the people you share your life with. They aren't around as long as we'd like.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Writing Retreat: Chapter Two

November is National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo if you want to get weirdly abbreviated about it). It's a nonprofit group that gets people to commit to trying to complete a novel in a month, and provides structure and support for those who need help. I've never participated, but it sounds fun. I just don't have the kind of schedule that lends itself to other people's timelines. I have to carve out my own moments to write, and that doesn't overlap with the beginning of birthday season and Thanksgiving.

But I did arrange to do a second writing retreat up at the cottage with a friend at the beginning of October. I got a lot done.

This year was chilly and it rained most of the time, which was perfect for keeping us indoors and writing. The last few days we even kept a fire going in the fireplace and it was really lovely.

Took a few walks, ate soup, and I even treated myself to my first pedicure in the little shopping square when I needed a break (and decided writing would go faster with pretty toes).

I had three projects to ponder this year.

The first was the last of the copy edits on my novel Just Friends, Just War. (That book is in the proofreading stage right now. I decided to order proofs of it with a placeholder cover, simply because I never spot certain typos until they are actually in print in the book. So I'm proofreading the actual book and can make changes before it goes live.) Just Friends, Just War is the last of the three novels I wrote over a decade ago when I first decided to try my hand at fiction. That book (along with Almost There and Seducing Cat) took a lot of reworking and rewriting to finish. I didn't know what I was doing, and it showed. But failure is how you learn, and figuring out how to edit those books so they functioned was useful. Just Friend, Just War should be ready to publish in early 2020. Here's the current blurb for that:

Alex and Claire are just friends. They are fine with that. Nobody else seems to be. But as they move from high school to college to adult life, there are many ways—both big and small—to test a friendship. Just Friends, Just War follows a friendship from the day it begins through all of its joys and challenges. Sometimes being just friends is more than enough.

My main project was the novel I'm writing now, called 1001 Weddings. This is a novel I had an idea for a long time ago and am finally getting around to it. The big difference is that now I know how to go at a writing project of that size right from the start. I know how I want to handle the point of view, I know how to pace things, I know how to use my voice better. I think it's a good book. I have to flesh parts of it out a bit more, but it's essentially there. When I get to editing, that won't require major overhauls and scrapping whole chapters to repair the basic structure. I'm excited about that. It means I may finally know what I am doing.

My major question with 1001 Weddings is whether or not to try and find a traditional publisher, or do it myself. I've only had two test readers on it, but they both enjoyed it, and it's a super-pitchable book. Here's the first stab at a blurb for it:

Jemma Best is a musician who plays weddings. When she becomes engaged herself, she decides to drum up a little extra business to pay for her own wedding by contacting brides from the past to see if they would like their original quartet to play for an anniversary. Because wouldn’t that be romantic? Seems like a great idea. Until Jemma discovers how all those stories turned out.

I've included lots of wedding stories (most of which are true), and I went out on a limb and made the main character's fiancee a luthier. There's a little danger in that, but I have to admit, I had a lot of fun inventing a fictional shop and getting to complain about luthier things through my character. The book is fun, and structured more like a romance than anything else. My writing retreat friend (who is a professional book reviewer and understands what's out there) thinks it wouldn't be hard to find an agent for, and she could easily imagine it as a movie. That all sounds good, but I have control issues, I guess. I don't like the idea of someone else having the rights to my work. I don't want to be forced to make changes I don't believe in. But I also want to be read, and marketing is not my strong suit. (I suppose I'll worry about that later when the book is finally done.)

The third project is odd. I wrote a whole novel sort of by accident. I was supposed to be working on 1001 Weddings, but then I had an idea about something else and couldn't get it out of my head, so I simply wrote it to be done with it. But then there were more ideas. So I wrote those. And then I was at 106,000 words that I didn't really mean to write. I let two friends read it who were the only people who knew where the original ideas came from, and they both read through it fast and I think liked it. Or parts of it. But at my writing retreat, my friend with no preconceived ideas about what it should be, ripped it to shreds. As she should have. It was not developed right. Because it was an accident.

But! Here's the thing: She still read it in one night. She didn't intend to. She planned to read maybe a chapter and go to sleep. So even though she found it implausible and the characters all too similar (because again, not developed, so they all had my draft voice instead of their own), she still kept reading. She liked the writing. She was almost dismissive about that part, as in, "Of course it's all written well, but...."

That's big. It means I know how to write, right from the first draft. Even if it's not good yet, it still keeps people turning pages. Plot points and characters I can fix. I'm actually really looking forward to tearing that novel down to the studs and rebuilding it after I've given it real thought. But to be able to pace things and lay them out in a manner that people want to keep reading? I feel like that's something different and more fundamental. Sort of like back in music school, if you were a person who brought real expression to your playing that made people want to listen, rather than someone who did things technically well but came across as cold. That's hard to teach. In my experience, either players have that ability to be musical, or they don't. I've always been told I'm a musical player. I now feel as if maybe I have musicality in my writing, too.

Unfortunately, when I take time off work, the work doesn't stop appearing on my bench. So I haven't had any time to write anything since I returned from the cottage. I've merely been trying to dig out of the hole of rehairs and instrument repairs, but after many late nights in the shop I'm almost caught up. (There are many people who wander into my violin store and marvel at my "dying art" which always makes me laugh. As long as people keep dropping things, my art is alive and well. And people never stop dropping things.)

I hope I find some time soon. Because in addition to ideas for my novel, I'm also working on a repair diagnostics guide for violin teachers that I think will be really good, and fills a need.

Why are there so few hours in the day to get everything done? There is so much I want to do that I never get to! (And on that note, I need to get off my laptop and start cleaning the house. Because for those who ask, "Where do you find the time?" the answer is: my house is a mess. But I think at this stage, I'd rather be remembered for things I've created than for a nicely made bed.)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Mona the Golden Pheasant

Another costume entirely of Mona's creation: the Golden Pheasant.

Mona's only limitation to her costume making (besides adequate space to store things and an infinite budget) is time. She tends to bite off more than she can chew when it comes to certain deadlines, where she has elaborate plans and then hits a wall where she has to make fast compromises.

This year, Milwaukee trick-or-treat was on the evening of the 26th, and Mona worked on her outfit right up until the 5:00 start time. She really only had the head, wings, and tail done, and I ended up safety-pinning swaths of fabric around her body to fill it out, but I still think it's amazing. The head took weeks. The wings even longer.

The head started out as a base of old sheet fabric, tin foil, and duct tape, and then she overlaid it with lots of little pieces cut out of fleece. I didn't follow everything she was doing for the wings, all I know was that some of the support structures in it didn't like the rain.

And boy did it rain on trick-or-treat this year. Hands down this was the most miserable Halloween night ever for us--all rain and wind and cold, and it kept getting worse as the evening wore on. My kids bagged it after only about twenty minutes, and we never even moved over to the violin store side of town where the street behind us goes all out and is usually a good time. We had leftover candy! We never have leftover candy. Only about 200 kids came to the house, which is less than half of what we usually get.

I don't even have my usually pictures of my kids all posing in their costumes together this year. The closest I have are these shots under umbrellas.

So, trick-or-treat was a bit of a bust, but the costumes were still fun. Next year trick-or-treat should actually be on Halloween (what a concept), and maybe some of this year's outfits will roll over to then since they didn't get much use this time around. (Except for Aden's octopus. Anyone can wear it, and Aden likes to lounge about in it.)

Anyway, go Mona! I'm so proud of her for being willing to tackle hard projects. I think her golden pheasant is great. (And I'm glad I didn't have to make it.)

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Aden the Octopus

This costume is really fun. Easy on, easy off, no zipper, cozy to lounge around in.


When Aden decided she wanted to be an octopus, my first thought was to make her arms and legs into tentacles, and have the additional tentacles be suspended from her arms with fishing line. But Aden had a much better idea, which was to create a costume like a poncho with a hood and have tentacles all around.

The three tentacles in the back are sewn closed, but all the others are open so Aden can put her arms into whichever she likes. Sewing-wise this was a pretty simple costume. The time consuming part was all the suction cups, which Aden cut out and glued herself.

She's wearing all black underneath, including black gloves. Looking forward to seeing this outfit on tonight at trick-or-treat when she should look like an octopus just floating about the neighborhood!
Aden says it may be her most favorite costume yet. I'm glad I can make her happy with something like this!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Quinn the Hoatzin

No, I'd never heard of it either. When we started brainstorming costumes for this Halloween, Quinn settled on some kind of bird and simply searched around the internet until he found one he liked.

Hoatzins are striking birds from more tropical regions of our hemisphere, but so far I've only had one friend know what they are (because she saw them on a bird watching expedition). I asked Quinn if he minded dressing as something no one would recognize, and he was fine with that. (As the costume maker, the idea that the more accurate my creation the less likely anyone would know what I made is a bit discouraging, but no more so than the thirteen-lined-ground-squirrel or the chimera, and those made my kid happy, which is really the only point.)

I think it came out okay. Quinn was not thrilled that I wanted pictures before I got around to painting his beak a darker shade of grey, but eh. The costume is comfortable and warm, which considering how the temperature keeps dropping here makes it practical. I've always been glad that my kids have never needed to wear a coat over their costumes. (My memories of trick-or-treating in Detroit involve a lot of rain.)

Anyway, behold the hoatzin! Can't help you with the proper pronunciation, but at least you have an idea how such a bird might look out of fleece now.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Death of a Bow Maker

I received the news today that my friend and colleague, Steve Haas, has died.

Steve was a bow maker and a restorer. He called me a week before he went in for heart surgery this summer. He was optimistic. He anticipated having more energy when the operation was over. I offered to help with any last minute work that showed up on his bench, or to take a turn at walking his dog if needed. He said he had everything covered. He promised to call me when he was home again, and said he would make an effort to find time to go to lunch. Our last lunch was a summer ago not far from his new shop.

But then Steve never did call me back about that lunch. I left messages on his voicemail to check in. I heard word from other musicians who came through my shop that the surgery had gone badly. There were complications and he was in the ICU. Last week someone told me he was on life support. The news this morning was not unexpected, but is still a shock. To know for certain someone in your life is truly gone is always a shock.

I met Steve in the mid-90s when I moved to Milwaukee to learn violin making. My school had summers off, and my teacher recommended I use that time to learn to rehair bows. It was a valuable skill that would be welcome in any violin shop, and he said the person I should learn from was Steve Haas at Classical Strings. That's where the symphony level players took their instruments.

There was no job, though, at Classical Strings. I called Steve and introduced myself, and told him I wanted him to teach me how to rehair bows. He didn't think he could help me with that, but agreed to meet me for lunch. We went to his favorite Mexican place. I was in my late-twenties and enthusiastic, and by the end of the meeting I had convinced him to let me join his shop where he would teach me what he knew.

Steve looked amused and a little dazed as we returned to Classical Strings. He told me point blank he wasn't sure why he was giving me a job, since it didn't make sense to train his future competition. But I was persuasive. Teaching me to rehair bows would be beneficial to us both, I promised, so he took me on, mostly to answer the phone and deal with customers, which would help keep him on the bench. (The hardest part of running your own shop, and also doing the bench work, is battling interruptions.)

I won't lie; working for Steve was hard. He was demanding. He was quirky. He was typical of many people in my trade in his attention to detail and in creating a small world of exacting habits.

The day he made me learn to use his vernier caliper, I cried, because he wanted me to do it in a way that made sense to him, not in a way that helped me. It took hours. I wasn't allowed to take notes, I wasn't allowed to ask certain questions, I was simply supposed to be able to do it the way he did it. The woman who did restoration work at the next bench consoled me when Steve left the room, and said that happened to everyone. The crazy part of that whole exercise was that I had my own dial caliper that I could read just fine. I never needed his, ever, so I don't know what the lesson was truly about. However, most of the lessons I learned were invaluable. It was worth the occasional bout of tears to have access to that knowledge.

The most infuriating quote in Steve's shop was, "There's the right way, the wrong way, and Steve's way." Which meant you could be right and still be wrong. So, no, not an easy place to work, and I was on the payroll for a decade.

But there were other quotes that stay with me. Such as: "One slip with your tool and you've changed history." Steve's respect for the instruments and bows that came through his shop was genuine. He knew what he was doing. His work was excellent. The standard he set was intimidatingly high. It was maybe a year of working on bows in his shop that he stopped feeling the need to inspect everything I did and trusted me to simply do the job.

And training me to rehair bows did turn out to work in his favor, because at some point he entered a battle with cancer during which his hands became unreliable. The chemo took a toll, and for a long stretch I was doing all of the bow work that came through the shop. I was glad to be able to help. I was proud that my work was at a level that it could pass for his. Steve seldom doled out compliments, but there was a moment in the middle of those difficult couple of years that he told me with great seriousness I was the best bow rehairer in town. On days when I am frustrated with my own work, I cling to that statement to get me through.

When I graduated from violin making school, Steve took me on closer to full-time and year round. I moved into repair work, which is a different skill from building. Under his careful eye I learned full setup, how to dress boards, straighten bridges, glue seams, adjust soundposts, fix cracks, bush a pegbox, raise a nut, find a buzz, and to clean violins properly. Everything I know about repair I learned from Steve.

Steve told me once that one of his favorite stories was how at my first violin making competition I was the only person in the line of people receiving comments from a judge that did not get a lecture about the proper shape of a fingerboard. The judge sighted up the neck of my instrument and said appreciatively, "You dress a lot of boards." I told him that was very true. And every one of them had to be up to Steve's standard, because you could not get away with anything less at Classical Strings. Steve told me he thought about that often, and how it always made him smile. That may have been the first time he gave any real thought to how what he knew was being passed on into the world beyond what his own hands accomplished.

Steve made beautiful bows. I've never made a bow, but he said if we ever found the time he would show me what to do. We never found that time. I told him a couple of years ago that if he had another of his bows available for sale I would like one. But he hadn't made bows in ages, and they didn't cross his bench very often. I still wish I had one of his bows.

Steve had a variety of struggles, and we didn't agree on certain things, but I admired that he was always trying to grow. For someone whose inclination was often to be rigid, he could recognize when he was wrong and say so. He listened to me instead of just arguing, and told me later if I'd changed his mind on topics I found important.

He was a good musician, too, although I don't know if he thought of himself that way in comparison to the professionals that came through his shop. He played guitar, and there was an ease to what he did that I don't have. Whatever instrument Steve pulled into his lap at the shop ended up playing the opening bars of "Smoke on the Water."

I am lucky to be able to say that I went from being Steve's employee to his colleague and his friend. When I opened my own shop in 2008 he was nothing but supportive. The idea of competition in this field is negligible. It's good to share the work. Our interests and skills complemented each other across town, where I like to deal with people and a rental program and sales and quick service, and Steve liked to work alone doing intricate projects over a long period of time. We sent clients to each other as seemed appropriate. And whenever I had a question or a problem or needed someone to brainstorm with about shop issues, Steve was always at the other end of the phone. I can't believe that resource and all he knew is lost to us now.

He was always looking forward, but actively appreciated whatever stage of life he was in. He only ever had positive things to say about his kids. He loved his work. His new shop was charming, and I think he recently had gotten around to unpacking the final box.

Steve was in a good place when he called me this summer. He insisted he wasn't scared. He'd had many health problems over the years, but he had faith that this surgery would keep his life going in the positive trajectory it was moving. He was at peace with himself.

He will be missed.

[ADDENDUM Posted on Facebook the next day:

I want to say a little more about Steve Haas now that I've had a bit of time to process his passing. The post I wrote on my blog yesterday was stream of consciousness in what short amount of time I had before heading to work. It's since been edited a little and amended. But there is more to say.

Steve was a complicated character, but an example to me of what you can do when you rise above. He did not come from an easy background. He was met with adversity at several turns. But he didn't whine about things, or complain unnecessarily. He always looked to the positive, even when it was something small. I remember when he was ill with chemo how he would talk about it honestly, but then focus instead on whatever movies he'd watched to distract him from the nausea. He often found the silver lining, and it troubled him when he couldn't.

Most people never saw behind the scenes of how their instruments were tended in his shop. They would have been pleased to know the kind of care he took, and ensured the rest of us did, too.

I wish Steve had made himself get out more, especially to play music with other people. He had a lot to share, but isolated himself a bit much. Which I get. The kind of work we do is better done in solitary much of the time, and that instinct bleeds over into other things. But he liked when I made the effort to visit him in his shop and would show me what he was working on. He liked and admired so many people in our community, probably more than they know.

Steve was generous to me on many levels, including finding ways to keep work on my bench even as my husband got deployed and I suddenly had to juggle everything with small children. He'd figure out which projects I could do on my bench at home at night, and never made it seem like a burden that my hours were suddenly so scarce.

And Steve could not have been more supportive of my opening my own shop. He even had the crazy idea of working for me at one point when he was in transition and wanted to let go of certain responsibilities that are part of running a small business. He thought I looked like a nice boss. I told him it made more sense for him to maintain his own shop identity and I would just keep sending him restoration and bow work as it came up, and he could keep sending me renters. Teaming up officially would have been a disaster, but I was incredibly flattered that he wanted me to consider it at all. Could anyone expect a higher compliment from a mentor?

I have Steve's number on the wall by my bench because he was always the first person I'd call when I had a shop question. He usually had an answer. I'm not sure what to do in this new world today where he won't be at the other end of the line.]

Saturday, September 7, 2019

As it should be

Too often I feel as if the norm is frustration, distance, and disorder. There is too much to do, never enough time, and we don't see enough of the people we care about.

This past holiday weekend was the exception, but it felt like the way things should be.

We got to spend Labor Day weekend at the cottage. All trips to the cottage are good, but this one was a throwback to more than a decade past when it was packed with family from all over. There were 13 of us there (three who stayed at a nearby B&B at night) and it was one of the best weekends ever.