Sunday, June 19, 2022

Dear Dad, 2022

Dear Dad,

Wow, what a year. We’re in this weird phase of moving out of the pandemic, while the pandemic is also still here. The beauty of being vaccinated, though, is hospitalization and death seem off the table. Long Covid is still a concern (I know too many people suffering with that to take it lightly), but the fear has lifted. Now it’s just an annoyance. I’m tired of masks. I’m tired of takeout rather than eating in restaurants. I’m tired of the social stress of people behaving without care for others and the divisions it causes. (Someone actually stuck a flyer on the door of the violin shop by the sign saying we require masks condemning our “virtue signaling.” That was just cowardly and rude.)

But the exciting thing about life getting back to something closer to normal is we get to do stuff again! There are concerts to play, and people to see.

The event where I thought about you most was when Mom and I went to Venice. Dad, we went back to Venice! But this time I got to play a concert there with my mandolin orchestra. I wish you could have heard us. You’d have loved it. We played against a backdrop of Tintoretto paintings. It was wonderful to have a chance to travel with just Mom for a week in Italy like that, but you would have loved it so much. The food, the canals, the gelato, the art, the endless places to wander. . .  You wouldn’t have kayaked with us, though. Mom and I would have waved to you as we paddled and you stayed in your suit and tie on a nice civilized path alongside the water. But oh, Dad, you would have loved all of it.

The garden back in Detroit is looking amazing. I don’t know how Mom does it. Our yard is such mess! Literally, right now, because we had a new deck put in, and the old pile of deck garbage is still here. The new fence doesn’t go up for another week or so. But it’s so nice to be in the backyard! I’m sitting on the new deck right now in the shade of the beech tree, perfect temperature, nice breeze, no fear of rotting boards giving way underneath me and sending me to my doom. We even strung some lights from the garage to the terrace above the new deck the way I always meant to and never did. We might repaint the mural on the garage wall from a dozen years ago. Quinn in particular feels it's time to paint something much better. Mona has ideas.

I got to do the varnish workshop again, finally. I still had those three instruments in the white I bought to use in 2020 before the pandemic shut everything down. And I had three instruments of my own to varnish, so that was fun. (I don’t think I’ll build three instruments at the same time anymore. Two is plenty. Three gets overwhelming.) I built a violin for Mona that she doesn’t want, but I’m glad I did it anyway. The little bird Aden drew on the back of the scroll came out cute. The violin sounds nice! I still need to make one with simpler wood for mom to paint. That’s one of the many projects that never quite seems to happen, but I do want to make a violin in the white for mom to decorate. That would be cool. I wish I could have done that with you, too! I’m trying to picture how fast you would get that done. It would be funny, because my part, building the instrument would take months, and then you would paint something amazing in under ten minutes and that would be the only thing anyone would comment on or praise. (And that would have been fine.)

Which reminds me, I did an internet search not long ago for your ties. I think often about all those ties you painted in that sweatshop in Brooklyn and there have to be some of those still out there in the world. I feel certain I would recognize your work if I saw one, but who knows? Mona and I went through a portfolio of Mom’s old prints from early in your marriage and before, and it’s fascinating to see what elements of her style have persisted, and what things are hard to recognize as her hand. Maybe those ties of yours don’t resemble what I think of as your work. Maybe I’ve passed one on the street and didn’t know.

Writing is weirdly stalled. I need to buckle down for one more edit on my latest novel, and figure out what I’m doing. I feel if I play the numbers game, I have a shot at a traditional publisher. But maybe I’d like the control better of staying indie and just investing in real marketing for a change. Or maybe creative control but with some support from a hybrid publisher is the way to go. I don’t know. All the non-writing bits of writing gets really discouraging and frustrating. But I like the new book. It’s fun. (And wouldn’t make you weep like the first one did!)

I think the oddest thing at the moment that I wish I had you here to talk about is the transition away from having kids in the house. We spent so many years where everything was centered around the needs of our kids, and scheduling things based on school calendars, or having to base so many meals adjusted to boring palates. . . And now they are essentially all grown up and it’s wonderful in new ways, but very different. Ian and I actually have to figure out what we want to do. We’ve spent a long time tag teaming to get things done, but now we can do things together again. So there are good things which are exciting, but it’s also a bit sad. I’m looking back on all their childhoods and wondering if it was okay. I don’t get a do-over. Maybe it wasn’t enough. I tried, though. I really did try.

I keep thinking there will be some relief at least in not being responsible for all of them in front of me all the time, but then I think about that lunch at your house where Alit was over. She’d just had her first child, and she said she had been experiencing nightmares where she was scared for the baby or didn’t know where she was and was panicked, and you looked at her sadly and said, “That never goes away.” So I’ve thought ever since that I should be prepared for that to be the case.

Luckily, though, at the moment it doesn’t seem to be. Aden finally got to leave for her first year of college, and when I don't hear from her, it means she's happy and busy. At the moment, Aden’s off being a camp counselor to six and seven-year-olds. She loves it. She found the job herself, and she’s teaching little kids art, and seems to be really enjoying everything. She loved her first year of college. There were a couple of complications, but you know what? She handled it all herself and did fine. She loves UW Stout. She’s made good friends. She’s adorable and sweet and making beautiful things. Aden’s even in a print club where they did some giant woodcut pieces that they printed on fabric using a steamroller! How fun is that? Anyway, she’s amazing. She’s still magical. All blue eyes and happy laughs and funny and kind. Just like the tiny girl you remember, only taller. I really miss her. I was supposed to have a week with her between college and camp, but then Ian’s mother died, and she agreed to go with her dad to Portland to help him sort out the house and the estate stuff. I don’t know if she was helpful in a practical sense, but the emotional support she gave Ian was invaluable. With a little luck she’ll be home for a week or two at the end of the summer, but that seems like a long time away. We have lots of Star Trek to binge together whenever she gets back.

Speaking of Ian, he’s doing okay. I think he’s still in a bit of shock after losing his mother so unexpectedly. The stress of managing the house in probate, etc., is a bit much. I’m trying to help where I can. But I know what it’s like to lose a parent, and there’s really only so much anyone can do. That’s just a hole in your life that never gets filled. You learn to walk around the hole or face away from it sometimes, but it’s always there. I feel like the yard that is my life has a few big holes at this point, and maybe when there’s nowhere left to walk that’s how you know it’s time to go.

I wish you were here to talk with Mona. She finished high school a semester early, and graduated 6th in her class! You’d have been so proud, but you wouldn’t have had a ceremony to watch. She tried a semester of college online through UWM, however it was awful and turned her off of college entirely. I keep telling her that that wasn’t college, that was sitting at our dining room table watching assigned YouTube videos, and she should do a real semester of art school somewhere in person before she makes up her mind if that’s of any value or not. I feel like she might have listened to you. She did apply to Pratt based on the idea that you thought she should go there when she was only 11. You loved college so much (14 years of it? Am I remembering that right?) and you would have had lots to tell her about why she should give it a go. She’s not really listening to me, so nothing I say gets through. If you were still around, I would find a way to send the two of you off to Paris for a bit, and you could give her the tour you once gave the St Paul School boys, and you could draw together and see all the museums, and I would be satisfied that that was enough of an education if she still didn’t want to do school. She is focusing in on jobs and putting together a resume. The most enticing plan of the moment is to set her up in Nancy’s house in Portland and let her get a fresh start in a new state, but with housing and transportation covered so there is a cushion while being far from home. We’ll see. I know she will be fine. It’s just hard to see her so anxious while she’s living in a time of unknowns. But damn I wish you could see her work. She’s so good. She won the Racine Art Museum Peep contest this year with her Peepzilla, so her sculpture abilities are as strong as ever, but her ink drawings are mind blowing. I would give anything for you could see.

Quinn came out as trans recently. She surprised us with a cake that was the trans-pride flag inside. Not that the news was a surprise, just the cake. Remember all those conversations we had when she was only two and insisted she was a girl? Changed her name and everything for a couple of years? I know you thought I was being overindulgent and not helping her in the world by going along with it at the time. But now I’m wishing I’d advocated more for her earlier. It’s so hard to know. She needed to come into herself in her own way and her own time, so maybe an official coming out did have to wait until now. I don’t know. But I’m really proud of her for being so courageous. This country is so cruel to trans-people, and the rhetoric is so nasty, that I’m already fearful about places she can’t go and be safe. As if anyone has anything to fear from someone as sweet as Quinn! I wonder how you would have handled her coming out? I suspect it might have taken some adjustment (heck, I will be stumbling over pronouns for a while out of habit), but I also picture you doing some amazing drawing full of rainbows and weird birds to send her in celebration. I know your love would never have wavered. There’s nothing not to love about Quinn. I’m hoping the fact that her entire family is in her corner will help what will likely be a complicated path. I’m going to smooth it as best I’m able.

Well, the lights above the new deck have switched on in the dusk, and the bugs are far too interested in my laptop screen. Time to wrap this up.

I love you, Dad. That never changes. I hate that you didn’t get to go with Ellora on her tour of colleges (I can’t imagine anything that could have made you happier!), or that we can’t really tell you she got into Berkeley. I hate that you don’t get to see how little Rivyn (not so little now at seven!) is a bundle of creative energy like his father and such a pure delight. You would be amazed at the beautiful work Mom is doing lately. She told me she misses how she always counted on you to look at a piece and be able to tell her when it was done. It feels unfair that life goes on and you’re missing some wonderful things. But life isn’t fair.

I love you. Happy Father’s Day. I will try to make you proud even though you can’t see.

Love, Kory

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Why A Women's Night Out

I started this post in a side note about my recent varnish workshop, and it was getting pretty long and off topic, so it made sense to simply get it all off my chest in its own place.

Until the creation of the Women In Lutherie group, I felt rather alone. Working in a male-dominated field is tricky. There are some wonderful, humble, supportive men out there, but they are not as vocal as the ones who feel the need to posture, or make everything some sort of competition where they must win. The number of men (particularly in online violin maker groups) who can't wait to tell you you are wrong is staggering. 

But the Women In Lutherie group is not like that. It's empowering and friendly. And as of this moment, it has more than 600 members. Now I don't feel so alone. These women have helped my confidence, my techniques, and my sense of belonging in this field. It's wonderful.

So of course at the latest varnish workshop in Chicago, which had the largest number of women yet in attendance (out of 14 people, six of us were women), we wanted one night out together to relax and talk among ourselves.

A few of the men at the workshop expressed disappointment at being "excluded" from the Women In Lutherie dinner. None of us want to make anyone feel bad, but we're also tired of being made to feel we have to justify ourselves. We simply said, "Go do your own thing! We'll meet up together tomorrow!" It was not forever. It was for one dinner.

On any given night when a bunch of luthiers get together, it's nearly always a men's night out. They get that by default often enough. When it came up again that "how would we have felt if they'd gone off and had a men's night," one of my friends finally blurted out in frustration: "Every night is men's night!" But the thing I wanted to say, and didn't find the opportunity in that context, was this:

Our experience is different. It just is. And sometimes it's a relief to be with others who understand, and whom you don't have to explain any of that to. It's nice to be among luthiers who never ask "what wood are violins made from?" It's nice to be with fellow musicians sometimes who get what that means. It's nice to hang out with friends who went to your same school and shared certain experiences. There are lots of different ways to feel a sense of belonging and comfort. And sometimes also safety, and shared frustration.

When women get together, do we talk about men who make our lives complicated? Sometimes. And if that makes any man nervous, he should ask himself why. (Because the men who are not nervous, know we're not discussing them in any bad light.) 

In what way is the experience of a woman luthier different? Here's one example:

Any of those men in the workshop, if they were seated behind a bench in any violin shop in the world, and a new customer walked in, would not only be assumed by that client to be the luthier, but probably given the benefit of the doubt that they were experts in their field.

I am not granted that. No woman I know is granted that.

My name is on the window, I wear an apron, I sit at a workbench with tools in my hands, and still people address my husband if he's behind his computer at the other desk. I have to explain I am the luthier, then prove myself worthy. It's exhausting. And demoralizing.

I recently spent half an hour with an older man, explaining what work his violin needed, and I thought by the time he agreed to all of it that I had earned his respect. But when I was writing up his work ticket, he looked past me to my husband and said, "How often do you have to bite your tongue to keep from interrupting her?"

To his credit, my husband didn't miss a beat and replied, "Never. She's the luthier."

I know the man thought he was being cute or funny. But would it ever occur to him to say that if it were the other way around? Would he ever assume the woman was the luthier in the room? Men are assumed to have knowledge about tools. The default about women is ignorance. 

I have two major thoughts about that incident. The first is, for the occasional person who says something like this, how many are simply thinking it? That's a hard idea to shake when working with people.

The second is, many of us in this (and other) fields suffer a certain amount of imposter syndrome. We all harbor doubts about our abilities and worthiness, because there is always someone better, someone more talented and successful, and to find the balance of humility and confidence that allows us to function can be tricky from day to day. Men in lutherie tend to at least be granted a level of trust that they must know what they are doing. If they are feeling insecure, they can feel somewhat assuaged by those who walk into their shops starting from a level of belief in the abilities of the luthier before them. The average person tends to bolster their confidence.

Women, by comparison, tend to feel undermined. When your own doubts are subtly (or not so subtly) reflected back at you regularly, it makes the work harder.

This hurts everyone, frankly. Not just for women who aren't given enough opportunities or encouragement, but I've met men who are not as good as they think they are, who do damage because they overstepped their abilities since their egos were not in check. Women don't want to make mistakes, men don't want to be wrong. Both things feed into how we are perceived overall.

Maybe men don't want to believe my experiences as a luthier are different. That doesn't change the truth of it for me, and other women I know. And there are times I don't have the energy to explain it.

The dinner out with the women during the workshop was illuminating and delightful. The dinners out with everyone were also fun. Just different. 

Would it be nice if the world functioned in a way that a women's only dinner (or group) felt unnecessary?

YES! YES IT WOULD! Let's work toward that! Let's hope for that! I would love to feel as welcomed and understood and supported and included in the world of lutherie as a whole that a Women In Lutherie group could be cast off as a curiosity.

But that's not the world we are in at the moment. I don't just like this group, I need this group. I am better because of this group.

And for men who don't want to feel left out, you need to change your end of things. That's not our job. You need to help make the general space welcoming enough that we don't want to occasionally retreat from it. That's a good goal, and not just for lutherie.