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Daughter of a Bitch (A Mission Statement) July 19, 2013

Posted by craftlass in education, life lessons, people.
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My mother was an educator. I don’t mean that was her job or even career, though it was how she always earned her money. She was one of those amazing people who lived to teach instead of teaching to live.

That was about all I knew when she was still alive. I knew her resume, knew she was a high school salutatorian who never got over losing valedictorian by a tiny fraction of a point, that she had gotten her PhD with a dissertation on something to do with Chaucer, that she had once taught college but had moved on to high school by the time I came along. I knew that her days were filled with students and her evenings were, well, often filled with students, parents, and other teachers. If she was home, she was grading, writing lesson plans, or, when she’d finished her necessary work, she was plotting how to make education better for every student in her school, state, nation, and perhaps even world.

That’s not to say she wasn’t an active parent to me. Oh, no. My dad was the quantity time parent, a “Mr. Mom” before that movie existed (even with his full-time high-pressure job, which blows my mind), but my mother swooped in with quality time in regular intervals. Her intimidating intellect and passion for great thought translated into some pretty cool mother-daughter activities, at least now that I look back with the realization that most moms don’t actually speak Old English, let alone think Beowulf is a bedtime story a small child might enjoy hearing (since I couldn’t understand, it wasn’t scary, but I loved the weird sounds she made and the poetry of it all). She took me to visit places of great history, here and abroad, and usually taught me far more about them than the poor tour guides who got stuck with us. Almost no vacation was allowed without an educational component, even our winter trips to thaw on Caribbean beaches always included visiting the markets to meet locals and learn their oral traditions of story and song. When I discovered Shakespeare on my own due at the age of 7 to the 27 copies (yes, I counted) of his Complete Works she had on a shelf and childhood boredom, she didn’t swoop in to teach me about what I was reading, but let me form my own questions first and then answered them without an ounce of patronization. I didn’t often have her attention, but when I did, it was her full attention.

Did I resent that she would often have to miss my activities due to work? Sure. I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and saw many of my friends had moms who were always around and unfailingly cheered them on. I had yet to learn that quality time is superior to quantity time, too. Looking back, though, I don’t just understand, I am so grateful that I had a mom who forced me to learn independence from the beginning and mixed it up by building great memories when we were together. Don’t get me wrong, if I needed her, she was there in a heartbeat, but my first thought in a crisis has never been, “Help me, Mommy!” She was my last resort, the great weapon I’d unleash on a world that I thought had done me wrong.

She was far from perfect. Her temper was epic and, as I grew older and became more and more like her (read: stubborn), we clashed even more than most mothers and daughters. She pushed me just as hard as she pushed herself and I often cracked under the relentless pressure. I sometimes felt like I was one of her trophies, but one that could never be polished enough. That I definitely resented full-time.

So, when she was hit by a drunk driver and died in a foreign land that prevented not only a goodbye but kept me from the knowledge that she was dead until almost two days later, it was a very confusing experience. The grief of losing her so unexpectedly mingled with a sense of being free for the first time in my life to just be myself. I was 15 and in full rebellion mode. I worried that it was possible that I had wished her dead, even. Stupid thoughts, yes, but natural in the midst of crisis. I used that new-found freedom, though, even reveled in it. I spent a long time barely thinking about her outside of those random moments where it would hit me that she really was gone and I’d allow myself to feel the loss for just a little while.

Cut to 2013: She’s been gone for well over half of my life, a life that I have built into one I never would have expected to have back when she was around. Along the way I have become friends with many educators, even a few with PhDs of their own. I, a high school and college dropout, seem to regularly wind up in long conversations about education and how to improve it, conversations that echo my childhood dinner table. While talking to a professor friend about how I had found my mother mentioned in some recent scholarly works as an expert in the field of Chaucer (a huge surprise for me), my mother’s choice to switch to teaching high school came up and my friend pointed out that my mom got to leave the competitive world of high academia when she did made that move. I immediately replied that my mom would have relished the competition, then realized I wasn’t qualified to answer for her. I had no idea who she was, really. I only knew her as my mother and as a resume. That’s the worst part of losing a parent before you are an adult yourself.

So, I called the person who stood right next to her through all of her choices, my father, and asked, “How did Mom feel about academia, was the competitive atmosphere any part of her decision to leave, and did she struggle with that choice?” It led to a lot of discussion. He revealed that she was pretty sure she would succeed in academia and she knew she’d miss the opportunity to spend a lot of time in research, but that she felt a calling and saw teaching high school as far more challenging than publishing. She did once tell me directly, when I first realized she had been a professor, that, “In college, minds are already set in their ways, and many students can no longer be reached. I wanted to change that, and that meant getting to kids when they were younger.” Still, finding out that her life-changing choice had been easy was revealing. She could have been a star, with piles of scholarly works bearing her name. Instead, she toiled away endlessly in the dark caves of public education, trying to convince the kids she encountered who had never tasted opportunity that education and hard work was the path to a better life and pissing off parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, and the teacher’s union along the way because, to her, all that mattered was the kids. She thought tenure was a travesty, that teachers should always be available to any student who wanted to learn more regardless of what time it was, and that education was the only way to make a better world for everyone. She climbed her way into being a principal so she could create change for even more students and I remember clearly her pride in finding ways to get lazy teachers out of the classroom despite not being able to fire them due to the system she had to operate within. She missed teaching, but the kids needed more from her. She got a lot of threats from every direction, to the point where I was only allowed two years in public school due to fears that I would experience retaliation on her behalf, despite her love of and deep belief in public education. She never wavered on her mission and it truly was a mission.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I understand a good part of who my mother was as a person and what drove her to be that way. More importantly, I feel like we could be friends now, something that even two days ago I never would have thought. She’s been gone for over 20 years, but she’s not gone at all. Not in the “she’s in heaven looking after me” or “her spirit will always be with me” ways, but through imparting those values in her only child. I suddenly understand why I always choose the most difficult path open to me. I’ve often wished that I could be a “normal” person who can focus on things like having security, who didn’t prefer stress and struggle to ease, and who doesn’t feel the pain of those with less privilege with such acuity. Today, I’m letting all of that go, not in my old apathetic this-is-just-who-I-am way, but with purpose and as a choice.

I’ve always been my mother’s daughter, but now I’m determined to BE MY MOTHER’S DAUGHTER.

No, this doesn’t mean I’m going back to college anytime soon or aiming to work in the school system, that would not be true to who I am or the talents I possess. Nor does it mean that I’m going to start screaming the moment someone angers me (that part of her was a big lesson in how not to live). I’m just going to make an active choice to embrace the uncomfortable parts of being me and use them as fuel instead of fighting or bemoaning them.

I’m going to stop rebelling against the imaginary mother I’d concocted out of the haphazard memories that are all you have when you lose a parent during that time when you’re not really supposed to get along with your parents and do my best to live up to the woman who actually was my mother instead.

I’m going to use the same issues that have held me back to drive myself forward.

I’m going to recognize that her less savory behavior towards me was not due to disappointment but rather the potential she saw in me and desire to see it fulfilled. Even with expert educators, their own children don’t come with a manual. She did the best she could and that’s a whole lot better than a lot of children get.

I’m going to do what I can to become someone my mother would be truly proud to call her daughter, because there could be no higher honor in all the land.

Despite the amount of effort I know this will take, I feel a sense of peace within me for the very first time, all because a friend made a comment that sparked a question I couldn’t honestly answer.

Life may be too short, but it never stops bringing surprises.


The Best and the Worst May 22, 2013

Posted by craftlass in education, life lessons, women's rights.
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I don’t scare very easily. I have walked the streets of many a city alone, feeling perfectly comfortable just about anywhere. I’m cautious, always aware of everyone around me, as anyone who has spent a lot of time in urban environments learns to do, but it’s been a long time since I felt a true threat.

I’m disgusted by many actions aimed towards women, but I’m also used to a lot of offensive behavior, have become inured to it (sadly). I rail against it more for other women’s sake than my own.

Then I got on the “other” PATH train last night, meaning the connecting route from the World Trade Center to Hoboken, with a change at Grove Street. I take the 33rd Street line at all sorts of hours somewhat regularly, it’s always crowded late at night and, while sometimes annoying, it always feels safe. One of the myriad reasons I chose to move to the Mile Square City was I have never felt truly threatened on the train or the streets at any hour, even before I lived here or it was known as a safe place. I was tired of the extra precautions required in some not-so-great neighborhoods I’d lived in and paying for cabs in the wee hours. Anecdotally, most of the women I know who have been attacked at night in the city were attacked on the subway (I have no statistics, and most seem to go unreported anyway, so I’m a little suspicious of data on this topic). Being brave does not mean taking stupid risks, so getting to avoid the MTA system without spending a fortune is one of the many great perks of living Jersey-side.

I had been hanging out downtown with two male friends, who were gracious enough to walk me to two blocks away from the station before we said our goodbyes. I paused for a moment to admire the St. Paul’s Church graveyard, as I always do when I walk by, thinking about the rich history it contains. Walking on, I stared up at World Trade Center 1, finally nearing completion and beautiful enough to win over this hard heart of mine (I wanted them to just rebuild the old buildings, show everyone we don’t give in, but I accept what we’ve been given to ogle). I was in a fantastic mood, having had a wonderful night with people I love, and skipped my way down the escalators and stairs to the platform. There was a decent amount of people, less than I’m used to at that time, but there were enough that when we got to Grove Street, quite a few people got out. Most went up the stairs and out of the station, leaving only two men and me on the platform. I sat down and noticed I had 1x data, so I checked the schedule and saw the train should arrive at 1:55. It was 1:47. Okay, that’s not long. 1:55 rolled around…1:56…1:57…2:00…

Suddenly I heard a voice call out, “Look at me!” Reflexively looking towards the voice I saw a man standing by a column with his pants down. I took a deep breath and looked pointedly down at my phone, trying to just not give him any satisfaction, and tweeted:

I tried to shrug it off as I just really wanted to the train to come. Right then. But then I looked up again and the guy was walking towards me, with his hips thrust forward and pants around his knees. My Spidey-sense was screaming and I could hear the sounds of construction above me. Before I even knew what I was doing I was racing up the stairs, with the guy in full pursuit. Yellow tape and a barrier were blocking off a stairway to the street. I flat-out hurdled them and ran up to a construction worker in a mask and rapidly told him what had happened. One of his co-workers came over, and upon hearing the very brief version, went running down the stairs to find the guy just as the train finally came it. I don’t know if Mr. Creepy jumped on the train or ran out of the station via the open stairs somehow, but he was gone. The first construction worker went over to the help phone and contacted the police while the other asked me for more details. We all went up to the street to wait for the police, who arrived a few minutes later and took my statement and description of the man. One of the workers went back to his job while the other made sure I was getting into a cab home. With no cash on hand. I called and woke my partner, gushing out a non-detailed explanation, fearful that my drained battery would run out on me before I got through. The phone stayed alive. I was going to make it home okay and the tension started to ease a little.

Note: I meant the PATH train specifically there.

Getting home, seeing my partner waiting on the stoop for me, was the best feeling I’ve had in ages. I told him the story and he gave me a huge hug, then went back to bed. Well, when I checked Twitter again… The response was incredible, full of support from all sorts of people, and even thanks for sharing the experience. That’s what made me decide to post about this here, if this helps even one woman feel a little less alone or a bit more empowered to get out of a bad situation, then it’s worth writing.

Instinct is an incredibly powerful thing. I have no idea what might have happened if I hadn’t listened to mine. When a man groped me long-ago on a rush-hour subway I kicked him in the most effective place and he crumpled. That was the right thing in that trapped situation. Last night, I probably could have fought but knowing there were people nearby enabled me to listen to my flight instinct instead. It was the right move and reinforced my belief that most people are good, despite seeing a bit of the low side of humanity.

Still, I’m angry. The knowledge that my little incident last night was far less scary than most women in the world face regularly, many even in their own homes, gives me the chills. I woke today feeling mentally empowered but with muscle exhaustion from the tension, the thought of that being a somewhat normal state to anyone is unacceptable. I’m very lucky, I was raised to be prepared and strong, and have a wonderful support system. What about the women who have no such good fortune?

We can only do so much to directly change or even punish the bad people of the world, like this man who will haunt me forever. We need to make sure that every girl gets an education in how valuable she is and reacting to dangers with all her strength, which goes hand-in-hand with access to academic education, according to pretty much every woman who has escaped bad situations from poverty to abuse to systemic misogyny. This is not to say that men are never victims, it’s just that their access to all kinds of education and even help from others is much more common on the global scale. We need to make sure that every woman on this planet can feel she is not alone and simultaneously learn how to take care of herself, without dependency on anyone. It will be a long road, but it’s the only way to improve circumstances for the majority of people.

This morning one of my companions from last night texted, “Do I need to be your subway escort going forward?” It’s a sweet sentiment with the best of intentions, but actually completely contrary to what anyone needs. If we can’t take care of ourselves we can’t be either safe or free. I would never want to exist in a world where I feel the need to have a man to protect me everywhere I go, that would be a mental prison. True, I turned to men last night, but I would have run up to whoever was there. Asking for help is not the same as dependency, it’s just good sense sometimes, especially when it allows you to avoid being a victim or getting violent yourself (which should always be the very last resort). Conversely, if another person came to me for help under similar circumstances, I’d have reacted just like those two wonderful workers. Humans are simply stronger when we stand together against those who want to use power against us, individually or as a group. Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson in all of this.

Water November 19, 2012

Posted by craftlass in politics, Sandy.
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It covers most of our planet. It exists on the moon. It has definitely existed on Mars and might still. We can’t survive without it. It makes up most of our own bodies. Our relationship with water is so strong and important that most of civilization is near a large body of it.

Most of us take it for granted most of the time. In America we have a fairly safe and expansive public water system and a variety of the bottled sort to choose from. The only time we really think about it is when we are thirsty or want to jump into some.

In the past three weeks I have thought more about water than I ever have before.

Obviously, water causes floods, and a flood has been at the top of my mind. Academically I knew that water was a very powerful destructive force. I know how the Grand Canyon was carved, I’ve seen images from floods and tsunamis all over the world, and I’ve heard incredibly scary tales from people who survived various water-induced tragedies. Until I saw water covering my very own street, though, I had never grasped just how powerless it makes you feel. It does not discriminate yet the destruction has a random quality that logic can not process. I would stare out the window at length and just marvel at this invader without a brain or a plan that took away everything humans had created – power, comfort, even the ability to just walk over to the next building like civilized people do. It’s the most humbling experience I’ve ever had and I’m no stranger to humbling experiences. Water is relentless.

One of the basic items everyone knows to get before a storm is enough water for at least three days for however many people will be in your home. We’ve been having 5 gallon jugs of Poland Spring delivered for years and always try to keep an extra jug on hand just in case. Thank goodness, because there have been a few times we’ve really needed it and area stores sell out instantly if there are water issues. So, we were set for drinking water. We filled our bathtub just before Sandy hit so we would have water for other purposes. We were as prepared as could be for losing water service. Somehow, amazingly, we never did lose it this time. It was one of the truly bright spots of Sandy, just not losing water. It doesn’t take much to realize that is our most important utility of all. Water is life.

As our home grew colder the only time I really felt the temperature impact was when I had to use the bathroom. The floor, toilet, faucet handles – all so incredibly cold! They were nothing compared to the water, though. Washing hands was brutal. We were heating up water on the stove for washing dishes and ourselves, but who bothers just for a quick hand wash? It’s one thing to wash your hands in freezing water when there is heat around you but entirely different when there isn’t. You can’t dry them enough, the water clings to your skin, pulling out whatever little bit of warmth had been left after the dip into running water. Water is conductive.

Showering, properly showering, was out of the question, of course. On the second flood-free day our friends got their power back and let us come use their shower. It was one of the best showers of my life. It’s one thing to choose to go a few days or more without a shower because you are doing something fun, like camping or traveling a lot, but when you did not make that choice? Wow. Yeah. It gets you back to a certain sense of normalcy and even confidence. I found myself wanting to just stand under the shower for hours but didn’t want to be rude or waste too much of it. I had no such qualms the next week when we got to our hotel. I took a long bath with a good shower rinsing. I won’t go into too much detail (because ewwww) but let’s just say I really needed an extra-good scrub. The truly amazing thing about a bath, of course, is the way the water really soothes all the little achies that you had been bearing for so long that you couldn’t remember what life was like without them, both of the physical and mental varieties. One of the great perks of most places in Manhattan is you have this unlimited supply of high-pressure hot water that feels like magic after living almost anywhere else. I luxuriated in the hottest water I could stand and enjoyed every second of it, allaying my guilt over using that much of it by reminding myself I’d barely used any for weeks. Water is wonderful!

The other perk of Manhattan is that the tap water is safe and delicious as long as you’re in a building that doesn’t have decrepit pipes. It’s the main thing I miss about living here (even though I love my water cooler). Chlorine has never agreed with me and Hoboken’s water has so much of it that sometimes it smells like a pool is being emptied through my tap. We even had to get a filter for the shower as it was wrecking our skin, causing rashes and other problems. I took the tap water for granted when I lived here so it’s nice to just turn on a tap and drink the free stuff at restaurants with appreciation. Water is luxury.

My life may be crazy right now and full of tension and uncertainty, but I have access to water. Sometimes I might have too much of the wrong kind around me, but even through that period I never lost the ability to drink or wash my hands (no matter how awful it felt) or cook with it. I didn’t walk through the floodwaters full of sewage and who knows what else because I didn’t absolutely have to. That makes me luckier than a very large chunk of the population of this planet. That makes me downright privileged. If you are reading this piece you probably live a similarly privileged existence. The human body can adapt to survive many deprivations but a lack of water is not one of them. 30,000 people die every week simply because they have no access to clean water and/or live in unhygienic conditions. Just spending a couple of weeks with the aftermath of floating sewage is intolerable but millions live with that every day of their lives, with no end in sight. It disproportionately affects women, too, as in many places it is up to them and their children to walk long distances every day to fetch the minimum needed for survival. Children miss out on education even when it is available because water must come first.

Meanwhile, those of us in the developed world have to simultaneously worry about an uptick in flooding as arctic ice melts and drought as global temperatures steadily climb. The western states are hurting and already having political water wars over rivers such as the Colorado, which is responsible for delivering water to far too many people as it is. The eastern states are learning that large-scale infrastructure projects are absolutely necessary to survival as sea levels rise. Simply protecting New York City will cost an estimated $6 billion, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of damage just from Sandy. It’s also something the government has to do and that will mean raising taxes. It’s time for taxpayers to get over themselves and realize that even from a place of selfishness, it’s time to pay up and protect ourselves. Not only do we need to adapt to a changing climate but we need to upgrade and improve our infrastructure for power, fuels, and communications. Old cities mean old infrastructure, outdated and unable to handle the new realities, and difficult to repair since young utility workers are not trained for such old equipment. Bonus: A lot of that money would create jobs and opportunities for businesses of all sizes! Something cutting taxes has never actually accomplished.

Some of what I’ve experienced in the past few weeks would be unthinkable in more progressive countries. Did you know China spends 9% of their economy on infrastructure and it’s a big part of why their economy is booming? European countries average 5%. America spends 2.4%. America is geographically massive and geologically diverse and that gives us a far wider variety of concerns than most nations. We should logically be outspending most of the world when it comes to infrastructure. It would actually save us a lot of money. It would save lives. It would make businesses run more efficiently and therefore help the economy. Very few businesses can survive a week or more of being unable to do any business due to infrastructure issues. Even on a normal day, good infrastructure helps get products and services delivered and makes it possible for employees to get to and do their jobs. How could that be a bad investment?

We will never be able to call ourselves truly civilized until we are actively doing our best to make sure that everyone, from the richest to the poorest, no matter where they live, can have a better relationship with our most precious resource. Water doesn’t care if you’re a billionaire or a celebrity or living in an urban slum or rural community or fancy gated suburban neighborhood, too much or too little of it will take your life.

* * *

Just some of the important sources that you should read:

Two Weeks (An Overview) November 13, 2012

Posted by craftlass in Sandy.
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Has it really been two weeks?

Time has lost all meaning.

Two weeks ago I watched the waters rise up my street, for some time peacefully lapping at the pavement in front of our building. We stood there, gaping out the window, dazed by how a river usually a mile away could have created this impossible-to-understand sight. Finally, we sat down and tried to distract ourselves until we heard a sudden sound like a big waterfall followed by a rush of dozens of smaller ones. Our street was gone, no longer visible as the bright clouds threw shadows across the churning waters. The peace had ended.

As water filled up the cars parked on the street and their electrical systems flooded the lights and the horns began. It was the worst concert and light show ever. The droning shifted over the course of the night as some batteries ran out while other cars joined the din, you could hear the frequencies coming and going and the distances shift. Then there were the cars that simply had alarms go off. We later heard that some cars also had their windows open, so in addition to floodwaters they caught what rain fell. Modern car design is really incompatible with flooding.

We were prepared for a storm and for flooding, but no one had prepared us for that!

The morning after, featuring the planter, sign, and a completely drowned car. The night before the water was up to the last’s windshield!

The next morning brought both a bit of recession and some surprises. A sign we recognized from across town was floating up our street. A planter drifted along, eventually meeting the sign before both lodged on a gate. We made a game of guessing what the more mysterious objects might be. Neighbors stepped out on stoops or leaned out windows as we all called out to each other for news. People across the street from each other looked for signs of damage that couldn’t be seen from stoops or windows on the same side. A window had blown in on the floor below us, something we couldn’t have fixed without a helpful neighbor checking our building over. It was like going back generations to a time when news spread in the form of gossip more than any other medium, except we couldn’t cross the street or go next door.

Through these early days we were doing really well. We’d prepared for at least 3-5 days in every way. We lost power around 9 PM on Monday, about 5 minutes after I saw a tweet about our substation being shut down. It was pretty cool to have a little notice, one of the many times and ways Twitter would help us as Sandy and her aftermath unfolded. We figured we’d have a few days without power and rejoiced in the facts that I had a large stockpile of candles and various flashlights and that our stove worked. My partner cooked up a storm, carefully using everything he could from our freezer as it thawed. We played board games in the candlelight and I read through the first four Harry Potter books. It was fun. There was nothing we could do but wait things out, anyway. We carefully conserved our phone batteries while trying to tweet frequently enough that friends and family knew we were okay. It was nice to spend time just hanging out together.

From our stoop on our first trip outside.

Now and then a reminder would come of how lucky we were to be two healthy adults without children or pets to worry about. Construction tractors rolled around with rescue workers and National Guardsmen in a front shovel looking for anyone in need of emergency help, shining flashlights up to any window where people appeared. Every vehicle brought people to windows. In the newfound quiet that had spread across our usually vibrant town, every noise was a cause for excitement! During sunlight hours we saw people trudging through the water with trash bag-wrapped legs, some toting backpacks for their late evacuation while others were just exploring. Either way, everyone still on the block would greet them from windows while they would tell us what they’d seen in their journeys so far, like town criers who were each given just a little piece of the information. We were constantly being warned by the town not to venture into the waters but found ourselves immensely grateful to those who did for those little scraps of knowledge they brought.

A garbage bag floats in a basement entrance (probably about 4′ of water at this point)

Wednesday brought the welcome sight of a nearly-dry street. The planter had floated across the way and was dumped in the middle of the street. The neighborhood matriarch was already clearing her sidewalk of fallen leaves and debris. Cars sat dead along the sidewalks. I awoke to an empty apartment but soon my partner returned with news from City Hall, including the valuable knowledge that the Target just over the border in Newport was open and powered. We raced over to find Best Buy was the same and had set out a few power strips for people to use. We grabbed some power and decided to see if there were any battery-operated or alternative-power radios (the one classic disaster supply we’d overlooked) even though we expected, and found, they were all gone. Target was a bit crazier. People were huddled around outlets all over the store, most charging phones while a few had laptops and one girl even sat there playing a Nintendo DS while charging it up. I gave my phone a really strong password and plugged it and a spare battery charger in behind a display TV, stashing them out of sight while we shopped for snacks and supplies and chatted with other people in the same boat as us. The magnitude was becoming clearer.

That day set a pattern that would last almost a week. Daytime was for charging phones and seeking out news in-person, in a different area each day. Evening brought curfews and a retreat into our apartments. We’d eat a big dinner and find ways to amuse ourselves while trying to not overuse our phones then fall asleep to the hum of generators and pumps. We visited with friends a bit, finding some normalcy in just talking to people we already knew. We stopped in to check on businesses we frequent and their owners and staff. We were given some really good free meals by generous people like Big D’s Grub Truck and Sweetery NYC. We fed some neighbors with the extra food from our freezer-emptying meals. I have never been so proud of my town or the people in it and I was pretty proud to begin with.

Along the way we met dozens of people, some with heartbreaking tales of losing their homes, cars, and shore houses. Many lost property that had been in their family for generations. Our sidewalks became glutted with piles of furniture and flooring and lifetimes of memories. Still, so many of these people were smiling as they cleared everything out of the homes they couldn’t inhabit, because no one had lost life in our town and that made us all rather lucky. There is nothing like a natural disaster to reprioritize your mind.

This sign, sitting on a pile of all the worldly possessions of someone around the corner from us, felt like the perfect symbol of the dichotomy of emotions post-Sandy.

As we felt a little more comfortable using our phones more we started to see some news of other towns and grasp just how lucky that actually was. Seeing the mounting death tolls and images of classic boardwalks floating away while houses collapsed behind them brought home just what too much water can do. Hearing about the lack of help in some places, notably nearby Staten Island, was difficult. Here we were, getting help all over the place from generous strangers, and there was no way to pass that on to a place so close that so desperately needed it. For much of the week we were practically cut off from everywhere, with our precious PATH train out of service (that will likely take awhile yet) and only limited buses that had to use the overcrowded Lincoln Tunnel even after they started running again. Until this week the ferries were normal price, which means prohibitively expensive to most people. We heard it was taking people 2-4 hours to get into or out of New York City, a whopping trip of about 2 miles.

Reality sunk in as we eagerly watched the news of substation repairs. They were taking awhile even with specialists from all over the country working on them. I learned a lot about our local grid and which substations powered which parts of town, something I certainly never considered before. We almost never lose power! The temperature started dropping and we naively bought a space heater for when we got power back, knowing our boiler was going to take some time to replace. We still had hope.

I will never forget coming around the corner last week and seeing our streetlights on and lights blazing from our neighbors’ windows. I normally despise our over-bright block but this was glorious!!!

Except, wait – didn’t we leave a single light on in the apartment? A front one that we should be able to see from the street? Yes, we did. Yet, it wasn’t on. We raced inside and called the landlord to find out that our circuit breaker boards and meters were still wet. No power for us. With a nor’easter blowing in and the apartment already down to 54°F it was officially time to evacuate – a week after the actual storm we had survived with no problem.

We stayed with friends for a couple of days before we got an offer of a hotel room near my partner’s work. So, oddly, here I sit in a boutique hotel, fancier than I could ever dream of staying in, writing to you about my time in a disaster zone. It’s lovely and warm and has unlimited hot drinks and good wifi. Harry Winston is around the corner, the other way and down 6th Avenue is Radio City Music Hall, both already dolled up for a holiday I can’t even fathom preparing for. It should be magical to stay here, especially at this time of year, it’s the stuff of dream vacations. It’s a little different when the comfort factor is also what’s allowing the psychological impacts to rear their ugly heads. Still, I couldn’t be more grateful. We have much deeper resources than I ever could have imagined thanks to friends and family and the way people have rallied around us is… is… completely indescribable even for a woman with a fairly large vocabulary. We have no idea how long we’ll be houseless but we have learned that we are unlikely to ever be homeless.

I’ll be sharing a lot more about my Sandy experience, including tips that I certainly did not find on any disaster-prep lists or websites, but first I just had to get out the main story. You can also see our tweets that were posted throughout the storm and aftermath on the Storify that the wonderful Remco Timmermans put together for us. Reading it gives me chills now and I wrote a good chunk of those tweets!

Two weeks’ time has never felt so short and so long all at once.

An Atheist Hears the Angels Sing October 24, 2012

Posted by craftlass in Uncategorized.
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Christmas begins very early for me. See, I love Christmas music, from traditional sacred carols to “A Very Special Christmas” (with a few exceptions, of course, like that stupid Paul McCartney song that we are bombarded with every year). A wise man I knew in the music industry summed up great songwriting by using Christmas songs, explaining that a good song is one that can be played in any style from country to heavy metal to your standard family singalong, and that is why even the oldest carols still resonate with us. It was the best lesson that I ever received in this area and I was lucky to get it early on in my adventures in writing.

Each August I pull out my personal songbook of holiday music and start practicing a wide variety of songs for all the winter holidays. I’m not sure why, my dream of having a giant Christmas singalong has never panned out yet, but as soon as I begin each year I realize how much this music has informed my writing, playing, and philosophy of recording.

It’s always a little weird to sing songs about things I utterly don’t believe in (i.e. the sacred carols), just as it is perhaps a bit odd that an atheist loves a religious holiday so dearly. To make it even funnier, Christmas was the original catalyst for my deconversion. When I was 6 I first discovered that there is pretty much no way that December marks the anniversary of Jesus’ birth and how the early Catholics co-opted a pagan holiday to help convince pagans to accept/join their religion. I felt betrayed by my family, the religion I never had a choice in joining, and my teachers and began demanding answers on all sorts of religious issues, especially about the contradictions that abound in the Bible and how much they contradict known history and science. The answers I got from the adults in my life didn’t help, they were patronizing, required that I eschew all logic and reason, and basically I wound up being told that I could believe whatever I wanted but I was still going to have to go through all the motions of being a good little Catholic girl, with Mass at least once a week and all the fairly horrifying (to me, personally) sacraments that are part of such a life.

Kids are pretty adaptable, though, and so I found comfort in joining the youth choir at my church, focusing on my love of music to avoid spending every Sunday morning angry about being in church. I loved choral singing, it gave me my passion for harmony and a deep appreciation for music from all ages. I was lucky enough to have an excellent choirmaster who eventually became my piano teacher as well, and thus one of the biggest influences in my early musical education on several levels. Christmas was the best part of the year to be in the choir, we sang at our Church’s special candlelight children’s mass and it was sheer magic, our voices echoing around our large church bathed in flickering light. I also loved midnight Mass, where the adult choir my mother sang with always performed Handel’s Messiah, a piece that still instantly transports me to a place of peace and childlike wonder.

Granted, it didn’t hurt my love of Christmas that I was pretty spoiled throughout the season every year. The weeks surrounding it were filled with dozens of family members and friends, a blur of presents and food and love and even those good old traditional singalongs, gathered around the piano in our living room. We were never one of those families that fought during holiday gatherings, maybe the occasional disagreement but never the giant fights that are the hallmark stereotype of such gatherings in pop culture. My mother was the doyenne of Christmas, organizing coordinated gifts for all the children, filling our house with marvelous smells of amazing food for all of the myriad parties we hosted, and manning said piano. Looking back, I wish I could ask her how she did it with her busy career, as I have only managed to even get cards out for 2 years out of my adult life, let alone throw at least 4 parties in less than 2 weeks and find ways to make everyone I love feel special, as she seemed to do without breaking a sweat. That doesn’t mean I don’t try, though.

Another wonderful aspect of my childhood Christmases was including my Jewish friends who didn’t have their own family traditions for that day (as many do, since everyone has the day off from work and school). Growing up in an area where most of the kids I met were Catholic or Jewish created a very cool cultural exchange and ensured that we grew up with an understanding that no one culture is more important or valid than another. Seeing the look on a 15 year old’s face as she wakes up to find unexpected presents waiting for her under a giant tree for the first time is priceless! It would have been easy to take my family’s traditions for granted if not for seeing the joy it created in those we invited and the way that participating in a holiday together turned friends into family. This lesson has become very important, as I have lost most of my closely-related family over the years and had to build my own traditions to keep the spirit of the season alive in me at all.

Getting back to the music, a few years ago I decided to make a songbook of easy-to-play-on-guitar songs and their histories as a gift for everyone on my list. One of the interesting quirks of Christmas music is that it has become the norm to chop a lot of verses out of them, in some cases, down to just the first verse or first verse and chorus. While researching the book I found tons of lyrics that I didn’t know existed, some of them revealing far deeper meaning than we get from what little is normally performed. The first one that hit me was It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, which is more of an anti-war and anti-poverty song than Christmas carol. The most recent revelation was that Good King Wenceslas (which is a Boxing Day song, but considered a Christmas song) is truly about being kind to those with less than you have and karma (by the modern not-exactly-accurate usage of the word). These messages are wonderful, far more powerful than tales that only a segment of the world believes in, even if their inspiration comes from those tales.

The downside to realizing this is it just makes me more frustrated with the reality of religions. Before I go further let me note that I think the vast majority of religious people are good people who want the best for everyone. The trouble is that they are usually led by people who care about power above all else and steep themselves in hatred and bigotry and literally holier-than-thou attitudes. Almost all of the justifications for anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-education, and even racist positions come from religion (I say “almost” because the atheist and skeptic communities are dealing with a lot of anti-woman sentiment, we just can’t catch a break in any direction). The minority known collectively as “fundamentalists” are making such a bad name for all religions and people who subscribe to them. They live up to absolutely none of the ideals put forth in any Christmas song. It’s not peaceful to kill or harm anyone in the name of any god or goddess, it’s not charitable to deny your fellow citizens equal rights for any reason, and it is most certainly not loving to consider yourself better than anyone at all based on nothing but believing in things that others don’t believe in.

In Catholic school we were forced to participate in the “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign, fighting back against the commercialism of Christmas. The commercialization is pretty disgusting in general and even outright harmful in times where the economy is poor, I can get behind that aspect, but as I mentioned above, December 25th really doesn’t have anything to do with Christ’s birthday. In a nation where we shove Christmas down the throats of people of all faiths and none, isn’t it time we found new meaning in such a glorious holiday? Why not the very ones which are part of almost every Christmas song, sacred or secular? Peace, love, kindness, charity, and even straight-up fun are far more important than anything that separates us.

For my part, since many of the people I love live too far away to be part of our home celebrations (and I have taken such a long hiatus from playing live or traveling), I’m planning to put my studies of holiday music (beyond just Christmas) to use and broadcast a holiday concert this year. Music has a power to unite that no other medium enjoys and I hope that you join me in singing the songs that you know, even if I have no way of knowing that you did (and I don’t want to hear that you can’t sing. If you can talk, you can sing, especially in privacy. It’s good for you).

If you have doubt in that power just think of the story of Stille Nacht (a.k.a. Silent Night), the first carol ever written for guitar. It was written by an Austrian priest and set to music by his dedicated local headmaster/church organist but spread like wildfire as a beloved folk song throughout the world, long before the days of recorded music, and translated into many languages (estimates suggest up to 300, including various dialects within languages). During the World War I Christmas truce of 1914, English and German soldiers began singing the carol (one of the few both cultures shared at the time) right on the frontlines, voices raised together despite the barriers of language and, well, trying to kill each other. What a sound that must have been! I like to think that those soldiers found much-needed solace and common ground in sharing that experience even as they were required to continue fighting after the holiday.

I’m not an idealist, I understand that the dream of worldwide peace is pretty extreme and unrealistic. Whether or not a God exists (the question that is most unlikely to ever be answered to everyone’s satisfaction) we are certainly not going to gain peace from any source that isn’t human or it would have happened centuries ago. However, the world is waging less war than at any point in before 1946 and we should all do what we can to keep ourselves heading in that direction. We may never be able to hear angels sing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take responsibility to live up to our roles in this verse:

For lo, the days are hastening on by prophets bards foretold
And with the ever-circling years shall come the Age of Gold
When peace shall over all the Earth it’s ancient splendors fling
And all the world give back the song which now the angels sing

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, by Edmund Sears

Fun With Unwanted Fertility October 19, 2012

Posted by craftlass in women's rights.
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I didn’t start this blog to rant about children or my lack of desire for them but it seems I do come back to this topic a lot these days. When the headlines are filled with the War on Women and a Presidential candidate talks about how women who dare to work need flex time to get home to their kids (which is a nice perk, to be sure, but one most people don’t even have as an option) I can’t help but return to this issue. It’s central to my entire existence and I’m just so tired of being told that other people know best what I should do with my life and body. It’s not a laughing matter or a minor issue.

Yet, there are laughs to be had. I stumbled across this old “Breeder Bingo” post and game card and it’s a great summary of what childfree people (primarily women) deal with constantly. I’m definitely going to print it out and play, if I actually leave my house again anytime soon. First, I’m going to give some answers to all of the arguments right here:

  • B-1: “It’s different when it’s your own!” Okay, I’ll admit this is the toughest one to argue. I have no way to compare my friends’ or relatives’ kids to having my own. I recognize that a flood of hormones during birth sort of forces women to love their kids but I also know too many parents who resent their children or even abandon them to assume that those hormones will be enough to completely change me. I’ve read enough stories about parents abusing or even killing their newborns to know that it’s not that simple. In the end, there’s a reason we now have “safe harbor” laws. There’s even a reason that those laws were abused by parents of non-newborns until clarifications were added to them. It’s arrogant to assume YOU know how ANYONE will feel about a hypothetical child.
  • B-2 “Who will take care of you when you’re old?” Let’s answer this with a question, shall we: How many seniors do you know who are actually cared for by their kids in this day and age in America? My family does have that tradition and I plan to be as involved in my father’s care as he will allow if/when it’s necessary, but that doesn’t mean that a child I have will live up to that. Plenty of kids grow up to have little relationship with a parent and even more are not equipped to care for an elder. What are the chances a thoroughly unwanted child would want to take care of me? Probably pretty small. So, kids or no kids, I have to plan for myself and count on having no help at all.
  • B-3 “You’ll change your mind!” As I knew from the age of 4 that I had no desire for kids I have heard this repeatedly for 32 obnoxious years. The most common age people say I would start feeling the tick of a biological clock was 30-35. I’m 36 and I have less desire than ever. The most annoying part of this conviction people have that all childfree women will change their minds? I’ve heard it from multiple boyfriends who genuinely believed that if I married them I would want to bear their children. That is a dangerous game of chicken to play and would have guaranteed that a few great dads I know would never have borne that title. Seriously, guys, if your girlfriend says she doesn’t want kids and you think you just need to wait out this “phase” you are setting yourselves up for major life-changing disappointment. Add in the fact that I’ve never had a desire to marry and you’ve got a big double-whammy for the men who thought they had a shot of a traditional family with this woman despite that fact that I told each one on the first date that these were deal-breakers for me.
  • B-4 “People who don’t want kids are selfish!” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. I have yet to hear a single reason for having kids that is not selfish. I’m not saying that selfish reasons can’t be perfectly valid, even wonderful, and you have to have a certain amount of selflessness to be good at parenting, but it’s not exactly selfless to add to our already-too-large population on this planet just so you can fulfill your own desires. Can we just go ahead and admit that everyone in the world is selfish on some level?
  • B-5 “What’s the matter, don’t you LIKE kids?” Well, no, actually, not a big fan. I didn’t much like kids when I was one, I didn’t like being one, and mostly they just stress me out. That’s not to say there aren’t kids that I like or that I don’t have fun with them for a short time. I love teaching their little spongey brains and exposing them to new experiences when I can. The thing is, I have a very strict expiration point. After a couple of hours I just want to give them back and escape to my quiet and civilized adults-only life.
  • I-1 “Your child could grow up to cure cancer!” Yes, but my child could also grow up to become a serial killer or even worse. It’s the biggest crapshoot there is. John Wayne Gacy had parents. Benito Mussolini had parents that he appears to have been close to as a child. There is nothing you can do to guarantee that your child will be a good person, let alone a success.
  • I-2 “What if your parents hadn’t had kids?” Well, technically, biologically, mine didn’t. I was adopted by an infertile couple. As for my biological parents, well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I am totally fine with the concept that I could have been aborted. There have been plenty of times where I really wish my biological mother would have taken that option, not because I don’t like myself but because she sentenced me to a life of unanswerable questions, depressive episodes that directly relate to being adopted, a missing component to my feelings of self-worth, and an inability to even begin guessing whether nature or nurture were larger influences on who I am. Granted, the last is a bit answered by the fact that I’m pretty much a perfect cross between my parents, but one does wonder, especially when one is interested in science and genetics. I will never know who I am. Finding the birth parents of a kid born in the 70s is a full-time job and I just don’t have the time or the vast amounts of money it takes to even begin. Overall, the world wouldn’t be any different if I wasn’t born and no one can miss someone who never existed.
  • I-3 “If everyone didn’t have kids, the human race would die out!” Okay. I’m totally fine with us going extinct. It’s going to happen someday whether any of us procreates or not, especially if we don’t fully fund space exploration with a goal of getting all the way out of our solar system (which is a long way off even if we poured the entire Defense budget into the effort). Our sun has a life span, too. Nothing lasts forever.
  • I-4 “You aren’t a real adult until you have kids!” A friend of mine with 3 children (2 now grown) answered this better than I could by telling me how I was lucky that I’d never really get old, because kids age you quicker than anything. Of course, in reality, once you move out of your parents’ house you are a real adult with real responsibilities, so it’s just a silly argument that is particularly funny in a culture that reveres childhood and encourages us to remain there as long as possible, even after taking on the mantle of “parent”.
  • I-5 “The children are our future!” Yes, they are. What does this have to do with me, personally, having one? There are plenty of ways to contribute to the development of children that have nothing to do with bearing them. There is a place for those without children in the lives of children, we don’t think like parents and kids tend to trust us more than parents, as safe people to turn to who can still relate to their perspective. We are often an integral part of the village that raises every child. Many teachers are childfree because they want to devote their energies towards their students without distraction, for example (granted, some of them are also just glad to come home to a house without kids after a long day around a bunch of them). Me? I write songs about learning and exploring. One of my biggest fans is a kindergartner. That’s pretty cool. Maybe I can reach a bunch more of them and inspire some to become the great thinkers of tomorrow. That is so much more valuable than just adding another number to the population.
  • N-1 “People like you SHOULD have kids!” I actually got this comment right on this blog awhile back. Some people apparently think I’m pretty smart and that should be passed on. There is a bit of truth to this in the sense that most childfree people tend to be intelligent, since it’s a decision that is often based on solid logic and a sense of purpose. If all smart people stopped having kids and only the less-intelligent kept having them we’d be in trouble. It’s hard to comment on intelligence but we do know that less-educated people are more likely to have more children, which is indeed a little troubling. Still, it’s really hard to justify ruining my life just so the world could have one more possibly-intelligent being. We are not in danger of running out of smart folks in the next generation, not by a long shot!
  • N-2 “The only reason to get married is to have children. “ Well, I’m not fan of the institution of marriage, anyway, but let’s tackle this as if I was. The only real reason to get married is economic, whether you have children or not. Tax incentives, health care, inheritance perks – these are the mechanisms our government uses to push us into marriage and they are tempting as can be. Also, how does that statement make an infertile woman or man feel? Should we bar all infertile people from marrying? Should invasive testing be part of getting a marriage license?
  • N-4 “Children are a woman’s greatest achievement!” If that is true then I just don’t want to live in this world anymore. I’m sorry, but Chelsea Clinton is not a bigger achievement than being Secretary of State, even though she’s grown up to be pretty cool (opinion based solely on her recent work). My mother’s own greatest achievement was certainly not me, it was turning troubled high schools into ones that produced college graduates. This concept is patronizing, sexist, and outdated.
  • N-5 “Don’t you want genetic immortality?” Considering I have no idea what my genes really are, nah. I’m totally fine with whatever mix I have dying with me. Also, quite a few childfree people made the decision because they know they have genes that include mental or physical disorders and having a child risks passing those on. We know a lot more about genes these days and that leads some people to wisely want their genes to quietly die out, ending generations of suffering.
  • G-1 “You were a baby once, too!” I’ve never understood where this one comes from. What does it have to do with having them? Please, if you have any clue, let me know in the comments. I can’t even counter it without understanding it.
  • G-2 “It’s all worth it!” Well, great, I’m glad you feel that way. However, this opinion only applies to the person who is giving it. There are plenty of parents who disagree and no guarantee of which type I would be. The amount of older women with grown children who have told me they are jealous of my generation’s options and would never have had children if not deeply pressured into it betrays the nonsense behind this statement. Some of my greatest support in my choice has come from these mothers. Children are not an 18-year commitment, they are a lifetime commitment. If you don’t find it worth it there is no escape unless you truly abandon your child and that’s just cruel.
  • G-3 “But the Bible said, ‘Go forth and multiply!” The Bible also tells me that I should submit myself to my men, never get a tattoo, never have bacon (oh, the horror!) or shellfish, never wear two types of cloth at the same time, and stone a bunch of people I love. Not exactly a great guide for living in modern times, not by a long shot.
  • G-4 “Don’t you want to give your parents grandchildren?” This one did give me guilt for awhile (as an only child whose father is an only child, so I used to be his one shot at them) but then my father remarried and in the process got 4 grandchildren. He’s a great Poppy and loves it, but I think 4 is already on the overwhelming side for him. Since I’m not genetically his kid I can’t pass on his genes, anyway. Sometimes life really does sort itself out!
  • G-5 “Nothing is better than ‘new baby’ smell!” I have yet to smell a baby I thought smelled good, this only really applies directly after a bath. Then the aroma of stale milk and the need for a diaper change creeps in and there are few smells in this world that disgust me more (I can’t even bear the smell of fresh milk). Add in the fact that they are babies for such a brief time and you have the world’s dumbest reason to have a child.
  • O-1 “What about the family name?” If I had kids in the traditional in-wedlock manner I wouldn’t be passing on my name anyway. Besides, how many surnames are so in danger of dying out? I have a really rare one myself but there are still dozens of us scattered about the globe and most of the others have already spawned this next generation.
  • O-2 “The biological clock is ticking!” Never heard it, still don’t hear it, and I can’t express in any amount of words how badly I want menopause to come. The horrible side-effects are more than worth never having to have a period again!
  • O-3 “You forget the pain of labor and birth!” I was really lucky as a kid to have a riding instructor who was way more honest with her charges than most adults. She spent an entire long drive to a horse show telling us in detail about her own labor and birth experience eight years after the fact. I’m amazed anyone who was in that truck ever had sex, frankly. There is not a horror movie in the world as scary as her tale and she had a relatively easy time of it. A quick internet search will reveal that women recall all kinds of details about the pain and most baby showers are basically like sitting around the campfire telling scary stories, only the goal is to utterly freak out the guest of honor about her impending experience. This statement is pure propaganda without an iota of truth behind it.
  • O-4 “It’s the most important job in the world!” No, it really isn’t. There is no way that a job that anyone with a functioning reproductive system can get, even by accident, is the most important job. There is NO “most important job” anyway. If you have children, yes, it’s most important that you take full responsibility and do your best with it, but I contend that even a lot of great moms do something much more important in their careers, things that truly affect us all.
  • 0-5 “Aren’t you curious to see what they would look like?” Here we have it folks – the most vain and selfish reason to have a baby!!

Live Again September 28, 2012

Posted by craftlass in music, video.
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For just over a week I’ve been in Saratoga Springs. I’ve always loved this town but this is my first visit as an adult, not counting a single concert that I barely remember because we just went to the venue and left. I have a house to myself and a car at my disposal, which is a very weird existence for me these days that I’m quite enjoying. Even housekeeping is kind of fun when there is some elbow room, it turns out.

The first couple of nights I went out with some of my favorite people. Seeing friends you don’t get to see very often is such a precious thing, there’s a heightened sense of fun to everything you do and every word you exchange. Long-overdue hugs are the best hugs of all, too. It’s invigorating, like suddenly remembering parts of you that you had forgotten about, because the reflection you see in people who understand you at all is a much more accurate reflection than the one you see in a mirror and the image is taken less for granted when you are not used to seeing it all the time. Rehashing good memories is also quite the reminder of how good life is and can be.

Since then I’ve been primarily snuggling the cats I’m watching, enjoying new television (hooray for premiere week!), working on new music, and just enjoying the abundant nature as autumn begins in earnest. It’s been fantastic and I wasn’t particularly wanting to interrupt the flow last night. The thing is, it turns out that Caffe Lena has an open mic on Thursdays. Caffe Lena is an icon of folk music history in America. The oldest continuously-run coffeehouse in the country, it quickly became a jumping-off point for many of my musical idols, like Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. They take music very seriously, with no-whispering and even no-glow (i.e. no using phones or cameras, even silently) rules at their shows. Luckily, they aren’t quite as strict at their open mic, as you will see, but it is very quiet and respectful, all about the music. No alcohol is served, just homemade cookies and coffee. It’s definitely not your typical open mic at a crowded bar!

Okay, confession, I sort of hate playing in that environment. My ideal performance setting involves glasses clinking, chatter, and a lot of smoke in the air. Unfortunately, the last exists in few places that I go anymore. Still, I would put up with a lot more than silence and the ability to see the audience just to play a tune or two on that stage.

I haven’t played out in awhile for various reasons and right now I’m focused on writing and prepping songs to record. It’s nice to focus like that, and sometimes necessary, but it’s also important to get out and connect with an audience. After all, music is about communication and I’ve been set to silent mode for some time. The last time I was back home on a Wednesday I played my favorite local open mic for the first time in ages and it felt really good to just be out there again in the safety of familiar faces, especially after such a hiatus.

Performing at an open mic in a different town, in a room full of people who have never heard you before, is quite a bit different.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in that situation.


No expectations, nobody asking to hear the songs they know, no pleas to bring out something new, no bar set high or low. Just a voice and a guitar and the naked fury that is unleashing your music on an unsuspecting crowd. At least, you hope that’s what you do.

Then there’s the fun of hearing people you would never have heard any other way, from the scared beginner with a beautiful (if tentative) voice to the aging folkie playing the beloved songs of his youth with the ease that comes only with time, and all the passionate artists between. There’s a camaraderie at a well-run open mic that rarely grows in other environments and it not only fosters a supportive audience but often excellent conversation afterwards.

Right after I walked in and put my name in the hat for their sign-up lottery (a clever solution to the sign-up issues that plague many an open mic) I met a really nice guy who has been attending off and on for years. I wound up sitting with him all night and he sort of acted as a guide, pointing out participants I might particularly like and chatting about music in general between songs. He even kindly shot video of me performing two of my songs and let me upload it from his phone to my YouTube Channel.

The best part? Once again, playing Bake Sale for NASA got a lot of space discussion going, garnered huge cheers, and it even turned out that one of the other performers is a huge space geek who was really excited to meet another one and talk Hubble pictures and Martian rivers. Mission accomplished, at least for one night. I just love making people think.

It’s easy to just flow through life in your comfort zone, especially when in a good relationship with a comfy home and some nice toys, but the only way to be thoroughly alive is to get out there, do what you have to prod yourself into doing, and LIVE a little.

Will someone please remind me of this once in awhile?

Go Ahead, Kill Me Now August 19, 2012

Posted by craftlass in events.
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I spent the past 3 nights at the hugely successful (in every sense) reunion concerts of God Street Wine, primarily because my partner, John “Woody” Wood, who is one of the most talented percussionists I’ve ever heard (I have spent a lot of my life listening to great percussionists of all kinds yet he was the one who inspired me to buy my first drum long before we ever met, so this is not just a biased girlfriend-opinion), was playing with them. He hasn’t played in years. It makes me sad to think about that, but he has good reasons and I have to accept them, so I usually just try to avoid thinking about it at all.

It’s been a long time since I stopped working in the music industry and his band broke up and I haven’t really been out to see many shows since then. When I do hear live music these days it’s usually acoustic singer-songwritery stuff at relatively quiet venues, since that’s what I do, too. The only time I really listen to anything loud is when I’m testing mixes or working on edits and that is usually pretty brief and always under my control.

I remember when I was a teen and in my early 20s and older friends or friends’ parents would talk about how they love music but can’t take the volume of a concert or club anymore. I would always think, “Gee, if I ever get like that someone please just kill me.” I was certain that I was going to spend the rest of my life hearing live music every night. I lived for live music. I would see almost anyone and travel far and wide to see my favorites. I racked up thousands of miles before I even got my first job for a band, then I started putting on the serious miles. I heard some of the best of the best, many of them long gone. With some bands I got to the point where I could easily pick up on what song they were playing next just by which guitar the tech set out. I danced until my feet had calluses like bad saddle leather. I could go to a show in random (for a northeasterner) towns like Huntsville or Indianapolis and know most of the people in the room. It was wonderful. I loved every bit of that life, for a time.

A church of our own

A prayer to bring us home

Never to be alone

A little piece

Of heaven for us to share

Love is the music in the air!

  • Little Peace of Heaven (1998)

Unfortunately, aging happens to all of us, and it happens far more quickly when you get a stable home life. The coziness of a happy home creates quite a different mindset than the blazing energy of a rebellious teen!

My wanderlust hasn’t dampened a bit but I’m a bit out of practice on the concert thing. In case you haven’t been to one in awhile, either:

  1. Concerts are LOUD

    Loud enough to chase all other thoughts out of your brain, make your head pound, and make it really clear which ranges of frequencies you can still hear and which are fuzzy. You get somewhat used to it after a couple of nights in a row, but that doesn’t really help if you are just going to one show and it still sounds louder than it did when you were younger. Yes, even if you have some hearing loss problems, like I’m suspecting I do. That’s just how loud it is.

  2. Concerts are crowded

    These shows were general admission, which I’ve always preferred. They were at the Gramercy Theatre in NYC, which has a great setup. There’s a huge dance floor with stadium seating at the back that anyone could use. Most fans of jam bands dance through the show so the seats seemed to be mostly used for quick breaks to rest and catch a view of the stage. It was crowded every night but Saturday’s show was definitely the most crowded thing I’ve been to in awhile (and that includes Penn Jillette’s Rock and Roll, Doughnuts, and Bacon Party, which I thought of as packed at the time). To tell the truth, for the last bunch of concerts I went to before stopping it as a regular thing I was in the wings or somewhere else restricted, so it’s really been a long time since I’ve been on the floor at a full gen-admin show. It was disconcerting. I sat a lot. I used to never sit.

  3. Concerts have a lot of messed up people

    No matter the crowd, unless it’s a totally sober scene, there will be people who get bombed on something and do stupid stuff. Every night had a few candidates for Idiot of the Night. Oh, I’m still used to that in a lot of ways, but concerts bring out something… special… in those folks. Maybe the musical stimulation removes yet another layer of filters or people just think they are anything-goes environments, whatever the case, there is a very high chance that you will run into some supremely dumb behavior from a mind that’s just not there at the moment. Which brings us to…

  4. Concerts give assholes a chance to be themselves

    I’m standing in a hallway with an old friend’s fiancée (who is super-cool), chatting away, when a guy brushes between her back and the wall. She suddenly gets this shocked look, he disappears, and she said, “Wow, he totally just grabbed my ass.” Instantly, memories of similar experiences in similar places come flooding back, both my own and those that happened to friends. I’m not saying all guys at concerts are jerks, not by a million miles, but the tiny percentage who take advantage of crowded spaces like that are awful. They can escape before you even see them so there is no chance to confront whether you want to or not. As a side note: Why does this have to be part of a discussion about every type of event that exists these days? How has our society not evolved past this yet? C’mon, people! It’s not okay to purposefully touch someone without his or her explicit permission. Period. It’s not that complicated.

So, yeah, basically it’s time for me to start yelling at kids to get off the lawn I don’t have. Between endless discussion of aches and pains, the fact that I can talk passionately for hours about the weather, and now my trouble adjusting to a concert environment, I’ve clearly crossed that line I set so many years ago. I’m young for my age in many many ways but my physical being has definitely changed as well as my mindset.


Sorry, teenaged me, but there’s plenty to enjoy past that line. Concerts are very good things but they aren’t the only thing. Aging is kinda cool (other than the aches) and mostly has perks. Thanks for giving me such great memories, though! They’ve been flooding my brain all weekend.

P.S. Speaking of music from my young adult years, one of my all-time favorite bands, Native, the very one my partner played with and that brought me together with not only him but Dave Thomas, my collaborator on Just a Dream and many projects, is virtually reuniting! By that I mean that we built an all-new website and they are putting out music that the public and even their longtime crew and friends have never heard. A song or a few will come out each week or so from now until October, most of them free if you sign up for the mailing list. I started working on the project about 2 weeks ago and what a coincidence to delve into the music of two very-connected bands of that era in one week! Basically, I stepped into some sort of Time Hole and dropped into the ’90s. It’s also been a fun diversion and a great reason to upgrade my skills and knowledge, which means I’ll probably be updating my own web world soon.

Singing in the Wind July 24, 2012

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, people, women's rights.
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When I decided to apply for, and then got, a grant to go to The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) courtesy of Surly Amy and those who supported her grant campaign I was expecting a weekend of hearing smart talks that would make me a better thinker and meeting people who lived up to the “amazing” part of the title. I didn’t expect to step into a tornado of what feminism really means, people who would do just about anything to keep whatever privilege they were born into, and whether or how people should go about changing things.

See, I’m new to the skeptic circles, even though I’ve been one all my life, to some degree. I wasn’t really aware there was a community built around it, I’d only read some of the blogs and never imagined there were meeting of skeptics all over the country. I had heard of TAM itself and thought it sounded like something I should check out for the past few years but was otherwise mostly ignorant. I just like to think about things and like meeting others who do, too. TAM was my very first experience in the real world of this community. Sure, I’d read about harassment issues a little but had no idea how big of a line was being drawn. The first day or so I was out there my ears were filled with exclamations of, “You don’t listen to any skeptic podcasts?!?!” and, “You don’t know who that is? But he’s a celebrity skeptic!”

Frankly, I’m usually pretty busy and, while I love to find new information, I mostly just catch articles people tweet about when I take a break, sheer luck of the draw. I also worked in music for too long to care at all about celebrity (with one notable exception: I seem to keep embarrassing myself by being starstruck by Starstryder, Dr. Pamela Gay, who impressed the heck out of me the first time I saw her talk and has made me understand difficult concepts I thought I wasn’t smart enough to comprehend. That, my friends, is a woman who should be earning more than Oprah and have stars with her name on sidewalks all over the world! At the very least, she should be a household name that every little girl dreams of emulating when she grows up).

After I announced that I got a grant and was going I was asked privately by a tweep, “Aren’t you scared to go to TAM? I’ve heard there’s a lot of harassment there.” The thing is, not much scares me. I’ve lived in bad neighborhoods in New York City, spent a chunk of time in the real Jamaica (not just the touristy bits), and worked in an industry not exactly known for treating women like actual people. Heck, I spent my early 20s mostly trundling about the country as the only woman with various bunches of men who were pretty much strangers to me when I first traveled with them. The vast majority of my experiences were fantastic and I’m glad I jumped into them with a big splashy cannonball even if my choices might appear to be a bit foolish.

Well, TAM worked out that way for me, too. I met a lot of great people. I learned a lot at talks and in conversations at the bar afterwards. I made connections that I’m so glad to have and might even have some really cool opportunities coming my way due to being there. My life would be quite different right now if I hadn’t gone out of fear. In fact, the only time I was harassed at all it was by someone at the hotel for another event and one of the male speakers actually stepped in to help me before we’d ever introduced ourselves.

On the other hand, I experienced a lot of vicarious harassment that was dealt to people I really like and respect, including my marvelous benefactor. I saw the effects of trolling, judgment, and people rather casually inflicting pain on purpose in many ways. How do you help someone who has been torn down, over and over, even by the very people she is constantly standing up for? A person can only absorb so much hatred without ill effects no matter how strong. I’ve experienced it myself, I’ve seen it happen to others, and I’m exhausted by just thinking about it.

From what I understand, Amy came up with the idea to create grants for women because there is a disproportionately low number of women attending or speaking at TAM. There is a lot of discourse about whether the James Randi Educational Foundation (the group that puts TAM on) should adopt a harassment policy for this pinnacle event in the skeptic community. The result of the community’s conversations and JREF’s lack of movement on this turned out to be a lower female attendance this year. I completely understand why some women stayed away. I also think it’s hard to take a stand without showing up unless you are a big enough name that people notice (which is true of certain women who didn’t go this year and I completely support their decisions). However, the best way to defeat –isms like sexism and racism is usually to show up. I might be wrong when it comes to TAM, as it does cost quite a lot and hurting an organization in the wallet can work, but I’m also glad that I was one of the women who went and talked openly with all sorts of participants about the problems. These conversations dominated the weekend. No matter what people were talking about the subject always seemed to turn to harassment issues. This is a good thing.

I honestly believe that most people want to do the right thing and genuinely would like a harassment-free environment. The reason that denialists and bigots of all sorts are so vocal is they would otherwise be drowned out by the cooler and more knowledgeable heads that outnumber them (this also applies to the Tea Party). Many people don’t even have an informed opinion about harassment until they have talked to victims of it or experienced it first-hand. They are ignorant due to accident of birth and upbringing and can have their heads turned by learning about what women (or gays or any other group of frequent targets) go through all the time, no matter what community they exist in. This last group is the one that needs to meet people who have experienced problems and often those types do learn how to be more thoughtful in their words and actions. It’s a giant group effort of making people think and even people who identify as “critical thinkers” need more to think about. Should a community that prides itself on looking for hard answers be better informed on all of this? Yes. How can we make that happen if we don’t speak to them and make it clear that all people must be treated as equals?

In the midst of all this, my gibberish-inducing hero Dr. Pamela Gay stepped up to the microphone. Seeing her on the list of speakers was a major reason I applied for the grant and she had warned me the night before that this was going to be a very emotional talk. It was listed in the program as “Make the World Better (Ask if Anyone Minds Later)” and that sounded right up my alley. This very accomplished speaker admitted she was a bit nervous about this talk but as soon as she opened her mouth you could see strength and resolve take over. Her introduction was cursory, then she exploded into, “The past few weeks leading into TAM have been absolutely insane. Looking around the internet there have been terrible sadnesses and awe inspiring goodness. We live in a world that sometimes seems like nothing but extremes.” With that, she was off and running, giving examples of how crowds of perfect strangers banded together to right wrongs and support other strangers, yet peppered with the realities of harassment in several segments of society, especially science academia and the skeptic community gathered before her. It was the bravest and most honest talk I have ever seen at a conference of any kind. They gave her a microphone and presentation equipment and she gave us all a blast of how we can be responsible for making the world the way it is, good and bad. Now, run off and read the full text, this will be here when you get back.

She got a long standing ovation. I’m pretty sure she’s also gotten some backlash because that is what happens when you are brave, strong, and willing to call people out even if done in a most delicate and gracious manner. Be part of the ovation or go think long and hard about why you’re not.

I don’t know about you, but at a moment when I’m questioning why I’ve sacrificed almost all my personal stability to struggle as an artist, I really needed those words. What feeds me most is hearing people talk about how my music has changed their perspective on issues I care about or taught them something while they were entertained. I have a giant stockpile of music that no one has heard yet and some of it might be controversial enough to cause me problems with all sorts of haters. Granted, that worries me less than questions about how to afford all that recording, but it does cross my mind. I don’t care anymore, though. I want to change the world so that those who come after me can live in an altogether better version of it. Heck, I want to live in a better world now. I want to participate as actively as I can. Won’t you join me?


P.S. There is no way to say enough about how grateful I am to Surly Amy for making it possible for me to go. This was a life-changing event made possible by the kindness of strangers, an embodiment of how we can affect the lives of others. So, please, if you have the money (they’re not expensive) and don’t outright dislike ceramic jewelry, please go find a beautiful SurlyRamic to buy for yourself or someone you love. They are very high-quality and there are plenty of creative and fun designs to choose from for all.

Also, a new group that I am very enthusiastic about, Secular Woman, is trying to give grants to at least 10 women to get to SkeptiCON this fall. If you can, please donate to this excellent cause.

While I’m at it and you have your digital wallet out, if you want to support my efforts in a financial way, please make a donation or go buy some of my music on my Bandcamp site (other sites take over 2 months to pay me for your purchase, FYI. Bandcamp pays me nearly instantly. It rocks).

We CAN All Just Get Along, We Just Have to Try July 12, 2012

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, life lessons, people, relationship.
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Being who I am, if I restricted myself to socializing with people who agree with me on most things, I wouldn’t have a social life. Even worse, I would be stuck, like so many people are, in a bubble. Still worse, I would spend my life being so much angrier than I am. Oh, I’m angry about a lot of things and find plenty more to be angry about every day, but for the most part my anger is directed at media, politicians, religious leaders, group-think, and generally people who use their power to harm or oppress.

I cherish my friends who might seem on paper like people I could never get along with. For example, two women who I absolutely adore are Catholic. One is more in-line with the Church’s positions on things, one is a bit of a maverick, but they both know my opinions on their religion, that I was raised in it, and left the second I could for very good reasons. I have the utmost respect for both women and value their opinions on many subjects, even ones we will never see eye-to-eye on. We also have a lot in common, that’s how we found each other online and bonded. I met both in-person at different NASA Tweetups (now called Socials) at Kennedy Space Center and we just clicked like we had online, which deepened our relationships immensely. With one of them I’ve had many long debates on the things we disagree about and enjoyed every bit of them.

The thing is, if you don’t have calm, rational debates with people you disagree with, how can you truly hold a position? If how you feel about something can be broken down just by hearing the other side then maybe you didn’t believe it in the first place. If someone simply disagreeing with you makes you want to lash out, that’s your problem and you need to work on your own issues. You can’t educate anyone if you attack, either. Once a person is in a defensive position it’s very hard to learn anything or even fully comprehend the attack.

The wisest, kindest, and most thoughtful priest I ever knew took me aside when I was in 2nd grade and getting into major trouble in my Catholic school for deeply questioning the faith I’d been born into. He listened to my concerns and answered with, “Unquestioned faith is no faith at all. Keep questioning everything.” While I have wound up without a faith, his wisdom still resonates in me. I apply it to many aspects of my life and it gets me through moments of indecision and second-guessing.

Why, yes, I did say that one of the best lessons this atheist learned in life came from a priest. See? Even people you disagree with can add a lot of value to your life if you just give them the chance to speak their minds. They challenge you, give you perspective, and keep you out of that damn bubble.

The only things I require of any friend or potential friend are an open mind, respect for both our similarities and differences, tolerance for each other’s flaws, and a sense of humor. Okay, the last part is actually the most important. Laughter can get you through just about anything!

In the end, not only do I celebrate the differences between many people and me, but I keep coming to the same conclusion: We have more in common than not. All people, no matter their affiliation or background, have more in common than not, when you get down to the real person hiding behind whatever labels society may affix to them. Travel is the greatest teacher of this, but just getting to know your neighbors can give you a great lesson in it.

Of course there are people I like more than others and people who I will never get along with. That’s the nature of life and being human. That doesn’t mean I or anyone should ever be purposefully rude or unkind to any of them and it’s not that hard to be tactful and polite while staying true to yourself.

I’ve never been a big joiner, I prefer solo sports and video games, working for myself or a small business, and keeping my options open in every way. I’m sort of a loner with a talent for socializing that hides my anxieties about it. Still, I believe in inclusion and never taking gossip to heart, I’d rather try to get to know someone before making up my mind about him or her. Gossip is poison in the form of a giant game of Operator, only it’s not a game at all, and we can all get sucked into that trap far too easily.

Maybe that’s why I don’t like joining groups much. From what I can tell, most operate with a social structure that breeds gossip, divisiveness, and hurt feelings when someone is left out or the group forms a hierarchy. It’s a shame, as people can do more good when joined together by a common cause, but then all of these things start flourishing and can turn even the most noble group into a monster that resembles a high school cafeteria more than an adult venture.

On the other hand, I do love being surrounded by intelligent, thoughtful, and interesting people of all kinds and working together to make good things happen. It’s the only way to effect real change. All of my music, at it’s essence, is based on that. I might be writing about space or science or religion or politics, but at the core of every song is a human story inspired by the people I’m so lucky to have in my life. This very blog post was inspired by a multitude of individual conversations with a few different people.

I love people. All people. We’re amazing. We have thoughts and feelings and the capability to explore everything from ourselves to the universe surrounding us. We’ve come a long way in just a few million years! We also have a long way to go as long as we don’t blow everyone up. You can choose to be part of the effort of advancement or you can stay mired in where we are now, because you have a human brain that can make decisions.

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” – Bob Marley

So, my advice to everyone everywhere (including myself) is to be a little less quick to judge, a little more open to listening to anyone, a bit more polite to all, and to learn about a topic from all angles before deciding on your own opinion. Getting to know who people really are is the most effective way to reduce the amount of anger and hatred in this world, and doesn’t that benefit us all?