Browsing "Fine Arts"
Oct 28, 2011 - Fine Arts    16 Comments

I Still Believe

Sunday night, I was born again in the fires of rock and roll.

I’ve never experienced the bliss and fervor I see on the faces of people at religious revivals, so I can’t be sure it feels the same. But if their god can’t offer them the same welling joy, the fullness of heart, the redemption of primal psychic and sensory needs, then I can’t fathom the attraction. And if some would say the bone-deep delight, the hope for the continued existence of love and beauty in this world, the honest-to-goodness peace on Earth and goodwill to all men that settled onto me with every blessed chord isn’t divine, well then, I would have to tell them that they’ve never touched that state of being.

By now, you think I’m exaggerating, overstating the case for the sake of a writerly challenge or a philosophical argument. I’m really not.

A big part of it was the music. If you’re not a fan of Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, let me deliver unto you that great good news. Theirs is a happy polyamory of punk, folk, and old-fashioned rock and roll — if you need an equation, maybe this will help: Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls = Green Day + Flogging Molly + Buddy Holly. Turner’s got a singular voice that fits all three genres perfectly, if you can conceive of such a thing without hearing it, equally at home in the cozy black box of a venue that is the famed Triple Rock Social Club or singing wrenching tales of blood and rebellion in a militia camp. And his ability to hold true to pitch and somehow stay melodic, no matter how raucous the refrain gets, is a rare thing as well. The band is equally accomplished, from the metronymic steadiness of the drums, to the ruffled arpeggios the keyboard layers on top of classic guitar and bass.

And the songs — Turner’s got the gift of nailing the catchy hook and rousing chorus, in both tune and lyric. The best of his songs should be the anthems of nations or, at the very least, the downtrodden masses. Even the ones that bemoan the toll of age and cynicism on a generation too tired to be the happily angry punks we once were bestow an unexpected optimism and communal goodwill. As a result, fans come ready to sing along, and I watched with keen curiosity to see whether an arms-around-shoulders biergarten sway, or a rollicking mosh pit would break out (a bit of both, at various points, as it turned out). And when you’re singing every song en masse, it’s no stretch to smile and talk with your newfound allies, in a way that just doesn’t happen at even the most intimate of other concerts. This was a show to restore a person’s faith in his fellows.

That we were even there was the definition of Serendipity, or Destiny, or whatever you will. I took the wrong pair of headphones (broken) and the wrong exit for home on a trip to the doctor’s one morning this fall. So while I’d been keen to listen to my own playlist, and to do it for a lot less time, instead I had the company of The Current, MPR’s excellent modern station, as I waded through snarls of traffic. About 15 minutes after I should’ve been home, “I Still Believe” came on the air. I was smitten — new favorite song, on the spot. When I got back, I queued up the YouTube video to show my boys. After it finished playing, up popped a little box, announcing: “Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls at the Triple Rock Social Club, October 23. Would you like to know more?” Why yes, yes I would. And at $13 a ticket, how could I pass up the chance?

So there we stood on Sunday night. We’d enjoyed the opening act, Into It Over It, enough to buy the guy’s album, but I knew I couldn’t make the whole show on my feet. We slunk off to the old bar next door, and I felt like a lame, hollowed-out, decrepit old punk. But a nice long sit, enhanced by some unexpectedly excellent comfort food, at least left me feeling competent to remain upright for the rest of the night. I was sore, and glaring at the hale and hearty 20-somethings occupying the few seats, when Turner and company took the stage.

And then they played, and I went to a different place. By the end of the first song, my jaded concert-going self was tingling with the knowledge that this was going to be an exceptional show. By the end of the second song, I forgot my pain and fatigue, no mean feat these days. And by the end of the third song, I found myself unexpectedly crying a little, as my senses sizzled like Fourth of July sparklers. My body thrummed, comforted and content as the heartbeat of my long-lost rock and roll mother lodged next to my own, bass in my belly and drums in my feet.

I was over-joyed, the pleasure of it all spilling out my fingertips like light. I couldn’t stop smiling. I wanted to run outside, take everyone by the hand, and bring them into this place, this time, this feeling. And I left the show restored in all the thirsty crevices I didn’t know were cracked.

So I’ll just let Frank and the boys sing us out:

“I still believe in the saints
In Jerry Lee and Johnny, and all the greats
I still believe in the sound
That has the power to raise a temple, and tear it down
I still believe in the need
For guitars and drums and desperate poetry
I still believe that everyone
Can find a song for every time they’ve lost, and every time they’ve won
So just remember folks we’re not just saving lives, we’re saving souls and we’re having fun…

Now who’d’ve thought, after all,
Something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll would save us all?
Who’d’ve thought that after all it was rock n roll.”


Sep 16, 2011 - AV Club, Fine Arts    2 Comments

Crouching crafter, hidden geek

In the fall of 1997, we made our first RL visit to good friends from AmberMUSH, the online RPG where I’d played for years and met my husband and most of my very favorite people in the world. Naturally, Sunday was spent in an all-day gaming marathon with other Amber friends in the DC metro area. I had three friends with babies due in the space of about six weeks, so I crocheted while I played Helga the Wonder Nurse (don’t ask). Our hostess summed up her first impressions later by saying something that  flattered me to the tips of my geeky toes: that Cam was as zany and brilliant as advertised, and Jess “knitted rainbows out of thin air.”

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not very good at stillness. When I talk, I move a lot — gestures, charades, extravagant expressions — and even when I’m supposed to be sitting still, I like my hands to be busy. Could be an Aspie thing, could be a Protestant work ethic thing; who knows. But I’m not a fidgeter, or a doodler, so I make things. All kinds of things, with all kinds of techniques. I crochet, I knit, I cross-stitch, I work with beads and wire, I sew a little, I play with paper, soap, and candles. I am a craft geek.

This was certainly not always the case. I’ve got a very strong creative streak, clearly: obviously, I enjoy writing, and I’ve already detailed my long history with music. But my motor skills have never been what anyone would call reliable. I could not draw anything well enough to save my life or my country. My efforts at origami rapidly look like a receipt that’s gone through the wash. And I feel like the other art supplies I would mess up could be put to so much better use by others that it would be inconsiderate to waste them

I blame most of my crafting impulses on France. When you’re not in school and you’ve read all the books you brought on study abroad and you have a limited income, France gets boring very fast (at least, provincial France does). When my mom, a lifelong multi-talented crafter, came to visit in February, she asked what to bring. Once we’d gotten the Pop Tarts and Spaghetti-Os and real salsa covered, I begged her, “Teach me to cross-stitch, Ma. Bring me yarn and a crochet hook and needles and thread and aida cloth and anything airport security won’t take as a potential weapon. I need something that can keep me busy for hours.” She came ready to teach, no doubt having waited my entire life for me to make this request. And I was HOPELESS. Like, E.T. with cerebral palsy hopeless. Never mind the niceties of yarn tension or stitch regularity. There was serious doubt that I had any neurological control over my own damn thumbs. As often happens when one of us is making a total mess of something, we laughed so hard we cried (and maybe peed a little); we actually cleared our entire car on the train from Paris to Brussels with our loud American hilarity.

But gods know I had the time to practice, and I got pretty good by the time I returned stateside. And I soon found that crafting filled a long-standing need: something to do with my hands as I sat watching TV. It worked even better during long roleplaying sessions. And while it made the guys at Gen Con decidedly uncomfortable when I’d pull out the alien apparatus of needles and fibers and dainty scissors along with my bag of dice and event ticket, I soon found that there were quite a few female gamers who enjoyed the same multi-geek-tasking. One of our long-standing gaming groups was a fairly even gender split: Jim and Shannon Butcher hosted, with Jim running Warhammer Fantasy RP one weekend, and Cam running his Elizabethan Cthulhu d20 hybrid on the opposite weekend, with Clark and Amanda Valentine forming the third stable couple; several of my grad school friends were also long-time players. At first glance, the dining table sent very mixed signals: was this a crafting bee with hex maps? a battle with minis, and the bright squiggles of discarded thread meant something? The girls’ rhythm of the game was easy to follow: we stitched until it was our turn, picked up the dice, rolled, announced, “4 hits, 1 crit, for 112 total. I kill it,” then resumed stitching. Jim called us his delicate flowers.

Jewelry making was more an accident than an act of desperation. Wrong store, right time, and I came out $64 lighter with a new hobby. It turned into a business when I got tired of people trying to buy my jewelry off my body in airports and ladies’ rooms, and I dragged two of my best girlfriends into it with me, for craft fairs and bonding. Thread and yarn on the battle mats switched for Soft Flex and beads, but the results were the same: we made pretty things, we killed monsters, the boys learned to comment supportively.

I don’t have a lot of pictures to show you of my handiwork, because I keep almost none of it for myself. Of the dozens of blankets I’ve crocheted, we own two; of the scarves and hats I’ve knitted, I’ve only kept one. My jewelry box is like the lesson of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot: I wear some of my oldest, most crappily made pieces, because the good stuff goes to art shows. But it brings me peace to make, and joy to see in the hands where it belongs. And the skills occasionally put me in the position to pull of the Great Work of Ninja, such as the last-minute bag for the groom’s glass at our friends’ wedding, a rather spiffy feat of engineering and style if I do say so myself, or the ring pillow with a cross-stitched centerpiece that could be detached and made into a decorative mat within a picture frame.

I know craft geeks are legion, and we find each other in the most wonderful and unexpected ways. My favorite craft geek encounter was in the prep for my own wedding. Our baker had asked us if we had a cake topper for her to use, and we bashfully admitted that we wanted to procure two wind-up Godzilla toys instead. She sighed dreamily, and said, “*Oh*, I just *love* Godzilla.” When we returned for the last consult before the wedding, she reached beneath the table, blushing, and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I got a little carried away …” And another craft ninja gave us one of the best pieces of our wedding day: two wind-up Godzillas, one with a dainty veil, the other quite dapper in a top hat and kilt. [picture forthcoming]

Sep 14, 2011 - AV Club, Fine Arts    3 Comments

Music Calms the Savage Geek

Don’t call the people in the padded van, but I’m pretty sure I pick up radio signals with my fillings. Because I hear music. All. The. Time. The only other theory I can think of is that someone’s secretly making a movie of my life, in real time, but that would be deeply unfortunate, because some of the songs I hear really suck sometimes, and I would hope whomever’s in charge of this project has better taste than that.

Much as my kids were destined to be reading and gaming geeks, I was destined to be a music geek. My mom sang in choirs from when she was a little girl, and loved ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s pop music passionately; her mom could play piano by ear, and knew dozens of campfire and folk songs from her years as a Girl Scout leader. I was blessed with a good ear and a strong voice, and with the exception of one elementary music teacher who told me she’d like to hear everyone else too, I was never told to pipe down or use the maracas instead.

My earliest and best memories are all saturated with music. I remember my very first concert — I couldn’t have been more than 2 — where I sat on my father’s shoulders and looked out at the sea of shimmering lighter flames as Willie Nelson sang “Stardust.” I knew dozens of Beatles songs, and they were my favorite band as much as my mom’s. I cried and cried the day John Lennon was shot. And it took me years to realize that the 20th Century Fox intro wasn’t actually the beginning of the Star Wars score.

By high school, I was firmly entrenched as both a band and choir geek. Sorry, no show choir. This was pre-Glee, and these were the jazz hands, “Send in the Clowns” days. Every geek’s got their limits. My good fortune as a musician truly blossomed. I had the very best teachers, and my stepdad’s work as a music ed professor gave me opportunities to sing in national festival choirs that thrilled me to my toes. At college, it only got better. Though I had to choose choir over band for time constraints, I worked for several years with Simon Carrington, one of the founding members of the King’s Singers, as he began his foray into a second career as choir director. His repertoire and professional expertise was epic, and he simply didn’t know to expect any less from a college choir. So we delivered. Britten’s War Requiem, Biebl’s Ave Maria, Tallis’ 40-Part Motet … we even staged Mendelssohn’s Elijah as an opera. I was spoiled forever.

High school was also where my listening tastes began evolving, formed by influences from every direction. The Morrissey tape from my first kiss; Erik Satie and Francis Cabrel from my Belgian exchange student; and every concert I could scrounge up the allowance and babysitting money to attend: Bob Dylan, Heart, R.E.M., Modern English, Skinny Puppy, Love and Rockets, The Pixies, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction, The Swans, The Cure, Primus, Tracy Chapman, Johnny Clegg, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Murphy, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, The Bobs … the list goes on, and memory fails. We had the perfect arrangement: Thursdays at Bailey’s and Sundays at Club Marilyn in Milwaukee for dancing, and The Exclusive Company and B-Side on State Street in Madison for cassettes.


Music has power over me. Sometimes, that’s not such a great thing. When I was 15, I dated a kid who was a musical prodigy. He played trumpet and piano. He arranged Bach’s Air on a G string for brass quintet from the organ score one weekend when he was bored. He would sit at the piano in my living room and improvise the most beautiful, heartbreaking songs. I basked in the reflected glow of his genius. I pretended that made up for the abuse. I made excuses for him until after the second rape, and some of my other music geek friends circled the wagons to protect me. When I would’ve crawled into myself and died, they made me eat Spaghetti-Os out of the same big mixing bowl with them and sing Little Shop of Horrors songs with my mouth full. That music saved me as surely as the other music endangered me.

And I was 35 (!) when another piece of the music puzzle fell into place for me. Part of my music geekiness is based on the fact that I have hyper-sensitive hearing, and perfect relative pitch. Put another way, I can’t ever stop listening, which is why I have to have white noise without any pattern to it in order to fall asleep; if it’s silent, I’ll lie awake waiting for a sound. And the sensitivity to sound is so bad that my one and only migraine trigger is loud, sudden noises: everything from fireworks or a car backfiring, to a balloon popping nearby. If you can feel the percussion of it “slap” your eardrum, it’s enough to trigger a migraine for me. It’s been this way since I was a baby, they think. But I’m good with prolonged loud noises, like you’d find at the kind of concerts I most enjoy, and there’s almost nowhere in the world I’d rather be than standing in front of a powerful Bass II section or a good bass woofer. If my sternum’s rattling, if I can feel a mild heart arrhythmia caused by the secondary beat in my chest, I am one hundred percent happy.

And I think that both of these come from the fact that, in all likelihood, I have Asperger’s Syndrome to some extent too. The wrong kinds and frequencies of sound make me extremely uncomfortable, but music — especially lyrical bass (not that stupid bass-bumping crap) — fills me up. It forms a glowing, golden spiral from the center of my belly, up through my whole body, like a mighty architecture that leaves me so much stronger that the light and joy just spills out my voice and my smile and my fingertips.

This is one of those rare instances where I am not a nerd at something I’m a geek about. I’ve never had a single day of music theory, or any other formal course of music study, and I stopped piano lessons when they asked me to do two things with one hand at the same time. But there’s no question I’m a music geek. When people look at our CD collection, the first question is usually, “How many people did you say live here?” And the second question is usually, “Can I borrow this?”