Not Quite Feminist Punk

It’s funny how sometimes, a confluence of events offers up a little epiphany. This is the story of one about feminism & punk rock that I’m still processing.

A week or two ago, I was on a long car ride with my daughters and a pop song came on the radio. Talking about our love of pop, my nearly-16-year-old said that she thought it was unfair that many put pop music down and that she suspected that it’s because pop is designed to appeal to young women. Not a new argument, but fresh to hear it coming from her mouth—as it came from mine decades ago. I got mad all over again at the way that, without vigilance, we let patriarchal culture tell us that our taste, whatever it is, is second best.

Last week, I read Claude M. Steele’s wonderful 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi, which details, for a general audience, his decades of research on stereotype threat and how to combat it, especially in colleges. Stereotype threat, if you’re not familiar with it, is that phenomenon when your performance will falter just because you know that the stereotype is that people like you (people who share a salient identity category with you) don’t do well on the task at hand. Again and again, Steele and his colleagues have shown that making, say, women aware of their gender before a math test, or whites aware of their race before athletic competition, decreases performance. At the same time, performance goes right back up if you tell test-takers that the test shows no differences along gender lines, or offer some of the growth-mindset affirmations that Carol Dweck (who’s cited many times here) espouses.

One of the things Steele talks about is how, when you’re a minority, you become really adept at reading the context clues of the room—of counting if you’re alone or if there’s only one other member of your group, etc.

So, on Friday, I went to a meeting of a group of English professors from around the city who all work in my field. Some of them I know well, some I’ve only seen or met in passing. They’d been meeting as a group for a while, but I had missed the first two or three gatherings. NJTransit was not my friend and I was late as it was. In short: this meeting had all the ingredients to make me just a touch more nervous than usual about entering an unfamiliar room.

I got in, I counted: yup—I was the second woman. I sat across from her and smiled. We were two. Not quite critical mass, but not horrible. The meeting went well. My colleagues are, in fact, lovely and thoughtful and interesting and not interrupters and, when the convener invited us all to join for lunch, I confirmed that the other woman was going and I went.  


At lunch, two men about my age started talking about the punk shows they went to back in the early 80’s and I could feel my blood pressure rising. I love music of all kinds. I have been to some really fun shows. I wanted, so badly, to participate in the conversation, but I couldn’t figure out how to put my oar in without their mockery. I sat there, racing through my options from all the shows I saw in Seattle. What would they think if I told them the one about how disappointing Grandmaster Flash was? Or how my friend that I had a crush on made us miss the Thompson Twins, which was the main reason I’d wanted to see The Police at the Tacoma Dome? Or that I used to go to SubPop when it was a record store and get mocked by Bruce Pavitt (who was such a snob) for buying OMD and Culture Club while my friends bought the real punk? Or just how cool it was to be friends with the Bernstein boys and go to their dad’s club to see a local band? Or to see Joe Newton’s posters around town? Or seeing UB40—a show newly tainted by the newest Justice-cum-sexual-assaulter-and-drunkard at a roller rink? Or the Ramones, way after their prime but still amazing, in New Haven? Or how amazing Black Uhuru was at the Paramount? I sat there laughing at their stories—which were good—but frustrated at myself for being so tongue-tied.

I knew my transcendentally happy time seeing the Psychedelic Furs with a girl I’d met at a writer’s conference for high school students was out—but why? I had gone away for a week on a writer’s retreat for high school kids. I’d lived in Port Townsend and made friends with a girl—I don’t remember her name—from a tiny town, a couple hours outside Seattle. She and I both loved the Psychedelic Furs and she got her parents to drive her to the show. We met, sat together and it was great. In those days before cell phones and email, arranging such a meeting was not easy and it felt so cool to be the cool city kid welcoming her cool country friend to this amazing show. As anecdotes go, this seems pretty acceptable & worthy of sharing. Why is it that my story felt less good to share than my colleague’s story about knowing that some punk shows were too dangerous to attend?

To the rescue came my friend, who had cool punk stories, but also listens to himself and he said, “God, we sound so old.” And then, another colleague, younger than us, made a joke about going to see Dickens speak and that turned into a riff that was an actually deeply hilarious mash-up of a story of a punk rock brawl (“they were unscrewing the lightbulbs and breaking them to use as weapons”) and Bloomsbury—“and then, John Maynard Keynes beaned Leonard with the andiron….”

That was a relief.

Then, yesterday, just to make me feel less a fool, a made a joke about the Butthole Surfers in a very high-level meeting at my university and got a high five from a VP for my quickness.

L’esprit de l’éscalier.

My tentative conclusion has to do with analogies. I was glad to read Steele’s generous assessment that analogies do, in fact, help our understanding. In my experience, analogies are critical to our understanding, but they need to be wielded with care. It can be too easy to say “I know just how you feel,” when really, what we can know is “I am better able to imagine how you feel because I felt something similar.” My stress at lunch was real, but extraordinarily low stakes, but I might not have noticed it absent the conversation with my daughter about what music gets to be cool and my reading of Steele. But it was stereotype threat and it did mean that, for ten minutes of a really lovely and pleasant lunch, I was anxiously flipping through the rolodex of my brain, trying to figure out how to join the conversation, desperately wanting to, and, in the end, never figuring out how. Boy, it’s amazing how complicated life is.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Songs evoke memories, sure. Every day I listen to music and every day a song reminds me of some earlier self. But twice this week, Lucinda Williams’ great song, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” has come on the radio and has brought me back not just to a period, but to an eerily precise time and place.

In August of 1998, I drove my little 4-door Civic from my beloved home in
Cambridge to Lafayette, Indiana, to take my first tenure-track job at Purdue. Driving behind me, in his nicer 4-door darker blue Civic was my boyfriend. As the land got flatter and Boston receded, I could see his terror mounting. Why, I could feel him thinking, have I followed this woman away from the East?

I had found a charming apartment: the top floor of a Victorian house facing a tiny pocket park on the top of a hill. Unfortunately, the prior tenants refused to leave in time. When I called the landlady to insist on our rights, she demurred: “He’s from India,” she explained by way of apology. “I think he’s a rajah!”

Rajah or no, I wanted in to our new apartment, but there was nothing to do. The moving company left our stuff in the garage and our landlady put us up in a vacant apartment a few blocks away. This apartment was a tiny one bedroom in a largely abandoned small apartment building with a distinctly Sunset Boulevard feel. One vacant apartment in the same building had a ballroom with French doors leading to a small garden. Although I’d seen it when I was apartment-hunting and had been momentarily charmed by the faded glamour and the promise of parties to come, in the end, it was too much to live up to. My boyfriend and I had never lived together before, and it seemed like a bad omen to move into a house that reminded me of Miss Havisham.

Nonetheless, there we were, in the very building I had known to avoid, in a tiny furnished apartment, waiting for the rajah and his girlfriend to move out.

Guilty, our landlady had stocked the fridge with cold cuts. I had never seen so many in my life. We had a pound of roast beef, a pound of turkey, a pound of corned beef, a pound of ham, a pound of swiss, and a pound and a half of American, a loaf of bread, some mayonnaise, and a jar of yellow mustard.

No sooner had we arrived, then my boyfriend had to head off on a sad errand: to the Mayo Clinic to be with his family while his dad underwent treatment for the cancer that would kill him a year later. He lived to see us married, but not much more.

Alone with a boombox and pounds and pounds of sliced meat, I spent my days planning my classes and listening to Lucinda Williams on a bulky black boombox:

Can't find a damn thing in this place
Nothing's where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road
Child in the backseat about four or five years
Lookin out the window
Little bit of dirt mixed with tears
Car wheels on a gravel road

I wouldn’t want to live through that week again, and I couldn’t have made it without that song.

Summer Mix, 2011—Heat wave edition

Here is the track list for our 2011 summer cd, the 6th we’ve made as a family:

Lovely Day--Bill Withers
Eet--Regina Spektor           
Boogie Nights--Heat Wave           
Chic C'est La Vie--Countess Luann
Montezuma--Fleet Foxes
Police On My Back--The Clash
Like A Rolling Stone--Bob Dylan
You've Got a Friend in Me (para el Buzz Español)--Gipsy Kings
Firework--Katy Perry
Dancing Queen--Abba
What a Wonderful World--Louis Armstrong
Thunder Road--Bruce Springsteen
Right as Rain--Adele
Candombe Del Olvido--Alfredo Zitarrosa
The Cave--Mumford & Sons
Sugar Mountain--Neil Young
Town Called Malice--The Jam
Viva La Vida--Coldplay
Maybe I'm Amazed--Paul McCartney
Doña Soledad--Repique
Mountain Greenery--Ella Fitzgerald

Perhaps not surprisingly, Uruguayan music is represented as never before. Of the three kiddie pop songs that emerged after a weekend with our Vermont cousins, Justin Beiber and Taio Cruz didn’t make the cut, but Katy Perry turns out to be a crowd-pleaser. And, in honor of a genius tribute video by one of my husband’s colleagues, we have our first ever track from one of the Real Housewives, Countess Luann. As Izzy (5) says, “It’s silly, but it’s fun to dance to.” Coldplay makes its third appearance, one of only three artists to do so in six years. The other two are Stevie Wonder and Pink Martini. That trio captures, I think, what it is we’re up to here: picking great songs that are fun to share across generations. 

Alfredo Zitarrosa

Last week, after the conference was over, two of the English professors from the University of the Republic of Uruguay were kind enough to take me and another visiting American on a drive to the charming vacation town of Colonía.

While there, I spotted a music store and asked my new Uruguayan friends to help me pick some Cds to remember Uruguay by. I had read about Luciano Supervielle as the hot new Uruguayan artist on the plane, so I picked up his album. I also got a two-cd compilation of Candombe, the distinctive, highly percussive Afro-Uruguayan music (and, I’m told, the only music that this solely Uruguayan—tango, being, of course, shared with Argentina). Both are terrific.

If you want old music, traditional music, they said, maybe try Alfredo Zitarrosa. But, the man warned, his music is very sad, very depressing. He has one song, my new friend continued, in which he likens his failed love, his failed life, his failed nation, to the slaughter of a calf which is vividly described in the 16-minute song. By the end of the 16 minutes, you’ll want to kill yourself, too, he said. This music may not be for you.

But my fellow American and I took one look at this face—that sad, manly bassett hound topped with a lot of hair and a bit too much gel really does it for me—and picked up copies of a collection of Zitarrosa. I can’t stop listening to it and it seems to me that his is the music I have been needing all my life. Gorgeous, lush, and melancholy, with beautiful clear masculine vocals and a sweet Spanish guitar, the music moves me to my core.

To hear this man singing mi pais, mi dolor, mi gente, mariposa is to feel, all facts to the contrary, almost able to understand Spanish.

I love Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but there is something about melancholy songs in another language that just slays me. My love for Jacques Brel will never abate, but I needed someone new. Zitarrosa forever!

Jay-Z and Cockney Rhyming Slang

Every once in a while, I’ll be teaching and Cockney rhyming slang will come up. Can “apples and pears” really be “stairs”? Do people really say “trouble and strife” to mean “wife”? And frankly, I can’t answer. It has always seemed baffling to me, too.

Then, on my run this morning, I’m listening to Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”

If a man named Shawn Corey Carter can re-style himself as Jay-Z and then reshape that into the grandiose (and pretty terrific) god-term pun Jay-hova, and then turn it into a kind of new pig Latin and get sweet-voiced women to sing “H to the Izzo, V to the Izzay” so we all understand that this is a tribute to the greatness of that same young Shawn Carter’s rap stylings, why shouldn’t Brahms, shortened from Brahms and Lizst, mean “pissed” (as in drunk)?

The link, if you click it, has some really good examples, and, in more patient terms, shows how many such rhyming substitutions are in common use (such as 86'd for nixed).

This makes me feel much better.


I’ve got a pretty sweet Pandora station to listen to when I need to work but don’t want to. It’s based on Iron & Wine and it plays all kinds of gentle folk rock by soulful kids living in Brooklyn—a little Coldplay, lots of Sufjan Stevens, some Neko Case, moments of Phillip Glass, Penguin Cafe Orchestra. But I had an intense reaction of fascinated loathing when The Vision of a Dying World’s “Barges” came on.

We used to sing “Barges” at Camp Sealth, a Camp Fire Girls camp on Vashon Island (and less often at the Y-owned Camp Orkila) and I always found it creepy. First of all, of all the sea-going vessels that passed through Puget Sound, or any waterway, barges hold the least romance for me—and have the ugliest name. Singing “Barges, I would like to go with you / I would like to sail the ocean blue” always seemed sorry to me. I dreamed of ships, of islands, of adventures, but they never involved a barge.

Then, too, at sleepaway camp, I worked hard to guard myself against group sentiment. I was homesick at night and I knew that the counselors preyed on that generic feeling to build esprit de corps. Dreamy and bookish, I resisted anything that smacked of manufactured sentiment.

My feelings about the song are really strong. If you asked me when I was ten, I would have told you that it was really stupid, but something in it moved me deeply and I resented being moved. I still do.

Turns out that this is an old camp song and feeling about it run high from those who were campers in the 50s and 60s. (I would have been at Sealth in the mid-late 70s), as this discussion board attests. Many of those campers were burdened with the dubious origin story that it was written by a crippled, dying child who longed for escape from her hospital room. If that is not enough to secure a permanent contempt for the song and the custom of terrifying little girls away from home for a week, I don’t know what is. I was delighted to learn, decades too late, that it spawned some delicious parodies. Here is one:

Out of my tent flap, glowing in the night
You can see the leaders' cigarette light

Silently flows the whiskey from its flask

As the leaders do go for a blast

Leaders, I would like to go with you
I would like to share your whiskey too

Leaders, are there boy scouts in your bed?
Are you prepared for the night ahead?

That's one I'll remember to teach my kids should the occasion arise.


My new obsession is Tobermory, Ontario, a small town on the Bruce Peninsula in Lake Huron, about 7 hours north of Clayton, NY.

Why, you ask, does a woman who spends her summers 7 hours north of New York City dream of spending a week 7 hours further north?

Because she can, dear reader, because she can.

It began with The Wind in the Willows, which accompanied us up to the River for the third year in a row. This year, however, we actually read a couple chapters aloud.

Then, one day, during 30 seconds of the 30 or 40 minutes of television the children watched all summer, there was an ad on t.v. for a new musical based on Kenneth Grahame’s book, set on the St. Lawrence River, and coming to the stage in Gananoque in August.

I was sold. I got tickets. The girls and I got our passports and went. The girls loved it—just adored the show. I thought it was about as good as you might guess good regional theater in Ontario would be: the first act was terrific, the second relied a little too heavily on very rusty jokes (from Grahame’s book, but that was 1933) about a Toad in an Irish woman’s pink dress. It might have been 1950.

I was disappointed, too, to be sitting seven rows back with my little girls, behind a busload of old age pensioners. Why did the 80-year-olds get all the good seats? And it does spoil my time a little to be a good 40 years younger than the average audience member.

Nonetheless, the opening moments were fantastic. The opening scene takes place on the dock—Gananoque’s Singer Theater is the old Canoe Club—and we were treated to a few songs from David Archibald, the play’s co-author and composer.

“Up the River” opens with the actors singing and dancing on the dock. Mole comes on stage, welcomes spring, notices the River in wonder, and then Ratty (who, in the true Canadian spirit, keeps insisting he’s a Beaver. The Canada jokes were pretty tired but this one was funny.) actually rows up to the dock. Mole climbs on board and they row out to a little grass-covered float anchored near the dock. As they picnic, a wet-suited and flippered otter swims up and joins them. That was great summer family theater: witty and funny and worth the price of the ticket. (You can read a review here.)

I also liked David Archibald’s singing: very old school folk with a British Isles/Canadian/Great Lakes tinge (sincere, story-telling, sentimental about a park-like vision of wilderness). His song, “The Rocks of Tobermory” was haunting, so I looked him up.

Then I looked up Tobermory. There is nothing like a map to inflame my dreams of travel. Just look at that peninsula! And then listen to this:
Fathom Five is Canada's first National Marine Park, with over 20 shipwrecks and 19 islands within it's boundaries. The deep clear water and the numerous shipwrecks attract over 8,000 divers each year. Glass bottom boat tours leave Tobermory several times each day to take visitors over the shipwrecks and to Flower Pot Island. The best known island in the Park features two 60 foot high 'flower pots', a lighthouse and walking trails.

When I lie awake worrying about the coming semester and all that I will have to do, I soothe myself back to sleep with promises of a trip to Tobermory next summer…

Michael Jackson, Cynthia Hinds, and the Green River Murders

I’ve been silent on Michael Jackson’s death, though I’ve been so relieved that the shock and sorrow of his death has brought the greatness of his music back to me: it’s been wonderful to listen and listen again to all those great songs.

For me, the memory of Michael Jackson is all bound up with second grade and a girl in my class then who was murdered, Cynthia Hinds. Cynthia loved the Jackson Five.

I have been thinking about her and recently, I found the essay I wrote about her death back in 2003 when her murderer was sentenced. Cynthia was one of the victims of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Murderer. The Green River Murders were a series of serial killings of prostitutes along a lonely strip of highway south of the Sea-Tac Airport.

In 2003, I wrote:
Cynthia Hinds and I were in the second grade together at Lowell Elementary School in Seattle. We were not friends. She envied my ability to read with ease; I envied her beauty. Looking back at our class picture, I can see that she was a wide-eyed, buck-toothed girl who had yet to grow into her looks, but to me, at seven, she was the prettiest girl in the class. Beautiful. She had cinnamon skin, huge brown eyes, and long wavy hair that she wore in a ponytail on the side of her head, tied with thick, fuzzy red yarn. Hers is still the hair I think of as the prettiest I have ever seen. …

She was good at dancing. Everyday, we did Soul Train. I ran between the two swaying lines of classmates, trying to get it over with; Cynthia thrived on the attention. She loved the Jackson Five. One day, Ms. Pogue asked us to write a little composition, finishing the sentence: “If I could invite anyone to dinner, I would invite…” While I wrote an essay on Abraham Lincoln, Cynthia was getting Ms. Pogue’s help with the spelling of Michael and Jermaine.
There is a lot to say here—about my nerdiness and aspiration, about her love for the Jackson Five and my sense that I wouldn’t know what to say to them (let alone remember Marlon, Randy, and Tito’s names or tell them apart). (Funny to imagine being more comfortable with Lincoln than with Jermaine Jackson, but with Lincoln, I felt more confident: I had a lot of questions to ask him and I knew a lot more about him, having read the D’Aulaire biography dozens and dozens of times.) Lowell was a very integrated elementary school: no one race dominated and we thought and talked a lot about race all the time.

I also remember that Cynthia pinned me to the wall every day for a little over a week and kicked me in the butt. No matter which exit I used, she found me, gave me one kick, and walked away. Eventually, the teachers got control, and I was freed.

Even after elementary school, I remembered her—how pretty she was and her animus to me and all the confusing feelings connected with that, with knowing that I was smarter than she was, knowing (duh!) that just by my being white, things (what things I couldn’t have said) were easier for me than for her. So I was shocked to see her picture on the front page of the Seattle Times as a murder victim in 1982. There I was, in high school honors classes and this girl who had been such a part of my second grade life was dead.

I think back to that intimidating Soul Train line in second grade and remember loving Michael Jackson in spite of my fear of dancing in public. I think we all loved Michael Jackson. I still do.

it was this : it was this:

Even if you're not coming to the Woolf Conference, you should make time for June 5th's one night only music and dance performance, "it was this : it was this : "

it was this: it was this:
songs and dances inspired by the life and work of
Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group
with Princeton & Stephen Pelton Dance Theater
at the 19th Annual Virginia Woolf Conference
Friday June 5th, 2009 8pm
Pope Auditorium, Fordham University
113 W 60th St, New York, NY 10023

Tickets $20. Available online today & tomorrow only & then at at the door.

But don't take it from me. Here's what the collaborators say:
Southern California frolic meets Northern California serious in a one-night only collaboration of song and dance.

Princeton, the Los Angeles-based trio, join forces with San Francisco’s Stephen Pelton Dance Theater in it was this: it was this: an evening of songs and dances inspired by the life and work of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group.

Princeton will perform all of the songs from their recent EP Bloomsbury, each lyrically focused upon a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Portraits of Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes are each presented in a different musical framework with lush orchestral arrangements. The band is comprised of twin brothers Jesse and Matt Kivel and Ben Usen. The band will be joined by 8 additional musicians in recreating their frolicsome, exuberant take on the cast of Bloomsbury characters.

Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, known for known its intimate theatricality and emotional intensity, may be familiar to audiences from previous Woolf conferences. This year the company will perform several new works including the premiere of it was this: it was this: a choreographic study of Woolf’s punctuation. Using a single paragraph from To the Lighthouse, the company dances their way from the first word to the last, pausing briefly for every comma, parentheses and semicolon in-between. The company also performs a revised version of The Death of the Moth, first seen at the Plymouth State Conference in 1997.

The artists will combine forces for the premiere of Lytton/Carrington, a portrait-in-miniature of this most original of love stories.

Pelton writes, “What is most interesting to me in this collaboration with Princeton, is how remarkably different our approaches to Woolf are. I suspect that some of this may be attributable to the fact that we are from completely different generations—I am in my mid-forties, they in their early twenties. Their sweet, light-hearted and, at times, irreverent response to the material would have been unthinkable to me twenty years ago when I started to read Woolf and make dances inspired by her. Though they are always respectful, their songs embrace the playful spirit in Woolf’s work and in the lives of her colleagues; whereas I have tended to focus my response on the gravity of Woolf’s concerns. This contrast should make for a very fascinating evening in the theater.”
Tickets are selling fast, so hop online & buy one: no need to register for the conference, just get a ticket (or four or five). And big, big, big thanks to Paula Maggio of Blogging Woolf for turning me on to Princeton in the first place!

Blossom Dearie

Blossom Dearie has died, of natural causes, at 82.

If you don't know her wonderful hip, very, very white jazz style, you owe it to yourself to check it out. She'll have your fingers snapping and have you feeling like a really happy, very posh beatnik in no time. Just the antidote to my February blues.

She is amazing. She takes a simple little song like "Tea for Two" and slows it WAY down, making it sultry and cool. Or "Surrey with a Fringe on Top," from Oklahoma of all things, suddenly is full of a sexy urban wink: something utterly different from the great but totally straight version by Shirley Jones and Gordon Macrae. I love her "Rhode Island is Famous for You," one of the great place name songs.

Verve Records has a nice compilation of her essential hits. I was collecting those at some point in the 90s and somehow this one made my list. I've never regretted it. Terry Teachouts much smarter and more informed remembrance is here--with a video clip of "Surrey with a Fringe on Top" as a bonus!

I am so grateful to her for her lovely songs. May she rest in peace.

Obama Mix

A week ago, I sat in my office, knowing that it would be a L-O-N-G weekend of hope and worry. I needed a new mix for my iPhone to get me through Tuesday and beyond. I decided to make an Obama mix that would make me feel fierce and inspired; something to give me the courage to keep working whilst awaiting election results, something to boost me at the end of a long day, something both tough and idealistic. I started with the Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and knew I would end with Springsteen’s “The Rising.” Lots of the Jackson 5 in the middle because that’s been sounding good to me lately. Today, I added the Sondheim song that I blogged about yesterday and Shirley Horn’s version of “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” I did download CocoaTea’s reggae hit and the new, but they’re not the best parts of the list in my view: still, it was worth the .99 cents times two to have those little snapshots in song. The playlist is swelling and I expect it to be in heavy rotation until January 20.

Some highlights:
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly--Ennio Morricone—because that whistling makes me feel tough.
  • The James Bond Theme (Original Version)--City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra—you have no idea how awesome, in a Clark Kentish way, it feels to be riding a crowded train in my little jacket, burdened down with groceries and papers to grade, with James Bond blasting in my ears. Besides, like Obama, it's just cool. And a little nerdy.
  • La Ronda--Marta Gómez—a gorgeous acoustic song, “Dame un besito…”
  • Green Light (feat. Andre 3000)--John Legend—the Starbucks freebie (with $4.06 latte) a few weeks back, but it features the line “Even Steven Wonder got down sometimes” which makes me smile so hard.
  • Galveston--Glen Campbell—which I downloaded when the hurricane hit. It’s a great retro-country song and it reminds me to remember Katrina, to remember the neediest.
  • A Prayer For Our Time--Vusi Mahlasela—I love Mahlasela’s sweet sincerity and this came up when I was searching for the Sondheim so I added it in.
Other suggestions? Several friends sent me links to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—the Rufus Wainwright version, or a friend singing it himself. What songs have you been singing to celebrate?

I’ll close with a disclaimer: I continue to be proud and amazed at how many of my friends and acquaintances worked at all levels of the campaign. No such work here: with two jobs and two little ones, it was all I could do to boost Obama from this little blog, blog once in a while over at DailyKos, and send all my spare change to Barack. I did what I could. I'm relieved my little was enough and I'm SO grateful to all who did more.

Yes we did! Still smiling edition

Well, we did it: President-elect Obama. What a great week.

I'm still exhausted and overwhelmed. And just now, in my little stolen hour (my husband took the kids to the park), I'm listening to Jonathan Schwartz' very old-fashioned standards on WNYC. Critics say it's like being stuck all afternoon at a stuffy great-aunt's house, but I love all the Sinatra and Sondheim.

He's been playing a version of "It's not Easy Being Green" for weeks, one in which the singer stops to talk & says, "Maybe one day, we'll even have a green president. Hmmm...a president of color...." It's very dear--just as dear and touching as the song has been for 40 years.

Today, though, he opened with Sondheim: "Our Time" from "Merrily We Roll Along."
Something is stirring,
Shifting ground …
It's just begun.
Edges are blurring
All around,
And yesterday is done.

Feel the flow,
Hear what's happening:
We're what's happening.
Don't you know?
We're the movers and we're the shapers.
We're the names in tomorrow's papers.
Up to us, man, to show 'em …

Oh, I'm weeping like a baby. And not for the first time this week. So happy. So relieved.


Another word to add to your vocabulary, another reason to love Wikipedia.

I was listening to “Proud Mary” and googled the lyrics to figure out the phrase “pumped a lot of tane.” The Tina Turner version is ‘tane, for octane, which makes sense as the kind of lousy, hard job someone might have in New Orleans, but wikipedia suggests, too, that the line may be a mondegreen, helpfully linking to an entry on the topic.

The coinage comes from a 1954 essay by Sylvia Wright in Harper’s:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray, [sic]
And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green." As Wright explained the need for a new term, "The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original."
I love mondegreens—and I’m thrilled to have a word for them! The homespun ones are best. The widely circulating ones tend to have a bit of a Reader’s Digest-y “oh, the funny things kids think” quality.

In high school, a friend of mine, very straight-laced but funny and brilliant, loved the Soft Cell hit “Tainted Love.” This seemed to open new windows into her tolerance and personality until we determined that she thought the song was “Painted Dove”!

Do you have a favorite?

More on Rock the River

Amber Rubarth wasn’t the only star of the show. In fact, the bigger name—though utterly new to me—was Joe Purdy. He is the real thing, clearly, gifted, serious, and a real River musician. With his dungarees, beard, and crew cut, he isn’t advertising his success. (By contrast, Jay Nash’s producer, who is also in the Low Stars, of that great song from last summer “Calling all friends,” was in an untucked white shirt and jeans like everyone else but, man, even from ten rows back, I could see that they were expensive jeans…)

Purdy’s song “Wash Away” is lovely and simple. Not watching either “Lost” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” I can’t tell you which one it was featured on, but I can see why you’d choose it. And the whole album “Julie Blue,” our other purchase, was recorded during a week on a tiny island up here in the St. Lawrence. We have been listening to it a lot and it’s just lovely.

The other song that Purdy performed was an old Dylan tune, maybe “Sister, Sister”?, which he sang as a duet with Garrison Starr. Their voices blended together like nothing I have ever heard live. It was utterly transcendent.

Garrison Starr came out in her gray jeans, gray t-shirt, and gray porkpie hat, and shuffled over to the mic next to Purdy. He motioned her to join him on his mic. “Are you sure?” “Yeah.” As they sang, their heads bobbed in and up, their lips nearly touching the microphone, and the music of each voice blending into one perfect, plaintive voice, wispy but strong. They went in and out of each other’s voices through the whole song, and if the applause was not as loud at the end, it is only because we were too stunned to move.

She was the other standout for me, and I want to get one of Garrison Starr’s cds next time I’m music shopping. When Amber Rubarth sings “I / like you / a lot / and I guess you know it’s worse than that,” she is disarmingly naked. Star is an utterly different kind of performer than Rubarth. Where Rubarth bares all, Star’s songs were beautiful and ambiguous. Her stage presence is confident and generous; she was the first to really thank Jay Nash for organizing the event and, in thanking him, she paid tribute to his friendship with real feeling. For all that, then, and for all that is interesting, rich, and moving about her voice, I don’t feel that I know her. But I am super interested and I plan to hear more.

And I loved watching Jay Nash host the event, popping out from backstage to watch for a minute and then check the soundboards, popping back up to tell a quick lame joke and keep things moving as performers searched for cords and plugs and tripped over the shoes that Amber Rubarth left behind onstage. His songs were strong, folk-pop, great tunes. They don’t stand out for me as my favorites, but I want to hear more, so he’s on the list for the next trip to the store.

Chris Pierce was a big teddy bear most of the night, coming out and adding depth and fun with his harmonica, but he brought down the house with a couple party songs at the night’s end. His James Brown influenced “Change Yourself,” was fun and so naughty—If you don’t like me the way I am, well, change yourself! Ha. You tell them. Eliza Moore’s Enya-y violin playing was not for me, much as I loved what she added as a side player on other songs. And there were a couple other performers who were fine, but not mind-blowing. A woman came out and sang a new song, the love song she would want written to herself and it was so utterly hyperbolic, about crossing seas and turning over every blade of grass and overcoming all kinds of impossibilities that I felt squirmy with embarrassment.

Finally, I do want to single out the utterly adorable Joey Ryan, though: tall, skinny, young, with a huge mop of hair, his song “Cloak,” about how, since you’ve been around, honey, your love is like a cloak, was so sweet and adorable and he had a great, sexy stage presence, like the young James Taylor. But then, as my mother-in-law and I both noticed, he was also a lot like my husband years ago and, I suppose, like my husband, he’ll one day age into having a little more flesh and a little less hair. Both ways are nice, but it’s fun to have a little glimpse into the past.

So there. If you, like me, are at a loss for some new music, three more new names: Joe Purdy, Garrison Starr, and Jay Nash.

New Music: Rock the River

How do you learn about new music these days?

I was reassured to hear an episode on WNYC’s Soundcheck months ago now about good bands seeking to place their songs on commercials and tv shows, now that radio is so formulaic. I was also really happy to have them identify that song, “I am holding half an acre…” from the Liberty Mutual Insurance ad. It is a pretty song and I downloaded Hem’s Rabbit Songs at once. It turns out to be good music here at the river for the first bit of writing in the morning. But, more than iBook, Kia, and Insurance ads (not the most noble way to find music) hearing it live is still the best.

On the 4th, we went to a benefit concert for the Save the River nonprofit at the Clayton Opera House. It was a great, fun show and we came away with four new artists to follow—and two new cds. There were a dozen performers or so, eight of whom sang a couple songs apiece. The whole event was distinctly local (even though most of the singers flew in from LA or tour) and unpolished: people came out and searched for the plugs for their guitars, came out and yelled backstage for this or that musician to join them. It was like a Dan Zanes show without toddlers and the whole thing had a groovy Brooklyn-in-the-country vibe. Each song brought out a new combination of musicians and no one was a diva about singing backup.

The next night, out on the boat watching fireworks with my husband’s cousins, we mentioned the concert. It turns out that the organizer, Jay Nash, is the son of our young cousin’s piano teacher: “Tell Mrs. Nash that her son organized a great show, ok?”

Since we get to hear live music about three times a year, we were really stunned to see that we had heard one of the singer-songwriters before: Amber Rubarth.

She is terrific. Last winter, we went down to the Electric Company in Utica to hear some music and she was the opening act. We loved her whole show: she has crazy good pipes, sweet funny lyrics, and terrific presence. It was fantastic to see her again and, for the first time to learn her name for sure. She’s very young, full of promise, and her songs really get you going. They make me feel young again and my daughters are clapping and stomping along to her in the car. With songs about painting and colors and watching the laundry spin around in the dryer, she is a real bohemian girl with a lovely, lovely spirit. Her song “Novacaine” is great, both for displaying her vocal range and her lyrical originality. She goes to the doctor, broken heart in hand, and, not heeding his advice, she just nabs some novacaine and numbs it, only later to run into him and have him notice her blank, sunken eyes…

So, you’re hearing it here: Amber Rubarth. Amber Rubarth. Amber Rubarth.

Where to Begin, 2

One consequence of this generally junky winter has been a near utter lack of nights out. Finally, the other weekend, we hired a sitter, determined to do something--anything.

Now, a sitter is a luxury, but the knowledge that we’re in New York and any given night has a multitude of fun things on offer is a luxury, too. After a courtship in Boston, we spent six years in rural Indiana where we were pretty dependent on the occasional traveling act. If some troupe came through town, you went or you waited till what came by next month.

So, anyway, we got a sitter. Now, what to do? I passed the buck to my spouse and he found a write up of Pistolera, a New York-based band combining mariachi with rock and left wing politics. The write-up was great:
The local group Pistolera, which is led by the guitarist and singer Sandra Lilia Velásquez, includes a propulsive accordionist named Maria Elena, a drummer named Ani Cordero (who is Velásquez’s cousin, and was once in the colorful rock band Man or Astro-man?), and one guy, the bassist Inca B. Satz. The foot-stomping band favors the fashions of the Mexican Revolution and has a winning sound that’s equal parts ranchera and indie pop.

They were playing at the Knitting Factory, where we’d never been. At $15 a pop, the price was right, too. We were in.

We went to Walker’s for a burger beforehand. It’s an ancient Tribeca Tavern, a lot like the White Horse (the Dylan Thomas bar in the West Village), and the evening was off to a promising start. The burgers were delicious and the beer hit the spot.

We found the Knitting Factory, got past the velvet ropes without any guff, picked up our tickets, and went in. The club is in a big iron building with multiple stages on different floors (nothing, even a big thing, is all that wide in New York), wide hallways, and not merely as messy as most clubs. Very Tribeca. So far, we felt pretty o.k.--we’d even arrived a full 45 minutes after the night’s start time. But then--cue the sound of a needle scratching across a record--we learned from the bartender that Pistoler was not slated to go on stage till 11:30.


The requests for Dora screenings start up around here at 6:30 on Sunday morning. An 11:30 start time just doesn’t cut it.

Fortunately, the opening act, Rana Santacruz, was great--incredible. I’ve downloaded all his songs from his website and they are in heavy rotation. (Perhaps equally fortunate, the second act, Uli and the Gringos was abysmal. So we went home by 11, got home around midnight, and were prepared to pop Dora in the DVD player the next morning). I got the Pistolera album on iTunes, too. It’s good, but I must say, the Rana Santacruz combo of punk rock (he’s a Pogues fan) and ranchero music is catchy and amazing and his voice is so very sweet. We love “El Ranchero Punk” but “No Puedo Mas” is in very heavy rotation.

A lucky catch and my tip to you: Rana Santacruz. Amazing.

Winter Blues

2008 started off well, but it has rapidly ground into the mud. Never mind. This, too, shall pass.

Today’s bright spot? Two packages from amazon finally arrived--the result of a little frittering of some Christmas money. (“Free SuperSaver Shipping” seems to mean “We’ll get to it when we have a minute.”) My need for an escape could not be more clear. I got a spy novel, a children’s book on Haiti, a cd of mariachi music (special for the baby, who goes wild every time we go to the Taqueria down the block), a new yoga-dance DVD, and 2 DVDs on how to salsa dance (one for kids and mommies, one just for clumsy grown-ups). I wasn’t thinking about it when I bought this stuff, but it does seem like a little jolt of sunshine and escape.

The Summer Mix

For the third summer in a row, I’ve made a compilation of summer songs. In 2005, the mix was called “dancing ‘round the kitchen” because that’s what we did every night: I cooked and my daughter and husband danced. Last year, when the baby was a newborn, the album was “our HUGE family” since we were all reeling with the discovery of what it meant to go from three to four.

This summer, it’s a survivor’s mix, Shady Shores, in honor of a summer that wasn’t quite as summery as we had hoped. (It’s also the name of the lane that my grandmother-in-law’s cabin sits on.) But again, as with each prior year, the songs themselves come to transform our memories, and what seems sometimes stressful and confusing in the midst of it, gets colored by the happy memories of the songs we associate with the year.

This year’s mix has two songs by our favorite group, Pink Martini, and two songs by Lucinda Williams, whom we saw in Utica at the Saranac Brewery. The opening song on the new Pink Martini album, “Everywhere,” is so sweetly sentimental, sung with such purity by China Forbes that the older girl immediately fell in love with it. That had to go on the album. As, in honor of her current obsession with “The Wizard of Oz” did Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s very odd & wonderful version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Overall, we think it’s the best of the three: it really does seem to make all four of us happy and it’s in heavy rotation on iHome, iPod, iPhone (!!!), and in the car.

I always aim for a current summer hit or two: two years ago, it was “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and last year it was Gnarls Barkley. This year, after driving around Seattle listening to “The Mountain” for two weeks, I chose two: that Delilah song (cheesy but sweet—and it also has the requisite NYC reference which is another piece of the equation) and “Calling All Friends.”

But the track that’s been the funniest and most controversial is #14: at my husband’s request, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.

Daughter #1: “Mama, what’s a devil? Mama, what’s sympathy? Mama, who were the Kennedy’s? Mama, why did we kill the Kennedy’s? Mama, is he a devil or is he just pretending to be one in the song?”

Daughter #2, pitch-perfect to Mick Jagger: “whoo-oo, whoo-oo.”

Herewith, then, the list:
  1. Everywhere --Pink Martini
  2. Lookin' Out My Back Door-- Creedence Clearwater Revival
  3. Hey There Delilah-- Plain White T's
  4. Righteously-- Lucinda Williams
  5. Don't Look Back-- Peter Tosh
  6. Al Otro Lado del Rio-- Jorge Drexler
  7. Peg-- Steely Dan
  8. La P'tite Monnaie-- Benabar & Associes
  9. Surfin' USA-- The Beach Boys
  10. Cante e Dance-- Pink Martini
  11. Coney Island-- Death Cab for Cutie
  12. Somewhere Over the Rainbow-- Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
  13. Pata Pata (Album Version)-- Miriam Makeba
  14. Sympathy for the Devil-- The Rolling Stones
  15. Upside Down-- Jack Johnson
  16. Wasn't Born to Follow-- The Byrds
  17. Mama You Sweet-- Lucinda Williams
  18. Cinnamon Girl-- Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  19. Calling All Friends-- Low Stars
  20. Saratoga Hunch-- Dave Frishberg