The Pain That Isn't There

So many of the dishes I enjoy cooking require a fair amount of chopping.  Like last night's hash -- potatoes, some leftover smoked brisket, an onion, a poblano pepper.  All cut into half inch dice.  A lot of chopping.  Since I don't have much fine motor control it's inevitable that I cut myself.  Not often, but frequently enough that I can't say it's rare.

One of the advantages of the spinal cord damage that transverse myelitis has left me with is that the cutting doesn't hurt.  I hardly feel it.  It's more likely that the hand holding the knife registers that I've cut into something that isn't the celery stalk I'm trying to focus on without noticing that the ring finger of the hand holding the celery has curved underneath the stalk just as I'm pulling the knife along the center.  (This was a few months ago prepping the soffritto for my bolognese).  The blood clues me in.  It's a nuisance.

It isn't that my hands are numb.  Far from it.  I have lots of sensation.  There's the constant buzzy tingling in both hands from above the wrist to the tips of my fingers, as if I'd slept on the elbow wrong and the hands are just waking up.  Occasionally there'll be bursts of sensation at the tips of a finger, a little explosion seeming to have just gone off on the surface of the skin.  Random sharp pains at the wrist or the thumb joint come and go.  None of these are "real."  That is, they're not an accurate reflection of something physiologically happening in my hands.  They're the artifact of the garbling of the signals those nerves are trying to send to my brain through that inch or two of demyelinated spinal cord just below my neck.  As if the individual wires in a cable had the insulation stripped off and the signal was short-circuited on its way up the line.  The stiffness, the effort required to bend the fingers or to straighten them again is the garbling going the other way -- my brain trying to control the fingers, but unable to get a clear signal to the necessary nerves.

Given all of the work going into that miscommunication in both directions I'm hardly surprised that when I cut myself the nerves don't seem even to try to send the shock of that sensation up to the brain.  There's too much already in the way.  So I feel the pain that isn't there and don't feel the pain that is.  I try to be careful.

The twenty or twenty-five minutes a day of guitar practice is going well.  I'm working on the ring finger of my left hand.  I need D-major-1 a D major chord in almost everything I play, and bringing that finger around to the D note on the 2nd string has been taking about an extra beat.  But I discovered the other day that if, when I'm bringing the index and middle fingers around to their positions, I tighten the muscle across my left shoulder blade, the ring finger keeps up.  For now, I have to remember to consciously trigger that muscle, but give me a few thousand more repetitions and it should become routine.  I suppose, in the old days, I used all the muscles in my arm to form chords, but it was subtle and automatic enough that I never really noticed.

Among the very many things I've learned in the last five and a half years is how stunningly complex the movements of a healthy body are and how little conscious thought is required.  The intricate mystical ballet of muscles and nerves combining to have fingers do everything from playing the piano to brain surgery to a fifteen year old girl talking on an airplane to a blind and deaf man.  Marvelous.

In my world, none of it is automatic anymore.  Everything has to be done with intention.  Let the attention waver for a moment and blood wells up from the tip of my finger.  But find the right muscle to flex and I can hit that D chord.



There's Always Music

I like that people ask me if I'm playing any guitar these days, even if the answer that I have to give is not a happy one.  Friends & colleagues know what a major thing it's been in my life, and to look at me at the recent MLA meeting in Chicago, you might've thought that maybe I'm improving enough to be back at it.

Alas, no.  I don't have enough flexibility, agility or acuity in my fingers.  I do keep the '72 Thinline in my study and try to pick it up for 10 minutes a day.  I can form most of the chords -- I just can't move between them with any dexterity.   It's good therapy for my hands.  

In the last couple of months my hands have improved to the point where I'm typing using all my fingers again.  Things are trending in the right direction.  But it is oh so slow.

Most frustrating is the inability to walk unassisted.  For short distances I can get by with the walking stick Josie named Mr. Whiskers.  For Chicago we brought the folding wheelchair we've dubbed Lightnin' McQueen.  I can also use it as a walker and was able to make my way around the conference hotel and the exhibit hall on my own.  My legs tire easily so I can't go for too long, but we were pretty happy with what I was able to manage.

The prognosis remains maddeningly uncertain.  We don't know how much permanent nerve damage has been done.  The inflammation probably started as much as two years ago, so we can assume it's pretty extensive.  On the other hand, the mysteries of neuroplasticity have my neurons creatively seeking new pathways to get the messages accurately from the brain to the muscles in my hands, legs and hips.  These days I do feel more connection to many of those muscles than I did for a long time.  And then there's the muscles themselves.  After so long with limited mobility the muscles are weak, but still undamaged.  So I see the physical therapist every two or three weeks and I exercise daily.  I've several different routines that I do in 10 or 15 minute blocks for a total of 20 to 45 minutes a day.  If the Cytoxan continues to reduce the inflammation and the exercise continues to strengthen the muscles, it is perfectly conceivable that I will again walk unassisted and be back to playing guitar.

In the meantime, there are other ways to make music.  Several months ago I discovered a recording I'd made of me playing guitar and singing "Little Black Car."  It was from several years ago when I was experimenting with a new little recorder.  I'd pulled the track into iTunes where it got buried in my 18,000+ item library and I forgot about it.  When it resurfaced, I sent it off to the band. Mr TomCat recorded a bass track to go with it and Dook sent me a drum track.  I pulled the pieces into GarageBand and came up with a reasonably serviceable mix.  I sent it to RedMolly who was acting as dj for the Armadillo Ball and we surprised Tambourine Grrl with it.  I wrote it for her 20 years ago, back when I was still living in St. Louis and making the long drive to Birmingham and back to see her.  I introduced it at the Ball as I always did when I played it live, telling the story of that long drive and my passion for the girl at the end of it. "...and so, since I was playing in a country-punk band, I wrote a song about my car."

Hobbled I may be, but not so much as to stop me from arranging to play that song for her.

Next up, I want to talk the band into working on our version of "Wagon Wheel."  I love our harmonies on that one.  I'm fooling around with the harmonica.  And I can still sing.

Little Black Car 



The Way of the Thicket

We didn’t know we were “crowdfunding” when we started The Thicket Society – the term hadn’t shown up yet.  It was Joanne Marshall’s idea.  Get a few of our friends to chip in a few bucks to help cover the cost of renting the gear.  I don’t know whose idea it was to do the t-shirts.  We hadn't a clue what it would become.

It’s been an amazing run, but we’ve decided that Boston was the last “official” MLA/Bearded Pigs gig.

In San Diego it was eight friends and two twelve packs and we were tucked into an unused meeting room that Ray arranged for us.  It was low-key, just an excuse for us to get together and play.  At the San Diego Zoo the next day Tambourine Grrl saw the pen with the bearded pigs in it and we had a band name.  In DC the next year we put up a poster and 50 people came.  Folks went to the liquor store across the street and brought booze back.  The hotel was not amused and threatened MLA with a charge of several thousands of dollars for “trashing the room.”  Rock stars!

By the time we got to Phoenix the crowd was rising and the next year, in Philadelphia, I saw more people dancing that I didn’t know than people I did.  Folks were stacked up in the hallway trying to get into the room.  “What are all these people doing here?” I wondered, as I hammered another E chord.  “We’re not that good…”  But we had something.  I've been looking at the pictures.  What times we had!

But each year was a bigger production.  TG would start designing the t-shirts in March, but she’d still be scrambling to finish it up in time to get the shirts delivered to the hotel the day before we arrived.  Duke and I would spend hours on the logistics of gear rental, and then there’d be the hauling and setup and tear down.  Rolling and labeling the shirts over bloody marys on Saturday morning to try to get them to registration by noon.  For the sheer joy of those three hours on a Sunday night we all put in hours and hours of planning and work.  Thank goodness we never actually practiced – where would we have found time for that? 

It was worth it.  But it wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved it and I am forever grateful to the Thicket Society members who made it possible for us to do the gigs and to all of the people who showed up.  But every year we’d get done and I’d think, “The work to fun ratio is not quite tilting in my favor anymore.”  And I’d wonder if I really wanted to do it again the next year. 

It was after Seattle, during the summer of 2012, that it seemed to me we’d come to the end of that road.  I wasn’t ready to break it to the band, but I decided that Boston would be the last official MLA gig.  

We gathered for dinner at the Summer Shack and I laid it out for them.  Time to go out on a high note.  There was no disagreement.  We’d already done so much more than we ever imagined.  It’s been a wonderful gift.  I hope we’ve given people at least a small measure of pleasure for all that they’ve given us.

Boston was a great gig – certainly one of the very best.  With my short-circuited nervous system I couldn’t play guitar, but I could still belt out the vocals.  The change in instrumentation made everybody step up their game.  And we had the amazing Jack running the mixers and making us sound better than ever.  But as great as it was, I didn’t waver on the decision. 

So that’s it for The Thicket Society.  No more buttons, no more shirts.  Of course it is not  the end of the band.  Although MLA was always the highlight of the year, we've always managed to find other times and places to play.  We never know where and we never know when, but we do know The Bearded Pigs will play again…  and again…  Who knows, it might even happen at an MLA near you.  We’ll keep it a surprise.


Hip-Hop Fan

I’ve often thought that if I were ever filling out one of those profiles that includes the question, “What is the one thing that people would be surprised to know about you,” I’d say it’s that I’m an Eminem fan.

Although, to be accurate, it’s much broader than that.  I remember being astounded by Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back which came out not long after I moved from DC to St. Louis.  I’d take my long walks around the city, listening on headphones.  Some days I’d be listening to Van Morrison, but just as often I’d be listening to Chuck D.

I’m by no means a fan of all rap, of course, just as I am not a fan of all of any other genre – I’m a firm believer in Sturgeon’s Law.  The boastful monotony of most commercial gangster rap doesn’t do much for me – listen to K’Naan’s “What’s Hardcore?” for a brilliant takedown of the many poseurs out there angling to be the next 50 Cent.

But the world of hip-hop is vast and complex and contradictory and well worth the exploration.  I didn’t pay much attention to Eminem until the Marshall Mathers LP.  I’d listen to it then in the car on my way to and from the library.  It horrified me and thrilled me and fascinated me.  I was baffled that so many of the outraged commentators apparently couldn’t see that Slim Shady was a character and that much of the album revolved around the tension between Eminem as Marshall and the character he’d created that had brought him so much success. 

I was listening to a lot of Johnny Cash in those days as well, as Rick Rubin (who’d cut his teeth as a producer on the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC) was putting out the series of American Recordings that raised Cash to reverential status in those last years before he died.  I’d read the outrage over Eminem’s “Kill You,” and then listen to Cash’s rueful singing on “Delia’s Gone.”  First time I shot her, I shot her in the side / Hard to watch her suffer but with the second shot she died / Delia's gone, one more round, Delia's gone.  Cash recorded the song four times.

A few years ago I heard an interview on the radio with ?uestlove of The Roots and knew instantly that this was somebody worth my paying attention to – thoughtful, curious, inventive, bold, with an interest in all kinds of music and sound and a deep desire to make something new out of all of it.  So when I saw that he’d come out with a memoir and that it was getting rave reviews, I put it on my “presents for Scott” list and Lynn gave it to me for my birthday.

I read it over the Christmas break and it was every bit the delightful education I was hoping for.  The book itself is a marvel, and the interplay between Ahmir’s romantic self-doubt and his manager’s hard-bitten cynicism enriches the narrative immeasurably.  And it functions as a playlist – if Thompson is this passionate about this artist or that piece of music, then I ought to check it out.

I don’t mean to imply that I listen to more hip-hop than anything else.  Far from it. It’s the vastness of the musical landscape that I feel compelled to explore.  I know that many people fall in love with music during their teenage years and that becomes the soundtrack of their lives.  They return to the same songs over and over and new music becomes stranger and coarser and before too long they can’t understand how people can listen to that shit.  They find Miley Cyrus appallingly shocking while apparently forgetting their fandom for Jim Morrison and David Bowie.  

I confess this seems bizarre and a little sad to me.  I want to listen to it all!  Old, new, stuff I’ve loved all my life and stuff I’ve never heard before.  There are nearly 17,000 songs in my iTunes library.  I put them on shuffle to see what might come up next:  Flogging Molly, Charles Lloyd, Liquid Prairie, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell, Eminem, John Hiatt, Debussy, Rage Against the Machine, Ryan Adams, John Coltrane…

And then spin it again...










My interest has always been singing the songs.  Playing guitar was the vehicle for doing that.  (And yet, when I go down to the basement where my gear is I always say, "I'm going down to play guitar" never "I'm going down to sing."  What's up with that?)

I can make my way around my acoustic pretty well, but it's still rudimentary.  And despite my three telecasters, I've never spent much time playing with the sounds.  In the band I just bang away on the chords trying to keep the rhythm going.  They're nice guitars, so I feel guilty about that.

Now, since the objective is to restore dexterity to my left hand (the chording hand), I'm focusing on the guitar sounds.  I'll skip the singing for awhile.  I've set up one of the small amps with an effects modulator in my study.  I'm playing very loud.

One of the most transcendant and luminous pieces of piano music ever recorded is the solo concert that Keith Jarrett did in Cologne back in 1975.  I first heard it a few years after it came out (thanks again to the unknown librarian who was selecting albums for the Oshkosh Public Library in those days) and it was one of those recordings that changed my life.  I go back to it often and it always refreshes me and brings me new joy.

Only recently did I come across the story of how that concert came about.   It was a mess.  The stagehands brought out the wrong piano.  Not the one that Jarrett had requested, it was in lousy condition, had bad sound, malfunctioning pedals.  Jarrett almost refused to go on.  Seventeen year old Vera Brandes, the promoter, managed to talk him into it. 

And that damn piano forced him to go further into himself, into his technique, into his lyrical imagination than he ever had before.  It redefined his career, became the all time best selling piano album and continues to have a tremendous impact.  Resistance. 

In high school I was baffled by the notion of poetic form.  (This was the heyday of free verse).  Why would one want to confine oneself that way?  Sure, I could enjoy a clever rhyme scheme but that seemed like such a secondary effect.  It took me years to understand how pushing against the resistance of form unlocks and opens creativity inside that can't be found in any easy way.  The seemingly arbitrary constrictions of the sonnet form are so attuned to the rhythms and sounds of the English language that they can bring a poet to a level of sublimity that a free verse poem is incapable of achieving.  Resistance.

I can manage the chord changes to "Rockin' In The Free World" pretty well, even with the numbness in the tips of my fingers.  The muscles are fine (it's the nerves that are messed up) and the fingers know where to go.  I'm flipping switches and twirling dials and grinning at the woof-woof the amp makes when I slam the Em and let it sustain.  It sounds horrible because I don't really know what I'm doing.  So I'm pushing.  I'm listening.  I'm finding new sounds that I never bothered to think about making before.  I'm laughing and having a really good time.  It's hard.  I like that.

Resistance is not futile.  It's necessary.


Finding Moonlight

I wasn't older than 14 when it became clear there were never going to be enough hours in the day for everything I wanted to do.   I was dealing with blisters on my fingers from this new guitar that I talked my sister's boyfriend into giving me $20 to buy; even then there were stacks of books rising around my bed; it was becoming clear that girls were going to require a lot of time; and I was becoming obsessed with the fascination of scratching sentences into cheap notebooks everyday.  Oh, and there was school.

Not much has changed -- the blisters are thick callouses, but I'm not close to making that guitar do whatever I want it to do; the stacks of books & magazines get ever higher; the girls are fewer, but they take up even more time; and it feels like there's more sentences knocking around my brain everyday than I'll ever in my life get a chance to get out.  Oh, and there's libraryland.

This is my only excuse for taking until last night to get to Moonlight on the Mountain.   We managed to get to its previous incarnation, the Moonlight Music Cafe, several times during the few years before it closed in '06.  Always a fabulous experience.  And every time we went we told ourselves we were going to get there more often and then it was closed.

So when the new room opened last spring, we were determined to be better.  Still, it wasn't until last night that we made it.  We were wonderfully rewarded.  First set by Jason Harrod, short break and then a set by the Twangtown Paramours -- all original music, some sweet, some funny, some delicate, some rowdy.  CDs for sale.  Plenty of time to mingle and chat with the performers. 

Go to their websites.  Listen to their samples.  Buy their music.

The new Moonlight is stripped down.  Cash at the door, no food & drink.  A few chairs & tables.  A small stage and what must be one of the finest sound systems in the city.  It's all about the music.  I made some Parisian style ham & camembert baguettes to bring along with a bottle of wine.  The candles on the table made it feel like a chic underground cafe.   How could there be a better way to end a busy week?

So when will we get back?  No promises.  We're coming up against a hectic travel schedule.  We've got all that other stuff to juggle.  But surely, surely, we can be smart enough to find a few hours here and there to bask in the music and Moonlight?


Pigs Fly

There's only scattered clouds as our plane soars over the Appalachians.    We can look down between the fluff to see the mountain contours.  Twenty-seven years ago I marveled at the same sight as I flew back to Wisconsin from my associates interview at NLM.  I can no longer count the number of times I've made this flight, but there's still magic to it.

I've got Tom Petty on the headphones, reminding me that there are so many songs the Bearded Pigs need to learn for next year!    The Nucleus did a fine job on Sunday night with American Girl, but I think it'd be better with the full band.    And I've been working up a solo version of Won't Back Down that'll sound great filled out....  

And we need to work up a Lady Gaga song or two, based on the twitter & blog chatter from late Sunday.  Tambourine Grrl is recommending Just Dance....   Maybe Beautiful, Dirty, Rich?  Requests, anyone?

And, of course, some Prince since we'll be in Minneapolis...  Let's Go Crazy seems like an obvious choice...  And I've always been partial to Little Red Corvette...

Too many songs...  not enough time...

We didn't come close to playing everything we wanted to on Sunday night.  How does three hours go by so fast?

But it was good.  I didn't feel like the band really caught fire until two or three songs into the second set.  First set was okay, but we weren't quite in the groove.  Not surprising, I suppose, since we hadn't all been on the same stage together in two years.  But it came together, as it always does, and the last 40 minutes was quite right where I wanted things to be.

And here comes my glass of wine...  Time to sit back, listen to the Heartbreakers...  I wonder what comes next?


I tell the bellmen who help us move equipment around, "When you're over fifty and you're still playing rock n' roll, you've long since given up on the dream of having the hit record.  You don't even care about the groupies (that much).  What you really wish you had were roadies."

I think I've got the gear logistics sorted out for DC.  Every year I ship some of my stuff and we rent some stuff and so I've got to pick up my gear and get it to my hotel room because I'm not going to pay the hotel for storage, and the rented gear shows up on Saturday because it'd cost more to have it delivered on Sunday, so we've got to get that moved and stored and then we need to get it all down to the room that we're playing in on Sunday evening and then packed up and stored Sunday night and then back to the various places it has to return to on Monday & Tuesday. 

That was just one of the wonderful things about the Brisbane gig.  We showed up with our guitars, plugged in and played.  It was heaven.

Next Friday I'll do a solo gig at Marty's.  The logistics are much easier.  A couple of speakers and the mixer.  A microphone and the guitar.  I'm looking forward to it.  I haven't done a solo there in a very long time.  Whenever I've played there in the past few years it's been a tag team with Bestwick.  

Every experience is different.  When I was in Liquid Prairie, back in St. Louis, with Ranger Dave leading the band, I just played my best and sang my songs when Dave pointed at me.  But I wasn't the one making decisions about what happened next.  I was just rhythm guitar and one of  five vocalists.   With the Bearded Pigs, I'm calling the songs, and much more out front.  And, of course, when I'm playing solo, there's nobody to hide my mistakes behind.

It's going on eighteen years since I picked up a guitar at the Venice Cafe Christmas party and played in front of people again after my thirteen year hiatus.  During those years I've played and sang in front of people on five continents, either solo or with the band.   I do get paid when I play at Marty's (which, technically, makes me a professional), but the Bearded Pigs have never played for pay.  We've all put a lot of our own money into making it happen.

And it is so worth it.  I was writing a letter the other day to an old friend and talking about my distaste for the notion of "work/life balance".  The implication that there's your work on one side of the scale and everything else in your life on the other doesn't fit the way my life has evolved.   I strive for a complete life, not a balanced one. 

Making music for people and with people is an important part of that.  Even if I have to do it without roadies.

Hope and Lies and the Power of Song

So.  There's a song I'll never hear in the same way again.

Summertime.  Wikipedia claims that it's "the most popular cover song in popular music," although the sourcing is a little suspect.  No matter.  It's certainly ubiquitous.  But I never realized how dark and bitter it really is.  When I saw it in context the other night, in the Washington National Opera's fabulous production at the Kennedy Center, it was transformed.

When Clara first sings it, near the beginning, it sounds like the lullaby that I've always thought it to be.  Of course it's not true.  Jake is certainly not rich and the living is far from easy.  But Clara herself may be pretty and it's a sweet thing to pretend for your child that life is more beautiful than you know it to be.

It's different when Clara sings it the second time.   Now she's desperate.  The hurricane is howling and Death seems to be knocking at the door.   This is no gentle lullaby now, it's an incantation.  If Clara can sing it strong enough, maybe she can keep Jake alive and protect her baby from the inevitable dark future.

It's no use.  And when Bess sings it to the baby in Act 3, the song is a deep and bitter lie.  The truth is that your daddy and momma are dead and the chances that you have for anything like an easy life are less than zero.  Bess knows what's in store for her own self.   Porgy's dedication won't be enough to save her.   She no longer believes that she'll be able to escape her own doom, even though she fights it for awhile longer.

And yet she sings the lies to the baby with a fierceness that brings me to tears.  Every word of the song is a lie and Bess knows it and yet she sings it as if she believes it entire.  She has nothing to offer, nothing to give, except this song, and she sings it as if it might somehow protect the baby from ending up in the life like hers.  It's one of the most wrenching things I've ever seen.

At the very end of the opera, Porgy heads to Chicago, determined to save Bess again.  One shudders to think of what awaits him there.  He doesn't stand a chance.  But he believes.

Deep Reading Dylan

The alarm woke me from a dream where I was playing at an outdoor festival.  I was sitting in with a couple of people that I didn't know well.  It was just past dusk, and the stage lights were coming on.  Naturally, I was strumming a Dylan song.  ("Tangled Up In Blue," in fact, which I haven't played in quite awhile.)

No doubt this comes from having finished Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin last night.  I'd started it on the plane back from Honolulu and have been reading a bit every evening since.  I had a great time, but I have to think that the audience for it is pretty limited.  And that it is likely one of those books that far more people acquired than actually read.

No matter.  Ricks was clearly writing for the love of it, and it's a tour-de-force of close reading.  He uses the trope of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Heavenly Graces as an organizing principle.   But his interest is not so much what Dylan has to say about each of these, but to examine, in detail, how he achieves the poetic effects he does, particularly with his use of rhyme.  Ricks loves the mysteries of rhyme.

He sees things that I never would have noticed -- how, for example, the mix of masculine and feminine rhymes in a song can intensify the impact, and how different that impact would be if the mix were different.  Or, in noting the difference between a poem (meant to be read from the page), and a song (meant to be heard), how the singer's drawing a syllable across several beats can create an entirely different effect from what the words on the page alone would achieve.

Ricks takes pains throughout the book to make it clear that he is not suggesting that Dylan was consciously creating these effects -- at least not always.   Right at the beginning he addresses the question of intention:

...I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious.  Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual.  So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn't.

Ricks reveals himself to be a fine artist as well, dancing across the service of Dylan's lyrics with a light touch, throwing out a bouquet of allusions, puns, and startling correspondences with T.S. Eliot, Keats, and, of course, the Bible.  He liberally quotes the critic William Empson, the novelist Samuel Butler, and the dyspeptic poet Philip Larkin.

In the 40 years that separate his first book, Milton's Grand Style, from Dylan's Visions of Sin, Ricks has established himself as one of the premier British literary critics of the second half of the 20th century (and into the 21st, as he is still going strong, having just recently finished a term as Oxford's Professor of Poetry).   But here, he writes as a fan -- a fan who just happens to know more about the ways that poetry actually works than just about anybody else who might be inclined to try to write about Dylan. 

So what's the point of reading a book like that?  Did I come away from it with an enhanced appreciation for Dylan's prosody?  Will it increase my appreciation for his songs?  Probably not, actually.  It'll make me listen a little differently, I suppose.  Mostly, it was just great fun.