I hope this newsletter finds you happy and healthy. We’re fine here, finally in the swing of summer and looking forward to being outside a lot in the next six weeks, with hiking in New Hampshire, hanging out with friends at a cabin in northern Vermont, and then some biking in the townships in Quebec, Canada. And the garden, too.
This month has me thinking about all the people I know who are dealing with weather and climate. We have close friends in Montpelier, Vermont and have spent a lot of time there. What’s clear (despite some people being more concerned about what bathroom people should use) is that the climate crisis is here. It should be all hands on deck and Debbie and I are talking a lot about what our responsibility is towards the people and other living things that come after us. I hope you are, too.
I’ve been saying for years I wanted to put up a Little Free Library in our yard. For Christmas, Debbie had our friend Dan Davey build one. I painted it in May, and it’s up now for walkers, bikers, and people who want to stop traffic. Drop on by. There’s even a couple of my books in it.
In this issue:
I’ve been playing piano a lot lately. Oscar Peterson is one of my favorite jazz pianists, and I got a book of transcriptions of some of his pieces. Basically, Ive been working on one tune- “Cheek to Cheek” – for three months, and only beginning to approximate what it should sound like. At half of Peterson’s speed. Still as I work on it, the music begins to make sense to me and I see the patterns and approaches he uses. It’s only through playing it hundreds of times that I begin to understand it.
This has me thinking about the nature of work and art.
I was in Jonesborough, Tennessee a couple of weeks ago and visited my friend, the master chairmaker, Curtis Buchanan. I was telling him how I found I had to practice a story over and over and over again before it made sense. I actually don’t love that part of it, but it’s necessary to get to a place where the piece has integrity. This is unfortunate. Curtis nodded. He talked about teaching chairmaking and people marveling at how he can make a simple cut that’s absolutely perfect and they wanted to know how to do it. There is no substitute for time. Curtis said he’d done that cut a hundred thousand times and now he doesn’t think about it, but it was the repetition of it over years that gave him the skill, and then the artistry. It took that long to learn. Later on that week, I was reading a book by the great classical pianist and writer Charles Rosen, Piano Notes, and he talks about practicing a passage for hours – playing a piece over and over again (so much so that he actually will read a mystery novel while he practices to escape the boredom of the repetition of it). Rosen says that it’s only after all that repetition that he can be expressive with the music – that he can put himself into it.
All these things are related. And the mystery is that it’s no mystery – it’s the spending of time.
This, of course, is something we don’t really like to hear. We want to know the shortcut – or in today’s parlance, the “hack”, that gets us there faster.
What am I working on? My performance schedule is pretty laid-back – I’m being very careful about travel, especially on airplanes (see above), and this leaves more time at home. After a trip to California for the Sierra Storytelling Festival, I’m around here, doing local libraries and town events – click here to see my calendar. I’m starting to work on some new songs – don’t know where they’ll end up, and am doing a fifth rewrite on my kids novel about storytelling. It’s big, I like it, and I hope it finds a home. Who knows?
I’m also starting to commit to memory the incredible one-person play “An Iliad” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. It’s a retelling of Homer’s story and works on many different levels – I’ve been looking at it for ten years. I’m scheduled to perform it in November for the Speak Story Series in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and looking for a small theater close to home for the coming year. It’s a monster, and I’m trying to herd it in, if not completely capture it.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a newsletter and there’s too many books to mention, but here are a few.
I just finished reading Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why they Matter, by Ben Goldfarb. It’s pretty mind-blowing – Goldfarb makes the case that beavers are responsible for the creation of the American landscape, were at the heart of the European expansion westward in our country, and also that the little critters are central to healthy and diverse ecosystems, including playing a major part in mitigating flooding. It’s very readable and made me see things anew.
The other book that really turned my head around was Saving Time by Jenny Odell. Odell looks at how time is measured and suggests we’re far better off not just living by the clock – there’s a lot of ways to be in this world, and the ones that don’t run by the clock are better for us and all the other things around us. It’s a very intelligent and though-provoking book.
On the fiction side of things, I really liked Barbara Kingsolver’s Appalachian David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead. I also enjoyed Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton and two books by Fredrik Backman, Anxious People and Us Against You, the second of the Beartown trilogy. Backman really is a master plotter and observer of the human condition.
Let us know what you’re reading – we love to hear. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.