I’ve been cleaning house. Part of this is your typical spring cleaning – opening windows, giving surfaces a good dusting, laundering the slipcovers on the sofa. And part of this is a deep dive into an area largely untouched since I moved into the home: my basement.

The beauty of having a basement is being able to put things down there where they are out of sight, and don’t need to be dealt with – at least for awhile. I took full advantage of this when I bought the place. Camping equipment, unneeded furniture, boxes of holiday decorations, gardening tools. Random bits of family memorabilia. An inflatable kayak. Lawn games. All went to the basement.

There is a logic to this: basements are for storage, after all. But they also tend to be magnets for accumulation. At a certain point, I had to ask myself: How much is too much?

There were my college notebooks, filled with neat handwriting that seems almost unrecognizable, and printouts of articles I used for a research paper in 1999. It is hard for me to throw these away, even though I’m unlikely to need to revisit the topic of vector-born diseases anytime soon. I find other school materials as well: class photos, a program from my kindergarten graduation. And items from my teen years, like paystubs from my first “on the books” job at a fast-food restaurant, and a mood ring, safely tucked into the box I’d kept it in since high school.

I find items given to me by family members. There is a kitchen towel that still bears the distinctive scent of my Aunt Stella’s house; smelling it takes me instantly back to my childhood, to hours spent in her living room, eating handfuls of peanut M&Ms, where the furniture was always immaculate, and her wall clock chimed the hours in melodic tones. I hesitate to wash it, unwilling to lose that scent, that memory. I fold it and put it aside.

Some surprises are not as welcome. I’m caught off guard, unprepared for the discovery. With the objects come feelings, and I must sort these too.

I find a photograph of myself smiling in a red ballgown, standing next to the man I used to be married to.

There is the antique sausage grinder, passed down between family members and used for countless batches of homemade kielbasa. Its previous owner was my late cousin; his mother gifted it to me after his untimely death, along with a handwritten recipe. I can’t decide what to do with it. It moves from one side of the basement to the other.

Items like this beg the question: Where do I put it in my house? Where do I fit this stuff into my life?

More abstractly: What remainder of my past will stay in my present? Will become part of my future?

This is not merely cleaning, but emotional cataloging. It is taking stock.

Some things don’t stay. Bag after bag is placed in the trash. I take batches of items to Goodwill and other donation centers. A few I try to sell. And there are some that remain.

There is also space. I look at the vacant shelves, the empty areas in the floor and feel satisfied with a job well done. The house feels lighter. What is in it is, for the most part, chosen rather than simply received.

And isn’t that what a home is for? A place to keep what we hold dear, and to let the rest go.

Addendum: I would be remiss not to mention the heroic levels of deep cleaning that Peter engaged in over the course of this project. He swept, he scrubbed, he wiped and vacuumed and he kept me honest. The basement has never looked better. There’s still work ahead, but of the type that involves exploring possibilities: Beer fridge? Home theater? Yoga room? Because after the dust settles, its time to play.

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At year’s end, it is tempting to write a retrospective, a list of things done, a catalogue of accomplishments (or at the very least, some interesting statistics.)

Instead, I am going to tell you about what I didn’t do. Or in a few instances, stopped doing. Basically, this is my 2023 quit list

Photo by Linda Eller-Shein:

I stopped going to the local book club meetings.

I took a 6-month hiatus from guitar lessons.

I resigned from a non-profit board.

Over the summer, I signed up for an adult kickball league and did not play a single game.

I got off dating apps.

I quit wearing makeup for the most part.

I didn’t do any online teaching, or publish any articles.

I stepped down as the organizer for a Meetup group I’d led for a year and a half.

I could go on. There’s the biography of Hedy Lamarr, begun in January, that has been sitting on my bedside table, neglected. The brown bananas in my freezer, waiting for either ambition or boredom to spur me to transform them into banana bread. The artist’s statement I sketched out this spring and haven’t returned to since.

My reasons for quitting were varied. Sometimes it was simple as limited time. In other cases, it was a matter of reconsidering my priorities, of thinking about what value a particular activity brought to my life. Occasionally I didn’t have a choice; the online program I taught for was discontinued, much to my disappointment.

Even now, as I sit next to my kitchen filled with packages of candied pecans and bags of snickerdoodles and cranberry scones—the outputs of a frenzied weekend of holiday baking—I am glancing sideways at my to-do list and calculating how much remains on it. How little I checked off.

Then I think of how I actually spent my day. Waking to the sound of rain, then snuggling back under the blankets for just a minute longer. Finally getting dressed to venture out for coffee, Rosie in tow. Having a lovely brunch with friends and sharing good food and laughter. Peter’s company. A long afternoon nap.

Those were wonderful things. I would argue those were the most important things I did today. None of them were not on my list.

Life is not made up of lists. Or if it is, that misses the point. After four plus decades on the planet, I am starting to realize this. Not that I’ll ever abandon lists completely; part of me will always thrill to an item checked off, a task accomplished. But they will not be—can not be—how I measure my life.

It’s raining again. The couch calls. I’ll let myself answer.

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“Better late than never.” Or so the saying goes. This past fall, I put this aphorism to the test.

But before I get into that, a little backstory.

For most of my life, I’ve been something of a late joiner when it comes to most cultural touchpoints. I was one of the last kids in my middle school class to have a CD player in the household. I didn’t see classic ‘80s films like Goonies or Back to the Future until I was well into high school. I didn’t really listen to Metallica or Madonna or Queen until college.

My younger sister and I, 1985.

Or sometimes the touchpoints went past me altogether. I never owned an album by Prince or Cher or Michael Jackson.*  Never owned a gaming console. In fact, I did not hold a Sega Genesis controller until last week, when I played Sonic for the first time and had my a** handed to me.

Is it delayed nostalgia? A chance to retroactively experience what my peers did in the 1980s, and I’m attempting decades later? Or am I simply looking to reconnect with aspects of myself, buried under the responsibilities of adulthood, that I haven’t visited in a long, long time?

Perhaps it’s all of those things.

So I’ve begun to experiment, to see if I can fill in some of the gaps. I did watch, within the past two months, both E.T. and Halloween for the first time. The experience wasn’t the same as it would have been if I was a kid. But I still felt surprise and empathy with E.T., and the full force of the jump scares in Halloween.

I bought Sonic and a bundle of retro games for my PS4.

Sometimes, for the heck of it, I blow off practicing French on Duolingo simply because it feels so friggin’ good to say no. (I always did my homework as soon as I got home from school, and this small but belated rebellion is deeply satisfying.)

I’ve added Kate Bush and other artists featured on Stranger Things to my Spotify queue.

Which brings me to Stranger Things. Yes, I’m late to the game on this one too. I didn’t watch the first four seasons when they originally aired. But now, with the final season on the horizon and a partner who persuaded me to give the series another shot, I’m knee-deep in the supernatural doings of Hawkins, IN. And along with all of the fine points of the show (the craft, the acting, the storylines, the music, which have been covered to death elsewhere), I’m getting a whopping flashback to the 80s.

Aquanet hairspray. Lite Brites and Spirographs. (You can actually still buy Lite Brites!)

Nancy Wheeler’s reporters’ notebook. (I carried the exact same kind on my early freelance assignments.)

The panic about Dungeons and Dragons.

Being a free-range kid and roaming the neighborhood on bikes.

All. The. Perms. (Yeah, I had one of those too.)

Seeing these things onscreen both triggers memories and reminds me that I while I missed a lot, I didn’t miss everything.

This realization was recently driven home on a gray Pittsburgh afternoon. I stood at the sink washing dishes (at the same time, so as not to appear too responsible, I was listening to Def Leppard and Guns n’ Roses while whipping up a batch of simple syrup for cocktails).

Sunlight managed to sneak through the clouds at just the moment “Sweet Child O’ Mine” blasted from the speaker.

Where do we go?
Oh, where do we go now?
Oh, where do we go?

And I saw that some things, like the right song at the right moment, are timeless.

*I was gifted Thriller this summer, on vinyl, and I’m delighted with it.

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I’ve had a long history with bikes. Going back to before I could remember, where the evidence is a photo of me scooting around my parents’ kitchen as a toddler on my baby tricycle. Then there was my first real bike, a gift for my 5th birthday (I think). I have recollections of a bubblegum pink frame and training wheels and being pushed up and down the long driveway in the front of the house, learning how to pedal and steer.

Obstacle evasion came next. I spent my early years in Pennsylvania farm country.  My childhood home boasted a small apple orchard planted on a sloping side of the property. I distinctly remember my mother taking me and my bike to the top of this slope and giving me a firm push. I hurtled across the grass through the apple trees, learning how to move between them and – equally important – how to stop before hitting the thick wall of pines beyond.

Years later, I asked my mother (a retired teacher) why she used such unorthodox instruction methods on a kindergartener. In hindsight, the training tactics can look a bit extreme.

“I wanted you to learn,” she shrugged.

Learn I did. Not just basic bicycling techniques, but how not to be too afraid. This would go on to serve me well. For example, when I was 10 years old and hit a raised sewer cover, flipped over my handlebars, and skidded across the dirt and gravel of the road, taking off patches of skin from my right knee to ankle. I got up, dusted off, and walked to the friend’s house that had been my destination. Her mom hosed off my leg and maybe dabbed on some peroxide and sent me on my way. I continued on with my plans to play with my friends. To this day, traces of the scars are still visible.

As I got older, I upped my bicycle game, slowly progressing to nicer, newer, more specialized bikes. From the hand-me-down I was riding at the time of my handlebar somersault to an aqua Huffy (my first bike with gears), then a Bianchi Bobcat (my first legit mountain bike, purchased with money from my first on-the-books job.) And finally, a lipstick red Trek road bike, sleek, light, and beautiful. Built for speed.

I also biked in more exotic locales than the Pennsylvania countryside. I rode beside monuments in Washington D.C., evading drivers, pedestrians, and fellow cyclists. On Bainbridge Island near Seattle, I pedaled on roads that paralleled salmon streams and woods. I dabbled with e-bikes in Southern France, pushing up through winding hills among vineyards.

So I’ve biked around. But nothing could quite prepare me for the adventure of urban biking in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, the city of rivers. The city of bridges. The city of steel.

The summer of 2023 ushered in a series of biking adventures which rolled to an escalating crescendo on September 16th.  

The plan: Cover nearly 40 miles. Stop for lunch and a couple beers. Finish before dark.

The morning arrived and with it, some trepidation. It was the longest ride I’d attempted to date. I don’t know if I felt better or worse after a member of the group produced a bottle of homebrewed Lithuanian honey liqueur. It wasn’t even close to noon but I did a shot like everyone else. Thus fortified, we were on our way.

The ride started with gliding under the late morning shadows on a flat stretch along the river. We pedaled our way down to Point State Park, where we stopped for photographs in front of the fountain. Then we made our way across the river, eventually stopping at our first brewery and lunch at one of Pittsburgh’s most famous, most no-frills delis, Peppi’s.

As the day progressed, we visited a few more breweries, sent texts to friends who’d opted out of the adventure, and wound our way through the varied neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Seeing places at street level, without the insulating walls of a car and going at a speed where it’s possible to notice details, is a wonderfully connective way to travel. You’re not going through a city. You’re being in it.

Gradually we reached Highland Park. We climbed the steps to the reservoir, basking in the afternoon sunlight. Snapped a few more pictures. Congratulated ourselves on time well spent.

The afternoon was easing into evening when we made a last stop before our final ascent. Cait, who’d been a veritable sunbeam throughout the ride (and whose presence, we later determined, had provided a sort of talisman), left to attend a family obligation. In a twist that was truly Pittsburgh, the biggest hill came at the end. There was an impromptu decision for a final round – at this point, I opted for a non-alcoholic sparkling blackberry seltzer – and then we rolled out to face our last climb.

Two things happened almost immediately. First, as I was rounding a turn, I noticed that both my front and back tires felt unmistakably flat. Secondly, no sooner had the realization formed in my mind than the bike tipped, I fell, and both my bike and I skidded across the pavement.

After the momentary shock, I got up to assess the damage. My legs had various cuts and bruises, but what looked to be in far worse shape was my bike. My beloved red Trek lay in a mangled heap. Not only were both of my tires damaged, but my left handlebar had been bent backwards and my right pedal dangled helplessly. The chain had been detached from the derailer. I could walk, but my bike was unrideable.

In the commotion, John, the rider following me, had run over my downed bike, landing both himself and his bike on the ground. Fortunately, neither was injured. But our ride was over. There was only one thing left to do: walk to the end.

So we did, nearly a mile to the top of the last hill, my bike gallantly carried by my boyfriend Peter as I pushed his on the sidewalk. We stopped at the city park at the hill’s crest, taking in the Pittsburgh skyline spread out beneath us. We posed for a final victorious picture. I dabbed at my bloody knee with paper towels offered by strangers.

It wasn’t the way I’d expected the day to end. But the beauty of that September Saturday was that there really hadn’t been any expectations. The day would unfold as fate willed. (That’s not to say there wasn’t a plan. Peter had meticulously figured out the route and itinerary and had even done a test ride in advance.) But what would happen in those golden hours was anyone’s guess.

What happened was this: Seeing new things. Laughing. Being in a space of possibility. Being in a space for adventure. Being, in a sense, a kid again. No agenda, no responsibilities, just needing to get home before dark.

Amazingly, my bike was able to be fully repaired. She is better than new, with sturdy hardcase tires and a black-and-red handlebar wrap that looks sleek. And we are already planning the next adventure.

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Five years ago, in what seems a different lifetime, I moved the Pittsburgh. I bought a house (in a nice neighborhood), had a job (with a Fortune 500 company), had a marriage, had future plans. In short, my life had all the right optics.

But what my life had in appearances, it lacked in authenticity. I lived in Pittsburgh. But I didn’t know the city. Didn’t have history with it. And I didn’t know myself, in many ways. That was the lesson of the pandemic: to scrape away ballast, to look deep into the heart of things, to mourn and rebuild. To learn what I couldn’t live without. To learn what I had to go and find again after having lost it. To recognize what I needed to discover for the first time after never having known it at all.

I hunkered down. I watched, I listened, I waited. Shifting one’s center of gravity is slow work. I found a new house, sought new connections, eventually landed a new job. Through murky weeks, months, years, I got to my feet again – literally – and asked myself, “Now what?”

Rosie awaiting action.

On purpose, I walked to the post office, the used bookstore, an independent coffee shop. Not because I needed those services; I needed the interactions. Sometimes I took my German Shepherd Rosie with me, and I found that dogs are really the best icebreakers.

In short order, Rosie charmed the local bakery into giving her free cookies. She then won the hearts of the staff at the corner florist, who allow her into the store and dote on her with pets. Her most recent conquest is the clerks at the state store, who give me handfuls of treats to feed her and say what a good dog she is.

And over time, little tendrils of community formed. I learned my neighborhood, on foot. I saw the house with the potbellied pigs on Windermere Avenue, which is something of a local legend. I was shouted at from a vehicle and looked up, startled, to see it was a woman I knew from one of the area businesses. Laughing, I waved back. I saw restaurants open and close and discussed the changes with fellow residents. I had random conversations with elderly neighbors from my front porch, an experience which felt both novel and old-fashioned. Each of these a step, a thread, that brought me a bit closer to knowing and being known.

From there I ventured further afield. Some trips took me to parts of the city that were new to me: a trendy rooftop bar, microbreweries, parks where I kayaked or hiked or rode my bike. I revisited places I knew from visits to Pittsburgh during my childhood: Schenley Park, the Carnegie Museums. The Strip District with its wholesale businesses and rapidly gentrifying residential element. And I saw Pittsburgh in all its maddening charm: the nonsensical public transit system, the hills, the rivers, the vernacular, the people who will wear flip flops in 30-degree weather. The vendors at Trader Jack’s flea market, the hipsters in East Liberty, the old Italian guys who commandeer tables at La Prima coffee and gossip and play cards for hours.

Summer Soul Line Dancing, June 21, 2023.

It came to this: not just conversations and places, or experiences, but a feeling that I was part of something (again). Finding causes. Finding people who cared about the world and wanted to do something about it. Finding organizations where my give-a-d*mn could find a home, and fellow company. Finding that it was OK to be hopeful, to believe in better, because I wasn’t the only one. I hold those discoveries close, as buoys in dark times.

I don’t know when it was that I finally fell to earth. It could have been the morning at Enrico’s Bakery, when I was blatantly cut in line by an entitled Boomer (I called him out – he ignored me); I figure you can’t really say you lived in a place until something happens to royally piss you off. It might have been during a session of yoga at a soaring Presbyterian church, with light streaming through the windows and casting brilliant colors onto the transept floor. And it struck me that no matter what anyone in that room believed, we had all found our way to the same space. Could have happened when I found gifts left on my doorstep: a bouquet of flowers, treats for my pets, a container of fresh-picked blueberries. Such gestures of kindness never ceased to leave me surprised, and touched. Maybe it was seeing the amateur astronomer on Mt. Washington who brings out his telescope and invites passerby to look through it. Perhaps it was the June evening I spent dancing with strangers when I heard “Lady Soul” by the Temptations for the first time and the city skyline shimmered behind us. Or a hot afternoon next to the Mon River, sitting on a driftwood log, catching my breath and feeling a moment about to shift.

So while I’m not sure what point marked the precise threshold of coming back, I can say with gratitude that I am. Present. Breathing deep. Grounded.

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Anchoring, Part 2

I am sitting in the main branch of the Erie County Library. I can’t remember the last time I sat in a library, in person, with a stack of notebooks and my laptop computer. It feels wonderful. The quiet is exquisite. But this room is not silent – there is the distant hum of a machine, the rustling of papers at the reference desk, the tap of my keyboard.

Earlier I chatted with friendly, elderly German at the gift shop. We started talking about a German comedy show (Last Man Laughing), then humor in general, then spoofs on 1970s variety shows. From there the conversation moved to HEMA, world politics, WWII. We discussed the lack of pens for sale in the gift shop (he loans me one). I ask about the German word for cheesy. He thinks for a moment, then answers “kitschy.” Yes, English uses kitschy too – or more accurately, absorbed it from the German.

You might say I’m on vacation, of sorts. It is the first week of May, the coldest I can remember in decades. There is rain. Temperatures are nominally above freezing. Wind and gray skies. Snow flurries.

But I want to go outside, and so I do. A short, frigid run from the lakeshore cabin where I’m staying to the main street of my hometown. Past the tiny beach, with the sign indicating that no lifeguard is on duty. Past the old cemetery with 19th-century graves and their old-fashioned names carved into the stone. One of the markers, I remember, bears the words, “Killed at Gettysburg.” I run past the trees with new leaves, over a scattering of pink dogwood blossoms lying on the damp sidewalk. I dodge puddles on the pavement.

In times of transition, I return here. To my roots, as much as I have any. I return to incubate myself in the familiar.

On another afternoon I walk along Lake Erie, the wind blowing my hair in crazed directions, the waves roaring as if I am at the ocean. No one else is on the beach, aside from a single pedestrian with a dog, off in the distance. I turn away, walk so that I can face the breakwaters and tide, look at the water hissing out over the sand as it is drawn again into the lake. I am in solitude, I am alive, and the moment is mine alone.

I think of how rooms of books light something in me. Smells of spring light something in me: the rain, the leaves, the soil, the blossoms. Being next to water and tides lights something in me. Despite the cold, I run May-mad.

A day’s agenda might look something like this:

Coffee, early.

Back to bed.


Go outside.

Eat. Watch a loon swim. Allow myself to be surprised. Allow myself to be unproductive.

I read an article on social media and banking risk, then another on the US Constitution and presidential pardons. I browse Pinterest. I am both exhilarated and quiet.

In the sense of linear trajectory, I’ve come to a stop. I’m in between jobs, having been let go after the end of a lengthy contract. And for Americans, being out of a job is synonymous with being without purpose. Without value.

But I cannot believe that this interval of time, these days, are wasted. I am simply paying attention to other things.

From my cabin I have an excellent view of wildlife. Herons, a pair of eagles, loons, geese, goldfinches. A muskrat that popped from the lake early one morning to chew vegetation along the water’s edge. I smile at all of them, glad to be back among wild things, glad even, in a way, for the wild weather: it makes the roof, the heat, the warm bed all the more precious.

If there is a lesson anywhere, it is this: I am learning how to live in the in-between spaces. I fall to pieces. I fall into peaces. Slowly, I let myself fall into place.

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2022: A Retrospective

In writing reflections on a past event – especially an entire year, especially on a digital platform – I struggle to find the right tone. Too bright, and it might feel fake, toxically positive, or even arrogant. Too somber, and it can come across as a slough of negativity.

I’ll do my best to steer between those two extremes. There were good things, hard things, sad things. I felt friendships shift and fade. I was ghosted (twice) and stood up (once). The relationship I was most excited about, a tantalizing multi-month series of dates during which I caught hope – and feelings – ended via a cold text. I experienced professional challenges that required every bit of my patience and discipline to navigate. Despite being drafted in Las Vegas, my fantasy football team did not make it to the playoffs. And for the last night of 2022, I attended a party where the highlight of the event was thumbing through a biography of the Brontës.

And yet. And yet. I am a stubborn optimist, and that isn’t all of the story.

  • At midlife, I took on spring break for the first time. It was hot and sunstruck and a little disorienting. In fact, it became just the adventure I needed.
  • In that vein, I decided that it was never too late to let a little rebellion into my life. Guitar playing, obviously. But there was also the winter night I laughed and listened to punk in my date’s pickup in a parking lot. Afternoons spent loitering in public parks like a delinquent. Numerous small trespasses against propriety: the flick of a lighter, the use of the f-bomb, a refusal to take up less space.
  • I finally watched Sleepless in Seattle. I devoured Ozark, which made me cry. And Bridgerton, which didn’t. Also both seasons of Sanditon just for the heck of it. (I have yet to see E.T. or any of the Rocky films.)
  • I went to the opera. Alone. (It was great.)
  • I swam 20,000 yards at the local pool. My tan was killer.
  • I emerged from comparative isolation and got busy re-building my social life. I took over a Meetup group, renamed it, and nearly tripled the membership. I went on 22 first dates*. I got new business cards. I attended book club discussions after having actually read the book.
  • I made a few new friends. In adulthood, that’s no small feat. We need people to laugh with. People to speak our truths to. To eat burritos with, go to for advice, share a hug. If anything, 2022 taught me not to take good connections for granted.
  • I got a new writing desk. In fact, that where I am typing this right now.
  • And I finally started to learn that my feelings are not liabilities I need to repress, but signals to pay attention to.

Of course, there are things that haven’t changed. I still miss my motorcycle. I still have my fascination with Eminem. There are still my wildling cats that make me laugh, and the books I turn to for comfort like a quilt.

As far as what’s ahead, I don’t have resolutions so much as intentions. I want to get back to Paris. I want to finally finish my damn novel. I want to get through all of “Tonight, Tonight” so that it sounds – and feels – like a song. Plus, the Les Paul guitar I’ve been eyeing.

And there’s this:

We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

Joseph Campbell

*Defined as 1:1 in-person, predesignated meetings. Video chats and random unassigned hangouts not included in total.

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It’s been six months since I bought my guitar. Six months, and I’m not really sure what I have to show for it. More stuff, sure. As in, I own more gear now: an assortment of picks, a gig bag, and a real, honest-to-goodness Orange amp. (I love that amp. Even hearing the little kick of feedback sometimes when I flip the power on makes my heart get warmer.)

I’ve started taking lessons. Actual lessons, in which I sit on a wooden chair in my teacher’s living room and we go through chords, and scales, and where to find individual notes on the guitar (because nothing is simple with guitar and a single string contains multiple notes.) We talk about arpeggios. Bits of the music theory and terms I grudgingly learned from piano lessons and voice lessons somehow resurface. I nod. Yes, quarter notes, I know those. Whole notes, half notes, eighth notes. Triplets. Allegro. Fortissimo. Staccato.

My nails are so short I no longer bother with polish. Not that I did much before. And the fingertips of my left hand, if not exactly calloused, are no longer as soft as they used to be.

Hard skills are a little trickier to quantify. A tally of my accomplishments might look something like this:

Chords learned = 6.5

Songs played (as in, attempted) = 13

Hours practiced = ?

I’ve touched music from Johnny Cash, Marilyn Manson, the Smashing Pumpkins. Pearl Jam. Bob Dylan. The Cranberries. Ozzy Osbourne. Beethoven. I can read tabs now. (Kinda.) I know about non-standard tuning. In fact, today I just downloaded an app that allows me to access dozens of non-standard tunings, and chords for hundreds of songs. I stumbled my way through “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran and felt weirdly accomplished, like a kid who’d taken the training wheels off her bike for the first time. To be clear, my playing wasn’t good. I saw a quote online that read “Learning guitar chords is like playing Twister with your fingers.” In my experience that’s been true. But the song was recognizable. And more importantly, a thing I could not have done 6 months ago today became possible.

I bought a guitar because I wanted to learn songs, that’s true. And of course ,the rebelliousness, the thrill of dabbling in rock n’roll and all that entails from the safety of my living room. I like the visceral thrill of making sound. And then making it louder.

But the truth behind the truth is this: I want to be better at slacking off.

In case any musicians or slackers are reading this and feel offended, hang on and hear me out. I understand that “better” and “slacking off” are inherently opposed. You can’t get better at something when the idea is to not try at all. It’s ludicrous. And I get that.

I also get that learning an instrument is a considerable investment of time and energy. Musical talent, like any talent, needs to be developed. Anyone who makes playing the guitar look easy, who can fall to their knees onstage mid-riff and throw their head back, still playing, like Jimi Hendrix (like the guy I saw last night), can only do that because they’ve put in hours and hours of effort. And it probably looked terrible for a long time before it looked cool.

But here’s the rub: all my life, I’ve been a bad slacker. It costs me considerable effort to do nothing. It is an act of will to ignore responsibilities and simply indulge myself.

I didn’t lack for opportunities, or inspiration, or examples. As a teenager in the 1990s, slackerism was all around me. This was when shopping at the Salvation Army was what the cool kids did, and “couch-surfing” entered the regular American lexicon. Slacking even drifted into my college years in the early aughts, with hackeysack games being regularly played on my campus quad and plenty of people listening to Phish. Except while my peers were playing hackeysack, I was typing up a term paper. Or at my work-study job. Or at my off-campus job. Or peer tutoring.

This hustle didn’t stop in graduate school, or in the early years of my career, or in more recent decades. Even the pandemic had me picking up a second job and joining the board of a local nonprofit. I also got an online certificate in game design and wrote a novel.

So, yeah. Much as I want to get “good” at guitar, there is also a desire to stop caring about the outcome, to stop measuring my proficiency. To let that sh*t go. And, you know, to just do it.

To simply be in the world “being,” and not earning my keep by “doing.” That’s the gift that my guitar gives me. As if I needed one. Because in this rare case, feeling is enough.

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This summer I am revising a novel. It isn’t the first time. Or the second. In fact, I’ve lost count of what revision round this is. The 4th? The 7th? The 17th? All I know is that the manuscript–the complete first full draft–was produced in 2015. And I’ve been revising it off and on ever since.

Sometimes I stepped away for years. And in those years, wrote entirely new books. Sometimes I took the manuscript to workshops so it could be torn apart and put back together. Sometimes I didn’t write at all. There were days, weeks, months when I just existed.

But the story always called to me. I knew I hadn’t put it away forever. I knew someday I would come back. And so I did, cautiously. For the book had been made and unmade so many times that I could hardly see its original shape beneath the cuts, the rewrites, the false starts. What was this thing that I labored to create? What was its soul? Where was its soul?

I told myself I had good reasons for not writing. A different job, a different house. The ongoing challenges of the pandemic. And not least of all, that I had lost my writing desk.

I didn’t need the desk to write. I’d written in plenty of odd places, at odd times. The sweltering porch of a bed and breakfast on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On an Amtrak train bound for New York. A morning in the dark predawn at a near-empty diner. Starbucks. My dining room table.

But those weren’t at my desk. Those weren’t in the space that was my own, that I could sit at and let the ideas come (or not) and type them and fight with them and chase the sparks that would propel me forward. My desk was where things had happened: three novels, countless articles, hours and hours of notes and staring and scribbling.

Without the desk, I was anchorless. Or so I told myself. How could I recover the essence of a novel when I literally could not get back to the place where I had written it? How could I find the center of something when the path to it was gone?

I moped. I mourned. I halfheartedly browsed for another desk, looking at secondhand furniture sites and bougie boutiques. But I didn’t want someone else’s desk. And I didn’t want a new one. The solution became apparent: I would make one for myself. I’d find something that spoke to me. Strip it of its former character. Claim is as my own.

Desk before.
Desk after.

And so I did. The battered thing I found had seen hard use. It cost me next to nothing; snow flurries spit from the sky as a kind warehouse employee helped load it into my car. But it had character. Untapped potential. I brought it home. Cleaned it. Sanded down the damaged veneer, painted it in shades of cream and blue that reminded me of the sea.

It is transformed. It is mine.

And the novel is transforming too. I am giving my heroine not just a voice, but a pulse. A vulnerability.

For art is not about perfection. It is about the mess. The imperfect moments of our lives. Our second guesses. Our failures. Our flashes of clarity. Our glimpses of love. Our courage, our fear.

And so I write, not to divorce my heroine from those things, but to put her into the thick of them. To give her a reason for carrying on. And for me to follow, to go up the stairs, to sit at the desk. To keep the story going.

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An Axe to Grind

I’m the proud owner of an electric guitar. A Squier Bullet Stratocaster, in fact. (It’s blue. And shiny.) It sits in the corner of my dining room, waiting for me to play it – which I have, every night since I brought it home, which happened to be a Friday the 13th. Three days before a full moon, and two days before a blood moon lunar eclipse. I don’t know if the stars aligned on the timing of my purchase, but it seems the moon certainly did.

I could give all kinds of reasons for walking into a guitar store in the suburbs of Pittsburgh that night and walking out with an electric guitar. Was it fate? Boredom? Impulse?

Doubtless all played some role. But the truth is simply this – I wanted to make some noise. And I was tired of waiting for it to come into my life through other means. I was tired of “someday” and “maybe” and “later.” I wanted music, I wanted sound, and I wanted them to come from me.

My Squier.

This was not my first musical adventure: I had been subjected to piano lessons in childhood. It wasn’t even my first brush with guitar (see Playing Johnny Cash in Quarantine). But it was the first time when the choice of instrument was entirely mine, the first time I could make a decision driven not only by looks and purpose, but also feel.

The cerebral sank back; the visceral rose to the surface.

In fact, walking into the guitar store that night it was the culmination of a long, slow, silent rebellion that began in the summer of 1985. Then I was five years old, learning to play piano by ear. (I was taught by Suzuki method, which meant I spent hours in my room listening to cassette tapes, learning songs by listening instead of reading music.) I heard songs, played them, and forgot them. Because I had no hunger for nice pieces by classical composers. There was nothing in that music that left me wanting more.

I took a breath and walked over to the wall of guitars that hung from floor to ceiling. It was dazzling, really: colors, shapes, sizes, with the least expensive ones near the bottom and the fancier ones dangling well out of reach. But I had come prepared. Both with the image of how I imagined my rocker self – black jeans, black t-shirt, chunky metal earrings, a sweep of shining copper eyeliner – and a list of what I was interested in. After a few cautious moments of exploration, I found it.  

Feeling both sheepish and exhilarated, I cornered a teenage salesclerk to ring me up.

“You already have cables? And a practice amp?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. (I lied.)

“Ok, cool.”

Then this: Me, breaking into spontaneous laughter the entire drive home. Me, carrying the box upstairs like a holy relic and laying it down on the bed. Cutting carefully with the scissors as I slice through the packing tape. Peeling back the wrapping. Me, picking the guitar up for the first time and smiling.

I have to learn everything. Where to connect the strap. How to hold a pick, how to place my fingers. Which ends of the cable go where when I finally get around to plugging into the amp. I spend an hour in the kitchen that night with the guitar and a tuning app, fighting an uphill battle to get low E to be less godd*mn flat. And I laugh and keep trying. When starting from zero, every gain in knowledge feels exponential.

I learn the names of the strings. I figure out how to turn on one pickup, or two, or three. (First I have to learn what pickups are.) I play my first riff. It is halting and awkward and perhaps I am the only one who could recognize what I am doing. Then I play it again, and again, and again. I play it louder.

For it is a rare instance in my life when the outcome doesn’t matter. I don’t have to be good.  I don’t have to play at all. But I will. Because play is a gift. Music is a gift. Holding that guitar unlocks something in me. And I laugh and rock on.

To be continued…

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