The Simple Joys of Playing Well with Others

Here’s how dinner arrangements read when you are a musician who invites other musicians to come to your house for a nice meal and some music:

Do the Kansas City folks want to carpool? We can take 3 people and the bass and other instruments or 4 people with instruments other than the bass.

If you are a parent with small children, you know the sense of needing at least one sherpa every time you mount the expedition called “Going Out to Dinner,” or “An Overnight Visit.” With most musicians I know, the necessity of wrangling multiple instruments and gear is equally insistent. (If you’re a musician who’s a parent of small children, I simply don’t know how you manage. If you’re a vocalist, show some decency and learn to schlep a few instrument cases, would ya?)

Regardless of any inconvenience or the expense of multiple instruments (show me a guitar player with just one guitar and I’ll show you someone just getting started), making music is always worth the trouble. Of all the great good fortune of my long and winding life, I count the fact that I got to be a musician — I got to be in bands! — as one of the all-time best things ever.

In fact, my two favorite things in life (other than my offspring, of course) are cooking for people and making music. This weekend I gave myself the astonishing gift of both when I invited four of my former band mates to come to my house for dinner and music. My favorite things, with some of my favorite people.

    Once, we started adding up all the decades of musical experience among us and the number got so up there, we began to feel kind of creaky. So we cut that out and started playing something uptempo.

The thing about making music together — as a band or in a chorus or jam — is that it isn’t necessarily easy or automatic. At the most basic levphoto 2el, you need to learn your instrument. But then, you need to learn a particular set of rules and behaviors if you’re going to play well with others. Martha has even written a wonderful guide by that very title, if you want some great tips and advice. (Please note: Don’t just go to Amazon and order the first book you see called Play Well with Others: a book also by that title is apparently a beginner’s guide to bondage and S&M. What consenting adults do with their naughty bits is totally their business, but my intention is to promote harmony and electronic tuners, not whips and ‘cuffs.)

As with most things worth doing in life, learning how not only to sing, but to be a musician, has been a bit of a tortured path, full of fits and starts and a multitude of stupid mistakes (that time, for instance, that I brought a tambourine to a bluegrass jam. Who knew?). At some point in any music-making, however, there is a moment in which the music comes down. Not to get all woo-woo about it, but it is a distinct, observable moment when something clicks, we stop being individuals with private worries, concerns and identities, and become instruments of Music made manifest. It’s pretty close to divine in my book, even when the music is raw and/or raucous. And when you’re harmony singing and you nail the harmony together. Well … life just turned out and a little piece of perfection got created. I think I might be able to live forever if the promise of enough of those moments keeps looming over the horizon. I can easily imagine me on my death bed, surrounded by loved ones, hearing the opening chords of “The Great Divide” and asking for a time out while I sing just one more …

If I had a handful of do-overs for my life, one thing I’d do differently (in addition to marrying that one boy and starting a savings account when I was 12) would be to master at least one instrument early on. I know. The voice is an instrument. Still, I’m always instrumentalist-dependent and, much as I love, adore and appreciate my instrumental friends (who’ve been beyond patient with me), I am frequently frustrated by trying to communicate to whatever guitar player I can collar that the rhythm goes like this, and no, I don’t think it goes to the 7-chord there.

If I ruled the world, I would de-fund about 90 percent of all police and military activities and I’d make sure people throughout the world had whatever they needed to grow healthy crops, cook for and with each other, eat together and make music. And anyone who didn’t want to do some part of that could just dance. Why the hell not?

Even with all the eating, drinking and catching up with each other, we managed to make some music on Saturday — a few bobbles, but close enough for jamming:

Aren’t we the lucky ducks?

I’m Tired of Being Upbeat About Terrible Things

I just finished reading another — yet another — blog by a young — very young — mother detailing her courageous journey through the wilderlands of breast cancer. She wrote thoughtfully and came to inspiring conclusions as she slogged her way through chemo, hair loss, vicious nausea, exhaustion, and the loss of beloved body parts. She praised and expressed gratitude for everyone in her life who has helped lighten her load, and revealed how the illness had made her appreciate each day and be grateful for all the family and friends who had risen to the occasion with pretty scarves, casseroles, babysitting and pink ribbons — lots of pink ribbons. The young woman was brave, her blog well-written.

And it made me furious.

Not furious at her, God forbid, and not furious simply at cancer (though there’s certainly plenty of that, as a survivor myself). Within my personal circle are numerous family members and friends in various stages of coping with cancer, mostly, but not limited to, breast cancer and its associated perplexities. The grace, courage and sheer fortitude with which they’ve met this disease does, indeed, inspire me. One friend and former colleague, Hollis Walker, has written her own book, The Booby Blog, about her experiences. It is — as she is — deep, thoughtful, rich and real.

What troubles me is that there is now such a culture built up around coping with cancer. It’s become normalized. Cancer is an economic engine and those who have it are profit centers. We all know someone who has cancer, has had it, has a family member who has it. Cancer is now a part of our daily lives in ways it simply never used to be. I was there and I know. We didn’t used to be surrounded by coworkers and loved ones dealing with cancer, and now we all are. I don’t know about you, but that seriously pisses me off.

My objection isn’t to the fact that our culture is more open and accepting of cancer now.  We talk about it. We blog about it. We write and read books about it. We process its presence publicly and out loud. Which is good. I would never want to go back to the days of my youth when, if you had cancer of just about any kind, but especially breast or colorectal cancer, it was a shameful secret. Seriously? Like it’s your fault some of your cells went on spring break in your right breast or your lower intestine and started multiplying like the Duggar family. Get out.

I don’t want to see a return to the tight-lipped, locked-down, shame-swallowing days of yore. What I would like to see is equal amounts outrage at the fact of cancer’s increase in our communities and a collective determination to find out its causes. And frickin’ DO. Something. About. It.

We don’t yet know everything about cancer’s causes, but we know a lot. And the hand holding the smoking gun often is soaked in plastics and pesticides. The Breast Cancer Fund offers good information on the relationship between chemistry and cancer, as does the The Environmental Working Group and numerous other organizations. Day after day, we are awash in a chemical stew, from sources as varied as the produce we eat, the plastics in which we store our food, the bottles with which we feed our babies, the toys they play with, the agricultural runoff that winds its way into our drinking water — and on and on.

So rather than getting used to cancer — or autism or ADHD or Parkinson’s or any number of other diseases that ride into our lives on a tide of chemistry — wDreamstime/Kakigorie need to get outraged. And rather than learning how to cope with it in increasingly wearisome ways (have you seen the number of B.C. pink running jerseys fill the racks — no pun intended — at any sporting goods store in the country?), we need to become intolerant of its presence in our lives. When we post brave admonitions for our friends and loved ones to “kick cancer’s ass,” could we please mean by that not simply to be fearless and chipper in the face of cancer’s depradations, invasions and misery, but also to be mad enough and motivated enough to insist on some freaking responsibility on the part of the manufacturers of the poisons pouring into our world.

I take it personally and resent — and please, let’s all take it personally and resent — that people I love and care about have to deal with the shit-storm called cancer while the people who run the poison factories just have to worry about where they’re going to stow all that money.

So yes, let’s be brave when cancer invades our lives. Count on our friends. Learn lessons. Grow from the experience. Be beautiful no matter how many incisions we bear. But dammit, don’t start thinking of cancer as just how it is because that’s like getting used to the gargoyle at the dinner table. He just showed up, nobody invited him, and he’s making life miserable for everyone at the table but hey, what are you gonna do? Just put a pink scarf on his head and start calling him “Pet”?

I don’t think so.