Archive for January, 2010

Moose - a normal occurrence in suburban Anchorage

We’re home from Alaska after a whirlwind trip. I’ll write more about it later, but one of the things that strikes me about our two weeks up there is that wherever you go, people are leading their daily lives.

Earthshaking, I know. Big deal. But we forget that.

I say this because when I was getting ready to go, any number of people (including myself) said “I can’t believe you’re going there.” The unspoken words being, “You’re nuts.”

And in a way, I guess I am a little nuts. Working in Key West seems to make more sense in January. The underlying thought is “No one would go there right now. Forget about living there.”

And I’ve heard that numerous times when I’ve traveled places – Bosnia not long after the war, Mexico during the rise in drug wars, the Lower East Side during the crime wave of the eighties.

But whenever I get to these places, I find people living out their lives with a surprising amount of normalcy. For the vast majority of humans, day to day living is just that. There are challenges – more in some places than others. There are always some streets you don’t walk down, but if you follow that rule, most places are safe, and normal. Most people are worried about their work, and their kids, and whether their roof is leaking. Some people have a tougher slog than others, but they shoulder it and get on with what’s in front of them.

Alaska was, well, normal. Very beautiful. A lot of snow. Colder than New England. Being there, you’re more aware of the forces of nature. But, well, people are people. It cracks me up that a thousand miles north of Seattle there’s a huge city with art centers, street lights, hotels, an all kinds of chain stores.

Like I said, people live there.

And not even in just the cities. Haines, Alaska is a very small town, and pretty isolated. No hospital. Seven hundred miles or so to Anchorage. But I had some good soup at the Mountain Market and went swimming in the town pool. It was like the pool at my local Y. The hotel had bad coffee, just like any hotel. Kids have after-school programs and teenagers are reading the Twilight series. Sure there’s the random moose and bear to contend with – that’s what makes it Haines and not Seekonk. People are more aware of the outdoors, since it can be rougher, and it’s the reason a number of people choose to be here – they like that. But mostly, people get by and accept what’s in front of them..

Busy Downtown Haines, Alaska

This is not earthshaking, and that’s why it’s important, I think. Most people are living their lives, regardless of where they live. It’s something we have in common, and worth remembering.


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“You’re lucky you got in.”

Debbie and I heard that line a half dozen times on our first day in Juneau. We didn’t know there was a question, but getting in and out of Juneau by air is always pretty iffy, depending on the fog or rain or snow. Someone told me they spent five days in Seattle, just waiting for the right day to fly.

It reminds me of when I was visiting Bosnia – they told me they called the flights into and out of Sarajevo during the war “Maybe Airlines” – maybe we fly, maybe we don’t.

But we did get in and here we’ve been, slogging through the streets in “Juneau tennies” – brown rubber boots just like the ones I left at home and should have brought. (I opened up my suitcase and thought, “Who packed this? What was I thinking?”)

Jeff Brown, program director at KTOO in Juneau, has been playing my songs and stories for twenty years, so it was great to finally meet him (Also because he lent me the boots.)

Jeff Brown and yours truly at KTOO, Juneau, AK

An hour after we got in , he was driving us up to the Mendenhall Glacier. I had to take Jeff’s word that the glacier was there – as you’ll see in this picture. Fog. Beautiful, beautiful fog.

Debbie and I in front of the stunning Mendenhall glacier

And I’m also taking on faith that Juneau is completely surrounded by mountains. We really couldn’t see those either – not yet anyway. Maybe tomorrow when we take the ferry up to Haines.

Juneau in January - see the mountains!

No picture postcard views. That leaves us with the mush in the streets, the bald eagles flying right over our heads, the ravens the size of SUV’s, and the great people we’ve met. In the summer Juneau is filled with tourists – seven cruise ships at a time. Yikes. That must lead to a love /hate relationship with all of us from the lower forty-eight. (“Why is the glacier so dirty? Can’t you clean it off?” one tourist asked.)

But now the shops are closed down (just like Cape Cod, or Bar Harbor, or Avalon, New Jersey) and it’s just the people who live here – most of them by choice because they love the landscape, they love the pace of life, and they like, I think, being a little bit weird.

And they’re tired of talking about the ex-governor.

Debbie and I are fitting right in.

And since they don’t have to look for a parking place or sell t-shirts to folks from Phoenix, they have time to talk.

Yesterday I visited two schools and they were way too nice to me. This morning I did a two hour workshop at the library (on top of the parking garage – a strange retrofit that saved the questionable edifice and gives a great view of the passage) – I talked about stories and songs and how they fit in schools, even when they don’t fit in the curriculum. I taught a couple of songs and a couple of games and had them tell each other stories. What a job.

Workshop at the Juneau library - I'm the bald guy in the middle

Tomorrow we’re on an early ferry up the passage to Haines, where it’s colder. Maybe some northern lights up there.

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In Seattle and headed to Alaska, but a few thoughts before a more, um, considered post tomorrow or the next day.

Hyperbole Watch –
Okay I’m guilty of exaggerating in my last post – live performance isn’t dying. (Great comments from Ezra Idlett and Tim Erenata) But it’s definitely different.

I keep thinking of Dylan singing “Something’s happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”

I’m Mr. Jones. You are too, and if you think you ain’t, you’re wrong. Live performance is transmuting , and it seems it will serve a different function – just as recorded music serves a different function than it did ten years ago. And if it takes place in living rooms or smaller venues, it will still go on – artists have to make art – a congenital problem that can not be corrected – and live performance is one way they do it.

Book Watch
Boy, I am Eric Booth’s book, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible (despite the very clunky title). Booth points out so many things that all artists should consider – underlying all of it is the idea that artists teaching their craft makes them better artists. One of his most compelling points for me is the notion that artists (musician are his major focus) need to give students experience in all aspects of the art – creating, performing, being an audience, and criticism. When someone has the experience of creating art, they’re going to understand an artist’s work more deeply. (And more likely to attend art events) Both performing and being an audience member are about being present in the moment and opening one’s self to life, and criticism means being able to put art in the context of other work – that deepens understanding too. Booth’s writing makes me rethink how I approach my work as a performer and teacher. More on that in another post.

Recording watch

And finally, last Saturday I had a sold out crowd in Indianapolis where I recorded my story of my love of Motown – “Build Me Up Buttercup”. I took a quick listen and I think I got it this time. Great audience singing! Pshew! Hopefully we’ll get it out this spring.


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