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recycling binSome food for thought.

Maybe you’re like me and spend part of your time beating yourself up over things you should be doing.

Like not returning bottles for their deposits.

Rather than redeem them at the store down the street, I chuck them into the recycling bin. Every time I do this I scold myself. Why don’t I return them for the deposit? I don’t know.

Well, actually, I do know. I am a bad person. I am slothful, and indolent. And lazy. And lack willpower and am morally deficient. To get the money back, I would actually  have to put them in a box, put them in a car and take them to the redemption center. Imagine the energy it takes to do that. I am overwhelmed.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling like a useless individual and total spendthrift who wastes money and time and everything else, my mind comes to rest on my failure to take in bottles to get all those nickels back.

I could have retired by now. Millions of dollars wasted by not returning bottles.  While they are being recycled, I am not being financially responsible.  If there’s one thing that shows my moral failings, it’s my financial irresponsility. I’m sure none of you ever feel like that.

But now, I am content in my sloth and indolence. Sometimes there is nothing like dragging your feet when you’re supposed to be responsible, efficient and frugal. Sometimes it takes while for the purpose of an action to reveal itself.

About a month ago, I dragged out the recycling to the curb. There was a big container of bottles to be recycled (and I don’t want to discuss why there were so many and what had been in them…). I stood there looking at them thinking “You’re a lazy idiot. You should take them in and get the money for them.”

But it was late. And I was lazy. I chose guilt over action.

Something woke me early in the morning – it was still dark, around 5:45. I heard a noise outside. There were bottles and cans clinking and rattling out by the street. An alcoholic opossum? Or dog? A coyote? A squirrel? All these things were possible.

I got up from bed, quietly opened the door onto the porch and looked out onto the street. A car was pulled up by my driveway, its headlights illuminating my recycling bin. Someone was sifting through my recycling. They were stealing my bottles! In a weird, irrational response, I at first felt like I was being violated. Someone was taking my stuff! That stuff was worth something! I should yell at him to stop!

Then I saw the irony in that. By dragging it out to the curb, I had kind of declared what it was worth to me.

I watched the guy get in the car and drive down to my neighbor’s driveway, where he did the same thing. Bottles clinking, him pawing through the recycling bin, earning a nickel with each bottle he found. I got back in bed and lay there staring at the ceiling thinking about it. Then I fell asleep for another hour and forgot about it.

Until the next Wednesday morning, when I was again awakened by the sound of clinking bottles.

And last week, too.  Always the same time, around 5:45, give or take five minutes.

So now I am thinking about the diligence and need of someone driving down my street collecting the bottles for deposit at 5:45 in the morning. I am thinking what a small thing it is, and what it means.

I hope he makes a million dollars. Or buys some food.  Or get whatever it is he needs. It is a small offering, but one I now happily make every Tuesday night when I drag out the recycling bins. My lacksidaisical approach to frugality is someone else’s boon. I can live with that.

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When Peachtree Publishers agreed to publish “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” my first question was, “Can we do an audio book, too?” Happily they said yes. As a storyteller, I’ve done over a dozen audio recordings of my stories, and was looking forward to doing the audio version of the book.

How hard could it be?

Well, harder than I thought. Also deeper, and more exasperating, and more interesting. I learned a lot from doing the recording, and will use what I learned it in my future recordings. The process of doing the audio version has also changed the way I look at the story and the characters in it. Now, working on a major edit of the second book, I’ve applied all that to the writing process. Recording the audio version has, I believe, made me a better writer.

Not that it’s easy. First, I should say that I also served as recording engineer and producer for the recording. I am a better artist than I am an engineer. The final product sounds good, but I know that another more seasoned engineer would have been a lot faster than I was. I will never confess how many hours it took. Good engineering requires meticulous work and I’m more of a big picture guy –  not so good on the details. Keeping track of which track is being recorded, adjusting levels, making good edits, and simply pushing the right button requires a lot of attention. I got better at that. Still, I’m not in danger of becoming a type A person.

In terms of performance, my biggest challenges were pacing, character, and keeping to the written page. Those aspects kept me going back for one more take, trying to get it right.

My mind works overtime, and pretty quickly, and one of my biggest challenges in the studio is to slow down. An outside ear helps with that – reminding the performer to take his time. But I didn’t have that. With me, hunkered down alone in front of the microphone, and pushing the buttons in solitude, I constantly had to redo passages. Rilke wrote, somewhere, “Meaning comes when images have time to ripen in the mind.” Who knew he was speaking about audio books?  Finally I took some advice from my pal, engineer extraordinaire David Correia – I hung a sign over the microphone – “SLOW DOWN!!!” I still have work to do on that (and not only in the studio), but I got better at it.

The voices for the characters present another challenge. I had no intention of being Jim Dale, the magical voice of the Harry Potter audio books, able to develop a distinct voice for each of the hundreds of characters he represented.

But I did need to distinguish different characters and have a very approachable, believable voice for the narrator. “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” is told in first person by Charlie, and so in some sense, all the voices come through Charlie. I don’t think it would do to have complete personification for each character. Over the course of the recording, the characters became more and more clear to me – and that will serve me well in the following five recordings.

In the process of the recording, I found myself thinking a lot about how much emotion we should put into a performance. As a storyteller, I am aware that it’s really the words doing the work – if we fill each passage with emotion, or too much character, we don’t leave room for the audience to hear the words being spoken. Many times, a more neutral delivery is called for – being emotional doesn’t really help the story. There’s a fine dance required in balancing the emotional undertones of the characters and the meaning of the words. Generally, a narrator’s job is to get out of the way, and let the words do their work without emotion. Characters can be more emotional, but even when a character speaks, a reader needs to be careful about over-acting.

One of the greatest challenges I faced was to say exactly what I had written. I was reminded by the publisher that every word in the audio had to be in the book. As a storyteller who tells any story differently at any performance, and as a writer who never quits editing, this was beyond excruciating. I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a famous painter who had to be searched before he went into any gallery holding his work, for fear that he might be bringing his brushes to make some adjustments. Through the recording process, I was reminded that reading text out loud is a very important part of writing. Over the course of the time spent in the studio, I became even more convinced of the importance of  rhythm in language.

There’s much more to chew on here – I’m only scratching the surface. I’m particularly interested in the difference between hearing a book and reading it, and wonder how the method of intake influences the reader/listener’s perceptions.

Any comments about all this are welcome.

Here’s the first chapter of the audiobook of “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year.”

Charlie Bumpers vs the Teacher of the Year Chapter 1

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On September 1, my new book, Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year, comes out on Peachtree Press. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts about the book and my process.  Here’s a video trailer about it.

It’s the first in a series of six books that will be coming out every season (fall and spring) for the next three years. So far, so good, with a nice review in Publishers Weekly, and it’s a  Junior Library Guild selection.

Here are several  things I’ve learned. They might not be true for all authors, but I know they’re true for me.

1) Books take forever. They take forever to write. They take forever to edit. They take forever to get accepted. They take forever to edit again. They take forever to come out.

There is some author somewhere (Nora Roberts, I guess) who thinks of a book one week, writes it in the next three weeks, and has it published by the end of the year.

I do not know that person. I am not that person.

I wrote the first draft of Charlie seven or eight years ago. It was in the hands of a number of editors who politely demurred. It sat on one editor’s desk for two years. I rewrote it numerous times, on the advice of editors and friends and agents. It was accepted and then the publishing house that accepted it died. It found another publisher and editor. And then I got to edit it again.

I began to feel singled out. Why me? This is ridiculous! And then I started talking to other authors. They all nodded, “Yup. Happened to me.” Not so special, evidently.

I don’t really want things to take forever, but I will admit (when tied down and approached by someone brandishing terrifying implements of torture) that the finished product I hope you will hold in  your hands is much better than the one I started with. Believe me – I know who this kid is, and I like him a lot, and I wouldn’t like him as much if all those people weren’t involved. The book is better for the time it took – although I wouldn’t mind cutting the process by a couple of years. Which I guess I get to do, since the second book is due to my editor next week.

2) It takes a lot of people. My book is a child and requires a village. Or at least about thirty or forty people. Again, the smart writer does not need this, maybe – although if I look at any acknowledgement page in any published book, I see there are many idiot writers that require help just like me.

I need readers – a lot of them – people with different skills from mine. And I take all of these people’s names in vain because of the things they say or suggest or intimate. Behind their backs, I call them idiots and fools. I do not say these things to their faces, since I need them, and will need them again. My name is on the cover, but that is a shabby egotism which will not stand to scrutiny.

3) The book you’re working on is yourself. I won’t get too spiritual about this, but there’s a discipline required here, and this long arduous process has tested me about as much as anything else I’ve done. Failure is possible (Even after it comes out!). Success is never assured. Few things are under your control. Mostly, what you control is whether you sit down and write.

In the meantime, I have a book coming out that I’m proud of, and that I’ve read over so many times, I pretty much have memorized. And another one in process.

Call me lucky.

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I got the word last night from a friend that Thom Enright had died. While it wasn’t a surprise, it still hit me in the gut and he’s been on my mind all day, and will continue to be – appearing in my thoughts at times I least expect it and staying there for a while until he goes away and comes back later on.

Thom was a guitar player’s guitar player. He played on three albums of mine, and if he hadn’t gotten sick, he would still be my go-to guy when I needed electric guitar. He played on “Blah Blah Blah” which won a Grammy, “I Wanna Play” (nominated for one) and my latest “adult” album, “First Bird Call”. He could play all different styles of music and was up for anything. I’m always trying to figure out how to do something I have no business doing and depend on the musicians around me. “I want it to sound like this,” I say, “and I don’t know how.” The musicians around me help me figure it out. Thom was one of those.

I love the Providence music scene. It is not a big scene, but there are a lot of really great players. Duke Robillard, Marty Ballou, Vinny Pagano, Bill Miele,Dan Moretti, Greg Abate John Allmark. My pal Martin Grosswendt. Keivin Fallon. Cathy Clasper-Torch. Many, many more. I love watching them. Like I said, Thom was my go-to guy for electric guitar. Before Thom recorded with me, I had Paul Murphy play on my albums, and then he died suddenly – way, way too young. Both of those guys were good as it comes. I have a distinct memory of Paul laying his guitar on the floor of the studio and rolling marbles up and down the strings, trying to get a sound we could use when we recorded Roger McGuinn’s “Hey Mr. Spaceman”. And I’ve called on Duke, one of the very, very best, to record with me, and he was happy to do it, making suggestions about sound and arrangement. One of the blessings of recording music for kids is that musicians, who can be very private and reserved people, open themselves up and really give their best. Given the chance, they are very playful. I read an interview with Mark Knopfler once and he said that when he’s making an album, he tries to be the worst one in the room. That’s hard to imagine, but with all these guys around me, that was easy for me to do. It always freaks me out when they ask me what I want.

I’d seen Thom play many times before I ever talked to him. He was a member of the Young Adults, THE Providence band in the late seventies, a breath away from making it to the national scene (David Byrne auditioned for them, and they passed….). He was in the Raindogs (am I right on this??) which was a monster band including the great Scottish fiddle player Johnny Cunningham that got screwed by their record company and self-destructed. He played bass with Duke, I think. He was a killer blues player, and knew reggae like nobody’s business.

And he was a great acoustic player and singer, too. Sitting in nick-a-nees, the very funky bar in the jewelry district of Providence, I heard him do a killer rendition of “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”. Just right, not too much, letting those amazing words do their work, really rock-solid singing, with his very heart-felt and clean fingerpicking. He knew how to pull the strings with his right hand to get a percussive sound, but not lose the tone, which is a very difficult thing to do. I know.

I first called Thom to play on “Blah Blah Blah” – I wanted a soundscape for my story “Joey, Chloe and the Swamp Monsters”, which is kind of a child’s “Heart of Darkness” story. The kids have to go into the swamp to retrieve sneakers. It’s funny, but scary, too, and I had no music written out – i was experimenting with sound and knew some of it should be slide and there should be bent notes and weird stuff. it was atmospheric (and also a twisted version of “The Hokey-Pokey”). We didn’t know each other and I put him in the booth and everybody was playing while I was just telling the story in a separate booth, knowing I would go back and do my part again – I just wanted sounds.
At a certain point, he lost it. “I don’t know what the……. you want me to do.” He was pissed.
(And I should say here, everyone who knows Thom knows that he had a very dark streak in him. I only had inklings of it, but I saw it then for the first time, and several times after. He could be a tough customer.)
“It sounds good, I said. “Just play along and we’ll figure it out.”

Actually, I was shitting in my pants. But like I said before, I just put the best musicians in the room and hope they can figure out.
Thom nodded and went back to work. And he came up with great stuff. After the session he called and asked if he could come back in, saying he had some more ideas. He knew that I trusted him. How could I not?

Thom got diagnosed with cancer several years ago – he started getting headaches while he was driving the shuttle bus at the Providence airport (further proof that justice is hard to come by in this world) It was a bad kind, and he lived longer than the doctors said he would. He played more music but knew he was going. I wasn’t really close to him, so mostly heard through others what he was going through, though we did talk several times.
I should have called him more, but like I said, he was a private person, and it’s difficult to name things, sometimes.
Which is why I’m doing this here.
Thanks Thom. I’ll miss you.

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I’m back from the National Storytelling Festival. For all the confusing issues surrounding the festival and the International Storytelling Center (more on that in some future post), it was an amazing experience for a performer. Those of us who get to tell stories there end up feeling a great gratitude.

In the last session, I recited a poem I had just written. The response was really positive and people asked me how to find it. I just wrote it. But here it is:

Nothing for granted

Let us take nothing for granted
Not the water coming out of the faucet
Nor the smell of bread
Nor the call of the lone crow overhead
Late in the afternoon

Do not take for granted the shoestring that does its job every day without complaint
Nor the way the fingernail clipper responds when asked by squeezing thumb and forefinger
Do not take dark roast for granted
nor the smell of its brewing
Nor chocolate
(Especially chocolate)
Nor the rain predicted with certainty by Eyewitness news
Do not take for granted the leaf, pasted upon the windshield
Its puckered body yellow
Its spidery veins green
Which even the wipers cannot remove

Especially, do not take the venality of those in power for granted
Nor the callousness of those intent upon teaching a lesson to someone else
while not learning it themselves
Instead, be taken aback
And don’t take your indignity for granted either
Indignant at the insensitivity of the privileged
Mistaking their position for their worth
Do not take the hunger of the poor for granted
Nor the drum’s tattoo that summons the dogs of war
Do not assume inevitability
For at this moment things are still evitable
And we do not know what there will be an outbreak of

So, embrace surprise

For it is in our surprise and what comes of it that we embody the possibility of something else
In our surprise we remind the world of what it might be

The trick is to take the moment
Out of the cardboard box
Or picture frame
Or digital byte
Or philosophical system
Or the story we have put it in
The equating of this for that
The alchemy of life into metaphor
When in fact nothing equates with anything exactly
For it is this space between where we think something fits
And what the fitting leaves out
That life breathes

Refuse boredom

Do not let the continuing
Recombination of genetic material
Blind you to the beauty of its expression

In not taking things for granted
We will appear a little daft
Apparently obtuse and dull-witted
As if we are only realizing something
Everyone else has known since the day before the first day of middle school
(The last day to learn something before you were pilloried for your ignorance)

When we do not take things for granted
People will be embarrassed for us
And for themselves

Let us be masters of the obvious
Of what everyone knows but seems to have forgotten
Because they do not name it
And in not naming it, lose it

Let us be known for saying
“The sun came up this morning”
“The stars are coming out”
“The leaves are turning colors”
“The firetruck is red”
“Someone emptied the dishwasher”
“This food tastes good”
“This system is unjust”
“Things will change”
“You are my friend”

Let us be masters of the repeated appreciation
Let us be the masters of the redundancy of affection
Giving more gifts than necessary
Over and over
In the knowledge that the slippage in the universe requires
Us to give more than we think we should have to give
Let us be masters of appearing foolish
Masters of the obvious insight
Masters of the wisdom everyone already holds
Masters of what is known
Only to be found again and again
And delighted in each time at its discovery

copyright 2011 by Bill Harley and Round River Productions

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When I was seventeen and a senior in high school I decided I wanted to play piano again. I had taken lessons until I was twelve, then got bored with my teacher and practice – not untypical for a sixth grader. By senior year, I had rediscovered music, but wanted to play it on my own terms. My parents agreed, in that it was clear if I was going to take lessons, I was paying. They already had one son studying music in college, and I think, at least subconsciously, they were reluctant to have another.

A kid I knew at school suggested I take with his teacher. I was thinking rock and roll – I loved Nicky Hopkins on the Stones records and his performance on the Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Just For Love”.

I didn’t get rock and roll. The teacher was a jazz teacher, and a formidable one at that. His name was John Mehegan, and he had literally written the book on jazz piano improvisation. I didn’t know any of this about him – I was an idiot seventeen year old. I showed up at 10:30 on a Saturday morning and he put me through the paces. He had me return to classical piano to learn fingering. He taught me voicings and a modal approach that I still carry around with me today, even though most of my songs are three chords and a little bit of the truth.

He wasn’t interested in me if I hadn’t practiced. One week I hadn’t done anything, and he walked out in the middle of the lesson. I stayed there until my time was finished and left. The next week, an assistant appeared, and I had the assistant for a month. One week I worked extra hard on “All The Things You Are”, and the next week, Mehegan reappeared, as if I had passed some test.

He also had me listen. He gave me a list of records to go out and buy. I went down to Klein’s on Main Street in Westport, CT and Sally, the queen of the record shop, guided me to the jazz section, where I bought music that was very foreign to me. I lay down on my bed at home, put on the cheesy earphones I bought at Radio Shack and listened. Over and over. Blowin’ the Blues Away by Horace Silver. The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson (monster album). Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock (another monster album). I had already fallen in love with Les McAnn and Eddie Harris’s “Swiss Movement”, and of course the song “Compared to What”, which defines blues/funk jazz, with his amazing vocals on it, recorded right at the height of the Vietnam War.

A lot more – all kinds of stuff I never knew existed. I listened to all of it over and over again, trying to understand what was happening.

And then there was Kind of Blue by Miles Davis – with Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderly and Wynton Kelly (for one song), and the impressionistic playing of Bill Evans, defining modal harmonies. Paul Chamber’s bass notes – that soft, ascending riff that opens up the whole album – were like a secret, a hint of what was to come. Mehegan gave me the chord progressions and voicings of “So What” and I almost wet my pants when I played those amazing chords and the sound came out of my own fingers.

I’ve been thinking about Kind of Blue lately, and the other music I listened to that year, late in high school, because it strikes me that it’s rarely that I listen to music so intensely anymore. I could sing every solo that Miles played (still can, when it comes on). I knew the first note of every tune before it played, and could also predict exactly how much space was between each track on the recording. Because I listened to that stuff so intensely, it influenced the way I thought about music and played it. It made me a better musician to know every note, every hesitation and slur and chord change involved.

And of course, it wasn’t just jazz, though jazz was terra incognita, and therefore more impressive to me. I wore out the grooves on Crosby Stills and Nash’s first album. And Who’s Next, too. My girlfriend gave me Blue by Joni Mitchell (one of the truly great albums of all time, to my mind), and I learned every phrase. Love helps, of course.

Are there albums out there today that will define a genre of music, or a trend, or a period, like Kind of Blue did, or Blue, or Rubber Soul, or even Graceland? What new recordings bear a hundred listenings? Do we listen that closely any more?

Very rarely. There seems to be too much music, even though much of it is unbelievably wonderful. Now, music serves as soundtrack, not as a proposition demanding center stage. I have tried, lately, to just lie down and listen to one recording. I should just choose one album and listen over and over, and give it the care that the musician gives to it, until I know every note – then I would learn from it – something different from what I get from a cursory listening to see if I “like” it. I suppose part of it is that my hard drive is full, and my mindset is more rigid than it was when I was seventeen. But part of it, most of it, is time – which is, after all, what music is made of. Music requires time. Just like life. Just like love.

What recording does it for you?

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About ten years ago, I gave a talk to a group of teachers about the connection between home and school. I had been hired to tell stories, but instead wrote a series of letters back and forth between a mom and the teachers her kid meets along the way. It was an imagining of how teachers and parents might communicate, based on my own experiences as a parent and my work in schools. Over the years, I’ve read it in various workshops and people have always liked it.

Still, that was all I did with it. It’s my tendency to finish one project and just move on.

This past summer, Debbie (wife, president of our huge corporation(?), and now publisher) decided it needed to be a book and that we would do it ourselves. We sent it out to a variety of people – writers, educators, parents – for review and made some changes. Our longtime designer, Alison Tolman-Rogers, helped with the design of the book. I drew a rough of the cover illustration and she did the final artwork and design. We got some quotes from people we thought would like it, including George Wood, a first-rate principal and educator, and Amy Dickinson of “Ask Amy”, who worked with me years ago at NPR. Everyone liked it.

After a lot of research, we decided to publish initially with the self-publishing branch of Amazon. Debbie worked with them very closely, sending proofs back several times to make sure they got it right. Since then, we’ve found a printer that does a beautiful job at a better price, so we have our own copies from that printer, and Amazon sends out their copies if someone orders it from them. (more about, um, Amazon in another blog).

So now it’s out, and it feels like we’ve touched a nerve. It’s a small, simple book, and can be read in one sitting. There is an underlying philosophy, but it’s the story of the mom and the kid and the teachers that reaches people. We’re getting orders from principals who are buying it for their entire staffs, and I’ve been asked to speak at workshops and conferences about the book and how the relationship between home and school can be strengthened. Parents are buying it as Christmas presents for their kid’s teachers. I got an e-mail from a teacher friend who said before she wrote a note to the parent of a student in her class, she thought about the book and how to best approach the problem she faced.

I am not an expert on teacher-parent relationships, but instead, someone who has given thought to it and tried to find a way to talk about it. I seemed to have found a way for everyone to listen and talk to each other. My expertise, if I have one, is in imagining how things might be, and then getting people to tell stories. As I say in the book, it’s the decision to keep communicating that is the most important thing.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long” – it may take a long time for something to bear fruit. Some small thing I did a number of years ago has taken years to bear fruit, and I never would have dreamed it could still be alive.

And then, I should add, you can order it here.

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