Sing Sing Sing!!!

After spending time at the Cambria Center For The Arts open house, I thought of all the opportunities beautiful Cambria offers to music lovers of all levels and tastes.

Though not featured at the Open House, the Cambria Center For The Arts offers concerts and performances that feature both local and visiting artists in multiple genres.

The community was recently treated to a beautiful, personal blend of music and memoir by local singer/writer/multi-instrumentalist Mary Anne Anderson, who shared her story from childhood to today, through the musical touchstones that marked her journey. A brave, thoughtful performance. Brava, Mary Anne.

Choices

Intimate, stellar concerts are offered on occasion at Painted Sky Studios.
The Legendary Jazz Series, hosted by distinguished pianist/vibraphonist/educator Charlie Shoemake, brings top-level musicians to town to perform in the intimate setting of the Harmony Cafe. The names may not be readily known by those who don’t follow jazz, but the performances are other-worldly brilliant.

There is no shortage of performance spaces that feature local area talent, from solo singer/songwriters to duos, trios and revolving groups of like-minded artists who collaborate and support each other’s visions. Casual listeners who happen to stop by for a taste at 927 Beer can find themselves enchanted, disturbed or otherwise moved by a voice, a lyric, or a personality putting it out there for the world to experience.

Stop by the Farmer’s Market and hear live music delivered by an eclectic range of talents including a trombone quartet thematically named “Bone Appetit”.

Chorale

The Cambria Community Chorale is a magnet for many older members of the community. They carry a love of song up on the risers, joyfully belting out everything from holiday standards to intricate, multi-part vocal pieces. It’s great fun to scan their faces as they sing; the serious – “I can’t make-a-mistake-ers” to the “I think I’m in the right place-rs,” to the “I can’t believe I’m having this much fun-ers.” One thing is sure – they all enjoy being part of the musical community. I see you, Midge!

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The current Spring concert is a doozy, spanning everything from the classic Americana of Aaron Copeland to the pop sparkle of ABBA. There is just something indescribable about listening to fifty or more mature singers raising the roof of a church with the 70’s pop classic (and personal guilty pleasure) Dancing Queen. I mean, you just have to experience it for yourself! Luckily, there is one more performance scheduled for May 19th at the Presbyterian church on Burton Drive.

The Chain

Beyond the rehearsals and the performances, the Chorale lives their commitment to music. Every year, the Chorale, in concert with the Lions Club, provide scholarships for local students with the desire and commitment to further their music education. These awards come with the understanding that the students and their families will commit to a level of support, and that the training will be embraced and given the proper level of focus.

Each spring, the students join with their teachers in a recital, demonstrating the skills they have gained and more importantly, the true love they have for the art. From the littlest pianist to the tallest singer, performances touch a supportive community of family, friends and fellow Cambrians. Nerves and confidence sit side by side, and it doesn’t matter how many mistakes happen or how many restarts are required. Everyone is in it together.

Teachers

Not enough can be said about the teachers. I can tell you with confidence that the level of effort put into each student, each piece, and each performance far exceeds whatever pay they receive. Watching the teachers work with the kids is a joy. They encourage, compliment, and correct as they journey along, note by note. They are building musicians and so much more; they are building confident and caring kids.

Education, The Musical!

Even with the financial pressures out schools face, Coast Union still goes all out for the annual high school musical. Building the musical is a great process where complete chaos turns into manageable chaos as scores of students get to put their efforts and passions on display. The performances are the end product of months of a collaborative effort from students, teachers, parents, musicians,and technical crews. The whole megillah is supported by promotional, logistical, and administrative folks who devote themselves to the endeavor.

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Along the path to performance, real learning takes place. The students experience challenging situations that they will often face as they move through life. Conflict resolution, competition, repetitive practice, social skills, and teamwork all come into play. Disappointment, envy, and tears are as present as laughter, confidence, and splashy performance.

Life Lessons

They learn the differences between merit and entitlement, between wanting to shine and working to shine. They have the chance to succeed or not succeed, and the opportunity to learn how to handle both. They can learn a new skill, and realize that there is just as much creativity and satisfaction in helping to build scenery as singing in the chorus. They live real-life case studies in helping each other succeed. It is life lessons in a time and place where learning and growing are encouraged and supported. As much as the grown-ups involve themselves in the endeavor, it is, and should always be all about the kids.

There is plenty of Education in the Arts.

Heart, Soul, and Spirit

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Arts and Artists

Beautiful Cambria is home to a colorful box of arts, from painting and sculpture to music and theater. There are plenty of opportunities to participate, from studying with established artists and teachers to collaborating with fellow theater lovers. Artist, actor, or audience member, all are welcome.

This past weekend the allied artists at Cambria Center For The Arts  hosted an open house that featured exhibits and presentations from fine artists, theater performers and directors, and the team from the Cambria Film Festival.

It was a treat to see and feel all the creativity and commitment to the arts in one place, and heartening to see all the community members and event sponsors who filled the building with positive energy.

Small Sparks

As my wife and I wandered through the event, I thought of my evolving relationship with art, music, and theater. I am no expert on any of those things, but I am an expert on how they affect me, emotionally and spiritually.

I flashed back to John Stewart’s funny and heartfelt introduction of Kennedy Center Honoree Bruce Springsteen a few short years ago. Stewart started his speech by acknowledging that he was no music critic or historian, and was unable to say where Springsteen ranked on the lists of great American poets and songwriters. He then took a perfect pause and said”…but I’m from New Jersey…” and continued with a description of how Bruce’s work touched him personally.

I get that feeling a lot when I look at, watch or hear art in all its forms, and I wonder how I came to be a guy who is so moved by the grace of creative passions.

Enjoy John Stewart’s tribute here.

What Do You See?

Growing up, the arts were not front and center in my life. In grammar school, art class mostly consisted of the annual street-crossing safety poster competitions. Perhaps there was more, but I sure can’t recall anything beyond needing oak tag and magic markers. I still struggle with drawing even the simplest sketches.

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Lunch and Mommy – Jeanette Wolff, Artist

Jeanette Wolff is a delightful, energetic and near-fearless artist who can’t help but show her heart and soul in the beauty she produces. Her work is unfailingly identifiable, bursting with unexpected color, imaginative techniques and what I can only describe as joy on canvas. I was delighted to listen to her share the story of her piece, her descriptions and stylistic reasoning flowing out in a stream of consciousness, with hands darting towards the canvas to underscore a point, then dashing off to another quadrant to connect the dots within the whole piece. More than just a storyteller, Jeanette was engaged in conversation at a level that was pure and filled with creative passion.

I can’t begin to understand how to do what she does in her art form, but I definitely connect with her as an artist.

You can see Jeanette’s work on her website jeanettewolff.com

What Do You Feel?

I became interested in theater as I entered high school. In my sophomore year I made an attempt to “do a play” at Mount Saint Ursula Girls High School. Why? All girls school. Boys needed to play roles. Where’s my bus pass!!

I was worse than awful. I had no clue, no skills, and no confidence. I was humiliated but still met a few nice girls despite my complete and utter suckery. In later years I again tried the stage and maintained my reputation as not an actor. My theater mask had two faces, one covering eyes, the other, ears. I did, however, find a creative home in theater as a composer and lyricist.

“Here’s a dime. Go call your mother and tell her you will never be an actor.”

We slipped through the wooden doors at the end of the corridor and entered “The Cambria Center For The Arts Theater.” On the stage, two volunteers were engaged in a theater exercise, demonstrating critical skills every actor must master – listening and reacting to each other. The same lines were exchanged – “I have to go,” and “I want you to stay.” Nuance, inflection, cadence, and pitch altered the meaning with each repetition. I was reminded of a play we attended in New York, starring our friend Robert Newman. For most of the play, his only line was “Come on,” spoken in response to his lover, who was unhappy and working on leaving their relationship. So, a playwright took a theater training exercise and turned it into an off-Broadway play. Huh.

Stage or Screen

Theater moves me more than film, though I appreciate the art form. There are rare exceptions where the two mediums cross paths. One example that is burned into my soul is the brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “Doubt, A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley. Mr. Shanley has enjoyed success in both the theater and film. He wrote and directed “Moonstruck” and “Joe Versus the Volcano, ” two quirky, funny and emotionally complex films.

“Doubt” is a theater experience that will never leave me. I saw it, alone, one Sunday afternoon. I had a bit of an idea about the play but was utterly unprepared for what I experienced. The premise, the characters, the dialog, the staging. The ambiguity, the moral murkiness, the very humanness of the piece was breathtaking. After the curtain fell, I paced outside the theater, a busy and frenetic New York swirling around me. I called my wife and tried to describe the experience I just had. We came back to that theater a while later. The play kicked my soul all over again.

A few years later “Doubt” was made into a film, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, and Amy Adams. I was a bit disappointed that the original Broadway actors, which included Brían F. O’Byrne and Cherry Jones, weren’t cast in the film. Both actors were perfect in their stage roles. Watching the movie made me forget my disappointment, as Hoffman and Streep were just as excellent. For me though, the most electrifying performance came from Viola Davis, who, in a scene with Streep, had me in a puddle as she did emotional battle with Streep’s character.

That is what art – on stage and screen – does for my soul. I have so many other moments like these filed in my memory. “That Championship Season” – the first Broadway show I ever saw, thanks to my sister Patricia and her husband, Ken. The opening scene from “Jerusalem” with a bellowing, bellicose Mark Rylance emerging from a headstand in a bucket of water… and so many more.

Who’s to say if the next mesmerizing writer, actor, composer or director isn’t right now learning to create at CCAT, or another cradle of creativity in a small town somewhere out there?

What Do You Hear?

My early music education was delivered by Mrs. Dean, who may have been a hundred years old, or forty years young. She would go from class to class, followed by a portable organ hauled by one or two boys from the previous class. I recall very little music from those sessions, though I do remember a decidedly non-musical screech from a wire-fingered, comb-like device she used to draw a staff in one long drag across the board. I also can’t forget the bleating of that little organ as Mrs. Dean banged out “Columbia, The Gem Of The Ocean.” Why do I remember that? No idea.

Learning to hear is as important as learning to play music. I can spend hours listening and re-listening to a song, or an artist, finding more pieces of the puzzle with each replay. My wife, who is a much more accomplished musician than I, learns and understands by the repetitive playing of a piece. Her learning is technical and disciplined. Mine is emotional and intuitive. We take different paths but often wind up at the same destination. It is a lovely place to be.

Perhaps next year’s open house will include a music breakout. I’m not sure if Mrs. Dean is still out there dragging that Emenee organ around, or if Columbia is still the “Gem Of The Ocean,” but nurturing the musical part of the artist soul absolutely needs to stand tall alongside the rest of the creative circle.

Support the Arts and The Artists.

Disaster At The Firehouse!

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Part One – The Mistake

It started innocently enough, just another day in a long stretch of multi-day shifts. The duty crew was settling in for a fitful sleep. Reading lights glowed in small, spartan rooms. Each member of the service reading, texting, or relaxing, near rest but still on the edge of adrenaline known to those who answer the bell.

A television played quietly in the communal room near the back of the station. Jimmy Fallon was doing his usual “laugh too hard at his guest’s every comment” routine. The last few unpopped kernels of Skinny Girl popcorn (with sea salt) sat at the bottom of an old takeout carton from Robin’s. The empty cans of Red Bull lay in the recycle bin. The unique nightlight, thoughtfully provided for the new reserve who had not quite settled into the firehouse environment, glowed softly. Above the beacon sat the station’s whiteboard, tagged with a series of “To Do’s” and “who left the taco sauce uncovered???” complaints written in different colored dry erase markers. Each shift had their color, but as the ink ran dry, everything was captured in that washed-out red/orange/maybe blue color that showed the effects of being dipped in a glass of (non-potable) water to eke out one more scribble.

Times are tight in this tightly run department.

The night turned to morning, just as surely as Fallon turned into Seth Meyers. In the half-light of dawn, a still-groggy first responder shuffled into the kitchen to begin the daily routine. Perhaps it was the lack of uninterrupted sleep. A half-remembered exchange between Meyers and guest Patton Oswalt had him rustling through grey matter, trying to recall the “Ratatouille” punch line that had the audience roaring. Add to all of this slightly impaired vision; an unintended by-product of the commando-style blue blocker sunglasses donned to aid against the rapidly growing sunlight that sliced through the novelty Smokey The Bear window curtains.

In this almost awake and kind of confused state, an error occurred; A mistake that started a chain of events that still reverberates to this day.

The after-action report laid it all out in clinical fashion. But it was neither clinical or fashionable. But first, the mistake.

One Job

As highly trained, experienced professionals, the ability to multi-task, even under stressful conditions, was a source of pride for all the crew. The relatively simple and routine morning tasks – wake, pee, wash, and brew – required little thought. Of course, mixing up these steps can prove both embarrassing and potentially sickening. This theory was tested- severely tested.

Reach into the container, remove contents. Put contents into the machine. Start machine. Pee again. Wash. Wait for the aroma that shouts “READY!!!”

The shout that eventually came was not what anyone expected.

In a groggy fog, the first responder made a terrible, nearly unimaginable mistake. He went out of sequence, mixed up container one with container two, and accidentally put the coffee beans where the Tide Pod was supposed to go.

Suddenly, the station was flooded with luke-warm latte.

At the same time, The Chief, still agitated from his commute, took his first sip of what he thought was morning coffee. Bubbles flew from his mouth as he attempted to spit out the soap while yelling “Maalooonnneeeeyyyy!!!!!!!!!” All the stain-fighting power of that tiny pod couldn’t clean up the language that flew that fateful morning.

Part Two – A Dank Place   

It didn’t take long for the leak to spread throughout the house. Possessions were submerged. Critical documents were soaked and smeared. Slippers squished, and flip flops floated. It was a mess of epic proportions. A choked expletive escaped from an Engineer as he picked up his latest copy of “Tattoo Today – Heart on My Sleeve.” The colorfully printed pages had fused in a wet wavy clot. Lost for all time were the handwritten notations placed in the margins just hours earlier. Now, there were just runny, swirly lines where thoughtful comments like “cool – I wonder if it will fit in that special place” and “nice, but I like my Keep on Truckin’ guy better” once stood.

Across the hall, the leadership team came together to develop a plan of attack. In an intense brainstorming scrum, ideas were floated and discarded.

“Maybe we can get a sh*tload of donuts to soak up the spill?” “

“No, not donuts – too much sugar. How about rice cakes?”

“Hmmm, maybe, but I think Dan ate the last bag yesterday.”

“Ok, Ok. We need a solution RIGHT NOW!!! Everybody, grab a towel, a mop, an old tee shirt from Pinedorodo 2014, anything that will absorb moisture.”

“Ryan – get the mop. Michael – get the roll of Bounty from under the sink.  Other Michael – put down the tattoo magazine – it’s gone. We need to focus!!!! And for the love of everything holy, somebody call Dan and have him pick up some more rice cakes from Albertsons.”

The crew sprang into action, determined to get the upper hand in the battle of the bilge. Obstacles and impediments were moved to the side, clearing a path that would serve as a bridge from which teams could work. To the left, a shift captain quickly had his crew working to soak up the now-bitter coffee/water. Getting into the spirit of close teamwork, a firefighter began softly whistling; others soon joined her, whistling louder and with more enthusiasm.

B shift, working from the other side of the path, took up the challenge and began their own musical rally cry, substituting humming for whistling. The station filled with whistles and hums, so powerful that nobody heard the loud crackle of the radio.

(A second after-action report determined that everyone thought it was merely the sound of Jiffy Pop being made by an eager-to-please member of the FireSafe Focus group, who had mixed up the meeting dates and showed up in the middle of the mess. Subsequentially, A new procedure was put in place, known as the Shirley Rule, which calls for at least two radios to be equipped with an audible, human-voiced alert yelling “ We ain’t poppin’ so you need to get hoppin’!” to alert the crew to an actual call.)

Thankfully, the radio call was just a message from Dan, letting everyone know that Albertson’s had rice cakes on sale, and he had a coupon. Budget saved!

Part Three – Word Spreads

The crews worked valiantly to contain and repair what the flood had wrought. Despite their efforts, the job was just too big, too involved. They needed help, and they needed it quickly.

Surveying the situation, The Chief realized what he had to do. He sighed heavily, took another sip of soapy water, bellowed again, and headed out to his truck.

He turned the key in the ignition, knowing things were about to get even more challenging. He inched his command vehicle forward, looking both left and right before pulling into the busy roadway. No turning back now, he thought to himself. He guided the truck down the winding road, past the Lodge, and towards town. As he turned left on Main Street, a thought jolted him, and he exclaimed, “I hope Dan got the good rice cakes and not that store brand crap.” It was out of his hands; he just had to trust that years of leadership training would lead Captain Dan to the right shelf. And that the coupon was still valid.

The Meeting

Chief pulled into the parking lot of the Vet’s Hall, knowing that the report he was about to give might be shocking and sobering to the regular attendees. He had updated the Board and public many times in his tenure with the department. This one would be different. No amount of slides, no stream of acronyms and codes would provide him cover. He had to let the town know that disaster had struck, and what he was doing about it.

The video was rolling.  Allegiance was pledged. The sheriff’s commander was there to give his readout and immediately sensed that something was wrong. Chief didn’t seem quite himself. He smelled slightly of lukewarm latte and soapsuds. Not an entirely unpleasant combination, the sheriff thought, but not what he had come to expect.

When he was called to present his report, Chief took a minute and found his center, calming himself before striding confidently to the podium. He hadn’t noticed, but a contingent of off-duty members, as well as a few ambulance guys, Jerry McKinnon, and for some reason that kid from the Cookie Crock had filed into the meeting space, standing shoulder to shoulder in support of the Chief, knowing his update might not sit well with some of the usual suspects.

It was a touching sight, though it was a bit distracting to hear a voice loudly whispering “Hey, I can’t see…what’s happening now???” The line separated just enough so that the blocked captain could better see the proceedings.

The Report

The Chief began his report, only to be interrupted by a few shouts of “we can’t hear you, turn the microphone on…not, the button…the other button…” Finally, levels were corrected, and he began.

“Mr. President, members of the board and staff, community and the Cookie Crock guy, I had a prepared presentation, which can be found in the agenda packet. However, I need to pre-empt myself and give you an update on a bit of a problem we experienced at the station.”

And he told them everything. The mistake. The wavy clot of magazines. The bridge, the whistling, and the Jiffy Pop. He spared them nothing. Sensing the moment was near, he told them about the mocha mixup and the bubbles. So many bubbles. In a scene reminiscent of Brando in “Streetcar,” he bellowed, as he had bellowed that very morning, “Maalooonnneeeeyyyy!!!!!!!!!”

The crowd was stunned into silence. They had no idea the Chief had those acting chops. Snatches of excited whispering were heard. “He needs to star in the next Follies!”

NOOOOOO!!!

From all the chatter rose a solitary, insistent voice. The sound terrifying and chilling, the noise akin to every alarm in the county sounding at once. Everyone froze, except for the Cookie Crock guy, who figured his break was over and he better get back to work.

“OUTRAGED!!! I AM OUTRAGED!!! REALLY REALLY REALLY OUTRAGED!!! I AM NOT EVEN SURE WHY, BUT DAMMIT I AM OUTRAGED!!!!! I DEMAND THAT WHATEVER HAS HAPPENED, WHOEVER IS RESPONSIBLE, WHATEVER THE PLAN, THAT WE FIND THE LAST GENERAL MANAGER, WHEREVER HE IS, AND BRING HIM HERE SO WE CAN FIRE HIM AGAIN!!!!!” DID I MENTION I AM OUTRAGED?????”

It could be only one voice, one force of nature that could create such a tsunami of sound. The keeper of all things outrage had spoken.

But…

For once, the usually reliable crowd did not rise in support of the outraged. Instead, the good people of the town put their heads together and started churning out helpful suggestions. It was quite a transformational moment until things got a bit testy when “someone” was reminded that the whole rice cake thing had already been discussed. Beyond that one small flareup, no good ideas surfaced.

No Capes Needed

Amid the discussion, the Chief and his supporters quietly filed out. They got in their vehicles and headed back to the station. They were people of action, and there was work to be done. And Dan should have returned with the rice cakes, and, the gods willing, a box from Dolly’s Donuts would have found its way home.

Sent with great appreciation and affection for Cambria’s Bravest.

Greatest Hits

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Following Public Comment at a local Board meeting is like listening to Stairway To Heaven. You’ve heard it before. There are many interpretations of the words. Somebody will put out a cover version, usually missing a few of the subtle parts. And, invariably, a prophet will warn that leadership has us on a Highway To Hell.

But I listen anyway.

Am

opening

It starts slowly, calmly, serenely.

The lyrics begin; uh, OK…I see…a bit metaphoric….

It continues, becoming a bit tougher to keep up with the story…

and it makes me wonder…

More aggressive now. Drums. Always with the drums.

there’s a bustle in somebody’s hedgerow…

The voice gets higher. More agitated. Still cryptic though.

Wait – a bridge – this could get interesting…

Guitar solo!

More guitar solo, but with counterpoint!

Louder, faster, wilder!!!!

Definitely listening very hard…

Crescendo…then back to calm serenity.

somebody’s buying a something to somewhere…

Head shaking, wondering “what the *&%# did I just listen to???”

Encore

A month later it comes back around. OK, I’ll give it one more listen…

The song remains the same.

Voices

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Beautiful Cambria is a landing place for many wanderers seeking to sit for a while and just be.

“A while” often turns into forever. Comfort sometimes gives way to urges to adapt the world to align with individual vision, religion, or fantasy.

It Is Sometimes Said

I like the life here. Perhaps I can add just a touch of my favorite spice to the mix.”

“But I do not want your spice, thank you very much. ‘Here’ is perfect! Though, it would be nice to add a pinch of color, a tiny wisp of culture, a few soft bars of favored music. Who could possibly object?” 

“No! Thank you but, NO! I do not want your pinches and wisps. They clash with my dapples and murmurs, and your humming drowns out the flutters I cherish.”

“Frankly, all that pinching, fluttering, humming and wisping is becoming just too much to bear. The creatures who truly own this place are becoming fearful and anxious, and they should be held above any that came later.”

“Aren’t we all creatures, after all? What places one above another? We can hum, dapple, murmur, and pinch, so too can we build and grow.”

“But if we all grow as we wish, then what happens to what was? This incursion must be carefully managed. I shall do the managing.”

“I do not like to be managed! Do not manage me!! I will manage you!!!”

“Your managing does not agree with my managing!” 

“How, then, will we manage?”

“Actually, it is not you or I who needs managing. It is THEM!!! Let’s join together to make it so, for we know what is right for all!”

“What? I can’t hear you over all the clamoring, managing, dappling, murmuring, pinching, spicing and fluttering. Perhaps we are agreeing?”

“Agreeing? That can’t be! There are still others who are trying to join in, and that can’t be good!”

“Others? Are there not enough of us already doing all those ‘ings’? We shall soon all be dehydrated from the objecting, and not a drop to slake us all!”

“Perhaps it is time for a good rest, to clear our minds and restore our balance.”

“Rest? I can’t possibly rest inside the cacophony of others. And all the light is blinding me!. I fear I will never rest until it is dark and quiet.”

“I fear you just described death.” 

“That is fine with me.”

“But it is not fine with me.”

And so it goes. Any questions?

Let dreamers dream what worlds they please
Those Edens can’t be found
The sweetest flowers
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground
We’re neither pure nor wise nor good
We’ll do the best we know
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow
And make our garden grow

Make Our Garden Grow from “Candide” – Leonard Bernstein

Enjoy this powerful performance of the finale “MAKE OUR GARDEN GROW”

Stop Singing, Papa

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Once Upon A Time

In an earlier creative life, I was part of a small group of voice-over artists doing a radio spot for a retailer’s anniversary campaign. The end of the piece called for a simple arrangement of “Happy Birthday.” The producer rolled tape, and we sang. After a brief pause, he hit the talk-back button and said, “Okay, let’s try one more. Michael, why don’t you lay out on this one.” Lay out. On Happy Birthday. So I stopped singing.

Practice

Years passed, and many birthday celebrations came and went. I laid out for a while, but secretly practiced “Happy Birthday,” focusing on maintaining proper pitch. After a while, I was able to get through the piece without drifting. Then came the next step in my journey – keeping my pitch when someone added harmony. Now, I know it sounds like a pretty simple task, but for me, it was nearly impossible. Making it even more vexing is the fact that my wife is a singer. A really really really good singer, who has taught countless others to sing correctly and beautifully. She fills the world with beautiful noise. I have the noise part down…

After years of private practice, and lots of positive and negative reinforcement, I can now get through a spirited Happy Birthday on pitch most of the time. I do have to close my eyes and visualize the notes, but hey, at least nobody asks me to lay out!

However…

Granddaughter Chloe has a straightforward way of communication. On her third birthday, I was rather enthusiastically singing Happy Birthday. More than once. In the middle of my third or fourth rendition, she gently but firmly placed her three-year-old hand over my mouth and said, with love and seriousness, “Stop singing, Papa.”  

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So I laid out.

I Just Can’t Help Myself

Yesterday, I was pulling out of the Cookie Crock parking lot when I spotted a friend walking towards the entrance. Facebook had earlier notified me that it was her birthday, so, without thinking, I began to sing “Happy Birthday” out the car window. She glanced around, trying to locate the source of the sound. Rather than finishing the song, I waved and got out of the car for a proper greeting and a short, lovely chat. A smart move, considering I was approaching the part of the song that requires me to close my eyes and focus on my pitch. Anyone who has been in the parking lot of the Crock knows that it demands wide-open eyes, good ears, cat-like reflexes and a deep faith in a higher power to navigate the terrain safely.

When Last We Spoke

I remembered that the last time we had spoken in person I had done a poor job expressing my thoughts, leaving the impression that I was upset or angry. I was able to go home, collect my thoughts, and figure out what I was trying to communicate. I then put the right words into the proper sequence, writing rather than streaming. I’m glad I recognized my missteps and doubly glad I was able to express my thoughts adequately to a person I much admire and respect. She is a person who lives her values, which is endlessly inspiring. She deserves a quality rendition of “Happy Birthday!”

The reality is that, much like my singing, I don’t always hit all the intended notes, sometimes drifting and clanging off of random thoughts that seem connected in my mind, but can land atonally on unsuspecting listeners.

This Seems Familiar

In my creative days, I would often find myself in maniacal sessions with a collaborator, throwing jokes, musical ideas and characters around looking for a better more perfect scene. It was great fun and very fulfilling, though it often required an adult to be in the room, capturing the best thoughts and keeping a loose perimeter around the proceedings, lest we combust into a puff of nonsense. Afterward, I would retreat to my home studio and spend hours and days shaping and polishing those ideas into songs and scenes, putting the right sounds and rhythms to the words and music.

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Evidence of Creative Collusion!

Later, in my “real job” phase, I was fortunate to experience a similar creative world. Designers, engineers and product managers replaced the playwrights and actors, with business leaders acting as the adult. The differences were not so significant, though; creative people set loose together in search of innovation. Later, we would retreat to our spaces, open our tool kits, and turn that creative chaos into rigorously constructed solutions.

Chaos, Focus, Results

Through all of these phases, I have come to recognize where I am most effective at communication, and where the madness in my methods can be at times distracting, confusing, annoying and intrusive. Try as I might, though, I have not quite figured out how to get to the end without going through the beginning. 

So I lay out for a verse or two.

Mirror, Mirror

Watching others communicate is often enlightening. At the monthly Community Services meetings, a core group of citizens joins the board and staff in reviewing the activities of the district. It is unusual to have a meeting where the regulars don’t speak out. Some comments reveal a detailed understanding of complex challenges. Some posit little more than entrenched opinions that, while often well stated, contribute little towards moving us all forward. The core message from the core messengers is usually “No.” No compromise, and no respect for different views and approaches, while at the same time demanding respect and acquiescence to their viewpoints. It often feels like a ceaseless campaign to grind everyone and everything down to the point of surrender. Requests for balance are taken as demands for silence. A large group of citizens who volunteer their time and expertise towards the betterment of all is often overshadowed by the sideshow stars who demand a solo.

Coda

We could all benefit from occasionally laying out, and making time to listen to ourselves with honest ears. It might increase our ability to sing in harmony.

Restless Souls

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Moving from one side of the country to the other was, in many ways, a rebirth. Aside from the vast differences in weather, simple things that were taken for granted now seem distant and almost exotic. The particulars may vary, but the core remains remarkably constant. 

Then and There

Stunningly tall and beautiful spruce of different flavors formed a natural border around our small piece of Connecticut. Interior trees of red and gold maple, white birch, crab Cherry Apple Mapleapple, and weeping cherry presented a gloriously fragrant and hopeful palette of color when they flowered in spring. Summer featured deep and varied shades of green. Autumn took the stage in a blaze of deep red and gold. Sturdy boxwoods formed a line and marked transitions. Flowering shrubs neighbored sturdy yet wispy willow bushes that swayed in the breeze, and the biggest rhododendron ever anchored the far edge of the front yard.

Winged

And birds. So many different birds, from the ever-present blue jays to the scarlet breasts of the visiting cardinals. Robins rocked around the yard. And so many finches. Small, fragile flutters of every shade of yellow, with an occasional flash of green to mix things up.

The bird feeder outside the picture window gave a view to performances that ranged from balletic to brutish as the birds would alternately wait their turn at a peg, or, growing impatient, knock a fellow diner out of the way and grab the seeds. Smart ones would flit around at ground level, snatching the feed that slipped through the croaks and craws above. An entertaining program, no remote required.

Higher up, crows and crones would sit, gossiping and complaining about whatever was irritating them. An occasional bird of prey would soar overhead, and a big old crew of turkeys would strut through like they owned the joint.

Legged

Deer were everywhere, grazing the grass and savoring the flowers that filled pots and patches around the house. Squirrels abounded, thick bushy tails and darting eyes testing the environment for things they could snatch, then soon forgetting what they just buried and again going into search mode. Rabbits passed through, as did the occasional cat or dog. Coyotes would sometimes speak up from the woods framing the small lake on the other side of the road. They sounded like a thousand, though more likely just a few.  Now and then a black bear would zip through the neighborhood, risking a scolding from the neighbors or an unintended meeting with a passing car.

It was a beautiful place that often caused me to pause for a minute, and appreciate the beauty and peaceful grounding of home.

Here and Now

On the opposite edge of America, a welcoming committee of pelicans, cormorants, and seagulls stake out neighboring rocks. Coming and going, sinking and swimming as they dine on what lies beneath.

Shore

On the land, a scattered few white egrets hunt for a nosh. They move, Elmer Fudd-like across the terrain; tip-toeing through the brush slowly lifting one leg, then the other. All around them, cagey and cage-free ground squirrels stand still, looking intently for danger, or a path to a different vantage point. Heads pop out of bushes, from under the boardwalk, and from tunnels and burrows.

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The Egret and The Squirrel

Often, the egret and the squirrel stand mere yards apart, staring intently in opposite directions, oblivious or indifferent to the other. Occasionally the cast will be joined by the grey-blue heron, standing tall as the breeze ruffles feathers and down. When the hunting ground becomes uninteresting, the slender, nearly one-dimensional bird suddenly extends its wings and takes flight. What seems fragile and slight is unexpectedly powerful and majestic. With a few slow and deliberate motions the bird is airborne. Impressive.

Walking and Stalking

In the neighborhoods, deer come visiting, stopping to fill up on vegan delights thoughtfully provided by nature and the occasional optimistic gardener. Turkeys strut around like their east coast cousins, though some might argue they are more laid-back, as befitting the Cali lifestyle. Coyotes earn their keep in the fields and gardens. Larger predators are more likely mountain lion than a bear, though both certainly make themselves comfortable in the mountains just outside of town.

It is a beautiful place that often causes me to pause for a minute, to appreciate the beauty and peaceful grounding of home.

Home

The beauty of life, as represented by these very different but very similar residents, exist for everyone. They don’t give a thought to the accents they hear, or the color of the eyes that stare back in wonder. They don’t ask for identification, or an income statement, or a diploma.  No cover, no minimum. Plenty of room to share. And they seem to be just fine with it all.

 

 

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Listening

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Sometimes we let our experience and expertise blind us a bit and forget that other folks may not have the knowledge and understanding of a subject, a process, or a discipline that is vital to success. This thought has been tugging at me over the last few weeks, as I attended several different community meetings. The constants I observed from the back of the room: ethical leadership, active and inclusive dialog, and respect for all and from all, even during difficult discussions.

A New Look and Feel

As newly elected and returning CCSD Directors gather to begin their work, the tone of the board and the community feels somehow different. There’s a sense of new beginnings, and everyone seems to be looking to lighten the tensions that had been ever-present over the past few years.

Continuing changes on the Administrative side has some staff members playing out of position. The acting General Manager, with support from an experienced consultant, has kept the operation moving ahead.

Refining Teamwork

As the new team finds its way towards effective collaboration, members will become more familiar with each other’s style of communication. Experience tells us that the fundamentals of good communication require both speaking and listening. More so, it requires active listening and awareness of how others are hearing what you are saying. Adjustments to cadence, language and most importantly, gaining acknowledgment that things are clearly understood. Question. Summarize. Restate. Read the room, read the dais.

Embedded Practices

As new citizens join the expanded standing committees, thoughtful attention to respectful dialog should be a guiding principle for all members. Real collaboration can yield positive results for our community. We need to be rooting for the people who have stepped into these committee roles.

Paying Attention (poorly)

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to lead an engagement that would put a series of sophisticated, intelligent production mail systems into Korea ePost. My role, as Project Leader, was to work with the US and Korean teams to define technical and business requirements, compile all the appropriate costing and pricing information, and build a Statement of Work that would set the specifics of the project. We initially worked in the U.S., and, when the framework of the project was robust, we moved the activity from the U.S. to Korea.

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H.O. Lee and some guy

Our dealer in Seoul, H. O. Lee, had spent years building the relationships that made this project a reality. The Korean-based team consisted of engineers and project support people with backgrounds in Software, Systems, Data Management, and Operations. Most were Korean, some were Chinese, and all spoke some English. I had a high degree of confidence that we would work well together.

White Shirts and Bad Ties

I flew to Seoul for a week of intense review and refinement of the documentation that would guide the project and serve as the governance model for the engagement.

We powered through Day One, reviewing each section of the SOW. Day Two was more of the same. I was feeling great! On Day Three, a slightly apologetic H. O. Lee pulled me aside and said, in his soft sing-song voice: “Mike, we appreciate very much you coming to Seoul to teach us about the software and the inkjet printing and the file-based processing. Mike, we study English for years in school. But Mike, you talk so fast!!!! Please, SLOW DOWN!!!”

OK then… back to Page One…

Missed The Mark

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I didn’t read the room very well.

I didn’t do a good job of recognizing a significant problem with my style. My fellow team members hesitated to make me aware of the problem, which added to the stress they were feeling. H.O. Lee recognized the issues and, as a good leader should, brought it to my attention in a way that helped me to correct my approach.

We recovered from my failure to execute a basic responsibility, and, after several months of hard work, we completed our installation.

Use What We Learn

I carry this, and other hard lessons forward and try to not repeat past communication mistakes. I try to listen more closely. I ask more questions and then play the answers back to make sure that what I heard is what was said. Most importantly, I watch others closely to ensure that they are absorbing and understanding what is being discussed. These actions help everyone contribute to the discussion and make useful, informed decisions and take the steps that will deliver successful outcomes.

Then I go ahead and make all new mistakes!

You know, that sweatshirt isn’t going to keep you dry.

Words of wisdom from a local beer slinger.

Thanksgiving

 Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.  

James Lane Allen

Cambria is home to more character than one town should rightfully have. Wherever you look, an organization is raising funds or doing projects that add to the beauty of the town and the well-being of Cambrians. Helping families who might need a bit or communities that might need a lot.

Community

Today, like every Thanksgiving day, meals are being served at the Vet’s Hall free of charge for anyone in the community that might want to sit together with friends and strangers to share a meal and common humanity.

The gathering is more than a “help those less fortunate” event; it indeed is a community of good and caring Cambrians who both give and get the grace that comes from service and community. Faith, politics, economics and social status are left outside, and for this time of sharing, all is well. Soon we will be hosting thousands of visitors who will make the drive up the coast to enjoy the ever-growing Christmas Market, and discover the shops, restaurants, artists and, above all the magnificent beauty of ocean and mountain that surround us and remind us of what we have, and our responsibility to protect and defend all we have been given.

Not Far Away

This mixed sense of gratitude and responsibility is amplified by the heartbreaking devastation to our north and our south, where fire has ripped into other communities filled with people who found their place amidst the wild, and sometimes dangerous beauty that defines California. Riches, spiritual and material, have been tested and taken away from some, while strengthened in others who, despite seeing the world ignite, head into the fire to save and help.

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

Bruce Springsteen, Into The Fire

Standing Together

The giving and sharing we see today at the Vet’s Hall in beautiful Cambria are replicated across beautiful California. Maybe it is in a dark, smoky tent, barn, or other structure pressed into service to provide shelter and relief for those who have lost and those who have helped. Maybe it’s in a church or school gym. Perhaps it’s just one person bringing water and sandwiches to a displaced family, now living in their car parked in a rest area or a store parking lot. It is deeply meaningful for the giver and the receiver. Our humanity rises, always.

Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.

No Mothers – and No Bootsies!!!

Andrews AvenueGrowing up in the Bronx was a lot of different things. Fun. Frightening. Rough. Loving. As crazy and unpredictable as urban life in the 60’s and 70’s could be, there were always rules. They weren’t written down, and they weren’t legally binding, but they were rules. Violating them could result in anything from exclusion to ridicule to, in extreme circumstances, a good beating. And that was just from the nuns!

Our Corner Of The World

The sprawling neighborhoods were rooted in groups of friends. Some were seeded by shared addresses, a common Little League team, or similar heritages. Others, like mine, were cultivated by a love of music. Some of us fumbled our way through the first shaky chords on a crappy guitar. Others found their groove on a basement drum kit or discovered their true soul on the church organ. New friendships grew out of those circles, as cars and motorcycles added to the list of passions. New introductions were made as sisters dated boys from a few blocks away. Part-time jobs connected us with people from exotic areas like Pelham Parkway and Far Rockaway.  Promises, hearts and the occasional bones were broken.

We Learn

Like kids, teens and young adults everywhere, we developed loyalties. We learned how to deal with differences. There were small spats and heated exchanges on the street or the basketball court, and as we became more familiar with the demon rum, in the drinking places and later the bars.

When we would hang around, busting balls and talking smack, things could sometimes escalate, with nobody wanting to back down, ever. Paul Lamacq, who lived in the next apartment building, would sense when the insults were getting out of hand, and would sternly say, “HEY! No mothers, and NO BOOTSIES!”  Bootsie was his mom’s little dog, who was often the subject of some amusement. Paul loved that dog as much as he loved his mother. So, when things got heated, the rule he invoked was simple. Fight all you want, but do not cross a line with words that can’t be taken back. Family, faith, anything that was personally painful or cruel stood out of bounds.

These Times

Today, over forty years removed, those core friendships still endure. Memories appear with an odd word, a faded picture, or a chance connection. A friend, out of touch for years, can call, and ten will answer.

As I  look across the tortured political climate that grips our country and our beautiful town, and I see and hear the hurtful things new friends and acquaintances say, I think to myself, No Mothers, No Bootsies.