Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Who is the Admiral?

Admiral Cooley struggles with incontinence.

We discovered his leaky bladder when it stormed heavily one night, and he popped his cork as the rain poured down. My husband noticed the puddle in the morning and cleaned him up, but, still, he looked a little embarrassed.

Now, we make sure to keep a tray under his resting spot each night. I’ve also spread out trash bags on the floor to catch possible overflow.

In the absence of other house guests or children, the only ones who would notice his trouble during the night are our cats, and they won’t tell. I can’t help noticing, though, that his normally pale face looks a little pink each morning after a hard rain. I’m guessing he knows he wasn’t built for this, and his instincts tell him to pretend like nothing is wrong. He’s not very good at pretending.

We brought the Admiral home about a month ago. There was something missing before that, a gap in the home, you know? We measured every space to make sure we’d have room for him and his luggage. Only the irresponsible would leap into such a hefty commitment without counting the cost. My husband found a calculator online that crunched every number before we decided to extend the invitation.

When we introduced him to our friends, the chemistry was immediate. At first, there was some confusion about why he lacked a mustache, but I quickly dismissed it as teasing and bought him a fake one to wear to parties. In retrospect, I wonder if the jokes wounded him more than he let on.

On the up side, the Admiral is stellar in the productivity department. When I step into a room after he’s been working, it’s like a completely different place. I guess you could call that a gift.

I’d rather have a cheerful, hardworking Admiral with an incontinence problem than no Admiral at all.

Who or what is the Admiral?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Something good was sitting in the freezer

Sometimes, delays can lead to blessings. A small incident today illustrated that for me when I rediscovered Zach Vinson’s music.

I got up extra early so I could get a good spot at the 6 a.m. yoga class at the David D. Hunting YMCA. (I always call it that on first reference. ;) ) The Tuesday/Thursday morning instructor likes to set up the class horizontally, which has the unfortunate side effect of making latecomers, or even just on-time folks, have to set up their mats in the “front row,” while everyone who got there earlier gets the “good spots” with their backs facing the studio mirror.

My goal was to arrive early enough for a “good spot,” but I was delayed. Before pulling out of the garage this morning, I put my Y membership card on top of the armrest between the front seats in my car, thinking my elbow would keep it in place.

Wrong. A badly placed construction barrel forced me into a sudden sharp turn, and the card went sliding into the belly of the abyss, that too-skinny slot between the foundation of the armrest and the track of the driver’s seat.

“Great,” I thought. “Now when I get to the Y, I’m going to have to spend 10 minutes digging the card out of the abyss instead of getting my ‘good spot’ in the East Studio. And everyone will stare at me while I awkwardly set up my mat in the ‘front row’ and disrupt everyone’s on-their-way-to-being peaceful vibes.” Yadda, yadda.

But then, serendipity struck. After parking at the Y and checking the car’s insides from all sides to see where the card went, and not finding it, I realized I would have to move my haphazard stash of old CDs wedged between the seats, the armrest and the parking brake. (I know, super safe place to put them, right?) Once I did that, I could definitely see the card. But as I was pulling the CDs out, I lost my grip on a bunch of them and they all clattered into the backseat. I twisted around to retrieve them and saw one I haven’t thought about in a while, a little golden treasure of love and beauty:

Zach Vinson’s “Cracked Open.” I’m going to assume few people reading this will have heard Zach’s music, unless you went to CU or were lucky enough to discover him in the years since he moved to Nashville. Consider this an introduction. Zach is a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter who calls his music piano rock. It’s hard to say which half is stronger: his musical performance or his songwriting skills. I still can’t decide, even after knowing him personally for two years in college -- during which time I heard several live performances of original songs -- then listening to his music sporadically throughout the five years since.

If you talk to Zach, or read his lyrics, you’ll experience a relatable blend of reserve and self-deprecating wit, which then are mixed with some truly deep insights about himself and the world around him. Maybe I say this because, as a writer and an introvert myself, I relate strongly to the things Zach writes about, but my hunch is it’s more than that. In only his second album, he already was describing the human condition, with all its warts and foibles, but also with its beauty and grace. I don’t come across many songwriters who are doing that – writing from the heart, having the guts to point out facts about humanity that often are ugly. And then in the next verse, he turns to the beauty and also points to that.

Today, the example that struck me most as evidence of this songwriting gift is “We’ve Got Our Kinks,” track 7 on “Cracked Open.”

My better deeds sit in the freezer
I want them with me in my tomb
My sis can’t think straight and so I tease her
It’s been that way straight from the womb
But we’re hard to read
I’ve been too hard to please

We’ve got our kinks
We don’t think that it’s easy
To judge where we’ve been
Or just when we’ll get where we’re going
But that has not stopped me

I wrote down who will be in heaven
I’m probably wrong more than right
Ever since I was six or seven
Been labeling souls at first sight

Selah selah shut my mouth, look around
Grace in the worms and the snakes on the ground

And if you’re more into the technical beauty of his piano performance, you might also want to check out track 3, “So Much to Blame.”

After rediscovering Zach's music today, I realized something. It's perfect for people who are late for yoga.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pass me another helping of Heaven-on-Earth

My husband and I booked a fun-filled yet also very socially demanding weekend celebrating our nation's 238th birthday -- so I'm thankful our visits took place in two heavenly spots.

My family and I enjoy time on the yacht on July 4. From
left, me, Adam, Marissa, Landon, Hannah and Mom.
(Photo credit: Niala Baksh)
We spent the Fourth of July on my parents' yacht, which they purchased last year and are keeping moored in Grand Haven each summer. The boat gatherings -- wherein we take joyrides down the channel, around Spring Lake or out to Lake Michigan, plus we eat, drink and make merry -- are full of storytelling, exuberant laughter and frequent game-play, and are becoming a new Watson tradition. Every now and then while on the water, I paused to marvel at the beauty around us, and that we're only a 45-minute drive to the gold-and-blue coast.

Saturday the 6th was the Hendershot family reunion -- Adam's mom's side of the family -- which has been an Independence Weekend tradition for I don't know how long. Adam's aunt and uncle, Holly and Rick Jensen, host the gathering in Kalamazoo. They live in a beautiful neighborhood where the homes are large, lush and elegant; the Jensens' place in particular is a slice of paradise. 

Aunt Holly, a retired veterinarian, and Uncle Rick, a pathologist at MPI Research, nurture a love of the natural world and have cultivated a backyard that is a refuge for all living things, from their well-trained and affectionate bloodhounds to their family members and guests.

Uncle Rick and Aunt Holly's scientific precision especially are on display in the garden. They have designed a place that would be the envy of any master gardener: a yard in deep shade bordered by thick, tall trees, with plants and flowers of seemingly every shape and size. The flowers climb up trellises near the house, thrive in planters around the deck, mingle with shrubs edging the walk, and pause only to give space to an expanse of thick, verdant grass on which the badminton and corn hole games are situated for use during the reunion.

Beyond the grass, a gate opens on another oasis only rivaled for beauty by Mary Lennox's "secret garden" -- bed upon bed of plants of all kinds beckon the nature-lover to stroll, to kneel down, to consider, to drink in the sights and scents in near-holy awe.

The amount of space the Jensens devote to green things is more than a little staggering, given the time commitment required for planting, pruning, weeding, watering and replanting each growing season.

A frog sits near the pond in the arboretum. (Photo credit: Adam Forrest)
Some elements in the backyard seem ageless fixtures, such as "The Pit," a rather ominous nickname the family has given their poolhouse-turned-arboretum. It's a screened-in, rectangular structure with wooden steps leading down to a landscaped area, complete with patio, swing, two hammocks and several benches, plus a frog-and-fish pond with a mini waterfall, framed by tiny shrubs. The rushing water exudes a hypnotic peace. Much like on the Island of the Star in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," nobles could sit down to cups upon its benches and fall into centuries of enchanted rest.

After my busy weekend, that place of deep tranquility and solitude beckoned to me and restored my soul.

In today's sermon, the second in a series on the Book of Proverbs, the speaker opened his message with an analogy about cultivation -- specifically pruning one's character in order to achieve growth -- and my thoughts drifted back to Uncle Rick and Aunt Holly's gardens. How lifegiving they are, I thought, to both the guests and the gardeners.

I found so much to be blessed by while in that Eden. I'm reminded that "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights" (James 1:17), and "He leads me besides the still waters. He restores my soul." (Psalm 23:1b-2a).

What about you? What places on Earth restore your soul?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tegan and Sara: My new favorite indie pixies

It's morning now, and I'm still thinking about Tegan and Sara's show last night. Since I made the very rare-for-me move of not doing in-depth research on them or learning any of their songs before the concert, last night was a blank-slate first impression. It was a pleasant surprise, as the genre label "indie pop" didn't give me much of a heads up as to what we'd be hearing.

All I can say is they've got a new fan; I'll be reaching for their album when I need catharsis.

To me, their music has the attitude and occasional steel drums of Cyndi Lauper, a dash of Joan Jett's physicality and spunk packed in a pop box, moments of '90s N Sync sounds lurking in the background of some songs, a sprinkling of pixie dust and a special, happy-and-grounded moxie that I don't know where I've heard.

They have honed their tight sound over 15 years of touring and recording -- they're 34 -- and the result is these two project the image they're one unified soul in two bodies, with twice as much oomph as pop duos who aren't twin sisters. I don't usually like pop music, but these two have brought it into a new generation in a very relatable and real way for even non-genre listeners.

I also appreciated that they brought a sense of humor and charm to the stage, with witty stories about life on tour, never knowing where you are. Another smart move they made for the tour was to invite their younger cousin's band, The Courtneys, a pop trio with a punk backbone, made up of three women named Courtney who play drums, bass and guitar and sing in nearly identical voices. They warmed up the audience with charming songs about being abducted by aliens and dating vampires.

The second opening band was a step out of genre completely, but I was thankful to be introduced to My Midnight Heart, a Puerto Rican-American vocalist named Angelica Marie who sang over prerecorded tracks with a live drummer. The best I can describe it is that her voice, the set's primary instrument, had the range and power of Aretha Franklin, but the weird, eerie, dreamlike aesthetic of Florence and the Machine. She danced to Caribbean rhythms, never standing still yet keeping her voice steady and powerful, while belting out her dreamscapes. At one point, she told the audience she always feels a little awkward up on stage dancing by herself, so she invited the audience to sway with her. I noticed no one in our pretty homogenous crowd had in their whole body the looseness, fluidity and grace she possessed in one pinky. But we tried. :)

If Tegan and Sara come back to Grand Rapids again sometime, I'll be there.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

An "aha" moment

Earlier this week, I was feeling stuck in the mud of life. I was looking back the way I came, obsessing over choices and mistakes, and felt unable to move forward.

Brandi Carlile, an artist who has a number for pretty much every one of my emotions, pretty well sums it up in her song, "Hard Way Home" from the Bear Creek album:

It's a thumping, rhythmic song, sown with percussion, handclaps, tambourine, piano and a slew of strings — the joyfulness of which creates tension when paired with the wistful message:

I sometimes lose my faith in luck
I don't know what I want to be when I grow up
I just count the rain
Wearing the floor through the boards again
I wish I could find a soul to steal
I could be the engine, you could be the wheel
And we could drive it home and never have to worry about being alone

If you've ever questioned yourself — your path, your ideas, your goals, your heart's desires, your faith — you'll know that it can be an exhausting process. You lose sleep. Talk it out. Experiment. Avoid. Distract. Immerse. Whichever your coping method, it can be a lot of circuitous motion.

Oooh, I follow my tracks
See all the times I should have turned back
Oooh, I wept alone
I know what it means to be on my own
Oooh, the things I've known
Looks like I'm taking the hard way home
Oooh, the seeds I've sown
Taking the hard way home

In my case, part of the struggle was coming to terms with my own personality. Do I accept it or fight it? Do I pick a different path to suit it or force myself into one that clashes with it? Am I even looking at it in the right way?

I never did learn how to follow the rules
I never was good at sleeping while the moon was full
I just lie and burn
Wreck my mind while the planet turns
I sometimes wish I could start again
I'd try and do the right thing every now and then
I'd step in line
That's what I'd do if I could turn back time

By the end of the day Tuesday, I was in an even worse place than when the day began.

I tell you how I want to live
Forget about the take
Forget about the give
I want to leave this town
Fake my death and never be found

Great attitude, huh? Well, that's just it. Later in the week, when I had finally just decided to just show up to life anyway and tackle the challenges thrown my way, an amazing transformation occurred. I found myself migrating from an "I'm done with this scene" attitude to one in which my obstacles became learning experiences, and no naysayers were going to hold me back.

The very next song on the Bear Creek album, "Raise Hell," spoke to me Friday, when I was able to look clear-eyed at my situation again. Though no circumstances had actually changed, I had gained a knock-'em-dead-despite-your-struggles attitude instead of a victim mindset.

I've been down with a broken heart
Since the day I learned to speak
The devil gave me a crooked start
When he gave me crooked feet
But Gabriel done came to me
And kissed me in my sleep
And I'll be singing like an angel
Until I'm six feet deep

I found myself an omen and I tattooed on a sign
I set my mind to wandering and I walk a broken line
You have a mind to keep me quiet
And although you can try
Better men have hit their knees
And bigger men have died

I'm gonna raise, raise hell
There's a story no one tells
You gotta raise, raise hell
Go on and ring that bell

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Music: The consumer's evolution

Listening to an episode of "Snap Judgment" on NPR this afternoon reminded me of something that's been bouncing around in my brain for a couple of years but hasn't made its way into blogpost form yet: The evolution of music consumption.

The segment I listened to was from an episode called "The Stranger," wherein a Seattle musician chronicles a snapshot of his life as a teen breaking into the emerging 80s punk scene. Along the way, he meets a mysterious kid working at his friend's dad's hotel who is able to hook them up with mixtapes of something they really crave: the latest punk music. They later find out the friend is a now-famous (also now-deceased) musician; the knowledge comes upon the narrator in a goosebump-inducing rush at the end of the segment.

You can listen to it here to find out who the musician was:

As I reflected on my own teen years after listening to this episode, I remembered what it was I've been wanting to say for awhile about music.

I'm an 80s kid. In my teen years, my friends and I learned about music through word-of-mouth. You found out what was cool when other kids shared mixtapes, or later, CDs, with you. Or, if they were musically trained, they'd play garage or basement band jam sessions at your house, you'd ask what song it was, and that's how a new band groupie would be born.

As pointed out by Nate DiMeo over at The Memory Palace podcast, in the 1800s, you'd get one shot in a lifetime to hear a particular dazzling performer, and you'd likely never get to hear that music again. In a July 2012 podcast, DiMeo tells the story of opera singer Jenny Lind, who many called "the Swedish Nightingale" because of her angelic voice. Queen Victoria herself had to wait two years before she could hear a second performance from Lind.

Yet in my lifetime, I've been lucky enough to witness the birth of the YouTube generation. It's now much easier to find out about new music, let alone be able to listen to it for free whenever I feel like it.

I've heard a lot of angst expressed over how new technology has contributed to the Death of Rock 'n' Roll and the decline of the music industry in general. And sure, while empowering, this instantaneous access can also be isolating, if you let it, and financially challenging for the artists. Another topic for another day.

What I really want to say today is I don't think those of us born in this era pause and marvel often enough at our good fortune. We live in an age when the previously unthinkable is now the possible.

I'm taking today to appreciate the gift of widely available music. And here's a sample -- nightingales in their own right: