21 March, 2017

MN "Monday" #6 - The Rose

(Aside: So maybe starting something that I have to remember to do every Monday wasn't the brightest idea, knowing my brain as well as I do...  Oh well.  Onward we go.)

As I said, the reason I started working at the Y after grad school was so that I could turn all of my attention toward music.  I was good, had a vocal performance minor and lots of experience and I thought that I'd be able to find a combination of opportunities for singing that would allow that to be my life. (i.e. I was young and stupid and still had TONS to learn...)

So as I was finishing up my Masters degree, I started auditioning for groups around town.

  • Minnesota Chorale - Led by the wonderful Kathy Romey who I had sung with in the Men's Choir at the U of MN while in grad school.  I made it into the volunteer chorus, but not into the ranks of the paid singers who got the best gigs.
  • The Dale Warland Singers - This was few years before Dale retired and I don't remember if we knew he was going to.  I was really nervous because DALE WARLAND!  Totally bungled the sight reading part of the audition. (I know now that he liked to choose particularly obtuse things for those exercises as a weed out.)  When I finished making a hash out of it, he said "You haven't had much music theory, have you."  So 1) I knew the audition was over and 2) his condescension ensured that I never had any interest in auditioning for him again.
  • Cantus - I was really excited to audition for Cantus.  Listening to them made me long for my days at NCSU with the Grains of Time a capella group.  And they were changing their model so that the singers would be salaried as half-time employees or some such so there would be a lot of travel but also a lot of stability.  I think I acquitted myself well during the audition, but I didn't make the cut and I was inconsolably bummed.
Finally I hit on one group that was willing to take a chance on me - The Rose Ensemble. Rose had only been around since 1996 but they were already making big waves in the early music world.  I auditioned for Jordan and he was very sweet and down to Earth.  When I heard back, they could only guarantee needing me for the first show of the next season, but it was something.

So I worked my butt off getting ready over the summer.  They had recorded a CD that included much of the music I needed to learn (Slavic Holiday - go get it!) and I listened to it on repeat at my desk at the Y.  By the time the first rehearsal rolled around that fall, I knew everything on that CD by heart.  So as we were milling about before rehearsal (in the robing room "backstage" at the Basilica of St. Mary where we rehearsed in those days), Jordan walks in and spouts off the opening cantor line of Svaty Vaclave, the Pavlovian response took over and I sang back the response.  I wasn't alone, mind you, but the new guy wasn't supposed to know what to do.  This was commented on approvingly.  :)

Thus began two seasons of making music with the most talented and dedicated collection of musicians I have ever had the honor to be a part of.  I learned many things about my voice because I had to step up my game so that I wasn't always the weakest link.  I made dear friends and continue to see in my musical endeavors around town, always to my pleasure.  The Road to Compostella show and CD are still the highlight of my musical life (I hear Eric's clear countertenor opening to Beata Viscera in my head often).  Those two seasons weren't all positive, but in terms of learning and growing I couldn't have asked for more supportive or magical company than I received.

I sing with amazing people today and I've done many things since then, but that time with Rose is still the bar against which every other musical experience is measured.   

13 March, 2017

MN Monday #5 - The Y Way

When I left grad school, I was completely burned out on academics.  I'd been in school for 21 years straight and, combined with my frustrating experience getting my masters degree, I was well and truly DONE.

So done, in fact, that I decided that my brain had gotten too much of my attention so far and I needed to switch directions completely and go whole hog into music (more on the implications of that some other time...).   But I knew that I'd need to be able to pay bills and such while I made a go of music. So I started looking around for something to do as a "day job."

Thus began my 3+ years at the YMCA of Metropolitan Minneapolis.  I applied for an landed a job as an administrative assistant at the Downtown Minneapolis branch supporting the Executive Director.  It was a decent job that paid a decent salary.  We were still living in Loring Park at the time and it was only a 15 minute walk to work (gods above and below, I miss that commute...). And best of all, when I left work I left everything at work.  It wasn't particularly difficult work but learning new things about the non-profit sector made it interesting.

Only a few months into my position, the Director of Administrative Services (DAS), moved away.  And she wasn't replaced right away.  So, the relatively cushy admin asst. job I'd been in suddenly expanded to include all of the other administrative functions that needed to continue at the branch.  I learned how to do all the things that needed doing and, though not the DAS, functioned as one for the better part of a year.

When Robin came on board as DAS, it was almost immediately clear to me that she was going to be one of my favorite people in the world.  I still call her BossLady because 1) she's awesome and 2) she knows what she's doing.  :)  Since she and I both came from "outside" the Y, we had perspectives on how to get stuff done that no one there had given much thought to.  Together we made big strides at dragging the Downtown branch into the 21st century kicking and screaming.  Since I knew how to do everything we were able to redistribute the administrative work between the two of us so that it happened better, faster, and more efficiently.  I had a lot of fun working with her.

Robin is the reason I stayed at the Y as long as I did.  I had many friends who passed through the organization but people tended to burn brightly and the burn out around that place.  It's the nature of "mission driven" work as far as I'm concerned.  I had started realizing about a two years in that I wasn't going to be happy at the Y long-term.  With time and distance, I knew that I belonged in academia.  How to get back in was the question.

I eventually made it and have been happily ensconced ever since.  But I value all the things I learned and so many of the people that I met working at the Y.  It was a good thing and I'm grateful for the it.  But I'm so happy not to have to answer the phone like this anymore.

"Thanks for calling the Downtown Minneapolis YMCA, where we build strong kids, strong families, and strong communities.  This is John, how can I help you."

07 March, 2017

MN Monday #4 - The Grand Oak Grove

When I came up to visit the University of MN campus, it was really the only option I had for grad school at that time.  So we had scheduled time with an apartment hunter to show me some places quickly while I was in town.  I looked at several places, the correct choice was pretty obvious as soon as I walked into the lobby.  230 Oak Grove St. - The Grand Oak Grove Hotel - just a few blocks off of Loring Park south of Downtown Minneapolis.

With it's history as an actual hotel, it has this very impressive marble clad lobby with a long entryway.  It was reasonably well-managed and the rooms were quite nice, by-and-large.  Plus it was right in the heart of an exciting (but not _too_ exciting) city that I was eager to go exploring.

But more importantly, when I lived in that building there developed a community of people who cared about each other.  Many of us were dog owners (at the high point there were 40 dogs in a building with just over 100 units).  So many of us got to know each other through them on the dog lot across the street from the building.  At the time it was a grassy area beside the parking lot and sometimes we would just sit out there for a could hours with the dogs and socializing.  The big lobby also became a place where we could build a community.  At one point, Jacob started rolling his upright piano down to the lobby during the holiday and people would carol beside the gigantic Christmas tree we convinced the manager to spring for.

It was only a few years -- Jonathon and I moved in July 1, 1997 and Jacob and I moved out when we bought our first house in October 2001.  But it was a good chosen family with lots and lots of good memories.  (Plenty of bad ones too, but this is supposed to be a fun retrospective.)  We've all split to the four winds now but I'm really grateful that my first home in this new place was one that gave me the support I needed to thrive here.

27 February, 2017

MN Monday #3 - I went to see the doctor of philosophy.

The whole reason for coming to Minnesota was to go to grad school and I have to say that it was nice to feel academically desirable again for the first time since high school.

About to head home from a
class trip to the Badlands
of SD.  May 1999
At NCSU, as a physics major, I left a lot to be desired.  I spent most of my time in the music department and was average at best amongst my peers in coursework.  I had better luck in Math all the way up to when math ceased to be about numbers.

But when I applied to the University of Minnesota, it felt like I sent in my application on Friday and got a call on Monday to find out when I wanted to come check out the campus.  Turns out, the Geosciences were (and still are to some degree) hungry for people who aren't scared of math and technology.  So I was heavily recruited even though my GPA wasn't all that stellar.

When I finally got here, it was like getting to be successful again.  The coursework was accessible and I did pretty well across material science, geology, and computer science.  The faculty were interesting and  the subjects seemed to make sense again.  Maybe I'd just found a second wind.  I also made some good friends that I'm still in touch with today.  And even though I was working on laboratory research, I did get the chance to go out into the field some and rediscover why I had considered geophysics as a degree right after high school.  If those two NCSU faculty hadn't left before I got there, things might have turned out very different.
Ted, Nate, and Me in the lab at Kohltoff

But the research....  uffda.  My project ended up being a year of chemistry, a year of auto mechanic, and a year of experiments to get one (1!) data point.  I had pretty much had it by that point and decided a Masters degree was just fine, thank you very much. So I hit the eject button. My advisor and I also never really came to an understanding about a lot of things which didn't help matters.  Looking back, I can see that I didn't have the attention span or the focus necessary to have gone all the way to a PhD.  At the time, there was some feeling of failure mixed in with disappointment at how things ended up.

But as frustrating as those three years were, they set the stage for what I do now.  I am a geoscientist. I have taught at the college level.  I understand some of what faculty members go through.  These have all been invaluable tools in working with those same faculty now to help them teach more effectively.  Many of those people that I met during that time (both fellow students and faculty) have become colleagues in various ways over the intervening years.  I am proud to associate myself with some of the most innovative and amazing college educators in the field and those years getting my Masters made it possible to be where I am.

Group picture on the class trip to the Badlands of SD.  Photo
taken at Dinosaur P.ark

20 February, 2017

MN Monday #2: Burn the Ships

We pulled out of Raleigh, NC on June 25th, 1997. Jonathan and I were in my car and mom and dad in his truck.  They were pulling the U-haul trailers I had rented.  There was stuff piled in my car, in the trailer, and in the bed of the truck.  We were good to go.  The plan was to take 3 days to drive the ~21 hours to Minneapolis.  Mom and dad would drive back the 29th and we'd spend a few nights in a hotel before moving into our new place on the 1st. Simple.

Yeah, right.  Remember the story of how the vikings would burn their ships when they landed someplace? Conquer or perish, with no chance for retreat.

I'm pretty sure we were somewhere in West Virginia, going up and down mountains in Appalachia, when my car's head gasket blew.  We were lucky that the engine kept running long enough to reach the top of that hill where there was a gas station.  We pulled off and realized there was nothing for it.  We offloaded everything out of the car into the trailer or the truck.  Dad talked to the owner of the station and arranged to leave the car there and he'd come back to pick it up and tow it back home to sell.  Fine.  All taken care of.

Except that dad's truck was a two-seater...  So what choice did we have?  Jonathan and I joined the remainder of our belongings in the back of the truck.  It's like the south was getting one last dig in before I escaped, forcing me to enter Yankee territory like something out of the Beverly Hillbillies.  We spent the rest of the day riding in the back of the truck, all the way to Indiana.

At which point we were saved from our predicament by my dad's truck deciding to drop its transmission on the highway, south of Indianapolis.  We managed to get a tow truck to drag us to a shop and hotel.  In the dark of late evening, we rolled into Seymore, IN where we would be marooned for 2-and-a-half days.

The next morning, dad set about pulling some kind of success out of the wreckage of this trip.  He knew a guy in NC who agreed to drive to IN and pick up his truck to tow back.  We set to looking for a U-haul truck to pull the U-haul trailer the rest of the way to MN.  We finally found one, seems like it was the only one in town - a 15' truck to pull a 10' trailer.  At least we'd have plenty of space.

Dad's friend arrived on our second day in Seymore.  He and his some had driven straight through from Asheville and they were going to hook up dad's truck, turn right around and head back.  And mom was going with this so she could make it back in time for something she had going on.  (She wouldn't actually set foot in Minnesota until 2007 when she visited Jacob and me with my Uncle Bruce.)  Once they left it took another day to get the truck squared away and then dad, Jonathan, and I set out for MN.

We made the entire rest of the way from south of Indianapolis, past Chicago, all the way to St. Paul in one very long day. I think we arrived at the hotel about 2 in the morning on July 1st. We checked in, slept, and got dad in a taxi to the airport to fly home bright and early (later) that morning.

Driving an enormous truck and trailer combo into downtown Minneapolis, right to Loring Park where we have to try and find a way to unload was not the way I envisioned things happening.  We ended up driving around until we found a grocery store with a large enough parking lot where we could take everything out of the trailer and put it all into the truck.  That meant we could go drop off the trailer and only have to maneuver the giant truck behind the apartment building where we could access the freight elevator.  No problem.

Of course, the afternoon of July 1, 1997 saw tornado sirens and one of the year's most serious thunderstorms.  But then, what could have been more appropriate?

Yep, all the boats got burned.  Even before we got to shore.  So it's a good thing that what I found here was My Place (tm).  Nothing more, nothing less.

14 February, 2017

Can't Get Over Her

My nephew is distressed that he's still
in love with the girl who went back to her boyfriend—
the one who's not good enough for her.

When he ran into her again, she had that same bright laugh,
like the shine on an apple, and the wind rose
reaching up into the limbs and fluttering
the leaves in the whole apple tree.

But when she left, it hit him all over.
She was headed for her boyfriend's house, she'd walk
quickly in the brittle March night.
He'd have a fire going. She'd unlace her boots
and offer him her mouth, her lips still cold,
velvet tongue warm in that satin cape.

He didn't tell me all this,
of course, but who hasn't longed
for that girl? that boy? He's mad
at himself that he can't get over her.

He's young and he's got goals, quit
smoking, gave up weekend drunks. Now he tackles
model airplane kits, one small piece at a time.
He wants to learn mastery. Sweet man.
Should we tell him the truth?

That he'll never get over her. Love
is a rock in the surf off the Pacific. Life
batters it. No matter how small it gets
it will always be there—grain of sand
chafing the heart. I still love

the boy who jockeyed cars, expertly
in the lots on New York Avenue,
parking them so close, he had to lift his lithe body
out the window those sultry August afternoons.

He smelled of something musky and rich—distinctive
as redwoods in heat.

I still long for him
like a patriot exiled from the motherland,
a newborn switched in the hospital, raised
in the wrong family. Each year that passes
is one more I miss out on. His children
are not mine. Even their new
step-mother is not me. When she complains

how hard she tries, how little they appreciate it,
I think how much better off he'd be with me.
And when he has grandchildren
they won't be mine either. And when he's dying—
even if I go to him—I'll be little more
than a dumb bouquet, spilling my scent.

We don't get over any of it. The heart
is stubborn and indefatigable. And limitless.
That's how I can turn to my beloved, now,

with the awe the early rabbis must have felt
opening the Torah. And when she pulls me to her,
still, after all these years, I feel like I did
the first time I stood in front of Starry Night.

I had never known, never imagined
its life beyond the flat, smooth surface
of the textbook. Had never conceived
there could be these thick swirls of paint,
the rough-edged cobalt sky, the deep 
spiraling valleys of starlight.

Ellen Bass

13 February, 2017

MN Monday #1

Twenty years....
I came to Minnesota July 1st, 1997 which means that this July 1st I will have lived here for 20 years.  So over the next 20 weeks, I'm going to publish a picture and/or a memory of my time becoming a Minnesotan.  These aren't necessarily going to be the biggest, most important things that happened in a particular year (although some of them will be).  They are just a way for me to celebrate my adopted home and the life that I've built here.

The left image is May 1997.  I had graduated and was working the first part of the summer at the Physics prop shop creating digital images of a bunch of laboratory instrumentation.  Presented with a digital camera opportunity, even in the stone age, naturally a selfie emerged...  The right one is the end of January 2017, just a few weeks ago.  Random Tuesday morning video conference call.  So... yeah selfie opportunity...  
Looking at them side by side... wow.  Separated by a dozen or more lifetimes but some things really do persist.