Monthly Archives: January 2012

Racism and the innocent mind…

This is an excerpt from my book:

When I was four we moved to East Islip on Long Island in the state of New York. I don’t remember much about it, except that our house had a little pond with a bridge over it in the back yard, and the beach we went to in the summer was segregated — although I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I recall pressing my nose up against a chain link fence and seeing people with brown skin on the other side. I was fascinated. I had never seen a person with brown skin. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t go over there and play with them. They were different, so I reasoned that they must be special.

What I didn’t remember — Ma told me this story many years later — was that when we were still living in Cleveland and I was just a toddler, one day she took me and Bertie to the dime store and we sat down at the soda fountain for something to eat. There was a big black man working behind the counter, wiping up our place with a damp rag. I had never seen a black person before, and I pointed and cried in delight, “Ma, look at the brown man!” My mother cringed with embarrassment, and the man behind the counter swore, threw his rag down on the floor, and stomped out of the store. I wish I could have said, “Wait! Wait! Some day I’ll marry two black men and be a jazz musician!” Too late.

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The world of music changed while I wasn’t paying attention…

I can remember when being a musician was all about getting a record deal and finding gigs. It was always a struggle, at least for most of us. If you didn’t have the chutzpah to confront the club owners, managers and record companies yourself, then you had to try to find someone to do it for you…someone you’d have to pay, so chutzpah or no, you usually ended up confronting these seemingly all-powerful people yourself with: “Um, I have a really good jazz trio and we’d like to play here. Here’s our demo tape.” And the answer invariably would be, “We’re booked solid for the next eight months” or “Who are you?” Trying to get someone interested in managing you or getting through to an A&R person at a record company was even worse.

In spite of these problems, I managed to get some gigs over the years with my various groups, although I never did nail down a manager or get a record contract.

But guess what? Now it doesn’t matter any more. I spent a few years recently not working in the music field at all, and wasn’t aware that there was a veritable revolution going on in the music world in my absence.

With the advent of social networking, home recording software, mp3s and sites where you can sell your music digitally, the days of hustling for a record contract are pretty much over. Furthermore, because of YouTube and other video sites, there’s a growing need for background and ambient music, and there are a number of music licensing sites that will farm your music out to commercials, films, etc. You can actually make money with your music without even leaving your house.

Does this mean the end of live music performance? I doubt it. People still love to see a live show and feel that special kind of energy. But unless you’re a name act, you don’t make much money from doing live gigs. I love the fact that everyone seems to need and want music now — they want to put some nice piano music behind their slideshow presentation, they’re creating a video of all the places they’ve visited over the years and need some ambient music to enhance their experience, and so on. It seems that music is now coming into its own more and more, and people are waking up to its importance in our lives.

Karl Paulnack, director of the music division at the Boston Conservatory explains it eloquently in a speech he once gave to incoming freshman:

I now understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment.” It’s not a luxury, something we fund from budget leftovers. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of things, a way to express feelings when we have no words, a way to understand things with our hearts when we cannot grasp them with our minds. Music is the language we choose when we are speechless.

Imagine a graduation with absolutely no music – or a wedding, a presidential inauguration, or a service celebrating the life and death of a close friend – imagine these with no music whatsoever. What’s missing – entertainment? Hardly.

What’s missing is the capacity to meaningfully experience these events, as though eating great food without tasting it. Music functions as a container for experience – it augments capacity to grasp complex things. Without music, the events of our lives slip like water through cupped hands. Music increases our capacity to hold life experiences, to celebrate them, to survive them.

You can read the whole speech here:

http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/music/karl-paulnack-welcome-address


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Broken umbrellas and other recycling adventures

When I went to empty my garbage last night, I saw that someone had left what seemed to be a broken umbrella on the floor of the trash room. It was pretty and pink with a flowery design. I picked it up and saw that it wasn’t really broken at all…there was nothing structurally wrong with it, a couple of the points had come unsewn, that’s all. So I took it back to my apartment and sewed it back together, and now I have a nice “new” umbrella.

People don’t really do much hand sewing any more. Also, we live in a “throw-away” culture, where it seems easier to get a new one (whatever it is) than try to fix it. Fortunately here in Brazil there are still quite a few enterprising folks who will fix just about anything, but the owner of that umbrella had probably never come within ten feet of a needle and thread.

I’ve always been a garbage picker. That’s what they used to call a “recycler” in the old days. I confess I’m relieved that the new term has taken over, because I always felt just a wee bit ashamed of the moniker “garbage picker.” I was good at it, though. In my book, I tell about times in my life when I had practically no money at all, and I developed quite a bit of ingenuity for finding wonderful things, or at least things that could be made wonderful with a little paint, glue, or a few stitches, in the trash.

I once lived in a cold water flat when I was really strapped for cash, but I managed to make the place quite livable with things I found on the street just before the weekly garbage pickup: a very nice, hardly worn fake Oriental carpet, an easy chair that looked quite nice after I made a slipcover for it, numerous kitchen and bathroom items, and so on. I never felt bad about reusing things. It just didn’t make sense to me that people threw things away that were still usable.

Sometimes people had the good sense to take the things they didn’t want any more to the Goodwill or the Salvation Army, and I used to take advantage of those places, too. I used to buy clothes for me and my kids, and lots of household items at low prices.

Nowadays, it’s not such a stigma to pick something up off the street and take it home. I lived on proper Beacon Hill in Boston for awhile, and people would leave the most amazing things out on the street. Every week before garbage pickup time there would be the usual crowd of collectors poking through the stuff and carting their booty home. Some people even came in cars and vans to pick up the larger items.

So now, when I think of how my friends used to tease me years ago and call me “bottom-of-the-barrel Amy,” I just smile…

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Steve Jobs and….me

The Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson that I ordered from Amazon arrived yesterday. It’s always a thrill to have a nice fat book in English to read, since they’re kind of hard to come by down here in Rio.

In any case, I’m a Jobs/Apple fan, so I’ve really been looking forward to reading this book. What took my by surprise, though, was as I started to read about Job’s early life, I kept stopping and thinking, “Wow, that sounds just like me!” or “Hey, that’s exactly what I used to do when I was young.”

Like Jobs, I was a spiritual seeker from an early age, and read some of the same books he did, like “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass and “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. I also followed a lot of “weird” diets over the years, just as he did: vegan, raw fruit and veggie, and macrobiotic (which he didn’t). But what struck me the most was that everything he got interested in he became obsessed with and pursued with a vengeance. This was also true of me.

I’ve often wondered if this is a good or a bad thing. In Job’s case, this kind of passion was surely a positive factor in helping him to develop Apple, although it probably brought him into a lot of conflict with others. I’ve only read about 100 pages of the book so far, so I can’t offer any details on that subject. In my case, I think my overzealousness often led me astray (and I get into this in my book), although I do believe that each experience serves as a lesson for us if we can manage to view it the right way.

I’ve found that as I’ve slowly matured, I’ve become less fanatical and obsessive, although I can still get pretty excited and enthusiastic about things. But I feel that I’ve become more balanced, so the tendency to throw all caution to the wind and just follow my instincts has definitely been tempered by some wisdom and spiritual intuition.

I wonder if this was true for Jobs…guess I’ll find out when I finish the book.

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Is my whole book going on this blog?

When I started this blog, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to share on it. At first I thought I would share excerpts from my book, and I have done that a few times. But I soon realized that I really didn’t need to share too many experiences from the book itself, because there were so many other experiences that I didn’t put into the book, for one reason or another.

First of all, I couldn’t write about everything that happened to me, even if everything was interesting (which is doubtful), because the book would simply be too long. We’re talking about numerous decades worth of stuff here…

Nevertheless, there have been some events that I knew I would enjoy sharing with my blog readers that I haven’t written about in the book. I’ve already posted several of them here.

I’m writing this just to make it clear that I’m not posting a serialized version of my book…I’m just writing what comes to mind each day. OK, now that I’ve bored you half to death, enjoy this video with Brass Tacks, “Native American Bop”:  🙂

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Target Practice

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve liked activities that involve hitting a target with accuracy. When we used to go to amusement parks, I’d ignore the rides and head for the target range.

My Pop had a 22 rifle that he used for target practice and he taught me and my sister how to use it. It was a lightweight gun, and fairly easy to handle. Pop used to write a soap opera for radio and he had saved the recordings of the episodes, called test pressings, to use as our targets. They were large red plastic records and he would nail one to a tree and let us have a go at it. This was one of the most fun things I ever did growing up, and I got to be pretty good at it, too.One time Pop’s friend Frank came to visit and brought a bigger gun than Pop’s 22. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, but Pop said it was too big and heavy and had a kickback. I swaggered around, insisting I could handle it until they finally gave in. Of course the minute I pulled the trigger I landed on my butt, much to Pop and Frank’s amusement and my embarrassment, but even that didn’t ruin my love of target practice.

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Anthropomorphism and stuffed animals

The other day a friend, Meg Dendler, posted on Facebook that she loves Betty White because Betty talks to her stuffed animals.

Well, this certainly resonated with me, because I not only talk to my teddy bear Joe, but also put him to bed every night with his own little blanket. I have posted a whole album of pictures of him on my Facebook profile. You see, Joe is my only remaining teddy bear, my last stuffed animal. He’s golden-colored, cuddly, and can sit up by himself.

I’ve had many stuffed animals throughout the years: Tommy the monkey (who was actually a little hard and stiff), Humpty-Dumpty (not exactly an animal, more like a flattened cloth egg), numerous stuffed rabbits in various colors, and best of all, Fred and Bill, the teddy bears I received as a gift when I was born. Fred was whitish and made of sheepskin (he was the first to rot many years later) and Bill was dark brown fake fur. I washed and brushed him so much that much of his hair eventually fell out.

My sister Bertie had a fabulous collection of stuffed animals and dolls. They filled up an entire bedroom and overflowed into her living room and office. Now that she’s not with us any more, I imagine most of the dolls, bears and other stuffed toys will go to charity, including a couple that I made myself when I was operating my teddy bear company in the 70s, Bears Primarily (named by my great pal Madora Kibbe).

But Joe is special. Bertie gave him to me on my birthday about a decade ago, and I’ve carried him around with me ever since. That is until I spent a year in the USA in 2007-2008 and left him with Bertie when I came back to Rio because I couldn’t squeeze him into my already jammed suitcase. Bertie nicely agreed to mail him to me. She carefully wrapped him in plastic bubble wrap, packed him into a shoe box, filled out the customs forms and sent him off.

I waited and waited. And waited. Months went by and there was no sign of Joe. What could have happened to him? Was he lost forever in the tangled web of the international mail service? I finally gave him up as lost, and tried to forget, hoping he’d somehow find his way into the arms of some deserving child.

But then one day a package arrived. I went downstairs to see what it was and the doorman handed me a crushed, but intact shoebox. It was Joe! I ripped off the tape and opened the lid…there he was, in perfect condition. I was so excited that I pulled him out of the box and introduced him to the doorman, who looked at me rather strangely. But I didn’t care, I was just happy to have Joe back.

When I got upstairs, I found out what had taken Joe so long to get home…somehow he’d ended up in Peru! I’m glad the Peruvian post office had the good sense to get him back on track and down to Rio where he belongs.

Here’s Joe’s very own Facebook album:

https://www.facebook.com/amy.duncan.50/media_set?set=a.1085571185348.15320.1408440133&type=3

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