Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sushi as Road Fare

Day 3 or 4. Sorry, I know this is all over the place

I'm here in Sara's house in Austin, TX, and I feel like I'm back at Oberlin, plugging away in the Robertson practice rooms. Upstairs trumpet blasts from Miki and Mr. Sasaki's rooms compete for dominance over the delicate strains of Sara's violin. She's splitting time between Stravinsky and Skaggs (Ricky, that is). I think if I wasn't myself occupying (kinda practicing in) the piano room Mrs. Sasaki would be at it as well. I half expect a tour of prospies to peer through the door as the tour guide brags about practice rooms and steinways and something called "internal climate control." It's a nice feeling, being enveloped in so much music, I always wondered what it would be like to grow in a house full of musicians. The overlapping strains are surprisingly comforting. Occasionally dissonant, mostly welcoming, like Austin itself.

I asked someone in the Houston airport yesterday where in Austin I could go to hear good live music on a week night. Apparently that question is akin to "where is there air" in Austin. The young man could only stare at me in disbelief, but my neighbor, who'd been listening, helpfully piped up: everywhere!

They were right.

We pulled all the stops--
(SIDE NOTE: Did you know the phrase "pulling all the stops" comes from pipe organs, because you have to pull the stops out to get the bigger pipes to resonate? Well now you do.)
--performing for Austin crowds. Because live music is such a regular part of their diet we had to bring every ounce of energy left over from travel to the stage. Getting such a cool (carefully avoiding the term jaded, oops I just said it) audience to clap, sing, and yell with us was a challenge, but Helena loves a challenge. By the end of our first show, she got the whole house on their feet, and even if they didn't sing or dance I like to think they were tapping the toes of their hearts.

The other challenge was choosing where to go on our night off. 6th street is lined with clubs and music. We would have spent weeks, and all the budget, partaking there if the itinerary let us. The Sasakis sent us on our way with hugs, best wishes, and homemade vegetarian (thank you!) sushi complete with chopsticks (Mrs. Sasaki, like Sara, thinks of everything).

-States: 4
-Hours in the car: 17
-Trucks who honked at us: 13
-Number of times we heard Lady Gaga on the radio: TOO MANY
-"260: How many miles Helena drove while y'all bitches were sleeping" (Helena told me to include that)
I'm gettin tired. Maybe more about Austin to come? Is anybody reading this?

The thing about Leezard

(Day Question Mark. When we drove from Dallas to Nashville.)

Helena had the cruise control set high as we flew through the barren purple landscape that is Fate, Texas at six AM.

Somewhere in that line there is a metaphor. I can't decide what it means that we had the cruise control on while driving through Fate. Was she meant to set the cruise control, or did she choose it? Cruise control isn't that hard to get out of either, you just have to tap the break right? That's got to mean something. Does the fact that is was beautiful change anything? What about the cruise control being on 80 or so? Fate zipped by, for sure. Somewhere in there I'm sure there's a lesson about destiny, love, and long journeys, something deep and central. Right?

Hell if I know, I'm just the bass player. Today we saw the sunrise in Texas and the sunset in Tennessee. From the soreness in my abs I'm guessing we spent most of the time between laughing. That and belting out bad pop music with whatever radio stations we could pick up along the way. I would be snobby about the music, except that all three of us knew most of the words. The wonderfully awful "shorty's like a melody in my head that I can't get out" is a melody in my head that I can't get out, right now as I write this. About two cups of coffee and three bawdy jokes into the drive we remembered what we forgot: the ipod adapter. It could have been worse, we could have forgotten Sara's bag of shoes.

Dallas was one of my favorite stops on the tour, mostly because of Mama T. I now know where Helena gets her nurturing side, as well as her prowess in the kitchen. The Thompsons not only warmly welcomed seven hungry (and slightly smelly from the road) college students, all their instruments and nightly jam sessions, and the impressive amount of luggage we spread through every room, into her house; Patricia Thompson also cooked us some of the most delicious southern food I've ever had the pleasure of eating. I am hungry again just thinking about her grits and biscuits. Then there was the high school teen-movie-like sleepover that took place on her floor. From the amount of giggling, inside jokes, and bro love that went on in that room after midnight, you'd swear we were all high in the sky on something illegal. We were just high on Carlos' wonderful/terrible puns really. And Helena's innuendos. And Danny's resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson. And Alex's leezard boots (he's got "good taste, for a yankee" apparently).

From sleeping in that room I learned that:
-One of the gentlemen on our tour, who shall go unnamed, talks in his sleep, occasionally has nightmares about a giant evil butterfly named Mama Coochin, and will never live it down.
-Phantom tickling becomes much more effective after 3 am.
-Helena is the only one of us who isn't ticklish. She is also one of the most merciless ticklers. I believe this is unfair.
-I would rather sleep on Mama T's living room floor with these dorks than in any luxury suite in the world.
I'll let you in on a secret: I'm writing this from my Dad's upstairs office in Kentucky, ten days after I'm pretending to write it, and two days after my girls left. I wouldn't tell you that, except I wanted to tell you this: the rain is hitting the skylight and I'm listening to 'skip, hop, and wobble' and except for the fact that this cupcake is stale and I'm kinda lonely, things are pretty great. This is the first time I've really heard skip hop wobble all the way through, and I like it a lot. Hymn of ordinary motion is pretty glorious. Just to let you know.

Riley misses you.

It's Friday afternoon in Kentucky, and I have the stereo turned up full blast to drown out the silence. The house is dull and lifeless now that Helena and Sara have gone back to Texas. My dog, Riley, and I are in perfect agreement on how to feel about this newly empty house. He wandered around all morning sniffing hopefully for his playmates. Eventually he gave up and lumbered over to lay his snout in my lap, with a disgruntled doggy sigh. I can only scratch his ears in agreement. I miss the soft soulful blues of Alex's Martin in the morning, the stomp of Sara's red pumps as she whips off another fiddle tune, the full bodied laughter and shuffle of dancing feet in the kitchen. The house seems to sag on itself with the sudden removal of Helena's strong presence. The only signs that six extra warm bodies recently filled this house are the guitar picks on the piano, and the Blue Moon in the fridge. Well, that and Helena's hair that I just cleaned out of the sink.

I just realized that I sound like a teenager that's just been dumped. I can't help it though, I miss them! It gets even more pathetic; I've been walking around with Helena's pick in my pocket all day. Every now and then I pull it out and rub it absent mindedly. It's worn away at the point from hard strumming, and you can't really read the inscription any more.

Ok, emo fest is over.

So everybody is gone and the question remains: what the hell do I do with the rest of my month?
What the ---- I will do with the rest of my month:
-make lists
-call Sara and Helena on the road, reminisce about tour, sing Cowboy Take Me Away on phone
-drink last Blue Moon at exactly 7:00 pm EST, while they drink other two I put in car kit
-test new recipes
-transcribe bass/banjo and bass/mando duets.
-listen to great records
-get paint on my clothes (and maybe on some canvases too)
-go: to shows, dancing, to my grandma's house to see her orchid which is blooming
-pick and grin
-turn 21. flirt with bartenders. order a white Russian in a bad fake accent while wearing Daniel's faux fur hat.
-reacquaint self with real world. (Hello real world. You suck.)
-wear Sara's cardigan over the clingy clubbing shirt I usually can't wear in public. Miss my Belles some more.

Note: if you are in Louisville, and these sound like things you would like to participate in, you should call me.

The Right Amount of Give: Meditations on Gluten

I have a very dear pet that I've never told you about. This pet can almost always make me feel better. It goes to school with me in the fall, and comes back to Kentucky in summer. Unlike Riley, it smells great. Also unlike Riley, it only needs to be fed once a week, though it grows faster than any puppy or little boy.

I am talking, of course, about my sourdough starter.

(WARNING: This post may contain snobby bread jargon. Readers cautioned.)

I first attempted sourdough bread because Eugene, who is from San Francisco, needed a little bit of home to come to him. I read everything I could about yeast and flour and the ideal conditions (not a dorm room, turns out) before I was brave enough to take that First Step.

The first step to making sourdough is very complicated:
1.) put some flour in a jar
2.) add some warm water
3.) let sit.

Even that proved a challenge. I had to throw out four trials because they started to mold and stink. The putrid smell of my first failed attempts filled my tiny dorm room and made it hard to hide the surprise from Eugene. ("Hmm, not sure what that smell is, guess I need to do laundry today..." "Why don't we meet at your room?") Finally, I found success with White Lily bread flour, patience, and luck. It was like that country song about how every failed relationship that broke his heart lead to finding the perfect woman, do you know that song? That's how I felt about my starter. When I finally had a one that grew, smelled right, and wasn't green, I felt such an intense satisfaction that the I was completely hooked on the project. This was MY starter, and damnit I was gonna keep it and feed it, and we would make beautiful warm loaves together and live happily ever after.

(Later Eugene would offer to keep the starter in his fridge, as I was moving to a co-op. I politely declined. Or I might have said "hell no.")

Today I need to make some bread. I've already taken my starter out of the fridge and given it with some extra food. It is happily puffing and bubbling into a springy spongy batter. I carefully set aside a bit of this sponge to go back in its jar for later. To the rest: flour flour flour (and some Other Stuff). I work it in the only way that is satisfying, with my hands. When it can ball up without being too sticky, it's time for my favorite part: kneading the ---- out of it. The way I see it, if at the end of this process there is not flour all over myself and this table, I have failed.

I don't appreciate failure.

My favorite kneading technique is the half turn palm push. I like it because I can put all of my body weight, all my frustrations and frazzled energy, directly into the dough, and still keep it balled up completely under my hands. Sometimes the dough pops, which is pretty satisfying. I know this loaf is going to fluffy and soft.

F--- these things which I am frustrated with, which I will now transfer to this innocent loaf:
-the rigidity of con requirements (I had a better phrase for that, instead I pound my phrase into the dough. Take that! The table hits the wall with a thunk)
-uninspired job-track orchestra players
-all the math I have to learn next semester
-complicated relationships
-job resumes and recommendations
-going through the motions

This dough did not stand a chance. I roll my palm forward decisively. I slam the dough down with confidence. I punch it down again with a brash whoop of triumph. With assurance and bravado I sling flour across the table and roll pound chop until the dough is soft and pliable with just the right amount of give. My fingers know when the dough is done before I do. There's a moment, as you're working the dough, when the consistency changes from tough and resistant to perfectly pliant and cooperative. I pinch a piece and demonstrate yet another therapeutic thing about bread making: the predictability. I know that if I stretch this piece of dough out thin enough to see light through it, and it doesn't break, it is ready to rise. Every time. It stretches-it's ready. Professor Darling says its got something to do with stretching chains of gluten molecules, something like that. I like to think that if you just massage the dough long enough it is coaxed into stretchy supple submission.

There are a few things that could make this more perfect, of course. For one, Danny Kaye could be alive in my kitchen, wearing Grammy's green apron and doing impressions of my least favorite professors. While I'm dreaming, Chris Thile can come over and put those nimble fingers to good use kneading the knots out of my shoulders, crooning mountain ballads in my ears.

Almost perfect.


So guess who forgot that there was dough rising, and let it quadruple in size? Guess who was looking for things to do three hours ago (coincidentally exactly when the bread should have gone in the oven) and now would like nothing better than to sleep? Guess who shot up in bed and dashed to the kitchen in horror?

Yeah, that would be me.


So I forgot about the bread. I think I just wanted to knead it anyways, I'm not really hungry. Still, if I kneaded it I want to bake it, damnit! I'm going to try anyways. This could have several consequences:
-I do not get enough sleep tonight.
-The bread is too sour OR
-the bread takes on a new concentrated sour flavor unlike any loaf I've ever made, and this becomes my new recipe. (hopefully this one)
-Mama stumbles into the kitchen for water, sees me still awake, and makes fun of me for forgetting the bread.
-I fall asleep at the kitchen table and burn the house down.

I'm trying to avoid that last one by writing to you.

it is ready. I knocked on the bottom: perfectly hollow. Pressed on the crust: perfectly firm, bubbly yet smooth (it will be chewy). I can tell, the way it popped open and spread out like a lily that it's going to be soft and fluffy inside. It smells like heaven. I wish I could share it with you. No one is even awake to appreciate it right now.

Why am I still awake?

Simple Pleasures:
-Billy Joel's 'The Stranger' on vinyl
-black coffee
-blooming orchids
-bread making

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

And they're off!

DAY ONE: Airports, Minivans, and Texans, Oh my!

Every time I fly I think about how similar taking off in an airplane is to a great first kiss. First off, it seems like you have to wait forever for it to finally happen. When you start to move you become hyper aware of every nerve in your body. You gather momentum, close your eyes, and no matter how long you've been thinking about it the moment of lift off still takes you by surprise. All the sudden your stomach floats up and you're weightless. You might chance a peek out the little side window and see the world you knew falling away. If you're flying at night, like I was just a few hours ago, you can see the cars and buildings become little pinpricks of light sparkling out of the black as you soar higher. Then when if feels like you'll just float away forever or pop like a bubble, you're back in your body. You're bones flow into the seat and you release the breath you didn't realize you were holding. Finally you settle in, and you're coasting thousands of miles above "g'mornin" and "y'all come back now, y'hear!" You're flying towards someplace new and exciting, maybe a little bit scary, and it's fantastic! Takeoffs are often my favorite part of the journey.

For me, landing is much less like kissing and much more like concentrating on not throwing up on the large man next to me as a baby squeals two rows up because she doesn't like the pressure change. Two bumps and a lurch later I'm grounded, and a soft tired sounding voice crackles on to the intercom. "Welcome to Houston."

Honestly, considering the bumpy landing I just had I'm not too upset that my flight from Houston to Austin is delayed another hour. Now I have time to write to you, and to calm the coffee-salad slush churning in my stomach. It's 9:37 (10:37 where you are, and 7:37 for you), and I am on my way to Adventure, my first ever tour! The Black River Belles take on the southeast this January: Austin, Dallas, Nashville, Columbia, and Louisville. We've decided the tour motto is "kickin ass, takin names." (I kinda thought it should be "love, booze, and other important things" but that didn't have the same ring to it. "Tour" makes this sound a lot more professional than what I think the reality is going to be. Our "bus" is an old minivan, (decorated with window art by yours truly), out hotel the couches, floors, and recliners or our generous friends (and in a pinch the floor of the minivan). We do have roadies though, or at least we have some friends crazy enough to road trip across the country with us. That would be Rue, Danny, Carlos, and Alex.

Oh, I haven't introduced the band! Ok, I'm going to say it just the way Helena always does on stage:
"Allright well, for y'all that weren't here before, we are the Black River Belles, and we're gonna play some music you you tonight (sometimes she says "songs about love, murder, and whiskey" or just "porch songs"). Over here to my right we've got the illustrious Ms. Sara Sasaki on fiddle, from Austin, Texas. Well, clap! (people clap. You can't not listen to Helena). Good. And holding up the low end, Miss Erin Lobb from Louisville Kentucky. (She usually draws out the Lou in Louisville and asks me if she said it right. She never does, but I tell her she did anyway). I'm Helena Thompson, and I hope y'all have as much fun as we're about to. This next one is about murder with a whiskey bottle/spooning/working on a railroad/love in the kitchen."

If my plane ever takes off I will get to see Sara soon. I anticipate an inappropriate amount of giggling and hugging, and I can't wait. What Helena didn't tell you about Sara is that in addition to being a kickass fiddle player, she is also a prolific organizer. She makes the calls, the deals, and the exacting itinerary, and if necessary she makes the Face (the no-nonsense, this is what we agreed to and that's how it's gonna be Face). She is 5 people concentrated into a 5' person (5'1 she'll be quick to tell you. She describes herself as "fun size"). Her knack for details is as exacting as her ear for pitch (she was born with perfect pitch), and though she swears she owns six pairs of jeans, I can't recall ever seeing her in anything but brilliantly colored minidresses.

Flight 1533, that's me! We're boarding now, hopefully they put me next to someone interesting. See you in Austin.

Spell check thinks "kickass" is not a word. This is incorrect.

Monday, January 18, 2010

An Organizing Mood

It is a mark of how many cities, couches, and air mattresses I've graced in the last two weeks that as I rose out of sleep this morning I literally had no idea where I was. Without opening my eyes, I took account of my surroundings. I wasn't sinking into a partially inflated air mattress or smelling Mama Ts heavenly southern cooking, and no one was mumbling about giant butterflies, so not Dallas. I didn't hear anyone practicing-no trumpet arpeggios or Bach sonata's from down the hall, so not Sara's house in Austin. I felt like I was in a bed, but Helena's leg wasn't slung over me, in fact I couldn't feel any person-sized warmth on either side, so probably not Nashville. By the time I had run through all the possible permutations of beds and cities, I was awake enough to force my eyelids apart. I was greeted by the bright turquoise walls of my own room in Louisville. Daisyduck, bright yellow with her pink flower hat, stared back at me from approximately where I had expected the person shaped warmth to emanate from. I smiled at her, and at the walls, and the plants on the window sill that my mom has been keeping alive, and for that matter I smiled at my mom, even though if the sun slanting through my windows was any indication she had gone to work hours ago. I was home.

It's been two weeks and five cities since Sara, Helena, and I started on this mad adventure. In all the ways that I'm measuring, the Black River Belles first tour has been a resounding success. No, we haven't made a lot (any?) of money, BUT we've gotten 13 semi trucks to honk at us, Sara has worn all but one of her 23 of her dresses once, we have started a jam session in every city we've visited, we sweet talked our way into the best bluegrass show I've ever seen in my life, Helena has shocked at least 150 people, and the whale joke has been told 7 times. Oh, and we painted a flaming fiddle, crossed bass and guitar necks, a cowgirl in polka dots, and the tour motto (kickin' a**, takin' names) on the old minivan. That sounds like victory to me.

"I was in an organizing mood" says Sara, about how we decided to spend the month of January road tripping and performing across the Southeastern United States. Her "organizing mood" got us gigs in Austin, TX, Dallas, TX, Nashville, TN, Columbia, TN, and my hometown Louisville, KY (and an itinerary that includes details such as "get dressed"). As Helena would say "thank the baby Lord Jeezus!" for Sara's organizing moods. I've had the time of my life, making music, jokes, and "dank" food with some of my favorite people in the whole world.

I haven't had my computer, so I haven't been able to update you in real time. I kept an old fashioned pen and paper journal though, so I'm gonna type up some of those entries here in the next couple days. Pretend like we're time traveling.

Also: I miss you.