Category Archives: Stories

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.

When I was six my parents arranged for the kids to meet a piano teacher. My sister was deemed to have talent, so she entered a program of piano lessons. The meeting must not have gone well for me. Afterward my father explained that I was musically impaired. His exact words were, “You couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” I had no reason to doubt him.

We were obliged to sing in my grade school, especially just before the holidays, when we performed a concert of Christmas carols. I dutifully performed, only I decided there was no reason to spoil the good singing of others, so I lip-synced the carols. Like Milli Vanilli, I got caught. That led to an epic showdown with my teacher, Miss Steele, the low point of my educational career.

While I couldn’t sing or play an instrument, I had ears. I thrilled to the popular music of my youth. I amassed a sizable record collection. In college I discovered classical music. Guys in my dorm introduced me to folk music. Occasionally I fantasized about making music, but mostly I accepted my fate as someone for whom that was impossible. Sometimes, to tell the truth, that seemed a blessing. I often woke up early in the morning to the sound of my sister plonking away on the piano when she would rather have been in bed, but piano practice was mandatory for her for years.

In the first week of graduate school I walked to the Scholar coffeehouse on the West Bank. The first act I caught—Koerner, Ray and Glover—amazed me. A day later I went back. The performer was a kid from Saint Cloud State who played 12-string guitar. The torrent of music coming from Leo Kottke’s guitar almost blew me off my stool. I’d never heard music remotely like that before, and it was one of the most thrilling events of my young life. I began hanging out at the Scholar, walking through blizzards if necessary in order to attend every gig Leo played.

It was inevitable: one day I bought a guitar, a classical model with nylon strings. At first I was delighted to be able to make any kind of music; just strumming a C chord made me giddy. I moved on to finger-picking, emulating my coffeehouse heroes. I grabbed every spare moment to practice. I took guitar lessons, starting with Carter family tunes and moving toward John Fahey compositions. Slowly, very slowly, I got better. I bought a steel-stringed folk guitar. Then—you knew this was coming—I got a 12-string. (I’d love to get back all the time I wasted trying to get that danged thing in tune.) And I practiced, practiced, practiced.

Alas, all those years when I did not sing or play an instrument had set limits on what I could accomplish as a musician. My brain and fingers could never coordinate well enough to enable me to master difficult material. I could do cheesy imitations of some Kotte or Fahey pieces, and that felt like a miracle. But I slurred many notes and muffed others. I had to cheat by simplifying the arrangements because my technique was so sloppy. After getting better month by month, I hit a wall I could not get past it. And I remained stuck there for years.

I finally realized the most graceful thing would be to accept my fate and simply enjoy the limited music I could make. While I was never going to play well, I was delighted to play at all. Then arthritis arrived, and I could no longer even play badly.

My performance career with the guitar now feels like some doomed romances from my past, romances that were fabulous in some ways but which failed. Sometimes things don’t work out, even if you passionately hope otherwise. I’m lucky to have those memories now and I’m sure I am a better listener than I could be before playing the guitar.


Do you sing or play an instrument? What has that meant to you?

Chance Meetings

We always seem to meet interesting people when we travel, and this trip is no exception. We arrived late in the evening into the Albuquerque airport and had to wait for our prearranged shuttle to take us to Santa Fe.  We waited with a fellow shuttle rider named Abdul. He was an Egyptian man, about 65 years old,  who had just arrived in Albuquerque from Alexandria via  Abu Dhabi and Los Angeles. He was very tall, well over 6 feet, and a professional chef who had worked for years in Santa Fe and was coming back to spend time in a cooperative community of scientists and artists outside of the town.  He gave us some sage advice on good restaurants to try, and which hyped ones to avoid.  He described preparing food as being just like composing and conducting music. We talked about how he manages his diabetes and how he loved teaching classes in Mediterranean cooking. I regret not being able to eat dishes he prepared.

Our second interesting meeting was with a man named Steven, a white man who owned a dusty shop chock full of indigenous art prints and native  ledger art.  He was in his late 60’s and was whittling bear root, an expectorant, to make into tea to help clear his chest from an attack of Spring allergies.  He and I had a serious talk on why the Kachina figure I have in our living room gives me nightmares (he said I had to change my way of living). His art prints were in huge stacks that would take hours to go through.  Husband plans to go back for more conversation and to look at more prints before we leave.

Tell about interesting people you have met on your travels.

Libraries – A Love Fest

Yesterday was the anniversary of the opening of the first free public library, the Peterborough Town Library in 1833. The decision to purchase books and open a tax-funded library happened at the Town meeting and for the first sixty years, the books were housed in the general store.  In 1893 they were moved to the current location and there have been two expansions since then.

Here are a few fun library quotes:

“Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”  Zadie Smith

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” Albert Einstein

“Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul.” Library at Thebes, inscription over the door

“My two favorite things in life are libraries and bicycles. They both move people forward without wasting anything. The perfect day: riding a bike to the library.” Peter Golkin

“I have always imaged that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Jorge Luis Borges

I’m a complete library junkie. One of the biggest selling points when I bought my house was that it was a block and a half from the Washburn Library.  On the average week I am there twice.  I know the hours by heart, am friendly with the librarians.  I even have my library card number memorized.  Twice I’ve had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the Central downtown library in the upstairs reading rooms – times when I wanted to read resource material that they don’t allow you to check-out.  It was warm and wonderful; so relaxing that I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave at the end of the day.

Tell me about your favorite library memory?


All in a Row

Photo Credit: Sadiq Nafee on Unsplash

I just finished the latest installment of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. I adore this series, so much so that I am often frustrated while I wait for Louise Penny to write the next one.  In fact, I didn’t rush out to read The Kingdom of the Blind when it was published because I knew I would have a wait for the next one.

At the library over my lunch hour, I found books on CDs by Preston and Douglas; they have four separate character series, but none of the ones that are next on my list were on the library shelf. I’ve read online that you can probably read Preston and Douglas out of order, but I can’t bring myself to do that. Gotta do them in order!

So now I have the next P&D on request from the library and came away from the CD shelves with some other items – a comedy memoir and a young adult fiction that has magic and dragons. Hopefully those will keep be going in the car until my next series arrives!

What’s your favorite series? Do you like to read them in order?

Cookie Time!

Suddenly Girl Scouts and their cookies are everywhere. In the last few days I’ve come across Girl Scouts selling their wares at Cub Foods, at the liquor store, at the hardware store and even in the lobby of my concert Friday night!

This is rough on me because I am a sucker for a kid selling stuff for their cause, even if it is something I wouldn’t normally spend a dime on. Fruit from Boy Scouts, discount booklets from the high school basketball team, wrapping paper, candy bars, cookies, holiday wreaths, pizza.

When YA was a Girl Scout, she was the top seller for her age group in the Minneapolis area. She was ruthless – hitting on folks from my office, folks at church, all my friends and family.  She even talked with relatives out of town, convincing them to donate cookies to Second Harvest.  These sales paid for her trip to Girl Scout Camp every summer.  She was also a top fund raiser in school for years.

I think about her selling cookies whenever I come across a troop with a table full of goodies. Not a good value, of course, but it’s easier if you just think of it as charitable, tax deductible and edible!

Have you ever had to sell anything? Any good at it?

Pi Day 2019!

It’s my personal holiday again today – Pi Day. Everyone at work knows that I’m off today to bake pies – even a couple of my long-term clients know.  I am allowed to use my “floating holiday” for Pi Day – my boss had it approved by management about 6 years ago.  I even have personalized napkins this year, given to me by a friend after last year’s celebration.

This year’s menu: Dutch Apple, Banofee, Root Beer Float Whoopies, Raspberry Tangerine, Pecan, Bob Andy, Blueberry, Almond Joy, Caramel Pear with Crème Fraiche, Key Lime Meringue and the addictive Crack Pie.

Hope to see those of you in the Twin Cities tonight!

What day would you like to be your floating holiday?

Waitlisted for Llamas

I do some funny things for my job. I have a program in Vail this June and one of the activities is Wilderness Hiking with Llamas.  I’ve never offered a llama activity before, although I have offered camel safaris more than once.

Turns out the llama activity is very popular and we filled up our available spots quickly, forcing me to contact the supplier to see if we could offer the llama hike on a second day or get more llamas. She was able to confirm more llamas, which meant that I had to contact the two couples who had wanted to do the hike after it sold out.  Who knew?

When explaining this all to the client yesterday I used the phrase “waitlisted for llamas”. Sounds a little like a grunge band, doesn’t it?  Waitlisted for Llamas.

What’s the name of your favorite band (or fantasy band…)?