Monday, February 21, 2011

Waking Up the Guitarist, part one: Stopping and Starting

I learned to play the guitar when I was twelve. Through junior high, high school, and college, I lived with the guitar on my lap. It was an intrinsic part of my identity.

After I graduated from college, I stopped playing.

I didn’t play again for twenty years.

And then, five years ago, I quite suddenly started again. Why did I stop? Why did I start again? I’ve been trying to figure this out. I think there are a couple of reasons.


When I was in school, my playing had a social context. Friends regularly gathered to sing with me, poring through my hand-printed songbooks to find the songs they wanted. Playing and singing were gifts I was able to give to my friends.

I made friends through the guitar. My three short romances happened through the guitar.

After college, the social patterns of my life changed. Music remained important, and I always sang one way or another: Balkan songs, Christmas carols, political rally songs, rounds, lesbian chorus. But I didn’t have a group of friends who wanted to gather around and sing. My guitar wasn’t needed.

So what happened the year I started again?

At the yearly retreats on the coast where the members of my chorus get together to choose our music, we would sing together in the evenings. I hadn’t experienced that kind of informal singing in a long time. And our director, with her guitar and ability to pull out chords for any song we started, made it work.

Subconsciously, I started to feel as if my guitar playing could be useful again. I got out the old yard-sale guitar that had been under the bed for twenty years, and started to mess around on it a little bit. It was hard-I felt as if I'd lost all that I'd known.

Then I made a new friend who played the guitar. A wonderful friend with whom I felt an immediate deep connection. She came over to practice the song she was accompanying for our chorus. She played so marvelously. I told her I was just picking mine up again, and she said, “Well go get it!” And we played. Together. And her joyful encouragement made me feel as if I could actually play again.

I had played for group singalongs. But I hadn’t played with other guitarists since those junior-high campouts. And blending the sounds of two guitars and two voices, working on a song until it sounded good? That was a whole new level of connection.


My guitar stayed out in the living room.

A soundtrack

In high school and college, my friends and I had a whole repertoire of songs in common. We listened to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, John Denver, America… Their songs were the soundtrack to our lives.

Every romantic feeling, every intense adolescent emotion, every important event had a song to go with it. Chelsea Morning by Joni Mitchell for joy on a sunny day. Down by the River by Neil Young for rage. All I Want by Joni Mitchell for the boy I thought I wanted, but couldn’t have.

Note that many of these songs I had never heard sung by the original artists. I learned them from friends. I had fun today finding Youtube links for them!

I remember a college friend, as she processed her grief about her boyfriend’s death, coming to my room every day and asking me to play Sad Lisa by Cat Stevens. She needed that song.

I remember a high school dorm room full of fifteen quiet contemplative friends, anticipating graduation and getting ready to say goodbye. They asked me to play Changes by Phil Ochs. They needed that song.

But after college, the songs that had wallpapered my adolescence didn’t seem so relevant. I loved many songs, but maybe I needed some distance from the adolescent emotion. Or maybe I didn’t need a soundtrack any more. And I didn’t have people who needed me to provide it for them.

So what happened five years ago?

I turned forty-seven.

With my chorus friends at the coast, I found myself digging up those old Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens songs. This many years away, it was wonderful to find those words and tunes coming so smoothly from inside me.

New songs

Back in my early guitar-playing years, lyrics and chords were precious and rare. We borrowed each other’s handwritten songbooks, passing on chords to Beatles songs like coded messages. Without much money, published songbooks, recordings, and concerts were mostly out of reach. I learned songs from other singers.

I remember finding out that a guitar-playing acquaintance at college was about to leave for a year off, running to his dorm room with my guitar and saying, “You have to teach me Angel from Montgomery! Right now, before you leave!” He graciously put down his bags (literally) and showed me the chords.

And some songs I yearned for remained out of my reach.

When I started playing again, I discovered that the internet had been founded! Suddenly, a whole world of songs was there at my fingertips.

I could hear a song on the radio, look up the station to find the artist, watch it on Youtube, and find the lyrics, chords, and tabs! The feeling of abundance was incredible.

I started by looking up the songs I used to play that I couldn’t quite remember. Then I looked for the songs I had loved but never thought I could play. Melissa by the Allmann Brothers. Horse With No Name by America. Pleasant Valley Sunday!

Then I started listening: to CDs, to the radio, to other singers. I started finding songs that spoke to me—and singing them. The Indigo Girls, Dave Carter, Girlyman. No soundtrack will ever be as intense as that adolescent one, but my life is richer now.

So very much richer.

What it was like to learn to play again after twenty years? That will be another post.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Jewel Gathering

This is the eighth post in the Digging for Treasure series. The others are at the bottom of this post. Whoo-hoo!

You’ve dug up some treasure, and you’ve sorted it out. You have some buckets—some categories to contain your stories, details, and information.

  • Specific issues for solo female travelers in different countries.
  • The elements of design.
  • Emotional blocks to creativity and how to address them.
  • Curriculum areas for homeschooling.
  • Important things to keep in mind while planning a garden, like crop rotation, climate, and pest control.
  • The steps in the process of building a bureau.

Congratulations! You’re getting much closer to a real presentation of your topic. Now that you have a rough structure, your next job is to fill it in with all of the things your learners will need. These are your jewels, the objects of a second digging process.

What do learners need?
  • Learners need stories. I told you I was going to harp on this! In each category, you should have some little narratives. Real-life examples of the points you want to make. Memories. The time you didn’t leave enough room for the winter squash and it took over the whole garden. The great homeschooling project you did about the labor movement and the unexpected way your child reacted to it.
  • Learners need specific information about concepts or skills. Don’t just tell them to think about how color will complement their composition. Give them questions to ask themselves about how color fits in their design, or a system for trying different colors. 
  • Learners need demonstrations or physical/visual examples. You can explain the concept of negative space in a whole lecture, or you can show a white image with the negative space around it colored red. If you’re teaching live or on video, you can gather your participants around and demonstrate the best way to shape your dovetail joints.
  • Learners need ways to actively engage. We’ll talk about this more in the section on Activity Planning, but start thinking now about ways to make your presentation active. Have homeschooling parents design a curriculum project together. Ask readers of a book on creativity to write about a time when their creativity was flowing freely.
  • Learners need things named. A name is a hook, a way to remember your concept. It also helps people to think more clearly about the thing named. The names I gave types of topics in a text have enabled people to talk about indexing in completely new ways, and have become my contribution to the indexing field. Names can be playful (as in the sections of my Digging for Treasure program) or serious, depending on your audience.
  • Learners need to know why they’re doing something. Cover your head when entering a Catholic church--because even if you’re not a believer, following the custom is a sign of respect. Place a photo of a person facing into the center of the page—because the otherwise the viewer’s eyes will follow the photo gaze right off the edge.
Gathering the Jewels

So, you’re going back to look for all of these things and make sure all of your buckets are nice and full. Here’s a way to organize yourself so that you find and keep track of what you need.
  • Make a gathering place for each category. This needs to be expandable and organizable. I strongly recommend that you use a computer file (word processor or mindmap), but folders and binders are also possible.
  • Notice where you need more information or details. Make a system for flagging places that still need something. I use square brackets in Word (easily searched) and bright red branch notes in Mindgenius (easily spotted). This will become more important as your structure gets more complete.
  • It might help to make a list of your target jewels. I’m looking for: an early sketch that I ended up discarding. An example of a good math game. Something funny about Italy.
  • Go back to thinking, observing, remembering about your subject. You’ll be looking more actively for specific things than the first time around.
  • Think about where to find the details you need. Do you need to start a new project on purpose so that you can observe its early stages? Can you excavate your past by reading old notes or journal entries? Do you want to add ideas from other people?
  • Gather your jewels in any kind of basket that works for you. What worked best during your first digging? Sticky notes? A digital recorder? A little notebook?
  • As you record each detail, label it with a category.
  • Periodically dump your jewels into your gathering place. Put each one in the category where it goes. Watch your structure get fuller and richer!

As you do this second digging, your awareness will expand. Connections, stories, feelings, and ideas will cascade through your mind. Collect them all!

Next step: Map Design! How will you lead your learners through your material?

Previous posts about the Digging for Treasure process:

Digging for Treasure: My First Dig
Digging for Treasure: At School 
Knowing Without Knowing 
The Survey: Discovering Your Deep Knowledge
The First Digging: Observation 
Into the Baskets!  
Sorting Your Treasure

Photo credits: Buckets by i_yudai (Flicker Creative Commons)

Jewelry Box, Before by Dennis and Amiee Jonez (Flicker Creative Commons)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Campfire Method: How I Learned to Play Guitar

The Campfire Method: How I Learned the Guitar

By the time I was twelve, I had spent a lot of time camping with the Girl Scouts. Two weeks every summer and a few weekends each school year with my troop in the lodge were so packed with memories that they seem in retrospect to be a big chunk of my childhood.

There was always singing. Singing while we washed dishes, while we hiked, before and after meals in the lodge, and most of all around the campfire every single night. Friendships, dramas, adventures, and accidents all happened to a multiple soundtrack that I helped to make.

And by the time I was twelve, there were always several older girls who played the guitar. Oh my gosh. The epitome of confidence, usefulness, expression, cool.

Can I learn?

And one day at a troop campout, I asked one of them to teach me. As I remember it, it was totally spontaneous. I didn’t build up to it, I didn’t rehearse. I just suddenly said, “Hey, can I learn how to do that?”

She sat me down, plunked her guitar in my lap, and showed me two chords. They were D and A. She made chord diagrams for them (chord diagrams!) so I would remember them. She taught me, very patiently, how to strum a simple pattern: Down, down-up down, down-up down, down-up down. And she taught me one song. Yes, there are songs that only use two chords. Here’s how it goes:

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and (long pause for chord change) cry,

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you’re bound to (another long pause for chord change) die.

I could play an actual song!!! I went home, borrowed my mom’s guitar (and kept it for ten years, bless her) and played that song continuously for…I don’t know, a long time. My mom remembers. Apparently, I barely stopped to eat, and she got heartily sick of Tom Dooley.

Over and over and over

By playing that song over and over and over and over and over I learned a bunch of things. I learned my two chords, how to find them with my fingers faster and faster. I learned to strum my down-up down pattern. I learned to change chords in rhythm with the strum. (It was a great day when I didn’t have to have those two big pauses in the middle of Tom Dooley!) I learned to open my mouth and have words and tune come out while I was strumming and changing chords.

I learned a lot.


And then I started to gather. First I gathered more chords. “Will you show me another chord?” I learned G next, the easy version that just uses one finger. And suddenly there were a lot of songs to play.

Where do you get songs? I knew a lot of them to sing. But…I needed the chords. And where do you get chords? From other people’s songbooks!

Every Girl Scout guitarist I knew had a hand-printed songbook, a precious collection of all the songs she could play. So you borrow someone’s songbook (eventually, when yours has anything in it, you trade) and stay up all night copying. That’s what I did.

And then I’d play and play and play my new songs.

At the campfire

And then…I felt confident enough to play with other people. At the campfire. Here’s what you did.

You positioned yourself carefully so you could see the person with the clearest hands.

You learned really quickly how to read chords backwards—because you were almost always across the campfire from your model.

And when everybody started singing “They Call the Wind Maria,” you focused like a laser on that girl’s hands, following the chords as much as you could. You fumbled, you skipped those three chords that change really fast and landed triumphantly on the C you knew. The A minor appeared—you’d never seen it before, but you got your fingers in the right place. And you marvelled at the sound coming out of your guitar.

You felt the strumming in your belly, as if you were playing all of the five guitars around the fire.

And the next morning, you accosted the girl and borrowed her songbook. And copied down “They Call the Wind Maria.”


I recopied my songbooks in high school, so I don’t have that twelve-year-old printing. But here are some of the first songs I learned on the guitar:

Tom Dooley
The Banks of the Ohio
They Call the Wind Maria
Blowing in the Wind
If I Had a Hammer
The Flicker of the Campfire

Reading those titles takes me right back—to the glowing coals, the glossy wood of the guitars, the hands picking and strumming and fretting, the faces singing with me.

And here is the poem I wrote for a class assignment in high school, based on William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends

a clean brown

humming against
my belly

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Inside an Indexer's Brain: Pilgrimage to a Structure

I’m making an index for a fascinating book about three different shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico and the United States. Ethnography, sacred space, co-performative witnessing. Wow.

This is an organically organized scholarly book, very well-written. But not in any way easy to index. The author writes in stories and geography, visiting the sites she is studying and showing us the people who interact with them. All I can do as I start the index is to follow her.


The Virgin of Guadalupe originated in a vision in 1511 on a hill called Tepeyac in what is now Mexico City. The hill has since been transformed in various ways, and since the text is focused on sacred space, these buildings and spaces are important. In the introduction, I followed the author and indexed “Tepeyac” for the discussion of the Aztec empire and the origins of the cult.

So here I am in the middle of chapter one, and the author has gone back to the colonial period. Of course, the Virgin of Guadalupe is the metatopic of the book, so I can’t index everything under her, and she’ll be implied in all of my other headings. So I index “colonial period” for this section, along with the names of the churches that were built in the area during this time.

Then I find postindependence church-state relations, and futz a bit deciding where to put that (Catholic Church? Mexico? Its own heading? All three?). I postpone that decision because I’m not sure how much this will come up later in the text. Lots of notes to myself right in the index.

So far I feel as if I understand the text, but I’m not quite happy with my index entries. They feel pretty random. However, I forge on, reminding myself that my own book tells me to be patient at this stage. Forging on.


The next section is about religious tourism in the twentieth century. Now they’re building the Plaza de las Americas and the Modern Basilica. John F. Kennedy visits. Oh, now they’re building a shrine modeled on this one outside of Chicago. The Mexico City one has strong ties with the Chicago shrine. Okay…lots more names to index…

And I suddenly realize what my uneasiness was about. All of the sections about the Mexico City shrine, even though it has gone through multiple transformations and names, need to be together in a main heading. I didn’t land on that right away because the author doesn’t consistently use one phrase (at least not so far).

Whew. I feel so relieved. Everything is shifting around.

What to call it?

I still don’t know what to call it.

And actually, I don’t need to decide right now. Such an important concept, for all kinds of writing, not just indexing. Get the idea down in whatever words appear. Go back later and find the exact perfect right wording.

Sometimes the heading I first write down can sound pretty silly. I was indexing a textbook on multimedia, and every chapter had a section talking about how to tell if that kind of project is good. I wanted to gather all of those discussions in one place, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out anything to all it except “Is it good.” Yes, really. I indexed the whole book, blithely adding pages to my “Is it good” heading. I finally decided to call it “Quality hallmarks” at the very end.

Okay, I resolve to ask the author what the best all-encompassing phrase for this shrine area should be. Meanwhile, I just call it “Mexico City Guadalupe shrine.” Not too silly this time.


And suddenly indexing this chapter has become much easier. This is a complex book. My growing index is littered with notes to myself, including lots saying “reword!”. I will probably go through this same process multiple times before I’m done. But I’m on my way. The peregrinos in the book are following their pilgrimage paths to the Virgin of Guadalupe. I feel like I’m on a pilgrimage to the structure of this book.