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Day 21: Walking Pneumonia, Little Blues

So after seven sick days, three doctor visits, a clear X-ray, a weirdly energetic weekend and a performance at the MLK, Jr Children’s Celebration, the boy showed up at Couchland Tuesday morning insisting he was too sick and tired to go to school. Of course I doubted, but just for yuks, I took his temp with our almost useless digital thermometer. For the first time in its annoying career, the thing started beeping wildly and turned red! FEVER! Tom took boy to NAP where pneumonia was finally heard via stethoscope. Now he’s on antibiotics and a strict indoor policy, which is killing him in this snowstorm.

His ongoing illness has also been the catalyst for a gigantic room-swapping venture here at Big Yellow. His room is freezing, for some reason, and so he is moving to his sister’s too-hot room. She is moving to my attic studio. I am sadly parting with my treadmill so as to make room for my piano and giant desk. The whole house is in flux, and we have to get it in some mode of order by Friday morning when 4 Guys and a Truck come to move all the beds.

I have been waking up in the middle of the night for two reasons. The first is my back, which, after a weekend of writing songs and performing Civil Rights music, is furious at me. The pain rouses me at 3am, and then my thoughts kick in about the terrible mistake I am making in my backyard. The bones of Little Blue are practically set, and what I learned after a weekend with 10 writers is that we are going to be crammed in the new space. Not only that, I watched glumly from my bedroom window as the sun moved across the southern sky, hitting the new house only on its west side. Where there are, currently, no windows planned.

What was I thinking? I needed a bigger house! But I couldn’t have a bigger house because we are currently zoned for single occupancy, and that means a guest house maxes out at 900 square feet. BUT. The zoning will likely change in the next few years. I could have waited. Waiting is not my favorite thing to do.

Change is really hard. My son has been home, puttering around, arranging and rearranging his baseball cards. I have been writing songs, tidying up, making him grilled cheese sandwiches and hot lemon honey tea. He and Hudson snuggle all day. I presented him with his returned homework and a note from the teacher saying, “What is asked for is an essay, not just one sentence,” he broke down and sobbed. “School is stupid!” he wailed. “And boring!” I looked over his geometry problems and, when I realized that real math was involved, and not just the common sense I could previously rely on, I too was discouraged. Homework takes time. It takes slowing down; letting all the sand settle to the bottom of the glass of pond water. I sat with him tonight and we slowly read through the story whose problems were carefully concealed on first glance. But as we unpacked it together, he picked up steam and started scribbling. I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to my tidying.

The tidying is constant and never ending. I have this idea that if only we had 80% less stuff, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time cleaning. While that might be true, there would still be the dishwasher, which I also cleaned today. A dirty dishwater is one of the most disgusting things on the planet. I approached it with rags, organic cleaners and a toothbrush. Now, it glistens.

Today over dinner, we wrote down what our superpowers would be, if we could have any. Lila’s were invisibility, flying, and talking to animals. Tom’s were walking on his hands, living with bears, and riding a unicycle. Johnny’s was moving things with his mind, speed and breathing under water. Mine were never being jealous, healing all illnesses and diseases, infinite patience and being able to explain anything to anyone to the point of conviction. My family accused me of trying to be a perfect saint, so I added having hugely long eyelashes and the kind of beauty that makes everyone do whatever you want.

I ordered those magnetic eyelashes. They arrived, and after struggling for about twenty minutes, I manage to get them on. They looked like bad fake eyelashes, and I did not look like the kind of beauty who could make everyone do whatever I wanted.  Rats.

When and if the zoning changes, we can add a bedroom to the second floor of Little Blue, and we can turn the screened porch into a glassed-in room with heating. The dining table can go in the glassed in porch. The Great Room will be all Couchland.

I found this crazy window in my old barn. It reminds me of the Hollywood Squares. I want to use it somehow in Little Blue. Or maybe behind my own bed.


And I persevered on my architect and our builder to add three more skylights to the western roof of the barn, right where the sun hits it as it moves into later afternoon. There is no room–yet–in the attic space where this skylight will be. But someday there will be. I see now how things change.

Day 20: Son is Better and I Wrote a Song!

Amy Cronin diCaprio, plus Hudson

Last day of retreat. I hate when retreats end. I want more time to write, and to listen to these amazing people who somehow find my house and the circle where we share our nascent pieces. I put myself in songwriting jail yesterday afternoon and eked out something that made me and Katryna cry, which is always a good sign. (You know, the good kind of crying, not the kind of crying that comes from despair that Songwriter will ever write anything decent again.) So I have the Bicycle song, plus something on the Hudson song. I need to plunge into this morass every day. It’s not hard work, as Phillip Roth says. Coal mining is hard work. But writing is a nightmare. The trick is to squash the critical voices. They are so so so mean! I wish my judgmental bent could be surgically removed without making me completely non-discerning.

No longer ill, son photobombs writers’ luncheon

My son is well! HE IS WELL!!!! He has gone off to play soccer with his father and sister. Yesterday was puke-free, and his coughing was markedly reduced. He is still on a BRAT diet with not a lot of appetite, though he did beg me for one of writer Megan McDonough’s gluten-free meringue cookies. (I said no.)

The song finally came after reading aloud to the group some encouragement from Toni Morrison and Julia Cameron on doing one’s writing whether one feels like it or not. It’s so frustrating when the writing doesn’t come easily. But it doesn’t mean it’s not coming, and it is absolutely a part of the process. And I always forget that sometimes I think I am writing an irredeemably bad song, but then I play it for someone and they love it. (About a quarter of my songs fit into this category. You may thank Katryna.) We need each other. Writing Groups=good.

Two thoughts: Oprah would not be the worst idea in the world. Like it or not, democracy today is cray-cray, and not really at all what the founding fathers had in mind. Molly Ivins famously said, “The winning candidate for president is always the one who has a little Elvis.” If it’s a media contest, which I believe it is, perhaps the best we can do is get a media star that we pretty much like, who can sway public opinion our way. So I am totally willing to see what O has to say, and her lack of policy experience doesn’t trouble me terribly as long as she surrounds herself with good, experienced people and not Dr. Phil. Or Deepak. She has GREAT eyelashes, too!

(I am obsessed with eyelashes. Roxane Gay has given me permission to be a Bad Feminist, and this is my confession. If I could afford it, time-wise and money-wise, I would get eyelash extensions. But I cannot afford these, plus it may be that I am too old for glam lashes. Plus I now wear glasses, so what’s the point? Still, I ordered some magnetic eyelashes, and if I am not too ashamed, I will take a selfie of me wearing them sometime for this blog. My husband, son, and especially daughter, plus my husband’s nieces, have the best lashes ever. I am so jealous. I try to cheer myself up by focusing on my other qualities, such as willingness to floss, but it doesn’t always work.)

Second thought: when the future apostle Nathanial first heard of Jesus, he joked, “Has anything good ever come out of Nazareth?” Raise your hand if you think calling certain countries  derogatory or expletive-laden names makes you more or less smart? Holy? Kind? Decent? Pragmatic, even? This person holding the highest office in the land exhausts us all. We are in danger of becoming inured to the horror of his utterances. But we cannot let him become like wallpaper. We need to take a deep breath and step up to the mic and explain why he is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

That’s all I have to say.

Except just look at this.

Hudson and his sister Greta



Day 19: Why Write Songs in the Age of Free Downloads?

My house is full of writers. I am sitting in Couchland North; two others are in Couchland South. Writers are at my dining room table, in my music parlor and in the front room where we gather to read (or sing) at 4pm. There’s a songwriter in my attic studio, and a songwriter in my office. My designated songwriting spot for the weekend is my own bedroom, which works very well for me; I’ve written some of my favorite songs on that bed. Last night’s goal was to find the song muscles, and while I didn’t write something I love or necessarily want to keep working on, I did feel the process start to work me. Results Girl went to bed in despair, but today, with the sun shining in my face and Hudson asleep next to my leg, I have new hope.

Writers’ feet + dog

One of the stumbling blocks is this: always before, when I’ve been in this drought, we’ve had a new album to create. As I’ve said before, we’ve seen our work, historically, as akin for that of an organic farmer. There are seasons to our work: the writing of the songs; then the recording of the songs; then the marketing, placing, ordering, shaping–what is this record about? Then the touring. A short dormant season, and then back to writing the next record. We have made 18 records. 19 if you count our greatest hits collection, which I don’t.

But in the age of Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and the like; more to the point, in the age of singles, of playlists rather than albums, of no-CD players-in-new-cars, why go through the mishigas of making a 12-song album? DJs play singles. Do newspapers review singles, or only albums? Would more people play our music if we had a new album? Would we get more bookings? I don’t really know the answers to these questions. I don’t know if anyone does. We have three new songs that feel of a piece so far, in terms of theme: “Tyrants Always Fall,” “Gonna Build a Boat” and our version of “America the Beautiful.” The ideas I have for new songs fit into the theme well enough. Do I really want to write 9 more songs, though? Aren’t there enough songs out there in the world? I think I’ve written at least 180 songs that have been published in some form or another. Isn’t that enough?

But this morning, I had a new thought, which emanated from last night’s experience trying to write a song. If I were writing a play/musical, or a soundtrack to a movie, I would not have any issue with songwriting. I just wrote a song I love for my dad’s 75th birthday. I do have the muscles. If I were writing songs for the characters in my novel The Big Idea, I would not have a problem. I am not saying the songs would come easily as if I were taking dictation from God, but I would have a focus, and I would write, and eventually the song would be good. That’s my experience, and I have no reason to doubt it.

So what if, instead of thinking, “I need to write another Nields album,” I thought,

“I am going to write a song to sing at West Cummington Church.”

“I am going to write a song for The Big Idea, because one day it will be a movie, or a Broadway musical, and it’s always great to have extra songs in the hopper for directors to chose from.”

“I am going to write a song for the chorus I want to start.”

“I am going to write a song for a YA novel I haven’t yet written.”

“I am going to write a song for the Nields. Maybe it will be a single. Maybe we will record an album.”

As I approach February Album Writing Month, I am going to think differently. I am going to dedicate that time every day for songwriting, but I am not going to rush to finish anything. I don’t think that’s the recipe for the best songs. I’ll let some ideas marinate, as Sarah McLaughlin says.

And now, I am going to try to write Katryna’s bicycle song.


Update on J: He is still coughing to the point of vomiting up the food he eats. He is fine, no fever, for long stretches of time within each day, and he appears perfectly healthy. Then at some point, usually 45 minutes after a meal, he coughs and coughs and coughs till he pukes. This can’t be normal. He has asthma, which we have been treating, of course, and he has had this reaction before, but never this long-lasting.

Also, point of order. Can people weigh in on whether or not small boys with asthma should be allowed to go outside on days when it’s flash-freezing wearing shorts and sneakers? I need allies, here, people. I know there is a school of thought that says being cold doesn’t cause colds and viruses, but what about common sense??????

Update on Little Blue: It’s beautiful, and I wish it were finished and that we were back there now. The guys couldn’t work on Friday because of the deluge, but I think they will be back to framing next week!

Little Blue’s western side. Framing the bedroom and bathroom!


Day 18: What I Would Change; What I Wouldn’t

future bathroom to the left, bedroom in back of kitchenette to the right

9 y.o. got as far as the front door of school today and then proceeded to retch. I fetched him home forthwith. He has been reading Harry Potter 4 and doing various homework assignments that involve protractors and figuring out the difference between acute and obtuse angles. Because he had returned the protractor to school, and because our household has no protractor, I printed out a paper one, and we have been using that. It is strangely soothing to coach 4th grade math problems, and even more to sit with my son while he reads. He is such a dear little soul. I am going to miss his presence when he gets well. And I am desperate for him to get well.

I love the word “protractor,” can you tell?

A number of readers of my last post commented that he should get a chest X-ray, so back he went to the doc, with his father, while I took 11-year-old to violin lesson. X-ray revealed normal lungs. So why is he barfing so much?

He is not barfing now. He is sitting still and reading some ELA assignment his fabulous teacher gave him. He is asking me for help. We discuss. I do not lead him on, but try to ask the right questions. He gets it. The look on his face when I let him know he got it right was worth all four days of lost work. Now I want to be a home-schooling mom, except that I would be terrible at that.

The walls are higher on Little Blue. The entire bathroom and bedroom and petit kitchen are framed out, and there are parallel boards across the roof of the first floor. I stood in the spot where I will be teaching once this house is built and almost wept. This is real.

View of the backyard from the new bedroom.

I have been thinking about songs. I know what I need to write, and I just don’t know if I can do it. That is probably why I feel stuck. Tomorrow, I will have a houseful of retreatants for my MLK retreat. (Sick son will be quarantined.) I have to have the humility to write a bunch of bad songs, in front of people, before the good one comes out. That’s what I teach, and I have to put my money where my mouth is. But my voice isn’t in great shape, as I have not been getting to Amherst to see my amazing octogenarian voice teacher Lois Smith. She will scold me when I finally get to her (after Martin Luther King, Jr day–a day I will be spending with my Local Chorus and my friends Ousmane and Melissa Power-Greene’s amazing MLK, Jr. Children’s Celebration at Jackson Street School from 10:30-12:30. You should come. It will cure what ails you, I promise. But it won’t cure my ow-y voice.) Anyway, when my voice hurts, it’s not that fun to write songs.

If I were God, here are some things that would change:

-no coughing. What a bad system.
-voices wouldn’t need warming up and stretching and vocalizing all the damn time in order to keep them sounding good.
-no working out. See above. Bodies would just stay in shape even when their owners skip their workouts to care for their sick kids.
-little barns in people’s backyards wouldn’t cost so much to build
-there would definitely be no cancer. NONE. And especially not for people who’ve had it once.
-people with no experience governing would not get elected president, unless they are Oprah.
-people would have to learn this song and sing it.

Did you see Ani in that video????

Also, how much do I love that the women at the Golden Globes all wore black, and some of them even allowed themselves to forgo the fake eyelashes???? Not that I have anything against fake eyelashes. I plan to get some STAT, but that is another story.

In case you missed it.


Day 17–Too Much.

As it turns out, after two consecutive doctor visits, nine-year-old does not have walking pneumonia. Instead, he has a head cold, upper resp only, but he is so congested that he swallows his phlegm, and then coughs so much that he throws up. Today is the third school day he’s missed. No one is sleeping much, and so even when the doctor told us this morning that he could and should go to school, I took one look at my poor kid’s face and melted. He is exhausted. And he is sick. No, he has no fever; no, his lungs aren’t crackling, but the kid was up all night puking. So I cancelled some things this morning, went to Stop&Shop and loaded up on OTC meds and enticing things for him to eat and drink.


The walls of Little Blue began to go up today! I am supposed to go look at kitchen cabinets this afternoon, but I am also supposed to go to JFK Middle School to meet with the Students of Color Association, and my kids have piano lessons. Somehow, I think I will do all three. Viva caffeine!

Really, not viva caffeine. No amount of caffeine could help me this morning when I sat in Couchland with my daughter and husband and Hudson crying because I don’t know how to get it all done, and I didn’t know what to do about my sick son. I had no inner resources. But in between then and now, I was able to lie on my back for twenty minutes with my eyes covered and my ears plugged. I wasn’t napping, and I wasn’t exactly meditating, but my day ran before my blinded eyes like a film, and I could see how all the pieces just possibly COULD fit together.

I am in a state of sorts, as you might have heard me say before, because my novel is in the hands of an agent who will only maybe take me on. Does she like it? How much has she read so far? Has she even started? IS SHE OK? MAYBE SHE’S NOT!!!! DID SHE SURVIVE THE NEW YEAR?????

Should I write songs in this gap between when I let the book go and when she gets back to me? Yes, I should. But I am scared to even start. What if I can’t write songs anymore? What is even the point? 

Yesterday I met with Katryna and Patty at the Roost and we plotted our 2018. I told them of my malaise and they rolled their collective eyes. “You always say that,” said Patty. “Write that song I told you to write about the bicycle,” said Katryna. And then Patty came up with a genius idea. I can’t talk about it, or she will kill me. Maybe I will talk about it in a subsequent post.


And yet. My back aches. I don’t sleep well. My energy is so unpredictable. I feel my age. I feel my mortality. Is this all in my head, or is it real? When I was younger, my body just did my bidding. Now I have to do what my body bids.

How do human beings do anything? I get it. “Hand your guitar to young ones stronger.” My sister Abigail has the most fabulous idea for a novel I’ve ever heard. But she has no time to write, nor has she any experience in writing a novel. I have the experience, but not the time, and it’s not my idea, so it’s hard to find the fire in my belly to write it. I should help her find a writer to pitch it to, but there’s this insane part of me that doesn’t want to let that great idea walk out my door. I want to hoard it!

Which brings me to my last thought of the day: I wish I could hire someone to take away about 15% of my furniture. Why do I need a treadmill anymore? Why do I need a bed in the attic where there is no bathroom? No one wants to sleep up there, because it’s not safe to navigate the stairs in the wee hours when one needs to… wee. I am going to find some movers, or just some strong people, and pay them some money to take away my things. If I have less stuff, will I have more time? Will I have more strength?

It turns out, as I write with my writers again, that I have tons of little song “starts” on my iphone. 12 to be exact. In the old days, 12 was the perfect number for a record album. I am told that no one buys albums anymore. I do, but I don’t listen to them, and I don’t count because I don’t listen to music in the same way I did when I was a kid. I am still sucking the juice from the songs that spoke to me when I was 9-25. After that, I started really writing my own songs. Tonight, I play my guitar and felt the river start to move underneath all that ice.