Tag Archives: inspirational

What Would Toots Do?

Saturday evening, 9/10/2016, Albuquerque lost a true citizen – an active, feisty, hilarious woman who was so incredibly engaged in her life, her family and her community that I struggle to imagine another like her: Toots (Virginia) Rideout Obenshain. I’ve thought for the last few months about why and how Toots lodged herself so deeply in my heart.

What Would Toots Do.png

As an educator, she spent years working with APS students who required special attention, focus and patience, and from every tear-jerking and/or side-splitting story I’ve heard, did so with uncanny people-smarts, love and (sometimes scandalous) humor. I get the impression that she got called to the Principal’s office more often than her students did. Her work inspired her own children’s careers in innumerable ways, within and outside of the Albuquerque Public School system.

 

Speaking of her kids, she raised four of the finest people I know: smart, kind, funny and competent people who think far beyond themselves, always. They all married equally awesome people and now have a gaggle of sweet, bright, thoughtful kids of their own. No doubt in my mind they’ll all contribute to their communities.

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Getting uke-y with Dair and other awesome musicians at Toots’ Celebration of Life, 2015

But other people’s kids are where many of even the best parents stop short. Not so with Toots and family. There’s the young man who was turned out of his home after coming out. Toots and her husband Scott took him in and eventually saw him off to college, all the while encouraging him to reestablish communications with his family. There’s yours truly, who met Toots’ daughter Dair, Dair’s partner Mayr, and the rest of the Obenshains during one of the toughest times in my life. How they managed to make me laugh, even smile, in those days, I don’t know, but they did. It might’ve had to do with my first Easter Sunday at their house, when another daughter, Becky, cheerfully presented me with a dyed egg that said, “The Easter Bunny sucks.”

It’s hyperbole to say that they saved my life but… to be honest, not by much. That was 22 years ago. I’d never seen such a close-knit — and yet welcoming and ever-expanding — family; it was foreign to me and frankly pretty magical. To this day the Compound, expanded with homes for the grown kids and their families, has some sort of “everything’s going to be OK” fairy-dust dome over it for me and so many others.

As an advocate for underdogs, outcasts and overlooked people of all stripes, Toots was unstoppable. I’m fairly convinced that she became president of ABQ PFLAG within about 24 hours of her own daughter coming out. I watched her march with PFLAG and the Raging Grannies in ABQ’s Pride parade many a time. I just recently saw scanned images of a letter she wrote in 1966 to Pres. Lyndon Johnson (yep) regarding the casually dismissive treatment by the Fort Riley (Kansas) Officers’ Wives Club of their Jewish members. Dair refers to this as “How the Obenshains Joined the Fort Riley, Kansas Jewish Community and Scott’s Future in the Army Was Nipped in the Bud.” I tend to think Scott’s future was affected more by the time Toots tried using the clothes iron to defrost the freezer in their base housing but then fell asleep with her napping kids. So many stories!

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Scott and Toots at Karen’s and my wedding – that smile!

I bought The Artist’s Way for her a while back and begged her to use it as motivation to write down some of these stories, but she demurred, citing a lack of confidence in her writing abilities; she passed the book to Scott. I was disappointed but not surprised. She supported and encouraged and loved and inspired everyone around her. I hope someday to receive a collection called “Toots’ Tales” or… (geez, you guys need to come up with a better title!) from a family member, for belly laughs and for lessons in how to live a life.

 

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Getting Better, Getting Pickier, Getting Better…

Ever seen the Web site There I Fixed It? No? Oh, go! Go now and check it out to see gems like this:

That should do it!

That should do it! [From There I Fixed It]

So, I haven’t done anything worthy of that site, but there was a time — early in my new-homeowner years — when I was just clever enough to pull off some questionable DIY feats… and apparently not clever enough to take the time to do things properly. The truth is, sometimes I preferred the wham-bam-done! method because I knew that if I tried harder, I might open a can of worms that I couldn’t handle. Or didn’t think I could at the time.

That’s the funny thing about learning: When you’re intimidated by something, you’re in no condition to learn; you’re too freaked out to handle the challenge! Evaluating your own work is much the same. When you’re unsure of yourself, you’re more likely to accept “good enough.” But if you want to go from amateur to pro, “good enough” never is. You have to raise your standards. And just as with learning, you’re much more capable of pushing yourself when you’re feeling secure.

Until I did it, I had no idea I could do it — and that’s the value of pushing yourself.

So I find this a fascinating chicken-or-egg question: Do you get better at something and then, from that new foundation of confidence, get pickier? Or do you start being pickier and then get better because you’re pushing yourself?

My experience points to the former, but who knows for sure? The one thing I do know is this: Once you discover that you’re able to do better, you’ll never want to go back. The first time I earned straight A’s in my undergrad years, that was it. I wasn’t satisfied with anything less for the rest of my education. But until I did it, I had no idea I could do it — and that’s the value of pushing yourself. It’s no coincidence that I loved all of my classes that semester. You’ve got to love what you’re doing enough to really, really dig in.

So, yeah, better and pickier… I’m not sure “which came first” even matters. As long as you keep things positive and healthy – don’t browbeat yourself; don’t impose unreasonable expectations – this is a great cycle to initiate and stick with. Whatever it is you do, make each finished work better than the last. Compare your best stuff to successful work in your discipline and reset your targets accordingly. Get pickier, get better, and then get even pickier. And whatever you do, don’t get featured at There I Fixed It.

One way to add that guest room you've always wanted.

One way to add that guest room you’ve always wanted. [From There I Fixed It]


The Value of Retrospect

I had a boss once who’d say, “I don’t care what’s on your resume. I don’t care what you did before; I care what you can do right now.” I saw his point when it came to certain b-schoolers on staff, but for my own purposes I thought of it more like, “Hey, sweet! Every day is a new opportunity to do something amazing! No baseline needed!”

Yeah, I’m Pollyanna like that.

Well, last week, I gave a talk about my composing work to a class of composition students, several working on their masters’ degrees in composition. It turned out to be a great opportunity for retrospection: how I started, the multiple paths I’ve maintained (so like a Gemini), my graduate studies, my many and varied extra-curricular pursuits, the incredible people I’ve gotten to work with, what about my work has changed and what hasn’t.

The Spreadsheet For Section 2

Evidence that during my thesis composition process, I was clearly out of my mind. In a good way.

Given that my audience would be a bunch of students preoccupied with thesis work, I decided to spend the bulk of the talk discussing my own. When I began preparing my slides, though, I realized that I might have to turn to my not-terribly-consistent journals for details about how I constructed my thesis, because it was 10 years ago. Like a place I used to live, it’s got certain landmarks that I’ve retained and used to navigate conversations about such things over the years: It’s called Name Day and is for electronics, oboe and cello; it’s based on the prose poem of the same name by the remarkable Teresa Phillips; it deals with her diagnosis with bone cancer as a toddler and the aftermath; and it employs serial techniques – the use of external information (in this case, the poem itself and aspects of Teresa’s post-op X-rays) to drive musical decisions. That much, I can recite on command. Any deeper, though…

Because, you know, I’m not crazy about paper at this point; I try not to collect or keep it. And to my memory, I’ve only recently become disciplined about documenting how each of my pieces is put together and especially how it’s performed. I’ve had to, though, because so many of my compositions – in contrast to my thesis piece – use some new/different combination of gadgets than the last; are performed by me as structured improvs and so not typically scored; and are performed once, maybe twice, right after completion and then not again for months or even years. So by comparison, I wasn’t sure how much I would’ve documented 10 years ago about a piece that resulted in a definitive score. What more was to document? And how much of the supporting material would I have bothered to keep?

Chicken Scratch

From the trusty blue spiral manuscript notebook.

But I looked through our bookcases anyway – and was rewarded with the spoils of being supremely Type A (about some things). Each item I unearthed brought a bigger smile and a stronger rush of memories than the one before. There was the original master print, complete with front matter describing the compositional process (phew!). Behind that, photocopies of the original hand-written score. In another section of the same shelf, the abused but still-legible prints of the spreadsheets in which I painstakingly tracked certain details of the piece – one for each of the three sections of the piece, and each one a taped-together tiling of 9 or more letter-sized sheets. Sooooo OCD!

Each of those documents represents hours upon hours of teeth-gnashing and triumph, self-doubt and certitude, and above all, complete surrender to the process. I worked so incredibly hard on it. I can see the spreadsheets tacked to the wall of my bedroom studio, the blue spiral music notebook I carried everywhere for months, and the lights hitting the performers as they took the stage for the premiere. These memories, and what they say about my capacity for hard work and even healthy obsession, could reinvigorate me on the worst of days.

Page One

Page 1. Beginnings, endings, all good.

To that former boss, I’d throw a well-worn business maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. In Composing Kitchen language, I’d say that retrospection doesn’t have to be a consolation, an indulgence or a crutch; it can be a tool. Knowing what you’re capable of can propel you to do something that’s not just amazing, but even more amazing.

So go ahead: Read over your resume – be it literal or figurative – and then vow to exceed everything on it.

If you’d like more detail about Name Day and/or to hear excerpts,
leave a comment. I’ll be happy to tell you a ridiculous amount
based on my copious documentation.


Little Raft of Happiness

This morning we made pancakes. It wasn’t really morning, it was one of those days where the morning stretches into the afternoon. We slept in, cuddling and having long meaningful conversations with the cats while they purred. Then we sipped espresso and listened to the rain.

On our long morning run we came up with song lyrics to a uke tune that Carla wrote and I stopped to take pictures of leaves and birds.

Then we had pancakes. Buttermilk pancakes with real butter and lots of maple syrup.

And after breakfast we all gravitated toward the sofa and gradually sank down for a nap. Carla and I and both of the cats – our funny little family.

This is what it’s all about. Floating on our very own little raft of happiness. In a sea of pancake fixins that need to be cleaned up. The bed unmade upstairs, wet laundry in the washer, just life, everywhere around us, our life. This is what I’m thankful for every day.

This has been a good morning.