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Tonight, I went to Happy Canyon. This is hardly news; I’ve been going to Happy Canyon far too often since my third birthday, when I first attended. This year is special, though, not because it’s Happy Canyon’s 100th birthday (it is), and not because it’s my 55th birthday (which it also is) but because this year My Son the Tubist is playing in the band. We all have certain benchmarks in our lives; for me, this is one. I’ll be writing more about it later, but for now, let me share one of my very favorite Happy Canyon memories–my son’s very first visit to a place where I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time–or I would have, if I was capable of being embarrassed over going to see the same show, over and over again, as often as I can. For years this was so I could shout at an Old Family Friend, who for years got his legs cut off four times a year. It was also because I am something of a connoiseur of Falling Off Horses, and Happy Canyon being what it is, it is the rare show that doesn’t include somebody biting the dirt. But I digress.

This story is included in Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal, but it says something I love about my life–and have loved about it for a very long time. It also serves as an excellent scene-setter. When I get around to writing about this year, you’ll have a good idea of what’s going on. This will allow me to focus on the Really Important Stuff–the tuba brumming away out of sight, a deep gold river of sound connecting my son, out of sight in the orchestra pit, and me, high in the darkened stands. Grab a cushie for your tushie (it’s necessary on those Hard Happy Canyon Benches), fill a flask with hot chocoloate or coffee laced with the alcoholic beverage of your choice, if you’re so inclined, grab a Pendleton shirt, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Painted snowcaps turn gold, then pink, as the first stars twinkle in the evening sky. Dust and summer night lie heavy on my skin. The narrow wooden bench bites into my thighs. I shift. The lady pressed far too tightly against my left side heaves a martyred sigh and looks pointedly at my too-generous hips.

“I can’t get comfortable, Mommy,” whines five-year-old Alex.

“I know,” I say quietly. “Stand up ’til it starts.”

He huffs, squirms, and stares around the crowded grandstand. “Why are the mountains pink?”

“Because the man up there is shining a pink light on them.” I point to the light guy, high overhead in his little nest in the steel girders.

“Why?”

“So it will look like it’s getting dark.”

“But it is getting dark.” Alex’s chubby finger stabs at the stars glimmering above the painted skyline.

“I know.”

“Where’s the man?”

“Up there.” I point again to the light guy’s airy perch in the rafters overhead.

“So why does the man have to shine that pink light on the mountains? Why can’t he just let them turn pink by themselves?”

“Hush!” hisses the lady beside me.

“Forget the mountains,” I say hastily. “Look, it’s starting.” I point down into the sawdust-covered arena, where a tall man in a cavalry uniform is escorting an elderly Native American man to center stage. I recognize Chief Clarence Burke’s heavily beaded buckskins and feathered war bonnet. The cavalry officer looks more like a warden than an escort. I think they might have chosen more tactfully. But this is Happy Canyon. It doesn’t pay to be too critical.

The packed grandstand falls silent. Chief Burke raises his arms and closes his eyes. His cracked, cadenced voice drifts on the night air, faint and rough as pine smoke.

“What’s he saying, Mommy?” Alex asks, tugging on my arm.

“Shhh,” I whisper. “Listen. He’s welcoming us.”

The sounds float over us, as they must have floated over the trappers, the explorers, and the missionaries. Chief Burke falls silent. His arms drop. The cavalry officer steps up to the microphone. “Chief Clarence Burke of the Umatilla Indians welcomes you to Happy Canyon.” They turn and pace out of the arena. Music swells, lights go up on a line of tipis, and we are in Happy Canyon.

I settle back—at least as much as one can settle back on a narrow, unpadded wooden bench.  Alex stares open-mouthed at two Native American men carrying a deer down a switchback trail to the village. A deep, unmistakably Native American voice informs us that one of the young men has shot his first deer and is now eligible to marry. It’s been nearly ten years since I last visited the canyon, but I remember this part and cringe in anticipation.

This is how it has always gone: The happy couple stands on the second level of the four-level stage. Somebody backstage plays a scratched recording of “The Indian Love Call.” Then the newlyweds walk down the path to the first level, perform a wedding dance with their friends and family, and go into a tipi at the edge of the village, presumably to make sweet, sweet love.

Happy Canyon may have been an annual visit for me for nearly twenty years, but it’s Alex’s first time, and I’m not sure that his manners extend to enduring a crackly recording of a song that sets even my teeth on edge.

I lean down and whisper, “There’s going to be an awful song now, honey, but I need you to just not say anything, okay?”

“Okay,” he whispers absently. “What are they doing with that deer?” His eyes never leave the arena, where the village has awakened and people in richly beaded buckskins go about cooking, fishing—there’s a pool down there—visiting, trading, celebrating the young man’s first kill, and preparing for his wedding. I dig in my purse for backup. “Here, have some chocolate milk,” I whisper, thinking that the bottle will muffle any cries of pain or outrage the scratched record may provoke—and in the meantime help him forget about what seems to be happening to the deer.

He sips, still gazing at the village. A woman’s voice, still unmistakably Native American, informs us that the wedding is being celebrated. Sure enough, the couple, their friends, and family are dancing the wedding dance to the beat of drums. There has been no “Indian Love Call,” and I’ve never heard a woman narrate the pageant. Well, well, well. The times, they are a-changing in the canyon.

The dancing ends and the happy couple heads for the end tipi. Village life goes on. Trappers, explorers, and missionaries arrive. A lone wagon creaks in. The woman’s voice, deep, cadenced, and filled with old sorrow, tells of a clash of worlds. Fighting breaks out. A white girl is dragged into the village, screaming. A few minutes later men on horseback pound in, firing blanks into the air. Chaos erupts. The girl leaps onto a running horse and escapes. The villagers scatter.

More wagons roll in. Pioneers climb wearily out and gather around the campfire cooking, singing, and dancing. We in the stadium sing with them: “Skip to my Lou,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” and “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain When She Comes.” Feathered war bonnets appear among the bushes, and more fighting breaks out. The cavalry arrives. A man in a frock coat rides in and the tribal leaders negotiate. The woman tells us how the tribal elders signed away their birthright without knowing it because it had never occurred to them that one might presume to own the earth.

At last the end comes. The tipis are struck and loaded onto horses. The village dies. The woman tells about life on a reservation created from wasteland, about the struggle to maintain a cultural identity in a world changed beyond recognition, about working with one’s enemy for the common good, about salvaging life from destruction.

“When are they coming back?” Alex asks.

“Never,” I say, and I am sad.

The lights go down. “Wham wham wham wham-wham smack!” echoes in the darkness. The lights go up on a frontier town. Dance hall girls walk the streets. The town drunk staggers across the sawdust arena and tumbles into the pool where the Indians fished, pops out, and hotfoots it back to the saloon. The Pony Express rider flashes in, switches horses, and flashes out.

The stagecoach rolls in. A redheaded couple emerges. They supervise the removal of their steamer trunk from the rear of the coach, open it, and pull out eight children, all attired in bib overalls and red yarn wigs. A group of pigtailed Chinese men trot over, hands tucked in sleeves, bowing. The blatant ethnic stereotyping appalls me. I am amazed it has survived. The laundrymen don’t seem to find it troubling; they hustle the family into the laundry. A few minutes later the family emerges clean and pressed. Boys in flesh-colored tights plunge into the pool to emerge dripping and screaming.

“What’s going on?” Alex asks.

He might well ask. Happy Canyon has no plot. Rather, it’s a whole group of subplots, which, because the performance is live, using live animals, antique props, and amateur performers, may or may not happen the same from night to night, or from year to year.
“Just watch,” I say. A mismatched couple drives in, the wife tall and muscular, the husband delicate and natty. He grabs a dance hall girl and bends her over his arm like Rudolph Valentino. His wife spots him and, together with the other god-fearing women of town, attacks him with a broom. The Chinese laundrymen rush out, pull him to his feet, and drag him into the laundry. Moments later he emerges clean and pressed. His wife tosses him onto the buggy seat and they drive off.

“When are the Indians coming back?” Alex asks.

“They’re not,” I whisper back.

The dance hall girls do a lively can-can to a rollicking tune that has us all clapping and stamping. The pageant is nearly over. A Native American man mounted on a pinto pony races across the arena. An American flag flutters over his head. Man and pony zigzag up the trails high into the scenery, and come to a halt on a painted mountaintop. The flag flutters in the golden spotlight. The orchestra strikes up the national anthem. We stand.
Ten years ago, the response was half-hearted. Some stood, hands over their hearts. Some stood laughing and talking. Some slouched in their seats. But this is September 12, 2002, a year and a day after the World Trade Center fell. Today there are two spotlights on the stage. One is trained on the Native American man, his pinto pony, and his flag. The other rests on three uniformed men standing on another painted mountaintop across the stage. The men are three tanned local boys with sunburned, muscular necks, hair like ripe wheat, heavy shoulders. I suspect they spent their summer driving trucks and combines and going into town on Saturday nights to drag race on Main Street and drink beers with their girls in the parking lot up by the old Carnegie library. I wonder where they will be a year from now.

But next year is next year. This year everyone stands, and everyone sings. We sing about rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, and how we saw through the night that the grand old flag was still there. We sing about spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains, abundant harvests, and about how this land was made for you and me, and I feel again the tug of this land where I was born, and I know again that while some people can leave their birthplace and remake themselves in strange lands, I am not one of them.
I tried. I left as soon as I could, and I only came back under duress. Walking the familiar roads and fields is as much pain as homecoming. Every step holds memories I have worked hard to erase, as well as memories I cherish. And yet as I stand here in this darkened stadium, singing along with a thousand people, staring down at the lit representation of a past that never was, breathing in the heady fumes of beer and popcorn, I am again a little girl, a teenager, a fledgling woman, and the night again holds the magic of endless possibilities.

A whiff of charbroiled hamburger from the Charburger Drive-In across the street tickles my nose, and for a moment I am jammed into one of its battered booths with my sisters and as many of their friends as my Grandpa could shoehorn into his car. Each of us has a charburger, a shake, and fries and dipping sauce on  the table in front of us. And as the crowd we are talks, laughs, and teases, Grandpa looks at us all and smiles. When his gaze falls on me he leans over the table and flicks my french fry box with one gnarled brown finger. “You eat these, doncha, Bodie?” he asks. And I smile and nod and eat a fry to please him, even though the Charburger’s fries aren’t all that great unless you eat them really, really fast, before they cool.

Back in the stands, Alex leans against me and lays his head on my shoulder. I lift him and settle him on my lap, falling into the slow, easy sway that is the mark of mothers in my world. I lean my cheek on Alex’s curly hair and sing softly about Betsy from Pike. But I am not really thinking about the songs anymore.

The falling of the towers has reminded us all that America’s freedoms, privileges, and resources are not givens. We are not sure how to best preserve them, and the debate is growing increasingly bitter, but we are all agreed that we have taken our gifts for granted for far too long.

“Look, Mommy, they came back,” Alex says happily, lifting his head from my shoulder. He’s right. The Indians have come back. Along with the rest of the cast, they fill the painted mountains and forests, surround the man on the pinto pony, the flag, and the sunburned local boys. They spill over into the sawdust, buckskins mingling with calico mingling with cavalry blue with sequined velvet and feathers. Alex heaves a happy sigh, lays his head back on my shoulder, and is instantly asleep.

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I drive back to my mother’s house through streets full of what we scornfully called “drugstore cowboys”—all hat and no saddle was how we described them. There is dancing on Main Street. The carnival is in town, as it is every year, and as I ease my car through the crowds on Main Street the lights of the Ferris wheel circle overhead. The warm fragrance of corn dogs and cotton candy fills the car. I speed up as I head out of town then slow down again and creep carefully up the steep, rutted track that leads to my mother’s house high on a hill overlooking the Umatilla River Valley.

As I round the last corner I see that she has left the porch lights on for me. For just a moment my stomach twists in the old, familiar cocktail of fear, love, pain, and aching sweetness that I felt each year at the end of summer. And at last I understand what it is. It is the pull of the land. I was born less than sixty miles from this spot. I grew up here. I ate foods grown in this soil. I gave the land my sweat and my labor. In turn, the land gave me what I needed to survive—food for my body, and food for my soul.

It gave me cool mornings scented with wet grass and alfalfa. It gave me ripened wheat fields under scalding sun. It gave me desert hills split by long, straight roads shimmering in the summer sun. It gave me cornfields rustling in the night. It gave me the howls of coyotes, the clatter of balers, the whistle of the wind, and the cries of killdeer, meadowlarks, and mourning doves. It aged me. It renewed me. And sometimes in the evening when the sky turned to pearl, silver, and cobalt and the chill wind cut through my T-shirt and bib overalls, I hardly knew where I ended and the world began. This land was my land.

And I walked away—ran away, actually, driven by demons I didn’t understand and couldn’t have faced if I had. I ran away, but now I’m back, and as I pull into my mother’s driveway I understand the truth—I might have belonged here once, but I left, and the world from which I fled went on without me. Tonight has been a taste, just a taste, of one of the best parts of the life I left. And now I must walk into the house, and face down the fears that drove me away in the first place. I carry Alex inside, slip him into his pajamas while he sleeps, and pull on my nightgown. The fresh smell of soap and sunshine surrounds me, and I realize my mother has been busy while I have been gone. I lie down beside Alex and pull the fresh sheets over us.

I close my eyes and think about Happy Canyon. I remember the drums, the chants, the measured, dignified dances, the wagon train’s fiddle music and square dances, the can-can girls, and I realize that in spite of past injustices and wrongs, in spite of culture clashes, we who belong to this land—even those of us who have left, and are just beginning to find our way back—have something in common. We have our songs. There are the songs that divide us—and sometimes set our teeth on edge—and the songs we sing together. We would be the poorer for losing either.

I think again about all of us in the stands, singing together. I marvel that so many of us can remember the words, and I wonder. In twenty years, will Alex bring his children to Happy Canyon? Will the stands be full of people who remember to stand, and who still know the words of the songs that bound us tonight, as well as the songs that divided us? Will Alex know our songs? Will I remember them? Will I have made this land Alex’s land? Will I have earned my right to again call it my own?

The next morning Alex and I start the long trip back to our apartment in Gresham. On the way out of town I stop at the music store and buy a song book.

 A note about the illustrations: These are based on some art I developed for a traveling exhibit of the Applegate Trail a number of years ago. The Southern Oregon Historical graciously agreed that I might use them, provided I mention their name. So I did. Thanks, Southern Oregon Historical Society–I wish I lived close enough to still do stuff for you. I think of you often and kindly.

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Tonight The Boy and I were watching “Which Die Is That Again?” on YouTube and laughing like hyenas and visiting their webstore and plotting future purchases (a t-shirt that says “Game Master: Because My Shirt Says so”) when suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, he said, “Play that Sarah Palin song, Mom.”

“Which one?” I asked, after a brief scan of the memory banks.

“You know, the one with the man and the lady just staring into the camera,” he said.

And it all came back to me.

And so for today, join me, if you will, in the Wayback Machine, which we’ll set for late summer, 2008.

But before we go, a brief word about some of the unsung heroes of our modern society, the nameless, faceless, drones who sit in windowless cubicles in some featureless gray tower from which there is no ingress or egress except at shift changes, view the misspelled and often erroneous word strings we type into the “search” bars, dive into a massive vault of old electronic files (I picture it sort of like Scrooge McDuck’s money vault, but with thumb drives) and emerge clutching a clean, shining byte of information in their trembling, pasty hand. Often it’s not the right byte, which is how we happened upon the Sarah Palin song in the first place, but this time, armed only with the information that I wanted a song about SP, sung by a man and woman sitting in front of unfortunate orange wallpaper, staring into the camera my search bar minion came up with the right answer in under a minute. We listened to it again, and loved it as much as we did the first time and so, for your viewing pleasure, and because I remembered to copy the “share” code before I closed the window, without further ado, I present, “The Sarah Palin Song Sung By A Man And A Lady Staring Into The Camera.” It’s not what YouTube calls it, but hey, that’ll get you there. Enjoy. Thank you, Search Bar Minion.

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This summer I’ve done something that I’ve never really done before: I made formal arrangements to give a little something back to my community. I’ve always been happy to support community and school activities, but I’ve never before made a formal time commitment to give in a specific way.

I know I talk about living in a small town a lot, but one of the things I love the most about it is that you don’t have to be very good at a thing to make a contribution. Take, for instance, music. I’ve mentioned that Patrick is very good at music, but he apparently got that from the milk man, because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket with the lid nailed down. Nor am I very good at instruments. I play the piano well enough to entertain myself, but those around me usually breathe a sign of relief when I close the keyboard. I’m not good at it, but I do know the basics–the notes, timing, registration, stuff like that.

Patrick and I have benefitted enormously from Megan’s after school and summer daycamp program, and this spring we decided that it was our turn to give a bit back. We talked to Megan, who was delighted to slot Patrick in with some tutoring time in math and reading. And we decided that I would give piano lessons.

As I said, I am far from concert caliber, but I do know the basics. Megan made a list of the kids who wanted to learn. It was a mixed bag; several face special learning challenges, while some were already proficient on another instrument, and just needed help transferring their skills and knowledge to the piano.

And so this summer, every Thursday and Friday, I go out to the day camp and give music lessons–in most cases to young people who find complexity baffling. And they’re actually learning–and what’s more, they’re loving the experience.

They’re learning, but I’m learning far more. This summer has challenged many of my ideas about music, and learning, and teaching. Most of all, it has taught me the beauty of simplicty. Take, for example, how music is written and read.

For those of you who never took music lessons, this is the process:

1. Memorize the piano keyboard, using the letters from A to G.

2. Memorize musical notation, which is nothing more than black dots and lines, placed at various points on two five-line, four-space areas. Notes may also be written far above and below the baselines and spaces. Notes for the two lines occur at different points on the lines and spaces.

3. Identify the note based on its location on the lines and spaces, and translate that note to the piano keyboard–a completely different, and absolutely arbitrary transition.

4. Identify how fast or slow to play the note.

5. Play the note.

6. Do the same thing for every single note on the page.

For the thousands of people who play the piano well, this happens so quickly that it’s nearly instantaneous. But even before I started, I realized that the abstract connection between written notes and the keyboard was not a connection that some of my students would easily make, and unless I could find a way of simplifying the process frustration would end the experiment before we had even started.

And then I got the idea of color coding. I color coded the keyboard and each students’ fingers–and then I found simple music (no more than one note at a time) and wrote it not in musical notation, but in color.

And it’s working. Through a process of trial and error I’ve learned that for one group of students–the children with Down Syndrome–one note at a time is all that we can comfortably manage for the moment. But the linear focus that makes adding additional notes difficult proves a wonderful asset in another way. We started playing together–rounds mostly. Today we had three people each playing one part of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”–and it absolutely worked. Harmony and complexity happened.

I’ve been tracking down rounds and writing them for five notes, using color. And it works. And suddenly I’m seeing that the sky is the limit here. By combining players carefully (one student who is a beginner with one or two who are transferring to the piano) even I, who am no musician, can offer the experience of music to a group of people for who it has been out of reach.

I love my mornings there. I spend hours in between tracking down simple musical arrangements and transposing them to the color notation system. I’m on the prowl for a young readers’ life of Beethoven for Annalee, who is deaf, and who is experiencing music in the same way that Beethoven did when he wrote his Ninth Symphony–by leaning against a resonating surface and feeling the notes vibrate in the wood. I’m going to download the Ninth Symphony, find the biggest speakers I can, have Annalee press her back against them, and crank the stereo. I just found the music for one of the very first songs in the English language for which we have music. It’s a round, and it talks about cows farting, of all things. I’m going to teach it to the kids. How cool is that? These kids, who are just starting to explore the world of music, will be playing a song that was written when English-speaking people as a group were just beginning to to do the same thing.

I might be teaching the day camp kids the basics of music, but this summer has taught me far more. I had always thought of music as something I heard. This summer has taught me that it’s so very, very much more.

So, here’s where you can help. Think back to camp, or church, or school, or whatever, and send me the names of the rounds you sang.

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Yesterday the House Leroy and I drove up through the Blue Mountains and into the Wallowas to Wallowa Lake to retrieve The Boy. It’s a good time of year for it; the fields down here in the valley are a patchwork of green, gold, and brown, but as we drove up into the Blues the fields turned to green meadows filled with wildflowers, and snowmelt streams still edge with icy lace poured down into the swollen rivers. As we reached the summit of the Blues snowbanks still lingered in shadows, and banks of daffodils bloomed by abandoned cabins.

This used to be a big area for logging, but since the industry basically folded years ago the only real industries are ranching, and in some places, tourism. People come here to go rafting, fishing, and hiking. Some come to pan for gold. We came to retrieve Patrick, The Boy, from Brass Camp.

Oregon is  a state of contrasts. We have the urban, civilized, and agricultural Willamette Valley corridor. We have the agricultural north central part of the state, where I live. And we have thousands of square miles of empty space divided into desert and forest. Traveling from my home in the agricultural north central part of the state up into the Wallowas is like going to another world. The very energy of the mountains is different.

As we drove I pursued my usual hobby of picking out houses I love. It’s become something of a joke on car trips. By now both Patrick and the House Leroy can pick out my houses for me, with some accuracy. But when I started picking out old farmhouses situated in meadows and log cabins tucked into the forests Leroy said, “Yeah, right..you, a woman alone living up here. You’d better learn how to shoot straight.”

Turns out Leroy was just remembering what I should have remembered from my childhood in the mountains: People who move to the backwoods in Oregon generally do it for a reason. Some, like me, just love the energy and solitude. Many do it because they Don’t Play Well With Others. Some even Run With Scissors. Living alone in what is essentially wilderness demands a certain set of skills–and a certain type of personality. If you don’t come with it, I suspect you acquire it. And in all that wilderness, there’s not enough civilization to knock the rough edges off. People who live in Oregon’s wild places have a Strong Flavor. For many that’s an unaquired Acquired Taste.

I thought of myself squatted by my front door, sighting down my rifle barrel at a troublesome neighbor come to steel my firewood, and while I didn’t stop picking out the houses I loved, I did stop speculating about possibly moving into one of them.

And then we were there, at the camp, and there was Patrick, walking toward me across the field between the lodge and the parking lot. He said hello, and then he fished his DS out of the back seat, lifted it in his hand, and said, “Going to go get some pictures…fond memories!” And he walked away.

And that set the tone for the rest of our time at the camp–he brought his stuff from his cabin, and put it into the car, then headed off for his tuba–and forgot to come back. I watched him wandering through the crowd by the lodge, talking to friends and snapping pictures. He started back toward the me, then turned around and went back for the forgotten tuba. We got it shoehorned into the trunk and then went to stand in line for the barbecue.

We ate our hotdogs, fruit chunks, potato salad, and jello sitting on the grass in the sun–and then he was off with his DS, talking to friends and shooting pictures. And then we started back through the mountains toward the auditorium where the last event of Brass Camp was scheduled–a concert.

We parked the car, got out the tuba, and Patrick disappeared with it. I went into the auditorium and found a seat. Parents and family began to stream in and fill the other chairs. By the time the camp director welcomed us the room was full.

The concert began. A five-piece group. A nine-piece group. A stageful of trombones. A stageful of trumpets. The music was incredible. I sat there listening to the bright, clear notes of the trombones and trumpets, the smooth mellow notes of the horns, and then, at last, the deep, velvety tones of the tubas.

There were a lot of them, and they came in different sizes. When Patrick started taking tuba lessons I had thought they were pretty much limited to marching bands and comedy music. Over the years I have come to appreciate the finer  points of the instrument as I listened to him play, and compete in musical festivals. Even so, though, yesterday was a revelation. There were too many tubas to put on the stage, so the director had us help set up chairs and music stands on the main floor. Eighteen of them. And then the tubas came in. I have grown used to seeing Patrick tower of the rest of the band. Yesterday I saw him in a line with ten other tuba players–and every one of those boys was huge. It was like looking at the Defensive Linemen of music.

Then the second row came in. These were the baby tuba players–or, rather, the euphonium players. Euphoniums look like baby tubas. The conductor lifted his hands, and the band began to play. It sounded like velvet, like thunder. It was music to be felt, not just heard. Tuba ensembles demand a response, and it comes from deep in your bones.

When they finished there was a moment of silence as we in the audience caught our breath, and then a storm of clapping. It was more than just fond parents applauding their children’s efforts–it was the just due for an incredible performance. And it happened in a week.

I’m not a great one for promoting products here, or even for offering advice. This is more my thinking place. But I’ve had a week to think about this, and watching Patrick at the camp yesterday, (Patrick, who started the camp feeling homesick, but who finished with “fond memories”), followed by that amazing concert has convinced me it’s time to do both: If you have a child who longs to make his or her mark on the world, suggest band. And if you possibly can, send your child to Music Camps @ Wallowa Lake.

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I was out visiting my friend Megan at Step-Ahead yesterday, and what with one thing and another I found myself volunteering to teach beginning piano lessons to some of her day campers this summer. I’m pretty excited about this. I’ve never given piano lessons before. The added challenge here is that some of the people who will undoubtedly want to take a crack at this don’t read with any proficiency, if at all.

I’ve decided to resort to the colored dot technique, but with a twist. I’ll identify the octaves on both sides of Middle C with colored dots. Then I’ll paperpunch out more colored dots and put them over the music notes in the books. And then I’ll add a small dot of matching nail polish on each finger, and then we’ll match up colors. And that’ll do for the kids who can hear.

Annalee presents a different challenge; she’s deaf. I’ve been mulling it over in my mind for a couple days now. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

I’m thinking some sort of vibrating device to go behind the back or under the feet for the bass notes, and then a variety of small air jets that use size, possibly temperature, and position to compensate for pitch, pressure for volume, and a variety of slow and smooth and quick and sharp attacks and releases to help with dynamics.

My first thought was to start out with the principle of the pipe organ, but instead of translating the air pressure to sound just keeping it air pressure and feeding it through small tubes, but now I think that’s unnecessarily complex. I’m thinking that it could be run through an MP3player or computer, but with an added piece of software and a bit of hardware to hold a fan, the air ducts, and a link to the vibration pad.

What I love about this is that it does very much what the human body does when a sense is lost–it simply translates some of the functions to the remaining senses. And the reality is that music is a full-body experience, particularly in a concert hall. If I could find a way of simply transferring some of the sound functions to the sense of touch I think we could create an entirely new form of music, one that those without hearing could appreciate.

And of course once you’ve got the basic idea the possibilities are endless–it could be modified to a small headset like those with hearing use earphones while jogging. It could be expanded to include odors and fragrances, dry and damp, and direction in huge concert halls. Concerts could be written for it. Experts would appear to critique performances. The mind boggles. Silent music.

So here’s the hitch. I need a hardware geek and a software geek, ideally geeks with some music in their souls and an adventurous spirit, to help me build this. Any takers? I’m waiting…

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(cross-posted from Notes From Main Street)

I say a bad word tonight. I say it loudly, and justifiably. I say it when I look up from working on a client project and helping my son Patrick construct a pie chart at the same time, see the clock and realize that Patrick is due onstage, playing his tuba, in the band concert—in four minutes. The school auditorium is five minutes away.

I say the bad word again as I bolt for the door, dragging Patrick in my slipstream. We arrive a minute late. I drop Patrick off, park the car, and trot for the auditorium just in time to see him sneaking onstage, toting the tuba. Patrick is 6’3”, just finished a season of heavyweight wrestling, and is, as I have mentioned, carrying a tuba. The sneaking is not very effective.

I do a little sneaking of my own and drop into a seat in the darkened auditorium, grateful that no one can see my un-made-up face, my uncombed hair, and my leggings and oversized rugby shirt. Patrick is in jogging pants and a green polo shirt. We are not at our sartorial best, but we are here. Nobody looks at me twice.  We live in a small town, and people aren’t fancy here.

I sit in the darkened auditorium and listen as the sixth-grade band plays. I was in band when I was in school. In our band, we believed that a “good” player was  loud player. Our “best” players were the musical equivalents of ball-hogs—they blasted the eardrums of those close to them. I played second-chair clarinet. Blasting on a clarinet is never a good idea.

When Patrick said he wanted to play tuba in band I braced myself for a year’s worth of untuned, out-of-rhythm, teeth-grating concerts. I even had my patter lined up: “You sounded great, tonight, honey.” “I could hear you…” “Boy, you’re really working at that, aren’t you?” I was ready.

And then, six weeks into the year, the sixth-grade band had their first concert. I hauled my mother along for moral support. I braced myself. And was happily shocked. The sixth-grade band played three short pieces. They were in tune. They had some idea of harmony. They hit their notes. They found and kept the beat.  To say I was stunned is putting it mildly.

Luckily I already had my remarks prepared: “You sounded great…I could hear you…you’re really working at that…” But I actually meant them.

And now here I sit, listening to my son oompa his way through “Barbara Ann,” rolling and rumbling away, toe tapping, holding the beat for the band. His face is beginning to lose its baby softness; his jaw is acquiring a new, sharper definition. His round cheeks are flattening out into smooth planes. Just tonight, as the woman cut his hair, I watched her take quick little swipes down over his cheeks and chin, where downy facial hair is acquiring a new coarseness and color. Tonight he asked for a shotput and discus.

The sixth grade band finishes and files offstage. The seventh-grade band replaces them,  then the eighth grade, then the eight-grade jazz band, As the bands come and go I pick out the boys I have just spent the last few months cheering on the wrestling mats. I have come to see them as wrestlers, one-dimensional. Seeing them onstage, musical instruments in hand, shocks me a little, though it shouldn’t. We are a small town—small enough that students must be involved in numerous activities if we are to compete at all. The fall concert coincided with a delayed play-offs game for the football team; band members arrived onstage sweaty and puffing, still in their gear in some cases.

By this time I have forgotten that this is a school concert. I have lost myself in the music, in marveling at how boys I have come to know as warriors can make such wonderful sounds, at the angle of my son’s cheek far ahead of me, seated with the band, at the fact that I no longer have to fear that he’ll do something horrifying if he’s beyond my reach.

I look up at the school crest set in plaster over the proscenium arch on the old-fashioned stage. I look around at the dark auditorium, and I think, “This is my life.” I have been worried about money lately. Who isn’t, these days? I am turning each nickel twice. Sometimes it seems that the worry never eases. But for tonight, in this dim, safe, music-filled space, watching my son help create something beautiful from a hunk of brass and air, the worry fades, and I remember who I am.

I am a woman. I am an artist, and mother to another. I am a part of this small, old, town. This is my life,  my place, and it is magic and oh, so fleeting. This is who and where and when I am. And I will live it, every second, every day. Because my life is amazing, and I know that, money worries, sleepless nights, and fear notwithstanding, when these days with Patrick are gone, I’ll want them back.

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