People Who Inspire

I saw a story about William Kamkwamba about a year ago on TV and was instantly moved to tears hearing his account of building something that most of us would more or less think nothing of; a windmill.

William comes from the Republic of Malawi, a small, land-locked country in southeastern Africa. It is one of the most densely populated and least developed countries in the world. William was born in 1987 and had to leave school when he was 14 because his parents could no longer afford the $80 US tuition. He decided to educate himself, and began to visit his village’s library where he found a book called Using Energy that explained the workings of windmills. He took it upon himself to attempt to build one, and using blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and materials collected in a local scrapyard, he built a crude windmill that had enough energy to power the lights in his family’s home. And then he built another windmill that had enough power to pump water to irrigate the fields in his village, where drought had devastated the crops in the preceding years.

His story spread to all corners of the world, and in 1997 he was invited to speak at TED, a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. TED started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Participants are invited to give talks lasting no more than 18 minutes to explain their concepts, ideas or passions and the annual conference attracts the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers.

William is not entirely fluent in English yet, but he does his best to explain his dream of building his village’s first windmill in the following video:

William has gone on to do many things since building his first windmill. You can read all about his ventures here. If William Kamkwamba doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know who will!

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Mental Pause…I’m Almost There

The clarification process can bring out the cl...Image via Wikipedia

I wrote an article a few years back about my discovery of the condition called peri-menopause. I discovered it quite by accident, simply looking up symptoms that I was experiencing, convinced I was coming down with some combination of Alzheimer’s and MS accompanied by a high fever.  Well, an occasional high fever.  And a very bad mood, coupled with an unending desire to pee.

I realized I wasn’t dying, but instead heading into that (insert sarcasm here) glorious feminine state, that wondrous womanly period of peri-menopause.  I didn’t know how long it was going to last, but I diligently began to keep track of my periods, excitedly counting the days until the blasted thing would show up again and send me into another miserable week.  I even created an Excel file with all kinds of calculations…let’s see, number of days divided by 365 equals how many years?
Well, as it turns out, as of today, it’s been 4.69589 years since I started keeping track.  And I am 19 days away from that one-year mark which would officially make me menopausal.  Yay.
I’m going to have a party.  Well, I’ll probably just be by myself, but it’ll be a party nonetheless.  I should burn something like maybe menstrual pads or a printout of that Excel file.  You know, like people have mortgage-burning parties.  Something like that.  I’ll bake chocolate cookies and drink lots of wine.  Or maybe beer and nuts.
Nah, I’m already too fat.
I’ll make a speech.  “Thank you all for coming.  I want to tell you how much I appreciate you being here, even if it’s only me.  I appreciate me being here.  Well, the last few years have been hell.  Okay, granted I’ve managed to drag out my sense of humour from time to time, especially when I’ve forgotten something for the gazillionth time, like my keys, or when I’ve found myself standing at the fridge with the door open having no idea how I got there.  You’ve gotta laugh at that.  Not.
“But I can tell you that now that I have reached this pinnacle of life, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.  Ladies, just stay the young age you are, it’s just crap up here in the 50’s.  The spare tire around the belly alone is enough to put you off, not to mention the thinning hair and foul attitude.  I have stripped myself naked more times in one night than I’ve gone to the bathroom.  And that’s really saying something.  And no, I didn’t strip because I was feeling amorous.  More like molten-ous.   Yes, I know that’s not a word.  But give me credit for SOME creativity, especially since words don’t come so easily to me these days.  I mean any words at all.  Stupor seems to be a permanent state.  And speaking of stupor…here’s a toast to me!”  And then I’ll drink like a hound during a heatwave.
It’s probably a good thing there won’t be any young women in attendance.  I’d scare them to death and then they’d miss it all.

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Estipod Rocks the ‘Monds

Poster for the 2002 re-release of the Last WaltzImage via Wikipedia

Like many teenagers, I was in a garage band in high school.  That’s when garage bands actually played in the garage, or the basement, or in our case the loft of one of our members parent’s house.  There were eight of us in the band and I was the last to join, although we did add another member a few years later.

I was the only girl in the band when I joined…so there were seven guys and me.  And the reason I joined was because I had a crush on the drummer :-).  The reason I was ALLOWED to join is still a mystery to me.  I think they needed a singer.  I got kicked out when I tried to play guitar.  I guess I wasn’t very good then, or, at least, I didn’t play the songs that these guys played, so it didn’t work out.  But they still needed a singer, so somehow I was allowed back.  It was customary to kick somebody out of the band every now and then, just to keep it fresh 🙂

We had a funny name:  Estipod.  It was a sort of bastardized version of a Welsh word meaning a group of musicians.  The drummer found it in the dictionary when we were looking for a name and nobody could think of anything else.  Actually I wasn’t in the band then, otherwise I’m sure I would have come up with something more memorable.  Ahem.

Well as soon as you put a band name on posters, you’re kind of stuck with it.  And even though we tried several times to change it, we could never agree on anything else.  So Estipod it was.  Over time I think we realized that we could never change that name;  it was who we were.

Most of our practices were at the parent’s place of two of our members.  They had an odd sort of house;  it was a split level which they had built on top of to create extra rooms…essentially it looked like someone had just dropped a barn on top of a house.  But we would cram ourselves in there and blow a fuse or two almost every weekend.  A few times the neighbours complained and we ended up with the police knocking on the door.  The father of the house was occasionally known to turn off the power in the house when he’d had enough of us.  I don’t know how they put up with us really…we had a full drum kit, tons of amps and several brass instruments and mics pounding away on top of them for hours on end sometimes.

It was a little strange being the only girl in the band.  First of all, I never got their jokes.  There was always some reference to something the guys had seen or done together that I was just not privy to.  But I’d laugh along and pretend I knew what they were talking about.  Then there were the songs.  Most of the cover songs we played were written for a male voice and the topics were often around female love interests, and there was little I could do to re-word the lyrics to fit me (ie David Bowie‘s “wham, bang, thank you ma’am” from Suffragette City particularly annoyed me), but I would belt them out as best I could.  I never could hear myself anyway.

We really didn’t get anywhere other than playing a few gigs in a couple of roller rinks (that’s when people actually tied on roller skates and skated around a rink to live music) and pizza joints and the odd backyard performance for our friends.  Eventually we all went our separate ways, some off to higher education, others to jobs, moving out of our parent’s neighbourhoods and off on our own.  And at some point, we decided we should have a reunion.  This was around the time when The Band released “The Last Waltz”, so we decided to call our reunion “The Last Polka”.  I think we held this event about 4 or 5 times in as many years.  We  rented a hall and invited all of our friends, some of the guys’ girlfriends made lots of food and we got a liquor license so we could have beer.  It was great fun…probably the reason we kept doing it.

Over time, even the polkas fell by the wayside as we all grew up and got married (I married the drummer) and started families.  In more recent years with most of our kids grown and some nostalgia setting in, we’ve have a few more reunions and they’ve always been great fun.  When we can find an excuse together, we do.  And an excuse came a few weeks ago when we heard that the barn-house was going to be sold (well, probably leveled, actually), and we decided to get together for one last jam in the same room, just the eight of us.

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So there we were a little older (okay, a lot older) crammed into the loft once again, two elderly parents downstairs, one with a set of headphones on so he could tolerate us, and the other upstairs with us, thoroughly enjoying the idea of all of us being together in her house again.  We played poorly but we laughed well 🙂  And a few times we actually sounded like something…we rocked the “Monds.  The “Monds” was our nickname for the subdivision the house is in…every street name ends in “mond”, as in Desmond and Trumond.

We took lots of pictures and video (hopefully they’ll never show up on YouTube!), and kept it down to about an hour.  In the end, we thanked the old folks went our merry way.  And we told ourselves that we are going to do this again.  Soon.  It’s amazing how quickly soon goes by…

The members of Estipod, laughing at some inside joke…this time I think I get it 🙂

What Fred Taught Me

Fred Booker Fred Booker

[This article was originally published on my Songwriting Blog]

I started writing songs when I was about 12, but it wasn’t until I was almost 20 that I took my first songwriting workshop. It was an 8 week course, facilitated by a fellow named Fred Booker. Fred was a real character and a great teacher, who was born in Chicago and ended up living in Canada for reasons I never quite figured out. He would teach songwriting classes at Douglas College in Vancouver, but he also traveled and performed constantly, applying for arts grants to record and tour. So he pretty much made his living from music, not an easy thing to do at any time!

His style of writing was very blues-influenced with a smidgen of folk, totally character-driven and very entertaining. In the course he talked about exploring the guitar and doing different things with it without getting too much into theory, which was just what I needed and something I still remember. Sometimes he would sit in front of the class, clasping his head in his hands, looking for the right words to make his point, and then he’d deliver this compelling and passionate monologue on some aspect of songwriting that would mesmerize me. Yes! I knew EXACTLY what he meant! And there was a word for the technique, and others did the same thing too! Fred’s course introduced me to the lingo that described what I had always done instinctually, without labels or any thought to what I was actually doing. I knew what a verse and a chorus were, but what I didn’t have names for were things like “tension” and “contrast” and “dynamics”. I was so thrilled to listen to someone speak in my language and put words to my efforts.

At the risk of sounding like a prima donna, I was one of the stronger songwriters in that class. I was not very good when I think of it now, but most of my classmates were less experienced than I was. I was also the biggest chicken. When it came to introducing a new song to the class, which we each had to do at least once over the 8 week period, I was tortured with nerves, and on the night of the very last class where we each had to perform a song, I didn’t show up. What a coward, eh? 🙂

And here I am many years later, writing articles about songwriting for newer inductees, thinking about what Fred taught me and realizing how important it was for me to understand the mechanics of writing, not just the inspiration behind it. Being inspired is one thing; just letting it all spill out in one big blob of emotion and getting it out of your system. But the craft is something entirely different…sometimes I think the crafting of a song is where true inspiration kicks in, because you have to mull it over and over and find some way of tying everything together, which takes so much time and patience…and ultimately talent! What Fred taught me was to THINK about what I was saying, to push my musical and lyrical boundaries and most importantly to enjoy the process. He made me think of myself as a songwriter, not just a person who happens to write songs. What’s the difference?

I think your attitude about yourself and your purpose changes when you take your craft more seriously…I don’t mean that you become an arrogant snit; in fact there is something humbling in the recognition that you can do something that really affects people. Not everyone hits the point in their songwriting where they want to take it outside the bedroom (or wherever they write!) into the rest of the world. Some never desire more from it than a way to entertain themselves, and so it should be. But some of us feel that nagging or yearning for others to hear what we’ve created. And even though I was a coward at the time, I realized the importance of making my message clear, and I took that new understanding and still carry it with me.

Fred came to see me perform at a place called the Soft Rock Café in a Vancouver neighbourhood called Kitsilano months after that last class . He came up to me afterward and commented on one particular song where I had done some of that exploration of the guitar neck that he had spoken about. I knew he had been listening with a critical ear the whole evening, and it made me nervous, so I was very pleased to get a positive response. Not long after that, when I joined a band along with another fellow who had also taken Fred’s class, Fred came to visit us one night and we enthusiastically discussed songwriting for hours. It was a heady time.

And then I lost touch with him. Recently, I tried to find some trace of him, using the internet of course 🙂 I found a link to a book of poetry where one of the contributors was a guy named Fred Booker, but not much else. I still have his album “On The Road”, autographed, of course, and my guess is that Fred is probably still out there creating something, whether it’s a song or a poem, still thinking about the process and maybe even still teaching, who knows? I never had the chance to thank him for all that he gave me, so I’ll do it now. Thank you, Fred! What a great teacher you are!

[PS…this was an old article written perhaps five or six years ago that I recently decided to dust off and re-post. Just for fun I thought I’d look for Fred again, and to my surprise I found him! He had recently written a book called “Adventures in Debt Collection” and was still living in the Vancouver area. I also found a picture of him, posted above. As I researched more into his book, however, much to my sorrow I discovered that Fred passed away in 2008 at the age of 69. I’m very sorry I never had the chance to thank him for his enthusiasm and inspiration. I found him and lost him again in the same day…there must be a song in that…IJ]

My First Tune-Up

Steering wheels from different periodsImage via Wikipedia

I was in my early 20’s when I finally got my driver’s license…a little older than most of my friends who drove. My impetus was that I had a boyfriend who lived in another city, and I was tired of taking the bus. So I bought a used silver VW Rabbit, took some driving lessons, failed my first test and then finally passed. I was very proud of myself.

I had heard of some mysterious procedure called a tune-up that had to be performed on the car on a regular basis. A couple of months after I bought the car, I decided that I should perhaps get one of these, and so I started looking through the yellow pages for a shop that dealt with VW‘s. I found an autobahn and made an appointment.

When I picked the newly tuned car up after work, it all seemed very simple, and the mechanic said the car was now in good working order. I was so pleased at having gotten through my first tune-up with flying colours that I took it for a little drive. It was downtown Vancouver, right in the middle of rush hour, but I was having fun. On a street with a slight hill, I hit a red light, and then realized my seat was back further than I wanted it to be. So I decided to adjust it.

At the red light.

On the hill.

Thank goodness I had my hands firmly on the wheel…the seat fired backwards before I could even think, and it was only my grip on the wheel that kept me from completely losing control. I’m a short person, and I could barely keep my foot on the brake, the light was still red but about to change. I used every muscle I could muster and gradually dragged myself and the seat closer to the front, yanking the steering wheel pretty hard. Phew! Just as the light changed, I hooked my seat into place. This little incident threw me somewhat, so I decided to head home. Someone honked at me lightly as I was making a right turn. I looked in my rearview mirror, but couldn’t figure out who it was. A couple of streets later on another turn, I heard the mysterious honk again.

As I drove into the spiralling underground parking lot of my apartment block, I realized that it was ME honking… everytime I turned right, the horn would blow! I had to spiral right all the way down the underground parking lot…and now I was furious!! Who were these “autobahn experts” who wrecked my car??!!??!!

I got to my apartment and phoned them immediately. “My car horn honks every time I turn right…what did you do to it?” “Ma’am, we only work on the engine when we do a tune-up.” “But this has just begun to happen, and I think YOU are responsible!!” “Okay, okay, bring it in and we’ll take a look at it.”

The real job was planning a route back to the autobahn without turning right…I managed to accomplish that until the very last turn, right into the parking lot of the autobahn. And then, just as I turned, someone pulled in front of me, and I was stuck with my steering wheel in a right turn and the horn started one long, loud, blast. I tried desperately to turn the wheel so I could get it to stop. Suddenly there were employees and customers running out of the building trying to figure out who that bitch in the car was, honking her horn like that…a bus full of people drove by, and everyone was peering out the window at the commotion.

The other car finally moved so I could straighten out my wheel. I must have been the colour of Santa’s suit by the time I got out of the car and stomped over to the mechanic. When he looked at my steering column, he said “It looks like your steering wheel was yanked really hard, the wires for the horn have come loose.”



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