The Beauty of Music in the Ear of the Beholder

I was a child of the 70’s and 80’s with a father who was a former DJ and an avid music enthusiast. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t see four to six albums propped up next to the turntable stand ready to be listened to and carefully dissected. Before an album played, Dad allowed one of us kids to gently brush off the dust with a cleaner while he set the turntable in motion. Our household grooved to The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke on Saturday mornings as we went about our chores. We sang along with James Taylor, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, and John Cougar Mellencamp while dinner was being made and I personally longed for the day I could belt out a song like Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston. I fell in love with The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Boz Scaggs while wearing headphones far too large for my head and at the age of two, I went running through a record shop yelling, “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis” when I heard the voices of adults mourning him in the August of 1977. As time progressed however, new records came into the house in the form of a cassette after Dad purchased our first JVC cassette deck in 1980. It allowed for us to make mixtapes for road trips and for passing along to friends. The Christmas of 1984, I received my first Panasonic boom box and spent hours recording songs from the radio. In 1988, Dad blew out his speakers while trying out our new CD player for the first time. He was unprepared for the level at which the CD’s had been recorded at and was forced to purchase new speakers. We still had a cassette deck in the car, but the days of having to use a pencil to rewind a tape when the deck went out were fading fast as new and improved technology came onto the scene.

Music technology has had to move and keep up with a generation of people who desire instant gratification. A generation who seems to have lost the desire to peruse a music bin for that gem, that CD that will become a part of their life’s soundtrack. Today, we have MP3 downloading straight to our cell phones, computers, and satellite radio. How far we have come from Thomas Edison’s phonograph. Though technology has certainly changed how we listen to music, is all of it good? Are we losing a battle to hold onto the past? Or, is there a way to hang onto some of our past technologies and move into the future at the same time? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

In the 1940’s Columbia introduced the 331/3 rpm long-playing record. ( LP’s were able to hold a total of sixty minutes of music which was unheard of. It’s predecessor, the 78 rpm album could only hold up to three minutes on each side and were more fragile. 45’s were single play records that held up to five minutes on each side and were popular in jukeboxes because they took up less space. ( By the time cassettes came around we were blessed with up to ninety minutes of tunes, but anyone that ever made a mixtape on one of those, found out very quickly how easily the tape got tangled. CD’s allowed for entire live concerts to be listened to and they didn’t get tangled up like cassettes did. Today, an Apple iPod Classic holds up to 40,000 songs, 200 hours of video, or 25,000 photos all in a little device that fits in the pocket of a pair of skinny jeans. ( Technology has progressed quickly and based upon the decline in the selection of CD’s when shopping a brick and mortar store, progress is waiting for no one to catch up. It is moving forward whether we like it or not.

In the video Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music, Mark Katz, speaks of his study of the progression of how we listen to recorded music. In his presentation he speaks not only of his book by the same title, but of his findings while writing the book. He has developed what he calls the Phonograph Effect, which is “any change in musical behavior, whether listening, performing or composing, that has arisen in response to sound recording technology”. In a study done by Ipsos Reid, a Canadian company specializing in market research, Katz found that 29% of American respondents reported that their favorite genre of music changed after they started downloading music and 21% indicated that they developed new radio listening habits. The freedom of being able to explore new music became more accessible and people loved the control they gained over their musical listening experience. However, he also touches on the subject of nostalgia when he spoke to a young college woman about her excitement on her fifteenth birthday when she purchased a Flaming Lips CD, but with file sharing all she remembers is sitting in front of her computer. The video was recorded in 2009, so although most of what Katz says is quite relevant, we have already progressed further in our desire and capabilities to access new music. At the time of his findings, file sharing sites like Napster had already been under fire for copyright infringement.

In the article Survival of the Fittest in the New Music Industry, author David Browne covers some of the pros and cons of the direction in which the music industry is going. Shirley Manson of the band Garbage mentions how after leaving their previous label Geffen, the band now has more creative freedom. Shirley had gone to the label with a solo album that she cut, only to be turned down because it didn’t have any pop songs on it. Browne also goes on to say that in the past, cash advances were given to the bands by the labels to cut the records and make videos and those days are gone. With more people downloading their music, CD sales have hit bottom and in order to make up for the loss, artists are touring longer and even asking fans to contribute to their recording costs through companies like Kickstarter, “a crowd-funding service that lets musicians pay for recording costs by way of contributions from fans”. Artists like Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls were able to raise more than $1 million in contributions from fans, ranging from $25 to $10,000. When asked whether she felt guilty for asking fans for money, she responded that she’s just doing her job as a “working-class musician”. Browne gives a great perspective of what some of the artists think about where the industry is going. He wraps up the article by mentioning the benefits to bands and managers for becoming more savvy and open to working with social media. Not only to sell the music itself, but also sell the tickets to the shows.

We now have listening services like Pandora and Spotify, both of which have free options and if the short commercials drive you batty, for a small fee the listener can upgrade to a premium account. With these services, all you have to do is type in an artist that you like and they will give you multiple other artists that sound similar. On Spotify, you can customize your own playlists, listen to others, and share your findings. On Spotify Radio, the service will customize a “station” based upon a listener’s personal playlist. The possibilities for a music lover is endless. The question that I often battle with though is for every artist that a listener may like, there are fifty more artists that sound just like them. This may be great for an artist that in the past may never have received recognition, but at the same time, the industry has become so oversaturated that it’s difficult to remember particular artists. However, this does make the search for that “diamond in the rough” that much more enjoyable when you find them.

For all the advances that technology has made, there are things that were also taken away. The one on one commadre that could be established when speaking to another music fan. While working in a music department, I found the stories of how a person was moved by a particular song or album, fascinating. A song became a memory, a scent, an emotion. It had the power to bring a person back to the first time they heard it. My Dad has told me stories of how he and his buddies would spend hours in the local record shop pouring over the new releases. Devouring them, arguing over what each song meant, and gambling about the outcome of it’s success. New releases forced people to get out into their community and face one another. Gone are the days of having to get up early to be the first person to purchase the new David Bowie or Radiohead CD. Instead, with just one click you can have it downloaded to your favorite listening device. Although the new technologies are outstanding with what they’re are capable of, I can’t help but feel a bit of remorse for what we have lost.

For the girl that grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, no matter how much I love technology and how it spoils us, I’m still a huge fan of vinyl. With a record, the listener is forced to sit down and truly listen. You must have patience and the ability to slow down. Pushing a button to skip to the next song is not an option. The first time I heard Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue I was bewitched by the beauty of it and thrilled to hear the crackle of the vinyl as the needle hit the wax. It’s a comfort sound equal to the taste of a warm peanut butter and jelly sandwich after it’s been sitting in your lunch pail for hours. I was in a record shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the headphones tuned out all other sounds. I couldn’t believe that I had gone my whole life without hearing the magic of this man. Since that fateful day, I’ve listened to Kind of Blue on cassette, CD, and currently I’m listening to it through Spotify, but on a rainy day, I’ll take my vinyl copy off the shelf, turn on my refurbished 1968 Pioneer Pro turntable, let the needle down, close my eyes and let the magic of the man take me back in time where technology was built to last.

The Master and the Cursed

This is a replacement poem based on Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet
Please visit his website

If a soul is what you want,
then take my sweat, tears, and blood
Here are the whips and chains
the hand that brings them down
thoughts are what you mask
Here is my heart to break and curse
that damaged flesh, never to be repaired
into the dark abyss. And you ask for
me to forgive you. Because you, wait
here to be brought to your knees
hissing with the pain you have caused others
the concrete slab that I’m lying on
my body racked with hunger and cold,
inside I’m gone, already thinking of beyond
spun in a web of hate, because you, wait
here in your creation, your own personal hell.

Grey Smoke and Pine

This was a class exercise in which we had to write a war scene. Seeing as how I have only witnessed war through the eyes of others and our pop culture, I was a bit out of my element. It was also a difficult subject to write about due to the content and emotions I was finding myself having to deal with as I became attached to the main character. So, without further adieu, I give you Grey Smoke and Pine.

They never said it would be so cold. The dirt and tears on my face have molded into a thick frozen paste and I can’t feel my toes. Are they still there? My lips are cracked and bleeding and I can’t remember the last time I had a bite to eat or felt water filling my mouth. My throat is so dry and I long to hear a familiar voice. I’m all alone in this ditch, with its hard earth cutting into my back. The smell of pine helps to ease the stench of death and memories. I just need to hold out until the sky empties herself of the metal vultures, for I have a letter to deliver.

It was supposed to be a routine raid made with two other platoons. While we thought ourselves to be so clever, we hadn’t anticipated the enemy knowing our plans. It wasn’t until we heard the gunfire and distant screams, that we realized our mistake in believing in our own bluster and courage. Our commanding officer was yelling for retreat when the sound of God taking a flying leap off of Mount Everest came from the southwest corner of the ancient Capital. The horror etched on the faces of the brave men next to me, will haunt me for the rest of my days.

The delivered bomb, cut a mile and a half radius across the grand city. I don’t think we walked more than an eighth of a mile before we came across the dusty debris of fallen stone, wood, and brick. Moaning voices, screams of agony, and the hummed silence of the fallen, mingled with the floating grey mist of blood and flesh. I was numb. This was a dream. I kept pinching myself to see if I would wake up in my room with the picture of Betty Page on the ceiling, but my youth filled prayer was never heard. We continued to stumble through the streets, looking for familiar faces, only to find dogtags lying on the ground next to what once was a human. We collected what we could, knowing that a letter would be sent out to the closest relative. In my selfish thoughts, I was grateful they wouldn’t have to send a letter out for me.

We split into twos in order to find as many of our fallen, before heading back to base. Lucien and I had been friends since primary school and were assigned together to wade through the northwest portion of the city in search of survivors and dogtags. The silence stretched out before us as we kept our heads down and our ears alert. Our moods didn’t lighten as we came across solitary limbs aching to be sewn onto their owners now missing frame. There were no children laughing as we passed a swing that had been attached to the lower limb of a tree, now only a broken stump lying lifeless against Mother Earth. Lucien was kicking up stones and dirt when his foot collided with the unseen undetonated grenade in his path. He was thrown to the ground as I watched in stunned terror, knowing that I couldn’t stop what was coming next.

The fifty or so feet that I ran to get to him seemed like a mile. It wasn’t until I had him cradled in my arms that I realized that the lower half of both of his legs were missing and several pieces of shrapnel protruded from his abdomen. He clung to me as he repeated his mothers name, grabbed my hand in our secret handshake, and took his last breath while uttering “home”. I was choking. I screamed at the sky with mournful agony, cursing our Almighty Father, for his mercy had only caused me sorrow. I took off Lucien’s tags and placed them around my neck, gently picked him up, placed him over my shoulder and began the walk back to where the rest of my platoon planned to meet. When no one was to be seen, I set myself into a deep ditch on the side of the road and laid Lucien next to me. There was a small pine tree that I used for more shelter as I waited for their return.

January wind seeps into my bones as the jets fly overhead. I tune my ears to hear the soft crunch of boots upon frozen earth. The platoon is creeping closer and I will soon hear the hushed voices of lost innocence, fear, and sorrow. My toes are numb and my face hurts with the frozen mask of blood and tears. Thirst and hunger are racking my body and for the first time in my life, I can’t bring myself to pray.


This is a journal entry that I wrote for class the other day. It’s not one of my best pieces of writing, but it expresses how I feel about one of the most influential men in my life. Oh, and he’s super groovy.

Today is Father’s Day. To many, it’s just another Hallmark Holiday. However, I can’t help but enjoy all of the well wishes, words of appreciation, gratitude, and love that I see while scrolling through Facebook updates.

My Mother was confined to a wheelchair due to Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. She was a woman who enjoyed her job as a mother and when the disease took away her ability to perform the job as she saw fit, my Dad had to step up to the plate and quite often performed the role of both mother and father. He was the breadwinner, carpooling master, hair styling king, homework helper aficionado. This was not something that he would have chosen to do, for it pained my Mother to not be able to take care of us kids. However, their marriage was one of balance that I came to respect and now share with my own husband. They were fantastic role models

Dad would work a sixty hour plus work week and somehow fit in soccer games, cheerleading practices, dance lessons, and homework help. It was not uncommon to find him asleep in his lazy boy after trying to read his newspaper each evening. He became friends with the parents of my friends and between them, shared carpooling responsibilities. I can look back on these things now and wonder, “How the hell did he conquer such feats?”. I’m currently part of a two income family with one vehicle and two kids. My family wouldn’t work if it was lacking either myself or my husband. I am in no way selling my Mother short by giving my Dad such praises. She was an amazing woman. She was blunt, sassy, and honest. She was easy to talk to and would invite you to “spill your heart out”. She was the kind of mother that the other kids envied because she was a good listener and no subject seemed to be too taboo. I cherish the memories I have, for it was too short a time I had with her. As for Dad though, he had to keep it together for all of us when Mom died.

I remember working so hard to impress him in my teen years, whether it be with my singing or a dance or cheer routine. He was a tougher audience than Mom. There was always a tightness in my chest and a smile plastered on my face when he simply said, “good job”. If I’m being honest, I still seek those small words of praise from him. I seem to inundate him on a regular basis with my writing, just to see if he likes it. I do however think he has become more free in his affections as he gets older. I can always depend on a song of some kind to let me know how he feels. It’s one of his signature traits. If he can’t find the words himself, to express how he feels, he finds a song to do it for him. These dedicated songs have become the soundtrack to my life.

My Dad is not perfect. I put him on a very high pedestal, but understand that he is human. Being an adult now, I can say how much I appreciate what he did to make our lives better and as normal as possible. I had friends with dad’s that beat them and dad’s that walked out. I was lucky to have two parents that not only loved me and my siblings, but loved and respected each other. My Dad became the model for which I judge all men. He is a tough act to follow. On a closing note, a few years ago, Dad made a small list of what he calls Life Lessons. It is here that I’ll share his list with you.

#1 A#@holes and idiots are born that way and they usually don’t change.
#2 You don’t want to go to jail.
#3 When you start to take life too seriously, you’re in trouble.
#4 It takes no more time to see the good side of life than it takes to see the bad.
#5 If you decide to run with the ball, just count on fumbling and getting the S#$t knocked out of you a lot, but never forget how much fun it is just to run with the ball.
#6 Remember, that green grass on the other side of the fence, a lot of the time turns brown and dies.
#7 Everything changes, nothing changes.
#8 Sometimes there just isn’t a right answer.
#9 Some people just are…..
#10 It takes less muscles to smile than to frown
#11 Always buy at least 2-ply toilet paper
#12 Remove toxic, negative people from your life
#13 Drama should be left in movie theaters and on stages
#14 Some people you can never make happy, maybe moments of happiness, but not for long.
#15 YOU are responsible for your own happiness!
#16 Never give your past more power than your present!

Crack in the Hourglass

I am an observer of time

We dance to the beat of our predecessors and
curl our tongues around false words

We ache to be understood
but don’t fight for the right to party
like it’s 1999

We nod yes Sir and No Ma’am
and how may I kiss your ass today

Where are the angry voices demanding
to be heard

Why do we allow the vulture of greed and wealth
determine our destiny

We are the X and Y of a booming generation that have
forgotten what they once fought for

We are laughed at and ignored and forced to march
to their tune

Go to college, get a degree, work to pay back loans
and tears and exhaustion and angst

For we do not use our voices or burn flags or raise
our fists to the man that condemns us

We are the lost generation
and we’re digging our own grave

One Step at a Time

I am the Volunteer Coordinator for our bike team that rides in the West Michigan Breakaway Ride for Multiple Sclerosis. This is a title that took me several years to settle into. When my Mother passed away in 1993, I participated in one more local MS Walk before I made the choice to ignore the MS Society and any event it had to offer. I had no interest in being a part of something that would remind me on a regular basis that this was a disease that took Mom away from me. I was angry, furious actually. This was not supposed to happen to the lady that taught me how to swim and climb a tree. She had three kids and a husband who still needed her and this disease could go “suck it” for all I cared. I never had a chance to know her as an adult. I only had her through my teen years, riddled with angst. My brother was only ten when she passed and my sister only fourteen. I would often feel guilty for being the oldest and knowing her longer.

My husband spent another several years gently persuading me to join him at one of the rides. He completely understood my hesitation and never pushed too hard. In the Spring of 2001, I quit smoking and that summer, I climbed Sleeping Bear Dunes all the way to Lake Michigan. I felt amazing and was looking for another kind of physical challenge. The baby step I took that year was the first of a very large step taken later. I had my daughter in the Spring of 2002 and wanted to lose the baby weight that never wants to go away. My husband and I would often discuss the love I had for riding my bike everywhere in my youth and it was then that I made the choice to become active with the MS Society again. That Christmas, I received a stationary bike that I would use to train during the winter, along with a homemade certificate stating I would receive a new bike in the spring and the registration fee was taken care of for the MS150.

I was a rider for three years before I found out that Wisconsin was having their inaugural fifty mile Challenge Walk in October of 2008. I  made the walk my new physical challenge and decided to head up our volunteer team for the Bike MS event. I don’t think that anyone ever truly realizes how far fifty miles is until they walk it. It was one of the most difficult and rewarding challenges I’ve ever faced and I’ve gone back to do it every autumn. This September will be my sixth year.

There is nothing in this world that will bring my Mom back. However, she continues to fuel me. She was a tough cookie. Faithful and stubborn. She was always looking for the next big thing that was going to cure her of the disease, some of which my Dad had to talk her out of because he knew they were gimmicks. With the memory of her battle, I have been given the opportunity to meet and become friends with some of the most amazing people a girl could ever find. Others with MS and those that support them, walk for them, ride for them, run for them, and fight for them. The same disease that surrounded my childhood in such a negative way has helped me through my adulthood in a very positive way. It has cut me open, torn out my heart only to help me heal all over again. I have watched so many people struggle with this disease. I have seen the heartache it causes and the triumph on the faces of those that have just concurred their greatest fear. Whether that be to get on a bike, climb a hill, or simply stand up out of their wheelchair. I have seen the look on a persons face when their legs begin to give out and the stubbornness that gives them the strength to continue or to listen to their body as they decide to sit down. I have allowed tears to stream down my cheeks at candlelight vigils during the Challenge Walks, yelled at the sky, run arm in arm across finish lines, and felt the pain of walking in bad shoes for twenty plus miles. I realize that not everything in life has to be a cause. I also know that some of us have it better than others. I have an outstanding family, terrific kids, a loving husband, and fabulous friends. I believe in spreading the wealth. My wealth happens to be love, a lot of sweat, a loud voice to cheer people on, and two legs that still work. I have been told time and time again how my Mother would be so proud. The truth is I don’t see it that way, for I am the one who is proud to be her daughter.

The Wonder Years

Summer Vacation is going to start at the end of this week.  It’s that time of year that an adult longs to be young again. It’s the moment when we look at those kids and think, “Man, they have it made. No worries. No alarm clocks.”. It’s the memory of being a child. So many people forget that they were once young and carefree. They allow themselves to get so wrapped up in the seriousness of having to make money and keep a roof over their heads that they forget to take a step back every once in awhile to simply enjoy life.  I have done this myself from time to time. I don’t necessarily forget, for remembering is how I’ve been able to have such a close relationship with my teen son. I’m blunt and direct and always honest about the stupid things I did as a teen. But Summer Vacation has a different feel to it when you’re under the age of twelve. It’s the last time in a humans life where the fear of being oneself doesn’t exist yet, because running around and playing is all that matters.

I remember that last week of school as a child, with its excitement. It meant no more homework and staying up late, swimming all day, living in my swim suit, riding my bike to Burlingame Dairy Dip, playing kickball at the school, and having to trim off at least two inches of my blonde hair in August, because the chlorine in the pool had turned it green.  I would wake up between eight and nine in the morning, eat a bowl of cereal, put on a swimsuit with shorts over it, and be out the door by no later than ten. I would be outside with my friend Brian until lunchtime, which we usually ate outside and didn’t stop playing until dinner time. My Mom never had to tell us to go outside. The TV wasn’t usually turned on until the sun started going down and we had come in because the streetlights were on.

My Mom would always make us kids wash our feet before going to bed. We didn’t have to take a bath or shower every day, but those feet had to be clean. She didn’t want dirty toes on our sheets I guess. My sister and I shared a bedroom and I slept on the top bunk of our bunk bed. It was perfectly lined up with the windows that overlooked our street. I would press my nose to the screen and glance down the street to see if anyone else was still out and about. I also loved the sound of the crickets and cicadas and the buzzing of the electrical lines on humid nights. Sleep came easily due to the daily activity. We hadn’t been introduced to the concept of insomnia. The next day would bring brand new adventures.

I drank my weight in Kool-aide and the only way to have iced tea was to let the sun do the brewing. You could only get Blue Moon ice cream from the Dairy Dip and my Dad’s homemade root beer floats were the best thing ever created. If we wanted to blow bubbles, Mom mixed up a bucket with Joy dish soap and sidewalk chalk was in the form of a rock that was found in someones yard. On Friday and Saturday nights, popcorn was made in a pot on the stove and thrown into a paper grocery sack, applied liberally with butter and salt then placed in the center of the living room with Tupperware bowls and a stack of paper towels. Then on really hot nights, Mom and Dad would let us take a night swim to cool off just before going to bed. On rainy days, Mom would drag out a blanket and we would have a carpet picnic in the living room and if there was no lightning, she would often find us along with the rest of the neighborhood kids splashing in the water at the end of the driveway.

These are the memories of my childhood. They outweigh the bad ones. I think I become locked in these from time to time because they were so happy. I didn’t know how tired my Dad was from working long days and I didn’t know about my Mother’s worries. These are the same kind of memories that I want my own children to have. One of my favorite quotes is the last line of the show called The Wonder Years. It says everything that I want to convey to my kids, for Summer Vacation will create memories that you will visit time and time again as you grow older. “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house like a lot of other houses, a yard like a lot of other yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back, with wonder.”


Desires of the Flesh

Oh, how the night sizzles with mustiness and warmth left from a humid day. I feel myself drifting through the air like a cottonwood seed and I’m surrounded by the sounds of buzzing and chirping of things unseen in the thicket.  There is a sweet and earthy tang on the breeze and I can’t control my mouth from watering. What is that delicious scent?  I follow my nose into darkness. I see a light ahead and voices. I hear voices on the air. Is that music?  There is a low bass resonating from the open window I can now see, for my eyes have adjusted to the light. There is a crackling of fire and the laughter of someone sitting in a chair and tipping back a bottled beverage. There it is again. That sweet earthy tang. Oh how I need to be near it. I float down from my vantage point and find purchase on a soft surface. What is this velvety goodness beneath my feet? The scent is so strong now, I can taste it. Without warning, I am thrown roughly into the air. I can’t seem to tell which is up and which is down. An angry female voice growls and spits as she stomps off in the direction of the house.

I am once again like the cottonwood seed when I smell something so painfully acidic that my eyes begin to water. The sweetness! Oh the sweetness has gone. I breathe deeply and still no signs of that beautiful tang that had made my mouth water. I decide to take a break from my musings and head back to the thicket where the fireflies are floating on the air making the night look like a midsummer dream. I follow the the sound of low buzzing and come across thousands that look just like me. How can this be? Do they also smell the sweetness? Would they let me join their group so we can find it together?  I am melancholy in my lack of sophistication. I am not overly social you see.

As if my inner voice was broadcasting through a megaphone, more than a dozen of them turned and looked at me with glazed eyes and an understood hunger.  They wanted the sweet smell just as much as me. The urge to go back and battle the acidic stench that stung my nose was overwhelming. Now. Now, I had an army of others like me. We could conquer it together. In unison we slowly drifted towards the fire. The fog. The fog that stole my breath was taking the others down. I feel detached from myself and I seem to be moving in slow motion. My feet are leaden and there is no one to catch me as I jump off a bridge into the dark abyss. Just when I think all hope is lost, the air clears and the sweet smell comes rushing to my nasal passage. There are now only a few of us left. The fog has lessened our ability to attack.

The haziness in my head has slowly subsided and I find myself once again with glazed eyes and a watering mouth.  My single-minded ambition has turned again to the sweet smell and it takes all of my strength to float like the cottonwood seed again to find my purchase on the sponge like softness that I was so rudely brushed off of earlier. I breathe in deep. Oh that lovely scent. With the shaky excitement of a child on Christmas morning, I steady myself to plunge in. To take the sweet smell and turn it into the sustenance that my body so craves. I raise my head and just when I’m about to pierce the soft flesh, I am once again brushed into the air. As I gain my bearings again, I realize that the sweet smell is running away from me. The profanity that ensues is nothing less than legendary as the small group of party goers dowses the fire and makes for the house. I have been thwarted yet again. However, not all is lost, for there are still many more nights of summer left and I am most patient.

To Judge a Book by Its Cover

I am a bookseller.  I am that pesky sales person that can convince you to buy a book or to put it back on the shelf and forget that you ever picked it up.  However, for those moments that there is no bookseller to be found and you’re browsing the shelves for that treasure; that one book that will change your life, personality, and pant size or simply take your mind away from the daily stress of being human; what is it on the front of the book that makes us want to read the synopsis on the back?  Is it the woman with the heaving bosoms being ravished by a shirtless man with pectoral muscles the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in his prime? Or maybe it was the cyborg standing with a gun while looking back at a city destroyed by war that made you reach for that new mass market paperback? Could it be the title itself? Was the font bold and beautiful?  Or did you simply come into the bookstore to buy the latest book that everyone was talking about and the cover didn’t matter in the least? Marketing departments have to ask these questions every day and make decisions based upon those questions. The cover of a book has to also entice a particular audience. Is the title meant to attract a male or female? Is it geared towards a teen boy or girl?  I have witnessed children and adults alike put a book that I have passionately described to them back on the shelf simply because they didn’t like the cover and no amount of my sales expertise was going to persuade them. I have also convinced several people to believe they need a twenty dollar picture book just for the beauty of its illustrations.  We humans have become a picky lot and need visual stimulation.  If we don’t find something attractive to our own eyes, we have the tendency to pass it by.  This however can be a good thing, for it makes the artists and marketing departments improve their talents and stay current.


The Vampire Diaries by LJ Smith was originally written in the early 1990’s. In 2007 the books received a new look for a new generation of teens and of course attracted those who had become obsessed with the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer.  If they had been released with the original covers, I have no doubt that sales would have gone in a completely different direction. Christopher Pike, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Orson Scott Card, Madeline L’Engle, Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary are to this day well loved authors, but would their books sell as well if they had the original cover art?  Gone are the days of long haired muscle men being placed on the cover of every romance novel and little green men on every science fiction title.  Teen books no longer have girls with mall hair and tight rolled jeans but have moved onto boys with dark brooding good looks or girls showing just their facial profiles.  Cover art and illustrations can make or break a perfectly good book. A childrens picture book could have the sweetest story to tell, but if the illustrator doesn’t do his or her job, that book will end up on the out of print list rather quickly.  With adult books it’s no different. A man will pick up a graphic novel with Wonder Woman’s breasts ready to pop out, but it’s the women that will pick up the paperback book with a woman in a tight dress, thigh high boots, and a bloody knife in her hand. Both covers show off a sexy image and yet the interest is divided by gender.


I have been doing my job long enough to know just by looking at a cover; the kind of person that is going to pick the book up to enjoy it and who is going to mock it with their nose in the air.  Some may call it stereotyping, some may call it pompous or egotistical, some may just tell me that I’m good at what I do. I can also tell by the body language of a child as to whether or not a book suggestion is going to be ignored or picked up with excitement.  I can look at the teen books coming into my section and usually tell without looking at the back as to what genre in teen it’s going to be placed into and whether or not the buyer at the corporate office is new to their job due to it being coded incorrectly.  That is the power of judging a book by its cover. That is the power of an artist and marketing department to entice, persuade, sell, or con a person into thinking that the book is going to change their life or just entertain them for a weeks worth of reading before going to bed.


Books I find are like wine, no one should ever tell you what you should like.  Like a spicy cabernet it doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy to be enjoyable. Sometimes the most simplistic covers make for the best books.  Sometimes the ones that receive the most praise are really as good as everyone says, while others may have you tearing your hair out and wishing for those hours of your life back. Never doubt the power of the consumer.


So, we will continue to judge books by their covers. We will base entire conversations on the silliness of titles and the beauty of Dave McKeans art on the cover of a Neil Gaiman graphic novel.  We will fall asleep to a book that a friend has recommended to us and wonder why the cover of that book shows the main character with blonde hair when the author describes her as having red.  We will curse Hollywood for destroying the image that we had in our head of a beloved character and laugh at the half eaten face on the cover of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  As for e-readers, they are the perfect tool to not have people judge you by the cover of the book that you’re reading and allow for those guilty pleasure reads that so many of us try to deny ourselves.  No matter how you decide on that perfect book, keep it up, for it helps to expand the minds of the artists that help you to judge the cover and us booksellers on our toes wondering what the customer will go for next.


Rise Up

So, this is the memoir piece that I had to do for my EN100 class last Summer. I’ve been a little paranoid about putting my stuff  “out there” and thought that it was time for me to suck it up and just do it.  This was my final draft that I turned in and received an “A” on. I haven’t edited it with the suggestions that my Prof gave me, but thought that you’d be able to get the gist of my style anyway. So, here it goes. Enjoy.

It was the beginning of August and Traverse City was humming with the excitement of what has become their annual film festival.  I along with my husband and kids had decided to make a long weekend of it and traveled there to visit family who live just a few short blocks away from the entertainment.   I had been feeling anxious, depressed, and weary and the desire to get away from Grand Rapids and the job that had been sucking my soul away was so acute I could already feel the sand between my toes and smell the musky sweet scent of the bay.

 Traverse City is small town with a big personality and everything is within walking or biking distance.  There is a local beach where few tourists can be found.  With the temperature in the low 80’s and the sun shining, the small beach was the perfect location for our Saturday afternoon outing. The bay lapped at the hot sand as I watched my family enjoy the coolness of the water.  I tilted my head back, took a deep cleansing breath and allowed my face to be sunkissed.  We had a light lunch that consisted of  fresh strawberries, grapes and watermelon purchased at the farmers market that morning. Paired with crackers, cheese and ice tea, it made for a setting straight out of an Elizabeth Wells novel; all I was missing was a bloody mary to complete the picture.  As the day progressed into late afternoon, I still couldn’t seem to calm my erratic mind and decided that a drive up the coast of West Grand Traverse Bay would be a wonderful way to destress my worrisome heart.  I needed to be free to think and do a little bit of soul searching.  So, with the sand still on my feet and legs, I put a towel down on the seat, said my goodbyes with a promise to bring back some wine for dinner and hopped into my Honda Pilot.

 I had purchased some amber perfume oil from a small shop called Higher Self that morning and made sure to put it on.  I had read in a travel magazine years before that a new scent is a must have when going on a trip.  The article had said  to make sure the scent was one not usually worn. When at home, the scent will be a reminder of that particular trip.  I was consciously creating a memory that day.  Little did I know that I would come back to it again and again.

 With all of the windows down, I cruised down past the marina and headed north on M22 toward Suttons Bay.  I had the bay to the right of me and despite the noise of the traffic, I could still hear the sound of the waves coming in and the seagulls overhead.  The wind coming in through the windows was a reprieve from the hot sun that had turned my pale skin pink and I relished the freedom of not having shoes on my feet as I pushed down the gas pedal.  I had just recently watched the movie Into the Wild and had fallen in love with the soundtrack which was composed by Eddie Vedder.  The song Rise struck a chord with me as I continued towards my destination.  Eddie’s beautiful melancholy voice began to haunt me.

“Such is the way of the world

You can never know

Just where to put all your faith

And how will it grow


Gonna rise up

Burning black holes in dark memories

Gonna rise up

Turning mistakes into gold”


I began to tear up and then pushed the button that would start the song over again.


“Such is the passage of time

Too fast to fold

And suddenly swallowed by signs

Low and behold


Gonna rise up

Find my direction magnetically

Gonna rise up

Throw down my ace in the hole”


I must have played the song a dozen times before I even reached Suttons Bay.  I realized that I needed to “rise up”.  I had a job that I was coming to loathe, no sense of what I wanted to do with my life other than having the desire to go back to school, and it was at that point that I realized that although I wasn’t old,  I wasn’t getting any younger.  I was on the fast track to doing what I promised myself I would never do.  I was “ending up”.  I had told my father several years before that “ending up” was one of my greatest fears.  I didn’t want to look back and say, “What the hell did I do with my life?”.  I never had any intention of being at my job as long as I had.  I wasn’t supposed to be in my early 30’s, stuck in a job that “just paid the bills”.  I was meant to make a difference.  I had grand ideas of what I could be doing, but I had no idea how to get there.

 With dark thoughts in my head, I arrived in Suttons Bay.  I parked the Honda, got out, and began to walk.   With its love of the arts and gorgeous views of the water, Suttons Bay is a quaint tourist town.  I passed by the families getting ice cream at the local shop and locals sitting on their porches watching the tourists enjoy themselves.  I wandered aimlessly through the shops and throng of people and finally decided that I needed to be by the water.  I passed the small hotel by the marina and continued down to the park.  I found a bench that looked out over the bay, sat down, closed my eyes and just breathed in the fresh air.  With uncontrolled tears silently streaming down my face, I felt like I was having a bit of a break down.  I didn’t know where to go from here.  I was a lost child in a sea of unfulfilled dreams.  How had I become this woman?  Who was she and why was I allowing her to control me?  I brought my anxious mind to a calm level and repeated “everything will be alright”.  It became a mantra.  Then, I replaced it with “Gonna rise up, find my direction magnetically”.  This time, instead of Eddie’s voice, I heard my own.  The breeze lifted my bangs out of my face and cooled my neck. Although I sat beneath a tree, I could still feel the warmth of the sun as it reflected off of the concrete walkway.  The seagulls screeched above me and the water gently crashed into the short pier.  The fishy smell of the bay mingled with my amber perfume and the lingering scent of the sunblock I had put on earlier.  At that moment, it was the most intoxicating thing I had ever smelled.  I don’t remember how long I stayed there.  I waited for my anxieties to come back, but it seemed they were going to stay away for the moment.  The sadness still lingered, but the pain wasn’t as sharp.  I wiped my damp cheeks with the pads of my fingers, applied some lipgloss and began to walk back to the Honda.  Once I was behind the wheel, I put the key into the ignition, kicked off my flip flops and rolled down the windows.  I popped in what was to become my new theme song and drove south to get back into Traverse CIty.  This time when I played the song, I felt a renewed sense of myself.  I could breathe deep again and this time instead of crying, I smiled as I sang along to the lyrics.

 As I came into the downtown area, I stopped at a little market named Jacks.  With its dark rustic wood, it looks like a large fish shack.  Once inside, a person is treated to a great selection of microbrew beers and local wines from both the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas.  The employees are friendly, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable.  I purchased a bottle of chardonnay that came highly recommended and made my way back to my aunt and uncle’s house.  My aunt is the consummate hostess and had already set out what was left of the fresh fruit and cheeses from lunch in preparation for the bottle of wine I promised to bring back.  I can’t tell you what we had for dinner that night and I can’t tell you what I did for the rest of the weekend, but that short little trip rejuvenated me in a way that only travel can.  That weekend was my turning point.  Shortly after the trip I started looking at schools and their programs.  I began asking friends for advice on what I could do.  I sent away for brochures from trade schools and sent out emails to several local colleges in the hopes that one would just click.  It took me two years to finally decide that going to GRCC was my best option.  It took me another half year to finally register for a class.  The process has been slow, but some things can’t be rushed.  The moment has to be savoured and nurtured until it’s ripe for the picking.  My hand is finally reaching for that juicy apple on the tree and I’m ready to take the first bite.  As the lyrics go, “I’m burning black holes in dark memories, gonna rise up, and throw down my ace in the hole.”  I still have moments when I feel that my emotions and anxieties are out of control, but on such days, all it takes is a bit of my amber perfume and that drive up the coast comes back to me and somehow I remember to breathe.