This House, Those Dreams

  A project of late is to order memories, secure them, put them in some sort of firm chronology, and yes, write about them.I will admit to a sort of low grade middle aged crisis with this, in that I have been mostly complacent and in a blur for a few years now, but the sudden acceleration of mortality of those around me has shaken me from the stupor, and I realize that many things I used to have at easy command in my memory bank are slipping away.A few years ago, while co-chairing one of the largest music conferences in the country, people working closely with me commented on my “mind like a steel trap” as I had the entire map of hundreds of events, all the costs, all the details, right there for instant access. Names, amounts, sizes of each room, each stage, all there.In the personal realm, it was much the same.Everything was still new, still fresh- every detail of school life, every detail of growing up, everything about getting married, down to the level of where everyone sat and what everyone said.I had it all in the steel trap.

That trap eroded, and I am not sure when, or why, or how, but here we are.  It is now a leaky sieve that things go in- a few things stick, other things leak.

I call it, for lack of better term, the fours.  In our youngest days, we care about what happens in four minutes.  Then we grow older, and what happens in four days starts to matter, then four years, and so on- you get the picture.  The last in this list is important in that four years of college provide so much fodder for memories that are vivid- right at that stage when your frontal cortex is starting to really gel, well, that is right when you fall in love the first time, right when you can procreate for the first time, right when you learn to dismiss authority, in short, right when life really matters, that is when everything is a beautiful Technicolor, and you relish this wonderful reality and cling to every last thing.  And remember every last thing.  Those of you around my age who engage almost daily with your college friends on Facebook know exactly what I mean.

But as life sweeps along, days get longer, periods of time stretch out, and the blur sets in.  If you are not careful, you wake up one day and realize that 3-5 years have passed, especially when you see something as simple as an unreached goal, e.g. I will paint that window frame as it is chipping, some day.  And that day keeps slipping.  And then that unpainted window is a sudden, jarring reminder of the passage of time and an existential crisis that hits you as you herd your kids out the back door for school and you haven’t had coffee yet.

Suddenly you find yourself in a state of suspended time where everything returns to Technicolor.  You are sitting in a quiet hospice room with a loved one, looking out at the bird feeder and you see every movement of every bird, and each moment sears itself into your memory.  You read an email about a colleague, released due to budget cuts.  You see your son limping after a simple ankle twist on the playground and your life, your vision, all focuses with preternatural hyper reality.  And in those moments you also see the past in sharper focus, and you want everything to be aligned in perfect order, and you panic, maybe a lot, when the alignment is not as clear, when the moments are going away, or quite simply, gone.

What does that have to do with this photo?  Almost a year ago now, I visited the small PA town of my youth.  As I was taking pictures of the house where my family lived for many years, I gravitated to this porch.  One memory persistently called to me, and I wondered if by looking at that space, if I would regain something I lost.  Spoiler alert: I did not. On this porch, we had an old and beat up piece of furniture we referred to as a “davenport”.  I wanted to reengage with this spot as I thought it might carry some sort of spiritual or at least deeply personal significance in that when I was 14 or so, I found a copy of The Catcher in the Rye on a bookshelf in my oldest brother’s room, and for some reason, I picked it up, went out on that porch and sat down on that davenport, and for the first time in my life, I read an entire book in one sitting.  Incidentally, I know that the second book I read in one sitting was Bronstein’s Children by Jurek Becker, and I know the exact spot- the middle of the soccer field at Interlochen- where I sat on a Thursday afternoon and read it without pause.  I remember the class, the teacher, the essay I wrote about the book, the questions about it I stayed after class to ask the teacher, etc.  It is all vivid. I remember asking my parents to find me more books by that author in the pre internet days, and their efforts to track some down by driving to bookstores a couple hours away to ask in person if they knew of any, and the constant search in bookstores in NYC, Ann Arbor, and other spots when I was roaming about in college.  I miss those days when an author and a book could be a mystery that took years to unpack.  Google has taken away a certain amount of magic in our lives.

Anyway, I thought that if I stood near that porch and stared at it, I would suddenly be in touch with that 14 year old boy who fell down a well the first time he read Salinger and has struggled ever since to climb out.  I did not.  I also remembered the little boy who stood at the screen door at one of these doors when lightening hit nearby, and how he jumped and ran, scared out of his mind. (that same boy has been within 500 feet of lightening strikes three times in life, but I digress) I remembered my grandfather sitting on that porch smoking a pipe before dinner, and the brand of tobacco he used from a store in New Haven, CT, and only there as he was a man of habits, something that I now can claim for good or ill- (Owl Tobacco, and I can still see the orange and white canister it was stored in, sitting on a shelf in the butler’s pantry of that house) and so on.

I want to order memory, but it is a cloud we cannot grasp in our hands, a shifting world that will come to us in fragments, and in dreams.

And only in dreams.  

Chris Chaffee makes a record

 It Begins.


            It seems so simple.  Set some goals, make a plan, apply yourself, and then you are done.  Of course there are setbacks, failures, some unexpected twists and turns, that week where you just “weren’t feeling it,” a “life event” that derails you for awhile, and so on, but you made it happen, right?  You said that starting January 1st you would lose 20 pounds in one month, starting this summer, you would finally learn Mandarin, starting tomorrow you would tell your wife you love her once a day, by the end of the year you will finally send that novel to the publisher, etc. Yeah, bullshit.  It is not that easy, and it does not happen that way a majority of the time. I know- I am a slowly recovering overachieving goal setting high-strung musician.  In my student days, the start of every academic year was that big salient date that was supposed to be the start of all the grandiose plans.  This goes all the way back to High School, and for full context, I was a four year student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, a wonderful pressure-cooker of high artistic and academic standards where we used to make fun of the “B” students for not keeping up, the exact opposite of peer pressure in the real world.  Before my senior year, I remember telling myself the week before school was “the calm before the storm,” and making lists of all the goals- competitions, school auditions, personal achievements that I was sure were in my grasp with just the right amount of focus and discipline. The list was insane and impossible.  And, every subsequent year well into doctoral study? Repeat.  “This is going to be the year that I….” 

            Crash.  I did not meet my own expectations. Yes, I turned out just fine- I have a stable career, I have been a productive member of the music performance and education community for quite a while, and even at my worst, I can still function as a member of normal, everyday society. Mostly. Thankfully, somewhere around the end of my time as a student, I started to realize that things would come to me one day at a time, one small step at a time, and once I stopped looking, I’d find what I was looking for.  Before I had this epiphany, I had many unhappy years. 

            Why the hell do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we think that we can simply flip a switch on a given day and everything will start moving in one direction? What’s worse, why do we fall for the “quick fix?”  This holds true in music as well- I am always equal parts amused and annoyed when I see my professional colleagues offering clinics that promise a “complete flute makeover” or “30 days to your best tone” or “unleashing your inner artist in 3 steps” Again, Bullshit.  Face it; just because today is some random day on the calendar, say, 1 January, or you gained some fresh new wisdom from an “expert” in a masterclass or whatnot, you are not a brand new person.  You are still the same person tied in the same knots, with the same strengths and weaknesses you had the day before. You are still the person who sneaks down to the fridge at midnight to sneak a few pieces of cheese, still the person who cuts corners when you practice your scales. Change, for better or worse, is part of life.   Make your choice – decide which way you want to go, and enjoy the daily ride.  Recognize that change will occur with time and effort and learn to be content with small accomplishments.  I often joke with my students that I am still learning to play three notes in a row in tune with a good tone.  It’s really not a joke.  To do it the way I want to, i.e. on a high level that very few others can achieve, with a sound and a way of phrasing that makes me stand out from all the other musicians vying for attention in my incredibly competitive yet tiny world- it’s much harder than it sounds. 

            What does this have to do with making a record?  Simple.  I have an opportunity ahead of me that is rare, wonderful, and challenging. For the 2014-15 academic year, I have earned a Professional Development Leave, also known as a sabbatical, from my university. I started planning for this more than a year ago, and I am proud that my competitive bid for this opportunity was successful. Better still- I have a grant to make a record while I am on leave, so I get to combine a period of professional improvement with an important musical milestone- my “debut” recording.

            I have to remind myself on a daily basis not to set unreasonable and stupid goals for this project. I have more free time than usual, and I intend to use it. Along the way, I am exposing the entire process to the public- I live-stream my practice sessions online, we will live-stream portions of the recording process, and I will continue blogging as the process unfolds.  I could go into hiding, go thru all the ups and downs behind closed doors, make a really nice (highly edited) record, and then emerge and hand it to you and say “look what I did!”  Nope.  I want everyone to see the process, start to finish, warts, swear words and all.  Yes, I expect it to be on the highest possible level, but I have a much better idea of how to get there than I ever have before.  I have denied myself all thinking that “today I will start my new practice regimen and in 6 months I will be better at this, better at that, etc.”  I have a plan, I will stick to it, but I do not expect that I will be new and better than ever, I will just be a more polished, and content version of the artist I already am. 

            Recently, I told a student that she needed to “spend time everyday looking at clouds until you stop using words to describe them.”  In my journey ahead, I want to be able to practice what I preach.  I want to find the clarity of vision it takes to be the artist I believe I can be.