I'm A Creep. I'm A Weirdo 

I took a solo vacation this week.  From Wednesday to Saturday, I rented a small stone house (with surprisingly nice acoustics) in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. I loaded in my instruments, made a lot of food, and spent hours every day at the piano.  Outside, the snow was falling peacefully.  The hills were rolling.  The waterfalls were frozen and stunning.  And with everything being so damned beautiful out there, I was certain I would create equally beautiful and peaceful songs. 

Nope.  I wrote angry, pounding, dissonant songs with lyrics so cutting I’d be afraid to meet me in a dark alley. 

And I truly have no idea where the songs came from, but apparently, my muses needed me to know that I’m miffed about a lot more than I knew. 

Reader, I’m going to keep it short tonight because I’ve written a lot this week.  Please let my crazy songwriting excursion serve as a reminder: we have so much more going on beneath the surface than we know.  As busy as life gets, we absolutely need an outlet to express ourselves, not just to express what we think is on our minds, but maybe more importantly: what we don’t even know is on our minds. 

And I guess my mind had a LOT of creepy stuff in there that I've been suppressing.  I’m relieved it’s finally out in the open..in song form. I’ll see you next Monday.  -Em

The Power of Helplessness 

My restaurant is still closed, and the renovations continue.  Last week, I drove to Wisconsin, picked up the all the pieces needed to construct an 8’ x 8’ walk-in cooler, and drove them back to Illinois in a snowstorm. I called in the staff to help me load them into the kitchen area.  And then it dawned on me. 

I have no clue what the hell I’m doing. 

(It’s an all-too familiar phrase for me; I’ve always jumped into projects before I’m ready.  Damned unearned confidence.) 

But the job needed to get done. So I tore apart the packaging and searched for some written directions. All I found was a single-page diagram with no explanation of what any of the pieces were or how to put them together. I felt powerless. So what did I do? 

I got hot with rage and blamed the person who wrote the diagram. 

Reader, when we feel lost, it’s easy to let our fear spin into a fury.  It feels almost like we’re back in control; it’s even a little empowering. But it doesn’t change anything.  I still had no idea what the hell I was doing. 

After about an hour, I let go of the rage, and leaned into the helplessness.  I made a few phone calls to people who might know what to do. I did some Googling.  I bought a few tools, and I calmly started to tackle the cooler until it was built.   

My restaurant team made a resolution for 2021: when we have a problem that makes us feel lost, we brainstorm a way to fix things before we react.  We don’t run from our feelings, or blame somebody else for them.  Solutions will come from coexisting with helplessness and working through it. 

I leave you with a picture of my brand-new walk-in cooler.  I’m really proud of it.  Whatever you’re working on this week, I hope you’re leaning into it. See you next Monday. -Em 

Scratch Your Own Ears 

In 2006, I adopted my dog, Hank.  He was a 3 month-old border collie mutt that was a brownish blackish puffball with big eyes and a calm demeanor.  He looked more like a toy than an animal.  I used to walk him down the streets of Chicago, and he would stop traffic.  I remember being late to meetings because so many strangers wanted to pet my puppy.

As he grew, he became far more intelligent, playful, and even empathetic.  But as a full-sized dog, strangers didn't want to pet him anymore.  I remember him being confused when we would pass people on the sidewalk, and zero ear scratches were given.

(I learned then that canine depression is a real thing.)

Anyway, I often think of Hank's confusion and how it resonates with me.  This week was my birthday, which just happens to fall 2 days after my 4 year-old daughter's birthday.  As you might expect, we had a giant party for my kid: I got her a piñata, presents, and I even made a 6-layer rainbow cake.  For me?  Well we ordered a pizza so I didn't have to cook.  

Happy birthday to me.

And don't get me wrong.  I wasn't expecting more, and I tried to enjoy my day.  But it got me thinking about how much energy and attention goes to the young--who will barely remember things like birthdays--and how that attention fades as we age.  We get used to the idea that we're less relevant the older we get. The phenomenon seems to run rampant in several walks of life: I once had a talent agent in Nashville tell me I couldn't 'make it' as a recording artist past the age of 30.

Apparently--in Nashville--one's outward appearance affects their singing abilities.

Reader, I'm not sure what causes us to find youth adorable and age unremarkable.  As far as I can tell, the older we get, the more interesting we become.  Our personalities are defined.  Our character is honed.  Our experiences are richer and our emotions are tempered.  Do we need a people to fawn over us to make us feel special?  Absolutely not.  But should we will remember to continue to care for ourselves more as we receive less care from others?  

Absolutely.

I leave you with a picture of this absurd cake I made for me daughter.  I threw her one heck of a party, because she's young, and she needs it.  Tonight, I'm booking myself a songwriting retreat, because I'm old, and I need it.  When the world stops scratching your ears, you gotta learn to scratch em yourself.  I'll see you next Monday. -Em

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The End Of The Road 

Three years ago, I heard that a restaurant in Chicago called Honey Butter Fried Chicken was giving away furniture.  So on a cold winter’s day, I nearly broke body loading a 17 foot, 400 pound wooden bench onto a boat trailer and bringing it home with me to Rockford. I lugged it through my restaurant door, sanded it, finished it, and rested it against my bar wall for all eternity. My mom said: 

“That’s a lot of work for one bench.  What if you want to move it someday?” 

And I remember saying, “I’m never gonna move this thing.” 

But eventually, never happens.  

My restaurant doesn’t need an enormous bench anymore.  We need more shelving.  And so yesterday, I hauled the 17 foot, 400 pound wooden bench into storage so I had more space to build shelves. This week alone, I closed the chapter on almost a dozen pieces of equipment, furniture, and systems that I expected to last forever. 

I struggle knowing that something I’ve started will one day come to a finish, especially when I worked so hard for it.  I’ve never been good at hitting the end of those hard-earned roads.  But this week, I had a profound, almost happy lightness about all of it.  The end of the road isn’t an end.  It’s a chance.  It’s a release.  It’s a beginning, a fresh chapter in a new a book.  And all the work that came before was not for nothing: it was what we needed to do to get us to our newest opportunity. 

And good Lord, do I have a lot of work to do on this new opportunity. 

Anyway, I look forward to tearing down my old work this week and ushering in something new. Reader, don’t forget that your hard work isn’t living inside objects; it’s living inside you, getting you on your way.  See you next Monday. -Em

Good Sense, Bad Creativity 

I've been writing songs as long as I can remember.  

As a teenager, I only let my mom and dad listen to the songs; theirs was the only opinion I had the guts to hear.  Then in my early 20's, I started sharing my songs with more people, eventually playing them around Chicago. Not only was writing songs a cathartic (maybe even religious) practice for me, but sharing them with others seemed to do something for them, too.  I wrote about heartbreak and lust and city life, and these concepts resonated well with others.

Oh, to be young.

Then in my 30's, I didn't often have "relatable" things to write.  Themes got more personal.  I wrote about seeing my dad's ashes after he died. I wrote about my daughter being born with a rare syndrome.  I wrote about finding mouse bones in my hair while I was renovating a building into a restaurant, and I wrote about my relationship with the guys running the black barbershop next door.  Unsurprisingly, most of my fans didn't understand the songs.  They missed the good old days of me writing about my late nights in Chicago with handsome strangers.

And every now and then, I try to will myself to write songs that people want to hear.  I try to package up the words and music in a way that seems "right" to the listeners. And the end result?

Lame tunes that don't stir up a single emotion in me.

Pablo Picasso famously said, "The chief enemy of creativity is 'good' sense."  And man, his words feel so true.  Because while we may need to learn the skills of HOW to make something, deciding WHAT we make is not something that can be taught, and there's no right or wrong to it. Creativity is fraught with bizarre, imperfect energy.  What we make is not meant to be good or to make sense for others: it's meant to be what it is.

Reader, if you're a maker of ANYTHING--from oil paintings to dinner--I remind you that making things 'nice' isn't always the best way to make things.    Push boundaries.  Be true to your emotions.  Let your art be spontaneous and honest.  This next year is going to require innovative, original solutions from all of us as we try to pull ourselves out of our divisive ways during a still-surging pandemic.  New ideas will need to be born to respond to our unique problems.  So let's keep our creative juices primed by allowing ourselves to create from a place free of judgement and full of courage.

I leave you with a picture of my 5 year-old son, John.  His creative idea today was to a make a stain-glassed mitten, hang it in the window, then have me take a picture of him holding a clementine in front of it, pretending to be a pirate.  Does any of that make sense?  No.  Is it one-of-a-kind, classic John?  You betcha, and I saluted him for that.  May you have this kind of courage and freedom as you create this week.  See you next Monday. -Em

 

Surface Fixes 

I have a tendency to fix major problems with surface solutions.  Those broken eyeglasses? Tape them.  That burn on the wood floor? Get a rug. That broken heart?  Have a scotch.

And while these fixes don't solve the problem, they temporarily make it better.

That's been the theme of this whole year at my restaurant: I temporarily made a lot of things better.  When we found out that we would be forced to close our dining room, we turned our restaurant into a market.  We accomplished this feat as quickly as building the set of a high school play.  And while we may have fooled the public, behind the scenes, it was a mess.  The 5,000 square foot basement became an enormous catch all for junk upon junk upon junk. Broken shelves got more broken.  Faulty equipment gave out completely.  But as long as the plan was working, I let it all go.

This week, I didn't.  

I got right in there.  I have a sore back as I type tonight, and it feels great.  I threw out clutter.  I organized storage.  I built a workshop, mended shelves, and made an equipment plan.  No more surface fixes for me this year.  I'm ready to tackle the big fish.

Reader, if there's any issues that you've swept under the rug, consider staring it in the face and giving it a go.  I can't tell you how much more buoyant I feel after pushing myself this week to truly heal the problems that I've previously only bandaged.  Looking forward to more of the same next week.  See you next Monday.

 

Points of View 

I've never purchased a new piece of furniture.  Not only because I've never had the money, but also because I spent 12 years living in Chicago, where the couches, tables, and chairs left in the alley by former tenants seemed fine enough for me to use.  I'd give those wares a good cleaning and move them into my apartment without thinking twice.

I have a good friend who was disgusted by my alley acquisitions.  She eventually had a hard time coming over. See, I would look at my studio spaces--decked out in found furnishings--and see a beautiful display of funky styles from various eras, existing serendipitously in my living room as a result of my resourcefulness.

She saw filth and germs.

And we laughed about how we could both be looking at the same room and feel so differently about it.  We chalked it up to having different points of view.

I miss laughing about different points of view.

Reader, watching the storming of the capitol this week rocked me to my core.  But what made it even harder was hearing the points of view from my conservative friends after the fact. Many of them saw the rioters as patriots.  Many of them saw justice being served. Many of them saw victory.  And initially, I started to question my point of view.  

What am I not seeing?  Do they know something I don't?  Some of these people were wearing 6MWE (6 million wasn't enough) t-shirts, referring to Jews in the Holocaust.  Some arrived at the capitol with zip ties for handcuffing.  Some called out congresspeople by name with guns in their hands.  These people are acting like assholes. What am I missing? 

Clearly, I'm missing a lot.

Dear Reader, I'm having a difficult time finding words for how dark these times feel to me. And I don't have a sense of optimism as we go into 2021, but I do have resolve to continue to keep my eyes open and my guard up.  These are crazy times.  People believe only what they want to believe. That's very scary.  I feel in my gut that it's time for us all to be very alert

I leave you with this picture of the field next to my house on Wednesday night.  It was so ominous, much like the events of the week.  As much as I like to see the bright side of things, I feel like we have a long way to go to come together and see each others' points of view, and it's important to be honest about that fact while we continue to try.  See you next Monday. -Em

 

Hunt Carefully 

I awoke this morning to a forest full of hoar frost.  It was as if every twig of every tree was crystalline. And even though I've seen this phenomenon before and understand the science behind it, there's always something magical about it when it happens.  

Later on, I saw three deer amble through the woods.  They didn't seem scared of me at all. Between the deer, the hoar frost, and today being the 8 year anniversary of my Dad's death, I decided that it was all a big sign, meant to remind me that life is short. and I should keep going.

And so that became the truth.

Reader, it's a funny thing: we generally find exactly what we're looking for.  And sometimes, that's wonderful.  But sometimes, it's not.  If we go looking for problems in our relationships, we usually find them. And if we go looking for loving acts in our relationships, we usually find them.  If we look for justice in the world, we will find it, just like we would if we were searching for injustice. Today, I looked for magic in the woods, and I found it. What would have happened if I looked for sadness?

You get the gist. 

I plan on hunting more carefully in 2021, and I invite you to do the same.  Look for the good; I bet we'll find it, every time.  

My restaurant is closed indefinitely now until indoor dining resumes, and I plan on spending more time intentionally seeking out what I'd like to see.  Here's to a new outlook. I'll see you next Monday. -Em


Crazy Measures 

Today, I'm hosting our restaurant's staff holiday party in the woods behind our house. With COVID-19 still on the rampage in Northern Illinois, we figured an outdoor gathering was safest. It snowed last night, and we hope our staff dresses warmly.

But if they don't, we dug a hole in the ground, built a rocket stove, filled the hole with water, and are attempting to give them a hot tub.

Crazy times call for crazy measures.

Reader, I'm keeping it short because I'm anxious to spoil my employees.  This has been the rockiest year of my life.  Far and away. I've learned three big lessons.  First, I've learned that people are the most important thing in my life, and I've learned to tell them that I love them every day.  Second I've learned to ask myself regularly what I can control, and what I cannot.  Finally I've learned that we actually can meet insane challenges by coming up with insane solutions.  

Wishing you a safe, healthy, & happy New Year, and I'll see you on Monday. -Em

Team Recklessness 

It was one thing to lead a reckless life when I was on my own.  

I used to take off on a solo concert tour and sleep in my car every night.  I'd eat bar olives for dinner and drink a scotch for dessert.  I would write songs on a ukulele while I was driving and then use tour money to make albums that few people would buy.

(Ah the good old days).

But it's another thing to lead a reckless life surrounded by a team.  The risks I took alone only impacted me.  But now as a mother, a wife, and the de facto leader of a 21 person restaurant crew, any crazy choices I make will either elevate or incriminate all of the people around me.

Those poor, wonderful fools.

As the year comes to an end, I can't help but feel grateful for the humans in my life.  At the restaurant, I have asked a lot of our team.  In June, I asked them to show up in our woods to build 6 harvest tables and an outdoor pavilion.  And they grabbed their hammers. In October, I asked them to stop everything they were hired to do and instead help me construct an indoor market. And they built the sweetest little store I've seen. This past weekend, I asked them to bundle up and serve our customers outside in the bitter cold. And they looked like beautiful eskimos out there, delivering martinis.

Then there's my family.  This fall, I asked my kids to spend their precious Sundays filming a kid's cooking class for other children.  And they rolled up their sleeves and were spectacular little bakers (most days).  This winter, I asked my mother to turn her house into a warehouse for jars, boxes, and labels for the market.  And she is now living in what looks like a bottle factory.  This past weekend, I asked my husband to help me put together an event for kids.  And he went above and beyond, dressing up as Kristoff, the Nordic Disney prince.

At any point, these people could've said no.  Maybe they even should've said no.  Instead, they followed me into the fire, and now that we're on the other side--a bit burned and only a little worse for wear--I can say that having them by my side made me work harder than I've ever worked in my life.  I would've done anything not to let them down.  They gave me their best, so I gave them my best.  That intense respect and commitment to each other is absolutely priceless.  It makes the risks riskier, but it also makes the successes so much more sweet.

Reader, I may not blog next week; I'm hosting an outdoor holiday "party" (distanced of course) for my staff.  We've all been through so much this year. If you're lucky enough to have had friends or colleagues by your side through it all, cherish them.  It takes a really special person to stand by us through all of our insane struggles and bizarre solutions to them. I know I cherish mine.

See you next Monday. -Em